Naughty boys dig holes to build character in a modern fairytale involving, well, pretty much everything.

I don't watch a lot of kids films because, well, because they're for kids and so they don't really appeal to me anymore. But then Holes came along and I'd heard it said that you could enjoy it even though you're all grown up these days. Yes, yes, I know Shrek etc work on more than one level but I don't much go for the American animation as I find they tend towards schmaltz and more often than not contain a song or two. Also, I like my animals to act like animals not Americans, but that's a whole other show.Anyway, maybe it's because I'm not a kid anymore or maybe it's because they don't make 'em like they used to, but kids films just don't seem the same these days, except this one , which , ok it's no E.T. or Goonies, but it's certainly edging in that direction.

I'd never even heard of Louis Sachar's best selling novel of the same name, let alone read it, so how the film stands up as an adaptation I couldn't say (though I get the impression it's pretty successful in that respect) but I can see why it's so popular, it's such a great story. It's basically a modern fairytale involving crime and punishment, friendship, forbidden love across a racial divide, outlaws, buried treasure, organic veg, man and donkey love (in the right way) and stinky feet.

I hadn't expected Holes to be such a rich fairytale-like film, I'd just expected a quirky story about bad boys at a detention centre and surely enough that was how it began as Stanley Yelnats (that joke never wore out on me, it's a palindrome don't you know) digs holes in the desert for his sins. But what evolves from this seemingly simple storyline is a funny, ridiculous and touching modern fairytale that I find hard to imagine not appealing to everyone. The reason Holes works so well is that it's kids acting like kids in a Malcolm in the Middle sort of way ( i.e. like children actually are) not in the way adults think they do or should act. They're not all cutesy and clever and overly
moralistic, they behave like real children. There are great performances all round (including Eartha Kitt. Who knew she was still alive?), well rounded direction and some suitably barren cinematography. The only complaint I have on
a technical level is that bar one occasion the soundtrack seemed to sit a little uneasily with the film.

There are so many layers to this film, it's not unlike peeling an onion. There were moments when I was worried that the current story and the back story weren't going to mesh properly but they did, perfectly, and all with a great ending. Thankfully the cheese was kept to a minimum so it has an easily digestible feel-good vibe. Please don't be put off by it being a kid's film, it'll make you feel (for a bit anyway) like all the magic didn't disappear when you grew up and life turned shit, and that's a good thing isn't it?

A strangely magical 8/10

Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) is set in northern Spain in 1944, after the victory of Franco and his fascists. The film revolves around Ofelia, a young girl whose father is dead and mother has re-married. Her new husband is a vindictive fascist army captain. The captain believes that a son should be born near his father and so has his pregnant wife and stepdaughter Ofelia are sent for to join him in northern Spain, where he and his men are locked in a tit for tat battle with anti-fascist rebels. The lonely Ofelia, whose only real escape, is into the fairytales she reads, appears to create a fantasy world for herself. As a way to deal with her environment, though soon the border between fantasy and realty becomes blurred, and young Ofelia finds both reality and fantasy can quickly turn into a nightmare.

Pan's Labyrinth is directed by the much admired Guillermo del Toro, who came to the attention of many genre and world cinema fans with 1993's Cronos. He then hit a more mainstream audience with Mimic and from there has managed to alternate between more independent personal feeling projects and studio fair. While always retaining his genre edge. It is his studio fair, Blade 2 and Hellboy that most people will recognise him for and they are very good mainstream genre films, but it’s in his more personal projects that he really elevates genre film to its highest plateau. The ghostly drama The Devil's Backbone is probably his best work to date. Even though many critics are calling Pan’s Labyrinth his "Masterpiece", which is a great way to get on the poster or trailer, I am not totally convinced that this new film, good as it is, surpasses the 2001 cult classic. Guillermo del Toro has in his independent Spanish language films established himself as one of the modern masters of giving fantasy and genre film a very real world feel. This is not something I like as much as more mainstream critics, not that I believe genre film has to in any way be camp and comic, just I didn’t come for the relationship issues and family bonding. That said when it comes to Guillermo del Toro, he does it so naturally and so skilfully I can’t fault him for it.

Although the fantasy element which has been heavily played up in the films marketing is an essential part of the film, Pan’s Labyrinth is a far more serious film than many will be expecting. The fantasy elements though well conceived and executed, actually do not occupy anywhere near the amount of screen time many will be expecting and the film carries a very human and arguably very socio-political message. Fantastic as Pan looks, as grotesque as the giant toad is and horrible as the pale man comes across, it is the monstrosity that is fascist ideology and its unquestioning avatar Capitan Vidal that are the films real monsters. Some have described it as a film of two parts, but Ofelia's fantasies and the very real setting are both intrinsically important in delivering del Toro’s message and should not be separated. Yes Pan's Labyrinth may seem like a dark fairytale and can be described as such, but it is not necessarily just the fairy folk that qualify it. In fact it is the moral of the tale that makes it take on the quality of the traditional or classic fairytale. Other viewers will of course interpret the film differently from me, as is the subjective nature of art, but for me this is a tale about choices and the way we go about making them. It is a tale that looks at the way the right path is not always the easiest and may not always have the best consequences for us personally. It is a look at the fallibility that comes with being human and the way that even though our choices may not always be right, we should never be afraid to make them.

Though set in the 1940's only those sleeping at the back or whose waking state is never more than a subjugated, uneducated dreamscape will fail to see it's relevance to our times. The temptation to hand over our personal independence and liberties in favour of promises of freedom and defence by the seemingly strong is omnipresent. Pan’s Labyrinth highlights that the weak can be the strong, the strong the weak, the cowardly the brave and even a young girl can be more of a man than the unthinking automaton of authority. For how much strength is there really in never having question? Propaganda, rhetoric, hate and repeated mantra's can give an illusion of strength, but if you don’t question and make decisions personally where is your strength of character. Character like muscle should be built and the ability to make and stand by personal judgements should never be undersold or under estimated.

Guillermo del Toro, like the best storytellers presents us with a film where the allegorical though there for the taking does not overpower the story. If you want to just enjoy the film as a drama set in fascist Spain with a fantastic twist, there is no reason why you can't. The creatures are well designed and both Pan and "The pale man" are fantastically portrayed by "man in a suit" specialist Doug Jones (Hellboy, Carnies). The acting is fantastic across the board with stand out turns from Álex Angulo (Action mutante, The Day of the Beast) as the doctor and Sergi López (Between Your Legs, Sólo mía) as Capitan Vidal. Ivana Baquero who some might remember from Francisco Plaza's Romasanta gives a very mature turn as young Ofelia. The stand out for me though is Maribel Verdú as Mercedes; she also has arguably the best scene when she stands up to Capitan Vidal.

Beautifully crafted, shot and realized, Pan's Labyrinth has a timeless quality and an intelligent undertone that will have viewers revisiting it for years to come.

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Tideland is Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Mitch Cullin's novel of the same title. The film follows a short period in the life of a young pre-pubescent girl, Jeliza-Rose. At the outset of the film, Jeliza-Rose is living with her hipster parents. Middle age hippy rockers for whom the party never stopped, and consequently both are now badly strung-out on heroine. We only get to know her mother, played by the "milfalicous" Jennifer Tilly briefly, as she is pretty quickly the victim of an overdose. Rather than face up to what has happened, Jeliza-Rose's father Noah, played by Jeff Bridges, decides to flee to the prairies where he was raised with his young daughter in tow. Once they arrive at the home of Noah’s now deceased mother. Noah decides it's time for a little chemical vacation of his own, but sadly he, too, is never to wake.

Tideland is in some ways a dark fairytale, but essentially it’s a look at the resilience of a child's mind. With her father dead in the chair where he overdosed, Jeliza-Rose is left to fend for herself. There’s no food in the long-abandoned house and untended grain fields stretch for miles in every direction. For sustenance she has only a jar of ageing peanut butter and for company, 4 dolls heads. Thus with her little body starved of physical sustenance and human company, Jeliza-Rose retreats into her own mind, using the everyday items around her to weave fantasies and adventures, in a way that only a child can.

Canadian child star Jodelle Micah Ferland, who you may recognise from Silent Hill and The Messengers, takes the lead as Jeliza-Rose. The then-10 year old actress carries most of the film on her own, which is a seriously impressive feat. Considering  the fairly adult themes and the fact she also gives each dolls head its own voice and personality (though thinking about it, it is pretty natural for kids to create personalities for their various toys). The Dolls heads form her main co-stars with the blonde headed "Mystique" being her main companion. However, the prairies are not totally empty; Jeliza-Rose meets an almost feral brother and sister. Dell, played by Janet McTee, is a wild-looking woman dressed in black who believes The Bees are out to murder her and has an obsession with taxidermy. Dell's younger brother, Dickens, played by Brendan Fletcher, is a young man suffering with heavy educational retardation, which appears to be the result of a lobotomy, but could be the results of an incident involving a school bus and a train. Dickens strongly believes the train is a Great Shark Monster that he is destined to one day kill. Mentally a child himself, Dickens like Jeliza-Rose, lives in a world within his fantasy filled mind. Unlike her though, he will never be able to grow out of it.

Jeliza-Rose's time in the prairies is brief and her interaction with other humans limited to the two siblings, but in that time she find herself exposed to things that would shock many adults. I get the feeling though the thing which has made the film gain mainly negative criticisms is the undercurrent of burgeoning sexuality. Jeliza-Rose is nearing puberty and the dawning of womanhood, she is not there and is still an innocent, but it looms close. Jeliza-Rose develops a childhood crush on Dickens who is in his mid 20's, and pecks at him with the kisses of childhood, again with all the innocence in the world and in fact his mental challenges make Jeliza-Rose the real power in their relationship. At one point she witnesses Dell copulating and performing fellatio on a delivery guy. As with any child she is not offended because only the tainted can be offended, it’s very difficult to offend innocence as sexual hang-ups and prudishness are the things we adults put onto children. And before anyone cries, everyone is fully dressed and obviously they didn’t really do anything in front of the young actress. It’s just a film, as much a fantasy as those the young character creates in her mind. The problem, I guess, is that while it’s perfectly acceptable for Guillermo del Toro to cast the similarly aged Ivana Baquero in Pan's Labyrinth. A film which features some fairly extreme graphic violence in places, sex remains a huge taboo. Which is funny because everyone will be exposed to sex in their life, but the level of violence seen in the likes of del Toro's film will be witnessed by a relatively low percentage of people who are born and grow up in the western world.

While watching Gilliam’s film, the two films that came to mind were John Duigan's Lawn Dogs and Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Innocence. Lawn Dogs because it to deals with a plutonic relationship between a young girl and a grown man (and the results) and Innocence which is hard to sum up here, but kind of deals with a perceptions of pre-pubescent girls and innocence. Both are films I recommend you see and both make good companion pieces to Tideland.

I personally enjoyed Tideland, it took me a while to get into but once I did I found the setting interesting and the performances strong. I don't think its a match for Gilliam’s best and it does fall short of what it could have been (I think there was a masterpiece in the combining of Gilliam and this story, but for some reason, probably financing problems and budget restraints, it misses out on those lofty heights). I think better realized fantasy elements would have endeared the film to more people, as they have with Pan's Labyrinth. Gilliam's choice to keep the film very grounded and lay off the fantastic elements he is famous for, was a commercial, and to some extent, cinematic mistake. However, I have to go against the tide (pun intended) and say this is a good bit of challenging filmmaking from a director -now in his 60's - something shamefully lacking from the works of people half his age.


Jeliza-Rose is a young child in a very unusual situation - both her parents are junkies. When her mother dies, she embarks on a strange journey with her father, Noah, a rock'n'roll musician well past his time.

The film drifts between reality and fantasy as Jeliza-Rose escapes the vast loneliness of her new home into the fantasy world that exists in her imagination. In this world fireflies have names, bog-men awaken at dusk, and squirrels talk. The heads of four dolls, long since separated from their bodies, keep her company: Mystique, Baby Blonde, Glitter Gal and Sateen Lips, until she meets Dickens, a mentally damaged yong man with the mind of a ten-year old.

Dressed in a white suit and speedo, he spends his days hiding out in a junk heaped wig-wam turned submarine waiting to catch the monster shark that inhabits the railway tracks. Then there's his older sister Dell, a tall ghost-like figure dressed in black who hides behind a beekeeper's mesh hood.

As optimistic as it is surreal, as humorous as it is suspenseful - Tideland is a celebration of the power of a child's imagination.


Dreams: The online Gilliam fanzine


Creature Stills:

Ofelia and Pan

Doug Jones as the child-eating 'Pale Man'

Drawing Board:


Set Design - Totem

Set Design - sketch of tree/doorway to the Labyrinth

Character Stills:

Sergi López as Captain Vidal

Ivana Baquero as Ofelia

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