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Anton Sirius finds BLACK SHEEP in PAN'S LABYRINTH fornicating with a JADE WARRIOR!!!

Hey folks, Harry here with Anton Sirius' look at three films that I think most of us are looking forward to. Here ya go, watch out for Spoilers....

Once again my time is limited, starkinder. It was nice to see Ron Perlman pop in for Guillermo's big showing of Pan's Labyrinth though. In fact there seems to be a lot of paths crossing in Toronto this year: Hellboy and Hell-director, Batman and the Scarecrow, Larry Charles and Vincent Chase... sometimes it pays to take a more holistic approach to star-watching.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006, directed by Guillermo del Toro) There are two types of del Toro films - the mainstream-ish monster mayhem of Hellboy and Blade 2 and the lyrical dark fantasy of the Devil's Backbone and Cronos. Pan's Labyrinth is the latter kind of del Toro film, but moreso - in fact, it may have been the film he was born to make. Forming a companion piece of sorts to Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth takes place just after the official end of the Spanish Civil War, as Franco's Fascists begin to tighten their grip on the country. Young Ofelia is traveling with her very pregnant mother to meet her new step-father, an officer in Franco's army who is encamped at an old mill with the unit he commands. The surrounding woods are full of rebels, but to young Ofelia's eyes they contain something more - the last remnants of the faerie world her storybooks tell her about. As her new parent brutally sets about crushing the opposition and protecting the family legacy Ofelia's new young brother would represent, Ofelia herself gets swept up in a fantastically creepy adventure. A faun living at the center of an old maze tells the girl of her true destiny - she is the long-lost Princess of the Underworld, and must complete three dangerous tasks before the moon is full to prove herself. Giant toads and forbidden banquets aren't the only dangers Ofelia must face, however. Her step-father is a vicious man with a hair-trigger temper, and difficulties with the rebels and with Ofelia's mother's pregnancy leave him in no mood to tolerate her fancies. As the stakes escalate in both worlds, Ofelia must make some difficult choices - choices with potentially terrible consequences... To say that Pan's Labyrinth is a coming-of-age story almost misses the point. Stories that blend the magick with the mundane so skillfully aren't just about a loss of innocence; they can't be, because that would imply the mundane world is the 'real' one, and the faerie world is just a dream you wake up from. As with the best of Neil Gaiman's work, del Toro doesn't betray his creations so cavalierly. Who is to say that the 'real' world isn't the dream, and that the other world is far more than just a pale shadow of this one? Certainly not Ofelia. And certainly not del Toro. They live in, and love, both worlds equally despite (or maybe because of) the darkness in each. The two worlds in Pan's Labyrinth offer respites from each other, but neither is a refuge. The performances here are uniformly remarkable. Sergi Lopez is especially brilliant as Captain Vidal, Ofelia's step-father, a man trapped equally by the past (and the long shadow cast by his heroic soldier father) and the future (he seems just as intent on molding Spain in the fascist image as he is of molding his son in his own), and for whom the present is immaterial. Unlike his step-daughter his is a moral universe without consequences. He has no superiors to answer to, and no one to stay his hand when he wants to let fly. In his own way, Lopez's Vidal is less human than Ofelia's faeries. The effects are breath-taking, of course. del Toro's ability to seamlessly blend his performers into their environments has never been put to better use (Doug Jones, in particular, outdoes his work as Abe Sapien with his dual roles here as both the faun and the intensely creepy Pale Man). Even the 'real world' effects work packs a punch - there is some shocking violence in this film, and del Toro doesn't flinch from showing it despite the age of his protagonist. In fact, that might be the key to Pan's Labyrinth's greatness. The storytelling here is incredibly brave. No matter what dark corners it twists down del Toro is never afraid to show them, just as Ofelia is never afraid to face them. He understands that sometimes childhood can be sad and tragic, that sometimes it's the sadness and tragedy that give the happier moments meaning. This isn't just del Toro's best film to date. It might be the best film of the year.

Black Sheep (2006, directed by Jonathan King) Some terrors are universal. The Exorcist, for instance, tapped into primordial fears shared by almost every culture and society through the ages. Other terrors are specific to a time and place - Godzilla could only have been produced in a post-atomic bomb Japan. Black Sheep is one of the latter. To most of the world, our ovine friends are little more than rather dim suppliers of wool and yummy meat. To New Zealanders however, constantly surrounded by a flock far vaster in numbers than their human 'masters', their presence on the hillsides can seem a bit more sinister, a quiet sea of fluffy white ready to turn into an avalanche of death at any moment... OK, so maybe Black Sheep isn't quite THAT serious. The film starts in flashback, as young Henry is traumatized by his older brother Angus' prank (which merely involves the skinned carcass of Henry's beloved pet sheep Dudley). In the present, Henry has become an ovinophobic city-dweller whose therapist recommends one last trip out to the family farm before he sells his share to Angus. Angus, however, is up to no good. His genetic experiments to create the perfect sheep go awry when an environmental activist releases a Baad Baatch out into the wild. Suddenly bloodthirsty and infecting the humans they bite with the silliest form of lycanthropy ever seen on screen, sheep turn the rolling New Zealand countryside into a charnal house while Henry and his friends try desperately to survive. Black Sheep walks that fine line between scary and goofy to perfection. The creature effects, supplied by WETA, are fantastic, from the original infected lamb straight through to the transformations of the rampaging were-sheep. There are plenty of little winks and nods to other horror films, with blank-faced ewes standing in for more notorious monsters. And the dialogue keeps you laughing, as no sheep-related NZ stereotype goes unremarked upon. If the flick is reminiscent of anything it's Braindead, Peter Jackson's classic zombie comedy, as Black Sheep possesses some of the same manic energy and willingness to take the scenario to its logical extremes. This film isn't quite that brilliant, but the fact that it's even worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as Braindead is an accomplishment. Whether Jonathan King's future can be close to as bright as Jackson's remains to be seen, but he's off to a great start to his career.

Jade Warrior (2006, directed by Antti-Jussi Annila) Cross-cultural movies usually follow a predictable pattern. Characters from one culture is uprooted and deposited into another, where they flail about as fish out of water until they can find the common ground between their background and their new experiences. Jade Warrior takes that formula and tosses it into the trash. Riffing on Finnish and Chinese mythologies in a way that would have made Robert Graves proud, the film presupposes an ancient link between the two in the form of a legendary smith who battled evil and forged a machine that could make dreams come true, who is reborn in modern day Helsinki. The result is, well, the result is a very Scandinavian wuxia, complete with doomed romances, battles in the snow and an Aki Kaurismaki regular as the baddie. This is a fun little film. The fight scenes aren't eye-poppingly great, but they get the job done (all the more impressive considering the Finnish non-martial artists involved), and the occasional little wink at a classic Asian actioner keeps you from thinking anyone is taking things too seriously. Anyone interested in seeing a slightly askew take on Crouching Tiger-type filmmaking should check Jade Warrior out if they get the chance.
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