The Pursuit of Happyness

Salesman Chris Gardner (Will Smith), barely makes a living selling his wares to uninterested customers.  His wife has had enough of living on the bread line, and departs for pastures anew, leaving him to look after their son.  After being evicted from his apartment, an opportunity for a job in a stock broking firm arises, giving Chris hope out of his situation. In pursuing a better life for them both, Chris tries to prove that the will of the spirit can overcome the twin dilemmas of complacency and despair.
Will Smith has had a fortunate career trading off his affable charm that he uses to the max in this film based on real events.  As Chris, he shows the true grit of the man determined never to let any hardship stand in the way of his dreams.  His love for his son gets him through some tough times.  Smith’s true life son, Jaden Smith, plays the son with the chemistry well balanced.  Both actors give dignified portrayals, doing their best to underplay the heavy dose of sentiment evident.  The rest of the actors give reasonable support to the leads, never overshadowing them.
Whenever a film opens with the line ‘inspired by a true story’, the actual facts usually get muddled amongst the Hollywood storytelling machine.  One of the problems of a feel good movie is that the ending is never in doubt, robbing it of any suspense.  Events are written in such a way pointing how the film will go within the first 10 minutes, making the running time seem to drag.  Whilst the story is certainly inspiring, whether things actually happened as shown is another question.
An aspect of the screenplay that causes concern is its depiction of female characters.  Women are portrayed as either thieves or home-wreckers, with men gallantly doing the hard yards.  That tone is only one of many strange moral viewpoints the scriptwriters decided to make - all to dubious effect.  The scripts’ manipulative nature becomes trying, with violins swirling at every emotion charged scene.  Not enough time is spent with Chris as he attempts to succeed at his job somewhat diluting the inevitable ending.  By focusing on the ‘tragedy angle’, the film almost descends into turgid melodrama, with only Will Smith’s charisma saving things.
This type of film is seen around awards time presenting audiences with an easily digestible emotional package.  Without Smith’s presence, this would have been a nothing film, filled with stereotypes and clichés as only Hollywood can muster.
Rating out of 10:   4

Pan’s Labyrinth

In the aftermath of the Spanish civil war, 12 year old Ofelia and her mother arrive in Northern Spain. Her stepfather, Vidal, is a Captain who has been posted there to eradicate remaining rebel resistance. The brutality that Vidal dishes out to prey and family alike leads Ofelia to retreat into her own fantasy world. Fantasy becomes reality when a fairy, that tells her that she is in fact a princess who vanished from her kingdom eons ago, visits her. To regain entry, she has to perform three tasks which tests her mettle as she encounters demons in both the real and netherworld.
After a brief foray in Hollywood, director Guillermo del Toro returns to his homecountry, with this gothic fairytale. Using the backdrop of 1944 Spain, he parallels Spanish events with that of Ofelia’s journey in unlocking a Pandora’s box of otherworldly allure. As her stepfather uses fear to capture the rebels, Ofelia uses her own fear to escape from reality, facing the literal demons in a fractured maze. As each task is slowly completed, the path towards discovering her courage becomes clearer. With the help of Mercedes, a rebel spy, she also attempts to stand up to her wicked stepfather, ever fearful of his elegant savagery.
The influence of several popular fairy tales is evident as del Toro mixes them to create an interesting patchwork of macabre spectacle. The creatures encountered all look like something from a Salvador Dali painting, with various lairs looking strangely beautiful. The set design and photography all illuminate the nightmarish dreamscapes of the two worlds that Ofelai inhabits to good effect. The monsters encountered are nothing like the ones in her real life, with human soldiers being more hideous with their inward ugliness.
The actors are well cast in their roles, all maintaining a level of reality amongst the fantasy. Sergi Lopez as Vidal exudes a devilish evil, making his inhuman monster very memorable. Lopez effectively projects a level of danger with his body language as well as dialogue. Maribel Verdu as Mercedes gives a sympathetic performance as a woman slowly becoming a much needed safe haven for Ofelia, as well as attempting to bring the soldiers undone. Ivana Baquero as Ofelia has the right level of charm and wonder that makes the audience care about her various predicaments right until the end.
This is an outstanding tale that doesn’t become lost in a special effects maze, maintaining the right balance of human interest throughout. The growing sinister atmosphere never lets up, making the occasional bouts of visceral violence all the more shocking. A very interesting and thoughtful adult fable that could only come from the dark corners of del Toro’s mind.
Rating out of 10: 8
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