her nemesis: Baquero in Pan’s Labyrinth.
By Shawn Stone
by Guillermo Del Toro
Usually, fantasy films offer movie goers an escape. Guillermo
Del Toro’s masterful, fantastic Pan’s Labyrinth does
not. Its wondrous images and mythological characters are there
to sharpen our focus on the evils of this world—and allow
us to experience the tragedy of one amazing young girl, and
experience how she uses fantasy to make her own, improvised
escape from a life of almost unremitting bleakness.
As the picture begins, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is traveling
with her very pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) under military
protection to join her stepfather. It’s Spain in the early
1940s, and the bloody civil war is playing out its endgame.
Franco’s fascists have won, and Ofelia’s stepfather, Captain
Vidal (Sergi López), heads a remote military outpost where
he viciously hunts down what’s left of the Loyalist militias.
Ofelia rejects everything about this world, taking refuge
in the only remnant of her former life in the city: her books
of fairy tales. Soon, she wanders into the ancient labyrinth—a
life-size stone maze adjacent to the outpost—and is transported
to another realm. A faun, Pan (Doug Jones), explains that
she is the long-lost princess of the underworld, and must
perform three tasks in order to be readmitted to her kingdom
(and, tellingly, prove that she’s not tainted by becoming
The film goes back and forth between parallel words. In the
“real” world, Vidal is a cruel, borderline psychotic who bullies
Ofelia and her sick, pregnant mother and terrorizes the countryside
with ruthless attacks. The only person kind to Ofelia is house
servant Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), who has a secret life of
her own. In the “fantasy” world, Ofelia completes her three
tasks, meeting up with terrifying creatures every bit as dangerous
The relationship between the two worlds is clear: Ofelia is
working out her real-life terrors in fantasy. What makes Pan’s
Labyrinth so special is the psychological insight and
extraordinary detail in the fantasies. It’s hard to decide
what’s more terrifying: Vidal beating a farmer to death for
talking out of turn, or a ghastly creature straight out of
Bosch (or Hellraiser) trying to devour Ofelia. (The
paintings on the wall of the creature’s lair, showing it munching
on babies, is a nice touch.)
As the film moves inexorably toward its climax, things get
grimmer and grimmer in both worlds. And yet, we’re compelled
by the beauty of the story and our attachment to this brave,
imaginative child. If there’s ultimately no escapism for the
audience, Ofelia gets her heart’s desire. And it hurts.
of a Madwoman
on a Scandal
by Richard Eyre
Somehow, Notes on a Scandal got released within the
mess of big-budget, loud spectacles that bespeak the holiday
season. It’s almost like a hostess’ attempt to serve something
acidic and tangy to cut the richness of so many sauces and
creams, and in a similar vein, it’s completely welcome.
On the surface, I can’t think of a movie I’d least like to
see than something like this, which details a schoolteacher’s
illicit affair with her 15-year-old student. Haven’t I seen
this, like every other week on every major American news program?
And isn’t it always supremely disgusting and unnerving? Yes,
and yes, and still, no. Based on the chilling What Was
She Thinking (Notes on a Scandal) by Zoe Heller, this
grimly humorous account of how art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate
Blanchett) goes horribly wrong is a perceptive and gut-wrenching
peek into what makes people tick—and self-destruct.
Sheba is the new art teacher at a school where longtimer Barbara
Covett (Judi Dench) reigns like an iron dragon, even though
she herself has absolutely no illusions about the narrow futures
of her charges, or, for that matter, the vaunted abilities
of her associates. Sheba entrances Barbara, who can’t decide
whether she’s really an artist or just stupid. Directed by
Richard Eyre, the film features a voiceover narrative of Barbara’s
acidic diary musings, commentary that increasingly provides
insight into the gradual unhinging of the older woman. In
the meantime, Barbara inveigles herself into Sheba’s life,
and when she uncovers the affair with student Steven (Andrew
Simpson), she springs into action, ensuring her place within
the Hart domicile. At least, until she can have Sheba all
Some may complain that Barbara’s feelings for Sheba and her
subsequent bad behavior paint a bad picture of lesbianism,
but that’s missing the point. Barbara isn’t so much gay as
she is psychotically needy. Think Single White Female,
but a lot older, mixed with a healthy shot of Fatal Attraction
(minus what’s cooking in the pot). Probably because she’s
got the most delicious lines, and because we ourselves share
a sense of shocked disgust at Sheba’s antics, Barbara is by
far the most interesting, entertaining character, and Dench—minus
her customary twinkliness of recent roles—is a marvel.
That said, Blanchett is a mesmerizing, humanizing force. Her
Sheba is all softness, her glowing sexuality tenderized by
gauzy fabrics and unkempt hair. She is far from a predator,
but more a misguided woman who, at a crux in her life and
marriage to older professor Richard (Bill Nighy), tries to
be young again. When she realizes the enormity of her folly—and
by this, I mean mainly trusting Barbara—you can’t help but
feel for her. Sadly, this moment and far too many others are
diminished ever so slightly by Philip Glass’ overwrought orchestrations,
which seem far more appropriate to a Goth remake of The
Pit and the Pendulum than to this, a domestic drama if
ever there was.
One of the things that makes Barbara’s, well, covetousness
so dangerously edged is her underlying resentment of Sheba’s
upper-middle-class comfort. Making Notes on a Scandal
work better than might be expected of a standard potboiler
is the fact that it teems with keen observations of, and remarks
about, the English class system. When Barbara plants the seed
that will grow into Sheba’s undoing, it’s nourished by equal
parts desire and latent class animosity. Ultimately, Notes
is fairly democratic in its view that anybody’s lives can
come tumbling down with fairly little provocation, and so
it goes with its two fascinating if disparate lead characters.
mother: Cruz in Volver.
by Pedro Almodovar
Experiencing Almodovar’s work evokes memories of George Cukor
directing Katharine Hepburn or Irene Dunne; it’s not so much
that his sensibility is in any way retro, but in how his movies
lovingly and diligently report the lives, secrets, fantasies,
inner workings and worries of women. With Volver, the
director leaves behind the more far-out aspects of earlier
films (e.g., an HIV-positive pregnant nun) in favor of a more
muted tale of redemption and homecoming.
Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) is a sad-eyed, tart-tongued beauty
whose life takes a sudden turn when daughter Paula (Yohana
Cobo) kills her supposed father Paco. Reminiscent of Mildred
Pierce, Raimunda rolls up her sleeves and gets to the
work of covering up the crime in order to protect her child.
Meanwhile, sister Sole (Yola Duenas) is startled when their
presumed-dead mother Irene (Carmen Maura) appears to her.
Keeping this a secret from the volatile Raimunda is difficult,
and half the fun of the early section of the movie, especially
when family friend Agustina (Bianca Portilla) begs Raimunda
to try to contact Irene—whom neighbors have accepted as a
ghostlike presence—in order to find out the fate of her own
missing hippie mother.
As with so many Almodovar films, the bare facts of the plot
sound at best surreal, at worst ridiculous. And yet, as with
so many of his movies, they are so much more than the sum
of their parts. The women in the film form a tight-knit community,
albeit one that is rife with bickering and petty jealousies.
Agustina cares for her neighbor, Raimunda’s aunt, and Paula
in her final days, and seeks some similar attention and sense
of peace when she herself is diagnosed with cancer. The sisters
themselves manage to maintain a strong attachment, which grows
stronger by movie’s end, and Raimunda’s female neighbors gladly
give a hand to her when asked, whether it’s the loan of some
groceries or help hauling a deep-freeze, which happens to
encase the hapless Paco. In fact, the only time men really
establish a presence on screen is when Sole stumbles upon
a group of male mourners; her astonishment mirrors our own,
as if we’re slapped with the bizarre question of what these
guys are even doing in our radar, so peripheral is their grip
on the life matters of Almodovar’s female characters.
Cruz is a revelation, and I can’t figure out if it’s because
she’s able to emote in her native tongue, and was encouraged
to channel great earth goddesses like Anna Magnani and Sophia
Loren. Despite her well-known glamorous image, she’s able
to convey a dreary working-class existence, if only by simply
(but effectively) donning an apron to get to work in her tiny
kitchen following a long day of attending to family matters.
Primarily through her, Almodovar imparts the theme of his
movie, which is a surprisingly hopeful one of reconciliation;
neither he nor the audience could have hoped for a better
conduit with which to drive that message home with such clarity
by Susannah Grant
It’s one thing for the great theater actress Fiona Shaw to
pick up a paycheck and have some fun in the Harry Potter
movies—she plays Harry’s pinched Aunt Petunia—and quite another
for her to slum in Styrofoam dreck like Catch and Release.
Aside from Shaw, this commercialized rom-com has a few other
things going for it: It was written by Susannah Grant, who
wrote Erin Brockovich, and it stars Jennifer Garner.
It also has a picturesque Colorado setting and Juliette Lewis’
legs. A trendy, cutesy-poo romance between a dead guy’s fiancé
and his womanizing best friend, it’s about as true-to-life
as Billy Bass (fly fishing is a featured activity, hence the
Garner is Gray, whose wealthy fiancé dies in a sporting accident.
Forced to economize, she moves into a house with his buddies,
cuddly-slobby Sam (Kevin Smith), and uptight Dennis (Sam Jaeger).
Staying at the house for the duration (the film is conveniently
fuzzy on the time frame) is the womanizing friend, Fritz (Timothy
Olyphant), who uses the funeral as an opportunity to score.
Aided by Fritz’ warm attention, Gray recuperates nicely, until
she discovers that her supposedly perfect fiancé had a secret
relationship with Maureen (Lewis), a ditzy massage therapist.
In one of the plot’s more unpalatable contrivances, Maureen
hangs out at the house so that Gray (apparently) can have
a growth experience regarding her own supposed perfection.
Her realization that all humans—including young, photogenic
humans with excellent dental care (the cast’s veneers are
distractingly blinding)—are allowed to be fallible seemingly
opens the door to her having a relationship with the slick
womanizer. Needless to say, Gray will discover that Fritz
isn’t what he seems (in fact, he’s barely a character at all).
Grant’s script is neatly and calculatedly heartwarming, but
her direction is pokey and often clumsy. Garner is appealing
as usual but doesn’t make much of an impression as a play-by-the-rules
type. Shaw, as Gray’s haughty, would’ve-been mother-in-law,
adds an edge of reality that jars with the film’s glossily
photographed homage to love in the postgrad years.
That ’70s Dude
by Joe Carnahan
The Motion Picture Academy should give writer-director Joe
Carnahan a special Oscar. It could be something specific,
like Best Use of a John Cale Song in a Motion Picture, or
general, such as Best Screenplay Honoring Antiestablishment
Values. The filmmaker deserves something for bringing
back the part of the ’70s that seemed like a very bad hangover,
either from that decade’s Dionysian excesses, or the head-breaking
moves of the reactionaries who brought us the Reagan years.
Carnahan first staked out this territory a couple of years
ago in the gritty cop drama Narc, and claims it as
his own in the bloody, snarky—but not perfect—Smokin’ Aces.
This film tells the story of magician and wannabe mobster
Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), a pathetic, coked-out
shell of a loser whose last chance is to become a snitch for
the FBI. When first we meet Buddy, it’s clear that his
party is over, literally and figuratively. Surveying his penthouse
suite at sunrise, trash everywhere and hookers passed out
in every corner of the room, Buddy looks up at the sun, and
mutters “Fuck you.” Obviously, the majestic beauty of Lake
Tahoe is of no interest to him, either.
While Carnahan tricks up the movie with a colorful array of
characters, the plot is simple: To keep Buddy from squealing,
the mob puts a $1 million price on his head. This attracts
all manner of hit men (and women), and the game is on. Will
the FBI, in the persons of Agents Carruthers (Ray Liotta)
and Messner (Ryan Reynolds), be able to save Buddy before
one of a dozen villains can kill him?
The villains range from the sublime (Alicia Keyes) to the
brutally vicious (Tommy Flanagan as a Hungarian thug) to the
ridiculous (a trio of chainsaw-wielding skinheads). The results
are, correspondingly, wildly varied, but the action comes
hard and fast enough that nothing’s on screen long enough
to be overly annoying.
Aces, ultimately, has a very moral, old-school core: People
need to be loyal to each other, not “the man.” (Who “the man”
is depends on the character.) And the film ends with a pure
act of defiance straight out of 1973.
Oh, and the killer use of the John Cale song alluded to earlier?
The tune is 1970’s “Big White Cloud,” and it’s playing when
Buddy, coked to the gills, stares into a mirror and sees,
judging from his reaction, something very much like the abyss.