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Meeting her nemesis: Baquero in Pan’s Labyrinth.

Not Like Wonderland

By Shawn Stone

Pan’s Labyrinth

Directed 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 human).

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 as Vidal.

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.

Diary of a Madwoman

Notes on a Scandal

Directed 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 to herself.

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.

—Laura Leon


Earth mother: Cruz in Volver.

The Women

Volver

Directed 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 and force.

—Laura Leon

Something’s Fishy

Catch and Release

Directed 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 title).

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.

—Ann Morrow

That ’70s Dude

Smokin’ Aces

Directed 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.

Smokin’ 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. Perfect.

—Shawn Stone


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