Let's make this clear from the start: Pan's Labyrinth (***1/2 out of four) is not one for the kiddies. Even with that inviting title, even with fairy tale trappings full of faunas and faux-Tinkerbells, even with memories of the family-friendly Jim Henson-David Bowie concoction Labyrinth, Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro's R-rated adventure is packed with disturbing images, political subtext and gory interludes. In short, when was the last time a fantasy flick brought to mind Schindler's List?
It's as if del Toro had uncovered the darker aspects of Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland adventures, the dormant elements ignored by Disney and television (though not by Jan Svankmajer in his disturbing 1988 gem, Alice), and found a home for them in his own fractured fairy tale. But that's not even half the story, as the film spends most of its running time in the real world, insuring that its idealistic young protagonist is rarely allowed to relax, no matter where she ventures. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a young girl of about 11, which means she's at an age when childhood imagination can be at its ripest. Drawn to fairy tales, she finds her inner life at odds with her harsh reality -- namely, that she's a fatherless child in 1944 Spain, and her sympathetic though weak-willed mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) has taken as her new husband an officer in Franco's army. Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) is a terrifying entity, a Fascist who tortures prisoners with the same attention to detail that a philatelist pores over rare stamps. Stationed at a remote farm in rural Spain, where he and his men are attempting to flush out -- and wipe out -- the resistance fighters lurking in the woods, Vidal orders the pregnant Carmen and Ofelia to join him at this dreary outpost.
Ofelia immediately bonds with the captain's housekeeper (Maribel Verdu) -- who may or may not be a spy for the rebels -- but beyond that, there's not much for a child to do at military headquarters other than to steer clear of her unfeeling stepfather and wander around the grounds instead. But while investigating her surroundings, Ofelia stumbles upon a hidden world -- a magical place where a faun (Doug Jones) relates a fantastic tale involving Ofelia's lineage and then sends her off on a series of hazardous quests. Yet for all the dangers that loom before her in this supernatural realm, they seem no more risky than the conflicts unfolding in the world above her.
The question at the heart of Pan's Labyrinth -- and one which it steadfastly refuses to answer -- is whether the fantasy world is a physical reality (albeit one able to be seen only by a child, in the best storybook tradition) or whether it exists exclusively in Ofelia's imagination. It's perhaps a fair query -- and astute viewers will certainly enjoy perusing the screen for clues -- yet ultimately it doesn't matter one way or the other. To young Ofelia, it is real, and this kid is mature enough to understand that the fantasy realm isn't always a peaceful retreat from the horrors of the everyday world but rather a manifestation of the fears and pains that define one's daily existence. This is signaled by one of the great monsters in recent cinema: The Pale Man (also played by Jones), a cannibalistic freak whose eyes can be found in the palms of his hands and whose preferred snack is the flesh of children. The Pale Man is a terrifying creation, yet is he really any more frightening than Captain Vidal, who at one point kills a man by repeatedly smashing a bottle against his nose?
Guillermo del Toro had been one of the more promising fantasists working in film: Hellboy was too laborious for my liking, but Mimic was punchy pulp fiction, Blade 2 was that rare sequel that surpassed the original, and his Spanish-language spook story The Devil's Backbone was memorably eerie. But Pan's Labyrinth represents a quantum leap forward: One of the best films of 2006, it's too important to be marginalized as a genre flick.
Like Pan's Labyrinth, Letters From Iwo Jima (***1/2 out of four) ranks as one of the finest achievements of this past year. That's not entirely surprising, considering that its director is Clint Eastwood, who over time has transformed from a superstar in front of the camera to a mastermind behind it. No, the surprising part is that Eastwood has cannily salvaged his chances this award season, by hedging his bets and releasing this picture earlier than originally planned.
As dedicated moviegoers will recall, Eastwood already helmed one film in 2006: Flags of Our Fathers, a look at the stories behind the American soldiers who hoisted Old Glory on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima during the World War II battle. Flags largely met with respectable but restrained reviews (including one from CL), and once it appeared to be DOA heading into award season, Eastwood and Warner Bros. elected to move Letters up from February 2007 and place it in limited release in order to qualify for the Oscars. Initially smacking of misplaced egotism, the move proved sound: Letters From Iwo Jima is far superior to Flags of Our Fathers, and coming out the gate it managed to snag Best Picture accolades from both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review.
It's not as if Eastwood needed any more awards -- or needed any more tangible validation of his artistry -- but such accolades are merely his due when it comes to this latest film. Whereas Flags entirely provided the Yankee point of view, Letters gives us the perspective of the Japanese soldiers who fought and, for the most part, died in this bloody skirmish. Wisely, Eastwood and scripters Paul Haggis and Iris Yamashita (adapting Tadamichi Kuribayashi's book, Picture Letters From Commander In Chief) stay away from the politics of the war in the Pacific, choosing instead to focus on the humanity of the Japanese men required to defend this island from a U.S. takeover. Warhawks will object -- how dare Eastwood individualize our enemies! -- but the film's approach is a commonsensical one: If we condemn all foreigners who were pressed into fighting in a war they didn't start or care to join, then we must likewise apply that mode of thinking to our own American troops, particularly those innocent boys and girls losing their lives in Bush's reprehensible Iraq folly.
The name actor attached to Letters is the magnetic Ken Watanabe, who earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for overshadowing Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. Here, he plays General Kuribayashi (the author of the film's literary source), a sensible leader who knows that he and his army are doomed but still does the best he can in an impossible situation. Kuribayashi is presented as a decent man and a compassionate leader -- unlike many of the other officers, he sees nothing cowardly in soldiers retreating and often suggests it over the expected norm of honorably committing suicide -- yet the real heart of the story rests with Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baby-faced baker who had to leave a pregnant wife behind when his government ordered him to pick up arms and defend the fatherland. Whereas Kuribayashi is a military man by choice, Saigo is one by circumstance, yet the movie finds honor existing in both of them. The supporting characters nicely round out the range of character types, with several revealing themselves as either dogmatic or pragmatic.
War movies used to be a dime-a-dozen in Hollywood, but recent times have seen them become almost as rare as the Western and the musical. Here's one that manages to come along at the right time. As Bush callously plots to send 20,000 more troops to their potential deaths, here's a film that should help to remind the rest of us that all soldiers have names and faces -- and most deserve better than to end up as body bag fodder simply to serve the interests of petty tyrants who incorrectly fancy themselves as great leaders.
Will the real Zhang Yimou please stand up? This extraordinary talent was once responsible for such towering features as Ju Dou, To Live and Raise the Red Lantern (the latter still one of the top two or three imports of the past quarter-century), movies that led to his being tagged a world-class moviemaker in a relatively short period of time. These were opulent epics that nevertheless managed to display the heartbeat of personal drama -- humanist tales that were highly critical of government and politics (indeed, Ju Dou was banned outright by the Chinese authorities) and sympathetic toward the plight of ordinary citizens existing under brutal conditions.
But that was before fellow helmer Ang Lee scored a massive international success with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Since then, Yimou has shifted from people to props, from storylines to stunts. Admittedly, Hero and House of Flying Daggers were both huge critical hits, but honestly, I don't understand all the fuss: While visually stunning, both maintained a been-there-done-that vibe, and after enduring countless action scenes filled with complex wirework and trick photography, I found myself yearning for the relative simplicity of a Bruce Lee kick to the chest.
At least that's my minority report. Yet even staunch defenders of these recent martial arts opuses might throw their hands up when confronted with Yimou's latest, the excessive extravaganza Curse of the Golden Flower (** out of four). It's based on a play by Yu Cao but seems to have been adapted by Yimou after he sat through a marathon viewing of soap operas. For all its attention to duplicity, incest and murder most foul, it's less William Shakespeare and more Susan Lucci.
Set circa 900 A.D., it concerns the power plays that exist between Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat), Empress Phoenix (Gong Li, Yimou's former leading lady -- both personally and professionally -- back in the 1990s) and their three sons (Jay Chou, Ye Liu and Qin Junjie), one of whom is sleeping with his stepmother. For his part, the Emperor is slowly poisoning his wife; for her part, the Empress is plotting a coup against her spouse. And for their parts, each boy must decide whether to align himself with Mom or Pop.
The costume and set designs are staggering, but the story unfolding amidst all the color and pageantry is more risible than rousing. Still, the dialogue-heavy sequences prove to be more compelling than the action scenes, which rely largely on repetitive battle footage and wholly unconvincing CGI work.
Perhaps Zhang Yimou will one day return to the sort of picture that established his reputation in the first place. Otherwise, can a Rush Hour sequel be too far off?