Set during the Spanish Civil War of the 1940s—a favorite area of exploration for writer-director Guillermo del Toro—the story follows dreamy 11-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) as she’s uprooted and relocated to a remote military outpost when her sickly mother (Ariadna Gil) marries the wantonly cruel camp commander Captain Vidal (Sergei Lopez). With the compassionate but secretive housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) as the closest thing to a friend she has in the oppressive environment Ofelia escapes into a richly textured fantasy world. She follows a dragonfly she believes is a fairy into a landscaped but neglected garden maze she recasts as the lair of the goatish godling Pan (Doug Jones). He tells her she’s the last heir to a magical otherworldly kingdom and charges her with several tasks to help her reclaim her birthright. As her personal world grows more and more grim—the impending birth of her half-brother threatens her mother’s health her step-father grows colder and colder in his bid to crush the resistance and Mercedes’ hidden agenda places her in jeopardy as well—Ofelia soon finds herself tangling with hideous monsters both imagined and all too real often having difficulty distinguishing which is the more dangerous. The astonishingly real performance of the amazing young Spanish actress Baquero as Ofelia anchors the film firmly in both its real world and fantasy environments as only the convincing imagination of a child could. Lopez is an equally compelling discovery as the callous Vidal pitiless vicious and malevolent while still remaining believably human throughout. He’s unblinking in his depiction of a thoroughly vile and cruel man but avoids any aspect of cartoonish evil. And Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien) as Mercedes is a wonder as well with her remarkably expressive face unlimited by the film’s Spanish language barriers. Kudos too to Doug Jones a whisper-thin actor who specializes in “creature” roles (he’s played Abe Sapien in del Toro’s Hellboy and will be the Silver Surfer in the Fantastic Four sequel) who somehow magically delivers fully-formed performances as both the faun Pan and the freakish Pale Man through layers and layers of latex. Pan's Labyrinth is unquestionably Guillermo del Toro’s finest film work to date as pure an artistic vision as is likely to be committed to celluloid. He wisely worked outside the Hollywood system in his native Spain to bring his dark tale to life. The story exists in that shadowy netherworld between childhood and adulthood innocence and awareness of the world’s more sinister nature and its characters and themes are explored in ways that no mainstream film would ever allow. On the surface the trappings are Tim Burton-esque but the dark corners Pan's Labyrinth peers into are grim and gloomy indeed; del Toro is never afraid to delve into the murkiest of directions that to audiences used to more conventional movies are heart-wrenching even gut-churning but ultimately emotionally honest and in unexpected ways as immensely satisfying as they are haunting. The film is the announcement of the complete arrival of a major filmmaker and we can only hope that the qualities del Toro brings to this work do not get lost in the maze of Hollywood for future films.
Based on the best-selling book of the same name Fast Food Nation has three intertwined stories revolving around the fast food industry. Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) is a corporate marketing guy assigned to put a positive spin on the bad news that fecal traces has been found in the meat. He goes to the meat factory to investigate and doesn’t like what he sees but no one offers him a viable solution. Then there’s Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) Mexican immigrants who cross the border illegally. The only job they can get is in the meat factory. She bears with demeaning sexual advances while he faces the unhealthy and dangerous conditions to try for the American Dream. Finally we meet Amber (Ashley Johnson) who works in a local franchise. She’s just a high school girl trying to pay for her car insurance. This isn’t her future but it dominates her present. The corporate story is a comedy about ineffective management and media spin. The immigrants’ story is a hard drama about a bad life. Amber’s story straddles both lines--a slacker teen comedy but also introspective about what the job is doing to her soul. It may be no secret these days but it’s still fascinating. There is plenty of juicy dialogue for actors to sink their teeth into (pun intended). Kinnear plays the corporate suit as lovably as possible. He’s the put-upon business cog similar to his characters in The Matador and Little Miss Sunshine but funnier because it’s the system that’s futile not his own dreams. Valderrama has a smaller part just supporting his wife going through a horrible life with noble determination. Moreno is as heartbreaking as she was in her Oscar-nominated performance in Maria Full of Grace. You sense so much potential in her and she’s stuck in the factory demeaned by sexual harassment and unable to save her sister from succumbing to it. She adds new colors of despair to the immigrant experience. Johnson is careful not to make her character too wise beyond her years. She really is just a normal kid. High school sucks so do counter jobs. It’s not about being unique just relatable. Cameos stand out too. Ethan Hawke plays the coolest uncle ever. He comes to town for two scenes spouts off his cool-uncle advice and then leaves. Even though he’s a self-confessed loser he’s convincing. And he buys her beer. Bruce Willis gives a speech on the meat industry with his David Addison smirk while chomping into a burger. We’re sold. Director Richard Linklater does a good job keeping the comedy and drama balanced. He cuts back and forth between stories at sensible intervals. Towards the end Greg Kinnear disappears for a long time but Ashley Johnson’s story beefs up to compensate. Showing the inner workings of the meat factory is pretty powerful. Cow guts falling out and bodies mangled by machinery are not fun things to watch but they are important to remember. It’s all up there on the screen but not gratuitous—and doesn’t have to ruin meat forever. Just think how all foods have processes that we don’t see and still taste good. There are plenty of scenes in which the characters are talking a real Linklater specialty (Before Sunset Before Sunrise for example). Whether they’re talking about meat or minimum wage jobs or life ambitions the conversations have a catchy flow. The satire of corporate America and slacker lifestyles juxtaposed against the drama of immigrant life makes Fast Food Nation both ridiculously funny and appropriately uncomfortable.
The inspirational real-life story of Seabiscuit is a history lesson worth being taught. During the height of the Depression this too-small unruly glue factory-bound racehorse triumphed over great odds to win races--and the heart of a nation. He eventually beat the Triple Crown winner of the day War Admiral in a 1938 match race heard by millions nationwide on the radio. Yet in addition to the horse itself Seabiscuit revolves around the three men who groom train and care for the animal--three men who are each wounded souls in their own right. There's owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) a born salesman with a kind heart who makes a fortune selling Buicks in Northern Calif. but it means nothing after he loses his son in a tragic accident; there's trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) an obsolete cowboy whose world of wide open plains is slowly vanishing under barbed wire train tracks and roads; and jockey John "Red" Pollard (Tobey Maguire) a young man who is torn from his impoverished family at the beginning of the Depression and lives a hard life as a part-time jockey part-time boxer. They're all beaten but somehow when the four come together--it's magic. Even though the film suffers from the you-know-how-this-is-going-to-turn-out syndrome as well as venturing a bit much into the melodramatic Seabiscuit still lifts your spirit and shows how despite a time of great suffering the underdogs gave hope that the American Dream could be possible again.
The talented trio handles their tasks admirably. Bridges harkens back to his performance as the idealistic car inventor Preston Tucker in the 1988 film Tucker; Howard like Tucker is a dreamer successful in his endeavors great at public relations but perhaps a little too trusting of others. Bridges fits comfortably into this role but digs deeper this time showing Howard's pain--and his ultimate salvation in his winning horse. Maguire is also well suited as the lanky Red but the poor guy sure takes a beating playing the role. It's gut-wrenching watching the downtrodden Red starve himself so he can still be considered for jockey jobs or getting the snot kicked out of him in a boxing match which ultimately results in him losing sight in one eye. Then to top it off Red shatters his leg in a riding accident weeks away from the big race against War Admiral. It's tough being Red but Maguire doesn't shy away. As for Cooper he shines once again. After winning an Oscar for his turn in Adaptation the underrated actor shows how good he really is by giving another exquisite performance as the horse whisperer-like trainer. It's the quiet moments that work best; when Smith is sitting whittling outside Seabiscuit's stall letting the horse get some rest--with barely a trace of a smile on his lips as he ignores the swarm of reporters around the stable. And in wonderful moments of hilarity William H. Macy gives a great performance as "Tick-Tock" McGlaughlin a conglomerate of those colorful radio announcers who gave the craving public blow-by-blow accounts of the horse races during the Depression. Macy gets out-loud laughs every time he shows up.
Seabiscuit is a labor of love--a love for anything to do with horses and horse racing which may not necessarily be exciting to all although the movie's message will speak to everyone. Based on Lauren Hillenbrand's best-selling novel of the same name writer/director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) plunges headlong into the story of this inspirational horse carefully setting up the history surrounding his rise to stardom. The cinematography is extraordinary. Ross expertly blends archive footage within in the movie where at times you feel like you are watching another well-made documentary á la Ken Burns. One particular moment where this works best is when at the start of the race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit Ross switches to archive images of real folk listening to the race on the radio as you hear the real-life commentators giving the details. Of course showing the final stretch of the race is the payoff and though you know who is going to win you're on the edge of your seat anyway. It's after this however where the film begins to lose its momentum and lapses into clichéd sap. Seabiscuit hurts his leg too and is deemed never to race again. He convalesces with Red on Howard's farm until they both miraculously heal well enough to race one more time. It's almost too much to believe even though it is still a true story. Seriously how much can one man and his horse take?