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.
The film centers on yet another over-achieving career woman Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan) who is beautiful stylish and successful but can’t find the right man to save her life. You know the type. She would have given up by now if it weren’t for her three close girlfriends (Wendy Raquel Robinson Taraji P. Henson Golden Brooks) who exact a fair amount of peer pressure to keep her in the game. Kenya finally agrees to go on a blind date with Brian Kelly (Simon Baker) a sexy landscape architect who turns out to be not exactly what she'd pictured for herself. You know because she’s an uptight black woman and he’s a free-spirited white man. And there's our conflict. Should Kenya stay the straight and narrow path or follow her heart--no matter where it takes her? That’s a rhetorical question of course. Lathan has had a nice steady career making likable urban romantic comedies (Love and Basketball Brown Sugar) so she fits easily into Something New’s milieu. As Kenya the actress is effectively professional and whip-smart at work but also does a nice job playing up the character’s insecurities in her personal life. By being so very high maintenance one wonders why the almost-too-good-to-be-true Brian would even fall for her. But that’s what Something New has going for it--Baker (The Ring Two) and Lathan make their connection seem palpable and genuine. The movie really steams up when these two are on screen together. As for the rest they add flavor wherever necessary especially Donald Faison (TV’s Scrubs) as Kenya’s womanizing brother and Alfre Woodard who does a surprising turn as Kenya’s materialistic snobbish mother. Written directed and produced by women of color Something New wants to make a statement about the pressures professional women--in this case black women--have trying to find love and commitment in their lives. Successful producer Stephanie Allain (Hustle & Flow) and screenwriter Kriss Turner were both inspired by an article they read in the Detroit Free Press about how 42.4 percent of black women have never been married which then lead them to the idea that if you’re in your 30s and single are you going to open things up and look outside your race? This delicate subject matter in Something New’s is skillfully handled by first-time director Sanaa Hamri who adequately shows the fine line. But despite its sweet temperament the film ultimately lapses into ordinary and predictable rom-com fare. After all you got to have the Hollywood ending right?
Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck) is a young New York music publicist on the fast track to fame and success but his ideal life gets ransacked when his dearly beloved wife Gertrude (Jennifer Lopez) dies giving birth to their daughter (Raquel Castro). Now a single parent to a newborn child Ollie deals with the situation the best way he knows how--by avoiding it. He leaves little Gertie with his widowed father Bart (George Carlin) to raise in New Jersey and throws himself deeper into his work. But Bart gets tired of playing father to his granddaughter and one fateful morning relinquishes diaper duty back to Ollie who is about to give an important press conference. Mayhem ensues and poor Ollie is left at the podium holding a crying baby with a stinkin' diaper. Fast-forward seven years to the present as Ollie has given up the NYC limelight for the Jersey Shore town of Highlands where he is working as a street sweeper while attentively raising Gertie and sort of seeing Maya (Liv Tyler) the clerk at the local video store. When Ollie finally gets the big break he's been waiting for almost a decade--a job interview returning to the NYC publicity game--he must decide whether to uproot Gertie for a new life in Manhattan or keep it simple in Jersey.
If there is one thing this schmaltzy film has going for it it's the cast. Affleck nicely portrays all the changes his multifaceted Ollie goes through: slick publicist doting dad good son best friend blue-collar worker. But the transformation is pretty unbelievable --can such a jerk truly morph into such a loving guy? Ollie however does establish a realistic relationship with Carlin as his on-screen father Bart. It is Carlin's comedic skills with his well-delivered zingy one-liners that make their banter so entertaining to watch. Also endearing is the rapport between Ollie and Maya. When Gertie interrupts their first encounter a potentially torrid one-night-stand the two adults leave it at that and never pick up where they left off. Instead their relationship blossoms into an atypical and quirky friendship. Castro's all-too-cute Gertie on the other hand is not so charming. Sure she's a bright young actress but do we really need another Hollywood movie child who understands sarcasm and rationalizes like a miniature adult? Hate to say it but this is one film that could have benefited from more Lopez. Shot during the early giddy stage of their relationship the two have wicked chemistry together during Lopez's 14-minute cameo.
Smith's Jersey Girl obviously reflects the changes in his personal life but marriage and fatherhood may have caused him to lose his edge. Subtlety is sorely lacking here; Smith seems to think the audience needs beating over the head with the movie's touchy-feely stuff. For instance we see Ollie dancing with Gertie by the jukebox at a diner in a touching scene but Smith seems to think we're missing its poignancy so he darkens the set and focuses a spotlight on the dancing duo--just to make sure we get it. There are too many overblown exaggeratedly dramatic moments like this like when Ollie runs out on an interview to make it to Gertie's school play abandoning his car on the road and taking off on foot when traffic becomes gridlocked. We see all this melodrama but the film leaves out the step showing how Ollie and Gertie's relationship blossomed over the past seven years. In the end Smith's first dramatic-comedy attempt seems sadly misplaced; while we see what he is aiming for--the struggles of a selfish man who must learn to become a loving father--the result is emotionally empty film that substitutes schmaltz for real feeling.