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.
It’s Passover in Barcelona and newly engaged lovers Rafi (Guillermo Toledo) a Palestinian professor and Leni (Mariana Aguilera) a Jewish actress apprehensively arrive at her parents’ home after a grueling time in airport customs. Within minutes of stepping into the chaotic apartment of her eccentric Jewish family--of course they believe Rafi to be Israeli--we are instantly thrown into Guess Who's Coming to Dinner with Romeo and Juliet Focker. The characters move and scramble about as we meet Leni’s redheaded Yamaka-wearing younger brother David (Fernando Ramallo) busy imposing his strong religious beliefs on his liberal family--taping light switches lighting candles and hiding cell phones in an attempt to recognize The Sabbath. Then there's Leni's endearing yet provocative older sister Tania (Maria Botto) who has a penchant for sleeping with strangers and belly dancing. Rafi can barely catch his breath when mom Gloria (Norma Aleandro) finds out he’s not Jewish. The tail spin has begun and through a series of witty dialogue rich in political overtones as well as Woody Allen-esque slapstick we stand in disbelief as one of the worlds most dysfunctional families attempt to find harmony amidst utter chaos. As the wiry curly-haired University level Arabic literature teacher Toledo succeeds in turning Rafi into a one-man-show á la Italian funnyman Roberto Benigni and is a pleasure to watch as he’s dumped into one unfortunate mishap after another. And although his fiancée in the film is well played by Aguilera it is Botto’s sexiness and charm--not to mention absolutely delightful dance scene with Rafi--that adds much needed flare to the ensemble cast. And as the blind slightly deaf and questionably senile war veteran Grandpa Dudu Max Berliner brilliantly transforms himself into a delightful male version of Ruth Gordon wandering about the home aimlessly delivering laugh after laugh. Oscar-nominated Aleandro (Gaby) rules her family with boundless neuroses and it is as if she walks through walls to some how always be in the right place at the wrong time to interject her opinions into just about every scene. The impudent niece wannabe fundamentalist brother as well as a colorful group of characters we meet along the way one-liners and well-timed comedic scenes could quite possibly turn this little dish into a major course. Husband and wife filmmaking team Teresa De Pelegri and Dominic Harari successfully accomplish what they set out to--creating a smart witty and hilarious film about two polar opposite backgrounds and bringing it together in a taut politically viable and eloquent way. At no point are we asked to choose a side in the film only to sit back relax and listen as the characters play out a delicate situation in an organic comedy-first way. Only Human eventually strips away any impressions we may have had by blurring the lines so much we can’t help but find similarities in their backgrounds. In 85 minutes we are given just enough to fulfill our appetites for these characters--and even if it feels at times like the story is trying a bit too hard exhausting certain points a simple act of vaudevillian comedy refreshes everything for us. This film is a fun ride filled with everything from sexiness physical comedy and toilet humor moments what would do a Farrelly brother proud.