There are distinct echoes of Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons and Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill here as the film focuses on four couples who have been friends since their college days. Periodically they get together and ask themselves the title question as they re-examine their relationships. There’s Janet Jackson as Patricia the college lecturer whose best-selling book is based on her friends’ relationships. Patricia and her husband Gavin (Malik Yoba) are trying to hold their marriage together after the loss of their young son in a tragic car accident. The cocky Mike (Richard T. Jones) flaunts an adulterous relationship in front of his insecure overweight wife Shelia (Jill Scott) who is completely oblivious to the deception. Terry (Perry himself) is a successful pediatrician trying to convince his wife Diane (Sharon Leal)--a successful attorney in her own right--to have more kids. Marcus (Michael Jai White) a former pro football player merely tries to get through the day without a tongue-lashing from his acerbic wife Angela (Tasha Smith) a woman not known for keeping her opinions to herself regardless of how appropriate the circumstances. All of them find themselves confronting career demands family demands infidelity incompatibility and mistrust--all while drinking far too much wine. Needless to say before their get-together is over a number of secrets will be divulged and each couple will find their relationships shaken to their respective cores. Forgoing the housedress of his cinematic alter-ego “Madea ” Perry proves an affable screen personality quite relaxed within the ensemble. Jones doesn’t go out of his way to make Mike in any way likable which makes his one of the more memorable and clearly defined characters in the entire cast. Although Smith gets all the sassy lines White easily steals their scenes together with a surprisingly appealing comic turn. Hunky Lamman Rucker plays a dreamboat sheriff who finds himself drawn into this ever-shifting circle of friends. The women have a tougher go of it with Jackson giving a tremulous performance that makes her character almost disappear into the background. Yoba is also low-key although more affectingly so as her onscreen spouse. Leal does what she can with the stock role of a career woman who takes her home life for granted but she fares better than Scott whose crying scenes--and there are more than one--ground the story to a halt. All told however the ensemble cast has an easy and relaxed chemistry together which keeps the film--as soapy as uneven as it often is--afloat throughout. Tyler Perry doesn’t open up his stage play to any major degree preferring to leave the emphasis on characters and dialogue--both of which incidentally he has created. Perry tends to approach these intricate topics with broad (but not irrelevant) strokes but he’s not about to tamper with a successful formula. Like most of Perry’s previous films (Diary of a Mad Black Woman Madea*s Family Reunion et. al.) Why Did I Get Married? runs on a bit and overstates its case but its heart’s in the right place.
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.
Does hell exist or do we create our own? This is the larger question screenwriter Scott Kosar asks as we watch machinist Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) stumble through his disintegrating world in this psychological thriller inspired by introspective mindbenders like Roman Polanski's The Tenant and Wim Wenders's The American Friend. From the moment we glimpse Trevor's freakishly emaciated frame it's obvious that something is eating him away from the inside the same thing responsible for his chronic insomnia. With apparently no Nytol or sleep aids available in his zip code a strung-out Trevor continues working at a dangerous industrial facility until he causes an accident that costs a coworker his arm. When no one recalls the imposing bald man whom Trevor claims distracted him during the incident he is ostracized by his coworkers and ultimately fired. He tries to find comfort in a sympathetic hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who has fallen in love with him and a kind waitress and single mom (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) who works at his favorite all-night diner but even they offer little solace as his paranoia mounts. What is real what is memory and what is imagined? Trevor clings to the last shreds of his sanity before he finally faces the truth about the only demon that matters--the one with the tortured face staring back at him in the mirror.
Christian Bale is one of the finest actors of his generation and as evidenced by his total immersion in this role the most committed. After having seen Bale's buff physique on display in movies like American Psycho and Equilibrium he is a fright to behold after losing 63 pounds with concave stomach protruding ribs and hipbones jutting out like handlebars. "I could make a whole other movie on the subject of guilt just from my experience of watching this man reduce himself to 120 pounds " says director Brad Anderson. Bale who claims he simply stopped eating for the role was attracted to the character because Trevor is a man stripped to his bare bones literally and otherwise. "Trevor is consumed with anxiety and lives with this intense fear that something awful is always just about to happen " says Bale. "He fears he's the butt of some great cosmic joke. We all know how powerful a combination sleep deprivation and suppressed emotion can be. It takes him to places that are terrifying and monstrous but also incredibly revealing." In supporting roles Jennifer Jason Leigh revisits the damaged-goods gal she does so expertly and Spanish actress Aitana Sanchez-Gijon provides the only soothing visage in the film's grim landscape.
If you've seen Brad Anderson's creepy Session 9 you know the director has a talent for building a sense of quiet dread. The same can be said of The Machinist where everything from a ticking clock to a hangman game on Post-It notes starts to seem menacing. Inspired by the camera angles of Hitchcock the surrealism of German Expressionist films like Nosferatu as well as film noir Anderson constructs a muted washed-out shadowy world for his ghostly main man to haunt. "I wanted the movie to feel out of time other-worldly from a different era or place " says Anderson. "You never quite get a grip on where or when in time things are happening and that was intentional. It's a modern Kafkaesque world a nightmare dreamscape that draws horror from everyday existence."