Director Steven Soderbergh creates a $60 million dollar art film aimed to be an epic look at the life of famed Argentinean rebel Che Guevara (Benicio Del Toro). Split into two parts that may be shown either together or in separate engagements the director seems intent on rewriting the book on biopics and in doing so has completely muted a potentially interesting study of the man who became a revered figure in Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba. Part I aka The Argentine charts Che’s beginning career as a charismatic young doctor who meets Castro and sails to Cuba with the common goal of overthrowing corrupt dictator Fulgenico Batista. Proving himself to be a crafty and smart fighter particularly when it comes to guerilla warfare Che becomes a heroic figure among his colleagues and the Cubans. In Part II aka Guerrilla Che is portrayed after his peak power days when he mysteriously disappears only to re-emerge in Bolivia where he organizes the Latin American Revolution. Largely focusing on the grunt work of the battles this section details his dedication to a cause that ultimately will also become his tragic downfall. When an even LONGER version of Che premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival international reaction to the film was decidedly mixed at best -- even though Benicio Del Toro’s performance was universally praised. Although he’s physically perfect for the role his approach is to basically mumble through the proceedings like a faux Marlon Brando in his Viva Zapata period. If Del Toro was indeed born to play this part it doesn’t really show as he fails to connect with the audience. In the livelier first section -- in which the material is more political and intriguing -- Del Toro almost comes alive especially when visiting New York and the U.N. but frustratingly he mainly chooses to underplay to the point of tedium. The shootouts in the last part of the film come across as amateurish something out of a ‘50s TV Western. The rest of the mostly Spanish cast does what they can with the hackneyed script with standouts Rodrigo Santoro as Raul Castro Catalina Sandino Moreno as Che’s second wife and Demian Bichir who manages to be quite convincing as Fidel Castro. Unlike the lively portrait director Walter Salles achieved in the far more engaging and pertinent The Motorcycle Diaries the usually talented Steven Soderbergh (Traffic Ocean's Eleven) paints a dry profile of Che Guevera diminishing whatever excitement may have existed in his life. By concentrating on these two narrow portions of Che’s life the director fails to deliver even the tiniest proof or argument as to why this man was so revered and remains so iconic to this day. The film completely skips over major points and fails to find the character’s flaws. And the reported $60 million dollar budget is nowhere to be seen -- Che even looks dull and unexciting. It’s clear Soderbergh simply got too close to the subject after seven years of research and somehow viewed this wannabe bio-epic as his own Lawrence of Arabia. Far from it. See it only if you need a good nap.
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.