Fantastic story telling marks Pan's Labyrinth
By Lady Liberty
** 1/2 out of ****
Let me be honest, here: I'm not a particularly big fan of movie musicals, and I don't like Motown music. I didn't know much about Dreamgirls, but I thought it would involve some Motown styling and I was entirely sure it was musical. Fortunately for the film and less so for me, the movie has been winning awards right and left (19 wins to date out of a current total of 46 nominations). The likelihood of Oscar nominations is strong at this point, and so I figured I'd better get it over with and buy a ticket to Dreamgirls. The good news is that the Motown sound was far from prevalent (Dreamgirls originated, of course, as a Broadway production, and the music largely reflects that). The bad news is that I still don't like movie musicals. But that doesn't mean I don't have anything good to say about this particular musical!
In the 1960's, a certain theater in downtown Detroit was holding an amateur night. The winner gets a week's paid bookings at the theater, and competition is fierce. Among those vying for the chance a win would represent are a trio of young girls who call themselves the Dreamettes. Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) and Lorell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) act as back-up singers to the powerfully voiced Effie White (Jennifer Hudson, the former American Idol contestant in her acting debut). Unfortunately, the contest is fixed so despite their well-received performance, the girls don't win.
The contest does result, however, in the Dreamettes' ability to capitalize on the fact that the current back-up singers for James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy) have quit in a huff over the bad behavior of the boss. Erstwhile manager wanna-be Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx) suggests that the Dreamettes fill in. Effie's not keen on the idea of singing back-up for anybody, but the girls recognize that this is likely their big break and, with support from Effie's songwriting brother C.C. (Keith Robinson), they take the job.
Early doesn't really care who sings behind him as long as they're pretty. But Early's manager, Marty Madison (Danny Glover), is less than thrilled that somebody else is infringing on what should be his territory. Taylor, though, has matters well in hand. The used car salesman liquidates his entire inventory to collect enough cash to pay DJs to play some of Early's songs. In short order, Early is getting airplay, and Madison is out of the picture. But Taylor isn't done yet! He sees the Dreamettes as a group in and of themselves. He suggests they call themselves the Dreamgirls.
Taylor also has one more suggestion: He wants the beautiful Deena to sing lead, and the more talented but less attractive Effie to continue being a back-up singer. It's a tough sell, but Effie eventually agrees and the trio is soon on the way to the top. But on their way there, the women fight; engage in ill-advised love affairs; suffer rude awakenings; and lose the desire for their dream even as it's coming true. Meanwhile, oblivious to all but money (Taylor) and fame (Early), the main men in their lives push the girls harder and harder until something's finally got to give.
Jamie Foxx, of course, is no slouch as either an actor or singer (his stellar turn in Ray is ample proof of that), and he does just fine as Curtis Taylor. Beyoncé Knowles is a pleasant surprise who embarrasses no one (she took acting lessons before filming began and, unlike many other singers-turned-actors, they seemed to have paid off). She even has a particularly notable moment of her own as she sings the song "Listen" to the husband who won't (Knowles actually wrote the song, and has received a number of nominations for it). Keith Robinson, Sharon Leal, Anika Noni Rose, and Danny Glover (who doesn't sing, thank God) are also good. But as the repeated awards nominations might tell you, supporting category or not, the real stars of Dreamgirls are Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson.
Eddie Murphy takes on the persona of Jimmy Early and rides it all the way to the top. His musical performances are top notch; his acting is perfectly pitched to be arrogant or self-destructive, fragile or very much the man in charge by turns. There are people who call this a comeback for Murphy and, though I'm not so sure he ever really left, I understand exactly what they're saying and they're right: Murphy is proving in Dreamgirls that he can rise to great heights to do real justice to such a part.
For her part, Jennifer Hudson quite literally owns her role as Effie White. Not only does she have the considerable musical ability needed, but also the acting skills to truly appear vulnerable one minute and then, with visibly growing confidence, triumphant later on. Her defeats are devastating, and her every mannerism shows it; her highs are stellar, and we see all that, too. Consider everything you've heard about Hudson's rendition of the show's most famous tune, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Leaving." Consider the myriad superlatives used by critics and audiences, virtually without exception, everywhere. And then consider this: She's even better than that. I was (and trust me, this doesn't happen often) emotionally overwhelmed and completely awed by Ms. Hudson's performance.
Director and writer Bill Condon did a credible job of both (he also adapted Chicago for the big screen, and previously directed such well-received efforts as Kinsey and Gods and Monsters). In fact, there was only one moment that seemed more stage-like than screen worthy, and that frankly takes some doing. The sets were perfect, and the costuming — covering the 1960's, 1970's, and 1980's — was spot on.
In fact, the only thing I didn't like about Dreamgirls is that it's a musical. But that's just me. If you like musicals, you'll like this one. And if you appreciate good performances, there are several here that will keep you happy. My single best reason for you to see this movie, though, is to give you the chance to get in on a little piece of Hollywood history: there's a star being born right before your eyes in Dreamgirls, and her name is Jennifer Hudson. It's worth the price of the ticket and then some for that indelible moment alone.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Dreamgirls is rated PG-13 for "language, some sexuality, and drug content." That's probably about right, but parents also need to know that there's adultery, gambling, sleazy deals, bribery, and other unsavory activities depicted as well. If you don't particularly care to have your child see that sort of thing, then Dreamgirls probably isn't the movie for them. With that caveat, I think Dreamgirls is fine for girls (boys won't much like it) of about 14 and up as well as for most adults.
*** 1/2 out of ****
I would never have heard of this movie as early as I did if it hadn't been for the fact that Wal Mart was sold out of one of my usual entertainment-themed magazines. I wandered around until I found something else to buy, and that particular magazine had a feature on Pan's Labyrinth that piqued my interest. I looked it up on the Internet and was taken completely aback by the fact that critics almost universally considered the film to be really, really good. In fact, I still haven't seen a bad review, and that the movie has won 14 awards out of 47 nominations to date seems to show that bad reviews aren't likely to be forthcoming any time soon.
Pan's Labyrinth takes place in Spain in 1944. The Spanish Civil War is over, but only on paper. Franco's fascist troops continue rooting out and disposing of members of the Republican resistance. It is in the midst of these unsettled times that young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil) travel to the northern countryside. Ofelia's father was killed in the war, and her mother has remarried one of Franco's officers, Capitán Vidal (Sergi López). It's to his rural station that the pair are headed.
Ofelia is more than a little unsettled by all of this, but her mother admonishes her that the Captain has been good to them and she urges the girl to call him "Father." Unsaid but implied is the fact that, with fighting still ongoing and deprivations everywhere, the Captain is also likely to provide them with some much needed protection. Ofelia doesn't refuse, but she doesn't agree, either. Instead, she buries her nose in one of her beloved books.
Upon arrival at an old mill where the troops have set up camp, Ofelia reluctantly greets the stern Capitán Vidal and meets his housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú). While the adults are distracted with luggage and other such details, Ofelia escapes into the surrounding forest where she chases a large insect she finds fascinating. In short order, she ends up at a stone archway that leads into a stone walled ruin. Just as she would explore further, Mercedes calls her away to the house.
Ofelia hasn't forgotten the ruin or the bug for a minute. When she finally falls asleep that night, she wakes to strange sounds and discovers the insect — or one very much like it — fluttering about the room. When it lands on her legs and begins to crawl upward, she first accuses it of following her, and then smiles and asks it if it's a fairy. Surprisingly, the bug stops and sits almost as if it's considering. Ofelia pulls a book of fairytales off the bedside table and opens it to a page with an illustration of a fairy on it to show her new friend. The bug promptly begins to move oddly, and then to contort itself into an entirely new shape and configuration. In just another moment, Ofelia is overjoyed to find she's right: the bug is a fairy!
The fairy beckons her to follow, and with all the trust of a child, Ofelia does. Soon, she's crept out of the house, into the woods, and all the way back to the ruins. With the fairy to guide her, she finds a deep well with a staircase leading downward. With only a little trepidation, she steps forward and down, down, down. When she finally reaches the bottom, she's disappointed to find nothing but more stones and an ancient statue. But with a sudden startling movement, she learns she's not alone after all when a frightening creature steps forward and introduces himself as a faun (Doug Jones). And the faun has an important assignment for her!
Meanwhile, Carmen's pregnancy isn't going well. She's confined to bed rest by the kindly local physician, Dr. Ferreiro (Alex Angulo). Capitán Vidal, who is obsessed with the notion of having a son, is adamant that she receive all the care and accommodation that she needs. But the captain leaves the execution of such things to others as he's entirely occupied with tracking down and obliterating the rebels that infest the forested hills nearby. And he intends to do so, no matter the cost or the ruthlessness he might need to employ!
As Capitán Vidal tries to second-guess the rebels, Ofelia works to do what the faun has asked of her. She struggles in her tasks almost as much as the Captain does in his, and both emerge from their efforts covered in filth though of very different kinds. Intent on their own focus, the two try to ignore each other as much as possible. Still, they have a surprising amount in common as they both step into danger. It's what they do next, though, in the face of that danger that illustrates how the two really have nothing in common at all.
Sergi López is just fantastic as the hateful Capitán Vidal. His malevolence is so complete that I was actually shocked to read that the actor is more typically cast in light comedic roles! I can certainly see why the director had López in mind from the beginning for the part. He's perfect. Ariadna Gil is just fine as the weak and fearful Carmen, while Maribel Verdú carries off very well the depiction of the efficient housekeeper with some dark secrets of her own. Doug Jones is surprisingly expressive despite being thoroughly covered with an intricate latex mask and costume, and the rest of the supporting cast is also quite good. 12 year-old Ivana Baquero (she was 11 when the movie was filmed) is a revelation. With only a little local experience prior to her role in Pan's Labyrinth, she stepped up to the plate and hit it out of the ballpark with a performance that puts many veterans to shame. She was, in every way, just fantastic.
Pan's Labyrinth was conceived of, written, and directed by Guillermo del Toro. del Toro isn't a novice director, but his work in this film is, even so, a brilliant effort. The cinematography is utterly breathtaking (many of the film's award nominations recognize that fact), and the special effects are spot on (some award nominations have honored that work as well). The sets are spectacular, and the costuming blends perfectly with everything else. And then there's the make-up which, whether it was depicting war wounds or fantastic creatures, was terrific. Adding to it all were more than a few inspired and flawlessly rendered edits.
The story itself is fascinating on any level you'd care to examine: On the surface, Pan's Labyrinth is a delightfully dark fairy tale. Deeper down, the escape of the child from war and tragedy into another world is unsurprising, but the fact even the other world holds its horrors is a lesson not lost on either Ofelia or her audience. And, of course, there are the inevitable intersections between worlds...
It took some time for me to find a theatre showing Pan's Labyrinth. The film still isn't in wide release and, as a subtitled foreign language film (Spanish), it may never arrive in some smaller markets. But if you find Pan's Labyrinth showing within driving distance from your home, I can assure you that it's well worth the time and the effort it will take you to get there and buy a ticket. I'm frankly not keen on foreign language films (I made an exception for Apocolypto), but this is no ordinary foreign language film. In any language and in any venue, Pan's Labyrinth is just plain one of the finest examples of movie-making and story-telling I've ever seen, and I recommend it without reservation.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Pan's Labyrinth is rated R for "graphic violence and some language." The violence, including scenes of torture, is truly graphic (though admittedly nowhere near as graphic as it might have been). The subject matter is also quite adult and somewhat complex. Add to that the fact that subtitles are involved, and you can completely eliminate young children from consideration for this film. For older teens (I'd say 16 or 17 and up) and for adults, though, Pan's Labyrinth offers a truly rare experience for theatre-goers. I'll warn you, though: I left the theatre hours ago, and some of the onscreen images I saw today continue to haunt me as I write these words. What a wonderful — and wonderfully affecting! — film!
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.