Sunday, May 10, 2009

Pan's Labyrinth (2007)

"Betrayal & Consequence"

N.B. This review was originally posted on e-pinions and the only thing I have added is the rating that did not appear in Bookends.

Readers of any early twentieth century Latin American novel will know the term 'magical realism'. Its main exponents include Marquez and Llorca and it blurs the gap between reality and make believe. The many trailers for 'Pan's Labyrinth' highlight this concept as essential to the film. Indeed, every online review, in an orgy of praise, has the same glorious photo-op: the Pale Man with his fantastic eyes stuck in his palms ogling the little girl, Ofelia. Yet, it's misleading in the sense of how the film must be perceived. Viewers expecting a fabled story of optimism and escapism will be shocked to realize that the fantasy is very minimalist in Guillermo Del Toro's new film and how much it is subverted by lots of tragic consequences.

'Pan's Labyrinth' really centers more on Franco's grip on the Spanish countryside in 1944. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero)is traveling with her pregnant mother, both soon to be in the grip of Captain Vidal, her step-father. He is a high-ranking official and wields power cruelly to everyone he comes in contact with, be it servant or military aide. Ofelia fears for her mother's health but Carmen (Ariadna Gil), effectively separated from her because of the pregnancy, only functions to scowl Ofelia for reading a lot of tall tales. Ofelia sees the scope for her imagination to grow immediately after they arrive at Vidal's manor: the old labyrinth on the grounds prompts her curiosity. She thereafter meets Pan, a faun-like creature, who assigns her three tasks to complete before the next full moon so as to rejoin her other-worldy life as a fabled princess.

The magical realism aspect of the film doesn't take off at this point however. It's beautifully shot but Del Toro regulates it to Ofelia alone. Apart from the infrequent visits from Pan, Ofelia encounters just two unreal instances initially. She retrieves a key, without as much as a tussle, from a large toad that lives in a tree and--in the film's most suspenseful bit--escapes the Pale Man through chalk-drawn doors. Guilermo Navarro's cinematography shines especially in these scenes but it hardly seems Ofelia's need for escapism is pressing enough. The irony of the film is that dire need engulfs just about everyone else and in a real terror-stricken way too. It's just sheer gratuity when Ofelia tells her unborn brother not to hasten his arrival into the world. The imagined world brings her more possibility for harm than the real one. But there are many dreams that demand to be explored here that Del Toro finds himself only touching lightly on them instead of weaving them delicately into being. The film fixates on Ofelia, thus firmly placing the authentic fears of the adults as secondary. This is where 'Pan's Labyrinth' rescinds its claim to greatness. Adults dream too and sometimes even harder than children. Carmen may perpetually scowl Ofelia for her fairy-tales but it's with a hint of jealousy, besides her new life with the powerful captain-albeit short-lived-is her own fairytale. Mercedes, Vidal's main female servant and Doctor Ferreria betray the captain in a bid to be rid of his oppresion over them. The only difference between them all and Ofelia is that they already have an idea of the cynical limitation of dreams.

Del Toro's examination of the war being fought is much more fascinating than Ofelia's dalliances with Pan too. I'm sure this wasn't intentional and while it doesn't subtract from the film's sturdiness, it does question its overall focus. Even though the inner circle of Vidal's domain is downright gripping, no pun intended, there are scenes, while graphic, that seem a little too convenient for the plot's sake. It does explore--within its own confines--the double-edge issue of loyalty and fear nicely though. Captain Vidal (Sergei Lopez) rules with fear because it's the way he knows and the only manner with which he himself has been dealt with. In a weird, unexplored way, he inhabits a more fanciful place than Ofelia's imaginaton; his own. It has had more time to shape itself and longer to run its destructive course. Vidal proves to be the most fascinating character here and in need of more introspection than what we're treated to. His demise pointedly shows the consequence of too much daydreaming.

In the end though, the film does tie in neatly the duality of its story as much as it juxtaposes it into separate casings. This makes it more a technical achievement despite of the aggressive emotional praise it has won by critics. Del Toro uses an even hand to balance both worlds but his two main devices fall just short: his parity doesn't fill out with intrigue a-la "Munich" and the magical realism never threatens to wonderfully subvert the film a-la "Moulin Rogue". This point is driven home when Ofelia dies and we are transported to the last images she sees: herself as a princess reunited with her king-father and queen-mother in a grand hall seated high among the creature-folk. We're never sure if in death she's reborn as she imagined all along or if it's just the delirious reaction of a dying human being. 'Pan's Labyrinth' leaves the task of dealing with such a messy, complicated question up to your own vivid and duplicitous imagination.

RATING: 7.5/10

Loose (Nelly Furtado) (2006)

"Sleight Of Hand"

N.B. this review appeared originally on e-pinions in 2006, I have just added the rating that Bookends no longer puts on.

No one rues the tragic death of Aaliyah more than Tim 'Timbaland' Mosely. Their collaborations paid off in a kind of glove and hand way that no amount of financial success can compensate for. Ever since then Tim has been spreading his trademark outsized funk grooves into many drowning pools with either growing success (Justin Timberlake's two solo albums)or indifference (Pussycat Dolls' stiff 'Wait A Minute'). The search for the next sensation has been a laboured task for him and now it's Nelly Furtado's shake of the dice.

Furtado's career has followed a well-trod path: bright splash into the murky waters that is pop music,followed by the inevitable let down that was her sophomore album. Her popularity waned more steeply than expected though so now it's up to Tim to restore some sense of balance.

It nearly works all the way through too. Six tracks into the album and listeners will be wowed by the stunning variety of the production and sounds employed. Furtado operates with a limited vocal range that would hinder other savants but Timbaland is used to such a dilemma--Aaliyah's vocals grew to command any frantic beats dished towards her. Eventually, she learned how to subdue the beats to the point where she controlled their tempo. Furtado is yet to have such elevation nor is she willing to carve out under the beats and carry them away into other levels. She remains content to stay within form and that prevents 'Loose' from being even more remarkable than it already is.

The album plays it trump cards early yet keep them in check--'Maneater's' groovy chorus swirls towards an extacy that never commands us to take our shirts off. 'Promiscuous' sizzles with a shimmy shimmy texture but her attempt at rapping isn't as sublime. "Glow" one ups Madonna's dance-floor ambitions with an unbearably sexy retro slink and fun but she never lets it get ahead of her. "Showtime" proves that--as with Aaliyah before her--no matter the gloss applied, Janet Jackson's career is over. "No Hay Iqual" playfully splashes its groove --using a hook similar to Busta's "What It Is"--to rock out more successfully than the other tracks and merely using English at intervals, propelling it to awesome scat levels.

Now for the letdown: the second half of the album. "Te Busque" features Juanes as a calling card to the Latino community. It's by no means a bad song but it's the type of stomper that has been done better ever since Ricky Martin went solo. Hell, "No Hay Iqual" is more effective so it feels like filler. "Say It Right" swings by to, temporarily, restore order but its noticeably less hectic than the parade that was before. "Do It" and "In God's Hands" are throw-aways to the type of 80's pop ditties that Janet Jackson was doing but just not as intriguing. Why Furtado chooses such a route for the second half of the album is puzzling. It never really worked for Aaliyah either because such contrivances are for divas not funk-masters. Not only does the album screech to a halt at this point but it hints to the same type of manipulation and mainstream ambitions that tainted Gwen Stefani's solo debut. It's such a pity because after rocking us out quite successfully she then turns a material eye and it dulls the vibe of the album.

More crucial though is the uneven placing of the songs on the album. If Furtado had sandwiched the duds between the excellent pop tracks then the sting of her mainstream ambition wouldn't feel so deep nor would it feel so bogged down by commercial instinct and be genially split down the middle trying to be all things to all people. The sooner she learns that rocking out cannot include bending midway in midstream or trying to play nice all the time, then the steadier a card player she'll become.

RATING: 7/10

"Music" (Madonna) (2000)

N.B. This review was originally published on in 2004 and the only addition I did was the rating.

"Rising From The Mosh Pit"

The curse for established pop stars is that fans accept them as thus and nothing else. As the cliche goes, "once you pop, you can't stop." Only a few, determined to show serious artistic intent, shrug off this fact and end up forcing dim witted fans to embrace their diversity as "art". Examples include peerless acts like Michael Jackson and Prince, with the most stunning case being the Beatles. How Ringo, John, Paul and George overcame their innocuous beginning to rule the world...should be studied in universities.

That's harsh. Most pop acts are very talented and use the genre just to get a toe-hold into the biz, but that small step becomes a vice-like grip once success is achieved. Some, like Jackson, never leave pop's heart but others, like Prince, eventually get bored and decide to rock the house in other ways. Note that these are all men. Women, on the other hand, have had it much harder. Fans have been molded to buy into their cosmetic appeal and pay less attention to what they were saying. And no woman has struggled with this divide more than Madonna.

No other female since has had to endure such scrutiny from both sides of a very heated coin. Many will say that she brought this upon herself; why, wasn't it she who clamoured for more, more, more? Wasn't she the one who shamelessly lapped up the good/bad publicity just to sell out records and her immortality? But even ardent supporters felt she went too far on "Erotica" with that steamy, bi-curious video and "Sex" book, yet Madonna was just reversing age-old roles and suffered for it. She was branded, not surprisingly , more by women who dared to do the very thing she was doing and getting away with it.

But from this the artist arose and staying the course was the way to prove us all wrong ; she was not going away or heading into obscurity. In fact she got a running start when , in 1994, an electronic-tinged single penned by Bjork, was included on her new album. "Bedtime Story" clearly intrigued her, cause all her material henceforth has been inclusive of nothing else.

As she started to pander to her techno needs though, she stuttered on her first full pledged album "Ray of Light" ,as her choice of producers left a lot to be desired. Marius DeVris and William Orbit failed to supply the opus with legs simply because they never rocked to begin with. But twice is the lucky charm as Madonna has pulled off stunning results with "Music".

Honestly, she's only ever had one great album before--no need to remind fans, you should know its name by now--, but a lot of great singles. Whole albums got muddled and there was no cohesion or "flow". But this is art in heavy doses and proportionality in even bigger ones.

"Music", the first track, swamps your ears, sucking up all the available space with a persistent bass and employing stylistic tricks. Oh, the synths and loops are relentless, courtesy of the enigmatic Mirawis, without whose help, I doubt Maddie would have pulled it off by herself.

"Impressive Instant" sways us to la,la clubland with an insane techno ride. Mirawis punishes us again with harsh sounds that sound better than "Skin". It even features a clincher-ending..."you're the one that I've been waiting for/ I don't even know your name." Could this really be Madonna?

But amid all the revelry and triumph of creativity lies the issue of her pain and struggles and humility learned through her many experiences. Her highs are expressed on the poignant "I Deserve It", a surprising guitar-wielding affirmation of her happiness and subsequent marriage;"many miles, many roads I have traveled/fallen down on the way/many hearts, many years have unraveled/leading up to today." And she doesn't omit the lows either; "Nobody's Perfect" is a throw away back to a decade best forgotten, but "Gone" is spare and beautifully done, even if Orbit is on board for the ride. The lyrics give a haunting introspect into her life; "letting go/is not my thing/walk away/won't let it happen again/I'm not/I'm not very smart".

But we still love Maddie best when she's naughty. If she can't be good then at least she should be good at being bad. Sensuality is a clever deployed trick she used on hallmarks like "Justify My Love" and "Erotica". This album's lone "bad" song is also one of its most successful tracks. "What It Feels Like For A Girl" opens up with sarcasm, "'s ok to be a boy/but for a boy to look like a girl is degrading/ cause you think that being a girl is degrading/but secretly you'd love to know what it's like/wouldn't you." Her message gets through with contrasted pretty music, but don't let the irony get lost on you. This track is more akin to "Where Life Begins" than any other track, and only Madonna dare encase such controversial topics like fellatio and gender-bendering in bold packaging.

Yet, the most satisfying track is "Paradise(Not For Me)". Its pace grows maddeningly until it actually mutates in mid-sentences. Unheard of from pop singers, even more so the shameless Bjork-like drawl used on lines like, "I was so blind/I could not see/ your paradise/is not for me." It even packs in a little French for good measure...brilliant. This tune will make electronic-heads realize that she may be serious after all.

The only bad footing is the free reign given to Orbit. His two tracks, "Amazing" and "Runaway Lover", are flat, pointless and best not mentioned. Not even remixing can cleanse or purge the damned things. But one small misstep is counterbalanced by her many big strides forward into the great beyond called uncertainty.

RATING: 7/10

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

In Appreciation: Bea Arthur

(May 13th, 1922—April 25th, 2009)

In the final season of The Golden Girls, it is revealed that Rose’s (Betty White) husband Charlie may have slept with Blanche (Rue McClanahan). The news horrifies Rose but Blanche produces records that keep track of her ‘social’ activities to ease any fears. Rose then asks her if she didn’t sleep with all the men why is it that the books are labelled B.E.D. Blanche replies that it stands for her initials—Blanche Elizabeth Devereaux. Dorothy (Bea Arthur) who has been watching this interplay then quips a deadpan yet classic line, ‘your initials spell B.E.D?’ and gives the audience a kind of half-winking look and you can’t help but erupting with laughter.

Bea Arthur was to elicit such smart and tart-tongued dialogue over the thirty-eight years she spent doing comedy. The Golden Girls series itself was not the start of her immense relevance as a comedienne but rather a continuance. Her deep voice and imposing height had prevented her from landing the classical feminine roles on and off Broadway but were the very tools that landed her fame on television, a medium she was initially skeptical of.

In 1971, her friend and All in the Family producer Norman Lear asked her to guest-star in an episode as Maude Findlay, Edith Bunker’s (Jean Stapleton) cousin. Lear wanted the character to be the direct opposite of Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), hence modern, feminist and loud in intent. Arthur, who was near fifty at the time—an age where most careers have already peaked, proved to be a smash and the following year landed her a series of her own simply called Maude.

The rest, as they say, is history but the success of the show is deserving of real analysis and not just clichés. Maude was the first real outspoken female lead character on American television. She was several-times divorced, spoke back to her husband and the intimacy of the conversations was at times shocking. Of course, Lear’s savvy as a producer was to mimic the wider popular culture and foment subtle change through the writing and his characters. Arthur fleshed out Maude as a real woman, not the stereo-types that dominated the screen in the 1950s. Maude was not the model housewife nor always had dinner waiting for Walter (Bill Macy) and would often threaten him with the catch-phrase, ‘God’ll getcha for that, Walter’. Through Maude, Arthur connected to an audience of people, mostly older women and feminists who felt due representation of their issues had finally captured real interest. It’s most definitive moment though came when Maude had television’s first abortion (November 1972), a mere two months before the landmark Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision. Arthur, in subsequent interviews, exclaimed surprise at the heated reaction of the letters she received from fans for and against the decision. It showed though that television didn’t operate in a vacuum but helped to foment a conversation among individuals. Through it all the show was a hit in the ratings and she won an Emmy for her lead performance in 1977. Watching the episodes on YouTube, one senses that Arthur was being led unwillingly into the type of celebrity that the stage hadn’t prepared her for. She hadn’t expected to have a real impact on lives but more so the reverse; drawing inspiration from the lives of others to help shape her character. Never one to overstay her welcome, Arthur left Maude in 1978 after six years, thus ending the series. She hoped to get back on stage and never expected to do another series again.

All that changed in 1985 when NBC had an idea for a series with four older women living together in Miami and the role of Dorothy Zbornak was being floated around as a ‘Bea Arthur type’. The role proved to be a pivotal one; the character being the lynchpin for everyone else. Dorothy was level-headed, harsh yet fair and good in a crisis. Her daughter-mother relationship with Sophia (the late Estelle Getty) is among the most revered in television still and her dealings with her ex-husband Stan (the late Herb Edelman) garnered many guffaws. Dorothy’s relationships with these two characters are so realistically portrayed that it allowed the series to defy the odds of success. I doubt now that the show, or Maude for that matter, could thrive in the Neilson ratings without Arthur’s presence being able to command a slight awe yet grasp on comedic timing. Her one-liners are priceless: telling Rose that her daughter moves faster than Marcus Allen after sleeping with her son (Michael) after knowing him for one day. Intimating that Blanche had landed on her back more than the American Gladiators. Telling the girls how Stan surprised her with a wedding ring in a wine glass and it turned up three days later…on the Home Shopping Network when Rose’s naiveté presses the issue. The caustic wit with which these lines are delivered and her serious expressions remain the true legacy of her work and she was honoured with another Emmy in 1988. As in the case of Maude, she left the show feeling it had explored all its avenues and couldn’t possibly top itself.

The influence of The Golden Girls is palpable enough, from the several American spin-off shows and global affiliates it spawned. It remains in syndication long after it ended and shows like Sex in the City and Desperate Housewives wouldn’t have been possible without the success of The Golden Girls and the topics discussed. The fan base of the show has expanded to more than just women over fifty but also purists of good comedic writing and gay men in particular, for whom Bea Arthur is an icon. One can see the clear correlation between Dorothy and a character such as Miranda (SITC) and Lynette (DH).

Thirty-eight years after introducing a smart, feminist type to television audiences, Bea Arthur leaves the stage knowing that her legacy has secured the continuity of such strong-willed female characters. Bea Arthur died of cancer-related illness and was eighty-six (86) years old.