Skip Day Double Feature: Curse of the Golden Flower & Pan’s Labyrinth

There are few things in this world more satisfying than playing hooky. To stroll the city streets in the middle of the day, to meander slowly laughing at all the poor suckers who are stuck working- I can’t think of anything better. I especially love to catch an early matinée, when the theaters are empty and I can be confident that no chatting couple or caterwauling children will ruin the movie for me. It all started in my senior year of high school. By the end of the spring semester, I would have amassed quite a few sick days. With no football or wrestling practice to attend, I was finally free to skip days. You could miss nine before you got in any grade danger, so I just stopped going to school on Fridays for the final nine weeks of the year. Nothing but three day weekends for the last two months. Oh, those were the halcyon days of yore…

Anyway, I would usually spend my free Friday at the movies taking on a double feature. I’m trying to bring those days, when I can. I’m not going to work and wasting my time with four hours of cinematic goodness (or, more likely four hours of cinematic mediocrity). So the other day, I got me free refill of coke and popcorn and strapped myself in for a double-header. Working on my indie street cred, I decided to start with some subtitled foreign films: The Curse of the Golden Flower and Pan’s Labyrinth. Both were excellent in their own way, and I learned that a little girl on a fairytale quest in Fascist Spain has more in common with the incestuous intrigues of a Chinese Imperial family than you would probably think.

Curse of the Golden Flower: BOOBS!

Curse of the Golden Flower was first up. At first I thought this was going to be another big, beautiful kung-fu epic, in the vein of Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. While the opulence of the Emperor’s Palace in ancient China came through in the set dressing, there was surprisingly little kung-fu action. There were a few fight scenes, but by and large they were large scale battles, several of which involved crazy bad-ass flying ninjas (which I feel are sorely under-utilized in Western cinema, and I applaud the filmmakers for their inclusion here). The crux of the film is the familial intrigue of the royal household. A quick sketch of the film’s Shakespearean/Jerry Springerian family dynamics: The Emperor is slowly poisoning his wife, mostly because she has been sleeping with the middle son (who came from a different set of lions, but still…). The Empress is jealous of her step-son’s affair with a servant, the eldest son is planning a political coup, and you don’t even want to know how the middle son’s baby-mama figures into the equation.

While prone to melodrama, the film moves along at a decent clip and the palace intrigues are interesting enough. Everything is covered in Gold and bright colors, and the decadence of the Court rivals Sofia Coppolla’s recent depiction of Versailles. I don’t know if “Golden Flower” is some kind of Chinese euphemism for giant boobs, but all the lead actresses were wantonly displaying their wares. Not that I’m complaining, but the sheer volume of exposed mammary became slightly distracting. Even the servant girls were shaking what their mammas gave them. Aside from the set dressing and the ample bosoms, there were some fairly awesome fight scenes, and the climactic bloody battle is especially satisfying. While not quite as good as its predecessors, it’s still worth a look.

Pan’s Labyrinth: eyeballs!

After getting my drink refilled and covering a fresh batch of popcorn with butter, I proceeded to the next theater for Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s been getting high reviews across the board, and I can’t give a dissenting opinion. It’s the story of a little girl who gets moved to the country to live with her new stepfather, a fascist commander in the Spanish Civil War. In the woods around her new home, she meets up with a scary satyr in a dark labyrinth. He believes she is the long lost daughter of the King of the Underworld, and assigns her three freaky and terrifying tasks to prove it. The dark fairytale unfolds alongside the story of the stepfathers increasingly brutal efforts to rid the area of rebels. Without overplaying the parallels between the two stories, Guillermo Del Toro weaves them together to paint a bleak picture of the evil that men do and the ways we try to get away from it. This film looks amazing. From the surreal, otherworldly banquet halls with hideous monsters to the gritty torture and firefights of the war scenes, every frame is perfect. The monsters are creepy and unsettling, and the dark Alice in Wonderland nature of little Ofelia’s quest is awesome. I’m just glad I didn’t have to see this when I was a kid. If some unthinking parent had sat me down to watch it when I was 5, I would have been traumatized for life. This is a fairy tale for adults. Pan’s Labyrinth is far too intense, subtle, and creepy for most kids. I would have turned away from it faster than I made my parents shut off The Dark Crystal (which I made it about four minutes into). But for fans of dark fantasy, this movie is a must.

So, there you have it. Until the next time I finagle a day off…

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