It happens this way every year: between mid-August and mid-September, filmland is a desert landscape. The summer blockbusters have already exploded onto the scene and faded into memory; the "serious" films that will be touted for awards are waiting in the wings. All of which gives me time to clean up the files of a few films now out, and a couple companions to them which are already on video.

Reviews In This Article
'Pan's Labyrinth'
'Facing the Giants'


stardustI was hesitant to take the family to see this fantasy/adventure film. It has a PG-13 rating, which can mean many things, and the trailers I'd seen positioned it as a romance—which doesn't sell to my kids. However, bottom line: it's a wonderful, fun film that I wish we'd seen sooner. The whole family loved it, as did their various friends brought along for the ride.

Stardust has something for everyone: sly humor, sword fights, flying pirates, double-crossing villains, and, of course, two central characters who know neither their true identities nor their true loves, until nearly too late.

Far too many fantasy films these days feel labored and paint-by-the numbers, but Stardust brings something new to the table. It's stylish and witty, and although you know from the beginning who the true king of Stormhold is, the journey to the coronation is fun and unexpected.

Charlie Cox and Clair Danes make a dashing couple (she plays a star with magical powers wanted by everyone; he is the unknown heir); Ricky Gervais and Robert De Niro are excellent comic relief; Michelle Pfeiffer is once again a gorgeous body hiding a wicked heart. The actors who play the evil princes are not gone once they're done in by their plotting brothers—they become a strange chorus of witty corpses. As for the PG-13, there is some (very little) cursing, implied sexual activity, a cross-dressing pirate, and cartoon violence. The special effects are spectacular. If you still have a chance to catch this one on the big screen, go for it.

 Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth This Oscar-winner, now available on DVD, is an odd thing. It's a fantasy film about a young girl that is not for children. The mother of the heroine has married a fascist captain in Spain in 1944. The film itself depicts brutal violence (dwells on it, actually), but is ultimately about the triumph of love and the human spirit over hatred and tyranny. It would be a terrifying film for children, as the captain feels no compunction about bashing a farmer's face in, and the life of the girl's pregnant mother hangs precariously on the girl's own magical intervention. (Also, it has subtitles, which kills it for my kids right there.)

So this is a fantasy film for grown-ups, more specifically, for the child in each of us, who wants to be emboldened, who wants to feel we have the power to stand up against evil and make a difference. It is ultimately a beautiful, sad, and triumphant movie. The visuals are lush, especially in the fantasy world into which the girl escapes. Again, see it on as large a screen as possible, but do see it—when the kids are not around.


Milarepa Milarepa is one of the most beloved saints in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. This film tells the story of the first half of his life. When his wealthy father dies, the care of his money and family is left to the father's brother, Milarepa's uncle. Unfortunately, the aunt and uncle take the fortune for themselves and treat Milarepa's family as slaves. When his mother demands his rightful inheritance, the uncle refuses and the village sides with them. His mother, bent on revenge, sends him to a sorcerer to learn how to exact revenge, which he does. However, through this experience, he realizes revenge is futile and guilt-inducing.

There is a genre of story called hagiography which is a biography of a saint, told with (stilting) reverence. This film fits squarely into this category. It's made by Neten Chokling, himself a Tibetan lama. It's filmed in the stunningly gorgeous Spiti Valley on the Tibetan/Indian border, using many monks in the cast and crew.

In real life, Milarepa said many wise and profound things. Few of them are in this film (this is about the unwise half of his life). The film is lushly beautiful, the Tibetan music is haunting, and much of the movie is people slowly traveling from place to place, and saying exactly what they mean in short declarative sentences. If you're in the mood for an hour and a half of contemplation on the early life of a Tibetan saint, this is the film for you. If you're looking for drama (the subtitle is "Magician. Murderer. Saint.") you'll need to keep looking. Milarepa also has subtitles, and won't hold the attention of anyone under 18 who is not notably contemplative. As hagiography, it's fine.