For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Snow White And The Huntsman


Taking familiar stories and repackaging them is the name of the game in Hollywood today.  Snow White And The Huntsman has got dwarves, magic mirrors and poison apples, as is necessary to nominally be considered a Snow White tale.   But this misbegotten reinterpretation feels less like the magic of Walt Disney than the entire long agonizing slog of The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy jammed into one two hour endeavor.  The movie, which was directed by Rupert Sanders and stars Charlize Theron as the evil queen, Kristen Stewart as Snow White, and Chris Hemsworth as the hunky huntsman, has the same feudal-filth stylistics as the popular historical fantasy Game Of Thrones, but in its mish-mashed approach it only sullies the enchantment of the classic story with Dark Age gloominess.  Muddy, loveless and as over-produced as the worst Hollywood assembly-line epics, this revisionist fairy tale is far more grim than Grimm.  

Besides a handful of technically impressive visuals—Theron’s Queen Ravenna ages forward and backward like a perpetual motion machine, her skin withering into pockmarks and wrinkles before magically resurfacing into splendid Neutrogena cover girl smoothness—this is a rather joyless affair.  It begins with Ravenna usurping a king’s throne with a black widow’s ruse—marrying him then sticking a knife in his heart—and locking the prepubescent princess in a tower until she grows up into the inescapable and insufferable Kristen Stewart.  (The Twilight actress tries her hardest for an English accent and fails, miserably, but that’s hardly the biggest problem with her performance: Stewart acts as if constantly suppressing a migraine.) 

Regardless of any self-serious, swords-and-shields reimagining, the essence of the Snow White character has and always will be absolute kindness and generosity, almost to the point of masochism.  The ultimate message of the Snow White fable was that, despite the queen’s best efforts, she could never be as beautiful as Snow White because Snow White had an untouchable beauty of spirit; the queen was overflowing with festering hatred.  Stewart, with her Got-Milk gawkiness and two or three expressions, is so sullen an actress that she comes off as enormously self-centered, a most antithetic character trait.  When Snow White is invited to dance by a love-struck dwarf, she obliges, but Stewart is so phony she has to force a smile, like a preteen brat reluctantly dancing with the class dweeb at her Bat Mitzvah.

Admittedly, Stewart, green eyed and raven-haired, does have a natural on-screen beauty, most clearly in evidence early on.  But compared to her breathtaking costar, Charlize Theron, Stewart is a feather battling it out with an anvil on a triple beam balance.  When it comes to screen radiance and explosive histrionics, Theron’s incendiary turn as Ravenna sporadically set the theater aflame.  Other times, all the shrieking and overacting prompted a good amount of unintentional giggling (from this viewer particularly).  For better or worse, though, the Oscar winner is at least wholly committed to role, affording the archetypal evil queen far more sympathetic depth than any previous incarnation.  Of course, I use the term sympathetic rather lightly; she’s still the “evil” queen, after all.  When her old consigliore, the magic mirror, warns her of Snow White’s potential beauty, Ravenna decides to devour the girl’s beating heart, absorb her purity, and achieve omnipotence (or some other magical jargon I can’t remember). 

Snow, instead, escapes to the Dark Forest, where she allies with a widowed huntsman named Eric (Hemsworth, in his third feature this year already) and seven dwarves played by famous British actors with their faces graphically placed on little bodies Benjamin Button style.  They trudge through a sludgy fantasia filled with gravelly trolls and effulgent sprites for what feels like eons, get chased by the Queen’s inept guards, and then arrive at the base of the Rebel Alliance, where the messianic Snow White gives the most laughably unconvincing of rally-the-troops pep talks before leading an army to defeat Ravenna and take back the kingdom.  The script, which is credited to Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini but was probably passed down an entire batting order of Hollywood hacks, is symptomatic of the Twilight-cancer, adding a superfluous second love interest named William, an ace archer with curls and dimples. 

He’s kind of like Prince Charming, but in all honesty, he and Eric should probably just be one character.  The writers think they’re being subversive, or at least clever, by hinting toward an inevitable romance between Snow White and her burly anti-prince, Eric.  But the two have zero chemistry.  (Probably because acting opposite Kristen Stewart is like acting opposite a frozen freezer door.)  Teutonic with an oceanic ocular glimmer, Hemsworth also has a cheeky self-knowingness to go along with his movie star looks.  Putting on a Scottish brogue and donning ragged, greasy threads of hair, the Australian doesn’t quite shine in this picture like he does as the Norse demigod Thor, but he has an earthy, aggressive charisma that seems as inherent as it is irrepressible.    

At times, he reminds me of a young Brad Pitt, perhaps if Pitt had moonlighted as a rugby enforcer.  But the movie is a thankless death-march for the entire cast.  It’s the cinematic equivalent to long unrefrigerated String Cheese: processed and produced, spoiled into a putrid miscellany of fashionable plot devices and visual tendencies, and repackaged and resoled.  Snow White And The Huntsman doesn’t care a lick about genuine adventure, romance or heart—only box-office returns.  If you choose to indulge, I don’t think any magic kiss will raise you from this movie’s sickening spell.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Dark Shadows


The master of pop-gothic cinema, director Tim Burton, and his chameleonic muse Johnny Depp have come together for their seventh film collaboration, Dark Shadows.  Based on the same-named soap opera that ran from 1966 to 1972, the movie is an ingeniously entertaining hodgepodge of garish gothic imagery, grotesque horror, soapy over-dramatics, seventies nostalgia and fish-out-of-water comedy.  To call the film wildly discursive and somewhat aimless wouldn’t be inaccurate, but for Depp, who plays the highly aristocratic 18th century bloodsucker Barnabas Collins, and Burton, his like-minded guide through this intoxicatingly strange whirlpool, Dark Shadows marks a new height in deranged experimentation.  At its best, it’s galvanizing in its dementia.    

After a brief prologue explaining his origins as the heir to a 1700’s fishing fortune, Depp’s Barnabas is unearthed after 200 years buried in a coffin.  He was transformed into a vampire and buried alive by a wrathful witch named Angelique (Eva Green) whose love for him went unrequited.  Now, it’s 1972 and Barnabas waltzes back into his old abode to find his family business in jeopardy and his descendents a motley and dysfunctional lot.  They include Michelle Phieffer’s punctilious matriarch Elizabeth, her surly adolescent daughter Caroline (Chloe Moretz), her haunted nephew David (Gulliver McGrath), his sleazy, philandering father (Johnny Lee Miller), their boozing live-in shrink Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), and a strange and delicate new governess named Vicky (Bella Heathcote).    

Dropped headfirst into the trailing fumes of the sixties counterculture, Barnabas marvels at lava lamps, troll dolls and television, pensively embracing a culture as odd to modern audiences as his would be to anyone around during the Nixon administration.  Burton juxtaposes the antiquity of the film’s old world set design and its 70’s kitsch, creating a link perfectly manifested in a montage of Barnabas roughly settling into his new milieu as Karen Carpenter’s innocuous crooning of “Top of the World” breathes contrapuntal life into the lamest of all 70’s tunes.  Among the menagerie of oddballs Barnabas encounters, none are more welcoming than a drum circle of hippies who, like him, are several years too late for the prom, desperately holding onto to a way of life that’s not only out of vogue; it’s also become kitsch.  Throughout Dark Shadows, Burton gloriously melds styles and tones.  After dispatching the hippies with feral ferocity, Barnabas goes home to sing romantic poetry to Vicky, the reincarnation of his long lost love.  Romance is in the air, so are the soft lyrics of 70’s anti-Rock accompanied by the cries of Barnabas’ helpless victims. 

He’s a monster, a lover, and an austere patriarch who sets his sights on returning the Collins family to the glory it once knew under his father’s watch.  Trouble is, Angelique has magically stayed young over the centuries and her rival cannery has all but put the Collins family into complete destitution.  In Barnabas’ day, she was the servant girl in love with the master’s son, heartbroken by the haughty aristocrat, and her vendetta to ruin the Collins’ posterity, driven by the scorn of thwarted romance, is a true—if somewhat perverted—exemplification of American workmanship and enterprise, allowing a working class individual—a woman no less—to topple the blue-blooded oppressors of the old European system of serfdom.                   

Of course, her love for Barnabas has not wilted since the colonial era.  His reluctant attraction to Angelique and his much-purer infatuation with Vicky, a meek and ethereal Jane Eyre, provides the film its obligatory love-triangle, true to any good soap opera.  But if the time was ever right for Dark Shadows’ monsters-and-melodrama, Dracula-by-way-of-Guiding-Light experiment in Daytime television to be raised from the dusty, cobweb-infested casket of your grandmother’s midday favorites, it’s now.  Vampires and insipid romances have never been as closely intertwined as they are in entertainment today, with Twilight’s ubiquitous adolescent lovers either lighting up your life or shrouding it in perpetual darkness.    

The faddish combination of vampires and swooning probably helped Burton get the green light, but the great thing about his version of Dark Shadows is that it’s honest about its macabre romantic soul, while not quite a parody and not completely straight-faced either.  Inhabiting some dreamy middle-ground between the series’ actual self-seriousness and Burton’s more sensational and imaginative memory of it, the film finds the best of both worlds, lampooning its source while effectively honoring it.  Dark Shadows is not a Brady Bunch Movie-type roast, nor does it embody the show in its original form—it’s a phantasmagoria of dreams, nightmares, anamneses, and gothic reveries mined directly from the cranium of the film’s eccentric creator.    

From the appearance of Depp’s Barnabas Collins—with his chalk-white skin, gauntly statuesque facial features, jagged bangs, and Nosferatu fingertips, he’s a sight of ghoulish, uncanny elegance—to the lavishly archaic Collins estate—an opulent haunt that looks like the Addams Family’s extravagantly dusty homestead reborn in the campy hues of the Grand Guinol—its all proof that Burton has concocted this movie from the fruitful well of his wild imagination. 

Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows is an auteurist work of fantastical wonder and dread; it’s funny and scary and melodramatic, a deliciously bloodthirsty yarn showcasing the extreme talents of its mastermind and star.  Admittedly, the storyline, which was written by Seth Graham-Smith, at times feels as meandering and directionless as an entire season of the original sixties television show.  But if in the end Dark Shadows could have a little more dramatic shaping, I don’t think it could ever have more hauntingly invigorating spirit.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


Comfort food for the older crowd at the box office, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is easy to swallow, but it’s also overstuffed and maudlin—an impassioned British comedy-drama starring an admittedly impressive assembly of world-class actors and featuring some scenic Indian locales that never quite coalesces.  The movie is about a troupe of down-on-their-luck British strangers who start to feel the emotional as well as financial sting of entering their golden years, and decide to move to an alluring Indian hotspot outside Jaipur.  But what looked in the brochure like an oasis of affordable luxury and relaxation turns out to be a shaky pile of bricks run by an optimistic but inept young Indian named Sonny, played by Del Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) with a permanent idiot’s grin and a surplus of enthusiastic energy. 

As the hotel’s first and only lodgers, the group includes the newly widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench), an amateur blogger who specializes in facile epiphanies; the exhausted ex-judge Graham (Tom Wilkinson); horn dog Norman (Ronald Pickup); gold-digger Madge (Celia Imrie); married couple Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton), who from the outset are obviously mismatched; and, lastly, Muriel (Maggie Smith), who steals the show as a crotchety racist that only came along to take advantage of the country’s cheap and expedient medical care.  The hotel’s motto is “outsource the elderly”—a clever play on the epidemic of corporate outsourcing to Asia, but the epigram also epitomizes something much sadder: the cruelty of a society that neglects its citizens once they become old and inconvenient.  

The characters are basically forced out of England.   And while their journey East finds each searching for something specific—Graham to find a lost love, Norman to recapture his fleeting sexual swagger, and Muriel for a new hip—they’re really looking for a fresh start in a new place that will see them as valuable citizens, not just over the hill.  The thematic gesture is sympathetic enough, and the acting, especially from Dench, Wilkinson, and Smith, whose wheelchair bound hauteur generates most of the film’s more successfully droll comedic moments, is uniformly exceptional (how could it be anything but?).  The location—a place Evelyn describes as an “assault on the senses”—has a commendable tangibility that places viewers on the rickety, overcrowded bus that transports the heroes to the swelteringly hot and anciently rundown but beautifully hued and exotically magisterial hotel where they unpack their bags. 

Most of the roadblocks lie in the script, which was written by Ol Parker based on the book These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach.  It’s a bit scattershot and is bereft of the dramatic focus necessary to successfully explore the lives of any of its many characters.  The film’s pivotal lens is supposedly Evelyn, whose blog provides a voice to the story’s What I Learned At Summer Camp pontificating.  But even Evelyn’s tale of loss and loneliness and new beginnings starts to feel like a subplot in a script without a solid protagonist or an explicit story arch to guide its ensemble.  Too much attention is paid to Patel’s Sonny, a peripheral character with a telemarketer sweetheart and a disapproving mother.  Further hindered by its mawkish tone and abundance of clich├ęs (before it starts take bets over which geezer will be the obligatory croaker), the movie strives for easy sentiment and tidy characterizations as opposed to any trace of genuine truth or honesty. 

Viewers with a hunger for Dench’s regality and Smith’s trademark superciliousness—and those who want to get a taste of India without having to, you know, go to India—might just enjoy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its kitschy depiction of existential woe.  Directed by John Madden (Shakespeare In Love), the film does have a sharp wit, but I’d prefer if it had narrowed its attention down to a more manageable subject of fruitful rumination rather than false endearment.  For all its better qualities, this slightly miscalculated comedy-drama starts to feel like group therapy with a side of saffron rice, clumsily spooning out faux-inspirational messages and tired symbolism in an attempt to prompt some feel-good tears.  Believe me, if I was crying at the end of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it was definitely from the curry.