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Border (2018)

Border is a hard movie to describe without giving away key parts of its plot. Ostensibly this Swedish film is about Tina, a customs agent with a genetic deformity who can literally smell fear. She’s bedeviled by another man, Vore, who looks to have the same genetic deformity she has, which unleashes a flurry of gnawing questions over whether the two have some deeper connection, who might be her real family, and whether this genetic deformity is really what she’s been lead to believe. The movie is from the writer of Let the Right One In and takes a very macabre and understated look into a fairy tale realm bleeding into our own world. The movie is mostly grounded and benefits greatly from its lead actress, Eva Melander, who gives a rousing, nuanced performance under heavy prosthetic makeup. Tonally, it feels like the darker impulses, which can get extremely disturbing, are at odds with some of the other competing storylines, like her gradual self-awakening and the potential romance with Vore. Nothing will prepare you for how weird things will get including an awkward sex scene that defies belief. Border holds out a bit too long with its pertinent information, delaying the mystery without enough clues to tease things out in a satisfying manner. Afterwards, the remaining reveals reflect more on the cruel depths of Vore and less with Tina’s response. It makes an uncomfortable direction feel like it’s meant more as provocation. Ultimately I think I needed more from the story and characters to better meet out the aims of its genre-defying vision. It’s definitely a different movie and will register for those looking for dark, adult fairy tales.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Into the Woods (2014)

ITW_1-Sht_v18_Lg-560x829Theater fans, take this review with a Broadway-sized grain of salt because I’m going to admit I’ve never seen Into the Woods prior to its film release. I consider myself a Stephen Sondheim fan, especially with Sweeney Todd. Now with all that established, I found Into the Woods to be a thoroughly uninvolving and middling musical without any memorable tunes and a series of annoying characters that just kept running in comic redundancies. Perhaps it’s my own ignorance to the original 1987 theater production, considering subversive and edgy and not the most natural fit for the Disney brand. Perhaps I’m just not hip enough to Sondheim’s academic use of melody. Or perhaps others out there will share my opinion that Into the Woods is a tuneless bore.

In a fantasy kingdom, a Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are trying to conceive a child but having difficulty. A witch (Meryl Streep) reveals that the only way to undo the infertility curse is to gather a series of magical items. The baker ventures into the aforementioned woods, desperate to find these items, often running into the likes of other fairy tale icons like Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Prince Charming (Chris Pine), the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his beanstalk, and the entrapped Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy).

INTO THE WOODSIt must have been more relevant back in 1987, but today we are awash in the darker side of fairy tales. Analyzing the implications of “happily ever after” in a more adult and pessimistic way is nothing new. We’re saturated with TV shows and movies that have explored these issues before, revealing the darker truths to some of our favorite fairy tale characters, so it’s hard for a Woods novice to approach the show without a sense of ”been there, done that.” It’s unfair for Sondheim but that’s the reality that greets an adaptation of a musical that’s almost thirty years old. Because of this context, the insights and subversions with the fairy tale characters never feel somewhat pat. The fact that Little Red Riding Hood might be featuring a sexual awakening related to the dangerous Big Bad Wolf is the only striking one that adds dimension to her character. Other “twists” given to the characters are either predictable or just underwhelming. Oh, Prince Charming isn’t so nice and marrying into royalty isn’t the fantasy it’s made out to be? Then there are character betrayals that come out of nowhere, without any proper setup, that feel like the musical is just flailing around in transparent shock value. Just because someone suddenly does something out of character does not mean it was a good plot choice. The guilty party even sings, “I’m in the wrong story,” admitting the identity crises. I wouldn’t have a problem with these wrinkles if they felt better setup or there was more commentary attached. Instead, as delivered in the film, it feels rushed and unearned.

Music is inherently subjective (then again so is film, I mean…), so I’m sure others will vociferously disagree with my stance that Into the Woods is mediocre. True to Sondheim’s works, he establishes character-based melodies that fold and cascade atop one another, weaving in and out. The problem is when none of those melodies captures your attention. These are not humable tunes. To my ears, the songs just collided into one another forming one long string of tonal mélange. The singing is more than adequate by the performers (though Pine’s crooning is a bit subpar) but the songs just flatline. I just took a break from writing and listened through Amazon.com’s soundtrack for the show, sampling every song one again, and they all just blend together. There isn’t one song that burrows its way inside your brain, taking residence beyond the immediate. Then again, if you’re one of the fans of the show who loves these songs then having a fresh coat of Hollywood production will make them sound even better for you, especially with Corden and Blunt and Streep as the top performers.

Another hindrance for me was that I found many of these characters to be insufferably annoying. I found Red Riding Hood and Jack to be irksome and thieves, and so I didn’t feel much sympathy when Jack’s breaking and entering and giant manslaughter lead to dire consequences in the last act. Does not the lady giant deserve her vengeance? Her home was broken into, pilfered for its valuables, a small portion of which would have been sufficient but Jack cannot help his felonious ways, and then the boy killed her husband in a hasty escape attempt. If anything, I would have preferred the lady giant picking her teeth with the plucky lad. I also wanted Little Red to remain in the belly of the wolf (spoiler alert?). Cinderella lost my interest with her wishy-washy behavior. I believe it’s meant to be funny that she keeps returning and running off for three days in a row of princely balls. Another way of looking at that behavior is frustration. The only characters I actively cared about were the Baker and his wife, and the calamitous plotting of the musical’s second half tested even those allegiances.

into-the-woods-07The story gets to be rather redundant as well once the main characters are established and their plight is set in motion. I suppose I can now understand why Into the Woods is one of the most popular stage productions to perform at high schools and colleges: the scarcity of scene changes. Much like other aspects of the film, the setting just blends together and becomes tiresome. My pal Eric Muller remarked, “It’s called Into the Woods and not Into Multiple Sets.” I got sick of the woods. The plotting requires the various characters to keep running into one another again and again. It’s amusing at first but once it keeps going, and going, and going, the repetition loses its charm. You start to feel like the show is as lost as the characters and just going in circles to bide its time.

Acting-wise, I cannot fault the big-screen version. Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow) has a great singing voice and has shown great range as an actress in 2014. Streep improves upon her shaky start to musical theater from Mamma Mia. She’s still the great Meryl and seems to be one of the few people having fun. She enlivens every scene she’s in. Pine (Star Trek Into Darkness) is enjoyably self-involved as his caddish prince. Depp (Transcendence) is suitably lascivious though he only has about five minutes on screen. Corden (soon to be the new host of CBS’ Late Late Show in 2015) is the real standout. The man has a self-effacing likeability to him that serves as an anchor for the show. He’s funny and tender but he’s the heart of the story, and the film is at its best with Corden as its center.

If you’re a fan of the original Into the Woods, chances are you’ll likely find enough in this adaptation to enjoy. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) and his crew re definitely fans and you can feel their appreciation for the source material. However, if this is your first exposure to the Broadway show, then you may too find the characters annoying, the commentary underdeveloped and dated, the songs tuneless and unmemorable, and the plotting to be redundant and tedious. The actors do what they can but it was ultimately a losing cause to my ears. I found the film more exhausting than transporting. I’m at a loss how people can work up such passions for a show that feels so thoroughly blah. I await the Sondheim crowd to tar and feather me as an ignorant heathen, but there you have it. Into the Woods is an underwhelming musical that made me want to turn on the radio.

Nate’s Grade: C

Maleficent (2014)

115231_galWe’ve seen several stories try their hand at reclaiming villains, telling the tales from their relegated and forgotten points of view; after all, history is written by the winners. This technique can be illuminating and fascinating when done right, like Grendel or Gregory Maguire’s popular Wicked novels. However, does the public really have that much knowledge of Maleficent? Did most people even know what her name was? For that matter, do most people even know what the real name of Sleeping Beauty is or do they, like myself, just indifferently refer to her as Sleeping Beauty? That relative audience ignorance provides a wide canvas to retell this woman’s story.

In an ancient kingdom, there were two lands, one with men and one with magical creatures. Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is a cheerful fairy with long angelic-like wings and a pair of horns coming from her head. She befriends Steffen (Sharlto Copley) an orphan with ambition to be the next king of men. He betrays Maleficent, drugging her and cutting off her wings to prove to the dying king that she is dead. Years later, and now king, Steffen has a christening for his new baby daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning), and Maleficent shows up. She curses the young child, declaring that on her sixteenth birthday she shall prick her finger on a spinning needle, fall into a deep slumber, and only be awakened by true love’s kiss. Steffen destroys all the spinning wheels he can find and sends out his daughter into the countryside for protection where she’s raised by three fairies taking on the form of humans (Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville, Juno Temple). It’s really Maleficent who helps raise her, watching over her and protecting her through the years, regretting the horrible choice she made in anger.

115234_galI’ll start by saying the reason you should see this film, by far, is Angelina Jolie (Wanted). She is terrific. You can readily tell how much fun she’s having with the character, and everything from her command, her physicality, her presence, her vocal delivery, is top-notch. She’s great from start to finish, the perfect embodiment of the character. Would you believe this is her first live-action film role in almost four years? Wow, did movie audiences miss her. If only the remaining movie was as good as Jolie.

It’s a shame then that just about everything falls into a rigid fantasy formula that squeezes any sense of magic dry. Maleficent is the queen of the fantasy half of this world, and after her betrayal by Steffen (more on that below), she seeks vengeance, cursing an innocent child and then remarkably caring for her through a hasty montage. It’s hard to ever accept Maleficent as a malevolent character, and I’m sure that’s by design by the Mouse House. She doesn’t do anything too scary and when the time comes she ends up making the right decisions. There isn’t really much of an exploration of her character here. There’s the pretense that she’s hero and villain but that falls away very quickly, especially with her loving relationship with Aurora. She wants to do right and feels terrible about the curse, but again that’s quickly taken care of. Aurora literally spends five minutes onscreen in her “eternal slumber.” It’s more like a magical nap. If the relationship between Aurora is what makes our heroine whole again, then the climax is saving Aurora, not getting vengeance against Steffen in a dumb CGI battle.

The magical fantasy world also feels oddly underutilized. At least in past Disney efforts like Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful, the worlds at least felt like they had been explored, with many of the magical creatures pitching in during an Act Three battlefield. That isn’t the case here. The opening with young Maleficent (Isobele Molloy) introduces some strange creatures and some fairies, but they end up being little more than background dressing, meant to only communicate the change in Maleficent. In the end, it’s just Maleficent and her trusty crow (Sam Riley in human form) and that’s it. Question: if she can transform her pet into any number of creatures, including a dragon, then why didn’t she do this before? When she’s racing to save Aurora from pricking her finger, would a dragon have not been a faster mode of travel than a horse? Maleficent’s powers are also too ill defined, and her big weakness just happening to be iron feels trite, like her version of kryptonite. The fairy world and its powers aren’t given the examination it deserves. As a whole, the world of Maleficent feels less than magical. It feels more like a series of scenes rushing through a plot holding fast to the beats of recent Disney live-action hits.

I don’t think I’m reading too much into what is intended as a fantasy film for families, but Maleficent is one big analogue for rape. Hear me out. The title character falls in love with a man who likewise tells her he loves her but is just using her to his own advantage. He then drugs her drink and while she’s unconscious has his way with her, leaving her physically disfigured and feeling betrayed. She turns inward, rejects the outside world, and dwells in sadness and seclusion. She doesn’t tell others about her attacker until many years later. The public is quick to blame the victim. And then ultimately, once she feels “whole” again thanks to reaching out to others/support, she is able to confront her attacker and rise above his destructive influence, returning to some semblance of her former self. When looked at in its entirety, does that not sound like an intentional analogy for rape/sexual assault? Maleficent’s character arc mirrors the experiences of rape victims, and the fact that this kind of mature storyline is played out in a Disney summer family film is kind of extraordinary. It’s not so explicit that little kids will walk home asking mom and dad about the persistent nature of “rape culture,” but its presence and articulation is a start. As a rape analogue, it’s not offensively handled unless you are one who finds its very inclusion an offense for a PG-movie. Now, this storyline does transform the character in a way others may dislike. Rather than being a powerful agent of evil, she’s a woman who was victimized by a man and that’s why she turns toward the dark side. For some this will be a disappointing turn of events. I can’t say one approach is better than the other from a feminist point of view, but I credit Disney for following through with uncomfortable symbolism for rape to describe Maleficent’s arc.

91116_galThe rest of the cast fill out their roles but lack the flare of Jolie. Copley (District 9) is proving that he may be best under the guidance of Neil Blomkamp. He was one of the better parts of Elysium but without Blomkamp he makes such mystifying choices as an actor. His voice and performance were powerfully wrong for Spike Lee’s unnecessary Old Boy, and his demeanor is all over the place with Maleficent. To his credit, the character is horribly underwritten and given so little mooring to try and understand his ever-changing decisions and temperament. Fanning (Super 8) is an innocuous Aurora though the actress has often showed much more ability. Here she just laughs a lot. Riley (On the Road, Control) is wasted comic relief and as a companion. The three color-coded fairies are consigned to broad comic relief, usually bumbling and getting into slapstick brawls with one another. I can’t imagine children finding them too funny.

Maleficent the character is given great care by Jolie, the actress. Maleficent, the movie, is slapped together and feels devoid of any sort of engaging storytelling or big-screen magic to leave a favorable impression. It’s a rather expected and unexceptional retelling that hits all the notes you’d expect, though without as many magical fantasy creatures, which seems like an oversight for a world of fantasy. The rape analogue is a bold choice for the filmmakers and deserves credit. I wish I could also give them credit for the storytelling and characterization, both of which are rather flat and rote. The special effects are likewise unremarkable. Outside of the rape symbolism, this is a movie you can likely predict every step of the way just looking at the poster. I was able to even predict the left-turn ending concerning “true love’s kiss,” though Frozen already got there first. If you have low expectations and simply want to watch Jolie and her killer cheekbones be fierce, then perhaps Maleficent is worth checking out. Otherwise, this villain’s retelling feels far too familiar and safe and underwhelming to be worth the effort.

Nate’s Grade: C

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

MV5BMjA4MDQwODg2NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTc5ODc2OA@@._V1_SX214_You’d think a movie where Grimm characters Hansel and Gretel turn into gun-wielding, wisecracking witch hunting mercenaries would at the very least keep your attention. How could a premise like that manage to be boring? Well writer/director Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow) miraculously found a way. Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arteton are the brother and sister of the title and they act like a 1980s buddy cop duo transplanted into a historical fantasy realm, complete with their comically large and complicated weaponry. Too often the film settle on such a lazy tone lacking irony or cleverness, settling for lame genre quips and a rote story filled with poorly developed villains. An action movie set in a fairy tale world is a great premise, and Hansel and Gretel seem like a perfectly capable pair of leads with their back-story. It’s a shame that this movie feels like it never went beyond a surface-level once-over when it came to developing its imagination. The action sequences are ineptly staged and ineptly edited, which kept me from feeling any longed after thrills or entertainment. It ends on a much better note with an all-out witch assault but by that point the movie has already worn out its welcome. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, is another case of a great idea not given enough development to separate itself from the din of lame action.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Snow White & the Huntsman (2012)

Snow White & the Huntsman is meant to be a darker, splashier, more action-packed retelling of the classic story, and when compared with the earlier 2012 Snow White venture, Mirror, Mirror, it certainly merits all those descriptions. With Twilight star Kristen Stewart at the helm, this movie seems tailored for teens looking for some girl power. I have no problem with reworking fairy tales to suit our modern-day cultural interest, but just giving a person a shield and a sword does not instantly make them a warrior. And just plopping Snow White into a medieval war does not instantly make this a movie worth watching.

The wicked Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) killed the king and installed herself on the throne. She sucks the youth directly from ingénues to keep those good Theron looks of hers. She is the fairest of them all but she is warned that one day the king’s daughter, Snow White (Stewart), will overtake her in fairness. Snow’s been living in a prison cell for about ten years since her evil step-mom took power. She escapes her imprisonment and flees to the Dark Forrest beyond the castle grounds. The Queen’s powers will not carry over into the Dark Forrest (for whatever unexplained reason), so she hires the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to retrieve Snow White. The Huntsman changes sides, allies himself with Snow, and some dwarves, and then everyone bands together to retake the kingdom under Snow’s stout leadership.

Snow White & the Huntsman falls victim to that age-old screenwriting curse of failing to show us its work. I get so sick of movies, or any narrative really, that heaps praise upon some person and then never shows us any convincing evidence. If somebody is said to be a great poet, I want to hear one of his or her great poems. If somebody is said to be a great leader, then I want to see him or her inspire. To make up for the plot shortcomings, the screenplay reminds us at every moment of downtime how special Snow White is, how glorious she is, how different she is, how she is the only one to bring down the tyrannical rule of Ravenna. At no point did I believe any of this. Just because I have characters tell me, ad naseum, that someone is special doesn’t make it so. I need to see the evidence, and from what Snow White has to show, it is not that impressive. She’s somewhat resourceful, escaping from captivity, but she’s not exactly a figure of compelling strength, magnetism, or inspiration. She gives one “rally the troops” speech that gets the townspeople all fired up to go to war; it’s no St. Crispin’s Day speech, but even if we’re grading on a curve, it’s a pretty weak motivational speech. There’s no reason these people would line up behind this displaced damsel other than the fact that the plot requires them to do so. This Snow lady has, much like the infamous Bella Swan, the personality of a dead plant, and all the proclamations to the contrary will not change that fact. Snow White is just not an interesting of compelling person, period. The only way Stewart could be most fair is if we’re talking about being pale.

There are two reasons why Stewart is completely wrong for this part. First off, when we’re objectively talking about one who is “fairest of them all,” and Charlize Theron is in your movie, you’re going to lose every time. I’m not saying Stewart is wretched looking; quite the contrary. Debut director Rupert Sanders finds ways to film her that make her look lush and vibrant, giving more life to his heroine than his actress is capable of. Some would argue “fairest of them all” is not in references to physical beauty, which it has always been, but to the fact that Snow’s heart is so pure and good. If that’s the case, that’s just stupid. Then why even make it Snow White if the nemesis to the evil queen is simply somebody who is morally just? You could have had a commoner play the role and that would have brought about more interesting class conflicts. Secondly, Stewart is such a modern era actress, someone who has so effectively channeled the rhythms of a blasé generation of young people, that dropping her into a medieval time period is jarring. She doesn’t fit. Everything about her aloof acting style screams modern times. Maybe that’s why her speaking is kept to a minimum. She can ride on horseback, dress in Joan of Arc armor, but she’ll never strike anyone as a fitting Epic Heroine. I feel that her acting has blended with the sullen nature of Bella Swan to the point that it’s hard to separate the two. I’m not a Stewart hater at all. I actually think she can be quite a capable actress (see: Speak, Adventureland, the upcoming adaptation of Kerouac’s On the Road) when paired with the proper material. Snow White & the Huntsman is not the proper material.

Aside from casting errors, this dark fairy tale doesn’t find any time to settle down and develop anything that could approximate characterization. Case in point: all we know about Snow is that she is a princess, everyone tells us how beautiful she has always been, she runs away, and then leads a rebellion, then she become queen (don’t pester me about spoilers). What else do we know about her? She’s defined entirely by outside forces, especially the charitable words of others. Snow White is not a character but a symbol, the prophetic Chosen One. She’s really a placeholder for every lazy archetype needed for epic fantasy. Stewart cannot connect with the material, so she seems to wander around, mouth agape, almost like she’s stumbling drunk through the whole movie. It seems that Snow White & the Huntsman just provides us the familiar elements of the story (evil stepmother, huntsman, dwarves) and expects us to fill in the rest with our own wealth of knowledge over the famous fairy tale. The rote insertion of a long-lost childhood friend/eventual love interest (Sam Claffin) is made tolerable only by the fact that he does not eventually become a love interest. This Snow doesn’t need a man, and good for her.

Sanders’ background in commercials definitely shows in his superb visual palate. The man knows how to frame a beautiful shot, and the visual highpoint is Snow’s hallucinogenic shamble through the Dark Forrest. Without the narrative traction, though, the movie starts to resemble one very long, very excruciating perfume ad, particularly when Snow comes across a white horse just laying down in the surf. Some of Sanders’ “ain’t nature great” creations deeper into the forest reminded me very strongly of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, especially with the godly stag. Despite its considerable faults, Snow White & the Huntsman is a great looking movie. Sanders’ crisp visuals are further enhanced by wonderfully theatrical costumes from multiple Oscar-winner Colleen Atwood (expect another award on that mantle come 2013). Queen Ravenna has more eye-catching outfits than Cher in her heyday. They seem to be made out of interesting organic elements, like a gown accented with diminutive bird skulls. She may be a ruthless tyrant, but man does that lady know how to dress. The fashion choices became so exotic and intriguing that it provided another reason for me to hope we’d get more time with the queen. The production design by Dominic Watkins (United 93) is fittingly medieval. At least there’s always something nice to look at with this monotonous bore.

I don’t really get the geography of this kingdom. By all accounts, it looks like one poorly guarded castle, one poor mud town, and a deep expanse of forest. The fact that it’s labeled as the Dark Forrest seems shortsighted, since it takes a few hours continued walking to come across all sorts of other civilizations, including our scarred matriarchal society. And then there are dwarves too. It all feels so listless, lacking any sort of connective tissue to help round out this magical world. After a while, it just becomes an assortment of cool stuff just put into a movie because it’s cool. The fact that none of these magical creatures or assorted villagers ever pop back again, except for our coronation in the resolution, means they were meaningless to this story other than being a rest stop.

The screenplay is surprisingly rushed; rarely do we spend more than five minutes in any location. I was interested in a city of women with self-inflicted facial scars to protect themselves from Ravenna coming for them. Just as things start to get interesting, it’s like the movie gets antsy and has to keep moving, and we’re off again. It’s hard to work up any sort of emotional engagement for anyone when we just spend a few minutes with these characters. The brisk pacing also gives the impression that the characters really don’t matter in the end. If it weren’t for a scene where the Huntsman blatantly explains every feeling he has to a comatose Snow White, we’d know nothing about him. The Huntsman is grieving over the loss of his wife, and oh she just happens to have been killed by Ravenna’s creepy albino brother (Sam Spruell). The pigment-challenged dolt confesses this convenient bit of information at a strange time. Why confess to killing a man’s wife when you’re battling to the death? Confess afterwards. It’s another example of lame screenwriting and nascent characterization. Even the queen gets a bizarre throwaway bit of characterization. For whatever reason, we have a flashback to when she was a child and her mother forced her to drink the magic immortality elixir. Why did we see this? It’s too late to make her sympathetic. And yet, even this brief glimpse at Ravenna’s back-story makes her more interesting than our feckless Snow White.

The bleakly brilliant Young Adult renewed my fondness for Theron as an actress. For a while, she seems to really sink her teeth into the role, lapping up the villainy in a satisfyingly menacing manner. It’s at this lower level of burn, the quiet intensity, where Theron is most enjoyable. When the movie requires her to raise her voice is when things start to go bad. She shrieks in such a campy, over-the-top, weird overly enunciated style. Any hope of secretly enjoying this movie died with Theron’s stagy agitation. Hemsworth (The Avengers) adopts a thick Scottish brogue but does little else. At times I found that he looked remarkably like a cartoon tough guy; just something about his face lends itself to clean, burly definitions. The best actor in the movie is Bob Hoskins (Mrs. Henderson Presents) as a blind dwarf, and perhaps that sentence alone should say all that needs saying.

This film is more Lord of the Rings than fairy tale. It’s got some battles and some siege action to pacify the men folk, but this is obviously aimed at the ladies. It’s a feminist, Robin Hood-esque reworking of the Snow White tale, recasting the damsel as action heroine, and I’d have no problem with this revision if: 1) the film made her an actual character, 2) it had been played by anyone other than Kristen Stewart. It’s got all the familial elements but they have no context in this reworking; it lacks internal logic. If I did not have sufficient background knowledge about this tale, I’d be left wondering why any of this should make sense (apples are poisonous now?). At every turn, the movie has to tell us why things should matter rather than showing us. There’s no evidence onscreen why this Snow White lady deserves any fuss. Snow White & the Huntsman is a movie obsessed with appearance and precious little else. Snow White & the Huntsman is one boring, truculent, dreary chore of a movie that goes on far too long. Just because it’s darker doesn’t make it more mature or exciting. Fairest of them all, my ass.

Nate’s Grade: C

Red Riding Hood (2011)

In risk-adverse Hollywood, everything old is new again, so why not remake classic fairy tales for a modern audience? After all, there’s no rights fee. While we’ll have to wait on the competing Snow White films until 2012, Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke unleashes her stylized retelling of the Red Riding Hood tale, titled easily enough, Red Riding Hood. This messy and incompetent movie may cause you to run away screaming into the woods all the way to grandmother’s house.

In a small village on the crest of the big bad words, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) is betrothed to Henry (Max Irons), a hunky blacksmith that comes from a family of high standing. She’s rather run away with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), the town’s resident moody guy who’s also her childhood friend. Valerie’s family is ostracized due to past indiscretions, so her grandmother (Julie Christie) lives in a cottage off in the woods. Valerie’s mother died when she was young and she’s been raised by her father (Billy Burke) and her step-mother (Virginia Madsen). This happy hamlet is gripped with fear after a series of violent wolf attacks. Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) ushers into town with a proclamation that he will find the wolf and slay it. But he clarifies that they are hunting for a werewolf among the townsfolk. During one attack, Valerie discovers that she has an odd telepathic link with the wolf, which makes her further question her identity. Naturally, this makes the town fear her and offer her as a red riding sacrifice. But who is the wolf and what is his or her plan with Valerie?

This is a disaster of epic fairy tale proportions. Red Riding Hood attempts to reshape the oft told tale into a palatable mix of sex and violence for today’s pre-teens (teenagers will surely be bored by this), somehow forgetting that the original tale is filled with macabre violence. The filmmakers have tried to make Red Riding Hood (RRH) hip to a younger generation; this ain’t your granny’s fairy tale, yo. But they’ve really turned the simple story into a lumbering, idiotic, grating, and nearly impenetrable movie. This youthful infusion of hollow artifice and misplaced attitude, as well as a fumbling attempt at ill-conceived edge, makes the movie a metaphorical bratty teenager. You get tired of its taxing nature and empty posturing. It’s trying to be cool with last year’s catalogue. Hardwicke is using every tool at her disposal to appeal to an easily bored teenage demographic, so the movie takes several sidesteps that are only justifiable because someone might think they are cool. The musical score includes grating, churning anachronistic electric guitars. It feels like your neighbors are throwing a party and the music occasionally drifts over. These visual and narrative flourishes only remind you how desperate and out-of-tune this whole lousy production is.

Screenwriter David Johnson (Orphan) takes the familiar woodland frolic and turns it into the world’s worst Agatha Christie-styled guessing game. The wolf is now a werewolf and then the town undergoes a witch-hunt that would make Arthur Miller wince (“I saw Goody Red with the wolf”). It’s here that the movie preposterously attempts to become some sort of important statement on, I kid you not, the war on terror. Solomon brings a metal elephant that he sticks prisoners in to soften them up. He also lights a fire below the belly of the elephant to expedite the process of getting the truth out of a suspect. Solomon’s status as a cleric has to serve as some sort of biting criticism of church authority, especially after he wants to get an inquisition going. I appreciate the wholly misguided attempt at topicality and commentary, but this was not the movie to make statements. Anyway, the plot is convoluted and every scene seems to just further dilute the clarity of the narrative. The movie just descends into a manic game of “Guess the Wolf.” We literally go through just about every speaking part at some point as a potential werewolf suspect. That means every bit part is given due consideration, including the mentally handicapped child. I actively wanted the wolf to be the mentally handicapped kid just for the awkward discussions of what to do next (“We can’t kill the wolf. He’s… special.”). Red Riding Hood works so hard to make like 8 characters look alternatingly guilty. The town seems to be populated by red herrings and not people.

Red Riding Hood is a neutered horror movie and a rather bloodless romance; there’s a lack of blood pumping with either. For a movie about a killer wolf there is precious little blood or wounds even considering some people are mauled to death. It seems the filmmakers had a choice of going with mild gore or mild sensuality to stick the PG-13 landing and erred on the side of hormones. The romantic elements are kept at a pre-teen simmer. For only they will blush at the more suggestive elements, including the table-dance-in-slow-mo shimmy dancing that the town seems to favor during their festivals. At one point Peter unties one of Valerie’s bodice strands. To be fair, in mythical land/mythical time setting, that’s probably like their equivalent of third base. The romantic triangle is desperate to ape the Twilight model, and the male characters are pinup pinheads. They occupy types, one being the brooding “darker” guy who Valerie really wants to be with, and the other is a nice guy from a proud family (sound familiar, Twi-hards?). The movie goes to shoddy lengths to keep these two at odds, when it appears that, like Bella Swan, our Valerie is one flower not worth the trouble of plucking. It’s hard to get involved in a romance when you’d rather watch every participant getting eaten by a wolf.

“What big eyes you have” is something of an understatement when speaking about the saucer-eyed Seyfried (Letters to Juliet). She gets to make good use of her ocular abilities, though who knows if it’s acting or just expressions of disbelief about what kind of movie she is trapped inside. Seyfried does her whole blasé shtick, which makes the character feel more like an annoying know-it-all even when she admittedly knows nothing. Oldman (The Dark Knight) inhales scenery at a dangerous pace, acting ferociously over-the-top and unrestrained.  It’s like he’s trying to channel a wolf in his performance. At least he’s entertaining to watch, which cannot be said for the movie as a whole. Irons (Dorian Gray) is bland but Fernandez (Skateland) is laugh-out-loud awful at a few points. Clearly talking is not this guy’s strong suit. Neither is emoting. The weirdest part of Red Riding Hood is merely seeing Madsen’s face. Clearly this woman has undergone plastic surgery since her Oscar-nominated turn in 2004’s Sideways. She almost resembles a gentler looking Mickey Rourke at certain unkind angles. Another famous face goes to sad lengths to alter her looks to be seen as acceptably good-looking in ageist Hollywood.

Red Riding Hood is a tragic misjudgment on the part of just about everyone involved. The screenwriter thought he must have been making a serious allegory, Hardwicke thought she was making a wild and witchy cousin to Twilight, and the producers thought they were making a film that had genuine appeal. They were all categorically wrong. The reworking of the fairy tale elements is mostly mundane. She gets a red cloak from her granny but otherwise this story might as well just be about a girl and a werewolf. It’s not an imaginative update or a clever reworking, this is just a dumb werewolf story with extra dashes of Twilight for seasoning. The key to unlocking the Red Riding Hood story is not by introducing a sterile love triangle. This hyperactive hodgepodge mistakes setting for atmosphere and a high number of characters for mystery. I was astounded as I sat and watched this movie; turn after turn it veers wildly in tone and execution. I haven’t even talked about the special effects for the wolf, and there’s a reason I am leaving that unsaid. Red Riding Hood is a movie 12-year-old girls might fawn over. If you find yourself outside that marginal demographic, then you’ll likely find this movie to be an irritating, nonsensical, dopey, pitiful bore. You can stuff that in your picnic basket, Red.

Nate’s Grade: D

Shrek the Fourth (2010)

By taking a page, or even the entire script from It’s a Wonderful Life, Shrek tackles a mid-life crises and wonders how life would be if he had never saved his lovely wife Fiona from her tower (hint: it sucks). He wants his life back and makes a deal with the devious Rumplestiltskin. Except Shrek wakes up in a world where he was never born. While generally better than the third feature, this is still a noticeable step below the first two Shrek features. The tiresome plot device feels more like material for a lazy direct-to-video sequel rather than the (supposed) final chapter to the series. The film wants to be reflective and tap into our inventory of attachment to these characters, but time and again the movie doesn’t go far beyond the “don’t know what you got until it’s gone” cliché. Gags still feel too safe, the energy feels too loose, and the overall feel of Shrek 4 is casual. The novelty is gone. This is a rather middling trip to that big happily ever after. The story, with its reflexive moralizing, just makes the whole film feel slight; Rumplestiltskin is a villain of wasted potential, the characters feel poorly incorporated, and the general time-travel concept implies that the filmmakers have run out of stories to tell. As expected, Shrek 4 looks great, but that’s the only thing great about this once vaulted fractured fairy tale franchise. If this is the final chapter, then let it go with some fading sense of dignity.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Lady in the Water (2006)

Writer/director/twist-abuser M. Night Shyamalan must have been smarting from the cool reception to his last high-concept thriller, 2004’s The Village. Shyamalan has built a reputation for smart, eerie, complex movies, as well as forced twists and endings that leave the films in shambles. He went back to basics. Lady in Water started as an ongoing story he told his kids at bedtime. His kids participated in the creation of the story. If we didn’t learn from last year’s The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl, movies where children helped shape the story should be left as bedtime stories. Lady in Water is further proof of this.

Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the fix-it man at an apartment complex. Someone?s been swimming in the pool late at night and clogging up the filter. The unexpected culprit is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a waif of a girl. She says she is a “narf,” a sea nymph who’s crossed from her world, the Blue World, to ours. Her purpose is to plant the seed of change by finding a special individual. When her mission is complete a giant eagle will carry her back to her world. Cleveland accepts being her guardian and protector and assists her on her quest. He mingles with the apartment complex’s eclectic residents, trying to figure out who fits what role to help Story. There is one hairy problem. A scrunt, a wolf-like beast with twigs and long grass for fur, is after Story. An evil monkey creature is overseeing the whole weird affair.

Early on, Lady in Water was advertised as “a bedtime story by M. Night Shyamalan,” and just like your typical bedtime story, the thing feels entirely made up on the spot. The story sounds like a little kid making up a book report: “There’s this grass wolf, see, and it’s after this sea lady, and there’s these evil monkeys that oversee everything, and an eagle carries her away when she’s done, but she’s like the unknown Queen of the sea ladies, and she has helpers but can’t say who they are, and they all have special abilities, except some of them can only do stuff, and no one can see her leave.” What? Was Dio an unaccredited co-writer for this? Lady in Water feels like Shyamalan is haphazardly throwing spontaneous obstacles and rules into his story, hoping something sticks when it just muddies up the story.

Naturally, there are many unanswered questions brought about by the supernatural subject matter. Why is it an eagle that plucks Story away to safety when she?s fulfilled her mission? Wasn’t part of the schism between man and the Blue World because man moved to land? Wouldn’t something aquatic make more sense to rescue her? What about the entirely unnecessary evil monkey judge? Why is it even there? Why does it just sit there idly if the scrunt breaks the rules (and if the scrunt is a rule-breaker then why not just bust inside Cleveland’s home and eat the chick)? For that matter, if the monkey judge is so evil then why does it even respect the rules? Why don?t the evil monkey judges side with the already evil scrunts? Why do the scrunts hate the narfs so? Who established these systems of rules for narf contact and scrunt hunting? Do the monkey judges allow the narfs to get killed as long as it’s during the right time? Is it like a boxing match (“Touch gloves, to your corners, and no biting after the bell”)? And of course everyone believes this tripe. Shyamalan could fall back on the excuse that his tale is a bedtime story and not meant for extensive examination. Sure, not everything needs to be explained but that doesn’t mean Shyamalan can get away with being lazy.

There’s no finesse in the writing. Shyamalan seems to have taken his frustration with the dwindling critical reception of his works hard. The movie critic character, Mr. Farber (a droll Bob Balaban) is one of two items, either the embodiment of his ire, a figure out of touch with human emotion and the public’s trust, or Shyamalan making a preemptive strike. The critic complains there are no more original stories left in Hollywood; well, Mr. Smarty Pants, what do you think of a tale of narfs and scrunts? The problem is that the film critic is not unlikable, just cynical, and despite how dismissive Shyamalan may wish to be, the critic’s complaints and observations about the film industry are solid. In Lady in Water, characters do speak their feelings so casually. People explain back-stories and motivations like it was written on foreheads. The critic character is so inconsequential as well, so the notion that Shyamalan spends so much energy on him makes it feel like a score being settled.

What?s more irritating is how self-involved the movie comes across. The whole purpose of Story’s venture to our world is to inspire a gifted writer, a writer whose work will be seen as unchecked genius that will cause great change throughout the world. Nations will renounce war, men and women will greet each other as brother and sister, and the world will be a profoundly better place to live, all thanks to one artistic genius that changed the world. And who plays this artistic genius lying in wait? M. Night Shyamalan. In conjunction with the critic character, perhaps Shyamalan is proclaiming that his movies will stand the test of time, despite what those fuddy-duddies at their typewriters say. Lady in Water is either an intense example of artistic insecurity or an unflappable, monstrous ego.

Shyamalan is too gifted a filmmaker to make outright bad movies. However, he is prone to making very misguided choices. The addition of the monkey judge just mucks things up and more unanswerable questions. Are the monkeys like the regional overseer? Is there a tri-state office run by a giraffe with twigs on its head? Shyamalan’s plot is too formless and relies on some garish ethnic stereotypes, like the nattering Jewess and the screechy, rail-thin Korean teen. His sense of direction takes a back seat to his writing. Many moments are filmed out of focus, or the camera bounces around trying to capture whoever?s talking, always seemingly just out of reach. His visual aesthetic feels noticeably simpler. There’s a certain unapologetic yearning in Lady in Water to be a Steven Spielberg film, from the John Williams-like score, to the assembly of characters wanting to believe again, to the heaping helping of schmaltz. Lady in Water is proficiently crafted (special thanks to cinematographer Christopher Doyle) but the movie is an unmistakable artistic misfire.

Giamatti is a dependable sad sack, and he deploys an array of stutters and tics to convey how damaged Cleveland Heep is. He’s good but then he always is, no matter how stupendously awful his material may be (he did survive Big Momma’s House). Howard is one of the more beguiling and intriguing young actors in the movies right now. She bewitched me in The Village, but in Lady in Water she befuddled me. It’s hard acting as a made-up creature. Howard relies on lots of vacant, supposedly, ethereal staring. She comes across as less supernatural and more like a club kid on ecstasy.

Lady in Water is not an unmitigated disaster but it’s definitely not good by any stretch of the imagination. M. Night Shyamalan seems to fray with every new movie, and Lady in Water is by far the man?s most ridiculous and self-involved flick. He’s too great of a talent to write off, even during his misfires, but we can’t be expected to iron out his narrative kinks every time. Shyamalan’s films generally center on broken people looking for their place in the universe and finding a grander plan for their pain. Hopefully, after the birth pain of Lady in Water, Shyamalan can find his place in the artistic landscape and spare us more half-baked bedtime stories.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Brothers Grimm (2005)

Director Terry Gilliam is one of the true artists working today in movies. His manic, off kilter, visually grand imagination has crafted wonderfully vivid fantasias, but it also has given Gilliam a reputation for being the captain of a sinking ship. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is regarded as one of Hollywood’s bigger failures, unfairly I might add. A fascinating 2003 documentary called Lost in La Mancha detailed the bizarre circumstances and implosions that forced Gilliam to shut down production of his pride and joy, a film about Don Quixote. We’re talking things as out of control and unlucky as acts of God conspiring to doom this project. But then, Gilliam has always been fighting someone or something his whole film career. The studio refused Gilliam’s cut of Brazil so he sneaked out a print, showed it to the Los Angeles film community, and they dubbed it the best film of that year. Gilliam is a man governed by his idiosyncrasies. He’s blessed with a unique voice but cursed with the prospects of not having anywhere to say something (would he not make simply the most divine Harry Potter film yet?). And so Gilliam strikes his hands at something a bit more commercially minded with the action/comic fable, The Brothers Grimm.

Will (Matt Damon) and Jakob (Heath Ledger) Grimm are nineteenth century ghostbusters, so to speak. They travel from town to town ridding the villagers of evil spirits, witches, and all sorts of demonic creatures. Trouble is it’s all a lie. The Grimm brothers and their pals set up the spooks and rob the town blind. Will enjoys the fame, and especially the women, but Jakob feels apprehensive. It?s the Napoleonic wars, and the French have occupied the Germanic lands. A snooty general (Jonathan Pryce) plans to behead the two Grimm brothers unless they solve a strange case in a rural town. A slapsticky, torture-loving commander (Peter Storemare) is sent to watch over the “Grimmies.” At the village, Will and Jakob discover the town has had 10 of its daughters kidnapped with little explanation. With the help of a free-spirited woman (Lena Headey), the brothers encounter giant wolves, moving trees, lickable frogs, and the giant tower of the Mirror Queen (Monica Bellucci). The Queen was given eternal life but not eternal youth. In order to gain eternal youth, the Queen needs to take the lives of 12 hearty girls, and only the bumbling Grimm brothers stand in her way.

The acting is an example of the film’s messy feel. Ledger talks with marbles in his mouth. He’s putting more detail into the character than it deserves. Damon seems like he’s sleepwalking through the film, and his accent fluctuates wildly. He’s sort of a grinning straight man to Ledger’s tic-heavy daydream believer. Belluci is a ravishing beauty and proof positive for Hollywood that women over 40 don’t need to be put out to pasture. Too bad all she’s expected to do is look pretty and seductive in The Brothers Grimm. Pryce plays his role like a cartoon caricature. Stormare has already given one crazy performance this year (Constantine), and his frenzied, nearly indecipherable performance seems to be the closest to Gilliam’s whacked-out wavelength. Stormare is entertaining in every scene he’s in but can be found guilty of chewing scenery like it was a delicious candy house.

The Brothers Grimm is a gorgeous looking film. The sets are massive and greatly detailed. The location shoots in Prague seem like the perfect environment for Gilliam’s beyond-this-world landscapes. Gilliam experiments with advanced computer graphics for the first time and adds his oddball touches. A child has her eyes taken by a glob of mud, and then the mud reshapes itself into a lumbering gingerbread man. A horse spits out a spiderweb and ensnares a child. And it looks really freaking creepy. The Mirror Queen’s defeat is another standout effect as she breaks apart like shattered glass. The look of The Brothers Grimm is outstanding, but it’s what takes place inside those pretty pictures that dooms the film to mediocrity.

The Brothers Grimm is an unfocused mess. It has disjointed subplots and several story elements that just don’t fit. The wacky French occupation feels like a leftover from a different movie. It just doesn’t work and grinds the movie to a screeching halt with every resurfacing. The Brothers Grimm will routinely work its way into a narrative corner and then use a “magic” cheat to escape (magic axe, magic mirror, magic kiss). Gilliam has always been a master maestro of chaos and visual oddities, but this time he’s tackled a film with a very weak script by Ehren Kruger (Ring Two). Kruger doesn’t bother laying the groundwork of his magical world or establish the rules. Therefore anything can happen and rarely feels satisfying. The characters are one-note, each given a single character trait to play with (skeptic, believer, idiot, etc.). The pacing is pretty sluggish. The first act takes an eternity to set up the film’s characters, plot, and yet it still feels sloppy. The twists and turns are easily telegraphed and unexpectedly boring. The plot is frustrating, shortsighted in scope, and far too conventional for Gilliam’s tastes. When The Brothers Grimm reaches its happy ending you’ll swear you can hear Gilliam gagging somewhere.

Gilliam adds a worthy macabre tone to the film. There will be touches that you know are pure Gilliam, like a woman skinning a rabbit as she talks, or a cat flying into the blades or a torture device. In fact, The Brothers Grimm has a lot of humor involving the comic demise of animals. This isn’t exactly a film appropriate for young children despite the appeal of a fairy tale background. The film wants to tweak fairy tale legends like the two Shreks, but Gilliam wants to make them disturbing nightmares, not something of irreverence. This puts the film’s tone at odds. One minute you’ll have a scene that?s morbid, darkly funny, and unconventional, and then the next minute you’ll have a scene that’s cliché, dull, and whimsically misplaced.

The Brothers Grimm feels like a Terry Gilliam film under glass. The script is weak and plodding, the characters barely leave a dent, and the tone is uneven. The plot is pulled in too many directions and lacks momentum. There are a handful of fun comic diversions but the movie feels like a loose collection of disjointed story elements. There are flashes of grim humor and visual elegance but more often than not the film is just stupendously boring. The Brothers Grimm feels the same way the Coen brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty felt: a unique vision compromised and downsized by studio conformity. You can see the indie spirit but the heart just isn’t beating. The Brothers Grimm is mediocre at best. How very grim indeed.

Nate’s Grade: C

Shrek (2001)

Shrek is Dreamworks’ kick in the pants to fairy tales and some of the staple creations of the Mouse house. There’s nothing a bug eating green ogre named Shrek likes more than his peaceful privacy. But this is brought to an immediate halt when all sorts of fairy tale creatures invade his swampy domain. To regain his privacy Shrek takes it up with Lord Farquad (say the name fast) who agrees to relocate the fairy tale creatures he outlawed to Shrek’s swamp in the first place if he travels to a castle and rescue a princess. Shrek agrees and along the way gets a buddy for the trip with a talking donkey, named appropriately enough, Donkey.

Shrek is amazing world of computer artistry. The characters move so life like and the detail is so magnified that it is a living and breathing world all its own. Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy are the comic duo of Shrek and Donkey and provide a good portion of laughs on their journey. With Mulan and now Shrek, Murphy seems like a natural when it comes to animation voicing. He gives it his all. Cameron Diaz is also a nice contributor as the voice of Princess Fiona, which kinda’ looks like her too creepily enough. Rounding out the cast is the always over-the-top John Lithgow as the stilted Farquad.

The humor of Shrek is enough to please kids with the fart and burp jokes, but lends its aim for more adult humor as well. There are a few jabs at the Disney Empire that are more than hilarious and the story keeps them coming. Shrek turns out to be a delightful tale of an ogre who’s a green softy at heart.

Nate’s Grade: A

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