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Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022)

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is, surprisingly, genuinely great. No kidding. It’s very very good. It’s been eleven years since the first Puss in Boots spinoff, and that itself was seven years after the character was introduced in 2004’s Shrek 2, and there hasn’t been a Shrek movie since the franchise-killing Forever After in 2010. I would have assumed that Dreamworks had just moved on from this character in the ensuing years, especially as How to Train Your Dragon became their big new commercial franchise, until they too ran that into the ground with 2019’s disappointing third film. I had little expectations of greatness once I heard there was a new Puss in Boots feature, even after I started hearing the growing critical consensus. Early in, only mere minutes, I realized that a Puss in Boots sequel was one of the best movies of 2022 and an exciting and heartfelt sequel that proves that with the right artists and storytellers, any old character can still have vibrant relevance. It’s a children’s movie that can appeal to everyone.

Puss (voiced by Antonio Banderas) is a famous adventurer, sword fighter, and lover of women, but he’s also nearing the end of a long journey. He’s used up his eight lives and is now on his ninth and last, and to escape Death, he sets out on a quest to retrieve a fallen star that will grant one person a wish. It just so happens there are a lot of other characters in this fairy tale kingdom that want to get there too.

It is amazing how hard this movie goes. In its opening sequence, it establishes its bold artistic style that enlivens every second onscreen, it establishes its caliber of exciting action that feels akin to wild comic books and anime, and an emphasis on mortality that provides a sense of danger and emotional foundation for what could have been just another shoddy animated sequel drafting off brand recognition. Let’s just focus on the animation style to begin with. I was expecting the same old CGI that has dominated the world of animation for twenty years, but The Last Wish has been clearly inspired by the greatness of 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse. There is a distinct 2D edge given to the designs, accenting the imagery, and during bouts of action they will lower the frame frate, making the movements much more stark and pronounced. Add to this a lovely, painterly watercolor visual style, more emphasis on the overall impression than finite definition, and the movie is a consistent feast for the eyes. There are stylized sequences that communicate fear and desperation, as well as sequences that exemplify the kinetic movement of superhuman action, smartly altering its visual appearance to better serve whatever emotion it wants you to feel. I hope more and more animation companies continue this magical hybrid of CGI and traditional animation techniques, as also seen in 2021’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines. It’s a great step forward combining the old and the new into a stylized look that allows the creators to make the best of both animation worlds.

The action is also satisfying and surprisingly well developed. The opening sequence involves Puss awakening a giant behemoth and it made me think of the exaggerated and intense action of anime series with giant kaiju monsters like in Attack on Titan. The camera will freely circle and zoom around the theater of action, heightened with exaggerated motion lines and split screens and POV swaps. I also love that the filmmakers understand the inherent qualities of what makes for good action, incorporating the personality of the characters into the situations, providing organic consequences, tailoring to the geography, and providing clear mini-goals. After introducing the secondary antagonist of greedy Jack Horner (John Mulaney), as well as Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the three bears (Ray Winstone, Olivia Coleman, Samson Kayo) “crimin’” gang, the movie transforms into a delightful and unexpected fantasy version of Midnight Run. There are multiple groups racing against one another to a destination, all the while jostling for supremacy and bumbling into one another’s way. It makes for a fun series of events as every group has their own reasons for gaining the wishing star. Because of this, their behavior feels in-character and the cross-purpose motivation allows for fun combinations of characters getting in the way of one another and utilizing the specifics of their fantasy character details. There was a midpoint sequence combining all sides in a colorful brawl, including unicorn horns exploding into confetti upon contact, and I just felt a surge of pure incandescent joy.

In yet another of the movie’s pleasant surprises, it has one of the best villains of the year as it deals with the concept of mortality with actual nuance. The main antagonist is literally Death itself, personified as a red-eyed, grinning bounty hunter wolf and voiced by Narcos’ Pablo Escobar, Wagner Moura with a menacing purr. This Wolf is after Puss because he’s now on his last life and the Wolf is personally offended at the idea of having multiple lives. Their first encounter makes Puss feel fear for perhaps the first time in his nine lives. In a morbidly amusing montage, we zip through Puss’ previous eight lives and specifically the moments leading to their comical end. He’s flippant with an unchecked ego, and Death seriously humbles him, being the first to ever land a blade on Puss in Boots, a detail he’d been bragging about even in song. From here, Puss is deathly afraid and the hairs of his body will stick up whenever he suspects the return of the Wolf, who certainly enjoys terrorizing his targets with an ominous whistle to announce his presence. So at a moment’s notice, the crazy and colorful hijinks can stop from hearing that familiar yet eerie whistle. In some ways, it’s a family-friendly depiction of working through trauma. The larger theme is Puss acknowledging his moral shortcomings with his many lives, the time wasted on frivolity and ego, and making the most of the time he has left. The need to re-up his lives is a fine starting motivation based upon fear, personified as trying to literally escape the scary wolf, but it’s also what makes Puss confront his own behavior and want to change as well as hold himself accountable.

The heartfelt portion of the movie is its emphasis on found families, and it was done so well that I actually teared up at points. Yes, dear reader, Puss in Boots 2 had me on the verge of tears more than once. Goldilocks is the leader of her gang of squabbling thieves, but she still views herself as an orphan first, whereas the bears view her as an equal and valued member of the family and crime gang. Even her character arc comes to a poignant conclusion where she realizes that her real family isn’t the one she comes from but the one who makes her feel that she belongs. This theme is also demonstrated with little Perrito (Harvey Guillen, What We Do in the Shadows TV series) as the adorable and undying optimist puppy sidekick. His selfless vantage point contrasts with Puss, and greatly annoys him, but Perrito also has his own goal. He wants to be a comfort dog, and one of the sweetest moments of the movie involves him helping Puss come back from a traumatic response through a shared moment. Even typing these words makes me tear up. The screenplay knows how to develop characters that can grow as friends and family and the drama is directly connected to well-honed characters and thoughtful story without being overly sentimental and maudlin, a slippery slope to doom many child-friendly animated efforts with messages.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish does everything well. It’s funny and colorful and exciting and meaningful and heartfelt and everything you would want in any movie, let alone one featuring a talking cat swashbuckler in tiny boots. No matter your mixed feelings on Dreamworks animated movies, or their iffy sequels, or even children’s movies as a whole, I whole-heartedly recommend that everyone give this magical movie a fighting chance. The animation is gorgeous and vibrant and colorful, the vocal performances are terrific, the action is fun and well-developed, and the themes and character arcs have substance to provide meaningful layers and emotional heft. This is superior entertainment and all in about 90-some minutes. While I’d slot it below Guillermo del Toro’s masterful stop-motion Pinocchio, this is a wonderful movie and one of the best to ever bear the Dreamworks mantle. It’s the 2022 sequel you never knew that you needed but will be oh so happy that it rightly does.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Cinderella (2021)

Do we need another rendition of good ole’ Cinderella, especially only a few years after the Disney live-action version? The new Cinderella starring pop star Camila Cabello is a surprise jukebox musical, and it’s irreverent where it should be and progressive where social critiques are warranted with the source and historical context. In short, it’s a fleeting but fun experience that’s a winning 100 minutes for families with young children and adults who enjoy a peppy, self-referential musical. Written and directed by Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect), this movie is packed with singing and dancing to the point that the talking only makes up perhaps twenty percent of the movie. This choice proves to be a durable source of energy and keeps the pacing running smooth. It’s also convenient because we don’t need extra time explaining the setup and character dynamics that we’re all so familiar with at this point thanks to the umpteenth renditions. The mash-up of popular songs kept me amused and guessing what would appear next, and the original songs contributed by Cabello have a nice soaring uplift to them as well as memorable hooks. There’s a “What a Man”/”Seven Nation Army” mashup at a ball that gave me strong Moulin Rouge vibes, especially with all that chaotic sashaying petticoat editing. The movie is also funnier than I expected, with consistent wise-cracking and one-liners that had me laughing and critiques about the patriarchal system from a progressive, feminist perspective. The evil stepmother, played by Idina Menzel (Frozen), is even given her own song detailing her tragic history of being a musical prodigy who had to give it all up in a society that only valued her as marriage material. Even she gets consideration and empathy. The winking feminist criticisms won’t be new to anyone over the age of twelve, but it’s still welcomed even as the film skates over the discordant plot elements to keep things light. The film delivers some bon mots of political thought to go along with its sugary sweetness of a contemporary sing-a-long musical that is easy to digest. Cabello has a natural charisma to her and is surprisingly adept with comedy, able to turn on a dime and deliver a hilarious self-effacing remark. She’s far better at acting than you might believe. If you have no interest in another version of Cinderella, I understand the fatigue with the property. However, this Cinderella understands your fatigue, provides something light and airy, with actors who seem to be legitimately having fun, and it’s got a consistent feminist perspective that chides the prevalent problems with the source material. It works as a family film and even as a diverting jukebox musical for adults whose tastes run a little sweet and a little tart.

Nate’s Grade: B

Gretel & Hansel (2020)

I feel bad for select audiences that went into Gretel & Hansel expecting a cheap thriller because what they really get is an atmospheric art movie that, even at a mere 80 minutes, moves at a very placid pace. Director Osgood “Oz” Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter) takes the bones of the classic Grimm fairy tale and presents it as a feminist retelling of outcasts coming into their own feminine power and the costs of giving over to that power. The titular siblings are cast out by their mother after Gretel refuses to be a maid for a creepy older man very interested in hr “maidenhood.” They stumble upon the dwelling of an older outcast and she supplies plenty of food, but where exactly is it coming from? Gretel experiences strange dreams that portend to a witchy power of her own making, but she’s scared about what she may become and what may befall her brother, who the older woman deems Gretel’s “poison.” The story is a bit strained but the movie is visually luscious to watch. The photography and production design are exceptional and greatly lend the movie a transporting atmosphere that, coupled with its stodgy pacing, creates the sensation of experiencing a waking dream. The camera uses a lot of stark wide angles and centered compositions to heighten a sense of unreality. My favorite moments were the older Witch (Alice Krige, the Borg Queen from Star Trek: First Contact) was coaching Gretel on her inherent power and the sacrifices necessary for her to achieve her potential. She advises “trusting the darkness,” which sounds ominous enough. Because of the general familiarity with the fairy tale, the movie gets more leeway to fill its time with fantasy diversions and a slow build of horror revealing the disturbing process of how the feasts of food become prepared. It almost feels like the movie is reaching a breaking point with how lagging that pacing is, but then it generally gets back on track with a new revelation or complication. Gretel & Hansel is an enjoyably moody, stylish, equally beautiful and unsettling movie that’s heavy on grim and light on plot.

Nate’s Grade: B

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-

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.

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. 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-

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