Sunday, July 29, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

It took me so long to write this review, the Kristen Stewart scandal broke in the interim.

The scandal -- in which Stewart, the star of Huntsman, was revealed to be having an affair with the movie's director, Rupert Sanders, two months after the film's premiere -- is the best, most salacious celebrity development of the summer; a summer in which Katie Holmes divorced Tom Cruise because she thought Scientology was brainwashing their daughter.

It's a hell of a scandal.

In fact, in terms of narrative, it's infinitely more compelling than Snow White and the Huntsman, an uninspired rehash of the Snow White myth supposedly modernized through a female empowerment perspective. In actual practice, this means Snow White is given a sword and allowed to participate in battle scenes. Not exactly Norma Rae.

"The Huntsman" is Thor himself, Liam Hemsworth, who, according to the fairy tale, tracks down Snow White at the bidding of the Evil Queen. In this version, he ends up sympathizing with Snow White -- almost immediately -- and joins her on the lam in the dark, scary forest.


The only good scenes in the film are early ones, where Charlize Theron's Evil Queen takes over the kingdom of Snow White's father. She does this through subterfuge and seduction, and we learn it is a routine she has performed many times, which explains her growing empire. Cool!

Less cool is the fact that the Evil Queen must consume the "life force" of youthful women in order to retain her own supernaturally-extended vitality. This dumb cliche destroys the logic of the story universe, because it's never made clear how often the Evil Queen must feed, and it's certainly not clear why consuming Snow White will free her of this dependency forever. It's just stated by a sentient mirror heavily relied upon for exposition.

Charlize Theron makes things worse by turning in a bad performance. Though certainly not for want of trying. She brings maximum energy to every scene, and that's the problem. When you shriek "I! WILL! EAT! HER HEARRRRRRRRRT!" in a trembling vibrato twenty minutes into the movie, your performance really has nowhere to go.

Actors should always bear in mind that Jack Nicholson shouts "You can't handle the truth!" at the end of A Few Good Men, not the beginning.

Different movie if he shouts it at the beginning.

Kristen Stewart provides a stark contrast by mumbling her lines with a glassy-eyed stare throughout, even when she's supposed to be delivering a rousing St. Crispin's Day speech.

Enough acting criticism, though. Ian McShane's brilliant and he comes off little better than the leads. When the dialogue sucks, there's not much an actor can do, twenty million dollar paycheck or no twenty million dollar paycheck.

The deeper problem is that Snow White and the Huntsman is a cheap gimmick of a movie. Advertising director and uncareful philanderer Rupert Sanders is trying to cash in, career-wise, with a slicked up version of an oft-told tale which requires little work on the storyteller's part. Because that's the hard stuff; you know, the actual storytelling. Sanders seems to think he's found a way around the central dilemma of artistic creation. He hasn't.

Hopefully this movie, along with the wretched Mirror, Mirror and Red Riding Hood puts a stop to the lazy industry trend of churning out fairy tale updates. It's such a misbegotten idea.

What on Earth do the studios think Die Hard is? Or Aliens? Or The Avengers?

They're fairy tales. Actual, modern fairy tales.

So I'll take another one of those, anytime someone has the chance to dream one up.

And I'll pass on all this Grimm Brothers nonsense.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 44/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 41/100

The Kristen Stewart Scandal: 87/100

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Maybe it's kids that bring out the best in Wes Anderson.

Because Moonrise Kingdom, which centers on unhappy Boy Scout Sam and equally unhappy schoolgirl Suzy, is Anderson's best work since the near-perfect Rushmore.

The story takes place on New Penzance, a forested stretch of rock off the coast of New England. This island, we are told, will soon be struck by the most devastating storm of the last hundred years.

In the meantime, the island has a smaller problem. The resident Boy Scout troop, led by Edward Norton, is missing a scout. The absentee is our boy Sam, a bespectacled goofball with a somber expression and great seriousness of purpose.


That purpose is to rendezvous with a girl who lives on the other side of the island, with whom he has been trading surreptitious letters since their chance encounter during last year's church pageant. The two youngsters -- I'm going to guess they're twelve -- both come from troubled homes.

Sam is an orphan who lives in a group home, and, odd as he is, groups are not his forte. Suzy lives with parents whose marriage is disintegrating, played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand. To them, Suzy's disappearance is almost a blessing. It allows them to focus on something beyond themselves, if only for awhile.

And focus they do. All the resources of the island are thrust into the manhunt for Sam and Suzy.

As this is a small island, and this a humble tale, the resources are not epic. They add up to Edward Norton's aforementioned troop leader, Bruce Willis' sheriff, and Tilda Swinton's off-island Social Services caseworker.

Also, crucially, the Boy Scout troop itself, which has never esteemed Sam highly, and therefore lends the situation a touch of the cruelty and dread that ran through Lord of the Flies.

Except that this is a Wes Anderson story, so somewhere near the midpoint, the story takes a turn from darkness to light, from coldness to warmth. The Boy Scout troop finds their inner humanity, a staggering accomplishment for twelve year-olds, and ends up defecting en masse to help Sam's and Suzy's escape from the island.

That escape doesn't quite come off, of course, and the prophesied storm hits with a terrible fury. Lives are jeopardized and happiness is threatened; all the necessities of drama are respectfully observed.

And in the end, the characters don't get what they want. They get what they need. And what a wonderful thing that is, in drama and in life.


I confess I'm a sucker for Anderson's films. I even liked The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. But this is a higher caliber achievement than that, or Tenenbaums or Darjeeling. This has more authenticity somehow; maybe because we find it easier to accept strangeness in kids. It comes natural to them. They aren't spoiled yet by self-consciousness.

Heck, though, maybe it's the driving chase plot that keeps the stakes high and the emotions raw.

I'll have a better handle on this movie when I see it a second time. The first time around, I was too dazzled by the flowing narrative and beguiling characters to do much analyzing.

Hard to think of a bigger compliment than that.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 89/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 90/100

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Avengers

I have a writer friend who subjects every story idea to the "fun test."

An idea can be original, it can be punchy, it can be relatable. But if it doesn't seem like a fun, frivolous night at the movies, then he doesn't think highly of its prospects.

He's smart to do this, because movies are increasingly faced with the prospect of "be fun or die." Serious drama has almost completely migrated to television. Safe sequels and awe-inspring special effects are less reliable than ever before, partly because they too are migrating to TV, if Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are any indication.

Last year's Best Picture winner was The Artist, a frothy piece of fluff. It beat nine more serious movies, most especially the relationship downer The Descendants and the philosophical, erudite Midnight in Paris.

Like it or not, fun is in.

And no movie better exemplifies sheer, giddy joy than The Avengers.

In case you're not a comic book fan, let me tell you, the comic book version of this superteam is pretty lame. The basic idea was not to combine A-listers under one title, but to combine B-listers into a sum that would hopefully equal the draw of one A-lister. Which is why characters like Wonder Man and Ant-Man are Avengers staples, whereas our friendly neighborhood webspinner has never -- well, almost never -- held a membership card. He doesn't need the Avengers.

But something weird happened. In their mad quest for a coterie of cinematic hero franchises, Marvel's movie division has turned a few B-list characters into ass-kicking A-listers. Foremost of course is Iron Man, a dull character in the comics who came to brilliant life in the hands of Robert Downey Jr. The movies Thor and Captain America were not in the same class as Iron Man, but the effective casting of Liam Hemsworth and Chris Evans raised the ceiling on what those movie characters could achieve.

Now throw in one all-time A-lister from the comics, the Incredible and justly famous Hulk, who has never worked on screen because of misconceived film-making, but who has been sitting on potential superstardom forever -- and is credited with stealing the movie The Avengers from every other character -- and then add two lesser-powered characters with red-hot actors to fill out the team -- Scarlett Johanson as Natasha Romanoff and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye... and, well, you've really got something there.

Specifically, you've got fun.



If you then assign pop culture quipster and comic book nerd Joss Whedon to the project, you're going to get a movie whose dialogue crackles with humor. At one point, Thor, the venerable god of thunder, says to the Avengers, "Have a care how you speak. Loki is beyond reason, but he is of Asgard, and he is my brother." When Natasha Romanoff replies, "He killed eighty people in two days," Thor deadpans for a beat, then says, "He's adopted."

And that's a demi-god talking. Just imagine the quips Iron Man gets!

Here's one:

"It's good to meet you, Dr. Banner. Your work on anti-electron collisions is unparalleled. And I'm a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster."

Said green rage monster gets the two funniest moments of the movie; one where he unexpectedly punches out Thor in a warm moment of shared accomplishment, and another where he interrupts Loki in mid-speech to slam the trickster into the floor a dozen times in the span of five seconds, leaving him broken and whimpering.

Hugely satisfying. Hugely comical. Unmistakably fun.

And the result of all this fun?

1.5 billion dollars at the box office, good enough for third place all time. Notably, the two James Cameron movies which outdrew it are critically unregarded films, the boys fantasy Avatar, with its blue dinosaurs fighting helicopters, and the girls fantasy Titanic, about the most romantic sea voyage in the history of romantic sea voyages. (The Titanic not sinking, and Leo surviving, would have made it infinitely less romantic. A worrisome signal to men.)

This is what cinema is today. The goal is not to produce great films. It's certainly not to produce moving or powerful films. And it's not even to produce cool films.

Cool is out, my friends, difficult as that is to believe. Fun is the new cool.

...

Okay, the Batman movies, in fact pretty much the entire canon of Christopher Nolan, pose a challenge to this "fun" hypothesis. Said movies are grim and thematic and like to run three grueling hours. And they are all smash hits.

But they suck.

So screw 'em.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 90/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 93/100