Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Every now and then, you get surprised at the movies.

Usually it's a bad surprise. You get your little heart trampled by something you desperately wanted to love, like Prometheus.

But sometimes it's a good surprise. The movies Lockout and Dredd 3-D are standouts in that category from last year.

This year, we have Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, a thoroughly cringe-inducing title with a premise that makes you want to hate Hollywood.

Except that it's not a bad movie!


That's Gemma Arterton as Gretel and Jeremy Renner as Hansel. They play the famous siblings from the old Grimm brothers tale, as envisioned by Hollywood in 2013.

That means they're now sexy young adults, they know martial arts, they can withstand tremendous amounts of physical punishment and they wield era-inappropriate weaponry that would make both Batman and the Punisher proud.

The movie opens with the story we're familiar with. Two children lost in the woods, lured into a house made of candy, and imprisoned by a witch who seeks to make a meal out of them. But these two plucky kids turn the tables, get the witch into her own oven, and go on to be world-famous -- or at least northwest Europe famous -- witch hunters.

We first see them as adults when they swoop into a village and stop a witch trial in progress. They rescue a comely lass named Mina, who becomes Renner's love interest and turns out to be a witch after all -- except the good kind, Wizard of Oz style.

Hansel and Gretel aren't just in the business for the heroic sense of self, however. They are paid witch hunters, and they're in town because a dozen kids have gone missing lately, and the mayor has contracted their services.

So the two witch hunters go hunting in the woods, and that's where they encounter the antagonist of the piece, a kind of super-witch played by Jean Grey herself, the wonderful Famke Janssen, who maybe should have been playing villains all along, because she's great at it.


Lots of people get injured or horribly killed along the way, including a competing witch hunter militia group, the evil-minded sheriff and all his deputies -- the sheriff is played by the ubiquitous and always-welcome Peter Stormare -- and witches. Witches get killed too. Lots and lots of witches.

Because there's a ritual that's going to take place under a Blood Moon, and that's a kind of annual conference for every witch within broom distance, and... well, the plot is what it is, and it's not super-relevant to recount all its details.

What is relevant is to observe that the script doesn't bog itself down with those details, as the early Underworld movies did. The only time the movie really pauses is to let Famke deliver some exposition about Hansel and Gretel's secret true parentage, and that scene has the advantage of casting a truly useful slant on the heroes' background -- spoiler: their mom was a witch, hence some of their fancier powers -- and also the fact that it gave us two minutes of uninterrupted Famke screentime. That's a scene we can't cut.

The movie is fast and fun and, while hardly original, clever enough to warrant its existence.

Which is more than I can say for Lincoln.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 72/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 77/100

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Django Unchained

It's characteristic of the creative enterprise to win the greatest artistic gains in one's early years, but the greatest financial gains much later, after the source of creative output has essentially stopped flowing.

This is true of an entire generation of older film-makers, like Spielberg, Lucas and Scorcese.

It's also true of Quentin Tarantino.

QT will never again make anything close to the sublime beauty of Pulp Fiction, but his newest piece of derivative fluff, Django Unchained, is well on its way to blowing Pulp earnings out of the water.

A spaghetti western set in the antebellum South, Django follows the adventures of a German bounty hunter, played by Inglourious Basterds' Christoph Waltz, and his recently freed slave associate, played by Jamie Foxx.

What begins as a partnership of necessity evolves into a friendship, and when Jamie Foxx goes in search of his lost wife, Broomhilda, the romanticist Waltz accompanies him.


Their journey takes them to a massive plantation owned by Leo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie, a genteel but sinister character heavily invested in the sport of mandingo fighting, which makes gladiators out of slaves.

And now we come to the rub.

Any normal person would approach Calvin Candie and make him an offer for Django's wife.

But that's not what happens here.

Instead, Waltz and Foxx pretend to be interested in purchasing one of Candie's mandingos. They offer an outlandish sum, get wined and dined by the delighted Candie, and only later pretend to take notice of the house slave Broomhilda, whereupon they make a modest offer.

There's eight hundred thousand ways this plan could go wrong, and almost all of them happen.

First, the head slave, played brilliantly by Samuel L. Jackson, sniffs out the pre-existing relationship between Django and Broomhilda.

Then Candie, already incensed at being played for a fool and repeatedly antagonized by Django, drives up the price on Broomhilda by threatening to smash her skull with a hammer.

Finally, when everything seems resolved to the point where no blood will be shed, Candie insults Walz one time too many, and Walz shoots him.

Cue: massive amounts of gunplay and bloodshed.

As with all Tarantino movies, the dialogue is excellent and there are a handful of truly suspenseful scenes. But something about the overall story fails to satisfy. To me, Tarantino's use of B-movie conventions and aesthetics feels indulgent and, at this point, stale.

Maybe it's simply a truism that, at some point, we've seen everything an artist has to offer.

Maybe we would have reached this point with Shakespeare, when he wrote The Tempest late in his career.

"Yeah, yeah, lots of wordplay, some fairies running around. Same old, same old."

But we'd sort of be right. The Tempest is mediocre stuff.

And so is Django Unchained. It's not bad. But it's not a masterwork, and since it comes from the pen of a master, that's an indictment.

Django disappoints.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 56/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 44/100

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Best and Worst of 2012

I saw 34 movies in the theater in 2012. Two of them were holdovers from 2011, and so are not included here. Two were sneak previews of movies not being released till next year. They are also not included.

So here's the 30 movies I saw, split into the obvious categories:

TOP TEN

The Cabin in the Woods    94
Life of Pi    92
The Avengers    90
Moonrise Kingdom    89
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey    89
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2    86
The Master    76
The Hunger Games    68
Haywire    68
Looper    67   


MIDDLE TEN

Lockout    63
Underworld: Awakening    61
The Grey    61
Savages    57
Act of Valor    51
Argo    50
Skyfall    46
Safe House    44
Snow White and the Huntsman    44
Resident Evil: Retribution    41

BOTTOM TEN

Total Recall    41
21 Jump Street    37
Silver Linings Playbook    37
John Carter    36
The Amazing Spider-Man    36
Flight    31
The Dark Knight Rises    31
Zero Dark Thirty    31
Lincoln    23
Prometheus    21