Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mirror Mirror

MIRROR MIRROR (Tarsem Singh, 2012)

MIRROR MIRROR retells the story of Snow White (Lily Collins), although The Queen (Julia Roberts) insists this account belongs to her.  Snow’s father, The King, disappeared many years ago and is presumed dead, which leaves her at the mercy of her cruel stepmother.  

Snow’s youth and beauty threaten The Queen, and she keeps the girl confined to the palace grounds.  On the cusp of her eighteenth birthday Snow sneaks out and encounters Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer), who has been robbed and bound by small bandits.  After freeing him, she heads into the nearby town and discovers that the Queen has made the lives of these simple folk quite miserable.

The Prince’s arrival offers the prospect of economic salvation through marriage for the financially strapped Queen, but first she needs to remove Snow White from the picture. She arranges to have her killed, but her servant Brighton (Nathan Lane) can’t follow through, not that he tells The Queen.  Snow is taken in by the jolly band of thieves and plots to overthrow The Queen.

The ill fit between MIRROR MIRROR’s screenplay and its director's sensibilities dooms the comedic fairy tale from the outset.  Tarsem Singh excels at staging visual extravaganzas, and in that respect he often delivers what one desires from a fantastical story like this. Costume designer Eiko Ishioka’s work on MIRROR MIRROR, her final film, features strange and imaginative outfits.  Ishioka’s arty creations in her other collaborations with Singh have ranked among the most memorable aspects of those films.  In this instance the clothes steal the show from their wearers, making this umpteenth rendition of SNOW WHITE nearly worth seeing for the peculiar attire alone.
The sets, which look like they were built on a studio lot in the 1950s or ‘60s, produce an effect similar to that in pop-up storybooks.  While it’s an inspired flourish, sometimes the surroundings appear cheaply constructed and washed out.  Singh presents a visually distinctive world for the familiar tale, but in paling in comparison to the lavish lands of THE FALL and IMMORTALS, it seems like a halfhearted or budget-restricted attempt.

Singh’s handling of scripts does not match his knack for imagery.  This weakness is more visible than ever in MIRROR MIRROR.  The silly jokes and whimsical tone collapse under Singh’s heavy hand and lack of timing.  Roberts’ catty take on the evil Queen and Hammer’s uninhibited goofiness hint at the potential for a winking tribute to and fond puncturing of fairy tales a la THE PRINCESS BRIDE, but MIRROR MIRROR is more labored than playful.

To its credit, MIRROR MIRROR makes more interesting characters out of the dwarves than they’re usually granted.  Still, the snarky humor comes off as tired and obvious, and weird accents, like the queen’s disgusting beauty routine and a wildly out-of-place rape joke, seem better suited for a film that isn’t otherwise tame kiddie fare.  

Grade: C-

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Trollhunter (Trolljegeren)


A trio of Norwegian college filmmakers follow a secretive man they believe is poaching bears and set out to expose his illegal activities.  Fashioning themselves documentarians working in the tradition of Michael Moore, they keep up their pursuit of him despite having interview requests rebuffed multiple times.  When Hans (Otto Jespersen) finally consents to reveal what keeps him busy all hours of the night, his answer is not one they anticipated.  Hans claims to hunt trolls.

The students--interviewer Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), sound engineer Johanna (Johanna Mørck), and cameraman Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen)--are greatly amused by such an outrageous assertion, but after accompanying Hans on a search and being chased by a giant, lumbering, three-headed creature, they are duly convinced that trolls exist.  Possessing the first video evidence of trolls is bound to reward them with fame and fortune, and they continue to travel with Hans to collect more proof that the mythical beings are real.

TROLLHUNTER (TROLLJEGEREN) adopts the form of a found footage documentary, which translates as lots of banal conversations, abundant shots of the Scandinavian countryside, and competent but shaky handheld camerawork.  The format is inherently forgiving toward these shortcomings, if not outright encouraging of them.  While the style grants TROLLHUNTER the opportunity to take the cheap way out in showing (or not showing) the trolls, the special effects crew aims high and impresses with the design and realism in the gnarled creatures.

As robust as the FX work is, the meat of the film is narratively undernourished. There’s plenty of driving on highways and trudging through woods but little in terms of story or character, at least as far as the college students are concerned.  They need to be more engaging even if their actions aren’t.

Conversely, Jespersen amuses with the workmanlike approach he invests in his weary lone ranger patrolling the territories.  Hans’ matter-of-fact style, as if he’s placing cheese in mousetraps and swatting flies rather than baiting and blasting towering beasts, brings droll humor to the rather absurd situations he encounters. TROLLHUNTER can’t quite decide if it is playing the run-ins with trolls for laughs or scares.  Jespersen’s dry wit suggests that director André Øvredal should have favored the former.

Grade: C+

Monday, March 26, 2012

Casa de mi Padre

CASA DE MI PADRE (Matt Piedmont, 2012)

The sweet but stupid Armando Alvarez (Will Ferrell) is delighted when his brother Raul (Diego Luna) returns home to their father’s ranch in CASA DE MI PADRE, but their reunion may rip the Mexican family apart.  Although he wouldn’t dream of betraying his brother’s trust, Armando fights a strong attraction to Raul’s fiancée Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez).  Of greater concern is the revelation that Raul’s business success comes from dealing drugs.  Armando feels that Raul’s actions bring great shame on the family, not to mention that it makes them targets of rival dealer La Onza (Gael García Bernal).

CASA DE MI PADRE succeeds at mimicking the look and feel of inspirations as varied as Mexican melodramas, spaghetti westerns, and schlock cinema.  The painted backdrops, cheap sets, and overheated dialogue are parts of the joke and parts of the simple charm.  It’s a strange, ambitious film that feels as much like an affectionate experiment in Z-grade moviemaking as GRINDHOUSE even if the aim is to poke fun at the sources rather than venerate them.

Continuity errors, bad splices, mannequins utilized as extras, and an actor noticeably breathing while his character is supposed to be thought dead are employed for laughs, but these gags are inserted without scare quotes.  Cast and crew fully commit to being good at making a bad film.

For all of the rigorousness put into recreating lackluster movies of yesteryear, CASA DE MI PADRE often misses in one key area.  It isn’t funny for significant stretches. Director Matt Piedmont, screenwriter Andrew Steele, and the actors identify the unintentional hilarity when sincere efforts yield terrible results but aren’t able to add to it with consistently good jokes of their own.  After awhile CASA DE MI PADRE begins to play as a conceptual exercise rather than a legitimately funny movie in its own right.

As best as I can tell--which is to say, not very well--Ferrell performs respectably speaking Spanish for the whole film, and he’s to be commended for venturing into left field for CASA DE MI PADRE.  Many screen comedians who have reached his level of success tend to play it safe.  While CASA DE MI PADRE comes up short in the laughs department, it’s a suitably weird project that demonstrates Ferrell has retained his adventurousness.  Here’s hoping next time around the creative risks he takes are funnier.

Grade: C

Sunday, March 25, 2012

21 Jump Street

21 JUMP STREET (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2012)

In 21 JUMP STREET new police officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) botch reading the Miranda rights to a suspect and are promptly reassigned to an undercover program.  They are to pose as high school students and find the the dealers and supplier of a synthetic drug already responsible for one kid’s death.

Although they became friends while training to be on the force, the mismatched cops were on opposite ends of the social spectrum when they went to high school the first time.  Schmidt was the geeky Eminem wannabe who excelled in academics and failed socially.  Jenko was the dumb jock lucky to be a graduating member of the class of 2005.

When Jenko confuses their assumed identities, they end up swapping positions on the social ladder.  Schmidt gets into the cool crowd and lets it go to his head while Jenko lands with the nerds and discovers the joy of using science to blow up things.

Other than the premise of supposedly young looking law enforcement officers going undercover as teenagers, 21 JUMP STREET isn’t terribly concerned with being faithful to the late ‘80s Fox television series it’s based on.  That’s not a problem, as the source material doesn’t require reverential treatment, and in fact the action-comedy is a lot more enjoyable since it doesn’t try to earn points by wallowing in nostalgia or replicate what preceded it.
Instead 21 JUMP STREET is a smartly stupid buddy comedy that plays with the ridiculousness of its set-up.  Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller and screenwriter Michael Bacall don’t ignore the elephant in the room--that Hill and Tatum couldn’t pass as teens--but gleefully point out the absurdities of the entire arrangement.  Lord and Miller co-directed the funny and inventive CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS, and they’ve brought that animated film’s zany sense of humor to live action in a way that seems perfectly ordinary within a cartoonish situation.

Still, the best jokes are often rooted in small, everyday observations that come at Schmidt and Jenko’s expense.  They find today’s high school landscape foreign to the one they knew.  Their debate over how to wear a backpack--one strap or two?--and bewilderment at the different fashions and social conventions bring plenty to laugh at in the rapidity of changes in youth culture and adults trying to keep up with it.

21 JUMP STREET wouldn’t deliver as many big laughs as it does if Hill and Tatum didn’t commit so fully to looking dumb.  Hill throws himself into singing a song as Peter Pan in a drama club audition and trying to run a track relay while high as a kite.  Tatum’s lunkhead act amuses when words betray him, such as when he pronounces the abbreviation for AP Chemistry, and in the excitement he gets from hanging with the kids he would have snickered at when they were his peers.  Tatum was pretty funny in a small role in THE DILEMMA.  In 21 JUMP STREET he’s found a good way of playing against his looks for big comedic payoffs.  He and Hill make a fun tandem.

Grade: B

Friday, March 09, 2012

John Carter

JOHN CARTER (Andrew Stanton, 2012)

Former Civil War Confederate captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) desires nothing more than to forget the tragedy that fell upon his family and search for a cave of gold, but you can’t always get what you want.  The title character in JOHN CARTER does find that gilded cave but has no time to claim its riches.  Instead he is involved in a brief clash with the strange man he discovers in it and then awakens in the middle of a red desert.

Although he doesn’t know it at first, John Carter has been transported to Mars, or Barsoom, as the natives refer to it.  He’s captured by a tribe of fifteen-feet tall, four-armed Green Martians called Tharks.  In this situation John is regarded as the alien creature.  Being on Mars imparts John with great strength and a spectacular jumping ability, which delights the Tharks’ leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe).  He will be safe as long as he performs for his captors.

When the war between the humanoid Red Martians spills into the Tharks’ territory, John puts his physical skills to use saving the princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).  She’s trying to protect the city-state of Helium and not marry Sab Than (Dominic West) of Zodanga, who hopes to overtake her home by matrimony if martial force won’t suffice.  Sab Than is backed by the shape-shifting, immortal White Martians known as Therns.  They wish to create chaos and destruction on Barsoom.  Matai Shang (Mark Strong), the primary Thern advising Sab Than, is concerned that John Carter could ruin the plans they are trying to put in motion.

John Carter, Dejah Thoris, and Tars Tarkas’s disgraced daughter Sola (Samantha Morton) set out for the holy land that might hold the answer for his return to Earth, but inevitably they get pulled back into the fight between Helium and Zodanga.
If all of this sounds ridiculously complicated, it is.  That’s not even accounting for the triple introductions, including the framing story in which John Carter is thought dead and his cousin Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) reads about his adventure on Mars.  The plot dump requires an adjustment period to get one’s footing.  Clearly director and co-writer Andrew Stanton, the FINDING NEMO and WALL-E helmer making his live-action debut, and screenwriters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon are trying to do right by the Burroughs stories.  (Yes, the author, who wrote a series of novels about life on Mars, is also a character in the film.)  They go to great lengths to adapt a mythology likely unfamiliar to the majority of the blockbuster-seeking crowd.  While their ambition is to be admired, the volume of information to process makes for a rocky first half.

Once JOHN CARTER gets past laying out the specifics of the various Martian cultures and tensions, it settles into a pleasant groove that recalls the old Saturday afternoon serials or, more accurately, the STAR WARS and Indiana Jones films inspired by them.  Stanton understands that this is first and foremost a rip-roaring adventure not meant to be taken too seriously, and he does a nice job layering in light touches and comedic moments, particularly with the Martian version of a dog.

The action sequences are high on CGI spectacle but fail to stand out from what’s been done in other sci-fi and fantasy extravaganzas.  (It doesn’t help that the 3D is absolutely of no consequence.)  A colosseum battle scene features the film’s best combination of effects, thrills, and humor, yet there’s the nagging feeling that it’s indebted to a similar stretch in STAR WARS: EPISODE II - ATTACK OF THE CLONES.  The source material for the adaptation was published in 1912, so JOHN CARTER may have been doomed to feel derivative through no fault of its own.

Unlike its shaky beginning, JOHN CARTER ends strongly and brings the depth of feeling for the main character and his dilemma that is absent for much of the running time.  John Carter gradually acclimates to Mars so that a place where he didn’t want to be begins to feel like home.  Oddly enough, the film has the same effect.  JOHN CARTER delivers a rough welcome to Burroughs’ vision of Mars, but I wouldn’t mind returning for future adventures, assuming this entry reaps enough money at the box office.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)


In A SEPARATION Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) have reached a major disagreement in their fourteen-year marriage.  They and their eleven-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) have received their visas, but the window to use them will soon be closing.  Simin wishes to leave Iran for the United States because she wants a better life for her daughter than what she believes awaits her in their home country.  Nader refuses to go because he must take care of his Alzheimer’s stricken father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi).

Feeling as though she has no alternative, Simin files for a divorce.  She freely admits that her husband does not treat her poorly.  Nader does not wish to end their relationship.  Informed of these facts, the judge sees no just cause for granting the divorce.  Simin expresses her displeasure by moving into her parents’ home.

With his wife gone, Nader needs someone to attend to his father while he works.  He hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a poor woman who must make a long commute to Tehran to earn her pay.  The requirements of the job present challenges that may exceed what she can handle, but Razieh needs the money, especially with her hotheaded husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) in debt to creditors.

The situation takes a turn for the worse when Nader makes two discoveries not to his liking and fires her on the spot.  The outcome of their argument leads to legal charges that could bring serious trouble to both families.

Writer-director Asghar Farhadi performs some kind of miracle with the tension and complexity he produces from such a simple set-up.  Even more impressively, he does it by observing all sides fairly and having them present the truth as they know it.  Here are two couples attempting to make the best of their undesirable circumstances at home and in the judicial system, yet the more they try to wiggle their ways out of their problems, the more serious the consequences become.

Certainly plenty is at stake in the legal dispute, but as information is revealed in testimony, the repercussions for each side threaten to greatly exceed what any of them could have anticipated.  Even striving to make things right after a difficult investigation can have negative, unforeseeable results.  Relationships are also at risk. Nader and Simin were happily married, and their choices can be justified.  What is the correct decision when improving a child’s prospects means abandoning an ill parent or reliant relative?

The stress of picking between impossible options creates the cracks.  Endeavoring to heal them increases the fractures.  Being right within a marriage and the court is important to all parties, but the cost can be steep, especially when arriving at the superior judgment is practically unachievable.

Farhadi’s exceptional screenplay for A SEPARATION is a model of dramatic structure.  The makers of Hollywood thrillers wish they could turn out films this nerve-racking, let alone ones that achieve such narrative pressure through ordinary conversations that spouses and legal combatants might engage in.

The uniformly excellent cast pulls audience loyalties with great skill.  Moadi gains sympathy as the wounded spouse and suffering child, but he also plays Nader with stubbornness and anger that can make him difficult to support at times.  Hatami stands firm as a protective mother whose singular mindset can exacerbate matters.  Bayat attracts compassion and aggravates through her effort to act properly according to rigid expectations.

A SEPARATION isn’t strictly about divorce or other marital parting of ways, but a crucial portion consists of providing perspective on how spousal divisions and disagreements affect children.  Termeh and Razieh’s young daughter are mostly silent witnesses to the domestic and legal battles around them.  In a film teeming with emotional potency, the most devastating moments come in the acknowledgment that regardless of what the adults sort out, these girls are bystanders who absorb significant injuries of their own.

Grade: A

(Note:  A SEPARATION was not seen in time for consideration among my picks for the best films of 2011.  If it had, it would have ranked third on my Top 10 list.)