SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN


One of those films that once you leave, your first thought is, “Wow, that movie is going to get a lot of technical nominations at the Oscars next year”.  It’s stunning to look at with amazing costumes by Colleen Atwood; frightening art direction and set design too many people to list; and incredibly beautiful cinematography by Grieg Fraser.  But as for story, etc., well that’s another cup of tea.  It’s one of those cautionary tales (like Network) about what happens when you let a woman try to do a man’s job.  Charlize Theron plays a wicked queen who doesn’t want power, just power over men; she doesn’t want to rule, but just stay eternally young and beautiful and is willing to walk all over any other woman who gets in her way.  Yes, there’s an unpleasant whiff of misogyny and fear of strong women here and there in the movie, but it’s not all the fault of director Rupert Sanders or the writers Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini.  There is that source material (can anyone imagine a king being bothered to say “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the handsomest of them all”).  But I did feel like they pushed it a bit here.  Kristen Stewart plays Snow White.  She’s very effective when she isn’t saying anything.  Her eyes and the shape of her face are incredibly expressive; one can’t look away.  This effectiveness is at times unfortunately lessened when she has lines to say (again, to be fair, the dialog does fall a bit flat here and there).  Chris Helmsworth is the huntsman and has the same problem: he’s handsome and has presence out the whazoo (though with not quite so expressive a face), but he also has to speak at times.  And the result, unfortunately, are two characters whose relationship is suppose to be the heart of the story, yet there is almost no charisma or heat between the actors.  Then there’s the problem of the seven dwarfs.  I expect that I will be laughed at here for taking political correctness a bit too far, but I was actually offended that these characters weren’t played by little people, but by better known character actors whose faces were CGI’d onto dwarf-like bodies (not always that well, I thought, though my friend Jim disagreed—he though the SFX people did an excellent job here).  I’m sorry, but it felt a bit too much like black face; are you really telling me you couldn’t find seven small actors to play these rolls (Time Bandits didn’t seem to have the same problem)?  There was also the additional issue in that half the time I wasn’t listening to anything they were saying, instead just trying to remember where I knew that actor from (Bob Hoskins really threw me for some reason).  The whole story climaxes with a battle scene that is begun with Snow White in Joan of Arc drag delivering a rousing speech to the soldiers she will lead, like Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt (talk about mixing metaphors).  At least that was the intent.  It was so unimpressive to me, I’m afraid, that all I could think is that Stewart is no Lawrence Olivier or Kenneth Branagh and the writers no Shakespeare (the very next night I saw the episode of Game of Thrones where Peter Dinklage was required to do the same thing and did it so brilliantly, that I realized that Oliver or Shakespeare wasn’t necessarily necessary for something like this to work).  In the end, the movie is big and over the top and really goes for the juggler.  And though it wasn’t to my taste, I do have to give fare due and say Jim loved it and highly recommends it.  So decide for yourself.

GRAND ILLUSION (1937)


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It’s been seventy-five years since Jean Renoir’s controversial film Grand Illusion was made (Goebbels had the film’s print seized by the Germans when they occupied France and called Jean Renoir Cinematic Public Enemy Number 1).  It is the first foreign language movie ever nominated for best film at the Academy Awards and still ranks high on many critics lists of greatest films every made.  The title refers to the idea (ironic) that war is absurd and that another world war was not going to happen.  The granddaddy of all prison escape films, it revolves around four officers during World War I:  Lieutenant Marachel (Jean Gabin, in one of his greatest performances), who represents the working class; the Jewish Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio, who you will recognize as the apologetic croupier in Casablanca), who represents the rising capitalist class; Captain Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), who represents the French aristocracy; and Captain von Rauffenstein (played by the great director Erich von Stroheim), who represents the German counterpart to Boeldieu.  Though the story is essentially a war film (or prisoner of war film), it’s more about the idea that the aristocracy, who have ruled the world for so long, no longer have a place in society.  But by the Great War, they were quickly losing any reason for existence and were being replaced.  And the melancholy Boeldieu, who has accepted this fact, is willing to sacrifice his life in order to help Marachel and Rosenthal, the true inheritors of the future, escape, an idea that von Rauffenstein simply can’t comprehend.  At least, this is what the first half is about.  And here I have to say that I am not quite the fan of the movie as others are.  It’s a great film, but for me, its greatness lies in this first half, in this symbolic exchange of power between the two classes.  The scenes in the prison of war facilities are deeply moving and powerful.  There is a moment that is hard to believe wasn’t stolen for the aforesaid Casablanca (but hey, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best) in which, during a theatrical show the prisoners are putting on, Marachel leads them all in singing the Marseilles when they hear of a French victory (though there is an added irony here in that the victory is short lived).  It’s a scene so full of emotion, it makes one want to cry (if not join in singing).  This is soon followed by perhaps the most famous scene in the movie, where Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein have a private moment and the Frenchman bravely tells his German counterpart that their times has come, but von Rauffenstein can’t conceive that their rightful place will be superceded by a farmer and a Jew.  The second half dramatizes Marachel and Rosenthal’s escape and their attempt to reach Switzerland.  It’s also the part of the story that Renoir can do little to make new or insightful.  It’s pretty routine and includes a major section where the two are hidden by a German widow on her farm and Marachel shares her bed (what prison escape story can be complete without a romantic interlude).  I was joking with my friend and said that it brought to mind the lines in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travel where the producers don’t want Joel McCrae’s director to go overboard with the seriousness of his next project: “But with a little bit of sex in it” “A little, but I don’t want to stress it”.  I thought maybe Renoir stressed it a bit too much. But for the record, the restoration is breathtaking.  It’s in beautiful black and white and in pristine condition.  And this is one of the great movies, people.  You must see it.

NATURAL SELECTION


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A dramedy about a group of people whose life choices are determined by their religious beliefs, here some vague fundamentalist church that seems to have no connection to any recognized denomination.  Unfortunately, this is also the main problem with the film.  The writer/director Robert Pickering (his novice attempt) bases his story on the assumption that the audience will buy the idea that a person’s religious beliefs are in and of themselves enough of an explanation for their actions, no matter how absurd they are (or condescendingly laughable the author tries to make them).  Sorry, but I don’t buy it.  I don’t believe that the actions dramatized here can be explained in such a lowest common denominator fashion.  Linda (Rachael Harris) is the dutiful wife whose husband Peter (Jon Gries) won’t sleep with her because she is barren.  Why?  Well, there’s this Bible verse about Onan (you know, of onanism fame).  But even religions who believe that sex should be reserved for procreation don’t go the distance that Peter does here; even his own congregation doesn’t.  So why does Peter really not want to have sex with his wife?  Hell if I know after seeing the movie; ultimately it’s a choice Peter made that is never explored.  And why does Linda put up with it?  Well, her religion tells her to, but what Pickering doesn’t tell us is why Linda chose this particular religion to belong to.  Perhaps the oddest scene here is that after twenty four years of marriage, she’s still hasn’t got the message and continues trying to seduce her husband.  That doesn’t make her empathetic; that just makes her look foolish (what do you call someone who tries to the same thing over and over again even though he keeps getting the same result).  And when she finds out her husband has been donating sperm to a fertility bank for those twenty four years (he has a stroke while…wait for it…stroking it, which sort of, kind of gives the whole game away), does she realize that her husband’s religious beliefs are a sham?  No, she doubles down.  She finds out her husband may have a son out there, so she goes off to find him.  With this the picture settles into a rather mundane, you’ve seen it all before, road movie where Linda is suppose to learn to be her own person, something painfully obvious from the beginning.  But how can you care about someone so incredibly slow on the uptake?  The actors give it all they’ve got, especially Harris.  She has one of those obligatory revelatory scenes, a monologue that’s supposed to explain everything.  It doesn’t come close to doing that, but Harris is so good you can almost convince yourself it does.  It’s not that Pickering is without talent.  He shows a lot of control over the technical aspects of the film and he is trying to create a character driven story rather than a high concept one.  But in the end, the movie never really comes together. It’s quirky and unusual and everything one wants in a non-studio film.  It just doesn’t work.

JUDGING SCREENPLAYS FOR COMPETITIONS (2012)


I’m now in full swing in my reading for various screenplay competitions and various coverage services, including my own, and I thought I would occasionally share some observations I have made.
I have noticed that the genre, themes and plots that most interest me are mysteries of some sort.   At the same time, simply because they hold my interest the most, that doesn’t seem to be helping the screenplays do any better than any others and the reason they fall short falls into a couple of categories:  
1.  The author hasn’t shown their scripts to experts in law authority or the legal profession and the story isn’t particularly believable.
2.  The fact that it is a genre that interests me most can ironically make it harder to make an impact since it may be harder to find a way to make this particular story stand out from all the hundreds of others I’ve read.
3.  Usually the area where a genre stands out is in characters, but though these screenplays often have an interesting plot or hook, the characters often take second place and aren’t very compelling.  Writers often don’t understand that it doesn’t matter how well structured or clever a plot is, without original and vibrant characters, the screenplay is almost never going to go anyplace. 
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I WISH


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I Wish is the new film by writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda, one of the finest filmmakers to come out of Japan in the last twenty years (he’s also responsible for such incredible films as After Life, Nobody Knows and Still Walking and is sometimes called the cinematic heir to Yasujiro Ozu).  It’s about two brothers who join some friends to be at the point of intersection when two bullet trains pass each other on their maiden voyage.  There is a method to their madness.  According to an urban myth floating around, this intersection will create so much energy it will grant anybody who witnesses it one wish.  My wish was that I could say I liked this film as much as others have (it got 100% on Rotten Tomatoes among top critics), but I feel very bad that I just can’t.  It’s a charming idea for a story and there are times when that charm comes through (especially in the section where the kids end up spending the night before the event with two strangers, a husband and wife of grandparent age who miss having children around since their daughter left them and never came back).  But for me, it was a bit too leisurely paced and took too long to focus on its central conceit, possibly because the story was divided between too many children.  It’s most effective through line revolves around the aforementioned brothers.  They each live in a different city because their parents have separated.  One is wishing a nearby volcano that is spouting ash would fully erupt so his mother will have no place to go but back to her husband (the fact that this would cost thousands of lives in the process is an issue he’s considered, but has not really thought through all that well).  The younger brother, who was tired of listening to his parents fight and doesn’t want a reunion, has a tad more selfish wish.  But their stories are too often diluted by the other lest interesting ones inhabited by their friends.  And when the kids do find their way to the point of intersection, one expects to see thousands of people there for the same purpose.  But for some reason, these pre-teens are the only ones in all of Japan who had gotten this idea. 

THE ROAD (2011)


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Not the rather draggy and dull experiment in apocalyptic storytelling starring Viggo Mortenson that came out in 2009, but is instead the absolutely terrifying new film from the Philippines directed by Yam Laranas and co-written by him with Aloy Adlawan.  It’s a movie that forgoes graphic violence and the alphabet soup of in your face CGI SFX, instead relying on the somewhat old fashioned values of angst filled mood, clever editing and unnerving cinematography to earn its scares.  With this, The Road falls squarely with such recent examples of the genre as Let the Right One In and The Innkeepers.  There’s this road, you see.  And bad things seem to happen to people who go down it.  And one night, on a whim, three young teens take a parent’s car out to practice their driving—you know, without telling anyone and when everyone’s asleep.  (There’s got to be a lesson in their somewhere, but I wouldn’t go to Robert Frost for it.)  In order to avoid the police, they break down a barrier and go down an unused road.  You know, THE road.  Where bad things seem to happen to people.  And sure enough, bad things happen to these three as they encounter such phenomena as cars with no drivers; bloody bodies with bags over their heads; and the complete inability to make their way back to the main thoroughfare.  The story jumps back and forth in time, first ten years, then twenty, until all the various puzzle pieces fit together and a complete picture as to what is going on is revealed.  Well, all the pieces perhaps save one.  What Laranas and Adlawan don’t do an effective job of is coming up with a plausible explanation as to why this road, which seemed to be well traveled in times earlier, is now boarded up and unused—even though the entrance is in the middle of the town.  There’s also a twist near the end that is clever, though perhaps not as satisfying or as plausible as one might want.  But be any of that as it may, it’s still an edge of your seat shocker and highly recommended.