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.

THE AVENGERS


The Avengers is a very entertaining movie and gets the adrenaline going, which isn’t quite the same thing as saying it’s totally successful or rises that far above what it is.  Written by Joss Whedon and Zak Penn and directed by Whedon, it’s an oddly schizoid movie.  On one side are wonderfully witty lines with often hysterically snarky dialog while on the other side are serious, earnest and highly dramatic tete a tetes that fall flat on their face.  On one side are the vibrant actors and Oscar nominees (Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Renner) and on the other are film personalities with pretty faces (Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston and Chris Evans)–and no matter how equal the writers may try to make the various superheroes when it comes to their powers, Evans will never be able to Eve Harrington Downey when it comes to Stanislavksy.  (For those keeping score, Scarlett Johansson falls somewhere in the middle, which in many ways reflects her role in the movie, a character trying to bridge the gap between all the antagonistic good guys.)  And finally on one side you have large scale action sequences filled with massive set pieces of uninhibited, glorious destruction (Manhattan now seems to be the new Tokyo, destined to be destroyed on a regular basis due to the specter of 9/11 in the way Japan is haunted by the atomic bomb) and on the other side is very little death (see Battle for LA in contrast—for The Avengers the studio apparently wanted to challenge the audience, but in a very non-challenging way).  As was noted, Whedon and Penn have a way with a snarky line (the best written scene is when all the heroes are in one room and due to the influence of Loki, get under each other’s skins saying all the mean things everyone in the audience is thinking).  But when it comes to heavy scenes, the authors can do little but immediately make fun of them once they’re over (Whedon had the same issue in Cabin in the Woods—the unbearable scenes of overage teenagers in distress were only made palatable, if that, by the more comic scenes of Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford).  These more serious sequences might have had a better chance if all the actors were of equal caliber (there’s actually a very nice one between Ruffalo and Downey that suggests this); but this was ultimately a battle, unlike the one against Loki, the superheroes simply could not win (for an example, take the scene between Thor and Loki that Iron Man aptly described as Shakespeare in the Park).  The whole thing culminates with a knock down, drag out for the Big Apple when some aliens resembling the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz make their way through some sort of space time continuum and unleash their blitzkrieg upon an unsuspecting metropolis.  The battle itself is not exactly boring, but it also isn’t that imaginative and all in all, pretty derivative (again, it’s the snarky wit and two hysterically funny bits by the Hulk that really made this work as well as it does).  The special effects are, of course, first rate, though none may quite equal the SFX of Gwyneth Paltrow in Daisy Dukes (though one does shudder at the idea of this fashion style making a comeback since very few people can get away with short shorts—I know, I’ve tried).  The ending is resolved through a deux ex machina provided by Stellan Skarsgard (let’s face it, the plot is a bit clunky—c’mon, be honest with yourselves and give the devil his due) as well as an inconsistency with how much control Bruce Banner has over his green (ho, ho, ho) alter ego (apparently, it corresponds to the needs of the script at any given time).  But in the end, The Avengers is a perfectly fine time waster.  It’s no Iron Man or The Dark Knight, but, hey, it could have been worse.  It’s also no Spiderman III, Superman or Fantastic Four.

HEADHUNTERS


Scandinavian mysteries are all the rage right now, which might be surprising since their origin is from an area with the lowest crime rate in the world.  Jo Nesbo’s entry Headhunters (adapted by Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg, directed by Morten Tyldum) is the latest noir de jour of the soon to be remade in America genre.  The story revolves around Roger Brown, a man shorter than his Amazonian, blonde, busty and much better looking wife.  He overcompensates for his size by spending a ton of money on her (hey, it could be worse; remember when Sterling Hayden started WWIII in Dr. Strangelove because he was impotent?).  To make the money, Brown moonlights as an art thief (hey, it could happen).  By day, this contemporary Napoleon is a headhunter and he finds his life beginning to unravel when he offers Clas Greve, an ex-mercenary turned entrepreneur (as redundant as that may sound), a plum position that anyone would kill to fill (unfortunately for Roger, since Nikolaj takes that idiom all too literally).  After that, the plot goes into hyper drive as twists pile upon twists and revelations battle each other to be the most surprising.  Accompanying all this are also a few too many holes in the script, but they don’t stop the whole thing from crashing.  It’s actually a very satisfying little crime thriller, even if most of the movie seems to be how much torture can be perpetrated upon Brown; he suffers more than Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ (one shudders to think what would happen if Mel Gibson ended up helming the American version).  Askel Hennie plays Brown with a constant twinkle in his eyes; as my friend said, he looks like Christopher Walken’s younger brother.  Greve is played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (or the vice is nice, but incest is best Jamie Lannister to those who are into Game of Thrones—you know who you are) and he could be mistaken for Aaron Eckhardt’s twin brother if Nikolaj wasn’t better looking (sorry, Aaron, but that’s jut the way it is—deal with it). 

BERNIE


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The fun and often entertaining Bernie is one of those truth is stranger than fiction films, a story based on odd, but real life events that no one would have heard of if someone hadn’t made a movie about it (you know, like Conviction and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio).  It was written by Skip Hollandsworth and Richard Linklater (who also directed) and Linklater certainly lets his Texas roots show by cleverly and with affection (as well as more than a drop here and there of condescension and superiority) in his playing up of the redneck citizens and the very, very Lone Star values that reside in the small town of Carthage, Texas.  The title role is played by Jack Black.  I always think of Black as the actor you use when you can’t get Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti (I can come up with no other reason for Peter Jackson miscasting him in King Kong).  But though Black never really becomes Bernie and plays him as a bit of a cartoon, this is definitely one of Black’s best performances (it probably helps that Bernie himself was probably something of a cartoon).  Bernie is the nicest guy in the world: deeply religious, a brilliant casket salesman, director and star of the local community theater, and friend to all, especially the older ladies in the area (or as many of the characters remark, probably gay, but celibate).  But this mini-Da Vinci of a Renaissance man finds his match in Marjorie Nugent, the Wicked Witch of the East (Texas) who treats him like a pet dog she constantly abuses (and like an abused pet dog, Bernie keeps coming back and licking his mistress’ hand).  As a result, something happens that shocks one and all, no one more so than Bernie himself, though the humor of the story rests on the idea that in the end, shocked or not, no one really wants to do much about it.  The story is told in a serious mockumentary style.  The plot itself is interspersed with interviews of people who were there.  Many of these interviewees are actors, but most are the actual people that lived in Carthage at the time.  Most of the actors blend in almost seamlessly with the locals, especially Rick Dial (who played a similar role in both The Apostle and Sling Blade).  The big exception is Matthew McConaughey, the local D.A.  It’s not that his performance is bad, it’s just so different and over the top and, well, actorly from everyone else’s naturalism, that he sticks out like a Sunday ham.  Even Shirley McClaine as the wicked witch plays the part as if she were to the suburban tract house born.  Pinched face and without a hint of Hollywood glamour, she gives a performance that is often called brave (no make-up or cheesecloth over the lens for this veteran of Hollywood movies co-starring David Niven, Jack Lemmon and Meryl Streep).  But in the end Linklater and Hollandsworth never go deeper than skin.  By the time it’s all over, one’s not quite sure why the film was made and it feels like a joke without a punchline.  Even a trial sequence seems so wasted, nothing of any significance happens during it, one wonders why Linklater bothered to shoot it and waste money on extras.  But you probably won’t be disappointed; it’s genial and quirky and all the other twelve points of indie film law.