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Entries in Fantasy (6)

Friday
Jun012012

Snow White and the Huntsman

It may only be a minor consolation, but it’s worth noting that Snow White and the Huntsman has very little to do with the Twilight series beyond its lead star. Pre-release comparisons purporting their similarities are nothing more than cynical assumptions. Those people who scoffed at its existence will most likely find themselves pleasantly surprised after viewing. Coming hot on the heels of March’s Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman once again tells the oft told story of Snow White as she conquers the evil witch and claims her rightful place as queen, but the story is tonally more aligned with the original Brothers Grimm story than the cutesy versions we show our children. The movie is dark, violent, sinister and frightening. Other movies glossed over the evil underpinnings of the story, including the eventual murder of the title character, but not this one. This is a mature telling that is worthy of admiration.

Snow White (Kristen Stewart) used to be a happy girl. Her father and mother, the countryside’s king and queen, loved her and each other dearly. Unfortunately, her mother quickly fell ill and passed away. Her father was overcome with grief until he met a beautiful woman named Ravenna (Charlize Theron), who he immediately married. However, right as they were about to consummate their marriage, Ravenna murdered him and began a takeover of his city, locking Snow White in a tower. Years later, right as Ravenna is about to take Snow White’s life, she escapes. Ravenna, determined to get her back, employs a huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to track her down, but he soon learns of Ravenna’s wicked ways and instead helps Snow White in her quest to bring justice to her land.

Snow White and the Huntsman does for the classic story what Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban did for that popular series—it progresses it with true passion, meaning and thematic growth. It’s not just an attempt to cash in on the Snow White name or the star power of Kristen Stewart. It is instead a visionary approach to the story, full of beautiful imagery and wondrous imagination. Throughout the movie, the characters travel to different places, all with their own distinct feelings and visual styles. Some are bright and lovely like an animated movie come to life, a place you’d love to spend time in. Others are morbid and unsettling, like the Dark Forest Snow White escapes to, which gains its strength through its visitors’ weaknesses. It’s the place nightmares are made of. Other landscapes include beautiful snow covered gardens, war torn battlefields and more.

If nothing else, Show White and the Huntsman is visually arresting, a surprisingly gorgeous bit of eye candy coming from first time director, Rupert Sanders. He puts a deft touch to the tiniest of details, almost as if he had been doing this for many years, and he makes his vision come to grandiose life. Still, being a first time director poses many challenges and he is unable to overcome all of them. Action clichés abound, including an excessive use of slow motion, and though he pulls some decent performances from Hemsworth and Stewart (the former who finally gets to play someone other than the bland and emotionless Thor and the latter who gets to do something other than bite her lip), he fails to contain Charlize Theron. She goes all out in the movie, chewing the scenery like it’s bubble gum. She is so over-the-top, her supposed menace turns to amusement. She’s not bad per se, but she doesn’t fit in what is otherwise a tonally balanced movie.

The film occasionally suffers from cinematic ADD, like when a gruesome troll shows up for a fight and then walks away before anything actually happens, but its biggest detractor is its fluctuation in believability. Kristen Stewart, though more impressive in this role than many others, is not a convincing warrior, making her late movie transformation tough to swallow. Even more difficult to believe is her ability to outrun, outmaneuver and outwit a team of guards (thanks partially to a randomly placed horse resting on a nearby beach) once she escapes from the confined tower she’s been locked in for so many years. Yet the movie still pulls you in, your suspension of disbelief never wavering for too long. Snow White and the Huntsman doesn’t eclipse every adaptation of the story that has come before it, but among the more adult oriented versions, including 1997’s acclaimed Snow White: A Tale of Terror starring Sigourney Weaver as the witch, it stands alone.

Snow White and the Huntsman receives 4/5

Thursday
Jul142011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

After ten years and eight movies, it’s all finally coming to an end. Harry Potter is going to be put to rest. Truly one of the most popular franchises in film history, the Harry Potter movies have shown how a franchise should be handled. Not all of the films have been amazing, but all (with the exception of The Order of the Phoenix) have been good. If nothing else, it’s a consistent franchise with more heart, whimsy and fantastic fantasy action than many movies even attempt, much less achieve. And it’s going out with a bang. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is hands down the best in the acclaimed series. It will blow the minds of, and bring tears to, even the most casual fans who have little invested in the story and characters. I joked with friends and colleagues before the screening that if the film was anything less than the best of the year, I would be disappointed. And disappointed I am not.

The film begins precisely where the last one left off. Dobby has just died and Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has just found the Elder Wand, the most powerful wand in existence. Meanwhile, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), along with best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), are out to find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes, each of which carries a piece of Voldemort’s soul. Voldemort will stop at nothing to keep that from happening, which means killing Harry Potter.

As with most of the other Potter films, you will need to be well-versed in Potter lore to fully keep up with what’s going on in The Deathly Hallows Part 2. It’s a movie that would have greatly benefited from a “Previously on Harry Potter” type of opening, especially since this is the second half of one story, not simply a standalone sequel like the others. From the get go, it’s unclear exactly what is happening, but it never suffers under the weight of its own vagueness. All it requires is a little patience while it settles into its own. Confusion is cleared and the story at hand grips you like none other.

It’s a story that has been building for seven films, all of which left open doors and questions lingering to set up the next movie, but for the first time ever, there’s closure. One of my chief complaints of The Deathly Hallows Part 1 was its abrupt ending. It was a story that was intentionally left unfinished and its lack of any type of payoff was to its detriment, but Part 2 rectifies that with a send-off for the ages. The showdown between Potter and Voldemort is an epic, breathtaking, immensely satisfying finale that leaves no stone unturned. What follows is an endearing and emotional farewell to one of the most charismatic characters to ever grace the screen.

The big climax is not the only reason to watch Part 2 of this story, however. The entire film is brimming with action, contrary to the more talkative Part 1, but it’s not there just to be there like in, say, the latest Transformers film. Unlike that mind numbing movie, the action compliments the story, flowing naturally based on what has occurred up to that point. And in the midst of all the chaos and destruction is a brilliant plot twist that forces Potter to face his destiny, which may mean sacrificing himself to save others.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is dark, scary and more violent than many will expect, but it’s also emotionally resonant and beautifully made. Long time fan or Harry Potter cynic, you owe it to yourself to see this movie. It will stick with you long after the credits have rolled and the lights come up.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 receives 5/5

Friday
May202011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

I’m a Pirates of the Caribbean apologist. Viewers and critics alike have berated the second and third entries in the franchise, but I defend them on the grounds that they shouldn’t be taken seriously and are simply good, stupid fun. I won’t be doing that for On Stranger Tides. This fourth installment is nothing more than an obvious cash grab, a slapdash resurgence of a franchise that doesn’t know what to do with itself. Those who hated At World’s End are suddenly going to have fond memories of it after watching this.

The movie begins with a familiar face. Gibbs (Kevin McNally) is on trial, though for what I haven’t the slightest clue. He is about to receive his sentencing when suddenly, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) randomly appears in full judge garb, sentencing him to life in prison. Before he knows it, Jack has ditched the outfit and joined him in the carriage that is transporting him off to jail. Jack informs him he has a plan and to just sit tight for a while. Of course, that plan never comes into fruition and next thing they know, they are confronted by the British armed forces. Before much of anything happens, Jack escapes and runs into Angelica (Penelope Cruz), who has been impersonating Jack in another plot point that is never really explained. It turns out she is, but not really (but maybe), the daughter of the famed Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Next thing he knows, Jack is on Blackbeard’s ship and they’re on their way to find the Fountain of Youth.

Like its predecessors, On Stranger Tides doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There are zombified slave people, mermaids that evidently don’t like man-made light, but flock to it nonetheless, and a scene where Jack runs into an old friend who is able to fire a gun and save his life despite being, as far as I could tell, an apparition. Also like the previous movies (particularly the third one), it’s not always clear who is good and who is bad. It never establishes anyone to root for, so you end up rooting for no one.

Although those problems have been a consistency since the second film, Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End made up for it with over-the-top action. You were bombarded with so much excitement that you wound up forgetting that you really had no idea what was going on. The ridiculousness was part of its charm. I think back to the end of the third film where multiple ships were circling around a whirlpool in the middle of the ocean, firing cannons at each other while characters swung to and fro and battled each other on top of the ships’ masts. For some reason, On Stranger Tides decides to scale back its action to a large degree. Nowhere will you find the outrageousness of the previous films. Rather, you’ll see little more than your generic on-land swordfights that usually end up going nowhere due to the film’s apparent desire to ensure that very few people, especially the main characters, are actually harmed.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is convoluted, confusing and overstuffed. The funny thing is that at two hours and eight minutes, it’s the shortest Pirates movie yet, but it feels like the longest. It meanders about, introducing new characters that are poorly developed and throwing them in subplots that are uninteresting and, like the human/mermaid romance, very silly. It forces its humor, the actors don’t seem to be into it and it more or less ends up where it began. Even the reliable Depp as the ever amusing Jack Sparrow seems like he’s floating through this, though that could be due to the witless script that gives him nothing funny to say.

The final nail in the coffin comes from the obligatory 3D, which is more useless here than ever before thanks to the overwhelming darkness that pervades the film. This is the darkest movie to utilize the format since Sanctum and, thanks to the tinted glasses, it’s difficult to see much of anything. When you can see, the effect isn’t noticeable. When it is noticeable, it’s nauseating and off-putting. Given all its blunders, there’s really no reason to see Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. It’s hard to imagine even die-hard fans of the franchise will be able to find enjoyment in this.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides receives 1.5/5

Friday
Jan072011

Season of the Witch

If this year is anything like the last, January is going to be a cinematic wasteland with little to cheer about. Limited releases notwithstanding, the month is looking to be a bad one. So here we are with the first wide release movie of the year, Season of the Witch, and, well, it’s terrible.

The story takes place in the 14th century during the Crusades. Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) have dedicated their lives to the church and their cause, but after witnessing the slaying of innocent people, they decide to defect and go about on their own. After some time, however, they find need for supplies and are forced to stop in a local village where they first come into contact with the Plague, which is said to have been caused by a witch roaming the lands. They are quickly spotted and recognized as traitors, but rather than condemn Behmen and Felson to death, they are asked to help transport the alleged witch (Claire Foy) to a monastery where she will stand trial, to which they begrudgingly agree.

Season of the Witch, to put it lightly, is one of the most embarrassing movies I’ve seen in a long time, to the extent that everyone onscreen and behind the scenes should be ashamed for having worked on it. While it may be set in the early 1300’s, all characters speak with modern dialects. The actors make a bare bones attempt to bridge the gap between then and now, but each line comes off as hokey. Every utterance from the mouths of Cage and Perlman, in what could be the worst performances of their careers, was cringe worthy.

Had the film been tongue-in-cheek, this could be forgiven, but the subject matter, as silly as it is, is taken deathly seriously. Aside from an effective opening scene (that is only loosely tied to the movie as a whole), the rest transcends unintentional camp and reaches pure awfulness. The whole affair is a cumbersome, mishandled and painfully amateurish vision that is brought to a quick death as soon as Cage steps onscreen in his raggedy wig.

All one can hope for is some exciting action, but director Dominic Sena, who is responsible for the guilty pleasure, Swordfish, and little else, works them like your typical mindless hack ’n slash movie, in that unnamed people (and animals) run towards the screen only to get slaughtered and disappear. It also suffers from showing us too little. In order to avoid an R rating, camera shots are kept close and tight, so we see only the reaction of the person getting gutted rather than the actual gutting.

Season of the Witch is a film where nearly anything that can go wrong does. On top of all the problems already mentioned, it sports bad CGI, bland cinematography, a forgettable score and a script that feels like it was written by a teenager who has played one too many video games. It all ends with a final twist that goes against the very title of the film, which would have come as a surprise had it not already been given away by an early poster with a none too subtle logo behind a silhouette of the supposed witch. I predict that having already shot itself in the foot by ruining its ending will hear little outcry, however. It’s hard to believe that anybody with a modicum of self respect could find this interesting anyway.

Season of the Witch receives 1/5

Thursday
Nov182010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

The Harry Potter franchise is one of the most consistently engaging franchises in Hollywood. With the sole exception of Order of the Phoenix, I would recommend each and every one. However, all have their faults. While fans and critics alike have praised them as tremendous entertainment, I’ve found most of them to be no more than slightly above average. The newest installment and beginning of the end, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, is no better and no worse than the rest of the series. For everything it fixes, it breaks something and in trying to keep things fresh, it loses much of its charm.

My confusion began as soon as the movie started. Not being a rabid fan of the series, I’ve only seen the other entries once or twice. I haven’t kept up with its extensive mythology and its deep cast of characters left me more than a little befuddled. When it begins, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is left alone after his foster parents move out. Hermione (Emma Watson) has seemingly erased herself from her parent’s memories. Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is meeting with his gang of misfits to figure out a way to kill Harry. And then about a dozen other characters pop up to rescue Harry and whisk him away to safety. These events happened quickly and I wasn’t sure why, but credit is due to the filmmakers who make the story that follows manageable even for those who aren’t familiar with the prior movies.

Essentially, the story follows Harry, Hermione and Ron (Rupert Grint) as they attempt to find and destroy a number of artifacts called Horcruxes. However, this plot takes the kids away from Hogwarts and sets them off on an adventure alone. While I appreciate the darker tone of this entry, it’s missing the whimsy of other installments. It has more of a focus on the trio, but part of the fun of the series has always been watching the eccentric teachers and other colorful characters that roam the halls of Hogwarts. This movie has none of them. The large cast of characters that show up at the beginning of the movie disappear until the end (if they even come back at all) and the humor and fun disappears along with them.

What really hurts the movie, however, is its build to nothing. As evidenced by the “Part 1” at the end of the title, this story is being broken up into two movies, so what happens is that it trucks along for two and half hours only to abruptly end without any type of payoff. The setup for the next film is intriguing and I can’t wait to see it, but it doesn’t negate the fact that this story is left unfinished.

As with the previous movies, Part 1 looks good. The assured direction and gorgeous cinematography are wonderful. It carries an appropriately dark, unearthly look. This distinct visual style works wonders for the film and is complimented by an amazing animated segment explaining the origin of the deathly hallows, a welcome change of pace from a scene that would have otherwise been boring exposition.

Although I obviously haven’t seen Part 2 yet, I feel like the two movies will be comparable to Kill Bill: good separate, but something special together. I don’t mind the slow build if you give me a reason for it, but as a standalone movie, which is the only way it can be judged right now, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is satisfying, but fails to transcend into greatness.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 receives 3.5/5