Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.
By both critical and commercial measures live-action anime adaptations boast a record of futility second perhaps only to videogame adaptations. Some essential aspect of the source material is irretrievably lost during the process of translating Japanese cartoon to Hollywood tentpole something that even the most bloated visual effects budget can’t conceal. Think Dragonball Evolution and Speed Racer.
And yet Hollywood keeps trying lured by tantalizing visions of cash-cow franchises fed by loyal built-in — and most importantly international — audiences. The latest casualty of this misguided ambition is The Last Airbender based on the hit Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. To be fair Avatar isn’t anime in the orthodox sense in that it was conceived and produced in the States but its style and soul are almost exclusively anime-inspired. As such its big-screen fate is similarly sealed.
Who could possibly break such a rueful trend? For some reason the minds at Paramount thought M. Night Shyamalan that notorious purveyor of ponderous and increasingly shlocky supernatural thrillers might succeed where so many other directors had failed. Even worse they saw fit to hire him to pen the screenplay as well ensuring that every vital aspect of the film would feel the crushing weight of his heavy hand. With such a hacky burden to bear it comes as no surprise that The Last Airbender never really takes flight.
The film's story is set in a world divided into four tribes each aligned to an element: Air Earth Water and Fire. Certain gifted tribe members known as a “benders ” can manipulate the properties of their assigned element to suit their ends. In order to do so they must first perform an elaborate and utterly ridiculous kung fu dance after which a torrent of fire water or whatever arises to obey their command.
For the better part of a century the oppressive and warlike Firebenders have besieged the other nations gradually thinning their respective ranks. The Air Nomads have faired the worst of the lot and are presumed to be extinct until Water peeps Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) discover a boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) trapped in a giant ball of ice. Not only is Unfrozen Kung Fu Warrior the last remaining Airbender (thus the title) he is also an Avatar the only being on the planet capable of wielding all four elements. And only he can bring an end to the Firebenders’ evil reign.
Blessed with an opportunity to reinvent himself in a new genre and with a new demographic Shyamalan can’t avoid falling back on old habits most notably his penchant for awkward and cumbersome dialogue. It’s difficult enough for adults to deliver his lines but it’s absolute hell for The Last Airbender’s youthful protagonists whose not yet fully-developed temporal lobes can’t hope to adequately process the inanities of Shyamalan-speak. One can almost see the smoke coming from little Noah’s ears as he labors to complete each portentous sentence. Poor kid. Where are the Child Labor people when you need them?
But bad dialogue is only one of a litany of problems that plagues The Last Airbender which suffers from mediocre CGI inexplicable casting decisions (caucasians actors none of whom are especially talented are tabbed for asian roles when sufficiently mediocre race-appropriate actors were surely available) and a plot comprehensible only to the most ardent fans of the Nickelodeon series. Much as Aang bends the air Shyamalan tries to bend the laws of quality cinema to his will but they refuse to yield to the force of his ego. I only wish the execs at Paramount had been as stalwart.
Snagging new TV gigs this week:
Molly Ringwald hits the Big Time
Molly Ringwald, America's sweetheart during the late '80s, is back -- this time on the small screen. The actress will be starring in Big Time, a show that centers on a fledging TV network in the early days of the industry.
In the show, which will air on TNT, the setting will be 1948 Manhattan, and Ringwald will play the network head's new bride, who discovers a unique opportunity for herself in the burgeoning landscape of television.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, executive producers John Wells and Carol Flint have also hired actor Dylan Baker of Happiness fame, who will play a tirelessly devoted producer and VP of programming committed to making the young network a success.
The show will be directed and co-executive produced by Paris Barclay and marks Ringwald's return to her television series roots. The actress started her screen career on the NBC comedy The Facts of Life, and moved on to bigger roles on the big screen in '80s flicks such as Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink.
Shaun Cassidy Signs TV deal
Former teen idol-turned-TV producer Shaun Cassidy has signed on as producer of The Agency, a CBS drama about the men and women of the CIA, Variety reports.
The former Hardy Boy has also signed on to produce a drama pilot at USA Network titled Wilder, a show which he originally created for the WB for the 2000-01 TV season.
Wilder is about a former teen idol who teams up with his younger cop brother to work as detectives. Corin Nemec (Parker Lewis Can't Lose) and Ashley Howard (Bring It On) have been cast as the leads in the pilot.
Jim Miller, USA Network's executive VP of original programming, believes the show contains the kind of subject matter that people often try to tackle, but seldom pull off successfully.
"Because [Cassidy] was there, because he understands that mind set -- the good and the bad -- the authenticity, the veracity of it all is just unmatchable,'' he tells Variety.
Culp, DuVall Make a Monster
Steven Culp (Thirteen Days) and Clea DuVall (Girl, Interrupted) will star in HBO/Cinemax's "How to Make a Monster" for writer-director George Huang (Swimming With Sharks). Production is slated to begin this week.
Monster is about a company man (Culp) who hires three ex-cons-turned-computer programmers to create a computer game, Evilution, which centers on an evil being. Whoever builds the scariest monster will win $1 million.
In their attempt to create the scariest monster, causing the computer to overload with everything that is evil, the monster comes to life.
The Hollywood Reporter adds that Tyler Mane, Jason Marsden and Karim Prince will also be featured in the project.
Tucci Tackles Groucho for CBS
Stanley Tucci, the actor-producer who won an Emmy for his portrayal of the 1950s columnist Walter Winchell, will star as Groucho Marx in Love, Groucho, a two-hour telepic for CBS produced by Alliance Atlantis.
The film is based on the book Love, Groucho: Letters From Groucho Marx to His Daughter Miriam by Miriam Marx Allen. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the movie will trace highlights of the actor's life, including the breakup of his marriage and the eventual breakup of his career.
Screenwriter Jennifer Miller has penned the script for the project, which is executive produced by Tucci, Peter Sussman, Ed Gernon, Greg Gugliotta and Sandy Gartin.