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.
This yet another tale that starts with the end and proceeds in flashback opening in 1952 as British foreign correspondent Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) is ID-ing the body of his dead American friend Pyle. The bulk of the movie goes on to tell the story of their friendship and reveal what led to Pyle's death. Fowler we learn has had a successful career reporting from colonial Indochina as the embattled country has been embroiled in a battle for control by the French the Commies and eventually the U.S. Over the years Fowler's gotten a little lazy and his boss back home is demanding he return to London if he doesn't come up with a big scoop. The thought of leaving his young willing mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen) to return home to his boring old English wife nearly kills the guy so he puts his investigative-journalist hat on and attempts to suss out a story connecting the country's newest general and a recent bloody massacre. Enter young American Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser who we might bring up happens to be Canadian) who professes to be in Saigon on an altruistic U.S. mission to bring medical supplies into Vietnam. Pyle and Fowler strike up a friendship that briefly hits a rut when Pyle admits he's in love with little lotus flower Phuong and goes so far as to boldly propose to her in Fowler's living room (we won't spoil it by revealing her answer). However this supposedly "quiet American " as Fowler once describes him isn't so quiet after all--Fowler discovers Pyle's been voicing some things to the general himself in the Vietnamese language he has claimed he doesn't know.
Michael Caine's subtle nuanced performance is sublime and it's the only thing that elevates this movie from dated and pointless costume melodrama. Caine seems all the more obviously great thanks to his counterpart Fraser's often one-dimensional delivery; Fraser's not terrible but as the character with the greatest arc you'd think he'd give Pyle a little more "oomph." To his credit you don't quite know if Pyle's bland guilelessness is part of an intentional disguise or simply his "quiet American" innocence. Oddly enough there is a certain rapport between the men--Fraser comes off as a lunkhead in leading-man roles in mainstream fare but when paired with an Oscar-caliber actor (like he was with Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters) he can hold his own. Ultimately everyone's performance pales next to Caine's turn as Fowler whose steadfast old-school dignified demeanor covers--usually--an intense possessive (though relatively unexplained) love.
You don't need to be beaten over the head with a colonial stick to realize the characters serve as metaphors for their native countries--the American idealist with grand aspirations the old-fashioned humanitarian-minded Brit the innocent beautiful Vietnamese who desires her independence but remains helpless at the center of their struggle. This allegory is couched in the story of political intrigue and espionage that is the movie's more interesting tale but unfortunately it's overwhelmed by the tedious love triangle. What are these two dolts Fowler and Pyle concerned with while taking cover in a bunker as bombs explode all around them and their lives could end at any moment? Who gets Phuong. What do they fight about while fending off the enemy in a remote watchtower? Who gets Phuong. We get the symbolism already--delicate sweet-faced Phuong is the coveted territory over which both imperialists want to raise their flags--but really. The book may have come out in '55 but did this adaptation have to seem like it was made that year too? For instance there are dozens of Phuongs running around Saigon anxious to find a man so there might have been some other reason suggested for the men's tortured competition for the (admittedly quite lovely) Phuong's affection besides her youth and beauty. It seems to be her only allure as she has little personality can barely speak English and has nothing in common with either man. Director Phillip Noyce paces the film nicely and the shots are gorgeous but The Quiet American's story just doesn't have much impact.