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.
Is it right to focus on film noir right now? That’s what The New School thinks. They’re bringing noir, neo-noir, and even protozoan noir to the fore in April with their 2011 Noir Festival, running April 1 – 8 in New York. But the question is, I suppose, why in the world is film noir relevant now?
Naturally it was the French who coined the term “film noir” to describe those strange, morally ambiguous, high-contrast, lost in the shadows movies of the 30s and the 40s. During most of its heyday, the filmmakers had no idea some French critic had given a name to what they were doing. They did it for the same reasons anyone follows a trend: it made money and it felt right. Like the counter-cultural films of the 60s and 70s, studios made these dark little pictures because folks would pay to see them, and folks would go to see them because they spoke to the spirit of the time.
Equally influenced by German Expressionism, pulp fiction, the creeping fear of technology and the unknown brought on by the two World Wars, film noir proper ended around 1960 when the American countercultural movements and the French New Wave caught the new zeitgeist. It’s as if, all in a moment, everything that film noir spoke to unconsciously became conscious. In a way, everything after the classical periods is neo-noir or noir-influenced.
In the 60s and the 70s savvy filmmakers made neo-noir films that captured consciously the cynicism that classic noir tapped into unconsciously. The historical cynicism and moral horror of Chinatown gave way to the future cynicism and identity horror of Blade Runner. But like the culture itself, that level of critique couldn’t sustain itself. In the 80s and 90s noir movies were less neo-noir than they were noir-influenced, using the tropes of noir for stylistic exercises like Blood Simple or Reservoir Dogs.
But the world of 2011 is very different than the world of 1996. Wars on three fronts, revolution rocking the Middle East, technology moving faster than culture – for me at least there’s a kind of spiritual vertigo that comes whenever I look at newspaper or think too hard about the future. Maybe that’s just the right space for film noir to come creeping back into the public unconscious.
Hollywood.com will be on hand to find out at The New School Noir Festival. We’ll see some screenings of classic noir films, difficult to find proto-noir like the silent serial Fantomas, and new work from Guy Maddin. We’ll also check out presentations by Frances McDormand, Todd Haynes, Robert Pinsky, Luc Sante, among others, and land an interview or two.
Almost all of the events at the festival are free. For more info go to http://www.newschool.edu/events/noir/.