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.
To those only vaguely familiar with The Lovely Bones Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel about a murdered teen who observes her family — and tracks her killer — from beyond Peter Jackson might seem like an odd choice to direct the film adaptation. Why would the visual effects maestro who orchestrated such grand spectacle in films like King Kong and the Lord of the Rings trilogy be attracted to Bones’ somber reflective subject matter wherein nary an orc or a goblin can be found?
Shortly after the film's opening moments Jackson’s definitive answer arrives in the form of the “in-between place ” a breathtaking limbo where our wide-eyed heroine 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) arrives after her life is cruelly cut short by a next-door neighbor and closet predator named ominously enough Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Susie’s experience of the afterlife as a sort of spiritual way-station featuring elements of both heaven and hell (but mostly heaven) is a veritable CGI playground for Jackson one in which he can employ all of the digital tools in his vast arsenal in the service of a powerful affecting story.
And what a gorgeous playground it is. As Susie journeys through her wondrous netherworld — sometimes alone sometimes accompanied by a perky young spirit guide named Holly (Nikki SooHoo) — Jackson serves up a succession of exquisitely rendered landscapes for her to explore from placid spring meadows to boundless Alpine slopes to lush green forests. Jackson knows all too well that the issue of life after death especially when considered in regards to those who left us too soon is fertile emotional ground. With the help of an irresistibly expressive Ronan he mines it shrewdly.
Back on Earth unfortunately The Lovely Bones takes the form of a poorly-constructed deeply unsatisfying police procedural. Frustrated by the authorities’ inability to find the killer Susie's anguished father (Mark Wahlberg) mounts an investigation of his own aided occasionally in Ghost-like fashion by his daughter’s unseen hand. Tension rises as the mystery unravels — Jackson having drawn us in with his shamelessly manipulative handiwork has us by the emotional short-hairs so much so that we’re willing to overlook the film’s gap-laden storyline redundant narration underdeveloped supporting characters and a generally underwhelming Wahlberg. We just want payback damnit.
But when The Lovely Bones’ moment of truth arrives Susie abruptly changes her mind effectively turning almost every preceding plot point into an infuriating red herring and depriving us of the emotional release Jackson so steadfastly prepared us for. What we’re left with ultimately is an experience akin to taking a shot of morphine and watching someone play the videogame Myst for two hours (a span that might very well be reduced to 45 minutes if the film’s copious slow-motion shots were all played at normal speed). And once the anodyne buzz wears off the comedown is agonizing.
An Indian family in West London tries to raise their youngest daughter Jess (Parminder Nagra) traditionally honing her domestic skills and teaching her how to cook Punjab dinners--both meat and vegetarian. Jess' ambitions however are somewhat less orthodox: she wants to play soccer. And why shouldn't she? Jess not only has the talent to bend the ball like Beckham she also has the tenacity to bend the gender rules governing her favorite sport. But her parents don't think soccer is feminine and would prefer she focus on school and marriage like her older sister Pinky. But Jess gets an offer she can't refuse from Jules (Keira Knightley) who recruits her for a local girls' soccer team the Hounslow Harriers. Jess secretly joins the team but tells her parents she has landed a part-time job at the local HMV record store instead. Her web of lies quickly turns into a modern comedy of errors as her parents suspect she is sneaking around with a boy and Jules' parents assume the girls are involved in a lesbian relationship.
In her feature film debut Nagra impressively creates a character you can't help but love. Jess is a typical teenager whose bedroom walls are plastered with posters of her favorite idols (mostly David Beckham). And she's no girly girl either; she prefers to bounce a head of lettuce on her knee rather than toss a mean salad. As Jules Knightley (Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace) is just as likeable in her first feature lead. Although their characters are very different the one thing they have in common is their mothers' disdain for the sport which they see as a big man-turnoff. "There's a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one without a fellow " Jules' mom warns. Jonathan Rhys Meyers (the upcoming Prozac Nation) plays Joe--the soccer coach and the object of the girls' affection. He's not a macho jock character but actually a sweet guy wise beyond his years. Bollywood star Anupam Kher plays Jess' dad a stern disciplinarian who also knows when to throw in the towel. Bend It Like Beckham marks his first English-language feature.
Director Gurinder Chadha (What's Cooking) delivers a teenage-angst/girl-power pic that is involving and entertaining. She tackles the common coming-of-age theme of bucking family tradition without pigeonholing the film's teen heroine. I appreciate the fact for example that Jess' character isn't embarrassed by her family's ethnicity and doesn't spend the entire film brooding about growing up differently as Toula did in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. She has no qualms about showing up for a soccer game wearing a sari; she just wants her family to accept her as a young and thriving individual--even if it means bending their views about women and soccer. Really changing preconceptions is a big part of what Bend It Like Beckham is about. The title doesn't just refer to Beckham's soccer abilities but also to the way he challenges stereotypes of the traditional soccer player--much as Jess and Jules do. But that doesn't mean the film skimps on the soccer action; it's packed with speedy and authentic looking match sequences that capture the English passion for the sport and for Beckham as well.