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.
In Duncan Jones’s sci-fi thriller Source Code Jake Gyllenhaal plays Captain Colter Stevens a U.S. Army helicopter pilot who awakens after an enemy ambush to find himself sitting on a Chicago-bound commuter train surrounded by strangers with absolutely no idea how he got there. As he struggles to process his strange new milieu he’s pestered with small-talk by a perky fellow-passenger (Michelle Monaghan) whom he doesn’t recognize but who clearly seems to know him. When he looks into a mirror staring back at him is the image of a man who while handsome is certainly no Jake Gyllenhaal. What Hitchcockian hell has Captain Stevens wandered into? Could it all be a dream?
Before Colter can ponder matters further a massive explosion sends him hurtling into oblivion from which he emerges intact strapped to a chair inside a dark capsule-like enclosure. A woman Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) pops up on a video screen and tersely informs him that he is now part of a new high-tech front in the War on Terror: Source Code an experimental program that allows a person to assume the identity of someone else during the last eight minutes of his or her life. Whoever planted the bomb on the train is said to be readying another far deadlier attack to unleash on Chicago in a matter of hours. The only hope for preventing it is for Colter to repeatedly scour the memory of one of the train's deceased passengers in the hopes of finding clues that might help them determine the identity of the bomber.
Soon Colter finds himself in an existence not unlike that of Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day revisiting the same eight-minute scenario over and over again. As a soldier his first instinct is to try and prevent the explosion from happening and save the lives of the innocents on board. But doing so is futile Source Code’s creepy and condescending inventor Dr. Walter Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) glibly explains. Source Code is not a time-travel machine but rather a “time-reassignment” device built on principles of quantum mechanics and parabolic calculus that Colter's feeble mind couldn’t possibly comprehend. The train bombing is a part of the past which is unalterable; Stevens’ actions to prevent its occurrence however heroic have no real-world ramifications. He is simply a detective whose crime scene is the residual consciousness – the “after-image” – of a dead man’s brain.
But if that were true Colter wouldn’t be able to exit the train make cell phone calls strike a romantic chord with Monaghan’s character or engage in various other activities that we see him perform in the film activities that lie well beyond the experiential purview of the dead man’s final memories. Could it be that the Source Code program is actually something more profound perhaps a kind of portal to a parallel universe? (Jones’s usage of Scott Bakula star of TV’s Quantum Leap in a clever cameo as the Colter's father provides a strong hint.) Colter's own experiences seem to confirm as much: Each time the train-bombing scenario unfolds he notices subtle differences in seemingly trivial details like the timing of a coffee spill. No two universes after all can ever be exactly alike.
This little twist exposes some potential issues with Source Code’s underlying logic chief among them being questions about the reliability of any “evidence” uncovered by Colter in his quantum adventures. The narrative asks us to take a few logical leaps of faith and I humbly suggest you comply. Source Code is more than strong enough as a film – an intelligent probing sci-fi thriller that packs a surprisingly strong emotional punch – to withstand any nitpicking about its theoretical veracity. Director Jones’s ambitions are grander his aim more mainstream his tone more hopeful this time around than in his haunting 2009 breakout hit Moon but the result is just as resonant.
It can’t just ALL be about a boy wizard named Harry Potter. There have to be other fantasy-driven stories grounded in reality that are just as exciting. And so there is: The Spiderwick Chronicles a series of short books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black which tells us about the magical creatures who live around us but who remain invisible so we humans won’t freak out. Probably a wise choice for most but there are a few who want to see the creatures. One such person is Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) a turn-of-the-century naturalist who has witnessed the likes of sprites goblins hobgoblins ogres and trolls at work. He has documented their secrets and habits in his Field Guide--a book that if placed in the wrong hands could make some fantastical beast maliciously omnipotent. Jump ahead some 80 years when we meet Spiderwick’s descendents the Grace family who have moved into his dilapidated house in the woods. Newly divorced mom Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) has uprooted her kids--teenage Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twins Jared and Simon (both Freddie Highmore)--to start a new life with Jared being the one protesting the loudest. That is until he finds Spiderwick’s field guide and quite literally opens Pandora’s box giving evil ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte) who has desperately wanted the book since its inception the window of opportunity he’s been waiting for. The Grace kids have to band together--with a few otherworldly allies of course--to protect the book at all costs. Although Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) struggles at times with the American accent the young British lad continues to prove his worthiness in the acting department--and joins the ranks of playing twins onscreen that dates back to Patty Duke on The Patty Duke Show (yes they were just cousins but they were identical cousins). Highmore does a nice job distinguishing between the two boys but he seems to have the most fun playing Jared. And rightly so since Jared is the true hero of the story. He is deeply wounded by his parents’ divorce blaming his mother for it all but in discovering this magical and dangerous world that goes way beyond his personal problems he quickly snaps to it. Bolger (In America) too takes her clichéd older-sister-who-knows-everything role and freshens it up adding a fierce determination to protect her family--with an expressive face that makes her very watchable. The adult cast isn’t nearly as important but they all fit in nicely especially Joan Plowright as Great Aunt Lucinda Spiderwick’s 80-something daughter who saw her father taken away by sylphs the keepers of the faeries’ secrets when she was 6 and has been trying to explain it ever since. Then there are the voices of some of the creatures the Graces meet including Martin Short as the ever-faithful house brownie Thimbletack; Seth Rogen as the hobgoblin Hogsqueal a piggish and friendly fellow whose spit in the eye gives you the Sight; and Nolte as the horrible villainous Mulgarath. OK all those who believe in faeries raise your hand! The Spiderwick Chronicles is just the kind of story that gets an imaginative kid to run out to the garden to start looking for sprites and director Mark Waters inherently understands this. Better known for his comedies such as Mean Girls and Freaky Friday Waters nonetheless grabs hold of the Spiderwick’s mythology and firmly plants it in reality with normal modern kids encountering a whole magical realm. Taking from the illustrations of co-author Tony DiTerlizzi Waters also gives us new versions of magical creatures we’ve read about for ages. Goblins for example look like giant frogs and act like attack dogs in this film as opposed to the more civilized view of them in the Harry Potter books--and goblins in Spiderwick can be killed by tomato sauce which melts them. Nice touch. Trolls too aren’t great big lumbering fellows but more dinosaur-like in Spiderwick. And let’s just say ogre Mulgarath looks nothing like Shrek but more so a devilish creature with yellow eyes and great big horns. Spiderwick is indeed scary at times maybe too scary for the younger kids but the action sequences and chase scenes are thrilling enough to keep everyone else’s attention.
Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.