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 This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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The age-old debate over fate vs. free will has been and always will be a tough theme to crack in any medium but with the benefits of modern filmmaking technology the theory can be explored in ways that Philip K. Dick never imagined. However when one relies too heavily on spectacle to tell a story a piece of cerebral science fiction can quickly become just another action extravaganza. In this day and age there’s a fine line between the two; The Matrix walked that tightrope with style and grace while Next never found its footing in the first place. Fortunately the precious work of novelist Dick has for the most part been treated with respect by Hollywood (the aforementioned Nic Cage dud notwithstanding) but that doesn’t necessarily mean movies based on his stories are completely faithful to his vision.
Case in point: George Nolfi’s directorial debut The Adjustment Bureau an adaptation of Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team.” The film stars Matt Damon as David Norris a successful businessman and rising political candidate who after a chance encounter with the girl of his dreams (Emily Blunt) loses a crucial election. He happens to run into her on a Manhattan bus the following week before finding his office swarming with masked men who are “adjusting” everyone inside. Richardson (John Slattery) the man in charge captures Norris who unsuccessfully flees the scene after seeing behind “a curtain he wasn’t even supposed to know existed” as the enigmatic figure puts it. From that point on Norris must live with the knowledge that he (and we for that matter) is not in control of his own life. Rather the choices he makes fit perfectly into “The Plan” that’s been written by “the Chairman”.
In relation to my earlier statement I have to say that Nolfi’s picture looks stunning but his natural urban aesthetic doesn’t overpower the story. Sleek contemporary production design and elegant costumes characterize the high-concept story and the wraithlike agents who shape our destinies. Topically we’re dealing with some heavy material but Nolfi and editor Jay Rabinowitz move the action along at a brisk pace that keeps you engaged and entertained without having to try. The film is properly proportioned as a chase thriller romantic adventure and sci-fi fantasy and thankfully no component overshadows another.
Setting the film in the world of politics and big business helps make its larger-than-life revelations a bit more accessible (as do appearances from Michael Bloomberg Jon Stewart and Chuck Scarborough) while providing sub-text about the corruption involved in elections and campaigns (there are conspicuous shades of The Manchurian Candidate in the movie) but the writer-director often tries too hard for broad appeal. For a film with existential implications as severe as they are here the dialogue is at times hokey and superficial. Dick’s source material is far more abstract and Nolfi for the sake of commercial success panders to the palette of soccer moms and mallrats.
What’s worse is his unwarranted exposition of the Bureau a shadowy organization whose major allure is anonymity. Some secrets are best kept and less can be so much more when crafting a mysterious atmosphere; Nolfi reaches that level of magnetic curiosity but squanders it as he reveals the truth about the Bureau and its grand scheme. On the other hand he brushes over the technical lingo between agents Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) McCrady (Anthony Ruivivar) and others without explanation perhaps hoping that the ambiguous terminology will fool you into thinking that his script is smarter than it really is.
Even though Nolfi’s allegorical conclusions are uncomfortably ham-fisted the chemistry between Damon and Blunt alone is enough to enchant you; this is one highly watchable cinematic pairing that should be revisited as soon as possible. Their innocent relationship blossoms organically and together they make it seem as natural on screen as it is for their star-crossed characters. Even if you have a hard time believing in higher powers or manipulative Orwellian forces you’ll have faith in David and Elise’s fated relationship one of the most captivating couplings I’ve seen on the big-screen in some time.
The news broke Sunday in New York newspapers and on Time Warner Cable's New York 1 channel that film critic/columnist/actor Rex Reed was arrested Saturday for allegedly shoplifting three compact discs. National coverage of the alleged crime continued Monday in such publications as USA Today.
Reed was apprehended by security officers at a Tower Records store near his apartment for allegedly tucking CDs by Mel Torme, Peggy Lee and Carmen McRae into his jacket without, as authorities maintain, paying for them.
Sources suggest Reed, who currently writes an entertainment column for The New York Observer, could have sustained the financial hit of paying for the items. He lives at the Dakota, one of Manhattan's most expensive and exclusive apartment buildings (John Lennon was shot there); owns a spread in an elite corner of rural Connecticut; and, as a single man-about-town, is free of such asset-drainers as wives, mistresses, kids and pampered pets.
Also, say sources, there are all the free movies, books, theater tickets, meals, vacations (name your festival!), and, yes, CDs that are the rightful booty of any writer who covers books, celebs, restaurants, theater, movies, concerts, cabaret, etc. (Reed's beat has been most of these.) Reed may even get free insurance, depending upon what his appearances in films like "Myra Breckinridge" and "Superman" guarantee him in terms of Screen Actors Guild benefits.
Yet not everyone in New York jumped with glee at news of Reed's arrest. Take Shulabeth Ezrailson (Brandeis '69), for instance, whose message board postings and e-mails have been coursing through the Web since the weekend and whose hand-outs have already papered lower Broadway and the New York University and Columbia University campuses.
"How can an entire nation jump to the conclusion that the pigs got it right and Reed got it wrong?" an outraged Shulabeth told Buzz/Saw, as she referred to allegations made by Tower Records security guards and arresting officers. The longtime activist (she headed the Patty Hearst Bail Fund) says she will be leading demonstrators on March 14 outside the downtown courtroom where Reed will have his hearing.
Shulabeth's ravings on behalf of Reed have also apparently elicited an important witness who is scheduled to appear at the March 14 hearing on Reed's behalf. Explains Shulabeth: "This individual will be testifying under oath that he has gone shopping with Reed and has seen him hand over cold hard cash for designer underwear."
Shulabeth may not be real but her ardor is, as is her historical perspective. "The 19th century had Dreyfus, the 20th century had Patty Hearst," she cries. "We're now in the 21st century where no one -- not even Rex Reed -- can get enough!"
In spite of her fervor, Shulabeth's motives may not be as pure as her political protestations and commitment suggest. Buzz/Saw has learned that she is currently shopping life rights to her story, including her efforts on behalf of Reed and her just-launched Rex Reed Defense Fund.
STEAM HEAT: Writer/director Ben Younger's feature debut "Boiler Room," opening Friday, is a terrifically impressive and entertaining film that should knock the socks off critics and bring filmgoers into theaters in droves.
Yes, the film -- a kind of "Wall Street"-lite but with the hip, frenetic pizazz and slickness of "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" -- has its antecedents (Variety's guy predicted "Boiler Room" will be "dismissed by serious critics as derivative"). But the story about twentysomething recruits sucked in by greed into the high-pressure, low-life, and corrupt world of illegal stock brokering is gripping, as are the unforgettable performances from Giovanni Ribisi, Nicky Katt, Ron Rifkin, Nia Long, Scott Caan, Vin Diesel and others.
Some critics have suggested "Boiler Room" is the perfect entry in this era of dot-com frenzy and instant millions. Yet there are several films in the works that are pure dot-com plays: D. A. Pennebaker's "startup.com," a documentary about a real startup called GovWorks; and Wayne Wang's "Center of the World," which focuses on the sex lives of young guys caught up in the Web.
Pennebaker's film has been in the works for ages as it patiently tracks the not quite blazing-speed birth of a dot-com that is going through rounds of financing and endless meetings. The Wang film, which is now casting, begins shooting next month in digital and may be out, via Artisan Entertainment, later this year.
In the meantime, "Boiler Room" is a best bet for a thrilling look at Young Men Wanting Money.
BART'S BARK: Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart has another book out, "Hollywood May Be Dead...but Who Did It?" but does he dare name the culprits? The problem in so doing is that Variety, like its competitor The Hollywood Reporter, is abetted in its reporting if the Powers That Be are cooperative.
Now with stakes raised as the Reporter prepares to open a New York office, Variety should be playing nicey-nice with the Hollywood higher-ups. But a quick glance at the Bart tome suggests he really takes some important issues by the collar.
For instance, about the "Meet Joe Black" fiasco, he writes: "What were they thinking? Here's a movie with a premise that works, provided you don't have time to think about it. That's the rub: You have precisely three hours and one second to think about it," a fact Bart finds all the more ironic since the film was a remake of the merely 78-minute "Death Takes a Holiday."
Bart blasts such filmmaking indulgences, fueled by the unprecedented success of the very lengthy "Titanic," and shows how the studios -- now turned into monstrous multinational corporations -- have lost their touch. Yes, "Hollywood May Be Dead..." is more recycled Bart columns from GQ but he knows his stuff and, occasionally, takes some brave and deserved swipes.
But the really nifty swiping to watch may happen in the near future when Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Kurt Andersen's Powerful Media all converge on the same turf as they cover and try to outdo one another in the wonderful, wacky world of entertainment business reporting. Toss in the dizzying developments of programming delivered on the Web or that elusive thing called the television and it may be more than Hollywood that's dead.