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 a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
By the time we actually get to the Oscar nominations, after months of preparation, analysis and smaller award ceremonies meant to sway Academy voters, there are few categories you can't outright predict to the T. George Clooney in The Descendants; Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady; The Artist for Best Picture. They're all givens.
But, for better or worse, the Academy always has a few tricks up their sleeves, and this year is no different. Here are a few of the shocking reveals that stand out from this morning's nominations.
Best Actor: Demián Bichir in A Better Life
Demián Bichir isn't a familiar name, even to most movie buffs. The Mexican actor has a lengthy resume of films from his home country, as well as stints on Weeds and Steven Soderbergh's Che. But even without the clout of Brad Pitt or George Clooney, Bichir's tremendous performance in Chris Weitz's A Better Life couldn't go overlooked (even if few people saw the movie in theaters). As an illegal immigrant gardner frantically searching for his stolen truck, all while juggling his own troubled relationship with his son, Bichir nails it. The nomination is 100% deserved—and 100% unexpected.
Best Actress: Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Here's an example of a Golden Globes nomination doing some good! Although Rooney Mara saw a nod from the Foreign Press a few weeks ago, her name was rarely breaking the top five in Oscar prediction lists. Actresses like Tilda Swinton and Charlize Theron were all hyped to place before the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo actress, but her physical transformation obviously packed more weight than expected.
Best Supporting Actor: Jonah Hill in Moneyball
The funnyman's turn in the Brad Pitt-starring baseball movie was always a possibility for a nomination, but as the announcement date crept closer, Hill lost traction in favor of heavyweights like Albert Brooks in Drive. But the performance, a brave departure from Hill's usual profanity-laden comedies, must have wowed voters. Plus, it never hurts to have a young gun in the mix alongside aging thespians (Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow are both 82).
Best Director: Terrence Malick in The Tree of Life
Bold is the group of voters who dare to push Steven Spielberg to the wayside, but that's exactly what the Academy did, knocking War Horse out of the mix in favor of the elusive Malick. The poetic director's exploration of life, death, creation and existence also earned a Best Picture nomination, meaning the sophistication level of the voting group is greater than expected. Many predictions thought Tree of Life was too weird for the mainstream-skewing Academy. Not so!
Best Picture: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Critical reactions to Extremely Loud were mixed. Some called it a beautiful work of art. Others, exploitive, overwrought drama. But voters found something to respond to in the story of a kid struggling with the death of his father in a post-9/11 New York, and the movie bumped big contenders like Dragon Tattoo and Harry Potter from Best Picture glory. Does it stand a chance at winning? Probably not—but the nod should give the under-the-radar movie a helpful boost.
This Friday, we'll all be boarding the emerald skies when we check out Warner Bros. Green Lantern on the big screen, but a lot more than box office is riding on the power-ring-wielding superhero's shoulders. Here are several things we hope for and expect of the Emerald Knight, and a few reasons why he must not only rule the weekend (which it most likely will) but also claim the title of “Film of the Summer.”
Green Lantern Must Be a Great Movie
Besides making it’s money back and having fans proclaim it’s success, Green Lantern has to be a great movie. It has to be an accessible movie for any novice. One of many reasons that Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies were so successful is that they stayed true not only to the heart of their iconic characters, but also appealed to the masses as well. And with this year’s “Sexiest Man Alive” cast as the Emerald Knight, Green Lantern should have no problem bringing in audiences of all ages and genders.
Green Lantern Must Be a Great Comic Book Movie
In addition to appealing to the masses, Green Lantern (especially Hal Jordan's Lantern) is one of the most beloved comic book franchises in the history of the medium. Even when DC tried to make him one of the worst villains in comic book history, it was the fans that yearned and fought for the ring to find him again. While the masses will be going to the theaters in droves, it'll be we comic book geeks who keep coming back for seconds and thirds.
Green Lantern Needs to Contend with Thor, Captain America and X–Men: First Class
On the road to Marvel Comics’ Avengers movie and revitalizing the X–Men film franchise, we’ve already gotten not one, but TWO Marvel movies this summer, and Captain America is on his way. Green Lantern is the lone DC character coming to theaters this year and the world en masse needs to know that DC’s characters are just as good as Marvel’s.
The Comic Book Industry Could Use a Boost in Readership
Comic books have been long thought of as picture books for young boys and overgrown man–children. The dawn of superhero cinema should have changed all that. But sadly, no, it hasn’t - and readership has consistently dropped. A character like Green Lantern, who has been revitalized over the past few years in the comics, should hopefully be able to drive a few moviegoers into a comic store to pick up some great GL stories. Might I suggest “Emerald Twilight,” “The Sinestro War,” and “Blackest Night” to get interested film fans started.
Doesn’t it Seem Like Mr. Reynolds Wants to be an Action Hero?
Ryan Reynolds is a fanboy like a lot of us out there. He’s cast as the “Merc’ with a Mouth,” Deadpool, presumably as soon as a script is ready. He’s dabbled in action movies before (Blade: Trinity, X–Men Origins: Wolverine), and while he makes good money doing romantic comedies, fanboys want to cheer for him. Reynolds has got to know this and at least in some part wants to make more and more of these grand, sweeping action epics.
Movies Like This NEED to be Seen on the Big Screen
Several sites have hyped Green Lantern as the next Star Wars or the superhero version of it, and we all know for better or worse George Lucas’ magnum opus needs to be seen on the big screen to truly enjoy (or despise) all of the amazing effects, action and story. For someone like me, who has read a GL tale or two in his day, I’m inclined to agree with the sentiment. Green Lantern, when done right, is at its heart an enormous character driven sci–fi tale, and not seeing it theaters wouldn’t be doing it justice.
We All Need A Little Hope in Our Lives
The story of Hal Jordan is often a tragic one, but it’s also a tale of hope and willpower. It’s the story of an earthling who shows amazing amounts of bravery in the face of intergalactic evil. I’m sure that plenty of us would like to even remotely embody what Hal Jordan has over the years; you know, minus those few years where he went crazy. But even so, we’ve all had our bad days, haven’t we?
The Road to the Justice League Starts Here
While I’m not entirely on board with Warner Bros. and DC making a Justice League movie, the companies wants to do so and this will be the first glimpse into its larger mythos with a character who isn’t a bat or a Kryptonian. If Iron Man and Robert Downey Jr. failed to impress, we wouldn't be gearing up for The Avengers. Likewise, if Green Lantern and Ryan Reynolds falter, fans won’t get to see the ultra–cool JLA base on the moon.
The Green Lantern Franchise is Never Ending
For those of you who don’t know, Hal Jordan wasn’t even DC’s first Green Lantern. Alan Scott was. Those two, John Stewart (the GL of the JLA cartoons), the brash Guy Gardner, Tomar Re and the beloved Kilowog are several of the more popular Lanterns, each with their own stories. Each could have at the very least, an animated movie made based on them (although I think it’d be damn cool to see Matthew St. Patrick or Roger Cross as John Stewart). Have I mentioned Kyle Rayner? The Green Lantern universe IS as diverse as any science fiction/fantasy universe out there and Warner Bros. would be wise to mine it for as long as it can.
More DC Comic Book Movies Please
If this movie flops, we’ll be stuck with only Batman and Superman movies to look forward to. DC has so many popular characters – The Flash, Wonder Woman, Hawkman and Green Arrow, just to name a few. For some odd reason the company has had a hugely difficult time bringing any of these characters to the screen (the recent Wonder Woman barely scratches the surface). There is simply no excuse that over half of Marvel’s most popular characters have had at least one film while DC characters have been made to languish in direct–to–video movies only. Not that any of them are bad; go see New Frontier for a great example.
Even if you’re one of the 19 other people in a competitive internship at Dean Witter with Chris Gardner (Will Smith) you gotta root for the guy. Life’s beaten him up but not got him down. He lugs his computer-monitor-sized bone density scanner all over San Francisco hoping to sell just one to make ends meet for his family—but nobody’s buying. As his wife’s (Thandie Newton) discontentment nears a boiling point Chris accepts an internship at financial institution Dean Witter—six months without pay and only one of the 20 applicants will ultimately get a job out of it. This sends her packing. She leaves Chris and their son Christopher (Jaden Smith) to fend for themselves at which point they get evicted. It’s the tip of the iceberg because over the course of Chris’ penniless pursuit of the Dean Witter job (and “happyness”) he and Christopher will get by sleeping in homeless shelter--and even in train-station bathrooms. Chris had always vowed to never leave his son and he keeps his promise but there’s no guarantee that his perseverance will pay off. Except for the fact that Happyness is “INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY”! Will Smith is getting all the awards buzz but it’s his real-life son Jaden who transcends all expectations in Happyness. Jaden’s never acted in a movie before and it’s safe to assume that because of his father's long-running movie stardom he could not have grown up in a more different environment than that of his character. Which makes it all the more amazing for this 8-year-old Hollywood tyke to grasp even if coincidentally the plight of a nomadic urban child. The best part about little Jaden is that his performance doesn’t seem robotic like so many child actors who are already too "seasoned" for their own good. Aside from the expected cutesy laughs there’s genuine spontaneity in Jaden’s performance obviously thanks to the fact that he’s acting opposite his dad. Papa Smith gives what’s probably his best performance to date although he's had a career of primarily action roles that weren't exactly conducive to a skills showcase. He delivers the goods here—as seen in the tear-rific trailer—as a man whose whole life is his child but frankly the tears evoked might be too few for Oscar’s liking. Newton (Crash) in a small role is terribly miscast but Mr. and Mr. Smith dominate the screen anyway. Even with the studio flaunting the movie’s "Inspired by a true story..." tagline like a badge of honor—as studios tend to do—and this being the holiday season and all Italian director Gabriele Muccino expends way too much effort into the crowd-pleasing/feel-good aspects of Happyness. The happy ending everyone already knows about should be saccharine enough. Granted this is why a studio loves true stories—one that begins on a low note ends on a really high note and fluctuates all over the radar in between—and it may make the film more pleasing to its targeted mainstream audiences but Muccino and writer Steve Conrad (The Weather Man) really take the gloss factor much too far. In this case they essentially try to tell us a mostly sad story but will not let us feel sad. For instance during what could be very dark reflective scenes potentially connecting with viewers who have struggled through similar problems music befitting a children’s tale overtakes the would-be drama so we don’t ever feel too badly for Chris. It’s nice that the director cares so much for us but oftentimes the best directors are the ones who show an audience tough love.