Friday, March 30, 2012

Mirror Mirror Review

If I were in a grumpy “Film Critic” mood I could rip “Mirror Mirror” (the first of two new Snow White movies coming out this year) to shreds. But I dunno, considering this is a kid’s movie (rated PG), it doesn’t really seem fair to nitpick it, comparing it to other Snow White adaptations and finding other complaints not worth fussing about. (Julia Roberts as the evil witch dominating more of the movie than Snow White, for example). It’s sort of like the new Muppets movie; if you’re completely dissatisfied I’d say you went to the wrong movie.

If anything this movie should be seen for the visuals. When I say it’s a children’s movie I mean, with all the visual effects the movie is only a couple notches away from being an animated feature. A lot of warm, inviting and vibrant colors used to keep up with the high metabolisms and short attention spans of children. The director, Tarsem Singh (“The Cell,” “The Fall”) goes the whole nine yards with visual creativity and has considerable skill with the camera, especially in staging scenes that have a lot going on in them, like during a castle ball, with dozens of people complete with excessive hairdo’s, puffy shirts, and massive dresses.

Brendan Galvin’s cinematography is pretty in a syrupy, artificial way. Tom Foden’s production design, the set decoration by Jille Azis and Paul Hotte, as well as the costume design by Ekio Ishioka and the makeup are all so wonderfully extravagant and fantastical that  “Mirror Mirror” is almost like being in Candyland for 95 minutes. Over the top? Definitely. And for parents and other adults, it might be a little much, like eating too many pieces of candy but for children it will be a sugar high.

As far as a plot summary goes there’s not much I need to say. Everyone who goes to this will know the story of Snow White. There’s the evil witch (Roberts), who is afraid of her younger sister Snow White (Lily Collins) being more attractive than her; then there’s the charming prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who takes a liking to Snow White, and the seven dwarfs who Snow White befriends.

And for the most part the screenplay by Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller follows the original story, except for a few changes, mostly for modern or comedic reasons. Such as the names of the dwarfs being changed. They’re now known as Napoleon, Half Pint, Grub, Grimm, Wolf, Butcher and Chuckles, and instead of jolly mine workers they front as bandits. I guess mining jobs in Candyland--much like in the real world--are on the way out.

Even though most of the gags are meant for kids I appreciated the times when Wallack and Keller would slip in subtle “wink wink!” adult jokes, like when the queen’s aid played by Nathan Lane is turned into a cockroach and when he turns back he talks about how a “Grasshopper took advantage of him” (that’s right, a rape joke). This gives the adults some delight and reason to not completely check out. On top of that it shows that the filmmakers are aware of the silliness of their movie.

The acting ranges from wooden to earnest and enthusiastic, both are acceptable for children’s movies. You can tell Roberts is having a fun time playing the witch, adding a bit of sass in addition to her evilness. It’s always more fun to play a villain. Collins does the best she can even though she has the somewhat dull task of playing the goodie-goodie princess and I give Hammer credit for being as animated as he is.

“Mirror Mirror” won’t be for everyone. Teenagers should stay far away, along with anyone else not associated with young children.  The movie isn’t perfect, and it might be better to just show your kids the classic Disney animated film instead, but there is never a moment in it where it’s flat out unwatchable, even during some of the really childish jokes (the Queen mistakenly gives Prince Alcott a Puppy Love potion as opposed to a Love potion and he ends up acting like a dog). And even those are all in good campy fun.

That’s a good way to sum up “Mirror Mirror” as a whole: good, corny, childish fun.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Hunger Games Review

“The Hunger Games,” by Suzanne Collins is a book with one of those premises that makes you stop for a moment and think: “Wow, that’s kinda messed up.”

In the not too distant future the continent of North America has been split up into twelve districts. Two kids between the ages of 12 and 18 are chosen at random from each district. One boy and one girl, to compete in The Hunger Games, a yearly competition that puts them in a massive arena to fight to the death until one remains.  The games serve as a reminder of a failed uprising of the districts against the tight grip of the government and also as entertainment. It’s televised for all to see.

That’s dark stuff, don’t you think? Making children kill each other for television. How people can watch it for entertainment purposes is beyond me.  I guess it’s just one of those things that you have to accept, whether you like it or not.

The film adaptation, directed by Gary Ross (‘Big”) has a slick, polished look to it and is skillfully made. The direction is competent and the acting is first rate. It moves at a swift but comfortable pace, considering all the ground it has to cover. The script by Ross, Collins and Billy Ray stays faithful to the novel whole-heartedly. Certain parts are cut down and some miniscule things are either changed or left out. There are a few small scenes added, mostly talking scenes that are there to provide explanation (the novel is in first person and therefore has a lot of inner monolog) but overall it’s the same story, no major parts are altered. We get to see all the kid killing carnage the book had.

The story revolves around Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) a 16-year-old girl from district 12 who--in order to prevent her little sister Prim from competing-- volunteers and along with the selected boy tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is sent off to the capitol where they get to live in the lap of luxury. Eating all they want, nice rooms to stay in. At the same time they get mentored by Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) one of the only people from district 12 to win in the past. Since it is a TV show they also have to make a good impression with the game makers and people who can help them out during the game (give them food and supplies), which is key to surviving.

Again, I just can’t get over how messed up all this is. These kids are forced from their homes, fed, cleaned and done up in nice outfits to make themselves appealing, like pigs to the slaughter. And all the while it’s televised, where people take bets on who will win and who will die. Excuse me while I go out and vomit.

And yet, I l feel like it could have shown that brutality more. The movie is dark to a certain extent but the reality of the situation feels glossed over. For how twisted the premise is, the movie doesn’t feel that raw. It has so much ground to cover that the harshness and viciousness seems downplayed. For example, in the book when the games start Katniss has trouble finding food and water and it takes her a little while to get her footing, but in the movie it goes over that fairly quickly, trying to get to the next plot point. It moves so fast that you sort of wish it would just slow down and emphasize the sheer miserableness and paranoia that I imagine anyone in that situation would be facing.

Now I’m fully aware that the producers of this movie don’t want to make it too dark and gloomy. They want to adapt the other two books in the trilogy so they don’t want to scare people away. But the fact of the matter is that the story is dark and disturbing and showing that to its full extent would have given the movie more impact as opposed to just being a franchise starter.

Even so, the movie still works for the most part. The first half, consisting of set up and preparation for the games, is paced extremely well, while The Hunger Games sequences are exciting and tense. Jennifer Lawrence delivers another commanding and confident performance. Katniss is brave, resilient and can fend for herself and Lawrence can do all that with ease. Along with Hutcherson the two make you care what happens to them. Meanwhile the supporting players like Harrelson and Stanley Tucci as Caeser Flickman, the master of ceremonies, have fun with their extravagant characters. Film franchises seem to bring the best out of well-known actors, much like the “Harry Potter” movies.

In the end “The Hunger Games” delivers a movie that fans of the book series will enjoy and provides solid entertainment for everyone else. My only hope is that the second movie will be even darker because whether it’s a low budget exploitation film or a high budget Hollywood picture, kids fighting each other to the death is still messed up when you stop to think about it.


Friday, March 16, 2012

The Forgiveness of Blood Review

At the very least Joshua Marston’s “The Forgiveness of Blood” gives us an interesting set up. The central story takes place in the midst of a family blood feud in the mountains of Albania. The whole idea of a blood feud sounds silly, doesn’t it? Sort of like gang violence. The idea that a small quarrel between two families can lead to murder and retaliation. Not to mention the family who’s being targeted having to stay confined in their house until the feud is resolved. According to the press notes I was given along with the film, since 1992 more than 9,500 males have been killed in blood feuds, with more than 2,800 families locked in these deadly disputes.

One of the underlining themes in the movie is loyalty to one’s family. That no matter the circumstances, no matter who’s to blame you stick with your family. Say, my family was locked in a blood feud and it was my family who ignited it. Even though they are at fault, I would still feel an obligation to stick with them and support them, even if it means living in isolation.

Instead of trying to tackle the issue as a whole, Marston isolates it to one particular family. It revolves around Nik (Tristan Hallia), an ambitious carefree teenager. One day his father and uncle become involved in a land dispute that eventually leads to the death of a villager. This in turn leads to a feud between Nik’s family and the family of the dead person. According to a centuries-old code, they have a right to kill one male in Nik’s family. With the uncle in prison and the father on the lam Nik and other members of his family have to stay at their house (because according to the code, the family seeking vengeance can’t go on their property) and wait until the dispute is settled.

Overall “The Forgiveness of Blood” is competently made. The script by Marston and Andamion Murataj is intelligent. The actors--while most of them are newcomers--bring a certain level of believability. It is slow moving but that’s mainly because most of the movie is about Nik and his family having to live in seclusion. Long hours of sitting around, TV watching and no school. At one point Nik makes a barbell to work out with and carves up a wall with a knife out of boredom. While his sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej) has to keep working to support the family. It doesn’t look fun, that’s for sure.

And yet, I couldn’t help but be underwhelmed by the movie in the long run because not a lot really happens. I would think something that would involve family-to-family murder would be very tense, but the movie’s too trivial. There’s far too much sitting around, which wouldn’t necessarily be bad but Marston sets up so many potentially suspenseful moments in the picture.

We see Rudina active in the town, all by herself. At one point she even gets threatened by the other family, and Nik sneaks out few times, once he even goes right up to the house of the other family, but they build up to nothing. There needed to be more at stake. Another family member killed or kidnapped, something to get the circulation going, to get us on edge. To make the isolation scenes more dreadful and uneasy. We don’t even get to see the event that sparks the conflict. As a result the climax is not very exciting and the ending feels incomplete.

Frankly the movie left me wanting to learn more about blood feuds. Apparently they were banished when communism came to Albania in 1944. But then came back in 1992 as an “unsanctioned alternative to the convoluted and overstretched government legal system,” along with bribery, overloaded courts and a nation wide ban of the death penalty.

Funny, there was no mention of corruption or a convoluted government in the movie. The few times the police did show up they didn’t seem dishonest. Perhaps Marston shouldn’t have kept the story so isolated.


21 Jump Street Review

“21 Jump Street” is the kind of raunchy comedy, like “The Hangover,” that just works. I’m not saying it’s great but given what it has to work with (drugs, alcohol, guys who swear, violence, sex) it somehow manages to pull it off. The film starts off with a high-energy momentum that keeps it going at a nice swift pace. It doesn’t wallow around in a bunch of side plots; it doesn’t take a downer turn at the end. It has a clear objective and for the most part it follows through.

It quickly sets itself up: Two recent additions to the police force, the short, slightly awkward and dorky Morton (a slimmed down Jonah Hill) and the big, good-looking dummy Greg (a regular looking Channing Tatum) are transferred to the 21 Jump Street program. A Program that puts young looking officers such as themselves undercover in high schools. There’s a new synthetic drug that’s popular among students and they have to find the dealer and the distributer. Their boss tells them to not get expelled and not to take any drugs or alcohol of any kind. By standard guy comedic logic we know that all of this stuff will happen. They also can’t go too deep, like say fall for a pretty girl, but we also know by standard comedy rules this will happen as well. These aren’t criticisms by any means, just observations.  Letting you know now, so that you don’t get blind-sided by these plot developments.

Just about every character in the movie is stereotype. The pair’s boss Captain Dickenson (Ice Cube, always worth a few laughs) is the traditional police boss who yells and gets angry. There’s a stereotypical uptight drama teacher at the school, a stereotypical motorcycle gang that helps push the stuff. Heck Morton and Greg are big stereotypes. When they were in high school Greg was the popular (but still dumb) jock that made fun of nerds like Morton and now in their adulthood are paired up and have become friends. But the stereotypes work, because the film acknowledges them. “Embrace your stereotypes,” Dickinson says to the Jump Street recruits on the first day.

The movie is based on a 1987 TV show that starred Johnny Depp (who makes a cameo), so of course the premise is a little outdated and corny but the movie knows that and it has good old nostalgic fun with that. There’s a joke where the official who transfers the pair says by accident 37 Jump Street.

At the same time however “21 Jump Street” isn’t just stuck in the past. The directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, along with screenwriter Michael Bacall make sure to update it to modern times. Greg and Morton do embrace their stereotypes but that’s a problem. Times have changed, no longer does the cool crowd play sports and beat up on nerds like Greg used to do. No, they care about the environment, compost and ride bikes whenever they can. What’s up with that, right? That’s at least what Greg is thinking, as he gradually becomes the outcast, hanging out with the nerds.

Morton, on the other hand, is fitting in just fine and it’s he who becomes tight with the main dealer named Eric (Dave Franco) and who goes in too deep when he falls for Eric’s friend Molly (Brie Larson). Surprisingly this is where some of the funniest bits of humor came from. The fact that the popular kids actually give a damn about the planet and hurting others. It’s a little over exaggerated at times but that’s all part of the gag.

Hill and Tatum are right at home with these roles. Hill has made a name for himself playing the awkward, dorky “trying to be cool” guy. He just has a way of taking a line as simple as “you do have the right to be an attorney” and can make it sound funny. The same goes for Tatum, I’ve always thought of him as mediocre, somewhat bland actor but in this case his bland oafishness is exactly what the role of Greg requires. Perhaps he should lay off those action movies and stick to comedy.

Now, yes the momentum I mentioned does slightly stop at the end. Like many buddy cop pictures “21 Jump Street” settles for the standard, car chase/shootout between the baddies climax. It doesn’t matter how funny the movie is, chase/gun fights are boring in that context. Until then though, “21” is a joy to watch, high energy, it knows what kind of movie it is and embraces it and it’s consistently funny.


Jeff, Who Lives at Home Review

“Jeff, Who Lives at Home” is one of those ordinary comedies about an ordinary lovable loser. It’s rather plain and homemade looking. Not flashy, no product placements, no slow-mo’s of beautiful women walking by. In other words, it’s an Indie comedy. The film is written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass (“Cyrus,” “Bag Head”) who use a contemporary filmmaking method called Mumblecore, which basically means low production values and shot with digital, hand held cameras. “Jeff” has a very documentary feel to it; I guess that’s where the ordinariness of it comes in.

Overall it’s done fairly simply. The movie is more about the characters than the situations and that’s always a plus. Too many times we see a comedy movie where the filmmakers rely on some exotic location, like Las Vegas, or some wacky situation, like a bad hangover, to provide laughs.

As far as story goes there’s not much to recap. The movie is about average, middle class life styles whose main character is Jeff (Jason Segel), a thirty year old who still lives at home. He doesn’t have a job, nor a girlfriend or wife. He’s big and tall (at one point someone refers to him as a Sasquatch), his hair is uncombed, and he wears a shabby blue sweatshirt and a pair of shorts. Jeff believes in fate, that everything happens for a reason and something as small as a wrong phone call from someone asking for Kevin is a sign from the gods. Since the highlight of his day would involve fixing a shade door, he decides to explore his possible sign from the gods and starts looking around for anything having to do with the name Kevin.

We never find out why Jeff is still living at home. Although considering his personality and the fact that his mom Sharon (Susan Sarandon) is no longer with her husband, we can make some inferences. On the other side of things we have Jeff’s older brother Pat (Ed Helms), who seems to have everything in order. Pat doesn’t live at home. He has a job, and he has a wife (Judy Greer) but his marriage is falling apart. Jeff’s wild pursuit of Kevin leads the two of them to grow much closer together. Jeff is able to help Pat with his problems and Pat is able to accept Jeff’s weird way of looking at the world. It makes for a nice central relationship. And when it’s just the two of them having conversations, the film is at its best.

It must be said that Segel is very good in the role mainly because the performance feels genuine. At the beginning there’s an extended scene of Jeff discussing why he likes the movie “Signs” and how it’s all about fate. You may laugh, not because he’s trying overly hard to be funny but because you believe he believes those words. You believe that he thinks the phone call for Kevin is a sign. You believe that he wears that same ratty sweater and dorky pair of shorts every day. Helms is also quite convincing, playing a slightly meaner version of his square guy performance that he’s so attuned to playing, and together, their different attitudes play well off one another.

  Now, I don’t have any problems with the usage of hand held cameras. It creates a uniqueness that you don’t often see in comedies. And I don’t have an issue with the average Joe comedy plot either; as it too creates uniqueness and a sense of realism. What I do have a problem with are the little bursts of whimsical quirkiness. You know, the kind of stuff that shows up in Indie movies.

An example: at the place of business where Sharon works, someone pulls the fire alarm and instead of getting up to leave as the place fills up, she decides to sit there smiling and taking in the moment as fluttery guitar music plays. Moments like these don’t feel realistic; instead they feel like the Duplass’s felt the need to further drill into our heads the fact that this is an Indie comedy. They already shot it using hand held cameras and it’s about regular people, the use of Indie movie clich├ęs isn’t necessary.

All in all “Jeff” is a slight movie that doesn’t amount to much. It also moves slowly at times but in all honesty that’s not such a bad thing. The whole movie feels so pointless and minuscule in scale. The characters don’t go anywhere, they don’t have to buy alcohol to impress girls at a party or recover their missing friend in Las Vegas. It’s simply just about a guy chasing after a crazy feeling of fate and another having to deal with his failing marriage. And that’s just fine.