Monthly Archives: November 2011

Fairest


Those of you in the know will think that I am late to the party, but I have finally decided to comment on the Snow White Wars. I know, you’re totally excited!!

For those of you who might have missed it, there are two live-action feature films based on the Snow White story coming out next year. Yes, two. I have been keeping track of the whole affair, but haven’t really felt the need to comment, because there have often been two similar projects in the works, and a lot of the time one or both doesn’t end up panning out. However, in this case, both are definitely a go, and in the last few days, trailers for both have been released. And therein lies the interest, because wow, do these two movies look different. Let’s take a look.

In this corner, we have Mirror, Mirror, a light-hearted take on the fairy tale, directed by Tarsem Singh (The Cell, Immortals) and starring Lily Collins, Julia Roberts, and Armie Hammer. My original thought on this one was that Singh has previously made movies that are visually arresting but usually not particularly great, Lily Collins is a total newcomer, but that I love Julia Roberts and find the idea of her as the Evil Queen hilarious, and Armie Hammer is nice to look at and listen to.

Based on the trailer, what we’re dealing with is a fairy tale movie that owes a lot to movies like Ella Enchanted, Ever After, and to the television miniseries The Tenth Kingdom. It’s young, funny, and “updated” in its humor and references. Ms. Collins looks like Audrey Hepburn reincarnate, but she gets to be a little bit of a liberated heroine. Julia Roberts has what may be the worst accent ever, but I still don’t care, and Armie Hammer is indeed very nice to look at and listen to. Also, it’s shiny and pretty, and there’s Nathan Lane! Overall, I have to say that I am much more inclined to see it now than I was initially. The critics will likely pan it, and it won’t win any awards, but it looks cute and fun, a solid entertainment.

Our other challenger is Snow White and the Huntsman, directed by first-timer Rupert Sanders, and starring Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, and Chris Hemsworth. On paper, this one seems much more interesting, but it’s gotten plenty of negative buzz from hipster movie bloggers because of its leading lady. I haven’t actually seen Kristen Stewart perform in anything, so I am willing to give her a pass, because let’s face it: Snow White isn’t a particularly complex character. The twist to the story is the selling point here, though, in that the plot revolves around Snow White training with the Huntsman so that she can go into battle against the forces of the Evil Queen. I also find it quite intriguing that there is actually a prince, played by Sam Claflin (PotC: On Stranger Tides). Seeing as the Huntsman is being played by current It Hottie Hemsworth, surely some kind of love triangle must come into play? I’d watch it just to see what they do with that.

The trailer for Snow White and the Huntsman is pretty damn epic. It looks dark and gritty, and Charlize Theron is channeling Michelle Pfeiffer in Stardust, only she looks much, much scarier. I have to say about Chris Hemsworth that he’s not really my style at all, but I think he has got some serious star power. When he’s onscreen, you are just compelled to keep an eye on him, and it’s not just because of his abs. Ok, it’s partly because of his abs. Ms. Stewart, by comparison, doesn’t get a whole lot of screentime, which may be a wise move on the producers’ part. I think that ultimately, this version will come out the winner because it looks like it’s trying to appeal to multiple demographics, but the question is whether or not it can live up to the excitement of the trailer.

So now, the question across the blogosphere is: Which will you see? Originally, I had been firmly in the Stewart/Theron/Hemsworth camp, but I am now pretty interested in seeing both of them. I really like that they are extremely different in their treatment of the classic story. Mostly, they both look like enjoyable films to watch. So that’s my stance, but what about you? Both? Neither? Which do you think is the fairest of them all?

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Review: The Birth of a Nation (1915)

One of the most interesting things about watching films on the AFI list is often attempting to understand why a particular movie is there. For instance, The Jazz Singer is not a particularly good movie, but it was the first “talkie,” so it’s ground-breaking in that sense. The original Frankenstein is really kind of terrible, but it’s the grandfather of monster movies, and therefore important. In the case of The Birth of a Nation, what we have is an incredibly controversial film that is frankly horrifying* to many modern-day viewers, but it really must be appreciated in terms of the scope and film-making involved.

The Birth of a Nation is a silent film, directed by D.W. Griffith, that follows two families, one from the North (the Stonemans) and one from the South (the Camerons), through the events of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. It is divided into two sections, with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln as the turning point. In showing us the experiences of two families, Griffith does a good job of dealing with the realities of war: families are torn apart, friends are pitted against one another, everyone suffers. As an anti-war piece, the first half of the movie is actually quite effective. The second half is where things really get squicky.

In Griffith’s interpretation, the death of Abraham Lincoln is a catastrophe for the Southerners. Without “their champion,” they are suddenly at the mercy of carpetbaggers, corrupt politicians, and (most distressingly) the freed slaves. Events come to a head with the death of a young woman who kills herself rather than be molested by a black soldier. This is the catalyst for the creation of the KKK, which is depicted in a fully heroic light. The film culminates in a stand-off between the clansmen and the black inhabitants of the town of Piedmont, South Carolina, which is where the Camerons live and most of the action takes place.

I am loathe to dismiss this film, as a lot of people do, as simply racist, because I think it does a lot of things very well. Its agenda and the treatment of its subject matter are very clear, however, and that’s what makes it most disturbing. We noted early on that in all crowd scenes that include slaves and black people, about half of them are actually African-American, and the other half are in black-face. Any black characters that have actual roles, as far as I could tell, are also played in black-face. From a racial standpoint, obviously that’s uncomfortable. From a film-making standpoint, it just looks ridiculous. The difference is so stark. The biggest issue, though, is simply in how the lines are drawn. White people are the good guys, and black people are the bad guys. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a movie before and really thought about how that notion, of “good guys” and “bad guys,” is conveyed to the audience. It’s done with body language, with camera angles, and with the rise and fall of tension; particularly in this film, since it’s silent. And it’s done extremely well. There was a point at which I realized I was following along with that mindset, and it really bothered me. Still, I have to give credit to Griffith for utilizing the tools available to him in order to lead his audience where he wanted them to go. Highly effective.

The most impressive aspect of The Birth of a Nation is its sheer magnitude. This is an epic film. There are huge, wide shots of hundreds of people. There are battle scenes with explosions and smoke and fire. There are long sequences of hundreds of men on horseback streaming past the camera. Despite its subject matter, one really has to admire the undertaking that making the film must have been in 1915. I think, too, that the main thing to understand and appreciate about the movie is its place in history. Reconstruction ended in 1877, only 38 years prior to the making of this film. That’s practically yesterday in terms of social memory. The people making and watching the movie would have been, in many cases, personally affected by the war (Griffith’s father was a colonel in the Confederate Army). Additionally, when Birth of a Nation was released in early 1915, the first World War had started not even a year prior, which gives the anti-war sentiment a more poignant meaning.

Should you see The Birth of a Nation? I don’t know. I think it probably depends on how you tend to think about the more unpleasant aspects of our history. There are plenty of people who want to ban reminders of past behavior, or to change them, as though that can somehow change history. My personal belief is that we need to be reminded of those things because that is how we learn and hopefully use the knowledge of the past in order to better the future. The movie will certainly make you uncomfortable, but I think that in terms of history, both the history depicted and the history of film-making in America, it’s an important work. We need to know where we’ve been in order to know where we are, and where we’re going.

*This movie contains a lot of offensive material. It is my hope that this review will deal with the subject in the least problematic manner possible, but I sincerely apologize if anything here causes discomfort. There’s no header picture because I couldn’t find one that didn’t bother me.

Review: Reign of Fire (2002)


I’ve been meaning to watch Reign of Fire for a while, because, well, in case you missed it, I’m a Gerard Butler fan. Every time I mentioned it, my husband would roll his eyes and say “Really?” and I would nod shamefacedly. You see, we’d somehow got the impression that a movie about a post-apocalyptic world wherein humans are being forced to the brink of extinction by dragons starring Christian Bale (ok, bringing a little bit of seriousness), Matthew McConaughey (canceling said seriousness out), and Gerard Butler (charming as the sidekick) would be silly, cheesy, and downright bad. I can’t imagine why we’d think that, can you? But, I am here to tell you that appearances can be deceiving, and that Reign of Fire, while not exactly great, is surprisingly none of the above.

Our story takes place in England in 2020. Civilization as we know it has been destroyed by a seemingly indestructible plague of dragons. Yes, those big winged creatures that breathe fire, and all. Apparently, they show up every so often to cleanse the earth before going back into hibernation. Anyway, Quinn (Bale), who has a history with the beasts, heads up an enclave of survivors, most of them children, along with his friend Creedy (Butler). Their safe existence is threatened by the arrival of a group of American soldiers, led by Denton Van Zan (McConaughey, doing some kind of Mad Max thing). Van Zan and his team, which includes helicopter pilot Alex Jensen (Izabella Scorupco), have perfected a method of bringing dragons down, but their numbers and supplies are much diminished, and so they appeal to Quinn and his followers for assistance. Ultimately, Quinn and Van Zan must put aside their differences in order to team up to rid the planet of dragons for good.

It sounds so ridiculous, doesn’t it? Christian Bale is, I suppose, known for a certain amount of gravitas, but McConaughey is more often the exact opposite. The generalization holds true here, but the movie itself, instead of just being a cheesy action flick, is actually rather gritty and dark. Even though McConaughey’s character is completely over-the-top and crazy, he doesn’t play him for laughs. Dragon-killing is a serious business. Bale is doing the stoic, forced-into-leadership thing, whereas Butler’s job is to bring a bit of lightness to the situation. A scene in which Quinn and Creedy enact an exciting duel (no spoilers here!) for the kids before bedtime is pretty much worth the price of admission, but it’s maybe the only truly funny scene in the whole movie. The end, which is naturally fairly predictable, follows an emotional climax involving most of Van Zan’s troops and Quinn’s survivors being wiped out; the darkest hour being before dawn, and all that.

What Reign of Fire does well is treat its subject matter with just the right amount of sobriety and tension. The cinematography is quite good, the acting is above average, and I personally thought that the effects were excellent. They didn’t dwell too much on the dragons, preferring to show them from either a wide perspective or an extremely close one, which made scenes look a lot more realistic and gave the overall feel a little more weight. Where the movie falls short, however, is in terms of the dialogue and overall plot. You don’t have to have seen too many movies to know that the good guys (humans) are going to win the day, but beyond that the dialogue just didn’t leave a whole lot of room for personality or character development. The actors are simply a device that moves the story along. They’re good actors, so they do their job, but you can’t help but wish for a little more connection with them. I know action films aren’t usually where you go if you’re looking for dynamic characterization, but they could have been a little less one-note, in my opinion.

Again, it’s not a great movie, but it’s not a bad one, either. It was enjoyable to watch, and a bit more tense and dramatic than I expected. So if you’ve been saving this one for Stupid Movie Night, you might want to swap it out for something that is properly awful, instead of moderately decent. Add this one to your next Christian Bale or Gerard Butler marathon instead. Ooh, Gerard Butler marathon … that sounds fun. Hmm.