Snow White and the Huntsman (B-)
U.S.: Rupert Sanders, 2012, Universal
Snow White and the Huntsman has one of the clunkiest movie titles around, and a lot of the movie is worthy of it. A wildly expensive and lushly produced new look at the Grimm Brothers fairy tale Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs, starring Kristen Stewart as Snow, the film manages to waste an interesting idea, a fitfully intelligent script, a very good cast (with a big juicy villainess turn by Charize Theron as the wicked queen) and hotshot production design and cinematography. The unhappy result: a bloated, sexed-up fairytale show, seething with fancy cliches.
One of the culprits may be director Rupert Sanders: a star TV commercial director making his feature directorial debut. Sanders' work, while full of pretty seaside castles, dark forbidding forests and gossamer fairylands, showed little evidence of the ability to tell stories or to bring actors alive (besides Theron). I'm not saying he can't learn. But the producers may have done him little service by having him practice on a 100-million-dollar-plus production, with a lot of complex logistics, a tricky revisionist script and a dopey title.
What in hell is the point of taking a perfectly good title like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," kicking out the dwarfs and adding the huntsman, a guy who originally does a cameo in the Grimm tale by not killing Snow White and letting her run off in the dark forest. It seems a silly switch, even if you're hell-bent on emphasizing the movie's romantic element, which now includes both the huntsman and the prince (Sam Ciaffin), and hell-bent also on emphasizing the fact that a hunk star like Chris Hemsworth (of Thor) is playing the Huntsman.
Actually, the original writer, Evan Daugherty (he was joined or augmented at various times by others, including John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini), hadn't even intended a romance between Snow White and Huntsman. He did however want a blending of the Snow White story and Peter Jackson's movie version of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
In the beginning, it almost works. An all-knowing narrator whisks us from "Once Upon a Time" through the sad story of Snow White -- born to a queen who wished for a daughter with skin white as snow, lips red as a rose, hair black as ebony -- and, as events whiz by, we learn (from the Grimm story, augmented) that Snow's mother (Liberty Ross) died in childbirth, Snow's imprudent father married bombshell Ravenna (Theron), who poisoned and killed him, and brought in her creepy brother with a Dutchboy haircut, Finn (Sam Spruell), to divvy up and loot the kingdom. She also begins to spend absurd amounts of time cross-examining her mirror about the fairest in the land.
Of course, the mirror first says "Ravenna," but eventually switches its vote to the imprisoned Snow. Frankly, I thought the Queen always had the edge. So, to wipe out her only real rival, Ravenna sends off Huntsman to kill Snow -- and that begins the quest part of the story, along with a lot of stuff inserted to give the new hero, Huntsman, something to do. Eventually, this all leads us to the dwarfs, played by scene-stealing British character stars like Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Eddie Marsan and Toby Jones, all of whom have had their heads plopped on the bodies of dwarfs though the magic of CGI. It all climaxes with Snow leading a quickly assembled fairytale army of stalwart bashers into the Queen's castle. (By the way, I agree with Roger Ebert that the movie should have, instead of CGI-enhanced Brit all-stars, employed real dwarf actors.)
The production design (by Dominic Watkins) and the cinematography (by Greig Fraser) is impressive, but the story loses a lot of its coherence when the narration stops and it turns into an overproduced ersatz classic. None of the actors but Theron -- who becomes ferocious, full of venom and gleeful sadism -- are given much that's interesting to do, except take a gander at all the wonders around them, yell during battle or muse on the travails of the evil kingdom and fairyland.
Israel: Joseph Cedar, 2011, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
One thing I know I will never do is read the Talmud cover to cover -- even in an English translation, much less, God knows, in the original Hebrew. Yet such is the brilliance and warmth and wit of Joseph Cedar's Footnote -- which is really one of the best movie comedies of the year and probably one of the best dramas as well -- that, at the end of the film, I wanted to read a page or two of the Jewish holy book.
It is not that Footnote put me in an especially spiritual mood, but rather because it wired me into such intimate communion with its fictitious but real-seeming world and people -- scholars for whom perusing the Talmud, and understanding it, arguing over it and being recognized for that understanding, were so important that it might actually blight their lives if something went wrong -- as, in this movie, something did and does.
Watching Footnote, you can see very clearly the absurdity of many of the scholars' religious/academic quests and conflicts. You can absorb how their obsession with learning, in some ways, sabotages their relationships and darkens their lives. But you can also feel the great animating force of their scholarly passion: their love for the Talmud, their obsession with its most obscure meanings, and with what it means to them (for good or bad). You can feel it just as intensely as you can feel Romeo's love for Juliet, or Plato's for philosophy, or Faraday's for magnetism, or Balzac's for Paris.
The Talmudic scholars whom Cedar brings to such wondrous life here are a father, a son and the father's worst enemy, all fighting or aiding each other, in a very convincing modern Israel. They are, respectively, Eliezer Shkolnick (Shlomo Bar-Aba), a punctilious, conservative-minded scholar who once tossed his own magnum opus, and whose proudest moment was being mentioned in another, greater scholar's footnote; his son the populist author and media star Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), who has easily achieved the fame that eluded his father; and, finally, Eliezer's great foe Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), who beat him to the punch with a philological discovery that duplicated (but was published before) Eliezer's theory and labors, thus making Eliezer's life's work redundant, and, piling insult on injury, has been blackballing him for years since in any vote for the coveted Israel Prize and other high, desirable academic honors.
The movie begins with a lacerating shot of Eliezer as he sits and glowers in the audience at a posh intellectual ceremony while his son Uriel accepts another honor, a membership in an academy that has excluded Eliezer for years. As he accepts, and as his father fumes, Uriel tells a poignant anecdote (later undercut) about how Eliezer insisted that his little son write down "teacher' as Eliezer's occupation. Today, to a laughing, appreciative crowd, Uriel adds how proud he is now of what once seemed a humbler title than "professor." But we can tell that Eliezer, far from being correspondingly proud about his son -- whom he actually regards as a sell-out and venal popularizer -- hates every moment of sitting there, and seethes with resentment. (The film's narrator has already told us that this is the most difficult night of Eliezer's life.)
Uriel -- whose talent for winning friends and support is as surefire as Eliezer's knack for alienating them. -- is a scholar at war not just with the unscholarly world outside, but with own little world inside. And though Uriel wants nothing more than to see his perpetually scowling killjoy father honored -- Uriel is the one who keeps nominating Eliezer for prizes -- these efforts keep failing, as his father keeps being refused.
Soon however, irony and fate overwhelm them both. Eliezer, in what the narrator calls his "happiest day," gets a letter informing him that he has won the Israel Prize. His life has been redeemed, reclaimed -- though, true to his sour disposition, Eliezer accepts even this seeming triumph by spewing insults to the local media.
You notice I said "seeming." One catch: Eliezer did not really win the Israel Prize. His son Uriel was the actual winner, and the letter addressed to his father was a mistake. Something must obviously be done to clear up this mess (which is still under wraps), and Uriel fights to let his father keep the award, which incidentally would avoid huge embarrassment to the committee responsible for all decisions. But there's another problem. That committee is run by Eliezer's nemesis, Grossman. Cramped into a tiny room, lined with books, a room where they can hardly move, the committee members and Uriel verbally slug it out. Eliezer is, for the moment, oblivious to the drama behind the prize.
For me, the debate here was one of the most supremely suspense-packed conflicts of the movie year, or of several years. And a meaningful one. The ideas behind the movie, it seems, are that obsessions can be fascinating but unnecessary, that humanity (not to mention fatherhood and filial or philological devotion) can trump scholarship, as long as you've got mind and heart in the right places. Footnotes can be important, even crucial. And, while most movie battles are both monomaniacal and predictable, this one is predictable, charming, funny, dramatic and full of both humanity and dark wit.
The Five-Year Engagement (B)
U.S.: Nicholas Stoller, 2012, Universal
The Five-Year Engagement, latest from the Judd Apatow bunch, is a romantic comedy that would probably be annoyed if you called it a rom-com. Directed and co-written by Nicholas Stoller (who made the very entertaining buddy road comedy Get Him to the Greek), it's a smart film about smart people who get into a dumb situation: a seemingly endlessly protracted engagement that keeps getting extended because, even though they love each other honestly, truly, this engaged couple -- psychology grad student Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt) and trendy sous chef Tom Solomon (Jason Segel, who's also the co-writer ) -- can't solve their geography problem or make their opposing career tracks jell.
Tom works in Birch, one of San Francisco's hippest modernist restaurants. Violet wants to go to grad school at Berkeley, but she's rejected -- before getting a positive offer from the University of Michigan. So Tom plays super-nice guy and agrees to put off their wedding and accompany her to Ann Arbor for a couple of years (they think). But once they get to Ann Arbor, Tom can't find a decent chef job, and he winds up hand-crafting sandwiches in Zingerman's deli, for an eccentric, foot-in-mouth deli guy named Tarquin (Brian Posehn). And Violet finds herself the romantic target of her sly, persistent faculty advisor, academic superstar and horny schmuck Prof. Winton Childs (Rhys Ifans).
Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, Tom's somewhat dopey-seeming best pal Alex Eihauer (played with a grin by Chris Pratt) gets the main chef job at Birch for which Tom was slated, marries Violet's somewhat kooky sister Suzie (Alison Brie) and settles down to the great career and family life that is now nightmarishly eluding his best buddy. Nice guy Tom, who just wanted to do the right thing for Violet, and maybe rack up some good conduct points for the marriage ahead, seems to have done only the wrong things for himself.
Tom settles down to a ridiculous life with his bizarre new Midwestern companions Tarquin and another faculty husband, the very peculiar Bill (Chris Parnell). Violet, by contrast, becomes a Michigan mini-star. She gets into a friendly fellowship competition with three multi-comical psych grads -- Mindy Kaling as tart Kaneetha, Randall Park as brainy Ming and Kevin Hart as uninhibited Doug, who thinks the answer to anything is masturbation -- while super-prof Winton keeps after Violet, slyly, persistently. Will the marriage happen? Will the romance survive? We have five years (or two hours) to find out.
Most of the things that go wrong with most Hollywood romantic comedies are done right here. The Five-Year Engagement isn't a glamorous showcase for a bunch of glam-kids trading double-entendres, but an honest (but also funny) investigation into modern relationships and their quirks and pitfalls. The cast is a first-class, heavy-duty comic ensemble, and the genuinely amusing script has lots of good moments for lots of funny people -- especially the stars, Segel and Blunt. The writing -- a collaboration between Segel and Stoller (who worked together before in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) -- is hip and perceptive and sometimes hilarious.
What to Expect When You're Expecting (C)
U.S.: Kirk Jones, 2012, Lions Gate
If you're pregnant, or if your significant other is pregnant, or if you'r in the mood for another modern rom-com with an all-star cast and a coy, obvious script, you may get a kick or two (sorry) out of What to Expect When You're Expecting. "Inspired by" a best-selling pregnancy guide book by Heidi Murkoff, this is yet another example of mediocre to lousy modern rom-com moviemaking and movie marketing. How do you make a movie out of a best-seller self-help guide about pregnancy? How do you make a movie out of a best-seller self-help guide about anything? (The only good example that comes to mind is Woody Allen's 1972 film of Dr. David Reuben's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).
Director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine and Nanny McPhee) and writers Shauna Cross (Whip It) and Heather Hach (Legally Blonde: The Musical) have decided to craft an ensemble comedy, mostly set in Atlanta, in which four couples go though pregnancy problems, one other couple tackles adoption, and three of the twosomes (Cameron Diaz and Matthew Morrison, Elizabeth Banks and Ben Falcone, Brooklyn Decker and Dennis Quaid) amazingly wind up in the obstetrics ward all at the same time.
Also, astonishingly, the fourth couple (Jennifer Lopez and Rodrigo Santoro) adopt a baby in Ethiopia, and the fifth couple (Anna Kendrick and Chace Crawford) hold hands, stride through the hospital corridor and face the future (and any possible sequels), with end-of-movie equanimity.
The writers' imaginations are fertile, if not often funny. This is not one of those anemic rom-coms with few characters and lots of clichés. This one has lots of characters and even more cliches. Banks plays pregnant Wendy, the author of a best-selling book on lactation and proprietor of a store called, I believe, Breast Choice. Her squeamish hubby Gary (Falcone) is an overweight nebbish whose dad Ramsey (Quaid) is a rich ex-NASCAR champ with a young, gorgeous (and also pregnant) wife named Skyler (Decker). Diaz's Jules runs a weight-loss clinic, and was impregnated by her partner on a TV dance contest show, Evan (Morrison, of Glee), after throwing up on camera. Lopez's Holly is the prospective adoptive mother with husband Alex (Santoro); both of them play more serious than for laughs. The result is the same. The most convincing couple in the movie (which tells you how convincing the movie is), is the twosome of dueling food truck owners Rosie (Kendrick) and Marco (Crawford). They move from rivalry to a one night stand to prospective parenthood to... Well, we'll leave that to your breast-seller imagination.
High School (C)
U.S.: John Stalberg, 2010, Starz/Anchor Bay
High School is a mediocre stoner comedy with lots of grass in-jokes, but few laughs -- a joyless little pot farce about how a nutty school superintendent, Dr, Leslie Gordon (Michael Chiklis), goes on an anti-pot crusade, and runs up against the detemined sabotage of would-be valedictorian Henry Burke (Matt Bush) and his stoner pal Travis Breaux (Sean Marquette). Gordon, who looks and talks like the mad doctor in a second-rate British horror show, triggers the eventual chaos when he institutes mass school drug testing after the school's Vietnamese spelling bee champion turns up stoned at the bee: a mass test that could well smoke the M.I.T. college scholarship plans of Henry, who was slipped a little weed by Travis fairly recently and will test positive, as will Travis and maybe a few others.
Travis' incredibly idiotic plan to deal with this: Muck up the drug test results by lacing the school bake sale brownies with cannabis and getting everyone (including the teachers) high, so none of the tests will seem valid. Hmmm. Even worse, Travis plans to steal the cannabis he uses for this hare-brained scheme from the local thoroughly paranoid multi-tattooed drug dealer Psycho Ed (Adrien Brody) -- who will then, to nobody's surprise, pursue them to hell and gone.
For the rest of the movie, all kinds of people -- including Henry, Travis, Dr. Gordon, a hip teacher played by Colin Hanks -- and various other Morgan High scholars and philosophers get accidentally (or not) stoned and act stupid, as the movie tries to meld the comic styles of John Hughes and Cheech and Chong, and misses both. Also, unusually for this kind of guy show, no love or sex interest. Maybe director John Stalberg and fellow writers Erik Linthorst and Stephen Susco thought the pot was sexier. They were wrong.
High School's one big plus, or film coup, or contact high, is Brody's Psycho Ed, a memorable ganja demon. Though Brody will never win another Oscar for stuff like this (to match the one he got for The Pianist), maybe he'll get something more appropriate, like The Golden Roachclip or the Bogart Joint or whatever.