Mirror Mirror


Mirror Mirror

Armie Hammer expresses what we already know while Julia Roberts looks on in amusement - Worst. Costume. Ever.

(2012) Fantasy (Relativity) Julia Roberts, Lily Collins, Armie Hammer, Nathan Lane, Mare Winningham, Sean Bean, Jordan Prentice, Mark Povinelli, Joe Gnoffo, Danny Woodburn, Sebastian Saraceno, Martin Klebba, Ronald Lee Clark, Michael Lerner, Robert Emms. Directed by Tarsem Singh

 

Fairy tales are all about happily ever afters. That’s why we read them even as adults – we want to believe that no matter how bad things get, things will end up the way they’re supposed to be.

I wonder if Snow White (Collins) believes in them. She’s been locked up in her father’s castles for most of her life. Her mother died giving birth to her and her father, the King (Bean) married a woman noted for her beauty and made her Queen (Roberts). Shortly after that, the King ventured into the dark forest and was never heard from again.

The Queen took over and immediately turned the kingdom into her own personal playground. She raised taxes to unbearable levels and used the proceeds to buy herself a lavish wardrobe and throw extravagant parties. However, she has depleted the treasury to the point where her administrator Brighton (Lane) warns her that there is no money left – for anything.

Quite by chance young Prince Andrew Alcott (Hammer) is traveling through the kingdom with his faithful aide-de-camp, Charles Renbock (Emms) when he is set upon by seven bandits with unusually long legs. They rob him of everything including his clothes, leaving him to be discovered by the Queen who realizes that the Prince, who hails from a wealthy Kingdom, could be the answer to her financial problems.

The trouble is that Snow has discovered how destitute the people of her kingdom are and how despotic her stepmother is. The Queen realizes that Snow is not only inconvenient to her plans, she is a downright obstacle – she and Prince Andrew are very attracted to each other. The Queen orders Brighton to take Snow out into the dark woods and murder her, but Brighton can’t do it and when the roar of the Beast that haunts the wood is heard, both go running in opposite directions. Brighton stops by the butcher shop to pick up some animal entrails (and a roll of sausages) to prove that Snow is dead and gone.

In the meantime she has discovered the lair of the bandits who turn out to be seven dwarves, cast out of the town because the Queen found them ugly. Each of them – Napoleon (Prentice), Half Pint (Povinelli), Grub (Gnoffo), Woodburn (Grimm), Saraceno (Wolf), Klebba (Butcher) and Chuckles (Clark) each have something distinctive about them.  Grub loves to eat, Half Pint is something of a ladies’ man, Wolf is half-wild and Chuckles – well, you can guess.

At first they don’t want the girl among them – too much trouble but when Snow proves to be useful and resourceful, they grow genuinely fond of her. Snow is ready to take back her kingdom from the wicked Queen, but the Queen has enchanted the Prince to fall in puppy love with her and he is willing to do anything for her – including kill Snow White.

Singh is the director of such visual spectacles as The Cell and Immortals. He has a very strong imagination and I give him props for it. This is his first attempt at a family film and at comedy in the same shot and it does show a side of him we haven’t seen up to now.

Roberts is the biggest reason to go see this movie. She captures the character of the Queen perfectly; vain, arch and a little bit naughty but with a whole lot of nasty. She doesn’t always have the best dialogue but Roberts makes up for it with sheer caustic attitude. Because she’s so dang beautiful, some people tend to underestimate her star quality. Trust me, she’s a star for a reason and this film might end up being the quintessential example of her work.

Armie Hammer first wowed viewers in a dual role in The Social Network. I think he has great things in store for him. Prince Andrew is a little bit dense and possessed with an overabundance of a sense of honor. Hammer gives him a bit of a goofy edge but with a sweetheart core. He seems to be a pretty easygoing fella, one you’d want to hang out and share a tankard of ale with at the local pub while watching the jousting. He is also quite easy on the eyes I understand. Not that I’m a judge of that sort of thing.

Tarsem was working on this almost right about the same time he finished up Immortals and one wonders if he was stretched too thin – the CGI effects on both were a little bit rocky. I don’t mind CGI but I get a little put out when it looks like CGI. You’re taken out of the movie when that happens.

There are wonderful sets and amazing costumes here – the last from Oscar winning costume designer Eiko Ishioka, who sadly passed away from pancreatic cancer in January. Other than the unconvincing CGI, this looks sumptuous. Unfortunately, the dialogue is mediocre and the movie tries way too hard to be fun instead of just being fun. Roberts understands how to make a movie feel fun and inventive, and the dwarves are pretty good at it too. Lily Collins, the daughter of Phil Collins, didn’t blow me out of the water as much as she did with other critics but there are plenty who think she has a bright future and I agree with them.

Overall, I was quite disappointed. I was hoping for something light and fun and it was the former but missed a bit in the latter. Give or take a few details, this could have been a marvelous film. It nevertheless is okay entertainment that fans of Julia Roberts will adore and those who don’t care for her might not like. Personally I think she does a good enough job that she makes the movie worth seeing all by herself.

REASONS TO GO: Roberts chews the scenery wonderfully. Hammer’s star continues to rise. Inventive in more than a few places, particularly on costumes and set design.

REASONS TO STAY: Weak CGI. Weak dialogue. Never really rises to the level of the visuals.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is a bit rude, there are a few disturbing images of fairy tale monsters and there is a bit of fantasy action.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming, Julia Roberts’ young children would often hide in the skirts of her elaborate gowns without anyone being the wiser.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100. The reviews are extremely mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Space Jam

COSTUME LOVERS: The costumes, particularly the dresses Julia Roberts wears, are extremely elaborate and over-the-top. Those who love fashion – particularly the more esoteric sort – will enjoy the outfits here.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Love, Wedding, Marriage

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A Serious Man


A Serious Man

You may think you're on top of the world, but you've still got to fix the antenna.

(2009) Dramedy (Focus) Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind, Adam Arkin, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolf, Jessica McManus, Alan Mandell, George Wyner, Michael Lerner, David Kang. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

There comes a time in all of our lives in which our suffering seems greatly magnified. We all experience the dark winter of our souls at some time or another. It’s enough to make even the least devout look heavenward and wonder why. Not all of us get to be Job, but most of us share in his troubles.

I’m sure Professor Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) would tend to agree with that. He’s a middle aged professor of physics, living a comfortable existence in a middle class subdivision in a Minneapolis suburb in the late 60s. He has applied for tenure and has been assured that there is no reason he shouldn’t get it. His son Danny (Wolf)  is about to undergo his bar mitzvah.

When we feel the weave of our lives is at its strongest is usually when it unravels. His wife Judith (Lennick) wants a divorce. She no longer can take the lack of inertia in Larry’s life and has taken up with his best friend, Sy Ableman (Melamed). Personally, I think if your best friend is named Sy Ableman you’ve got problems to begin with.

His son is having difficulties concentrating in class and has been experimenting with reefer. His daughter Sarah (McManus) is stealing money to save for a nose job. His ne’er-do-well brother-in-law Arthur (Kind) has taken up residence on his couch (when Sy and Judith urge him to leave their home and take up in a local motel, Arthur comes along with him as a sort of hideous luggage set Larry can’t get rid of) with a variety of ailments, including a cyst in need of drainage. Arthur believes he is close to uncovering the secret of the universe which apparently has to do with surviving without working.

A Korean student (Kang) who has clearly failed a test offers a bribe which turns into a means of blackmail. Larry’s oversexed neighbor who sunbathes in the nude has become not so much a sexual fantasy so much as a sexual nightmare that further emasculates him. To top it all off, the tenure which seemed to be a sure thing is now in jeopardy due to anonymous libelous letters that urge the university regents not to grant Larry tenure. It’s enough to make Larry go scrambling first for the shrink, then to the rabbis. Yes, plural.

The Coen Brothers are some of the most gifted filmmakers of the past 20 years, with a string of movies that aren’t just well-made but are among my favorites. Certainly when you go down the list of their films – Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men – and that’s just a partial list, there’s bound to be at least one or two that you’re fond of as well.

Here, the Coens explore their own inner Jewishness and certainly their own background as they were raised in a similar suburb of Minneapolis during the same time period here. I’m not sure if Aaron is a surrogate for the brothers but he might very well be.

I’ve always admired the Coens for their quirky sensibility and their offbeat humor and both qualities are in evidence here, to even greater effect. Those who prefer their storytelling done straight up will probably find the Coens an unpleasant taste, too Dr. Pepper in a world of colas.

This is a movie to my mind that is about the nature of suffering and the sheer randomness of it. It is appropriate that this is set in a Jewish background for if any ethnic group knows suffering, it’s them. There is plenty of sardonic humor but also a sense of bewilderment as if nobody involved with the movie can quite believe what’s going on in it.

Stuhlbarg, who has mostly been a stage actor throughout his career, does an extremely solid job here in what is essentially his first motion picture lead role. He captures the sense of being adrift on a sea of troubles with nothing but a life preserver to keep him afloat. Mostly he is surrounded by character actors whose names you may or may not recognize but whose faces you’ll immediately know.

There is a whole lot of kvetching in the movie, perhaps more than is necessary but then I’m just a goyim and I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to get it. That’s all right, too. This isn’t essential to the Coen Brothers catalogue in the sense of entertainment, but if you really want to get to know the filmmakers, I suspect this will be the film that comes closest to allowing you in. As Roger Ebert said, this is clearly a labor of love and one that would only be allowed to be made by someone who has won an Oscar. The movie is filled with parables that don’t really clarify anything but then, most parables were meant to be mysterious anyway.

WHY RENT THIS: While offbeat, Coen Brothers movies tend to be well-made and interesting, and this one is no exception. Stuhlbarg, a relative unknown, gives a solid performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is very rooted in its Jewishness, which may make certain parts of the movie difficult to follow or relate to for non-Jews. The movie also meanders a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language, a certain amount of sexuality and even a bit of brief nudity. Some of the thematic elements will go zooming over the heads of younger teens and the less mature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filming in Bangkok during the September 19, 2006 coup d’état. The armory department claims they fired the only shots of the coup. Filming was only interrupted for six hours.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an educational tool that helps with the Yiddish and Hebrew phrases that are peppered throughout the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $31.4M on an unreported production budget; given what appear to be a pretty meager budget, I’d say the movie was probably a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Pink Panther 2

Yonkers Joe


Yonkers Joe

A new kind of Rat Pack.

(Magnolia) Chazz Palminteri, Christine Lahti, Tom Guiry, Michael Lerner, Linus Roache, Michael Rispoli, Roma Maffia, Frank John Hughes. Directed by Robert Celestino

Cheating at games of chance is almost as old as games of chance are themselves. If there’s a way to beat the system, someone will look for it and quite likely find it.

In a digital age of computer software and round-the-clock camera surveillance in casinos, Yonkers Joe (Palminteri) is a bit of a dinosaur. He hustles small-time card games and dice games, hiding cards in his clothes and switching out regular dice for loaded ones. His fast hands have made him a living over the years, but the truth is that he’s a small-time hustler who dreams of the big score but that score is so out of his reach that it might as well be at the top of Mt. Everest.

He and his pals Stanley (Lerner) and Teddy (Roache) hang out together, talking about what small level cons they can pull and reminiscing about the good old days. Joe’s girl Janice (Lahti) is also around, part of the life but moving away from it. She has come to realize that she’ll never be more than a small time cheat, and wants more out of her life, pressed-on nails and gaudy costume jewelry aside.

Into the mix comes Joe’s son Joe Jr. (Guiry), who has Down’s Syndrome and has been institutionalized most of his life. Now word comes that his unruly behavior and the fact he is approaching his 21st birthday means that he will have to leave the facility he’s in before he can be transferred to the adult facility that he’s scheduled to move into. His options are extremely limited, and the one that is least palatable to either him or his father but the only one that is realistically open to them is that Joe Jr. must move in with his dad, who views his progeny as some kind of divine retribution for all the petty acts of criminal behavior he’s engaged in over his lifetime.

When Joe figures out a way to fool the “eye in the sky” surveillance cameras at a Vegas casino to slip loaded dice into a game, he knows he has to try, but with his son’s difficult behavior causing friction between him and Janice, can he pull off the score he was meant to make?

I really wanted to like this movie a lot more than I did, but did not mainly because it’s a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand you have the con movie, which is a somewhat more realistic version of con movies like The Sting and works very nicely. Palminteri is brilliant in a role that is right in his comfort zone; a tough guy whose facade has some hard-to-ignore cracks in it. These are the kind of roles that make you appreciate how good an actor he is.

Unfortunately, you also have the whole subplot of the relationship between him and his son. I’m not trying to knock Guiry, who does as well as can be expected with a role that is basically underwritten, but the scenes involving his character bring the movie to a screeching halt. The two stories seem at odds with each other. While director Celestino has said (at the Q&A session at the Tribeca Film Festival where this premiered) that the movie is about the character taking responsibility and letting people into his life, the strange thing is that those are the elements that were the least successful.

The scenes where Joe and his gang are working their magic are the best in the movie, and the most fascinating. These “mechanics” as Joe refers to himself as, are a dying breed and being given a glimpse into their world is like seeing something that may soon be gone forever, and you feel a sense of gratitude that at least we got a chance to witness a dying art form.

Kudos have to go to Lahti, an actress who mostly works in television but is amazing no matter what medium she’s in. She plays Janice as worldweary, a woman who has been betrayed by her own dreams but still hopes for better things. A different actress might have highlighted the brassier elements of the character, but Lahti, while embracing that side of Janice, doesn’t dwell on it, making the character seem far more accessible.

Celestino did extensive research into mechanics and casino security, making the movie feel much more authentic. Unfortunately, the Joe Jr. sequences seem forced and manipulative, adding a kind of second rate Rain Man into the mix. I think it would have been a much better movie if they had jettisoned that aspect of the movie and instead focused in on the adult characters; that’s a movie I would have been shouting from the rooftops for all to go see. As it is, this is a flawed but ultimately watchable movie that those who like movies about cons and cheats are going to want to check out.

WHY RENT THIS: Palminteri and Lahti are two of America’s most underrated actors, and they fill their roles with style. The con job material is fascinating.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The relationship between Joe and his son just reeks of forced melodrama; the movie would have been much better without it.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is, as you might expect, pretty colorful. There are also some sexual references as well as an attempted rape which might be unsettling to some.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Palminteri actually learned the moves performed in the film and became adept at it; all of the dice and card moves shown in the film were performed by Palminteri and not a stunt double.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a feature on the technical advisor John “Fast Jack” Farrell, who dubs himself the “Last of the Mohicans,” and another where Celestino demonstrates the dice and card moves used in the film.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Salt