Impure Imagination: Escape from Tomorrow

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The first and last time I went to Disney World was when I was six years old. While I probably enjoyed it, the connection I had with the park was more out of curiosity and fascination than anything more personal than that. I did not, unlike a majority of my peers and, I suppose, a majority of children in general, grow up on Disney films. I was not as exposed to the ubiquity of its ephemera until my mid teenaged years. By that time, I was able to understand what Disney was: not only iconoclastic in his determination to make dreams come true, but perhaps the biggest corporation one could ever imagine. That isn’t to say I don’t have any connection with Disney ilk at all: I am prone to nostalgia watching The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. But what I understand about that film, and the other properties that the Walt Disney Corporation has either created, readapted, or bought, is that it’s as much of a powerful pop culture machine as one can fathom, the kind of machine that eat you up, chew you to pieces, and then spit you out. Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow explores how that industry, and the culture itself, affects our perceptions of the real world, in a debut feature film that’s ballsy, filled with morbid imagery, and an incredibly competent, nightmarish take on “Happiest Place on Earth”.

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Unfairest Game: Snow White and the Huntsman

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As a child, when it came to fairy tales, I was infinitely more interested in Grimm’s original collected stories than the watered down, neutered Disney versions that anyone else in my age group seemed to fawn over. When I was seven or so, my mother bought me a book entitled Grimm’s Grimmest, collecting the most gruesome and horrifying of the tales that the Brothers Grimm had taken down in Germany. I thoroughly enjoyed its perversity. I never did end up watching the entirety of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, but I read over the original tale several times growing up. Which brings us for a less Disney-fied, more “adult” interpretation of the fairy tale. Snow White and the Huntsman attempts to right the wrongs of dull, sterile Disney version, making it supposedly closer to the original and all the more action packed. Sadly though, while the attempt to make the tale both exciting for a contemporary audience as well as try to adhere somewhat closely to the story is significantly marred by there being a total lack of depth, lousy acting, and a terribly weak script.

Of the worst things you could say about Snow White and the Huntsman, one of them is that it seems half assed and bland. The sad attempt to make Snow White more action packed, director Rupert Sanders recreates the story like a piece of mythology, with the prologue taking on this dark vision of bleakness with intense narration and slow motion cinematography. Snow White’s father, a kind king, rescues a fare maiden after defeating a dark army, takes the fare maiden home, marries her, and then, that fare maiden kills him. Yup, it just so happens that that fare maiden acts like a Trojan horse and it is revealed that she is the evil queen, taking the name of Ravenna. The dark army takes over the castle, lock Snow White in the dungeon, install the mirror, and Ravenna remains the fairest of all the land. That is, until Snow White comes of age. Also, Snow White escapes, and Ravenna hires what is basically a bounty hunter to track her down.

You would guess right in saying that the story itself is not really that engrossing. There’s very little of interest, and despite the attempts to make it more interesting, it seems like the writers were pulling from thin air. It is almost incredibly disappointingly boring and dull, the “almost” preceding it because one’s expectations should be fairly low. The dialogue, though, is terribly problematic. Sounding less naturalistic than even Lord of the Rings and sounding more like the writers had “Medieval English for Movies for Dummies” by their side, the tonality and cadence of the lines is grating because, boiled down to it, the words mean so little. They portray very little drama or emotion and seem to just be there to make it feel like a period piece of some sort. It probably would have been more effective had the lines been written and spoken plainly. The dialogue, though, could be another example of how superficial this movie is, lacking depth or interest. Plot holes abound, dialogue sounds hammy, and all the actors strain to make it worthwhile for the audience.

Regarding hamminess, it is with much disappointment and regret that I should have to say that Charlize Theron was not very good in Snow White and the Huntsman, which honestly surprised me. She can play a bitch, and she can do it damn well (see: Young Adult and Monster). Despite her ability to channel into a cold, selfish persona so well, her performance as Ravenna was startlingly overdone. It seemed she was exerting far too much energy into the role, so that it came off as fake, unbelievable and terribly annoying. She felt the need to imbue her every line of dialogue, not with effortlessness, but with great exertion, with breathy sighs, and with lots of yelling. I was hoping that at least she would be enjoyable, but she ended up just making me more annoyed. While the writers attempted to give her story some feministic origin story (which ended up coming off oddly as misandrist), it gave little depth to the character herself. She, like the film itself, was nothing the cold superficiality of looking good but lacking any real power.

I am mystified as to why Kristen Stewart was cast in this film as the lead, Snow White. Not because she’s a lousy actress (even though she kind of is, she couldn’t even play Joan Jett well), but when people think of an actress who embodies and epitomizes innocence, beauty, and strength, they don’t automatically think, “Oh, Kristen Stewart!” Well, I guess the director did, otherwise they would not have paid her a hefty $34 million to be in the film. Unsurprisingly, she is dull, does not give Snow White any more depth than one could expect (which is probably more the writing than her), and adds little to the film. Again, a bit puzzled as to why she was cast in the film and why she was paid so much. I guess we will never know. What particularly troubles me is that Snow White is essentially the story of a woman coming into her own (leave the sex off the table here), and the film is supposed to portray that aspect her as some kickass heroin. The thing is, we never actually get to see that aspect of her. While she may run quite often, there are no moments when she really takes control of the situation, to really be the heroin.

The rest of the cast is just as bland. Chris Hemsworth (Thor) is essentially fine in the film, and he adds some much needed humor to the game. The seven dwarves serve very little purpose, but the faces of famous actors seemed to have been super imposed on the bodies of little people. Hey, look, Bob Hoskins! Ian McShane! Nick Frost!

The action sequences are actually less than interesting and the way that they are edited is comparable to something called chaos cinema. But there seems so little point with the action sequences that are included, as they do pretty much nothing to drive the story forward. With the scale that they have, the actual purpose is minimal.

After all that negative stuff, there are some nice things to be said about the film! Yes, I’m not joking! It is very, very pretty to look at. The cinematography is often breath taking, the production value is extremely high, the visual effects are stunning, and the costumes (by Academy Award winner Colleen Atwood) are gorgeous. Yup, that’s about it. There’s no reason why it should look so good but be so bad.

Snow White and the Huntsman felt like a half assed Lord of the Rings rip off, trying to recreate that same stylistic majesty with none of the depth of its source material. Its convoluted and shallow writing, by three people (Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, and Hossein Amini, the latter of whom wrote the flawless screenplay for Drive), offers no reason or depth or nuance for the audience. The acting is sadly subpar, even from the High Priestess of Bitchery, Charlize Theron. What can be said about the film is that it is pretty to look at. It is eye candy and nothing more. But great cinematography and production value does not a movie make. There has to be a reason why we care that Snow White, blandly played by Stewart, is the fairest of them all. Otherwise, it’s technically fare game.

Grade: C-

A Band of Avengers Apart: The Avengers

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I mentioned in my review for the meta-cynical anti-comic book movie Kick Ass that I didn’t read comics, and that comic book movies were not really my thing. Part of the reason why I do not care for comic book movies is that they try to cram in a lot of mythology and canon into a single film, while still trying to create a story of its own. So, when Joss “Emperor of the Fanboys” Whedon announced The Avengers movie, I was a little curious as to how his approach would be. Knowing full well that being able to please everyone would be unlikely, I still wondered how he would, erm, assemble some pretty iconic characters and how he would treat them on the screen. Aside from that mere curiosity, I was not terribly interested in seeing it. Preferring the darker, nihilistic, revisionist Nolan Batman trilogy, I knew that The Avengers was created with the primary intention of giving fans, and maybe guys in general, the same incomparable sense of ecstasy and euphoria that, say, Martin Scorsese and Lars von Trier releasing their remake of Taxi Driver would give me. I knew it was going to be an “event film”, or more cynically a “water cooler movie” and I was ambivalent about the film for the most part. Though, upon hearing of its $207 million take in on its opening weekend, I thought that, rather than be left out of the conversation, I should cave in and go see it. After all was said and done, I would say it was worth it.

The storyline is fairly simple, using your typical North by Northwest/Lord of the Rings/cliché comic book MacGuffin: one man, um, I mean demigod (Tom Hiddleston) not only wants to rule the world, but harness the power of the Tesseract., a smoky cube that, as far as I could tell, had a lot of energy and also acted as a portal between worlds. Said demigod, Loki, so gloriously burdened by Hiddleston, decides to wage war on the planet. And, in order to stop him, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of the super-secret agency SHIELD, calls in a bunch of powerful misfits to stop him, all the while trying to control his new band of heroes from tearing each other apart before they can save the world from total destruction.

It was not as if coming up with the storyline itself was particularly difficult. Whedon is able to remain true to the characters and their mythology while at the same time weaving in some his own personal brush strokes in character and background. The worst part of the screenplay is the mumbo jumbo Whedon writes in about the science and technical terms, little details that probably only hardcore fans understand. Much like Star Wars, these details and the esoteric science talk serve little to the story. Yes, the film’s main purpose is to be all “explosion-y” and whatever, but what drew me to the film in the first place was Whedon’s characterization of the chemistry between the Avengers themselves. Prior to the film’s release, I had had an argument with someone about why someone might go to see the film. I acknowledged that, yes, a majority will be the built in audience that Marvel has and people (mostly guys) who like explosions. But I asserted that what was interesting about the film would be its approach to the flawed interpersonal relationships of each of the characters and their interactions with one another. The discussion went nowhere, but I maintain the position that those relationships and chemistry was the high point for an outsider.

Those relationships were handled pretty gracefully by Whedon, who wrote and directed the film. You have a set of giants in their own right fighting to remain together as a team so they can get a job done. Whatever the symbolism behind this, it was interesting to watch. Ego driven Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) clashed with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), their ideals almost being polar opposite. While the former lusts after fame and style, the latter is the human personification of American Nationalism. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), of Norse mythology, also clashes with Iron Man. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) clashes with Bruce Banner/the Hulk (newbie Mark Ruffalo). Et cetera, et cetera. Robert Downey Jr. is most often the instigator of these arguments, but it’s fascinating to see them happen. The dialogue is quick and terse, like something out of a screwball comedy. Yes, the come together and work as a team and whatnot, but their struggle to deal with everyone else’s flaws is no different than any audience member struggling with that same dilemma in their life. What these arguments show, without going overboard, is that there is a very human quality to all of these characters. (Sadly, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye does not get the opportunity to participate in these fun arguments.)

That, however, does not make up for the lack of character development. Despite the fact that Whedon is excellent at character development, everyone remains fairly static throughout the entire thing. Or, they remain at two stages in terms of their development: easily annoyed/trigger happy and in control and ready to be part of the team. The concept of development will probably get eye rolls from anyone else who’s seen the movie, and comic book movies have never been great at doing that anyways, so it might as well be a prerequisite to forget the idea altogether. Granted, the approach to each character’s world outlook makes up for it to some extent. Captain America is a little disillusioned at the state of America; Iron Man is cynical; Banner has some hope, cautious nevertheless; Black Widow is nihilistic; Thor is strangely protective. While these ideas are explored as deeply as one might hope, the mere exploration at all is good. In terms of their mythology, enough is explained so that anyone who is foreign to the various universes can pretty much keep up for most of it. Also impressive is the amount of screen time each character got, which was, more or less, equal, which makes it a true ensemble. One of the most interesting things about the cast is the inclusion of mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. Ruffalo is the third actor to portray Banner, and he probably does it the best. It is pleasantly controlled, which is ironic, since his character often lacks that quality. And the sparse use of the Hulk was also good, because, as they say, there is such an idea as too much of a good thing.

The stars delivered with what they needed to, and that was definitely a factor in how enjoying the movie was. While Johansson, with her sexy and badass style; Hemsworth, with his holier than thou growl; Renner, with his, uh, arrows; Evans, with his nationalistic determination; Ruffalo, with his fantastically restrained Banner; and Downey Jr. with his usual Stark persona, are all superb, it is the Medieval English spewing, power hungry, hysterically bratty Loki, King of Asgard who is the movie’s best actor. I suspect that why Loki stands out as being such a bad ass villain is because the classically trained Tom Hiddleston, or as I like to call him “The Best F. Scott Fitzgerald Ever”, breathes fascinating life into him. There is a sense of wit and, as aforementioned, brattiness that makes his character incredibly entertaining. There isn’t the same smugness or self-indulgence that you get from Downey Jr.’s Stark. Loki’s quest for power is rooted in the whole “Cain and Able” kind of relationship he has with Thor, although Loki is adopted. Hiddleston’s sneer alone is a highlight in and of itself.

The best thing this movie has to offer is a sense of humor. There was a Stephen Hawking Joke, a Legolas joke, and Wizard of Oz joke, and, while the audience I sat with did not laugh (very sad, I know), it was a pleasure to have them in there. Like 2008’s Iron Man, it isn’t incredibly self-serious about what it’s portraying. There isn’t as much meta-humor as there was in Whedon’s excellent The Cabin in the Woods, but it recognizes its clichés sometimes and plays with them, but in a very subtle way. All of the characters involved are fun to watch, both speaking and in action. Fun and humor, which is pretty much the only thing the film needs to offer.

And it offers fun in spades. Rather than watch some sort of mind numbing action sequence constructed with ADD by Michael Bay, the action scenes realized in The Avengers are breathtaking and, a majority of the time, coherent from an editing standpoint. The visual effects, brought to life by the wonderful people at ILM, are realistic and insanely enjoyable to see on the screen. With all the carnage on screen, especially in New York City, you have to wonder how they repair all of it. (This question is fleetingly commented on at the end of the movie.) The film’s use of 3D (I saw it in IMAX 3D) was used fairly well, although it did not crate as much of an immersive experience as maybe was intended. I am glad it was not gimmicky, it several notches above Lucas’s 3D re-release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The point is, though, that it got its main point across, that all of the explosions explode with gusto.

Whedon may have done the impossible and made a fun super hero movie that a) does not take itself too seriously b) treats its characters with equal respect c) explores the interactions between those characters and their consequences and d) made all of it a pretty damn good time. While the film is still flawed, its positive aspects outweigh any negatives. The Avengers brings together some iconic characters together and went out with a bang, making nearly every moment thrilling and exciting. With a fun and riveting turn from Hiddleston and good performances from everyone else, some superb action sequences, and great banter between all of the characters, the film met and exceeded my expectations. The proof is that this 2.5 hour movie didn’t feel long at all; it was too gripping to bore someone. Though, with the film crossing $1 billion already, you can bet that there will be a lesser sequel released in the near future. Until then, watching all of The Avengers will make for pretty good brain candy.

Grade: B+