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January 14, 2013


I had heard of it, but not only did I never watch a single episode of Dark Shadows, I never knew the premise of the '60s soap or of its cult following. Johnny Depp is at his campy best as the incarnation of the vampire Barnaby, and the rest of the cast, too, is at their campy best. Tim Burton is at the top of his game, and the movie is fun on all sorts of levels, including its 1970s pop culture backdrop and its signature Burtonesque set dressing. If, like me, you don't eat popcorn at the movies, you might want to reconsider just this once. Then sit back and enjoy the show. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review/A NYT Critics' Pick)

It's always gratifying when members of what Garrison Keillor calls POEM (Professional Organization of English Majors) write scripts, in this case Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini. Director Rupert Sanders's Snow White and the Huntsman, a dark re-imagining of Snow White, is part Brothers Grimm tale no. 53, part quest, part Jean d'Arc, part Dorian Gray, part Der Ring des Nibelungen. I didn't even mind the CGI, which is used creatively here to some really great effect, serving the tale instead of dominating and consequently undoing it. This is not the sanitized Disney version. Rather it reaches back to the sinister roots of its source. One of the great child psychologists of the 20th century, Bruno Bettelheim wrote a brilliant study of the universal importance of fairy tales to children. The Uses of Enchantment argues that it is critically important for children to imaginatively experience the violence and terror and sexual tension that feature in the Grimm's original transcriptions of European folk tales, not only in order to come to terms with the turmoil of their inner selves, but also precisely because the world they have to navigate is full of violence and terror and sexual tension.

Charlize Theron icily plays the cruel and haughty queen who has murdered the king on their wedding night and holds his daughter hostage in a tower. Kristen Stewart is the princess who will be pursued by the handsome nobleman William (Sam Claflin) and the rough, strapping figure of The Huntsman. (A. O. Scott's NYT review)

When a movie starts out that portends to grapple with big metaphysical questions, I get excited. I know I shouldn't. I know I will be disappointed. But it doesn't stop me from experiencing that hopeful moment. I didn't expect to like Ridley Scott's Prometheus, but I did -- once I got over those hopeful expectations and settled for disappointed ones. Prometheus is the Greek Titan who was believed to have created man from clay, and who famously stole fire for his creation's use thus laying the groundwork for progress and civilization. As punishment for his theft, Zeus condemns Prometheus to eternal torment, bound to a rock where Zeus, in the form of an eagle, comes each day to devour his liver, which grows back to be devoured again the next day. The spacecraft's crew is similar to Scott's crew in Alien. It has become a trope that, unlike the 20th century's heroic trailblazing astronauts, the future will be a world in which space travel is such a commonplace that it will only attract a mixt, even mongrel bunch of loners and outsiders. I especially liked the android David, as portrayed by Michael Fassbender, who watches Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia to learn how to behave as a human. (David: There is nothing in the desert, and no man is nothing. Ford: What is that? David: Just something from a film I like.) David's universal knowledge of language makes him indispensable in decoding the ciphers the explorers discover,  a discovery they hope will reveal to them the race who were the creators of Man. (A. O. Scott's NYT review)

I toyed with placing Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in the franchise section. Sprawling The Lord of the Rings over three films might be forgiven, the story being a trilogy, but dragging out the short volume of The Hobbit over three seems just plain sadistic and a cruel disservice to a wonderful tale.

And then there's all the stuff you can do with CGI. I purposefully did not see the film in 3D, but both 3D and CGI have convinced me that certain stories are better left read. J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, or any fantastic tale, is better served when the words on the page evoke the creations of the reader's imagination (Snow White and the Huntsman being a notable exception). I don't at all mind actors playing the human parts, but when film makers give me their over-the-top versions of goblins and dragons, the over-the-topness always disappoints me. You see, I KNOW what the gremlins and monsters and trolls look like, and then my cherished picture of them is, usually violently, eradicated. Then throw CGI  into the brew, a drug of which certain film makers cannot seem to get enough, and the scenes of our heroes battling the dark forces go on and on and on and... (A. O. Scott's NYT review)

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