Review(s): The 2013 “Dark” Fairy Tales

Oz the Great and Powerful

For all the debt modern filmmaking owes Sam Raimi, and for all that his work has been aped and bastardized by corporate ventures hoping to guise their sickly, leaden core with equally leaden “quirk” and superficial “wit”, it’s perhaps fitting that Raimi finally shills out for his own big-budget corporate tent-pole (yes, yes, the Spider-Man movies, but the first two were mostly before Raimi was cool again and the third one wasn’t particularly Raimi-like anyway). Of all things then, it’s quite a surprise that this is the most un-Raimi like of all his films, and it’s not “un-Raimi like” in the way one might imagine a big, heaving corporate tent-pole might be unlike a grubby, devilish, grotesque horror comedy either.

We fade in, as anyone who has seen the original will imagine, on the classic dirt-soaked brown-and-white of the original 1939 classic, only here Dorothy is nowhere to be found. Instead we meet Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a traveling snake-oil salesman whose product happens to be serving as a magician in a circus. When his lying nature comes back to bite him, he escapes in a balloon and … wouldn’t you know, a plot-device comes to Kansas and we find ourselves in Oz. There, we learn that there is definitively not much rejoicing in Oz at the moment, for the King has been killed by a Wicked Witch. Soon enough we meet Glinda (Michelle Williams) Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Theodora (Mila Kunis), witches all, but some of whom are nicer than the others. Eventually, Oscar finds himself a would-be hero and a grand wizard meant to save the inhabitants of Oz and destroy the Wicked Witch.

Oh, and Oz the Great and Powerful is also an origin story for the Wicked Witch of the West, but then that story sort of falls apart before it begins. As for why, let’s just say the witch who turns out to be the Wicked West-y one is by far the worst choice among the cast, given that one of the two candidate actresses is very much capable of diving straightforward into the glorious, delicious, insistent villainy of a 1930s imagination-escape, and the other is not. The former ends up giving the best performance in the film, while the latter ends up its main villain for the last act (no small reason why the last third of the film is by far its weakest). On a side note, I have absolutely no idea why I put so much effort in the last few sentences trying to hide the identity of the Wicked Witch of the West, for the film makes absolutely no bones about who among its cast will don the pointy hat and green nose-boil by the end of the production.

Now, where were we. Oh yes: this is neither a distinctly Sam Raimi production nor a modern corporate tent-pole. Instead, it is a grandly, shimmering 1930s whimsy-and-destruction descent into big melodrama and bigger set-design. This, in principle at least, is refreshing, and there’s nothing more I’d like to see in this day and age than a modern blockbuster devoid of modern storytelling airs. The problem is that, try as it might, the script has to go and introduce complication it can’t back up. One character, Theodora, doesn’t really work at much any level, and the film spends an inordinate amount of time making her out to be a tragic, flawed figure without knowing what to do with such tragedy and human flaws, features wholly at odds with the sleek, superficial, simplicity of the rest of the film. Perhaps realizing this, Raimi wholly abandons the tragedy for the conclusion, but it’s too little, too late. It feels un-earned.

But what is Oz the Great and Powerful if not its visuals. I feared to no end that the CG would be pumped up to the point of suffocation, and that they would flatten out any feeling or dextrous joy to the emotions.  Thankfully, and against all odds, they do not. In fact they serve the opposite effect, actually enhancing the dulled emotions (they immensely help make Oscar out to be a likable character when Franco’s aloof, understated style doesn’t really sell the character’s  grandiose lies, nor his heart – where’s Bruce Campbell when you need him?) This is an almost piercingly pretty motion picture, even if it’s not particularly inventive with its beauty.

What’s more, Raimi knows how to film all of the prettiness for maximum impact too, framing things with a certain regal stage-like quality to at least hint at the original film’s more successful visual implication that everything around us, and thus everything found in cinema, is a fake dreamland for humans to pass the time away when their dailyo lives don’t offer much else for them. Of course, this film is not so remotely interested in commenting on the state of cinema, or knowing and using the fact that it is a movie to critique movies in general, but the little doses of visual wit around the edges are nice nonetheless. Elsewhere, Raimi throws in more than a few “Raimi shots” for energy’s sake. The colors fly-high, and they’re extra-saturated to pop in a way that manages to be lovely and felt rather than painful or plastic  (except when Raimi wants to be artificial for effect). Here more than anywhere he captures the spirit of the original film, if not the particulars (the opening sequence and the closing battle, both staged as if we, and the characters, are watching a movie, are nice, witty touches too).

The film foregrounds its visuals, so it’s no small point to validate them. Even  when the script falters, they at least capture depth and emotion, and that’s worth something. If the wonder is somewhat muted by a too-complicated, too-talky script, it’s there when it needs to be in the sheer imagery on screen. More than anything, Oz the Great and Powerful is more successful at recapturing this fantastical essence of childlike fairy tale wonder lost in just about every single other work in this “modern, mature fairy tale” trend. It’s not necessarily a good movie, but the sacrifice might be worth it.

Score: 6.5/10

Jack the Giant Slayer

It’s tempting to say that Bryan Singer’s attitude toward Jack the Giant Slayer is to treat it as fluff at the expense of dramatic heft or suspense. To be honest, considering the mess that is the screenplay, he was probably right to take this approach. The film has a cartoon’s sense of slapstick, recalling the Three Stooges as much as the Lord of the Rings. A more accurate comparison: the film openly aims for a ’30s adventure serial, at times even mocking and teasing the same (the chintzy costumes and ridiculously saturated sets seem at once self-parody and earnest sentimentality) . Singer really wants to make the whole film proudly ineffectual, trying desperately to turn “substance-less” into a positive, something it only partially achieves.

Why “partially”? Well, the big problem with the film is that its fundamental script is rather a bit darker than the visuals Singer brings to the production (although not nearly as hilariously dark as the lame title “Jack the Giant Slayer” implies).  There’s a curious adult-ness to the material, particularly in the violence, that never really jives with the goofy nature of the slapstick sets and the moments of offbeat comedy. Even worse, the narrative can occasionally develop a serious case of the self-importants, and here is where the decade-long Lord of the Rings pale covers the film and disguises its kitschy, more Monty Python influenced elements (the giants themselves, for instance).

The acting mostly fails on this front too, with Ewan McGregor the only one smart enough to immerse himself in the pomp and circumstance of the material and just enjoy the experience. Incidentally, the main reason I suspect Singer desperately wants the silly nonsense of the film to win out: his camera openly lingers on McGregor with an unhurried, amused tone where we would expect it to give us some sort of self-serious portent or rush from place to place to move the story along and get to the action. The best excuse I can come up with for all this is that Singer wanted to make one movie and was coddled and pushed by the studio to do another, and the two don’t really work together. As for which is which – I can’t but think the studio was following the footsteps of the modern “dark” fairy tale trend (a trend I find deeply dreary and tiring at a base, conceptual level) and Singer wanted to liven things up with some backward-thinking fun. Then again, the internet tells me it was the other way around, with Singer wanting the faux-maturity of the epic vibe and the studio striving desperately for something airier and lighter.

Either way, this still means the film is a mess, and that it has absolutely no idea what identity means. And it leaves me wholly torn. On one hand, a work with a complete and cohesive identity should be better than a messy one, even if that cohesive identity was the lame-brained “lets make it all grandiose and cool” vibe of the pseudo-epic LoTR style fairy tales that persist in sapping the 2010s of any filmic energy or playfulness. On the other hand, the messiness of the film we have before us still means that at least half of the finished product is not a draggy, portentous LoTR style epic, and if that requires a little messiness, I won’t complain. What can I say? Someone has to be tired of these self-serious movies besides me. And it looks like somewhere along the line someone involved in this film’s production agreed  and tried their damnedest to make something proud of its own loopy fun. I’m happy at least something made it out of this desire, but that only makes it all the more despairing that the final thirty minutes travel into the drudgery of a big, ultra-serious climactic battle and leave a sour taste in my mouth.

In the end, Jack the Giant Slayer is a moderately enjoyable motion picture, but only in the vaguest of ways. It’s not specifically enjoyable to any purpose, nor is it excitingly enjoyable or alive with the energy it needed to really break out and make something of itself. The narrative, which has Jack (Nicholas Hoult) inadvertently start a war with some giants while attempting to retrieve a Princess they stole from the human world after he mistakenly opened up a pathway between their two worlds, is a wash. It mostly just serves as a clothesline to string along little, successful moments. But then the film has to go and want us to take the story seriously, and it all just falls apart. It struggles to stand on its own to feet, largely because one foot very much wants to be a dark, serious, even grimy film, and the other a pleasant, offbeat children’s book. In the end, it does stand up, but it’s spent so much time working toward that limited goal it has no energy left to get to walking anywhere particularly worth-while.

Score: 5/10

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

It’s no secret that Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters has produced something less than critical fervor. And it probably deserves it too. This reworking of the classic Grimm Brothers myth toward something more “adult”  mostly comes off as a self-conceited, smug attempt at “cool”, very 21st century in its modernist mentality when it ought to be pleasantly mythic and timeless. It’s also seriously confused as an action-horror-comedy, smothering any grit or grime in its pristine silliness. Meanwhile, anything quirky is undercut by  the self-imposed weight of the material. For Hansel and Gretel to work, it could have been a down-and-dirty horror adventure, or a tongue-in-cheek parody of the same, but mixing the two into a meat grinder and hoping something tasty, or even cohesive, will come out the other side seems wishful thinking.

The story (which quite literally boils down to Hansel and Gretel, played by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, are witch hunters) is pleasantly arbitrary, but the messy tone puts the film on an uneasy line. On one side, the blend of comedy and horror seems kitschy, energetic, and inspired in its blend of genres. On the other, it seems  hopelessly, depressingly corporate, like a sort of “cover all bases” maneuver to not lose any audience. Or a gross cash-grab attempt at mining the modern-irony train that saps any sense of consequence or weight from action filmmaking in the name of that increasingly gross shadow of its former self: quirk, now mostly a catch-all attempt at excusing one-self from critique. The film doesn’t quite cross-over to that side, but it’s way closer than it ought to be. Too close for comfort, in fact.

So the film is confused, not always itself, and sometimes annoyingly insistent about its cool-ness, and it manages the monumental task of being all of this even as it never really tries a whole lot in the first place. Yet, I must admit, I did not hate Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, nor did I even come close to it. Perhaps the messiness just added a certain feverish fascination to the material’s fractured fairytale storytelling, or perhaps the piece’s very surface-level ambitions got the better of me in this day and age of middle-brow self-serious storytelling. At the least, the film moves at a good clip, it’s snarky, and the deadpan humor is at least sometimes funny if not clever. Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner meanwhile try their best, and their best turns out to be pretty fine. And the witch designs, of which many are thankfully fleshy, weighty, physical, and the product of costuming and make-up rather than CGI, are reasonably creative. These are all simple pleasures, yes, but they add up, and under Tommy Wirkola’s direction they’re all pushed to the forefront and completely unconcerned with depth.

Meanwhile, Wirkola, of the Sam Raimi school, knows to always attempt horror and comedy simultaneously, rather than to go back and forth between the two (and make no mistake, this is very much a post-Evil Dead attempt at capturing the spirit of Army of Darkness). The problem, in a nutshell, is that it doesn’t really succeed at either of these things, and it still manages to induce tonal dissonance not just between scenes, but within scenes (a principle: being scary and funny at once reaps the best rewards, but when it fails, it falls even farther than merely being funny or scary). Wirkola is an energetic, visually witty filmmaker, but he is a workmanlike one, and insofar as he tries to introduce the story to shaded, gray characters and narrative heft, he is totally lost. And then he makes it worse by attempting to cover himself up with a retort or a glib remark, and it seems like he’s not only forgetting the drama, but actively contradicting it with a sense of self-hate. That’s the film in a nutshell though: like its central characters, it fires at just about anything that moves with a sense of energy and pizzaz and no sense of pinpoint accuracy. There’s a place for that, but half of the bullets end up down a dead-end, and more than a few double-back and shoot the source in the foot, or knock another on-target bullet off course.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is altogether mystifying, a peculiar mix of the good, the bad, and the  confused. It’s all a bit of a slurry to be honest, mixed-in like a carnivalesque sugar high with little rhyme or reason. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and in small doses, the film is never more than goofily compelling. But as for the long haul … let us remember what happened to poor Hansel when he ate too many sweets.

Score: 5/10

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