It’s easy to imagine some Hollywood exec seeing certain scenes from Tarsem Singh’s The Fall and thinking, “Holy Tentpole, boys, here’s a director who has rediscovered the art of the breathtaking vista! And look what he can do with tableau! Get this guy on something supernatural before I finish this line of coke or you’re all fired!” It’s as good a guess as any as to how we got the hot mess that was Immortals. Tarsem plus Greek mythology equaled something amazing to look at but not much more. Here was Tarsem unleashed — why were we not entertained?
After seeing the vastly superior Mirror Mirror — the first of this year’s Snow White variations — I wonder if the problem wasn’t the unleashing. We still get those amazing long shots, but here the homespun genre of the fairy tale limits the possibilities, and the limitations do the director some good. Instead of glam gods getting fire-whipped in super slo-mo, we get a gorgeous introduction told through motile china dolls. Instead of nuclear-powered bows, we get a breathtaking royal ball with everyone dressed as animals. The requisite crazy is still there — the accordion stilts worn by the seven dwarfs come to mind — but it’s sufficiently tempered by sobriety, such that the Queen’s magic mirror does nothing more than reflect the truth. (Okay, it talks, but you get my meaning.)
And what a terrible, awful truth it is: Julia Roberts is 44, just a few years younger than Gloria Swanson when she played the ultimate Hollywood has-been in Sunset Boulevard. The Queen wants the Handsome Prince for herself, you see, but he has eyes only for the dewy youth of Snow White. So Her Majesty does what she must, humiliating and torturing herself in a losing battle with time. Sorry, that should read, “getting all dolled up.”
But there are bugs involved. And bird poop. And all the while, Roberts chants “tighten it, brighten it” like a Buddhist mantra. It’s a brave role for the star of a film called Pretty Woman — playing not just dowdy (Erin Brockovich) but faded — and I can’t remember the last time I so enjoyed a Roberts performance. It’s not schadenfreude, it’s admiration. When she finally busted out the famous smile, I was actually happy to see it. In the opening narration, Roberts announces that this is her story, and while there is some dispute on that point, she does own the film. Lilly Collins’s Snow White is pretty and sweet and wants to grow up and be good. For pure spectacle, how can she possibly compare?
Of course, it’s hard to stretch a fairy tale to feature length — how many of you saw Red Riding Hood last year? The temptation to slather on the backstory or to gussy up the zeitgeisty significance beckons like a gingerbread house in the woods. You could also drop separate hooks for kiddies and grownups, reducing the dwarves to slapstick and punch lines while importing a winking sophistication to the proceedings. (No, we didn’t need to hear about Nathan Lane getting raped by a grasshopper during his stint as a cockroach.) Mirror Mirror makes all of these mistakes and more, but here again, there is a measure of restraint, and it serves the story well.
Wrath of the Titans
A few paragraphs back, Immortals was referred to as a hot mess. Alas, Wrath of the Titans is just a mess, plain and simple. The high concept? The gods take their power from our prayers. Once we stop praying, their work comes undone. The walls of Tartarus begin to crack! Monsters start to roam the earth! If we don’t do something, Cronos the Destroyer will rise and lay waste to everything! Now what? Um, start praying and recharge the gods?
No, silly. Reassemble the Spear of Something or Other, the one made out of Poseiden’s trident, Hades’s pitchfork, and Zeus’s thunderbolt. And make sure Perseus the half-god handles it this time, because being half human makes him stronger than a god, somehow. (Andromeda, a warrior queen who gets all self-conscious and girly when Perseus shows up with his proto-mullet, lets us in on the secret: “We humans hope when there is no hope.”) And find Perseus another half-god to help out, since together they make one whole god, which they’re both stronger than, being half human.
I can’t read a lot of my notes — those 3-D glasses made it harder to write in the dark, even as they failed to deliver much in the way of enhanced visuals — but here’s one page: “Makes no sense.” “Pegasus.” “Chimera.” “Han Solo Lite.” That last one is about Agenor, smarmy son of Poseidon. And I remember admiring the writhing life they managed to cram in the CGI chimera. Certainly more compelling, more visceral than the rest of the nasties that show up: cyclops, minotaur, etc.
But wait! There are themes! Brothers: Hades and Zeus, Perseus and Ares! Fathers and Sons: Helios and Perseus, Zeus and...everyone! Jealousy! Forgiveness! At one point, Ares pauses while kicking Perseus’s ass to marvel, “So, this is what a father will go through?” Even though Perseus isn’t going through anything qua father, only qua half-brother beefing with the bad son who sided with Grandpa against dear old Dad. Oh, wait. He’s trying to make a better world for his son. That is, a world not smashed into atoms by Cronos.
Sorry, my head hurts. This movie stinks so badly that I can’t decide whether casting Bill Nighy as a half-dotty Hephaestus made things better or worse.
A methodical meditation on the meaning of “we,” Free Men tells the story of Algerians — both Muslim and Jewish — living in Paris during the German occupation. Tahar Rahim — think Dylan McDermott without the squinty smarm — plays the Muslim Younes. But he’s not much of a Muslim. His principal thought is to make some money on the black market and get home to his family. He has no interest in life at the mosque nor in his cousin Ali’s talk of attending meetings and forming unions. That is, until he’s picked up in a police sweep and forced to work as an informant. It seems there are communists about, and also Jews carrying forged papers declaring them to be Muslims.