In this edition of DVD reviews we focus on three high profile pictures: a film adaptation of a cult classic TV show, a star studded re-imagining of a classic fairy tale, and a surprising box office smash about a bunch of aging Brits (who knew they were so marketable?). One of them is even a long shot best picture contender. And it is...
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - This is not the most well crafted or best written film that you will see this year, but it is easy to see why it was so much more successful than anyone anticipated. It is basically 2012's The Help, but with old people instead of women as the marginalized acting pool from which they snagged their tremendously talented ensemble cast. They had me at Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. When you add in Tom Wilkinson and the rest of the cast, it's hard not to fall in love with this picture a little bit.
Wilkinson, Dent, and the rest of the veteran cast are fantastic, by the way, but it is Maggie Smith who has the most dramatic character arc and really steals the show. She's having a really good year. The only member of the cast who disappoints to an extent is Dev Patel. I loved Mr. Patel's much more toned down work in Slumdog Millionaire, but here he seems prone to histrionic parallel hand gestures. Perhaps working with such seasoned pros was intimidating and he's merely overcompensating; it's hard to say.
There is also some interesting camera work at play here. Much of the scenery of the Indian countryside is quite beautiful. Although I do think the Best Picture hype is mostly hyperbole, there is a lot in this film that is enjoyable. "Hotel" is no masterpiece, but I do recommend checking it out. 4 of 5*
Snow White and the Huntsman - This film is sort of the flip side of Mirror Mirror (or, if you insist, the mirror version). Whereas Mirror Mirror took the Snow White myth and tried (unsuccessfully) to craft a more light hearted and fun take on the story, this movie tries to make the tale as dark and serious as possible. The result is a somewhat mixed bag, but definitely a much stronger effort than "that other Snow White flick".
Let's begin with the REALLY positive. Charlize Theron does a marvelous job as Ravena, the evil queen. She is gorgeous, sinister, and captivating to watch. Her scenes actually achieve the desired tonal quality, much closer to the flavor of the original folk tale than any other screen adaptation that I am aware of. Chris Hemsworth is also perfectly respectable as the Huntsman. For someone who has appeared only in genre films (Avengers, Cabin In the Woods), this young actor has made a very impressive showing this year.
"Huntsman" is also a very impressive film visually. Cinematographer Greig Fraser, Production Designer Dominic Watkins, and Costume Designer Colleen Atwood are all to be congratulated on excellent work here. The Visual Effects are also quite captivating in places, not necessarily innovative, but containing a high level of quality and creativity.
I also quite enjoyed that the dwarfs were allowed to take themselves a little more seriously than is usually the case in cinematic versions of the story. Rather than use little people the director opted to use visual effects and normal sized actors, a few familiar faces vaguely recognizable among them.
Kristen Stewart's performance in the former of the title roles was an element that ran hot and cold with me. She was actually best when she said nothing, such as a short, beautiful scene between her and a giant forest beast. At other times, her often stilted line readings spoiled scenes that would otherwise have packed much more power. She delivers a far stronger performance than Sam Spruell, however, who is far too overblown as the queen's brother for the tone of the rest of the film.
The film's greatest fault is probably that they didn't quite get the script quite where it should have been. Some of the innovations were interesting, but there just weren't enough "wow" moments for the really great big budget summer blockbuster that this was meant to be. It is worth checking out once, though. Theron's performance alone is enough to warrant that. ***1/2 of 5*
Dark Shadows - For those of you not old enough to remember, there was a time when hearing that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp doing a film together elicited the thought, "I wonder how great this one is going to be?" Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood were really great movies (and Sweeney Todd and Corpse Bride were no slouches either), but Willy Wonka and the Chocalate Factory and Alice In Wonderland have evinced a troubling trend for these very talented gentlemen's collaborative efforts. I regret to report that their latest effort is not bucking that trend.
When adapting a slightly campy television show for the cinema, there are two advisable approaches. Either do a film that seriously tries to recapture the true character of the show (The Fugitive, The Adams Family), or do one that completely spoofs it (The Brady Bunch, 21 Jump Street). Burton's Dark Shadows does neither, but runs a middle line that makes the story both impossible to take seriously, and yet more unintentionally than purposefully funny.
As for Depp, this great character actor (and when he's on it, nobody's better) crafts a character mostly on widening his eyes dramatically and drumming his fingers. I was once in a production of Moliere's Imaginary Invalid where the director had to take my cane away because I had become so mesmerized at playing the prop that it became a play about a cane. Depp is sort of like that with those exaggerated finger nails.
The saddest thing is that Michelle Pfeiffer (who could use and deserves a major comeback) is great in this, and will probably reap no benefit from it. The picture got an extra half star from me in her honor.
I really wish that Burton would go back to doing the kind of brilliant original stories that first made him a force to be reckoned with back in the nineties. None of his adaptations (save maybe Sweeney Todd) can hold a candle to those early, original works. The man is obviously very creative but trying to force every remake with an element of fantasy into the mold of the man's personal dream world is not really unlocking his great potential as a director. I'm planning on catching Frankenweenie early Halloween day and praying for a whiff of classic Burton. 2 of 5*
Until we meet again,
Related Posts: Sept. Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Techs: Part 1, Part 2, Screenplays, Supporting Performers, Best Actor and Actress, Directors, and Picture, Being Margaret's Mirror (Mirror Mirror review), 21 Chronicled Footnotes (21 Jump Street review)