Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Kid with a Bike, The Deep Blue Sea, Wrath of the Titans, and Mirror Mirror

               Grim Reality or Escapist Fantasy—Take Your Pick
                              Reviews by Ken Burke
                                             The Kid with a Bike

A Belgian documentary-like film about a kid who’s not very successful in reclaiming the father who abandoned him and may not be much better in stimulating your interest.
                                             The Deep Blue Sea

A somber story set in post-WW II England where a woman finds that she has little to live for even as we try to get past her misery long enough to try to wish her well.
                                             Wrath of the Titans

The sequel to the remake of Clash of the Titans with Perseus still battling impressive demons from the underworld but not getting much help from the gods or the script.
                                             Mirror Mirror

Tarsem Singh brings us another of his lavish visual creations in this retelling of the Snow White story with Wicked Queen Julia Roberts; beautiful to see, funny, but forgettable.
            Time may have been on the side of the Rolling Stones in a very old song of theirs (1964, the first one of their hits I was ever aware of) but this week it’s more like another of their tunes, “Time Waits for No One” (1974), and it definitely won’t wait for me right now (it will likely not wait at all next week so I may have to skip a posting then while I’m scraping up some cash to pay my taxes); therefore, here are some quick takes on 4 current offerings, 2 of a more serious nature for those of you who want to delve into films that don’t compromise much as they investigate human passions and failures, along with 2 of a much more superficial, even whimsical, nature for you who just need some low-stress diversion.  We’ll start with the harder stuff then relax into the easy chairs.

            The Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have a very devoted following for their extensive previous work, but it’s totally escaped me (Let’s see: need tax money—check; lost critical credibility—check; now I just need 1 more strike to be put away for awhile.) so I can’t place their last film into any sort of context that relates to them, only to the style of Photographic Realism (natural lighting, often handheld camera) which The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) clearly falls into.  This no-frills confrontation with a very angry young man, Cyril Catoul (Thomas Doret), who desperately wants to leave his imposed boys-home residence to reunite with his father, Guy Catoul (Jérémie Renier), a guy with just no time for the kid at present as he is trying to stabilize his own life and job, presents us with a protagonist who’s difficult to sympathize with—despite his sad situation—because he’s so hostile to everyone who tries to help him, especially the hairdresser, Samantha (Cécile De France), who takes great risks by becoming a foster parent for Cyril despite his constant rejection of her affection and attempts to instill some boundaries in the obsessed mind of her young, resistant ward.  After Cyril finally tracks down his abandoning parent, who does his best to resist his son’s determination to reconnect, Guy finally breaks off contact and Samantha is almost exasperated enough to do the same.  This film is a fine example of the pseudo-documentary style, with reversals on the classic Italian Neorealist influence from The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica, 1948, unquestionably one of my all-time Top 10) in that it’s boy and stepmom rather than son and dad who finally bond and the economic outlook is much brighter for Cyril and Samantha than for destitute Antonio and Bruno, but once the conflict and direction toward eventual resolution is established I just couldn’t get very invested in this Kid or even the bike.  I’m in a tiny minority here compared to the standard collection of critics (see the links below from Rotten Tomatoes and the other usual suspects; it also won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year but was beat out by a different Belgian film, Bullhead [Michael R. Roskam—another one I haven’t seen yet] as a 2011 Oscar contender), but for me this was a kid whose belligerence I could understand but not see past, involved in a story that did little to engage me.  I’ll acknowledge that the situations and performances all seem quite authentic, but except for relocating to a climate farther north of previous explorations of this type from well over a half century ago I didn’t find much to care about here, a film of consistently sincere sidewalk tragedy but little else.

            Conversely, Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea (adapted from Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play) connected much better with me, possibly because it’s also set in roughly the same period as the Italian Neorealist films, postwar 1950 in England.  However, when I look at my notes and see that I describe this downbeat tale of unfulfilled obsessive love as “slow, somber, sad, dark,” and “dramatic,” my initial response is that I should give it an N-ST rating, meaning that no one with suicidal tendencies should be allowed into the theatre because this story just might push them over the edge.  Yet, if such a description doesn’t make you immediately start scrolling down to Mirror Mirror in hopes you’ll find something about singing birds and dwarfs to cheer you up (and you won’t, but we’ll soon get to that—just beware the retained poisoned apple if you’re still in a melancholy funk thinking about The Deep Blue Sea) then you might enjoy the smoldering emotion that Rachel Weisz generates as Hester Collyer, a younger woman married to an older man (Simon Russell Beale as barrister Sir William Collyer) but in deep lust for emotionally-scarred ex-RAF pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston).  That’s really about all there is to the film as regards plot, but then you don’t usually expect too much complexity when the opening scene features the protagonist trying to kill herself through a combination of fireplace gas (where she has to pay for her attempted asphyxiation by inserting coins as if it were a parking meter, just making the whole situation even more awful) and an overdose of some medication.  She’s unsuccessful and at times we might be unsuccessful in easily following the time frames of the freely flowing flashbacks that reveal a happier past for Hester and Sir William along with a more passionate and less traumatic past for Hester and Freddie, all of this juxtaposed to the present where our agitated heroine (and I use the term in a derogatory gender-related manner, not to slight Hester’s plight nor Weisz’s powerful performance—well supported by the quality of the rest of the cast—but just to acknowledge how trapped she is by circumstances not fully in her control) shows how her combination of being a vicar’s daughter, the daughter-in-law of a woman who prefers “guarded enthusiasm” to passion and her flower garden to people, and the wife of a dedicated but reserved gentleman whose disgust with her infidelity is mitigated by his philosophy that “anger fades and is replaced by regret” results in a protagonist who knows she settled too easily for a social-status marriage yet can’t keep from giving in to terminal depression when her lover forgets her birthday, spending his energy on golf instead.  Most of the time the shots in this film are as dark as Hester feels (and Freddie’s no bundle of joy either, a man clearly damaged by the war, prone to anger and drunkenness, seemingly trapped in an adolescent state of turbulent emotions), but at times there are some beautifully fluid camera movements, some spectacular images of the lovers in bed when passion runs high between them (with a focus on body parts reminiscent of the sensuality of Edward Weston’s great statuesque nudes and sensuous peppers that imply sinewy human anatomy; see, and some stirring violin music that becomes as oppressive as Hester’s depressions at times.  All in all, The Deep Blue Sea is a very sad exploration of suppressed human misery in a time where the pressure is on to celebrate postwar prosperity and enjoy a public sing-a-long of intentional plot-commentary songs “Any time you’re feeling lonely” or “You belong to me” at the local pub; if you don’t leave the theatre looking for the nearest gas oven you’ll probably be able to contemplate this one for a long time as it continues to haunt you, just as the memory of the departed Freddie (off to the call of an airplane in South America) haunts Hester long after the credits roll over a shot of a war-torn building next to their now half-empty apartment.

            On the other hand, the only haunts in Jonathan Liebesman’s Wrath of the Titans are the demonic creatures charging out of the underworld as ancient Greece faces a crisis even worse than the socioeconomic meltdown in contemporary Greece.  In this follow-up to 2010’s Clash of the Titans (Louis Leterrier) we once again find Perseus (Sam Worthington) doing battle with beasts of unbelievable power while his god father (in the literal rather than the baptismal sense) Zeus (Liam Neeson) and god uncle Hades (Ralph Fiennes) continue to make everything more complicated than it should have to be.  The two seemingly immortal rulers of 2/3 of existence (Zeus the heavens, Hades the underworld, with other brother Poseidon claiming the seas and a relatively minor role in each film) are falling on hard times because—in the most intriguing plot line of this completely unneeded but still flamboyantly entertaining sequel—as humans become lax in praying to the gods their power diminishes and most of them have actually died off by the time that Wrath begins.  For those of you more interested in separation of church and state than Rick Santorum this may not be much of a problem, but in the world of ancient Greece when the power of the gods begins to wane then the destructive creatures held in the far depths of Hades’ kingdom, Tartarus, will be free once again to ravage the Earth just because that’s their nasty disposition.  Perseus defeats one of these beasts, essentially a gigantic two-headed mad dog, early on but the worst of all, the megatitan Kronos (Saturn in roughly parallel Roman mythology), is building strength to take revenge on son Zeus for banishing him eons ago so everything in the way is fodder for his volcanic fury.  All of this provides some effectively active battle scenes involving human armies and monsters; some love interest between Perseus and warrior queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) long after he rescued her in the first film (when she was played by Alexa Davalos); and a final cataclysmic confrontation which sees the end of Zeus and Kronos (and the few remaining gods), the depletion of divine power from Hades, and the (hopefully unnecessary) possibility that Perseus may have to come back once again to battle other released Titans in their final assault on humanity.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with this bombastic movie (unless you’re looking for The Deep Blue Sea-type substance, but if you were I doubt you’d even be considering this lowbrow epic), which allows heady actors Neeson and Fiennes a chance to join Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) savior Worthington in a visually-extravagant collage of hair, blood, chains, and swords (along with the occasional Cyclops and goofy ex-god [Tartarus architect Hephaestus (Bill Nighty)]) which is pulling decent money at the domestic box office (not nearly as good as it’s doing overseas, though, nor so much compared to current heavierweights The Hunger Games [Gary Ross], Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax [Chris Renaud] and 21 Jump Street [Phil Lord, Chris Miller—hell, even John Carter (Andrew Stanton) has raked in more cash than the latest Titans even though Carter’s losses will likely cause Disney to put a couple of the Seven Dwarfs on the unemployment line for awhile unless they find a new vein of jewels in their diamond mines]) and reportedly is much better in its 3-D production values than the atrocious attempt of the first Titans to quickly upgrade to deep dimensionality in order to jump on the Avatar success wagon (based on that horrible experience I stuck with 2-D for the new one and can’t see that you’d be missing too much if you don’t pay for the extra enhancement).  If you’re in the market for a totally bogus mythological tale that constantly attacks you with imaginative monsters and pensive deities, Clash of the Titans may be a welcome relief from any current news about Greece or any other country in the Mediterranean region.  Consider checking it out but act fast because it may disappear faster than an Athenian pension plan.

            By comparison, you probably also won’t be reading much about Tarsem Singh‘s (who has his own connection to Greek hero tales with another demigod, Theseus [Henry Cavill]—Zeus does get around, much to his wife’s chagrin—taking on another collection of difficult invaders and once again being concerned about Titans on the loose in 2011’s Immortals) Mirror Mirror for very long because it likely won’t be around to read about, although it has some good self-aware laughs regarding our expectations of the Snow White-Wicked Queen-Prince Charming story (proving, along with the comedy of dislocated fairy tale characters from the world of fantasy into contemporary Manhattan in Enchanted [Kevin Lima, 2007], that the Disney folks and those who emulate them have now learned to laugh at themselves just as effectively as their competing DreamWorks counterparts have been doing with the Shrek films since the first appearance of the antihero ogre in 2001).  Tarsem proved his cinematic imagery abilities with the magnificently fantastic visuals in his tale of despair and reclamation in Old Hollywood, The Fall (2006), a cult success that keeps him employed in making new grandiose tributes to known stories, most recently with the mild restructuring of the Snow White fairy tale into Mirror Mirror where we see a lot more of The Queen (and rightly so, given how much Julia Roberts was likely paid to star in this spectacle), find Snow (Lily Collins) to be evolving into a bit more of an independent operator rather than just a helpless royal waiting for a savior, enjoy a bit more depth as well in charming Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who gets involved in a cute subplot where a magic potent has him desperately enthralled with The Queen for awhile, and even find a new interpretation of the Seven Dwarfs (with Danny Woodburn as the one best known to me as Mickey, Kramer’s friend in a few episodes of “Seinfeld”) as Robin Hood-like bandits (or at least they become more altruistic after moralistic Snow White bunks down with them; previously they just robbed for their own sustenance in a queendom where the monarch drains everyone as dry as possible to feed her own extravagant needs).  No one take themselves too seriously in this spoof on our expectations of the behaviors of these well-known characters, with Nathan Lane (Brighton) providing some of the best laughs as The Queen’s beleaguered minister constantly trying to save his own neck while pampering hers.  There’s a further twist on the original tale in which Snow’s father king (Sean Bean), missing from the Disney animated original (credited to David Hand and several others, 1937), makes a triumphant reappearance at the end after the demise of his wicked queen and there are  some nice fake story updates on the dwarfs prior to the end credits (in which Woodburn’s Grimm, in a self-reflexive twist, goes on to write fairy tales) along with the rousing “I Believe in Love” Bollywood-type finale which gives Slumdog Millionaire’s “Jai Ho” wrap-up a nice run for the money in terms of effective closure (even though Mirror Mirror has no overt Indian connection but that just reinforces the silly nature of the entire movie).  A more serious take on our precious princess awaits us later this year when Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman gives Kristen Stewart a chance to explore other fanciful realms beyond Twilight’s vampires and werewolves, but if you just want to have fun with a very familiar story and be dazzled by settings, architecture, and costumes that even outdo the extravagances in The Hunger Games(Gary Ross) Capital, you might appreciate what Tarsem does with his whimsical playfulness in Mirror Mirror.

          With all that said, I’ll note that while visiting Nina's (my wondrous wife; remember her?) relatives last weekend on Easter I got a chance to watch again (on my brother-in-law’s marvelous big-screen video system, always in a state of enlargement and improvement) Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 Notorious, about postwar Nazi shenanigans in Brazil being thwarted by Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.  I’ve also noticed that you can now buy or rent Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) in Blu-Ray.  While everything that I’ve reviewed above has certain charms if you’re in the proper mood, I’d recommend either of these classics on DVD over any of the 4 new releases explored here, even if you’ve seen the older ones several times before because they truly represent what excellent filmmaking (and viewing) is all about more so than these current options.

            If you’d like to know more about The Kid with a Bike here are some suggested links: (this is another one of those sites with claims to links to watching the full film; I’ll leave that choice to you)

            If you’d like to know more about The Deep Blue Sea here are some suggested links: (11min. interview with Rachel Westz; somewhat low audio)

            If you’d like to know more about Wrath of the Titans here are some suggested links: (includes some viewer responses and provides easy links to similar stuff if you’re interested)

            If you’d like to know more about Mirror Mirror here are some suggested links: (this is the Bollywood-type musical finale)

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