Thursday, June 7, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman, Men in Black 3

          Flights of Fancy That Invite You to Glide Along
                              Review by Ken Burke
                                   Snow White and the Huntsman
The well-known fairy tale adds some twists to give more presence to the wicked queen and more agency to Snow White with captivating visuals and a lot of decent action.
                                   Men in Black3
The complications of time travel and historical manipulations plus an outstanding job by Josh Brolin add interest to an otherwise not-so-necessary franchise extension.
            All the pieces are in place to allow easy recognition of what the vast majority of us would understand about this latest version of the old animation classic (Disney’s first hand-drawn feature-length movie, debuted in 1937) in the bombastic new approach of Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman, which connects with the presence of the princess and her wicked stepmother being very active throughout the culture over the past few months in the critical and rating success of (Disney-owned) ABC’s Once Upon a Time (giving the following hour’s Desperate Housewives a run for its coveted Sunday night audience, even in the latter’s finale season, although the troubled ladies of Wisteria Lane ended strong anyway) and the spoof of the Disney heritage with Mirror Mirror (Tarsem Singh) earlier this spring (see my review in our April 12 posting, the multi-movie critique cluster that begins with Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s The Kid with a Bike), but this current version of the old Grimm fairy tale is a bit more successful conceptually than Mirror Mirror and will easily outpace it financially, taking in about $56 million in its first weekend compared to the Julia Roberts/Lily Collins version which has rounded up only about $63 million after 10 weeks.  We’ve got everything we expect here in terms of a beautiful, pure of heart maiden in conflict with her conniving, regal step-parent; a supposed assassin who doesn’t choose to fulfill his task; support from some forest-dwelling dwarfs; a poison apple from the Queen that almost brings the story to a ruinous end; the revival of the princess via true love’s first kiss; and the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
          (All illustrated and foreshadowed visually as the horrors Snow White encounters in the Dark Forest transform into the magical realm of the fairies, reminiscent both of the fairy worlds of the Lord of the Rings trilogy [Peter Jackson, 2001-2003] and of the dream-like inhabitants of the Tulgey Woods in Disney’s 1951 animated version of Alice in Wonderland  [Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske; see for images from this film]—and one could certainly note the similarities of this current Snow White in armor attacking her stepmother to how Tim Burton also turned Alice [Mia Wasikowska] into an armored, Jabborwocky-slaying hero in the 2010 live-action Alice in Wonderland, but as we’ve seen in the Shrek films [2001-2010] and Once Upon a Time it’s not unusual for these various fantasy characters to interact with each other, nor is it strange for fantasy to be a trendy topic today given how successful computer-enhanced fantasy films have been at the box-office over the last few decades [see specifics on the U.S. and Canadian champs at and the planetary totals from all markets at where you’ll find little else but variations on fantasy in the All-Time Top 20 lists] ever since George Lucas first took us to that unnamed galaxy long ago and far away [OK, 1977 isn’t all that distant, but his Jedi galaxy is).
            Mirror Mirror worked with most of the traditional Snow White elements as well—except for her biting the apple—and even featured an actual prince rather than the disappointed Duke’s son, William (Sam Claflin) in Snow White and the Huntsman, who has pined for the hand (and quite a bit more, I’m sure) of the radiant girl for years but loses her to her intended killer, a gloomy, semi-suicidal widower (Chris Hemsworth—maybe you’ve seen him as some obscure thunder god in a little fantasy world of his own in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, or maybe you can’t really see much of anything about that movie because it’s completely covered with the green snowfall of money; however, in another harmonious reverberation from other similarities, Dukie-boy William here is a fantastic archer, not unlike The Avengers’ Hawkeye [Jeremy Renner] which helps Hemsworth make a smooth transition from one fantasy era to the next, so I’m surprised that they didn’t round up Shrek to do a guest spot as a medieval Hulk), who has a change of heart rather than bringing Snow’s heart back in a box to the villainous Queen Ravenna (a very effective Charlize Theron, clearly more of an accomplished actress than Twilight-phenom Kristen Stewart as Snow White).  The subdued romance between these two unlikely compatriots is the chief new wrinkle here, in that Mirror Mirror did beat this one to the box-office with more of a focus on the Queen than we’ve come to expect (unless you’re one of the enthralled masses who’s seen what this fantasy tyrant is capable of when transported to our world in TV’s Once Upon a Time), but we also get some well-staged battle scenes when our romantic pair and the Duke’s troops storm the castle in a manner that reminds us a bit of the attack on Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings second installment, The Two Towers (2002), except this time the fortress is breached but it’s the good guys doing the breaching, with the added fascination of evil defending warriors seemingly made of black glass who fly apart upon contact, becoming even more deadly as their sharp edges fly at our heroes from all directions (a great visual effect, used well at both beginning and end of this active, photogenic movie).
            Queen Ravenna is not one to be easily conquered, despite the triumphant attitude of the righteous invaders.  In fact, she’s done her own share of invading over the course of her 20 lifetimes, subduing many other kingdoms before she got to Snow’s territory with a combination of a powerful army, a ruthless attitude toward all who don’t bend to her will, and an ongoing magic spell that grants her the potential of eternal youth as long as no one challenges her status as “the fairest of them all.”  With no crime committed except desiring to take her rightful place on the throne after Ravenna seduces and kills her father (on their wedding night no less; she seems to have evolved from praying mantises by way of Hamlet’s Queen Gertrude), Snow White finds herself in years of imprisonment that would have satisfied Henry VIII, only to finally show some spunk in escaping her captors, taking temporary refuge in the Dark Forest.  (At least until she’s given much better protection against the various creepy-crawlies and vicious trolls there by Thor The Huntsman and the 8, no make that 7, dwarfs—after the Queen’s equally evil brother, Finn (Sam Spruell), kills one of them in the hunt for Snow’s life-extending heart which will keep Ravenna in her state of eternally-callous beauty [normally, she just eats animal hearts or sucks the youth out of any available prisoner, but spells being the complex entities that they are, now that Snow’s on the scene Ravenna’s powers are fading, just as the liquid-manifested “man in the mirror” predicted, presented in a fantastic special effect with an ominous voice provided by Christopher Obi Ogugua].)  Theron gives her all to this maniacal part, launching herself into spasms of fury that rival (and conjure up memories of) the black-clad evil fairy Maleficent in Disney’s animated 1959 Sleeping Beauty (Les Clark, Eric Larson, Wolfgang Reitherman), overpowering all who would even question her, crawling around on her throne-room floor seemingly covered with oil when she’s repulsed by The Huntsman in the Dark Forest and forced to flee back to her palace as a flock of crows (reminiscent of Gary Oldman’s vampire turning into to a swarm of rats in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and proving herself a deadly physical adversary in the final familial showdown, at least until Snow manages to slip her own knife in first, creating a defeated, withering antagonist straight out of the terrifying end of The Picture of Dorian Gray (published by Oscar Wilde, 1891, since adapted in many cinematic and video versions).
            I admit that I’m not much of a fan of the pouty Stewart (although her earnest demeanor in reclaiming the family throne does play out effectively here), but even with that bias acknowledged I still say that Theron is the reason to see this film (along with the equally-impactful swirling scenes of black glass and black crows and the masterful manner of the graying of the kingdom once Ravenna begins her reign, making it a wretched place worthy of its gloomy Middle Ages allusions) because she pours herself emotionally into this evil role in a manner equal to the creepy scene of submerging into and emerging from her body-moistening milk bath, in which she seems to pour herself physically into the surrounding liquid, becoming as ethereally unreal as her mirror-man confidant.  Another positive aspect is recasting Snow as the agent of her own salvation: she needs to be awakened from the apple’s spell by true love’s kiss, yes, but after that she wields her own weapons and is the focus of her own coronation rather than seemingly leaving her own realm behind as in the original story and riding off with the rescuing prince to his lands.  (Although she’ll likely bring The Huntsman out of the crowd soon for a well-deserved promotion, all of which—including the final coronation scene—brings me back again to the original Star Wars with Han/Huntsman starting out as a mercenary, then revealing his hidden good side to end up as the love interest of Princess Leia/Snow White; like I said before, we’ve become used to fantasy/fairy-tale-hybridization, as a means of providing narrative-relatability comfort and reinforcing the age-old myths that these modern versions of older stories are based on).  Stewart aside (but she’s there for narrative-relatability as well, keeping theatre seats warm until the Twilight: Breaking Dawn [Bill Condon] conclusion thankfully finishes off that franchise next November),  Snow White and the Huntsman is more ambitious than it had to be given the name value of its stars and more engaging than I expected.  You won’t lose anything by not seeing it, but you’ll find it reasonably well worth your time if you do.
            A good number of viewers have already decided that Men in Black3 (Barry Sonnenfeld) is worth their time, as it’s racked up about $117 million in just two weeks of release (but already bumped from the first week’s top position by the opening of Snow White and the Huntsman), even though a good argument could be made that just as we don’t really need another twist on evil queens and poison apples (except for the enduring appeal of this cultural icon) we don’t need more of Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones), whose blend of science fiction, action, and comedy was effective the first time around (Sonnenfeld, 1997) but really unnecessary in the 2002 sequel (Sonnenfeld again; at least he’s got steady work) when K must be brought out of retirement and have his anti-extraterrestrial terrorist memory restored in order to once again keep peace in our galaxy (where poor planet Earth is always the focus of either the overlords or the scum of the universe, as Superman, the Green Lantern Corps, and The Avengers can testify at length).  This time around K is erased completely by a grisly bad-ass alien villain, Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement), who brings the delightful aspect of time-travel into this franchise continuation, greatly enhanced by the presence of Josh Brolin as the young Agent K, unaware that he’s about to be offed so as to transform the space-time continuum for the benefit of the baddie who not only wants revenge for his long incarceration (since 1969) but also to prevent K from shooting off his left arm before the arrest.
          Once J understands what’s happened—and he’s the only one who does because he’s seemingly singular in retaining a memory of the previous timeline (a not-fully-justified anomaly in the MIB3 narrative, although the script does offer an attempt at an explanation; at least when the DC Comics folks reboot the universe—at least 3 times since the 1985 “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” but I make no pretense at trying to keep up, although I know they’ve just recently done it again—they often hold the superheroes out of the initial transformation so that they can remember what was before and appreciate the changes that have come since, but I think in the current reconfiguration they didn’t even both to do that), knowing that K should have been around all these years, not terminated at Cape Kennedy on the day of the Apollo 11 moon launch--he sets off on his own journey back to 1969 to thwart Boris and set things right.  (It’s a shame he couldn’t have stopped off in 1985 on the way to bring along Marty McFly [Michael J. Fox] who’s got much better experience with time travel after all of those Back to the Future [Robert Zemeckis, 1985, 1989, 1990] adventures, but with all of this government downsizing and the GSA extravagant-spending scandal time-travel just isn’t as well-funded as it used to be—in fact, in MIB3 it’s not run by a government agency at all but by some guy from a NYC comic book store with mysterious connections to cosmic devices.  Once again, to the delight of Tea Partiers, private enterprise to the rescue—although I don’t think they’ll outsource the entire MIB unit anytime soon, unless it would be run by Donald Trump who could scare any wayward alien back to his home planet with a firm “You’re fired!” and a wave of that frightening hair.)
            So, it’s bad enough that K is now gone and Boris is on the loose, but things get worse because without the Earth-shielding ArcNet device employed by K back in 1969 (don’t ask; it seems to be some sort of a high-energy shield that encircles the globe), Boris is now leading his Boglodite invaders on yet another attack on our dear planet, a battle we’re doomed to lose (why they had from 1969 until now to ready the invasion I’m not quite clear, but asking such questions of this movie isn’t the best use of your energy; just flow with it and enjoy the non-stop action lest your non-logic sensors become overloaded).  So, J has further motivation to stop über-evil Boris’ time-space disruption (Boris has his own guiding philosophy: “The most destructive force in the universe—regret.”), even though his African-American presence isn’t so well accepted socially, even in the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and the younger version of K isn’t very open to the sudden appearance of this strange guy who raises more questions than provides answers.  In this sense, Brolin as a very plausible early edition of Jones is already living by the older agent’s maxim of “I don’t ask questions I don’t want to know the answer to.”  But he’s also open to the concept that truth, while it may be stranger than fiction, is often the only possible alternative to what seems too fantastic to deconstruct, so off they go to Florida (after an hilarious stop at Andy Warhol’s Factory, where Boris breaks in to cause havoc, just as J knows he will from having read the reports of his homicidal actions at this point in time).
          Along the way they also encounter one of the sweetest alien characters ever to grace a sci-fi themed, action-barrage, monster-movie, special-effects extravaganza in Griffith (Michael Stuhbarg), who provides them with the ArcNet, accompanies them to the Apollo launch, and experiences the constant blessing/curse of seeing a myriad of possible outcomes to every instance, never knowing for sure which one will actually come to pass.  Like the other major characters he also has a guiding philosophy, although his is more like a melancholy understanding: “But where there is death there will always be death,” an ominous prediction which finally reveals itself at the end and explains why Agent K has been so sour for all these ensuing decades, despite being more upbeat (and even romantically motivated toward Head Agent of the future O [Emma Thompson, pleasant enough in a limited role]) back in the “You say you want a revolution …” days of yore.  So, even if we can reinstall the prior timeline as the operational one, a tragic event from an alternate chronology will still impose itself (not unlike the ultimate rise of the sentient machines in Terminator 3 [Jonathan Mostow, 2003] despite our hopeful assumption that such a future had been prevented by the actions and sacrifices of Schwarzenegger‘s protective android in Terminator 2 [James Cameron, 1991]; I guess Marty McFly probably couldn’t help Agent J after all because Marty must operate in a section of the multiverse where timelines can be fully altered, whereas J knows that even if he protects K that something wicked this way comes [goodbye, Ray Bradbury; we'll miss you], no matter what he tries to do to prevent it).

            Of course it all comes down to a series of close calls and relatively unexpected twists at the end (and seemingly no one’s ability at the Apollo launch center to see 4 guys—J, K, along with the young and older Boris—battling on the rocket’s scaffolding just prior to launch, even though TV cameras are constantly trained on the lift-off device and its historical payload), but eventually the ArcNet is secured on the nosecone, both versions of Boris are killed (no arrest this time from young K, who’s learned his lesson through faith in revelations from his time-traveling companion, just like Doc Brown [Christopher Lloyd] in the first Back to the Future), and all would seem to have ended well. Except that just before young Boris is blown away he manages to get off a wayward shot of his own that kills the commanding Colonel of the launch area, a decent guy who also believed in the mission of the counter-alien agents, a man revealed through decipherable clues to be Agent J’s long-lost father, with the main clue being the sudden appearance of a young boy looking quizzically for his dad, a boy obviously the young version of J.  Younger K uses the standard neuralyzer tactic to allow the boy to remember his father as a hero but nothing else, despite K’s personal despair at having allowing the death to occur, then years later will recruit him into the MIB force.  Adult J has just enough time on his magical time-travel device to return to the day he left.  (Although he comes back at the instant that he departed, so it’s still not clear to me why his encounter with Agent O earlier that same day allows him an ongoing memory of K, because his time jump returns him to a later point, with the inference that his 1969 adventures with K had not yet occurred when he first learns of his partner’s “death,” so it seems to me that at the earlier day part his memory of K would have been erased along with everyone else’s—but of course that would have ended the film immediately and given us no chance to experience the marvelous Jones-Brolin meld, so I shant protest too much; besides, time travel stories always bring up problematical situations such as this which are better left to philosophy dissertations than to immediate movie explanations—for a real mind-bender I encourage you to find and view the obscure Primer [Shane Carruth, 2004] which confronts this subject in ways too arcane and dense to even attempt to recount here but which I’ve enjoyed in several viewings, although I have friends who were literally put to sleep by it.)
          However, if either you’re too confused by now with all this to even know what I’m talking about or you’re mad at me for once again revealing the whole plot—which you could find in even more detail at anyway through no fault of mine—I’ll restore your virginal state (of mind, not body) with some help from my associate.  So, if you’ll just stand here while he puts on his dark glasses, I’ll tell you to just be aware of Men in Black3 as an engaging, adrenaline-pounding thrill ride that you’ll likely enjoy if you don’t analyze it too much.  OK, now please hold still, this flash will just take a second …

(6/7/12  Sorry about the spacing differences between the last paragraph and most everything else above it. God only knows what lurks in the crevices of Google Blogger but I can't fix it ... or maybe it's just Ray Bradbury sending me a cryptic message from the great beyond, which would be an honor no matter how this silly page layout looks.  And I've noticed recently that some of the spacings in earlier reviews are now migrating around a bit on their own long after they were posted, so all I can do is go with the flow and assume the great Goggle gods of the Internet have intentions that are indiscernible to me, a simple carbon-based lifeform.   My apologies, then, if the graphic structure of the page interferes any with the comprehension of the contents, but that's assuming they're comprehendible to begin with.  I'd put money, if I had any, on I'll Have Another to win the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes before I'd bet on the crystal blue persuasion of these reviews, but maybe at least Ray is enjoying them from afar.  That would be just peachy with me.)
(6/9/12 [Belmont Stakes day]  The advantage of blogging vs. print publication is that you can update when necessary, as is the case here [of course the disadvantage is that you can try to edit for improvement upon further consideration, which could lead to endless rewrites so I've tried to avoid that constant temptation] because not long after I made my I'll Have Another comment above the poor horsey was scratched from the race today so maybe now it's even money that he'd win the Triple Crown vs. my reviews being coherent; if I were you I think I'd invest in government bonds from Greece or Spain, which probably are more likely to pay off for you than either of those options.  [I still think I'm being monkeyed with here from the fun zone of cyberspace; maybe Bradbury has joined up with Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke for some cosmic pranks so keep an eye on your checking account balance.]
And, regarding the comment above about unnecessary sequels for Men in Black, I now see that there will be at least one sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, maybe two, even though the first film has clearly finished the essence of the original story, so, unlike the racing community who know when it's time for a winner to gracefully retire, leave it to Hollywood to beat a dead, but still very profitable, horse around the box-office track for as long as we, the audience, will tolerate it. Kristen Stewart may not need a vampire bite to make her immortal after all.)

            Regardless of the appearance of this page layout, if you’d like to know more about Snow White and the Huntsman here are some suggested links: (this 5 min. extended trailer essentially shows the whole film if you’d like to get it in capsule form and save some bucks)

            If you’d like to know more about Men in Black3 here are some suggested links: (then click Enter the Site to get to the real stuff) (an extended review by Christy Lemire [AP] and Ben Mankiewicz [Turner Classic Movies], although I don’t care for her comments any more than the several people who responded to her in a negative way but I don’t agree with the sexist manner in which some of the commenters dismiss her—please, attack her, if you must, on substance not on existence)

We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.

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