Wednesday, July 4, 2012

DVD Spotlight: Reflecting on Mirror, Mirror through the Bollywood lens

 Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

 Once upon a time there was a film called Mirror, Mirror that didn't get the credit it was due and after spending a criminally short period of time in theatres, was dismissed as a mere visual bauble, lacking "enough depth or originality to set it apart from the countless other adaptations of the tale," according to

As Julia Roberts would say in the film, lightly daubing her mouth with an ornate lace napkin, "agree to disagree."

 Though there was a number of patriotic films I could've chosen to review, I decided on the Fourth of July to blow $20 on the recently released DVD of Twentieth Century Fox's Mirror, Mirror, the Bollywood reimagining of a German fairy tale that sadly did not get the publicity or the attention it deserved. I believe this film, directed by Tarsem Singh, was a victim of poor marketing and cultural divides.What we essentially have here is an incredibly well-cast and lushly displayed Bollywood film, and being a fan of  that genre, of course I adored it.  For those of you not in the know, Bollywood (formally referred to as Hindi Cinema) is a genre of Indian film that incorporates energetic dance sequences, over-the-top costumes and self-referential humor with whimsical plots that generally revolve around love stories.

If I needed any more support for my case, just take a gander at the ending sequence (No spoilers here, unless you've grown up under a rock and don't realize that Snow White and the Prince live happily ever after....if that's the case, well, OOOPS!) and then take a look at a dance sequence from Saawariya, a Bollywood film released in 2007:

So yeah, you get the idea. But the truth is, Bollywood doesn't tend to go over terribly well in this country, and it's a damn shame, because it's a whole lot of fun. And without having that background, I imagine several moviegoers saw Mirror, Mirror and found it a singularly perplexing giddy experience wrapped up in a sumptuous orange bow. But at least they had plenty of jaw-droppingly beautiful costumes and sets to gawk at.

The other thing that I find incredibly appealing personally about Mirror, Mirror is I strongly dislike Julia Roberts. She tends to be cast as the sweet "girl next door" when I always saw evil and treachery lurking beneath that mile-wide smile. As the Evil Queen, I feel she was finally given the role she was born to play - a cruel, self-possessed downright witchy woman. And there's a certain amount of self-reflected irony in Roberts taking on the role, as she herself isn't quite as "fair" as she used to be as the actress creeps toward middle age.

In fact, I can't think of a single person who wasn't suited to their roles.The delicately lovely Lily Collins does a fine turn at Snow White, creating the difficult balance between sweet and innocent and also profoundly human - and it's the humanness that makes her so darn likeable. She gets irritated and says inappropriate things, and doesn't let the Evil Queen boss her around, all of which makes her a step above the standard oh-so-goody-two-shoes flawless fairytale princess. The dwarves are wise-cracking thieves played by incredibly talented little people, which definitely is a tip of the hat to that particular community of actors since in the age of CGI it would've been easy to just "create" them, and their chemistry with Snow is endearing as it is genuine. Nathan Lane (aging quite gracefully, by the way) rounds out the palace ensemble as Brighton, the simpering, scraping manservant to the Queen who finds himself quite literally playing the cockroach he is in a sequence that would make Franz Kafka proud.

And, of course, the Prince. Could there have been a better choice, really, than Armie Hammer? He's blonde, blue-eyed, and so darn hapless in the presence of two great female leads you just want to give him a big old hug. What else can he do but just do what he does best - be charming? And yet, somehow he succeeds through his interactions with Snow White as being more than just a stock fairytale character, and even gamely does a great job at imitating a puppy when the Queen botches one of her own spells.

But under all the fluff and visual splendor, the film has a dark edge that is highly appealing to me, and is rather appropriate given that the tale itself is quite macabre. While there's no glass display coffins to be had, the Queen's rotten apple core of a magical abode has very Poe-like elements and the opening animation sequence featuring young Snow White, the King, and the Evil Queen as fine-featured porcelain dolls is incredibly original. What I'd give to see an entire film done in that style!

Probably what sold me the most on the film is what they do with the King, Snow White's father. He's a story element that has rarely been explored in recent interpretations of the tale.His character in Mirror, Mirror is given a rather unique spin, and I think if you take the time to give it a watch, you'll very much agree with me.

The DVD is sadly lacking in the extras department. The documentary is interesting and will give viewers more of the mindset in filmmaking from the Indian cultural experience (Armie Hammer quite rightly calls Tarsem Singh's directing style "unceasingly effervescent") and a cute puppy feature for the kiddies, but not much else to write home about. However, it does let you skip past the previews for other films at the beginning and being able to pause certain scenes and take in all the rich detail is a definite plus.

Mirror, Mirror may not be the fairest one of all - but it's a whole lot of fun and a great opportunity to step into another doorway of cultural moviedom. 


DVD packaging and extras:

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Current Reels: Brave has enough heart, but not enough plot

 Image courtesy of Pixar/Disney

By a strange twist of fate, I ended up seeing Brave twice - once in 3D and once in 2D. I'd like to say right out of the gate that if you are so inclined to see this film, DO NOT see it in 3D. It doesn't enhance the film dramatically, it takes the incredibly vivid colors and makes them drab, and muddies up the the numerous night scenes making the characters almost completely indiscernible from one another. Save your cash - it's not worth it! Also, be sure to stay til the very end of the credits for a mini-bonus sequence.

 Now, for the rest of the review. The spunky Scottish princess (voiced brilliantly by  Kelly Macdonald) does a lot of running around on her amazingly animated horse, Angus, tossing her tornado of red curls around, and stamping her foot while echoing her mother's wise words that "Legends are lessons. They ring with truth."

Clearly there is some legend to be told and we are supposed to learn something from it. But it's not really clear what that lesson is, other than don't make any deals with wily witches in forests before you've read the fine print. But we all know THAT. This doesn't make for a BAD film, but let's face it - we've all gotten semi-biased when it comes to Pixar. After all they've put out hit after hit. Toy Story, Ratatouille, and my personal favorite, The Incredibles. (Apparently I'm not alone in this one - a recent Entertainment Weekly poll showed that 21 percent of their readers consider The Incredibles their favorite despite it being eight years old.) And why were they so good? Because they had amazing stories to be told to go along with the jaw-droppingly beautiful and innovative animation.

I enjoyed Brave and there are certain parts of it that I'm actually quite fond of - even the parts that BEARLY made sense (you'll forgive the pun if you've already seen the film.) But as Pixar aficionados, we've gotten used to being served the best of the best - and this is definitely not. It's an absolute visual stunner, but plotwise it fails to be as inventive.

But let's put all of this comparison stuff aside for a moment and look at the film in its own right. I really enjoyed the dry, cutting humor combined with slapstick, provided via Merida's father and the other bumbling clansmen chiefs, their ineffectual sons (all vying for the hand of Merida at their father's forced nudges) and Merida's three younger brothers - a hive of mischief and well-coordinated and executed crimson-curled mayhem. Her brothers, which so easily could have been three-minute gags sporadically pastiched on the storyboard for comedy relief, end up serving as important plot devices throughout the film as a whole. There's also very Hayao Miyazaki-like overtones to the Will O' The Wisps that beckon Merida toward her "fate." I also found the relationship dynamics between Merida and her long-suffering mother, Queen Elinor (voiced by the ever-versatile Emma Thompson), to be quite genuine (having had my own share of clashes with my own mother as a young teen not so unlike Merida, minus the crazy mop of red hair) and, at times, incredibly heartfelt.


I actually didn't mind the Ursa Major plotline so much. It's a plot device of a human trying to work out their flaws by walking in the paws of another animal's skin, and though done before, can be an effective one of executed creatively. Merida's mum turning into a bear was not a problem for me. It was the fact that Pixar seemed to get lazy with what to do once her mum became a bear. Okay, we're going to learn to fish together. Quality time. Her mum learns that sometimes it is important to fight and know how to use weapons. Yay growing experiences!

And yet, it all felt a little contrived. The compromise at the end of the movie proved to be no compromise at all. Yes, Merida learns to respect her mum, and her mum learns to let her hair flow in the wind and loosen her queenly stays a bit but it's not clear if Merida will follow through with her societal duties. That's a lot
of tradition and dynasties flushed down the proverbial toilet if Merida prefers to stay single. And what of the witch? Does she ever come back? Where did she ever come from? She's fun and spunky and someone I would've liked to have gotten to know better if the plotline hadn't been so hellbent on reaching it's desired conclusion with the same pacing as Merida charging through the woods on Angus.

So who ends up being Brave in the end?  Our fiery-haired heroine of the hour, Merida? Her strong-willed mother, Queen Elinor? Or maybe us in the audience, who put our faith into a film that was a joy to view with beautiful music but ended up being little more than a summer popcorn movie and a way to beat the heat for an hour and change. And that's okay too - but Pixar, next time around, don't put all your creative eggs into one basket in your beginning short, the absolutely flawless and breath-taking La Luna -I won't say any more about it except that it has the wide-eyed wonder and brushed gold magic that makes Pixar creations truly stunning - and leave nothing left for the main feature.

Toby sez:

For more Brave thoughts, visit my friend Ric Meyer's page here. (Note: his review is spoileriffic!)