Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters

Back in the 1990s, in Southern California, movies were preceded not only by trailers for future films but ads for the Los Angeles Times. I think there must have been some exchange agreement with the papers and the theaters, as an advertising tradeoff. Since the internet took off as the main source of info about show times and theater locations, the ad revenue dropped and the newspaper stopped being advertised in front of every movie playing in So Cal. In the ten years before they disappeared, the paper promoted it’s unique position as the Company Town paper by making the ads focus on the movie business. Many of the ads had nice bits of info about movie making and some of the personalities involved. In celebration of the past, as a service to any of my readers from other parts of the world or from more recent times, I am including these snippets in my reviews for the rest of the year. In honor of today’s film, you got the LA Times movie ad featuring some special effects using guns, and bows and arrows. This is especially appropriate given the nature of today’s movie.

The Red Band Trailer that you see above, was the deciding point for me in seeing this film. Prior to this trailer, the movie looked like some CGI action flick that had a weird subject and a silly point of view. Once I saw the trailer, I did not really change my mind but I did add on to my expectation, violent blood splatter and reckless disembowelment. Once I knew that was coming I was on board. Sunday mornings decapitating witches and eviscerating them as they fly through the forest, yeah, that’s more like my cup of tea. In all truth, it is not as gruesome as it might have been, and the CGI takes the edge off a lot of the gore, but for a stupid idea with a stupid script it pretty much lived up to my low hopes.

The idea of taking a fairy tale and turning it into the basis of an action film is not new. Heck, last year we had “Snow White and the Huntsman” and twenty five years ago there was “The Company of Wolves”. The difference here is that it is all being played for laughs. Nothing is supposed to be serious, from the narration to the weaponry of the leads, to the obvious tip off of a 3D promotional tag. The very opening of the film takes a shot at a long gone cultural reference, pictures of missing children on a milk carton. Of course they are bottles of milk, the pictures are drawings and they are tied onto each individual bottle. If the script could have kept up with that tone a little more, this movie would work a lot better and be more fun. As it is, not too long after it gets started, it begins to take itself too seriously. Sometimes that is the story, which involves white witches and black witches in a struggle for dominance. Sometimes it is the characters who are not given enough to say and are reacting more than attacking. This movie needs a big shot of Bruce Campbell to make it work, instead we get Jeremy Renner. Renner is a real actor, slumming in a piece of schlock, probably for a change of pace and a nice paycheck. An while he is amusing, he simply does not have the comic persona a piece of silliness like this needs.

I do think I made a mistake in not seeing this in 3D. Usually, 3D is an unnecessary addition to a movie that needs something to pump it up. Here it probably is justified by the pieces of bloody body parts that would come flying off the screen. The sprays of CGI blood would probably be more enjoyably over the top in a third dimension. The slo mo shots of arrows, axes and other weapons would be more savory and memorable in 3D. I think I would definitely have enjoyed the resolution of the curse of hungering for things that crawl in the earth a little more. That scene did have one shot that helped Renner establish a bit more comic potential, but that trait is never developed fully and Hansel simply comes across as grumpy most of the time. The truth is there is not much logic in any of it. Characters come in and out of the story, they act for reasons that are never clear, and the witches have no personalities except the one played by Famke Janssen. Most of her performance is growling scowling CGI rendered witch talk. There is just not enough character to care one way or the other.Gemma Arteton is a slight personality with an even slighter character to play in Gretel. Again, there is not any real need to look at this as a measure of ability for any of these actors, the script and film making treat them as figurines to be played with and moved through the story to get to the next action shot.

By all means go and see this if you have a screening in 3D and money burning a hole in your pocket. It won’t hurt you or insult you, but it won’t make your juices flow much either. There is potential for great pulp stupidity in this film, but it can’t quite catch fire like all theĀ  witches need to do in the story. There are things about it that could work, but I don’t have the energy or need to talk about them. This is just another filler until better stuff shows up, move along.

Mama

After we saw this movie this morning, Amanda and I had a discussion about the horror films we had seen recently. We usually are willing to go, and usually sorry we went, or at least disappointed. This morning has not broken the trend. We both agreed that the last time we saw horror films that worked for us was “The Crazies” and “Drag Me to Hell.” Both of those are a couple of years old now, and we are still plugging along hoping for something that will give us a shiver and be glad that the lights are on. “Mama” starts off with great promise but ultimately fails to deliver.

The opening of this movie is maybe the best set up for a horror film I can remember in a dozen years or so. Before any ghosts or spirits make an appearance, we are horrified to see the desperate acts of a man at the end of his rope. Too often this story plays out in the real world and it is not an entertaining one. The anguish that the man feels can never justify what has happened but there is a sense of understanding of the emotional turmoil a person can go through. The little girl who plays the three year old Victoria in the story is just perfect. It is hard to say if she is a good actor, but in the part she delivers the right kind of innocence and trust and anxiety all at the same time. The sequence ends with the arrival of our apparition and everything has hooked us in for a strong horror experience. When the story picks up five years later, there is another very creepy sequence with the discovery of the two sisters and their return to the world. After this, things begin to fall apart.

It is a cliche to say less is more, especially in a horror film. Everyone is aware that the visualization of the evil spirit or monster can almost never live up to the imagination that we have been working on. Short shots in shadows and quick glimpses in a mirror or across a doorway are usually good for making the audience anxious and a little bit scared. Unfortunately, we need more for the story to pay off. Sometimes, like in the film “The Others” or “The Sixth Sense”, the ideas get really good and surprising and they work to frighten us. Most of the time we end up with something like this, where the horror images are the focus of the last third of the story and they are a let down. A previously, nearly invisible antagonist becomes visible and then there is a confrontation that just does not work.

One of the reasons that the frights don’t work as well here is that the audience has become jaded by CGI effects. The artists who put this material together can visualize almost anything, and as a consequence they do. When those images are so removed from anything bordering on “realistic”, the image simply becomes a grotesque cartoon. That’s what happens here, the spirit appears and then we get a chase film featuring a dark version of an animated nightmare. Slasher movies have a edge on ghost stories because when the fright comes it feels real. I think a ghost story can get away with being dismissed if it can achieve a level of believability. Unfortunately, “Mama” just can’t do this. The unrealistic nightmare story of a movie like “Phantasm”, feels more real despite the fact that it does not take place in an ordinary universe. Look, there are two or three good jumps, and a disturbingly real looking fall down a staircase, but the payoff feels weak.

Story does in these movies as well. There is always a complicated explanation and then a sequence of revelations that tell us what kind of result to expect. “Mama” has some nightmare visualizations that never amount to anything. The Uncle has a vision of his dead brother, which forces him out of his hospital bed to investigate. Once he arrives at the scene that he envisioned, nothing happens. The psychiatrist in the story is freaked out enough to stop his session in the comfortable home where the developing family is living, but he is not so perturbed as to refrain from going into the woods alone, into a spooky house in search of a ghost, in the dark. The vengeful spirit is pursuing a secret agenda. The psychiatrist find a key part of the puzzle from a government clerk who helped him earlier with other information. Unfortunately, instead of a creepy story being revealed in a mundane file drawer in an office building, the director (and co-screenwriter) chooses to try to amp it up by hiding this key piece of physical evidence in a warehouse that looks like it was lit by the same interior decorator of Hannibal Lecter’s cell. It is also so cavernous that I would not be surprised if the Arc of the Covenant wasn’t also hidden there.

Jessica Chastain’s character Annabelle is the most real person in the story. She is ambivalent about participating in the recovery of the girls. She resents the life changes it imposes on her and sometimes she is just a bitch to her boyfriend. Yet she is also a woman who can empathize with two frightened little girls. We can see a potential for a loving relationship and that part of the story works. The idea that jealousy in a spirit might provoke danger is an interesting one, but it is not consistently followed. The spirit here acts in ways that are capricious and have nothing to do with the back story. The resolution makes no sense and the creep factor was gone twenty minutes before the story was over. There are a couple of scares but nothing to make me say, “I Remember Mama”.