Tag Archives: C+

GRETEL & HANSEL

Producers: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones and Fred Berger Director: Oz Perkins Screenplay: Rob Hayes Cast: Sophia Lillis, Sammy Leakey, Alice Krige, Charles Babalola and Jessica De Gouw Distributor: Orion Pictures

Grade: C+

Ideally, a horror film will be both stylish and scary, but most that are churned out today are neither. So you have to be pleased when a specimen shows up that’s one or the other; the notion that half a loaf is better than none is one that would have been well understood by Hansel and Gretel, the famished children of the famous Grimm fairy tale on which Oz (or Osgood) Perkins’ picture is based.

Although it features one sequence of a menacing ghoul that provides a jump shock (and as such seems to have come out of another movie entirely) and a few others graphic enough to unsettle squeamish stomachs (the sight of a basket of human entrails being spread atop a table, for instance), “Gretel & Hansel” isn’t particularly frightening. But it oozes atmosphere, and thanks to the impressionistic sets of production designer Jeremy Reed and an uncommonly subtle use of color and extraordinary care in composition by cinematographer Galo Olivares, it’s so visually striking that individual frames could be mounted on museum walls as works of art. It’s loaded—some will say overloaded—with style.

As the reversal of names in the title indicates, it’s also a revisionist take on the old chestnut that deals with such charming themes as child abuse and cannibalism. (The film has been granted a PG-13 rating by the MPAA.) In Rob Hayes’ refashioning of the story, Hansel (Sammy Leakey) is a distinctly secondary character, a hapless, helpless eight-year old who’s entirely dependent on his sixteen-year old sister (Sophia Lillis) when they’re tossed out by their mother to fend for themselves. Fortunately she will prove up to the challenge, though she and the boy indulge in eating some wild mushroom, leading to a mini-Cheech-and-Chong scene, and it takes the intervention of a stern but kindly hunter (Charles Babalola) to save them from that aforementioned ghoul.

Eventually they reach the odd-shaped house of Holda (Alice Krige)—shaped like a pyramid, with the moon often looming over its peak—where the table is laden with succulent goodies. She invites them in, showing particular interest in fattening up Hansel, whom she also introduces to the joys of using a hatchet on the surrounding trees, a task the lad eagerly embraces. As to Gretel, Holda, who as a child (Jessica De Gouw, in flashbacks) was introduced to the dark arts, encourages her to develop her own powers—instruction that in the end will prove to have been a mistake.

That turns the film into a sort of oddball coming-of-age tale, about a young woman taking charge of her life and making the choice to save her brother, against all odds, when Holda finally shows her true colors and prepares Hansel for roasting in a grim ritual that has already consumed many other children whose spirits still roam the forest. Can Gretel call upon her newly-minted strength to overcome the witch’s power?

To be honest, from the standpoint of simple coherence, “Gretel & Hansel” doesn’t fare all that well. The script suggests explanations rather than delivering them, and while the visuals are consistently arresting, the pacing imposed on them by Perkins and editor Josh Ethier is lumbering to the point of distraction; the film wallows in mood, precisely because the plot is so thin.

Still, though Leakey is rather amateurish, both in their differing ways both Lillis and Krige are quietly powerful. The former is a study in stoic determination, and one can glimpse the intelligence behind Gretel’s undemonstrative manner. Krige is all archness and affectation, shifting easily from gentility to menace and showing off her wizened makeup and peculiar wardrobe with practiced aplomb. Effects are minimal but effective (one toward the close, involving a pipe emitting an oily substance, especially so), and Robin Coudert’s score adds to the creepy ambience.

So your reaction to “Gretel & Hansel” will depend on what’s important to you in a horror film. If you want shocks and screams, it will hardly satisfy. But while it fails to provide real shudders, its highly developed sense of style creates a general mood of unease, and for some that will be enough.

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN

C+

Who doesn’t like a nice, twisty gangster mystery with turns calibrated to keep you off guard and an ending calculated to astonish you with its brazenness, especially one crammed with tasty dialogue? They used to come fast and furious in the forties during the heyday of film noir, courtesy of the much-maligned studio system, and one was reminded of how much fun they were by a successful modernization like Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects” (1995). That’s the exalted company to which “Lucky Number Slevin” aspires. Unfortunately, though it has many virtues, it doesn’t quite make the cut.

The convoluted script by Jason Smilovic opens with what’s effectively a flashback, in which a callow young father tries to make a killing at as racetrack by betting the farm (and then some) on a horse he’s learned is rigged to win. Things don’t turn out as planned, of course, and his inability to pay back the money he’s borrowed leads to a series of deaths, including–it seems– his own, his wife’s and his young son’s. Cut to the present, where an unidentified young man is approached in a blindingly bright but deserted airport terminal by a wheelchair-bound chatterbox named Smith (Bruce Willis), who explains the meaning of the phrase “Kansas City Shuffle”–a locution indicating a clever means of directing somebody’s attention away from what’s really going on.

That becomes the motif of the larger plot that follows, a Hitchcockian “Wrong Man” scenario which begins as another young man named Slevin (Josh Harnett) arrives in New York City to crash in the apartment of his pal Nick, who’s unaccountably left the place vacant. Slevin quickly makes the acquaintance of Lindsey (Lucy Liu), a coroner’s aide who lives across the hall, but before anything can happen between them, two blundering thugs show up, mistake Slevin for Nick, and drag him off for a meeting with a crime lord called The Boss (Morgan Freeman), who threatens him with a dire fate if he doesn’t repay his huge gambling debt. But The Boss offers an alternative: he’ll forget the money if Slevin will kill his arch-rival The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley), who lives across the way in a twin tower, as isolated and well-defended as the Boss is himself. But as it turns out, Slevin is apparently but a cog in a larger, more ambiguous game, when Smith, now perfectly ambulatory, turns up as a high-priced hit-man who’s in the employ of both bigwigs. Also on hand is Stanley Tucci as a brash cop who’s certain Slevin’s up to no good.

It wouldn’t be fair to reveal the further contortions of the plot, but while you wish the turns would take your breath away (the way those in “Suspects” did), they really don’t, though not for lack of trying. Without revealing the details, it must also be said that things wrap up with a sequence that’s overlong and demeaning to some of the cast, and a sentimental twist that just doesn’t feel right after all the smarty-pants business that’s preceded.

But there’s fun to be had along the way. The picture looks great–production designer Francois Sequin and art directors Pierre Perrault and Colombe Raby have fashioned an elegantly colorful array of sets, which cinematographer Peter Sova uses with verve and dexterity under Paul McGuigan’s vigorous direction (even though their best efforts can’t make Montreal a fully persuasive stand-in for the Big Apple). McGuigan also gets solid work from his cast. Harnett, looking remarkably buff and clearly savoring the whiplash dialogue Smilovic has provided him with, is far more jovial and confident than he’s seemed in the past, and the chirpily pessimistic Liu makes a fine partner for him. As for Freeman, Kingsley, Willis and Tucci, they’re not asked to go much beyond their basic ranges, but they’re here for their presence, and it pays off.

“Lucky Number Slevin” is a tidy movie–the script’s honest, tying up all the narrative threads neatly in the end. And a good deal of the writing is slick and funny; you can understand why the actors were drawn to it. In the end, though, it winds up as little more than a clever puzzle. Though the pieces ultimately fit together, when fully revealed the picture proves less than meets the eye.