action films, anachronistic, Dead Snow, Drew Struzan, Drew: The Man Behind the Poster, Edward the Troll, fairy tales, fantasy, films, Gemma Arterton, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, horror, Jeremy Renner, medieval diabetes, Middle Ages, poster art, Tommy Wirkola
Tonight’s double-feature consisted of a documentary and a goofy fantasy action-film. I like to mix it up a little and, for some reason, I felt these two would compliment each other fairly well. The evening began with:
Talk about a massive case of “Oh, yeah…that guy!” I went in to this doc about poster artist Drew Struzan with only the barest knowledge of the man’s work: I knew that he was a ridiculously famous poster artist, mostly because I like to collect Mondo posters and Struzan has done a few here and there. I also knew that he was responsible for some truly iconic movie posters…I just didn’t know that he was pretty much responsible for ALL of the most iconic movie posters. I also didn’t realize that he designed some of my all-time favorite album covers: talk about a serious overachiever!
What, exactly, do all of these films have in common: John Carpenter’s The Thing; the Back to the Future trilogy; the Indiana Jones quadrilogy; most of Spielberg’s best (including The Goonies and ET); the classic Muppet movies; all of the Star Wars films; Big Trouble in Little China? They all feature truly iconic posters and all were done by Struzan.
How about Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Alice Cooper’s Welcome to my Nightmare and Greatest Hits (the awesome gas station gangsters cover)? Yep, those belonged to good ol’ Drew, as well. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the documentary was where he described the process behind Sabbath Bloody Sabbath: not only is Struzan the man in bed on the front and back covers but the idea of putting a “heaven” scene on the back (to compliment the hell scene on the front) was his, too. I really cannot stress enough how much I love both that album and cover, so this little insight was pretty nifty for me.
Since film posters are a lost art these days, it’s definitely bittersweet to take a look back to an era when everyone actually seemed to give a shit. We’ll never see this variety of hand-painted, non-Photoshopped posters in the future and the film world is definitely poorer for that. Drew’s posters all had such a vitality and individuality, traits that simply can’t be replicated in these days of “line-up/floating heads/person standing in the center/facing backwards” cookie-cutter promotional tools. I hesitate to even call these things posters because, in reality, they’re actually just computer files.
More than anything, however, Drew: The Man Behind the Poster is a love story. It’s a truly touching story about how Struzan, a loner and rebel whose family didn’t like him and who left home as soon as he could, met and fell in love with another loner, Dylan. The two have been together since their teens, have a grown son and grandson now and are pretty much the most perfect couple I’ve ever seen. In fact, one of the biggest takeaways from this documentary is just how loved and respected Drew is. From George Lucas to Guillermo del Toro and back to Michael J. Fox, all of those interviewed go out of their ways to describe how sweet, good-natured and obscenely talented Struzan is. One of the most heartbreaking parts of the film was when Drew described being taken to the cleaners by a former partner he trusted: the guys seems so nice that I knew people would be taking advantage of him.
In the end, if you have any interest in movie and album artwork, this is a must-see. The documentary comes loaded with more amazing artwork than you can shake a stick at and also gives viewers a rare look into Struzan’s home studio, including several of his non-film/music related “personal” artwork. After seeing the doc, I would love to get a chance to meet the master in person and just say, “Thank you.”
First of all, let’s clear one thing up right off the bat: Hansel and Gretel – Witch Hunters is not the stupidest film you’ve ever seen. Not even close. Without even knowing you personally, I can guarantee this (unless, of course, your entire life has been spent watching nothing but Bergman and Godard films. If so, Hansel and Gretel will be, without a doubt, the stupidest film you’ve ever seen.).
Why do I feel the need to defend this before I’ve even described it? Well, probably because the film has received the kind of critical drubbing that usually accompanies bottomless pits of waste like Van Helsing, Howard the Duck and Hudson Hawk. I tend to detest big, loud, dumb movies, especially ones that have delusions of intelligence. I went into Hansel and Gretel expecting something unrepentantly dumb, empty and soulless: perfect multiplex fare. What I actually got was something ludicrously entertaining and much smarter than 80% of similar films at the box office.
Helping matters along immensely is writer/director Tommy Wirkola. Had I paid more attention and realized that he created this, I would have definitely gone to see it in the theater. Why? Oh, just because of a little Norwegian wonder called Dead Snow, that’s all. Dead Snow is the best Nazi zombie film ever (of the five or six in existence, at least) and became one of my favorite modern horror films after my first viewing. Wirkola walks a tight wire between comedy and gushing blood, making Dead Snow one of the most fun experiences I’ve had watching a film: it’s simply impossible for me not to stand and cheer at various points.
Wirkola applies this same sense of humor to Hansel and Gretel and it works wonders. There are so many clever things happening on the periphery of the story, so many neat little details, that the film almost becomes a Bosch painting: part of the sheer joy is in hunting for little details you might have missed. Despite the medieval setting, we get: pictures of missing children on milk bottles; an insulin-injection system to help Hansel control the diabetes (“sugar sickness”) that he got from his first encounter with a witch’s gingerbread house; a taser that also doubles as a defibrillator; enough guns to make the Expendables look like Bronies and more uses of the word “fuck” than two back-to-back viewings of Joe Pesci’s drive-thru scene in Lethal Weapon 2.
Of course all of this stuff is anachronistic. Anyone with half of a brain should know this: machine guns and tasers weren’t invented until 1502, a full two years after the Middle Ages had technically ended. I find it endlessly amusing, however, to read reviews that pick up on that one angle as being synonymous with the filmmakers’ general lack of interest in their project. I could understand this criticism being leveled at a CGI-advertisement like Van Helsing but there’s a real, live heart beating beneath H & G’s cartoonish exterior. I never got the thought that the modern elements were thrown in willy-nilly, more that they all added up to the particular world that Wirkola wanted to set his film in. Bully for him. I’m not required to like or agree with any director’s slant on a story. I’m much more likely to get invested in their vision, however, if it’s a completely realized one, versus a marketing strategy. Van Helsing and Branded are great examples of films that establish worlds I simply can’t buy: they’re video game backgrounds, not real places. Blade Runner and H & G, by contrast, both have fully realized worlds. I would never compare the two, aside from that one undeniable fact: both films pull me into their worlds and keep me there, despite any of the odd or fantastical stuff that may be happening.
The film is anchored by three very good performances: Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton are perfect as Hansel and Gretel, playing the parts as the action stars that Wirkola requires. Almost as good, however, is Edward the Troll. A canny mixture of practical and CG effects work (I’m positive that Edward isn’t all CG but someone prove me wrong, if so), Edward brings more pathos and emotion to one raised eyebrow than most actors do with a speech. He’s a great character and makes me wish that Wirkola had applied the same attention to the witches in the film.
Are there problems with the film? Yeah, a few big ones. Primarily, the movie could really use some good villains. The inspired credits sequence set up anticipation for lots of cool fights with various kinds of witches but, in the end, we get the same-old-same-old: a few people in clichéd “scary-face” makeup overacting. The main witch, as portrayed by Famke Janssen, is one of the most generic baddies I’ve ever seen. The effects scenes where she turns from “Famke-face” into “scary-face” were tired five years ago and I just couldn’t help but feel that I’d rather have anyone else playing that role, including a CG creation. Oh, well.
Ultimately, Hansel and Gretel is what it is: a high energy, tongue-in-cheek re-imagining of a very old story. The action scenes are well-staged and thrilling; the effects are good and the acting is above-average. A few generic fantasy/horror beats don’t distract from the fact that H & G is, head and shoulders, above “similar” effects films like Van Helsing, et al. This provided a great stop-gap while I wait for Wirkola’s upcoming Dead Snow 2 to blow my head around backwards.