Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
February 2013

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Grimm justice

Modernized 'Hansel & Gretel' has as little fun with its bloody, witch-hunting proceedings as possible

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
Paramount Pictures
Director: Tommy Wirkola
Screenplay: Tommy Wirkola
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Pihla Viitala, Thomas Mann, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal and Peter Stormare
Rated R / 1 hour, 28 minutes
Opened January 25, 2013
(out of four)

There's a montage in season one of 30 Rock that shows Liz Lemon condescendingly complimenting one specific (and generally irrelevant) aspect of an otherwise disastrous production in which her friend Jenna was involved. Since she couldn't honestly praise the performance itself, the least she could do is point out how neat the lighting was.

I found myself wanting to do the same thing after getting out of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. If I were Liz and this movie were my close friend, I'd smile my best crooked smile and say, "The makeup and hairstyling were really nice!"

And I would absolutely mean it. For a film that seems incredibly lazy in almost every other area, the makeup genuinely stands out. For the life of me I can't explain why there would be so much care paid to this one area and nowhere else, but there you have it. The witches are the film's key visual component and, at least when they're not being softened and blurred by unconvincing CGI during the action sequences, they don't disappoint. Angular, stone-white faces with skin hardened and decaying like crumbling drywall, punctuated by deep red cracks and fault lines.

Even more impressive is a troll by the name of Edward, whose gargantuan head and neck were created not through animation but with intricate prosthetics and makeup that accentuate both his ugliness and his, in a manner of speaking, humanity. It's telling that Edward is by far the most expressive character in the movie.

But where the supernatural and fantastical creatures in Hansel & Gretel thrive, all else fails. What writer/director Tommy Wirkola is going for is a sort of edgy modernist fairy tale, with machine guns, F-bombs and stylish leather costumes sprinkled in with the quaint Bavarian backdrop. Keep in mind I typically don't use the word "edgy" unless I'm rolling my eyes at the same time. Indeed, the "edge" on Hansel & Gretel is a dull one, as Wirkola never really discovers what he wants to accomplish or say with his, for lack of a better word, vision.

Here's how bad this movie is - it is forced to rely on not one, but two external mechanisms to explain and set up the story and its two main characters. First the legend of Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) - the gun-toting, vigilantes-for-hire who travel the countryside picking off witches - is introduced to us through newspaper clippings over the opening credits (that old chestnut), and then re-introduced with the most disinterested voiceover narration since the original cut of Blade Runner.

We pity Renner, who's forced to bluntly recite expository information about him and his sister, where they came from, how they got here, what they do and how they came to do it, even though the actual action in the film (not to mention the clippings) could just as well have told us the same thing. (And presumably with more energy.)

From there, we enter upon a small town that's just about to burn a presumed witch (Pihla Viitala) to death before Hansel and Gretel, having just been hired by the town mayor, swoop in to save the poor woman from a most ghastly fate. The sheriff (Peter Stormare) isn't too happy, given that the townsfolk are up in arms about a recent spate of child abductions and he's trying to do all he can to deflate the swelling panic.

Against the sheriff's wishes, the duo take it upon themselves to hunt the witches responsible for the missing children and return them all safely to their families. Despite the resistance from the authorities, Hansel and Gretel have friends in town as well - not only the mayor and Mina (the rescued non-witch), but the bright-eyed teenager Ben (Michael Angarano was too old for the role Thomas Mann), who also happens to be a devoted fan of the witch-hunting brother and sister.

You'll never believe how he figures into the plot.

Oh, and did I mention that Hansel is diabetic? Yeah, he's diabetic. And apparently it's the kind of diabetes that will kill him instantly if he doesn't take his shot at an exact moment every few hours. You'll never believe how that figures into things, either.

More than anything, what the movie lacks is any committed sense of tone or style about the material. You can kinda tell it wants to be a funny action-comedy, only there's no real sense of humor to speak of (beyond the occasional banal one-liner), and the action is as haphazardly chopped together as we've come to expect from action movies these days.

Despite serving as the sole (credited) writer and director, Wirkola demonstrates no firm grasp on the material at all. I was so unimpressed that, immediately after seeing Hansel & Gretel, I went home and removed one of Wirkola's previous movies from my Netflix queue. So I may have saved myself some trouble there.

In any case, I was serious about the makeup. Really top-notch work.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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