Sunday, September 8, 2013

Huntsmanning For A More Sophisticated Movie

What do you get when you smash Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit into Game of Thrones, sprinkle some girl power on top, throw in some nanobot-like monstrosities from Michael Crichton’s Prey, subtract any element of urgency or permanent consequences from the story’s conflict, and add Kristen Stewart?  If you visited the cinemas even once in the six months leading up to last year’s summer movie season, then you most likely found the answer in the egregiously overplayed trailer for Snow White and the Huntsman, which is just one of the more recent titles in a long, cross-media line of self-purported ‘gritty remakes/retellings’.  While the trailer was hardly effective at persuading me to cough up money for a theater ticket or the DVD, it was an exemplary tease in that it captured virtually all the praiseworthy scenes its host had to offer, condensing two hours and ten minutes of blah into two minutes of relative awesomeness.  The short of this review: watch the commercial, skip the product, unless it pops up on TV and neither Lord of the Rings nor Game of Thrones are playing at the same hour; the latter program, in spite of its notorious indulgence for graphic sex and violence (or because of it?), and Tolkien’s masterpieces are infinitely more tolerable than this wannabe fantasy epic.

Snow White and the Huntsman fancies itself a dark and dramatic reinvention of the fairy ‘legend’, claiming to have more commonality with the Brothers Grimm story than the somehow radically different Disney version that’s perverted the minds of children since 1937, although I honestly can’t testify to its faithfulness in either situation other than to express my deep skepticism that Snow White ever became a medieval Amazon warrior like Joan of Arc in any of the 'historical accounts'.  Whatever the source material happens to be, Charlize Theron dominates the so-called villain’s role as a vain and cruel witch named Ravenna, who consumes the beauty of younger women to maintain her glorious aspect into old age.  Cursed as a child, she’s condemned to live forever as a human liberal leech that builds herself up by knocking others down, sustaining her own majesty only in so far as she can continually rob youthful, upper class girls of their femininity.  To this Margaret Thatcher would certainly object by saying, “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s beauty,” and our devilish sorceress recognizes as much when her mirror, mirror on the wall, cleverly portrayed as a kind of glass silhouette, prophesies that Snow White will be the fairest of them all lest Ravenna use her Dementor-like life-sucking skills on the princess and gain immortality thereby.  After usurping the throne of Snow’s kingdom by seducing the king, her father, and murdering him in his sleep, Ravenna imprisons the girl in a tower for twenty-some years until she determines that her step-daughter is better off dead and sends her gleefully wicked brother Finn to fetch her heart.  Being an idiot, the white-haired freak botches the job and allows Snow’s escape into the Dark Forest, a move that prompts the evil queen to enlist a real professional for job, specifically a nameless and boring huntsman played by Thor, a.k.a. Chris Hemsworth.  The huntsman, of course, spares Snow’s life in the tradition of the classic tale, but goes much farther in this particular script, guiding the princess out of the woods, into a pointless lakeside village that gets burned down within a day’s time, and onward to the realm of faeries, where they run into seven awkwardly photoshopped dwarves, also nameless except for one who goes by “Gus”, although you don’t know that until he dies in an emotionally poignant scene twenty minutes after you meet him.  Along the way, Mr. Huntsman forecasts the end of the movie an hour in advance by teaching Snow how to deflect a knife jab and return it – so customary has it become for Hollywood action pictures to emphasize a critical combat technique that the hero will always ends up using in the final battle to signify how far he has progressed since he first started training as an ignorant and scrawny peasant [e.g. The Matrix (not having to dodge bullets), Batman Begins (using your opponent’s surroundings against them), Cars (driving backwards/turning right to go left), Kung Fu Panda (too many to enumerate), and so on].  I suppose I should also note that Snow happens to be a Christian, at least for one tiny scene when she mutters the Lord’s prayer, an identification which believers of all denominations should praise as a rare gesture of religious tolerance and intellectual diversity from Universal Studios.  YeahNO.

Anyway, after uniting with the seven anonymous and extremely airbrushed dwarves, Snow discovers that she’s a Chosen One of sorts who must lead the forces of good in an attack on the queen’s castle and so topple her reign of terror, but this final battle gets postponed when Ravenna deceives the heroine into eating a poisonous apple that induces a deep slumber.  Fortunately, something about Snow reminds Mr. Huntsman of the wife he lost and whom we never knew, and thus she awakens when her scruffy ally smooches her in the spirit of true love… for something or somebody, we know not what.  They never speak to each other again for the rest of the movie.  One Independence Day/Avatar-inspired “We’re going to battle, o my brothers, and all that cal” speech later, the Riders of Rohan or whatever the hell they call this kingdom are charging across the beach towards the dark fortress of their oppressor.  The evil queen delivers a few evil monologues when she has the chance to kill Snow, and I already told you how the movie ends.

As predictable and clichéd as I make it sound, the fairly commonplace script isn’t really terrible, and the ‘bad guy’ actually gets more than a fair share of good lines (don’t they always?).

"I was ruined by a king like you once.  I replaced his queen, an old woman, and in time I too would have been replaced.  Men use women.  They ruin us and when they are finished with us they toss us to the dogs like scraps."  (The King starts to cough as he leans over her in bed.)

Charlize Theron’s portrayal of a tantalizingly wicked and physically ravishing villain is undoubtedly the best thing the movie has going for it.  Obsessively self-absorbed, short-tempered, hardened against moral concerns, and determined to have her way, Ravenna almost seems like a more alluring and vicious relative of the Red Queen from Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, but one should mind that Grimm predates Lewis Carroll by around a hundred years.  It’s only regrettable that Theron isn’t the main star but only a supporting player in a Kristen Stewart movie; as such, she gets to show up every ten minutes and throw a screaming tantrum that sometimes entails force-choking, but her character is most often sidelined to make room for the lead actress.  While I won’t infer that Stewart ruins the movie, per se, her presence in this is one of the biggest casting missteps since Hayden Christiansen, a.k.a. Anakin, in the Star Wars prequels and Lenny Kravitz in The Hunger Games (not to mention Woody Harrelson as Haymitch).  Not only does she lack the muscular physique to convincingly play a medieval general but the grand irony of casting her as Snow is that no man, or talking mirror for that matter, in his right mind would ever regard her as a fairer woman than Theron.  Some will argue that such a statement is entirely subjective or, worse, indicative of bias towards blondes, but I ask of these people two questions: 1) how many ‘guy movies’ has Stewart produced in comparison to Theron (The Italian Job, Hancock, Prometheus) and 2) whose face was displayed more prominently in the promotion of this movie?  A merely cursory study of the DVD cover would seem to indicate that the marketing division went out of its way to mask Stewart’s involvement in the project, but I digress from more important observations, namely Stewart’s acting ability.  As if her ever gaping mouth wasn’t distracting enough for 90% of the time she’s on screen, she also feigns this contrived, semi-British accent for half her lines and forgets about it for the other half, lending even more uncertainty to the already dubious geographical location of this fantasy world.  The production team only augments the hilarity of her performance by caking her in the most ridiculous and contextually inappropriate makeup, though this fault can’t really be attributed to her.  Chris Hemsworth is adequate if totally forgettable as Mr. Huntsman and, being native to Australia, he sounds more or less authentic with his fantasy accent.  While his role is minor in the big picture, Sam Spruell admirably imbues the sycophantic servant Finn with an intoxicating mixture of spite and malice.

Overall, though, the actors in the cast pale next to the unseen actors in the post-production department.  Snow White and the Huntsman is full of fantastical imagery both haunting, as in the Dark Forest, where the ground crawls like a swarm of insects and trees writhe like serpents, and beautiful, as in the counterpart woods populated by bushy tortoises and flowers that burst into clouds of butterflies.  This movie masterfully portrays a fairy land where witches can shape-shift at will to resemble other beings or dissipate into a flock of ravens, where dark soldiers arise out of a million glass shards, shattering at a sword’s blow and reassembling themselves at a moment’s notice.  The CG animation isn’t as refined as the creations of, say, Pirates of the Caribbean, Avatar, Lord of the Rings, or King Kong, but looks great nonetheless.  Alas, not all the special effects work as well in execution.  Rather than using trick photography à la LOTR or hiring real ‘little people’ à la Game of Thrones to create the dwarves, the studio tried to meld both approaches by digitally interposing the heads of regularly sized actors onto the bodies of short people, a trick that’s not only lazy and artificial-looking from a cinematic standpoint but kind of insulting to ‘real dwarves’ who would relish the opportunity to appear in a mainstream, big-budget picture.  Rupert Sander’s direction also leaves much to be desired.  Prior to working on this feature, he had but one other production to his name, that being a live-action commercial for Halo 3: ODSTSnow White and the Huntsman makes his inexperience glaringly obvious.  Most of the fight scenes are edited in quick cuts and close-up shots to the effect that the audience can barely discern the action, which is a damning trait for any film of this genre to possess.

Despite my numerous complaints, Snow White and the Huntsman is hardly awful, but it still falls far short of the standard that its box-office competitor Mirror Mirror set for witty and engaging spins on old tales.  Completely devoid of humor and self-serious to the extreme, the former movie imagines a chaotic world wracked by misery where hope is elusive and light is seemingly non-existent.  In so doing, it indirectly and unintentionally illustrates a profundity concerning meaningful storytelling: why do the heroes fight if they have nothing to fight for, and why should we care when they prevail?  If Frodo and Sam had not their Shire, if Aragorn had not his Gondor, if the whole Fellowship had no Middle Earth to lose, would not their quest to destroy the Ring be verily purposeless?  Thus is the question raised by Snow White and the Huntsman, albeit at its own expense.  Snow White should have told Universal Studios:

Grade rating: C+ (where Once Upon a Time Season 2 is a C, OUAT Season 1 is a B, and some as-of-yet-unmade Snow White movie is an A)

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