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Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

March 5, 2013 4 comments

Snow White and the Huntsman

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) starts, as many of these adaptations of fairy stories do, with a portentous voice-over explaining how, in the midst of deepest winter, the queen came across a single red rose growing in the snows of the castle garden. She reached out. A thorn pricked her finger and, with a suitable gravity in play, three drops of blood fell significantly and stained the snow. Shortly thereafter, albeit presumably with the assistance of the King and the usual passage of nine months, a baby was born and named Snow White (notice the subtle use of imagery). With a swift cut to summer, we then have the child wandering through the fields with a bird in her hands. She’s into the rescue business. With her heart overflowing with goodness, she vows to nurse it back to health. Then before the voice-over can complete the next sentence, her mother is dead and the inconsolable King is lured into battle when a dark army unexpectedly appears. The army is witchy and easily vanquished but, behind the lines, chained in a wagon, they find and liberate Ravena (Charlize Theron). With a smile of gratitude, she captures the heart of the King and they marry in haste (so he wasn’t that inconsolable). This fulfills the primary rule that all fairy stories shall have an evil stepmother. This one wastes no time. She stabs the King on their wedding night (a more positive form of coitus interruptus is hard to imagine) and admits her army to the castle. This takes everyone by surprise — except the waiting army, of course. The evil minions slay all the loyal courtiers and lock the princess away in the tower. There’s no knowing when royal blood may come in useful. The only one of importance to escape the castle is her childhood friend William. Time for another voice-over to signal the passage of time and we come to the required crunch.

Kristen Stewart in the moment

Kristen Stewart in the moment

 

Now grown into a woman, Snow White (Kristen Stewart) escapes the tower and enters the Dark Forest where she meets the Huntsman (not a surprise given the title and played by Australian beefcake Chris Hemsworth with heavy 6 o’clock shadow). In another part of the kingdom, the remnants of the old court and young William (Sam Claffin) are now playing the part of guerrillas in the style of Robin Hood, stealing where possible and keeping the people alive. While the Huntsman does his dark and broody best to impress the Princess with his dour savoir faire, William goes undercover and joins the hunt for the Princess. Now everyone has the chance to stagger around in woody darkness for a while. Thinking ahead, the Woodsman tries to teach Snow White how to kill in self-defence. She thinks with her heart and has no stomach for killing (sic). This is just as well because when a troll starts flaming on one of the wood’s forums, she’s there with in her caring moderator role to keep the peace. I may be missing the seven little folk but you can’t beat a good troll, particularly if there’s a bridge for it to hide under and gnaw on bones.

Charlize Theron never given a chance to be really evil

Charlize Theron never given a chance to be really evil

 

Then we’re off to a riverside community comprised entirely of women and children. A ruthless queen kills the men on the off-chance they may threaten her. Anyway, the villagers tell the Huntsman who he’s helping. He seems to think she’ll be safer with them and disappears into the night. Fortunately, the evil minions (and William) set fire to the village. The film was getting more than a little dull. Anyway the fire brings back the Huntsman and he’s able to whisk her away before William can reclaim his lost love. That leaves us with. . . At first sight, I thought it was Ewoks in an unexpected flashback from Endor — a place famous for its witch. Who? What? I now understand a small disreputable group had wondered over from the nearby set where Peter Jackson was filming and offered their services as extras. But caught up in the thick of the action, they decided to give up being elves and become dwarves instead. Fortunately, they had some caves to run into — sadly, no-one sang “Hi Ho, it’s off to work we go.” I miss these little flourishes and references to the Disney original. So then they all go walkabout in the New Zealand style until she meets the proper elves and one of these rather pleasing majestic animals who are rulers of the forest. It’s all very twee with bunnies and a green turtle. Great CGI tree branches cum antlers sprouting out of the head of this monarch of the glen. The leader of the Jackson renegades then gives it to us straight. “She is life. She will heal the land. She is The One!” Now all we have to do is wait for her to choose between the red and green apple and for them all to live happily ever after.

Chris Hemsworth looking dark and broody

Chris Hemsworth looking dark and broody

 

And, in a way, this sums up the problem. For all the evil minions shoot at the stag and do bad stuff, there’s no real sense of menace in any of it. It’s even second-rate as an action film. The team behind this film obviously decided, come Hell or High Water, they were going to make a two-hour (plus) epic. Overlook the fact the traditional plot is never going to stretch that far and hold any kind of suspense. Modern audiences apparently want spectacle even though it’s soulless and empty. The result is, I regret to say, tedious beyond measure. Even my usual sport of mocking the afflicted can’t save me from total boredom. Once we get past the initial taking of the castle and into the forests, this film dies a slow and terrible death. I can’t even raise a smile as the dwarves try to do an Ewok and defeat the evil minions (but not William who’s just hanging in there trying not to look conspicuous to anyone). Then Snow White sleeps, wakes and there’s lots of CGI fighting at the end as the Dark Army rises again, reconstituted from broken mirror fragments. Charlize Theron does her best but she’s not allowed enough time to develop an interesting character as the evil stepmother. Indeed, she’s almost completely missing from the central section of the film except when her brother gets killed. The idea of saving her for the big ending is completely misconceived. Without a fearsome adversary, the pallid Snow White and grunting woodsman are never going to carry the film. All they do is run around and look fairly helpless. Even worse Kristen Stewart is revealed as wooden. There’s no spark or animation about her. Even when she’s supposed to be scared, she’s not clearly emotionally involved. Chris Hemsworth stomps around, muttering darkly in any accent that comes to mind, and looking “grim”, if not darkly romantic. I suppose he has the looks, but the lad can’t act to save his life. So Snow White and the Huntsman is definitely a film to miss.

 

The Avengers (2012)

As those of you who read these reviews will know, I often pick a theme by way of introduction. This time, it’s the tried and tested idiom, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Some like to attribute this insight to Aristotle, others to some more recent philosophers. No matter. It represent a nice idea to chew on when you have a moment to ruminate. Essentially, you can take it at a metaphorical level and say that a watch is only a physical device but it has a higher purpose in telling you what time it is. Or you can use it to refer to a team. Individually, they may not be strong but, when you put them together in the right way, you get synergy. Well, starting off with the watch metaphor, this film is like someone strapping Big Ben to your wrist and then enthusing about how it not only tells the time but also has these great chimes. Having just sat through 142 minutes, the first word that comes to mind is ponderous. If you think this is a reference to the massive, if not lumbering, quality of the Hulk, you’d be mistaken. Almost everything about this film is laborious.

Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow

 

This is not to deny that parts of the film are actually very good. It’s just that, when it’s all put together and you have to sit through all the rubbish to get to the good bits, it all feels a bit tiresome. So let’s do a quick recap. Back in the land owned by Marvel Comics, Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and Captain America are renegades from WWII. While the Captain is snoozing under the ice, Nick is setting up SHIELD, the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card to be played when superhuman threats are about to overwhelm our defences. Jackson is actually credible even though asked to do obviously silly things. He brings an unexpected gravitas to the role even when responding to Loki emerging into one of SHIELD’s secret underground installations, capturing the McGuffin and kidnapping two key people who will guard and use the McGuffin to open a portal and let in the alien army. To give his newly acquired minions time to achieve their allotted tasks, Earth’s enemy allows himself to be captured and then sets about trying to undermine the morale of the Avengers. None of them like to work as part of a team so, at one time or another, they all have to fight each other. Instead of disagreeing and holding a debate, they tend to settle arguments with whatever weapons are to hand. Except for Dr Banner, of course. It’s better not to make him angry.

Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye

 

So after a few impressive opening scenes, the first hour or so is all rather tedious except for one or two pleasing moments. I confess to being completely taken by Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow and, despite the fact the supply of arrows seems inexhaustible, Jeremy Renner makes an interesting Hawkeye. It’s a shame we’re not allowed to see much of him. I find the idea of mere humans outperforming all-comers intriguing and, just as Batman uses intelligence with technology in support, it’s the spirit that prevails. This would apply to Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark except he’s Tony Stark and an arrogant SOB. Chris Evans is very one-dimensional as Steve Rogers and, in the second half, that becomes the right dimension so he comes good by staying who he is. Chris Hemsworth is completely pigheaded as Thor and the most annoying of the heroes. Which leaves us with Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. This is a big improvement on previous attempts at creating the Hulk on screen. As a walking-talking example of humility, he actually tones down Tony Stark in the scenes they share. Incidentally, the cameo argument with Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Pott is better than anything in the earlier Iron Man films. This almost makes the relationship credible. Which leaves us with Tom Hiddleston as a surprisingly pleasing Loki. He’s a good trickster but should not be seen dead in that horned hat.

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner

 

The special effects are, for once, special. SHIELD’s helicarrier actually looks as though it might work although the invisibility shield is the usual silly project-a-picture-of-the-sky on to the hull variety. It’s far better than the equivalent in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The jet fighters and transports are also beautifully rendered with VTOL and manoeuvring beating anything the Harrier jump jet has been able to achieve. The final battle is very well structured and beautifully paced. It could have become very repetitive, but manages to keep everything fresh as each hero is allowed a few moments to hold a position, fight a corner or try to disable the McGuffin. I was particularly impressed by the animatronic alien landing craft. They manage to look simultaneously impractical but, from the point of view of a mere human observer, completely intimidating. The Hulk’s leaping ability and smash-through-anything approach is hilariously over-the-top and through-the-bottom as well. The Iron Man suit yet again demonstrates a level of invincibility above and beyond the call of duty. Quite how Stark is supposed to emerge in one piece is beyond understanding. That made it good to get back to basics with the Black Widow beating those pesky aliens in hand-to-hand combat. As one woman said as she was about to be incinerated by aliens, Captain America can rescue me anytime he wants. He’s just dogged and, even though no-one asks him to take on the role, he makes a natural leader. Thor pitches in but, for someone supposed to have godlike powers, he’s rather cut down to size by the weight of numbers coming through the portal. Indeed, the heroes might have lost had Earth’s governments, in their wisdom, not decided to send a different kind of help.

Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans looking for more to fight

 

So The Avengers has good patches that increase in frequency as the film develops leading to a superior fight at the end. This means you should pack sandwiches and a flask of hot tea to see you through the opening section. You can break out the popcorn and coke nearer the end and so finish on a high. I suppose this film will make several tons of money. The marketing hype has generated the interest and, if the intended market is anything like the people who surrounded me when I saw the film, teen boys will flock to this like bees to a honey pot. It has their demographic most skillfully written all over it by director Joss Whedon who has probably done as well with the plot as anyone could. Once you have to have this crowd of principals assemble and then give each a fair amount of screen time, it’s going to get ponderous until they are forced to drop their differences and start fighting the real enemies. So if there’s an inner teen lurking inside you or, like me, you enjoy science fiction and fantasy, you should probably see this. Otherwise wait for it to come on television and enjoy the battle at the end.

 

For my reviews of allied films, see:
Captain America
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Thor

 

This film was short-listed for the 2012 Nebula Award and for the 2013 Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation.

Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Sometimes the world turns in a strange way. Last Thursday, I had a choice of three films. Sadly, the first two proved less than enjoyable so, today, I came to the third which has been much hyped. Indeed, it was the degree of enthusiasm in the marketing that has been mildly off-putting — regrettably, I’ve a slightly perverse streak and the more someone tries to sell me something sight unseen, the more resistant I become. However, given all the hoopla, I braved today’s rain and, with a few other stragglers, began the less than scientific experiment to see if “three’s a charm”.

Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Jesse Williams and Fran Kranz

 

Cabin in the Woods (2011) is being sold in two quite different ways. The first relies on the name of the screenwriter. Joss Whedon is currently fêted as the best thing to emerge from the television networks since JJ Abrams sprang fully formed from Lost‘s head. With the Avengers just a couple of weeks away, this man is going to do the superhero thing and rescue Hollywood’s bottom line with at least one major financial success this year. At the time of writing, Cabin in the Woods has apparently grossed nearly $36 million worldwide which, for an R-rated horror movie strikes me as a reasonable revenue in the first two weeks. We should note, however, that because of the occasional swearing and a few body parts on open display —some moving under their own steam — the family values police have been on a crusade to protect the young from moral corruption. Obviously, the rating limits potential audience numbers. The second touted virtue is that this is an example of meta-horror. Well, this I gotta see. If it was the usual slasher film with an inbred upcountry family hacking innocent young tourists to pieces, I wouldn’t bother. But this is a marketing strategy to break the mould. Actually using the meta prefix proclaims the film as potentially intelligent. Ah ha! So that’s why audience numbers are low. Horror audiences are notoriously conservative and only interested in gore. If brains are involved, it should only be as an appetiser, not the red-meat main course. Yet, I’ve seen an interview with Joss Whedon discussing the extent to which audiences can be manipulated. It all grows out of the blurring of the line between fiction, scripted reality shows and documentaries. As we viewers grow more sophisticated, we’re more difficult to please. Most reality is actually boring most of the time so, if a major studio was to bring a documentary about animals to the screen, it would have to create excitement and drama by editing moments taken out of context to build what appears to be a linear narrative. A group of animals comes under threat. Clever look-outs sound a warning. Mothers encourage their young into places of safety. You know the kind of thing. It’s the same with reality shows. Teams of writers suggest things for the participants to say and do as they try to survive. Everyone wants to come out of these television shows looking good — that’s what sells the advertising.

Anna Hutchison gets up close and personal with the wolf for a dare

 

So here’s a film that expects the audience to know and understand what’s supposed to happen to people in a horror film when they’re daft enough go to a remote cabin in the woods. After being introduced to the camera, they have to stop and buy petrol from Mordecai (Tim De Zarn) — a local who’s intended to inspire fear and loathing. More importantly, it focuses our attention on the choice. These potential victims are told to stay away, but ignore the warning and become complicit in the plot to make themselves victims. So far, so good. Yet it’s when we see the fate of the bird paralleling the RV that the extent of this film’s presumption is exposed. We accept the opening scenes as part of a puzzle, storing away basic questions: who are these pen-pushers, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford and Amy Acker with the usual middle-age hang-ups in their marriages and office relationships? what are they preparing? why are they spying on these five young people? and so on. Yet when the bird reveals technology on such a vast scale, this immediately takes us way beyond anything “ordinary”. This can only be one of the most powerful of corporations or it must be government. But that sharpens our new question. Why would such vast resources be deployed?

Richard Jenkins, Amy Ackers and Bradley Whitford shoot the breeze (or anything else that moves)

 

As an atheist, I’ve always been fascinated by the distinction various religions make between worship and propitiation. If we travel back in time to the groups worshipping the sun as a god, we see a balancing of expectations, hopes and fears. These groups have never known a time when the sun did not come up and then go down again. It’s as regular as clockwork. They hope it will always continue because they fear the world would be less pleasant if the sun failed to appear. So, they try to encourage the sun in its routine by offering gifts. It’s at this point that the priesthood gets involved. There will be times when mere prayers will be sufficient. But there may come times when gifts or sacrifices must be made to avoid losing the god’s favour. Even modern Christianity is based on the crucifixion of Jesus. It’s a potent symbol in our material age.

 

Having thought about the ending which, for obvious reasons, I cannot discuss in detail, I’ve decided that what the film lacks is a Sigourney Weaver character. In the Alien films, the quality we admire is her willingness to die in order to save the Earth. There she is, heroically standing toe-to-toe with one of the critters and it never occurs to her that there’s anything to think about, discuss or debate. She’s expediency on two legs. So as we approach the critical final moments in this film, it’s that ruthlessness we should be looking for. Somebody should just get the job done.

Tim De Zarn offers friendly advice on what to look out for

 

So that’s as much as I can say without spoiling the film. For me, Cabin in the Woods is the best film of the year so far. Not only does Drew Goddard satisfy us with a cleverly worked sequence of boo-moments to make us jump in our seats, but the script he co-wrote with Joss Whedon is also a highly intelligent take on horror tropes. For once, a film has genuinely earned the label of meta-horror. The five young people at risk are Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth (before he was famous), Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, and Jesse Williams. They are bright, sparky and immediately likeable. For anyone who has an interest in horror films, this is a must-see! As a final word, I’ll leave you with two things to ponder should you take my advice and watch the film. Exactly what are the office workers betting on and, why is it so pleasing to see a character continuously consuming cannabis?

 

This film was short-listed for the 2012 Nebula Award and for the 2013 Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation.

Thor (2011)

I suppose if you’re going to do an origin story for Thor, you have to start on Asgard just as Batman has to watch his father and mother get shot, and Spiderman has to get bitten by a spider. The problem with this in Thor‘s case is the switching between pure fantasy and the contemporary context for fantastic action. When you have everything in the same continuum, it’s easier to manage continuity of pace, style and tone. Whereas what we actually see are a bunch of actors being almost gods, Norse style, and generally acting like they’re on the greatest CGI set ever developed, followed by some local yokels.

 

At this point we need a few words of clarification. As to the CGI, I think some of the tracking shots on Asgard look faintly comic. That’s not as drawn in a Marvel Comic, you understand, but the main assembly hall/palace — possibly Valhalla — looks like it’s made out of the tubular bits that come as vacuum cleaner spares. Apart from this aberration, the interior scenes work well and create the right atmosphere. Jotunheim is dark, crumbling and forbidding, and the fighting is impressive. As to the acting in the Asgard scenes, it’s hammed up with Anthony Hopkins pretending to the twice the size of his own ego as Odin, while Chris Hemsworth works hard at being arrogant, i.e. he swaggers around and laughs like he’s just eaten several boars and downed ten casks of good Norse ale as a quick snack before lunch. The odd one out in all this acting godlike spree is Tom Hiddleston who plays Loki as if it’s pronounced low key. Although I get that he’s the trickster God who manipulates everyone, he’s remarkably self-effacing in all the early stages, and not much more of a presence when he’s revealed as the evil genius (which is not his fault because, as his private backstory tells us, he’s actually an Ice Giant who never grew to his full potential, being held hostage for Jotunheim’s good behaviour).

Anthony Hopkins showing good teeth but a dodgy eye patch

 

Anyway, forgetting the brief prologue to establish Natalie Portman as an astrophysicist dedicated to chasing phenomena around the desert like she’s just seen a tornado and wants to join in, we start off on Asgard in its full pomp and glory. Odin is about to hand over the throne to Thor. To spoil the day, Loki lets in a Ninja squad of Ice Giants to retake their energy source. When they are caught and killed, Thor, three of his trusty friends, and Loki go on a punishment raid to Jotunheim, prepared to kill all-comers until these Ice Dudes learn not to mess with Asgard (again). There’s a big fight and we get to see just how impressive a weapon Mjolnir is. I kept wanting to say, “That’s some bad hammer, Harry” but found the joke didn’t really work, being relieved from the embarrassing lack of humour when Odin arrived to rescue them all. In fact, Odin’s a bit miffed with Thor for provoking Jotunheim, so strips him of his powers and banishes him to Earth.

Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman say tender farewells

 

At this point, the film shudders to a halt.

 

We’re with the mortals now and, boy, do they seen flat by comparison to those strutting Norse gods. Our function is to be second rate, but able to beat the bejesus out of Thor. Poor guy. All those rippling muscles and great pecs, and all someone has to do is use a taser or stab him in the butt with a tranquiliser, and he’s out like a light. It’s humiliating. Ah, so now comes the deep psychology. All the humans think he’s nuts, albeit sometimes in a hot, hunkish kinda way. Mjolnir rejects him and Loki puts on a business suit to fit into the Earth environment and brings the glad tidings that Odin has died and gone to wherever Norse gods go when they die. It’s apparently enough to wear down the spirits of anyone who’s spent a lifetime of privilege wielding a power hammer (or, this is too perfunctory to take seriously). When Loki sends a yellow lantern in a metal suit to kill Thor and his three friends, Thor offers his own life in return for keeping Earth safe. After this, there’s more fighting on Earth and Asgard, Thor volunteers to join SHIELD, and Odin is pleased his boy finally grew up and started taking his responsibilities as heir seriously.

Tom Hiddleston with the lighting to make him look villainous as Loki

 

Here on Earth we use the expression, to shoot your bolt, and this applies beautifully to the first section of the film. As directed by Kenneth Branagh, Thor creates interest and excitement until Odin banishes his son. Thereafter, Thor’s a mortal fish out of water. Natalie Portman manages to look at him adoringly, but has the thankless role of standing by as our monster ego hero stops smiling and learns to talk with a slight frown. The fight in the town is quite good but unimaginative. The suit can beat anything on Earth except the hammer. Once Thor has it, there’s no competition. Frankly, the last fight back on Asgard is also a bit feeble, although it’s good to see Loki actually deploying some trickery against Thor. Nothing matched the escalating first battle on Jotunheim. So the pacing of the narrative is all wrong. It’s a problem inherent in this origin story. Once you commit yourself to explaining why Thor was banished, you have to show something fairly spectacular. After that, the film never recovers its momentum.

 

I wouldn’t go quite as far as saying there are boring bits, but there are certainly passages where the pace drops alarmingly. While I accept this is about Thor’s rite of passage from arrogant child to responsible adult, so not every minute can be hammer time, there were narrative decisions that could have been improved on. In the end, I think it has the same problems as Ang Lee’s origin story for the Hulk, i.e. it’s a bit too cerebral and lacks heart. This is not to say that long-term fans of the Thor we know from Marvel Comics will not enjoy this. But I suspect the market for this film will be more limited than for some of the other superhero films.

 

For my reviews of allied films, see:
The Avengers
Captain America
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 3 (2013)

 

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