Saturday, June 23, 2012

Rock of Ages

Alternate Title:  Don't Stop Believing

One sentence synopsis:    Rock.

Things Havoc liked: Full disclosure: I am a child of the 80s, and this is my music. Adapt this review accordingly.

An adaptation of a popular Broadway musical, Rock of Ages is one of a genre of films I've long been rather ambivalent about. Such films require a degree of disbelief suspension rarely-encountered in western films, as we must accept that characters will burst into song accompanied by dozens of choreographed dancers at the drop of a hat. It's the sort of conceit you simply have to accept in order for the movie to work at all, and those who cannot do so need not apply. Though I admit that I can't always do it myself, I shall proceed here under the assumption that a prospective viewer will not be put off by the nature of the musical film.

I said in my review of Mission Impossible 4 that Tom Cruise is almost always entertaining, even in bad movies (such as Mission Impossible 4). Here, Cruise plays Stacee Jaxx, a rock-god made up seemingly of equal parts Axel Rose and Ozzy Osbourne. Constantly in a drunken, drug-addled haze, accompanied by a pet baboon, and borderline incomprehensible at all times, Cruise sells this ludicrous parody amazingly well. Quite apart from the music (which we'll get to), his character behaves like Keith Richards after a three-day bender, with his mind shooting off in seventeen directions at once, and his body so weighted down by drugs and booze that he can barely act on any of it. It's an awesome performance, and the best in the film.

But not by much. Alec Baldwin, who is reliably awesome in almost everything I've seen him in, does not disappoint here. He plays Denis Dupree, an aging rock-and-roll fanatic who owns the Bourbon Room, a legendary rock club on the Sunset Strip. Baldwin gets some of the best lines in the movie as a perpetually frazzled, money-plagued rock showman, ably assisted by British comedian Russel Brand as his bumbling floor manager/assistant. Paul Giamati (a name I never expected to see associated with a musical) plays Paul Gill, a record agent for Cruise and later for other artists, who alternates beautifully between being a sleazy bastard, and being the only sane person in the room. Rounding out the A-listers, Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a Tipper-Gore style moral crusader against rock music, wife of the mayor of Los Angeles, whose fanaticism is zesty and fun.

But frankly, we're not here for the performances. We're here for the music.

All of the music in Rock of Ages (save for some credit numbers) is re-recorded and sung by the actors themselves, primarily latin singer Diego Boneta and country singer Julianne Hough as the young couple of would-be stars seeking their fortunes in Los Angeles. Though there are problems with this method (and we'll get to them), the biggest surprise to me was just how good the music was overall. Hough in particular is excellent in quite a few pieces, particularly a soaring opening medley of David Lee Roth's "Just Like Paradise" and Night Ranger's "Sister Christian". Boneta also does well, his best piece coming midway through the movie with an anger-fueled rendition of Twisted Sister's "I wanna Rock", a song I never much liked in the first place, but will have to give another look to. Being the two leads, many of their songs are sung together, and fortunately the two play well off one another, in everything from Joan Jett's thunderous "I Love Rock and Roll" to Poison's languid "Every Rose has it's Thorn".

But by no means do our two singing leads monopolize the music. Tom Cruise, of all people, kills several songs in this movie, the best of which by far is his soaring cover of "Pour Some Sugar on Me" by Def Leppard, one of the premier rock anthems of the late 80s. I never in my life would have expected Tom Cruise to pull off a song like this, but he absolutely nails it both vocally and with his in-movie performance. Nor is he the only recognizable actor doing so. Catherine Zeta-Jones, who has much better singing credentials behind her, unsurprisingly delivers a high-energy version of Pat Benatar's "Hit me with your Best Shot", as well as the best song in the movie, a duet-mashup between her, Brand, and two choruses, of "We're not Gonna Take It" and "We Built This City on Rock and Roll", by Twisted Sister and Jefferson Starship respectively. This piece is so good I actually think I like it better than either original (especially Starship's) omitting the synth-cheese for rocking choral anthems that bounce off one another beautifully. Meanwhile, Mary J. Blige, who has a thankless throwaway part as a strip club owner, does get one spectacular showpiece, a cover of Journey's "Anyway you want it" done in full choreographed splendor, complete with dozens of backup singers and dancers.

And yet, with all that, my favorite song of all actually belongs to Alec Baldwin, who is manifestly not a great singer, but gets a duet with Russel Brand that nearly killed me. I will not spoil what song it is (for that's half the fun), nor what about it makes it so awesome, but let us simply say that this song alone was worth the price of admission and left people almost literally rolling in the aisles at my screening. Trust me, if you go to see this movie, you'll know it when you see it.

Things Havoc disliked:   Unfortunately, not all the songs work as well as the ones above. There's a couple of different reasons for this, one of which, unfortunately, is Tom Cruise.

Look, don't get me wrong, Cruise rocks in this movie. His portrayal of Stacee Jaxx is as good as anything he did in Tropic Thunder if not better, and it is very clear that he worked his ass off to prepare himself vocally for his songs. But the base fact is that Cruise's singing voice is a high, somewhat nasally tenor, and his range is not terribly broad. Given this limitation, Cruise does everything can to make his songs work, and in the case of the Leppard one I cited above, pulls it off gloriously. But when it comes time to deliver power ballads like Foreigner's "I wanna know what Love is", he sounds almost chipmunk-like. The same issue afflicts him (though admittedly, not as badly) with Bon Jovi's soaring "Wanted Dead or Alive", a murderously difficult song to sing that he does his best with, but simply isn't able to imbue with Jovi's earthy, effortless range.

There's also the issue of the two leads. They're not bad, don't get me wrong. Often they're very good. But there's some songs such as "Don't Stop Believin'" (which if I need to tell you the artist of, you need to stop reading my reviews right now) or Whitesnake's "Here I go Again" where their modern pop sensibilities and training become... distracting. I grant that Steve Perry has a unique voice, and that Whitesnake's David Coverdale gave his song a warbling, rustic tone that's very hard to replicate, but Boneta and Hough's versions sound way too polished, too synthetic-pop music, to the point where I suspected Autotune was involved. Upon reflection, I don't think it was, but the result is to neuter one of the greatest power anthems ever written, as well as strip Whitesnake's greatest song of the Blues-Rock feel that made it so great.

There's also the question of the story and plot, which I accept is an appendix in a film like this, but is nothing special at all even by the standards of movie musicals. We can almost recite the stages of the plot as the two leads meet, fall in love, break up over one of the stupidest misunderstandings I've ever seen, brood, and try as best they can to get back together, all of which is done in front of the backdrop of whether the evil government and property developers will tear down the Bourbon club and build a Beneton in its place (admittedly a fun detail). It's tired and old, and the movie knows it, racing through the plot as quickly as they can so as to get to the next musical number. Moreover, it relegates several characters (such as Blige and Baldwin) to the background, when they are easily more interesting than the leads. The only element of the story that is elevated above these tired cliches is Cruise and his evolving relationship with Malin Åkerman (much better here than in Watchmen), as a music reporter with Rolling Stone. Honestly, there's nothing terribly innovative about Cruise and Åkerman's plot either, but both actors are significantly better than their counterparts, and their performances are strange and interesting enough that it keeps our attention despite it.

Final thoughts:  Like I said though, the plot is an afterthought in a movie like this, and your opinion on the film is going to come down to what you want to get out of it. What I wanted was awesome music performed well, staged with care, and punctuated by funny, interesting character vignettes. With some (see above) exceptions, that's what I got. With nearly two dozen separate musical numbers, his movie is simply brimming with rock and roll, both musically and thematically, and rarely spends more than two or three minutes between songs, the vast majority of which are staged (if not sung) with a palpable reverence and rapture for the music and the period. If Mama Mia was a love letter to Abba, this film is worship at the altar of 80s Rock. I completely understand why someone would not want to see this movie, or would hate it if they did. But if like me, you appreciate this music for what it is, and don't mind a reasonably flimsy excuse to showcase and celebrate it, then you just might love it.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a playlist to assemble...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Intouchables

Alternate Title:  Where can you find a Quadriplegic?

One sentence synopsis:    A Senegalese ex-con from the slums of Paris becomes the personal aide to a wealthy paralytic.

Things Havoc liked: Having been seriously disappointed by most of the summer's offerings so far (with the exception of course of Avengers), I decided this week to try something new. The Intouchables is a French film generating a huge amount of buzz overseas, and none whatsoever here in the States. I suppose that's par for the course, but on the strength of excellent recommendations, I decided to give it a shot.


Given the subject matter of this film, dealing as it does with poverty, racism, disability, loss, frustration, and the class divisions of French society, I was not prepared for how drop-dead funny this movie is. Wall to wall, the movie is a riotous send-up to everything from the pretensions of Haute-culture to classical music to thug life. Much of the reason for this is Omar Sy, a French actor whom I've never heard of before. Playing Driss, the felon-turned personal aide, Sy never puts a single foot wrong in the entire film. His character is boisterous and almost manic, shamelessly hitting on everything in sight, constantly bursting into laughter and offering hilarious commentary on the absurd lunacies of the high-class world he is thrown into, all without ever once appearing like a caricature of "poor" people, or an annoying ass. In lesser hands, this character could be downright insufferable, if not offensive, but Sy is a revelation, and effectively sells the entire movie with his performance.

Not that he's the only one of course. Veteran French actor François Cluzet plays Phillipe, a wealthy quadriplegic frustrated with his aides and with the febrile pity of his friends and family. Playing a character unable to move anything but his head (which cannot be easy), Cluzet gets across the bitter frustration of not merely his disability but the other losses he has suffered in his live, all without ever overselling the matter. His comment partway through the movie that he wishes Driss to take care of him precisely because he is 'pitiless' speaks more volumes than any tearful rage-against-the-heavens sequence that a lesser film might give him. He is not portrayed as a stuffy aristocrat (though of course he has his foibles), nor is his role in the film to receive the wise education of a "magic negro" (as Spike Lee famously described The Legend of Bagger Vance). He laughs at Sy's hilarious ridicule of an absurd Wagnerian opera, but still insists on sitting through it, despite Sy's protestations. The two play off one another famously, and the chemistry between the actors is such that the movie is a joy from start to finish.

The rest of the film doesn't disappoint either. The movie is written tremendously well, with a speed and wit that one seems to find only in French films (I jest). The jokes come fast and thick, often montage-style, and when the film isn't being funny, both the dialogue and the plot are believable and human, eschewing the forced-conflict that the movie looks early on like it might be about to set up in favor of reasonable behavior on the part of real people. That the film is based on a true story honestly comes as no surprise.

Things Havoc disliked:   A couple of plot elements, particularly the pen-pal subplot, were reasonably predictable, and though the scenes are funny (particularly when Driss insists on calling Phillipe's girlfriend), they do start to edge towards the "hip black man teaches the square white man how to live" territory. It wouldn't be noticeable at all if not for the incredible dexterity with which the film side-steps the barest hint of such notions overall. There are also a couple of subplots that do not receive proper resolution, such as Driss' younger brother. Finally, while I did like the ending quite a bit, I wish it had gone a bit more into what the dynamic between the characters ultimately evolved into.

Final thoughts:  Frankly, if I can only think of one paragraph worth of negatives to cite, and have to resort to "I wish it had been longer", then I don't think the filmmakers need to worry too much. The Intouchables was an astoundingly good movie, one of the best I've seen since I started this little project, and all the better for the complete surprise it was (at least to me). It may not be the most groundbreaking film ever made, and the reviewers who call it "Driving Miss Daisy Light" do have something of a point (though the ones screaming racism are simply out of their goddamn minds, I'm looking at you Variety!), but this is one of the most solidly entertaining movies I've ever seen, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Final Score:  9/10

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Alternate Title:  Deus Ex Tedium

One sentence synopsis:   A group of scientists explore an alien world in search of the originators of human life.

Things Havoc liked: Ridley Scott is one of the most visually skilled directors in Hollywood, comparable perhaps only to James Cameron in terms of the sheer breadth of vision that he can put onto the screen. From Blade Runner to Gladiator to Kingdom of Heaven to the original Alien, Scott has sometimes put together a mess, but always a stunning mess, reflecting a grand scope and vision. It therefore should come as no surprise that, whatever else it is, Prometheus is a gorgeous film. It's not that the view we see is particularly new (the alien planet looks rather similar to the Eastern Sierras), but the manner in which it and the spaceships that come to visit is portrayed is almost perfect. No vibrating camera, no obvious trailer shot, the entire movie is filmed with a classic, steady hand, giving us ample time to drink in the richness of the world. I wouldn't call it Avatar, but all that separates it from such company is the lushness of its setting. If Scott wants to show us a more barren planet, one can't hold it against him.

Michael Fassbender, whom I had never heard of prior to last year's amazing X-men First Class (a description he bears the bulk of the responsibility for), plays David, an android aboard the exploratory vessel Prometheus, who clearly seems to be one of those "Mark 1" models that Bishop commented so dismissively on in Aliens. Consciously done up to resemble Peter O'Toole's take as Lawrence of Arabia (the comparison is made explicitly in the film), Fassbender is just slightly twisted, enough to make him legitimately interesting, and much of the film is spent simply chronicling the actions he chooses to take regarding the mission, the crew, and everything else going on. With his quirky, off-putting, brittle smile, Fassbender gives the best performance in the film, with the possible exception of Idris Elba (of Thor and the Wire), whose turn as Janek, Captain of the Prometheus provides perhaps the only sane, reasonable, and non-evil character of the entire film. Idris Elba is a pimp (I mean this in the most flattering way possible), and while he is given very little to do (more on this later), he makes quite a lot out of it, becoming one of the most memorable things in the film.

Things Havoc disliked:   ... which makes it all the more unfortunate that the film itself is such a piece of crap.

I was ready to be disappointed by this film, on the strength of several reviews I (unwisely) read or watched prior to seeing it. But I confess that I was not prepared for just how stupid this movie is, or more specifically how stupid the characters who inhabit it are. Front and center among the stupid people are "Doctors" Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway, played respectively by Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green (whom I mistook for Tom Hardy until I sat down to write this). Though theoretically a pair of highly-respected archaeologists, the two of them come across as exactly the type of annoying, oblivious, self-destructive protagonists that bad horror films are full of and that the original Alien pointedly lacked. Confronted with an alien spacecraft of dazzling antiquity on a planet with an atmosphere that is poisonous, Holloway not only removes his own helmet for no better reason than "I want to", but insists that all of his companions remove all of theirs, a policy they follow even after several members of the team have died from infectious diseases! Shaw meanwhile is supposedly a scientist, but claims to skeptics of her alien-architect theory that while she has no proof, she "chooses to believe" that she is right. I don't ask much from movie scientists, but I'd appreciate it if they were at least passingly familiar with what science is and is not.

But worse than the stupidity of the characters is the simple shallowness of them. Charlize Theron plays a character with so little to do that I could not, after the film, describe in any terms whatsoever her role either aboard the ship or in the movie. She seems to exist solely to provide an excuse for the existence of a prop. Guy Pearce, wearing some of the most absurd old-person makeup I've ever seen, pops in and out of the film dispensing exposition, a role that could comfortably have gone to any actor in existence above the age of 70 without the distraction. The other eleven (yes eleven) characters are given so little time that their purpose in the film is clear. They are here to die, and perhaps to make ironic comments shortly before doing so.

I know this is (at least in part) a horror film, as Alien was, and that since I'm not a horror film aficionado, I am probably the wrong person to make this next objection, but there are sequences in this film that are just gratuitous. One scene in particular that I don't even know how to describe (it involves a surgical machine) was so awful to watch that one of my viewing companions was nearly physically sick, and even I had to simply turn away at one point. I know there is a subset of fans who will read this and applaud, but this is not some schlock gore-fest or Saw knockoff, this is an Alien film directed by Ridley Scott, which had, up until that point, maintained a reasonably restrained (if creepy) vibe. To escalate suddenly into something this vile (said companion described it as "rape-horror", and I agree), is a thunderous clash of tone. None of this is made any better by the sheer clumsiness of the plotting around it. Why, may I ask, is a robotic surgical bed in the private quarters of a woman calibrated only to work on men? The answer, of course, is so that we can show a yet-more gruesome scene to the audience.

But all this I might have forgiven if the movie had had anything at all to say. The question of whether or not Prometheus is actually a prequel to Alien or merely a film in the same universe is apparently a highly complicated one, but either way, this film was anticipated so highly precisely because it was supposed to add a new chapter to the Alien mythos, a series that, while it has had its share of awful films, continues thirty years later to impress with its breadth of vision through two amazing films. But while I never expected Prometheus to provide all the answers, it literally provides nothing, serving as an extended introduction to the "real" movie that will theoretically follow it. I don't mind a bit of sequel-baiting, but there is a difference between leaving some things unanswered and wasting my fucking time. Not a single question, be it the motives of the main characters or the purposes of the progenitors, not one issue that either Alien or this movie raised is even slightly addressed, all questions being deferred in a clumsy ending voiceover that amounts to nothing more than "our princess is in another castle". It's a slap in the face to the audience who paid money to be told a story, not shown an extended advertisement for another movie which they will be expected to pay for as well.

Final thoughts:  I've said so much, and could say so much more about Prometheus, from the overall aesthetic (Geiger's designs were always phallic, but this is getting ridiculous) to the appalling continuity errors between this film and Alien (I know it was a while ago guys, but you'd think you might, I dunno, re-watch it at least once?), but none of those things sadden me as much as the sheer poverty of imagination inherent within this film. A movie endowed with sensational cinematography, a rich and storied series, and the services of many (in fact, too many) great actors to portray it all, should at the least have produced something that failed big. Instead, what we have here is a movie that seems hellbent on being as non-audacious as a film with these conceits and story concepts can possibly be.

I've seen far worse films in my time doing this little review series. But I've never seen a movie with so much wasted potential as this one.

Final Score:  3.5/10

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Alternate Title:  The Age of Awkwardness

One sentence synopsis:   An orphaned boy scout and an girl from a loveless home escape to the woods while the adults on their island try to catch them.

Things Havoc liked: Wes Anderson movies vary from the accessibly weird to the extremely weird, and consensus has generally formed that he's some kind of mad genius of film-making. I'm not prepared to go that far, but I have enjoyed his work on the whole, particularly Rushmore and The Royal Tannenbaums (the first hint I ever got that Ben Stiller could actually act). Given the absolutely universal praise this film had been garnering, and the amazingly star-studded cast he had assembled for it, I was rather excited to go see this one, even putting it ahead of Prometheus on my list (we'll get there soon enough).

And what a cast it is. Bill Murray and Francis McDormand play Mr. and Mrs. Sharp, a pair of lawyers in a seemingly loveless marriage with four children, the oldest of which is Suzie (more on her later). McDormand is known for playing understated roles, and does so here (even while wielding a loudspeaker), while Murray projects the world-weariness that has become his trademark ever since Lost in Translation. McDormand is having an affair with Bruce Willis, the sole policeman for the small island community. Willis, one of the few action stars to successfully transcend action, plays a loveless schlub, with hints of broken romance in his past, though only hints. Meanwhile, Ed Norton, who can be good or bad, depending on the film, plays the Scoutmaster of the local boy scout khaki scout troop, from which Sam (more on him later too) absconds. His character is a typical Anderson character, just a few degrees removed from reality, insofar as he seems to take his role as scoutmaster a little bit more seriously than we can imagine anyone actually taking it, his incompetence notwithstanding. Of the bunch, Murray and McDormand are probably the best as frustrated, lawyers whose empty, brittle lives leave them grasping for anything new ("Why?" asks Murray, when McDormand tells him to stop feeling sorry for himself). All of the actors, however, turn in excellent performances, if (inevitably) very strange ones, including Tilde Swinton and Harvey Keitel (!) in smaller roles.

Yet none of these fine actors are the main characters in this film. The main characters are Suzy and Sam, two extremely odd twelve-year-olds played by Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman. Pen-pals since having met the year before, the two concoct an elaborate plan to escape their home and boy scout camp (respectively) together and find an unnamed cove somewhere on the island to set up camp in, thus kicking into motion the events of the plot. Both kids, particularly Hayward, are excellent, though I admit, the sheer strangeness of the story, the writing, and the basic film-making in general makes it somewhat hard to determine this at first. The kids play their characters as awkward, smart-if-socially-inept pre-teens, in some ways highly insightful and resourceful, and in others horribly naive, with no precociousness to offset or cut the weirdness of the material they are given to perform. Honestly, they do a phenomenal job with material that could not have been easy, even for veteran actors (which neither one is), and while there are times it was almost hard to watch them, those moments were clearly by design.

Anderson's films tend to take place in a world of his own invention, design-wise, with pastel colors and strange, cavernous shot constructions, even indoors, and this film is no exception. The woods and fields of this New England island (fictional, I think), are rendered in bright, vivid color, lending a slight air of fantasy to supplement the strange dialogue and film rhythm. Interior shots emphasize open space, with camera positions near to the floor, making characters tower within large auditoriums. It's a subtle bit of cinematography, reminds me of a more adult (and less fakey-gothy) version of Tim Burton's work, crossed perhaps with Guillermo del Toro, and it works wonderfully, generating a world that's beautifully shot even at night (or during a hurricane). Anderson likes to use the cinematography to just slightly nudge his films outside the boundaries of reality, not so much that we notice, but enough that we pick up on it subconsciously, and that is precisely what he does here.

Finally, though it's not as funny as films like the Royal Tenenbaums , the movie is quite funny, especially in certain parts. Murray in particular knows exactly how to mug the comedy out of an enraged father uprooting a tent, and Norton's Scoutmaster is so eager (and inept) that he becomes hilarious in several scenes. Given the material, which involves children being stabbed with scissors, killing dogs with arrows, forming angry lynch mobs, and being struck by lightning, all while inept adults fight with one another and fail to supervise them in any way, drawing any levity at all out of what could easily have become Lord of the Flies II, is quite an achievement.

Things Havoc disliked:   Wes Anderson's films are always weird. That much is a given. But this time he might have pushed things a bit too far.

It's not that the movie is confusing. The plot is reasonably straightforward, and the characters are drawn broadly enough that we can figure out what's going on without too much trouble. What's weird about it is the tone of the film, which is so damned odd it begins to resemble one of those indecipherable French films from the sixties, the ones where the characters would walk into rooms where everyone was dressed in wallpaper and reciting Chinese aphorisms while gargling. While nothing that overtly oddball happens in this movie, the world is set up in such a way that those things would not be out of place. Characters act and speak in a way that nobody actually speaks, and we know it, and while it's apparent that this is Anderson's intention, I'll be damned if I can figure out what he means by it most of the time. At one point, Murray dramatically walks into his front room in the dead of night, half-naked with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and an axe in the other, and announces to his three small children that he is going to go cut a tree down. Later on we see him doing so. Why? I have no goddamn idea. The tree has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot, nor the character, and if the intention is to symbolize things (something I generally dislike in movies) the metaphorical meaning is not at all made clear (at least not to me). What themes are immediately clear are quite simple, an idealization of young love, or a satire of the pretensions of the boy scouts. Yet these seem way too simple to justify the absurd stylization of the film.

Perhaps Wes Anderson, like other artistic-minded directors such as Tim Burton (to his detriment) or Francois Truffaut (to his credit) is just not capable of making a simple movie, and turns everything in front of his camera into off-kilter oddness without even intending to. I can't begin to speculate, but the result in this case is a movie that feels very inconsistently-paced, and times even boring. Characters say and do things for no reason that we can ever discern, and while I grant that in real life, people do this, film is inherently a narrative medium, and one is expected to have, if not a plot reason, at least some reason that we will be able to discern for everything that goes into the movie. Anderson is a fine director, and a skilled scriptwriter, and so I assume that he does have a reason for the strangeness that occurs here. I just wish he'd let the rest of us in on the secret.

Final thoughts:  That said, I don't want to give the impression that Moonrise Kingdom is a bad film. With a cast this good, child actors this skilled, and a story that, despite all the weirdness, is both funny and charming, the movie does what it has to in order to work. It also has the (useful) virtue of becoming stronger as it goes on, and the strange vibe and tone do serve to paper over several otherwise-inconvenient plot holes (how does that kid survive a lightning strike? Because we're in a world where he can). I fought with myself for some time before deciding whether I liked this movie or not, and how much, but ultimately I have to admit that I wasn't sad I'd seen it, and if and when Anderson makes another picture, I'll probably see that one too.

But if it's not too much to ask, next time, can he make the film while sober?

Final Score:  7/10

Friday, June 8, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

Alternate Title:  Once Upon a Twilight

One sentence synopsis:   Snow White and the Hunter hired to find her must fight against the evil queen who wishes to devour her heart.

Things Havoc liked: I was not expecting a lot from this movie, indeed I almost decided to miss it, save for two factors. One was the trailers, which, I have to admit, made this thing look, if not good, at least promising. The other was a question of fairness. Having been told that, contrary to Twilight's evidence, Robert Pattinson can act (though I've yet to confirm this personally), I felt it was only fair that I determine if the same was or wasn't true of Kristen Stewart. Given everything, this seemed like the best place to find out.

Not that Stewart is the only draw here, far from it. Chris Hemsworth, whom I've seen a lot of in the last few weeks, plays the Huntsman, and is easily the best thing in the movie. His character is nothing special, a woodsman who lost his wife in some unspecified disaster and has turned to being a drunk and a dissolute, but Hemsworth plays it very, very well, appearing less as a love interest (a wise decision, considering the acting differential) and more as a recovering believer who sees Snow White as a possibility to improve his own life and self-worth. That may sound trite when written down in a sentence, but it actually works quite well on screen.

The villain, meanwhile, played by Charlize Theron, is something else. Theron's always good (aberrations like Mighty Joe Young aside), and here appears to be either insane or attempting to channel Al Pacino (which amounts to the same thing). Her character is a vengeful, wild-eyed madwoman, burning with ferocious intensity as she takes eternal revenge upon all the world for some terrible trauma (kidnapping and rape, one assumes from the flashbacks) that she suffered long ago. Her backstory elevates the character out of the Disney-trope of the evil queen who is evil for its own sake, and gives Theron license to simply lose her mind in more than a few scenes. I can't call her performance tremendously layered, but she certainly livens the film whenever she's on-screen. Meanwhile, side characters, such as the seven dwarves (led by an always-wonderful Ian MacShane) are well done, drawn apparently from the Lord of the Rings, but given depth and background beyond the scope of the original fairytale.

Getting beyond the cast, the movie has a wonderful visual style, equal parts fairy tale and mature fantasy. Every location, from the evil forest to the sanctuary to the wicked queen's castle has an inspired design which seems to be channeling some kind of fantastical version of Scotland. The movie is unafraid to dive deeply into fairy tale imagery, particularly in the less dank-evil bits, even managing to update Disney's forest-creature-chorus from the 1937 animated version. Color is sparingly used, only to be deployed in full glory for key sequences, cutting the overall "realistic" grey of the rest of the film for fantasy interludes. The result looks like a somewhat more child-friendly version of Pan's Labyrinth, and while I didn't like it as much as I did Guillermo del Toro's masterpiece, the style definitely works for the type of film they're attempting to produce.

Finally, while the plot is both age-old, and nothing terribly special, there's a certain refreshing simplicity to the archetypes used here, helped in no small part by the visuals. Snow White is presented as being so pure that her very presence restores life and vitality to the land and the people around her, conjuring forth fantastic beasts out of hiding and calming monsters with only a glance. In any other film this would seem stupid, but the visuals allow the film to show the concept instead of telling us about it, and their quality manages to sell the premise well. Fairy Tales are simple tales, not exercises in winking subtlety, and if nothing else, the filmmakers seem to know this.

Things Havoc disliked:   As I said before, one of my purposes in this film was to see if Kristen Stewart could act outside the dreadful medium of Twilight films. I doubt I'm surprising anyone when I report that she cannot.

Actually that's unfair. I spent a good deal of this movie trying to analyze precisely what about her didn't work for me, and I've come to a couple conclusions. The problem isn't her line delivery. She delivers them well overall, and even manages to pull off a (very weird) "rallying the army" speech late in the film fairly well (she's no Aragorn, but I've heard far worse). Her physical presence in the action sequences is reasonably good, and I have to admit, while the notion of her being "fairer" than Charlize Theron is utterly laughable (yes, I know it's about "inner beauty", shut up), she ain't that bad to look at either (particularly in armor). Ultimately, the problem (I think) is her expressiveness, or rather the lack thereof. Stewart has essentially one facial expression throughout the entire movie, that of vague worry mixed with slight confusion, or as someone I know puts it, her "who farted?" face. Perhaps in Twilight, that's all that's required, but here, it unfortunately makes her look downright stupid in quite a few scenes, and totally disinterested in most of the others, even when she's trying to emote outrage, delight, or vengeful anger.

Sadly however, Stewart isn't the only problem. Several of the other actors in the film deliver performances considerably worse than hers, one of whom (and I can scarcely believe this in retrospect) is Bob Hoskins, playing the Doc character of a blind, wizened dwarf who presciently perceives Snow White's "destiny". Hoskins is an amazing actor, but this performance is just embarrassing, arguably worse than his turn in Super Mario Brothers. His attempts to channel Gandalf mixed with Merlin fall completely flat, and drags down the hard work of Ian McShane and the rest of the dwarves. Worse still is Sam Claflin, whose character of William is both boring and totally superfluous to the plot, neither of which would be as big of a problem if the actor could give the character some form of depth. Forced to compete with Chris Hemsworth, who can apparently do this sort of thing in his sleep, Claflin comes off like a third-rate Renfair escapee who stumbled onto the set by accident, and the movie's efforts to turn him into a badass bowman seem incongruous with the boredom he exudes on screen.

But beyond the acting, there's the simple fact that, apart from the visual style, this movie is just badly made. Director Rupert Sanders has never done a feature film before this one, concentrating instead on television advertisements, and it shows here. The film's continuity is riddled with basic framing and editing mistakes, making it difficult to determine where many of the characters are in relation to one another and what role they are playing at any given moment. Claflin's character joins up with the evil army at one point, then seems to fight against them, and then joins them once more inexplicably between scenes. Many of the characters, including but not limited to the Dwarves, are allowed to lapse so far into thick Scottish accents that I had real trouble understanding what they were saying, further confusing the issue. To make things worse, the movie is horribly over-scored, with generic orchestral anthems boiling up at the drop of a hat, completely overselling many scenes and taking them from straight fantasy interpretations to ludicrous self-parody. And as though all of the above wasn't bad enough, when it comes time for a fight scene, the terrible spectre of shaky-cam rears its ugly head, rendering, as usual, all the careful choreography and cinematography completely pointless.

Final thoughts:  It's really hard to score movies like this, which is one of the reasons I try to avoid seeing them. Snow White and the Huntsman looked like it had the potential to be a truly different film, and while the result isn't terrible, neither is it a tremendous success. Though the concept, and several of the actors, are worthy of a better film than this one, the movie is dragged down by a poor choice of main actress, inexplicably bad co-stars, elementary mistakes by a first-time director, and a script that just seems to run out of steam by the end.

Somewhere in here was an interesting movie, but unfortunately none of the people making the film had the skill to find it.

Final Score:  5/10

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