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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