Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Fairest Of Them All

There have been two adaptations of The Grimm's brothers' Snow White this year, and from the moment those two trailers were released everyone knew which one was going to be the better. And I'm very pleased to say that Snow White and the Huntsman more than lives up to the expectations. Yes, there's blood-red lips, snow white skin and raven black hair, there's an evil queen, a mirror, a prince and an apple, but this is genuinely not Snow White as you've ever seen it done before.

In this re-imagining, the evil Queen Ravenna (played wonderfully by Charlize Theron) tricks the newly bereaved king, kills him on their wedding night and imprisons his daughter in a tower for years. Now, with her powers waning, her magic mirror tells her to consume the heart of the one fairer than her, Snow White (Kristen Stewart). Except, of course, she escapes her prison into the Dark Forest, so Ravenna recruits a widowed alcoholic Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to bring her back. But Snow White's good heart and pure nature make the Huntsman reconsider, and instead helps her lead a rebellion including eight dwarves and Snow's childhood friend, Prince William (Sam Claflin) to bring down the evil tyranny of the Queen...

It must be said that it's a very beautifully shot film, very artfully done. Director Rupert Sanders, previously a well-respected director of video game commercials, makes his feature-film debut in stunning style, and at times this almost overshadows everything else about the film. The special effects are dazzling, but also imaginative, and so detailed as well, it actually feels like a different world. It's clear to see the influence of other directors on Sanders, especially Guillermo del Toro - the comparisons are easy to make between this and Pan's Labyrinth in terms of style, and as that is also one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen that is by no means a bad thing.

In terms of performances, it's a little bit of a mixed bag. Charlize Theron basically steals the show - and quite rightly. She is absolutely perfect as the Queen obsessed with aging, power and beauty, and she's very chilling. She's scary, but at the same time she isn't a one-dimensional villain; her backstory actually makes her very believable and it's easy to see why she is the way she is. She's manic and terrifying, and does a lot of screaming at people, but never goes to the point of melodramatic. Even her possible insanity (where did that mirror man come from?) doesn't feel contrived or staged, but completely understandable once you grasp what's gone on in her life. I'm trying not to dwell too much on the borderline incestuous relationship she has with her brother (why is he watching her take a naked milk bath?!), but even that just effectively adds to how creepy the character is. Theron displays a performance here that reminds the audience of what a fantastic actress she is. She is my new queen.

I was a little concerned about Kristen Stewart, wondering whether she may not become a little annoying as the film goes on, but I'm very pleased to report that she does a fantastic job as the titular heroine. Having heard interviews with Kristen talking about the character, it's nice to actually see her dedication to the development of Snow, and to see that no, she isn't a perfect person as we all believe, and she isn't just a damsel in distress. I was also worried she wasn't going to be believable as a leader in battle, but seeing her journey and what she goes through does make it convincing (as is her accent, I might add!).

I do have a little bit of a problem with Chris Hemsworth, regretably. I adore him, I do, but he could have done better. It's nice to see his character journey, but I feel like the Huntsman could have been written better. He's definitely a role that could be developed further if the rumoured sequels do happen (more on that in a bit). But he does bring some comedy to the film in his early drunken state, and the relationship between him and Snow White is enjoyable to see unfold, for the most part. Where I have an issue is in the sudden development of a romantic relationship between the two, which feels really random. He says she reminds him of his deceased wife, and she doesn't say anything about her feelings towards him at all, but it keeps being hinted at in the last section of the film and it doesn't really fit. It's much better if they stick with the mentor-student type relationship, or an older brother kind of thing. Also, his accent just barely passable. I know they made him Scottish because they wanted to emphasise difference between him and the nobility of the Queen, Snow White and Prince William, but it just didn't work. Nobody would have questioned why he also had an English accent, they should have just stuck with that since we know he can do it from Thor.

The dwarves are kind of underused, even if they are brilliant in what we see of them. With the likes of Nick Frost, Ray Winstone and Toby Jones, among others, they bring a large part of the film's comedy in their interactions with each other and the Huntsman, but because they don't come into the film until about half way through, they don't really have time to develop properly; it seems like all the effort the actors exerted to play the roles - going to "dwarf camp" and having small actors teach them the movements - was almost wasted as they weren't really given their chance to shine. To be fair, there are moments when they really engage the audience, in particular Brian Gleeson, who plays Gus, who is so adorable. Now I don't like to say this, because he's a brillaint actor usually, but the one dwarf I didn't like was Bob Hoskins, whose only role seemed to be to repeat "she will end the darkness" and variations thereof constantly every time he's on screen. It didn't need to be said the other 357 times after Chris Hemsworth had got the message.

As for the more supporting cast, again it's a little mixed. Sam Claflin as Prince William is lovely, breaking the mould of fairy-tale princes and actually getting stuck into the action. His relationship with Snow is adorable and I still root for them to be together; it's helped, I think, by showing them as children, which is so cute and does tie in nicely to some of the stuff that happens later in the film. As for Lily Cole though, I don't know why they made a big deal about her being in it - I'm not a fan of hers really anyway, but she's in all of three scenes and one of those is where she gets the youth sucked out of her by the Queen anyway - she's really very forgettable, and actually not a character I want to be expanded if/when they make the next one.

Yes, it's a predictable outcome even before the film begins, but the only true rebellion against the original story is to have the Queen win, and that's just a little bleak (although actually there are times when I did root for Ravenna, but that's down to Charlize Theron's fantastic performance really). The ending could have been better - without trying to spoil too much, the "Messiah" comparisons were a little annoying, and the fact that nobody questions how Snow White had suddenly risen from the dead irked me. It was obviously left open for a sequel, but I don't actually know what they could do with it; there's still room for the characters to be developed further, but I don't know what a believable compelling storyline would be - it's all about the Queen really, isn't it?

Saying that, there were moments which were really special. Parts of the film that were unexpected, such as the encounter with the village of women were surprisingly enjoyable and I liked the way they were embedded into the storyline. The prologue part of the film, in which all the backstory is explained, is a particular highlight, as it's so detailed and perfect to fully understand the rest of the film. The changes in the characters are also welcomed - Snow White is not a damsel in distress, but also she keeps her femininity rather than just becoming a woman-being-a-man action hero. The Queen has such depth that it's hard not to empathise with her at least a little bit; even the prince isn't your ordinary run-of-the-mill fairy tale prince who swans in and saves the day but is actually just the most blah character in history, but he too has proper balls. It's dark stuff, too: Snow White has a mental magic mushroom-enduced trip in the dark forest, the Queen ages rapidly and repulsively and is clearly very mentally unstable, and it doesn't shy away from death and violence (keeping it at 12 levels, though, obviously - though it could have been pushed slightly more, I feel). I also liked the way they redefined all the traditional moments of the story, such as the poisoned apple and the magic mirror; it was refreshing, and it actually resulted in the film deserving to say it's a reimaging, and not just another average adaptation.

What's really good about this version of the tale is that it's really timeless. There are themes that can be related to modern day life, mostly in terms of feminism and the effect of what a child is told in their youth. Ravenna, having been told by her mother that a woman will only succeed if she is beautiful and young, is shaped into this power-hungry women because she believes that all women are used by men and then discarded - this could not be more relevant in today's society, where women are still valued for their looks and youth. Obviously they are trying to then promote the contrasting upbringing of Snow White, who is told that a good heart will lead you to good places, but both of these really stand out as themes which make what feels on the surface to be a very medieval tale into a timeless message regarding the perception of women.

In terms of the technical parts of the film, it really is brilliant. The costumes are gorgeous, and the detail they went into on Ravenna's outfits is exceptional - I love how every costume she wears has some sort of dead thing on it, whether it be feathers, fur or bones, to reflect her character bringing death and despair to everything. The sets were all spectacular, with the English coast being transformed perfectly into a battle ground, and the castles giving a striking feel of despair. But also the outdoor settings in the forests are beautiful, with the contrasting dark and blooming environments just emphasising how special both of them are (there's a lot of contrasts in the film, in case you haven't already gathered. I'm pretty sure it's intentional). The score (you know I love the scores!) is simply superb. I'm a big fan of James Newton Howard anyway, and his style really fits this film. It's probably the best score I've heard so far this year, and I will listen to it constantly for about the next month (I'm listening to it as I'm writing this). It matches the mood of each scene perfectly, and really is just triumphant. And it's so sad to know that it probably will not be in contention for any proper awards because of the type of film it is, and will be overlooked when it really is sublime and deserves proper recognition.

Verdict: Yes, there are parts that are to be expected from a fairy tale adaptation, but the way Snow White and the Huntsman so wonderfully revolutionises the story means that this isn't a standard film. It's genuinely one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen, and I'm looking forward to seeing what Rupert Sanders has to show us next, if this is only his first offering. A dedicated cast and crew must be commended for what they have managed to produce, and strong central performances from the leading ladies are what really make this film a must-see.


(I don't normally plug stuff like this, but the behind-the-scenes stuff and interviews from this film are really good, so check out the official Youtube channel for all their videos. Though don't if you want to avoid spoilers, because there's lots there.)

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

And The Award For Most Misleading Trailer Goes To...

Dark Shadows! The latest collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp (and Helena Bonham Carter too, of course) shows nothing more than the typical Burton style and the fact that this feels more like the 118th time they've worked together rather than the 8th. I've actually delayed writing this review because I don't actually want to think too much about the film because it disappointed me so (and also I've been sunbathing). The film failed to meet the expectations of the trailer which made it look so enjoyable and hilarious.

In 1776, wealthy playboy Barnabus Collins (Depp) spurns the advances of one of his servants, the witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), in favour of the vapid Josette. In a jealous rage, Angelique kills his parents and bewitches Josette so she jumps of a cliff to her death, and changes Barnabus into a vampire, and then proceeds to bury him alive with the aid of the townsfolk. Two hundred years later, his casket is discovered and he awakes to a world he is completely unfamiliar with - the early seventies. He returns to his family home to find the family business going under, the house in disrepair and a number of dysfunctional relatives. Whilst adjusting to his new life, Barnabus must also salvage the family's wealth and reputation, and also deal with a familiar face who is out to destroy him.

It is not only the most disappointing film I've seen in a very long time, but the film is also so falsely advertised in the trailers. The film seems to be confused about what type of film it actually is - it seemed from all the footage released to be a typical fish-out-of-water comedy, but there's family drama added in, there's a supernatural love triangle, there's action, and a little bit of horror, and all in all it seems terribly confused and unfocused. The different plot strands are all over the place because there's just far too much going on; it's like Burton has tried to cram five different films into one, and it's all rather chaotic.

The performances are all rather so-so as well, disappointingly. Depp's portrayal of the 18th century playboy-turned-vampire living in modern times feels rather restrained compared to what we know he's capable of - at times, it feels like he was filming at the same time as thinking "Why am I actually doing this?" - and that's probably down to the script again - despite having been asleep for two hundred years, he seems to accept all the modern day changes rather easily. Yes, there's the little things we've all seen like him being all confused about the television, and another bit where he gingerly steps onto tarmac, but overall he seems very well adjusted very quickly. Eva Green is actually rather good, and despite being the villain I actually sympathised with her, but that may be because actually all of the other characters were somewhat ghastly. She does do an annoying amount of showing off her looks and attempting to force Barnabus to love her, but compared to the rest of the cast she's probably the most engaging. Michelle Pfeiffer doesn't really do much more than drawl snarky comments occasionally, and her incessant eye-rolling could be down to the fact that she has realised she has absolutely nothing to sink her teeth into here. Jonny Lee Miller is just a horrible representation of a bad father to his poor son, a (slightly irritating) little boy who is seeing a therapist and thinks he can communicate with dead people (don't even ask, it's all moot). All the characters are basically under-developed and though you can see they've tried, it's just impossible to care for any of the characters at all. Whereas in the trailer it looked like Chloe Moretz was going to be an entertaining snarky teen, she ends up just being a whiny and very annoying one instead. She's one of those teenagers you want to slap for taking their angsty moods too far. And don't get me started on Bella Heathcote. She has two characters to play and she's still barely memorable. Both of them are vapid, as I said earlier, and bring absolutely nothing to the table except to be plot catalysts. You could tell she was supposed to be the likeable character in this, and you were supposed to root for her, but she just ended up being irritating and redundant. And of course, there's Helena Bonham Carter, aka, Mrs Burton. I'm pretty sure she's contractually obliged to appear in every film her partner makes - maybe they had that in lieu of a marriage certificate? Who knows, but even she here lacks that special something she so often brings to the screen.

There is a worrying lack of humour here: all the decent gags were given away in the trailer (and I meant literally all of them). This could even be excused if they made up for it in other ways, but the horror was clearly toned down (though there is one comparitively nasty moment with a blood bag being sucked dry through its user). It's not a love story, really, as the central romance gets overshadowed by too much else going on, and even the sexytimes feel a little too staged and surreal to be enjoyable. Even the end action scene is actually borderline dull, and I found my mind wandering during what I'm sure was actually meant to be the pivotal moment of the film. Where the tension appears to be ramping up, the audience's interest has surely already slipped to far beyond redemption. It's all thrown together so shambolically it's dizzying, and actually ends up feeling like you've stepped into the mind of Tim Burton on acid. Rather concerning, really.

There were a lot of things hat  just never explained. Not to ruin too much, but there's more supernatural beings that just a vampire and a witch, but they seem very random in the grand scheme of things, like they've just been chucked into the film last minute. One of these appearances was actually laughable, it was so ridiculously bad. And it's just frustrating. If some things had been left out, there wouldn't have been any difference really to the plot but other things could have been explained instead. Everything just feels like it's been touched on because so much has been crammed in, and I think that's probably it's major flaw.

There are some good points I should make clear. The retro style of the film was actually really good, with set, hair and costume actually making me feel rather nostalgic at some points, and that's not to mention the ace songs they embedded in there too. Throwing in a bit of T-Rex and Barry White (actually technically wrong, since "You're the First, My Last, My Everything" was written two years after it was set) really did improve the film, and livened it up somewhat, which it constantly needed. Essentially, it looked good, with a pretty cast and pretty sets and pretty costumes. However, with the seventies feel also comes Burton's own unique style that frankly, is getting a little old. It was absolutely nothing we haven't already seen before from him, with the extreme make up, vivid and contrasting colours and constant gothic feel.

Also, I'm not sure if you can call this a good thing or not, but there's so many twists and turns and random things thrown in that it isn't actually predictable. Well, the outcome is, but not what actually happens along the way. Ok, I've just read that back, and actually that isn't a good thing. I'd much rather it was predictable and entertaining than... this.

It was left open for a sequel (the final shot felt very gratuitous of Burton... you'll see what I mean), but I emplore anyone who worked on that film to reject that idea. I strongly urge that they leave this alone to rot where it belongs.

Verdict: It's just shoddy work from people we all know can do better. I watched Sweeney Todd the day before I went to see it, and there was just no comparison. Instead of watching this film, I'd recommend just watching some of Burton's older works, where he was actually fresh and a visionary, and watch the trailer for this over and over again. It would be more enjoyable, trust me. All in all it feels like a very half-hearted, slap-dash film. Burton, where has your sparkle gone?