The Huntsman: Winter’s War


Sisters are doin' it for themselves.

Sisters are doin’ it for themselves.

(2016) Fantasy (Universal) Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith, Alexandra Roach, Sope Dirisu, Sam Hazeldine, Sam Claflin, Sophie Cookson, Conrad Khan, Niamh Walter, Nana Agyeman-Bediako, Amelia Crouch, Fred Tatasciore, Lynne Wilmot, Colin Morgan, Liam Neeson (voice), Kara Lily Hayworth. Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

 

When making a successful cinematic fairy tale, remember the cardinal rule – always leave room for a sequel. The makers of Snow White and the Huntsman didn’t really go that route, although there was certainly a possibility for a sequel. What they did was an oddball mix of prequel and sequel – a pre-sequel, if you will.

Ravenna (Theron), the beautiful but evil queen from the first movie, has a sister named Freya (Blunt) who is married and happy. When a tragedy turns Freya’s life upside down, Freya finds that she has magical powers as well – an ability to control the cold. She turns her kingdom into ice, and forbids love of any sort to exist. She ravages the towns of her kingdom, murdering the parents and stealing kids to be groomed into medieval ninja assassins, whom she calls Huntsmen.

Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Chastain) are the best of these; no others can stand against them. They become leaders of an organization that strikes fear throughout the land but then they break the most sacred law of the kingdom by falling in love and they end up paying a terrible price for it. One, I’m sure, you can see coming.

Fast forward seven years and the events of Snow White and the Huntsman are no longer taking place in the future but in the past – raise your hands if you find that confusing. The audience certainly did. In any case, Ravenna is dead but Freya has figured a way to bring her back to life – by acquiring the Magic Mirror of the first film. Eric is not about to let that happen. Aided by a quartet of comic relief dwarves, he heads out to stop Freya at all costs – but he doesn’t count on the one card Freya has to play that he could never have possibly expected.

Like a lot of the fairy tale films produced by Joe Roth, this movie is effects-laden and often sacrifices story for imagery. That’s OK, when the images are as scintillating as they are here; this is a beautiful film to watch. The problem here is that the movie feels like the pacing has gone by the wayside. It’s slow and turgid, and while the actors do credible work, they are given characters who lack much in the way of personality.

Hemsworth is one of only four actors who return from the first film, and as there he shows here that he has all he needs to be a strong leading man. He has that “one of the boys” feel that serves him well as a certain Marvel superhero, but he also commands the screen with confidence as befits a big star. Theron, in addition to being absolutely knock-down drag-out gorgeous, is an actress of considerable range and ability; she does the villain role as well as anybody, including Christoph Waltz.

Emily Blunt is one of those actresses whose name isn’t well known, but who delivers a strong performance every time out. She’s been impressive in such films as Sicario and Edge of Tomorrow and she gives the most emotional performance of any here. Freya is a tortured soul and we get to see glimpses of it; her experiences have hardened her heart (or frozen it) but not completely. From time to time we see flashes of the pain she bears.

Chastain has become one of those actresses who appears in a lot of movies, nearly all of them good. This one is a bit of an exception (more on that later) but she still carries herself off as a warrior struggling with her emotions and her feelings of betrayal. Now while these sound like characters who should have loads of personality, they aren’t allowed to really express them through action or even dialogue. The body language and eyes of the actors gets across most of the characters’ inner feelings. You can tell the actors are trying hard and quite frankly they could have been excused if they’d just phoned it in once they’d cashed the paycheck.

But this movie feels ponderous and not in the sense that it ponders – more like a bloated elephant stomping its way through the underbrush. There’s little finesse here and a little bit too much reliance on the effects to give the movie a sense of wonder. The sequences in the fairy forest of the first film were truly magical; nothing here equals that. In fact, given the somewhat jarring move from prequel to sequel (which in itself was a promising idea) it feels like the filmmakers at times were distracted by things not even going on in the movie.

This is reasonably entertaining with some fine performances, but as other critics have deftly pointed out, there are a lot of good elements here that don’t add up to a good film. Winter’s War is mediocre at best and given that there are so many really good movies out there just waiting for you to check out, it makes no sense to throw your money away when you could be seeing something that really does have plenty of movie magic to spare.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty effects. Theron makes a delicious villain.
REASONS TO STAY: It feels a bit too bloated. Overall, lacks focus.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence of the swords and sorcery variety as well as a little bit of sensuality..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite the popularity of the first film, Kristen Stewart who played Snow White was not asked to reprise her role, the producers electing to go the prequel route. Some say that her notorious affair with director Rupert Sanders was the reason both were made absent from this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maleficent
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Jungle Book

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Snow White and the Huntsman


Snow White and the Huntsman

Charlize Theron was really hoping for “A Game of Thrones.”

(2012) Fantasy (Universal) Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Stewart, Sam Claflin, Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Eddie Izzard, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost, Stephen Graham, Lily Cole, Sam Spruell, Vincent Regan, Liberty Ross, Noah Huntley, Jonny Harris, Brian Gleeson, Rachael Stirling. Directed by Rupert Sanders

 

Fairy tales have a reputation for being sweetness and light, stories for children that are suffused with happy endings. In truth, fairy tales are dark things for which happy endings are often a matter of perspective.

The kingdom of good King Magnus (Huntley) is a kindly and prosperous place, where justice reigns and the people are content. All adore in particular the beautiful child Snow White, who has hair dark as a raven’s wing, lips red as rose petals, skin pale and flawless as alabaster. But one particularly cruel winter, the queen (Ross) dies, leaving Magnus bereft.

Shortly thereafter a mysterious army attacks his kingdom and Magnus leads his army out to defend his subjects. They are victorious and amidst the carnage they discover a wagon with a beautiful woman in it. She is Ravenna (Theron) and seems to have been a captive of the evil army that Magnus has vanquished. She is beautiful and slightly timid and Magnus is immediately taken by her. In a matter of days he proposes and the kingdom rejoices; it will have a queen once again.

Ravenna and Snow White are friendly; the latter is thrilled that her father will be happy once again, the former insisting that she has no plans to replace her mother. The wedding is joyous and solemn, and for a night things are perfect. However in their wedding bed, Ravenna’s true nature reveals itself; she has poisoned her new husband and stabs him through the heart to seal the deal. Then she opens the gates and allows in her real army to massacre everyone inside.

Count Hammond (Regan) escapes with his son William and leave for their own castle, thinking Snow White dead. She is very much alive, however, and grows to adulthood (Stewart), imprisoned in one of the towers of the castle. Ravenna, who is a powerful sorceress, is bleeding the land dry. She has a magic mirror (which moves, Terminator T-1000 like, into a puddle of liquid silver to take shape as a cowled man) who reassures her that she is the fairest one of all. To insure that, she steals the youth from many maidens in the kingdom including Greta (Cole), keeping her young and vibrant.

Then her mirror tells her that the only threat to her reign is Snow White, who is alone capable of killing and defeating her (not necessarily in that order). However, if Ravenna kills Snow White and takes her still-beating heart, Ravenna will live eternally and reign forever. Ravenna then sends her brother Finn (Spruell) to fetch Snow White but she manages to escape, finding her way into the Dark Forest, where even the bravest of the Queen’s soldiers don’t dare go.

The Queen enlists a Huntsman (Hemsworth) who is grieving the death of his wife. His qualifications: he has entered the Dark Forest and survived, returning to become a bit of a tosspot. He is unwilling to help the Queen for whom he holds no love but when promised to be reunited with his love, he goes even though he doesn’t trust the Queen or her brother.

His instincts prove to be true and he manages to not only avoid the trap set for him but to find Snow White and become her ally. He guides her to the forest to a town made up mostly of women whose men have gone to war for the Queen. They have scarred their faces in order to protect themselves from having their youth taken by Ravenna’s magic. However, this proves to be a brief respite as Flynn and his men arrive, searching for Snow White.

With Flynn is William (Claflin), the son of the Duke and Snow White’s childhood friend. He’s hunting her too but for a different reason than Flynn – he wants to rescue her and take her back to the castle where she would be the symbol that the people of the kingdom need to rally behind and rise up against the evil of Ravenna. However, the Huntsman and Snow White escape into an enchanted fairy forest where dwell eight dwarves, including Beith (McShane), Muir (Hoskins), Gort (Winstone), Nion (Frost), Duir (Marsan), Coll (Jones), Quert (Harris) and Gus (Gleeson) capture them.

Beith and the Huntsman apparently have a past which is none to friendly but the blind Muir persuades the band to take Snow White under their wings, which proves to be a smart decision when she is blessed by the Great Stag, indicating that she is destined to dethrone the Queen and allow nature to return to the Kingdom. But how will she do this, chased by the Queen’s deadly magic against a magic army in an impenetrable castle?

While the basic outline of the story is the same of the beloved fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm, this ain’t your momma’s Snow White – and it certainly isn’t Disney’s either. Sanders – a British commercial director, makes his feature debut with a splash, creating a vision that is both ugly and beautiful, magical and authentic. There are medieval battles as well as the gorgeous fairy forest, where mushrooms stare back at you, fairies ride mossy turtles and butterflies combine into a giant stag.

As good as the visuals are, Charlize Theron is better. As the evil Queen she is more than just a cold-hearted bitch that other movies relegate evil queens to. She is evil, but with a personality; she is dreadfully in fear of losing her youth, and possessed of an intense hatred of men who have used her for her beauty throughout her life. She is evil as a means of taking control, and punishes women for being younger than she, men for being…well, men.

Also of note is Hemsworth who has achieved stardom through his portrayal of Thor. His work here convinces me that he is going to be an able leading man and not just a one-dimensional superhero. This Huntsman is grief-stricken and looking for something to believe in, finding it with Snow White. While some of the mead-drinking shenanigans are reminiscent of his work in Thor, there is enough here that is new that leads me to believe that the man’s career will have staying power.

Less successful is Stewart. Legions of her fans helped give this an impressive opening weekend, but she never really convinced me of her authenticity here. Not so much as a princess – any little girl can play that – but as a leader and as someone people would want to follow. Stewart also overacts a little bit in places, particularly when she’s called upon to make a stirring speech. She’s beautiful, sure – but fairer than Charlize Theron? I don’t think so.

I would have liked the movie to meander a little bit less. The battle sequences were also far less convincing than the magic, and I think the movie would have benefitted from leaning more in that direction than it did. Still, the visuals are so striking and Theron’s performance so compelling that I can recommend this even to non-fans of Kristen Stewart – and the anti-Twilight legions will probably want to give this a miss (with good reason) but you’re missing some solid summer entertainment if you do.

REASONS TO GO: Theron is deliciously evil. Hemsworth shows signs of being a terrific leading man. Some of the special effects are lovely.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit jumbled. Stewart overacted a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of science fiction violence, explosions, gruesome aliens and a lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kristen Stewart had to overcome a childhood fear of horses in order to do the battle scene which called for her to ride one.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100. The reviews are nearly all rotten.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mirror Mirror

CELTIC ALPHABET LOVERS: The dwarf names are based on Ogham, the ancient “Tree Alphabet” of the Celtics in which letters are associated with certain trees and assigned a symbolic value; for example, Beith equals “B” which equals birch which stands for new beginnings.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Hoodwinked 2: Hood vs. Evil

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus


The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Heath Ledger unmasked.

(Sony Classics) Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Peter Stormare, Richard Riddell, Katie Lyons, Paloma Faith, Daniel Newman. Directed by Terry Gilliam

We all have out price, a weakness that can be exploited by the unscrupulous. However, keep in mind that when you make a deal with the devil, the consequences are almost always not what you expect them to be and the devil never gets the short end of the bargain.

Doctor Parnassus (Plummer) was once a humble monk of an order whose mission was to tell the story of the universe. They believed that as long as the story was being told, the universe would continue. The devil (Waits), or Mr. Nick as he prefers to be called, tries to disabuse Parnassus of the notion but is unsuccessful.

The devil, as we all know, is a bettin’ man and he wagers Doctor Parnassus that he can gather twelve disciples before Parnassus can with immortality the prize if Parnassus wins, which he does – although later he discovers that the wager was a trap and immortality not something wonderful, but a burden and a torture.

When Parnassus falls in love with a mortal woman, the devil allows Parnassus to adjust the bargain. The devil will make Parnassus young and mortal again in exchange for the soul of his firstborn daughter on her 16th birthday. Parnassus thinks he can trick the devil by not having any children but to his horror his wife becomes pregnant when she turns 60, dying in childbirth.

Valentina (Cole) knows nothing of this; she thinks her dad is an imaginative man who drinks too much. She is part of his traveling show along with the cautiously optimistic Anton (Garfield) who acts as a barker, and Percy (Troyer), the show’s all-around handyman and designated little person.

Valentina is three days short of her 16th birthday and Parnassus is getting desperate. The devil has been popping up to taunt the old man but eventually offers a new wager – the first one to gather five souls wins, with Valentina’s soul being the prize.

The troupe comes across a man hanging from Blackfriar’s Bridge in London with strange symbols written on his forehead. They rescue him despite the misgivings of Parnassus and Percy, only to discover he has no memory of who he is. Using arcane means, Parnassus discovers his name is Tony and that he once worked for a children’s charity.

The travelling show has not had many paying customers but Tony’s ideas to modernize the production and going to more upscale locations pays off. Doing so helps to bring in several people to be given a choice between doing the right thing and the easy thing – between the high road and the low road. This is done by entering Parnassus’ magic mirror, behind which is a fantasy landscape determined by the imagination of the person entering it. Inside the mirror, even the appearance of people changes. However, the clock is ticking and the devil is a persuasive man. Can Parnassus and Tony save Valentina by collecting five souls before time runs out?

Gilliam never fails to amaze. His movies are visual symphonies of the imagination, full of wonder and visual style. His storytelling can be all over the map, but if you are willing to let the film wash over you and absorb you, the sins of the filmmaker can be overcome.

One of the conceits of the tale is that those who enter the mirror must face a choice and indeed Gilliam had to face one of his own. Halfway through filming (with all of the exterior London scenes shot), his star Heath Ledger tragically passed away. Gilliam could either completely scrap the film (which he did once before with The Man Who Killed Don Quixote which ironically enough he is putting on film once again with cameras rolling this spring) or rewrite the script entirely. He and longtime writing partner Charles McKeown came up with the brilliant idea of changing the appearance of Tony inside the Imaginarium. Depp, Law and Farrell, all friends of Ledger, answered the call and would each play a different aspect of Tony inside various scenes in the mirror. Gilliam doesn’t bother to explain it other than with a few puzzled looks on the part of the actor playing Tony at the moment, and it works marvelously.

Ledger was on a roll after his career-making work as the Joker in The Dark Knight and this would have been, I suspect, another triumph for him had he lived. In his truncated role he is marvelous, playing a man with a great number of skeletons in his closet but with a great deal of charm. While Tony isn’t a villain per se, there is a villain inside him and while some might compare the part to the Joker, the two roles are quite different.

Plummer might be easy to overlook as Parnassus but that would be a mistake. The veteran actor turns in a marvelous performance as the tormented milleniumarian (is that even a word?) who salves his torment with drink. Garfield and Cole are very attractive in non-standard ways; I liked Garfield a great deal and with a bit of luck he could have a nice career ahead of him.

I was surprised by how well Troyer did here. Recently he has mostly been known for his appearances on VH1 reality shows that have shown him in a less than flattering light, but he does the best work of his career here. I hope that he gets some more roles of this kind after this. I’d also like to point out that Tom Waits makes a lovely Beelzebub (he has assumed the role in music videos for his own songs in the past). I’ve always been a big Tom Waits fan and any excuse to see him in a movie is all right by me.

The look of the film is rather rundown and grimy, what the Brits might call “a bit dodgy” which befits the disreputable Doctor himself. There is an almost Victorian feel to the show and the Imaginarium which, while not new to film, at least has a striking visual element all its own.

This won’t be remembered as a testament to Heath Ledger’s sadly short career (The Dark Knight will be) but this is a terrific film on its own merits. Morality plays, which this certainly is, are not as common now as they used to be, but in these shady times we could use more of them. When times are hard, the devil holds sway and we can use a Doctor Parnassus to show us the way to the high road.

REASONS TO GO: Terry Gilliam seems incapable of making an uninteresting film. Fine performances by Ledger, Plummer, Waits, Garfield and – surprise! – Troyer. Imaginative images abound in this film.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes the visuals are too overwhelming. A definite Eww! factor when the supposedly 16-year-old Valentina has sex with a much older man.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images, depictions of teen smoking and some sensuality. Might be a little much for younger kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Depp, Law and Farrell donated the money they made from the movie to Ledger’s daughter Matilda so that she may be secure in her economic future.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely one to see in a theater if you can find one showing it. It is certainly worth the effort to seek it out.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Stardust