10 June 2012

SNOW DIRECTION HOME

So we come to the second of 2012's modernised takes on the famous European folk tale of Snow White, this one being Snow White and the Huntsman. I don't imagine anybody needs to have it pointed out at this point that getting one Snow White picture is already a bit unexpected, and getting two is straight-up weird (unless it is some subconscious cultural awareness that this is the 75th anniversary year of Walt Disney's legendary Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), and getting two that are really, amazingly self-conscious attempts to make the source material hipper, and manage to go in two entirely, even diametrically opposite directions is so unlikely that it's half tempting to suspect collusion. Anyway, we had the bouncy, candy-colored family comedy Mirror Mirror in April, with its slapstick and anachronistic wordplay, and now SWatH is all dark and gloomy and violent and Highe Fantasie, trying its absolute best to make you think of The Lord of the Rings and generally failing, and given that the two films basically could not be trying harder to do two completely different and indeed incompatible things, it's sort of amazing that my response to them can be summarised in almost exactly the same way: the absolute no-holds-barred best thing is the costume design (the late Eiko Ishioka's final project then, Colleen Atwood here, doing the florid storybook orgasm thing that she does better than anybody), the second-best thing is the production design, and its physically plausible creation of fairy tale environments (Tom Foden then, Dominic Watkins now), and there's really very little about the story or characters that's even temporarily interesting, though by such a huge margin that you can't even see the first runner-up, the best performance is given by a consistently reliable actress applying the Cliffs Notes version of her movie star persona to the role of the Wicked Queen that makes Snow White's life so endlessly miserable (Julia Roberts was a comically inept villainess before, Charlize Theron is a gorgeous, frozen tyrant now).

The key difference is that Mirror Mirror was directed by Tarsem Singh, whose interest plainly lay in showcasing the costume and sets, and if he occasionally managed to tell a story in all of that, well that was just gravy. SWatH is directed by a fella named Rupert Sanders, who has never made a movie, and whose background in commercials would suggest a similar interest in focusing on style and visuals; but somewhere between that suggestion and the actual finished movie, things got pretty badly screwed up. Maybe it's because Mirror Mirror was a weird, alienating little project that didn't cost very much, and this movie is a big ol' summer tentpole movie, and so it has to have stronger pretensions towards epic, moving, and above all narrative moviemaking. And this is something that Sanders does not seem to be capable of, though calling the film a failure of direction would be wildly unfair to everything that went wrong that the newbie wasn't in control of: a cast assembled with almost no thought about how any of the actors would cohere with one another, and a script by three credited writers who also do not cohere with one another, or with what I expect were many, many script doctors - the patchy dramatic spine and color-by-numbers dialogue imply a certain level of filmmaking-by-committee approach, anyway.

But to the film itself: Once Upon a Time, a king fought an army of shadow warriors on the borders of his realm, and there he rescued a beautiful blonde woman chained up by the evil, magic army, Ravenna (Theron). Within the next 36 hours, the two were married, and the new bride killed her husband, claiming her triumph over all tyrannical men who conquer nations and reduce their women to voiceless victims - I might add that when a movie needs a grand, unadulterated bad guy to work in the broad-strokes operatic register that it's apparently gunning for, giving that bad guy as much nuance and as much legitimate characterisation and sympathetic overtones as Ravenna gets (and perhaps that is just Theron rocking at acting), it does rather get in the way of the nuance-free black-and-white world that the movie is otherwise aiming for, and that's a problem.

At any rate, Ravenna turns the good kingdom into her personal nightmare hellhole, leaving the beautiful princess Snow White (Kristen Stewart) locked in a tower for many long years, until she takes advantage of a lucky chance to escape. The wicked queen has none of it, and tasks her mildewy brother Finn (Sam Spruell) with finding the escaped girl - for Ravenna has just learned from her magic mirror that only by eating Snow White's beating heart can she achieve immortality and eternal youth and beauty - but since Finn can't do anything, he subcontracts with a surly, drunk, widowed huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to go into the Dark Forest from which few men have ever returned alive, to find Snow White and bring her back alive. This happens quickly, but the huntsman is so disgusted by the queen's evil designs that he instead helps Snow White to a neighboring duchy, along with a band of eight dwarfs (yes, eight), played by a Who's Who of British tough guy character actors (and Brendan Gleeson's son, oddly) made short through the magic of 3-D; one wonders what kind of angry conversation Warwick Davis must have had with his agent on this subject.

The plot lurches forward without elegance or any kind of flow, hitting one event after another and not building up any kind of momentum to speak of; outside of Theron, none of the actors make even the smallest impression - Stewart is every bit as wet as when she's playing Twilight's Bella Swan, the girl without emotions, Hemsworth is at least a bit more flexible than he has been in either go-round as Thor, but he's still assigned to do virtually nothing but bark out lines and glower, and the dwarfs are little more than articulate props, leaving men as capable and prominent as Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, and Toby Jones with nothing to do but stare at a not-yet-composited-in Stewart while saying Olde Tyme things. It is all unspeakably boring.

That just leaves the visual splendor; and splendid it is indeed. Atwood can do this sort of thing in her sleep, but Watkins has never done anything remotely like this in a career largely made up of urban thrillers, and he goes nuts with the storybook illustration aesthetic, be it old castles with lots of hallways or terrifying dead forests with psychotropic spores making it all even creepier, or a lush valley that borrows just a hair too freely from Miyazaki Hayao's animated pictures. It's a gloriously-designed movie, basically. And the good news is, that's not any reason to bother seeing it, because Sanders and his very skilled cinematographer, Greig Fraser, have shot the whole thing in a muted, yucky palette of greys, light greys, and mottled brown-greys (I assume their orders came from higher up, but who can say). Because of darker and edgier, you know, and I cannot think of a major film where a gritty aesthetic was less appropriate than here. It's already such a lazy, marketing-driven approach to filmmaking, and when you come to a movie whose single entire appeal is that it looks lush and flashy, and then filth it up like some third-string Christopher Nolan wannabe, then you have really and truly sacrificed all the reason that movie ever had for existing.


4/10

2 comments:

The Caustic Ignostic said...

I think I might have disliked this even more than you, Tim.

http://www.stlmag.com/Blogs/Look-Listen/June-2012/Review-Snow-White-and-The-Huntsman/

a famous historian said...

The screenwriting-by-committee approach extends to the tone, too. It's a gloomy story of cannibalism and witchcraft... no wait, it's about wacky little people!