Snow White and the Huntsman

Snow White and the Huntsman is grimmest of them all.  Newcomer Director Rupert Sanders strips down the cotton candy versions of ‘Snow White’ from the Disney classic to this year’s earlier Mirror Mirror, and turns his goth fantasy into a twisted spiraling opus of somber melancholy.  I was intrigued by the idea and swayed by the trailers, but Sanders’ final product has me entirely convinced—he has added some serious flavor to a lacking blockbuster season.

The story keeps things simple: the fair young princess Snow White (Kristen Stewart) is trapped in a castle tower by her evil stepmother Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), the supernatural woman that seduced her royal father into marriage and murdered him just before the union could be consummated.  Ravenna has been cursed with immortality so long as she literally sucks the youth out of young girls.  Her infamous ‘mirror on the wall’ informs her that her stepdaughter prisoner has reached an age in which she out-beautifies her and that literally consuming the heart of the princess will win her everlasting immortality.  As quickly as Ravenna can send in her freakish mule of a brother to fetch Snow White from her cell, the princess makes a bold escape from the castle and treks out through the Dark Forest.

Ravenna, completely in a rage, barters with a huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to track and retrieve Snow White in exchange for the revival of his dead wife.  So the booze-smitten tracker heads off to find the princess and of course does so, but he is ultimately swayed by her purity and quest to take down the evil Queen.

At this point, if you think you know the story, you probably do.  Many of the familiar plot lines converge at one point or another, until Snow White dons armor and a sword to do literal battle against Ravenna.  Until then we get the seven dwarfs as you’ve never seen them before.  We get the poisoned apple, love’s true kiss, and so on and so forth.  But Mr. Sanders creates such a devilishly lavish spectacle that I became completely lost in the fantasy world, so gorgeous and lushly shot.  I began thinking he might be a young protege of Guillermo del Toro who would most certainly be grinning throughout Sanders’ directorial debut.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few speed bumps, such as a saggy midsection that drags and a lead performance by Kristen Stewart that shouts of too much Twilight and not enough of a departure for her.  Perhaps she is completely outshined by the supporting cast—Hemsworth, the dwarfs, and especially Theron literally chew up the screen, gargle, and spit it back out.  So I question whether or not any leading actress could have competed in an arena such as this where the supporting characters are so much more interesting.  Stewart isn’t all bad, but she doesn’t have much to do other than squirm, stand aghast, and look somber.  I half expected Edward to jump out of the bushes at any moment.

Part of Stewart’s problem may be that the film suffers mostly from the lack of a real romance between Snow White and the huntsman, because other than a dismal smooch, they don’t seem to have any romantic interest in each other.  That lacking arc more than likely keeps the film from greatness because there’s no rooting passion between the two that would make their battles and sacrifices all the more impacting.  I digress.  I’m kicking pebbles around when Sanders’ film clearly sits atop a firm cliff of imagination and excitement.  It’s because the film just barely misses greatness that I can’t seem to wonder why he went 80 percent of the way and stopped there.

As a film of tremendous atmosphere, lush visuals, startling creatures, impressive art direction, and a bloodthirsty performance from Theron—Snow White and the Huntsman is among the fairest summer tentpoles and deserves to be seen on the big screen.

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The Hunger Games

This box office jaggernaut from another world has dulled Bella Swan’s newfound fangs, effectively pulverizing teenage angst and sketchy expectations to deliver a stateside phenomenon that can already be touted as 2012’s greatest success story at the movies.  Young teenage Katniss Everdeen’s fight to death has resonated with audiences in such a way that approaching the film with a critical eye at this point in the game feels a bit futile.

Based on Suzanne Collins’ immensely popular novel (the first in a trilogy), The Hunger Games catches us up in a nation known as Panem, a dystopian future arisen after the fall of commonplace civilization.  Human communities have been divided up into 12 districts that supply varying necessities for enduring survival.  Young Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), a skilled teenage archer, looks after her distant mother and helpless little sister, Prim by hunting for game (illegally) in the woods with her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

Gale and Katniss, unknowing lovebirds, ponder the idea of a life outside of a government oppressed society, but their conversation becomes interrupted as the community must gather for the annual reaping where two children (one boy, one girl) between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected to compete in a nationally televised fight to the death.  The kids’ names are thrown into a large bowl where they are drawn by a froofy hostess looking like the perfect companion to Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka.  The hostess is Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks) representing Panem authority for District 12.

Despite Katniss’ attempts to assuage her little sister’s fears of being selected for the games, silence rips through the crowd as Prim Everdeen’s name is drawn.  Katniss lunges forward to volunteer in her horrified sister’s place.  A second name, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), is chosen for the boys.  Katniss and Peeta have a shared past and rooted memories of their last interaction.  This adds to the drama of the two characters training together as partnered combatants that will eventually be forced to kill each other in a hostile arena.

A former Hunger Games champion, the drunken Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) is tasked with training the District 12 contenders.  In his limited instruction, he encourages his duo to earn the admiration of the crowd as well as wealthy sponsors that will provide assistance via gifts in the actual games.  The training and lavish experience of the capitol comprise the film’s first half leading up to Peeta and Katniss being set loose on the battlefield.

Little information is given about the status of Panem, the history of the games, and the outlook of future society.  For non-readers of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, the audience gets dropped into the world of Katniss Everdeen without any background knowledge to go on.  In some ways I appreciated this approach, and in other ways I didn’t.  The Hunger Games was always going to be a difficult novel to adapt since most of the story is comprised of Katniss’ internal thought.  That simply can’t translate well onscreen, but considering the obstacle, Director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) has delivered a satisfactory young-adult thriller hinging on Jennifer Lawrence’s commanding portrayal of Katniss.

It would almost be impossible to expect an excessively grim take on the story since the novel caters to a younger crowd and a rating of PG-13 was inevitable.  That, of course, holds the film adaptation back from illuminating the horror of the plot, as well as the violence which comes along with it.  Instead the film sidesteps graphic depictions of children murdering children, dulling the violence down, and steering us into Katniss’ human journey to protect her family.

Generally speaking the film is actually rather alluring and suspenseful despite the fact that this material has been played out before.  Battle Royale, The Running Man, and even Gladiator have all focused on government-sanctioned battles to the death for populous entertainment.  Hunger Games never sets its sights too high as far as examining a culture that adopts such moral imbalance as to let the government oppress such horrors on children.  You won’t believe a word or image of this science-fiction world that Collins has assembled, but you will believe in Katniss’ struggle to survive it.  The allegory here is that we already live in a mass media culture consumed by reality television giving us open doors to human misery.  The madness will likely stop short of killing for ratings and circus costumes as ‘common’ wardrobe.  At least I can only hope so.

But I must go back to Jennifer Lawrence who delivers remarkably in the lead role.  Of course all of the hoopla has been made about what a talent she is after her Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone and her blockbuster status as the new Mystique from X-Men: First Class.  Strong female heroines come along once in a blue moon, especially in franchise form.  Lawrence brings Collins’ character to beaming light.  She’s stubborn, determined, strong, and completely family-centered.  The proposed love triangle between her, Peeta, and Gale takes a backseat to the mission at hand—survive the games, protect your family.  In fact, the movie pays little attention to all the lovey-dovey hokum to the point where even I could have used a little bit more to make that aspect of the story a tad more impacting.  Don’t expect any of the romantic fireworks or steam found in the novel.  Little of it is present here.

That doesn’t lessen this solid adaptation which Collins had a hand in supervising.  The DNA of the novel is very present here.  With impressive talent both behind the camera and in front of it, The Hunger Games is a very entertaining and very human blockbuster franchise in the making that delivers for fans and casual viewers alike. I won’t argue that Ross’s film is particularly great entertainment, but neither was the book.  In meddling with such a violent subject, the story dulls a sharpened blade, but nevertheless lends itself well to some great human drama and noteworthy suspense.  Ignore the questionable CGI dog monsters that get zapped into the arena (that fail to work in both the film and the book), and you should become thoroughly engrossed by The Hunger Games.



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