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Column Fri Jun 01 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman, The Intouchables & For Greater Glory

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Snow White and the Huntsman


It's a story we all know well. Hell, we just had it told to us in movie form mere weeks ago in a breezier version called Mirror Mirror. But I can honestly say, I've never seen the Snow White story told in which the heroine puts on a suit of armor, takes up arms, and starts hacking and stabbing away at people. I kind of like that idea, if only to radically alter to familiar story and make it fresh and unpredictable. In theory.

Snow White and the Huntsman gets a lot right in its bleak, surprisingly dark tale, beginning and ending with just how gorgeous the film looks — both the scenery and the special effects. The tale opens with Snow White as a child and her happy parents, the king and queen of this land. But after the mother dies, the inconsolable father meets Ravenna (Charlize Theron), who tricks the king into marrying her and then turns around and kills the poor man and steals his youth. Much like the other recent version of the evil Queen, Ravenna is literally a soul-sucking witch who absorbs youth and beauty to stay young herself.

For reasons that are never made clear, Ravenna allows Snow White to live, albeit in a tower prison where she grows up to be Kristen Stewart. The Queen is assisted by her albino-looking brother Finn (Sam Spruell), and there are even hints that there may be a somewhat incestuous relationship afoot (I told you this shit got dark). In a moment of desperation when her supply of young beauties to drain grows short, Raveena calls for Snow White. Finn decides to molest Snow White a little (I told you!) before taking her to his sister, and she fights back and escapes in the Dark Forest, which provides Snow White (and us) with quite a few terrifying moments.

The Queen enlists the help of one of the few men in the kingdom who knows how to navigate the forest, a drunken, grieving huntsman played by Chris Hemsworth, whose wife has recently died. As you'd expect, once Hemsworth and Snow White meet, he decides he's on the wrong side of this fight and helps her escape the Queen's men, led by Finn.

Their odyssey provides some of the film's finest and most visually stunning moments, and I'm guessing that has something to do with first-time director (and visual stylist and commercial director) Rupert Sanders, who paints the frame with creatures I've never seen quite like this before that seems to be a combination of familiar animals melded with nature. This vision of a fairyland reminds us that this is not simply a sword-and-armor movie, but an actual fantasy adventure that has shots and ideas which seem lent from The Lord of the Rings films, the Chronicles of Narnia and other works with a sweeping scope.

Of course, the seven dwarves are here, and the biggest surprise there (at least for me) was the caliber of actor they got to play these characters, including the likes of Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Ray Winstone, Ian MacShane and Nick Frost. I had no idea these actors were in this movie, and the visual effects that convert these full-size men into dwarves is incredible and seamless.

But perhaps even more shocking is just how disturbing Snow White and the Huntsman was willing to go at times. The swordplay is largely bloodless, but moments like the king's death are still pretty shocking. More troubling (I don't mean that as a negative, by the way) is when Snow White and the Huntsman stumble upon a small village occupied only by women of various ages wearing scarves across their faces. At first you think it's for modestly, but it is revealed that the woman (and children) have actually self-mutilated their faces to remove their beauty and make them less of a target for the Queen. Holy shit.

Eventually Snow White and her protector gather enough of a following (thanks in large part to discovering that she may have some degree of magic about her) that they are able to form an army and attack the Queen in her castle. Among those in Snow White's guard is her childhood friend William (Sam Claflin), who is the closest thing to a love interest she gets, although some may argue that the Huntsman is more in love with her.

In many ways, I admired Snow White and the Huntsman for its ambition. Add to that a great number of strong performances, and you have yourself a solid summer movie. The reason that isn't completely the case is Stewart, who seems to barely be keeping up with the proceedings, especially in the more action-oriented moments. I happen to be someone who thinks Stewart is a very good actress (if you ignore the Twilight movies), but I think she's the wrong choice for a battle-ready Snow White.

In one scene, she gives what is meant to be a rousing speech to her followers before going into battle, and it just plain falls flat. Christ, she had Thor standing right next to her; she should have let him rally the troops. Stewart fares better in the film's quieter moments or pretty much anytime she isn't carrying a weapon. I get why they cast her; it just doesn't work. And her tepid performance was enough to knock my feelings on the film down a peg or two. But if you find Kristen Stewart too irresistible for words or can somehow overlook her lack of any type of leadership vibe, you may find yourself enjoying this mostly worthy entry in the fantasy genre.


The Intouchables


In case you were ever wondering how the French film world treats its physically challenged characters, you need look no further than The Intouchables, an unusually frank examination of the relationship between a wealthy man named Philippe (Francois Cluzet from Tell No One and French Kiss), who is made a quadriplegic in an accident, and the thuggish Driss (Omar Sy from Micmacs) from the projects who looks after him and in the process learns responsibility and what it is to care for someone. And if that sounds an overly saccharine way of telling this story, you've been watching too many Lifetime movies.

In fact, Driss' foul language and lack of filter between his brain and his mouth are a refreshing change for Philippe, who has had a string of caretakers who have treated him like something to be tip-toed around, something to pity. To him, that is living a life less than human. But Driss coaxes the aristocrat out of his self-imposed shell, even arranging dates for him and not being afraid to be adventurous with his boss when they're driving around together. Conversely, being a part of Philippe's world helps mellow Driss and stops him from going down a path that many of those he grew up with have already gone down. Yes, ladies and gentleman, these two men complete each other in a sense.

As sad as it sounds, we tend to dismiss films these days that feature any kind of disabled character in them, probably because we assume the filmmakers are going to soft-peddle the character in some way. But in The Intouchables, there are very frank discussions about sex and the sometimes unsavory way that Philippe must be cared for. Very few aspects of the characters' lives are spoonfed to us, and the resulting work is a fairly serviceable relationship story with large helpings of both drama and humor. The lead performances keep things from getting sappy, and that's the key to the enjoyability of the film, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


For Greater Glory


Oh my. The one thing no critic in the world will accuse this epic telling of the real-life 1920s Cristero War of Mexico of being is subtle. For Greater Glory taught me the indelible lesson that you should never, ever try to separate the Mexican people from their religion, something the government attempted to do in 1926 and consequently set off a rebellion that had all eyes on Mexico. The film is front loaded with notable actors, all of whom do their best to cut through the paint-by-numbers script that seems as if it took an encyclopedia entry about the war and dumped it into a screenplay program. (Actually it was written by Michael Love.)

It's tough to dismiss a film featuring the likes of Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria, Oscar Isaac, Ruben Blades, Nestor Carbonell, Bruce McGill, Bruce Greenwood, Catalina Sandino Moreno and, god bless him, Peter O'Toole, who's still kicking with the best of them as a priest who is harassed (and eventually martyred) by the military for refusing to shut the doors of his church.

When it should be thinking big, For Greater Glory opts to think small. The relationship between Garcia's General Gorostieta and a boy who joins the rebellion a bit too young takes on a bizarre importance that runs the course of the film. I have no idea if the real General had such a boy-mascot, but the kid feels like a device rather than a real person. And as much as we are told that the rebellion is doing wonders to force the government to reconsider its stance of the church, we never really see this influence manifested in action or results; we're just told it's so, and I guess we believe it.

Without much thought, I could have cut 30 to 40 minutes from this indulgent, well-over-two-hour-long work from first-time director Dean Wright, a visual effects legend who has worked on everything from Titanic to The Lord of the Rings to the Narnia films. He certainly knows how to approximate the feel of a big movie even when nothing about For Greater Glory feels especially epic (outside of its running time). The film works best in its earliest moments, when we see the religious persecution or as Gorostieta is gathering and training his forces. During those sequences, this feels like a story that took place in the real, non-melodramatic world that makes up the second half of this movie.

I'll admit, I have a soft spot for Garcia and can pretty much watch him ham it up in anything. His commitment to playing the General somewhat realistically seems genuine, but every so often he gets that power-mad look in his eyes just before he launches into a speech that almost seems to be directed at the audience as much as the other folks in proximity to him. Despite its historical significance and noble intentions, I can't even come close to recommending this hot-air balloon of a movie. But for you Peter O'Toole completists, well, I feel sorry for you. Best of luck.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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