Thursday, 31 May 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

Darker, more adventurous takes on famous fairy tales from The Brothers Grimm to Lewis Carroll have been slowly but surely the trend in our multiplexes in recent years, with more of the same threatening to come. Unsurprisingly it's been something of a mixed bag, sometimes losing the magical quality which made us fall in love with these stories when we were children. Or simply, they're not a patch on the Disney equivalent. Snow White and the Huntsman is the d├ębut feature from British director Rupert Sanders, already risking ridicule for being the second film based on the famous fairytale to grace our cinemas in so many months, after Tarsem Singh's Mirror Mirror gave a luke-warm showing at best.

Whereas Singh opted for a more playful take, with painfully vivid visuals and self aware humour, Sanders' retelling is far more in keeping with the darkness associated with the Grimm Brothers' original fairy-tales even if he does take some extreme liberties with the plot. However much to my surprise, and regardless of my now infamous dislike for its star, the final product strangely works.

Snow White and the Huntsman's prelude pretty much mirrors the original story's own with a much more wicked and fantastical twist on the step-mother's rise to power. When Snow White (Kristen Stewart) escapes the clutches of the Queen (Charlize Theron) she's swept into a beautifully realised world of enchantment and terror featuring all manners of creatures and settings from haunted forests, to angry trolls, to fairies and pixies and yes, even dwarves - we'll get to them in a moment.

Lord knows I haven't been kind to the uncharismatic ball of anti-banter known as Kristen Stewart, since she showed up on our screens in the first Twilight film a few years back. And every interview since I've found her utterly charmless and lacking any kind of endearment. However maybe it was the decent British accent, maybe it was a more commanding, independent role, hell maybe it was just the fact she cracked a genuine smile for once but she was surprisingly likeable in the title role. It was the first time I've seen Stewart come across as quite innocent, selfless and at times even quite charming. This child-like aura she adopted just seemed to work for her. Having said that, through no fault of her own, the film didn't belong to her...

Charlize Theron's wicked Queen Ravenna gave a much more rounded and psychological deconstruction of the character's motives and inner-workings - because villains can't be villains just because they're evil these days. Sure, she's not very nice but there's an underlying sadness and conflict which Theron pulls off in a majestic manner even if there's an element of Christmas panto with the more shouty moments. One can only imagine Angelina Jolie watching and taking a few notes when she gives her Wicked-like telling of Sleeping Beauty's villain Maleficent next year.

Chris Hemsworth was slightly frustrating for me, he's a clearly capable actor but in this he just looked a bit lost, slowly descending into the realms of type casting as his Huntsman was much like his now iconic take of Marvel's Thor. Except with a Scottish accent. Nevertheless his chemistry with Stewart worked without being too cringe worthy and his moments of action were as good as they'd be with a red cape and a hammer fighting alongside Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. Just next time, stretch your talent a bit more mate like you did with Cabin in the Woods.

And then we come to the dwarves. Sanders defies tradition with an unprecedented eight dwarves as oppose to the conventional seven with know and love. Even more curious however was the decision to opt for larger than life and notably un-dwarf like actors to fill the roles. The casting choices however were tremendous and a real highlight of the film featuring Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Ian McShane, Brian Gleeson and Johnny Harris respectively.

Visually it was delightful for fans of films like Lord of the Rings, Willow, Stardust and The Princess Bride. To some degree the plot wasn't a million miles removed from Tim Burton's re-telling of Alice in Wonderland. However with a much more focused script and slightly better, but not entirely perfect pacing. I also must commend Sanders for how he handled the love story element, not forcing it upon the two title characters together for the sake of it which personally speaking would have cheapened the solid foundations of which the story had already laid.

Final Thoughts
Snow White and The Huntsman was a surprise in a few ways. The dark imagery was striking, the shots had a grand vision and the more intimate moments were creepy enough to do the Grimm Brothers proud. It had dwarves played by guys who aren't really dwarves but bloody brilliant British actors. It even had Kristen Stewart in probably her most likeable leading role to date. All this and a captivating performance from Charlize Theron as the wicked queen. Suspend your cynicism and trepidation and you'll find a perfectly enjoyable fantasy adventure full of suspense, imagination and wonder. You're surprised by this review? How you think I feel?


Snow White and the Huntsman is in cinemas everywhere now.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Raid: Redemption

Action movies are a dime a dozen depending on which bargain bin of whatever high street supermarket you happen to saunter into containing whatever 80s actor most likely waiting for his call-up to the next Expendables film. However it's very much been the case, in this blogger's opinion, that truly great action movies have been something of a rarity in recent years. Even the best examples I can pluck from my questionable memory tend to either be superhero films - most recently The Avengers - or really stylish pieces of indie thrillers - most notably Drive and Headhunters. Though the 'action' element is used so sparingly, I wouldn't really class any of them as action films per say in the way you would films like 70s/80s era John Carpenter films, the first Die Hard or even the fabulous Borne films.

Sometimes you just want ballsy no nonsense, intense action with jaw dropping  choreographed fight scenes and an absurdly high body count. Step up The Raid: Redemption, from Welsh director Gareth Evans and the producers of Kung Fu Hustle and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to offer all this and more...

On the surface the story is as relatively straight forward as the tagline on the poster suggests; 20 elite cops storming 30 floors of an apartment building ran by a sinister crime lord and populated by some of the sickest thugs around. As you might expect it all goes horribly wrong as the cops fight for their lives in an unrelenting hell. However as the story slowly develops, you learn all is not quite as it seems and bigger forces are at work behind the scenes, which sets up the film's planned trilogy perfectly.

The film was scattered with fabulous turns from a totally unknown cast for me. Much praise must go to Iko Uwais for his compelling lead, but even more so for his utterly fantastic, no holds barred, martial arts action which gives the audience some of the best fight scenes I've seen in a film in so long. Really, no film I saw last year put as much thought into their characters on screen deaths like The Raid did. Some of it wasn't exactly in good taste, but I'd be lying if I didn't think it was satisfying. Special mention must also go to the villain of the piece played by Ray Sahetapy, he was creepy and left me feeling uneasy after his marvellous introductory scene picking off a bunch of hostages one by one.

It's rare you sit in a cinema and hear the audience go "ooo" or "aww" any time a death comes. Only the Saw franchise has probably conjured such a reaction...or The Human Centipede if you're unfortunate enough to find yourself watching that in the cinema. With The Raid the action is so intense, when it stops for a breather you can't relax because there's this genuine sense of dread and suspense it will start again at any given moment. Though this seemed to add to the enjoyment, especially if you find yourself watching it with a bunch of mates. Such the novelty of seeing such a good example of this flagging genre, I even found myself smiling at the gloriously organised chaos which unfolded.

A few production notes, Evans seemed to channel from such films as Assault on Precinct 13, Die Hard and a lesser extent The Warriors for his visual cues, but also every much conjured the feel of old John Woo films in his pre-Hollywood days. He also gets extra points for not dragging the film out any longer than it needed to be. This was a director who just seemed to get the balance of everything you'd expect from these films right. One of the stand out surprises from the film was learning the fantastic score was written partly by Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park fame.

Final Thoughts
Relentless, dispassionate, stylish, brutal, bloody, wonderful. The Raid is one of those films which eats you up and spits you out again before you're able to full take in what actually happened. It's no nonsense, it doesn't pretend to be anything more than it is, instead of featuring washed up B-Movie actors it features guys you believe could properly kick your ass. Lads, 100 man points for all upon entry to this film. Shame about the already planned US remake...


The Raid: Redemption is in selected cinemas throughout the UK from May 18th 2012