Snow White and the Huntsman – Review

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)  

Directed by Rupert Sanders. Starring Kristen StewartChris HemsworthCharlize TheronSam ClaflinIan McShaneBob HoskinsRay WinstoneNick FrostEddie MarsanToby JonesBrian Gleeson.

Fairy tales and children stories are not what they used to be: my memories of Snow White was one of a lovely princess whistling in a forest surround by colourful birds, while the seven dwarfs were happily singing on their way back home. At the time the biggest question of was “will they wash their hands before dinner?”. Well, fair enough, 75 years have passed since the famous Disney version (and obviously over 20 other screen adaptations, including countless pornographic versions, which obviously I’m not going into). But young modern audience is used to much stronger stuff than singing birds, soap bubbles (though arguably the old witch in the Disney version gave nightmares to many at the time, and probably still does). This is a much darker re-invention of the story for the Twilight and Harry Potter crowd (not just in its colour palette but generally in its sensibility veering more towards horror than a fairy tale) and of  course with some Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones added the mix. The title itself might be a little bit misleading and possibly even prevent much of the older audience, who would potentially quite like this adventure like this, from thinking this might be for them.

We shouldn’t forget that after all the original  Snow White story had some undercurrent grim and dark tones to it, so in a way this version is almost going back to its roots.

Coming into this quite fresh, and expecting to find another horrible Red Riding Hood disaster, I was surprised by visual spectacle and the genuine inventiveness at display in SWATH (which is how Snow White and the Huntsmanis known on twitter). The director of Rupert Sanders comes from the world of commercials and that really shows, both in a good and bad way: on one hand the look of the film is actually very very good, in fact better than any of the Twilight movies, or the latest Harry Potter instalments I must say. The special effects too are seamlessly integrated in the action, and kudos to the film makers for deciding against yet another 3D post-convertion. However the other side of the director’s commercial background shows up in the film’s very patchy nature. At times it really seems to be made up by a series of scenes stringed together (well, it probably was) without a real sense of drama. Characters come in and out of the story, but none of them has any depth. There is obviously the usual love triangle at play here, which is now inescapable in our post-twilight culture. In one corner the Huntsman from the title, in the other Prince William (no, not that one), but the relationship is never really explored in any depth, in fact it’s hardly even touched on: it’s just there and we are supposed to take it for granted. What do those 2 men think of each other? And what does she think of them? And why didn’t the prince’s first kiss resuscitate Snow White? Did I miss something? It’s all a bit confusing… But then again, it might all become a lot clearer in the obligatory sequel (teased by the half-satisfying ending)

But does any of that matter? Well, only to a degree. Despite its obvious weaknesses from a dramatic point of view and being completely devoid of humour, the film still manages to be a sumptuous imaginative feast for the eye and an exciting and arresting action romp… It’s clearly derivative from all sorts of other movies made before, but it’s entertaining and inventive enough… if only somebody had remembered to tell a proper story too.

Charlize Theron is clearly having the time of her life playing the evil godmother/queen/witch. She camps it up as much as she possibly can and after all, if you’re hoping to get away with lines like “mirror mirror on the wall who’s the fairer of them all“, this is probably the only way to do it (… and by the way, despite of what the mirror says, my answer will always be “Charlize Charlize!!!!”). In fact she does such a fine job  that in the end you almost don’t want her to be defeated.

And finally the seven dwarves who come so late into the film that by the time they show up I had completely forgotten they should have been in at all. The CGI wizardry here is something to marvel at, as recognisable faces of well-known actors are somehow morphed onto bodies of actual small people. It is absolutely seamless and quite disconcerting (and a little bit unfair for real small people actually… Is this going to be the end of  their career as actors? It feels a bit wrong… Almost like having white people turned black by CGI). But however spectacular their appearances are, it doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re all quite interchangeable with each other and pretty soul-less. In fact there was a lot more characterisation in the Disney animated version from 70 years ago that in this one.

But hey, let’s take the film for what it is and not for what it could have been. It is flawed, but in the end both look and style and the sheer inventiveness and the detailed recreations save the day and the film delivers more than the actual title promises.

7/10 (with some reservations)

Moonrise Kingdom – Review

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) –

Directed by Wes Anderson. Starring Jared GilmanKara HaywardEdward NortonBruce WillisBill MurrayTilda SwintonJason SchwartzmanFrances McDormandHarvey Keitel.

This film has got so many of all those Wes Anderson’s trademarks that it could easily become a fan’s favourite: the strange magical feel, the deadpan humour (almost Airplane! slapstick) mixed with an underlying sadness and melancholia, those classic sideways tracking shots across the sets, the reddish/sepia colour palette, Bill Murray, the quirky music… This could be nobody else’s work, but Wes Anderson’s!

And yet, at the same time, you may argue, we’ve seen it all before. Not only there’s a strange feeling of Déjà vu here permeating Moonrise Kingdom, but also the inconclusive, weightless and wobbly storytelling and the stock-characters this time feel even more exposed than they usually are. Maybe because the central story about 2 young kids who run away from home to find each other and fall in love, is so heartfelt and sweet that it almost feels out of tune with the cartoony nature of the world around them. I really wanted to fall in love for them, but everything around made me more and more aware of the trappings of such film-making style.

I’m not even suggesting that the cast is not great, because it is: Bill Murray plays slightly against his likeable self, Bruce Willis is as sweet as he’s rarely been before, Ed Norton‘s performance too is perfectly pitched and rather charming… And yet despite making this a great ensemble cast, each of them actually pulls the film in a different direction and eventually they add very little to the mix. For example, did we really need Harvey Keitels character in this film? Could Tilda Swinton be anymore two-dimensional?

This is obviously an idealised vision of adolescent relationships, where love is honest, pure, simple, uncompromising, and it is probably the best part of the Moonrise Kingdom. And yet, the quirky style, the overloaded music (really too much, too loud and too intrusive in my view. There is never a moment of silence in this film. I really despised it, I’m afraid), the over-the-top secondary characters, all enhance this feeling of hyper-reality which somehow prevents you from fully engage with the film. But then again, as I said, this is a Wes Anderson’s movie and his fans will certainly love it… I’m not so sure about the casual viewer.

As far as I am concerned, I liked it, I’m happy I saw it, I appreciated its technical skills, its meticulous look,  its quirky humour (this is one of those films that leaves a smile on your face throughout its entire length as opposed to induce out-loud laughs) but in the end it is all a bit too indulgent, slightly hollow, a bit up its own self, and in the end, it just left me a bit cold. And for a film that’s all about pure feelings and childhood, that’s probably not a great sign.


E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial – 30th anniversary Review

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) 

Director: Steven Spielberg. Cast: Dee WallaceHenry ThomasPeter CoyoteRobert MacNaughtonDrew BarrymoreThomas C. Howell

(OUT ON BLURAY on the 12 NOVEMBER 2012)

(CONTAINS SPOILERS… (though, if you have not seen this film yet, you should really stop wasting time on this silly blog and go and watch it right now!)

As I am writing this, ET is 30 years old (You probably thought it would be more, judging by those wrinkles on his face…). Exactly 30 years ago (on the 26th of May 1982) ET: The Extra Terrestrial was being premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in front of audiences and critics. Little did anyone know that this tiny little film, with a relatively low budget and a cast of unknown was going to become the most successful film in history.It stayed on the top of the chart for 16 weeks in a row and remained among the top 10 films for an astonishing 44 weeks, grossing around $800 millions (and if you adjust it for inflation it well above both Titanic and Avatar).

ET-mania was about to start and take over the world. Never before (and since) an image from a film like the one with a bicycle flying over the moon has been more instantly recognisable (Marilyn’s skirt blowing in the wind might be  just as iconic, but not many people will be able to tell which movie it is from). It eventually became Spielberg’s trade-mark and the logo of his Amblin Entertainment. But before the myth, before the merchandising, and the hundreds of “phone home” spin off commercials, ET is simply a great story and the perfect family film, a rare breed which today seems to apply to Pixar films only. It is a masterfully crafted modern tale which has all those trademarks that today are recognised as Spielberg’s: broken family, kids on bikes, sweeping music, beautiful visual, big emotions, laughs and tears within minutes from each other, flares on a lens, and course great action. This is quintessential Spielberg!

We all know the central plot about an alien left alone on Earth and befriending a child. But it so much more than that. It is obviously a rite of passage, it’s about growing up, and responsibilities. It is a story about the divorce of two parents and a child left alone dealing with it. It’s about family and friends, and what it is we call home. This is Spielberg’s most accomplished film, maybe just because it is his most honest and personal: the director is talking from his own experience as a child of divorced parents, looking for his own voice among his siblings and searching for somebody to talk to and to help him growing up.

The film is sometimes accused (by sniffy narrow-minded people, mainly) of being too sentimental, but the sentimentality in ET comes from being truthful to the kids and to their emotions. It’s never cheap and it’s not as obvious as might think or remember. ET for example is not the classic cute teddy bear, in fact it’s quite the opposite: it’s gross, slimy, really quite disgusting if you think about… and yet the film manages to make us all fall in love with him.

Spielberg gives an honest and authentic depiction of children both in normal and extraordinary situations. This is a man who not only seems to understand children perfectly , but at his heart is a big child himself. And so, when Elliott sees the alien for the first time, after the first moment of terror, what does Spielberg makes him do? He makes him go to his own room to show him his toys. When the older brother Michael steals a car to run away from the police he realises he doesn’t really know the way because “mom always drives me there”.  

These are beautifully observed moments where the kids feel real, from the way they talk, play and generally behave. The film is like a time-capsule of kids in the 80s and yet it works on kids today just as well. These are no actors, these are how kids would really react if an alien came to stay with them!

Spielberg not only directs his children actors like very few directors can (getting some truly astonishing performances from both Henry Thomas and the precocious Drew Barrymore), but he also uses all the tricks in the book to make us feel even closer to them.  And so he decides to shoot three quarter of the film by keeping the camera at ET’s level (which is also the children’s height) thus never showing us a grown-up person right till the final act, when ET’s (apparent) death forces Elliott to grow up.  The mother is the only one “allowed” inside this children’s world and consequently she’s the only one whose face we are allowed to see right from the start. Everybody else, just like in a Tom & Jerry cartoon is filmed from below the waist. And yet the way this device is carried on is never showy, never intrusive, never feels forced on us, nor it’s comic in any way. In fact, never for a single moment we stop wondering “Why can’t I see their faces?”. Each character has his own sound, or his own trademark: a sleeve rolled up along the arm, some key dangling off a belt, a flashlight, a scalp. We know exactly who everybody is, even if we never see their faces, but our attention is so completely focused on the kids and ET that we just don’t even pay notice the others.

It is a true masterpiece in film-making, technically perfect, beautifully staged, designed and edited. And every single element of film-making,  from the cinematography, to the special effects, from the directing to the acting, all come together to, let’s put it blandly, manipulate our emotions so well that it’s impossible to resist. And so, 30 years later , we still fall prey of its spell and there we all are, laughing with it, as ET and Elliott get drunk, or as Gertie shouts when she sees the alien for the first time, or even as ET hides in the cupboard among the stuffed animals and pretends to be one of them to the unsuspecting mother. And then a moment later, we find ourselves crying our eyes out as ET’s conditions slowly deteriorate, or as the kids give him the last goodbye by the spaceship…

I have rarely witnessed such a waterfall of tears in a movie theatre like I did all the times I have seen this is a packed cinema. I must have seen ET more than 10 times at least in a theatre… And yet, it doesn’t matter how many times I have seen it, it still gets me every time: I still cry at Elliott screaming to his lungs “He came to me” while the inert body of the alien lays on that cold medical table as the doctors try to revive him and the tears helplessly roll down little Gertie‘s cheeks. Just looking at the picture here on the left still gives me goose-bumps. My heart still leaps up during that final chase sequence as those bicycles take off into the sunset . And was there ever a more powerful final close-up  as the on the one on Elliott as the spaceship flies back home to the soaring music of John Williams? Ahhh… I was almost forgetting the music.

The score by John Williams is perfectly in tuned with Spielberg’s visuals and it hits all the right notes to make us feel completely helpless at their complete mercy. And there we are, going through every single emotion in the book: excitement, fear, horror, desperation, happiness. Just like in Star Wars it’s hard to imagine how this film could have been so successful without John Williams‘s contribution. Just think about the first 10 minutes of the film, which do not have a single line of dialogue but just rely uniquely on the music. It would be inconceivable for any family blockbuster today (Only Pixar’s Wall-E, which owes a great debt to ET, attempted it).

It is a film made to be experienced together with your kids, your brothers, your sisters, your parents, your loved ones, your friends. It is a film that must experienced, however cheesy this may sound (I’m ready to take the hit!), with your heart more than your brain. Leave your cynicism outside the door and try to learn again how to be a kid.. and if you really can’t, well I’m sorry about you, but then at least just marvel at the film-making skills on display here.

Spielberg has never been so perfect.


Check out other related reviews: Super 8, Raiders of the Lost ArkWar Horse  and the Adventures of Tintin

ET The Extra Terrerstrial is out on the 12 November on AMAZON UK

What to Expect When You’re Expecting – Review

What to Expect When You’re Expecting (2012) 

Director: Kirk Jones. Cast: Cameron DiazJennifer LopezElizabeth BanksChace CrawfordAnna KendrickMatthew MorrisonDennis QuaidChris Rock.

Don’t ask me what possessed me to go and watch this film. In my defence I can tell you that I had seen everything else at my local multiplex and I had 2 hours to spare. Also the cast seemed impressive enough… and, to top it all up, my wife is pregnant, so I thought at least I would fit its target audience just perfectly.

To be completely honest I was expecting (sorry about the pun) something a lot worse: this is one of those average  ensemble comedies where, as always some of the stories and some of the characters are more successful than others but in the end they are so many of them that if you are a parent or preparing to be one,  you’re bound to find a something to like… Other than that, this is all pure middle-class Hollywood, pretty slick,  light-hearted but with enough sweet-and-sour moments to make it feel like it’s actually about something. Obviously at the end of the day it’s all rather forgettable, and it’s actually a great shame, because the acting talent a shown here is impressive (surprisingly even Jennifer Lopez showcases a nuanced performance unlike much we’d seen before) both directing and editing are potentially quite skilled at doing what they do and the few good moments here and there give you a little glimpse of what it could have been.

The main problem is that the film is just not funny enough to be able to be a crowd pleaser and looses itself among the too many subplots, some of which are way off the main subject, to be able to become a classic (the golf cart chase sequence is one of the lowest and unfunny points  and the father group sequences, despite Chris Rock, are just too indulgent, over the top and long).

However having said all this, I must confess, even though I laughed very little, I found myself moved a couple of times: oh dear,  it really must be the hormones (I think they call it sympathetic pregnancy).


The Raid – Review

The Raid (2011) 

Written & Directed by Gareth Evans. Cast Iko UwaisJoe Taslim.

Ok, let me start with a little confession: I am not a huge martial arts fan, I have always been quite indifferent to Bruce Lee,  I can hardly tell the difference between Jet Li and Yuen Biao and to this day I still don’t get all the fuss with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (I know, I know… but hey… nobody is perfect!). However I am a great action-flick-lover, so much so that I able  to bypass this feeling of indifference and still appreciate and enjoy a martial-arts-based action movie, whether it’s karate kid, blade, Hero, 13 Assassins, Ong-bak (especially the first) and even the recent Warrior.

So when I heard that this was “one of the best action/martial arts movie of the last few years” (or so the papers said), I could hardly resist checking it out for myself.

Let’s get this out of the way right from the start, so you’ll know the kind of movie we’re dealing with here: the story is minimal, in fact it doesn’t really matter. The raid is 100 minutes long and has action, fights and shoot-outs for at least 95 of them!! It is an incredible tour de force like no other: 95 minutes of people shooting at each other and fighting with all sorts of weapons, knives, machetes, bare hands… and that’s pretty much it. There’s not a lot of attempt at creating three-dimensional characters, or at giving a back-story. It’s just unrelenting action unravelling in front of your eyes.

You may wonder: doesn’t it get a bit tedious after a while? Well, this is the incredible strength of the raid: not only it gets away with it, but it’s also fascinating. Watching the choreography of these fights is almost like watching a ballet at the opera, or a dance in a theatre. It is mesmerising at best. And once a fight has reached its climax and it’s about to run out of steam, a new one comes along, faster, slicker, more inventive and even more over-the-top than the previous one.

This is unlike anything we’ve seen before. I don’t think I ever remember watching a film which had this insane amount of action, with hardly a moment to breathe. Yes, some of the fights might go on for a little bit too long, but let’s stop picking needles please! It is amazing, full stop.

Welsh director Gareth Evans obviously belongs to the PS3/X-Box age and the film does look like one of those shoot-them up games, where you’re moving from one level to the next as your enemies become more and more dangerous and the amount of violence and blood increases more and more. Even the building itself with its muted colour and its endless claustrophobic and shabby corridors look straight out of a bad dream while its exterior is reminiscent of a digital creation.

But Gareth Evans is not just playing a game here, he has studied his genre inside-out and throughout The Raid you can spot reminders of John Woo (Hard Boiled, of course), Sam Peckinpah, John Carpenter and of course those thousand martial arts movies from Bruce Lee, to Jackie Chan. However Evans is not just another fanboy willing to make a pastiche out his sources (Did you get that, Mr. Tarantino?!), he’s actually able to create his own action-packed, adrenaline-fuelled and pulsating and visceral movie, whipped along by a propulsive score and the deafening drum-roll of automatic fire guns as the pace never lets up leaving no room for humour and irony. He plays it straight and comes up with a real winner.


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