Friday 29 June 2012


(Michael Mann, 2009) A synopsis makes Public Enemies sound like dozens of other crime movies; it details the efforts of the FBI, and in particular Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, turning a lead role into an eccentric little character part) to capture celebrated Bank Robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp, bringing both his charm and intelligence to the fore) in the American Midwest in the 1930s. At the same time it addresses Dillinger's love for Billie (Marion Cotillard) and touches, with a panoramic view, upon many quirks of American culture and politics in that period. Here is an art film disguised as a Summer blockbuster; an uneven but coldly poetic story of the impossibility of true communication and of outrunning fate dressed up as a '30s gangster picture, all sharp suits and tommy guns. Mann, a genuine visionary, doesn't play with convention, he utterly ignores it, it is an irrelevance. Instead hes after immersion, immediacy, a quicksilver study of the fleeting instant, and he gets that, alright, with his use of digital photography, with his shot-choices and passages of beautifully edited dreamy visual poetry. That DV photography, controversial upon release, is not an issue. Mann is trying to change the way movies look, and yet he is capable of making this a film loaded with amazing tableaux, with breathtaking shots. That those shots are undeniably raw, feel as "real" as fictional feature films ever feel, is a massive part of what makes it all possess such a fresh tone. Mann's style has shifted and loosened in the last few years, with more and more handheld work meaning that his camera is always moving, and much of the beauty lies in this motion, in the fleetingly lovely glories it finds as it glides. That and the fact that there is little or no exposition, that the supporting characters drift in and out without explanation or introduction add to the odd, unique tone. And the fact that the characterisation avoids the usual spoonfeeding beloved of most Hollywood cinema in favour of trusting the audience to find these people themselves. When Dillinger gives Billie a potted summation of his life and likes ("What else do you need to know?"), it is as if Mann is daring the audience to go with him, promising that this film offers more than such reductive dialogue, more than tart, glib "explanations". What it offers is an impressionist trip through a fast and brutal life, with death forever hanging overhead. It is an extended meditation on death, with multiple scenes of one man watching another die. Dillinger and Purvis even discuss it in their brief prison-set exchange. The particulars are undeniably impressive; Dante Spinotti's photography is frequently astounding, Elliot Goldenthal's score mixed superbly with some contemporary standards, and the supporting cast is filled with excellent turns by a variety of great actors, most notably Stephen Graham as Babyface Nelson and Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover. But like all Mann films it is primarily a movie of great moments - like the many action sequences, particularly the nocturnal gun battle at Little Bohemia, the black of night starred with yellow muzzle flashes, the sounds of tommy guns and revolvers thunderous. Or the two sublime scenes of Dillinger in cinemas, watching himself on a wanted poster and in a fictionalised form as played by Clark Gable. Or that perfect ending with Stephen Lang and Marion Cotillard in a small room, when the emotional payload finally hits on three little words: "Bye Bye Blackbird". Or possibly the finest scene of all - Dillinger's sunlit stroll through the "Dillinger Unit" at police headquarters, his glee at pulling it off, at getting away with so much.

Wednesday 27 June 2012


(David Wain, 2012) There's a very old idea at the centre of Wanderlust. Two relatively straight-laced modern city dwellers encounter a bunch of hippies on a Georgia commune ("We prefer 'Intentional Community') and the film finds most of its comedy in the ensuing clash of attitudes and expectations. The city dwellers are George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston). Forced to leave their tiny Manhattan apartment after he loses his job, they eventually end up living on the idyllic commune, Elysium, with the group of eccentrics who are already there. George, initially enthusiastic, finds his attitude shifting when Linda begins to enjoy the lifestyle a bit too much, embracing veganism, the lack of privacy - no doors - and free love. Wain and co-writer/star Ken Marino use a variety of comic approaches to tell ther story, chiefly a quite gentle satire which points in just about every direction, beginning with New York and it's property quirks (a studio apartment is a "micro-loft"), extending through self-medicating middle class housewives when George and Linda have a nightmarish sojourn in Atlanta suburbia staying with George's boorish brother (Marino, who more or less steals the film) and finishing with Elysium's enlightened attitudes to relationships and lifestyles. Funnier is the character comedy. The cast create a parade of memorable comic types, from Marino's bullying asshole, through Justin Theroux as Seth, the smug alpha-male who covets Linda, sleeps in a tree, is a virtuosic flamenco guitarist and lists the technologies of the modern world he thinks people seek to escape as including "VCRs, pagers, fax machines, zip drives", to Alan Alda's acid-damaged commune founder to Joe Lo Truglio as a nudist winemaker who insists on discussing his novel-in-progress with George and a few more jolly freaks. There is often a surreal edge to Wain and Marino's comedy, leavened with an appealing sharpness, most notable in some wicked verbal humour. Rudd plays a big part in this. He can play these roles in his sleep; as an essentially nice but sarcastic hero he can remain likeable and sympathetic even as his hero does awful things. His long monologue into a mirror, trying to psyche himself up for some "free love" with Malin Ackerman's Eve, is a seemingly improvised comic highlight. He and Aniston, both veterans of The Object of My Affection and Friends, have genuine chemistry and compliment one another well in their scenes, even if her character has fewer gags to handle than his. The real weakness here then, as in many comedies, is the narrative itself, which feels frustratingly written-by-committee. The climax, all revelations, ridiculous action scenes and reversals, is by far the worst thing here. The film is a touch ambiguous about how it feels about Elysium; fine in principal, it seems to say, but as with so many other things, messed up by people.

Tuesday 26 June 2012


(Rodrigo Cortés, 2012) There's something appealingly redolent of 1970s filmmaking about Cortés' Red Lights. It is determinedly downbeat and mostly done in a minor key, for one thing, insistent on it's own atmosphere, which is wintery, rainy, full of blurred, grim backgrounds and sad, broken characters. The sustained tone of quiet menace and off-key dislocation grows as the film proceeds to a big, climactic revelation which is no great surprise to a viewer schooled in the M Night Shyamalan brand of paranormal thriller. It is mostly a success, spinning a couple of genuinely tense sequences from it's premise. It follows paranormal debunkers from an American University, Doctors Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Buckley (Cillian Murphy) in the run-up to the great comeback of America's most famous Psychic, the mysterious blind showman Simon Silver (Robert DeNiro) who reads minds, bends spoons and cures the sick onstage. Along the way they expose a few other frauds and hoaxes and Buckley begins a relationship with student Sally (Elisabeth Olsen), while rival Doctor Shackleton (Toby Jones) strives to prove that such phenomena are real. Cortés writes, edits and directs, and his talent is obvious. His film is always good to look at, depends on mood and a couple of old-fashioned edge of the frame occurrences and shock cuts for its big scares, and always feels solidly, earthily textured, from the car Buckley drives Matheson around in to Silver's creepy appointment room in an anonymous building. The narrative is less successful; losing steam midway when it should really be amping up, it is a little too familiar in the way it sets up then delivers jolts and in its plot trajectory toward final showdown and twist. But a strong cast helps make it absorbing; Weaver effortlessly suggests the baggage and anger driving her search for truth, DeNiro gets by on his presence and easy ability to intimidate, and Olsson (in quite a thankless "girlfriend" part) and Jones lend it some more class. But Murphy is the standout, his disturbingly piercing eyes and exhausted, occasionally manic presence compelling us to keep watching as he gets deeper and deeper.

Friday 22 June 2012


(Elliott Lester, 2011) It is perhaps a little surprising that films as utterly generic as Blitz still get made. That may be unfair. While the main plot thread here is unbelievably familiar and dull in genre terms - a gruff, uncompromisingly violent Detective hunts a maniacal serial killer on a cop-killing spree - the proliferation of sub-plots suggest an entirely different, more interesting film. Unfortunately, all they do is suggest. Set in a London captured by director Lester as a grimy, coldly magnificent concrete metropolis - he shoots architecture far more sensitively than he does people - it initially seems like a Jason Statham vehicle-by-numbers. The first scene finds Statham's Detective Brant witness some teen thugs attempting to break into a car outside his flat in the middle of the night. Of course he picks up a hurl - an excuse for the screenplay to pay some tribute to the source novel, by Irish crime author Ken Bruen, as Brant lectures the criminals on hurling being an Irish game mixing "hockey and murder" - and ventures out to inflict some punishment. But Statham, while undoubtedly the lead character, is only given a shade more screen time than the others who crowd the narrative here; Paddy Considine's Detective Nash, who wins Brant's grudging respect as a cop despite being "a poofter", Zawe Ashton's crackhead young PC Falls, Mark Rylance as a newly widowed Police Commander, and of course Aidan Gillen, never less than utterly over the top as the killer, Weiss. Then there are name actors in even smaller parts; Luke Evans as a Detective who gets involved with Falls and David Morrissey as a tabloid hack contacted by the killer. That all makes the film - a snappy 97 minutes - a thoroughly overstuffed bird, struggling to finish it's story lines and sacrificing any depth in, well, all of them. The cop vs killer plotline gets more time than anything else, but even then it feels thin, lacking the emotional weight or even narrative hook which might make it interesting. As it is, Gillen's charismatic hamming and Statham's reliable action-lead brooding make it merely watchable as we wait fortheir ultimate showdown. Considine, one fine monologue aside, is largely wasted along with everybody else. The action scenes are few - this is a thriller, not an action film - but nicely handled, and the whole thing is reassuringly slick and expensive-looking. What it reminded me of was Danny Cannon's forgotten Young Americans; an audition piece, awkwardly grafting American genre cliches onto a British base with questionable results.

Wednesday 20 June 2012


(Maïwenn, 2011) Following the daily operations of the Child Protection Unit (CPU) in Belleville, Paris over a few months, Maïwenn's Polisse is an intense, arresting piece of storytelling that feels far more like the extra-long pilot to a hard-hitting Cop tv show than it does a movie. These policemen and women are exposed to an endless parade of banal human evil and suffering: urbane middle class fathers who rape their daughters but see it as making love, teenage girls whom arrange for their friends to be raped by boys, junkie mothers who kidnap their children from nurseries, Romanian child pickpocket rings, women who have to give up their sons because they have no home or money, teachers who molest students, and on, and on. Most of the cases are horrific, a couple are comic, but all take their toll on the officers. These people are bruised and traumatised though they deal with it as best they can. We see snatches of their difficult home lives; broken marriages, alcoholism, eating disorders. Maïwenn films it all documentary-style, with roving handheld cameras and naturalistic performances and dialogue. The flights of visual poetry are kept to a minimum and even the relationships and personal lives of the cops are only glancingly revealed, save for the relationship between driven, hot-headed cop Fred (Joey Starr) and a photographer documenting the units work (played by the Director herself). That is one of the few story elements - alongside a shock ending - that feels contrived, not taken from the actual lives of the real Parisian CPU. The rest is scrupulously authentic in feel and presentation. The performances are generally strong, with a few melodramatic showdowns perhaps feeling more like improv exercises that have gone too far than the majority of the minor-key, casual conversations we witness. But there is much to like here; the episodic, floating structure makes it continually involving, and there are big laughs, suspense and genuinely moving sequences in this film, which bears it's social realism as lightly as a film with such dark content ever could. Indeed, perhaps the most effecting element is one of the most generic: the relationship between a male-female partnership who plainly love one another but cannot do anything about it, since she is married and pregnant. This is all obvious without being made explicit until a single late instant, and even that is later forgotten. People move on here, as in life.

Monday 18 June 2012


(David Cronenberg, 2012) It is odd to see such a strong directorial personality as that of David Cronenberg overwhelmed by the authorial voice of the material he is adapting, but that is what happens with Cosmopolis. Cronenberg obviously selected the material in part because it resonated with him, and the film does occasionally recall elements from his other work - the association of sex with gleaming technology suggestive of Crash, for instance, the psycho-analytical exchanges recalling A Dangerous Method. But largely it just feels like the work of author Don Delillo. That means it is a series of absolutely dazzling, erudite, funny and provocative verbal riffs, some in the form of dialogue, most actually soliliquays spoken at another character. These riffs mostly occur in the back of Billionaire Packer's (Robert Pattinson) custom stretch limo as he is driven across Manhattan in search of a haircut. That structure makes it necessarily episodic, but doesn't explain why it is somewhat tedious and often silly. Packer is visited by his associates over the course of his day. He discusses financial markets and cyber-security with his underlings, deflects his bodyguard, lets his head of theory (Samantha Morton) philosophise at him, fences with the Poet wife he barely knows, screws his Art Dealer (Juliette Binoche) and one of his security team, mourns the death of a rap star, has a full medical, including a rectal exam, while flirting with an employee, and finally faces the ex-employee who wants him dead (Paul Giamatti). Pattinson is excellent throughout, his billionaire a mess of confused impulses, paranoia and empty yearning who often seems like a child, and other times is as inscrutable and wise as a Buddha. The others get to appear for a single scene, deliver one of Delillo's impossibly clever cultural or social critiques, then shuffle offscreen again. Some of these vignettes are better than others, but they always feel trapped within a funny, hermetically-sealed world; Delillo's dialogue is brilliant, but all these articulate, informed characters speaking in fascinating theories and observations makes them sound samey, and none of them ever really speak like real people. The material sporadically feels horrendously dated - the protests in the streets should feel topical but instead they suggest the pre-9/11 era of the novel - and for all that Cronenberg stages and shoots much of it quite beautifully, it feels thoroughly like a theatrical piece which has been opened out. For all the acting talent here, the characters are mysterious rather than involving, and Packer's odyssey cannot sustain an entire movie, especially once it becomes truly surreal and extreme in the later stages.

Friday 15 June 2012


(Bela Tarr, 2011) What Tarr has proclaimed will be his final film is, at around two and a half hours, short by his standards. But in other ways it is exactly what one would expect from the Hungarian Master: a grim, darkly beautiful portrait of an enigmatic apocalypse slowly claiming the world. It is, first and foremost, a gruelling visceral experience. The lovely black and White cinematography by Fred Kelemen vividly captures the film's single location, an isolated rural farmhouse, home to an ageing father and his daughter. They are given some context by the opening narration which recalls the story of Friedrich Nietzsche and the "Turin Horse" - the German philosopher witnessed a man beating a horse in an Italian street, rushed to the animal and threw his arms around it, then collapsed. Two days later he uttered his final words, then lived for another decade in the care of his sisters; "gently demented". The first image we see after this story is of the old man on a wagon drawn by this horse, foregrounding the association for us. The apocalypse suggested by the film - the decay and collapse of the earth itself - has a universal scope which does recall Nietzsche in some regards, but aside from a lengthy rant against man and how he has destroyed everything by a visiting neighbour, Tarr never makes anything as clear as that. Instead he focuses upon the physical details of his characters lives. They struggle daily against their environment, a horrific wind storm relentlessly buffeting their house, and their routine never varies. The girl dresses her father, for he has a crippled arm. They drink brandy every morning. She draws water from the well. She boils potatoes and they eat one each, with their hands. They muck out the stable. He chops wood. They take turns looking through the window. They never converse except briefly about practicalities. They sleep. But daily their life worsens. The woodworm the father is used to hearing have gone, the first suggestion of a change in the physical, natural world. The horse refuses to move, or to eat. Then the well runs dry. When they try to flee, they are prevented from doing so for an unknown reason. Then the lamps won't light, and the darkness itself will not lift. Tarr captures all of this in 30 or so long takes, his camera moving slowly and elegantly, following this man and girl around in the howling wind, finding their faces lit in the gloom. They are largely stoical about the situation until a couple of haunting, hopeless shots of the girl's face late on. Like all of Tarr's work, this film has its own unique rhythm, which becomes hypnotic once you have surrendered to it. Mihály Vig's music soundtracks the cameras long slow zooms and pans around the farmhouse, until the physical reality of the lives it depicts becomes almost overwhelming in its intensity. This seems to be about death, the world shutting down stage by stage, day by day, but the suggestions of end of days and references to Nietzsche seem to widen it's scope somewhat(at one point some Gypsies appear and give the girl a book, talking of taking herto America with them, and the book also recalls Nietzsche's writing) even while it's determined focus upon the quotidian suggest it may actually be about the suffering inherent in the toil of a rural, earthy life. Whatever it's meaning and themes - and ambiguity is a big part of Tarr's peculiar appeal - it is an oddly thrilling piece of cinema. Lovely and gripping in an eccentric way, it left me exhausted and troubled.

Wednesday 13 June 2012


(Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2005) By the time they came to make The Child, Belgian writer-director brothers the Dardennes had honed their method to a fine edge. After a couple of decades making documentaries they had found success with The Promise in 1996 and perfected the techniques they used there over another two realist dramas before tackling The Child.  Those techniques are remarkably consistent and tremendously effective. They shoot using natural, available light, with handheld cameras and usually in long takes. There is no music. Their stories are all set in the grim, post-industrial city of Seraing in Liege, Belgium. Those stories feel like fables; they are generally beautifully simple, with a few principle characters and one plot line. And yet they can be transcendent in effect. They deal, on the surface at least, with economic hardship, petty crime and everyday moral dilemmas. Yet they address themes of spirituality and belief, hope and redemption. The acting is naturalistic, and the brothers block the action and position their camera in such a way as to make themselves wholly invisible, their fictional world entirely absorbing.  Their films, then, are powerful, moving, and even, in the case of moments in The Child, incredibly gripping. It follows Bruno (Jérémie Renier) and Sonia (Déborah François), a young couple, barely surviving on welfare and the proceeds of Bruno's petty crime in the aftermath of the birth of their first child, Jimmy. Bruno, an irresponsible, selfish manchild, seems unmoved by the appearance of the baby, distracted by panhandling, organising burglaries and sleeping rough. Quickly he decides to sell the child for adoption. When Sonia reacts with horror, he has to buy the baby back, finds himself in debt to gangsters and without his girlfriend. From there, Bruno only gets more desperate. Renier and François both underplay it, giving their relationship an unforced, plain feel which is believable throughout. Renier is marvellous, the camera trained on him for most of the running time, and though his actions are monstrous, the audience wills him towards redemption and maturity. This is partly due to the Dardennes incredible ability to observe with a complete neutrality - their camera is cold and utterly without judgement - but also down to Renier's natural likeable quality and onscreen charisma. His journey is at times agonising - a couple of gruelling bus rides out to run-down suburbs are weighted with dread - and finally suspenseful, when a crime he has arranged goes wrong. The Dardennes' method seems to work for any kind of story - it always feels truthful and unvarnished, and only adds a layer or immediacy to the peril Bruno finds himself struggling with here. Yet it is also ideal for finding the emotion in the ambiguity of the ending and suggesting a bit more depth than is immediately apparent in any synopsis.  This may be the tale of a young man discovering his own humanity, or it may simply be about a petty criminal feeling sorry for himself. Part of the brilliance of these filmmakers is that they let the viewer decide.

Monday 4 June 2012


(Scott McGehee & David Siegel, 2009)

Starting with an attractive young couple discussing an important decision they must make while standing in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge on July 4th, Uncertainty seems rather too high-concept for it's own good.
The couple (Joseph Gordon Levitt and Lynn Collins) toss a coin to decide whether to spend their day in Manhattan or Brooklyn, then each runs to a different end of the bridge, where they are reunited with one another and two different versions of the same couple enjoy two different stories.
Those stories are colour-coded green and yellow in title cards and by the clothing the characters wear. One is a paranoid chase thriller, kicked off by the phone they discover in the back of a cab, leading gunmen and threatening strangers to track them across Chinatown and Manhattan. The other is a family drama, as they return to the Brooklyn home of the girls parents for a 4th of July dinner, and they struggle with the secret they are keeping - her pregnancy.
It plays more smoothly and easily than it sounds, even if it does take perhaps 45 minutes before the film has fallen into a nice rhythm, cutting back and forth naturally between the twin stories and playing them off each other for resonances and echoes. The thriller story is necessarily silly but it's momentum is so relentless that that is easy to ignore, and, shot with handheld cameras in New York in Summer, it is a great film of that city, dancing across rooftops and through parking garages and sidestreets, casually capturing the way the subway feels and the streets bustle in a way many films miss entirely.
The family drama is more subtle, more interesting and perhaps a better fit for these directors, whose previous work has generally leaned more towards arthouse than multiplex. The history and complex relationships in the family are patiently sketched in, naturalistically, and through dialogue and nuance - informed by a few details revealed in the other story - and a plotline about a stray dog somewhat leadenly emphasises the lead couples' issues with sudden parenthood. The leads are both good; portraying a realistically normal young couple in love but unsure of their future, they have chemistry and feel right together, and the improvised dialogue never feels improvised, instead seeming tentative and true to life.
In the thriller story they are in over their heads and react with desperation and fear but also ingenuity, until they realise how overmatched they are.
The drama is more sensitive to the currents in their relationship, the glances and facial expressions of two people intent upon the feelings of one another. The two stories intersect - sort of - as they watch fireworks over the city in both realities and later sleep together. Each story is left partially unresolved, awaiting a decision - in a film about choice, this is either very clever or extremely frustrating.
It is, doubtless, an odd film. Arty in some ways, accessible in others, it never quite works despite the appeal of the cast and Rain Li's pin-sharp cinematography. Strangely, for a film so determinedly split in its personality, you get the feeling it never quite knows exactly what it wants to be in either personality.

Saturday 2 June 2012


(Ridley Scott, 2012)

There are lots of little things - and a few very big things - to admire about Prometheus.
Admire yes, love no.
This is a chilly, downbeat film, it's look dominated by the textures of steel and rock, and love just slides off it's beautiful surface. And it is beautiful. Ridley Scott, for all his flaws as a storyteller, has always had an outstanding ability as a shotmaker, and this film is at times absurdly beautiful, giving him the time and space to create a future world and fill in it's many crucial gee-whizz details. That stuff - the look and design of the ship, the spacesuits, the weaponry and clothing, the technology the characters use casually - is important in science fiction and Scott excels at it.
All of that, together with a patient, unembarrassed way with exposition, makes the first hour or so of Prometheus an involving experience. We witness two archaeologists find some cave paintings on the Isle of Skye which contain a pictogram matching ones they have found from other ancient civilisations across the globe. Then the film jumps forward a few years as they awaken from hypersleep as their ship - with a crew of scientists, doctors and corporate security - arrives at the planet the pictograms mapped for them. They are searching for the origins of life on earth and hoping for answers. What they find is something very different.
These passages suggest this will be a piece of idea-driven, relatively adult sci-fi. And partly, it is. But as it develops it introduces some weak material about Dr Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her faith, before finally succumbing to it's basest commercial instincts and transforming into a horror film of sorts, with elements of body horror, tentacles in dark corridors and other overly-predictable genre beats you knew were coming.
They are well-mounted as these things go - Scott is too accomplished and experienced a director to mess up those moments - but all the potential and interesting questions of the first act are squandered in the rush for spectacle and excitement. Scott's recent films have all suffered from similar problems - he seems determined to make audience-pleasing movies, no matter how rote and tired that might make them in their dull following of established structures and techniques to assure a narrative is resolved. That's is only exaggerated in a film which starts out seeming distinctive and unusual.
But there are those little things to admire. The cast is splendid; Michael Fassbender steals the film as David, the enigmatic, somewhat smug robot with his own agenda, but Rapace is good in the lead (despite being saddled with a truly awful scene where she weeps over her own ability to bear children), Idris Elba and Charlize Theron do well with underwritten, one-dimensional roles, and English character actors Rafe Spall and Sean Harris are great as the only crew members who react normally (ie. with stark, acknowledged terror) to what they find in the alien pyramid.
Then there is a hammy but effective Guy Pearce, buried under make-up as the Billionaire funding the mission, in what is a surprisingly negative portrayal of a Rupert Murdoch type in a film produced by Murdoch's 20th Century Fox.
The design of the alien structures and creatures is front and centre and though it feels a little second-hand, it mostly works within the look of the film.
The film resonates with a few isolated scenes; Rapace's grisly, visceral self-administered surgery is probably the best passage throughout, though the scenes of Fassbender alone on the ship, watching and imitating Lawrence of Arabia, playing basketball and studying languages, run it close.
The closing scenes, which link with the Alien films and suggest a direct sequel to this film, are less successful. For all its early ambition and overstuffed insistence on a few big ideas, Prometheus isn't quite thrilling or interesting enough to warrant a sequel on it's own merits. But it works as a solid piece of grown-up genre entertainment. Perhaps hoping for anymore in such an expensive mass-market product was unrealistic. If only that first hour or so hadn't suggested that it could be something more..

Friday 1 June 2012


(Rupert Sanders, 2012)

Considering the whole thing is based on the faulty premise that Kristin Stewart is more beautiful than Charlize Theron, Snow White And The Huntsman isn't half bad.
Oh, it tries to do far too much, turning the Snow White story into a Lord of the Rings-style mini-Epic, full of battles, trolls, witches and rugged landscapes, but its exceptional visual beauty is almost enough to make it worthwhile. Debutant feature director Rupert Sanders has done some stunning work in advertising, and he has the visual chops that suggest he may someday be capable of a great movie. But this isn't it.
His sure, occasionally inspired direction, together with the brilliant, beautiful production design, elevate some scenes to another level. These scenes are generally centred around the quieter moments of discovery, and new worlds revealed; a lakeside village glimpsed through mist, the dark forest aggressively attacking an interloper, and the fairies retreat coming alive at Snow White's approach.
The story is familiar, even if a few details have been altered the better to suit a teen audience. Mainly that means beefing up the role of the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, easily charming and at home with all the action) while making Snow White (Kristin Stewart, slightly miscast but making do) a more assertively heroic figure. Charlize Theron plainly enjoys the chance to chew some scenery as a wicked Queen, and the gallery of Brits playing the dwarves (Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones etc) bring some welcome humour to what is largely a grim, angst-ridden experience.
That is partly tonal and partly down to the exuberantly gothic design and the over-abundance of sword battles. Sanders handles the action well - this is a vividly textured and visceral experience throughout - but it all feels a bit predictable and focus-grouped, right down to the climactic rousing speech and final showdown. And there is something missing here where a romance should be - an attraction between hero and heroine is repeatedly suggested but never made explicit, and never quite goes anywhere.
The whole thing feels a little pointless and underwhelming, in fact, for all the time and money that have obviously gone into it. Perhaps it's most interesting aspect is how odd the mix of elements and target markets have made this: it's a battle film, a fairytale, a dark and scary fantasy film aimed squarely at teenaged girls without any romance and with action thrown in for teenaged boys. In short, it's a bit of a mess. Yet consequently, it's never really dull, and is occasionally even quite good.