The Moth Diaries

Can you open the window a little bit?

Much of The Moth Diaries, a film by Mary Harron based upon a novel by Rachel Klein, revolves around the question of whether Lily Cole’s character is a vampire, and we’re (to a certain degree) left to our own analysis in the end.  I wonder whether my recent interaction with Cole has colored my comprehension in some way.  “No,” I think, “she can’t be a vampire.  She’s a really nice person.”

The Moth Diaries follows Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) as she attends a new year at an all-girls boarding school.  She and her roommate, Lucie (Sarah Gadon) are inseparable.  In an early scene involving these two and several friends (played by Valerie Tian, Laurence Hamelin, and Melissa Farman), a sense of foreboding upstages an otherwise garden-variety “teenage girl” conversation, perhaps due to the deliberate wide shots, which allow the viewer to memorize each face and personality, inviting us to figure out which qualities of each girl will lead to her inevitable exeunt from a horror movie.  The first night of the semester goes as usual, but soon, a teacher introduces Rebecca to the new girl, Ernessa (Lily Cole).  Ernessa appears sullen, ignores Rebecca’s greetings, and looks past her to make eye contact with Lucie, who has just gotten out of the shower.

Rebecca bonds with the only male teacher on campus, Mr. Davies (Scott Speedman).  Rebecca’s father was a poet (who later committed suicide and was found by Rebecca), and Davies is a big fan of his work.  Davies is teaching his students Carmilla, the vampire novel by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu, from which Bram Stoker took a heap of inspiration for Dracula.  “There are always three things that show up in a vampire story,” Davies says.  “Sex, blood, and death.”  From here, we can guess what structure the film will take on.

The film loosely adapts two formulas: the Alien school of horror, which first introduces us to the band of main characters, then sees them picked off one by one; and select plot points of Carmilla itself (because Klein/Harron apparently believe a novel written in 1872 is fair game).  But the film deals with these two structures in interesting ways: the supporting cast is trimmed, as you would expect, but we never actually see anyone killed, nor do most of the characters die – some are expelled or kept by their parents from returning to school.  Secondly, the plot of Carmilla doesn’t happen to Rebecca, our protagonist; it happens to Lucie, into whose life we are given very few glimpses.  Rebecca’s obsession with the novel and her trauma regarding her father make her believe that her time at school is becoming a real-life Carmilla story, and because we see the story through her eyes, we begin to believe it with her.  In this way, the answers are never dropped in front of us, regardless of how obvious the film may be with its references.

Is Ernessa a vampire, or is Rebecca losing her mind?  The film, like Carmilla, contains a certain amount of circumspection regarding what’s actually happening in the story.  Le Fanu’s novel concerned a woman’s romantic affair with a female vampire; Harron’s film forgoes even telling us whether the narrator is in her right mind, let alone whether Ernessa is a supernatural creature or not.  The unreliable narrator, however, is a brilliant device in this story, because we are able to examine the clues for ourselves:  Ernessa, when misbehaving, is made to swim laps.  It appears she’s afraid of water and cannot swim.  She never eats.  When the other girls smoke pot, she refuses to be near the smoke.  Rebecca walks in on Ernessa and Lucie having sex, but from Rebecca’s angle, Ernessa appears to be biting Lucie’s neck.  Another time, Rebecca sees Ernessa walking the roof of the school and passing through a closed window.  Or was the window open?  These scenes are shot so well that we truly cannot be sure.

The story is more about suicide than it is about vampires, so its focus remains on its main character.  Rebecca is bursting with melancholy, desperate for the attention of her best friend, and frequently muses upon her father’s suicide.  Why did he do it?  Was it something she did?  Did it hurt?  How is she supposed to recover from it?  She even carries around a razorblade, the film’s one true attempt at symbolism, which actually works in a film with so many fairy-story attributes.  The threat of Rebecca’s own suicide seems sincere.

The performances of Sarah Bolger and Lily Cole are the linchpins by which this film is made or broken, and both deliver.  Bolger allows us to feel Rebecca’s sadness and confusion, and even though The Moth Diaries is billed as a vampire story, we honestly want Rebecca to reunite with Lucie and have a normal year at school.  A scene in which Rebecca professes her need for Lucie’s friendship, despite the way the latter has treated her, is rife with emotion and feels incredibly genuine.  Cole manages a performance that can be interpreted in two ways: that of a stoic, manipulative succubus, or a timid misfit whose only modus operandi for making friends is to inadvertently steal them from other people.  All of this is present in Cole’s Ernessa, and the few scenes in which she appears as a “vampire” (floating through the air, causing a storm of blood to shower the library while taunting Rebecca into killing herself) are wisely contained within Rebecca’s dreams or visions.

Ingeniously, even the ending, which seems “happy” at face value, can drastically change in tone depending on whether or not you think Ernessa was really a vampire.  Rebecca finds Ernessa’s diary, which states she may have died at this very school when it was a hotel back in 1907.  Using this evidence along with her own suspicions, she breaks into the school’s basement and finds Ernessa sleeping in her own trunk (a “coffin” of sorts?).  She then makes a decision that will have a lasting impact on the school and everyone she knows, a decision she claims has “freed” the two of them.

The Moth Diaries is a good story about a girl finding strength.  Aside from the use of the shopworn “perverted male teacher” trope, the film hits all the right notes.  I don’t believe I have ever seen a film in which the intention of making the audience “interpret” the film’s action actually worked, perhaps because most of those films also lack a real ending, whereas this one sees Rebecca all the way to the fresh air she severely needs.  I felt a good breath of it once the credits rolled.

The Moth Diaries (2012); based on the novel by Rachel Klein; directed by Mary Harron; starring Sarah Bolger and Lily Cole.

Detachment

Always absorbing everything everywhere all the time

I was a substitute teacher for two years. If that wasn’t enough of a reason for me to be treated for serial masochism, consider this: I was a substitute teacher at three schools, and two of them were the elementary school and the high school that I attended as a student. The third, situated in a slightly better-off nook of the rural fringe (at least until Hurricane Irene) had been my high school’s perennial rival. My old school district still employed teachers with whom I’d taken classes as a child; now we were colleagues. Nobody at the Other School cared for me much.

Henry Barthes, played by Adrien Brody in Tony Kaye’s Detachment, reflects the characteristics I tried to embody during my stint as a sub — namely, a genuine empathy for students and a desire to put time and care into teaching them something that would stick. Barthes, despite working a job in which everything is temporary — school, class, relationships with coworkers, bonds with students — takes his duties seriously and delivers lessons (which seem to be completely of his own invention, not from any curriculum I might recognize) with vigor. When Ms. Madison (Christina Hendricks), a fellow teacher, asks why he doesn’t become a real teacher, Barthes responds, “I teach every day. What do you mean?”

Detachment is an engrossing, occasionally heavy-handed (mainly when it slaps us with quotes from Albert Camus and Edgar Allen Poe), character-driven story that follows Barthes through three weeks of personal and professional trials. He has begun subbing at an urban school with a decaying administration, exhausted teachers, and students who threaten him within five minutes of his first class. He frequently visits his grandfather (Louis Zorich), who lives in a care facility, his memory and life-force slowly fading. He also meets Erica (Sami Gayle), a sixteen-year-old prostitute who roams the bus route near Barthes’ small apartment. After witnessing her physical abuse at the hands of a repulsive customer, Barthes decides to let her stay with him for a while. The ephemeral nature of everything in Barthes’ life is immediately evident: these are all temporary situations. Eventually, he will have to move on to a new school. His grandfather will die. Erica will have to move out. His reasons for embracing this lack of commitment, whether consciously or unconsciously, are explored through intermittent flashbacks, which slowly unravel the fact that Barthes’ mother killed herself when he was young, and he never knew his father.

What initially enthralled me about this film is that it takes an old trope — the Man With No Name — and applies it to two characters, then forces them to spend time together. Barthes is stoic and ashen for nearly the entire film, maintaining “I have no feelings you can hurt” and that “I’m a non-person. You can see me, but I’m hollow.” Erica comes out of nowhere, materializing on the bus as Barthes cries in his seat. According to the formula, familiar to us from the old Westerns like Shane, the Man (or Woman) With No Name appears abruptly “just passing through;” (s)he gets involved in other people’s business, solves a core problem or provides the necessary tools with which to solve it, then disappears, never to be seen again. This is the myth Barthes wants to claim for himself. He says he has no feelings yet he’s vulnerable, prone to quick anger and deep sadness at matters over which he has no control. His job allows him to show up, have an impact, then vanish. Just as he begins displaying emotion, Erica appears. Erica becomes the catalyst for Barthes’ change; they form a classic Travis-Iris Alliance and the better sides of both begin to shine through the grime of the workday.

The film features an ensemble which includes Christina Hendricks (sadly underused), James Caan, Lucy Liu, Marcia Gay Harden, Bryan Cranston, Blythe Danner, and Tim Blake Nelson. The teachers often appear in group scenes in which they get to kvetch about the school; these scenes, along with Barthes’ disconnected testimonials, out the film’s agenda in regard to the education system in America (and screenwriter Carl Lund’s feelings are, to say the least, not optimistic). Memorable exchanges include a harrowing scene in which Liu’s character, the school guidance counselor, finally snaps into a histrionic (yet genuine) polemic concerning the hopelessness of the students at her school — this is directed at a student, who begins to absorb the lesson, but then responds with “Fuck you” and walks out. Caan’s character, a substitute for the former dean (another temporary situation) shows students pictures of gonorrhea-infected genitals. Nelson’s character, yet another unhappy teacher, spends his breaks standing on the school’s playing field, staring at the sky. Barthes finally notices.

Barthes: You alright?

Mr Wiatt: What, you see me? You see me standing here?

Barthes: Yeah, I see you.

Mr Wiatt: Oh god. So relentless. Thank you. Thank you!

Unfortunately, we see most of these supporting characters only fleetingly with Barthes. The most developed relationship is a hackneyed attempt at romance between Barthes and Ms. Madison.

In spite of his apparent apathy, Barthes puts care into his lessons when he could just be a glorified babysitter, and we can see in his face that he wants to leave these students with something. Consider this speech from his first week teaching the new students.

“How are you to imagine anything if the images are always provided for you?” He goes on to explain doublethink: “Deliberately believing lies while knowing they are false. Examples of this in everyday life: I need to be pretty to be happy. I need surgery to be pretty. I need to be thin, famous, fashionable. Our young men today are being told that women are whores, bitches, things to be screwed, beaten, shit on, shamed. This is a marketing holocaust! Twenty-four hours a day, for the rest of our lives, the powers that be are hard at work, dumbing us to death. So to defend ourselves and fight against assimilating this dullness into our thought processes, we must learn to read, to stimulate our own imaginations, to cultivate our own consciousness, our own belief systems. We all need these skills to defend, to preserve, our own minds.”

How many of these students will learn to read, to cultivate their minds, to think independently? In this situation the moviegoer is just another temporary visitor witnessing a story that is clearly the middle of a story. If evolution begets resolution, then the end is well on its way, because there is a good amount of evolution on the part of Barthes once things begin to change (he confronts his feelings about his mother, finishes his three weeks at the new school, and makes two very substantial decisions about Erica).

In the final shots, Barthes reads aloud the opening of “The Fall of the House of Usher” as the school empties around him (nailing the parallel between the Usher house and family and the school). Has he let go? Will he become a real teacher? Explore a new career altogether? Has he left his fixation on the transient behind him after his experiences over the last three weeks? What’s the next step with Erica (there’s a conclusion to this story in the film, but even so there must be another step at which we can only guess)? I like that Detachment seeks to tell a human story (and tackle large social issues), dropping questions in the audience’s lap without making pretentious and unavailing stabs at final answers.

Detachment (2012); written by Carl Lund; directed by Tony Kaye; starring Adrien Brody, Sami Gayle, Christina Hendricks, and James Caan.

Prometheus

What are my chances?

Prometheus, previously titled Paradise, and which I’ve privately renamed Battle for the Planet of the Space Jockeys, is Ridley Scott’s reimagining of 1979’s Alien mythology.  This time, however, Scott is armed with twenty-first century movie effects and has poured copious amounts of CG into an otherwise live action film (which makes one wonder whether he would have done the same had he possessed the technology in the seventies).

The popular question concerning this film seems to be whether or not it is a direct prequel to Alien.  The short answer is no, because Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the original, didn’t write Prometheus, having passed away in 2009.  Instead, we’re stuck with Damon Lindelof, whose unbridled hubris and laconic dialogue rendered the final season of Lost nearly unwatchable.  Lindelof’s writing has not improved, but having screenplay groundwork previously laid by Jon Spaihts and a plot structure defined by Alien, he manages to keep the goings-on (relatively) tight in this case.  I did occasionally feel “Island Syndrome,” however, during certain scenes in which the actors were clearly making the dialogue sound better than it actually was.

Set several decades before Alien, the film follows Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the original girl with the dragon tattoo), a religious archaeologist who discovers identical cave paintings all over the world, most recently on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.  Along with her romantic partner, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), whose sensibilities starkly contrast her own, Shaw receives funding from the Weyland corporation (the company of devious motives for which Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo worked in Alien) to follow the coordinates suggested by the paintings, which lead to a previously-unexplored world in outer space.  The two are joined by a crew that will bring back immediate memories of the motley group of marines in James Cameron’s Aliens, in that they are unprofessional, disagreeable, and harbor an inexplicable disdain for the protagonist.  The film’s deuteragonist, though, is David (Michael Fassbender), an android in the tradition of the other films.  While David is described as having no soul, he displays limitless curiosity, seemingly genuine care, and a very real sense of vengeance.  Going against a popular sci-fi trope, David doesn’t want to be like his creators (who are, in turn, searching for their own creators in space); in fact, he’s quite relieved to be nothing like them.  Also onboard is Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a Weyland executive with the compassion of a wolverine and the personality of an ice cube.  Guy Pearce makes an appearance as the elderly Peter Weyland, the megalomaniac who runs the company, and considering the tenure of his appearance in the film, I’m not sure why Scott couldn’t have cast a famous older actor instead of making Pearce go through five hours of makeup for a walk-on role.

The space expedition, as it must, quickly devolves into bad decisions, bickering, and jump-scares.  The less important/interesting members of the crew (a geologist and a biologist whom I mistook for mercenaries based upon their behavior) are the first to be picked off by the indigenous denizens of the planet, which clearly resemble the alien “facehugger” of the original film.  From here, however, the story does not fall into the slasher-movie structure of killing off each crew member one at a time as they grope around in the dark.  The discoveries and intrigue begin to pile up, including the revelation that the “space jockey,” a being discovered in passing by the crew of Alien, was a member of the species that may have spawned humanity and now wants to destroy us.

Sadly, Ridley Scott has never been as good with characters as his brother Tony (who along with Quentin Tarantino crafted True Romance, pound for pound one of my favorite films).  The former has always focused on set pieces before the people and stories inhabiting them, and therefore the character deepening (which should not be confused with character development) does not get off the ground until well into the adventure.  After Holloway, unbeknownst to Shaw (“but knownst to us” – Mel Brooks) has been intentionally infected with an alien agent by David, we get a tender scene in which Shaw reveals her sterility and her desire to “create life,” a possible motive for her obsessive quest for knowledge concerning the Engineers.  This is, for the most part, all we get.  The film relies on its action to familiarize us with the characters from there on out, and conversations between them serve to reinforce their respective dominant traits: Shaw is quixotic, Vickers is ostentatious, Holloway is a skeptic, Janek (Idris Elba) is a stoic, Fifield (Sean Harris) is a bit of an asshole, and so on.  Attempts to deepen them beyond these traits are glossed over.  David is the one who remains a mystery.  He gets his own scenes before anyone else does, puttering around on the ship for two years while the human crew members sleep through the countless light years it takes to reach the Engineer planet, and even though we get to spend this time with him, we’re never quite sure what he wants.  He’s always following orders, sure, but Fassbender often lets slip (in both his expressions and clever dialogue) that something more is going on in that milk-and-pasta-filled head of his.

Vickers is another anomaly.  While the rest of the crew, despite being esteemed scientists, continually fall into the Principle of the Inept Adventurer (moving toward scary places, thrusting their hands toward the maws of alien beasts, and taking their helmets off on an uncharted planet, which not even Buzz Lightyear was dumb enough to do), Vickers is always pragmatic.  She stays indoors when she knows something dangerous is outside.  She demands that everyone do their jobs and follow protocol.  When Holloway is infected, she will not let him back on the ship, and a scene reminiscent of one from Alien in which Ripley refuses to allow the infected Kane back onboard, yields ghastly results.  The issue is that the screenplay sets her up as an antagonist, then hints that she will eventually let her hair down (which she should, since the antagonistic forces in the film severely outnumber the good guys by the third act).  After the standoff scene, Shaw and Vickers are well-established as the yin and yang of the ship, two strong women made enemies by Vickers’ rash actions, but they barely, if ever, have another interaction before the story’s climax, and Vickers’ part in the film ends with an “isn’t that cool?” moment meant to inspire applause, but which rang hollow for me.

Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw is the film’s character centerpiece and performance gem.  Once the cast is inevitably shaved, she is forced to carry on plenty of scenes by herself, and these contain the most revealing bits of her character’s steadfast nature.  The film’s most frightening scene comes when Shaw is implanted with an alien embryo (retaining the original film’s theme of unwanted pregnancy) and must perform a Caesarean section on herself in order to remove it.  Suddenly, the horror is real.  The tears are genuine.  The sci-fi landscape crumbles away for a few minutes and we are left in a whitewashed room with only our heroine and an impossible decision.  In this scene and forward, Shaw begins to mirror Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, the unwavering protagonist of the original film series: fixations on motherhood (Shaw is sterile and later must remove an alien fetus from her own body, Ripley’s daughter died and she must later care for an orphan), relentless pursuit of their respective alien Others (Shaw must gain knowledge, Ripley must destroy them), and a sort of quiet sympathy that radiates from both, despite their apparent two-hundred year gap (though their real-life timestamps are all too evident from their hairstyles).

Finally, H.R. Giger’s art style is well-preserved (the space jockey, the interior of the spaceship and pilot’s seat, the phallic-headed alien).  His name appears in the credits, but I do wonder if he was on set painting everything himself like he was decades ago.  Regardless, the use of his unique style (considered in the seventies to be too horrifying for audiences) is the linchpin for any argument in favor of this film being a true prequel (besides all the chestbursting, of course).

“Prequel” is a term I dislike for reasons created by George Lucas at the turn of the century.  Consider Prometheus, then, part of a grand mythology, one defined mostly in the imagination since it only spans three 120-minute films (I do not acknowledge Alien 3, Alien Resurrection, nor the Alien vs. Predator series), and a look at the other side of the mirror concerning powerful female figures through the sci-fi/horror ages – a rarity for genre fiction.

The Alien DNA is all there, but I promise, connecting stories with your imagination will work and satisfy much better than comparing graphics and storyboards.  It always has.

Prometheus (2012); written by Damon Lindelof; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, and Charlize Theron.

Coriolanus

Hear you this Triton of the minnows?

Ralph Fiennes’ modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragic Coriolanus is either a masterpiece or a travesty depending upon your level of reading comprehension in high school and college.   When I was working on my theatre minor, this was one of the plays I wished our department would put on (next to George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House), but alas, we were stuck with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that one bit of Shakespeare that’s impossible not to “get.”

Fiennes’ version of the story takes place in “Rome,” though the soldiers wear American army fatigues, and the streets and the protesters occupying them look painfully familiar.  As contemporary as the scenery may be, however, we’re still playing by Rome’s rules, and if you want to be on the same level as the characters when the story begins, a basic understanding of Roman government is necessary.  Fiennes plays Caius Martius, a newly appointed general in the running for consul during the era of popular rule.  He almost gets there, but because of the scheming tribunes (James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson), the people realize that Martius, a brutal, idealistic military man who believes the people should have no control over the patricians (“allowing crows to peck at the eagles”), may not be the best person to represent them.  The tribunes push Martius over the edge during a heated conversation in front of the entire capital, driving the latter to denounce the government and its people, a crime punished by banishment.  Eventually, Martius, a shell of himself, forms an alliance with his blood enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), concerned with nothing but vengeance against his country.

Fundamental issues already exist in this narrative, including the fact that Martius has a wife, Virgilia (played by Jessica Chastain, the most prolific actress working today, as far as I’m concerned), often described as one of Shakespeare’s loveliest female characters (which isn’t saying much, but that’s neither here nor there); an overbearing mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), and a young son.  He leaves them behind without a word, also forsaking his friends, including Senator Menenius (Brian Cox).  If Martius loses his self-righteous battle against Rome, can we really see this as a “tragedy?”  He’s a violent maniac, a pathetic husband, and a dangerous political figure.

Performance-wise, Fiennes, Chastain, Redgrave, Cox, and Nesbitt bring their A-games, as one would expect in a film of this type.  Butler, billed as the co-star but playing a character who doesn’t actually appear much, does a competent job looking menacing, but I occasionally got the sense that he memorized the thick Shakespearian dialogue without much thought about its meaning.  Unfortunately, the second half of the film does not live up to the first.  Aside from an extended battle that might make you think you’re watching The Hurt Locker, the film’s first hour is ripe with drama: Martius vs. his mother, Martius vs. his wife, Martius vs. the people, Martius vs. Aufidius, Martius vs. the tribunes.  This is all forgone once he is banished, and the “raid on Rome” is never actually shown, so the desperation of Volumnia and Virgilia to stop him in the climactic confrontation is not completely evident; the scene itself, however, shines.

Additionally, material from the original play is changed and removed, often for incomprehensible reasons.  Why, for example, does screenwriter John Logan choose to have Menenius commit suicide in the latter 3/4 of the film after being unable to convince Martius to halt his advance on Rome?  The danger is not real enough for him to think the entire city is doomed, and his friendship with Martius is never developed enough to make us believe he would be so devastated.  The other unforgivable change is the omission of Aufidius’ final speech in the play, where after seeing to Martius’ death, he expresses not satisfaction despite his lifelong desire to kill the man, but a great sorrow, and orders that Martius be given a noble burial.

Coriolanus is a good film because of its cast.  Fiennes is rarely so fierce, and we’re reminded why Vanessa Redgrave should be leading more ensembles.  I can only assume that the modern combat visuals and bizarre revisions are an attempt to rope in the Call of Duty crowd, but hey, if it gets young people to absorb staples of literary culture (and more so to attempt to understand their construction, flaws, and their racial and gender issues), I support it.

Coriolanus (2011); written by John Logan (adapted from William Shakespeare’s play); directed by Ralph Fiennes; starring Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, and Gerard Butler.

Snow White and the Huntsman

My kingdom for a pair of flaming slippers

Yes, I saw The Avengers.  No, I did not find it worth writing about.

My favorite part of the hype and media jabber for Snow White and the Huntsman is that the most common piece of feedback I’ve seen, particularly in positive reviews, is that this is a “darker/gritter take on a classic fairy tale.”  This is problematic to me.  Do these paid movie critics believe Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was first created by Walt Disney and later adapted by the Brothers Grimm?  Or perhaps that the Grimms’ version in the original German featured dwarfs whistlin’ while they work and a nice cozy ending?  Sorry to break this to you, but fairy tales (especially the bizarre Brothers Grimm versions) were the nastiest, grossest, crudest (“darkest” if you must) stories of their time, and most of them end with death, body part removal, or inexplicable acts of violence.  There’s a reason the Addams Family were big fans of the Grimms, you know.

Rupert Sanders’ action-adventure adaptation of the tale is not so much an adaptation as a reimagining, but it retains enough of the fairy tale’s spirit that it skirts a line somewhere between the two.  One of the film’s most true-to-tale scenes (albeit a scene invented for the film) is one in which Snow White (Kristen Stewart) wanders into a mostly computer-animated meadow and encounters dozens of peculiar creatures, including a tortoise with moss on its back, mushrooms with eyes, and an enormous stag, which seems to somehow represent the heart of the forest, and which Snow White lovingly caresses in a surprisingly touching (and beautifully wordless) minute or so of reel.  The film keeps the Grimms’ “three drops of blood” motif as well.  At other times, the films borrows from The Lord of the Rings, most notably in a scene in which the seven dwarfs (played by a group of famous actors including Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, and Ray Winstone) sing a harrowing lament for their fallen eighth.  I’d hoped the film might retain Snow White’s manner of coming back to life after being killed by the poisoned apple – that is, the Prince’s servants trip on a shrub and drop the coffin, dislodging the piece of apple caught in her throat – but alas, we are left with opportunistic kisses.

By the same token, there can be little to no nuance in a film that wishes to stay true to a folk tale.  Snow White must be absolutely good, and the Queen (renamed Ravenna and played by Charlize Theron) must be absolutely evil.  As such, Ravenna is often seen eating the hearts of cute animals and sucking youth from the mouths of young girls (whereas in the original, she wants to eat Snow White’s lungs and liver), as well as pandering evilly to her magic mirror (an object/character that seems thrown in for familiarity and doesn’t serve the one function it serves in the Grimm tale: informing the Queen that Snow White is alive after the Queen believes her dead).  Snow White, in this version, is someone we enjoy spending time with and want to know more about, but if you begin to develop a character, you have to go all the way, and Sander’s princess is somewhere between a good character and a Boring Hero.  The manner in which Ravenna overtakes the kingdom of Snow White’s father is ingenious, however, and when she explains why she mercilessly disposes of male monarchs and usurps their thrones, we, as an audience, are pretty much with her.

The film uses its supporting cast well, mainly the seven dwarfs, which could have been confusing to keep track of, but somehow manage not to exhaust us nor to fall into comic relief (though they do provide the film’s one or two laughs).  Chris Hemsworth appears as the titular Huntsman, pretty much doing the same thing he does in Thor, but the filmmakers wisely do not allow him to upstage the heroine.  Sam Spruell plays Finn, the obligatory secondary bad guy in a film with two leads, but even he has his place and never wears out his welcome (which is more than I can say for his hairdo).  There’s even a surprise appearance by Lily Cole (of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Rage) as Greta, one of the Queen’s prisoners.  The only character who seems out of place is William (Sam Claflin), Snow White’s childhood friend, who is never quite sure what part he wants to play in this story – love interest?  Loyal soldier?  Enforcer on Finn’s brute squad?  The film occasionally plays at a romance between William and Snow White, but the main action is resolved before either acts upon impulse (when both are conscious, leastways) and we are left wondering whether William has been permanently friend-zoned.

I don’t know what to call this film.  I adore the classic folk tales and fairy tales (in spite of their quirks), but this film doesn’t attempt to copy them, nor does it seek to become the new standard for future generations to use as a frame of reference (as the Disney version sadly has, at least as far as modern film critics).  Where the animated feature has glitz and color and resolution, this movie has sensibilities.  I am tempted to refer to it as a feminist war movie.  Sure, the Huntsman helps Snow White here and there, but she alone inspires the (all male) Duke’s Army to fight in her name, all for the sake of personal revenge against Ravenna, since the latter doesn’t pose a threat to the duchy.  There’s also some business with hearts and messages about beauty and its inevitable fading.  If we’re looking at it from the media standpoint, it’s a fantasy film with big battles (and one too many ambushes), but the main conflict is between two women and they’re not fighting over a man.  Whether or not fantasy is your dish, that fact alone is worth ten-fifty.

Lastly, let me say that Kristen Stewart is a fine actress.  The unfortunate stigma is that so many viewers know her only from the Twilight films and not from her great roles as Joan Jett in The Runaways and Lucy Hardwicke in In the Land of Women.  Regrettably, she doesn’t have as much to say in this film as I would have liked, and for all of the Queen’s malicious taunting, Snow White could have had a few more pearls of wisdom for us.  I’m not saying I needed her to take up the voice of the Brothers Grimm and tell me the moral of the story; no, I needed her to take up her own voice, just a little bit more, because I was (and still am) ready to listen.

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012); written by Hossein Amini (based upon Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by the Brothers Grimm); directed by Rupert Sanders; starring Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, and Chris Hemsworth.