Saturday, December 31, 2016

Want a Fantasy Winter Movie for the Season? Try 'The Huntsman: Winter's War'

No doubt you've heard that the prequel/sequel of Snow White & the Huntsman, Huntsman: Winter's War was... not great. The first Huntsman was on fairly shaky ground to begin with (apparently box office takings don't agree with that assessment but it's generally not considered a truly good movie by critics and fairy tale folk, insert many reasons here) and this was supposed to expand the 'mythology'/story, focusing on Ravenna and the Huntsman. How was this supposed to be any good?

Charlize Theron signed on for this second film, which at least promised an excellent rendition of a baddie, (and a baddie dressed again by the Queen of fantasy couture Colleen Atwood). If nothing else there was going to be some lovely things to look at. Box office success of the first film ensured a decent budget for Winter's War and the cast and crew are filled with seasoned pros.

So we were on board to watch it on DVD - for Charlize and the costumes.

Then Emily Blunt signed on.

What the..?

How could an actress of such great repute sign on for such a sequel? With a first time director? We were confused. Perhaps, we thought, she needed a distraction between real projects? Later we saw trailers and thought "well, at least they're making a good go of it". And then the movie faded from view...

Cut to the impending Winter season, and we were looking for new and fresh Winter fantasy and fairy tale images and imagery. Someone mentioned: "Have you seen Winter's War? They put a bit of effort into the Snow Queen/Ice Queen portrayal - it'd be worth a viewing for you at least."

By then it was cheaper to buy it than rent it so it was added to the Once Upon A Blog movie library. We looked up reviews, steeling ourselves for where to fast forward and where to hit the play button again, and found something surprising: while the film still wasn't considered good, people were raving - RAVING - about Theron and Blunt's performances! Colleen Atwood's costume artistry got more than a passing mention too but people were loving the two queens.


While we didn't exactly settle in with popcorn (we kept the remote fairly handy), we did dedicate time to review it in one viewing. Before we get into our review, here's the trailer:
If you doubted it was big budget, the trailer should assure you it most certainly is. You're in for a big movie with beautiful photography, amazing costumes, lush sets, lots of 'magic' and big names, but as we all know, that doesn't guarantee anything. Here's our take:

Firstly, all these posters below, emphasize different aspects of the film. The one at the head of the post best reflects our impression of the movie overall. Then there are a few more that focus on:
The sibling rivalry (this is what the movie is best at and shines in)

The lovers versus the powers (this was supposed to be the emphasis but unfortunately it's the least interesting)

The split alliances between the two humans and the two sisters
(this borders on spoilers but it's also an interesting way to watch the film, being aware of this)
This shows the dominance of the Winter story in the movie
 This one shows the influence of the original evil queen on everyone
Yes - overall it is not 'great' but there is much about this that we wish we'd paid the price of admission for, just to see on the big screen.

To get the cons out of the way we'll just list them:
  • The Snow White story and character references were clunky, awkward, mostly ridiculous and largely unnecessary. This should have just been a stand alone story set in the same world.
  • In fact the Snow White connection was obviously awkward and embarrassing. Mentioning her was a key weakness. Not having Kristen Stewart, while understandable, meant not having the iconic character - however transformed - of Snow White being in her own tale. Being reminded of her mythic significance, and absence thereof, put the film at a disadvantage that all the brilliant acting, writing and wonderful direction had no way of avoiding. We're not sure why they didn't just wipe that part of it clean and ignore it - it would have been neater and made more sense.
  • It's a prequel and sequel, with that awkward Snow White mention in the middle and as such, feels shackled by it's association with the first movie, rather than inspired by it.
  • We didn't really care too much about the Huntsman - or the Huntswoman's - story (although we should have - this was largely a writing and filmmaking fault but the chemistry between the couple was erratic at best as well - sometimes it almost worked but mostly we just wished it did)
  • The Huntsman, Eric, and woman, Sara (husband and wife, referred to in the first film) were clearly supposed to be the main protagonists but they felt like the B-story, with too much time wasted on them.
  • The lines and dialogue for Sara and Eric in particular, often felt manipulated, too considered
  • In fact a lot of the writing, particularly that not focused on the queens, wasn't exactly great
  • Chastain only had one truly memorable acting moment (her shooting at Freya's command) but even that wasn't enough to make her character truly sympathetic to the audience at that point
  • We could have done without the dwarves, though we understand why they were included. Some sort of levity was very important. This part just wasn't done well and was more embarrassing than funny due to how it was done, exacerbated by not using real little people, except as stunt doubles.
  • The owl - let's just say we would have urged choosing another direction for this creature as it pulled us out every time
  • The narrator at the beginning. We will never understand why 'fairy tale films' feel compelled to use them so often - it's a different medium from oral storytelling and doesn't work half so well on screen - and this one doesn't either
  • The key women - Freya and Ravenna /Mirror, were underutilized, and clearly meant to be the B story. They were, however, far more compelling than the love story that was supposed to be the driving force of the movie. It was very different love that drove the film and the romance felt almost shallow in comparison.
So, some pretty big cons, right?

But here's the good stuff:
  • Overall beautiful! The vision for this film was solid, tight and artistically stunning - truly. You could pause almost anywhere in the movie and be treated to a lovely still frame. It was hard to believe this was from a first time director.
  • Some of the imagery was truly unforgettable, particularly with regard to the Ice Queen
  • The film showcases the power of the feminine, both for good and for ill, and in a variety of forms. As far as the Bechdel test goes, this one passes with flying colors!
  • Colleen Atwood's costumes for the two queens in particular were just as stunning as the first film's; very fresh takes on ice and mirror imagery and details (if the leads hadn't been so incredibly strong the gowns would have overwhelmed the actresses and stolen each and every scene but they didn't - they worked as perfect props for the characters and actresses).
  • The Ice Queen's palace and details were lovely
  • The Ice Queen's powers were unique yet felt very natural (we would have liked to have seen more 'natural force' expansion of them though - it's sort of odd that she used no ice beings/creatures as the next evolution of her power. The bear-creature could have been used for this purpose but we only saw her riding it - powerful imagery, yes, but a lost opportunity)
  • The concept of Freya becoming who she was, how she built her army and how she ran her kingdom was wonderful storywise
  • Charlize Theron as Ravenna - she's formidable, even when pushing her performance into camp - and commands the screen (and she wears those dresses without being overshadowed by them in the least! That's quite a feat.)
  • Emily Blunt as Freya the Ice Queen - she was heartbreaking and completely believable - both in her pain and in her power. Not your average evil, her story was devastating, relate-able, piercing and Blunt was her. And she looked like she made every ice magic effect actually happen, as if there was no CG.
  • Blunt and Theron together were absolute magic (at least until the 'Mirror Queen' turned on the Ice Queen - the extreme effects unfortunately pulled us out of the scene).
As one reviewer put it:

I don’t know why this movie got trashed the way that it did because... this was much more engaging and satisfying than I initially thought it would be. ... I can actually appreciate this movie more than the first because guaranteed action, awesome female representation, and a visually stunning two hours aside, it’s such a fascinating exploration of self love, hatred, love and sacrifice, power and control, trust and loyalty, beauty, selflessness, and the threat of others being greater than we are. We explore these themes and more in various ways through the sibling relationship between Freya and Ravenna and the romantic relationship between The Huntsman aka Eric and Sara. Could all of this have been executed better? Yeah, sure. But to say that it didn’t accomplish at least emotionally engaging the viewer and striking a chord in them is to ignore all of the good parts of the movie.
We found out afterward that much of the film was shot on location too - and that includes that 'Elsa-esque' castle too. Almost every set was an actual place, sometimes enhanced in the background (eg bigger mountains) but the director used the locations extremely well. It explained why we didn't feel as disconcerted in the fantasy scenes as you might expect, as is often the case with CG sets. Most of it was real. (And Iceland clearly has to be seen to be believed!)
If they could just have edited out all the Snow White references and re-edited the Huntsman/woman roles to shift the focus back onto Mirror Versus Ice, it would have been even more powerful. As it was, we kept getting distracted from truly great scenes to follow along on what felt unimportant business, before being allowed back to the main story. While this was continually frustrating, the 'great scenes' quickly drew us in and helped us forget we'd been irritated. The effect was feeling like the movie was really just "off-kilter".

So what about Freya the Ice Queen as compared to the formidable Snow Queen of HCA's tale? She holds up incredibly well. This could largely have been the story of the Snow Queen's rise to power and her iconic fairy tale role, with the Kai and Gerda story happening once she was established. (In fact the Kai and Gerda story could have been easily adapted to the 'hunter children' plot and been a truly interesting and different interpretation.) The only problem with Freya being the Snow Queen of fairy tales is that the time frame of her life was still primarily human and this story didn't allow for any form of her 'force of nature' immortality.

But back to the parallels. The main one, apart from their being a queen of frost, ice and snow, is the juxtaposition of mirror and ice. Again, to our minds, it would have made for a unique and interesting variation on the Snow Queen's mirror, with or without goblins, but from what we can gather the Snow Queen tale wasn't on the radar of the writer/s for Winter's War. Ravenna is actually two characters in this movie: the Ravenna/evil queen we see in the Snow White movie and the Mirror, an inhuman incarnation of herself (not truly alive but all the darkness and magic of the original queen). As Mirror, Ravenna is even more malevolent, if that's possible, and that has its own implications. But even with all that power and presence, it's really Freya's story of love, loss, misguided power and the tragedy of a life of great potential gone wrong, having a damaging ripple effect, that is the heart of the film.

We could explore the relationship and ideas of Eric (the Huntsman) and Sara (the Huntswoman who doesn't need rescuing) but although it should be a compelling and an interesting twist on the Kai and Gerda story it just doesn't inspire interest or investment. This is partly due to the direction of their story but counterbalancing the loss Freya experiences (and the heart wrenching performance Blunt gives in that moment) is nigh impossible with the scenes given to them - not even recognizing true love can compare and failing to recognize that is both a writing and directing failure.

So the outcome is: if you take away half a star or so for every negative point, (all of which are not insignificant) you get an understandably low-star rating. But we'll say it again: even if you have your finger on the fast-forward button to avoid wading through most of the cons, it's still worth watching for the pros. If the scenes and emphasis had been re-worked to acknowledge Freya and Ravenna as the A story, the two performances and their compelling support from costumes to photography and more, could have saved this film from the flop it's generally considered to be. In fact, it may have surpassed the audience popularity (and critic assessment) of the original Snow White and the Huntsman.

Whatever the case, it's great fodder for fairy tale folk - and fantasy film folk - to mull (and perhaps mutter) over during the Winter and holiday season. Chances are good you will find something in there you like.

While you are considering watching, enjoy these motion posters which are just kind of cool. We're amazed they don't make more of these for movies (or to display in newspapers... ;)

Note: Freya is also the name of a Norse goddess, associated with love, magic and death. According to the legend she was married to a god named Odr who vanished one day. Freya searched the entire world to find him, getting a new name in every land she passed by was unable to find him again. The broken hearted goddess cried tears which became gold. This experience made the goddess particularly sympathetic to lovers. (summary by @UselessDaily)
Fairy Tale Bonus of the Day:
The Huntsman Winter's War Costume B-Roll & Colleen Atwood discussing the costumes and how they reflect on the characters and themes of the movie.
As usual, 14 Academy Award winning designer Colleen Atwood put a lot of story into her costumes. It's clear she loves creating fantastic, larger-than-reality costumes for fantasy movies that take place in that nebulous Once Upon a Time Realm. Here, with all the costumes, you can see the details that tell their own tales of mirrors and twisted power, ice and locked/frozen hearts, and order versus potential chaos. Enjoy!(Note: there's no sound or music for the B-roll which just shows the costumes on display with close-ups on the details)

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