The Huntsman: Winter’s War

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016) by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

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Well, here we are again and you may wonder why. Why, after hating Snow White and the Huntsman so much, would I watch it’s prequelly sequel? It just shows that I really want to like this franchise. I have failed once more, or maybe the movie makers have once again failed me.

Here’s what happens:

thehuntsmanandtheicequeen1The Evil Queen, Ravenna (Charlize Theron), has a sister: Freya (Emily Blunt). Freya resists her magical powers and falls for a young man who is already betrothed to another woman, but he still gets Freya pregnant and later kills the child, seemingly because it interferes with his marriage plans. Freya, of course, kills him, freezing him to death with a single scream over her dead daughter.

In order to not live under her sister’s thumb, she goes north, builds an ice fortress and an army from the young people of the countries surrounding her own – she kidnaps them, kills their parents. She explains to them that love is non-existent and that they’re far better off with her. She’s freed them from the illusion of love and they’re trained to be her army of huntsmen.

One of them is Eric (Chris Hemsworth) whom we have met in the first film, another is Sara (Jessica Chastain). They fall in love and are then seperated by the ice queen, Eric thinking Sara dead while she thinks he abandoned her. Seven years later, after the Snow White-thing happened, they meet again to secure Ravenna’s mirror.

Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Well, the trailer looked great that’s why I watched this one. Another great trailer, another disappointing movie. Another failed attempt at feminism, too, though it’s not the main focus of this movie.

My problems with it stem less from the story and once again more from the underlying thehuntsmanandtheicequeen5messages. While the makers of The Huntsman seem to have taken advice from the makers of the show Once Upon a Time and screwed continuity, it’s not the worst they did. But let me tell you in detail.

For me, it all started with the question: so, Freya is Ravenna’s sister, where did she come from? It could be explained away, of course. She’s younger, she wasn’t kidnapped with Ravenna and her creepy brother, they reunited later, whatever. But then, they never even mentioned the creepy brother in this one, even though he could have been part of the narrative in the past. But they just dropped him. Okay.

But what about the fact that we last saw Eric eye-shagging Snow White across the throne room, and suddenly he finds out his wife isn’t dead? Shouldn’t that be awkward? Obviously not, because Snow White and the Huntsman were, it seems, never an item. He works for her, as a good huntsman would, and later swears to his wife that he was always true to her. Yeah, well… okaaay. So, continuity was thrown out the castle window, that’s mildly annoying, but whatever.

thehuntsmanandtheicequeen4This franchise boasts with its feminism. Look, it says, all the strong women we have, and women in power positions, too. And strong fighters. Seeing Jessica Chastain whup some serious Hemsworth-ass you would agree, but then, am I the only one thinking it kinda weird that the male population of the conquered countries outweighs the female population by about 6 to 1? Which means, far more male Huntsmen than female. And there goes your feminism. They try to present it in front of the camera, but then fail to employ just as many female extras as male. Why? Probably so that the male audience doesn’t feel uncomfortable by all those feisty women fighters. FAIL!

You probably think: oh, stop whining. Both evil queens are female! Yes, they are. They’re also evil and must be overcome by the good male. I’m not saying I didn’t appreciate the effort they made of having three male heroes (Eric and his two dwarf companions) match with three female heroes (Sara and two randomly encountered female dwarfs). I do, but then, matching them is what they do, because every female becomes an instant love interest for the males. And here’s a theme that really rubbed me the wrong way: heteronormativity.

Having Freya fall for this young princely guy in the beginning is to be expected, it’s part of the plot. Having her become pregnant, that already seems problematic. It’s a Fairy Tale, girls who just give it away won’t be available for Happy Endings; her daughter dies, it was all a plot by her evil sister who feared the beauty her niece would become (they could have come up with a different reason here, but I guess why fix what’s not broken).

Ravenna still doesn’t seem overly interested in the kings she marries and keeps killing them. I appreciate that the movie makers are consistent here and pretty much still portray Ravenna as a lesbian. An evil lesbian, of course. Freya is less easily categorized, though. Of course, having had sex with a man before marriage does make her a sexual deviant of sorts, but the way they stage Sara’s ‘betrayal’ of Eric, it looks a little like Freya took advantage of Sara in more ways than one. It’s free for interpretation, but the looks that pass, the timing of Eric asking if Sara has been truthful… it lends heavily to the idea that Freya and Sara hooked up at some point. But since the whole situation, the Huntsman being Freya’s slaves (whipping scars included), is emphasized, it’s not Sara’s fault.thehuntsmanandtheicequeen2

And here we have another problematic topic: slavery. If we place The Huntsman in its original time and place, we could argue for indented servantry, I guess. But the movie makers push the story here, including black children in the kidnapped mix. Going back to the Brothers Grimm, this would have been fairly unlikely, but American Fairy Tale telling has always taken liberties, so let’s say it’s a liberty they took here. They made one of the kidnapped black kids a recognizable character, Tull (Sope Dirisu), marking him with an ice burn to the face, so he might be recognizable to the white audience (that’s not racist at all!).

You know, at this point, it’s not difficult to see why this movie made me so mad. I was surprised by my reaction, but I do feel it’s justified. The movie tries so hard to make things right, but in execution fails miserably. The main evil character is a lesbian obsessed with her beauty, her sister has sex before marriage and loses her daughter as a price for her indiscretion, the ‘dwarfs’ are being played by tall people, and the black character gets a mark so that we may not confuse him with the two black extras. Oh, and of course, everybody good is also inherently straight, even though one of the male dwarfs shows his affection through verbal abuse – never mind, he’s still a better choice than the supporting female friend!

I mean, seriously? And you thought this was representative, feminist Fairy Tale-ing? Actually, it’s abusive, is the nicest thing I can say about it. And again, the acting of the main players is SO good, the movie LOOKS good. Jessica Chastain can actually pull off a fighter that’s a worthy opponent of Hemsworth… but it’s all wasted on a movie that both demonizes or redicules diversity.

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Maleficent

Maleficent (2014) by Robert Stromberg

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Let’s talk about Angelina Jolie for a moment. I have my problems with reviewing any of her movies, to be honest, even though I’ve watched most of them at the movies. It’s just incredibly difficult for me to look beyond her iconic status and see her work outside of it. I’ve been a fan since February 2001 when I first saw the Tomb Raider-trailer and that’s probably also around the time she became this iconic figure so I’ve rarely seen her without it. But we all know that she is a talented, incredibly able and dedicated actress. And I want to stress this point because Maleficent is probably her most iconic role to date – and it could have been a disaster if anyone but Jolie had played it.maleficent1

What happens:

An old tale with a new twist – Maleficent is a fairy living in a kingdom with other fairies and magical creatures just next to a kingdom where envious men dream of conquering that neigboring world they don’t understand. When a king (Kenneth Cranham) finally tries, he and his army are defeated and it is Maleficent as protector of her kingdom who is responsible for the defeat and the humiliation the king suffers. As he lies dying, he promises the kingdom to the man that kills Maleficent.

Stefan (Michael Higgins, Sharlto Copley)  who has been Maleficent’s childhood friend and first love reconnects with her but then betrays her. But since he is unable to kill her he cuts off her wings and takes them to the king – and becomes king in return. Maleficent swears revenge and makes herself queen of the beforehand leaderless fairy kingdom – a dark queen. She curses Stefan’s first (and only) child, Aurora (Elle Fanning), to fall into a deep sleep on her sixteenth birthday from which she shall not awake unless it’s by true love’s kiss (since Maleficent does not believe in true love anymore because it’s what Stefan had vowed to her it’s a mute point that Aurora will never wake).

maleficent4Aurora is send away by her father to live with three fairies (Juno Temple, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville) who show such negligent care of the child that Maleficent feels the need to intervene just so that Aurora will live to see her sixteenth birthday. She unwillingly befriends the girl who thinks that Maleficent is her fairy godmother and as she grows attached to the girl she tries to take back the curse. She fails and has to watch as Aurora falls victim to it. She brings Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) to the castle – a young man who has met Aurora once and was enchanted by her – but his kiss does not wake Aurora. Only when Maleficent kisses the unconscious girl – grief-stricken over the fact that she couldn’t save her – Aurora wakes.

There’s loads of battle and awesomeness and Maleficent finally gets her wings back. In the end, Maleficent and Aurora unite the kingdom in what can best be described as a gay marriage ceremony (that’s open for interpretation and discussion). The Happy Ending.

Now, there have been a number of fairy tales lately who tried and failed at maleficent-poster2giving the old tales a feminist spin – Maleficent is not one of those. It’s also not a lighthearted, musical color-explosion that’s been ejaculated onto the screen. It’s not flashy, it’s not distastefully pointing fingers at mythical creatures in a ‘look how different they are’-kind of metaphorical way. It is what it is:

A tale about people. People who are flawed, who are cruel, who are obsessed, who are kind, who are trying so hard at being better. There is a wide range of human frailties at work here and most of them are displayed in Maleficent – the ‘villain’ of the tale – but they’re all displayed on the remarkable body of Angelina Jolie’s talent. She’s a playful fairy, a scary avenger, a violated woman, an action-hero, and a tender lover.

I don’t even have words for how magnificent Angelina Jolie is in this role. It’s the kind of role meets actor that you would wish for all of your favorite movies, the kind of combination of talents that comes along far too rarely. This is an epic movie, a movie that sets standards, a movie you will want to watch again and again because its pieces fit perfectly into a well-told story, a powerful drama, an exciting action movie, a love story that is rarely told in such a way (and yes, I’m talking about the love between Maleficent and Aurora and I’m not going to put a label on it). This is the movie you should watch if you were only going to watch one movie this year – you won’t regret it.

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Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) by Tommy Wirkola

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I guess I’m still not done with my obsession with fairy tales and folklore. It so happens that this is part of my own folklore and I guess I never appreciated the Brothers Grimm as part of German culture as I do these days. Sure, I was always aware of them – as their fairy tales accompanied my whole childhood, more so than Hans Christian Anderson’s – but never quite as appreciative as I am now. Maybe it took for me to see that Hollywood knows and likes them, too, maybe I am just now starting to look through these tales and see how really disturbing and influential they are.

hansel&gretel3Hansel & Gretel surely is one of the best known fairy tales, at least, for me it is. The gingerbread house, the bond between sibling, the evil witch that is being tricked by two children. The movie shows this story but it focuses more on the aftermath of two children killing a witch.

Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) are abandoned by their father in the dark forest. After some time wandering they find a gingerbread house and start eating away at it. The witch living there lures them inside, incarcerates them and is ultimately killed before she can eat them. The siblings set out on a mission to free other children being held captive by witches and kill the evil hags. They build a reputation until – years later – they come to a town that has several children missing and no idea how to deal with this. Hansel and Gretel help out – for a price – but encounter their strongest opponent (Famke Janssen) yet, one that also links back to their past.

Sometimes you start watching a movie and you realize in the first few minutes hansel&gretel6that the plot is going to suck – big time. Such a movie is Hansel & Gretel. However, if you realize this early on you’re not building any expectations and that’s actually good because then you can enjoy it as a dense action flick with a lot of 3D-effects thrown in for good measure. Well, they’re not actually measured, they’re rather spread liberally.

If nothing else this movie is nice to look at. We have two good-looking main characters, we have the usual banter with people of lesser charm and ability, and then there’s Famke Janssen as the evil witch and she is sooo good at it. Make no mistake: the movie is bad. It’s shallow, it’s predictable, it’s superficial hansel&gretel4entertainment. But at least, it does not bore us with any deep contemplation, and it doesn’t annoy us with the assumption that Gretel is any less of a hero than her brother is. Gemma Arterton is not only a pretty sidekick to her ass-kicking brother, she kicks ass herself. And this is actually so rare it’s delightful. And on top of that, she looks good in leather. Jeremy Renner didn’t impress me half as much, though. I usually like him but he seems to play a lot of the same roles lately – Bourne, Hawkeye, Hansel: tough as nails action heroes that blow up shit but have nothing new to tell us.

Neither does this movie tell us anything new about old tales. But if you’re looking for an action flick where you can just see some disgusting, some ass-kicking, some sibling-bonding – you’re welcome to enjoy Hansel & Gretel.

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