Thursday, February 28, 2013

Snow White & the Huntsman


What a weird movie. What a (opens thesaurus) bizarre, odd, strange, kooky, off-kilter, surreal, unusual, trippy, WTF movie. Snow White & the Huntsman is, like, memorably weird, and the fact that it shouldn’t be, that it looks like yet another generic fantasy sword-em-up on the surface, just makes its weirdness more blatant. I was surprised by the ways in which this film careens off the tracks. Almost pleasantly surprised. And the thing is, it’s not really that great a movie. But what makes it succeed and/or fail are interesting to try and pin down. Enough to make me blog.


Snow White & the Huntsman suffers from a lot of things, including the rep of its young star, You-Know-Who; its dipshitty title; and the fact that it had to compete with a second batshit Snow White adaptation featuring awesome costumes and an aging A-list actress as the villain. And the second one was directed by Tarsem Singh, which gives it one helluvan edge in my book. When offered the chance to see the Stewart/Theron version, my reaction was: Eh, I suppose. But the movie kind of mesmerized me. I thought it had traveled through a wormhole from the 1980s. Seriously. If you ignore the cast and the up-to-date special effects, SW&tH closely resembles one of the many dark, broody, destined-for-cult-status fantasy films that came out during the jaded decade of Reagan and New Wave. I’m talking Willow, The Dark Crystal, Dragonslayer, Legend, and on and on. None of these movies did that well at the box office but we still remember them for their weirdly grim take on high fantasy and their Bosch-inspired visuals. SW&tH captures the same vibe. By contrast, I just saw the recent Conan the Barbarian reboot, and...well, it’s heartbreaking because you can tell they were trying SO damn hard, and it’s nice that they stayed true to Conan’s roots and didn’t fall victim to the scissor-wielding serial killer known as PG-13...but seriously, the new Conan film is TERRRRRRRIBLE. I’m already forgetting about it. Not so for Snow White.

The fantasy world presented in SW&tH is one in which humanity clings to the edges of a great gray swath of untamed wilderness. Everyone is morose and often covered in mud. It’s a semi-coherent mix of historical realism and fairy-tale logic: the characters are all good Christians who believe in God and Heaven and such, yet don’t bat an eye at fairies or forest-ghouls or enchanted warriors that appear to be made of pencil lead. The Snow White story is intact, more or less, but the devil’s in the freakish details. Snow White (played by You-Know-Who) is supposed to be the embodiment of beauty and innocence, so it seems appropriate that she’s kicked around most of the time: who has time for beauty and innocence in this world of muck? The evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) is indeed evil, make no mistake, but doesn’t seem to relish her evilness much. Theron is terrific here, not only because she devours every scene, but because she plays Ravenna as perpetually on the verge of a terrified meltdown. Her voice shrieks and quavers. Her face is a mask that barely holds. She’s made unspeakable deals in order to gain all this power, and she knows that one day, no matter what, she’s going to pay the piper. She rules a kingdom but really has no one to talk to other than her sketchy brother, Finn (Sam Spruell), who possibly wants to do her. (You can’t entirely blame him; I mean, I’m gay and I’d still hop into Charlize Theron’s boudoir without much coaxing). Then you’ve got the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), drunk and bitter, and the dashing Duke’s son, William (Sam Claflin), in a place where “dashing” just means “less mildewy.” Everyone is overwhelmed by the pitiless environment, which works both for and against the film.

The script is weak. The characters are mostly defined by their actions. The pacing is extremely uneven, sometimes hectic, other times plodding like a funeral procession. The Seven Dwarves...well, they’re played by vivid actors like Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, Ray Winstone, and Nick Frost, all of whom have their faces digitally superglued onto tiny bodies. This may be insulting to the rightly exasperated folks at Little People of America, but it adds to the film’s skewed take on reality. Most of the special effects seem to have been cobbled together from Guillermo del Toro’s recycling bin, and that’s not a bad thing. While stumbling around in the Dark Forest, Snow White is assaulted by nightmarish sights and sounds that are never quite defined; I was reminded more of Jacob’s Ladder than a fantasy. When the movie takes an extended break in a brighter, cheerier enchanted glen, we’ve moved into Miyazaki territory. And even when there’s no FX onscreen, the cast is slogging through swampy tall grass, picking their way over shattered jumbles of rock, shuffling around cheerless stone halls, and shivering in stark snowfields. The world of the film runs on bad-dream logic. I like it? Mostly? I was never bored, leave it at that. While watching Conan the Barbarian, I was frequently bored, especially during the loud parts. There were only loud parts.

Okay, I can’t put it off any longer. Kristen Stewart. It’s hip to hate her. Look, we would’ve hated on any actress playing Bella Swan, and we know it. According to various sources, Stewart does okay in certain roles. Hard to say if Snow White is one of those roles. I won’t deny she slows the movie down, and I got really sick of looking at her exposed front teeth. She does the junior-high-drama-class British accent. She does the Kiera Knightley thing where she yells galvanizing stuff at a bunch of dudes and they cheer. She gets the piss beaten out of her by Charlize Theron once or twice, and I admit, it’s fun to watch. But is she a case of bad acting, or a weak character? Snow White really is a blank slate, and that goes all the way back to the original fairy tale. She exists to have stuff happen to her. Fate is treating her like a guided missile; she’s a pawn of Forces Beyond Our Understanding, etc. Hell, she barely gets any romantic options. The lunkish Huntsman or the tremulous Duke’s son? If them’s the best prospects, no wonder Ravenna decided men were pointless.

So is it actually appropriate for an emotionally-restrained actress like Stewart to play this role, and can we forgive the movie because of the nature of Snow White’s character? I guess it works if you see Snow White as an archetype. Me, I’d rather have her display some spark, some pluck. But I don’t hate Kristen Stewart. There’s more important things to diss. Like the new Conan the Barbarian! At least Stewart doesn’t speed-blurt all her lines like What’s-Her-Name from Conan. And Stewart’s face may be stuck in an expression of morose concern, but at least it is a facial expression, which can’t be said of Who’s-Her-Face from Conan. So it’s all a matter of perspective. Also, feminism. I dislike the fact that Stewart is constantly attacked for being “sullen.” Or even “ugly.” Yes, because she has small boobs and lips -- certainly smaller than the boobs and lips of Jason Momoa, star of Conan. Purrrrr! But I like the fuck-you attitude SW&tH has towards womanliness -- not only the aforementioned lack of romance, but also the fact that Ravenna enjoys symbolically (and perhaps literally) castrating the men who fall for her, while simultaneously obsessing over her youth and beauty, terrified into paralysis by crow’s feet and thigh-dimples. In other words, the movie ain’t taking sides. Just like Kristen Stewart doesn’t seem to want to take a side in the whole stupid debate over whether women should be walking Barbie dolls or man-hating Feminazis. Women should be whatever the hell they want to be. You know, like people. And unlike the passive goo-goo eyes of Thing-a-ma-Girl from Conan.

My final verdict on Snow White & the Huntsman is that it kinda fails as a film, but I really appreciate that it tried. The filmmakers weren’t content to make Just Another Fantasy, but tried to create a world that was a little bit different from the stuff we’re used to. When we think fantasy, we think Lord of the Rings, especially now, in the age of spectacle movies with huge budgets and endless franchise potential. This take on Snow White is quite dark, kind of mean-spirited, and it doesn’t want to pander. It still panders, because the ultimate goal of a blockbuster is to make people want to see it. But there seems to be some sort of battle going on between Art and Revenue, and for once, Art almost gained the upper hand. Because this movie didn’t have to be as weird as it was. There could have been romance and kissy-faces. They could have cast an actress who’s good at smiling. The special effects could have been sparkly and Disneyish instead of amorphous and unsettling. Funny that a movie like this, which takes such liberties with the source material, comes off as stronger than the faithful, dutiful Conan the Barbarian. Maybe it’s because Conan is intended to justify the erections of young males while fairy tales, in their original form, are meant to keep children awake at night, wondering what’s lurking in the dark places of the world.

Snow White & the Huntsman wanted to be weird. And that’s better than nothing.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Best and Worst Retcons

Time for some nerdy definition! A retcon (short for “retroactive continuity”) refers to the alteration or deletion of established facts in a fictional story, often by the very people in charge of the story. It first originated in the comic book world, which needs to retcon its plots and characters constantly to stay relevant. Now you see it everywhere. It’s not the same as an adaptation (in which the story has been handed to someone else) or a reboot (which scraps the whole story to begin anew). To give an example: say that the fifth Harry Potter novel was released, and Chapter Four dealt with the fact that Harry’s father was a quadriplegic Albanian circus performer who knocked up his mother in the paper towel aisle at Hannaford, and (this part is crucial) Harry and his friends were acting like they’d known this since book one. That is a retcon, and it can be used for good, evil, or miles-high fucking stupidity. Here are my favorites, and the ones that most piss me off.

Honorable Mention: Marvel 1602
While we’re on the subject of comic books, let us gaze in awe at what happens when an outside-the-box wunderkind like Neil Gaiman gets ahold of Marvel’s most iconic superheroes. Like the name says, it takes place in 1602 and envisions everybody as Europeans during the reign of Elizabeth I. Daredevil is a wandering minstrel. Dr. Strange is the court mystic. Magneto is a priest for the Inquisition. Captain America is a (suspiciously blonde) savage from the New World. Iron Man is a Spanish mercenary with a costume the size of a dump truck. It’s absolutely awesome and creative and made me care way more about all the Marvel heroes than I normally do. The reason it gets a mere honorable mention is that it’s technically not a retcon. It’s a what-if. And what-ifs aren’t the same because they acknowledge that they’re merely a teasing possibility, one little thread in the vast tapestry of scenarios. It’s cool, but not really what this list is about. So let’s give a real comic bookish example...

Dang-Blasted’s 5 Worst Retcons

5. X-Men Films: Days of Future WTF
Of all the superhero movie franchises, the X-Men films are the hardest to follow, a tangled pasta pot of plots and character arcs. They also have this bizarrrrrre range of quality, from really damn good to putrid. And they are guilty of some truly jaw-dropping retcons, made worse by the fact that it’s ALL supposed to be canon. Thus, Sabretooth began as Wolverine’s charismatic and well-spoken brother before somehow losing all his memories and personality and becoming a dumb thug with long blonde hair. Mystique is Charles Xavier’s adopted sister -- wow, they sure had become estranged by the 90s! Also, Xavier was crippled at the same time Magneto turned evil, in the 60s, yet in at least two other movies we see these facts contradicted. And there are two Emma Frosts, the evil sexy one in the 60s and the teenage one in the 80s. Need I continue? It’s sad because I really like the series as a whole and I’m also very detail-oriented, so I can’t get around all the times they’ve rewritten their canon. Now we’re getting not only another Wolverine movie but a “Days of Future Past” film that aims to somehow marry the initial trilogy with X-Men: First Class. Jesus Christ...bring a fucking flowchart.

4. Silent Hill Origins: No, See, It Happened Before It Happened...
Ahhh, nothing like a retcon that literally makes no goddamn sense. NO SENSE. Silent Hill: Origins is a prequel to the original game in which you play a brickbrained trucker named Travis Grady. Now, Origins is not a bad game by any means. But its plot...hoo boy. In the first game, we learned that a psychic girl named Alessa Gillespie was horribly burned in a fire and, in her fury and pain, turned the town of Silent Hill into a nightmarish dreamworld. Origins seems to be about that process: Travis saves Alessa from her burning house and is then manipulated by her into finding an occult artifact that she uses to unleash her power at game’s end. There’s just one teeeensy-weensy leetle problem: why the fuck is the town altered before she unleashes her power? If she kicked off the whole thing with the fog and the monsters, why do they ALREADY EXIST throughout the game? Bad enough that a boring hillbilly character is slotted into the established backstory, but...but...NO SENSE AT ALL. Did NO ONE on the development team even consider this?

3. Ratchet & Clank: The Last Lombax in the Universe
Ratchet & Clank is a consistently fun and dynamic PlayStation series featuring the fuzziest, most adorable hero who can also vaporize you with a giant fuck-off plasma gun. Happily, after a good run on the PS2, the series made the jump effortlessly to the PS3 with a brand-new story arc. Unhappily, the new games’ plot centers around the hero, Ratchet, being the sole surviving member of the Lombax species. He’s orphaned, all alone in the galaxy, and has never once met another Lombax. Never. Not once. Except he did. HE FUCKING DID, GUYS. In the second PS2 game, Going Commando, Ratchet was aided by a tall, sexy lady Lombax, basically a furry Lara Croft. The 7th-gen games are definitely not a reboot, yet they utterly fail to acknowledge that Ratchet has met at least one other member of his species. And since the whole “last Lombax” thing is like the DEFINING plot point of the new games, it’s even more baffling and infuriating. This series is so good! How can it retcon so hard?

2. Star Wars: Everyone is Everyone Else’s Buddy!
We all know about this one, which makes it no less deserving of my personal contempt. Time really is relative with space travel; how else could Ewan McGregor turn into Sir Alec Guinness in nineteen years? But that’s not the thing from George Lucas’s sad, self-masturbatory prequel trilogy that grinds the gears of anyone who values continuity. It’s that all the characters from IV through VI appear AND THEY ALL FUCKING KNOW EACH OTHER. Anakin Skywalker built C-3PO...okay, I can just barely buy that. But how about the fact that both Anakin and Obi-Wan were close pals with R2-D2? “I don’t seem to remember ever owning a droid...” mumbles Sir Alec. Wow, the Tatooine suns really must have baked your brain if you can’t recall the YEARS you spent hanging out with Artoo. Also, Yoda’s in tight with Chewbacca and all the clones are Boba Fett, why not? This cast-wide retcon is so hated that Star Wars fans had to build a convoluted theory about Artoo and Chewbacca being rebel agents, just so their roles in the prequel could make the tiniest smidgen of fucking sense. Yo, Lucas, when someone else has to repair your own shredded narrative, it’s time to stop using the dead Tauntaun costume for erotic asphyxiation. Dipshit.

Okay, the Star Wars prequels suck, but at least they aren’t constructed entirely from retcons. The same can’t be said of poor Heroes, the textbook example of how to ass-rape a good idea to death. Season One of this show was so goddamned stellar (didn’t hurt that Lost was rubbish at the time) and gained so many trusting fans, and we were all the victims of a long con. Why? Because the Heroes creative team only had one season’s worth of ideas. So they recycled. And they revamped. And they hit the reset button on their characters again and again until everything they did became arbitrary. Oh, now these two are siblings. Oh, now this dude’s origin story is something totally different. The worst victim of this tinkering was creepy villain Sylar, whose popularity led to him basically becoming the fucking main character, with constant, maddening adjustments to his personality, his motives, his parentage, his backstory, and the scope of his powers. None of this bullshit is remotely forgivable. And the worst part? We stuck with this turkey for four fucking seasons because the showrunners kept promising us that they understood our anger and they were going to inject new energy into the narrative. Let me use all caps for a sec: “INJECTING NEW ENERGY” IS NOT THE SAME THING AS FORCING YOUR PLOT AND CHARACTERS TO START OVER FROM SQUARE ONE. FUCK, FUCK, FUCK YOU. For once, I’m glad the network gave up and shot this show in the fucking head.

Okay. My hate and vitriol seems to be exhausted. Time now to look at the ways in which a retcon can actually improve a story. Yes, it can! Here are some prime examples.

Dang-Blasted’s 5 Best Retcons 

5. Batman: The Dark Knight Gets...Dark
Everyone in my age group can tell you how Batman is. Batman is brooding. Haunted. Grim. The antidote to overly perky, colorful, whitebread dopes like Superman. But go back a generation or two. Look at the original Batman comics, or the Adam West version. Batman used to be a campy goofball too! Hell, all the iconic villains -- The Joker, Poison Ivy, The Penguin, etc. -- are among the least kooky foes Batman once faced. Everything changed in the 80s, when comics as a whole became darker and more adult to reflect a more jaded world. Batman got it worst -- and best. Thanks in large part to people like Frank Miller, Batman stopped being lovable and became a frightening vigilante who wasn’t allowed to enjoy being a superhero. Let’s face it, this was a good thing. We kind of need the dark, gritty Batman and all he represents. We need both the comfort and the cautionary tale. And think on this: if Batman had never gotten dark, there’d be no Christopher Nolan trilogy. Q.E.D.

4. Redwall: Getting Rid of Humans and Racism
Ever read Brian Jacques’ Redwall series as a kid? Remember how the talking animals rubbed elbows with humans and the mice were into racial supremacy? No? Reread the first book in the series; your jaw might drop. Jacques hadn’t quite established the rules of his fantasy universe, and so there were constant hints that humans existed somewhere: horses, cats, and other domestic creatures; an abandoned human-sized farmhouse. Yeah, because a world in which animals talk, wear clothes, and build abbeys is totally a world humans would be privy to. What’s really jarring is that the mice of Redwall are kind of condescending assholes to the other species: we’re in charge, we built this abbey, and the rest of you are only here because we’re kind to the lower orders. Hell, the badger character is used like a beast of burden -- a far, far cry from the kick-ass warriors and noble rulers of future books. Yeah, the original Redwall novel is....awkward like that. And the series would have been a lot less fun if Jacques hadn’t gotten a clue and made the very next book a prequel which retconned things. Of course, he continued to define characters as good or evil based entirely on their species. Which is still fucking racist. But that’s a rant for another time.

3. The Ring Series: We Have To Go Deeper! (BWWAAAAAAMMMMPH)
The Ring is about the ghost of a dead girl who haunts a videotape and kills people with her split ends. If you’ve just seen the movie. I like the movie. But the original novel by Koji Suzuki is waaaayyyy more out there, and its two sequels (Spiral and Loop) will bend your brain into a Gordian knot, as each one alters the premise and redefines everything. It may have started out with a murdered girl implanting her ghostly self onto a videotape, but in Spiral, she was rewritten as a kind of thought-virus -- literally a killer meme -- jumping from VHS to the printed word and even back into a living womb. It became a ghost story that somehow felt plausible because the “ghost” was a sentient idea that gained enough power to achieve its own kind of reality. Like Santa Claus. Only horrifying. Then, in Loop, Suzuki dropped the bombshell that the first two books took place inside a computer simulation. The characters were just data and everything that had happened was part of a doomsday scenario being studied by scientists. It takes major balls to retcon your own best-selling novel this hard. Your fans will either be furious or will call you an absolute genius. Guess which type of fan I am.

2. Silent Hill 2: It’s All In Your Head
I think the main reason Silent Hill: Origins fumbled was that it tried to attach itself to the plotline of the original game, which was a little goofy and vague. We might have gotten a whole series of increasingly stupid shenanigans with psychic little girls and religious cults if it hadn’t been for the brilliant minds behind Silent Hill 2. Yes, I’ve talked about this at length before, and yes, I do consider it a retcon. It didn’t undo the events of the first game, but it did offer an entirely new interpretation of what Silent Hill was. It wasn’t just Alessa Gillespie’s psychic flip-out that turned the town into Hell on Earth. Nope, it was something deeper. Less tangible. The evil was always there, a parasite waiting for a host. And the host is our minds. James Sunderland from Silent Hill 2 is wandering through a nightmare that is made only for him. Everything he sees, he sees because of who he is, what he’s done, and what haunts him most. And when other tortured souls enter Silent Hill, they see entirely different things. For all we know, there are no monsters at all, only this formless thing that forces us to face the worst in ourselves. This redefinition of Silent Hill opened up the franchise’s potential, and the strongest entries are those which ignore the Alessa Gillespie backstory and just run with their own nightmare.

1. Swamp Thing: From Mutated Nerd To God-Avatar? Not Bad!
We end where we begin: in the comic-book world, with a glorious example of trashing a character’s origin story because it was lame. The original Swamp Thing was nothing more than a dweeby scientist, Alec Holland, who was caught in an explosion, fell into a swamp, and became a shambling green lunkhead made out of moss or something. And THEN...they brought in Alan Moore, the mystical oddball god-king of comics. Moore’s general writing strategy is to scream “FUCK YOU!!!” into your ear and then do the opposite of what you expect. He began with Issue #21 of Swamp Thing and immediately retconned everything: now Swamp Thing wasn’t Alec Holland at all, but merely a plant that had absorbed Holland’s memories as he died. And that was only the prologue. Under Moore’s control, Swamp Thing was ultimately revealed as a bodiless spirit who could possess any plant -- ANY plant -- and embody it to his will. And he was only the latest in a long string of such beings. Ever hear of the Gaia hypothesis? It suggests that all living organisms on Earth are, on some level, connected in a single network. Swamp Thing is the avatar of the shared consciousness of all plant life. In other words, a god. How powerful is he? He kicked Batman’s ass once. Flat-out, no contest, totally unfair fight, just RUINED Batman. That’s a far cry from merely being a nerd who morphed into a vegetable. Behold the kind of epic awesomeness that a retcon can birth.

Stay tuned for the next post, in which I delete everything and pretend this blog has always been devoted to play-by-plays of Canadian curling tournaments. In Swedish.