'Winter's War' an Unwieldy, Derivative Sequel to 'Huntsman'

Directed by: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan; Runtime: 115 minutes
Grade: D+

Snow White and the Huntsman isn't, frankly, very good: a burdensome, overproduced fantasy with a questionable casting decision in Kristen Stewart as the "fairest of them all". But, at least the film had its creative intentions in the right place, modifying the classic Brothers Grimm tale by reworking the central character into, ultimately, a capable heroine and conqueror of tyranny with the help of The Huntsman. The events of that original film left its universe in a state where crafting a direct sequel would be tricky -- and, considering the general response to the film, unnecessary -- which would prove challenging for whomever decided to continue the story. The Huntsman: Winter's War attempts just that, and while its predecessor holds deep flaws, they're not as profound as the lack of imagination and cumbersome modifications that went into building this new installment around the story before it, squandering robust talent and strong female characters within cobbled-together bits of familiar high fantasy.

To piece together a workable story, Winter's War exists as both a prequel/origin story and a sequel to Snow White and The Huntsman, which one can either consider to be ambitious or simply too convoluted for its own good. At first, it depicts the rise of power of Ravenna, Charlize Theron's gold-plated enchantress and the villain from the first film, and how she shares a tender relationship with her then non-magical sister, Freya (Emily Blunt). A traumatizing event changes all that, though, awakening the frosty vengeance within Freya as she embarks to the North to create her own empire, amassing an army of orphaned children and forbidding any sort of love within her domain. Many years pass, arriving at a point some time before the events leading to Snow White's reign, introducing The Hunstman, Eric (Chris Hemsworth), and his bow-wielding contemporary, Sara (Jessica Chastain), both skilled warriors under her tutelage. Winter's War chronicles how they fell out of her good graces and ended up in the lands to the South, jumping ahead nearly a decade to account for Snow White and the Hunstman as a search for Ravenna's mirror escalates throughout the land.

Nominated for an Oscar for his visual effects work in the first film, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan makes his feature-length directorial debut with Winter's War, working from a script penned by Hercules writer Evan Spiliotopoulos and The Hangover Part II and III's Craig Mazin. Their influences are clear, a little too clear, from the Game of Thrones-style conversations over chessboards and frosty training grounds to the broad shots of boats going downstream that look like deleted scenes from Fellowship of the Ring. That familiarity isn't helped by the rather blatant recycling of ice queens that went into creating the villainous Freya, who essentially acts the way you'd expect Elsa from Frozen to act had she well and truly "let it go" for years on end, only with the ruthless drive of a White Witch to keep her going. Winter's War expands upon the world from the first film in a maddening way: it appeals to the fandom of other franchises and series without an original bone in its body, while also trying to both exist alongside Snow White and The Huntsman and ignore certain elements that complicate it as a sequel.

Amid thick accents, brave revolutionary personas, even moments of intimacy that all recall the likes of Braveheart, the talents of Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain get lost in the borrowed clutter of Winter's War, a shame considering the unique chemistry that exists between their enamored warriors. In their quest to locate the mystical mirror, to which they're accompanied by a quirky band of male and female dwarves that injects a off-kilter sense of humor into the events, director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan finds one of the film's few strengths in the hardened flirtations and simmering anger between these two Huntsman who were driven apart by their ice queen's whims. Hemsworth's innate charm exchanges well with the stern, equally capable prowess of Chastain's Sara, almost making one wish that these characters existed independently from the history forced upon hem by Queen Freya's ludicrous reign. Winter's War finds its source of levity in Eric and Sara's trysts and clumsy interactions with their dwarven comrades, almost overcompensating for its absence in the previous film.

Unfortunately, the story itself is a wash, stringing together authoritarian dominance and forced circumstance with the search for Ravenna's mirror. The atmosphere in Winter's War fits somewhere in the high-fantasy category: Freya can freeze people, raise ice walls, and see through the eyes of a frosty owl avatar, while mirrors can alter the consciousness of those within its visible range and goblins run around with flammable blood. All these things exist within the conditions of the crammed-together plot, though, and it's tough to ignore that these powerful enchantresses could've cast their spells to far more capable means, restrained only because the plot desperately needs its humans to look like an even match. Even with Emily Blunt's wounded stoicism as the icy queen and Charlize Theron's hypnotic, velvety menace as Ravenna, the fickleness and lack of thought behind their powers result in a ridiculous antagonistic presence, made worse by the generally unremarkable machinations of their plays at power.

As a fantasy-action film, Winter's War is merely functional, driven forward by less-than-enthralling visual effects with Oscar-nominated Cedric Nicolas-Troyan at the helm. Crackling ice walls and oozing gold and oily tendrils enliven those dubious scenes of magic use, while the hand-to-hand combat involving the Huntsmen move vigorously enough in taverns, woodland areas, and the frigid corners of Freya's realm. The scope and trajectory of the adventure leaves plenty to be desired, though, and that's largely due to the film's meandering priorities, losing itself in referential coexistence with Snow White and The Huntsman while hurling a Thor-esque Hemsworth into an endgame that the character himself deems "the worst plan ever". On the steam of the enduring power of love like a tried-and-true fairytale, The Huntsman: Winter's War crystallizes into a strangely perplexing entry in the genre once all's said and done, one with passably-made action and stabs at personality that, somehow, still ends up leaving one feeling about as cold as its predecessor does.

Film review also appeared over at DVDTalk.com: [LINK]

Rest at Ease: Dazzling New 'Jungle Book' Relishes Necessities

Directed by: Jon Favreau; Runtime: 105 minutes
Grade: B+

Visual effects involving animals -- and human interaction with them -- have come a long way over the years, gradually getting closer and closer to realism with every Life of Pi and Planet of the Apes that comes out. For most, there's still a barrier separating the computer wizardry from buying into their authenticity, where audiences have to give a little slack to the filmmaking in order to believe whatever bizarre events are playing out on-screen, whether it's the simplicity of a tiger thrashing about on a boat or the complexity of talking apes leading a rebellion. In the second of a planned series of live-action adaptations of their animated works, Disney's The Jungle Book takes a bold, brave leap forward in this spectrum. Spearheaded by Iron Man and Zathura director Jon Favreau, no stranger to the fusion of digital and practical composition, this updated take on the whimsical tale of a boy growing up among wolves, cats, and bears (oh, my!) mesmerizes with its capability to make talking beasts seem surprisingly real and well-drawn amidst a bracing adventure of discovering where one fits in the world.

This Jungle Book adapts from both Rudyard Kipling's collection of stories and from a few of the tweaks that Disney made in their animated version, both of which tell the tale of Mowgli (Neel Sithi), the feral "man-cub" raised in the jungle by wolves and by the black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). While the boy struggles to keep up with the other wolf cubs in physical ability, he uses his human ingenuity and craftiness to get him along, a practice looked down upon by the pack's leader, Akela (Giancarlo Esposito), for not being part of their ways. Once word reaches a menacing tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), that a human child resides with the wolves, Mowgli's life comes under attack, sending him into the depth of the jungle. During his flight from everything he's known from a young age, the boy encounters hardships and new acquaintances, from a crafty bear named Baloo (Bill Murray) to rambunctious foxes, snakes, and monkeys with unpredictable motivations, all leading him to learn where he and his unique circumstances belong in the wild.

Mowgli speaks with the jungle's creatures in plain English, just as he does in the animated film, leading the animals to articulate the language as they would in a normal human conversation. Where the digital wizardry of talking animals in movies might have understandably rubbed some the wrong way in prior films, the computer-generated effects in The Jungle Book have achieved something rather noteworthy this time around, marrying verbal movements with the natural presence of the wild animals' appearances. Director Favreau and his team have crafted a living, breathing, speaking world here, both in the citizens of the jungle and the dazzling landscape of the land itself, approaching a projection of realism that requires far less suspension of disbelief than expected. From vigorous movement through verdant trees to something as simple as a large cats scaling the rocky terrain, the moments are rare where the cinematic illusion isn't preserved, an impressive feat considering the extensive visual effects from start to finish.

Visuals are only part of the necessities in bringing to life such a vibrant and outlandish premise, as the wrong voices for the animals could've also created a disconnect. Such isn't the case with The Jungle Book, for the most part, as the vocal cast lends distinctive, seamless personalities to each of the individual animals, embracing the primal and persuasive and jovial attitudes one might expect from the species. Ben Kingsley channels a sympathetic, impartial gruffness into the panther Bagheera, while the likes of Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong'o continue to flex their voiceover muscle as Mowgli's wolf pack. Idris Elba's turn as the villainous Shere Khan, dominant yet wounded in his menacing persona, might make it through this theatrical season as the best villain of the year. Others are more recognizable: Scarlett Johansson's low, velvety tempo can be pinpointed as the python Kaa, but the hypnotic fluidity of her performance works wonders for the role, as does the idiosyncratic registry of Christopher Walken as a colossal monkey king. Despite my adoration for Bill Murray, however, his charisma struggles to fit inside the body of the bear Baloo, enjoyably buoyant but overtly identifiable.

That's a lot of intangible movie-making magic surrounding newcomer Neel Sithi, yet, despite that, he brings empathy, dedication, and wide-eyed wonder to the adventures of Mowgli throughout the jungle. While showing signs of inexperience, his strong youthful performance goes a long way toward enriching the theme surrounding a human existing in the world of animals, where his use of tools and ingenuity to supplement his lack of raw instinct and physical prowess becomes a complex backbone for the story. Neel Sithi's performance has depth and adaptability to it, fleshing out Mowgli as a distinct personality instead of a prop moving through the computer-generated apparatus, lending credence to the emotional bonds he builds with the wolfpack and, in different degrees, with Bagheera and Baloo. Mowgli endures a lot of emotional trials throughout the jungle's decisions about how to handle the "man-cub", about whether he belongs with his kind or should stay with another species, which shapes into an involving coming-of-age yarn that's kept under control by the fortitude and youthful responses brought out of Neel Sithi.

With Favreau's expertise in the Marvel universe and other blockbusters as the driving force pulling it all together, The Jungle Book quickly takes shape as an energetic and spellbinding odyssey that shows reverence both to the spirit of Kipling's work and to the vibrancy of Disney's original animated film. Intense fights among animals -- arguably a tad too intense for the younger crowd -- and cleverly-placed musical numbers weave together inside Mowgli's dangerous flight throughout the jungle, shining a light on both the intensity of the young human's surroundings and uplifting it all with just the right amount of effervescence befitting the House of Mouse. The adventure never really stops as it strides through flashbacks, stampedes, and raging fire, holding onto that largely family-friendly energy until a bold and consequential finale that smartly brings together the film's ideas of fitting in and of human ingenuity. Sure, it's a tad outlandish, even for a film with talking animals, but for Favreau and his team to bring it so close to photorealism and authentic emotionality within the setting is quite a feat.

Film review also appeared over at DVDTalk.com: [LINK]

'Mockingjay: Part 2": A Smoky, Grim Revolt Lacking In Fire

Directed by: Francis Lawrence; Runtime: 137 minutes
Grade: B-

The writing was on the wall as soon as the announcement was made: that the third book in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series, "Mockingjay", would be split into two films. The idea is intrinsically flawed, driving a partition somewhere in the middle -- around the rising action -- of a story that's built with a beginning and an end, leaving one standalone film to concentrate on the build-up and the other as the payoff. It was a disheartening creative decision, especially after director Francis Lawrence surprised audiences with Catching Fire, often considered to have improved upon the successes of the first Hunger Games. Yet, the possibility arose that, perhaps, the added length and the cinematic format might better realize the material that received a polarized response from the series' fans, giving the first half more substance and purpose while more clearly visualizing the vigorous war-torn second half. Alas, the division was clearly apparent in the dreary and unsatisfying Mockingjay Part 1, leaving Part 2 to follow through roughly as expected: two-plus hours of danger, death, and despair that'd have more impact had it seamlessly flowed from the first.

Naturally, Mockingjay: Part 2 picks up immediately after the abrupt ending of the previous film (which should be viewed before continuing with this review), where resistance leader Coin (Julianne Moore) announced plans to move forward on the Capitol and where the group of Hunger Games victors who were captured by President Snow's forces -- including Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) -- have been rescued and brought to the fabled District 13. There's little else to do at this point than for the face of the resistance, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), to lead her push onto the Capitol, though the conflicted attitudes within the resistance leave her in a state of flux as to whether she's supposed to kill Snow (Donald Sutherland) or not. Katniss, ever decisive and rebellious, makes her own choices about what to do once the troops arrive in the landscape of the Capitol, which has been rigged into a grand spectacle of violent traps for the resistance fighters to progress through, quite similarly to that of another spectacle in the Hunger Games.

By virtue of being the response to the events in Mockingjay Part 1 and the grand finale in a series about political and paramilitary rebellion, it's unsurprising that Mockingjay Part 2 revolves almost entirely around the brutal action of the storm upon the Capitol. Despite complex character moments beforehand that heighten the emotional gravity of the events to come, there's no stopping the momentum forcing the film forward, as if very little has a purpose beyond spurring Katniss toward her duty. While that's part and parcel with the division of stories, the script from Peter Craig and Daniel Strong also relies on an exorbitant amount of dull exposition to elaborate on what's going on, failing to elevate the inherently grim tone of warfare leading the resistance forward. Beyond the scenes with Peeta, driven by an unleashed and wild-eyed performance from Josh Hutcherson whose character now suffers from his own post-trauma distortion, there's a stony and generally obligatory attitude about the second part here. The intentionally silent presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn't help.

Across the Hunger Games series, Katniss Everdeen transforms dramatically, erupting from a emotional sister who stands in for her sibling in the face of certain death into a warrior with PTSD and, eventually, to the televised face of rebellion against dictatorship. Mockingjay Part 2 marks the end product of her trials, and it isn't pretty: born of necessity, she's become severe and driven by vengeance, sustaining her composure for the good of those around her. It's a logical metamorphosis, of course, but it also takes away from the enlivened strength that Lawrence's acting ability brought to the table, relying more on suppressed -- often nondescript -- expressions of anguish. There's strength in that, depicting a resolute woman who steels herself for the betterment of her comrades: for her sister, a burgeoning medic; for Peeta, whose brainwashing has given him murderous tendencies; and for Gale, who turned pragmatically ruthless for the sake of the resistance after the destruction of his home. Outside of a few fiery scenes where Katniss is (finally) allowed to let her guard down, this is a stark -- numbed, even -- portrayal that's tough to relish.

The vast majority of Mockingjay Part 2 revolves around this despondent Katniss leading the physical uprising throughout the Capitol, which President Snow has shaped into a grand spectacle by setting vicious booby-traps throughout the city to thwart their efforts. In essence, that becomes the final version of the "games" within the series, and it doesn't shy away from bountiful violence and death within the space of a PG-13 film. Collins' third book struggled in this area: while her writing style capably fleshed out the creativity of gamemaker arenas, her depiction of the modified city streets resulted in fast-moving but obscured warfare that didn't have a firm grasp on the landscape. The cinematic medium obviously has an advantage there, and it's one of final chapter's true strengths, perpetuating the gray, crumbling atmosphere of upheaval with the dangers of liquid, fire, and bloodthirsty monsters unleashed on Katniss and her infiltrators. Fierce action ensues, and while the skirmishes and battlefield are still jumbled and not without a few holes, director Lawrence nails the harrowing blockbuster intensity.

That's also part of the problem with Mockingjay Part 2 as a whole, though: it essentially feels like the Reaping portion of the prior films has been cut off and extended into its own installment, only with Katniss descending into the warzone of districts instead of being elevated upwards through a cylindrical tube. The series' signature gloomy tones built around sacrifice, politics, and manipulation of citizens with media and propaganda weave together with the intense action, further amplified by commentary on the price of war and the demands of political power upon rulers. Director Lawrence and his writers bring all this together into a functional and twist-heavy commentary, yet viewing the tribulations of the resistance fighters and the lengths in which powerful figures will go to assert their grasp over the masses -- blatantly disregarding the value of life -- doesn't make for the same kind of rewarding or particularly enthralling experience found in Katniss' first bout in the arena or the Quarter Quell. The stakes are higher, but the the overcast demeanor continuously suppresses the excitement level.

While the final installment in the Hunger Games series certainly understands its need for closure, heightened by splendid production value behind the action and convincing, emotional performances from all involved, there's no getting around that Mockingjay Part 2 -- much in the same way as Part 1 -- runs at least a half-hour longer than it should. A tighter and more poignant depiction of the uprising against the Capitol likely exists somewhere between these overlong productions, a brisk and intense sendoff instead of an elongated elegy. What's here instead musters a generally appropriate ending that fits somewhere in the space between sorrow and bittersweet, slightly more upbeat and optimistic in tone than the book but every bit as daunting in terms of how Katniss concludes her term as the Girl on Fire. Unfortunately, that comes at the end of a four-hour storming of the castle that can't shake the feeling that it deliberately padded its runtime for the sake of a two-part theatrical showing, a disappointment considering how director Lawrence skillfully took the torch and ran with Catching Fire.

For a full review of the Hunger Games series on Blu-ray, head over to DVDTalk: [Click Here]