Thursday 8 December 2016

Film review: The Huntsman: Winter's War - visual flair cannot hide the many problems

Cert 12A. Now showing

Hilary A White

Published 11/04/2016 | 02:30

Charlize Theron is back as Queen Ravenna in 'The Huntsman: Winter War'.
Charlize Theron is back as Queen Ravenna in 'The Huntsman: Winter War'.
Barry Keoghan in a scene from his most recent film 'Mammal'

Noteworthy mostly for Kristen Stewart's on-set affair with director Rupert Sanders, Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) wasn't a particularly loveable fantasy outing. It did, however, do just enough business for Universal to tinker with the idea of some sort of follow-up, albeit without the services of the disgraced Stewart and Sanders.

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What to do then with a Snow White origins tale that has no Snow White? Answering the call is Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, who acted as visual effects supervisor on the first film. To him falls the task of trying to breathe life into an already slipshod, CGI-heavy franchise that has little to boast about other than the baffling star power it manages to assemble.

It begins with Liam Neeson's sonorous narration bringing us up to speed on the realm that cherry-picks liberally from Lord of the Rings, Brave and even Frozen. Long before the events of the first film, Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) is offing her husband, taking power and doing wrong by kind sister Freya (Emily Blunt).

Freya turns wicked, develops ice powers and sets up her own kingdom of loyal "huntsmen". These are led by bellicose Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain), whose forbidden love lands them in hot water with the bitter queen. Suddenly the pair are on a mission to vanquish Ravenna. Who knows why (and who cares, for that matter?).

The visual flair cannot hide the many problems. Between the swashbuckling, there is Hemsworth's and Chastain's distracting Scottish accents, their characters' clumsily-penned love story and issues with continuity and plain narrative logic.

2 Stars

Hilary a white

Mammal

Cert 16. Now showing

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Dubliner Barry Keoghan (Love/Hate, '71, above) is finally given the chance to bring his impish presence to a lead role here, a place where many have been saying he increasingly belongs.

Rebecca Daly's follow-up to 2011's psychological chiller The Other Side of Sleep is an unhappy saga with a despondent fugue that recalls the gritty gloom of Gerard Barrett. And, like Toni Collette in Barrett's Glassland (2014), Rachel Griffiths, a powerhouse of Australian acting, admirably takes a punt on this relatively unknown Irish director.

Griffiths plays Margaret, a secondhand shop owner. She comes across an injured youth (Keoghan) passed out in the alleyway behind her store and ends up taking him in as a lodger. Her own situation is teased out through subtle allusions to a missing son and run-ins with the father (Game of Thrones' Michael McElhatton). The arrangement with this slightly wild-eyed guest seems unfeasible, but she persists, and an uncomfortable bond begins to congeal.

Daly's use of symbolism - underwater shots, breath-holding, maternal imagery - sets out motives and subtexts with potency in places, while she and cinematographer Lennart Verstegen locate an arresting palette in suburban Dublin.

And what of the chemistry between Keoghan and Griffiths? Well, the two leads interlock seamlessly and make for a uniquely unnerving 'odd couple' in a film that is all the more spellbinding for the distance it keeps from us.

4 Stars

Hilary A White

The Jungle Book

Cert PG. Opens April 15

Remaking a film as beloved and iconic as The Jungle Book has to be tempting in terms of filthy lucre - and fraught with risk, as it is held so dear by so many. But Disney and Jon Favreau (directing from a screenplay by Justin Marks via Kipling's books) do a really nice re-imagining that will please children without alienating all but the most die-hard fans.

It opens in a lush rush, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is hurtling through the gorgeous jungle (as the closing credits say, shot entirely in LA) and there are clearly several things in pursuit. The wolves catch up, but there is a bigger threat behind - a threat which turns out to be the black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). But this is just a lesson. As we learn, Mowgli was discovered by Bagheera as an abandoned infant and has been raised in the wolf pack by his mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o). He is trying to learn to be more like the animals and less like a man-cub.

During a drought, a water truce is declared where all of the animals come to drink at a dwindling water hole. Some are getting their first glimpse of the wolves' curious foster child when the one-eyed tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) appears, vowing to make Mowgli a meal one day.

It is deemed safest for everyone if the man-cub is returned to his people, but a surprise attack by Shere Khan finds an escaping Mowgli alone in the deepest jungle. Here, after an encounter with the seductive snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), he meets Baloo the bear (Bill Murray) and a firm friendship, the backbone of the story, begins. But Shere Khan is not the forgiving or forgetful kind.

Although entirely shot in studios, the jungle looks real. The effects are not gimmicky from Favreau who, coming from Iron Man, might have been tempted to over-egg the cake. The voice cast is great - it was also Gary Shandling's last role, playing Ikki the porcupine. The songs, those famous songs, feel slightly less naturally incorporated. The 3D works, in fact the whole thing does, and its appeal will be broad. It's a remake that honours the original and makes its own way.

4 Stars

Aine O'Connor

The Man Who Knew Infinity

Cert 12A 

Now Showing

Srinivasa Ramanujan is one of the stars of mathematics theory, but he grew up terribly poor and not very well educated in Madras. A boss was so impressed with his skill that he persuaded him to submit to Cambridge.

Matthew Brown directs his own screenplay of the story here, and it begins dutifully at the beginning - where the young mathematician (Dev Patel) cannot afford to have his new wife (Devika Bhise) live with him. When she does arrive it is, as tradition dictates, with his mother (Arundhati Nag). Ramanujan leaves soon afterwards for Cambridge at the invitation of Prof Hardy (Jeremy Irons).

Emotionally it is blunt, baddies are very bad, but it is a worthy story told solidly, and with good performances. A nice film.

3 Stars

Aine O'Connor

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