Thursday, March 24, 2011

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Fairy Tale Hokum

Riding, indeed.

I think I need to speak up for Red Riding Hood. It's been two weeks or so since I saw it, only my second exposure to 2011 Cinema (which, for me, is a drought indeed). Perhaps it's too late. Perhaps, by now, it has come and gone at your local bijou (we've still got it where I work). Perhaps you've heard the bad buzz or Twilight-ish trailer and decided already to catch it on HBO, if ever you catch it at all. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

You'd certainly have reason to avoid Red Riding Hood. The production design, while inspired in concept -- those ominous, spear-like branches jutting out from the trees; Grandmother's house -- is sometimes disappointing in execution. The forest looks like a soundstage decorated with trees and leaves, for one thing. The main village where the film is set, for instance, looks like a set, and frequent mentions of a hierarchy within this village are little seen. Everything looks the same, so how does one distinguish the rich from the poor? For that matter, what is this family selling in such abundance that they are considered richer than everyone else there? Is it because they seem to be the only people are aren't woodcutters? And if so, then it seems strange that Julie Christie, wife and mother of woodcutters, is the only person who can live on their own in a sizable house outside the village. Then again, maybe there aren't land taxes outside those village walls, so it's a sign of her poverty that she lives outside?

Obviously there are issues of clarity here, and I don't blame the writer. He's clearly set up everything for the love triangle, the hierarchy of wealth, the admittedly intriguing and well-handled Where's the Werewolf mystery. Catherine Hardwicke, however, does not really commit to an idea. The scares and mystery elements are dealt with almost half-heartedly, the better to get them out of the way so that Seyfried and Shiloh Fernandez can continue staring at each other, she hornily, he sullenly, in that new language of teen romance that fetishizes anyone with tousled hair and a blank stare. Yet I don't for one moment believe that Fernandez's Peter loved Seyfried's Valerie more than he lusted after her; nor do I believe that Valerie's arranged groom Henry is interested in anything sexual. Hardwicke is content to keep the love/lust quotient at close-ups of people's eyes, and while this aspect is plot-related, I wish there was a little more done on Hardwicke's end. Seyfried's got it, but she always does, and her directors shouldn't rest on her sexuality alone. Surely they should put in a little work?

And yet...

I'm here to tell you that you should see it. Yes, absolutely. Hardwicke may not have a grip on things. The production values may look fake. And yes, there are plot elements that almost made me laugh.

But there's so much going for it! The actors, ranging from solid (Julie Christie) to could be better, perhaps they're miscast (Fernandez and Billy Burke) are selling it. Nobody's phoning it in or picking up a paycheck; everyone seems genuinely interested in the story and invested in their characters. Sure, not all the performances are successful, but they're committing. Gary Oldman is doing his own thing, camping it up and bringing some life-force with his over-the-top portrayal of werewolf-hunting Father Solomon, resplendent in a fabulous violet tunic, equipped with a large, hollow brass elephant and some gadget that charts the solar system. Hear him ROAR, watch him POINT ACCUSINGLY, see his SPIT FLY.

Fabulous, I say! FABULOUS!!!

Also, Seyfried is just...well, she's just great in everything, isn't she? Whether it's pluck, innocence, wantonness, or suspicion regarding who is a werewolf, she succeeds at portraying any character thrown her way. Now, whether or not the character is well-written, or written at all, does not matter. The point is, she gives the filmmakers exactly what they need want.

If there's any reason to see it, however, it's a small scene in which the villagers (mistakenly) celebrate the end of the werewolf's reign. There's a big party, there's a bonfire, there's a strange song performed by Swedish electronic vocalist Karin Dreijer Andersson...and it all works. Finally, the film has found the perfect blend of fairy tale, horror, and hormonal excitement, and it's perfect. It's sexy, it's scary, it's absolutely hypnotic, and for five minutes you forget that the film doesn't work as a whole. Indeed, there are several moments like this, where you have a brief feeling that the film will recover and become what the trailers promised it might be, but this is perhaps the greatest instance of it. And hey, the literal roll in the hay that follows is genuinely sexy!

Pay for the two hours, but stay for those five minutes. It ain't perfect, but there are worse ways to spend an afternoon.


Meanwhile, Beastly remains forgettable despite some good intentions, a magnetic Vanessa Hudgens, and an effectively campy Mary-Kate Olsen. The rest? Whatever. It's not terrible, just terribly unmemorable. I can't help but think that Alex Pettyfer is better than his air-punching tantrums in this film would indicate. As if that weren't disappointing enough, it's much too dark to make out many of the night scenes. I permit you to skip, if you must.

1 comment:

M. Carter @ the Movies said...

Kudos for speaking up on BEHALF of "Red Riding Hood" ... but that's coming from someone who gave it a solid "D" and spent the last half hour checking my watch. It was a little too "Twilight"-y for my taste, and I thought Amanda Seyfried wasted her talent here. Virginia Madsen is wooden as ever. Plus, the two "love interests" are terribly predictable. And what the hell is up with Gary Oldman eating all the scenery? This was a letdown for me.