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Friday , November 16 2018

Feminism freezes in Winter’s War – ‘Lavender’ sturdy chiller on woman recalling her past

In this image released by Universal Pictures, Jessica Chastain appears in a scene from ‘Huntsman: Winter’s War.’ (AP)
In this image released by Universal Pictures, Jessica Chastain appears in a scene from ‘Huntsman: Winter’s War.’ (AP)

‘The Huntsman: Winter’s War’ is one of the more bizarre sequels in recent memory. If modern movies are going to strip every side story out of every superhero universe and beyond, fairy tales should be fair game too. But, it’s more than a little odd that the filmmakers here decided to follow up their feminist reimagining of the Snow White story with one focused on Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) and the jilted, hysterical woman (Emily Blunt’s Freya) who is trying to keep him apart from his true love (Jessica Chastain’s Sara). If this is progress, count me out.

Part prequel, part sequel to “Snow White and the Huntsman,” this one plays musical chairs with focus and tone. One moment, it’s a bawdy, slapstick comedy. The next, it’s a deathly serious fantasy epic. Tonal shifts are fine, but this star-studded nonsense feels like it was put together by a committee of robots who were given copies of “Frozen,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and five minutes of “Snow White and the Huntsman” as source material.

There are about a dozen competing story lines, the only point of which seems to be a futile effort to continually reinvent and justify its reason for being.

This film starts before the events of the first. The evil Ravenna (a luminous Charlize Theron) is alive, glowing, glaring and still talking about taking down men and kingdoms. She wants her good-natured sister Freya (Blunt) to fall in line too, but that only happens when Freya’s heart is broken and her icy powers are unleashed. So she retreats to a frozen enclave in the north (sound familiar?). If she can’t raise children, she’ll raise an army from childhood … and also ban them from experiencing love.

Fizzles

But two of those child soldiers, Sara and Eric, grow into handsome adults and, well, fall in love — or so we’re told. Chastain and Hemsworth are fine on their own, but together their chemistry fizzles. Hemsworth, in particular, can’t seem to get out of Thor mode. He can do the high-wattage smile and the goofy aside just fine. The gaze of desperate love and longing? Not in his arsenal.

Freya is of course none too happy about Sara and Eric’s romance and schemes to keep them apart. The story jumps ahead seven years, after Snow White (whose back is seen only briefly) has defeated Ravenna. The pesky golden mirror has driven Snow mad, and essentially becomes The One Ring that everyone wants. Eric, who has picked up some comic relief little people along the way, is out to get it before Freya does.

Confused yet? There are so many twists and turns that it’s hard to know what exactly is an actual spoiler and who exactly might care. In fact, it’s hard to know who this movie is for at all. It’s both too adult for kids and too cartoony for the “Game of Thrones” crowd.

Colleen Atwood’s costumes still look like a dream — especially Blunt’s glimmering gowns — but gone are the sweeping landscapes and gothic beauty of Rupert Sanders’ film. For such a bombastic title, “Winter’s War,” the feature debut of visual effects specialist Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, feels awfully small compared to its predecessor. The budget seems to have been wasted on its stars who aren’t even together all that much. When they are, it’s to execute action sequences.

There is a decent movie buried in here somewhere, but with such powerhouse actresses it’s dismaying that it feels so regressive from the first. Snow White had some agency. Here the ladies are props and stereotypes and always one heartbreak away from madness.

It makes you wonder why, in the name of the Brothers Grimm, anyone would have put this purportedly female-centric story in the hands a co-screenwriter best known for “The Hangover” sequels.

“The Huntsman: Winter’s War,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “fantasy action violence and some sensuality.”

Another return to “return of the repressed” ghost-story terrain, “Lavender” unearths few new surprises yet reconfirms the efficacy of its genre’s most hallowed conventions. Forgotten memories, spectral whispering and mysterious gifts from the great beyond all play a role in this sturdy chiller about a woman who, post-car crash, begins remembering the horrible details of her long-forgotten past. The film would be a routine affair if not for its baroque aesthetic gestures and a captivating turn from star Abbie Cornish.

Canadian director Ed Gass-Donnelly (“Small Town Murder”) reveals his more extravagant inclinations immediately, via cinematographic tours through frozen tableaux of a farmhouse crime scene where bloodied corpses lie hidden beneath sheets. These show-offy opening salvos are later complemented by look-at-me slow-motion sequences — including a single-take close-up of Cornish in a flipping SUV — that, though severely self-conscious, imbue the material with an unreal, trance-like quality.

“Lavender”’s calm, creeping visuals are enhanced by Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld’s bold, discordant, malevolent score, all jangling orchestral strings and scuzzy, rumbling bass tones. In total, the film’s style is sharp, and does much to prop up a rather hackneyed portrait of deep, dark secrets coming back to traumatizing life. That process begins once Jane (Cornish) — a photographer who snaps old, abandoned homes because they feel to her like “epitaphs” of their former residents — stumbles upon a rickety abode, and can’t seem to shake its inexplicable pull. When she wrecks her vehicle in order to avoid hitting an enigmatic girl in the middle of the street, and awakens with amnesia partly attributable to a prior youthful brain injury, her recollection process begins, leading her to discover that her pre-foster care upbringing was cut short by some sort of notorious tragedy.

Condition

Jane’s “fuzzy” mental state puts a further strain on her marriage to grouchy Alan (Diego Klattenhoff) and her relationship with daughter Alice (Lola Flanery), and is treated by psychologist Liam (Justin Long), who counsels that her condition might “really stimulate some repressed memories.” That it does, and in initially beguiling form, as Jane is soon receiving wrapped packages full of mystifying items (keys, razors, ballerina figurines), as well as spying a young girl who delivers hushed warnings before running away.

After Jane learns that she actually owns the house from her photograph — and that her uncle Patrick (Dermot Mulroney) has been caring for it for the past 25 years — she follows Liam’s advice and takes a visit to the old homestead, along the way making a pit stop at a local fair where she gets lost in the type of disorienting, claustrophobic maze (here made of hay) that’s been a horror staple since Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”

Predictable paranormal activity commences upon her arrival at the cornfield-enclosed house: locked doors, creepy music boxes and murmured kids songs — in this case, English folk ditty “Lavender’s Blue,” which is accompanied by Jane’s habit of intoning, “Five, four, three, two, olly olly oxen free,” under her breath. The effect is to cast the film as a rather by-the-books tale about righting bygone wrongs in order to set the purgatorial dead free. Still, amidst a preponderance of devices that are creakier than Jane’s childhood residence, at least Gass-Donnelly and co-writer Colin Frizzell manage to provide a couple of competent twists during their prolonged third act. (Agencies)

If “Lavender” never develops in a particularly novel direction, it nonetheless benefits from the commanding presence of Cornish, who projects a measure of confidence and intelligence that’s a welcome reprieve from the usual bewildered-panicky heroine behavior found in so many likeminded supernatural sagas. Her dreamy, far-off gazes laced with more than a hint of violence, Cornish exudes cliche-upending self-possession, and thus proves the sturdy backbone of this been-there, done-that thriller. (Agencies)

By Lindsey Bahr

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