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Catherine Hardwicke might be in the midst of creating her own genre, the YA -- or Young Adult -- girlís film.  The director of the (then-) shocking tale of two way-precocious pubescent girls in 2003ís Thirteen had her biggest fame (- and infamy) with the blockbuster teen-meets-sparkly vampire romance, Twilight {2008}.  As the latter was one of the most unintentionally hilarious films Iíd seen in recent years, I was more than curious as to what to make of her newest epic, Red Riding Hood.

Nowhere near as awesomely awful as Twilight, Hardwicke seems to dwell in that same strange fever-dream reality of the adolescent girl.  Indeed, one reckons the producers of the film, including Leonardo DiCaprio, can see the future and understand it very well may be in the Hello Kitty wallets of the thirteen to eighteen-year-old set that this film is made for.

Using tons of aerial shots of a forest landscape (- apparently leftover from Twilight), we are transported to medieval times, where superstition rules a small hamlet buried deep in a non-specifically European wood.  For as long as Valerie can remember, the town has given its best livestock to a legendary man-eating wolf and the dťtente has held with no casualties.  The murder of Valerieís sister sparks hysteria that the wolf isnít merely a jumped-up puppy, but a were who walks amongst them incognito in the daylight.  Calling on a wolfbuster in the form of Father Solomon, unease becomes the stuff of inquisitions as suspicion as to who the monster might be runs rife, threatening to tear apart the peaceful little village.  This is way too much for a young girl like Valerie, a plucky thing who already had a fight on her hands against a proposed arranged marriage to the richest catch in town, when all she wants is to settle down with her simple woodcutter beau.

Besides those recycled treetops (Sometimes covered with snow to show a difference from Twilight. Clever!), the production values of Red Riding Hood are unbelievable and not in a good way.  Beginning in a woodland paradise where we first meet Valerie as a child, Hardwicke saturates the colours in these scenes giving the film a sumptuous, lovely storybook feel which is quickly, inexplicably abandoned.  Instead the village suddenly becomes a cheap, obvious-looking Hollywood set whose ugly and slapdash construction makes one wonder if itís been assembled out of plywood by junior high-schoolers.  Thatís actually an insult to junior high-schoolers.  We do get a ratty-looking wolf that made me wish Hardwicke had lured some of special effects team from the Twilight films she didnít direct to create a better canine.  Did I mention the wolf talks? Well, at least it does to Valerie, which is the villageís first inkling that there might be a connection between beauty and the beast.

Aside from her perhaps unwitting embrace of camp, Hardwickeís saving grace is in casting some great actors to try to make up for the filmís inequities.  Gary Oldman in flippy hair and bright purple velvet robes that look like a loaner from The Princess Bride is clearly in on the joke.  Had he his old Dracula fangs, he couldnít take bigger bites out of the scenery.  Julie Christie is luminous even as she slums in this treacle, which she could do in her sleep.  Sheís truly one fabulous, feisty grandma with great taste in notice-me outerwear.  Virginia Madsenís return to a proper big-screen vehicle is tampered by the fact that her gorgeous face now seems incapable of registering emotion, ŗ la Cher.  Hardwicke brings in Bellaís dad, Billy Burke, the one redeeming quality of Twilight, to play Valerieís old man.  Burke plays drunk through the majority of the piece, but one wonders if he hasnít gone Method for the surprisingly low energy he exhibits here.  As Red herself, Valerie, Amanda Seyfriedís well-known wide-spaced eyes capture the adolescent inner turbulence that the Red Riding Hood story is often a parable for, while conveying the post-modern spunk required of a Hardwicke heroine.

But it seems, for the good performances, there must always be the comically bad.  There are a few to speak of, but none so glaring as that of Valerieís loverboy, the purported hero and heartthrob of the piece, Peter, played by Shiloh Fernandez.  I was surprised to learn that there was no dearth of hair products for the medieval metrosexual woodcutter and further wondered what in olden times the gel responsible for that perfect fringe wall was made of?  Peter constantly tells Valerie of his love and worry for her as things with the wolf get hairy, but one could never tell from his facial expressions; the infinitesimal range of which runs from to catching a bad smell to straight up Blue Steel.  Looking as if heís never had a splinter in his life, never mind chopped down a tree, Fernandez seems more like a Gossip Girl refugee for the smug, self-satisfaction in his every glance and absolute lack of effort in conveying anything past the mumbled lines of his script.

For all its shortcomings and overreach (- I didnít even start on the faux-lesbian dark ages dance-off.), I canít despise Red Riding Hood the way I did Twilight.  Twilight was deadly earnest in its presentation, whereas Red Riding Hood seems to own its flakiness. Perhaps this is solely owed to the (mostly) superior cast who play their scenes as if knowing theyíve signed up for a campy pubescent fantasy thatís either going to be a huge blockbuster or a giant blot on their CVs.  Most manage without winking at the audience, except for Gary Oldman, who plays to the back rows as if heís starring in an English pantomime and even so, itís all good.  I doubt I could take any film of hers seriously again, but director Hardwickeís impassioned, overwrought cinematic fever dreams are broad and strange enough to accommodate all forms of thespian weirdness and practically cry out for it, which would have made a film like Red Riding Hood far more interesting and entertaining than if itíd had been played straight.

 

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

March 11th, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Warner Brothers)

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