Monday, March 14, 2011

What Beautiful Eyes She Has: Red Riding Hood

Is it premature to start campaigning for the 2012 Academy Awards? Because if not I’d like to nominate Amanda Seyfried for your consideration for Best Actress for her performance in Red Riding Hood. Oh, I know she can’t win. Her portrayal of the titularly cloaked Valerie has none of the hallmarks of Oscar success. She doesn’t play a historically or culturally significant character. She didn’t transform her shapely figure in deference to her craft or with disregard for her beauty. She delivers no rousing monologue. She adopts no quirky accent. She refrains from dissolving into a puddle of tears. And she doesn’t so much as lay her tongue on the scenery to see if it’s worth chewing. Instead, Seyfried does something all the more remarkable: she delivers a performance that’s unfailingly watchable and convincing within a film that can only be described with those words when she is on screen, and usually not even then. It isn’t the stuff of Oscar, but if you think about it, maybe it should be.

Red Riding Hood is a mess, sometimes in entertaining ways but mostly in befuddling ones. The direction is unproductively busy, the dialogue is awkward and most of the bit parts are so stiffly acted that they could be mistaken for product placement for Viagra. The biggest problem, though, is that the film doesn’t seem to have a clue what it’s about. Written by David Johnson, Red Riding Hood has elements of gothic horror, fairy tale fantasy, tribal fear-of-the-other and even playful farce, but it wears those threads like a tightwad trying on dress shirts at Banana Republic – which is to say not for long and without ultimate investment. Instead the film settles for its Shakespearean-cum-Meyerean romance, not so much because it appears to have any ideas about the genre but because the Twilight books and films have proven there’s a market for that stuff. Better films weave together multiple genres seamlessly; Red Riding Hood bounces around like an actor struggling to find its motivation. In short spans, the film is almost Lynchian, although without the mindfucking boldness or twisted symbolism. Some of the earliest printed versions of Little Red Riding Hood, dating back more than 400 years, are thought to be cautionary tales about a woman’s coming of age – the red cloak representing menstruation and the wolf’s ultimate triumph emphasizing the danger of trust and lost innocence, but there’s no deeper meaning to this cinematic adaptation. What you see is all that’s there.

Red Riding Hood is the fifth directorial effort of Catharine Hardwicke, who helmed 2008’s Twilight and approaches this film like it’s a sequel, with lots of helicopter shots – er, CGI approximations of helicopter shots – sweeping over a mountainous, dense woodland, and an appearance by Billy Burke as the heroine’s father. Hardwicke was a production designer before she was a director, and Red Riding Hood is at least visually striking, if never dazzling, getting a lot of mileage out of the contrast of that vivid red cloak against pure white snow. Hardwicke also spends a lot of time appreciating Seyfried’s face, and who can blame her? Seyfried has the kind of beauty that you could pass on the street without noticing but that once noticed you cannot look away from. Her wide blue eyes make her perfect for her role as Valerie – the innocent young woman with multiple suitors and a heightened sense that danger is lurking in the dark corners of her village. After Valerie comes face-to-snout with the snarling, talking wolf (who might or might not be played by Taylor Lautner, who can say?), Hardwicke employs numerous tight eye shots, contrasting Valerie’s bright orbs with the dark, perhaps sinister eyes of her fellow village people (not to be confused with the Village People, alas, because that would have been fun). Which of the villagers is the werewolf hiding by day in human form? Amazingly (spoiler warning), the film spends a lot of time implying that the wolf might be Valerie’s grandmother, which is odd considering that Grandma is the eatee, not the eater, in the old fairy tale. Then again, this is a film that sends a dozen-or-so men into the wild on foot, in a snow storm, in the middle of the night, without gloves, hats or coats. So I guess sometimes the most obvious details are the easiest to miss.

On that note, it would be easy to overlook Seyfried’s performance, until we note the fact that she’s always the most captivating presence on screen – even when opposite Gary Oldman, as a fanatical werewolf hunter, and the always delightful Julie Christie as Grandmother. The film gets some well-earned laughs from the latter, while the former is overshadowed by his character’s eccentricities – and for Oldman, that’s really saying something. His purple-robed Solomon has silver-tipped fingernails and travels through the countryside with a pair of black doormen, who double as werewolf hunters, but nothing beats the enormous steel elephant that Solomon drags along with him as a torture device, locking stonewalling would-be informants in the belly of the pachyderm and then starting a fire underneath the metal beast in an effort to make them talk. You might be thinking that thumbscrews would have a similar effect, while still leaving room in the overhead bin of Solomon’s carriage, but that would eliminate the film’s best bit of unintentional humor, when upon capturing one of the villagers Solomon screams, “Lock him up in the elephant!” You don’t have to be Nicolas Cage to kind of love a line like that.

And you don’t have to enjoy this film to kind of love Seyfried in it. She’s just so positively effortless (with the exception of an early scene in which Hardwicke makes Valerie fall to her knees in mourning for her slain sister while the rest of the villagers stand around like kids looking at a dead bird on the playground). This movie may be a mess, but Seyfried never plays it that way, maybe because she has experience. In recent years, Seyfried has made miserable material slightly less painful (Jennifer’s Body) while making mediocre material seem almost solid (Dear John). If this keeps up, one day we’ll have to bemoan the fact that Seyfried isn’t offered roles worthy of her abilities. For now, though, we can take comfort in the fact that Hollywood is at least building movies around her. What big, beautiful eyes Seyfried has! Talent, too.


Richard Bellamy said...

I totally agree that at least Seyfried gives you something to enjoy during the torture of this movie: her eyes and her earnest performance. This makes her the most enthusiastic member of the cast and crew. She decided she was going to put her heart into her role - which had the potential of being a very enjoyable one and a chance to show emotions like passion, sorrow, and fear - whereas no one else had the same enthusiasm, especially not the guys working on CGI who created a werewolf that looks like a stuffed animal that had a bad experience in the washing machine.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Jason - this was great (and also very funny). I haven't seen it yet but I loved your focus here on her performance. I've liked Seyfried since I saw her in Mean Girls - she was one of the funniest things in it - and in the special features she is interviewed about her character, and she started talking about bullying girls in school, and she actually teared up. Spontaneously. It was so sweet, so available - I immediately thought; "Oh wow. This girl is the real deal."

Love her in Big Love, too. I think she's got a good shot at having a very interesting and diverse career.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey: looks like a stuffed animal that had a bad experience in the washing machine

Wow, that's right on!

Sheila: I've never seen any Big Love, but I've heard good things. She can also do this, which is pretty cool!

Anonymous said...

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Bruno Hill said...

The Red Riding Hood movie was so much different from the book that we used to read when we were younger. It totally changed the whole story to fit its target audience psychographics. And indeed, Amanda Seyfried remarkably portrays her role. In whatever character she nailed it. She was also so good in the movie, Letters for John. Her eyes are very expressive that she makes the viewers very much hooked into the story.