Cinderella (2015)


Cinderella in pumpkin coach with fairy godmother.

Cinderella in pumpkin coach with fairy godmother.

(2015) Fantasy (Disney) Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Nonso Anozie, Stellan Skarsgard, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Jana Perez, Alex Macqueen, Tom Edden, Gareth Mason, Paul Hunter, Eloise Webb, Joshua McGuire, Matthew Steer, Mimi Ndiweni, Laura Elsworthy, Ella Smith. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

We all grow up with fairy tales. We’re familiar with all the ones in which courageous and kind young women overcome poverty and the machinations of villains to triumph over adversity and win the love of handsome young princes who whisk them away to a happy ending of wealth and privilege. Most little girls grow up wondering what type of prince is going to sweep them off their feet.

Like most fairy tale heroines, Ella (Webb) wasn’t really thinking in those terms, at least not right away. She was too busy living an idyllic childhood on a country estate with a loving mother (Atwell) and a doting father (Chaplin) who’s often away on business. She doesn’t have many human friends but she has companions in a trio of mice that she feeds and also the farm’s goose. It’s a lovely, sun-dappled existence.

But all good things must come to an end and Ella’s golden childhood does when her mother takes ill and dies, lingering long enough to make her daughter promise to have courage and be kind in life. She takes comfort in that she still has her father but life isn’t quite as golden, not nearly as idyllic. Thinking that Ella needs a mother around her, her father decides to remarry, bringing into the household Lady Tremaine (Blanchett), the widow of an old friend of his, and her two spoiled, cruel and stupid daughters Drisella (McShera) and Anastasia (Grainger). None of the three are very pleasant but Ella treats them with kindness.

Then on a business trip her father also takes ill and dies, leaving Ella alone with these three monstrous females. Reduced to being essentially a servant in her own home, the newly rechristened Cinderella (James) – so named because of the embers staining her cheeks – tries to cope with being an orphan and being so cruelly used.

After a chance meeting with young Kip (Madden), who claims to be an apprentice in the castle of the King, in a forest during a hunt, Cinderella has hope that things might get better for her. What she doesn’t know is that Kip is actually the Prince who is apprentice to be the next King and with his father (Jacobi) in poor health, the pressure for him to marry is becoming intense. Traditionally, the royal family throws a ball at the castle in which all the eligible princesses from around the world are invited so that the prince of the castle might choose from one a bride to become the future Queen, but he has fallen deeply in love with Cinderella, although he doesn’t know her identity or her station in life. Desperate to see her again, he manages to convince his father to allow all the women of the kingdom to come to the ball as well, while the Grand Duke (Skarsgard) manipulates behind the scenes a match with the lovely Princess Chelina of Zaragosa (Perez).

Of course, everyone in the land is all aflutter over the prospects of attending a royal ball and Lady Tremaine knows that to get out of the financial bind she is now in due to her husband’s death that marrying off one of her daughters to the Prince would solve everything. Cinderella in the meantime longs to attend the ball so that she might see Kip again, whom she is quite taken by. She even finds an old dress that was once worn by her mother to wear, but the spiteful stepmother tears the dress and forbids her from attending, fearing the competition to her daughters.

Distraught, Cinderella sobs in the garden, realizing that her life will never change but her breakdown is interrupted by the appearance of an old crone begging for something to eat and drink which the compassionate Cinderella gives her. Turns out the old crone is her Fairy Godmother (Carter) who says “Hell YES you’re going to the ball,” or words to that effect. She conjures up a fabulous coach out of a pumpkin, footmen out of a pair of lizards and a driver from the goose. She also transforms her mother’s now ripped and ragged old dress into a beautiful gown and a pair of glass slippers – which are surprisingly comfortable – for her to wear. All the better to win the heart of a prince, although she has until midnight before the enchantments wear off.

For hordes of little girls, the princess fantasy is one that is central to their lives, the belief that a better life and a handsome princess who will adore them and see to their every happiness is just around the corner. How healthy this fantasy is can be debated as to whether it raises unrealistic expectations – not every handsome man is a prince, after all, and maybe the expectation that their own personal happiness is wrapped up in finding one. But that’s a debate for another time or place.

Branagh has always been a terrific director but as of late he has moved from Shakespeare and art house films to big budget event movies and this one continues in the series of live action reimaginings of classic Disney animated features. Inevitably, Cinderella will be compared to its 1950 predecessor but surprisingly it doesn’t fall as short as you think it might have.

The costumes and set design are lush and detailed, from the gilt on the pumpkin coach to the sumptuous ball gowns to the rustic charms of Cinderella’s home. This really looks like you’ve always imagined the fairy tale to be and I wouldn’t be surprised if down the road it got Oscar consideration for costume design and/or production design.

The acting is another matter. James is certainly as beautiful as a fairy tale princess, but her smile seems forced at times and her acting seems a tad stilted. Julia Roberts was a more believable fairy tale princess in Pretty Woman, that most modern of fairy tales, and more relatable. Not that Cinderella has to be a hooker mind you, but there was more genuineness coming from Roberts, although to compare James whose career is fairly nascent with one of the most glittering stars in the Hollywood firmament may be a trifle unfair.

One of the main attractions of the movie is that it is a retro fairy tale, which in this case is a good thing. This isn’t a re-working or a re-imagining; this is Cinderella exactly the way you remember it and the way your little girls envisioned it. This is the kind of movie that puts to the lie the old adage that “they don’t make ’em like this anymore,” because clearly they can and occasionally they do.

REASONS TO GO: Lush costumes and sets. Beautifully shot. Retro in a good way.
REASONS TO STAY: James’ performance a bit forced. Princess porn.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for most audiences except the very wee and impressionable.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James and McShera both appear in the hit PBS series Downton Abbey although their roles are reversed; in the show, James plays an aristocrat and McShera a servant.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maleficent
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Divergent Series: Insurgent

Last Night (2010)


Keira Knightley struggles with temptation.

Keira Knightley struggles with temptation.

(2010) Drama (Tribeca) Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Eva Mendes, Guillaume Canet, Griffin Dunne, Anson Mount, Daniel Eric Gold, Karen Pittman, Zach Poole, Stephanie Romanov, Scott Adsit, Justine Cotsonas, Rae Ritke, Stephen Mailer, John Treacy Egan, Chriselle Almeida, Jon Norman Schneider, William Clemente, Christian Lorentzen, Lana Taylor. Directed by Massy Tadjedin

Marriage is supposed to be “til death do you part” although it rarely works out that way. One of the main reasons for that is temptation – we aren’t always able to resist it.

On the surface Michael (Worthington) and Joanna Reed (Knightley) have things pretty good. A power couple on Manhattan’s Upper West side, cracks have begun to sprout up below the surface. Joanna is surprised when at a party he notices her husband having a moment out on the balcony with a beautiful woman. She’s not surprised at that fact – her husband is extremely attractive after all but that when he introduces her as Laura (Mendes), the surprise comes when she discovers that Laura and Michael work together and she thought she knew everyone who worked with him.

Laura is suspicious and accuses him of having an affair with her which he flatly denies. What’s worse is that he’s leaving on a business trip for Philadelphia – and Laura will be there with him. So while she stays home and frets, Laura is really coming on to Michael . It’s clear that Laura wants to get into his pants in the worst way. He’s resisting for now but that resistance is quickly crumbling.

In the meantime Joanna has run into an old flame of her, Alex (Canet) and they spend much of the day together. It is obvious Alex still has very strong feelings for her and as the evening progresses, she realizes she also has feelings for him. Both Joanna and Michael will face their own true feelings this night about cheating – and each other.

This isn’t exactly the first movie about a married couple facing temptation to be unfaithful. It is a titillating subject and is often handled  for maximum eroticism but that isn’t the case here. First-time writer/director Tadjedin attacks it more from an emotional point of view, looking at how infidelity and temptation affect not only the relationship but those in it.

She couldn’t have cast a more attractive couple. Worthington, who has been establishing himself as an action star carrying  major franchise films like Avatar and Clash of the Titans has never been known for his acting skills and while I won’t say he kills it here, he acquits himself pretty well as the emotionally closed-off Michael.

Even better is Knightley who during her run on the Pirates of the Caribbean series I kind of wrote off as just a pretty face but in the last few years she’s done a number of smaller budgeted pictures in which she’s pulled off some impressive performances, and this one is one of them. She is every bit the sophisticated New Yorker, and prone to suspicion not quite to the point of paranoia but not far off either. Joanna isn’t necessarily the easiest woman in Manhattan to live with, but Knightley imbues her with a certain vulnerability and confusion that makes her very relatable.

There’s no doubt Tadjedin loves the Big Apple from the way that the city is filmed here with beautiful vistas and gorgeous panoramas. There are also the elegantly furnished apartments and smart dinner parties that give an allure to life in the city that never sleeps. However, that sort of love is a live by the sword, die by the sword thing – New Yorkers often come off as condescending and pretentious to the rest of us and Tadjedin is unable to escape that particular trap.

Part of my issue with the film in that there is more time spent dithering about being faithful than anything else. Worthington is often staring at his shoes and mumbling in an effort to portray his conflicted feelings and quite honestly that will only go so far before the average viewer will start squirming in their easy chair and going off to check what’s in the fridge. Because the atmosphere is supposed to be sophisticate and chic, the actors and director have taken that to mean passionless and so the movie seems lifeless. Considering the emotional nature of the subject I would have liked to see more emotion from the characters other than discomfort as if they’ve got pebbles in their shoes rather than a moral dilemma to wrestle with.

Still, I give Tadjedin points for treating this subject in an adult manner, never reverting to tawdriness or unnecessary eroticism. Certainly the sex is a factor (there’s a scene in which Worthington and Mendes strip down to their underwear and go swimming in a hotel pool but while there is sexual tension it isn’t gratuitous even though on paper it may sound that way) but it isn’t the factor. This is about boundaries and emotional consequences and Tadjedin prefers to look at the subject from that angle. At the end of the movie, it is pretty clear that the relationship between Michael and Joanna will change and possibly not survive although it just might. While there are plenty of flaws here, there is without a doubt something here worth nurturing and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Tadjedin making some important films in her career before all is said and done.

WHY RENT THIS: Approaches temptation in an adult, non-prurient way. Knightley and Worthington are stellar.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags in places. Very New York chic. Needs more spark.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some pretty rough language and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jessica Biel auditioned for the role that eventually went to Knightley.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.7M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Freebie

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Terminator: Rise of the Machines

Mammoth


Mammoth

This is the kind of penthouse view you can only see in movies.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Gael Garcia Bernal, Michelle Williams, Sophie Nyweide, Marife Necesito, Tom McCarthy, Run Srinikornchot, Jan David G. Nicdao, Martin de los Santos, Maria Esmeralda del Carmen, Perry Dizon, Joseph Mydell. Directed by Lukas Moodysson

The world doesn’t exist in a vacuum; what happens in New York might well ordain what happens in Luzon, or Bombay or Bangkok for that matter. Even our most insignificant actions in other words have consequences.

Leo (Bernal), Ellen (Williams) and their daughter Jackie (Nyweide) are a happy family. Sunday mornings are comprised of family tickle fests in their expensive Manhattan loft. Still, even a good tickle fest must come to an end and Leo, a video game designer, must jet off to Thailand with his business partner Bob (McCarthy) to sign a multi-million dollar deal that will make the already wealthy Leo even wealthier. Since Bob is the business end of the partnership, Leo has little to do but show up and smile; after doing too much sightseeing he begins to get bored.

Ellen is none too fond of Leo’s absence and her stressful position as a pediatric E.R doctor. She is suffering from insomnia, much of it due to sexual frustration but also due to a case that she’s handling in the E.R. of a child who was stabbed in the stomach by her own mother. She is also feeling disconnected from her daughter, a feeling that is further heightened by Jackie’s growing closeness with her nanny.

Gloria (Necesito), the said nanny, hails from the Philippines and has two boys there – Salvador (Nicdao) and Manuel (de los Santos) who miss her terribly and beg her to come home whenever she calls. She sends most of her earnings home to them to build them a home of their own (they live with Gloria’s mother) and put them through college eventually so they can make a better life for themselves. Jackie is latching onto her because she is basically the only one paying attention to her and treating her like a person. Gloria for her part teaches her Tagolog and takes her to the planetarium, which is Jackie’s favorite place.

The distance between Leo, Ellen and Jackie is growing and Leo finds that he is being tempted by a sweet Thai prostitute named, ironically enough, Cookie (Srinikornchot) who has a daughter of her own. There are a lot of mama issues in this movie.

Swedish director Moodysson (in his English language debut) has taken a lot of heat for implying the link between women working and child issues. Quite frankly he has a point there – women are being forced more and more into the workplace and something has to suffer for it and generally, it’s the relationship with their kids that has to take a back burner simply because they aren’t around as much. It’s not an indictment of women, gang, it’s just a statement of fact.

Bernal is a greatly underrated actor best known for his work in Y Tu Mama Tambien. His role is the least defined of the three members of the family but Bernal makes it memorable. He plays the husband as conflicted and a little bit weak-willed. He is guilty about his fling with Cookie and guilty about deserting his family but a little fuzzy on what’s really going on with his wife and daughter.

Williams, so good in Wendy and Lucy, shows that she has the ability to do an abundance of roles. Self-assured as a surgeon she is nonetheless flawed and occasionally unsure of herself as a woman. She is jealous of Gloria’s closeness to her daughter but doesn’t know how to develop that closeness herself. Instead, she finds herself giving that tenderness to the daughter of another mother. Williams owns the role the same way she owned the role of Wendy in the previous film; and the two roles could not be more different. I see statuettes and red carpets in her future.

The soundtrack is magnificent and uses songs by the electropop band Ladytron effectively to create upbeat moods, which the movie needs in places. It creeps along most of the time and has a languorous pace that can use the occasional shot of adrenaline and Ladytron supplies that nicely.

While the women play the pivotal roles in this movie, I came away thinking it was more about the way families drift apart in the modern world, given the demands of work and of human interactions. In that sense, this is a movie that hits the mark nicely, but it takes a long time to get down a short road and some might find that infuriating. Whether you agree with all of Moodysson’s conclusions is kind of beside the point. It’s whether or not you’ll enjoy the journey and I think it can go either way for most people. It’s worth taking the time to find out if you’re one of those who’ll like it though.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Bernal and Williams. Establishes dialogue regarding privilege and those who support it. Nice use of Ladytron on the soundtrack.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a glacial pace not unlike the title creature. Some will find the movie’s plot controversial and its conclusions unpalatable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes going on here and some scenes where children are put in jeopardy.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Thailand, the Philippines, Sweden and New York City.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.8M on an unreported production budget; I’d guess the movie broke even or thereabouts.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Bedazzled (2000)