Movie Review ~ Nightmare Alley (2021)

The Facts:  

Synopsis: An ambitious carny with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is. 

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, Holt McCallany 

Director: Guillermo del Toro 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 150 minutes 

TMMM Score: (8.5/10) 

Review:  ‘Tis the season for directors that just ‘get’ movies to be coming back to theaters with a vengeance.  Filmmakers that simply understand the language of cinema and the power of the medium have had some time to either tweak their projects that were delayed due to the COVID-19 lockdown or have been continuing to work through the pandemic to finish their anticipated flicks on schedule.  And it’s so good to have them back because as much as we like to believe that moviemaking is more and more like a collaborative process, when all is said and done the buck stops with the director because it’s their vision that dictates what the tone of the film is going to be.  That’s why you can spot a Steven Spielberg (West Side Story) movie from a mile away or recognize the latest from Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza) as it draws near, not to mention waffling around an Adam McKay satire (Don’t Look Up) and deciding if it’s for you or not.

Another director that has become instantly recognizable is Guillermo del Toro and maybe more than anyone I’ve already mentioned the Oscar-winner for The Shape of Water has a signature style that couldn’t possibly be anything else but him.  The early trailers for Nightmare Alley were classic del Toro, with the noir-ish period setting that we know was set in the past but how far in the past was anyone’s guess, well, if you hadn’t already read the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham that inspired it.  Not just a well-respected filmmaker but a celebrated film fan as well, del Toro engineered those trailers and even the marketing of Nightmare Alley to be as mysterious as can be, keeping hidden the true plot of the film and it’s worked out wonderfully in creating interest to see just what is down this Alley of del Toro’s creation.

While you won’t get any spoilers out of me, I will say that like many of the foreboding places that frightened us when we were young, Nightmare Alley is a movie that gets less intriguing as more light leaks onto the shadowy plot, but for a time it does it’s work considerably well.  It also gives some already strong actors even more rich moments to add to their lifetime achievement reels.  If only the plot could be as finely etched as the performances that are floating through the piece, then we might have had something as grand as del Toro wanted to give us. 

Joining a traveling circus to escape a past we learn in doled out fragments, Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born) remains a silent mystery for most of the first hour of Nightmare Alley.  Observing the carnies and hucksters who entice onlookers into the cheap freak show, he eventually moves onto working with Pete (David Strathairn, Nomadland) and Zeena (Toni Collette, Muriel’s Wedding) on their clairvoyant act.  Learning the secrets of their success becomes an opportunity for Stan and before you know it, events occur which send Stan out into a world removed from the carnival folk where he puts the “powers” he has gained to use as a way of reinventing his life.

Years later, he’s working with fellow former performer and girlfriend Molly (Roony Mara, Side Effects) in a sophisticated act for high-paying customers when an elegant but hard-edged woman (Cate Blanchett, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) tries to trip him up and expose him as a fraud.  How this woman plays into Stan’s life and what is means for his future is where the real story of Nightmare Alley begins…and where this part of the review has to end because I wouldn’t dare reveal the twists which begin to entangle with deadly results anyone that gets too close to Stan.

An overly hesitant first act/hour is mere set-up for Blanchett to swoop into del Toro’s grandly staged Nightmare Alley and remind us all how much she loves her job. In a cast of VPs, she’s ready for noir, elevating each scene to its chilling maximum potential.  The centerpiece scene between Blanchett and Cooper is a considerable crown jewel of filmmaking for 2021 and is rightfully being shown ad nauseum in clips for the film and in campaigns for both actors for awards consideration.  I don’t know if the movie will make it across that line but if anyone has the potential to get there, it’s Blanchett for her gorgeously mysterious and dangerous efforts here.

As expected, del Toro provides visuals that are impressive without being needlessly flashy. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen, The Possession, a long-time collaborator with del Toro, clearly speaks the director’s language and their work in tandem gives the film its flawless period look, along with Tamara Deverell’s beautiful production design. Though overly episodic at times and more simplistically predictable than I would have anticipated, it’s also stunningly rendered by its creative team. Expect to leave Nightmare Alley wishing to have had just one more scene for a few characters left dangling. The 150 never-boring minutes you spend in your seat with Cooper and company does fly by, though.

Movie Review ~ Don’t Look Up 

The Facts:  

Synopsis: Two low-level astronomers must go on a giant media tour to warn mankind of an approaching comet that will destroy planet Earth. 

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Kid Cudi, Melanie Lynskey, Himesh Patel 

Director: Adam McKay 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 145 minutes 

TMMM Score: (4/10) 

Review:  Maybe Don’t Look Up is a movie that is meant to be seen by an audience full of people primed to enjoy this type of salty satirical look at climate change and current state of affairs, because it was like an echo chamber at my press screening.  Not that all of us weren’t getting the jokes or comedy being tossed (more like direct line thrown) at us by writer/director Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice) from a story by David Sirota.  We did.  We very much did.  I just don’t think that I personally found much to giggle about in this achingly overlong comedy that overstays its welcome because it can and doesn’t subject itself to its own brand of scrutiny when it should.  I had to see this one in theaters, but you can see it at home…maybe that’s the way to do it so you can break it up into chapters and consume it in smaller, more digestible bites.

McKay’s comet comedy Don’t Look Up hits the political satire button harder than it must, resulting in a sporadically humorous watch that features a few surprisingly funny turns from a larger-than-life cast.  Yet for all those random moments of spontaneous glee, it honestly doesn’t have that much to say outside of its central message about the danger of misinformation and wide-spread issues related to misuse of social media to educate the world in a global crisis.  Almost as if he determined that the concept was “good enough”, McKay falls into obvious dialogue traps and paints himself into a corner by the end so that even a decidedly conversation-starting finale feels like a laborious task because of what we’ve gone through to get there.

At first, finding an unidentified comet careening through the solar system is an exciting discovery for astronomy student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence, Joy) and her professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street).  However, once Randall charts the journey of the comet, he determines that it’s on a course straight for Earth and that in six months’ time it will achieve impact and kill everyone on the planet.  Of course, the two feel like sharing the news will result in decisive action but they encounter a series of roadblocks and red tape not just in reporting the information to the President (Meryl Streep, Still of the Night) and her son and chief of staff (Jonah Hill, Sausage Party) but in being able to talk about it at all.

With the months ticking down and their claim being refuted first by scientists with higher stature, then politicians more interested in reelection, and finally by a tech magnate (Mark Rylance, The BFG) who sees the mineral rich comet as a way to harvest more materials for his business, the two are tested personally and professionally as to how much outside pressure they can withstand and who they can trust.  Eventually, popular news outlets and television personalities (including Cate Blanchett, Nightmare Alley, as a capped-tooth talk show host) prove tempting distractions from the time-sensitive solve-for no one seems to be worried about.  Can everyone put their differences aside and agree about the problem at hand before the Earth is destroyed?

McKay has been gifted with a dynamite cast, a saving grace that will without a doubt sell this movie to multiple interest groups who will show up for their favorite celebrity.  Most of them wind up doing a good job too, like Ariana Grande delivering a fantastically foul (and truly epic) put-down to DiCaprio. Speaking of DiCaprio, I can’t decide if he was giving a middling Leo performance or a great Philip Seymour Hoffman one. Watching him bluster around as a hypochondriac, easily addled middle-aged father of grown children is kind of surreal and, I dunno, satisfying? In the Battle of Capped Teeth, Blanchett out flosses Rylance by not letting the teeth do the work. Rylance isn’t just resting on laurels; he’s reclining in a performance we’ve seen before.  He’s giving by far the weakest performance here and as much as I’ve liked him before, I feel like his time doing these types of sotto-voce cardigan roles are over.  Blanchett really goes for it, unafraid to get her hands dirty and Lawrence too bites down hard on her character’s anger, letting it boil over to great effect.

It’s inescapable that Don’t Look Up is way too long and could be ever so much shorter if McKay had trimmed out some of the less interesting pieces, many of which involve DiCaprio’s character falling from personal grace and secondary characters being revisited when we didn’t care about them in the first place.  It’s overstuffed and Thanksgiving was weeks ago by now.  The credits at least can be shortened.  I made the mistake of leaving early because they were eternally long and of course there was an extended post-credit scene that was quite important…so don’t make my mistake and be sure to watch that ending.

Movie Review ~ Where’d You Go, Bernadette

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A loving mom becomes compelled to reconnect with her creative passions after years of sacrificing herself for her family. Her leap of faith takes her on an epic adventure that jump-starts her life and leads to her triumphant rediscovery.

Stars: Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig, Billy Crudup, Judy Greer, Emma Nelson, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I want to take this very public forum to officially chastise myself for not finishing Maria Semple’s popular bestseller Where’d You Go, Bernadette before the movie opened.  Though the release date for the film was delayed twice, I just never got around to completing what I heard was a fun read.  I literally carried the book around in my bag for months and it still was passed over in favor of other fiction I had on my list to get to.  Blame summer going too fast, blame a busy schedule, but definitely blame me for not getting my butt in gear.

I’m wondering if I had finished the book what I would think of the film version that’s finally seeing the light of day after the aforementioned release date shifts.  Some in Hollywood viewed this as a sign the movie was in trouble but others looked at its Oscar-nominated director, its Oscar-winning star, and the adaptation of the still popular novel as a slam dunk for a late summer sleeper hit, like Crazy Rich Asians was in about the same spot last year.  While I can’t say for sure if fans of the novel will be pleased, I can say that while the film isn’t an outright misfire and has a few spirited moments, it’s suffering from a curious lack of purpose, a feeling echoed by the titular character.

From the half of the book that I did read, the film seems to hew closely to Semple’s examination of Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine) a middle-aged mother living with her successful husband Elgin (Billy Crudup, Jackie) and teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) in a dilapidated reform school on the outskirts of Seattle.  Unlike most mothers that have children at Bee’s prestigious school, Bernadette doesn’t have time for the PTA or social activities but instead prefers to stay in her home away from the outside world.  Her daughter is her best friend and her husband is her ally but not her confidant. Her only real connection is through Manjula, her assistant in India that is delegated much of the household planning.

When Bee reminds her parents they promised her she could have anything she wanted if she maintained her grades at school, she chooses a trip to Antarctica, which sets into motion a series of events that will change the Fox family forever.  Socially awkward Bernadette is terrified of the thought of leaving the comfort of home, bringing back memories of her life before Bee came along when she was a sought after architect whose brilliant designs made her a top name in the business.  Disappearing from her career after a highly publicized debacle, a meeting with a former colleague (Laurence Fishburne, Last Flag Flying) opens up the wounds from the past right around the same time the family is about to leave for their trip.  What happens next is a journey of self-discovery not only for Bernadette but for the entire Fox clan…and disappointingly it’s not exactly the amusing mystery you think it’s going to be.

I find it fascinating that director Richard Linklater was attracted to this project.  Though Linklater has shown up in different genres over the years, most recently with the genius Boyhood in 2014 to the all-out fun of Everybody Wants Some! in 2016, he feels like an odd fit for a movie about a woman experiencing a mid-life crisis.  The special charm the director has in eliciting the unexpected isn’t found here, even from the usually reliable Blanchett who can’t ever decide if she’s playing high drama or marginal camp.  It’s a quirky movie and I appreciated that it embraced some of its weirdness…but it didn’t go far enough in my book.  A key ingredient is just not there and it feels like the movie is held back because of it, never truly finding its footing, though it does feature several rather swell sequences.

At 103 minutes, I’m wondering if Semple’s comedic meditation on a woman feeling constrained and fleeing into the most unexpected of remote hiding places might have worked better with a little more heft to it.  Why not have it be a four or five episode mini-series on HBO or some streaming service that could have let Linklater and Blanchett breathe a bit more?  It doesn’t feel like a project that needed to be a feature film in any way.  There are enough supporting characters like Kristin Wiig’s (The Skeleton Twins) tightly-wound mom that can’t stand Bernadette, the strange appearance of Judy Greer (Halloween) feels like much of her performance was left on the cutting room floor, or any number of the small cameos from Linklater’s friends would have provide plentiful material to justify extra time.  Instead of going deeper in with Bernadette and her family, we only skim the surface and that doesn’t make for a satisfying meal.  What is there feels curtailed and constrained…Bee and Bernadette are supposedly close yet there are some major life events from Bernadette’s life Bee doesn’t know about?

Where the film does have strong points in calling out the struggles people feel at certain points in their life when they know they have so much going for them but can’t overcome some obstacle, be it real or imaginary.  They have the kindling and matches but can’t make the fire.  Bernadette knows she has a creative mind that is wasting away in her rundown manse but fear of repeating her past mistakes is keeping her locked away in the prison she’s made for herself.  There’s some good reflection of that very real feeling on display and for that, I give the movie much credit.  If only that clear message wasn’t surrounded by so many hazy tangents.

Movie Review ~ The House with a Clock in its Walls (2018)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young orphan named Lewis Barnavelt aids his magical uncle in locating a clock with the power to bring about the end of the world.

Stars: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Colleen Camp, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Vanessa Anne Williams, Lorenza Izzo, Sunny Suljic

Director: Eli Roth

Rated: PG

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I was fairly gobsmacked when I saw the name of the director of this adaptation of the 1973 novel by John Bellairs: Eli Roth . The horror director of gross films like Hostel, Cabin Fever, and The Green Inferno was known for spearheading the rise of the torture porn movement and here he was at the helm of a family friendly film.  How was this going to turn out?  The answer: surprisingly well.

Released in the fall, The House with a Clock in Its Walls was a fun little PG adventure with just enough scares to keep older kids interested but not so many that it would keep them up at night.  It’s the kind of film I would have loved to have had around when I was a pre-teen and likely would now have on VHS, DVD, and BluRay had it been released in 1987.  Stars Jack Black (Goosebumps) and Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) are an odd couple pairing but work like gangbusters together.  Blanchett, especially, looks like she’s having a downright ball and that energy becomes infectious.  I don’t know what drew Roth to lock away the blood, guts, and gore he was used to playing with but he’s made the transition to family fare with ease.  Keep this one in mind next Halloween.

Movie Review ~ Thor: Ragnarok


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Imprisoned, the mighty Thor finds himself in a lethal gladiatorial contest against the Hulk, his former ally. Thor must fight for survival and race against time to prevent the all-powerful Hela from destroying his home and the Asgardian civilization.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Sam Neill, Benedict Cumberbatch

Director: Taika Waititi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Let’s be real here…you didn’t like those first two Thor movies either, did you? I knew it. Seemingly out of place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, likely because they were the only films that took place largely in literally their own universe, Thor and it’s sequel Thor: The Dark World were what comic book movies should never, ever be: boring. It was only when Thor joined up with his friends in The Avengers and Avengers: The Age of Ultron that the Norse god felt energized and alive. Well after Thor: Ragnarok there is enough electricity generated by director Taika Waititi to power several more sequels. It puts the other two films to shame and bests several other Marvel outings at the same time.

As the film opens, Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Rush) is in a bit of a bind as he finds himself in the clutches of the fire demon Surtur. Surthur lets Thor know that a great battle known as Ragnarok is about to unfold, a battle that will see Surtur lay waste to Thor’s Asgardian home and all its peoples. Since this is the prologue and we have a couple of hours left, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Thor makes it out of his prison and finds his way back to Asgard. Arriving unannounced only to run into his mischief making adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Kong: Skull Island) masquerading as their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs). Unaware that Loki imprisoned his father on Earth, Thor meets up with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, August: Osage County) who points him in the right direction of where his father may be.

Thor does find his pops but the reunion is short-lived as his long-lost sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine, having the absolute best time ever) arrives with her eyes on Odin’s throne. Sending her siblings into another galaxy to get them out of her villainous way, she starts to wreak havoc in her homeland and Thor and Loki make their way through a new world ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, Jurassic Park). With Loki avoiding a life of servitude on the junk planet, that leaves Thor fighting for his freedom, gladiator-style, against his old friend the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher). Assisted by fellow Asgardian in exile Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, Creed) and loyal Heimdall (Idris Elba, Prometheus), all make their way back to Asgard to face off with Hela to save their world.

There’s a lot that happens in Thor: Ragnarok and it’s almost universally entertaining. Waititi (who also plays a dryly-hilarious alien made up of rocks) brings such interesting ideas to the table along with a sense of humor and fun that has been missing from not only Thor’s previous outings but from Marvel at large. With its fun cameos (not only from Marvel characters), it’s wacky and colorful and I enjoyed every minute of it. Mark Mothersbaugh’s (The LEGO Movie) score is a real tip and while they curiously use Immigrant Song twice, it makes sense and gives key battle sequences a rock concert vibe. I normally recoil at movies that are so CGI heavy but the visuals are gorgeously rendered here, making for truly exciting viewing.

While it does help to have a working knowledge of the other entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this one may be a good entry point for newbies…but then someone will have to explain to them why the other two movies are so dull. Here’s hoping Marvel retains Waititi because he’s the reason why this works so very well.

The Silver Bullet ~ Thor: Ragnarok



Synopsis
: Thor must face the Hulk in a gladiator match and save his people from the ruthless Hela.

Release Date:  November 3, 2017

Thoughts: At the end of this first teaser trailer for November’s third Thor film the only word I could think of was ‘finally’.  Finally, after two solo films and appearances in several other Marvel releases, the God of Thunder might just get his own adventure that’s worth a second viewing.  I wasn’t any kind of fan of the original Thor or its sequel Thor: The Dark World, finding them turgid treks through standard action franchise portals.  This one, however, just feels like it has a pulse and personality to go with it.  From the inspired casting of Oscar winner Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) to a genuinely exciting surprise finale right on down to the ‘80s reminiscent title cards…I’m actually looking forward to this one.

Movie Review ~ Carol

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1950s New York, a department-store clerk who dreams of a better life falls for an older, married woman.

Stars: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Cory Michael Smith

Director: Todd Haynes

Rated: R

Running Length:  118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  Looking through our 2016 lens, it’s still hard to imagine a time when being gay was something no one discussed.  No one.  “Committed bachelors” or “spinster aunts” were often coded labels placed on gay men and women when discussed in refined society circles.  Then there were those that struggled with their sexuality and found themselves in loveless marriages, sometimes out of convenience, sometimes out of necessity.

Adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith, Carol is an examination of two women at different stages of their lives.  A young woman with her life ahead of her becomes enamored with a glamorous married woman a decade or more her senior.  From the moment department store clerk Therese (Rooney Mara, Side Effects) meets Carol (Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine) during a Christmas season shopping trip, there’s an instant connection the women silently share.  It’s a moment of electricity anyone that’s ever felt the prickle of immediate attraction can relate to.

By accident or on purpose, Carol leaves her gloves behind and when Therese has them returned it gives the women the excuse to meet up.  During their dinner conversation both women examine the other, seemingly wanting to say something more but unsure if their assumptions are correct.  Being the older, more experienced of the two Carol seems to know what comes next and Therese looks to her for guidance as she examines her own desires.

While Carol and Therese begin to hone in on their feelings, the men in their lives struggle with the loss of connection.  Carol’s estranged husband (Kyle Chandler, The Spectacular Now) loves his wife…or does he love the idea of her more?  They share a daughter and over the course of the film the husband tries everything to get his wife back, no matter how desperate the measures are.  Therese’s boyfriend (Jake Lacy, Love the Coopers) is a man with a plan…he sees the life, the wife, and the family society says he should have.  The parallels between the younger unattached couple and the older married couple aren’t hard to see.

Director Todd Haynes delivers an achingly complex tale of love that has no easy answers or pat solutions.  There isn’t a sweeping miracle finale where everyone winds up happy, to present that response would be to alter a history that has seen gay rights and acceptance evolve at a creeping pace over the next half century after Carol takes place.

Blanchett and Mara are luminous in their roles and acting within the exquisite production design captured elegantly by cinematographer Edward Lachman, the performances live and breathe with ease.  Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave) has a brief but powerful turn as a former flame of Blanchett while Chandler and Lacy make their men a product of the ideals of the time, yet not without a brain or a heart.

We’ve evolved a lot as a society, especially in the last decade, getting ever closer to a parity between individuals at a human level.  There won’t ever be consensus on what is acceptable but the first step is understanding.  Carol shows a beauty of a relationship damaged by societal norms, and the fight to reclaim what’s true.

The Silver Bullet ~ Carol

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Synopsis: Set in 1950s New York, a department-store clerk who dreams of a better life falls for an older, married woman.

Release Date:  November 20. 2015

Thoughts: The second of two lesbian centered dramas arriving before the end of 2015 (Freeheld is the other), Carol is arriving with strong buzz for the picture itself, its director (Todd Haynes), and its two stars.  Haynes knows his way around a the Douglas Sirk-esque work of the 1950s, having delivered the grandly soapy Far From Heaven in 2002 and he seems to have another masterwork on his hands.  While it may seem that two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett (Cinderella, Blue Jasmine) will be the one taking center stage during awards season, don’t count out co-star Rooney Mara (Side Effects) who nabbed the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her work as a young woman that develops feelings for a mysterious older (and married) woman. 

Movie Review ~ Cinderella (2015)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When her father unexpectedly passes away, young Ella finds herself at the mercy of her cruel stepmother and her daughters. Never one to give up hope, Ella’s fortunes begin to change after meeting a dashing stranger in the woods.

Stars: Lily James, Helena Bonham Carter, Cate Blanchett, Stellan Skarsgård, Derek Jacobi, Nonso Anozie, Holliday Grainger, Richard Madden, Sophie McShera

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I remember being none too plussed when it was announced that Walt Disney Pictures would be giving their timeless classic Cinderella the live-action treatment. Could you really blame a fella for worrying that the studio that turned their lovely Alice in Wonderland into a madcap mind meld that wasn’t even interesting to look at (it’s one of the few films in recent memory that lulled me to sleep behind my 3D glasses) would muck it all up again by sending another valued animated classic into the live-action void just in time for its 65th anniversary?

Turns out that the studio saw the error of their ways (even though an Alice sequel is in the works…shudder shudder) and took a very traditional approach to bringing the tale of the orphaned girl that slept in the cinders who gets to go to a ball courtesy of a fairy godmother to the screen. Well, traditional isn’t really the right word because that suggests something perhaps more serviceable than memorable…and this Cinderella might just be a classic all its own.

With a script from Chris Weitz (A Better Life) that hits all the proper beats of Charles Perrault’s pristine fairy tale, this Cinderella is a gossamer gown of a film that beats with a heart that’s true. It’s so rare these days to be able to describe a film as celebrating goodness without passing out an airsick bag to anyone that’s listening but even at its most saccharine (and it does get ever so close to diabetic-shock inducing sweetness) there’s something so totally winning and, yes, enchanting to be found in every frame.

The look and feel that director Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) brings to the screen can be attributed to Branagh’s classy Shakespearean roots, as well as Haris Zambarloukos’s (Thor) unobtrusive cinematography, Dante Ferretti’s (Hugo) striking production design, and Sandy Powell’s (The Wolf of Wall Street) gorgeous costumes. All of these production elements work in harmony to create a world of fantasy that doesn’t seem so hard to believe in.

Branagh has assembled a cast that are across the board perfect for their roles. Though she’s playing a damsel in need of a Prince’s salvation (which could be enough to make any grrrl power supporter raise an eyebrow or two), Lily James never lets her Cinderella be pitied. Though suffering through the tragic loss of her beloved parents and forced into servitude to a wicked trio of women, she never loses the goodness inside her or the search for the goodness she believes is in everyone else. She’s matched well by Richard Madden’s restless Prince, handsome and quite dashing is the name of Madden’s game. James and Madden create some palpably chaste chemistry, so by the time the two meet when James makes the kind of entrance usually reserved for a Broadway stage, we long to see them kiss more than anything else.

Oscar winner Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) has a devil of a fun time as the wicked stepmother and is wise enough to understand that she’s in a sophisticated re-thinking of Cinderella, resisting the urge to camp it up. Hers is a porcelain doll of a performance, never showing the cracks underneath until very near the end when some believable rationale for her treatment of her stepdaughter is revealed. Blanchett gets to wear Powell’s most gorgeous frocks and the actress revels in every moment onscreen.

Wicked stepsisters Holliday Grainger (Anna Karenina) and Sophie McShera may not be as comical as their animated counterparts, but they balance it nicely by being such refreshingly clueless dingbats. Derek Jacobi has several wise scenes as the King and Nonso Anozie (The Grey) is particularly impressive as the Prince’s trusted right-hand man. I could have done without a largely unnecessary political subplot involving Stellan Skarsgård, it’s the one weak spot in an otherwise rock-solid film.

Oh yes…let’s talk about Helena Bonham-Carter’s (The Lone Ranger) daffy Fairy Godmother. Sporting some interesting veneers, the actress is a looney treat as she bibbity bobbity boo’s her way through her short appearance onscreen. Her transformation of Cinderella, several four-legged friends, and one pumpkin into a troupe fit for a palace ball is, of course, a highlight.

This is one of those movie-going experiences I call a 1-101. It’s perfect for any age and moves briskly enough to hold your attention…not that you’d be bored with the sumptuous costumes and shimmering magic on display. I rarely see movies twice in the theater but this is one I’m looking forward to experiencing on the big screen again. Don’t forget to stay until the end for some familiar tunes!

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Cinderella is great entertainment on its own…but the good feelings start even before the credits roll because Disney is also releasing a new Frozen short before the film and it’s nearly worth the price of admission itself.

Picking up shortly after the events of Frozen, Frozen Fever finds ice princess Elsa planning the perfect birthday party for her sister Anna. Things don’t go quite as planned as Elsa comes down with a…wait for it…cold. With sneezes that produce mini snowmen (Disney’s attempt to Minion-ize their cash cow of a franchise), Elsa sings her way through her party plans while Olaf and Kristoff help out in their own way. The song featured here is no Let It Go (parents, you’ll be glad!) but it displays the same playful fun that won the same songwriters an Oscar a year ago.

It’s a truly delightful 7 minutes, so don’t be late!

The Silver Bullet ~ Knight of Cups

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knight_of_cups-poster

Synopsis: Unknown (and the trailer won’t help you)

Release Date: TBD 2015

Thoughts: Director Terrence Malick doesn’t play the Hollywood game so it’s interesting that his newest film seems quite focused on the California lifestyle of the Tinsel Town elite…or does it? It’s hard to say because plot details are scarce and any attempts at figuring out who Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace) is playing could provide you ample amount of head-scratching time. Though only Malick’s seventh feature film since 1973, his style is instantly recognizable and it’s intriguing to know that it was mostly improvised. People either love or hate Malick; there’s no halfway camp (hello, Tree of Life bashers!) but even in his most obtuse the man knows how to frame a scene to make ordinary images seem extraordinary. Co-starring Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Natalie Portman (Thor), Imogen Poots (That Awkward Moment), Jason Clarke (The Great Gatsby), and Joel Kinnaman (RoboCop).