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!

Movie Review ~ The Lone Ranger (2013)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Native American warrior Tonto recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into a legend of justice.

Stars: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Barry Pepper, James Badge Dale, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter

Director: Gore Verbinski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 149 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  I made the mistake of reading too many early reviews of this update on the classic character featured first on the radio, then in a run of popular films in the 50’s, and finally on television.  Words like disastrous and failure were touted loud and clear and maybe that’s why I wound up like the film far more than I thought I would.  Does the film have its problems?  Oh yes.  Did it wind up being a total bomb for Walt Disney Studios?  Oh yes.  Is the film as bad as knife wielding critics would have you believe?  No, not by a long shot.

It’s probably safe to say that the deck was stacked against this from the start.  While The Lone Ranger has been a popular icon of American culture since his debut, there has been an inescapable cloud hanging over the franchise when looked at from a modern day perspective.  Simply put, there are some serious un-PC stereotypes going on and even dismissing these incidents as a product of the time in which the episodes were shot can’t fully exonerate those involved.  So the film had to find a way to parlay the relationship between John Reid (aka The Lone Ranger) and Native American Tonto into something more than a master/servant sort of relationship.

The casting of Johnny Depp (Dark Shadows) as Tonto didn’t start things off so well.  Though Depp has claimed to have Native American heritage, there were more than a few eyebrows raised when Depp, known for his broadly sketched characters, was cast in a role that already had studio heads sweating.  To the credit of Depp, director Gore Verbinski, and screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio there are strides taken to make Tonto his own man.  Given a back-story, motivations of his own, and ample screen time, the character becomes more central and fleshed out than the title character…so much so that it can feel like overcompensation.  Depp bookends the story under some quite impressive old age make-up and at times I totally forgot the actor was there.

Even though they spend the large majority of the film squabbling, Depp and star Armie Hammer (Mirror, Mirror) have a nice rapport and it’s their eventual team spirit camaraderie that gives the film some much needed steam as it trudges ever closer to its too long two and a half hour running length.

Working with Depp for the third time, Verbinski makes a case for the resurrection of the Western though there are perhaps one too many sweaty bearded men on hand and audiences may feel they need nametags to keep everyone straight.  It’s an efficient if overproduced picture that, while never boring, does meander through its middle section while Tonto and Reid find some footing in their growing friendship.

Though the film markets Helena Bonham Carter (Les Misérables) as a supporting player she’s a glorified cameo with quite limited screen time.  She makes the most of it though in a role that has one or two tricks waiting to be discovered.  William Fichtner (The Dark Knight) is a wonderful character actor equally at home in good or bad roles.  He’s a real bad guy here and the performance would be a highlight…if the appalling decision to give him a cleft palate hadn’t been employed.  It’s pretty much an unforgivable move in my book.  Ruth Wilson (Anna Karenina) is memorable as Reid’s sister-in-law who finds herself and her son in trouble when a greedy landowner (Tom Wilkinson, Batman Begins) sets his sights on her and her property.

Halfway through The Lone Ranger I couldn’t help but think of 2012’s John Carter, another mega flop from Walt Disney Studios that I found to be unfairly maligned by critics.  Both films have handsome production values and maybe overreach and oversell in their attempt to make a proper adventure epic.  I feel both films got a bum rap and it’s up to audiences to make the final call

The Silver Bullet ~ The Lone Ranger – Trailer #2

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Synopsis: Native American spirit warrior Tonto recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into a legend of justice.

Release Date:  July 3, 2013

Thoughts:  The first trailer for summer’s would-be blockbuster The Lone Ranger kept its cards close to its chest, revealing just enough to let audiences know that Johnny Depp was falling down another rabbit hole of chameleon acting as Tonto, the trusty sidekick of the titular character (Armie Hammer).  The second preview is more of the same with some added plot details and a few more impressive effects shots.  For the most part, I enjoyed Depp’s previous collaboration with director Gore Verbinski (Rango, the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies) but westerns have traditionally been a tough sell for modern audiences.  If anyone can breathe some life into the old genre, it’s the dynamic duo of Depp and Verbinski.  Count me in as ‘highly interested.”

Movie Review ~ Les Misérables (2012)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 19th-century France, Jean Valjean, who for decades has been hunted by the ruthless policeman Javert after he breaks parole, agrees to care for factory worker Fantine’s daughter, Cosette. The fateful decision changes their lives forever.

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen

Director: Tom Hooper

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 157 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

ReviewFair Warning Note:  It’s next to impossible to give any kind of review of Les Misérables without mentioning a few key moments that some may consider spoilers.  I don’t think I’ll be saying anything you aren’t well aware of, but just in case…

 

In the early 90’s, producer Cameron Mackintosh attempted to get a movie version of his international mega-hit Les Misérables off the ground but with musicals still considered out of fashion it was not to be.  In 1998 a highly underrated non-musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic tale was released starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and Claire Danes.  As musicals started coming back into fashion, interest was raised again in this tale of redemption and sacrifice set around the time of the French Revolution.

Still, it wasn’t until newly minted Oscar winner Hooper (The King’s Speech) gave the property some attention that Mackintosh finally saw his pet project get the film treatment he had long sought.  Was it worth the wait for fans of the musical like myself?  Well, having seen Les Misérables countless times on tour, in London, and locally I can say that this fan left the theater satisfied and red-eyed from a finale that ate up my supply of tissues.

If you’ve read anything about the production of this musical, you’ll know that Hooper asked his actors to sing live to avoid the lyp-synching done in most films.  On paper, this sounds like a great idea and for the most part I thought it succeeded.  Would I have liked some of the actors to have a stronger delivery of the difficult material and a fuller sound?  Maybe.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t have sacrificed some excellent and immediate performances that spring out of this technique just to smooth out some rough vocal patches.

Author Hugo weaved multiple characters over many years in his lengthy novel and a true plot synopsis would take up too much space here.  What you should know is that this is a story centered on Jean Valjean (Jackman), a convict who breaks his parole when he realizes that his future is already laid out before him.  Turned away for work and denied even a place to sleep, it’s the kindness shown by a bishop (original London/Broadway Jean Valjean Colm Wilkinson) that changes the course of his life.

Jumping forward in time, Valjean is now a mayor and business owner.  A chance encounter with his former prison guard Javert (Crowe) and dying factory worker Fantine (Hathaway) again alters his path as he takes charge of Fantine’s young daughter Cosette and disappears from Javert’s sight again.  The final act is played out in the streets of Paris where convict and pursuer meet again in the midst of a bloody battle for freedom by students and unhappy citizens.

Jackman throws every inch of himself into the role, starting the picture with a bruised and battered appearance that wouldn’t be out of place at the end of a horror movie.  Gaunt and wide-eyed, he is desperate to gain true freedom at any cost.  Vocally, Jackman is more than up to the challenge of Jean Valjean and he confidently navigates the high (notes) and lows of the character.  My only nitpick with Jackman is that he only seems to be able to sing at one volume…loud.  Anything less than that is spoken or colored with more intensity that a softer song needs.  “Bring Him Home” has always been a quiet battlefield ballad and Jackman sings it so loudly to a sleeping Marius (Redmayne) that I half expected the slumbering chap to open one eye to let us know he was really awake.

In his role as the unforgiving Javert, Crowe has an uphill battle to climb that he never really gets a good foothold for.  He’s not a bad singer, let’s not be cruel, but he’s not vocally right for this role and seems to know it.  Javert’s big number, “Stars”, requires some real strength not only in dramatic delivery but in vocal support and Crowe didn’t nail it for me.  His acting tends to suffer because of this so while I believed that he was a man obsessed with finding this convict, I didn’t see the breakdown of will that occurs within the character as his hunt draws to a close.

Redmayne and Seyfried are nicely lovey-dovey and if Seyfried’s reedy, thin, and heavily vibrato-ed soprano buckles under Redmayne’s assured baritenor, they at least create a palpable attraction in their moments together.  London stage actress Barks makes the most of her limited screen time with a character doomed to love a man that doesn’t notice her until it’s too late.  She makes tender gems out of the material, whether it’s the scaled back power ballad “On My Own” or a duet with Redmayne on “A Little Fall of Rain”.  Baron Cohen (The Dictator) and Bonham Carter (Dark Shadows) reunite after another period musical (Sweeney Todd) and make the most out of their roles as crooked innkeepers.  Their material isn’t that hard, which is good for Bonham Carter’s barely-there voice.

Finally, it’s Hathaway who pretty much walks away with the movie.  I’ve long found Hathaway to be an annoyance whether on screen or in interviews but in taking the dark role of a woman who sells her body (and hair and teeth) to support her daughter, she’s found a role that gave me a newfound respect for her.  Gone is the toothy, winking, aw-shucks, pleaser and in her place is an actress that has given herself fully to the work.  She sings beautifully, her grief is laid bare, and she provides some of the more stirring moments in the fast moving film.  If Hathaway doesn’t win an Oscar for her work, it will be a crime because she absolutely deserves it and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every performance that might be up for the award this year.

Hooper films much of the film in close-up, letting many of the songs play out in uninterrupted takes.  Some have criticized this saying that it makes the film feel smaller than it is.  I totally disagree and feel that the close-ups, combined with the live singing make the movie feel more real and alive than ever.  Much of the material is heart-wrenching (some may say cloying) and to have an actor singing live and actually feeling the material adds necessary oomph.

Tremendously moving (like I said, the ending wrung my tear ducts dry), the film does drag in a few sequences.  A new song was written for the film and it doesn’t add anything to the proceedings – it’s really a near shameless attempt to add another Oscar nomination to the bevy of awards the film will certainly be up for.  Some wise truncating/eliminating of songs and a few small shuffles in order help keep the film moving but I can see where the movie may test your bladder as it comes upon its finale just shy of three hours.

As someone who responds to the music and appreciated what the filmmakers were trying to do, Les Misérables fit the bill of entertainment for me.  What you take out of it could be something totally different but any movie that lays itself bare and deals with issues of the redemption that we all seek and the ultimate sacrifice we eventually make deserves some attention.

The Silver Bullet ~ Great Expectations

Synopsis: A humble orphan suddenly becomes a gentleman with the help of an unknown benefactor

Release Date:  TBD 2012/2013

Thoughts: Every now and then I become a big ‘ole softie for a sumptuous period piece and this just may be the film I’m looking for (not that the upcoming Anna Karenina wouldn’t fit the bill as well).  The umpteenth version of Charles Dickens story doesn’t seem to mess around too much with its source material…at least it doesn’t update it like the tepid late 90’s version with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke.  With experienced director Mike Newell at the helm I’m looking forward to taking up residence with Pip and the rest of the immortal characters.  Oh…did I mention I’ve never seen any film/television adaptation of the novel?  Guess I should get on that.