Cinderella (2015)

CinderellaDirector: Kenneth Branagh

Screenwriter: Chris Weitz

Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, and Helena Bonham Carter

It’s been a long time since someone left a Disney Studio film and said, “Wow! The originality was what impressed me.” Remakes, sequels, and formula retreads have littered Disney’s productions over the past few decades, but as they say, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Still, as the Walt Disney Pictures logo transitions into a real castle to open their latest film, Cinderella, we are reminded what a trademark this story truly is to the Disney brand. The castle featured in the animated 1950 film became the icon for the Disney Pictures logo as well as the premier structure of the Walt Disney World theme park. Thus, in the case of this particular remake, Disney deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Cinderella opens in true Disney fashion, with the death of a mother character. And of course, once the audience is adequately depressed, the film begins the long climb to that inevitable happy ending. Ella (Lily James) – the “Cinder” comes later, now motherless, grows up in a quaint farm house with her father. A series of events result in Ella’s father inviting a recently widowed woman and her two daughters to come live with them. The widow, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and her daughters soon reveal themselves to be of the selfish and unfriendly variety and when Ella’s father takes ill and dies on a business trip, she finds herself completely at the mercy of her wicked step mother and step sisters. What follows is a fairly traditional retelling of the 1950 animated version complete with talking mice, glass slippers, and a fairy godmother, played delightfully by Helena Bonham Carter.

The exposition offers a good bit of characterization regarding Ella’s parents and upbringing. Furthermore, the trials of Lady Tremaine are explored a bit more making her “wickedness” more realistic. Still, this film does not really complicate a story of which most are already familiar. Many versions of this story exist dating back hundreds of years and range tonally from the children’s tale we have here all the way to the grotesque where the stepsisters actually resort to cutting off their own toes in order to fit into the glass slipper. Thus, when one decides to tell this story, it is important to have a purpose. Fortunately, that is precisely why Branagh’s version is successful. From the very start we are shown a young protagonist who values kindness and courage, and the film does a very good job at accentuating this point and delivering a film that does not get lost in feminism or societal chaos, but rather explores the power of human decency and personal decorousness. While some of the characters may be a bit on the shallow or static side, the message is clear and well received.

Overall, Branagh’s film is well-suited to the subject matter but also does have a personal stamp and does not feel cookie cutter. Disney has done well at attracting great directors and allowing them to make films that are their own. Whether it’s David Lynch’s The Straight Story from 1999 or even Niki Caro’s McFarland USA from earlier this year, these films work because of the creative freedom allowed to their directors. Branagh’s background in Shakespeare is on display here as the film is somewhat structured like a five act play. Additionally, as the director of 2011’s Thor, Branagh has his ear to the pop culture pipeline. Watch for a slight nod to Downton Abbey, since Cinderella has two actresses from that show in its cast with Lily James and Sophie McShera. Cinderella is not groundbreaking, but it is entertaining, gloriously costumed, very well cast, and has a message that is hard not to admire. B

Cinderella is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes.

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Magic in the Moonlight

Magic in the MoonlightWoody Allen’s directorial career can be described as nothing less than industrious. While some would agree with this term due to his ability to “churn” out a movie year after year, I choose to use it because of his ability to diligently construct such beautiful films that always build towards something truly worth thinking about. In fact, Allen even appeared not as a director but as an actor in John Turturro’s film Fading Gigolo, released earlier this year. This industriousness is something unmatched by any filmmaker working today.

Magic in the Moonlight is Allen’s latest film and the 39th feature length film he has written, directed, and released within a year of his previous film. This uninterrupted string dates all the way back to 1977’s Annie Hall! Of course, some of these films are stronger than others, I hesitate to call any of them failures.  On a Podcast interview with Josh Horowtiz, Allen confesses that he is always displeased with the final product but that “if you just keep working, you’ll have your share of good stuff over the years.” Advice-wise, it doesn’t get much more simple and sweet than that and as movies go, they don’t get much more simple and sweet than Magic in the Moonlight.

Following last year’s tragically comic Blue Jasmine with a tour-de-force performance from Cate Blanchett that won her an Oscar, Magic in the Moonlight has a far more breezy and light tone. Set in Europe in the late 1920s, Colin Firth plays Stanley, a tightly wound and cynical magician who performs in disguise as the mysterious illusionist of the orient, Wei Ling Soo. Stanley is excellent at his craft and has made a habit in his spare time of exposing false mystics and people claiming to be psychics. One such character is a young American woman hired by a wealthy widow Grace Catledge (Jackie Weaver) in the south of France to help her contact her dead husband. When Stanley’s friend Howard (Simon McBurney) asks Stanley to accompany him to the Catledge estate in order to judge the authenticity of this so-called medium, Stanley takes the challenge. Unexpectedly, Stanley is taken off guard by the allure and inexplicable talent of this clairvoyant beauty named Sophie (Emma Stone). The film spends its remaining time building an unlikely bond between the two as Stanley begins to doubt his certainty in the non-existence of the spirit world. The relationship between Stanley and Sophie is further complicated by the relentless wooing of Lady Catledge’s wealthy and persistent son, Brice (Hamish Linklater) who promises Sophie a life showered in luxury.

On the surface, Magic in the Moonlight is a simple love story and while it certainly is that, there is also a more serious story beneath the surface about skepticism and its role in the concept of existence. Stanley is so abruptly tugged back and forth between the joys of fantasy and the doldrums of certainty that it becomes clear that Allen himself as writer/director may be using this film as a somewhat veiled exploration of his own existence. The writing at times has a ring of Mark Twain in it especially in its tongue-in-cheek assault on hypocrisy and ease in defrauding the foolish. These serious subtexts, however, are quite subtle; this is an entirely sweet film overall.

And a beautiful one as well. Allen’s photography of the Southern region of France is absorbingly beautiful. Full of sunsets, landscapes, and lush picturesque locations, the setting comes alive and functions as a character of its own. As usual, the acting is crisp and alive. Firth’s bravado as a stubbornly conceited Englishman is impeccable and enjoyable and Stone’s appealingly goofy American psychic is charming. The element that is so curiously minimal, however, is magic. Of course the magic does refer to the metaphorical sense of connection between the leads, but in a film with so many magicians as characters, I expected more of Allen’s trademarked prestidigitations! The film opens with Firth’s Wei Ling Soo performing one of his illusions, but that is simply to establish him as an expert in the trade. I would have also liked to see some of the defrauding and debunking of con-artist illusionists that Stanley so often brags about. Still this is another well crafted entry into Allen’s immaculate resume and Stone appears to be his next go-to leading lady as she is already cast as the lead in his next project. This is a slighter movie than his previous effort, but it is not without charisma! B+

Magic in the Moonlight is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes.     

 

How to Train Your Dragon 2

ImageDreamworks Studio is celebrating its 20th year producing films, and it seems appropriate that the film that marks this occasion is about a 20 year old underdog who has managed to succeed by charming and befriending the supposed enemy rather than brutalizing it. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but wait until I get to the part where I discuss How to Train Your Dragon 2 as a metaphor for American foreign policy!

How to Train Your Dragon 2, finds our hero, Hiccup (voiced once again by Jay Baruchel), enjoying the good life on his home Isle of Berk. Viking and dragon now live harmoniously thanks to Hiccup’s efforts to expose the compassionate nature of the once feared beasts. Now, dragons are domesticated pets on Berk, and the once relentlessly busy weaponry armory has been transformed into a saddle and bridle shop. Recreation is booming with the advent of a game that crosses polo with quidditch, and exploration is thriving with the swiftness of dragon transportation as opposed to Viking ships.

So the question remains, what conflict could possibly arise? The conflict comes in the form of an infamous villain by the name of Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) who captures dragons in order to enslave them and march on neighboring lands on a quest for power and land with the help of dragon catchers like Eret (Kit Harington). Upon the mention of Drago’s name, Hiccup’s father Stoick (Gerard Butler) promptly initiates a preemptive strike on Drago before he and his army can move on Berk. This, of course, angers Hiccup who prefers a more diplomatic approach, famously successful in the previous film.  

Now I’m not saying that How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a thinly veiled allegory about American foreign policy and diplomacy in the 21st century. What I am saying is that a thriving civilization’s leader repeatedly ignores diplomatic methodologies in favor of military actions when dealing with foreign totalitarian enemies who may or may not be armed with stolen or illegally procured weaponry of domestic origin. Take that Disney!

Analysis aside, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is an enjoyable follow up to the 2010 original. A talented voice cast features America Ferrera, Kristin Wiig, T.J. Miller, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Craig Ferguson, and Cate Blanchett among others.  When it comes to recommending animated features, I ask myself three questions: Is it enjoyable and appropriate for kids? Is it meaningful? Will it at least amuse adults? This film is most certainly amusing for adults. There are well-rounded characters and a beautiful animation style the keeps you engaged. The difficulty comes with the first two questions. Kids love the dragons, and Dreamworks’s first priority was clearly to up the quantity of dragons: Mission accomplished. However, a complexity arises in the film’s quest for meaning at the sacrifice of appropriateness. Parental figures are often on death-watch in the majority of children’s animated fare for some twisted, sick reason, and that statement applies here as well. I won’t go too into the details surrounding this element as it is one of the film’s major reveals, but I will say that if one takes a moment to empathize with the film’s most tragic moment, one might find oneself getting a prescription for an anti-depressant. Nonetheless, the family angle and its relevance to the film’s climax vigorously enhances the film’s overall meaning and sets the stage for a parallel battle of “alphas” that is both visually stunning and intensely engaging. Since the film has already dabbled in the darkness by giving us a violently disfigured protagonist (Hiccup lost his foot in the previous film), we may as well accept the lesson that if you’re going to play with dragons, you might get burned. B+

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes.      

Blue Jasmine

ImageFor The People’s Critic, perhaps the most anticipated moment of any cinematic calendar year is not the summer blockbusters or the fall awards-hungry films.  It is the release of the latest Woody Allen film.  With Blue Jasmine being his 41st film as writer/director in as many years, the always reliable, always prolific auteur has earned the respect of The People’s Critic as a living legend.  The Brooklyn-born neurotic genius shows no signs of running out of steam at the age of 77 with Blue Jasmine being one of his most insightful and finely-tuned films of his career.

Have you ever wondered who that blabbering stranger is who sits next to you on an air plane or who that mumbling nut-case is who sits next to you on a park bench?  These are quite possibly the questions that inspired Allen’s latest film.  The film’s title refers to Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), a modern American socialite who suffers a life crisis when her financial investor husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), turns out to be a white-collar crook in the vein of Bernie Madoff.  Jasmine’s story is told as a fractured storyline flashing back and forth to Jasmine’s life before and after her impending ruin.  Allen handles these juxtapositions flawlessly, carefully crafting the triggers that send the story hurdling back and forth.

Allen’s film may be contextually set within the confines of financial crisis; however, the film is actually about trust and fate.  The strength of the story rests on the complex and fractured relationship between two adopted sisters, Jasmine and Ginger (Sally Hawkins).  Jasmine and Ginger were separately adopted, raised together, but fate sent them on wildly different paths.  The film opens with a freshly ruined Jasmine leaving New York to live with Ginger in San Francisco.  The transition is not an easy one for her, and Ginger’s low-middle class lifestyle disgusts Jasmine.  What complicates things even more is that Ginger and her now ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) were victims of Jasmine’s husband and lost everything.  Jasmine is mindful of this tension and it is a testament to Blanchett’s ability in how strongly she plays a victim who is also a victimizer!  Allen explores this element throughout the film while also examining Jasmine’s sense of entitlement regardless of the fact that she has no skills and simply fell into wealth; we even learn that even her name is false as she changed it from Jeanette to Jasmine because she thought Jeanette “lacked panache.”

Furthermore, trust is a dynamic issue presented in the film.  While mostly known for his impeccable ability to create fascinating female characters (and Blue Jasmine is no exception), Allen also presents the damage of deception through his uncharacteristically diverse set of male characters.  Bobby Cannavale is especially indicative of this as Ginger’s current boyfriend, Chili.  Michael Stuhlbarg, Louis C.K., and Peter Sarsgaard join Cannavale and Dice Clay in developing the vital effect of trust, or lack thereof, on the human condition.

When one looks at the career and accomplishments of Woody Allen, one sees the maturation of an artist, of a genius.  It is this maturation of Allen’s techniques, subject matter, and films in general that I find most interesting.  And it is fitting that Blue Jasmine is probably most comparable with one of Allen’s most mature films, Crimes and Misdemeanors as both films utilize his broad knowledge of literature and film as well as exploring a whole range of moral ambiguities while accomplishing the difficult task of combining comedy with drama.  Cate Blanchett is poised to enter the Oscar race swinging as is Allen’s screenplay.  Blanchett is clearly the film’s major talking point and she delivers a tragic performance worthy of much discussion.  I can only imagine how Ruth Madoff feels about this one.  A

Blue Jasmine is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes.  This is another solid film in Allen’s storied career that is sure to illicit emotion while also emitting a slightly disturbing tone.