Cinderella (2015)

★★★

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Cinderella PosterDirector: Kenneth Branagh

Release Date: March 13, 2015 (US); March 27th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Family; Fantasy

Starring: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden

From the larger-than-life comic book strands of Thor to the slick, considered action of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Kenneth Branagh’s latest outing reflects the director’s willingness to venture down varied paths. Cinderella is certainly more in line with his traditional genre work — Shakespeare and classic novel adaptations — but it also shares the same vibrancy as Branagh’s recent outings. It does not rely heavily on the originality of any specific component; this is as competently classic as you are going to get. Rather, Cinderella works as a fairly fruitful whole.

We all know the story and the film knows we all know the story. Screenwriter Chris Weitz quickly disposes of the origin formalities with a sickly-sweet preamble starring Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin as mum and dad, the former filling in any narrative gaps via voice-over (and perhaps underused in retrospect). Mum dies — even on her deathbed, Atwell’s mother looks a brush of hair away from being ready to attack the day — and dad tragically follows suit, leaving not-yet-Cinder-Ella at the mercy of her bullying stepfamily. “Have courage and be kind” is the motto by which she must adhere, and adhere she does.

Since the fairy tale’s ins and outs are common knowledge, you expect to see something new from this Branagh-led incarnation, or at the very least something old told exceedingly well. It is more of the latter, if not entirely either. The screenplay typically weaves class and identity into the story: Prince Charming (Richard Madden) wishes to sell his own personality and not his superfluous value to Cinderella (Lily James), while Cinderella has no obvious desire to wed royalty, only to wed the kind apprentice she just met in the forest. Meanwhile, necessary excess — the grand carriage, the stunning gowns, the sheer beauty — is combated by Branagh and co. through emphasising other factors: courage, kindness, honesty, and humour.

Cinderella is so morally upstanding she opts to live her life in the company of insensitive rogues simply to uphold a promise made to her parents, to honour their memory through the upkeep of their residence. Lily James plays the fairy tale stalwart with such commitment and invitation; only a cast iron soul would find her demeanour off-putting. Cinderella is at times naive to the point of ridicule, but you always believe in her good nature regardless. And there is a commendable individuality to the lady-in-waiting: she seems in control, even when her fate is essentially dungeon-dwelling, control embodied by the not-so-subtle power she has over the prince (via love) and the more subtle power she has over her stepfamily (via her love for the prince).

Speaking of whom, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera) make a suitably nasty counterweight. “She too had known grief, but she wore it wonderfully well,” we hear of Tremaine, Blanchett evoking a devious allure while robed in blacks and dark turquoises. The trio usher a culture of gambling and partying into Cinderella’s civilised household upon arrival, antics mirroring their deceptive tendencies. Along with Grainger and McShera’s proverbial stepsisters, Blanchett could have easily arrived for shooting directly from the set of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Like Jim Carrey, she chews the scenery, hams it up and more with success.

Her understudies are perhaps too cartoonish though they do provide occasional comic relief. Richard Madden has a better time of it and does very well in what could have been a tough role. You might expect a pristine rich boy to promote aggravation through smugness even unintentionally so, but Madden is far from that as Prince Charming, down-to-earth and somewhat — somewhat — relatable. And if not, he is definitely likeable. And also named Kit, coincidentally (Nonso Anozie shows up, another Game of Thrones connection). Conversely, some characters are not quite as assured in delivery. Stellan Skarsgård’s Grand Duke, for instance, bends morally without warning.

Patrick Doyle provides a score that sways from the bombast of brass to light, frothy strings. It matches the allure of the story’s royal ball, which in and of itself takes on even greater aplomb than is perhaps expected. The sequence wears the extravagance of Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby, beckoned forth by fireworks and golden décor. Haris Zambarloukos’ camera loves Cinderella, as it should, and shows her in sparkling form even when she is doing the washing or ash-strewn from stoking fires.

In the end it does amount to something pretty conventional, but Branagh ensures a consistent level of quality is maintained in spite of the narrative’s recognisable outlay. This is a piece very much aware of its fairy tale heartbeat and it values said heartbeat accordingly. Sure, some of the conversations characters share are on the saccharine side and the thematic rituals are a bit too broad, but Cinderella is a thoroughly well-made and enjoyable live action expedition.

Cinderella - Lily James

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Carol (2015)

★★★★

Carol PosterDirector: Todd Haynes

Release Date: November 20th, 2015 (US); November 27th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara

A fateful glance across a shop floor ignites this grandly passionate yet earnestly personal love story. It is that classic meeting of the eyes moment, and eyes end up playing a huge part Todd Haynes’ tale — store clerk Therese’s (Rooney Mara) are expectant and uncertain whereas socialite Carol’s (Cate Blanchett) mask a painful truth. The two women subsequently have a conversation: “Shopping makes me nervous,” confesses the latter. “Working here makes me nervous,” replies Therese. Really their nerves are a product of each woman’s attraction to the other, the initial spark of excitement that could burn out or, potentially, flicker into something more fiery.

For many, Therese will be the more relatable of the two. She is the amateur embarking on a new adventure, full of excitement and trepidation. A femme fatale with a conscience, Carol must juggle instinct and desire against her past experiences. We’ll get to that. On a surface level, the film is practically faultless. Therese dons comfy woolly hats and patchwork scarves. Conversely, Carol is always decked out in the finest looking garments, and while she attends sophisticated parties entertained by brass bands, her soon-to-be other half drinks down the local. The aesthetics, though nice to look at, are completely beside the point. In fact, class and social standing are hardly acknowledged — the barrier holding back romance is society’s unwillingness to accept human nature.

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, the screenplay is at times too self-aware. Words don’t feel forced, but convenience does play its part: initiated by her male friend, Therese happens to have a spur-of-the-moment conversation about attraction shortly after meeting Carol. At worst, the script is a product of its naive time period and perhaps this makes it a bit less emotionally involving than something like Blue is the Warmest Colour (a film that can more easily evade ideas of social vilification and instead channel its energy into character-driven ideals).

On the flip side, these abrupt conversations about perceived cultural faux pas work because they incorporate notions of identity, and the film is an exploration of exactly that: Therese is still searching for her identity and has nothing to lose; Carol knows who she is, but is losing everything as a result. We often see the former gazing longingly out of shaded car windows, her face hidden beneath layers of sleet or rain, the suggestion being we’ve yet to see the real her. A delectable soundtrack matches the mood at any given time — Billie Holiday’s “Easy Living” is a particular highlight. The film is dripping in romantic overtures, it has to be, but there is a sincerity at play aided by grounded performances that steer the piece clear of potential sappiness.

And Carol, like John Crowley’s Brooklyn, is at its very best when its two muses are together on screen. With poise and consideration, their chemistry develops naturally. Whereas Carol is outwardly confident, oozing the sultry vibe of classic Hollywood star, Therese looks and sounds like a student taking extra lessons from her tutor during lunch break — she is initially on edge, bumbling, unsure of her standing with Carol. The characterisation is far from black-and-white though; both women evolve and devolve as their relationship gains and loses momentum.

Carol, for instance, is a bit of a mess herself, elegance shielding her crumbling home life. This fractured domesticity constantly gets in the way, even when she and Therese take a festive road trip (like Die Hard, this could end up being another go-to Christmas flick that isn’t actually about Christmas). The desires of husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) constantly linger and, sure enough, he bursts into view at the most inopportune moments. Chandler spends the entirety of proceedings with a grimace tattooed to his face. Harge isn’t a bad guy in fairness, but his attempts to hamper Carol’s relationship with her daughter, whom she loves dearly, are unsavoury. Sarah Paulson also shows up as Carol’s confidant, Abby, and is excellent as the realist with a heart.

Edward Lachman’s crackling cinematography warms us to the wintry 1950s cityscape. His camera glides around our central protagonists as they test the amorous fumes with slight touches, the lens fully aware sparks are flying and waiting for the right moment to engage — when intimacy inevitably erupts it’s expertly judged and as far from gratuitous as can be. The framing is also a joy to watch: one particular still shot splits the screen in half, on the left depicting Carol behind a doorway and on the right emphasising a picture of a ship caught in stormy waters. These instances are indicative of an outing clearly in love with the filmmaking process, and there is even a nod to the projectionists of yesteryear (and those valiant few still standing). Aspiring screenwriters get a shout-out too: “What I wanna do is write, that’s why I watch movies.”

If cinema interests you in any way, chances are you’re already well aware of the buzz surrounding both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and don’t need me to bolster an already sturdy case. Director Todd Haynes knows his actors are the driving force behind Carol’s success and rightly lets them get on with it. For what it is worth, the two are collectively and individually excellent: Mara’s subtle development is a joy to watch and a legal scene played with heartbreaking authenticity by Blanchett is the type that wins awards. The Aussie ought to invest in another trophy cabinet.

Carol - Rooney Mara & Cate Blanchett

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company, StudioCanal

Oscars 2014 — Final Predictions

Hollywood’s favourite night of the year is once again upon us. Stars have campaigned. Odds have shortened. Dresses have been selected. Cinema trips have come thick and fast. Jared Leto’s hair has been straightened.

And, now that I’ve seen all the nominated films in all the most talked about categories, here are my final predictions for the 86th Academy Awards.

If you want to know a bit more about why I picked what/who, there are a few ponderings towards the end. For my review of each Best Picture nominee, click on the respective title.

Best Picture

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: 12 Years a Slave

– What should’ve been nominated: Blue is the Warmest Colour

Best Actor

Christian Bale

Bruce Dern

Leonardo DiCaprio

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Matthew McConaughey

– Who will win: Matthew McConaughey

– Who I want to win: Leonardo DiCaprio

– Who should’ve been nominated: Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)

Best Actress

Amy Adams

Cate Blanchett

Sandra Bullock

Judi Dench

Meryl Streep

– Who will win: Cate Blanchett

– Who I want to win: Cate Blanchett

– Who should’ve been nominatedAdèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Colour)

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi

Bradley Cooper

Michael Fassbender

Jonah Hill

Jared Leto

– Who will win: Jared Leto

– Who I want to win: Barkhad Abdi

Who should’ve been nominated: N/A

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins

Jennifer Lawrence

Lupita Nyong’o

Julia Roberts

June Squibb

– Who will win: Jennifer Lawrence

– Who I want to win: Lupita Nyong’o

Who should’ve been nominated: Scarlett Johansson (Her)

Best Director

David O. Russell

Alfonso Cuarón

Alexander Payne

Steve McQueen

Martin Scorsese

– Who will winAlfonso Cuarón

– Who I want to win: Steve McQueen

Who should’ve been nominated: Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis)

Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle

Blue Jasmine

Dallas Buyers Club

Her

Nebraska

– What will win: American Hustle

– What I want to win: American Hustle

– What should’ve been nominated: Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Adapted Screenplay

Before Midnight

Captain Phillips

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: 12 Years a Slave

What should’ve been nominated: Blue is the Warmest Colour

Best Documentary Feature

The Act of Killing

Cutie and the Boxer

Dirty Wars

The Square

20 Feet From Stardom

– What will win: The Act of Killing

– What I want to win: The Act of Killing

– What should’ve been nominated: Blackfish

Additional Quick-hits

With the exception of a few glaring errors, The Academy has more or less come up trumps this year, at least nominations-wise. Time will tell whether the industry congregation get it right on the night, but until then, let’s take a look at some of the unfortunate snubbees (in a personal snub, I’ve opted not to include my Best Foreign Language picks above as, for whatever reason, i haven’t seen enough of the nominated films).

Inside Llewyn Davis, what is going on? Only up for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing, my personal favourite film of the year has strummed a valiant strum, only to be waived by another Bud Grossman. As unlucky as Llewyn himself (irony eh?) the film should be up for a lot more.

Tom Hanks delivers the performance of a lifetime in the final moments of Captain Phillips, but his name is nowhere to be seen. I’m a fan of Christian Bale, and thought he was really good in American Hustle, but no phony wig can hide the travesty that places his performance ahead of Hanks’. Having said that, old Tom’s already won a couple, so he might not be that bothered.

Another disappointingly shunned near-masterpiece, the folks behind Blue is the Warmest Colour must feel hard done by. Adèle Exarchopoulos’ raw, enchanting portrayal is criminally ignored. The film was ineligible for a Best Foreign Language nomination, but Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and Best Film nods should’ve been calling. It’s almost as if some of those hardened Americana execs don’t fancy reading subtitles…

On to the actual bunch clambering for awards, and it seems Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor are all pretty much sown up. I’d love Leo DiCaprio to finally receive the adulation he deserves in the form of a golden statuette, but McConaughey is the favourite and a worthy winner. Barkhad Abdi surprised at the BAFTAs, but won’t here. Cate Blanchett is the definitive stick on.

Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o have been tussling for Best Supporting Actress throughout this awards season, the former having come out on top more often. Nyong’o delivers the more powerful and wholly better performance, thus should win the gong. Gravity is up for a lot, but outwith the technical categories, might only win Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón.

What then, of the top prize? Best Film. It appears to be a three-way jostle between the important 12 Years a Slave, the glitzy American Hustle, and the floaty Gravity. Apparently, some Academy members find 12 Years a Slave too tough a watch – which is absurd – and Gravity ain’t exactly at its best on a laptop screen (most voters see the films at home), therefore a shock could be on the cards which would see American Hustle hustle its way to the top. I don’t think so. For me, there’s no looking past Steve McQueen’s haunting 12 Years a Slave.

There we have it.

After a fairly lacklustre spring/summer, the arrival of that typical awards scent in late autumn summoned a plethora of very good to great films. From Captain Phillips to The Wolf of Wall Street, and many others in between, we’ve seen a mixture of high intensity drama, awe-inspiring visuals, harrowing story-telling and debaucherous eccentricity. All in all, I reckon it’s been a pretty good year.

Here’s to another!

Blue Jasmine (2013)

★★★

Director: Woody Allen

Release Date: August 23, 2013 (US); September 27th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Drama

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Peter Sarsgaard

Upon its release Blue Jasmine received rave reviews from viewers and, after a few months hovering around cinema screens and iffy online streams, is variably considered a return to form from the eccentric Woody Allen. I’m not extensively versed in Allen-lore, not nearly as much as i ought to be considering his lofty status in Hollywood and abroad. That being said, whilst his newest offering brims with scintillating performances (two Oscar nominated deliveries stand out in particular) the content, narrative and direction all add up to something a bit… bland. It’s a difficult story to consume and a tricky one tell, a story that shouldn’t insist on generating humour as often as it tries, particularly when there’s non to be shared. It’s possible that I just don’t get it; that the quirky, erudite versus blue-collar joust is something not entirely compatible with this 20-year-old. More than that though, Allen seems to be trying overly hard as he attempts to deliver on one too many fronts, leaving the intended humour absent and the compulsory drama simmering. But only just simmering.

Jasmine (that’s Jasmine, not Jeannette) Francis is an upper-class socialite from New York who finds herself mentally, physically and financially drained following separation from her unashamed husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin). She isn’t used to earning, to maintaining herself and her life outwith superficial externals such as high-brow struts and an aristocratic ambience. Only it’s not an ambience, it’s an annoyance. An annoyance that has haunted her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) ever since childhood, when their foster parents favoured Jasmine’s superior “genes”. In her time of need, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) moves to San Francisco to live and survive by Ginger who remains frustrated over a misshaped business deal proposed by Hal, amongst a number of other issues related to her now spiralling sister.

Evidently there’s a lot going on, yet too often the happenings are overly trivial — discussions reigned in on antiques for example — and therefore aren’t substantial enough to fully engage the viewer. Perhaps that’s the point, that Jasmine is such a one-dimensional and flawed character, therefore the film should be too. This approach doesn’t catch on though as Jasmine and many of the other people on screen are very difficult to relate to. At one point Ginger points out the obvious: “When Jasmine don’t wanna know something, she gotta habit of looking the other way.” In a sense the narrative follows this mantra too — just when there’s a glimmer of something intriguing on the horizon the road suddenly detours back to stagnant repetitiveness.

And it certainly is repetitive. As their lives together progress and various agents enter and exit (boyfriends mainly), Jasmine constantly scalds Ginger for her poor taste in unworthy men. First it’s Augie, a working-class and slightly optimistic guy held down by the harsh realities of life. Chili follows, a mechanic who unlike Augie treats Ginger with respect even if at times his exuberance gets the better of him. Jasmine relentlessly disapproves, neglecting her own prior misdemeanours when it comes to settling with the right partner. In fact, her wrongful rejection of Chili is probably the only time Jasmine is not thinking about herself: she often reminisces about sailing around San Tropez in front of her less fortunate sister who has hardly travelled America never mind the world; she flies first class on her way to Ginger, even though she has no money, which is the main reason for her relocation; in fact Jasmine removes herself from all tasks unbecoming of her (“I never pay attention to house business affairs”). Combined, this makes it incredibly difficult for the viewer to like or even sympathise with Jasmine, which is essentially the downfall of the film as the camera stalks her every move and not much else.

Allen juxtaposes the past and present as life events interchange; from detailing the breakdown of Jasmine and Hal’s marriage to the breakdown of Jasmine herself. Occasionally happenings on screen are tough to watch, but it is often the case that these demanding moments are followed by attempts at humour thrown in as the embodiment of a panicky life-jacket, almost as if the film is fearful of advancing that extra step into Jasmine’s oblivion (which would’ve worked better than the half black comedy, half drama on show). For example, after a tortuous altercation pitting Ginger and Jasmine against an enraged Chili, Jasmine is seen quickly shaking off any resultant cobwebs as she searches for her ringing phone in a nonchalant manner. This woman has recently lost the love of her life in onerous circumstances — wouldn’t she be affected more by this attack with potentially mirroring connotations on her sister?

There is success emitted from Allen’s alternating timeline approach though, as the method distinctly displays the degree of culture clash between Jasmine and Ginger. Jasmine has had everything handed to her on a silver platter. Now that life has crumbled, her anxiety over what’s next conveys exactly how behind she is in the experience of every day normality: she wants to return to school (to study what?); will study fashion or interior design (can’t use a computer); takes computer classes (has no money to afford); accepts the “medial” job that she never wanted, the job that the vast majority of those around her do on a daily basis.

As average as the film is, there’s absolutely no denying the power and sheer struggle evoked by Cate Blanchett as Jasmine. It’s not even a case of the film’s downfalls making her performance glow even brighter, no, Blanchett’s display would stand out in any offering. Even though you don’t really like the character, it’s impossible not to be drawn in by Blanchett’s depiction of painful demise as Jasmine slowly loses all sense of wherewithal and dignity. The portrayal is uncomfortable to watch at times and it should be that way. Without Blanchett at the helm, the film might have teetered worryingly close to Diana territory.

Sally Hawkins also deserves plaudits for her starkly contrasting role as the less fortuitous sister; likeable and empathetic as she establishes and maintains a strong sense of empowerment throughout the film’s progression. In an abnormal role from his usual work, Peter Sarsgaard is astute and pompously slick as the yin to Jasmine’s yang. Their first meeting is actually one of the film’s better moments, where the pair enter a self-congratulatory word-off as they divulge many an “I” and “my husband and myself”. It’s arrogant and self-absorbed nonsense, and it completely works because these characters come across as utterly undesirable just as they are supposed to in that moment.

Blue Jasmine is a film where nobody really seems to be listening to each other (“Pay attention Augie”), where characters are solely focused on getting their two — or 20 — cents in, meaning proceedings feel too feeble. The darkly comic moments don’t really fit in, and the emotionally wrought sections seldom have the desired effect. It’s no surprise that that actors are receiving awards nominations left right and centre as opposed to the film itself. While it is far from terrible, there’s a lot of onus on Cate Blanchett to make the picture worthwhile. Thankfully, in doing her worst, she does her absolute best.

Oscars 2014 — Early Predictions

On March 2nd the film industry will pay tribute to the greatest cinematic achievements of the past year. The best of the best. The cream of the crop. For the most part, anyway. The Academy Awards always generate a hefty amount of hype – with Harvey Weinstein on the prowl there’s no surprise there! – and perhaps more so this year than in the recent past given the relatively open landscape in just about all the heavy-hitting categories.

The Academy announced their nominations for each category earlier today, so let’s go through some of them and pick out a few potential winners.

I haven’t seen all of the films listed yet, which means a portion of the following bout of foreshadowing will be partly down to instinct and partly taking into consideration where the main bouts of buzz are landing. Heck, we can come back and amend stuff nearer the time… once I’ve consumed all the films. Ahem.

 

The Nominations

Best Picture

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: Undecided

– What should’ve been nominated: Blue is the Warmest Colour

 

Best Actor

Christian Bale

Bruce Dern

Leonardo DiCaprio

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Matthew McConaughey

– Who will win: Chiwetel Ejiofor

– Who I want to win: Leonardo DiCaprio

– Who should’ve been nominated: Tom Hanks

 

Best Actress

Amy Adams

Cate Blanchett

Sandra Bullock

Judi Dench

Meryl Streep

– Who will win: Cate Blanchett

– Who I want to win: Cate Blanchett

– Who should’ve been nominated: Adèle Exarchopoulos

 

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi

Bradley Cooper

Michael Fassbender

Jonah Hill

Jared Leto

– Who will win: Jared Leto

– Who I want to win: Barkhad Abdi

 

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins

Jennifer Lawrence

Lupita Nyong’o

Julia Roberts

June Squibb

– Who will win: Jennifer Lawrence

– Who I want to win: Undecided

 

Best Director

David O. Russell

Alfonso Cuarón

Alexander Payne

Steve McQueen

Martin Scorsese

– Who will win: Alfonso Cuarón

– Who I want to win: David O. Russell

 

Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle

Blue Jasmine

Dallas Buyers Club

Her

Nebraska

– What will win: American Hustle

– What I want to win: American Hustle

– What should’ve been nominated: Inside Llewyn Davis

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Before Midnight

Captain Phillips

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: Undecided

 

Best Documentary Feature

The Act of Killing

Cutie and the Boxer

Dirty Wars

The Square

20 Feet From Stardom

– What will win: The Act of Killing

– What I want to win: The Act of Killing

– What should’ve been nominated: Blackfish

 

On an interesting side note, every year the Oscars devote a part of the ceremony to a certain theme. Last year for instance, a variety of musical numbers were unfurled on stage (remember Seth MacFarlane’s “Boob Song”?) paying tribute to film music.

This year the theme is ‘Movie Heroes’. That’s everyone from the normal person on the street, to the surgeon saving a life, to those larger-than-life superheroes we’ve come to know and love.

His film won Best Picture last year… I wonder if a certain newly appointed masked crusader will unveil his bat-wings this time around.