Cinderella (2015)

Cinderella 2015Having lost her mother at a young age, Ella (Lily James) is later deprived of her father, too, leaving her in the care of inter-rim step-mother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett). At first cohabiting with the Tremaines, including step-sisters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger), Ella is soon demoted to mere servant as dwindling funds necessitate the dismissal of staff. Eager to marry either of her own children off to Prince Charming (Richard Madden), Lady Tremaine escorts them to a ball at the palace, leaving Ella — now dismissively referred to as cinder-Ella, on account of her sleeping by the fire — to make preparations for their return. Ella’s Fairy Godmother, however, has other plans: a few waves of her wands and Cinderella is transformed into a princess, complete with transportation and entourage, and the Prince is soon transfixed by her presence.

Not that this review even needs a synopsis, given how ingrained the Cinderella story is in modern-day popular culture. Whether you know it from the original European folktale, the 1950 Disney animation or the character’s cameos in the Shrek series and last year’s Into The Woods — not to mention the countless other adaptations, be it in film, theatre or ballet — the narrative never really changes: there’s always a girl, a prince and an evil step-mother involved somehow. Director Kenneth Branagh takes perhaps the fewest liberties yet in his Chris Weitz-scripted, Lily James-starring big screen translation, which strips the story of its musical moments and post-modern subversions to focus on emotional realism rather than romantic fantasy. Like Alice In Wonderland (or Underland, misheard by young Alice) and Snow White and the Huntsman (which took the dwarves to war), cinder-Ella wants to be about more than just magic.

The problem, however, is that without that enchantment Cinderella isn’t all that much fun. Successive storytellers have tried to make the character compelling but she is always outshone by The Fairy Godmother or The Fairy Godmother’s transfigurations. Whereas Branagh managed to ground Marvel’s Thor in the present without compromising on either humour or high fantasy he has turned Cinderella not into a modern-day princess movie for all but a rather staid period drama too tedious for children but not interesting enough for adults. In fact, the audience spends more time with Ella’s ill-fated mother than they do with the aforementioned fairy, meaning that the famous — and still pretty fabulous, it must be said — transformation sequences seem out of place when they should feel right at home. Bonham Carter is terrific fun as The Fairy Godmother, her performance relatively restrained but still characteristically deranged, but worse than being understated she is also underused. For the most part, the actress is relegated to voice-over duty and forced to narrate the less interesting aspects of Ella’s life.

Instead, Branagh spends his time explaining plot developments that nobody needs explained and establishing characters that most have known since childhood. It doesn’t matter how Cinderella came to live with her evil step-mother, and yet this latest movie spends almost its entire first act focusing on that precise string of contrivances. It seems strange that Branagh — and indeed Weitz — should spend so much time simply naming their protagonist (why oh why couldn’t they have just christened her Cinderella in the first place?) only to then glaze over the fact that a lizard has been magically transfigured into a footman. However, as with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Branagh’s last cinematic adaptation after Thor, the main problem is the uninspiring and ultimately anonymous cast (though the inclusion of Rob Brydon is almost as noteworthy as Michael Starke’s appearance in the former). Rather than casting spells, Cinderella seems intent on breaking them: even in her trademark glass slippers, newcomer James fails to sparkle, while television actor Madden isn’t nearly charming enough or Blanchett sufficiently evil to live up to their respective titles. By attempting to humanise their characters the actors have robbed them of their identities.

Although better than both Alice in Wonderland and Snow White and the Huntsman, Cinderella continues to do nothing to inspire confidence in Disney’s upcoming live-action adaptations of its classic animations — Joe Wright’s Pan is next, scheduled for release in July. Branagh’s latest is all pumpkin, no carriage.

2-stars (1)




The Young And Prodigious T. S. Spivet (2014)

The Young And Prodigious T S SpivetThings haven’t been the same in the Spivet household since Layton (Jakob Davies) died. Sure, his older sister (Niamh Wilson) still wants to be Miss America, his mother (Helena Bonham Carter) still obsesses over insects and his father (Callum Keith Rennie) is still a cowboy out of time, but for young T. S. (Kyle Catlett) the tragedy still casts an incredibly large shadow. When T. S. — now 10 years old — receives a call from the Smithsonian Museum informing him that he has won their esteemed Baird prize for his work on perpetual motion he is at first reluctant to accept, but after some thought decides to leave a note for his family and set off alone on a journey that will take him from Montana to Washington DC.

Based on Reif Larsen’s 2009 bestseller The Selected Works Of T. S. Spivet, a book which defied convention by containing almost as many supplementary maps and annotations as plotted paragraphs, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest marks the director’s first English-language feature since Alien Resurrection. Tonally, and in just about every other sense too, the film bears a much greater resemblance to Jeunet’s more resent French works, including the almost universally adored Amélie. Quirky, colourful and surreal, The Young And Prodigious T. S. Spivet is everything audiences have come to expect from the auteur.

As ever, it’s writer, director, producer Jeunet’s eccentric approach to characterisation that sets his film apart from Hollywood’s rather more homogenised attempts at coming-of-age drama. Even the deliciously dark A Series Of Unfortunate Events ultimately failed to break the mould for bonkers but not too bleak bildungsroman. T. S. is a gifted but troubled soul, and though he may be prone to flights of fancy and borderline Autistic asides there is real guilt, grief and regret at the character’s heart. Newcomer Catlett carries it off beautifully, and unlike most child actors he sells the character’s weaknesses with as much success as his innocent pluck.

T.S. Spivet is full of great characters — from Bonham-Carter’s tiger monk beetle-obsessed Dr. Claire to T. S.’s insecure science teacher, who dismisses his pupil’s homework assignments only to be shown that they’ve been erstwhile published in respected scientific journals — but they are sadly squandered on a scattering of half-realised scenes. Although it is in fact adapted from one book, The Young And Prodigious T. S. Spivet feels as though it has been carelessly assembled from episodes taken from across a series, for the various subplots are often awkward and disjointed, refusing to come together in any satisfying way. The ending is particularly disappointing, as T.S.’s issues are finally aired and put to rest — not with his family by his side, but on a televised chat show orchestrated and overseen by Judy Davis’ conniving Jibsen.

The Young And Prodigious T. S. Spivet looks great (particularly in 3D), goes to some pretty dark places (there is a reason T. S. feels responsible for his brother’s death) and boasts some fine performances (if you don’t remember Wilson from the Saw series then you will from this) but despite its many strengths the lacklustre narrative means that it ultimately disappoints. While idiosyncrasy in a character can be cute, when it comes to narrative shape and structure sometimes it pays to be a little more conventional.




Dark Shadows (2012)

Robbed of his beloved Josette (Bella Heathcote) and cursed to be a vampire by spurned maid Angelique (Eva Green), Barabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is wrapped in chains and buried in the ground for all eternity. Or that’s the plan, anyway. Accidentally dug up in 1972 by a group of construction workers, Barnabas quickly sates his thirst for blood and returns to his beloved Collinwood, only to find the Manor in ruin and his dysfunctional descendent in debt. Tasked by matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) with resurrecting the family fishing business, and despite his strange feelings for the Collins’ new governess Victoria (Bella Heathcote), Barnabas soon finds himself at the mercy of witch-turned-competitor Angelique’s Angel Bay Fishery. Read more of this post

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II (2011)

Bloody Hell, as Ron Weasley might have said. Ten years, eight movies, four directors and a worldwide box-office gross of over six billion dollars and look where it’s taken us: full circle.

So, without further ado, now the conclusion…

With three Horcruxes down and just four to go, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) must pick up where he left off if he is to defeat Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) once and for all. Bartering with the goblin Griphook (Warwick Davis) – entry into Bellatrix Lestrange’s (Helena Bonham Carter) vault at Gringotts for the sword of Griffindor – Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) must utilise all they have learnt in order to make it past the extensive security. Recognising Voldemort’s presence in the cup of Hufflepuff, the trio are betrayed and left to make their own way out of the wizarding bank – swordless. Cue: dragon.

Parting ways with the Ukrainian Ironbelly, Harry’s connection with Voldemort indicates that the next Horcrux lies within the walls of Hogwarts. Assisted by Dumbledore’s brother, Aberforth, Harry, Ron and Hermione are shown the way back into the castle, lead through the secret passageway by none other than Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis). Identifying the remaining two Horcruxes as Rowena Ravenclaw’s Diadem and the Dark Lord’s pet snake Nagini as the remaining Horcruxes, the trio split up in search of both the diadem and a means to destroy it while the school’s staff, students and the Order of the Phoenix prepare Hogwarts for battle.

There will be some, the odd soul as yet uninitiated with J. K. Rowling’s celebrated source material, to whom the above might as well be conveyed in Parseltongue. All this talk of Horcruxes and Hogwarts, Hallows and Hufflepuff, must read like utter Gobbledegook. Should that be the case, and it is certainly no fault of mine or director David Yates’, I offer this series of retrospectives, links to the rentable film series and the novels before them. One decade on this is our world, just as you wouldn’t tune into the last episode of Lost and expect it to play like the first.

If you’ve stuck with the series, literary or cinematic, endured the duff notes on and off the big screen and embraced the wizarding world, this is the movie you’ve been waiting for. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I did all the leg work, getting us just where we needed to be. My reservations regarding the previous film’s end-point proved ill-conceived, a quick session of plot 101 and we’re good to go, the momentum left to build until we’re veritably hurtling towards the finale. This is the shortest Potter movie of the lot and it certainly feels it, with little water left to tread we all too soon find ourselves back in Hogwarts, the end achingly nigh.

To say I cried at Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II would be an understatement of towering proportions. The biggest compliment I can bestow on this final chapter is that it hit me like a bat-bogey hex. It is testament to not only the work of Yates and his team of filmmakers – Alexandre Desplat, I love you – but the underestimated talents of Radcliffe, Watson and Grint that a story so high on silly should deliver an emotional punch of such ruthless affect. Both in its epic grandiosity and its treatment of reconciliation and tragedy, the film positively brims with emotional resonance.

If you are devastated at the sight of death, touched by the respect of what came before – CORNISH PIXIES! – or humoured by the richness of character (Helena Bonham Carter was born to do Emma Watson impressions), it is unlikely you will enjoy a more fulfilling experience this year. Already likable presences, Harry, Ron and Hermione now have complete dominion over your affections, whether you have read the books are aware of their fates or have simply followed the actors this far, the bond of their friendship is one of the most moving fictional relationships imaginable. While some characters might not achieve the life – or death – that they deserve, the treatment of the central trio is nothing short of perfection.

This is ultimately Harry’s story, however, and while a certain kiss might warm the cockles of your heart it is Radcliffe’s journey that will set them on fire. The depth of character is simply astounding, Rowling’s creation brought to life by an actor who – once upon a time – could barely rub his scarred forehead with much conviction. That he even survives the appallingly misjudged prologue – every bit as cringeworthy as it is in the novel – with his dignity intact just goes to show what majesty Radcliffe has over his character.

That this much nuance and character development is achieved in the shadow of a bombastic pyrotechnic or rampaging giant just serves to illustrate the richness of texture. This is a war movie and it delivers incredible bang for its buck. As a camera tracks our heroes’ movements around the castle, in and out of crumbling corridors and over bloodied corpses, the background detail truly astonishes. The escape from Gringotts – already a impressive spectacle in its own right – pales in comparison to the battle of Hogwarts, so awash is it with familiar faces, breathtaking action and proclivity for surprise. While J. K. Rowling’s blueprints serve the story well, Yates’ eye for an arresting set piece works the material beautifully, finding a new – but forever faithful – alchemy of his own.

I honestly couldn’t have asked for more – well, I suppose I could have but that would just be ungrateful – Yates delivering a movie which honours the past, respects the books and finally gives Alan Rickman something to do other than spout elocution lessons.  As we leave Hogwarts for the last time – awash with rubble and barely recognisable – it is with the utmost closure on what really has been the motion picture event of a generation.

Hogwarts Revisited – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

On the fifteenth of July, 2011, the highest grossing film franchise ever will finally come to an end. Spanning ten years, eight movies, four directors and a worldwide box-office gross of over six billion dollars – the Harry Potter film franchise will draw to a close with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, as Harry faces off against He Who Must Not Be Named for the very last time.

So, without further ado, previously on Harry Potter…

Voldermort is making his presence felt, not only in the wizarding world but with the violent destruction of London’s Millennium Bridge. Returning to Hogwarts, even Professor Dumbledore’s (Michael Gambon) ability to protect his students is drawn into question when a series of attempts on the headmaster’s life backfire on the school’s student body. Convinced that it is Malfoy (Tom Felton) who is behind the attacks, having seen him inspecting a vanishing cabinet at Borgin and Burkes, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has a hard time convincing his friends that Malfoy might be given such an important assignment by Voldermort. Dumbledore, meanwhile, is far more concerned with teaching Harry a proper subject for once: history.

Using a Pensieve to share a series of memories with Harry, Dumbledore is troubled by a memory sourced from the new Defence of the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). Tasked with retrieving the unedited memory from Slughorn, Harry uses his fame to infiltrate his teacher’s self-important Slug Club. Discovering that Tom Riddle was looking to split his soul across seven items – and certain that he may have succeeded – Dumbledore takes Harry to the alleged site of one of these Horcuxes with the intention of destroying it like Harry destroyed the diary and he himself had destroyed the ring. Escaping with it to Hogwarts, Harry is shown to have been right as Malfoy ambushes Dumbledore with a series of Death Eaters, killing him.

David Yates, only the second director to return for another glass of Polyjuice Potion, picks up where he left off with the celebratory cries of Bellatrix LeStrange (Helena Bonham Carter) ringing through the opening sequence, having just murdered her cousin. Haunting and evocative, the echoes of Order of the Phoenix immediately invoke the oppressive atmosphere invoked by the end of the previous movie. From this point on, Yates does his best to balance the impending darkness with a cavalier portrayal of teenage life – namely through his focus on “sex, potions and rock and roll”. It is a winning duality, providing our best insight yet into the central trio’s core relationship.

The soap operatics work beautifully, as Grint and Watson are finally given more to do that mug and scowl respectively. Their growing jealousy of one another provides a nice escape from the impending sense of doom, each student allowed to mature into young adults in a way that feels remarkably organic and within character. Radcliffe is exceptional in a role that finally allows him to stretch his funny bone, the scene in which he mourns the death of Hagrid’s (Robbie Coltrane) pet acromantula while high on liquid luck really endears the character in a much more engaging way than previously attempted. It is the scenes set across The Tree Broomsticks and Slug Club gatherings that really impress, however, with the sexual politics and maturing inter-relationships fleshing out the friendship in a way that expertly ups the stakes for the coming war. You really start to fear for the characters.

It isn’t just Radcliffe, Watson and Grint that impress, however, with the franchise continuing to introduce interesting new characters even at this late stage in the game. Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) and Cormac McLaggen (Freddie Stroma) both provide winning comic relief as differentially successful love interests for Ron and Hermione respectively. Jim Broadbent, meanwhile, is marvelously mistrustful as the new potions master (Snape has finally claimed the Defence Against the Dark Arts position), Professor Slughorn. With the exception of a few early duff notes from Michael Gambon’s Albus Dumbledore (come on Professor, try!), it is quite amazing just how solid the performances have become.

David Yates’ relatively gung-ho approach to the script does begin to grate, however, with a number of key scenes dropped in favour of a needless, invented-just-for-the-movie scene in which The Burrow is inexplicably destroyed by Death Eaters. Citing a concern for repetitiveness, Yates even went so far as to remove the final battle – quite despite the fact that the decision to split the final film in two would end the next film on a different note entirely. Whether because of my general disregard of the sixth book (goodbye and good riddance to Harry’s belly-monster) or the wealth of consolation on offer, however, I’m more forgiving of Half-Blood Prince than I am of Order of the Phoenix. Subjective, yes, but this is a retrospective.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, then, is the perfect quasi-penultimate instalment. The calm before the storm, it really is an absolute pleasure to spend some quality time with Rowling’s extraordinary creations before they depart on their crusade against Voldermort’s scattershot soul. With Nicholas Hooper returning to score the film – his enchanting Dumbledore’s Army theme thankfully in tow – and boasting the awesome cinematography of one Bruno Delbonnel (the pensieve-set scenes are a work of art), this really is family entertainment at its best.

Hogwarts Revisited – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

On the fifteenth of July, 2011, the highest grossing film franchise ever will finally come to an end. Spanning ten years, eight movies, four directors and a worldwide box-office gross of over six billion dollars – the Harry Potter film franchise will draw to a close with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, as Harry faces off against He Who Must Not Be Named for the very last time.

So, without further ado, previously on Harry Potter…

Using Cedric Diggory’s death as an excuse to plant one of their own in Hogwarts, The Ministry of Magic exerts its influence over the school with the instigation of Delores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as High Inquisitor. Convinced that Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) has not in fact returned and that Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) was lying in an attempt to undermine the minister, Cornelius Fudge – through the Daily Prophet – has begun a smear campaign aimed at sullying the names of the headmaster and his poster boy, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). When Umbridge bans the use of spells in lessons, fearful that Dumbledore is trying to amass and train an army, Harry must take matters in his own hands if he is to prepare his classmates for the Dark Lord’s return. Dubbing themselves Dumbledore’s Army, Harry and his peers use the castle’s Room of Requirement to train themselves in an array of useful spells.

Caught in the act by Umbridge, Dumbledore takes the blame for the organization and escapes arrest leaving the High Inquisitor in charge. Envisioning his godfather Sirius’ (Gary Oldman) capture and torture at the hands of Voldermort, Harry convinces Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) to accompany him to London to rescue him. Stopped again by Umbridge, threatened with the Cruciatus Curse if he doesn’t come clean about his plans, Harry and Hermione conspire to lead her into the Forbidden Forest under the pretense of showing her Dumbledore’s “secret weapon”. Instead leading her to Hagrid’s enormous half-brother, Grawp, they escape back to the castle where they regroup with Ron and Ginny (Bonnie Wright), along with Neville (Matthew Lewis) and Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch). Arriving at the Ministry only to discover Harry’s visions a ruse, the students are ambushed by Death Eaters, who need Harry in order to retrieve a prophesy for Voldermort. Saved by Dumbledore and the newly reformed Order of the Phoenix, a force for good which fought Voldermort the last time he rose to power,  there is no longer any denying that Voldermort is back and more powerful than ever.

Having inherited the thickest book in the series when Mike Newell left after Goblet of Fire, David Yates was left no option but to trim everything but the core narrative, laving Steve Kloves’ temporary replacement as screenwriter Michael Goldenberg no option but to rise to the challenge. Gone is Lockheart’s cameo (and the subsequent introduction to Neville’s parents), the Quibbler subplot and much of the finale, with Yates ultimately responsible for one of the most abridged adaptations of the series.  However, although I may be more disappointed than most to see these scenes go – Order of the Pheonix will always be my favourite book – even I have to admit that the resultant movie isn’t a total disaster.

Imelda Staunton is absolutely phenomenal as Delores Umbridge, proving every bit as hateful and churlish as Rowling’s written equivalent. Dressed entirely in pink and with a monstrous mean-streak, Umbridge’s brand of subdued villainy is a welcome alternative to Voldermort’s maniacal evil. When Voldermort does enter the fray, however, he doesn’t disappoint, no small feat considering the excellent handling of his introduction in Goblet of Fire. The climactic battle between Dumbledore and Voldermort is absolutely breathtaking, the increased roles enjoyed by the supporting cast finally giving them something to get their teeth – and wand arms – into.

Daniel Radcliffe meanwhile has the difficult task of treading teenage angst without stumbling into more arrogant or petulant territory. Considering just how unlikeable Harry could have appeared, it is to the actor’s credit that he never lets the hormones win. He duly rises to the role of mentor, the scenes set in the Room of Requirement steeped in authority and control – his kiss with Cho Chang beautifully handled as mistletoe springs from the ceiling. Cheesy, yes, but undeniably sweet and charming too. Quizzed on the experience by Ron and Hermione, it is genuinely delightful to take a moments break from the action and exposition to glimpse just why these three people have stuck together despite the considerable danger their friendship puts them in.

With war looming the wizarding world really comes into its own. While Luna’s unique brand of comic relief ensures that it’s not all doom and gloom, the introduction of Bellatrix LeStrange and the reformation of the Order of the Phoenix really example the depth and intricacy of Rowling’s extraordinary vision. Bonham Carter’s stunning performance – particularly the scene in which she greets Neville Longbottom almost as an old friend (she tortured his parents into insanity) – really forces you to sit up and take stock of the mythology’s burgeoning maturity. The last act’s infamous fatality – and the devastating effect it has on Harry – is so fraught with emotion that it is easy to forget that this is a saga that started out with Nimus 2000s and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans.

While I might gripe at a few duff notes from Kathryn Hunter’s Mrs. Figg, a heavily abridged finale which leaves most with little to do and – in my opinion – the miscasting of Evanna Lynch as Loopy Lovegood, these are the arbitrary complaints of a fastidious fanboy. What David Yates has done – and will continue to do throughout the rest of his tenure as director – is take the phenomenal foundations laid by Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell and build an immersive experience the likes of which have rarely been seen. Despite whatever acting shortcomings, Radcliffe, Grint and Watson have become their characters, and it’s fantastic to see how the trio might interact when they’re not sitting in class or dodging three-headed dogs.

The King’s Speech (2010)

Tom Hooper’s follow-up to 2009’s The Damned United, The King’s Speech carries audiences off to another period altogether. Set in the years leading up to World War II, the film centres on King George VI’s (Colin Firth) ongoing battle to overcome a crippling stammer. Mocked by his father and required to speak publicly as King when his brother unexpectedly abdicates, the former Duke of York must put aside his deferences with unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) in order to give a nine page radio speech when war on Germany is finally announced.

Not one to frequent period dramas with anything resembling excitement, I all too often find myself disengaged and struggling to relate to the archaic priorities or dated pomp and circumstance. The King’s Speech, however, crafts such a compelling narrative that the historic trivialities soon cease to matter. Boiled down to a childhood stutter, the trials and tribulations of B..B..Bertie hit home with timeless power and naked reverence.

Somehow managing to trump his esteemed turn in Tom Ford’s A Single Man, Colin Firth utterly convinces as a man unaware of his innate greatness. A disbelieving King who mistakes reluctance for fear, Firth not only nails the technicalities of a convincing stutter but the crippling insecurities of a hugely courageous King. Despite his hard, duteous exterior, King George VI is a deeply sympathetic character – all thanks to the brilliant Firth.

That said, this is no one man show with a series of winning performances breathing life into David Seidler’s superb script. Without Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue, the movie – and history for that matter – would be but a shadow of its true self. Bringing some much needed humour to the otherwise morose proceedings, Logue bring’s out the King’s hidden humanity. With the help of a refreshingly sane Helena Bonham-Carter, the two keep the tone graciously light to offset the darkness slowly enveloping Britain as war approaches.

Deeply moving yet achingly funny, The King’s Speech tells a great story against a grandiose backdrop to achieve a very personal drama with engaging purpose and occasion. A compelling script, subtle direction and triad of exceptional performances conspire to create one truly unforgettable movie with magisterial presence and timeless elegance.