Review: Cinderella

Prince Charming and Ella in Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella.
Prince Charming and Ella in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella.

Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is Enchanting!
Rating: ****

Critics around the world have been praising Kenneth Branagh for bringing Cinderella and Walt Disney Animation back to its roots. There was a time when animation supported storytelling. It was merely a prop. In Cinderella, you can make out what is real and what is animated. It’s just that you will not care for it as the story sweeps you away. Thankfully, Chris Weitz’s screenplay doesn’t alter the original story. Branagh’s execution however makes Cinderella, a wonderful cinematic experience; in other words, a fairy tale.

Watching Branagh’s version gave me fleeting memories of Disney’s 1950 adaptation, which I watched in third grade. The screening was arranged at our school library and we were given two periods off in the afternoon to watch it. As kids, we were ready for anything that took 90 minutes off school time. I was forced to sit behind due to my rather round head (not anymore). I remember Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo and Sing, Sweet Nightingale, the latter was known by us kids as the “soap bubble song”.

The 2015 version is not a musical, but it does have a handful of melodies, all composed to perfection by Branagh’s long-time collaborator, Patrick Doyle. Fairy tale adaptations much like classic literature adaptations are losing their share of the audience. The cinema hall I was at had just twenty or lesser viewers apart from Yours Truly.

Cate Blanchett rocks the house as the wicked stepmother bringing to the table a range of snobby retorts and coldness, while Lily James slips comfortably into the shoes of the “courageous but kind” Ella aka Cinderella. The film has a notable cast that include Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Stellan Skarsgård, Sophie McShera and Derek Jacobi. I for one was thrilled to see McShera and James in roles that are the exact opposite to their roles on Downton Abbey.

With Cinderella, I seem to have regained trust in Branagh’s capabilities as a director. His last two films – Thor and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – were disappointing. Branagh needs to treat every project the way he has treated this. He needs to, as Ella rightly put it “have courage and be kind.”

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Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Ben Stiller as Walter Mitty.
Ben Stiller as Walter Mitty.

Life’s What You Make It
Rating: ****

He’s a simpleton, this Walter Mitty. He has been working as a Negative Asset Manager at Life magazine for 16 years when news spreads that the magazine is moving online (I’m told that Life ceased publication in 2007).

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty appealed to me, because I too am a daydreamer. I’ve defused bombs and jumped off airplanes while Walter Mitty travels mountains, saves dogs and gets into a Hancock-like fight sequence. While the film has enough “awww” moments, Stiller has incorporated quirky situational humour such as pointing out directions with two Afghani mountain guides or even a well-imagined piece in the middle of the Icelandic sea that involves a shark.

Kristen Wiig – what a wonderful actress she is turning out to be. For comedians like her and even Steve Carell, the comedy drama genre is the true calling. I wouldn’t probably say the same about the bearded Adam Scott, who clearly does not know his character well, or maybe he’s poorly written.

While the daydreams are presented as larger-than-life moments, the scenes where Mitty embraces the pleasures of life are presented in a simple yet fulfilling way. The joy in his eyes as he skateboards across beautiful Icelandic landscapes, or while trekking the Afghani hills – everything appears beautiful when he really lives it. As Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) says “I’m not gonna let the camera distract me. I’m just gonna enjoy this moment.”

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty comes with minute flaws. How does he just fly to Greenland without visa? How can he receive calls when he’s 18,000 feet about sea level? And yes, the character of Todd Maher (Patton Oswalt) just doesn’t sound like any other online dating call center representative. If you wanna know how they usually sound, here’s a clue – boring.

The film also features a different motto for Life magazine. One which I cannot forget:
“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls,
draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”

Review in 140 words or less: The Wolf of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street.
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Note: It is incredibly tough to crunch a four page review into 140 words. But, given the attention span of today’s readers, we have to embrace change with a heavy heart.

The Goodfella of Wall Street
Rating: ****

The Wolf of Wall Street is Martin Scorsese’s homecoming. If you set aside the visually appealing Hugo and the dark Shutter Island, you’ll have a career spanning the best and the most vicious films we have seen in the last forty years.

The Wolf of Wall Street is also Leonardo DiCaprio’s “grand slam home run”. He has been on the bench – Scorsese’s bench – waiting for his turn. Every DiCaprio–Scorsese collaboration – Gangs of New York, Aviator, The Departed and Shutter Island – has been a joy ride. But only The Wolf of Wall Street showcases his abilities.

The Wolf of Wall Street has all the qualities of a classic Scorsese film – drugs, money, women, sex, unexpected humour and the obsessive compulsive character. If you’re a hardcore Scorsese fan, this one’s for you.

Review: The Artist & Hugo

Silent Era Strikes Back

Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo in The Artist.

The Artist

Rating: ****

Chloe Grace Moretz and Asa Butterfield in Hugo.

Hugo

Rating: ***

There are movies that come as packaged entertainers and there are movies that give the viewers the liberty to unwrap and feel what’s inside. And then, there are the select few that seem out of the blue with a hint of nostalgia and courteously unwrap themselves for us to just sit back and enjoy.

The Artist and Hugo belong to the third class. The Artist was screened at Cannes where Jean Dujardin won the Best Actor Award and then it vanished as Hollywood distributors kept waiting for it to appear on the radar again. And once it did, the hubbub resumed and what was supposedly a comedy drama about a movie star from the silent era became a trip down the memory lane where movies were just pure entertainment and nothing else.

Both films are set in a time where there were no dark elements that Christopher Nolan brought forth. There was no trail blazing action the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers brought forth. There were no teen fantasies that the Twilight and Harry Potter films brought forth. There was just pure art and entertainment.

The Artist is set in 1927 and the years leading to the introduction of talkies. George Valentin is introduced as a phenomenon. Played by Dujardin, Valentin is a cross between yesteryear’s Clark Gable and today’s George Clooney. To quote his award-winning speech at the Golden Globes: “The agent said my face is too big and expressive.” Dujardin’s emphatic smile has the strength to lure masses and his mass stature in the French film industry is an example.

Hugo takes place in 1931 well after The Artist has finished its duties. But, Hugo isn’t about the success of talkies, it’s about a certain filmmaker who made over hundreds of silent films and soon became forgotten. It is rare that Martin Scorsese has directed a film suited for family audiences. Every now and then, I was looking out for Irish gangsters to turn up in Paris, shoot down drug dealers and quip four-letter profanities. But that never seemed to happen. The characters speak fluently in the now-defunct Victorian English.

14-year old Chloe Grace Moretz has that radiant glow in her as she fills the life of lonely Hugo Cabret (played by Asa Butterfield) with an adventure that takes the viewers to the silent films of the early 1900s. This film is shot in beautiful, glorious color and Scorsese has made sure the existence of animation and 3D is brought out as the camera moves from long shots of Parisian skylines to bustling scenes inside a railway station.

The Artist has it all from panoramic characters to heroic dogs to that sound of orchestras which fuel the soul. This is perhaps one of the best contenders at the awards season and whatever it wins, it rightfully deserves them.

Hugo has an extensive cast but it’s the story that becomes the central character – the story of an artist losing faith and regaining it due to the continuous struggles of a little boy. But, Scorsese remains in that world and chooses not to tread further and his persistence makes Hugo a film that Walt Disney is more likely to make.

Whether it was a budget of $150 million (Hugo) or $15 million (The Artist), Hollywood proves that it can redeem itself. These alongside films such as Midnight in Paris and My Week With Marilyn will stand out as part of a film renaissance.

Comedy Dramas galore!

Whether it’s 50/50 or The Descendants, this is a sign that comedy dramas have become the winning stake for independent and art house cinema. Read on…

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen in 50/50.

50/50

Rating: ****

As a slowly building male tearjerker, 50/50 connects to the viewers only because of its first-person narrative. And our first person here is a simpleton like the rest of us with a normal job and a stale relationship with his girlfriend and mother. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is as enthralling as he could be. I remember mentioning in my reviews of (500) Days of Summer and Inception that Gordon-Levitt has the charm to carry any role and 50/50 is just another feather in his cap. But, what makes 50/50 so special is that, the protagonist Adam appears undervalued to an extent that when he learns that he’s suffering from cancer, he manages to hold a mental breakdown until the last-minute.

Seth Rogen appears as his usual self, spitting four-letter profanities and providing marijuana. He tries to exhibit his acting skills in a movie that demands more than his usual crankiness. But, his failure in making a commendable supporting actor is covered by Will Reiser’s screenplay that moves rapidly like a comedy, and then freezes like a drama. Hence, 50/50 is a perfectly scripted comedy-drama. Anjelica Huston, Anna Kendrick and Bryce Dallas Howard co-star in the film and they use the limited space given to them. Huston as Adam’s mother succeeds with her exceptional use of deadpan humor, last noticed in The Addams Family.

A coming-of-age tale that circles on the rediscovery of a cancer-stricken youngster, 50/50 is accompanied by witty humor. The strength of the film lies in Gordon-Levitt’s charismatic performance.

George Clooney and Shailene Woodley in The Descendants.

The Descendants

Rating: ****

Clooney is no stranger to comedies or comedy-dramas. His career is spotlit by many films such as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty, Burn After Reading, and most notably Up in The Air (a personal favorite). The Descendants explains why a filmmaker can entrust a dangerously treading role to Clooney. The scene in which he confronts his comatose wife about her affair with an unknown man tops the list of reasons on why The Descendants is a nod to a possible Oscar win.

Shailene Woodley stars as the out-of-control teenage daughter who comes second in terms of acting skills. Shailene’s strength lies in her ability to speak dialogues with frustration. The father-daughter bonding is generally a go-to sign in chick flicks. But, this comedy-drama dwells in that issue and the outcome is a success story for filmmaker Alexander Payne, who is well-known for his films Election and Sideways.

This really is one of the finest films of the year. Clooney deserves the accolades and as far as the movie goes, death shatters the family, but it brings them closer.

Review: Midnight in Paris

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris.

Allen’s finest since Annie Hall

Rating: ****

Every writer adores Paris. There’s something magical about the city. It’s mainly the history the place holds on to. The game changers of English literature lived there and feasted life. Woody Allen would have been a proud member if only he could travel back in time. Hence, he brings forth Midnight in Paris, a fantasy rom-com about a novelist-turned-screenwriter who visits Paris in the Golden Era.

“We’re on vacation here” announces his tired fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams). But, Gil is in the Parisian trance and cannot bear the tirade she pulls on him. Her parents dislike him thoroughly. Her mother says “there’s a part of him missing” while her father blatantly announces “he’s weird.” During one of their dinners, Inez meets her old friend Paul Bates (Michael Sheen), who in Gil’s own words “is pseudo-analytical”. Indeed. Paul disagrees with the historical information given by a tour guide (played by French first lady Carla Bruni). He even rejects a correction Gil makes at a painting by Picasso.

Allen somehow brings the terse drama within the first fifteen minutes and then, he transports a drunken Gil to the 1920s, where he meets his idols, interacts with them, and changes the lives of a few. These idols include Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Tom Eliot and Salvador Dali. It’s wonderful that Allen has written these historical legends just the way they were. Scott was in love with Zelda and knew it was doomed. Hemingway was shaken by the First World War and spoke lines complete with verbal consistency and masculine presage.

There’s also Marion Cotillard playing Adriana, Picasso’s mistress, who from her introduction becomes the apple of Gil’s eye. Adrien Brody plays Spanish painter Salvador Dali who is introduced as the comic fix. He compares Gil’s failed romance with Inez to that of his fixation with painting rhinoceroses.

Cinematographer Darius Khondji bathes Paris in a rich golden hue which fits the 1920s with glowing lamps and lush art direction. Gil feels that Paris is best when it rains, and Inez directly opposes to it. No wonder they were doomed to break up!

There’s always a Woody Allen character in every film of his. Owen Wilson’s Gil is that character. From examining wine with a scientific approach to talking gibberish without a break,Wilson fits well in those Allen-esque costumes. Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein is a treasure to watch.

Allen has been writing since 1965. He still strikes to me as the guy who can entertain audiences of any age. There’s that magic in Midnight in Paris that’s inevitable. I last felt it while watching Annie Hall.

There’s nothing to dislike in Midnight in Paris. It’s all about being hooked on to the narrative magic of Woody Allen.

Review: Inception

Zero Gravity time!

Is this a mind-blowing marvel or a Memento revival?

Inception (PG-13)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Marion Cottilard, Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy

Genre: Sci-fi Action Drama

Rating: ****

Memento is not the last. We have an even more confusing film – Inception. None could actually realize the movie was in In Media Res mode. But, it certainly needs to be watched a second time or maybe, even a third time. I believe that Inception is a commercial sci-fi entertainer despite all those dark moments. Nolan tries his best to mix both, but inadvertently fails to do so.

Stuck in film-noir mode, Nolan’s dark sentimentality may seem classical to naive filmgoers. But the way his clichés manipulate viewers’ perception of the world and human behavior is merely timely, not profound. Inception manipulates the digital audience’s delectation for relentless subterfuge. Nolan’s CGI set pieces are all large-scale fight scenes, like Gordon-Levitt levitating/grappling with anonymous henchmen or Page and DiCaprio observing various apocalyptic destruction scenarios.

“I am the most skilled extractor,” Cobb announces. “I have to know your mind better than your wife or your therapist.” Mind rape, Nolan’s specialty, is a perfect conman’s scheme that involves undermining a mark’s confidence. As Cobb’s dream warriors battle inside the heads of industrialists, Nolan’s narrative goes from reality to dreams and then dreams within dreams. And then, there’s the master plan to plant an idea (inception). To do this, you go down three levels of dreams. The first involves a rainy day where the extractors are chased by bullets and SUVs. The second takes place in a hotel and the third takes place in an Alps-like mountain range where an old stone fort is located. Unknowingly, we slip into a fourth dream where Cobb encounters his wife for the last time and it is of strange nature that we don’t really realize we’ve slipped into more dreams as we reach the end credits.

On a positive note, Inception is one of the first movies to interact with the audiences. You are cast along Cobb, Saito, Arthur, Ariadne, Eames and others on this seamless adventure. It is a rarity that a movie deceives you so much that you feel cheated in the end; a rarity that a movie goes on a straight line and then the thrill is applied and you finally come to your senses and realize: wait, it’s not over yet.

It is natural for filmmakers to grow up from their own movies. Truffaut, Tarantino, Reitman, everyone has been regarded to use a certain style or certain elements which they have used in their earlier films. George Clooney’s promiscuousness in Up in the Air was a distant reminder of Aaron Eckhart’s same nature in Thank You For Smoking. A 1957 short film, Les Mistons inspired Truffaut to create Antoine Doinel, the lead character of The 400 Blows. For Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs gave way to stylized violence in Pulp Fiction.

For Nolan, it is The Following that shaped him into observing darker tones of men and women of the civilization. The Following was just one of the many capitulated movies that could prove to be the creation of a heavy dosage of thinking. It is nowhere in sight that Memento could have been more immune to darker tones that we thought it would lead to the rise of psychological thrillers. I’m saying it again, Memento is not the last. Inception is a leaf taken out of Memento. Both movies deal with a guy savaged by a random memory of a shattered past which includes a dead wife. The protagonist just looks at them and tries to mend everything which has already been knit to fate. The protagonist tries to change the unchangeable and whether he succeeds or not, Nolan just loops it over and over. Inception deals with Cobb trying to protect his hallucinating wife in his head and keeping her safe although she is dead. In reality, Cobb is just trying to change the unchangeable.

Technically, DiCaprio is the right choice to play a tortured soul. As for the wife, who is a prisoner in his dreamland, Marion Cottilard is a charmer. Ellen Page plays that girl who interrupts when you’re in the middle of a rather emotional scene and says “I know what you did.” Instead of asking “What are you doing?” As for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he plays his role with enough charm.

The scene where the hotel lobby becomes a subject of gravity is probably one of the best scenes in the film. Horror of horrors is that Nolan draws you into his world and while Cobb is training his new recruit, Ariadne, Nolan indirectly is training us. Nolan devastatingly takes us into his world and sets us afloat.

Here’s a film which cannot be deterred by spoilers. It’s because of the movie begins the way it ends. Inception is a high-budgeted Memento with A-list stars and visual effects.

Review: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes Poster

Murder in London? Go to 221B Baker Street.

Rating: ****

Guy Ritchie is an auteur.His subtle use of black comedy becomes a large part of Sherlock Holmes. This film is perhaps not the best version of Sir Conan Doyle’s stories, but it is the quintessential Guy Ritchie film. Robert Downey’s Sherlock Holmes thinks faster than Daniel Craig’s James Bond.

Take the vital elements in it – Ironic mix of humor and violence (aka Black Comedy), lots of fist fights between the baddies and the good guys (Holmes, Dr. Watson and sometimes Irene Adler), ‘best buddies-get-emotional’ scenes (we’ve seen it in Snatch and heavily in RocknRolla) and most notably Ritchie’s favorite villain – Mark Strong. Moreover, Lord Blackwood’s famed Satanism seems to be a cover-up for his use of trickery and science in his most devious escape from death.

In prison, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) warns Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) that he will rise after death.

Downey gives you a more masculine version of Holmes and yes, he is charming enough to handle the humor. Jude Law’s Dr. John Watson is more likely the strongest character in the film, apart from the French-speaking baddie, Dredger. The funny thing is that Ritchie’s previous flicks never had a female lead (Thandie Newton in RocknRolla wasn’t the lead). Rachel McAdams’ Irene Adler is a sublime performance. Here, Rachel’s portrayal of a beautiful but dangerous woman in Holmes’ life lacks the charm.

Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) and Holmes get into some serious trouble which leads to more and more action.

The second one, Kelly Reilly’s Mary Morstan who plays Watson’s love interest may be in for more than she knows. The advent of Mary on the scene sends Holmes into fits of petulance. Even when Watson booms “I’m marrying her Holmes!” he tries to avoid her shadow.

Holmes and the femme fatale Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) play a cat and mouse game in the film.

Sherlock Holmes happens in Victorian England. Hence, visual effects are a big boost to the film. Watch out for the Tower Bridge. It is the best any animator could do. Full marks to the costume design and art direction team, they really did their homework.

Sherlock Holmes is vastly entertaining with many enchanting visuals. However, it fails to reincarnate Sir Conan Doyle’s vision. Instead, it is Guy Ritchie’s commercial formula.

Review: Julie & Julia

Julie & Julia Theatrical Poster

A Delicious Meal Cooked To Perfection By Streep and Adams

Julie & Julia (PG-13)

Director: Nora Ephron

Cast: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci

Genre: Comedy Drama

Rating ****

Ratatouille was an amazing film. It’s about a rat which aspires to become the best cook in Paris. Well, Ratatouille has carried a little inspiration from the life of Julia Child who wanted to become the best French cook in American land. Her moral support was her beloved husband, Paul. Half a century later, thirty year old hard-working Julie Powell decided to start a blog where she would cook all the 524 recipes in just a year. She maintained a blog and stood true to it. Her problem was her husband, Eric with whom she often argued.

Julie & Julia is based on two books. One written by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme is My Life in France which recounts her French experience. The other is a memoir written by Julie Powell named Julie & Julia. Nora Ephron has combined both the books to bring out a past-present setup which was first introduced in Godfather Part II. Julie & Julia is set partly after World War II and partly after 9/11.

Meryl Streep combines Julia Child’s voice and her own acting talents to bring onscreen a lively portrayal. In the present day, Julie Powell struggles to bring life to her blog. Her adventures are carried out in her tiny apartment atop a pizzeria with her mystic cat and her emulative husband whom she disapproves of for not guiding her properly although he does half of her work.

The misfortunes of Julia Child in finding a publisher leads halfway through as she switches countries and finally lands in Massachusetts which brings her light. While Paul Child is brought to life by a charismatic portrayal by Stanley Tucci, Streep does overlook her performance as Julia Child. The film is at heart, a beautiful memoir recounting the change Julia Child has made in Julie Powell’s life. But, it rather sticks to them and doesn’t bring anyone else in it.

When Paul Child has more space, Eric Powell shares very little space and is often there for an argument. Amy Adams as Julie Powell is scintillating. After an Academy Award nominated role as an innocent nun in Doubt (a role I loved), she plays a tired and bugged thirty year old who tries to take a chance on herself.

Movies on cooking are usually overlapped by romance (as in No Reservations). But, the movies which detail on cooking alone are fewer in number. Julie & Julia is such a film. Bon Appétit!

Review: (500) Days of Summer

Theatrical Poster
Theatrical Poster

Boy next door meets new girl at work and they fall in love (or do they?)

(500) Days of Summer (PG-13)

Director: Michael Webb

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel

Genre: Romantic Comedy (romcom)

Rating: ****

It is strange that filmmakers try to attack relationships from every obvious direction. Some like Woody Allen make up new directions to produce love on screen. Here is debutant Michael Webb trying a hand at producing romance on screen. And yes! He does a splendid job. He is accompanied by screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. But, what these men try to convey to the audience is beautifully portrayed by a charismatic Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a beautiful Zooey Deschanel.

One of the best romcoms I’ve ever seen. It is kept alive every minute either by the wacky insane jokes or the romantic dialogues or the brilliant soundtracks. Being an independent film, it has better scope of knocking off in the worldwide market as a funny and charming romcom. The title cards are a good addition to the film.

The story opens with a narration which introduces Tom Hansen and Summer Finn, who work in a greeting card company. Days later, their bonding gets stronger but there are no labels marked yet. Are they friends? Are they dating?  Or are they in love? These questions pester Tom who decides to ask her about it. The sense of romanticism can be easily extracted from the film for it brings a bridge between men and women.

Returning as yet another wild at heart chick is Zooey Deschanel, who fulfills all the requirements to make a beautiful actress. After playing a disappointing role in G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra, Joseph Gordon-Levitt hits back with a neatly knit role.

Perhaps, a toast to love and relationships, (500) Days of Summer will probably remain as the best film which talks about a boy’s reformation after breaking up. Watch it for the enchanting visuals, witty jokes and remarkable performances by the cast. Oscar nominations anyone?