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.”

The Age of Experimentation: I Am Curious (Yellow) and Belle de Jour

If the sixties stood for anything, it was experimentation. From psychedelic to new wave, art underwent a massive change in the sixties. These aged masterpieces continue to bedazzle us even today. And more than Hollywood, it was the European film market that offered a lot of these experimental films.

In this post, I’m gonna discuss Luis Bunuel’s acclaimed Belle de Jour and Vilgot Sjoman’s I Am Curious (Yellow). Both were controversial when they released due to the gratuitous nudity and storyline. Yet, both films were well-received by film goers, from the sixties to today.

Still from I Am Curious (Blue)
Still from I Am Curious (Blue)

Before we go on, I must tell you that I watched an edited version of these movies, so I don’t exactly know how much of skin was shown. But, the internet tells me that it was a lot, considering it was the sixties and people were just getting adjusted to nudity in mainstream Hollywood.

I Am Curious is a set of two Swedish movies, each differentiated by a colour – Yellow and Blue – the colours of Sweden’s flag. The film itself plays like an early form of mockumentary. It revolves about an actress and activist, Lena (played by Lena Nyman) who is having an affair with the director Vilgot (played by director Vilgot Sjoman). Lena is headstrong. She’s an activist who goes around interviewing people on human rights and nonviolence.

The film also includes footage of an interview with Martin Luther King. I Am Curious (Yellow) is set in a film production where Lena becomes attracted to another actor Borje (played by Borje Ahlstedt). It’s a film within a film.

When I Am Curious (Yellow) released, many Christians referred to it as a “dirty film”. Of course, nudity was taboo back then. I still remember Anne Bancroft’s interview where she mentioned that her Church was upset upon the release of The Graduate.

Catherine Deneuve in Belle De Jour
Catherine Deneuve in Belle De Jour

In Belle De Jour, Catherine Deneuve plays a bored wife with sexually illicit daydreams, who spends her afternoons as a prostitute. The character wanted something daring and found it in wild sex with strange men, and ultimately faced the dangers of it.

But, that’s not what these movies were about. These were metaphors of empowerment. Having been in the kitchen all their lives, the sixties encouraged women to get out and find a life of their own. Women found meaning and a new direction to lead their lives. The sixties were the age of liberation.

New paths were made. New jobs were created. Old regimes were questioned. It was the dawn of an era that impacted lives for decades, and continues to do so.

Review: 3 Days to Kill

Kevin Costner and Amber Heard in 3 Days to Kill.
Kevin Costner and Amber Heard in 3 Days to Kill.

2 Hours to Kill
Rating: ZERO

When the credits for 3 Days to Kill rolled, a person sitting near me read out the name “Luc Besson”. And he went on to make fun of it, relating it to Besant Nagar and the word “luck”. Having watched the film and a lot of other films by Besson, I think he is abusing his luck.

3 Days to Kill starts off like any action film starring Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Liam Neeson or Harrison Ford – an aging protagonist known for “old school” violence. And much like the aging Murtagh from Lethal Weapon  who famously quoted “I’m too old for this shit”, Kevin Costner too displays similar symptoms.

But, is Kevin Costner really old for this shit? He surely hasn’t done action films in a while. He truly belongs to the sports genre (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Tin Cup) and maybe the crime genre (The Untouchables). Being a one-man army has never been on Costner’s resume.

Being a one-man army wasn’t on Liam Neeson’s resume either. But, look at him now! Taken and its sequel, Non Stop, The A-Team and Unknown are all proof that Neeson is this generation’s John Wayne. He’s old. He’s a gunslinger. He’s got the looks.

And who made Neeson a bankable action star? It’s lucky Luc Besson, who has been a part of at least 50 films, as a writer, producer and sometimes a director. He’s known as “the John Hughes of action films”. But, there are signs that he’s losing his touch.

Take 3 Days to Kill where Ethan Renner (Costner) a veteran CIA agent is suffering from terminal brain cancer. In the film we are introduced to a young blonde CIA assassin named Vivi (Amber Heard) who looks more like a swimsuit model than a trigger-happy killer. Oh, and why do female assassins wear spandex costumes when killing someone? Wouldn’t it be better to dress like a normal person because it will be easy to blend in the crowd when getting away? And at this point, let’s totally not question why the said assassin shows off her glowing blonde hair and thick red lipstick when she’s pulling the trigger.

Ethan is told about an experimental drug that can extend his life and in return must help Vivi find a terrorist leader, who is known as ‘the Wolf’. Really? You’d wonder. From the Jackal to the Wolf, look at how villainous characters are named these days. And, here’s the funny part. To get the Wolf, they must first capture his right hand man, ‘the Albino’.

People in the cinema hall were laughing when they heard that the code names of an elite terrorist group were based on alpine wildlife.

And then, there’s the emotional baggage that he carries. Ethan has an estranged relationship with his family. When he’s not tracking down terrorists, he’s making amends with his daughter, played by Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit is still on my mind).

If you’re wondering why this review is out of touch in terms of context, it’s because I’m still in a state of shock. I cannot believe that someone made a blunder of a movie and managed to cast Kevin Costner in the lead role.

 

Review: The Monuments Men

Museum curators wage war against Hitler in George Clooney's The Monuments Men.
Museum curators wage war against Hitler in George Clooney’s The Monuments Men.

The Dirty Half-Dozen
Rating: **

George Clooney is known for his charismatic appearances. This made movies like The Descendants and Up In The Air great, and The Good German and The American bearable. The way he does things onscreen is admirable. The casual flick of a cigarette, the deceiving smile, the immediate cock of an eyebrow when someone downplays him – it’s masterclass. There’s very little to discuss when he’s off-screen and a lot when he’s onscreen. The dude is magnetic!

As a director, he has made movies of several genres ranging from light-hearted comedies (Leatherheads, Confessions of A Dangerous Mind ) to serious dramas (Good Night, Good Luck, Ides of March). But, making a war film is the rite of passage for every director.

Everyone’s dreamt of making a war film as grand as The Longest Day or Paths of Glory, as memorable as Saving Private Ryan or Full Metal Jacket, and as award-worthy as The Hurt Locker or The Deer Hunter.

But, many directors have failed in doing so. Even notable ones such as Brian De Palma (Casualties of War and Redacted), and of course the infamous Michael Cimino (Heaven’s Gate). Although, I will give Mr. Cimino credit for his riveting Vietnam War film, The Deer Hunter.

What is the problem with The Monuments Men? Is it historically inaccurate? Or is it highly fictional like Argo?

Simply put, the direction is hapless. Too many things have been put in the idea box. I don’t think even Clooney knew where the film was going. It ends up like a staple Tamil film where the first half is one story, and the second half is another.

Here’s how it rolls: It’s 1943 and the War against Germany is in its peak. Many historically significant works of art in and around Europe have fallen in the hands of the Nazis. Some are destroyed while others are to be exhibited at the Führer Museum.

Having heard about this, Frank Stokes (Clooney) presents an idea to President Truman. An idea that involves a team of museum curators who head to the frontlines to retrieve the stolen paintings and sculptures, and protect those that are still intact.

The cast includes Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Ed Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Cate Blanchett and good ol’ John Goodman. The cast also includes Jean Dujardin, but I don’t think you will remember him given the shoddy characterizations that ruin the film.

Right from a poorly written French curator (played by Blanchett) to whatever Ed Balaban was supposed to do, you realize that your focus has to shift to the story as these characters have nothing to offer. But, when the story becomes sloppy (screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov), you really don’t have a choice!

The other day, I was watching The Longest Day, an epic war opera that recreated significant scenes from WWII and starred hordes of famous stars. When I was about to watch The Monuments Men, nostalgia filled my mind. I was hoping to pack my bags and sink into another glorious WWII adventure. Sadly, The Monuments Men never really delivered.

Review: The Counselor

Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in Ridley Scott's The Counselor.
Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in Ridley Scott’s The Counselor.


Thelma & Louise feels like a long time ago.
Rating: *

The Counselor is a blow to our senses. And our expectations. I certainly didn’t expect a shoddy two-hour motion picture from either Ridley Scott or screenwriter Cormac McCarthy.

Michael Fassbender plays the titular Counselor who gets in over his head, and indulges in a drug trade that involves a shady man called Reiner (Javier Bardem) even though another shady man named Westray (Brad Pitt) warns him not to. Phew!

This trade of course is defied by the brutal Mexican drug cartel, who have become a go-to nemesis in most crime films involving cocaine and gangs.

There seems to be a message in this film. Go down the bad path, and bad shit will happen to you.

Surely, there could have been an easier way of telling us that instead of making this incomprehensible mess. The Counselor, being a Ridley Scott film feels more like a Tony Scott film. There’s that slickness in editing and cinematography, that Ridley generally ignores, and Tony embraces. Sadly, the dialogue is nowhere close to either of their creations.

Screenwriter McCarthy has visited the wrong aisle in the library. Instead of taking dialogue that is as conventional as a Tarantino film, the monologues sound more like George Bernard Shaw or even Shakespeare. While explaining greed, one of the key characters, Malkina (Cameron Diaz in a nightmarish role) says:

“I suspect that we are ill-formed for the path we have chosen. Ill-formed and ill-prepared. We would like to draw a veil over all the blood and terror that have brought us to this place. It is our faintness of heart that would close our eyes to all of that, but in so doing it makes of it our destiny. But nothing is crueller than a coward, and the slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining.”

Even when I was 100 minutes into the film, I thought Scott would pull away from the misery by adding one of two thrilling set pieces. None of which happens.

Review: The Best Man Holiday

Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut and Monica Calhoun in The Best Man Holiday
Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut and Monica Calhoun in The Best Man Holiday

Can someone hand me a Kleenex?
Rating: ***

What’s amazing about The Best Man Holiday is that it never feels like 14 years. In 1999, The Best Man became a deliverance for the African-American film genre which had been stereotyped as a crime / gangster genre.  The film gave a unique identity and helped launched several other films and genres.

The Best Man Holiday is a family centered tear jerker as it slowly unravels a web of failures, sad faces and ultimately demise that surrounds the group of friends. The prequel’s breakout character, Quentin (Terrence Howard) exhibits all signs of badassery. It’s as if they based his character on How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson. Howard continues to give a good performance but at times you feel the character can be given more responsibilities. In The Best Man Holiday, Howard is still an untapped resource.

Much like the prequel, the sequel never takes Morris Chestnut seriously and reduces him to humour till the time drama is necessary. Chestnut’s Lance Sullivan is a vital character in both films and I’m surprised how he hasn’t been given enough platform to shine.

The friends reunite at the Sullivan’s villa for Christmas. Everyone is living a different life. Their conversations are fresh. There are mentions of Barack Obama and even Robin Thicke (seriously?). But, what hasn’t changed is the hostility between the two best friends – Sullivan and Harper Stewart (Taye DIggs); the spark between Julian (Harold Perrineau) and Shelby (Mellisa De Sousa) and the suspicions of Harper’s wife, Robin (Sanaa Lathan) when she sees him with his old flame, Jordan (Nia Long).

The Best Man Holiday plays it safe and uses tragic elements to get involvement from the audiences. Some may budge, but today’s audiences are not made that way. They are into high concept films where drama is limited to just one scene, with the rest being eye candy entertainment. The Best Man Holiday has its fair share of entertainment. If you don’t find it amusing, it’s because you haven’t invested in these characters. Who wouldn’t?

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: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

Brandon T. Jackson, Logan Lerman and Alexandra Daddario in Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters
Brandon T. Jackson, Alexandra Daddario and Logan Lerman in Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

What on Olympus is happening?
Rating: *

It is with a heavy heart that i write this review for Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters. Hollywood has chosen the blind eye on this potential book-to-screen fantasy franchise. The first Percy Jackson film was in all ways a miraculous entertainer. It took itself serious only when it needed to. Chris Columbus’s Percy Jackson: Lightning Thief is far better than the Thor Freudenthal sequel.

When Ghost Rider 2 made a mockery of itself, we didn’t care. But, when Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters becomes consumed in the world of bad decisions, you tend to twitch. The boy who recovered the stolen lightning is now the second best in Camp Half Blood. He’s a daredevil but at the same time, he’s rusty. But, one thing we all know is that he is the chosen one.

When Percy (Logan Lerman) lock horns with Clarisse (Leven Rambin), the daughter of Ares, you start wondering if the two would fall in love, the same way he and Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) fell in love in the predecessor. Oh, speaking of Annabeth, she is present throughout the film. But, she isn’t taken seriously either. All she does is stand in the background and cheer for Percy. And having seen her in True Detective, I cannot watch her play a teenager anymore.

The first film boasted a good cast – Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan, Steve Coogan, Rosario Dawson, Catherine Keener and even Uma Thurman. None of whom return in this 100-minute long debacle.

CGI takes a nose dive in this film, and I’m coming to think that South Indian films have better CGI. There is a Greek monster (dubbed as the Colchis Bull) which is shown to be a golden mechanical bull. Also, the Greek god, Kronos is a two-dimensional drawing in red and black.

The acting is wooden. The humour is parch. The overall experience is somber. If there are plans of making a third part, a lot of work needs to be done.

Review: American Hustle

Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle.
Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle.

John Connor’s Big Con
Rating: ***

A running joke in my movie group was that Christian Bale, who plays a con man in American Hustle is in fact a Connor – John Connor of Terminator: Salvation. In David O. Russell’s new film set in the late 70s, Bale plays Irving Rosenfield, an old school con artist who has found success, but is still thirsty for more.

This brings us to Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who joins Rosenfield’s con gang as Lady Edith Greensley, a fake British aristocrat. Adams has had her fair share of memorable performances but American Hustle (much like David O. Russell’s earlier film, The Fighter) travels to a land far away from her girl-next-door image. Here in American Hustle, she is the pot of gold – the reward everyone wants.

Justifiably, she buries herself underneath low-cut gowns and really (and I mean really) high heels. With all that glitz and makeup, one may wonder whether Adams was going to a Farrah Fawcett party and took the wrong bus.

Rosenfield’s guilt trip begins with Mayor Carmine Polito, a legit man, living a decent life, who is sweet talked into taking a bribe. Jeremy Renner is a fine candidate for the role of Mayor Polito. With two Oscar nominated roles in his kitty, this is cake walk for Renner.

The problem with American Hustle begins with Richie DiMasso, a young FBI agent (played by Bradley Cooper) who wants to be famous for pulling off the biggest intelligence operation ever. There are a couple of scenes that provide us little information on the life and times of DiMasso, which of course could have been avoided.

Much like Argo, American Hustle tries to become a personal battle than a political thriller. The success of ABSCAM isn’t the real deal, Rosenfield’s survival is.

He’s a con artist, and he helps FBI pull off a scam. But, what makes Rosenfield a common man is his estranged, neurotic wife (played by Jennifer Lawrence). She explains in one scene “you can’t divorce me because you fear I’ll talk about your illegal activities.”

That’s right, Rosenfield. You’re whipped for life!

American Hustle is a star-studded seventies crime comedy that bears plenty of resemblance to the Martin Scorsese mafia classic Goodfellas. There are the voiceovers (one each for Bale, Adams and Cooper), the constant usage of classic rock and jazz music, and of course Robert De Niro as a mafioso.

American Hustle is an old-fashioned, unapologetic, commercial cocktail prepared in Russell’s trademark style. It’s clever, funny and sometimes over the top. But, that’s the joie de vivre in watching a David O. Russell film.