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: Skyfall

Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Sean Connery’s Aston Martin in Skyfall.

Bond without the Bond Girl, Cool Gadgets and Some Other Essentials

Rating: ***

Skyfall is an action film infused with dark elements that we’ve tirelessly seen in Christopher Nolan’s creations. Skyfall is also an homage to Sean Connery’s Bond films. I wrote in my review of Casino Royale that Daniel Craig physically resembles Connery. Both are lean fighting machines. However, Craig is more hardcore and in Skyfall, he has a sculpted torso, which none of the earlier Bonds possessed.

Knowing Sam Mendes, I expected Skyfall to be a dialogue-oriented film, and it plays along with dialogues coming from every end. The sad part is that Skyfall goes nowhere close to a Bond film. Countless Bond elements go missing and if you plan on seeing them later, you’ll be in for a wee bit of disappointment. This includes:

– The infamous Bond Girl

– Bond’s double entendre

– The cool gadgets from Q branch

– Q’s sense of humor – Ben Whishaw is nowhere close to the legendary Desmond Llewellyn or John Cleese

– The cool new car – Of course you get to see a cool old car

– The gun barrel sequence which is absent at the beginning of every Daniel Craig film

– The soon-to-die seductress who in this film fails to seduce (bad job Berenice Marlohe)

– “Vodka Martini, shaken not stirred” – What’s an homage without this line!

I was among the hundreds to cheer when the classic Sean Connery Aston Martin made its presence. That scene defined Bond’s love for his cars. There’s however a certain weakness in the screenplay, especially in the film’s third act. The film moves from one place to another, showing characters reveal their new identities with a lack of vigor. Sadly, there’s no better way to show the transition that Skyfall sets to its successors.

Javier Bardem’s antagonist is a mixture of Bane and Joker. The actor does his job, but you’ll be reminded of Batman’s two torturous antagonists now and then. And why are we portraying a hint of bisexuality in a James Bond film? Bond is a legendary chick magnet. Don’t ruin him for today’s youngsters. A similar thing happened in the comic book world and now, Green Lantern is gay (bad news Ryan Reynolds).

Naomie Harris portrays a field agent who we initially think will be the Bond Girl, but, the epilogue shows us who she really is. Ralph Fiennes plays Gareth Mallory, a man high up in the Intelligence and Security Committee, who along with Harris will fill in for another infamous  character in the Bond universe.

If you thought Bond was young and suave, you’ll be shocked to see him greying. Skyfall pretends to be the last Bond film much like every other film, where he has to overcome the antagonist’s large army. But, Bond has become an invincible Charles Bronson character and he never fails to deliver. For Craig, Casino Royale was his defining film. Quantum of Solace was a power-packed action film, but failed to meet the expectations of a Bond film. Skyfall lies somewhere between these two films.

Skyfall creates a new platform for Bond 24, which I hope should release in 2014-15. I can’t wait 4 more years for the next Bond film.

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.

Review: The Big Year

Owen Wilson, Steve Martin and Jack Black in The Big Year.

Living by the birds

Rating: ***

The Big Year is about a group of people with messy lives who travel America in search of birds. These people are referred to as birders and not birdwatchers. Birding is a sport that includes taking a picture of every bird you find, so that the judges know how many you’ve seen. Big year is a contest where birders have one year to do all their birding and in the end, the one with the highest number gets a trophy and exclusive interviews with notable American magazines such as Rolling Stones and Vanity Fair.

The film stars Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson – three contemporary comedians armed with wacky one-liners that keep you entertained. All these characters live shallow lives.

Martin is a millionaire who runs a successful company full of nuts that cannot make decisions on their own. Hence, his employees follow him everywhere for advice.  Jack Black is employed in a 9-to-5 job that he hates to the core. His father chides his interest in birding while his mother (Dianne Wiest) discovers his aim to be the best at it. Owen Wilson’s character Kenny Bostick is a three-time winner and current record holder. This sets the bar for Black and Martin as they team up to beat him.

Bostick’s marriage is shattered due to his birding obsession. His annoyed wife (played by the ever-lovely Rosamund Pike), continuously rants that he prefers birds over sex. He later corrects her, saying “It’s not about the birds. It’s about being number one.”

Over the course of the film, several life-changing events take place. For instance, Black’s character Brad Harris meets a fellow bird enthusiast, Ellie (Rashida Jones), with whom he falls in love with.

David Frankel is no stranger to comedies. He has worked with Wilson in Marley & Me, and has direct Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. He shows off his expertise by letting his actors improvise scenes. It’s no mystery that Black and Martin are used to improvising their lines. The film also stars Anjelica Huston and Jim Parsons in roles that really didn’t need popular faces. They could have done that scene with B-list stars.

Comedies generally portray characters that rediscover themselves in the turn of events. The Big Year is no different from them.  

Review in 140 words or less: Margin Call

Kevin Spacey in Margin Call

Wall St biggies cannot read the screens

Rating: ***

Margin Call is set in an atmosphere of panic. The events leading to the 2008 stock market crash are first noticed and as they take place, the character storylines are introduced and finely mixed.

Despite discussing strategies, the senior members of the firm don’t seem to understand the numbers. The CEO tells a junior executive, “speak to me like you’re speaking to a child.”

J.C. Chandor’s film moves on through the night where employees discuss how much the firm’s biggies earn and how they lavishly spend their money. But, is that what Chandor is trying to do in this film? Confirm the divide between the filthy rich and the upper-class.

Foot Note: A star-studded film, Margin Call maintains a fine grip on the viewers.

Jane Eyre

Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska in Cary Fukunaga's 2011 version of Jane Eyre.

Darkly Fascinating Retelling of Bronte’s Novel

Rating: ***

I’ve seen two versions of Jane Eyre before I chanced upon this. The 1943 version was a classic which starred Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles. The 1996 version, despite its high production value wasn’t satisfactory when it came to performances. William Hurt was miscast as Rochester and so was Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane. There is another adaptation, released in 1970 which starred Susannah York and George C. Scott.

This 2011 retelling is directed by Cary Fukunaga. Dark elements have been added to the screenplay and while a few contents from the novel have been snipped, screenwriter Moira Buffini brings to life a darkly fascinating Jane Eyre. Presented in In Media Res mode, Jane’s life flashes back and forth through the years of visual torture she experienced at her aunt’s home and at Lowood School. While the earlier versions didn’t reveal much about her torture, Fukunaga takes his time in exposing what harsh realities Jane has been subjected to.

Mia Wasikowska is bang on as Jane Eyre. Her simplistic portrayal of the governess is ardently conservative. The film promotes proto-feminism which was first introduced in the novel. 22-year old Ms. Wasikowska puts up a ravenous show in the scenes where she confronts Rochester’s freewill. Michael Fassbender easily trots into shoes of the Byronic Hero, Edward Rochester. Once he descends his cold eyes on Jane, he’s hooked on to her simplicity. But, he takes his own time in explaining his love of her. Nevertheless, Fassbender has the spirit of the character.

While Judi Dench’s Mrs. Fairfax doesn’t appear as jovial as the character does in the novel, there are moments where she relegates her co-stars into mere puppets. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman hops from one place to another, filling the screen with luscious English architecture.

The references to the earlier versions are just a syllable to what Fukunaga’s version transpires to be. The film redeems itself of the novel’s gothic allusion and is pertinent to Bronte’s vision of the troubled damsel who wanted nothing but a full life. Apparently, quite a few scenes have been excluded. But, I hear Fukunaga is planning to release a Director’s Cut which will have 30 minutes of extra footage.

While Jane Eyre isn’t shot in the Kubrickian way, it doesn’t slog either. It is an indication that this tale of passion hasn’t died out. But, I’m in doubts about the future adaptations of the novel as today’s fantasy readers are thriving about vampires and magic.

Review: Kullanari Koottam

Vishnu and Remya Nambeesan in Kullanari Koottam

Simpleton rom-com takes a dive

Rating: ***

Humour, wit, romance – Kullanari Koottam has it all! But, the narration takes a dive in the second half and becomes some kind of a docudrama by exposing corruption in the police force. And, the characters just walk into a mindset and kidnap relentlessly. This indeed is a false promise set by a highly entertaining first half.

Kullanari Koottam, I hear is a sleeper hit. The film is also one of those suburban (read: B&C centre) films which seemed to have earned the interest of the multiplex audience. Judging by the brisk narration, the first 60 minutes offered, I was hooked on. The film is around 140 minutes in length and that’s a huge relief. But, the third act could have definitely used some editing.

Do we still need songs to hook us? Chartbusters are okay, but what about songs that you never actually want? The second half faces such a scenario.

Vishnu comfortably slips into the role of a Madurai youngster without thinking about the accent and lifestyle. Although, writer-director Sribalaji gives him a set of mannerisms to follow, Vishnu staggers and tries quite hard to create an impact, while usual rom-com actors just go with the flow.

Remya Nambeesan has found the role that suits her looks. Her character brings enough naivety to the film. The scene where she threatens Vishnu over the phone is a splendid one. The rest of the cast look to set a mark, but we all know that romantic comedies favour only the lead.

Kullanari Koottam is flawed, but nevertheless entertains… at least the first half does. 

Review: Aadukalam

Taapsee and Dhanush in Vetrimaaran’s Aadukalam

Call of the wild

Aadukalam

Rating: ***

Aadukalam, much like Vetrimaaran’s previous Polladhavan, is narrated in In Media Res mode. However, while Polladhavan opened with a gruesome scene of stabbing violence, Aadukalam begins a pacifist with a gang breaking into a shed where the protagonist, according to their eyes, has slit someone’s throat open. Now, we know that this is not true, and that he’s been framed as a murderer. But, we have no other last resort but to buy it that way rather than protesting for the protagonist’s innocence. The narration switches back to six months in a grim-looking Madurai where a few police constables are chasing a few petty thieves. The way each one of them elude the cops is a funny scene. What’s even funnier are the punch dialogues spoken by the protagonist, KP Karuppu. “We go swimming in a tsunami” he proclaims when he’s threatened by members from another gang. What struck me here is, how on earth did the tsunami reach Madurai for someone to comment, or is he just bragging that if a tsunami struck, he would just put on his swimming trunks and go on with the aforementioned action. On the contrary, this is Dhanush’s best performance, similar in style to Pudhupettai, where his punch dialogues however weren’t this stereotyped. Imagine Kokki Kumar muttering the tsunami line while his suitors stab him countless times. How ironic could that be?

Karuppu works in the shades of Pettaikaaran, a veteran in the field of cockfights, a traditional sport in Madurai and its sister towns. Another disciple of Pettaikaaran is Durai, played with gusto by Kishore. Seeing Kishore play a sophomore character is a revelation as the actor deserves a good stand. Taapsee Pannu plays Irene, an Anglo-Indian with pearl white skin. Her face suits the Anglo-Indian girl she plays, but, will that fit her roles in the upcoming films? As Pettaikaaran, Jayabalan becomes the backbone of Aadukalam as the character completely carries the weight of the film.

With a screenplay that runs lines about deceit and betrayal, Vetrimaaran builds up enough suspense with the graphically created cockfights in the first half, while the second half details about the cockfights laid by Pettaikaaran in the minds of Karuppu and Durai. G.V. Prakash Kumar continues his trend of being ‘inspired’ by Hollywood music scores, but comes up with a commendable ‘Yaathe Yaathe’ which sees the bullseye. Taking human emotions as a base for revenge, Aadukalam sees drama become tensile, but, that doesn’t make quite an impression. Nevertheless, Aadukalam is a movie worth a watch.

With respect to a film industry which has seen more duplication than any other, Aadukalam is an original which however carries a century-old message. But, if you want a novel experience, watch it for Dhanush.

 

Review: Boss Engira Baskaran

Arya and Nayantara in Boss Engira Baskaran.

A fun if not original ride

Rating: ***

Boss Engira Baskaran made a perfect 150-minute escapade. But, the dum-dum ending gave me the jeepers.  Is this the way films are meant to end? What is the use when the fourth wall is broken right in the climax? The film does its best in entertaining with witty humor.

Arya in his second consecutive entertaining role after Madrasapattinam lays it off easy as the boasting protagonist who has a thing for being vagabond. Moreover, the expressions he pulls off while delivering a few dialogues are noteworthy. Becoming the next big thing, Arya rocks the boat with his performance. Nayantara to some extent becomes a pleasing foxy woman who tries her best to appear pleasant in costumes that fail to reveal any skin. No matter how deglamourized she may look, you are reminded of her glamorous image often. The whole film rides on Santhanam’s performance, who ably balances it with his repartees and wisecracks. He is the real boss of Boss Engira Baskaran. Another plus point is Subbu Panchu, who plays Arya’s brother. He has this rare talent of providing humor with a grudge.

Writer-director Rajesh has dished out another commercial cocktail but fails to apply the glossy touch. Why oh why do we need the song ‘Maama Maama’ right before the climax? But, when compared to his crass debut, Siva Manasula Sakthi, Boss Engira Baskaran is a promise that the director can outperform himself.

Keeping up the faith by making you laugh, Boss Engira Baskaran’s promises a clean family entertainer. Watch it for Santhanam.

Review: Dinner For Shmucks

Steve Carell and Paul Rudd in Dinner for Shmucks.

Fools Rush In

Dinner for Shmucks (PG-13)

Director: Jay Roach

Starring: Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Zach Galifianikis, Stephanie Szostak and Jermaine Clement

Genre: Comedy

Rating: ***

This American version of The Dinner Game (French) appears jovial and high-spirited while banking on Steve Carell to provide enormous amounts of recycled humor. Although the humor is accepted, there are some loose points which make Dinner for Shmucks a recycled adaptation with no more broth remaining. Jay Roach, well known for Mike Myers’ Austin Powers films, uses the short route and attempts to convert melodrama into swanky mush. The scene where a stripper performs her profession is nasty enough to be mushy.

Paul Rudd plays a bored executive who’s promoted to the senior level. However, before things kick off, he must attend a peculiar dinner titled as ‘Dinner for Winners’. He later learns that the original title is ‘Dinner for Idiots’. Here is where he bumps into Steve Carell, an IRS employee and a collector of dead rats. The humor starts ticking and the rat-humor is best explained in the opening credits scene where dead rats in Barbie costumes are used to fill sceneries. The novel idea also explains a flashback in form of a photo album full of rat representations. After looking at a photograph of Nelson Mandela, Carell schematically adds “Look, that’s Morgan Freeman.”Adding drama and humor to the same dish, Roach succeeds in laughter count. However, a few overused moments of melodrama turn Dinner for Shmucks into a well-cooked meal from grandma’s century old recipe.

Those were the times of critical misconception when the comedy genre mixed well with anything – horror, action, romance. These days, comedy-dramas are the antidote for misconceptions. I’d rather watch a comedy-drama rather than an action comedy (The Bounty Hunter for example).  The only time action comedies were considered a favorite were when Jackie Chan was at helm of the affairs. Ever since, comedy-dramas have been ruling the roost.

The film presents a wide range of dialogues promoting optimism. For instance, Barry (Carrel) explains about Vincent Van Gogh “Everyone said to him, ‘you can’t be a great painter, you only have one ear.’ And you know what he said? ‘I can’t hear you.’” The film promotes the uprising of the nerdy, geeky, dorky members and succeeds in creating a wave of sympathy for its characters that you care for them. And yes, Barry meeting ‘Morgan Freeman’ at the end of the film also evokes happy tears.

A comic relief after a dismal Date Night, Steve Carell seemingly becomes the auteur of Dinner For Shmucks. The film also provides a lot of heart and humor.