“Have courage and be kind.” Disney’s Cinderella (2015)

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I’m sorry, but Helena Bonham Carter pretty much ruins any and every movie she’s in. Maybe she was good once. I can’t recall. As it is, she just seems like an inept community theatre actor with an inflated sense of self, horrid comic timing, terrible diction, and a propensity for bug-eyed mugging.

There I said it. I feel better (sort of).

Bonham Carter as the Bibbidi Bobbidi bad/boring Fairy Godmother is by far the worst thing in Disney’s latest live action fairy tale reboot Cinderella, directed by Thor‘s Kenneth Branagh. (No more Shakespeare for him, apparently – just Disney’s princesses and superheroes now.)

As you may recall, I loathed Tim Burton’s needlessly fussy, narratively obtuse, utterly tone deaf reinvention of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, and Sam Raimi’s journey over the rainbow in Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful was just as as clunky, misbegotten, and laborious. Disney’s last go-round at reinvention, Maleficent was marginally better, simply because they had the good sense to cast redoubtable Angelina Jolie (and her flawless cheekbones) as the titular fairy/witch/whatever. Maleficent was (at least) attempting to say something interesting about women’s rights, animal rights, human rights, even if it collapsed under the weight of far too-much overbearingly pixelated CGI chicanery. (Sidenote: the less said about the Nicholas Cage-starring The Sorcerer’s Apprentice the better.)

In Cinderella‘s case (Bonham Carter notwithstanding), Disney’s latest attempt to breathe flesh-and-blood life into two-dimensional fantasy gets more right than it gets wrong. Starting with Branagh, the Mouse House has stacked the deck this time with top-shelf talent that knows the best way to super-charge heartfelt whimsy is to bring a pinch of BBC-gravitas.

Branagh’s direction has a steady-hand, using an economy of scale (no overblown special effect sequences here) to re-focus audience attention on actors and story and emotion. (Crazy, eh?) He puts his faith in one supreme “special effect” and that would be Cate Blanchett as Cinderella’s sympathetically villainous stepmother Lady Tremaine.

Blanchett is clearly having a ball in her Joan Crawford-by-way-of-Dr.-Seuss acid green mermaid gowns, casting sparks from her cat-like eyes as the venom practically glistens from her ruby-lined, perfectly-spaced pearly whites. She leaps off the screen as an intoxicating blend of cartoon caricature and pungent pathos.

Does she have a moment or two where she could/should have dialed it back a bit? Oh yeah. Yet, when she and her stepdaughter (ably played by Downton Abbey‘s Lily James) have their final quiet-storm confrontation over one recently discovered (by Blanchett) glass slipper, all Blanchett’s scenery-chewing mishegoss to that point is validated. In fact, the film is worth viewing, if for no other reason, for that one scene, where Blanchett with a sidelong glance and a turn of phrase synthesizes the heartache and turmoil faced by women of any and all generations. Is Cinderella feminist? Maybe. Maybe not, but it sure is in that moment.

James is a fine Cinderella with enough pluck to offset the damsel-in-distress undercurrents that might make modern audiences otherwise blanch. Equally her match is Game of Thrones‘ Richard Madden as her subtly charming prince, a royal who is less polished perfection and more fellow lost soul. When they first meet cute in the woods, she compels him to see hunting as a horror, and I nearly yelped with joy. “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” she pleads. And he agrees.

The rest of the cast from wizened Derek Jacobi as the king to luminous Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter) as Cinderella’s late mother to Stellan Skarsgard as a scheming duke all acquit themselves nicely, though never quite rising above a pedestrian TV-movie-esque malaise that occasionally blankets the sluggishly humorless script. Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera bring da noise as stepsisters Anastasia and Drizella respectively. They are suitably loud and obnoxious, from their behavior to their Easter-egg-colored attire, and do the work required of them, though a touch more nuance couldn’t have hurt.

Alas, Bonham Carter brings the whole enterprise to a crashing halt during the sequence that should have been the brightest spot. Lifting Cinderella up with magic and hope and beauty and opportunity after she has been so cruelly bullied by her stepmother and stepsisters should be an effervescent, ebullient, and joyous moment.  In Bonham Carter’s mush-mouthed delivery, accented as it is with half-assed hand gestures and under-baked characterization, it’s a slog.

Furthermore, why did they choose not to make this a musical? There aren’t that many songs in the original animated version, and, even though Bonham Carter is a pretty hopeless singer, having that dopey song would have aided her immeasurably, I suspect.

Regardless, the film is sumptuously appointed with costumes and set design. I haven’t seen a movie this beautiful in years. And 90% of the cast gets it so very right. It’s not a great film. Much of it will be forgotten in the light of the next day (not unlike Cinderella’s famed pumpkin coach) but the message repeated throughout (as taught to Cinderella by her dying mother) to “have courage and be kind” is a lesson all of us need, all day every day, regardless our age, background, or station.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“No warning. No escape.” No kidding. Pompeii

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

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Today is Oscar Sunday, when Hollywood self-congratulates to the point of apoplexy, celebrating the best and brightest (or most cannily marketed) that the film industry has to offer.

So how do I honor this momentous day? I go to see hack auteur Paul W.S. Anderson’s “historical” epic Pompeii.

You might recall Anderson’s last outing in which he thought it would be nifty to turn The Three Musketeers into some steam-punk orgy of tomfoolery that included fire-breathing, clockworks dirigibles. And he’s also made a whole bunch of junk movies based on video games.

So this track record certainly qualifies him to direct a film depicting one of the most compelling and haunting natural disasters to befall mankind. Right.

The script is basically a sugary smoothie of no nutritional value, blending the corny bad boy/good girl/class warfare-doomed romance of Titanic, the episodic “do we really care if these people get crushed by flaming objects?” disaster of The Towering Inferno, and a smattering of the weirdly homoerotic oeuvre of Anderson’s fellow b-movie ham-hander Zack Snyder (see: 300 …. or the Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue).

As for the obvious Titanic swipe (another movie I can’t stand, I might add) Anderson even has lead Emily Browning intoning “I’ll never let you go!” at the film’s abrupt conclusion. In a sign of some cinematic advancement, though, she doesn’t then instantaneously contradict herself by dropping her beau Kit Harington (Game of Thrones) into the briny depths – as Kate Winslet did to a blue-lipped, bug-eyed Leonardo DiCaprio.

You’d be better off watching a History Channel documentary on the volcano that ate a Roman seaside village than this over-baked tripe. And so would the rest of the cast. Why is brilliant Jared Harris continuing his downward slide appearing in crud like this? He and Carrie-Anne Moss soldier through their stilted, portentous dialogue about investing in Pompeii’s new vomitoria or some such nonsense. I think he’s the mayor of Pompeii? I have no idea.

Then Kiefer Sutherland shows up seeming very … Kiefer Sutherland … as ominous Roman Senator (by way of Malibu) who wants to steal Harris’ daughter away. ‘Cause of course when a volcano (which I will admit is truly impressive, by the way) starts blowing chunks all over town, what would you do? I’d stop for a little palace intrigue, myself. Who cares if the grocery store just got flash-fried! Let’s twirl our proverbial mustache and destroy a family for kicks!

(And didn’t Mount Vesuvius erupt like instantly so that people were trapped in time baking bread and stuff? That’s what I remember from grade school, though that could be totally wrong. That would have made for a much shorter movie, and we could have avoided the laughable moments of crockery shaking and dust falling from ceilings as people furrowed their brows confused about the imminent mountain-go-boom headed their way.)

I was entertained, but I half expected Fred Astaire, Tony Curtis, Ricardo Montalban, Shelley Winters, and Jean Simmons to show up wearing togas and hanging out with bell boys or maybe breaking into a musical number. That would have helped immeasurably.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.