Movie Review: “Cinderella” (Kenneth Branagh, USA 2015)

Back in the early ’80s, Kenneth Branagh was the most successful young Shakespearean actor since Laurence Olivier. Critics were never big fans of his work, but he showed a remarkable ability to connect with audiences. He nearly made his big break with a film many may recognize called Amadeus (Milos Forman, USA 1984) but his film career instead didn’t find much traction until he put together his theater troupe (including his then-wife Emma Thompson and his mentor Derek Jacobi) to create a film version of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, with himself taking on not just the lead role but the position of director in Henry V (Kenneth Branagh, UK 1989). The film was a huge success for Branagh both as a director and as an actor, and that success continued for several years with the minor exception of the quickly-forgotten Peter’s Friends (UK 1992). Then, his Hamlet (UK/USA 1996) met with a more mixed reception (wrongly, as far as I am concerned–it’s a brilliant film), with many finding the four-hour runtime excessive and Branagh’s performance an over-the-top attempt to outdo Olivier’s most famous role (Branagh was better–I’ll put that on record anytime). He was still a promising film director with some very strong credits already under his belt (Dead Again [USA 1991] is an impressive film that has since been forgotten, but it shows off that there’s more to Branagh than being a modern Olivier impersonator.) and a fantastically gifted, charismatic actor, but it seems that the criticisms of what he hoped to be his magnum opus stung him.

It took a few years before Branagh returned to directing with the ill-conceived Shakespeare musical Love’s Labour’s Lost (UK/France/USA 2000) and a few years again until he returned with another Shakespeare film and a return to his original fascination with Mozart, neither of which got much attention from anyone. Then, in 2011, he returned to directing with a surprising presence in the Marvel stable for Thor (USA), which he followed with another forgettable action film in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (USA 2014). However, the financial success of these films seems to have returned the once-promising director to the point where he can take on a top-notch project. Disney could hire whomever it wanted to direct its live-action version of Cinderella, and it went with Branagh–that says something about where he currently stands. A guy who was rejected repeatedly by the Harry Potter franchise now gets to take on one of the signature stories of the biggest-name movie studio in history, and I for one welcomed his return. Continue reading

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Movie Review: “The Monuments Men” (George Clooney, USA/Germany 2014)

Let’s pretend for a moment that George Clooney’s directing career were his real career. Let’s ignore his stardom and look at what he’s done as a filmmaker. In 2002, Clooney exploded onto the scene with a surprisingly assured and visually audacious debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (USA/Germany/Canada). Having a Charlie Kaufman screenplay based on one of the most interesting “autobiographies” of all time and an extraordinary lead actor* definitely made it easier for him, but the death scene on the swimming pool is one of the most striking scenes I can ever remember seeing in a film, and the film, while something of a narrative mess, definitely showcases a director with a real eye.

He has since followed a schedule, releasing a new film every three years. In 2005, he released an excellent film that retained the visual power of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind while also showcasing an admirable ability to craft a tightly-focused narrative in Good Night, and Good Luck. (USA/France/UK/Japan). At that point, with an Oscar nomination in his back pocket, Clooney looked like a director to watch. Then, he released a forgettable screwball comedy about the early days of professional football that really got little traction. Then, disastrously, he returned to the political realm he had used so well for Good Night, and Good Luck. for his 2011 film The Ides of March (USA). While his visual craftsmanship and casting ability remained apparent, the film was one of the few I can ever remember seeing that was quite simply remarkably stupid. It was a vapid, shallow point (The entire point of the film is a line spoken by its lead character: “You can lie, you can cheat, you can start a war, you can bankrupt the country, but you can’t fuck the interns! They get you for that!” And, no, it did not come out in 1997.) made artlessly in a film that seemed naively shocked at any impropriety by modern politicians.

So, with that career in mind, we see that he has gone behind the camera again for a film whose trailer seems to suggest that the story has about six acts and that the main reason to see the film is its cast that would have qualified best for “star-studded” status twenty years earlier. The film tells the rather odd-sounding story of a military unit in World War II charged with saving pieces of art from destruction at Hitler’s hands, but there’s an interesting moment in the trailer when Clooney says that, as silly as their mission may sound, “this is what we’re fighting to protect—a way of life.” The film then looks like it has the potential to be an interesting exploration of the importance of art to a society, a subject that is going to be near and dear to the heart of any filmmaker, especially one as politically aware as Clooney. So, we have a filmmaker with a great eye seemingly working on a film with a clear point that’s right in his wheelhouse. He’s misfired a couple of times in a row, but after showing so much promise, he has to knock this one out of the park, right?

Well, there is no joy in Mudville. Mighty Clooney has struck out.

The film really has no idea what its point is, interjecting lectures about the value of art while it tells its story of this ragtag group of semi-bumblers working to find the art but never really connecting the two. It’s too busy telling the story of what happened with this group of men to continue making its point, which makes the entire point of the film feel like a lecture added onto the film after completion.

And even the story that the film tells is a mess, jumping around among the lead characters with no clear aims as they take actions whose significance is only made clear by heavy-handed after-the-fact discussion. It feels like a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive story, which is a major problem for a film that has already jettisoned its real point in order to tell a story. Further, Clooney depends entirely on the star power of his actors to carry interest in these characters, who are otherwise never defined. Using an all-star cast is a way to force the audience to invest interest in ill-defined or dull characters, but Clooney does it using a couple of has-been stars (Bill Murray and John Goodman), a few recognizable faces who are nonetheless well short of being stars (Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, and Bob Balaban), and two legitimate stars (Clooney and Matt Damon, both of whom one could argue are also has-beens, since they were more popular 10-20 years ago than they are today) and isn’t using this technique because of a focus on story or point over characters but rather just to make up for his own shortcomings in drawing them.

Tone is also a major problem within the film, as it has no idea whether it’s a fun romp, something deadly serious, or somewhere in between. It is constantly veering between fun, silly vignettes and then the type of death and destruction that typically populates war movies. It doesn’t know which is its focus, and it certainly isn’t making any points by juxtaposing the extremes.

With this cast, one would expect that the acting would be a silver lining in this film even with its other problems. However, no one is given enough to do to be particularly impressive and a couple of cast members are even problematic. Bill Murray, who I still believe should have an Oscar on his mantle, seems completely unsure who his character is and bounces illogically between his typical laconicism, a knowing goofiness, and an odd cynicism. Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett seems to be playing some sort of parody of a French woman in a film from 1940 rather than any kind of real character, somehow managing the incredible trick of coming across as both wooden and over the top at the same time.

Working again with his Ides of March cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Clooney’s eye doesn’t really fail him here, but the film also lacks the flare that he displayed in the past. It’s a perfectly competent film that does some dynamic lighting and definitely doesn’t do anything wrong, but it plays it safe in a way that Clooney has been very good about avoiding in the past. It looks exactly how you expect it to look from the poster, which is a sign of competence, but also a sign that the film is less interesting than it could have been.

Alexandre Desplat’s score also deserves a note, as it was quite hideous but also something of a victim of the film’s tonal problems. Desplat essentially scored the film as an out-and-out comedy, but since Clooney didn’t make that, the score often feels out of place. It often sounds like some sort of parody of the score to The Great Escape (John Sturges, USA 1963) for a film that has nothing in common with that earlier masterpiece.

The Monuments Men is really nothing short of a disaster. It’s a film that has no idea what it wants to be and so succeeds in being nothing. It is a failure on nearly every level and even its successes are only partial successes.

*Sam Rockwell is extraordinary. How the guy has managed to be relatively obscure with that talent is a question that keeps me awake at night.

Movie Review: “Blue Jasmine” (Woody Allen, USA 2013)

I have a friend who responds to every negative review I write by saying, “You just don’t like anything unless it’s Woody Allen.” I’m a huge fan of Woody Allen’s work. I was angry for months about the fact that I had to wait to see this film because it never came to theaters here. So, needless to say, I was hoping for another masterpiece. I didn’t get it, but I have said that part of why I think Woody Allen is so great is that his non-masterpieces are often still good films, and Blue Jasmine is a definite example.

In recent years, Woody Allen has vacillated between love letters to major cities and updates of classic literature. The fact that no city is name-checked in the title of Blue Jasmine is enough that we could tell where this film would go, and it is indeed a sly update of A Streetcar Named “Desire.

There are a number of themes to the play, but Allen’s film distills it down to the simple idea that wealth and success are only facades for people who are no different than those they view as inferior. Suitably, he therefore tones down the awfulness of Stanley Kowalski and the bizarreness of his relationship with Stella and revamps the reasons behind her breakdown in order to allow both the wealthy, cultured world that she used to inhabit to share much in common with the shabby world her sister inhabits. It’s a smart reworking of a play that, as written, is too complex for a film, and it shows an admirable focus on its point that many directors would do well to pay attention to.

In the play, Blanche DuBois goes to live with her sister after her wealthy husband’s suicide, which is eventually revealed to have been precipitated by the revelation of the fact that he was having an affair with another man. Allen instead introduces Jasmine, who comes to live with her sister after her husband’s suicide that he committed in prison after being financially ruined when the government discovers some sort of financial fraud (the crime is really not explained at all, but fraud seems pretty likely). It’s a change that fuels much of Blue Jasmine, and makes its point quite clear: the wealthy and successful are no different than the “lower” classes, as evidenced by the rich scumbag that she married compared to the men, scumbags and decent, whom her sister Ginger meets along the way. We get examples of a decent-if-crude-and-selfish guy in Ginger’s current beau Chili and a seemingly-sweet-wife-cheater in Al, showing us that it’s not just Jasmine’s world that includes cheats and liars, but that they are still there.

And Jasmine attempts to rebuild her life from the bottom up but she doesn’t really know how to do it. She works at it, but never stops looking down her nose at her sister’s life and cannot resist the temptation to go for a shortcut in getting a man to take her back into high society without having to work at it herself. And, meanwhile, she is breaking down under the stress of her situation, losing herself in memories of her past pain to the point that she plays out the conversations aloud in public with no hint of self-awareness.

Acting-wise, there is really only one performance here, and it is a whale of a performance: Cate Blanchett is given a role that is only slightly altered from the Blanche DuBois role that has drawn comparisons to the title role in Hamlet and absolutely knocks it out of the park. The strain and stress of her everyday life, the ease with which she carries herself when she feels back and home in high society, the pain of her losses and breakdowns, and of course the bewilderment of her complete mental lapses are all clear on her face. More importantly, they feel real in a role that could easily be over the top (as Vivien Leigh has shown . . . ), making this woman’s breakdown all the more heartbreaking and powerful. Otherwise, no one really stands out in a good or bad way.

Visually, Allen and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe unfortunately don’t do too much. Allen has never seemingly had too much of a visual imagination, with his best visual films all being photographed by either the Prince of Darkness (Gordon Willis) or Sven Nykvist, perhaps the two greatest cinematographers in Hollywood’s history. Aguirresarobe has himself handled the camera for a truly great film (Hable con Ella [Pedro Almodóvar, Spain 2002]), but he doesn’t have anywhere near the resume of those two giants, and it shows. Blue Jasmine is by no means a visual mess, but it is so conventional and lacking anything particularly interesting that there just isn’t much to say. It works well enough but doesn’t advance the point of the film at all, which is a shame for a film that has enough other elements to be excellent.

The score is made up entirely of already existing music, as is Allen’s norm, but it deserves mention for being a distracting score that rarely befits what is happening on screen. It often seems to be playing for laughs in a film that otherwise uses a bit of comedy but is overall rather serious. I don’t know if I’m misreading what Allen was intending somewhere or what, but this score is horrendous.

Overall, this is a good but not great film. It’s a bit thin and its lack of visual imagination and annoying score take away from a well-written story with a truly brilliant lead performance, but that all still adds up to at least an enjoyable experience.

Woody Allen List Update

This is the first Woody Allen film to come out since I started the blog, but I have long since watched every film of his career and ranked them all, a ranking which I update with every release. I do not include Play It Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, USA 1972) even though Allen wrote and starred in both the film and the play because he did not direct the film or Don’t Drink the Water (Woody Allen, USA 1994) because it is a television film. This list is my personal ranking of all of Woody Allen’s films, and it probably leans a bit more on my personal enjoyment than it should (and thus I reshuffle it a bit every time), but I always have fun updating it, so here it is anyway:

  1. Annie Hall (USA 1977)
  2. The Purple Rose of Cairo (USA 1985)
  3. Deconstructing Harry (USA 1997)
  4. Love and Death (USA 1975)
  5. Match Point (UK/Luxembourg 2005)
  6. Midnight in Paris (Spain/USA 2011)
  7. Sleeper (USA 1973)
  8. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Spain/USA 2008)
  9. Hannah and Her Sisters (USA 1986)
  10. Stardust Memories (USA 1980)
  11. Take the Money and Run (USA 1969)
  12. Interiors (USA 1978)
  13. Zelig (USA 1983)
  14. Radio Days (USA 1987)
  15. Broadway Danny Rose (USA 1984)
  16. Anything Else (USA/France/UK 2003)
  17. Cassandra’s Dream (USA/UK/France 2007)
  18. Manhattan (USA 1979)
  19. Shadows and Fog (USA 1991)
  20. Husbands and Wives (USA 1992)
  21. Blue Jasmine (USA 2013)
  22. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (USA/Spain 2010)
  23. Bananas (USA 1971)
  24. Manhattan Murder Mystery (USA 1993)
  25. Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask (USA 1972)
  26. Melinda and Melinda (USA 2004)
  27. Crimes and Misdemeanors (USA 1989)
  28. Alice (USA 1990)
  29. To Rome with Love (USA/Italy/Spain 2012)
  30. Scoop (UK/USA 2006)
  31. Mighty Aphrodite (USA 1995)
  32. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (USA 1982)
  33. Everyone Says I Love You (USA 1996)
  34. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (USA/Germany 2001)
  35. Small Time Crooks (USA 2000)
  36. Sweet and Lowdown (USA 1999)
  37. Hollywood Ending (USA 2002)
  38. September (USA 1987)
  39. Bullets Over Broadway (USA 1994)
  40. Another Woman (USA 1988)
  41. Celebrity (USA 1998)
  42. What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (USA/Japan 1966)
  43. Whatever Works (USA/France 2009)