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Entries in Cate Blanchett (4)

Friday
Mar132015

Cinderella

Nobody captures magic as well as Disney. For decades, they have delivered some of the most memorable and wonderful films time and again with rarely a stumble, at least when looking at their impressive animated filmography. No matter if you’re a child or an adult, it’s difficult not to gaze at the screen in imaginative awe and be transported to a world unlike anything you’ve ever seen. That’s why one’s hesitance towards taking a much loved animated film and turning it into live action is understandable, but they knock it out of the park with “Cinderella.” Based on the classic fairy tale, but borrowing heavily from the 1950 film, “Cinderella” is enchanting, a wonderful and stylish film with a charming lead and emotional narrative.

And that narrative should be well known by now. Ella (Lily James) is an orphan. She grew up in a warm household with a mother and father that loved her very much. Unfortunately, they are now both dead and she has found herself in the care of her stepmother (Cate Blanchett), an evil woman who treats her terribly, which includes forcing her to clean the fireplace, leading her stepsisters to give her a cruel nickname: Cinderella. Meanwhile, the Prince (Richard Madden) is throwing a ball and the entire kingdom is invited and even though her stepmother initially forbids her from attending, Cinderella is granted the opportunity by her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter). So she jumps in her pumpkin carriage and slips on her glass slippers to meet the Prince.

And we know what happens from there. Certain things are changed from the well-known tale, like Cinderella and the Prince meeting prior to the ball, but the story plays out basically the same. So while there are little surprises in store, the film nevertheless remains mesmerizing. The story is brought to life with imaginative vigor, with a passion that similar animated-to-live-action films like “Beastly” severely lack. Unlike that film, this isn’t a pandering tween adaptation, but rather a loving tribute to one of the greatest and most hopeful stories of all time. Director Kenneth Branagh brings his usual stylistic flare, but downplays it when compared to something like the bombastic “Thor” and allows his actors and the inherent wonder of the story do the heavy lifting.

Even with that, this story hinges on a lead actress able to pull off the title role and create an empathetic character and they couldn’t have cast anyone better than Lily James. Before Cinderella’s mother died, she told her that there were two things she always needed to remember: to have courage and always be kind. They’re words to live by, but they also serve as a foundation for James to craft a character that is impossible not to fall in love with and root for. Not since 2007’s “Enchanted” have I felt such a strange connectedness to such an optimistic person, a perspective that remained unchanged in her even as she faced extreme adversity.

In fact, all of the performances are stellar, as each performer brings exactly what is needed to each respective role, except for, oddly enough, the typically great Cate Blanchett. While the costume design and occasional silliness of prior iterations of the story can be blamed for some of it—she’s naturally decked out in all dark, evil colors and accompanied by a cat whose name is, get this, Lucifer—her exaggerated mannerisms and dramatic tone do little to ground what is otherwise a captivating tale. If the aim was to make her unlikable, then she succeeded, but not because of her actions in the story, as it should be, but rather because her performance really is that annoying.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot of wonder in this version of “Cinderella,” and it’s captured in an extravagance that doesn’t overtake the story, but enhances it. With a beautiful score that complements its already timeless story, “Cinderella” cements itself as a modern day classic, a film that boys and girls of all ages will adore.

Cinderella receives 4/5

Thursday
Jun122014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

If you’ve seen all their movies, it should go without saying that DreamWorks Animation is not the most consistent animation studio in the world. For every terrific film they make like “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda,” they make equally bad movies like “Shark Tale” and “Madagascar.” Watching them in order of their release is like riding a roller coaster full of gigantic peaks and very low valleys. They always lagged behind Pixar for a number of reasons, but with the release of 2010’s “How to Train Your Dragon,” it seemed like they were finally catching up. It was their most beautiful and mature film to date and, though it had some problems, it was perhaps the first time you could visualize DreamWorks nipping on Pixar’s heels. Its sequel is good, but less successful, even if it does retain the same aspects that made the original so good.

The film once again takes place in Berk, the best kept secret this side of “well, anywhere,” as Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) explains. Since the last film, his people have learned to tame and live alongside dragons, domesticating them as pets and using them to help with their everyday lives. Hiccup, along with his dragon, Toothless, tasks himself with charting the surrounding areas, since the ability to fly gives him a greater ability to travel long distances. On an adventure one day, he runs into Eret (Kit Harington), a dragon trapper working for the evil Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who is rounding up dragons to build an army and using them to take over the land. Hiccup, having already changed the minds of his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), and the people of Berk about dragons, sets out to do the same to Drago.

“How to Train Your Dragon 2” has one very clear deficiency: its story is rushed. There’s a revelation about Hiccup’s past regarding someone missing from his life, which is introduced through minor dialogue, only to be explained, explored and resolved just as quickly after. There’s no real emotion behind Hiccup’s character, so little drama comes through, even when the film takes dramatic detours and plays out huge events that will change Hiccup’s life forever. When it looks like one of these moments will work, the film doesn’t linger on it enough for it to resonate. Simply put, Hiccup by himself just isn’t a very interesting character.

Luckily, he has Toothless. Much of the fun of the film is watching the dragons frolic in the background like caffeinated puppies, chasing each other and rolling around on the ground, while the human characters speak in the foreground. This gives the film a playful charm—even if these moments do ultimately serve to distract from the story at hand—but when Hiccup and Toothless are together and away from these diversions, the film is at its best. As they soar through the clouds, each defending the other from any perils they come across, their bond grows. They trust each other, as evidenced by Hiccup’s reckless attempts to fly himself with a makeshift wingsuit, and the natural majesty of the beautiful flying scenes (which are enhanced by the 3D, one of the only times the format has benefitted its host film) really make their companionship special.

Of course, this is still a DreamWorks animated movie, so it still relies heavily on silly humor to push it along, doing its best to negate its overbearing drama, and it mostly succeeds. There are some genuinely amusing jokes here, including those of the “pay attention or you’ll miss it” variety, like the Vikings humorously exclaiming “Oh my gods!” when something exciting happens. While this isn’t the funniest movie in the world, its humor keeps things lighthearted enough to spice up some of its duller moments.

But it all comes back to the poorly handled story. The entire thing is generally sloppy, failing even to follow its own internal logic. “He can’t fly by himself!” Hiccup yells when Toothless is left falling to the ground; that is except for all those other times before and after that he does. Because of issues like this, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is a clear step down from its predecessor, which is par for the course for most sequels, yet its world is vibrant and wonderful, brimming with exciting stories that could be told. Future sequels will inevitably take advantage of that fact. “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” while still a solid adventure, stumbles too much to make much of an impression.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 receives 3/5

Friday
Apr082011

Hanna

Hanna is a movie of perplexing interest. It’s a technically sound film from an accomplished director who has, with the exception of The Soloist, put out a string of excellent movies. From an aesthetic viewpoint, Hanna suffers from only minor problems, but the whole of the experience is empty and meaningless. It’s nothing but an exercise in stylish action, which would be fine if the action scenes were anything worth talking about. Hanna is as lively as a dull movie can get, which makes it some sort of anomaly, but if that’s the biggest praise it can gather, does that really make it worth seeing?

Saoirse Ronan plays Hanna. For as long as she can remember, she has lived out in the middle of the woods with her father, Erik, played by Eric Bana. He used to be a CIA agent, but went rogue many years ago and has been in hiding ever since. For some reason, he has a switch in their cabin that, when flipped, will give away their position to Marissa, played by Cate Blanchett, a former colleague of his who intends on wiping them out for mysterious purposes. Erik has spent years training Hanna to survive in preparation for this day. After the opening scenes, the flip is switched and the chase is on.

There is one shining light in Hanna and that is Saoirse Ronan, who makes up for her tepid performance in The Lovely Bones by capturing the type of ass kicking, female empowerment mojo the girls in Sucker Punch muffed up with over-sexualization. She’s a tiny little thing, but she holds her own against the bulky men fighting her, and believably so. The reasoning behind her skills is kind of silly, but it’s a silliness you have to accept as essential to the story.

Alas, much of what else that happens is anything but essential. The film’s biggest downfall that it fails to build momentum because it wastes its time in needless narrative tangents, like when Hanna goes out on a date with a boy she just met. Its intention is to show how inexperienced she is with the outside world, which includes social interaction, but it has zero relevance to the broader story. It's a scene that can only be described as random and unnecessary, especially when compared to other, better scenes that more clearly show how ignorant she is to the world, like when she discovers electricity for the first time.

When it does get to the action, it becomes a repetitive slog through meandering chase scenes where nonsensical actions become the order of the day. Hanna may have the combat skills of a martial arts expert, but most of the time she opts to simply run away, which doesn’t make for a particularly thrilling experience. Presumably to make up for its lack of variety, director Joe Wright employs camera trickery on a few occasions that have no impact or metaphorical purpose (one of its few aesthetic stumbles, along with its occasional use of shaky cam that feels so out of place as to be unpleasantly jarring). The final nail in the coffin comes from the musical score, which is so piercingly loud and pounding that it sometimes drowns out the dialogue in the more intense scenes. I would say this is an unforgivable error, but in a story with no point, it’s merely an annoyance.

Hanna is a film that is fun to rip apart with friends. It has so many minor errors it almost becomes laughable. For instance, very early in the movie a plane flies low over Hanna and Erik’s hidden cabin in the woods, which is something Hanna has never experienced. I guess the airlines had just been shut down for the last 14 years (and don’t even get me started on why they flipped that switch). From what I could tell walking out of the theater after my viewing, Hanna will be a popular movie, but don’t be fooled by word of mouth. “Popular” doesn’t mean “good.”

Hanna receives 2/5

Friday
May142010

Robin Hood

Robin Hood is a noble character. With his motto of “steal from the rich and give to the poor,” it’s hard not to like the old chap. Or so I’m told. I wouldn’t know personally because, well, I don't really like the old chap. Despite literally dozens (perhaps hundreds) of Robin Hood adaptations in film, television and literature, I’ve never become accustomed with the green-tighted fellow because his antics always bored me. Not much has changed with the 2010 Robin Hood.

Like how last year’s Sherlock Holmes brought the titular character to modern times, Robin Hood modernizes our hero and introduces him to a new generation. Gone are the green tights and feathered caps. Gone is the neatly groomed facial hair. This Robin Hood is rugged, always sporting a rough beard, and wouldn’t be caught dead in sissy green tights. However, also gone is the traditional story of the character. Following suit with most Hollywood films these days, Robin Hood is an origin story of sorts, so he hasn’t quite begun to help the poor through thievery.

This time he is played by Russell Crowe and is in the midst of the Crusades in England in the late 12th century. On his way back from battle, he finds a dying man clutching a precious sword who was on trek to Nottingham to inform the people that their king had died in battle. Robin, being the righteous man he is, takes over the duties and after delivering the information, the new king John (Oscar Issac) is crowned. Power changes, but unrest continues under John. In light of this, France, led by a treasonous Brit named Godfrey (Mark Strong), sees an opportunity to invade and as they plan their descent on the English, Robin Hood and his Merry Men begin to unify the people and plan a defense.

Boring and cliché are two adjectives one would hope not to use when describing a film as promising as Robin Hood, but no other words will do. We’ve seen this basic story arc before—a man fights for his wavering country—right down to the freedom speech with swelling music in the background and it's told in a manner that makes the eyelids heavy, full of dense exposition and forced romances that weigh the entire thing down.

But more goes into movies than the story and it, as important as it may be, does not reflect the rest of the film. Sure, the story may be hogwash, but the presentation is terrific. Russell Crowe gives another great performance as per usual and watching Ridley Scott, a highly esteemed director, tackle such a formidable tale is interesting. Though he stumbles here and there, his direction is quite dashing overall.

Perhaps most remarkable are the extravagant costumes and sets. If ever I found myself drifting away from the lackluster narrative, I could always find eye candy in what was presented before me. Like many period pieces, Robin Hood nails its time period dead on and it is a sight to behold.

However, the saving grace of the film is the action. These battles are epic and watching thousands of men bum-rush each other is fun to watch, even if it does feel a little too familiar. The aforementioned boredom that besets the film comes not from these moments, but rather from the downtime in between.

Robin Hood is not a film that I feel I can firmly define. I’ve struggled as I’ve typed away here because it is neither terrible, nor great. It rests somewhere in the middle and as I watched it, I never truly found myself leaning one way or the other. I was merely in a state of neutrality. Upon reflection, however, I feel the good outweighs the bad and it’s worth a look, as faint a praise as that may be.

Robin Hood receives 3/5