Ben Chaplin

Cinderella (2015)

cinderella 2015

If you’re going to compare Disney’s live action update of its 1950 animated classic Cinderella to anything, it would be the billowing silk cloud of a dress worn by the title character. Designed by Oscar winner Sandy Powell, the gown is an iridescent dream that shimmers and floats with every graceful turn by actress Lily James. It’s pure fairy tale, gliding in and out with nary a whisper. It’s also pure superfluousness, an impractical and unnecessary extravagance that no one really needs.

But that, some would argue, is the whole point of film and make-believe. I don’t need Star Wars, but I’ll be there when the Force awakens. So in an already crowded party with too many Cinderella retellings to count, might as well add another. Anyway, director Kenneth Branagh’s movie is often sumptuous to behold, nestled securely in a lush, green stretch of land far, far away. You’d think some of the frames were borrowed from a gilded picture book. It’s an adaptation not meant for a 13″ laptop monitor, I learned. Apart from the visuals though, this iteration doesn’t dramatically improve on the well-told tale, making it a grandiloquent but somewhat meaningless affair.

Cinderella enchants with some magical fairy dust moments; wide-eyed kids will still be transfixed by the transformation sequence, and Cinderella’s fashionably late entrance to the ball plays on our best adolescent fantasies. But the film rarely sweeps you away with burning, almost aching, love. James and her princely costar Richard Madden are well matched, equal parts sweet and charming, but nice just isn’t compelling enough (nor, it seems, is a PG rating). The two are so pleasant, so inoffensive that when they are together, you sort of hope they tiptoe away and leave the messiness of plot and conflict to others, maybe someone who wouldn’t mind throwing a punch or slinging some mud.

That, of course, would be a job for Cate Blanchett, who is the closest to a standout in this movie. She continues a strong tradition of despicable, simply wicked stepmothers and is helped by a wardrobe, makeup, and lighting that elicits noir-ish Joan Crawford. As masterfully as she cuts Cinderella with her icy stare, however, she doesn’t tease with any touch of tenderness. There is a brief but brilliant moment in 1998’s Ever After where Anjelica Huston, in the same role, hints at her love for and loss of Cinderella’s father, suggesting a seed of a compassion that is crushed and then blooms into something horrible and maligned. That is the character at its most interesting, when she walks the line between love and jealousy. Lady Tremaine, as she is called here, buries her hurt so deeply that she doesn’t even privilege the audience a peek.

That doesn’t matter if you want unadulterated fairy tale, which this is to the point of storybook voiceover. Elements like that are distracting if you’d rather the story tell itself, but that’s not how these things work. Fairy tales hold your hand and guide you with a melodious refrain – “Have courage and be kind.” They shouldn’t be too rousing, nothing that will make you jump out of bed and beg for more. But if they gently carry you off into a light dream, then it’s done its job right.

“A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” by Lily James:

“Strong” by Sonna Rele:

Released: 2015
Prod: Simon Kinberg, David Barron, Allison Shearmur
Dir: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: Chris Weitz
Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McSheara, Nonso Anozie, Stellan Skarsgård, Hayley Atwell, Ben Chaplin
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015

Ways to Live Forever

ways to live forever

In the overwrought kids-with-terminal-illness genre, Ways to Live Forever manages to stand tall on strong performances and a story that wonderfully brings out the precociousness of its main character. Based on a book by Sally Nicholls, the movie is about 12 year old Sam (Robbie Kay) who tries, with the help of his friend Felix (Alex Etel), to balance living and dying. As expected, it works the tear ducts but does so in an atypically unshowy way.

Sam records a video diary, partly for posterity but mostly just for the hell of it, in which he details facts about himself and his family and, when the occasion merits, his illness. His nonchalance about his leukemia is preferable to the self-awareness of teen protagonists in similarly themed films (ahem, The Fault in Our Stars). There’s nothing pretentious about Sam’s on-camera addresses, and in one entry, he explains his cancer and the side effects of his medicine with the same matter-of-factness as a kid showing off his ant terrarium.

The film tries for a lot of honesty but without the attention seeking cynicism. Felix, who is a little older than Sam and also has cancer, brings a more worldly perspective to the friendship and often has a sarcastic remark at the ready, especially when the two are taking lessons from their tutor (Greta Scacchi). But while death backgrounds their actions and relationships, they are content to live it up and tick as many things as they can off their bucket list. In his exhausting sprint to, among other things, do teenager stuff, Sam gets some help from Felix who in turn enlists his cousin (Ella Purnell). The preteen romance is treated with the lightest touch, and the film seems as doggedly determined as the boys are to chase down a good time.

There isn’t a surprise ending to this though, and the levity of childhood is weighed down by Sam and Felix’s illnesses. Still the film maintains a balanced tone, and that’s largely thanks to its lead actors. Etel has charmed me before in Millions and The Water Horse, and while he’s older and no longer cherub-faced in this movie, he’s still has an earnest expressiveness. Kay, meanwhile, has a child’s sense of bemused wonder, and sometimes boredom and anger. His character happily zooms the wrong way up an escalator, but when he gets bad news about his leukemia, he stubbornly insists that doctors not try to soft-pedal the delivery.

The friendship between Sam and Felix gets more attention in the first and second acts of the movie, but the focus eventually shifts to Sam’s family. The film tries not to be too heavy-handed here, just as his parents try to hold back and let their child live a normal life. When they do come to the fore, however, Ben Chaplin delivers a powerful performance as Sam’s reserved father. The actor is a master at conveying the deepest emotions in the quietest manner and does so again as a father who can’t seem to figure out how to express the enormity of his love. By contrast, Sam’s mother doles out her affection in small measures. She’s a static character, giving Emilia Fox less to work with, but the actress still adds to the emotional richness of a picture that does its best to keep its grief simple.

Released: 2010
Prod: Martyn Auty
Dir: Gustavo Ron
Writer: Sally Nicholls, Gustavo Ron
Cast: Robbie Kay, Alex Etel, Ben Chaplin, Emilia Fox, Eloise Barnes, Phyllida Law, Greta Scacchi, Natalia Tena, Ella Purnell
Time: 91 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2015

The Water Horse

water horse

The Water Horse uses the infamous “Surgeon’s Photograph” of the Loch Ness Monster as a starting point for this fanciful tale about the mysterious creature. Framed by a present-day storyteller (Brian Cox), the movie flashes back to wartime Scotland where a lonely boy named Angus (Alex Etel) discovers a large, iridescent rock on the beach. When it hatches later that night, he is surprised to find a strange animal squirming and squawking about.

Angus enlists the help of his older sister (Priyanka Xi) to keep his secret from their mother, Anne (Emily Watson), who works as the housekeeper at a large manor. The task is made more difficult by the arrival of a new handyman, Mowbray (Ben Chaplin), and a regiment of soldiers who are to be billeted there. Mowbray, however, learns of Angus’s new pet, which the boy has named Crusoe, and thinks that it is a rare water horse. He explains that only one water horse can exist at a time and that it lays a single egg before dying. Mowbray teams with Angus to protect Crusoe, but its rapid growth makes it increasingly harder to conceal.

As an adventure film, The Water Horse can pull off a heart-pounding adrenaline rush. Crusoe memorably faces off with the army cook’s bulldog during an officers’ dinner party, and there’s a lot of scrambling to find a hiding place that’s big and wet enough for the slippery animal. When Angus and Mowbray finally lead it into a nearby lake, new problems threaten Crusoe’s safety, including the army’s artillery, which has been set up to protect against German attacks. And far from being a cuddly creature of the deep, the water horse looks like it crawled out of the Jurassic Park reject pile, snapping at anyone it doesn’t take a liking to.

The best stories do more than excite though, and the film serves its action with plenty of heart. Behind Angus’s desire to protect his odd pet is his own need to be loved and nurtured. Though he is well cared for by his hard working mum, he daydreams of his father’s return from war, undeterred by the news that his ship was lost in battle more than a year ago. Mowbray and the regiment’s self-assured leader, Captain Hamilton (David Morrissey), temporarily stand in as father figures while also trying to win Anne’s affections.

The key ingredient to this picture is its cast, and it’s young Etel who leads the pack. After charming his way into everyone’s heart in his first film, Millions, he again brings a somewhat forlorn, single-parented boy to vivid and tender life. His acting is precise but absent of the polish and pretension that often strips young characters of their vulnerability. Even when he stubbornly holds his ground, he looks ready to squeeze out a few tears or break into a wide, toothy smile, depending on how the wind blows. The Water Horse never feels like the cloying, coming of age film it could be and Angus is made not just tolerable but wholly endearing because of Etel’s performance.

The adult actors contribute enormously as well. Watson, who seems to be taking on a lot of wartime mother roles lately (War Horse, The Book Thief, Little Boy, Testament of Youth, even the Queen Mother in A Royal Night Out), is beautifully understated as Angus’s firm but devoted mother. The always unassuming Chaplin also keeps himself a step behind Etel, which gives his character an even more paternal presence. Morrissey, by contrast, strides on board and plants his foot down. He begins as the caricature of a man who needs to be in charge but softens as the film goes on.

Cox’s avuncular presence meanwhile is comforting but unnecessary. Angus’s story stands on its own merits, even if the narrative drags at times, and doesn’t need the intrusion of a narrator or perky American tourists. If it’s color and a sense of detached wonder that the filmmakers are looking for, they make up for it with some picturesque shots of Loch Ness (or Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand, where the movie was filmed).

This trailer makes the film look like a wacky kids’ action movie. It’s much better than that.

Alt Title: The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep
Released: 2007
Prod: Jay Russell, Douglas Rae, Robert Bernstein, Barrie M. Osborne
Dir: Jay Russell
Writer: Robert Nelson Jacob
Cast: Alex Etel, Ben Chaplin, Emily Watson, David Morrissey, Priyanka Xi, Brian Cox, Craig Hall, Erroll Shand, Joel Tobeck
Time: 112 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom, United States
Reviewed: 2015