Helena Bonham Carter

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

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Dark Shadows

dark shadows

If you’re not a fan of the TV cult classic, Tim Burton’s remake will do little to tempt you to it. Lush in design and fronted by Burton’s ever-capable leading man, Johnny Depp, Dark Shadows nevertheless feels oddly out of place, much like its main character Barnabas Collins, a 200 year old vampire who finds himself trying to navigate 1970s Maine. Neither as funny as the trailer suggests nor as spooky as Burton and Depp’s reputations promise, this movie floats uncomfortably between, desperate to give form to its lifeless skin.

Depp plays Barnabas, a member of the Collins family who establish a fishing enterprise in the late 1700s. In the haunting prologue, we see Barnabas reject a maid, Angelique (Eva Green), for Josette (Bella Heathcote). Angelique, who happens to be a witch, curses the couple. An entranced Josette plunges to her death and Barnabas transforms into a vampire, doomed to live his days pining for his lost love – but not before Angelique chains him inside a coffin.

Flash forward some two hundred years, and Barnabas is unwittingly released by curious construction workers. He makes for Collingwood Manor, the family estate which he is surprised to see has fallen into disrepair. And it’s not just the building that’s crumbling. The family business is in ruins and the industry is now dominated by Angel Bay Fishery. Plus, the Collins clan is in a bit of a shambles. Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), the family matriarch, can’t get a handle on her sulky teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) while her selfish brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) shows little affection for his son David (Gulliver McGrath), a disturbed boy under the care of live-in Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter).

Barnabas does his best to restore the family name and is met with moderate success and some help from Elizabeth and Carolyn. However, Angelique is still lurking around, now as the vampy owner of Angel Bay. When he recognizes David’s new governess Victoria (also played by Heathcote) as a reincarnated Josette, the three are set for an uncomfortable reunion.

There’s a lot of dressing up with nowhere to go in this movie. The humor tilts unevenly towards Barnabas the misplaced eccentric who holds antiquated ideas about women and marvels at lava lamps. Depp of course does oddball well, and I can think of few actors who can pull off regal pallor like he can. It’s delightful seeing Barnabas twitch through the modern world.

But overall, very little justifies the theatricality of the piece, which boasts great production design but skimps on character. Green manages a pitched performance as the spurned lover, but a few centuries of stewing hasn’t helped her decide what kind of relationship she actually wants with Barnabas. Christopher Lee all but disappears as an Angel Bay sea captain whom Barnabas tries to recruit and Miller is woefully underused. Even Bonham Carter, who has the most interesting role as a boozy psychiatrist with her own designs, shrinks from her scenes. Despite some a few bright spots, it seems Dark Shadows will probably stay there.

Released: 2012
Prod: Richard D. Zanuck, Graham King, Johnny Depp, Christi Dembrowski, David Kennedy
Dir: Tim Burton
Writer: Seth Grahame-Green
Cast: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley, Johnny Lee Miller, Chloe Grace Moretz, Bella Heathcote, Gulliver McGrath, Christopher Lee, Alice Cooper, Ray Shirley
Time: 113 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015