Stellan Skarsgård

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

Mamma Mia!

mamma mia

Mamma Mia! is the cinematic equivalent of an exploding party supply store. It’s a chaotic, freewheeling mess of sequins, feather boas, and novelty beach props crashing into a dazzling slate of singing and dancing superstars. The spectacle is good, boozy fun if you’re not invested in plot and don’t need an excuse to break out in song.

Based on the stage production which is based on someone’s strained imagination, the movie takes place on a picturesque Greek island where Donna (Meryl Streep) owns a holiday villa. Her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), is engaged to Sky (Dominic Cooper), and their wedding promises to be a grand affair. Guests begin to descend on the island, including her raucous friends and former bandmates, Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski). But unbeknownst to her, Sophie has also sent invitations to Donna’s former lovers, Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Harry (Colin Firth), and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), one of whom could be her biological father. With the nuptials less than 24 hours away, Sophie’s secret becomes too big to keep and threatens to ruin her big day.

Not to worry though – this is an ABBA extravaganza. A film whose musical lineup includes “Dancing Queen,” “Super Trooper,” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” can’t possibly end on a sour note. Just look at those exclamation marks. It’s the sheer exuberance of the song and dance numbers and the abandon with which the actors perform them that lessen the guilt of indulging in such shameless entertainment. The gaudy theatricality of the whole project works in its favor, demanding that viewers let loose a little. If James Bond doesn’t mind embarrassing himself in a polyester one piece, then surely the audience can forgive the below average singing voices and utter lack of character development.

It’s a mystery, for example, why Sophie is so desperate to have her father give her away when she’s had no contact with him her whole life or why all three men, who presumably had no more than a weekend fling with Donna, are so eager to scramble back to the tiny Greek village after twenty years. The sheer will with which Catherine Johnson, who penned the book and screenplay, corsets her story to give shape to the songs is impressive, even if the results are less so.

One reason is casting, which clearly didn’t take musical abilities into account. Seyfried holds herself well along with veteran Baranski and relative newcomer Cooper, but even the infallible Dame Meryl shows some strain. Still, she is better than any of her leading men, whose reedy warbles surely belong in some musical hall of infamy. At least they have their careers to fall back on.

“Dancing Queen” by Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters:

“Lay All Your Love On Me” by Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper:

“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) by Amanda Seyfried:

“Voulez-Vous” by Mamma Mia! cast:

Released: 2008
Prod: Judy Craymer, Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks
Dir: Phyllida Lloyd
Writer: Catherine Johnson
Cast: Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård; Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Dominic Cooper
Time: 109 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2015