‘Cinderella’ retells the story we’ve all imagined

If our obsession with Will and Kate’s royal wedding was anything to go by, we love fairy tales! Which is why there’s much to love about a live-action revival of a 1950’s animated classic.

“Cinderella” screenwriter Chris Weitz and director Kenneth Branagh tastefully transform a tale as old as time into a magical 105-minute picture.

Part of “Cinderella’s” charm lies with its lead, a good and wholehearted heroine that we can emulate. Lily James’s very likable and animated as Ella. She has a happy childhood with her father (Ben Chaplin) and her mother (Hayley Atwell) until her parents pass away. But as the story goes, she’s mistreated by her cruel and jealous stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and two gaudy stepsisters (played by Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) while she bears a grin, talks to mice and lives by her mother’s maxim, “Have courage and be kind.”

Filmed by Haris Zambarloukos and edited by Martin Walsh, “Cinderella” is visually stunning and shows off Sandy Powell’s costume designs. There’s an ariel shot of Ella’s two stepsisters in bed surrounded by frumpy dresses. James looks gorgeous in blue — spinning in the prince’s arms. And Blanchett makes a pretty picture in a vibrant green dress that would make Scarlett O’Hara jealous (this one’s not made out of curtains).

Who wore it better: Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara or Cate Blanchett as Cinderella's stepmother, the Lady Tremaine?

Who wore it better: Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara or Cate Blanchett as Cinderella’s stepmother? 

Although Weitz and Branagh’s live-action version follows a safe and predictable script, it sweeps us off our feet in the same fashion as Kate Middleton’s real-life “Cinderella” story. 

Prince Charming goes by the name as Kit (Richard Madden), and pretends he’s an apprentice at the castle. Courtesy of her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), Ella attends his ball dressed up as a princess. And they — like Prince William and Kate Middleton — lived happily ever after.

“Cinderella” was directed by Kenneth Branagh and written by Chris Weitz. 


Stammering through ‘The King’s Speech’

As far as problems go, not being able to speak without a stutter is a pretty embarrassing one. Especially if you’re King George VI (Colin Firth); radio speeches are pretty routine for rulers, after all (even for figureheads). Especially after Marconi invented the radio.

“This devilish device will change everything,” says his father, King George V (Michael Gambon). “In the past, all the king had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse. Now we must invade people’s homes and ingratiate ourselves with them. This family’s been reduced to those lowest, basest of all creatures. We’ve become actors.”

That’s the premise of Tom Hooper’s (director of “Les Miserables“) 2011 Academy Award-winning picture, “The King’s Speech.”

When the film begins, it’s 1925 and Prince Albert “Bertie” Frederick Arthur George (Firth), the Duke of York, was to make a radio broadcast from Wembly Stadium for his father’s subjects.

It’s long and difficult. But as painful as this poor bloke’s pitiful plight is, “The King’s Speech” isn’t a comedy. None of his subjects laugh as he chokes out the words, st-st-stammering; we don’t even see (or hear) the whole speech.

After years of speech therapy, unconventional speech pathologist and an amateur Shakespearean actor Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) tries to conquer the Duke of York’s life-long speech impediment.

“I can assure you that no infant starts to speak with a stammer,” says Logue.

Logue angers Bertie, leading him through songs, nursery rhymes, tongue twisters, and other exercises.

“Anyone who can shout vowels outside an open window can learn to deliver a speech,” Logue says decisively.

“The King’s Speech” is a fascinating period piece into the private life of a monarch. And that’s one of the film’s real strengths. David Seidler’s screenplay lets us into a world hidden behind closed palace gates. Bertie reluctantly relinquishes his manners and control, getting into shouting and swearing matches with his instructor. Logue expertly eggs him on, and not just on matters of speech. He makes sure Bertie also flourishes with his newfound voice. That’s seen in one brilliant scene when Logue sits on King George VI’s coronation throne, watching as the angry and reluctant king stammers at him.

“I have a voice!” Bertie eventually shouts.

“Yes, you do,” Logue answers.

“The King’s Speech” was directed by Tom Hooper and written by David Seidler. The film won 2011 Academy Awards for Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, Best Achievement in Directing and Best Original Screenplay. “The King’s Speech” also won the 2011 BAFTA Award for Best British Film. 

‘Les Miserables’ Lives On

For an audience used to seeing “Les Miserables” on stage for the past 25-plus years, Tom Hooper’s direction and Danny Cohen’s cinematography may seem strange.

Their film adaption of the musical, based on the French historical novel by Victor Hugo, is about Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a French convict who served 19 years in jail over stealing a loaf of bread. After Valjean is released on parole, he is caught stealing silver from a bishop (Colm Wilkinson) who gave him shelter. Instead of accusing Valjean, the bishop says he gave Valjean the silver. Valjean repays the bishop’s kindness by trying to protect Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen, Amanda Seyfried) after her mother passes away. Meanwhile, his parole officer Javert (Russell Crowe) hunts Valjean for not returning from parole.

While the story of “Les Miserables” has already been adapted in book, stage, radio and film form, Hooper and Cohen’s film brings the musical closer than ever before. Cohen’s camera zooms into Jean Valjean’s face as he is singing. The camera is shaky, as if Cohen is shooting on monkey cam, with the camera slung over his shoulder, rather than on tripod.

Meanwhile, Jackman is breaking the fourth wall of the boxed proscenium stage, staring directly at the camera while backlit by the sky or the bright, ornate church décor. It’s a bold choice — and it’s unsettling to see an actor’s face blown up — with their eyes piercing into your soul — on the silver screen while they sing their soliloquy. But although Cohen consistently zooms into an actor’s face so they are staring at the camera and confronting the viewer, this filming technique is both a hit and a miss throughout different segments of the film.

The most effective use of this technique is when Hooper is telling Fantine’s story. The subjective camera captures Hathaway’s pain as she pleas for money for her daughter. The close-up shots show Hathaway’s vulnerability, nakedness and despair when she loses her job at the factory, her hair when she’s begging for money, and her virginity when she is raped as a prostitute. The closeness and immediacy of the camera enhances Hathaway’s performance.

Meanwhile, Hathaway’s high piercing voice conveys a range of emotion as she sings the renowned title song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” through a stream of tears. At times it’s frail as she whispers her words. At other times, her voice is laced with venom and rage for the overwhelming unfairness of her situation. From pleas and gasps to fire and anger, Hathaway’s performance changes how you hear “I Dreamed a Dream” — and for the first time, you begin to understand what the song really means.

The closeness of the camera also forces the viewer to confront filth and poverty. After all, how can you refuse poverty when they stare you in the face and beg you to listen? The film shows the fingers of the poor and homeless reaching out for you as the undercurrent of rebellion and the French Revolution boils. Meanwhile, Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) is singing, “Think you’re poor? Think you’re free? Follow me! Follow me!” Watching the French resistance of the 19th century, you can’t help but think of the residue of fire in the Occupy movement who crowded the parks of New York City just a year ago.

On the other end of the spectrum, Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen shine as the gaudy carpetbaggers, Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier, the greedy innkeepers who keep Cosette until her mother Fantine can settle her debt. Both Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen are known for their over-the-top roles with Bonham Carter playing slightly mad characters such as Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” and Bellatrix Lestrange in the “Harry Potter” films, and Baron Cohen playing absurd and comical characters such as Borat and Bruno. Although both actors may be typecast as the Thenardiers, the two work well together. While Bonham Carter is making out with guests in their number “Master of the House,” Baron Cohen is patting down guests while pick-pocketing them. Combined with lunacy and ridiculousness, the two are perfect for the role.

Yet while the Thenardiers are supposed to be ridiculous and over-the-top, the camera work and editing is ridiculous, making the audience very aware that this is a film and not a play. Even though the actors may hear the orchestra in their ears while singing live during each take, the dizzying aerial shots and the extreme close ups of the actors sometimes overshadow the actors’ talent. Eddie Redmayne, who plays Marius, Cosette’s love interest, appears as a lovesick Romeo whose talent is being pretty for a majority of the film. However, after Marius is wounded and Redmayne is singing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” Redmayne releases more genuine waterworks. For such a morose scene, it would be fitting to tell the story with longer and slower shots. However, the nice profile shot of Redmayne is quickly replaced by a shot of Redmayne crying at the camera, staring directly at you. Then you see a shot of Redmayne singing in an empty room with empty chairs and empty tables. While Redmayne is bearing his heart and mourning the death of his friends, the editing makes Redmayne’s distress look cheap rather than subtle. Instead you are bludgeoned with multiple shots and camera angles that seem too intrusive on his pain, when all you want to see is Redmayne’s still profile as he is quietly mourning. The scene seems even cheaper and even more out of place when Amanda Seyfried suddenly appears and the two get married. The drastic shift between sadness and happiness causes vertigo, just as the shaky camera movements and badly framed shots showing actors with their foreheads cut off, bring you out of the story.

But in the end, the camera work doesn’t matter. You may be upset about why Jackman is back lit as he is pacing or how Cosette’s appearance seems to stifle Redmayne’s grief, but in the end, you can’t help being swept away by the music, which washes over you like a familiar wave. You can’t help but feel the solidarity as all the actors return to sing, “Do You Hear the People Sing.” You only wish the actors would run and return on the stage to sing an encore.

After all, isn’t the music all that matters? The Broadway musical hasn’t been translated into 21 languages and played more than 47,000 times to audiences of more than 60 million people worldwide for nothing.

‘Dark Shadows’ deserves an early grave

Normally, I am a fan of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton — after all, their alliance produced classics like “Edward Scissorhands,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and “Alice in Wonderland.” But although “Dark Shadows” held all the usual Tim Burton eccentricities (such as characters with papery pale skin and dark eye shadow and quirky personalities), the unrequited vampire love story is far from my favorite film.

“Dark Shadows,” which is a parody of the mid-1960s TV series by the same name, follows Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), a 19th century Englishman who lost his one true love to another woman’s spite. The woman, Angelique (Eva Green), just happened to be a witch with an obsessive love towards Barnabas, cursing Barnabas with an allergy to both silver and sunlight as well as a plight of blood as sustenance. But alas, after being locked in a coffin for 196 years, Barnabas is back.

Once again, Johnny Depp plays a character a little out of touch with the modern world. But compared to his more whimsical roles as Mad Hatter or Willy Wonka, Depp as Barnabas feels ancient. His stiff mannerisms feel uncomfortable next to his laid-back, hippie, 1972 Vietnam War era counterparts. In one scene, Depp’s character is talking to Carolyn Stoddard (Chloe Grace Moretz), his distant teenage relative, about courting a modern woman. It’s like watching your dad talk to you about the birds and the bees. You can’t help but cringe, feeling embarrassed and trying to tune out. Perhaps that’s why the film itself felt uncomfortable, ridiculous and shallow. I felt like Moretz’s character, watching her great great great great grandfather make a fool of himself. Sure, you love him no matter what, but ooooh, Johnny, did you have to do that?

Perhaps the problem is not with the acting but with the plot. When you have a.) a womanizing playboy who hooked up with the wrong woman, and b.) the wrong woman just happened to be obsessed with you that rather than kill you, she makes you a vampire so while everyone you love dies, she can still attempt to woo you, perhaps melodrama is to be expected. It’s petty conflicts like this that drive the movie. In one scene, Depp and Green have wild, passionate sex, breaking every piece of furniture in a room. In another exchange, Depp slaps Green across the face as she breaks like a china doll. But even if it’s melodrama that the movie is after, I don’t sympathize with many of characters.

Roger Collins (Johnny Lee Miller), one of Barnabas’ more recent descendants, is timid preferring to run away rather than raise his son. David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), Roger’s son, has such a minor role that despite being declared mentally unstable and able to see ghosts, he is hardly visible. Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), David’s psychiatrist, has her own mental infliction, seeking eternal youth and beauty. Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the motherly figure that’s trying desperately to hold her family together, but that even feels one dimensional.

There are bright spots to the dark shadows of the film. Fifteen-year-old Chloe Grace Moretz, known for recent roles such as the childhood friend of Hugo in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” and the superhero Hit-Girl in Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick – Ass,” departs from her younger and more innocent kid roles and displays maturity as a young actress — slamming doors, slouching, listening to music and well, acting like a regular teenager.

Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), David’s nanny, seems like a spunky, innocent bystander with a tragic past in the beginning of the movie, but by the end, she pulls a Bella Swan, jumping off a cliff and asking her Edward Cullen to make her vampire.

The film does features a great, funny montage to the Carpenter’s “Top of the World” though, and Alice Cooper was recruited to give a private concert. Perhaps if the film featured more of this light-hearted comedy found in the earlier half of the film rather than the sickening stalker-ish love that is notorious in Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight,” the film come off as less trite and the shadows would actually have some depth.

“Dark Shadows” was written by Seth Grahame-Smith and John August; and directed by Tim Burton.

To view this post published in Imprint Magazine, click here.