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Friday, 27 March 2015

Cinderella (2015)

(G) ★★★½

Director: Kenneth Branagh.

Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Ben Chaplin, Stellan Skarsgard, Derek Jacobi, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera, Helena Bonham Carter.

"Who's up for a kick of the footy?"
OLD fairy tales never die - they just get remade, re-imagined, rebooted and rewritten forevermore.

In recent years we've seen a gritty take and a comedic take on Snow White, a horror-themed Hansel & Gretel, various dark versions of Red Riding Hood, the all-singing mash-up of Into The Woods, and a big-budget action revamp of modern fairy tale Alice In Wonderland.

With all this twisting and sculpting of classic stories, it's actually refreshing to watch Disney's live action version of Cinderella because it remains largely faithful to both the original fable and the best known iteration of the tale - Disney's own animated version from 1950.

While the lack of updating does make the plot and this retelling feel dated and somewhat naïve by modern standards, it's nice to see Branagh and writer Chris Weitz put their faith in the classic narrative and its signature moments, albeit with plenty of 21st century CG trickery.

Surely everyone is familiar with the ins and outs of Cinderella but just in case, here goes: in a fantastical and vaguely European kingdom, Ella (James) is the downtrodden girl left orphaned and under the thumb of her stepmother (Blanchett) and stepsisters (Grainger and McShera) following the death of Ella's dad (Chaplin).

Forbidden by her stepmother to attend a ball at the royal palace, Ella attends anyway with some magical assistance from her fairy godmother (Bonham Carter) and proceeds to win the heart of the prince (Madden) but is forced to flee before the night is over.

Will the prince discover Ella's true identity? Will they ever meet again? Or will the stepmother's own evil plans come to fruition?


Of course, 99 per cent of people already know the answers to these questions and the other one per cent would likely be able to guess given the predictable nature of conventional Hollywood storytelling.

So what is the appeal here? Why bother seeing the umpteenth retelling of an antiquated love story of the poor-girl-meets-rich-boy variety?

The main drawcard is the visuals. Branagh, having displayed a previously unknown knack for CG-heavy blockbusters with Thor, presents a sumptuous-looking film that is continually easy on the eye, whether his camera is sweeping over the kingdom or through a lavish ballroom full of stunningly costumed revellers or simply capturing Ella at work in front of the dying embers of the kitchen fire.

While it's Ella's CG-enhanced transformation - complete with pumpkin coach and mice for footmen - that is the film's big moneyshot, its true highpoint is an opulent dance sequence where the artful production design and outstanding costuming come to fore, even if the whole scene appears to have parachuted in from a long-gone era of cinema.

This brings us to the thing most likely to divide audiences - is this quaintly out-of-date or pleasingly old-fashioned?

Ella's character has been somewhat modernised, with an enhanced sense of inner strength and independence to go with her overwhelming niceness, but the gentle pace and sedate storytelling do seem like an anachronism against the hyperactive editing and technicolour assaults we've come to expect in family friendly fodder these days.

Perhaps the other major flaw is the humour, or lack thereof, in the film. While Blanchett gets a couple of killer lines in what is the film's stand-out performance, there is a serious need for a few more laughs to offset the earnestness of it all, especially in the oh-so-sincere opening and closing act.

The filmmakers seem acutely aware of this, hence we get a bizarre cameo from Rob Brydon that is admittedly funny but so out of place it feels like Brydon has wandered in from a neighbouring set.

Thankfully the performances are uniformly good, with Blanchett and Bonham Carter particularly relishing the chance to go over-the-top (in a good way).

There's every chance this will become the go-to version of the Cinderella story for a new generation unfamiliar with the 1950 animation, but there's also a possibility this will be overlooked by a young audience more at home with the crash-and-bash of modern cinema.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Home

(PG) ★★

Director: Tim Johnson.

Cast: (voices of) Jim Parsons, Rihanna, Steve Martin, Matt L Jones, Jennifer Lopez.


Wrap around onesies are in this season.

THERE'S a theory that the older you get, the more young people and the things they like mystify and annoy you.

Exhibit A - Home, a strangely dull and rarely amusing slice of CG-animated children's entertainment that is likely to mystify and annoy the grown-ups as much as its shiny noisiness thrills the young'uns.

While it's not a complete loss, the cringingly warped dialogue and the frequent drab Rihanna songs will probably prevent this from being an all-ages smash like Frozen or Toy Story.

The film centres on a race of aliens called Boov who take over Earth while on the run from their mortal enemies. As part of the takeover, they relocate all humans to purpose built communities, inadvertently separating teenager Tip (Rihanna) from her mother (Lopez).

While Tip tries to avoid the Boov and find her mum, she bumps into Oh (Jim Parsons), a friendless accident-prone Boov who has inadvertently invited the enemy to Earth.


For some reason, the filmmakers thought it would be cute and/or funny to have Oh and his fellow Boov speak with a bizarre syntax that leaves Yoda's mangled sentences for dead but it's not cute and its seldom funny - it just gets on your nerves.

Equally grating is Rihanna, whose songs pepper the soundtrack, complete with a couple of obligatory dance sequences that are intended to help sell the spin-off album. The tunes feel obtrusive and more like advertising than enhancement.

Rihanna's voice performance as Tip isn't bad, but she does sound older than the character (who is supposed to be in her early teens yet seems reasonably comfortable driving a car).

But the biggest sin of Home is that it's not funny enough. Most jokes fall flat, with the best gags relating to toilet humour, which gives some idea of the heights the writers are aiming for.

There are some saving graces. The last act is pretty good, with the overly simplistic themes - the importance of family/friends and being bold - coming to a head in a decent conclusion.

Steve Martin is another saving grace as Boov leader Captain Smek. He does seem to be channelling King Julien from the Madagascar movies ever so slightly, but he's an interesting character nonetheless.

Home certainly looks great and has a sense of silliness that's enjoyable on occasion, but largely it's forgettable.

Maybe kids will enjoy this and maybe these are the grumblings of one not young enough to understand/appreciate it, but this is more than likely going into the DreamWorks pile of films you won't remember in five years time alongside Monsters Vs Aliens, Shark Tale and Turbo.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Chappie

(MA15+) ★★★

Director: Neill Blomkamp.

Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yolandi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver.

Fashionbot 3000 had failed. 

AFTER his debut with modern classic District 9, South African director Neill Blomkamp went bigger and bolder with the Matt Damon-starring sci-fi film Elysium.

Audiences and critics predominantly liked it, but Blomkamp wasn't terribly pleased with the end result, saying he "just didn't make a good enough film".

It's going to be interesting to see what Blomkamp has to say about his new movie Chappie - a much more personal project based on his own short films that is nowhere near as good as Elysium.

A patchy, tone-shifting tale of artificial intelligence, Chappie has plenty going for it and is quite enjoyable for large stretches but - unlike its robotic hero - it doesn't fit together very well.

Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley provides the voice and motion-capture work for the titular droid, who is built by gifted engineer Deon (Patel) but kidnapped by Johannesburg gangstas Ninja and Yolandi (rap duo Die Antwoord as fictionalised versions of themselves).

Chappie, the first truly sentient piece of AI, is torn between keeping a promise to his maker not to commit crimes and helping his new "mummy and daddy" commit crimes.

Meanwhile, Deon is being targeted by a disgruntled co-worker (a mulleted Hugh Jackman) who sees Chappie as a way to rise through the ranks at the weapons company where they work.


The main problem with this film is its inconsistency. The opening act is poor, bombarding us with unnecessary news reels, clumsy character set-ups, and bad B-grade dialogue.

The trick is to persevere because the second act is great. Ninja and Yolandi's performances suddenly improve out-of-sight, the story gets better, the dialogue goes up a notch, a much-needed sense of humour starts to trickle in, and Blomkamp's typically weighty social themes start to appear.

But best of all the lead (and most interesting) character dominates the screen. Blending Copley's clever voice and motion-capture performance with some top-notch CGI, Chappie is a wonderfully fascinating character and gives everything a central radiant point to revolve around.

Unfortunately there are not enough of the weighty social themes nor enough humour as Chappie slides downhill in its final act, which switches back into B-grade mode for its big bloody showdown. It reaches a satisfying-enough conclusion, but each act feels like it has come from a different draft of the screenplay.

As a result, there are some very odd elements in this film, including some real "what the?" moments - i.e. how bad is the security at this weapons company? - and some parts which seem out of place. Jackman and Weaver - the nominal villains of the piece - are strangely cartoonish, and while Jackman's obviously enjoying himself and relishing the opportunity to play a bad guy (and wear a mullet), it's not one of his better performances.

Thankfully Chappie the character is endearing enough to elevate Chappie the movie and help overcome some of the film's deficiencies, but not enough to rank this in the same category as Elysium, let alone District 9.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Focus

(MA15+) ★★★½

Director: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa.

Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Adrian Martinez, Brennan Brown, Gerald McRaney, Rodrigo Santoro.


"'Neighbours', you say? Nope, never heard of it."
CONMEN and hustlers are like flying cars - they seem really cool in the movies but in real life you'd hate them (seriously - most drivers are bad enough without adding the ability to move vertically into the equation).

Watching someone steal watches and wallets with ease or rip off unsuspecting marks and make their millions with clever ruses at the expense of honest hardworking rubes is a giddy thrill on celluloid, whether it be seeing Newman and Redford in action in The Sting, or Clooney and co take down casinos in the Ocean's movies, or in Ridley Scott's under-rated Matchstick Men. Even the ones based on real-life con artists hoodwink us into barracking for the criminals, like in the recent American Hustle or Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can.

The truth is we abhor these rip-off merchants and petty crims in reality - the filmic appeal comes from the fantasy of it all and the peek behind the curtain to see how the magician does their tricks.

As such, Focus offers that fantastical appeal and is great fun (if morally bankrupt), filled with far-fetched schemes that are always two steps ahead and which fully embrace the ridiculous world of the cinematic swindler.


Will Smith stars as Nicky, the seasoned pro who runs a team of pickpockets, shakedowners and flimflammers that roll into American cities around the time of big events to lift a few wallets, nick a few credit cards, and launder the resulting spoils before they leave town.

When novice grifter Jess (Margot Robbie) tries to fleece Nicky, the veteran takes pity on her, teaches her some tricks of the trade, and eventually lets her join his team.

But Nicky is also falling for Jess, which goes against one of the many aphorisms trotted out by Nicky during the course of the film.

As such, Focus is a "rom-con" - just as fixated on its inventive scams as its tightrope relationship between Nicky and Jess.

With both aspects, the question of where the lies start and end is the intriguing one, and given the subdued but sturdy performance of Smith and the skyrocketing star of Robbie, both the rom and the con are worth watching.

Thankfully there's a good level of humour in there too, and writer-directors Ficarra and Requa (previously responsible for the excellent I Love You, Phillip Morris and Crazy, Stupid, Love) get the mix right.

How much you're willing to settle into this world of bluffs and double-crosses, as well as its inherent silliness and lack of morals, and just go along with the over-the-top ride will dictate how much you enjoy the film, but if nothing else it's a solid diversion - it's no Ocean's 11 or The Sting but it's pleasant enough.

There is a tendency to watch this type of film with a mixture of scepticism and anticipation as you try to figure out the next play in the shell game. Ficarra and Requa know the rules and attempt to subvert them as much as possible to avoid being predictable, but ultimately the con movie has to go down a certain way.

Focus is like a low-stakes poker game with friends - it's a bit of short-term fun that you shouldn't expect to take anything big from.