CINDERELLA (2021)

September 2, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. In keeping with the times, writer-director Kay Cannon (the screenwriter for three PITCH PERFECT movies) has turned the classic and ancient Cinderella tale into an agenda movie, albeit one adorned with new and lively adaptations of popular songs. The earliest versions of the folk tale date back 2000 years, while the most widely-accepted fairy tale version was penned by 17th century French writer Charles Perrault, who also wrote “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Sleeping Beauty”. Since then, there have been countless renditions around the globe in various forms: literary, stage, musical theatre, TV, and animated and live action film. As far as I can tell, this is the first feminist take.

Opening with the town folks performing Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation”, we are then introduced to Ella (pop singer Camila Cabello in her first movie), who lives in the basement of her stepmother’s (Idina Menzel) home. Yes, Ella has two stepsisters, although neither are particularly wicked. In fact, Anastasia (Maddie Baillio) appears almost disinterested, while Drizella (Charlotte Spencer) is at times, downright hilarious (in a Leslie Mann kind of way). Even the stepmother has moments of respectability and decency with Ella.

Ella’s only friends are the three mice who also live in the basement. It’s here where she hones her talent as a dress designer and dreams of having her own business (“how hard can it be?”). For her, she sees fashion design as not just her way out of the basement, but more importantly, as her road to independence. She doesn’t need a man or anyone else, and is skilled in daily affirmations. Hers is less of a ‘dream’ and more of a goal, despite the challenges of her situation.

Of course this is still a Cinderella story, and Nicholas Galitzine plays Prince Robert, an unfocused young man who lacks the drive to be king and fulfill the ultimate wish of his father, King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan). On the other hand, Robert’s sister, Princess Gwen (Tallulah Greive) is both driven and filled with ideas on ways to improve the kingdom. Her father readily dismisses her from matters of importance (men things), while Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver) initially tries to maintain peace in the family. Knowing that this is a musical, and seeing Pierce Brosnan’s name in the credits, might generate nightmarish flashbacks for those who experienced his singing in MAMMA MIA! (2008). While he does tease/threaten us with singing, most of his musical bits are quite tongue-in-cheek.

Bringing a jolt of energy to the story at a time when it’s desperately needed is Billy Porter as Ella’s non-binary Fabulous Godmother, known as Fab G. Porter’s costume and overall flamboyance are a hoot to watch, and oh by the way, he’s quite a singer as well. And yes, the three mice turn into coachmen played by James Corden, James Acaster, and Romesh Ranganathan. They do serve up some comic relief, but likely not as much as they or the filmmaker hopes. Surprisingly, the set design and costume design are fairly drab – the two exceptions being Porter and the ball.

In addition to the opening “Rhythm Nation” song, you’ll hear a version of Salt-N-Pepa’s “What a Man”, as well as other familiar tunes. The music and the shift in Ella’s approach are the contemporary touches, as the girl-power theme stresses there’s no need for a man … even a Prince. The twist on the Cinderella tale varies from previous versions, the most popular being Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 film with Lily James and Cate Blanchett, the 1997 film with Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother, and of course, Walt Disney’s 1950 animated classic. Ms. Cannon’s version is still a love story; it’s just love of one’s self and career, rather than the love of another person. A tale perfectly suited to the times.

In select theaters and on Amazon Prime beginning September 3, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


BARNEY’S VERSION

February 26, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ordinarily, a film with Rosamund Pike and Bruce Greenwood in key roles would be sufficient for me to stay home and watch The Weather Channel. However, Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman, as son and father, in a story based on Mordecai Richler’s novel was motivation enough for me to buck up and give this one a shot. And what a pleasant surprise this film is.

Giamatti has mastered the role of cynical, self-absorbed, frumpy schlub and his Barney is every bit that. The story is told through extended flashbacks after we learn a detective has written a book accusing Barney of killing his best friend (Scott Speedman). No charges were brought and it’s not until the end, in an extremely creative reveal, that we understand what really happened that day at the lake. Unfortunately, we aren’t sure if Barney ever understands, but that’s a whole different topic.

Barney’s first marriage comes about because his girlfriend gets pregnant. This one ends in tragedy and betrayal and drives Barney to spend much of his life on the path of cynicism, alcoholism and cigar-chain-smoking. He is no pretty sight – from inside or out. He stumbles into his second marriage, this one to Minnie Driver. Ms. Driver is wonderful as the Jewish princess with a Master’s Degree. How do we know? She continually reminds us of both facts. Ever known anyone that just constantly reminds you of how smart they are? How this marriage ends leads to the whole suspicion of murder and loss of best friend for Barney.

The real key to the story occurs at his wedding. Instead of worshiping his new bride, Barney watches hockey, does shots with his Dad (Dustin Hoffman) and experiences love at first sight … not with his bride, but with a guest played by Rosamund Pike. This encounter puts Barney on a singular mission of winning over Ms. Pike, despite his marriage to Driver. Can’t really give anything away here other than the story is very clever in how it handles the pursuit, failed marriage and subsequent true love story.

 The only thing is, Barney never really “gets” what true love is. Pike has a wonderful scene where she explains that life and love are in “the seconds, the minutes, the routines”. Barney nods but is clearly in over his head in so many ways. Part of the genius in the script is that we somehow find ourselves pulling for Barney, despite his long list of faults and none-too-impressive quirks.

The other thing I really appreciate about this story is how there are so many relationships that seem to spring from reality … people we know in situations we’ve been in. The title, of course, refers to Barney’s version of reality. How he sees things. We could each replace his name with ours for a movie on our life. Do we see reality, or is reality how we interpret these seconds, minutes, routines? The answer seems pretty clear.

 The film is directed by Richard J. Lewis (not the comedian) but is really a product of the amazing story and talented cast led by the extraordinary performance of Giamatti. Dustin Hoffman’s scenes are all excellent, and his real life son Jake, plays his grandson in the film. Don’t miss the quick scenes featuring standout directors Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and Ted Kotcheff. It’s also character actor extraordinare Maury Chaykin‘s final film. And I certainly can’t omit mention of the fabulous, spot on soundtrack featuring T-Rex, JJ Cale, Donovan and others. Leonard Cohen‘s “I’m Your Man” plays over the closing credits so don’t leave early!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you thrill to well told stories that are extremely well acted OR you just want to admire Giamatti’s god-awful posture.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you need a “good guy” lead character OR you are concerned that the sight of Paul Giamatti in boxers could lead to nightmares.


CONVICTION (2010)

November 7, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Based on a compelling true story and spurred by a “60 Minutes” segment, the film tells the story of Betty Anne Walters (Hilary Swank) who dedicated 18 years of her life to proving the innocence of her incarcerated brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell).

The natural assumption would be that Betty Anne wrote letters and hounded police and attorneys so that no one would forget Kenny. The truth is far more fascinating. From an abusive and underprivileged childhood, Betty Anne rose above all and reinvented herself once her brother was found guilty of murder. She got her GED, graduated from college, then law school, and became his attorney. With assistance from Barry Scheck and The Innocence Project, old evidence was re-analyzed and witness testimony was contested. The outcome is public record and more proof that fact can be stranger than fiction.

Pamelay Gray’s script is handled by director Tony Goldwyn, who is known mostly for TV projects. He is talented enough to let the story and his excellent cast do the work. Swank, of course, is the perfect choice for this role and seems quite at ease. Rockwell, one of the more under-appreciated actors around, is very strong in capturing the lovable Kenny, as well as the red-hot tempered alcoholic who was always in trouble with the law. The relationship between this brother and sister is established via childhood flashbacks and prison visits. We never once doubt that Betty Anne would commit to this challenge, even if we do question the wisdom of doing so.

Have to mention some of the rest of the cast. Minnie Driver is Abra, Betty Anne’s law school classmate who joins her in Kenny’s cause. The movie never really explains why she does this, but she adds a nice element. Melissa Leo is the cop with a chip who railroads Kenny. We see later how her life turned out and can only think she deserves every bad thing that can happen. Ari Graynor plays Mandy, Kenny’s teenage daughter and an almost unrecognizable Clea DuVall is excellent as her mother Mandy. The performance that really jumps off the screen is that of Juliette Lewis. We first see her testifying in court and then again almost two decades later as a burned out shell of a person. Her few minutes here are staggering to watch.

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another melodrama, but it is really fascinating to see what the love of a sister can accomplish. I was shocked that the end trailer didn’t mention that Kenny died in a freak accident just 6 months after his release. Betty Anne is on record as saying that while tragic, at least he died a free man.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: the words “based on a true story” make your heart race OR you have always wondered what a drugged-out Juliette Lewis would look like (yikes!)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: movies about dirty cops annoy you OR you wouldn’t lift a finger, much less dedicate your life, to help your brother or sister