Saturday, March 14, 2015

Movie Review: "Cinderella"

Sometimes it's just nice to see a movie where you know what's going to happen and that level of comfort allows you to just enjoy the ride and not worry about anything else.  That is exactly what Disney's new live action Cinderella does.

There are no major changes to the story:  Cinderella (the extremely likable Lily James) still lives with her evil stepmother (played deliciously by Cate Blanchett) and her two stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera), who do not allow her to go the ball.  Alas, in steps Cinderella's Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), who grants Cinderella with a pumpkin carriage and a ball gown with two glass slippers so that she can meet Prince Charming (handsomely played by Richard Madden).  It's a simple story, told in a very grand fashion visually, but never overturning the story to meet a more modern viewpoint, which is a breath of fresh air in this time of revisionist fairy tales.

Director Kenneth Branagh really keeps the story simple and yet opulent at the same time thanks to the amazing team of behind the scenes wizards at his disposal.  The sets, the costumes, the cinematography, the music, it's all exceptional, and it is that ability to unite great talents under one person's purview that makes Branagh a desirable director for these Hollywood studios.  However, the true star of Cinderella is screenwriter Chris Weitz.

Weitz's script is the glue that holds the film together and makes it work, because in our jaded modern age, it would have been easy to have tried to flip the story around and make it to where Cinderella doesn't need the Prince to save her, etc. and so forth.  What Weitz does is rather stick to the traditional story and finds the human justifications as to why these characters act and feel the way that they do.  Even the evil stepmother has motivation, and so does Cinderella, for why she has not ever runaway from home.  The idea that Cinderella lives looking at the world not as it is, but as it could be through courage and kindness, makes her a strong character internally.  Weitz also makes Prince Charming a character beyond simple good looks and charm, which is something that a lot of fairy tale films have always struggled with, even the good ones.   I especially like the way that Weitz shows Cinderella changing Prince Charming's world view through her kindness, making him a stronger man.  Of course, a screenplay would be nothing if it weren't for the actors.

What allows this film to really connect is that you actually like Lily James as Cinderella and Richard Madden as Prince Charming.  It is hard for actors to sell love at first sight, and their chemistry is wonderfully adorable, allowing you to root for the two of them to be together forever.  In so many ways, it is those simplistic ideas of true love, kindness, and courage, that makes these fairy tales still so enjoyable and life affirming centuries after they were first told.  Anyone with a heart and some optimism can be swept away by this film if they just tear down those stone walls of cynicism within and let it.  I firmly believe that, so do just that and see this film.

I give Cinderella a 10 out of 10!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Is Hollywood too Franchise Crazy?

That's a question that many have asked for much of the past decade, one in which I think has been answered more than adequately by the movie studios producing only franchised properties and not many, if any original scripts that have no sequels in mind.  In truth, there isn't much I can say on the subject that hasn't been touched on by other sources, but I am going to try.

Yesterday, news broke that Dan Ackroyd and director Ivan Reitman have developed a production outfit, Ghostcorps, at Sony Pictures.  Their goal is to produce more than this new all girl Ghostbusters, but another all male Ghostbusters starring and produced by Channing Tatum, and possibly directed by Joe and Anthony Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier).  All of this is being done in the hopes of setting up a Ghostbusters Cinematic Universe, like what Marvel has done.  Personally, I have never been a big Ghostbusters fan.  I've always loved the concept, but the original movies never really did anything for me.  I know there are a lot of Ghostbusters fans out there and I respect that they want to see new films in that universe, just like how I want to see new Star Wars movies, of course with both Star Wars and Ghostbusters, do the majority of people below the age of twenty really care about these new films?

Growing up, I knew of so many people who had never seen a movie made before they were born.  The Hollywood studios are so enamored by the past success of these franchises that they aren't thinking too much about their current market viability.  I am not saying that new Ghostbusters movies can't be successful, nor am I saying that these new Star Wars movies aren't going to be box office juggernauts, but we've already seen many studio franchises implode by trying to mimic the Marvel strategy of each movie in a franchise connecting to one another.  Sony has recently had to make a deal to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe after their latest attempts at creating an independent Spider-Man universe didn't work, the same with when DC hoped Green Lantern would start a  DC Cinematic Universe that failed and they're now taking a second bat at with Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman:  Dawn of Justice.  What irks me about this way of making movies, is the studios are already planning sequels and spin-offs just because of the brand's notoriety without actually making a good movie first to see if they can pull it off.

Here's the thing with franchises, there is a reason the franchises that work are popular.  They are familiar and people pay money to feel comforted.  I mean, that's why I look forward to every new Marvel movie and it's why I think Avengers: Age of Ultron will still be the biggest box office hit of the year (yes, even bigger than The Force Awakens).  I love comfort, I mean I am the first to tell someone that I hate change, but as is evidenced by what DC and Warner Bros. have done with their movies, and Sony with Spider-Man, they are just going to keep trying to shove these franchises down our throats until they strike gold after millions, possibly billions of lost dollars, just to have that one mega hit the size of The Avengers.  What if the Hollywood studios took that money they blew through and invested it in an original idea?  Where would our current movie landscape be if back in the Seventies, Alan Ladd, Jr. and 20th Century Fox didn't take a chance on George Lucas's space opera, or if Dan Ackroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ivan Reitman didn't get the funding to do their original comedy blockbuster about busting ghosts?  Two big Hollywood franchises wouldn't have ever existed and the studios would be in a lurch right now.

In so many ways, this is the hardest time in movie history to get an original screenplay produced that is not based on a pre-existing book, comic book, video game, toy, cartoon, TV show, movie, or even amusement park ride.  Look, as I've already said, I love stuff based off of things I already know I love, but I'd also like to see some new stuff as well.  You know why fans complain about the changes made from the book to the film?  It's because they've already experienced that story.  However, when Star Wars first hit in the Seventies, no one was complaining because they didn't have another source to compare it to.  That's the thing that these studios are missing.  Yeah, when these book and comic book adaptations work, they make the studios a lot of dough, but when they fail they typically go up in flames and hemorrhage money.  Now, while it would be easy to also point out big budget movies that were based on original scripts that failed at the box office, at least it wasn't something we had seen before and they tried.  How are we going to create the franchises for the future if we try to stick to the same old, same old?

I think that's the bottom line that I've been trying to get at this whole time.  I have nothing against franchises, because anyone that knows me will tell you that I am obsessed with Marvel and Star Wars and want as many of those movies as possible, but I also want to see new stuff.  I want to see the next big, original sci-fi or fantasy epic that can rival Star Wars.  I mean, J.K. Rowling didn't become a billionaire by writing a character that already existed.  No, she made her billions by creating a boy wizard that would have not existed had she not created him and his world.  I think the way that things like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games can come along and capture the collective imagination shows that there are people out there still with their eye on creating original stories, but the studios need to let the filmmakers know that they are willing to not just let novelists be the originals, but that they are also willing to let the filmmakers play with some new ideas.  Just because George Lucas is a filmmaker doesn't mean he has any less of an imagination than J.K. Rowling.  Alas, we'll just have to live with this current state of moviemaking for now.  It will take more of these franchises imploding before things change, but I have hope for the future.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Should the Oscars Go Back to Five Nominees?

The Hollywood Reporter (THR) posted an article this morning citing that there is a significant fraction of the Academy that wants to take the Best Picture category back to just five nominees, as opposed to every year since the 2009 ceremony where there was anywhere from 5 to 10 nominees (this past year had 8).  Personally, I'm all for this.  I once thought the move from 5 to possibly 10 nominees was a cool idea that would lead to more blockbusters getting nominated for Best Picture, but all it has done is get more arthouse films nominated that not many have seen, as opposed to movies just about everyone has seen and, for the most part, loves (i.e. any Marvel movie of the past few years).  The source who talked to THR claim that they think the added number of nominees cheapen the prestige of the award, and seeing as how the additional nominees have not yielded more box office hits getting nominated (therefore making the Oscarcast ratings higher), many in the Academy just don't see the benefit, especially after this year's show, which featured the lowest ratings in years.  I mean, the reasonings are fairly pretentious in truth.  Gregory Ellwood did a good rant on HitFix this morning that kind of railed against the notion that it's made the Best Picture category any less pretentious, in some ways, he concluded, it's made it even more prestigious by nominating more lesser seen movies.

The bottom line is, I think if the Academy is not going to nominate more movies that people have seen, the expanded field of Best Picture nominees will never really yield the results that the Academy initially had in instituting it (to make sure that The Dark Knight snub from 2009 never happened again and to boost ratings).  Five nominees is how it was for the majority of my life, and it makes it a lot more manageable for Oscar watchers like me to see all of the movies before the show.  I mean, we don't all get DVD screeners of the movies campaigning for Oscar back in December like all Academy members do.  Also, I think five nominees requires much more genuine thought on the behalf of the Academy, thus making it more competitive and more exciting.  They have to think about what they're nominating and really decide if they think it's Best Picture material.  Not only that, the studios have to campaign all that much harder to nab a nomination because it's not a field that has nearly double the chances.  One complaint in recent years is that the Academy has become too predictable with their choices, and I'll say this, there were more monkey wrenches thrown into the system back when they had only five nominees (anyone remember Crash's surprise win).

All in all, this is still just talk.  Nothing has been decided, it's just an issue that certain bigwig Academy members are going to bring up at the next governor's meeting in March, to assess the good and the bad of this past year's Academy Awards.  Will the Academy go back to five nominees?  Possibly.  Does it really matter at the end of the day?  Not really, because while I am for the move back to five, I also realize that even with five nominees, there are usually only two or three films that are actually real threats (and sometimes even less than that).  Perhaps the Academy will change the rules yet again, but until it's official, this is just talk and nothing else.