"Dreams feel real while we're in them. It's only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange." -Inception

Friday, March 27, 2015

Movie Review: Song of the Sea

By the time the Oscars were announced, I had only seen three of the five nominated films for best animated feature. I wanted to see the remaining two, Song of the Sea and The Tale of Princess Kaguya. I’m glad that I could cross off Song of the Sea from my list.

From the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon (whose first film The Secret of the Kells was also nominated for best animated feature in 2009), the film puts forth the ancient Celtic lore of the selkie to bring a broken family together. Young Ben (voice of David Rawle) resents his little sister Saoirse as his mother was taken away from him at her birth. As her sixth birthday comes around, the little girl has yet to say her first word. Saoirse finds a shell flute belonging to her mother, along with a white coat, just her size. 

Wearing the coat, she is drawn to the seals in the sea and once in the water, transforms into the mythical selkie turns into a seal with them. Her grandmother (voice of Fionnula Flanagan) finds her washed up ashore and threatens to take the children to the city with her. Their grieving father Conor (voice of Brendan Gleeson) doesn’t know how to engage with his kids and lets her take them away. However, with Saoirse finding the flute and the coat, a buzz of awareness has awakened in the remaining fairy creatures and those trapped by the timeworn prophecy, seeking their saviour.

Ben, angry at being separated from his father, his home and his beloved dog Lug, decides to head back to their lighthouse on the island. When Saoirse tags alongside him, the siblings discover hidden memories that surface and lead to break the ancient prophecy. Saoirse learns the song of the sea. And most importantly, Ben saves his sister when it counts the most and learns a valuable lesson on how to keep a promise.

The animation is wonderful, lyrical and fluid. Each character is detailed well; the characters don’t communicate well with each other initially so it’s important that their feelings are shown in their movements. The backgrounds are lovely watercolours, incredibly soothing to the eye. I loved that the old myth of the selkie along with the songs and stories Ben’s mother tells him as a young child were woven into the narrative to show the past and present melding together to show the importance of moving on and living your life.

With Studio Ghibli and its picturesque features of wonder and awe closing shutters for now, I look forward to see what director Tomm Moore and the studio has up its sleeve. I hope you too discover Song of the Sea and see this strikingly graceful animated feature. This is a fantastic film for the whole family.

Directed by Tomm Moore; Screenplay by Will Collins; Original Story by Tomm Moore; Editing by Dranagh Bryne; Music by Bruno Coulais


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Movie Review: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, an unlikely sequel, is like that stranger who you once met while waiting at a queue and became fast friends. You never thought you'd see them again, which is why I view this film in such an affectionate light.

Directed by John Madden (who also helmed the first film), the film pops back into the lives of those British senior citizens (reinventing their life in India) and the intrepid entrepreneur Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) whose vision brought them all together. The chaos of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has largely died down and replaced with the hustle bustle of an upcoming wedding. Sonny is to marry his fiancée Sunaina (Tina Desai) in a few days while negotiating with an American company to expand his business with more hotels.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has been running to full capacity with its patrons now working in India as well. There's no rest for these active retirees. Evelyn (Judi Dench) sources materials for a clothing startup, Douglas (Bill Nighy) gives misinformed tours of Jaipur landmarks, Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup) run the Viceroy Club for expats while Mrs Donnelly (Maggie Smith) handles the hotel operations. They've all found their purpose again.

In walk in two new guests, one, the meek Lavinia Beech (Tamsin Grieg) looking for a place for her mother and the other, a dashing American Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) who wants to start to write a book. Sonny is convinced the Chambers is the inspector sent by his potential American investor to scout out his hotel. This and other misunderstandings lead to him being distracted with his wedding plans. Of course, all these kerfuffles get sorted out on the way to a big fat Indian wedding celebration. But along the way, these retirees learn that reinvention takes a lot of work, while Sonny learns how to put others before himself. 

With the median age of the actors onscreen in the late 60s, most of the cast from the first film (minus Tom Wilkinson) is back. This time, veterans Dench and Smith get the most screen time as they adjust to their new leadership roles. Their scenes together are stellar and there's great warmth between these two great actresses and friends. The newbie of the group Richard Gere engages in a possible romance with Sonny's mother (Lillette Kapoor), while Douglas tries to initiate one with Evelyn. 

There are terrific one-liners (mostly from Maggie Smith) and the dusty locales of Jaipur and Mumbai are spruced up by Ben Smithard's gorgeous cinematography. My only gripe with the film was its use of Bollywood music which was stuck 10 years in the past. Not one current song could be heard. It could have been due to copyright issues but I wish the music was updated. No Indian sangeet or wedding would played outdated music, but that's just a minor niggle.

Overall, The Second Best Exotic Marigold is a wonderful follow-up to 2011's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The fact that the sequel too debuted at #1 at the box office in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the UK is proof that audiences don't just want to superhero franchises and dystopian thrillers onscreen. Screenwriter Ol Parker created a fitting environment in which the original characters could return. It may not be everyone's cup of tea and like the title suggests it will run second best to its predessor. But somehow, I can't help but regard the film with fondness. 

Directed by John Madden; Screenplay by Ol Parker; Cinematography by Ben Smithard; Edited by Victoria Boydell; Music by Thomas Newman


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Short Film Review: Frozen Fever

A day before the short film, Frozen Fever, accompanied Cinderella in theatres, Disney announced the inevitable news, the hugely popular 2013 film was getting a sequel. Cue the jokes of not letting it go!

While there's no release date set as yet, fans will have to make do with original film and this new short for the time being.  Speaking of Frozen Fever, it was utterly delightful. For those of you who may been wondering what Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) have been up to, they took a slight detour to Once Upon a Time and are now living happily ever after in Arendelle.

Frozen Fever brings back the whole gang from the first film. Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Sven and yes, Olaf (voice of Josh Gad) return as everyone plans a big celebration for Anna's birthday. Even Hans (Santino Fontana) makes a memorable appearance. Even the crew (the directors, producers and musical composers) is the same.

Elsa leaves no stone unturned to make the day as memorable as possible for her, but it turns out that she's got a cold and when she sneezes, adorable snowmen pop out.  This whole time, we thought the cold didn't bother her. What else has the first film been lying to us about? Will we find out why in the sequel about this?

But we won't worry about that here. Enjoy the brand new song by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, Making Today a Perfect Day, Elsa's new green dress and Olaf's antics (he doesn't know how to spell!). It's a long time until Frozen 2: We Will Never Let It Go and you'll need Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Sven and Olaf to keep you company.


Movie Review: Cinderella

Directed by Kenneth Branagh, Disney's Cinderella is no reboot like most of Hollywood's current releases, but instead an old-fashioned, faithful retelling of the 1950 animated film by the same studio rather than the classic French story. This leads, Cinderella (Lily James) and Prince Charming (Richard Madden) have been selected via two popular television series, Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones. Television has become the 'new film', as we now find film stars heading to television and television leads striking it out on the big screen. It helps that both James and Madden were part of huge ensemble casts of their respective shows and get a chance to stand in the spotlight with Cinderella.

This 2015 version has been sprinkled with lots and lots of magic and goodness. Young Ella (Eloise Webb) has grown up in the most idyllic way possible in the countryside of what seems to be an European kingdom, with two loving parents (Ben Chaplin and Hayley Atwell). This being a Disney film, it means something bad is going to befell them. Ella's mother dies too soon leaving her daughter with one clear message to get her through life, "Have courage. Be kind." Looking around at the state of affairs worldwide, it's a great message to put out to the younger generation because these days, this world doesn't seem to be operating on kindness anymore.

Getting back to the film, Ella (Lily James) grows up to be the model daughter. She's been following her mother's advice all these years. Her father, on the other hand, is still out of sorts after his wife's death. He decides to remarry, thinking he's doing the right thing for Ella and himself. We all know how wrong that is. Ella's new stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett, in an outstanding entrance) and her two harebrained daughters Drizella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) walk into her home and her life is never the same.

Her beloved father passes away on a trading journey and Cinderella is left all alone with her new family. Slowly, we see how she goes from being the lady of the house to sleeping by the cinders in the kitchen as a servant girl. One day, while riding her horse, Ella meets the prince of the kingdom out on a hunt. Neither of them reveal who they really are as both of them circle each other on the horse, clearly interested in one another. The prince aka Kit is intrigued by the young woman he meets in the forest and later throws up an invitation to every eligible maiden in the kingdom at the ball where he will choose his bride.

You know what's coming, don't you? This section of the film is vivid, fantastical and quite funny. After her stepmother and stepsisters cruelly keep Ella from going to the ball, she comes across an old woman (Helena Bonham Carter) in her garden. Even in her troubled state, she helps her out offering the weary traveler some milk on her journey. Turns out, that little nothing (an act of kindness) was really something. The old woman was none other than her fairy godmother who wanted to make sure that Ella goes to the ball. She's been watching out for Ella this whole time.

Like the Disney animated version, this Cinderella has the ability to talk to animals. Her mice friends, lizards and even a goose get roped into the scheme to get Ella to the ball. A pumpkin is turned into a grand golden carriage and Ella herself gets transformed wearing the most beautiful blue dress you've ever seen. Elsa's blue Frozen dress has got competition. I was reminded of Scarlett Johannsson as Cinderella in Annie Leibovitz's Disney Dream Portraits in 2008.  

(Photo: Disney)
Do you see the resemblance?

Ella goes to the ball making a grand entrance and the rest, they say, is history. There is minimal drama as the prince and Ella lose and find each other again. Stellan Skarsgard plays the Grand Duke, the prince's advisor, who wants to make sure Kit never meets Ella again. But the machinations of the duke and Lady Tremaine can't keep these two apart. Good always prevails and Ella and her prince are made for each other.

There's plenty of technological wizardry going on the film and is the reason why it took over a year to get made. Everything is grand in scope, the kingdom and its enormous castle, the sets and costumes. In fact, costume designer Sandy Powell's creations just about pop on the screen especially if Cate Blanchett is in the scene. She looks exactly like the Hollywood stars of the studio era. Blanchett's evil stepmother brings a steeliness to her role, she's a woman used to getting what she wants always.

James in her first big studio film is well cast as Cinderella, having all the qualities a proper young lady in a fairy tale should. However, I was hoping to see some more feistiness in her Cinderella. I kept thinking back to Drew Barrymore in Ever After (1998) which stayed true to the period while updating the story and the character. In that version, Danielle was no damsel in distress. Fortunately, Richard Madden's Prince has more character than the 1950s animated version's Prince Charming. We get to see grow into his own as the monarch of kingdom wanting to do right for his people. 

Nevertheless, this remake has a lot going for it, with a likeable cast and gorgeous visuals. This is Branagh's second big studio film, the other one being Thor, and he's quite outdone himself when it comes to the visuals. I wish he was backed by screenwriter Chris Weitz's script which is quite functional and as mentioned before, seems quaint and old-fashioned in today's world. But therein lies its appeal for many. Superheroes, remakes and storybook tales are back in a big way and Cinderella kicks of the first of the big blockbusters for 2015 aimed directly at families. 

Directed by Kenneth Branagh; Screenplay by Chris Weitz; Music by Patrick Doyle; Cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos; Film Editing by Martin Walsh

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