Tag Archives: Cate Blanchett

Carol (2015)


I was, in all honesty, dreading Carol a little bit before I watched it. Despite the famous director (Todd Haynes) and superb cast (Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, both of whom are up for Oscars in a couple of weeks), it seemed like one of those slow, boring movies I could find myself dozing off in. The word of mouth I’ve been privy to has been polarising — some said they regretted watching it, while others lamented why it was snubbed for the Best Picture Oscar.

And so I am kind of shocked to say that I actually really liked Carol. Perhaps not to the extent that I feel the movie was snubbed by the Academy Awards for Best Picture, but it certainly exceeded my expectations and pulled a few heart strings along the way. That said, I’m still of the opinion that the overwhelming critical praise is overrating the film a little bit, and my guess is that critics factored in the historical significance of the source material (Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 groundbreaking semi-biographical novel) when formulating their reviews.

At its core, Carol is quite a simple love story between a young, aspiring photographer, Therese (Rooney Mara) and an older, married woman, the titular Carol (Cate Blanchett). But back in the 1950s, homosexuality was considered a medical condition that could be cured through psychotherapy, and many women didn’t even know what the word “lesbian” meant.

Admittedly, Carol is a slow-paced film that requires a lot of patience and attention before reaping the emotional rewards. If it loses you at the beginning it might be a struggle to get through the rest of it, but if the film manages to hook you through the enticing chemistry of its lead stars, you may end up falling for its subtle romantic charm like I did.

The reason why romance is probably my least favourite movie genre is because it’s so hard to get it right. Infusing a film with the right characters and requisite passion to get audiences to care — usually in under two hours — without making it feel contrived or melodramatic or saccharine, is a tall task indeed. And so it is a true testament to the entire crew — from Hayne to screenwriter Phyllis Nagy to the cast — that the dialogue, the character interactions, and thus the attraction and romance, comes across as so natural. The result is a love story that’s perhaps not as intense or dramatic as that of Brokeback Mountain or Blue is the Warmest Color, though for me it’s every bit as genuine and emotionally engrossing as those films.

From a technical standpoint, the film is also beautifully crafted — the look and feel of the era is perfectly captured by the sets and the costumes — and even the excellent cinematography and music score play important roles in the overall production.

Still, the film wouldn’t have worked without the two outstanding central performances. It’s a little strange that Mara was nominated for Best Supporting Actress while Blanchett was nominated for Best Actress — it probably should have been the other way around or both should have been in the Best Actress category — but there’s no denying that both deserve to be recognised by the Oscars for their remarkably nuanced portrayals. Mara, in particular, is as good as I’ve seen her in anything, and now that I’ve seen all the Best Supporting Actress nominee films I’d say she gets my vote (though Alicia Vikander will probably win).

The supporting cast, by the way, is also fantastic. Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy and co all deliver effective performances that do Mara and Blanchett’s efforts justice.

Having said all that, I don’t think Carol is a spectacular film. It’s a little too slow and understated for my liking, though I connected with the central romance and appreciate that it is exquisitely made and fueled by Oscar-worthy performances. This is one of the rare instances where, for a film that has largely divided critics and mainstream audiences, I find myself siding — for the most part — with the critics.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Cinderella (2015)

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There have been a lot — some would say too many — fairytale reimaginings over the last few years. Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror, Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Beastly, Jack the Giant Slayer, Maleficent, just to name a few.

Kenneth Brannagh’s Cinderella, I’m glad to say, is not like any of those movies. It’s a return to roots; a reminder that such stories don’t necessarily need a makeover, and that perhaps keeping them the way they are might be for the best. It’s basically the studio reminding us — and let’s face it, they’re right — that reimaginings might not be as good the originals.

That’s not to say Cinderella is merely a lazy live-action remake of the old 1950s Disney animated film. Brannagh and writer Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass, About a Boy, and soon, Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One) manage to inject new life into the story with some subtle but welcome variations while maintaining the overall structure and spirit or the original tale. The humour is light and Brannagh-ish, and the special effects and costumes are pretty but not overwhelming. Fuelled by solid performances, this is an authentic and charming adaptation. Notwithstanding how straightforward it is, the results are surprisingly effective and strangely refreshing.

You know the story already so there’s no point in giving a proper overview. Skinny-waisted Lily James from Downton Abbey plays the titular heroine, who is left to the mercy of her stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and two stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) after her parents (Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin) pass away. Richard Madden (holy crap I just realised he’s Robb Stark!!!) plays the Prince, Derek Jacobi plays his father the King, Stellan Skarsgard plays the Grand Duke, and Helena Bonham Carter is of course the Fairy Godmother.

However, rather than just being about a pretty girl who falls for and gets rescued from poverty and slavery by a stud muffin — with the help of some magic — this adaptation tries to add some workable dimensions and cover up flaws of the original story.

Cate Blanchett’s stepmother character, for instance, isn’t just evil for the sake of being evil. We’re given glimpses of her genuine concerns, which helps us understand why she has become the way she is. Plus Blanchett is really good in the role, as she seems to be relishing the opportunity to play a devilish, multi-faceted villain.

Recurring themes include kindness and forgiveness, duty and love, and a lot is said about economic and social status. Bear in mind most of it is just on the surface, but kudos to Brannagh for at least trying to insert some layers and depth into what is still ultimately a fairytale. I don’t agree with criticisms that it’s not “feminist enough.” This Cinderella is progressive; not every woman wants to go full Joan of Arc like Kristen Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman.

Despite Brannagh’s efforts, there are still some things that a live-action movie adaptation of a flawed story cannot work around. The whole glass slipper thing — you know, getting every girl in the kingdom to try it out when they know what she looks like — still makes no sense.

Quibbles notwithstanding, Cinderella is a strong film, one that is suitable for children and adults alike. Humour, romance, magic and a good lesson or two, it’s a feel-good experience the whole family can enjoy. I’d rank it just behind my second-favourite Cinderella film, Ever After, and there’s no shame in that.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

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Little boys just love training their dragons. Following the relatively successful How To Train Your Dragon from 2010, Dreamworks is back to milk that cash cow, or more accurately, that cash dragon, with the sequel, How To Train Your Dragon 2.

I actually really enjoyed the original (review here), which was an entertaining, sweet little story about the friendship between a kid viking called Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his cute but powerful dragon Toothless. It’s not one of the more memorable animated features in recent years, but it’s in the upper echelons in terms of quality, excitement and fun.

In the sequel, Hiccup and Toothless are back, five years older and closer than ever. Pretty much all the old cast is back too, with Gerard Butler playing Hiccup’s father, Craig Ferguson as Butler’s right hand man, America Ferrera as Hiccup’s girlfriend and Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as fellow viking friends. Cate Blanchett also joins the cast as a female viking whom I won’t spoil.

Since learning about prejudice and making peace with the dragons in the first film, everyone in Hiccup’s village of Berk has changed for the better. But of course there is a brand new villain (Djimon Hounsou) hell bent on conquering all dragons for his own benefit, and it is up to Hiccup and Toothless to try and stop him with the help of their family and friends.

I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by How To Train Your Dragon 2, which is as good as its predecessor when it comes to visual thrills and tugging the heart strings. The story itself is relatively stock standard, predictable even, so film’s biggest strength lies in the stunning visuals from all the dragon-riding action sequences that make fine use of some creative and skilled camera work. The dragon designs, and especially all the beautiful mix of colours, really added to the visual feast the film provides.

It’s more or less a continuation of both Hiccup and Toothless’s coming of age, and I’m glad to say that the title is not misleading because there actually is more legitimate dragon training in the film. Like its predecessor, it’s not the funniest animated film out there, but How To Train Your Dragon 2 more than makes up for the dearth of laughs with the exciting action sequences and emotional resonance.

Last word: A good film for the family that builds upon the solid foundations of the original by taking things to a new level.

4 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: The Monuments Men (2014)

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I have a feeling that The Monuments Men will go down as one of the strangest most disappointing movie going experience of 2014. It had everything going for it — an interesting true story premise about allied heroes who try and salvage priceless art stolen by the Nazis during World War II; an excellent director in George Clooney; and a superstar cast including Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bill Murray and Jean Dujardin. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turned out, a lot. Technically, The Monuments Men as well made. The performances, the direction, the sets and the cinematography are all strong. And typically, and story about going up against Nazis are well received. But shockingly, The Monuments Men turned out flat, slow and frankly, a little boring.

It was an interesting choice for Clooney to try and make an old-fashioned army adventure movie. It doesn’t have the farcical feel of say something like Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but it’s also far from the gloomy tones of Damon’s Saving Private Ryan or the intensity of Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie. So the feel of the film is somewhat old, uneven, not comedic but not serious, generally light but occasionally solemn, and always eager to be “respectful” in its portrayal.

The result is just a bunch of guys who spend a lot of time discussing what they plan to do, but not a whole lot of time of them actually doing it. I had envisioned a rag tag team doing something very exciting and clever in the vein of an Ocean’s Eleven. Unfortunately, reality was a lot duller.

One of the problems is that there were too many characters involved, many of them split into smaller groups, meaning we kind of know them all a little bit but not enough to truly care about them. Clooney, in particular, was a leader but it also felt like he was in the background a lot. Instead, the focus shifted to the relationship between Damon and Blanchett, but there wasn’t enough time for anything substantive to blossom. I like all the actors in the movie — I just didn’t really like the characters they were playing.

Perhaps the true reason I struggled with the film is because I’m just not a huge art guy. The protagonists of the film are often asked the question — if any piece of art is worth a man’s life — and to me the answer is always simple: depends on the person who is giving their life up for the art. For them, it was obviously worth it, but for me it was difficult to feel connected with their noble ambitions.

Whatever the reason, I found The Monuments Men to be an unsatisfying, punchless experience. All the pieces were there but just didn’t fit together. An interesting premise blunted by the lack of memorable characters, relationships or dialogue, and a general dearth of anything to get the pulse racing. A shame, and a wasted opportunity.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Blue Jasmine (2013)

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I don’t think much of Woody Allen as a husband or father, but I still get excited whenever I hear that he has a new film out. Despite a mixed bag in recent years, I loved Match Point and thought Midnight in Paris was one of the best movies of 2011. His latest, Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett in possibly a career-defining performance, is definitely right up there as one of his better projects over the past decade.

In tradition with Allen’s unique style, Blue Jasmine is a small, chatty, neurotic character movie, this time about a woman who had everything coping (or not coping) with losing everything. Blanchett plays the titular Jasmine, a New York socialite who once had wealthy husband (Alec Baldwin) and all the branded handbags and shoes a woman could want, but begins the film travelling to live with her not-so-well-off sister and her two sons in San Francisco. There are reasons for her downfall and breakdown, and we find this out gradually, piece by piece, through a series of well-designed exposition and flashbacks.

It’s clear from the very first scene, a one-sided conversation aboard her flight, that Jasmine is not a likable protagonist, someone who cannot let go of her elitist attitude and high and mighty behaviour despite no longer having the status or bank balance to back it up. Much of the fun is watching this very self-centered, pompous and cluelessly tactless woman trying to “put up” with people she thinks are inferior to her, though at the same time there is a certain poignancy to Jasmine’s ordeal because she is fighting so hard to not crumble under her depression. Despite all the obnoxious and insufferable things she says and does, it’s no easy hating Jasmine because she’s so laughably pitiful.

Part of that is Allen’s masterful writing, but most of the credit should go to Blanchett’s performance, which has already won her a Golden Globe and makes her a favourite heading into the Oscars. She is simply perfect as Jasmine, exuding an elegance and presence that is tailor made for the role. Everything, from her posture to the way she seems to start every sentence with a heavy sigh, tells you the kind of horrible character she is, and yet you understand why men are drawn to her. And most of all, she is incredibly funny, in an endearing Larry David/George Costanza kind of way.

Backing Blanchett up is a strong cast that includes Sally Hawkins as her “far too nice” sister, Bobby Cannavale as the sister’s middle-class boyfriend, and Peter Sarsgaard as a potential new love interest. Rounding out the effective ensemble are Alec Baldwin as the sleazy husband (another wonderful bit of casting), Louis CK as the sister’s new potential love interest, and Michael Stuhlbarg as a creepy dentist.

Blue Jasmine is an unusual, quietly brilliant movie because it doesn’t follow Hollywood’s typical “character journey” plot. Some of the subplots were a little on the predictable side — you just knew Woddy was setting certain relationships up for a dramatic moment — but by the end I was pleasantly surprised with its unconventional, and probably more realistic, conclusion. The film does lose momentum and become more serious and less funny as it progresses, but with a crafty pace and a compact 98-minute running time, Blue Jasmine is a pure delight that doesn’t come around very often, even for Woody Allen.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Hanna (2011)

Hanna is not a great film, but it’s exciting and it’s different.  I’d call it ‘pretty good’.

Saoirse Ronan is mesmerising as the titular character, a teenager taught to be an assassin by her father (played by Eric Bana) — for reasons we discover throughout the movie — since the age of 2.  A corrupt CIA agent (played by another Aussie, Cate Blanchett) and her henchmen are after her.  That’s about all you need to know.

With this unique premise, Hanna already sets itself apart from the majority of Hollywood action films that get released these days.  Directed by Joe Wright (best known for period dramas such as Pride and Prejudice and Atonement), Hanna is surprisingly fast-paced, with its adrenaline-pumped action sequences playing out almost like MTV music clips on steroids.  With the thumping music, it reminded me, strangely, of Run Lola Run.

For the most part, I found Hanna to be a compelling action-thriller because of the mystery behind Hanna’s origins and Wright’s excellent handling of the material.  In lesser hands the movie could have been a mess, but Wright’s visual flair, combined with Ronan’s icy yet human performance, manages to keep the film afloat.  There are also some humorous, almost surreal comedic moments in Hanna which provide a nice change of tone.

That said, I’m not sure Hanna is a movie I would likely remember years from now.  It’s a smarter, prettier than average roller coaster ride fuelled by a marvellous performance.  Technically it is very good, but there’s really nothing about it that made me go ‘wow’.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Robin Hood (2010)

I went into the latest Russell Crowe-Ridley Scott film, Robin Hood, knowing relatively little about what kind of movie it was going to be, considering it is, after all, a “blockbuster”.

What I can say is that while Robin Hood is pretty good, it’s certainly no Gladiator.

I had heard that this new depiction of the iconic hero was panned for “pretending” to be historically accurate when it wasn’t, and the film had eschewed all the merriness that made Robin and his men were famous for.  Accordingly, compared to previous renditions of Robin Hood, this one was dull and lacking in fun.

I don’t agree with that.  Frankly, I couldn’t care less how historically accurate this new Robin Hood is, as long as it is compelling and entertaining to watch.  And why must all Robin Hood films be confined to merry men in tights who sing and dance all day?  Ridley Scott decided to deliver a more serious, gritty and “realistic” vision of the folktale hero, and I don’t have a problem with that.  He can do whatever he wants as long as the result is a good movie.

However, that’s not to say Scott and Crowe hit the bulls-eye with Robin Hood.  Don’t get me wrong, the film does have its positives, namely, the performances and the action.

Russell Crowe brings his Maximus charm and brooding presence to Robin Longstride (aka Hood), making him a sound hero; Cate Blanchett was fantastic was Lady Marion, as was Max Von Sydow as her father-in-law, Walter Loxley; Mark Strong shows once again that he can be a superb villain, and Oscar Isaac does a fine job as the surprising King John.

The action sequences are also done very well, with the best moments coming during the initial siege scene and the final climatic battle.  It’s not quite Lord of the Rings, but Scott manages to capture that epic scale battle feeling (for the most part) by thrusting you into the middle of the action.

Having said that, it still felt like something was missing.  The film is I suppose a prequel to the Robin Hood legend, in the same way that Batman Begins was for Bruce Wayne.  But with this Robin Hood, it didn’t feel like there was any character transformation — at the start he was a good archer and an honest man who believed in justice.  By the end, he was essentially still the same guy, just with different surrounding circumstances.

Furthermore, while the film didn’t feel particularly long at 140 minutes, I felt as though not a whole lot happened during the running time.  I suppose that means I wanted more.

3.5 stars out of 5!

[PS: I don’t get all the hoopla about Russell’s accent.  Is it really that big of a deal?  Come one, at least he tried, unlike some other Robin Hoods of the past, cough cough Mr Costner…I’d much rather everyone talk about the feral kids in the movie — what the heck was the deal with that?]