Cinderella (Kenneth Branagh, 2015). It’s grading on the most generous of curves, but as a crass attempt to develop a new revenue stream for a beloved Disney animated class, the live action Cinderella isn’t so bad. It’s certainly a damn sight better than the grotesque senses assault of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which basically established this type of cinematic tomb raiding. Similarly, Kenneth Branagh’s directing is more tightly controlled and snappily efficient than anything else he’s done in ages, the stricter corporate oversight perhaps taming his penchant for dragging indulgence. Most of the acting is merely perfunctory, save for the occasional ravishingly overcooked line reading of Cate Blanchett as the title character’s unkind stepmother. (To his credit, I couldn’t place Richard Madden as I watched, which indicates he carried his performance as the Prince admirably far from the resolutely charmless Robb Stark.) The surest value in this Cinderella comes in its showcase of costume design, art direction, and other deep credit technical artistry. The film pays only glancing attention to capturing the heart or stirring the mind, but it continuously dispenses gifts for the eyes.
Fantastic Four (Josh Trank, 2015). I think my affection for the Fantastic Four is exceedingly well–documented by now. Even I’m prepared to admit that the characters effectively repel any attempt, earnest or otherwise, to transfer them to the big screen. They probably belong on the comic book page and nowhere else (and it’s entirely possible that even their time there has passed, just as Marvel Comics has evidently decided, even if it is motivated as much by churlishness protest over their disconnection from movie rights as any sound editorial judgment). The most recent stab at making Marvel’s first family into into a viable movie franchise is a confused and confusing mess. There’s interesting but misguided elements to the film, led by a body horror explication of the characters’ superpowers that a younger David Cronenberg could have juiced up to unsettling minor masterpiece levels. In the hands of director Josh Trank, though, it’s just one more notion that he doesn’t have the patience or narrative focus to turn into a full-fledged idea.
The Catered Affair (Richard Brooks, 1956). Adapted by Gore Vidal from a teleplay written by Paddy Chayefsky, The Catered Affair represents the sliver of time that Hollywood was interested in honest but unpitying depictions of those who lived on the lower rungs of the economic class ladder. In its plotting, the film feels like a unapologetic counter to the conspicuous consumption of the original Father of the Bride, which was released a few years earlier. Jane Hurley (Debbie Reynolds) gets engaged to her longtime beau (Rod Taylor). Their original plan to simply pop into the courthouse in the middle of the week is complicated by the intense desire of Jane’s mother (Bette Davis) to provide her daughter with the sort of proper wedding that can stand in for years of denied luxuries. The story artfully acknowledges all the ways such aspirations cause undue complications, while also shrewdly getting at the underpinnings of disappointment, extending even beyond financial security, that motivate the mother’s devotion to providing Jane the very best, just this one time. Brooks brings the steadiest of hands to direction, eliciting especially strong work across the cast. It’s no surprise that Davis turns in rich, rewarding work, but I’d also venture to say this contains the strongest acting I’ve ever seen out of Reynolds. Ernest Borgnine, one year past the performance in Marty that nabbed him a Best Actor Oscar, is especially good at conveying the wounded dignity of the family’s cab-driving patriarch. Only the closing moments — delivered in too much of a rush, leading to some mildly regressive messaging — feel compromised. The rest is well thought out, both ruefully comic and dramatically heartfelt.
Becoming Mike Nichols (Douglas McGrath, 2016). Putting a narrow spotlight on the very beginning of Mike Nichols’s storied career, this brief documentary illustrates the revelation and the shortcomings of a such an approach. Going no further than the director’s first two films, Becoming Mike Nichols suggests a slice of a mini-series version of Inside the Actor’s Studio, with every production afforded the generous hunks of time required to really dig into them. When a montage from The Graduate is discussed, for example, director Douglas McGrath cuts in the entire sequence instead of settling for an indicative few seconds. It makes a significant difference in understanding the craft being examined. However, going no further that 1967 leaves decades of important work relegated to nothing more than a coda of movie posters and Playbill covers, giving the film a sadly shortsighted feel. Additionally, Jack O’Brien proves to be a dismally inadequate interviewer, floundering with a lack of insight and an overabundance of chummy eagerness. His assertion that he only recently realized the ending of The Gradate wasn’t purely celebratory is such an embarrassment that McGrath would have been kind to undertake an editing room excising of the disqualifying admission.
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014). Mike Leigh’s biopic of the British painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), known for almost painfully beautiful landscapes, covers roughly the last twenty years of is life. Leigh collaborates with cinematographer Dick Pope to give the film an elegant visual resplendence that evokes the artist’s most famed works, a truly astonishing accomplishment. For me, that comes sadly close to being the beginning and end of the film’s charms. Mr. Turner is a remarkably dull affair, dominated by scenes made sluggish through heaving dramatic duty. Little of Leigh’s trademark rambunctious — his dedication to capturing the messiness of life — is present in the film. Instead, it clicks ponderously from one moment to the next. Even the few effective set piece scenes — Turner striding imperiously through a gallery showcase of his work, the painter confronted by the newfangled technology called the camera that’s destined to minimize the value of his realistic paintings — are impaired by a tendency to stretch them until they’re flaccid. Leigh obviously means for the film to be a showcase for his regular troupe member Spall. It’s painful to begrudge him a rare meaty lead, but Spall rarely moves beyond one sharply-played note. He relies on the physical brutishness of Turner, playing him like a wild boar made human, right down to the agitated grunts.