Brooklyn. Directed by John Crowley. A very nice movie that unfortunately lacks the sense of development that exists in Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name, Brooklyn does a good job at synthesizing the book’s stories and subplots into a coherent, watchable film and making the mostly passive protagonist, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan in an Oscar-nominated performance), into an interesting character to stick with and watch grow as she makes the journey from Ireland to America and learns to love her new job, friends and (eventually) boyfriend in Brooklyn. Ronan portrays the uncertainty of young Eilis with grace and delicacy, aided in part by her cornflower blue eyes and the costumes designed by Odile Dicks-Mireaux. I also appreciate the screenplay by Nick Hornby, adapting a larger and more complex story into something satisfactory for the 111-minute running time, and the casting of Julie Walters as Ronan’s landlady on Clinton Street, Mrs. Keogh, as well as rising star Domhnall Gleeson as Jim Farrell, a tall, pleasant, flame-haired fellow who is a romantic prospect for Eilis back home in Enniscorthy. My main problems with the casting in Brooklyn are with Jim Broadbent as Father Flood, whose round, benevolent face does not fit the image I had of the character when I read the novel (speaking of the Gleeson family, I pictured Domhnall’s father, Brendan, in the role), and Emory Cohen as Ronan’s Italian-American, Brooklyn-accented boyfriend, Tony. Cohen is a good actor (even if he is clearly copying the mannerisms of Marlon Brando circa On the Waterfront, and Hornby’s screenplay removes the intermittent stirrings of melancholy seen in the novel’s rendering of the character), but it’s mainly the fault of director John Crowley and the casting department for wanting a dark-haired actor who looks nothing like how the character is described in the novel (blonde and blue-eyed, setting him apart from the looks of the rest of his family), which I found distracting given how I envisioned the character based on the literary experience; by making the Tony look and sound more like the expected Italian stereotype, the characterization is less effective than it should be. Brooklyn is a good film, one which will cause you to shed quite a few tears, but I encourage viewers to try the novel for a more complete, nuanced picture of the life of Eilis Lacey, particularly the things she thinks and is never able to say.
Cinderella. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Worth watching primarily for Sandy Powell’s Oscar-nominated costume designs (the blue ball gown is an absolute dream!), Cinderella is probably best left to the kiddies. It’s hard for me to get too worked up about CGI mice or a Prince Charming (Richard Madden) who is the definition of boring. I wasn’t too crazy about Lily James as the title character either; she’s pleasant but hardly a revelation in the drama department. Of much greater interest to me is Derek Jacobi, that most wonderful Shakespearean actor who plays the prince’s father, an ailing king whose twinkling eyes and kind smile work with his subtle performance so beautifully. I’d watch him in any production, any time. For those who watch the film with hopes of Cate Blanchett being the Evil Stepmother Supreme, though, they’ll probably be a bit let down; there’s campiness to be sure, but Blanchett needed to have the dial turned way up for her performance to be more fun. Instead, most of the enjoyable detail is found in her exquisite outfits, not her acting. And while any Helena Bonham Carter at all is a welcome addition to a film, her role as Fairy Godmother is so small that it feels rather disappointing that we cannot see her guiding Cinderella more. That said, I still cried quite a few tears toward the story’s end. Formulaic Disney filmmaking can work its magic on me given the right occasion.
Fifty Shades of Grey. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Having finally arrived at the realization that I will never bother to make time to read Fifty Shades of Grey or any other title in the supposedly-titillating trilogy of novels penned by E.L. James, I decided to watch the big-screen adaptation of the first Christian Grey-Anastasia Steele saga. Knowing nothing about the books other than that they are drowning in references to Anastasia’s “inner goddess” (which Taylor-Johnson’s films avoids – kudos to her for not including voiceover narration), I feel better able to judge Fifty Shades solely on its cinematic merits. And where do I even begin? James’s story seeks to shock, trading on the oohs and aahs of bad boy billionaire Christian’s (Jamie Dornan) obsessions with sadism and wanting to dominate clueless, virginal college student Anastasia (Dakota Johnson). The sexual manipulation is one thing, but what about the psychological torture that Anastasia undergoes as a result of Christian’s ridiculous needs? Mental cruelty isn’t particularly sexy, and neither is requiring is your prospective partner to fill out a lengthy contract stipulating consent to any and every possible sex act – hasn’t Christian ever heard of normal human communication? Of course it turns out that slick Mr. Grey has a secret childhood history of horrors, one of which is that his birth mother was, in his words, a “crack addict and a prostitute” (a line reading which Jamie Dornan, an actor so wooden you can practically see the branches and roots weighing him down, makes infinitely funnier than it ought to be); should we feel sorry for him now? Luckily Anastasia escapes Christian’s stocks-and-bondage lair at the movie’s end, but I presume she will return to her overlord since there are two sequels in the works. As long as those films have good soundtracks – Taylor-Johnson’s film features Annie Lennox’s cover of “I Put a Spell on You,” “Love Me Like You Do” by Ellie Goulding, Beyoncé’s slowed-down update of “Crazy in Love” and the Oscar-nominated “Earned It” by The Weeknd – I’ll probably see those too.
P.S. The funniest part of Fifty Shades of Grey: Christian Grey’s version of the post-coital cigarette is him playing the piano very sadly (it happens twice). When in doubt, get into the brood mood with some amateur Chopin.
Focus. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. I’ll say this about Focus: the cinematography by Xavier Grobet is excellent. Not since Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Lola (1981), which I saw in January, have I enjoyed such attention to detail in bright colors and lighting (Grobet’s purples and lime greens look especially vibrant). As for the film’s story, it’s nothing special; comedy meets romance meets heist thriller, telling the tale of longtime swindler Nicky (Will Smith), who meets young, sexy thief Jess (Margot Robbie) and agrees to teach her the tricks of his trade. After pulling off a huge gamble that cheats a weird, wealthy guy (BD Wong, practically twirling his Fu Manchu mustache) out of millions of dollars, Smith realizes his involvement with protégée Robbie has gotten too serious for his liking and he splits. Fast-forwarding three years, the story picks up in Buenos Aires, where Smith is preparing for a new con game. Running into Robbie, who has matured into a gorgeous femme fatale, Smith’s feelings for her threaten to ruin his operation (involving a cardboard-cutout bad guy played by Rodrigo Santoro) and put them both in harm’s way. If this narrative sounds familiar to you, it’s because there is nothing fresh or original in either the plotting of the story’s beats or the actors’ performances. The only two aspects that will really keep you watching are the aforementioned cinematography, which allows many scenes to glow in neon tones, and the soundtrack, which includes songs by the Rolling Stones, the Stooges (one of Iggy Pop’s all-time best, “Gimme Danger”), It’s a Beautiful Day, Barbara Lewis and Ray Conniff & the Singers.
Standing Tall. Directed by Emmanuelle Bercot. Having never seen anything else directed by Emmanuelle Bercot, I don’t know if Standing Tall is indicative of a particular aesthetic sensibility, or rather, since I didn’t love the movie, the lack thereof. This story, a French drama concerning a juvenile delinquent (Rod Paradot in his film debut) with serious anger management issues and a violent streak that puts everyone around him in danger, has a lot of shouting and not much in the way of character development. Certain circumstances soften Paradot’s character, Malony, by the film’s end but I wish that Bercot and her co-screenwriter, Marcia Romano, had created a more gradual sense of change and growth in Malony rather than having his maturity happen only really in the last few minutes. Maybe that kind of sudden shift is realistic, appearing as bluntly as any of Malony’s vicious outbursts, but such a depiction lacks subtlety. Almost nothing about Standing Tall is subtle, although I give Paradot (a former carpentry apprentice who was discovered by Bercot) credit for making Malony feel like a real, believably troubled teen. Catherine Deneuve is also very good as the children’s services judge who wearily does her best to help Malony over a ten-year period, and there are also some fine performances by Sara Forestier as Malony’s mother (a woman who had her children too young and never properly understood how to take care of them) and Benoît Magimel as the court-appointed counselor assigned to guide Malony on his difficult journey through detention centers and rehabilitative jobs. Malony’s girlfriend Tess (Diane Rouxel), however, is woefully underwritten, considering that she’s one of the major factors involved in turning Malony’s life around. It’s a pity that Bercot and Romano couldn’t see fit to give this important female character as much of a cinematic presence as their male lead.
P.S. It was really odd that Bercot chose to use Schubert’s Trio in E Flat (Op. 100) as a repeated motif throughout Standing Tall since it was used so memorably in an earlier (and better) Catherine Deneuve film, The Hunger (1983). The piece was also used twice, to great effect, in the recent TV miniseries “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” although the timing of that program with the American theatrical release of Bercot’s film is coincidental.