Kenneth Branagh

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Director Kenneth Branagh clearly wants people to grasp that this adaptation of “Cinderella” is a straight retelling of the classic fairy tale. 

There are no major twists or unexpected endings awaiting moviegoers. Disney learned its lesson after its last attempt to create a live-action remake of a Walt-era classic, “Maleficent,” resulted in a mediocre spin on a well-known film. “Cinderella” treats the fairy tale story seriously. The result is a visually stunning remake that develops a sense of originality and fun, despite a few story and character flaws.

Ella (Lily James) lives a happy life with her mother and father in medieval England. Tragically, her mother dies of illness, and her father soon marries Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), a widow who shrewdly hides her cruel nature. After she and her atrocious stepdaughters move in,Ella’s father also dies from illness. Ella is left in a state of constant abuse by her new relatives and is mockingly rechristened “Cinderella.” After learning of a ball, Cinderella is determined to outwit her stepmother, win over a prince named Kit (Richard Madden) and reclaim the life she once had.

The film’s visuals are astoundingly beautiful. The special effects bring this world to life, even though the film relies heavily on computer-generated imagery. Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage shines gold and is a elegantly carved wonder, and Prince Charming’s columned castle could not exist without help of CGI wizardry. Special effects make the crystal-like glass on Cinderella’s famous slippers gleam brightly in every shot. 

James is charming as Cinderella and definitely sells the famous princess’ image of being kind and courageous. One flaw is that she is sometimes too carefree and optimistic. When her stepmother locks her in a tower, Cinderella’s feeling of hopelessness is strangely short-lived before she reverts to her usual, light-hearted self. It’s disappointing that James fails to give more agency to her character. 

Cinderella has often received criticisms for being a heroine who relies on luck rather than her own actions. James makes her version of the princess likeable, but she doesn’t do much to change that perception.

The supporting cast make all these familiar characters seem original. Cate Blanchett is chilling as the villainess stepmother. Rather than being over-the-top, she portrays a cold, calculating sort of the menace. Helena Bonham Carter, who portrays Cinderella’s fairy godmother, is certainly memorable. Although her appearance is brief, she takes every opportunity to make the character original. Instead of the elderly, mother figure from the original, Bonham Carter’s spin on the role makes the character frantic, yet warm-hearted. There are a few problems with the film. The first act, which centers on Cinderella adjusting to her new life under her stepmother, is really slow. The action doesn’t pick up until right before the ball begins. 

Another issue is the constant narration from an omnipresent observer. This aspect was also featured in “Maleficent,” and it’s grating and unnecessary. Disney is obviously afraid to edge away from this annoying trope in fantasy films.

“Cinderella” is proof that good can come out of Disney’s determination to remake their animated classics as live-action spectacles. Some aspects of the story and Cinderella’s characters are failures, but the film, overall, proves that a fantasy movie with computer-generated mice and fairy godmothers can still be taken seriously.  

 Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) struggles with a rival in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit."

Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

 

Action films are a lot like pizza: cheesy, nutrition-free, covered in red sauce and delicious nonetheless. The greats, such as “Die Hard” and “Terminator 2,” are gourmet pies, made with the best ingredients possible and cooked to perfection. Then there are the Papa John’s and Pizza Huts of action cinema, entertaining but disposable works such as last year’s underappreciated “White House Down.” But the truly forgettable pizza and action flicks have the most in common — stale, greasy slices of lukewarm mediocrity. “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” unfortunately, falls into that undesirable category, and its tepid story and nonsensical action sequences render it the rough equivalent of a burned slice of Little Caesar’s.

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” casts Chris Pine as the famed Tom-Clancy character, telling the story of Ryan’s origin via a tragic helicopter accident that puts him in league with gorgeous physical therapist Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley) and CIA recruiter Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner). Ten years later, Ryan is an undercover analyst working for banks to uncover terrorist funding when he stumbles upon a plot by Russian banker Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) to tank the U.S. economy.

The biggest shortcoming of “Jack Ryan” is Adam Cozad’s and David Koepp’s script, which was retrofitted from an original screenplay by Cozad and robbed of any personality in the process. Several individual moments in “Jack Ryan” work, such as Muller’s suspicions about her boyfriend’s job or the brawl between Ryan and a thwarted assassin sent by Cherevin, but only when removed from the context of the film as a whole. Just after Ryan dispatches the aforementioned assassin, his next move is to visit Cherevin, putting on a happy face like they’ve both forgotten the banker tried to have him killed a few scenes ago. The movie is clumsily tied together by a barrage of convenient expository bursts late in the film, but the plot doesn’t even have a handle on its own time line. An early scene informs us that Ryan has been on the job for a full decade — despite not aging a day — yet Muller and Ryan repeatedly state they’ve known each other for only three years.

If the cast were a bit stronger, these logical inconsistencies would be easier to overlook. The reliably charismatic Pine is dead in the water here — the charming, funny personality he brought to his role in “Star Trek” replaced with dutiful, unambiguous heroism. Knightly seems to have been cast solely so Branagh could get as many unflattering reaction shots as possible, but, even when she’s allowed to act, the only thing more unconvincing than her performance is her ludicrous character arc. Meanwhile, Branagh generically glowers as the film’s villain, and Costner ably plays Ryan’s loyal mentor.

But even the lousiest action films should shine when it’s time for their hero to brawl. For one sequence in which Ryan breaks into Cherevin’s office while Muller improbably distracts the villain with whispered flirtations, “Jack Ryan” comes alive, and there’s a glimpse of a taut, exciting espionage thriller. The rest of the film’s action scenes range from adequate to incompetent, especially in the finale, which cuts between several action beats with a stunning disregard for geography, coherence and logic before ending on a moment that makes no sense on its own and even less when tied to the rest of the sequence.

In the run-up to next summer’s “The Avengers,” Marvel Studios has overcome the obstacles of building audiences for a range of superheroes and casting actors entertaining enough to sustain those audiences. However, the biggest challenge lay in adapting “Thor,” a comic book somehow less realistic than the likes of “Iron Man.” And shockingly, they’ve done a halfway decent job.


We meet Thor in the mystical realm of Asgard, ruled by Odin (Anthony Hopkins). As Thor (Chris Hemsworth) prepares to ascend to his father’s throne, an ill-advised military move causes Thor to be cast out of Asgard until he learns humility. Banished to Earth, Thor meets a scientist (Natalie Portman) and, unsurprisingly, learns to be a true hero.


Director Kenneth Branagh has usually worked in stuffy period pieces and does his best with his first foray into the superhero genre, packing the scenes set in Asgard with vibrant colors and contrasting the film’s multiple worlds with distinct visual styles. Unfortunately, Branagh also leans entirely too heavily on irritating Dutch angles, filmed at an odd slant, and weighs things down with superfluous 3-D, making the action scenes hard to decipher and adding nothing to the slower moments of the film.


Even more troubling are the bizarre comedic elements the film wallows in as Thor begins to learn the customs of Earth. While Hemsworth’s winning delivery saves a few of these moments, Branagh’s distorted sense of comedic timing makes most of them fall flat.


Large chunks of the film work thanks to Hemsworth, who made huge waves in the opening sequence of 2009’s “Star Trek” and is perhaps the most purely likable Marvel hero thus far. Much of the Asgard cast is equally strong, notably Tom Hiddleston as Thor’s nefarious brother. The Earth cast is markedly weaker. As Thor’s love interest, Portman never lets the audience forget she’s acting, while the always adorable Kat Dennings only seems to be in the film to serve as a series of “kids-these-days” punchlines about Facebook.


The film’s story is also pretty weak. Thor’s inevitable redemption never quite feels earned, rather happening because the film needed to get Thor’s hammer back before its big final battle. Thankfully, the film’s final act is its best. A lengthy sequence when one of Loki’s minions wreaks havoc on a small town is visceral and exciting, while the final confrontation in Asgard is appropriately epic.


In the end, the wildly uneven “Thor” may be nothing more than a place-setter for next summer’s “The Avengers.” But thanks to Hemsworth’s strong performance and a few great action scenes, it’s about what audiences going to see a movie about a guy beating people down with a giant hammer should expect.