Ever After: A Cinderella Story – Review

SPOILERS AHEAD! – Don’t read this review if you haven’t seen the film yet.

My daughter, at her nearly 4 years of age, will happily watch anything involving princes, princesses and adventure. I’m a hopeless romantic and a lover of fairytales, in both their soppy, reworked modern versions, and their much more cruel, child-unfriendly original versions. So you can see why Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998; D: Andy Tennant) would be a favourite in our house.

That being said, not all fairytale adaptations bring a smile to my face as readily as Ever After: A Cinderella Story does. For me, the magic already begins at the very start of the movie, when that grande dame of cinema, Jeanne Moreau in the role of the great-great-great-granddaughter of Danielle de Barbarac (Drew Barrymore), invites the brothers Grimm to her chateau to set them straight on the events that have since become the fairytale of “the little cinder-girl”. When she presents the writers with the actual glass slipper that is such an essential element of the story, the scene is quite masterfully set for the telling that follows.

The fairytale itself begins with young Cinderella, or Danielle de Barbarac (Anna Maguire), in happier days. Danielle is a bit of a wild child and spends most of her time playing with her friend Gustave (Ricki Cuttell). Her father, Auguste (Jeroen Krabbé), is a merchant who clearly adores his only child. Rather progressively, he has taught her to read and instilled in her a love of the written word. When Auguste returns home from one of his journeys, he brings with him a new wife, Rodmilla de Ghent (Anjelica Huston) and her two daughters Marguerite and Jacqueline. It is clear from Rodmilla’s look of contempt at the sight of tomboy Danielle, that there is trouble ahead.

And so there is: a few short weeks later Auguste dies of a heart attack, leaving his new wife in charge of the children, a household and staff. Fast forward ten years, and there is the Cinderella we know from the stories. Danielle effectively runs the entire household, doing the chores with the rest of the staff, while Rodmilla allows herself to be waited on hand and foot. She treats her stepdaughter shabbily, but treats her own daughter Jacqueline (Melanie Lynskey) only marginally less badly. It is only Marguerite (Megan Dodds) who is being groomed for life at court. Rodmilla shows admirable optimism in her efforts to push her into the arms of the Crown Prince of France, never mind his engagement to a Spanish princess (Virginia García): “Nothing is final until you are dead and even then I’m sure God negotiates”.

Meanwhile, Prince Henry (Dougray Scott) is proving to be a problem for the King and Queen of France (Timothy West and Judy Parfitt). He is not interested in marrying anyone, nor does he want to succeed his father, and he has apparently made a habit of escaping the palace to evade his duties.

During one of these escapes Henry runs into Danielle. In her efforts to prevent him from stealing a horse she pelts him with apples until she realizes she’s been bombarding the future King of France with fruit. She – or perhaps just the apple hitting him on the forehead – makes an impression on him. Immediately after, Henry meets Leonardo DaVinci (Patrick Godfrey), who has been invited to the Royal Court of France to be honored for his work as an artist. (“Michaelangelo is trapped under a roof in Rome. I am merely second choice.”)

Upon Henry’s return to the palace, the exasperated King sets him an ultimatum: find another woman to marry, but do so before the ball honoring Signore DaVinci; if not the ball will also mark the announcement of Henry’s engagement to the Spanish princess.

It is not long before Henry and Danielle meet again, this time at court where Danielle appears disguised as a noblewoman. Henry has no idea this is the servant he met earlier, but is visibly intrigued by her passionately quoting Thomas More at him and he wants to learn more.

Rumours of Henry’s affections for a mysterious stranger abound, and Rodmilla eventually puts two and two together. On the day before the ball, she misinforms the Queen of France that Danielle is engaged to be married and then proceeds to lock Danielle in the cellar to ensure she does not attend the ball. Henry learns of Danielle’s “engagement” from his mother, resigns himself to marrying the Spanish princess and tells his father to announce the match at the ball.

Leonardo DaVinci finds out about Danielle’s plight from Gustave (Lee Ingleby) and, assuming the role of fairy godmother, he is instrumental in getting Danielle to the ball after all by freeing her from the cellar.

Danielle arrives at the ball just in time to prevent the wedding announcement, but her happy ending is sabotaged by her stepmother who exposes her as a servant rather than a noblewoman. Henry, suddenly seeing that his love interest is in fact the same girl who knocked him off a stolen horse, does not respond well to the revelation and dismisses Danielle. She runs off, losing one of her glass slippers in the process. Leonardo DaVinci, arriving moments after this drama and expecting to see the couple happily united is instead confronted with a sulking, stubborn Henry, whom he quickly puts in his place.

Following the drama at the ball, Rodmilla sees an opportunity for Marguerite’s promotion to princess. Not wanting to take any chances that the prince might change his mind about Danielle, she sells her into servitude to Pierre LePieu (Richard O’ Brien), a despicable, lecherous cockroach of a man only slightly more odious than his surname suggests. As it turns out, Rodmilla’s fears are well founded, because Henry takes DaVinci’s advice to heart, releases the Spanish princess from her promise to marry him and shortly afterwards comes looking for Danielle. When he finds out what has happened, he devises a plan to make Rodmilla and Marguerite pay. Jacqueline, who has by now realized that her mother really only cares about elevating herself and Marguerite to royalty, feels sorry for Danielle and gladly helps him put his plan into action. Henry then goes off to rescue Danielle. He arrives too late for that, however: Danielle has already rescued herself. And the rest as they say, is history.

But that’s not quite where the fairytale ends. Rodmilla and Marguerite still need to get what they deserve. In a delicious scene, made perfect by Anjelica Huston in top form, the King and Queen declare that the schemers should be shipped off to the Americas “unless, by some miracle, someone here will speak for you”. Rodmilla backs away through the hall, looking around her hopefully and finally offering a pretty creative explanation for why no-one speaks up on her behalf: “There seem to be quite a few people out of town!”

After the fairytale ends, we return to the chateau for the final scene to hear the grand dame impress upon the brothers Grimm the importance of realizing that Cinderella and her prince actually lived.

“Ever After” brings an original flavor of to the tale of Cinderella, doing away with magic and instead replacing it with the genius of Leonardo DaVinci and the timid yet brave enthusiasm of Danielle’s childhood friend Gustave. Gustave’s part may be small, but it is important.

Tennant has taken care to sketch his characters well. Rather than just positioning Rodmilla as a cruel, spiteful woman, the movie grants some insights into the motivations of this wicked stepmother. She is born of noble blood, not used to getting her hands dirty, and she has married a man she hardly knows and has come with him to live in his home with his daughter from a previous marriage. She has barely had two weeks to settle into her new life as a merchant’s wife when he suffers a heart attack and dies, saying his last words of love not to her but to his daughter. And so she is left alone in unfamiliar territory, and while she may not have loved her husband she was perhaps hoping for affection to develop between them, because she resents Danielle for having been the most important part of his life. Later in the movie this sentiment of affection and loss is revisited during a conversation Rodmilla has with Danielle: she is almost tender with her stepdaughter, but then as the resentment takes over again, she buries that inclination and reverts to the subtle putdowns she reserves especially for Danielle. All in all, everything she does can be construed as an investment in a secure future. And, it must be said, Rodmilla gets the best lines – Anjelica Huston delivers them beautifully; she is pitch-perfect in her role as the scheming, reaching stepmother.

Prince Henry is mostly put upon. He wrestles with the obligations that every crown prince has and struggles to find himself. Dougray Scott plays the role with complexity and a great deal of charm. Henry could easily be mistaken for a spoilt brat, but the sincerity that Dougray Scott infuses into the character prevents that from happening. Rather, as the story unfolds, you find yourself carried along by Henry’s discovery that life can consist of more than just one’s responsibilities.

Drew Barrymore is charming and sincere as Danielle. She never quite masters the English accent, which is occasionally annoying, but not so as to take away from the enjoyment of the film.

But it’s the supporting roles that really add the great touches to this movie. Patrick Godfrey’s Leonardo DaVinci is simply delightful: intelligent, wise, warm, sincere, kind and honest. Timothy West and Judy Parfitt are wonderful as the King and Queen at the end of their rope (at one point, the King says accusingly to the Queen: “He’s your son!”). Virginia García does a great comical turn as the Spanish princess crying hysterically at her own wedding, and Richard O’Brien’s LePieu is downright evil – much more so than Rodmilla, in fact.

Setting the mood throughout the film is the sweet, romantic soundtrack by George Fenton. The evocative main theme provides a lovely backdrop to the events as they unfold.

Ever After: A Cinderella Story may not be the best movie I’ve ever seen, but it is one of the most enjoyable fairytale adaptations I’ve seen. This movie is worth your time.

Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides – a review

Despite the world not ending this weekend, I did enjoy my own private moment of rapture. It came in the form of an unsuspecting noblewoman, a passenger in a coach-and-two, briefly hijacked by Jack Sparrow – pardon me: Captain Jack Sparrow. The lady in question, first shocked, then seduced, disappointed and finally indignant, was none other than the brilliant Dame Judi Dench, who can make her indelible mark on a film irrespective of however brief her screen time may be. The scene, which can’t have been longer than a minute, was the highlight of the entire Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides.

As with the other movies in the franchise, On Stranger Tides (D. Rob Marshall, 2011) is a convoluted journey through various twists and turns, some funny, others annoying, most all of them rather overtly contrived.

[spoiler alert]

The movie’s prologue shows a devoutly catholic, yet otherwise unidentified Spanish nobleman (Óscar Jaeneda) finding out that the fountain of youth really exists, and setting out to find it.
As the film itself kicks off, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is back in London, trying to spring Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from jail and save him from certain death at the end of a rope. He succeeds, naturally, but soon after they are both caught again. It turns out Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) has turned from pirating to privateering – a difference in terminology only – working to find King George (Richard Griffiths) the fountain of youth and he has convinced his King that Jack has the map required for the expedition. Jack, however, makes it clear he is not interested in this particular venture, and makes his escape, using some patented Sparrow maneuvers.
Soon after, he once again finds himself in harm’s way in a pub, confronting his mirror image who in fact proves to be an old girlfriend, one Angelica (Penélope Cruz), posing as the famous Captain Jack Sparrow in order to procure a crew for her ship. The King’s men, still hunting Jack after his escape, find him there and corral the two in the back room. Jack again escapes, using some patented Sparrow maneuvers. Not for long however, since devious little Angelica manages to subdue Jack shortly after.
He now finds himself on Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, a magical ship remotely operated by an equally magical sword (which, in all honesty, really negates the need for a crew). Blackbeard (Ian McShane) for reasons of his own is also looking for the fountain of youth.
And so, three different parties set out to look for the fountain, and all three of them are apparently aware of the ritual involved in making the water from it work for them. A pair of silver chalices is required – quickly and cleverly procured by the Spanish contingent – the tear of a mermaid, which Blackbeard manages to obtain, and apparently the fountain will test the user when the time comes to use its powers, evidence of which never becomes clear at any point.
Sparrow, by now conscripted into Blackbeard’s service, finds out that his former girlfriend also happens to be Blackbeard’s daughter; awkward, that. Jack finds himself doing Blackbeard’s dirty work, helping to catch the previously mentioned mermaid and stealing back the chalices from the Spanish, which adventure once again teams him with Barbossa. They are both caught, naturally, but Jack once again escapes, using some patented Sparrow maneuvers.
Of course, the end of the film finds everyone at the fountain of youth, which, it turns out, the Spanish merely wanted to destroy as it is sacrilegious since only God can grant life. There is a fight between Angelica and one of her crew members, and Jack, over the mermaid’s tear. Jack manages to get hold of the tear, using some patented Sparrow maneuvers.
In the end, all but one walk away from this adventure and everyone goes their separate ways.
Oh yes, there’s an easter egg at the very end of it all.

In addition to all the above, there are various subplots: the romance between a missionary, Philip (Sam Claflin), who has for some reason been brought aboard Blackbeard’s ship and the mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who ends up shedding a tear for the cause; Barbossa seeking revenge on Blackbeard for a lost leg; Captain Jack Sparrow seeking revenge on Barbossa for the lost Black Pearl and wanting to reclaim his ship from the deep once he finds out that he can; Gibbs, uhm, being there.

But there are a few very enjoyable moments in the movie too. Besides Dame Judi Dench’s cameo, there is Gemma Ward giving a fine rendition of “My jolly sailor bold” in her performance as mermaid no. 1 (apparently called Tamara).

If the plot I outlined just now sounds confusing and convoluted, that’s because it is. If Captain Jack Sparrow’s escapes sound repetitive, that’s because they are. There is no denying that all the actors involved deliver a solid performance, but the very considerable talents of Penélope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush and Ian McShane, to name but a few, are wasted here simply because they have very little to work with.

While I was watching the movie, which never managed to engage me enough to stop me thinking about other things and have me focus on the action, I began wondering what it is about the Pirates of the Caribbean that makes them fall just short of being fun. At best, the installments are amusing. As the plot meandered and meandered, I finally managed to put my finger on the problem: Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides should have been a video game. It feels like a video game, it looks like a video game, and the story is suited to a video game, much more so than a 2-hour plus movie. Every scene exists pretty much entirely to allow Jack Sparrow to do what Jack Sparrow does. That in itself would be fine, if Captain Jack Sparrow was an interesting enough character to carry an entire franchise. He is not, though Johnny Depp, who is a perfect Jack Sparrow as the Captain is, has managed to endow him with iconic status somehow. But there is nothing that lifts Jack even an inch above amusing, and that’s a shame, since – for me at least – that more or less negates the need for future installments. If they really insist on continuing the Jack Sparrow saga, perhaps a children’s series on the Disney Channel would be an option?

Prince of Persia – a review

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time ;(D. Mike Newell) has already been reviewed by many reputable reviewers, but after seeing it last night I have some thoughts on the movie that I would like to post here.

Based on the Ubisoft game series Prince of Persia, this movie was always going to have to prove itself to gamers, but in its desire to draw in the uninitiated as well it has failed to achieve either goal. Prince of Persia tries to cram too much into a single movie, resulting in a jumbled effort to entertain the masses. Rather than trying to provide a little something for everyone, the movie would have benefited from some focus. Instead it has become a collage of disjointed elements, some literally taken from the game (the near supernatural free-running, the dagger’s time rewind) and some thrown in to please the viewers that are unfamiliar with the gaming franchise. Interestingly, keeping in mind the audience the movie aims for, in making this choice to throw in as much plot as possible the writers do rely heavily on the presumption that every viewer coming to see the movie, gamer or no, is aware of Prince Dastan’s talents, powers and character; this apparently absolved them from having to add any further substance to the character. The overall result is a movie in which not a single character is really fleshed out, which makes the whole experience rather unsatisfying.

An unfortunate side-effect of this is that one of the characters holding great potential to hook the audience, Sir Ben Kingsley‘s bitterly ambitious Prince Nizam, has become little more than an afterthought. Nizam is after the Dagger of Time, a dagger whose hilt is filled with mystical sand; a push of the jewel placed atop the hilt turns back time for some seconds, with only the person holding the dagger being aware of what happened. With only a handful of scenes, Sir Ben Kingsley’s otherwise impressive screen presence – which could have added some much needed richness to an otherwise barren, if overstuffed plot – is reduced to a few scowls and some facial contortions designed to convince the audience how evil, untrustworthy and back-handed he really is.

Similarly, Gemma Arterton‘s Tamina spends most of the movie being a plot device, mostly annoying and choosing the most inopportune moments for discourse and displays of emotional involvement that seem to come out of nowhere. Whether it is Arterton’s approach to the role or Mike Newell’s direction of her, her talent is wasted here with her playing a character not nearly fleshed out enough to invoke Prince Dastan’s intense interest in and affection for her. There is simply not enough there to position Tamina as a person, let alone a credible love interest. ;

Dastan’s affection, expressed as well as possible by Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role, seems to lack any basis in, well, anything really. The suggestion is, apparently, that if two people spend a fair amount of time together and go through some intense crap (the intensity of which is, by the way, as unconvincing as the attraction between the prince and the princess) they will automatically fall irrevocably in love with each other. However, there is no sign of any chemistry between Dastan and Tamina throughout the entire film, much as Gyllenhaal regularly throws puppy-like glances in the general direction of Arterton. A hint of mutual interest is, ironically, only very briefly visibly at the end of the movie when Dastan and Tamina share a moment in the courtyard of the now de-occupied sacred city of Alamut, about to embark on married life together (these things are arranged rather quickly in such settings), with only Dastan knowing their never-happened history together.

Another unfortunate writing decision was the choice of ‘bad guys’: the rather more entertaining monsters from the game have been replaced with a tribe of supernaturally skilled assassins called the Hassansin (which sadly sounds rather like the writers were unable to spell the name Hashshashin; ironically, Alamut was the capital of this Persian tribe of warriors, whose name supposedly inspired the later term ‘assassin’), who for all their powers and talents still fall miserably short in presenting themselves as a credible menace. Granted, they can train snakes to perform long-distance attacks, but snake-charming and glazed-over eyeballs? Not really enough to convince you of the urgency to destroy them for posing any sort of serious threat.

The superficial treatment of pretty much all the characters the audience is asked to engage with has its effects on every element of the movie. The death of several key characters makes little to no impression, and the betrayal by one or possibly more priests of Tamina’s order, having been bribed to aid prince Nazim in his selfish quest, barely even registers.

The plot is heavy-handed, with the writers spoon-feeding the audience the emotional essence of the film (Persia only works when the brothers are undivided in their brotherhood, etc.) and rehashing it every so often. Possibly the worst moment of the film comes near the end, when the dagger’s powers and the need for its use are literally spelled out to the audience as Dastan convinces his brother, Prince Tus (Richard Coyle), of Nazim’s treachery. I think I have honestly never seen any movie patronize its audience more than Prince of Persia does at that moment.

For all this, the movie also has some very good elements.

The opening sequence was promising, giving a brief history of how Dastan has come to be a Prince of Persia. The action sequence is fun and William Foster as the young Dastan is defiant and clearly enjoying himself. ;

Jake Gyllenhaal is well-cast as Prince Dastan. He is charming, athletic and overall credible as the Prince Dastan we know from the game series. He brings an intensity to the character without ever overplaying him, and that is impressive in light of the rest of the movie. His English accent sounds natural and flawless; there is no hint of his being American in his pronunciation. He keeps up the accent consistently throughout, but the real proof is in the scenes with Dastan’s brothers, played by British actors Richard Coyle (Prince Tus) and Toby Kebbell (Prince Garsiv), where he sounds as natural in British English as they do.

Both Richard Coyle and Toby Kebell do an impressive job and manage to somehow spark an interest in the two brothers, despite the characters of Tus and Garsiv getting as superficial a treatment as the other characters. ;

Alfred Molina does a delightful turn as Sheik Amar, an ostrich-racing overblown bookie in charge of a Las Vegas-like oasis where gamblers from far and wide come to make him rich and ogle scantily clad serving girls. His performance injects some much-needed spirit into the proceedings and he manages to make even the lamest of jokes (the size of one’s sword… enough said) funny through pitch perfect delivery. ;

The free-running/climbing scenes were a joy to look at and well executed.

On the whole, I felt Prince of Persia was disappointing. I had expected at least an entertaining romp, but instead ended up seeing a movie that for all its ambitions simply failed to connect with its audience.