Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. There’s something almost subversive about how this live action adaptation hews to its animated predecessor. They’re not engaging in the recent noxious trope of prequelizing classic material (this isn’t How the Stepmother Became Wicked), they’re simply retelling a well-worn tale with modern polish. There’s little chance the story is going to surprise you, but you may be surprised by how affecting the finished product ends up being.
A big part of that can be attributed to the performances. Each are playing what is essentially the platonic ideal of an archetype, and in an age steeped in irony, it’s impressive that they’re able to inhabit utterly earnest roles without generating gale force winds from the jaded amongst us rolling their eyes. A big part of those thanks must go to Lily James, who anchors the entire film as the titular character, internalizing Cinderella’s hurt and truly embodying the notions of bravery and kindness that lie at its center. Richard Madden could’ve easily coasted on being upsettingly handsome, but you buy his Prince Charming being completely dazzled by Cinderella. The showiest role here belongs to Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother, who plays her not as an evil caricature, but as a wounded woman who becomes emotionally calcified over time, one whose actions are unjustifiable but at least are the slightest bit understandable.
Branagh feels right at home in visually translating this material, bringing flair honed over works like Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet to the table with set design and costuming that we’ll be hearing from come Oscar time next year. Branagh doesn’t lean too hard on his bag of directorial tricks, allowing his camera to glide around its characters and sweep you up in the big emotions he’s playing with. A lesser film wouldn’t land a message of bravery and unwavering kindness as confidently as Cinderella, taking a simple moral and making it feel like a social imperative.
Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the spectrum is the jet black comedy anthology piece Wild Tales, Spain’s official entry and nominee in the Best Foreign Language Film field this year. It’s rather surprising that a concoction so frothy wound up involved in awards season (perhaps the Almodovar brothers producing credit added a glint of prestige) as comedy of any stripe is generally not rewarded no matter how exceptional. But once you see how polished and effortlessly director Damian Szifron weaves these twisted tales together, you’ll have no questions as to its worthiness. You’ve got pyrrhic victories, mutually assured destruction, and essentially all manner of revenge either sought or gained forming the backbone for this series of short films. Be it a roadside battle of wills waged over a flat tire, a wedding day discovery that throws a newly minted bride’s life into disarray (my two favorite segments) or one man’s crusade against the indignities of the DMV and modern life, you’re treated to a series of slow burns that explode in ways both expected and not.
An issue that frequently plagues the anthology film is that of the mixed bag – they’re essentially cinematic Gardetto’s, and no matter how many entries are as welcome as a rye chip you’re eventually going to hit upon a drab pretzel stick of a short that brings down the whole enterprise. No such issue with Wild Tales – be it because Szifron helmed each segment and his polished aesthetic and whip-smart editing make the whole enterprise feel like a cohesive whole or that he also authored each segment so that they feel distinctive in terms of where their characters wind up from story to story, but this is the rare anthology film that offers not a single dud. It’s a film that demands to be seen with a big audience, each installment a series of riotous reversals that will have the audience howling and gasping in equal amounts.