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Monthly Archives: April 2017

Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Any remake of Beauty and the Beast is going to be a tough sell for someone like me.  That 1991 classic so touch my heart and so shook my notions of what an animated feature could accomplish that any attempts to recapture its magic could only come off as an imitation.  That, in essence, is what we have here.  The live action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is so close to the animated version that you might as well be watching that earlier film; it imitates it beat for beat, but it misses out completely on what made those beats special.  All the songs are here, all the characters are here, but there’s an element of wonder that is missing.  It has moments of inspiration and some hints of magic but, all the while, your mind keeps floating back to the original.  That should not be happening.

Up till now Disney has been very good at turning their classics into live action in a fresh way.  Both The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon redialed the story so that even the short-comings of their original source material were tuned out.  One asset of The Jungle Book was that you felt that the filmmakers were making the jungle into a character.  We were allowed time to soak in the landscapes which were lush with greenery.  Here that’s not the case.  Much of the film is photographed with a palette of darkness that keeps essential elements in shadow.  I understand that this plays to the nature of The Beast’s dilemma but there is low lighting in key scenes that should be sparkling with light and magic and color.  That’s especially true of the film’s key scene, the ballroom dance in which the two lovers finally connect.  I kept waiting for the high notes to accompany the lights coming up, but no, the scene remains in low light.  There are moments when I found certain scenes difficult to see.

For everything that this movie gets right, there’s something that it gets wrong.  Take, for example, that wonderful Menkin/Ashman song “Gaston” in which the film’s egoistical villain gets to extol the virtues of his own wonderfulness.  It’s a great production number and Luke Evans does a wonderful job in the role, but the song leaves out the line that everyone remembers.  Remember the line about his chest hair?  Unless I’m wrong, it’s not here.

Another example is The Beast.  He’s played beautifully here by actor Dan Stevens as a self-loathing mope who is spaced away from the world.  There’s a deep melancholy to his performance and a hint of childishness in his demeanor.  He does a very good job of emoting even while buried under tons of make-up.  The problem is that his leading lady isn’t nearly as interesting.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Emma Watson, but she’s underplaying the role of Belle in such a way that it removes our sympathy.  It could be said that her version of Belle is given far more agency and less Stockholm syndrome than her dilemma allowed in the original, but her character doesn’t come alive with personality.  Watson seems sour and distracted.  She’s an actress who works well at internalizing but she’s place in a role that requires more of an extravert.

My major issue though is one of gravity.  In The Jungle Book it all worked because the characters were grounded in the fact that they were animals who live even without talking.  Here, the task is much more difficult because we’re dealing with inanimate objects that, in live action, are bound to the forces of gravity.  Lumiere and Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts worked beautifully in the animated form, but they look just plain weird when set in the real world.

That’s my basic problem here, a live action version of Disney animated Beauty and the Beast just doesn’t work as a whole.  There are moments when it comes alive but, again, my mind kept drifting back to the original.  Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon had problematic source material to improve upon, but Beauty and the Beast was so perfectly modulated that the remake can only be an imitation.  Maybe it needed something new, something fresh.  Maybe it needed a new twist.  Maybe it simply needed something anything that wasn’t there before.

 

 
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Posted by on 04/07/2017 in In Theaters

 

Review: Five Came Back (2017)

By this point, it is reasonable to assume that we’ve seen and heard just about all there is about World War II.  That’s not a swipe at The Greatest Generation; it just means that every third documentary made in the last 40 years seems to have dealt with this conflict.  Given that, the average filmmaker really has to be at the top of their game to bring something new.  I had that cynicism going into Netflix’s three-part series Five Came Back, the story of five legendary film directors – Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler – who used their extraordinary gifts to film and document the most epic conflict in modern history.  What surprised me was how intimate the film is about their experience, both as men and as artists.

Five Came Back is a special film about the power of art as expression.  It is no surprise that the Second World War changed the world, but what the film presents is how it changes these five artists personally and professionally.  What did their experiences do to their craft, and how did those experiences ultimately shape the way in which the public saw the war?  It extols the power of cinema as the most powerful tool of expression and manipulation.

Based on the 2014 book by journalist Mark Harris, this adaptation does a brilliant job of setting us in the terms of the time; a time shortly before the advent of television, when the only visual news medium was the newsreel.  Americans were going to the movies every night of the week and amid the pre-feature coming attractions and cartoons were moving footage of the war that they couldn’t get anywhere else.  This was a time before the cynicism of the century’s second half took hold, when most Americans trusted their government to get the job done – which was crucial since, at the time, Americans were still mired in The Great Depression.  At this moment there was a tight union between Washington and Hollywood and the government who, at first, hired filmmakers for propaganda in order to shine a positive light on the war to keep up morale on the homefront and collect money for war bonds.

That’s really where the film begins; with the build-up of the propaganda machine.  We see how the films were constructed and how they were shaped for maximum effect.  We see that the propaganda machine was vital in light of the fact that Hitler’s propaganda machine, under the direction of Joseph Goebbles and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, was proving to be second to none.  As Capra, Ford, Huston, Stevens and Wyler enter the European and Pacific Theater their experiences bring a complexity to their work.  At home the dynamics of the war begin to shape the perception of what is going on overseas and also at home.  It might have been enough to cut and recut footage of aerial combat and ground troops shooting it out with the Nazi soldiers, but the political landscape was shaped as well.  There is growing concern with how African-American soldiers are being portrayed (if, at all) and how the public will perceive the Japanese and Germans once the war is over.

Each director joined the service with the intent on documenting the war and they put themselves in the thick of combat in order to give the world the experience of combat in a way that no screenwriter could ever conceive.  The most dramatic story is how George Stevens and John Ford landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day in order to capture footage of the invasion knowing the they and their cameramen might not come out alive.  What they experienced physically and psychologically was a mirror of how the world would be affected by the film they brought home.  That’s especially the came with Stevens’ famous film of Dachau which was used against the Nazis at the Nuremberg trial.  Those images told a story of man’s inhumanity to man that no book or eye witness could ever tell – it was so disturbing that Stevens himself couldn’t bear to watch it again.

The masterstroke in this film is that Harris and director Laurent Bouzereau allow the story to be told on-screen by five directors who, themselves, are legends in their own time.  Instead of a lot of talking heads with scholars and historians, the stories of Ford, Huston, Wyler, Stevens and Capra are told in interviews by Steven Spielberg, Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Greengrass, Francis Ford Coppola and Lawrence Kasden who understand the craft of shaping and editing the footage for maximum effect (it helps that each of these directors has made a war film as well).  They understand the craft and so they reveal how the directors used their talent to tell a story.  Editing is crucial – cut the footage too short and the battle scenes come across as entertainment; cut it too long and the footage could be demoralizing.  There are a surprising amount of scenes shown in this movie that (thankfully) the public never saw.  Take D-Day, for example, with the bodies strewn on the Normandy beaches and piles of guts littering the floor of the troop ship.

If there is a weakness in the film it is probably that I wanted the story to continue.  The last half hour is dedicated to the post-war experience, of how these directors used their experiences to create films that spoke of their feelings about the state of the world – Wyler made The Best Years of Our Lives; Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life and Huston made Let There Be Light, a document of soldiers effected by PTSD that the military kept under wraps for nearly 40 years.  This chapter feels a bit glossed over.  We understand clearly how the experience effected these men but the film leaves us wanting more.  Maybe that’s the value of the story telling here – I wanted more.

 
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Posted by on 04/06/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Joss Whedon’s ‘Batgirl’: A bittersweet personal concern . . .

I guess when you write about movies on a regular basis, you learn never to expect too much.  Movie news is as regular as night and day but not nearly as reliable.  I am not a knee-jerk kind of guy when it comes to movie news, but this week something exciting got my attention that also came with a touch of the bittersweet.

The recent news that Joss Whedon was going to helm a stand-alone Batgirl project fills me with anticipation.  Batgirl is my favorite superhero, hands down, end of story.  This is not new – my love for Batgirl goes back to my days in single digits.  Plus – much like The Force Awakens – it is a movie that I never thought would happen.  So, yes, I’m excited.

But . . . .

I’m on the front lines when it comes to the fact that the DCU hasn’t yielded a string of greatness.  I’ve seen all of their films in a theater, usually opening weekend.  Every time I come away feeling burned, yet I keep going.  Like a bad relationship, I keep returning even though my love dun me wrong.

Outside of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, this expanded universe has yielded product that has ranged from ragingly mediocre to historically terrible.  Unlike Marvel’s line of product, which is consistently good, DC’s lineup of films have flopped over and died more times than a zombie that won’t stay dead.  Starting with 2011’s Green Lantern, we’ve suffered the ills of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and the ragingly mediocre Suicide Squad.  Given that, I can’t exactly break out the pom poms for Batgirl even if Whedon’s creative hands are at the controls.

I hope it works.  Whedon has a special talent for handling female characters and for world-building.  He also has a unique talent for reconditioning superhero movies into a narrative that quietly speaks to us about the state of our world.  Plus, there’s a lot of potential politically and culturally; there’s hope that he can use this platform to break Hollywood’s quizzical fear of female heroes (I confess that I have no confidence in Wonder Woman) and maybe open up the gates of gender equality that the genre so desperately needs.

And yet, there’s a sticky issue afoot here.  Would the movie dig into Barbara Gordon’s disability?  Overlooking her paralysis could render a problem, yet dealing with it in the wrong way might make a lie of the character.  My guess is that the movie will probably deal with Barbara’s origins and how she came to acquire the cape and cowl.  That’s the safer alternative, but those of us who saw the wider scope of Nolan’s trilogy know that the Bat-verse can be more that just action and pointed-ears.

There’s hope for the movie.  There’s hope that it will break DC’s pattern of trying to make superhero pictures more “adult” but only succeeding at making them feel like a long car ride on a rainy day.

Moreover, I can hope that the film will be fun.  I miss that from DC.  Where’s the levity?  Where are the jokes?  Where’s the great spirit that I got all those years ago from the Christopher Reeve Superman movie, and recently from the Marvel pictures?  Who says super hero movies have to be sour and dark?  Who says they can’t be fun at the same time?  Let’s put it this way: there’s a reason Deadpool grossed $700 million last spring, and if the studio execs can’t figure that out then they might as well clean out their overstuffed desks.

I would like to be more excited about this.  I’m settling into a “wait and see” mentality but I’m not expecting the movie to fall on either side of the fence.  Maybe it’ll work.  Maybe this will be the film to break DC’s deadlock.  I can have hope . . . but then, I had hope for Suicide Squad.

 
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Posted by on 04/03/2017 in Blog