Movie Review ~ Beauty and the Beast (2017)


The Facts
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Synopsis: An adaptation of the Disney fairy tale about a monstrous-looking prince and a young woman who fall in love.

Stars: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Sir Ian McKellen, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Luke Evans, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Dan Stevens, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Hattie Morahan

Director: Bill Condon

Rated: PG

Running Length: 129 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10, 7.5 on a second viewing)

Review: Let’s start with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: I had to see this live-action version of Beauty and the Beast twice before I felt I could really give it a fair shake.  I had been so looking forward to seeing Disney’s classic tale come to life that I perhaps went in with expectations dialed too high, spending much of the first screening feeling a bit, well, let-down.  Not that the production design wasn’t glorious (it is), not that the music wasn’t stirring (Alan Menken’s score still dazzles), and not that the actors giving flesh and bone life to characters crafted in animation studios weren’t up to the task (they are…mostly), but there was something that just didn’t hit my ‘Thrill Me’ button.  Seeing it again two weeks later in 3D accompanied by rich Dolby Atmos sound, I found some magic that wasn’t there before…but many of the problems remained.

Let’s go back to 1991 when Disney hand-drawn animation reached its full renaissance and true zenith with the release of Beauty and the Beast.  A dynamite blockbuster and instant classic, it also became the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture (other nominees that year? Bugsy, JFK, The Prince of Tides, and the winner The Silence of the Lambs) a title it held for 18 years until the list of nominees was expanded and Pixar’s Up nabbed a nom.  Disney recognized it had a property that could have a life beyond the silver screen and soon Beauty and the Beast became a highly popular and endlessly profitable Broadway musical.  With countless releases on video, DVD, BluRay and a 2012 re-release in 3D, the film is easily Disney’s bread and butter.  It’s no wonder, then, that with the popularity of Disney’s recent slate of live-action adaptations of their classic animated films (Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book), Beauty and the Beast is swooping back into theaters in a lavish new production.

You know the story, right?  Snooty, spoiled prince angers old beggar woman that’s really an enchantress in disguise.  Prince is turned into a beast and his staff are turned into various objects until the prince/beast learns to love and be loved in return.  Enter headstrong and misunderstood Belle who winds up imprisoned by the Beast but warms his cold heart.  The rest is fairy tale history.

My biggest issue with 2017’s BatB (let’s shorten it, shall we?) is its length.  The original film was a solid 84 minutes with very little in the way of excess plot, characters, or showiness but this film is 129 minutes and feels longer than it had to be.  That’s due to some baffling additions in plot and characters that feel like distractions from the action instead of support for the story.

Take Audra McDonald (Ricki and the Flash) and Stanley Tucci (Spotlight) as the castle entertainment turned into a wardrobe and a cadenza, respectively.  McDonald’s character isn’t new but the role is beefed up to ridiculous proportions, seemingly only to have an excuse to showcase McDonald’s glorious soprano.  Tucci’s piano man adds nothing to the plot and winds up taking time away from established characters Cogsworth (Sir Ian McKellen, The Wolverine, crazily underused) and Lumiere (Scotsman Ewan McGregor, A Million Ways to Die in the West, nearly nailing a French accent).  Emma Thompson’s (Saving Mr. Banks) is no Angela Lansbury but, even though an obvious choice, her warm-hearted Mrs. Potts gets the job done, delivering a sweet interpretation of the title tune.

Screenwriter Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) has made the curious decision to provide a backstory for Belle and her father that involves Paris, a windmill, and the Black Plague.  While it may give more dimension to the character in general, it takes up too much time and again feels like it was added to introduce one of Menken’s new songs.

Ah…the songs.  Three songs from original musical written by Menken and the late Howard Ashman were nominated for an Oscar and hearing them again with a full orchestra it’s not hard to see (or hear) why.  ‘Belle’ is still an energetic introduction not only to our heroine but to her “poor provincial town” as well.  I missed some of the eccentric townsfolk Disney animators dreamed up, they’ve been replaced by bland-ish niceties that strangely seem more sinister than their hand-drawn inspirations ever did.  ‘Be Our Guest’ remains the star centerpiece with McGregor and an entire Crate and Barrel’s worth of kitchen fare going Busby Berkley when serving dinner.  I’ve heard ‘Beauty and the Beas’t a zillion times in a million different versions but it never fails to choke me up with its grand music but tender lyrics.  Surprisingly, the songs Menken and Tim Rice wrote for the Broadway musical are jettisoned for lesser carbon copies.  I can’t quite understand why the Beast’s knock-out Act 1 closing number ‘If I Can’t Love Her’ was replaced by ‘Evermore’ which says nearly the exact same thing.  So, too, for ‘Days in the Sun’, taking the place of ‘Human Again’ without much justification.  The only semi-winner in the bunch is ‘How Can a Moment Last Forever’, sung by Emma Watson and Kevin Kline in the movie and Celine Dion over the closing credits.  It’s a clear bid for an Oscar nomination and never count Menken out to sneak in and win the prize.

Director Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2) has never had the lightest touch and it shows in several frenetically edited numbers that cut away when they should be pulling back and showing the choreography.  It’s interesting that the best staged number (‘Be Our Guest’) is the one largely done with CGI and not the otherwise exuberant opening number or villain Gaston’s big boastful number set in a beer hall.  I was worried that the enchanted objects would look odd and they most certainly do.  It takes a good fifteen minutes to adjust to these computer creations which are blended seamlessly into the live-action pieces.  The castle design is gorgeous and the film looks like it spent every nickel of its sizable budget.

In the title roles, Dan Stevens (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) and Emma Watson (Noah) are just dandy but don’t truly possess the ‘It” factor that would make them feel like the only possible choices.  Watson’s got a good demeanor and knows exactly who Belle is, but her singing voice is AutoTuned to an almost comical level and I so missed hearing the soaring vocals of Paige O’Hara.  Though Stevens feels slightly too old next to Watson (giving further fodder to the whole Stockholm Syndrome debate that’s followed the tale since it’s origins), he manages to create an actual character within the constraints of his motion-captured Beast creation.  He’s got a nice singing voice too.

The best of the non-professionals is Luke Evans (The Raven) as Gaston.  Though he isn’t the ‘size of a barge’ as his character indicates in song, he’s a nicely nasty villain cut-off at the knees by the independent Belle and her protective father (Kevin Kline, The Big Chill).  He’s got a rich voice and makes each of his scenes and interactions count, I like that he didn’t try to excuse Gaston’s actions or show any redeeming qualities that might make us feel sorry for him.  Then there’s Josh Gad (The Wedding Ringer), an actor I just don’t get.  I liked him in Frozen when he was heard and not seen but as Gaston’s sidekick Lefou he’s easily the most grating presence in the film.  Condon gives Gad far too much slack to modernize his character through shamelessly mugging while lip-synching terribly and though his affections for Gaston are plain as day, the “exclusive gay moment” being buzzed about is a blink and you’ll miss it beat most won’t even recognize.

There’s no doubt this is going to make Disney another trillion dollars at the box office and in clever tie-ins but for me this was the least successful live-action update so far.  It wants to have it both ways; being reverential to the original one moment and not quite as precious to it in another.  Condon wraps it up with a terrible final edit that only made me angrier the second time I saw it. Rated PG, it rides the line of being too long for little kids and pretty scary when you throw in two fairly terrifying wolf attacks.  It’s much darker than the animated film so parents should think twice before taking the tots to this – popping in the original would be my suggestion.

The Silver Bullet ~ Beauty and the Beast (2017) – Trailer 2

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Synopsis: An adaptation of the classic fairy-tale about a monstrous prince and a young woman who fall in love.

Release Date: March 17, 2017

Thoughts: No, YOU teared up when you were watching this look at Beauty and the Beast…ok…I did too.  One of Disney’s most beloved animated fairy tales comes to live action life from director Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2) in 2017 and it looks like, well, a beauty.  We all know the story so even seeing some spoilerific scenes doesn’t deter me from counting down the days until this one gets released.  Boasting an impressive cast with Emma Watson (The Bling Ring), Kevin Kline (The Big Chill), Emma Thompson (Beautiful Creatures), Sir Ian McKellen (X: Men – Days of Future Past), Josh Gad (Frozen), Luke Evans (The Raven), Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games), and Ewan McGregor (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) all signing and dancing up a storm, anticipation is high for Beauty and the Beast to be another jewel in Disney’s recent slate of live action remakes of their cartoon classics.

View the teaser trailer here: Beauty and the Beast – Teaser Trailer

The Silver Bullet ~ Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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Synopsis: An adaptation of the classic fairy-tale about a monstrous prince and a young woman who fall in love.

Release Date: March 17, 2017

Thoughts: Gosh darn it, there’s no denying that Disney is sure on a winning streak with re-purposing their animated fairy-tale canon as live action films. After the winning success of 2015’s Cinderella and the eye-popping visuals of The Jungle Book, Disney is unleashing the big guns in 2017 with their production of Beauty and the Beast.  Already well represented in the flesh in a Broadway show and touring companies around the world, the stars are aligning for this to be one beauty of a movie. This first teaser gave me legit goosebumps, mostly due to the creative use of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s haunting score and the briefest of first looks at Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) as Belle and the voices of Ian McKellen (The Wolverine) and Ewan McGregor (August: Osage County) as Cogsworth and Lumiere, respectively.  In future trailers I’m sure we’ll see more of Dan Stevens (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) as Beast, Luke Evans (Dracula Untold) as Gaston, Audra McDonald (Ricki and the Flash) as Garderobe, Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) as Mrs. Potts, and Kevin Kline (The Big Chill) as Maurice.  Directed by Bill Condon (Mr. Holmes), I’m praying it’s light on gimmicky CGI and retains the heart that made the animated film such an instant classic.

The Silver Bullet ~ Mortdecai

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Synopsis: Art dealer Charles Mortdecai searches for a stolen painting that’s reportedly linked to a lost bank account filled with Nazi gold.

Release Date: January 23, 2015

Thoughts: The literary anti-hero Charles Mortdecai makes his long-awaited big screen debut in a film that seems perfectly pitched to be a Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger) vehicle. My own personal qualms with the intriguing actor taking on some less than worthy projects aside, I have to say that this might be the right balance of quirky comedy and action mayhem that Depp has long sought with frequent collaborator Tim Burton (Dark Shadows). Here he reteams with his Secret Window director David Koepp (Premium Rush) and I hope the results are as promising as they appear to be.

Movie Review ~ August: Osage County

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Oklahoma house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham

Director: John Wells

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: By the time the stage version August: Osage County premiered to thunderous acclaim on Broadway in 2007, it wasn’t hard to see the possibilities of Tracy Letts’ play making the move from the Great White Way to Hollywood.  I mean, just think of the rich casting potential for the wonderfully complex and flawed characters that Letts created…it was an actor’s feast.  And when Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady, Hope Springs) was announced as playing the matriarch of the Weston clan the only thing I could think was ‘Of course.’.  It made perfect sense for Streep to be attracted to such a whopper of a role and even more sense for producers George Clooney (Gravity) and Grant Heslov (Argo) to lock her in as the star on top of the twisted Christmas tree that is August: Osage County.

Over the next months as more cast members like Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman, Mirror, Mirror), Ewan McGregor (The Impossible, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), Chris Cooper (The Company You Keep), Abigail Breslin (The Call), Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear),  Margo Martindale (…first do no harm),  Dermot Mulroney (Stoker),  and Sam Shepard (Out of the Furnace, Steel Magnolias, Mud) were announced the stakes just kept getting higher and higher and the expectations soared through the roof.  After all, with a multi-award winning cast gathered together for some good old fashioned family dysfunction there was no way this could miss, right?

Well…

I’ll say that if you’ve never seen a production of August: Osage County on stage you may like this a little bit more than I did.  Though I enjoyed the film overall based mostly on several key performances/scenes I was more underwhelmed than I thought I’d be because the film version was missing that lightening rod indefinable IT factor that made the stage version pulsate with life.  Whatever magic happened when you saw the dark secrets of this family exposed in the darkness of live theater just didn’t transfer over the same way to film.

Not to give the impression that this cast doesn’t toss themselves whole hog into trying, though.  Streep (sporting an appropriately ratty brown wig and huge sunglasses that make her look like Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) gets down and dirty with her eldest daughter played by a refreshingly earthy Roberts who wasn’t vain enough to hide her faded graying roots.  Gathered together in the days following the disappearance of the patriarch of the family (Shepard, who interestingly enough played Roberts boyfriend in The Pelican Brief), the Weston brood return to their dusty hometown toting all kinds of baggage.

While they eat, drink, and avoid being merry, pretty much every kind of family squabble breaks out and usually during a large family meal.  These dining room scenes were quite effective on stage and they work nearly as well on screen with arguments that start small erupting into knockdown, drag out fights.  Audience members that avoided recent holiday arguments with their own families will get their quota of bickering when they sit down to dine with the Westons.

Adapted by Letts from his own Pulitzer Prize winning play, the author finds acceptable ways to open up the cinematic interpretation of his work that allow the characters time away from home.  That’s all well and good but part of why the stage version felt so claustrophobic was the fact that the action took place entirely in the house…so we were as trapped as the family was.  Giving the actors on screen some breathing room winds up taking air out of the tension that Letts attempts to build.

It doesn’t help things that television director John Wells is behind the camera for only his second feature film.  His direction is exceedingly pedestrian, though I can’t imagine these actors needed much help from him.  Still, one wonders what a more seasoned director (like Gus van Sant, for instance) could have done to shape the film better.

I saw the film at a screening back in October and at that time the ending wasn’t set in stone.  I know that two endings exist, one that stays closer to the stage play and another that adds a coda many feel unnecessary.  I saw the second ending and agree totally that the film didn’t need it…it’s only there to placate audiences that need resolution, lessening the overall impact of all the maladies that came before it.  From what I’m hearing the ending I saw is the one that stuck so take stock of when you think the movie should have ended and see if it aligns.

It’s likely that Streep and Roberts will be Oscar nominated for their work here and it wouldn’t be off the mark to say they’ve earned their spot in their categories.  It’s extremely doubtful they’ll win with the quality of the other actresses they’d be competing against but the work here is demonstrative of Streep’s good instincts and that Roberts is more than just America’s sweetheart.  The two make the film worth seeing and the source material itself is brilliant…if you can’t see it onstage then the film version of August: Osage County will have to do.

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The Silver Bullet ~ August: Osage County

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Synopsis: A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Midwest house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.

Release Date:  November 8, 2013

Thoughts: An all-star cast has been assembled for the big screen version of August: Osage County, based on the searing Pulitzer Prize winning play.  Seeing the play, I was riveted and while I’m not sure a film version can create that same immediacy there’s a wealth of strength in the material from playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts.  Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) is an interesting choice for the boozy matriarch of the troubled Weston family but knowing Streep she’s going to knock this one out of the park and wind up with another Oscar nomination or win for her troubles.  When they announced Julia Roberts (Mirror, Mirror) was to play opposite Streep some turned up their noses but our first look at Roberts in action suggests that the A-List star is readying for a powerhouse performance.  The rest of the cast is top-notch too with some spot-on casting to look forward to.  Unless something goes majorly wrong, this is a film that will factor heavily into the next Academy Awards…I can’t wait to see it.

Movie Review ~ Jack the Giant Slayer

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The ancient war between humans and a race of giants is reignited when Jack, a young farmhand fighting for a kingdom and the love of a princess, opens a gateway between the two worlds.

Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane, Bill Nighy, Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review

Even though the efforts thus far haven’t proven wholly satisfying, Hollywood is still in love with revisionist special effects laden films based on popular fairy tales.  In the last few years we’ve had new takes on Alice in Wonderland, Little Red Riding Hood, and two tales about Snow White (Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror, Mirror) yet none have captured the kind of magic that would make them memorable classics.

Now along comes the much delayed (and twice retitled) Jack the Giant Slayer with its magic beans and scary giants and y’know what…it’s not half bad.  Director Singer (The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns) wisely makes this a darker/more violent picture and this works wonders in setting a tone quite different than you might have originally expected.

Get ready for a lot of “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum”-ing as the tale of the land of giants is relayed several times before the magic beans smuggled out of a kings tomb have sprouted a giant beanstalk up to the heavens.  Launched into the sky with it is a king’s daughter (Tomlinson) running from an arranged marriage to an arrogant knob (Tucci, who never met an arrogant knob he couldn’t turn with verve) and it’s up to a band of king’s men plus our title hero to save her. 

The film does take a little too long to get moving but the time taken for some often-ignored character development turns out to be a value add later in the picture.  Once the beanstalk has put down roots and the men start the climb upwards, the movie takes off with a nice zip and doesn’t stop until the credits roll.  In between you have loads of complicated effects-heavy action sequences (the supposed cause of the film being delayed from its planned June 2012 opening) and plenty of bloodless but surprisingly scary violence. 

Heading the cast is Hoult as young Jack and it’s thanks in part to Hoult’s nicely colored performance that the movie succeeds.  After playing a love-sick teen zombie in February’s modest hit Warm Bodies, Hoult has started 2013 off with a bang and I’m hoping that these two performances get him more noticed in Hollywood because he’s truly someone to watch.  Agreeable performances from McGregor and Tucci add some class to the joint and though Tomlinson’s princess isn’t the toughest girl on the block, she makes a believable love interest for Hoult.  Only Bremner as Tucci’s goofball assistant seems to have ventured in from a Benny Hill sketch so it’s a blessing when he makes an early exit after losing his head (whoops, spoiler alert).

Saying that Jack the Giant Slayer is probably the best of the fairy-tale-askew bunch isn’t really saying a whole lot because the rest have been so lousy — but thanks to strong visual effects and fresh performances it climbs its way to the top of the modest heap with ease.

Movie Review ~ The Impossible

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An account of a family caught, with tens of thousands of strangers, in the mayhem of one of the worst natural catastrophes of our time.

Stars: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast

Director: J.A. Bayona

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:   It took me a while, but about an hour into The Impossible I finally figured out what was bugging me so much about it.  Going in I had read various critics call out the film for telling the story of an affluent white family that are impacted 2004 tsunami in Thailand that had a final death toll close to 300,000.  Though the story is true, it is curious that the filmmakers focused on tourists staying at a deluxe coastal resort who seemingly only have to worry about if they will continue to live in Japan or go back to England after their Christmas holiday. 

I was prepared to have that gnaw at me and it did…a bit.  What frustrated me more than that was a conspicuous lack of any real minority presence that wasn’t reduced to a patronizing savior role introduced to help the in-need family be reunited and on the first plane back to Singapore.  In truth, the film appears so white-washed, I would have thought it was a Nancy Meyers directed film.  Seriously, go back and watch The Holiday, It’s Complicated, and Something’s Gotta Give and let me know if you see any minority character with a substantial speaking role.

These two drawbacks are unfortunate because The Impossible is not a bad film, per se.  It’s well made, buoyed by a gripping pace and committed performances that aide in creating some respectable moments.  Director Bayona was at the helm for the classy and creepy Spanish film The Orphanage and he brings the same emotional undercurrent to The ImpossibleThe Orphanage was billed as a horror thriller but what is really was was a suspense drama delivered with a firm grip.  Bayona doesn’t let The Impossible get away from him either, skillfully navigating a Reader’s Digest Drama in Real Life situation to a moving tale of survival against the odds.

Watts and McGregor may not have enough screen time together to create the kind of chemistry that would have given their struggles a little extra oomph, but luckily they share the screen with some talented kids that go through the wringer with them.  While Watts received an Oscar nomination for her work, it’s McGregor who should have received the praise.  Watts is solid, no doubt, but she’s absent for long stretches of the film…so much so that I forgot about her storyline several times.  Holland is their oldest boy and though the other two tots are uncommonly strong actors it’s Holland that steals the show out from under them all.  Geraldine Chaplin also shows up for a brief but powerful cameo that showcases screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez’s way with words.

I find it hard to outright recommend The Impossible based on some of the hang-ups I had with it outlined above.  There are at least 300,000 ways the story could have been told and I’m sure sometime in the future maybe a film will be crafted that focuses on the people that called this place home and were left to pick up the pieces after the tsunami raged through.  As for the family at the center of The Impossible…I wonder if they ever did decide on England or Japan.