BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

March 14, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. An entire generation still enjoys their childhood animated movie memories thanks to Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994). We are now a quarter-century later and Disney is looking to re-create the magic (and hopefully cash in) with Live Action versions of all three …as it did with Cinderella (2015) and last year’s The Jungle Book (sensing a trend?). Up now is director Bill Condon’s mixture of live action, CGI and music for Beauty and the Beast.

The 18th century story (1740) by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve was re-written and shortened by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont after Barbot’s death. Director Jean Cocteau’s 1946 French film version looks to have been a key influence for this updated ‘Beast’, while the 2014 version with Vincent Cassel will probably now be rendered forgotten. Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) team with Oscar winner Condon, whose musical movie resume includes Chicago and Dreamgirls, to inject some contemporary aspects to Belle’s personality, as well as a bit more backstory for quite a few characters … all while staying true to the 1991 version.

Emma Watson proves a nice choice for Belle as she has what it takes to be nice yet tough, while still being an oddball within her own community. Belle is a bookworm who dares to help other girls to read, while also being the brains behind her father’s (Kevin Kline) work. She realizes her neighbors view her as a curiosity – and there is even a song to prove it! Ms. Watson brings strength, independence, and courage to the role. These traits and others are on full display even before her first encounter with the beast.

Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) is the beneficiary of an extended backstory for the Prince, which includes a large dance and musical production at the castle, leading to his being cursed for having no love in his heart. Most of the scenes with Beast utilize CGI for the face and head. This effect worked for me as I found the look fascinating and able to fulfill the necessary emotions, though the non-beast Prince would be considered the weakest link in this fairy tale chain.

Since the comparisons to the 1991 version are inevitable, and certainly a matter of personal opinion, Luke Evans made a wonderfully pompous Gaston, while Josh Gad was quite humorous as LeFou, Gaston’s loyal sidekick who is also the center of the misplaced controversy (not worthy of discussion here). The staff – both live versions and special effects – includes Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, Ian McKellan as Cogsworth, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe, Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette. Each bring their own touch to the roles, with Ms. McDonald being a particular standout, and Ms. Thompson having the most thankless job as replacement for Angela Lansbury.

While I found this version quite enjoyable and well done, it’s a bit confusing why the decision was made to go so dark and foreboding. It’s not young kid friendly at all, and seems as if the target audience is millennials who were raised on the 1991 version. This was done at the expense of inviting a new generation to explore the story and characters. Parents should probably avoid taking any kids under age 10 or 11, and the film easily could have received a PG-13 rating.

8-time Oscar winner Alan Menken returns to score the film (he did the 1991 version as well), plus he wrote new songs with Tim Rice and there are some original lyrics by Howard Ashman. With only one viewing, it’s doubtful any of the new songs will be instant classics, but “Be Our Guest” is a definite crowd-pleaser (again).

Of course, it’s an impossible task to please everyone when you mess with the classics, but overall, it’s a nice twist for fans of the 1991 animated version. Likely a missed opportunity to bring new youngsters into the fantastical BATB world, it does show that the animated to live action transformation can be well done … and that’s a relief with The Lion King and The Little Mermaid on the way. Dear Disney – don’t mess ‘em up!

Be our guest … watch the trailer:

 


RICKI AND THE FLASH (2015)

August 9, 2015

ricki Greetings again from the darkness. Having worshiped at the acting alter of Meryl Streep since 1977 (her brief appearance in Julia), this frequent movie-goer takes great delight in seeing her donning a leather jacket and bangles while strumming an electric guitar. Somehow she continues to expand on her already unmatched diverse resume of movie characters – this time as an aging leader of a cover band that plays to a small but loyal audience at a Tarzana bar.

Ricki is no rock star, though she clearly chased the dream. We learn of this when we see her working as a checker at the local supermarket, and then again when her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) calls her home to Indianapolis in a desperate attempt to pull their daughter Julie out of a suicidal depressive state brought on by her husband leaving for another woman. Julie is played by Ms. Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gummer, and their bond plays out well enough on screen.

The movie’s peak occurs with the family dinner scene, as Ricki is united with her three kids, including sons Josh (Sebastian Stan – known in the Marvel world as Bucky Barnes) and Adam (Nick Westrate). It doesn’t take long before true emotions are bubbling over causing much discomfort throughout the restaurant. See, Ricki left her family to chase her music dream, leaving Kline and his second wife Maureen to provide a sense of normal family life. Maureen is played by six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, who sadly doesn’t get to “flash” her famous singing voice in a movie that is comprised of songs for about half of its running time.

Director Jonathan Demme (an Oscar winner for Silence of the Lambs) and writer Diablo Cody (an Oscar winner for Juno) inexplicably drop the family drama soon after the dinner scene and we spend most of the second half watching Streep and Rick Springfield play out their dysfunctional relationship onstage. If you are unfamiliar with Springfield, he was a pop star in the 80’s and was the Dr. McDreamy predecessor while on “General Hospital”. Lately you may have seen him as the creepy plastic surgeon on “True Detective” … he looks much more normal here.

The band does a nice job with the familiar songs, and Streep is effective as the lead singer and audience favorite. However, even with Demme’s stellar track record with musical documentaries (Talking Heads, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen), it’s difficult to understand why so much time is devoted to the musical performances after the extensive family drama set-up. A perfect example is that once the final act hits, Julie is given no more dialogue. It’s a strange turn.

The script does make a couple of very interesting points. The first involves the repercussions of a mother in chasing her dream … Ricki compares herself and perception to that of Mick Jagger. The second involves addressing the “job” of parents to love their kids. Either of these could be the central theme of a very interesting film, but as with other topics, the surface is barely scratched in this film. Despite the odd choices made by writer and director, it’s clear Ms. Streep is loving her time on stage … her version of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” is alone worth the price of a ticket.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


LAST VEGAS (2013)

November 9, 2013

last vegas1 Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve been writing about “Gray Cinema” for the past few years and the understandable desire of Hollywood to capitalize on the aging population. Take that trend and mix it with new-age buddy pictures like The Hangover and Bridesmaids, and you can at least imagine what director Jon Turteltaub (the National Treasure movies) and writer Dan Fogelman (the very entertaining Crazy Stupid Love) were attempting to create.

The film’s poster recalls the glory days of the Rat Pack, so taking this foursome of sixty-something year old childhood buddies to Las Vegas presents many possibilities. There is no shortage of enthusiasm from the four leads: Michael Douglas as Billy, the smooth-talking lifelong bachelor who proposed to his thirty-ish girlfriend at a funeral; Morgan Freeman as Archie, suffocating in a cocoon of family over-protection; Robert Deniro as Paddy, the isolated widow wallowing in grief for the past year; and Kevin Kline as Sam, the stir-crazy Florida stereotype bored with 4:00 dinner parties and his marriage.

last vegas2 These top notch actors give it all they have, but there is just no rescuing such fluff and lack of substance. The script is frustrating throughout and just gives no credit to an audience that might appreciate even a gag or story line that wasn’t obvious from the opening credits. Mary Steenburgen‘s character provides a brief respite, but the developments are so absurd that neither her character or the story line can be taken seriously.

Toss in a bar fight, bikini contest, mandatory viagra jokes, a world class Casino penthouse, an inconceivable party that would be shut down by fire code, and a wasted cameo from 50 Cent … and you get a lame, flat, mostly unfunny story that barely skims the surface of an endless stream of possibly interesting topics.  It’s certainly not at the level of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel … or even Space Cowboys.

I’ll end by stating that I am a huge fan of Gray Cinema, but my request is that some effort go into the script and production so that viewers are provided with an entertaining and intelligent and respectful experience. There is no need to dwell on the bits of culture that have passed them by or the physical ailments that plague their activities. Luckily, the stellar cast prevents this one from flopping to the level that the script deserves.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can appreciate the novelty of a cast of leading men all in their sixties and seventies OR you get a kick out of knowing the punchline of every joke before it actually happens

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you expect a certain level of “smarts” in movies … even comedies.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMnr-R7BkkU

 


THE CONSPIRATOR

April 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. While not a historical expert, I commend writer James Solomon for his years of research into a fascinating, yet quite dark moment in America. Many have attempted to couch the film as presenting Mary Surratt as an innocent bystander. I would argue that the film is much less about her innocence or guilt, and much more about the state of our country’s leaders and the judicial system at the time of Lincoln’s assassination.

I found the two strongest elements of the film causing quite an internal conflict as I watched. First, the film is simply gorgeous. Costumes, props, sets and lighting all lead to a texture that puts the viewer right into the mid 1860’s. Second, the courtroom (and backroom) procedures generate a feeling of disgust. Although, we have had very recent examples of less-than-stellar judicial process in the U.S., we Americans still hold on to the belief that ours is the best and fairest system in existence.

 It was very interesting to see Kevin Kline as War Secretary Edwin Stanton. Stanton was the guy calling the shots during this time and evidently had quite a power hold on the military, as well as the government. His viewpoint that the country needed a swift and decisive conclusion to this tragedy makes absolute sense … unless you happened to be one of the accused, or their legal counsel.

The lead actors in the film do a very nice job of capturing their characters and holding us in time. In addition to Mr. Kline, James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, the Union war hero and reluctant defense attorney for Mary Surratt. Tom Wilkinson plays Senator Reverdy Johnson who, as Aiken’s mentor, recognizes all elements of the procedures. Evan Rachel Wood portrays Anna Surratt, Mary’s daughter. She has few scenes, but each is quite powerful. Danny Huston is Joseph Holt, the prosecuting attorney, who clearly has free reign to do whatever is necessary to ensure a guilty verdict. Other supporting work is provided by Toby Kebbell (John Wilkes Booth), Norman Reedus (from Boondock Saints), Stephen Root, Johnny Simmons and Colm Meaney. The two miscast roles are courtesy of Alexis Bledel and Justin Long.

 I found Robin Wright‘s stoic portrayal of Mary Surratt to be quite mesmerizing. Her strength and motherly insistence on protecting her son was absolutely believable. In my opinion she should gather consideration for an Oscar nomination when the time comes. This is not a showy performance, but rather the foundation of the story.

Lighting of the time was thanks to candles and lanterns, and director Robert Redford masterfully captures that on film. We are always hoping for a bit more light on the characters or in the courtroom. Instead we get the feeling of being present. I did find some of the “buddy scenes” to be unnecessary, but the scenes with Wilkinson and Kline more than offset this weakness.

This is the first film from The American Film Company, whose mission is to present historically accurate films on American history. If their initial entry is an indication, we anxiously await their next projects.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are in the mood to be transported back to 1865 and come as close as possible to experiencing the conflict and grief of the young country just out of civil war.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you find it difficult to see the flaws within what is basically a very strong and judicious system


NO STRINGS ATTACHED

January 23, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you have read even a few of my reviews, you know I am not typically a fan of the Hollywood Rom-Com. I find most of them lazy, lame, predictable and irritating. But when legendary comedy director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Dave, Stripes) gets involved, I will at least pay attention. Here Mr. Reitman directs a script that on the surface will examine the “friends with benefits” phenomenon.

The leads are played by Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman, and the twist here is that Portman’s Emma is the driving force behind the agreement with Kutcher’s Adam to not have a relationship … only relations. Even Adam’s friends point out to him that he is living every man’s fantasy. So does anyone think this will really work? Of course not.

 First, they are both just so darn cute! And Adam is oh-so-adorable as the sly one hoping to break through and convince Emma that he is worthy of her love. All the physical stuff continues as Adam works his job on the set of a “Glee” knock-off, battles with his dad (Kevin Kline) who is sleeping with Adam’s ex-girlfriend (a wonderful Opehlia Lovibond), and Emma slaves away saving lives in her job as a brilliant doctor. Oh, and one of Adam’s co-workers (a hilariously manic Lake Bell) has a mega crush on him, and Emma’s little sister (Olivia Thirlby) finds true love as does Emma’s friend Patrice (Greta Gerwig from Greenberg), who falls for Adam’s best friend. Wow. All that love and our two heroes just have to keep things between the sheets.

On the plus side, the side stories are enough fun that the film is easily watchable despite the predictable nature of the premise. Even the Portman/Kutcher story is tolerable thanks to the gender-switching nature of their personalities. I would have preferred to see the Friends with Benefits pact extended and examined (it worked in the Stieg Larsson books!). This is easily Mr. Reitman’s best comedy since 1993’s Dave, which also featured Kevin Kline. It’s nice to see Ms. Portman do something lightweight after her fabulous Black Swan performance, but I am really hoping Mr. Kutcher understands that someday he may really have to act and not just smile on cue.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you just absolutely must see a Rom-Com this week OR you want to see two very funny actresses going all out (Lake Bell and Ophelia Lovibond)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: even a slightly subdued Ashton Kutcher is more than you can take OR you are looking for a hugely surprising plot twist