Beauty and the Beast (2017)


Shall we dance?

(2017) Fantasy (Disney) Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Kevin Kline, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Hattie Morahan, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ray Fearon, Haydn Gwynne, Gerald Horan, Nathan Mack, Clive Rowe, Thomas Padden, Gizmo, Rita Davies, Adrian Schiller, Harriet Jones, Zoe Rainey. Directed by Bill Condon

 

Disney has of late taken the strategy of remaking animated classics as live action films. It has thus far been successful for them; Maleficent, Jungle Book and Cinderella have both been moneymakers for the studio. Now comes the most lavish and most recent of the animated classics to get a live action version.

The tale’s as old as time; Belle (Watson) is a bookish, intelligent young woman growing up in a provincial town in France in the 18th century. The daughter of Maurice (Kline), a widowed inventor, she happily borrows every book she can get her hands on and cheerfully ignores the advances of the young men of the town, particularly Gaston (Evans), a former soldier chafing in his idleness in a life of hunting and drinking, assisted by the loyal LeFou (Gad).

On the way to the market, Maurice gets chased by wolves onto the grounds of a creepy looking castle. It turns out to be inhabited by a dreadful Beast (Stevens) and living furniture who used to be the servants of the castle. When Maurice’s horse comes home without him, Belle knows something is wrong and races out to rescue her father. When she finds him locked up in a prison cell in the castle, shivering and sick, she offers to take his place and the Beast agrees.

What she doesn’t know is that the Beast and all who lived with him are victims of a curse leveled by a witch (Morahan) who was refused hospitality on a cold stormy night because she was ugly. Now time is running out on the curse which can only be broken by someone who loves the Beast and is loved by him. But Belle is beautiful; she can have any man she wants. Why would she want a Beast?

Although roughly based on the French fairy tale, this version more closely adheres to the 1991 Disney animated version and includes the songs written by the Oscar-winning duo of the late Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken and includes four new songs written by Mencken and lyricist Tim Rice. The results are lush and elegant, gathering many of the elements that worked so well in the original and transferring them note-perfectly into live action.

The production design here is intense and we feel that we are given a glimpse not necessarily into 18th century France so much as a France of myth and legend. It’s an idealized version that is at odds with the suffering amongst the poorer classes that was so great that they rose up and slaughtered their own ruling class. Here however, the ruling class in their rococo Versailles is beloved by the simple folk despite the cruelty and conspicuous consumption displayed by the palace’s occupant that was so egregious that he and all around him were cursed. Well, he had some daddy issues so I suppose he can be excused, right?

There also was much made over the “outing” of LeFou as Disney’s first outright gay character, but even that is a bit of a tempest in Mrs. Potts (Thompson). LeFou’s coming out consists of him dancing with another man (who is dressed as a woman for reasons I won’t get into here) for a few seconds of screen time at the movie’s conclusion. Considering the brouhaha it created in the religious right, I’m not surprised Disney is taking baby steps towards inclusion (there are also a couple of interracial couples among the castle’s inhabitants) but it does feel like the studio didn’t have the courage of their convictions here.

Still, one must commend them for at least trying and for not bending to pressure, refusing to re-cut the movie for Malaysian censors who banned the film from their country based on those few seconds of screen time. Personally, I think the studio should have cut the film a little more judiciously; it runs over two hours long which is about 45 minutes longer than the original animated feature. Condon and writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spillotopoulos flesh out the backstory, explaining why Belle’s mother is out of the picture and why the Beast’s human prince was such a rotten individual among other things and it makes the movie a little too ponderous for its own good. Several little princesses in full regalia at the screening Da Queen and I attended got extremely restless during the movie’s final half hour.

But the ending is definitely worth it. It is slightly different than the animated version and the difference is enough to really tug at the heartstrings and create an emotional catharsis that warms the cockles even as you’re wiping away the tears. I didn’t expect to like this as much as I did; everything I heard about it made me fear that it was a bloated mess and in some ways it is, but there is enough heart here that it actually becomes a worthwhile viewing. Plenty of little princesses are going to be demanding that their parents add this to their video collection not too long down the line when it becomes available.

Chances are, you’ve already seen this and if you haven’t, I strongly urge you see it on the big screen while you still can. The amazing special effects deserve the best possible presentation. Even if you aren’t required to see it by a child in your life, this is actually a fine motion picture for adults, if for no other reason the nostalgia that it evokes. It truly is a tale old as time.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are gorgeous. The film has a lot more heart than you’d expect from an effects-heavy fantasy.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a little too much ephemera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and action sequences, scenes of peril and a few frightening images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ian McKellen was originally offered the part of Cogsworth for the 1991 animated version and turned it down (David Ogden Stiers eventually took the role) but he chose to accept it this time out.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Dinner

Suicide Squad


Wanna come out and play?

Wanna come out and play?

(2016) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman, Cara Delevingne, Jay Hernandez, Jai Courtney, Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Karen Fukuhara, Adam Beach, Kenneth Choi, Alain Chanoine, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Common, Jim Parrack, David Harbour, Shailyn Pierre-Dixon. Directed by David Ayer

 

There are those who maintain that a hero is nothing without a memorable villain to oppose him. That’s largely true; what would James Bond be without Blofeld, Holmes without Moriarty or Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader? We usually see things from the hero’s point of view but rarely do we get a glimpse into the world of the super villain.

Following the events of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the American government is extremely nervous. What would happen, posits Amanda Waller (Davis) who works for a shadowy intelligence agency, if Superman had instead of saving the world decided to destroy it? Who would stop him? Waller has an idea, one that is magnificent in its simplicity and alarming at its utter amorality.

She “recruits” (i.e. forces) several super villains locked up in the Belle Reve black ops prison in the swamps of Louisiana to form up a team to take on certain situations which are essentially hopeless. Situations in which the superheroes that are out in public (which are essentially Batman (Affleck) and the Flash (Miller) at this point) shouldn’t be risked as they aren’t exactly expendable. These guys are exactly that. Waller knows that and at the same time, she knows they have nothing to lose by running. She has a solution that recalls The Running Man to a certain extent but absolutely doesn’t say anything particularly nice about the woman.

And who are these guys? For one, there’s Deadshot (Smith), an assassin for hire who never misses with any firearm you give him. Then there’s Harley Quinn (Robbie), the deranged ex-psychiatrist who is now the Joker’s (Leto) girlfriend but who is a formidable opponent of her own. Then there’s Diablo (Hernandez), a gang banger who can shoot flames in any direction but when his powers caused the death of his wife and son, is attempting to reform and has vowed to never use his powers again.

=Add to that list Killer Croc (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a horribly mutated man who is half man, half crocodile and eats people when he gets the chance. Then there’s Enchantress, a demonic spirit that has possessed archaeologist June Moon (Delevingne) and possesses incredible magic powers, Captain Boomerang (Courtney), an Aussie thief whose weapon of choice is a boomerang that he is absolutely deadly accurate with. Finally there’s Slipknot (Beach), whose ability to climb any surface makes him a useful scout.

Overseeing these representatives of the lunatic fringe is Captain Rick Flagg (Kinnaman), a Navy SEAL who just happens to be Professor Moon’s boyfriend – and who is himself tough as nails. Having his back is Katana (Fukuhara), a Japanese martial artist with an enchanted sword that captures the souls of its victims – which include her husband among their number. Katana is able to communicate with the spirits in the blade, including her late hubby.

They are battling a mystical opponent who wants to essentially open a rift in the dimension that will end civilization as we know it. The problem is that the Suicide Squad as they have come to be known as don’t really give a rat’s tush about civilization. If they can stop fighting amongst themselves, though, they might just come through of it alive. The odds are not good for either however.

Let’s be blunt to start out; the DC Extended Universe (what they call their cinematic division) has not had the kind of success that Marvel has and the critics have absolutely excoriated this movie. Now, I will be the first to say that DC’s cinematic path hasn’t caught on for a reason; in trying to duplicate the tone of the very successful Dark Knight trilogy of Christopher Nolan. You’ll notice that the Marvel cinematic universe is anything but.

But is this movie really that bad? I don’t think so…for one thing it’s entertaining as all get out. Ayers is a director who has a very fine eye and a well-developed story-telling sense. He also knows how important it is for there to be fun in the equation, and there’s lots of great by-play between the characters and a lot of humor injected into the script.

He also has a helluva cast. Smith, one of the biggest stars in the world, has rarely been better than he is here. Yes, his Deadshot is one of the more developed characters in the film, but Smith gets to play a villain who has some human qualities as well (he’s absolutely devoted to his daughter, played by Pierre-Dixon for one). He also shows the kind of leadership skills shown by Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers in the Marvel Universe. The DC Universe sorely needs that.

Robbie has almost as much time in the movie as Smith and her Harley Quinn took a different path to the silver screen; Harley Quinn didn’t initially come from the comic books but from the television animated shows. She went from there to the comic books which she became something of an icon, particularly to female comic book fangirls. Robbie fills the role well; while some have groused that the character has been overly sexualized here (including Robbie herself), she turns in an intense performance, particularly since she has to go up against Oscar winner Jared Leto as her boyfriend/abuser the Joker.

Leto has been very vocal in his disappointment about what the role turned out to be, and in all fairness the Joker was never supposed to be a central character here. However, it stands to reason that you can’t really have Harley Quinn with Mr. J; it doesn’t work. His take on the Joker is a lot different than that of Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger or even Cesar Romero. Not better, not worse, just different. I liked Leto’s Joker just fine; he’s supposed to be unpredictable and Leto certainly makes him that. He isn’t nearly as menacing as Ledger’s Joker, nor as twisted as Nicholson’s. However, this Joker is wilder, more untamed than either. It is a good interpretation.

There are a lot of special effects, particularly involving the mystical vortex thingy that the Big Bads are creating. There are an awful lot of trans-dimensional vortices in superhero movies as of late and as those sorts of things go, this one is no worse nor any better than most. It just isn’t all that impressive; neither are most of the practical effects. Also, there are moments when the plot gets a little bit, ahh, thick. I found it a touch confusing at times and perhaps more casual comic book fans might feel the same.

Otherwise, I enjoyed the heck out of the movie. These really aren’t the A-list of DC villains (although the Joker is present) but some of the mid-level guys. Quinn and Deadshot both look like slam-dunks coming back for more cinematic superhero goodness. And all things considered, this didn’t do the DC Extended Universe better; it might well be the best of the three that have appeared so far, at least in my book. However, it still isn’t slam dunk enough to really elevate the franchise into a place where I’m actually excited about it. Maybe Wonder Woman will bring that to the game.

REASONS TO GO: There is excellent interaction between an excellent cast. Smith is at his very best here. Brings some of DC’s lesser villains to light.
REASONS TO STAY: The special effects are unimpressive. The story is occasionally confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: As you’d expect, plenty of violence and superhero action, some sexually suggestive material and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harley Quinn’s baseball bat was given to Kevin Smith to thank him for hosting the TV special Dawn of the Justice League shortly before this film came out.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deadpool
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Gleason

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny


Michelle Yeoh is still beautiful and badass.

Michelle Yeoh is still beautiful and badass.

(2016) Martial Arts (Netflix) Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen, Harry Shum Jr., Jason Scott Lee, Eugenia Yuan, Juju Chan, Chris Pang, Darryl Quon, Roger Yuan, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Dev Kingsley, Woon Young Park, Andrew Stehlin, Gary Young, Tim Wong, Sharon Zhang, Kevvy Sing-Hoi Ng, David T. Lim, Alex Shi, Thanh Van Ngo, Shuya Chang. Directed by Woo-Ping Yuen

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, released in 2000 in the United States, remains to this day the highest grossing foreign language film to be released in the United States. The Ang Lee-directed martial arts classic combines a heart-wrenching love story with innovative martial arts battle sequences making extensive use of wire work to wow audiences of the time.

It has taken 16 years for the sequel to be made, loosely based on the final book of the five-book series by Du Lu Wang that inspired the first film, but the director responsible for those amazing fight scenes is at the helm here and while the absence of Lee and star Chow Yun-Fat are keenly felt (particularly Fat, whose presence hovers over the film throughout like a sad-eyed ghost) the movie surprisingly stands on its own two feet.

Nearly two decades have passed since the events of the first film and Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh), the deadly assassin and swordsman of the first film has removed herself from the world, mourning her lover and feeling keenly the weight of the changing nature of the world. She is called from her lonely isolation to attend the funeral of an old friend, one charged with storing and protecting the Green Destiny, Li Mu Bai’s famous sword. When sneak thief Tiefang (Shum) is caught attempting to steal the sword by house guest Snow Vase (Bordizzo), Yu realizes that bandit king Hades Die (Lee) and his blind enchantress (E. Yuan) are behind it.

Snow Vase, realizing the identity of Yu, asks her to become her teacher and Yu agrees. However, Hades Western Lotus army is dead set on acquiring the sword for their master and Yu knows the compound will need additional protection. She hires a group of six mercenaries, led by the enigmatic Silent Wolf (Yen) with whom Yu has a particularly convoluted past. It seems that the two were lovers before she was with Li Mu Bai, and that she believed Silent Wolf had been killed in a fight with Hades Die many years earlier. It seems the rumors of his death had been exaggerated.

Despite his deception, there is clearly heat between the two former lovers while Snow Vase is developing a relationship with Tiefang. The two relationships will be tested as the ruthless Hades and his evil enchantress will stop at nothing to acquire the one sword that would make him all-powerful and rule the martial arts world with an iron fist.

I went into this movie with a little bit of trepidation, fully expecting it to be a blatant cash grab knock-off, profiting off of the name of a classic movie. I was pleasantly surprised that the movie captures the melancholy tone of the first film, delivering on the martial arts sequences as well as the emotional resonance. While it isn’t quite to the level of that film, the sequel is still a very worthwhile successor.

Much of the credit must go to Yeoh, the lone returnee of the acting cast here. Her character is the emotional center of the film, dealing with loss with dignity and honor. She is a mighty warrior, yes, able to strike fear in the hearts of strong men and garner their respect, but she is also feminine and certainly still beautiful and graceful at 53. This is perhaps her signature role and the movie is worth seeing just for her.

Yen, one of the biggest and most bankable stars in China, fares less well here but to be fair his character isn’t as well drawn. Silent Wolf is meant to be enigmatic, but he is so enigmatic that some of his motivations ring false and while his fight scenes are some of the best in the film, he is relegated to pretty much a supporting character when he should have been one of the leads.

Like the first film, the cinematography is breathtaking, although there is a lot more CGI here of crumbling ruins, temples and towers that give the movie a kind of a Lord of the Rings feel. I’m not sure how much of this was filmed in China – iMDB lists the filming locations as China and New Zealand – but there is something about the natural beauty of China that speaks to me.

The problems here are that there are too many characters who aren’t fleshed out very much beyond colorful nicknames. While some of them have definite personalities, they are little more than a single trait with a body attached and they’re there mainly to get into spectacular fights with somebody. That’s all well and good but one cares more for the outcome of a fight when one cares for the people doing the fighting.

This is playing on Netflix and on a smattering of IMAX screens across the country. Because it’s getting a simultaneous release on Netflix, the larger theater chains refused to carry this on their IMAX screens, so in places like Orlando there are no IMAX screenings for the film available which is a crying shame – I suspect this would be amazing in IMAX. Hopefully at some point it might show up in some form on IMAX but until then most of us will have to content themselves seeing it at home on Netflix. Even that is well worth the effort as this is a wonderful and worthy follow-up to a classic.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Recreates the melancholy feel of the first film. Some incredible martial arts sequences. Michelle Yeoh.
REASONS TO STAY: A little less graceful than the first film. Too many characters.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of martial arts violence as well as a scene of brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Jen, played by Shuya Chang here, was played by Ziyi Zhang in the first film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Empire of Silver
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Trumbo