"If it's not Baroque, don't fix it" - dialogue from the original animated film
To bring Disney's 1991 animated classic Beauty and the Beast into live action is a feat I would not wish upon anyone, and director Bill Condon deserves some credit for actually attempting to do it. After all, the original film is so ingrained in modern pop culture, there's no real way to separate our memories of the animated movie from this live action interpretation. When all is said and done, Condon and his crew have done a good job, and have probably given us the best live action remake we could have hoped for. But, the question at the end remains the same - Did we really need this?
That's a harder question to answer. You could defend the decision for this film by saying the movie does add a bit more backstory. For one thing, it fixes a major plot hole that always hung over the animated film. That is, how did the townspeople not know about the Beast and his castle when it was right on the outskirts of their village? Here, we learn in the opening narration that when the Enchantress curses the Beast and his castle staff with her transformation spell, not only does it impact everyone within the castle itself, but the entire town itself, as it forces all the villagers to forget that the Prince and his castle ever existed. Even the handsome and self-absorbed villain Gaston (played in live action by Luke Evans) and his comic relief sidekick LeFou (a scene-stealing Josh Gad) have been expanded on a little, and are no longer the buffoonish characters they came across in 1991. Gaston is a bit more clever, calculating and manipulative, while LeFou actually has a personality and conscience that leads him to question his loyalty to his friend by the end. Oh, and if you're looking for that "LeFou is now gay" thing that has taken the Internet by storm the past couple weeks, it's essentially a blink and you'll miss it moment, which is to be expected.
The changes, however, are minor, as are a couple more that I will leave for you to discover when you watch it. For the most part, this is a slavishly faithful adaptation of the earlier production. There's the little town filled with little people who wake up to say "bonjour" to each other every morning, where Belle, still the ultimate bookworm, dreams of something more than the provincial life she is currently leading. Emma Watson (of Harry Potter fame) portrays Belle this time, and while she certainly looks the part, there is something off almost from the moment she opens her mouth. Her singing voice seems awfully thin, and sometimes even gets drowned out by the accompanying orchestra. As for her overall performance, there is a certain detachment she gives off. She forever seems emotionally distant and strangely not involved from whatever may be happening around her. I believe Watson to be a very good actress, and if you need proof, watch her in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. She simply does not get to display the confidence here that should carry the weight of a film such as this.
Dan Stevens (of Downton Abbey) fares better as the Beast, a handsome but selfish Prince who has been cursed to take the form of a hairy and horned monstrosity until he can find true love, and earn that love in return. Despite being hidden under a ton of make up and digital techniques to hide his appearance, he is still able to express emotion and creates a very human performance. Whenever an actor or actress takes on a role that requires their looks to be hidden in some way or form, the real challenge is to not hide the features so much that the emotions of the performance cannot come through. Stevens passes the test here, and is as fine as you could hope. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the large cast of enchanted knickknacks, candlesticks, tea pots, clocks and other assorted items who make up a large part of the supporting cast once Belle becomes a prisoner of the Beast's castle. They are recreated largely with CG, and while there's nothing entirely wrong with how they have been brought to life so to speak, there is something definitely wrong.
It was not until the big, show-stopping "Be Our Guest" number that it really started to bother me. In the 1991 film, it was a lavish musical number that filled every corner of the screen with high-kicking dinnerware, plates and whatnot. At the center of it all was the lively Lumiere - animated, vibrant and full of expression. In the live action remake, Lumiere has essentially been reimagined as a murky mass of bronze CG, with something that kind of resembles a face, but fails to hold any expression or emotion. He's been drained of all emotion, and while he still seems as eager to serve and entertain as ever, his somewhat soulless face fails to generate any excitement in what is supposed to be one of the scene-stealing moments of the film. No matter how much Ewan McGregor tries to breathe life into the character through his vocal performance with his silly French accent, he just cannot breathe the same amount of life into the character that we remember from the original.
If Beauty and the Beast does not work completely, it's not for lack of trying. It has, for the most part, been beautifully mounted, and the cast (save for Watson) really seem to be giving this their all. Emma Thompson gives off a different, but still warm, vibe as the kindly teapot Mrs. Potts, while Ian McKellen has the right amount of pomp and arrogance in his voice to play the crusty old clock butler, Cogsworth. You can tell that there was a real attempt here to give something special to those who have long treasured the animated film. But, for all of its efforts, the movie still ends up with a somewhat cold and unemotional vibe. I was never fully involved. Oh, I admired the set designs, costumes, and even a few of the new ideas that the filmmakers attempted to add. But I was never fully engaged. I felt like something was keeping me from fully embracing the film as a whole. And the more I think back on the film, the colder and distant it seems to me.
That this is a movie that is constantly trying to please meant little to me. It doesn't matter how much you try to please your audience by being faithful to the original, you have to have an understanding as to what made the original work so well. And here, I think the warmth has been drained from the source material. While the enchanted objects of the Beast's castle now have a more "realistic" look, it is not for the better, as much of their expression and emotion of their cartoon counterparts are now gone. The voice acting is good in general, but if the CG characters themselves can't display the right emotion, they're simply failed illusions. Also, I never quite felt the same bond between Belle and the Beast that I feel every time I watch the original. Part of this is Watson's strange and off performance, and part of this may be that I just don't feel the same emotion in the screenplay. It's hard for me to put a finger on, but something just does not feel right, and it kept me at a distance, even when I was admiring the craft up on the screen.
Beauty and the Beast has been made with a great amount of effort and care for the most part, but it simply never came together for me to a point that I can recommend it as an alternative to the original. Let's face it, the earlier movie does not need an alternative to begin with. And if you really do desire one, the stage production that once played on Broadway is actually much better than this. So what are we left with? A movie that can be lovely to look at sometimes, but lacks a clear heart and soul.
The strange thing about Kong: Skull Island is that it does not take a lot of inspiration from the earlier King Kong films, not even Peter Jackson's remake from 2005. Instead, this movie seems more inspired by Jurassic World and other recent "big monster" movies, where a small group of characters are placed in a situation where they must survive and battle many different kinds of giant monsters, such as lizards, octopus, and birds that kind of resemble pterodactyls. It also takes a "shared cinematic universe" approach, tying itself in with 2014's Godzilla film from the same studio. It all adds up to a thrill ride movie that is mostly effective, with a few bumps in the road along the way.
This is a movie that knows what we're here for, so we get to see Kong early and often. The opening scene gives us a brief glimpse of his massive hands, and then about a half hour later, we see him in all his glory. As is to be expected, he's an impressive sight and well animated. I particularly liked the way he uses objects and items around him whenever he's engaged in battle, instead of just pounding away at his opponents with his fists. However, it is somewhat disappointing that he mostly just fights whenever he is on camera. The thing that always stuck out to me about King Kong is how some of the past films have tried to give him somewhat of a personality, or sometimes even a character arc. We don't get very many personal moments with Kong here, other than a brief scene where he somewhat bonds with one of the humans trapped on Skull Island. Naturally, it's the female lead, played here by Brie Larson. Kong has always had a thing for the ladies.
Speaking of the human characters, most of them exist to be gobbled up by the various giant monster inhabitants of the Island, so I will focus on the major ones. There's a World War II fighter pilot who's been trapped on the Island for 28 years, and has survived by befriending the local natives (John C. Reilly), a British officer who specializes in tracking, and doesn't realize what he's come to track until he arrives on Skull Island (Tom Hiddleston), a war photographer who is mostly along for the ride for a majority of the movie (Larson), a shady man who has funded the whole expedition in order to prove his belief that monsters live beneath the Earth (John Goodman), and a Special Forces Colonel who becomes obsessed with killing Kong as the film progresses (Samuel L. Jackson). Of these characters, Hiddleston, Jackson and Reilly get the most screen time, but it is Reilly who walks away with the film. He not only gets the best lines in the film, but he is clearly having the most fun with his character, and that fun carries through to the audience.
The film takes place in 1973, after the U.S. has withdrawn from Vietnam. This allows the three credited screenwriters to not only get in some heavy-handed political jabs, but to also throw in pretty much every popular song from the era that you hear on the soundtrack in just about every movie that's ever been set during the Vietnam War. Goodman's character brings his team of soldiers and scientists to the island under the pretense that they are doing a geological study of an unexplored island, when really they are there to track down Kong. What they find is that the island is filled with a variety of other giant creatures, as well. We see quite a few, and hear about some that never show up, as well. (There's talk of giant ants up in the trees at one point, but they never materialize.) This should be fun, and it usually is. But the movie can't help but throw in the occasional environmental message, about how the world doesn't really belong to us.
I really am of two minds when it comes to Kong: Skull Island. On one hand, it's an effective special effects movie, and it does have some genuinely thrilling sequences. On the other hand, some of the dialogue is rather clunky, and outside of Reilly's character, no one gets to show much of a personality, or contribute much to the plot. Everyone here basically exists to shoot at monsters, and usually be crushed or eaten by them. We even get one not-too-subtle moment where a man falls to his death, landing in Kong's mouth, and right before the big ape closes his teeth on him, we immediately cut to a close up of another character biting into a sandwich. Am I asking for subtlety in a King Kong movie? Not really. But as I said before, I've always enjoyed it when the filmmakers in the past tried to make Kong into somewhat more than just a screaming monster, and gave him a few quiet and even intimate moments now and then. A few more scenes like that would have worked well here.
If all you are looking for are action scenes and well done special effects, this movie will definitely suffice. For what it is, it's expertly made. Just don't go in expecting more, and you should feel you got your money's worth. In all honestly, I had a lot of fun while I was watching it, and didn't think back on how hollow the whole experience really was until I was in the quiet of the outdoors once I stepped out of the theater. This is the kind of movie you enjoy in the moment, and kind of realize its flaws once it's over. So, I guess I am recommending this as an experience. You'll likely enjoy it while it's unfolding up on the screen. At the very least, the movie doesn't feel bloated and overly long, and moves along at a good pace. Remember, the last Kong movie we got was three hours long. This one's only about two, and doesn't feel dragged out.
Kong: Skull Island fulfills that primal need to see giant monsters knock helicopters out of the sky, and grapple with each other like MMA fighters. I would have liked a bit more human emotion to go along with it, but I can't really complain much. The filmmakers were trying to make a straight action Kong film, and have succeeded well enough at that.
The Shack is a movie with its heart in the right place, but its brain is a bit harder to locate. It's not that I disagreed with the film's message, which is hopeful and uplifting. Heck, I didn't even disagree with the cast, all of whom are doing good work here. What I did disagree with is the movie's desire to spell out everything through overly long and talky scenes. These moments make up a majority of the film, dragging down what could have been a very powerful film.
As the film opens, we're introduced to the Phillips family. They come across as your average, happy clan, although patriarch Mack (Sam Worthington) does have a haunted past concerning his alcoholic father who used to abuse both him and his mom. He does have a loving wife (Radha Mitchell), and three children who are as wholesome as all get-out. His two older kids, Josh and Kate (Gage Munroe and Megan Charpentier), are the kind of good natured teens that any parent would dream of, and probably only exist in movies. Youngest daughter Missy (Amelie Eve) is bright, curious and cute as a button. One day in late summer, Mack takes the kids on a camping trip, while mom stays behind to do some work. During the trip, while Josh and Kate are out rowing in a canoe, there is an accident that nearly causes the kids to drown. Mack heads into the water to rescue them, leaving Missy alone momentarily. He manages to save the two children, but when he returns to land to look for Missy, she has completely vanished.
The police are called to investigate, and after days of intense searching, they think they have found a lead. A suspicious truck has been found abandoned near a shack in the woods. However, the only thing that can be found within the building are traces of blood and Missy's discarded clothes. Thus begins the "Great Sadness" (as the movie calls it) for the Phillips family, as everyone deals with their grief in different ways. While his wife turns to God (whom she calls "Papa") for guidance, Mack shuts down completely out of guilt about leaving his youngest behind. Teenage daughter Kate isn't doing very well, either. But one day, Mack finds a mysterious letter waiting in his mailbox. It's apparently been sent by "Papa", and tells him that he should return to the shack in the woods. Mack isn't sure what to think of any of this, and wonders if whoever is responsible for his daughter's death is possibly toying with him somehow. Regardless, he decides to venture out alone to the woods where his personal nightmare began.
Returning to the shack, he encounters three people who welcome him with open arms. These characters are supposed to represent the religious "Father" "Son" and "Holy Spirit", and take the form of a black woman who refers to herself as "Papa" (Octavia Spencer), her son Jesus, a Middle Eastern carpenter (Avraham Avuv Alush), and an Asian woman named Sarayu (Japanese actress and model Sumire Matsubara), who is often seen at work in a magnificent garden. The Shack is based on a best selling novel by William P. Young, which apparently drew a lot of criticisms from some in the Christian community for its depiction of the Holy Trinity. The film stays true to these depictions, and honestly, it's the most compelling part of the film. I do applaud the filmmakers for taking this chance with its casting, especially the casting of Avraham Avuv Alush as Jesus, who not only gives the best performance in the film, but creates a different yet compelling interpretation. He's not stoic like we expect, but kind of fun. Let's just say he likes to make good use out of that whole "walk on water" thing.
These three have appeared before Mack to help him forgive, get over his own guilt, and to accept them in his life. While this idea is fascinating in and of itself, the movie misses the potential by a wide margin. Instead of debating or talking about anything truly meaningful, we're treated to scene after scene where the characters talk to Mac about forgiveness, not judging others, and letting go of your own past and guilt. This could have been effective, and you can see potential everywhere, but the script chooses to be wordy and dragged out. This is a well-meaning and well-acted movie that is brought down by a script that simply doesn't know when to stop. Scenes go on long after we have gotten the point, or they are so melodramatic as to feel like we are being struck over the head by its messaging. This is a movie that cries out for a careful and honest touch, and The Shack ends up bludgeoning us.
And yet, you can see potential in just about every scene or idea that the film presents. There are some dream sequences where Mack witnesses Missy being carried away by a mysterious man, her screaming for help, and no matter how fast he runs, he cannot catch up to the shadowy figure dragging his daughter away. These moments are effectively creepy, and feel like the kind of dream a grieving parent would have. However, for every scene that does work, there are just as many that do not because the filmmakers don't employ subtlety. It doesn't take long for the movie to feel dragged out, especially since certain scenes seem to run on much longer than they should. The characters basically spend a good part of time talking to each other about forgiveness and moving on, and this wouldn't be so bad if the movie could think of new angles for the characters to discuss. But, it often seems to be hitting the same notes over and over.
There is also some just plain odd choices that the movie makes, such as making a neighbor of the Phillips (played by Tim McGraw) the narrator of the film. Never mind that this is Mack's story, and he should be the one telling it, but it seems like a desperate attempt to add substance to what is essentially an unnecessary character who has nothing to do with anything that happens in the film. Of course, the obvious question becomes how does he know about everything that happened to Mack when he went on his spiritual journey? This also makes him come across as being bizarrely invested in the lives of his neighbors, much more so than he probably should be. If only the filmmakers worked so hard at making the audience invested in these characters.
The Shack simply feels like a missed opportunity. It raises some interesting points and has some good ideas, but they all get sidelined by the script. I have not read the novel, so I can't tell how accurate the film is. All I can comment on is the movie itself, and when it comes to that, I can say with all confidence that it never comes across as being as emotional or as powerful as it could have been.
This is one of those movies that probably shouldn't work, but it does, thanks to a strong lead performance and some moments throughout the film that truly resonate. Before I Fall is more or less a Young Adult dramatic take on Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day, with perhaps a bit of Mean Girls tossed in. Outside of its obvious inspirations, which it doesn't even attempt to hide, it does manage to take on a life of its own before it ends, and I found myself caught up in what was going on.
The plot (which is based on a popular novel by Lauren Oliver) centers on a popular and pretty high school senior named Sam, who is played by rising young actress Zoey Deutch. She's been in movies for a couple years now, most notably playing the main character's potential girlfriend in last year's Everybody Wants Some!!, but aside from the very mediocre 2014 film Vampire Academy, she hasn't had a main role to my knowledge. Here, she shows a real screen presence, and while she does look a bit old to be playing a high school student, she still manages to sell a convincing performance. I liked watching her, and I truly hope she can get some interesting adult characters very soon. Her character starts the film off as somewhat of a shallow "Queen Bee" of her high school. She travels everywhere with her small pack of obnoxiously pretty and equally shallow friends, and basically doesn't seem to be too concerned about what's going to happen after high school is over, although she does at one point ask her friends if they think they will remember anything that's happened to them during this time a few years from now.
Of the girls Sam does hang out with, she seems to be the "nice one", or at least the one who is the least stuck up. However, she does join her friends in tormenting and teasing the school recluse Juliet (Elena Kampouris), who hides her face behind long, messy hair, and who is obviously holding a lot of private pain in her home and personal life. Every day for Sam starts the same, as she wakes up to catch a ride to school with her best girlfriend, Lindsay (Halston Sage). On this particular day, Sam is excited. It's February 12th, the Friday before Valentine's Day, which means its "Cupid Day" at school, where students send roses to each other. In other words, it's a day where the popular kids compete to see how many roses they get, while those who are not part of the "in crowd" are painfully reminded that no one notices them. There's also going to be a party that night, where Sam is planning to lose her virginity to the guy she's been dating the past year (Kian Lawley). This is all that matters in Sam's self-centered little world, as she generally brushes off her family and anyone who is not in her inner circle.
However, the night does not go as planned. Not only does her boyfriend end up getting drunk and throwing up in the sink instead of making love to her, but Juliet happens to show up at the party, and a fight breaks out among the girls. After leaving the party, Sam and her friends are driving down a lonely road late at night, and end up getting in a tragic accident with a truck, which supposedly kills all of them. However, the next thing you know, Sam is waking up in her bed. It's the morning of Friday, February 12th, it's 6:30 AM, her family is trying to wake her up, and Lindsay is waiting outside to take her to school, and wants to talk about the party that's to come that night. Sam is naturally confused, and the day unfolds just like it did before, leading up to that tragic crash. And then, she wakes up again - Same day, same events. Sam tries to change things, hoping that maybe not going to the party will prevent their deaths and she can end this loop. But, even when things change, she still wakes up on the morning of February 12th.
Compared to Groundhog Day, the movie doesn't have as much fun with its premise of the main character repeating the same day. Sam doesn't quite exploit the potential of doing things differently during the same day like Bill Murray did in the earlier film, although she does go through a brief phase where she just doesn't care anymore, and dresses however she chooses to school. This is a bit of a letdown, but eventually Before I Fall does start to have more on its mind and begins to take shape. Sam begins to wonder if there's something she's supposed to be doing during this constant loop. It takes Sam a while to figure it out, even though it's painfully obvious to the audience. However, what kept my interest was Deutch's performance, as well as some genuinely good moments that happen throughout. I liked the shy relationship that builds between her and Kent (Logan Miller), a boy she used to be friends with in childhood, and she has since moved on from, although he has always had a soft spot for her. The movie also has some real dramatic power in its final moments, which ends everything on a strong note.
This is not a subtle movie, and the screenplay by Maria Maggenti can be a bit moralizing at times. But I surprisingly found myself won over by the characters and what was happening to them. I started to care about Sam, and I wanted to see her succeed and rebuild her life. That's really what is riding on making this movie a success, I think. We've obviously seen this plot of repeating the same day over and over until the main character gets it right and learns a life lesson or two along the way before, so the best thing this film can do is make us care about who it is happening to, which it does. There's nothing earth-shattering about this movie, but I was gradually won over by it. It also features a bright young cast outside of the lead performance, many of whom I hope I will see in other roles before too long.
Before I Fall is a movie that manages to rise above its familiar concept. It's always nice when a movie manages to surprise you and win you over, despite the fact it doesn't give you a very confident feeling early on. And hey, at least it's not yet another Young Adult movie set in a dystopian society. That's always something to be thankful for.
Logan is not only my favorite of the three Wolverine films that have been made, it's also probably my favorite of the X-Men series up to now. As somewhat of a conclusion to the original film franchise that began back in 2000 (I assume the X-Men films will continue with the newer and younger cast), this is a perfect send off for both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, who have been playing these iconic characters for a good 17 years.
In most superhero movies, when an actor grows too old to play a character, they are recast. Logan bucks that trend, by making the entire film be about the mortality of two iconic characters - Logan/Wolverine (Jackman) and Professor Xavier (Stewart). The film sets itself in the year 2029, where both characters' heroics are long behind them. Logan, in particular, looks like the years have not been good to him. He's in near-constant physical pain, and his Mutant healing powers aren't what they used to be. He's frequently drunk, his strength is gone, and he carries a bullet made from the only material that can kill him in case he ever wants to end it all. Xavier is now 90, doddering, and suffering from a mental disease which makes him prone to violent psychic power seizures. The tone of the film is very morose, but in a fascinating way. We have never seen heroes in this fashion, and co-writer and director James Mangold (returning from 2013's The Wolverine) is exploring an idea we seldom see up on the big screen - What happens when the adventures for heroes are over?
There is some backstory, but in the interest of keeping this a stand-alone film that can be enjoyed by anyone, the screenplay wisely does not go too deep into the franchise's past. We learn that during the time this film takes place, Mutants are all but extinct, having been hunted down. No new Mutants have been born in the past 24 years. Aside from our two main characters, as well as a Mutant tracker named Caliban (Stephen Merchant), there may be no others. Logan makes a living as a limo driver, doing his best to hide who he is. Xavier, who once ran a prestigious school for Mutants, is now forced to live hidden away in confinement, less he hurt anyone with his occasional psychic mental power meltdowns. Logan and Caliban essentially act as Xavier's caregivers, and do their best to hide themselves away from the rest of society. But then, a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) appears. Not only is she a Mutant, but she has been genetically created using Logan's DNA. Laura is being hunted by the scientists who created her, and this sets off the main plot of the film, as Logan tries to help this girl not only stay ahead of her pursuers, but also possibly take her to a place where she might be safe.
Lots of superhero films try to explore the "dark side" of the characters. Heck, not even Superman has been immune to this treatment. But, Logan takes it to a whole other level. These characters we have come to know and love are now broken down shells of their former selves, and they stay that way. They are old, tired, and their past actions weigh heavy on them. This is not so much a story about redemption, or finding yourself again, as it is about what happens when the weight of the world has been on your shoulders for so long, and now you have nowhere to turn. There are moments of humor throughout the film, but this is not a hopeful story. Jackman plays Logan as a man filled with self-doubt and painful memories, and it's a complex performance. It's easily his best turn as the character, and if this is to be his last appearance, it's a fantastic note to end on. This is a graceful exit for Stewart as well, who gives Xavier a kind of gravitas and emotion in the character's enfeebled state that he hasn't been able to show before. It's not only wonderful to see these actors working together, but to see them getting a proper sendoff.
In another smart move, the film has been given an R-rating (all the previous movies have been PG-13), which allows the filmmakers to fully explore the deep emotions that the scenario requires. This is not an adventure movie for kids to begin with, so it fits that this story for adults gets to embrace its true nature. There is also the much increased violence in the film, which also works well within the context of the story it's trying to tell. It's certainly much stronger than what we have seen in the past, but it is also handled in such a way that it seems fitting, and is not gratuitous, nor does it take us out of the film. I know that there will be kids out there who will want to see this, and I even saw some with their parents at my screening. But, I urge any parent to think twice. This is a very serious, somber movie. Yes, there is action within, but it is not your typical enthusiastic or spectacle-filled action that we usually get in comic book movies. This is a film made for adults about mortality and depression, and I sincerely hope parents don't take children to see this based on the franchise's past.
I'm not sure how much Logan will connect with wide audiences looking for an action thrill, but for those who have grown to love these characters through either the original comic books or the past films, this will probably quickly become one of their favorite interpretations of these characters. Comic book movies have come a long way to getting respect in the film industry, but this takes it to a whole new place, moving even beyond Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy in terms of human drama and power. James Mangold has delivered on giving us a truly new experience with the superhero genre, and it will be interesting to see how it is embraced.
I am a rabid movie fan since 1984 who calls them as he sees them. Sometimes harsh, but always honest, I offer my 'reel opinions' on today's films. I don't get money for my reviews, and I have to pay to get into every movie I see (even the really awful ones), so what you will see here is the true reaction of a man who is passionate about film. - Ryan Cullen