Saturday, March 18, 2017

Beauty and the Beast

Everyone's here, everything's the same, and the nostalgia is strong. There's Belle with her simple blue dress and her swishy yellow one, Gaston with his poof-in-the-front hair, the Beast's unnaturally blue eyes, Lumiere and Cogsworth and their constant bantering. All the songs are sung, all the magic displayed, and that same happy ending is more life-like than it has ever been. But is this remake truly worthy?

Because, as with all great tales that are old as time, it should be.

With the original being only 25 years old, it's already a relatively up-to-date kind of fairytale. Are the advancements in GCI technology since 1991 enough to refresh the story? Does making it live-action and filling the beloved roles with appealing actors create new worth? Perhaps not -- but that didn't stop the production, so I figured it wouldn't have to stop our enjoyment either. I plunged in opening night with no inhibitions, but also not much confidence in the quality.

The worst thing was the visual effects. The idea was that today we are perfectly capable of making humanoid beasts and talking inanimate objects seem real so they can play believably next to live actors. Now, I have seen Guardians of the Galaxy, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, so I know this to be true; the technology has advanced to the point where its use is practical and able to hold up over time. So, why does the animation of the Beast look so bad? They used mo-cap technology, it's Disney so they should have plenty of money -- yet looking at his face, my mind could never accept it as real.

Sorry dude but you're just too human.

It's a mystery because I know the capabilities are there, but besides speculating about laziness, the only thing I can point out is that the facial design was poorly done. Perhaps in an effort to keep the movie PG but seriously the Beast's face was too human and too... pretty. Pointy nose, flat face, and his tiny protruding fangs got in the way and disappeared from scene to scene. So much else was adapted to look exactly the same, and I wish he had been too. At least his face should have had more structure. The one thing the Beast had going for him was and the moments when you could tell he was somewhere behind all that badly designed CGI, actually giving a performance.

The animate inanimate objects were more successful in that they were not distracting or completely unbelievable, but they still were less expressive than they have been, either as cartoon characters or as portrayed by dramatic stage performers in funny costumes. Overall the special effects wound up giving off a distinct odor of careless minimal effort. Practical effects, sets, props, and costumes were happily not subject to that, and in their splendor, the spectacle thrives.

And guess who brings the spectacle?

So I've hit on the worst the movie gives us -- now the best. That, of course is as Gaston. Full disclosure, I may have swooned when he first started singing. He has a fantastic voice with a clear, loud Broadway sound that is perfect for Gaston, and he matched it in his over-the-top, scenery-chewing performance. He was obviously having a blast in the role, and wound up making Gaston as great and as interesting as he's ever been. The downside of this was that he made everyone else look bad. Not his fault of course, and some people managed to look bad without his comparison.

for instance. And I want to be clear that going in I had some hopes for her Belle. I thought she looked the part, and could easily imagine her doing the role justice. However, her characterization of Belle was given very little energy -- Belle's friendly optimism turned to prim politeness and her determined passion to bouts of anger and irritated sarcasm. Her singing was also problematic, requiring auto-tuning, and simply not being as strong as a character like Belle requires. I can only suppose she was cast for her star power and pretty face.

Poor girl. But my, what a guy that Luke Evans!

New songs were added (similar to those exclusive to Broadway) and one was a ballad for the Beast. I did not expect that from Dan Stevens and was impressed. His speaking voice was digitally altered to be low and gravelly, but I couldn't tell if the same effect was applied to his singing. Either way, since I couldn't tell, it was well done. As a human he was much more easily enjoyed. He gets a cool opening scene (the movie's most creative expansion) which I was immensely glad to see, but his live-action screen time was still much too short for my preference. His eyes probably won him the role, but hopefully a more widespread appreciation of his talent will be the end result.

I had not heard sing before, but he delivered with expected aplomb in "Be Our Guest" and everywhere else. was also excellently solid as Mrs. Potts, lovely and reliable to the very end. 's Maurice got to sing a little too which was nice. 's LeFou was amusing in spite of sharing scenes with the distractingly good Gaston. surprised me with her presence. (Period drama fans will recognize her from the 2008 Sense & Sensibility where she played opposite Dan Stevens!) as Plumette, as Cogsworth, , ; the cast overall was a plethora of talent, though some were underused.

Still they had a LOT to do with the movie being as enjoyable as it was.

Whether or not this remake is worthy must depend on the individual. For some it may be, and for some it may not. I thought it was worth the ticket for Luke Evans alone, but I can't help but notice that practically everything that was good about this movie came directly from the original. It borrowed everything, slapped on CGI paint and considered it enough of a re-brand. When new things were added, they didn't make sense, like the book that can transport you anywhere -- what was that? Expanding with backstory and side plots isn't a bad idea in principle, but it was done only to stretch out the run time, and none of the additions mattered to the plot in the end.

It has its magical moments of singing, dancing, visual splendor, and of course romance, but don't suppose that credit belongs solely to this film; where this new Beauty and the Beast succeeds it succeeds because it tells a good story, not because it tells a good story well.

Monday, March 13, 2017



Based on the novella The Story of Your Life, Arrival asks the question, "if aliens made contact with Earth, how would we respond, really, and how might it change us?" is Louise, an exceptionally talented linguist who lives a sad and lonely life. When mysterious alien ships appear around the globe, she is hired by the US military to figure out how to communicate with them, in order to learn their intentions.

Directed by the subtly stylish .

is Ian, a scientist hired to work with her, and their handler is , but the story belongs to Louise. The story is two-fold: a realistic and politically influenced speculation into how an extraterrestrial crisis would be handled, and a character drama, exploring Louise's personal makeup, her relationship with the aliens, and how they affect her journey as she struggles to understand them. Both sides have their points of appeal, and elements that stand on shaky ground.

On the technical side, the appeal lies in the obstacles to overcome in order to understand a species with which humans have almost nothing in common. Where would you even begin that kind of endeavor? Arrival presents a lot of realistic and impressive solutions that fans of real-science science fiction would appreciate. The promise of this was what interested me in the film in the first place. The downside comes from the politics embedded within. It would have been impossible to go completely without politics with the direction the story took; only, in a handful of moments, the film itself offered opinions, instead of simply relaying those of the characters who inhabit it. I was taken out of the immersion of the film a handful of times as a result.

There's a subtle difference between a movie having an opinion and a movie portraying an opinion. I always prefer the latter.

On the side of personal drama came a lot of unexpected enjoyment since the trailers never gave anything away on the subject. But the film itself starts with it -- full force. Amy Adams does a good job in the dramatic role, keeping her downtrodden and anxious character engaging in spite of depressing attributes. My sympathy towards Louise, however, was much stronger in the scenes that lean toward science, as she solves problems using smarts in the style of Mark Watney. Each new discovery and well-earned step forward sparked significantly more satisfaction in me than watching her in the emotional moments in between.

Her emotional journey is, however, equally as important to the film as the more apparent obstacle. The two eventually tie together significantly, as we know it will from the beginning, and the film is completed. The mysteries are twisty but not too complex, revealed in gradual stages; the three in my group all "figured it out" at different points in the film. The slow reveal of the truth worked well with the film's tone which constantly loomed depressed and sluggish. The mystery, the muted suspense, and the steady supply of mind-bending half-twists kept the film from becoming boring, although I did wish it would hurry up once or twice.

Watching this film is like having your mind blown in slow motion.

Jeremy Renner's natural energy also did a lot to help boost the film, and was constantly glad he was there. Ian also gets his due moments of impressive intellect, and the most involving pure-character aspect of the film was the slowly developing dynamic between him and Louise. The extraterrestrials themselves, their culture, and the human's learning of it were by far the most creative and compelling aspects the film had to offer. When they connect, this is the side of the story that informs the emotional, human journey, and in the places where they intersect the film hits a sweet spot of cerebral sci-fi that is thoroughly mesmerizing.

Then things get complicated, but at the same time, very simple; the story informed itself, essentially building a prison around itself with its own story. There were aspects I thought changes would have improved, but those were things that were impossible to change because their existence allowed for the story's existence, which in turn dictated their existence. It created a loop impossible to escape from. I don't see it as flaw, since the self-constrained story does work and make sense within the space it allows itself to occupy; only it didn't satisfy me as much as it was meant to. Its theme, its message, as finished and complete as they could possibly be, was still limited.

I think this movie is an actual paradox...

Arrival asks big questions, and thinks up creative answers for them. It's a thinking man's science fiction, but still understandable for novices to the genre. Its premise is wholly new, and the direction taken with it is certainly down a path less worn. The story is complete and well-rounded, filmed with dull, gritty beauty, acted with feeling, written with intelligence; simply, it is proficiently and artistically built. What exists within those well-built walls is more open for interpretation.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Kong is back, and literally bigger than ever. It's the 1970's, so you know the music is good, and the group of explorers, scientists, and soldiers that go to Skull Island is extra, extra large -- full of red shirts, and people who don't need to survive to the end of the movie. Mayhem is in the air. And it smells delicious.

And a bit like monkey breath?

The movie is directed by , a name I didn't recognize at first, but his style I did. He directed The Kings of Summer, a movie that most are less likely to have seen than Kong, but a great movie with a love for nature and an eye for stylish macro shots. That style translates magnificently to this film, and is enhanced to epic proportions. As the steadily dwindling group explores the island we get to explore it too, through the camera's wondering eye. The beauty and the creativity is not what you conventionally see in a monster flick, but with how well it works you'd think it would be. 

Vogt-Roberts did not hold back on any visual aspect of the movie -- any. The location shooting and the attention to detail for the era made it almost impossible for me to shake the feeling that I was actually watching a movie from the 70's -- an unexpected but welcome feeling. Of course the special effects were miles better than anything 40 years old could give us, and in fact were a good distance better than what most CGI-heavy flicks crank out these days too. This movie was made to be a visual feast of epic entertainment, and there was no skimping on achieving that goal. 

Every sequence was a new array of colors and shapes and textures and immaculate focusing and sweet music...

I only have one question: how did they manage to collect this cast? A bunch of them hail from (or will soon join) Marvel movies -- is the cool-and-collected tracker-for-hire, is the spirited war photographer, is the squad leader, is oddball scene-stealing highlight of the whole movie, and , and (yes I'm counting Fant4stic) are soldiers. (Kebbell also provided some facial mo-cap for Kong, though the vast majority of Kong was .) Otherwise, there's as the expedition instigator, and his scientist colleges and . and round out the soldiers with memorable roles. I said it was a big cast! And that's just the people who, if they die, you feel sad for.

The deaths are pretty sad too, in spite of the overwhelmingly fun tone of the film; or maybe because of it, with dramatic contrast. The characters were defined well by all having their little niche or quirk which made them memorable, but they were also underdeveloped in the classic action flick way. It seemed particularly as though Hiddleston and Larson's characters were purposefully being held back -- saving the development for sequels perhaps. Still, they were effortlessly charming together. I was on board with this film since Tom was announced to star, and he didn't let me down.

Even though he was a little pointless. I think the movie got a few conflicting rewrites. You can almost see the plot that was removed.

John C. Reilly stole the whole movie of course, was hilarious and simultaneously the backbone of the film's heart, which yes, it did have plenty of for its genre. Another who unexpectedly left a big impression was Toby Kebbell's human role. I've always been interested in his work but was so far unable to properly appreciate it due to disappointing role choices and lots of motion capture parts. Because of how expressive he is, he's great at mo-cap, but that means that without the CGI translation he's even better -- and here he is finally a live-action, well-written, sympathetic character, and thus he has finally turned my head. And he was the only character whose name I learned!

In my favorite scene he comes across Kong at a lake and watches the giant ape take a drink -- the excess water sounding like a waterfall as it pours back into the lake -- and then battle a giant lake-squid and eat it in a humorous manner. And that pretty much sums up the whole movie for me. It's odd, ridiculous, epic and funny, with realistic attention to detail, and there's a bunch of faces in the background who look really good under a macro lens. 

Pretty location, pretty filming, pretty people.

There were a few aspects that could have been improved without creating an imbalance. The ending was a bit sudden and messy, character's names are nice to know, and whenever the plot strayed from the basic goal it couldn't spend enough time away to satisfy and threads were cut short. But, mostly, the things you'd instinctively think are flaws were really conscious decisions for the sake of the tone and style of the movie. Focusing on character, or going deep into a moral themes or a complex plot is all well and good, but Kong included those things only as far as they didn't detracted from the beautiful, gleeful spectacle -- its priority. And considering that this is a movie about a fantastical island full of jumbo-sized monsters and wacky fantasy creatures that do battle with each other, I feel like the priorities were in the exact right place.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Some Spoilers.

Guinevere Pettigrew is having a hard time as a governess in late 1930's London. Maybe it's her unappealing appearance, maybe it's her mildly abrasive and awkward personality, but no one will keep her on, and nothing is going right for her. So when she steals a clients address and accidentally becomes the social secretary of a vibrant, up-and-coming American actress, she lets this slight increase in fortune propel her through an increasingly eventful and increasingly crazy day.

Albeit slightly unwillingly at first.

Based on the 1938 novel by Winifred Watson, this film plays out like a play, with its heart and wit coming from interaction and dialogue. The plot is driven by character, and all the characters have that larger-than-life vitality to them that comes so often from the stage. The excellent leads the talented cast, and doesn't let anyone overshadow her, though Miss Pettigrew is that meek and invisible type of character, and is easily overshadowed within the story. I love her expressions; subtle, but extremely expressive, so we always knows what's going on in her mind, and the energy she exudes -- even as a tired and worn out character -- keeps everything effortlessly fresh and bright.

as Delysia, is hilarious, playing dumb, which she rarely does now, but is exceptionally good at. But Delysia is a particularly good role for her, because as the second main character, she also gets to go deep within that dumbness. Delysia is a world-wise girl, and that perceptiveness taught her to model herself as a classic empty beauty. Amy hits that balance in just the right spot. Her frienemy Edythe is played by , who if you don't recognize the name, you almost certain will the face. She makes an excellent villainess, with the striking poise of high fashion and the casual sadness of a person so steeped in their villainy that they've given up on happiness altogether, and now only live to make others just as miserable as they are.

So makeover stories aren't strictly high school after all...

Delysia, as an attractive and loose young lady, has three suitors to choose from. The first is as Nick. Nick owns the nightclub that she sings at and the apartment she lives in. He's rich, but clearly a villain. Mark Strong is of course, awesome, since he's always awesome, and without much time, makes Nick the exact stereotype you'd expect him to be. The second suitor is Phil played by . A smashing young man who talks like the perfect 1930's British airhead. He reminds me so much of  Edmund Sparkler of Little Dorrit. His father runs the theatre that Delysia is vying for a part at. He's likable, for the most part, but certainly not the character to root for.

That honor belongs to the third man, Michael, played by . (Of course.) Michael is the pianist who accompanies Delysia at Nick's nightclub; practically penniless, but actually loves her enough to put up with all her wishy-washy ways. None of the male characters get a chance to rise above classic stereotypes, so Michael is the upright guy who watches the lady with melancholy and longing until his passion and devotion wins the day. And if there's no deeper twist to the character, it's at least a case of perfect casting, because no one does melancholy and passionate romance like Lee Pace. His charm and sad expressions give the character everything he needs.

Who could resist?

Anyway, the men are really all secondary. This story is about the two ladies, and the story could hardly be about Miss Pettigrew if while Delysia is deciding between three men she doesn't have any! The man whose eye she catches is Joe, played by . The rich man who rules the fashion world, but hasn't been swallowed alive by it yet, and is kind and genuine and gentlemanly. He's engaged to Edythe for some strange reason, and that creates some nice drama for Miss Pettigrew. It doesn't take much to figure out where everything ends here, but the fun really is in the getting there. With all the charming characters, and an equally charming script, it would be a bigger feat if the film doesn't charm you, rather than does. The late thirties fashion is lovely and the air of the era is present and practically overflowing off the screen.

Charming and light romance in its natural habitat.

If I wanted to nitpick, I'd say that nothing this story does is particularly bold or extreme, and if you don't have a reason to stay you may find yourself growing bored. The actors, their characters, and the innate charm the flows through everything are the best reasons to stay, but artistically, from a film-making perspective, there's not much that stands out. However since this is the type of story that is meant to entertain, and that it does absolutely, those out to be entertained and enjoy themselves certainly should be by Miss Pettigrew's eventful, life changing day of living.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Upcoming Movie Roundup - March

In February, The Lego Batman Movie turned out to be every bit the awesome must-see flick for every age that its predecessor was! Read about how awesome and hilarious I thought it was here! No other movies tempted me last month, but I am watching Legion on FX, and so far it is quite excellent.

March marks the beginning of 2017's highly anticipated movie lineup, with big release after big release. I'm sure I'll get to the theater at least once! What looks good to you? Are any of your most anticipated 2017 movies releasing this month?

Mar 3rd, R
Hugh Jackman's Wolverine has always been my favorite thing about the X-Men franchise, but his solo movies have never been quite what they should be. Maybe with Logan, his run will end with changing that! This one's already got excellent reviews from critics, and they finally buckled down and gave him an R-rated movie -- something I am all for on the counts of violence and language if the story calls for it. Annoyingly, there is also brief nudity, and while it's a good sign that the movie isn't filled with nudity and sex, that brief inclusion will almost certainly cause my family to wait for the DVD.

Before I Fall
Mar 3rd, PG-13
Am I a sucker for "Groundhog Day" movies? Yes, yes I am. This one mixes the fun gimmick with high school drama for a popular girl who lives the same day over and over -- ending each day dying in a car crash -- and begins to wonder if her life really is as great as she thinks. It's unlikely that this movie will reach the great levels of Groundhog Day, or even Edge of Tomorrow, but that doesn't at all mean that it's not going to be a worthwhile movie in its own right. I hope it will be, and I'm curious to see for myself.

Table 19
Mar 3rd, PG-13
Cute and possibly cynical dramedy with possible romance starring Anna Kendrick, anyone? Yeah, this is one of those chick-flicks that just seems like a no-brianer, with the charm and quirky appeal the trailer exhibits.

Kong: Skull Island
Mar 10th, PG-13
Look -- I'm under no delusion about this movie that it'll be anything but ridiculous. The first trailers tried to evoke some kind of seriousness and depth, but this one seems most honest. Ridiculous. Stylish, action-packed, star-studded ridiculousness, and as long as it's fun -- which seems a promising possibility -- I'm on board for the adventure! Seriously, this is the style of movie that Kong was meant for.

Beauty and the Beast
Mar 17th, PG
Full disclosure: I still think the animation of the Beast's face looks bad. Like, I'm worried about how much of a distraction it'll be bad. Otherwise, I'm excited this live action version of the story. Emma Watson looks good; Dan Stevens will hopefully be worth casting for the little time his face will be on screen; and I can already sense that Luke Evan's Gaston will the scene-stealing favorite. There's a part of me that doubts the film will be able to match the latest Cinderella's grand perfection, but as long as it can recapture even a spark of the magic of the original -- which I think it has based on the trailer -- everything should be great.

The Belko Experiment
Mar 17th, R
Normally this is the kind of movie where I'd look at the trailer, scoff pleasantly, move along, and watch it on TV three years later. However, this one was co-written by James Gunn, and that brings a lot of interest. Especially after I heard that the film has a lot of comedy (which you can't tell from this trailer) plus a cast full of familiar faces including John Gallagher Jr. in the apparent lead, and Sean Gunn and Michael Rooker. So I still might not see it until it hits the TV, or who knows. But now it's on my list.

Power Rangers
Mar 24th, PG-13
Tee-hee. I feel a little bit silly for including this one, especially since I can't claim nostalgia, having never watched the TV show, but I dunno, it looks fun. Cheesy, cliched, and probably too young for me, but fun. There's just something classically appealing about actioners like this, that don't feel the need to take risks and break new ground but to just do what works. Or maybe what doesn't work because this has all the earmarks of a movie with a good first act, a crumbling second act, and a distracted, directionless third that ruins everything. If that's not the case, I'll probably watch it. But to be honest, I'll probably watch it anyway.

Mar 24th, NR
What, Christmas already? I love space travel movies; space travel movies that are subtly science fiction, using science to speculate into the near future, and most importantly space scifi movies where everything steadily plummets into crazy, terrifying horror. Yep, it appears to be Christmas. This one stars Ryan Reynolds, the lovely Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Hirouki Sanada (of Sunshine, a favorite of the sub-genre). It's not rated yet so we'll see about that, but I have high hopes. Very, very, extraterrestrially high.

Ghost in the Shell
Mar 31st, NR
This one definitely rides on what the rating ends up being. If it's appropriate enough, I'll be very interested, mainly just for the world-building aspect, which looks crazy and extremely unique -- although I suppose it isn't so much for people who watched the anime. Scarlett Johansson stars. It looks very stylish and not a little creepy.

The Zookeeper's Wife
Mar 31st, PG-13
A war drama rounds out the genres of the month. This one stars Jessica Chastain and tells the true story of the proprietor of a Polish zoo and his wife in 1939 who harbor Jews in the zoo and their home as Poland is invaded by Nazis. Daniel Bruhl also stars as the main villain. Jessica Chastain is the main appeal with this for me, but the unique and true aspects of it also seem to indicate an interesting historic film. Keeping an eye on this one.

Iron Fist
Premieres Mar 17th on Netflix
As great as this month looks movie-wise, there is nothing I am more excited for than Iron Fist. I have not been this excited for a Netflix Marvel show since the first season of Daredevil. I have high hopes, but not quite as much confidence. I know the potential is there, but if they are just getting this out there so the Defenders can happen things might not be as great as they should be. I will be very upset if that happens, because with what I can see of the characters and the premise, this show could be a new favorite of mine easily. I've got a lot riding on this -- don't let me down, Marvel!