Monthly Archives: March 2017

Meet the New Beast

Beauty and the Beast fleshes out old Disney magic with modern extravagance 

Beauty and the Beast
Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad & Kevin Kline
Directed by Bill Condon
PG
In theaters March 17, 2017

It’s a tale as old as time, so goes the song.

At least as old as 1991, when Disney put an animated, song-filled spin on Beauty and the Beast, the 1700s French fairy tale about a cursed prince, the village maiden who becomes his prisoner and lessons about love, acceptance and belonging.

The former Beauty and the Beast, a hugely popular hit and critical success, was nominated for six Oscars and won two, becoming the first animated film to ever receive an Academy Award nod for Best Picture.

That’s a high bar to reach for, but Disney goes for it in its lavish new retooling, which combines sumptuous live action with extravagant special effects. Emma Watson is Belle, the headstrong hamlet bookworm longing for something “more than this provincial life.” Dan Stevens plays the haughty young prince doomed by a callous act to live forever as a shunned, outcast beast—unless he can find someone to love, and someone who’ll love him back.

The new movie follows its animated predecessor almost note for note; the storyline, characters and songs (“Belle,” “Be Our Guest,” “Gaston,” “Beauty and the Beast”) are just where they used to be. But there are also all-new versions of the signature tunes, some new musical snippets and two completely new songs—Celine Dion belts out “How Does a Moment Last Forever” and the Beast sings “Evermore,” a soaring, brokenhearted power ballad, after he releases Belle back to her father. And the new movie adds a couple of new sequences, like the magical trip Belle and Beast take for Belle to discover her childhood roots.

Luke Evans as Gaston (right) and Josh Gad as Lefou

It’s great fun watching the 1991 movie get “fleshed out” with people where cartoons used to be. Luke Evans (who played the wronged husband, Scott, in The Girl on the Train) has a hammy ol’ time as Belle’s comically vain, dunderheaded suitor, Gaston, whose jealousy and rage eventually bring the story to its calamitous climax on the parapets of the Beast’s castle. Josh Gad is Gaston’s fawning aide-de-camp, Lefou, whose performance leaves little doubt that the character is meant to be overtly gay, hopelessly pining for his clueless, macho friend.

“You can ask any Tom, Dick or Stanley, and they’ll tell you which team they prefer to be on!” Lefou sings in “Gaston,” which in the new Beast becomes a campy burlesque ode to the manly alpha-male object of his barely suppressed affection.

For the House of Mouse, Lefou is a Mickey milestone.

Kevin Kline has a significant role as Belle’s tinkerer father, Maurice, and there’s a host of all-stars as the Beast’s staff, who are collaterally hoodoo-ed into household items by his curse. Lumière the candelabra (Ewan McGregor) is a standout, but there’s also Mrs. Potts the teakettle (Emma Thompson) and her son, Chip the teacup (young Nathan Mack); Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellon); Maestro Cadenza the harpsichord (Stanley Tucci); Plumette, a bird-like feather duster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw); and Madame Garderobe, a warbling wardrobe (Tony Award-winning singer/actress Audra McDonald).

As Belle, Emma Watson sings, gallops on horseback, fends off a ferocious wolf pack and looks terrific in a big, billowy yellow dress that becomes the movie’s iconic garment. But she’s “no princess,” as she pointedly informs Madame Gardenrobe, who wants to adorn her in something girlish. And in one pivotal moment, Belle ditches the yellow gown, leaving it on the ground in a crumpled, discarded heap as she dashes off to defy the town mob, who’ve been stirred to a roiling “Kill the beast!” frenzy by Gaston.

You go, girl!

Dan Stevens is certainly capable as the Beast. But fans who know him as the star of the FX TV series Legion, or remember him as dashing Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey, might wish the handsome Brit didn’t spend most of the movie hidden inside the lumbering costuming and special-effect fur of the Beast, who resembles a hunky cross between a towering NFL lineman, a bipedal ox and Lon Chaney Jr.’s wolf man.

At two hours and almost 10 minutes, this Beast feels overstuffed, especially since the 1991 version was 45 minutes shorter. The blowout musical numbers seem out of time, like something Old Hollywood would have made in a bygone era of elaborate, over-the-top soundstage productions—more Wizard of Oz than Oscar-snagging La La Land, and without any of the contemporary snap, crackle and pop of recent live TV musical events like Hairspray, The Wiz or Grease.

Director Bill Condon (whose resume also includes Dreamgirls and the final two installments of The Twilight Saga) seems over-eager to impress, especially inside the Beast’s castle, which is so “alive”—soaring saucers, prancing napkins, musical wall sconces—it feels ready-made as a ride-through Disney attraction. “Be Our Guest” in particular, when all the enchanted objects put on a dinner show for Belle, is a noisy, swirling, computer-generated spew that eventually becomes exhausting. (And I’m not even sure poor Belle actually gets anything to eat.)

But for anyone who fell under the enchanting spell of Beauty and the Beast more than 25 years ago, and later, there’s certainly a lot to love again—including encouraging signs that Disney continues to change with the times. You certainly didn’t see a gay sidekick, or two sets of interracial characters sharing a kiss, back in 1991.

So enjoy the walk down memory lane, the new movie’s fresh, real-people flourishes, its 2017 tweaks and its high-tech, special-effect shines on a familiar old story—this “tale as old as time.” And look closer and you’ll also find, indeed, as another song says, “something there that wasn’t there before.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s Good To Be King

Hollywood’s mega monkey returns in a rip-roaring, monster-movie romp

Kong: Skull Island
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson & John C. Reilly
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
PG-13

It’s good to be king.

King Kong, the movie mega-monkey, has reigned since his debut in 1933, when he first scaled the Empire State Building, angrily batted biplanes out of the sky—and carefully cradled a beautiful young actress (Faye Wray) in his giant paw.

Over the decades, Kong’s tale would be retold in various remakes, sequels, spinoffs, parodies and even a Saturday morning cartoon. It became the basis for theme park thrill rides and a stage musical.

It’s probably safe to say that the legacy of the king has been watered down a bit by men in monkey suits, cartoonish buffoonery and other pop-cultural permutations of his pure, towering, primordial badass-ery. Which is why director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ exhilarating new version comes as such a jolt of super juiced-up, monster-movie energy, restoring some of the raw edges of wild, wooly excitement to the Kong saga while giving it a fresh new, retro-rollicking spin.

Thomas Mann, John Ortiz, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson and Corey Hawkins adjust to their new surroundings.

Its premise is familiar, basically: A team of explorers ventures to an uncharted, forbidding Pacific archipelago, but they encounter much more than they anticipated.

The original Kong story was set in the era of the Great Depression, but Skull Island unfolds in 1973, just after the end of America’s involvement in Viet Nam. That timetable is more than just a colorful detail, because the theme of war—and warfare—is vital to this version of the story.

A rocking soundtrack, with tunes by David Bowie, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Black Sabbath, the Hollies, Jefferson Airplane and Iggy Pop, deepens the groove of the era. If you’ve never seen a colossus ape on a helicopter-swatting rampage while the soundtrack is blaring Ozzy Osborne singing “Paranoid,” well, trust me: It out-apocalypses anything from Apocalypse Now.

(A snippet close to the end of the film of British singer Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again,” a famous WWII ballad, hints that we might not have seen the last of Kong, and some of his mega-monster ilk, a suggestion definitely reinforced if you stay through the closing credits.)

Samuel L. Jackson plays Preston Packard, a U.S. military commander itching for one final mission, still smarting from America’s humiliating retreat in Southeast Asia. He’s accompanied by crackpot conspiracy theorist Bill Randa (John Goodman), who has convinced a reluctant U.S. senator (Richard Jenkins) to bankroll the exploration of the island before the Russians can find it—in case there’s anything of value there.

But what is Randa really looking for in this place where “God didn’t finish creation… where myth and science meet”?

Brie Larson

Also aboard: a British tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and cool “anti-war photographer” Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). And a bunch of other scientists and soldiers (Toby Kibbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Marc Evan Jackson, Thomas Mann, Tian Jing).

It’s a motley, multi-ethnic crew, all right, and a perfect “movie mix” when they all end up scattered, spread and separated across the island. Don’t get too attached to anyone; the number of casualties gets pretty high, pretty fast, and keeps climbing.

The original King Kong, and its remakes in 1976 and 2005, had overtones of imperialism and outright racism—of American and British explorers going to “exotic” parts of the world in earlier ages of exploration, and taking away whatever they found of interest. This one has a not-so-subtle message, one that echoes down the ages through today, about swaggering American military might, unwanted and unwarranted interventionism and solving problems with bullets and bombs.

“Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist until you go looking for one,” one character notes.

Kong, understandably, doesn’t exactly meet his new guests—and their assault of shrapnel, napalm and machine-gun fire—warmly. And after it’s over, you know this is no Saturday-morning cartoon, or a joy ride of amusement-park thrills and chills. It’s full-on monster mayhem.

John C. Reilly

And for the survivors of that initial encounter, Kong isn’t the only unpleasant surprise the island has in store. There are gigantic octopuses, towering jungle spiders, screeching pterodactyls, massive lizard-like “skull crawlers” and other mutated hazards lurking around every cinematic corner. It’s a very, very dangerous place, and you never know what may pop out of the weeds, the water, the sky, the mist, the ground or the trees.

Eventually, you’ll meet Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a pilot who’d been living on the island—with its indigenous people—since his plane was shot down during a WWII dogfight with a Japanese Zero (depicted in the movie’s boffo opening scene). His character provides some well-calibrated comic relief, but he and his poignant story also become the beating human heart of the movie.

It all adds up to a fantastic, rip-roaring, tropical-island romp. You get to see plenty of Kong, and he’s a fine beast, indeed—a noble savage, a tragic hero, the fierce defender of his home, the “last of his kind.” He “speaks” only in grunts, growls and huffs, but his message is loud and clear: Why can’t everyone just leave him alone and let him do his thing—which, it turns out, might just be pretty dang important in the bigger, grander scheme.

One of the movie’s most interesting new angles is how it uses its central female character, Brie Larson’s photographer, as a revisionist homage to the other females who’ve played “opposite” Kong. Her gutsy, earthy Mason Weaver is no swooning Faye Wray. But she nonetheless is the only character to connect on an emotional level with the “beast.” And in the thrilling climatic scene, which takes place not on top of a skyscraper but in a river, Kong battles a monstrous skull crawler and Weaver is caught in the fray—and is eventually cradled, delicately, doll-like and unconscious, in Kong’s massive paw.

When you’re the king, some things never change.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

‘Get Out’ blends scathing social commentary with full-on creep show

Daniel Kaluula and Allison Williams star in 'Get Out.' sinister reason for invitation.

Daniel Kaluula and Allison Williams star in ‘Get Out.’

Get Out
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford & Catherine Keener
Directed by Jordan Peele
R
In theaters Feb. 24, 2017

On the surface, it starts off like a lot of other horror flicks: After driving a long way out of the city, a young couple, Rose (Allison Williams) and Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) ends up at a house in the woods in the middle of nowhere. The nearest neighbors are miles away, across a lake.

Things seem normal and welcoming enough at first, but soon begin to feel creepy—then very creepy, and then extremely creepy.

Oh—she’s white, he’s black, and five months into their relationship, they’ve gone for him to meet her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) for the first time.

on.

Bradley Whitford & Catherine Keener

Now, in this modern age, interracial dating isn’t even a thing anymore, right? Certainly not among upscale, enlightened, encultured white liberal lefties, folks who “would have voted for Obama a third time” if they could, who love golfer Tiger Woods and who “admire” the culture and the achievements of the black race, all the way back to Jesse Owens besting the Aryan Nazis at the 1936 Berlin Olympics… Right?

There’s definitely a weird vibe in the house. The two black “hired hands,” the groundskeeper and the maid (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel), sure do act strange. And things get even weirder when the neighbors, all white, arrive for a big shindig on the lawn. Everyone is nice—a bit too nice—and the sole black man in attendance (Lakeith Stanfield, Darius on TV’s Atlanta) seems, well, spaced out or something…until he suddenly snaps, stumbles toward Chris and warns him, “Get out!!!”

Betty Gabriel

Betty Gabriel

If Get Out doesn’t exactly sound like any horror movie you’ve ever seen before, that’s because it is, and it isn’t. It takes familiar horror conventions and runs them through a filter of caustic satire about what it’s like—and what it feels like—to be a black man in an America dominated by white culture.

And it comes out as one of the most original horror movies in years.

What’s it like to be a black man with a white woman on a lonely stretch of two-lane when a cop demands to see your ID? What’s it like to be walking alone on street at night in an all-white neighborhood when an automobile rolls up ominously…then stops alongside you? When white people make fawning comments about you and your “people” as if you were different, genetically, physically, culturally?

What’s it like, in a movie like this, when all those things are amplified through a creepshow channel that keeps turning up the volume, slowly but  surely, until everything finally explodes?

The director and writer is Jordan Peele, of the Emmy-winning Comedy Central duo Key & Peele, and he makes a very impressive debut behind the camera, indeed, mixing real chills with generous dollops of genuine laughter—many of them thanks to comedian Lil Rel Howery, who plays Chris’ best friend, a TSA agent who was wary all along of “his boy” venturing upstate to the all-white enclave of Rose’s world.

Peele (who is himself married to a white woman, comedian-actress Chelsea Peretti from TV’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine) is playing with dynamite, and he knows it—especially in a nation, at a time, of #blacklivesmatter, when tensions in communities across the country continue to roil and rumble. You can certainly enjoy Get Out for the pure, giddy goosebumps it brings, but you’d be missing the film’s masterful layering of timely social commentary as well as Jordan’s bold, eventually bloody, cathartic critique of black-and-white relations and stereotypes.

And Peele doesn’t stop there. He draws a subtle, scathing line that connects American imperialism all the way back to its colonial roots, when white men essentially took whatever—and whomever—they wanted.

I don’t want to give too much away, but imagine Meet The Parents plus Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner crossed with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Stepford Wives and given a twist of Twilight Zone and maybe even a shot of M. Night Shyamalan.

All with a bracing, blistering message about race and skin color—one meant to get under everyone’s skin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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