Movie Diary for the Week of May 21-27, 2017

It was a busy movie watching week with a troubled writer, a Hollywood love story, a father looking for his lost son in war, a rocker posing as a teacher, and a children’s book author whose animal creations come to life.  You may already guess a couple of the titles from the descriptions above and it was nice to have an overall gentle week in movie watching.  Here are the movies that I saw:

 

MV5BMTAzNDMwMTc0ODJeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDA1Mzc1OTEx._V1_

The Whole Wide World (1996) – dir. Dan Ireland

Rating: 73/100

This is the movie about the tentative courtship between Novalyne Price and pulp fiction author, Robert E. Howard.  I have written a full review for this low-key, effective film that contains some moments that terrifically capture a writer’s imagination and a tender, but tragic romance.

 

harold-and-lillian-a-hollywood-love-story

Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story (2015) – dir. Daniel Raim

Rating: 80/100

This charming documentary is about an unsung couple in Hollywood, Harold and Lillian Michelson, who were instrumental in the creation of classic movies for over 50 years since the 1940s.  Harold was a storyboard artist who drew the artwork that gave way to classic moments from movies like Spartacus, The Birds, and The Graduate before he went onto become an Oscar-nominated production designer for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Lillian was a film researcher who found the details to bring famous movies like Scarface to life and worked in famous studios like Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios and Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks.  Harold’s work reminds us moving images require static images to put together and Lillian’s work reminds us of the painstaking research that is required to bring authenticity and credibility to a film from the smallest detail.  Film buffs would be fascinated to learn about this under-recognized duo who gave life to so many classic films while maintaining one of the rare lasting marriages in Hollywood.  Lillian narrates much of the film about her late husband’s and her own work.

 

shenandoah

Shenandoah (1965) – dir. Andrew V. McLaglen

Rating: 75/100

Jimmy Stewart stars as a Virginia farmer and father of six sons and one daughter who vows to stay out of the Civil War that breaks out near his land in Shenandoah Valley.  The movie carefully displays the family’s stance of neutrality in showing their family being anti-slavery and having a young African-American as a close friend but also having the daughter marry a Confederate soldier.  When the youngest son gets caught as a POW on the Union side while wearing a Confederate soldier cap that he picked up, Stewart sets out with some of his children on a quest to find him.  It is interesting to reflect on this movie’s reception against the backdrop of the Vietnam War but, at its heart, it is a movie about a father looking for his lost son as a shepherd looks for his lost sheep.  Some points in the story are unbelievable as certain actions do not seem to have as serious consequences as they should, but, by the end, I was so moved that I thought that the last hymn played in the church would be “Savior like a Shepherd Lead Us.”  My mind filled in the gap anyway, which suggests the effectiveness of the film.

 

school-of-rock

School of Rock (2003) – dir. Richard Linklater

Rating: 83/100

As it was playing on TV, I re-watched this fun little gem that shows Jack Black in probably his funniest comedic performance.  Director Richard Linklater and writer Mike White fashioned a tailor-made vehicle for Black, who makes his love of rock and roll infectious to the class that he teaches and the audience with ease.  Black plays Dewey Finn, who does con his fifth-grade class and impersonate his roommate as a substitute teacher, but his passion to put on a great rock and roll show winningly brings out the musical talents in his class (who are cast with actors who are convincing musicians first).  The story checks off the familiar points to make a feel-good film but with some quirky details of originality tucked in between including the school principal character played by Joan Cusack.

 

maxresdefault

Miss Potter (2006) – dir. Chris Noonan

Rating: 68/100

This is the second movie that I saw with Renee Zellweger, who often picks good, strong-willed female roles.  Here, she plays the British children’s author, Beatrix Potter, who wrote “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” among other books in the early 1900s.  The movie often fantastically shows the animals in her drawings come to life, which makes it easy to see why Noonan, who directed Babe, would helm this one, too.  As Zellweger plays her, Potter is independent and not willing to settle for any suitor merely on the basis of wealth until she finally falls for her publisher, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor).  While there is a certain amount of serious drama, this is mostly a frothy, straightforward portrait of a woman who was ahead of her time and stuck to her talents despite all the familial and social roadblocks, including her own mother.

Movie Review: The Whole Wide World

When Novalyne Price (Renee Zellweger) first drums up the courage to go to the doorstep of his home, she hears the sounds of him feverishly writing out his next piece of pulp fiction.  The sounds include the aggrandized narration of his imagination as he pounds away at his typewriter.  That may be confirming his boorish quality that her friends already warned her about but she remains intrigued and goes ahead to knock on his door.

the-whole-wide-world-1996-152

The writer is Robert E. Howard (Vincent D’Onofrio), the pulp writer who became most famous for the creation of Conan the Barbarian among others and proclaimed to be “the greatest pulp writer in the whole wide world.”  Price, a schoolteacher aspiring to be a writer, comes to discover that for herself and The Whole Wide World from 1996 is based on her real-life memoir, “One Who Walked Alone” about her brief courtship with Howard in the 1930s.  She is first drawn to her larger than life imagination, even if the racy content of his writings flew in the face of the conservatism of their small-town churchgoing community.

Before his life was cut short at the age of 30 by his own hands, Howard wrote stories for pulp magazines, most often about manly men going on larger than life battles and adventures, perhaps rescuing a beautiful woman in the process (he says, “When women felt those tree-trunks around their waists, they melted like butter”).  Some of the best scenes in the film show the process of his writer’s imagination when Robert narrates to Novalyne about his next writing.  In one scene, as he narrates about his hero’s swashbuckling, the sounds of swords and shields whooshing and clanging play in the background with a rising musical score.  In another, as he is shadow boxing in the street imagining his next character, sounds of the boxing ring and crowds cheering play in the background.  It is hard to make the imagination of a writer cinematic, but this clever use of the soundtrack is a skillful touch to get us into the writer’s mind.

hero_EB19970207REVIEWS702070306AR

The first half shows their tentative, affectionate courtship.  He makes compromises to make himself more presentable (she is at first disappointed about not wear a tie to a formal date and so he does to the next one, making her blush).  They discuss about writing, although he laughs at her when she describes one of the stories she is working on.  Part of that may be because he only cares for excitement and grandeur in his writings, but she cares for him anyway as her writer’s mind is attracted to that excitement.

the-whole-wide-world-1996-153

However, there are small harbingers to the problems that will hinder their relationship and they become clearer in the second half.  One is his ailing mother (Anne Edgeworth), who has had tuberculosis all her life, and, as his father (Harve Presnell) observes, he may dote on her in a possibly dysfunctional way.  Later, when she suggests the idea of marriage to him, he replies that he cannot be tied down and needs his freedom (as he wrote once, “The road I walk, I walk alone”).  This cripples the relationship from developing above the level of dating into a serious one and she starts seeing one of Robert’s friends, even as Robert has second thoughts about the need for his freedom.

A movie like this depends above all on the performances of the actors and the ways that Zellweger and D’Onofrio play their characters feel like they could have been real versions of the people they portray.  Zellweger was already becoming a star in 1996 for Jerry Maguire, which probably eclipsed this film, but this film shows, in a quieter way, the same charming spunk and pluck that will match up to a man’s struggle to prove his masculinity or the worthiness of his own values.  As for D’Onofrio, who is one of my favorite character actors for the versatility he displays, this movie makes an interesting companion piece to 2000’s Happy Accidents, where he fell for Marisa Tomei while trying to convince her that he was from 400 years in the future.  He can play crazy as in his most famous role, Full Metal Jacket, and when he plays a romantic character (as he also did in the Netflix show, Daredevil), he is able to convey an unusual sense of sincerity amidst the emotional baggage he portrays.

MV5BMTAzNDMwMTc0ODJeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDA1Mzc1OTEx._V1_

In his first film, the director, Dan Ireland uses his actors well, and I wish that he trusted them more and restrained the use of the musical score by Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams.  Zimmer and Gregson-Williams are accomplished composers in Hollywood but their scores sometimes have a way of standing out too much in a movie.  Their scoring during the aforementioned writer’s imagination scenes is very effective and another scene, showing an anguished Howard plowing through a field of grass, nicely uses similar musical notes to suggest that his pain may be a fuel to his sword-wielding imagination.  However, other scenes that show the couple’s courtship (whether it is their first kiss or their increasingly bitter arguments) get distracted by a swelling score that tries to underscore the emotions we already feel from the characters.

Thankfully, that is not enough to undermine the effect of the film though, especially in a subtle scene towards the end when Howard brings Price to a log cabin.  He asks her to imagine characters and a story with him, but we see that she cannot move beyond the characters that he has already described.  This perhaps suggests that, aside from his emotional problems, her inability to follow his imagination is also a cause for their relationship not to be.  Later, she would be able to write about her story with Howard, which is about how two people thought there was a “whole wide world” they could share but recognized that it really stood between them.

Rating: 73/100

USA.  1996.  Directed by Dan Ireland.  Screenplay by Michael Scott Myers.  Based on the memoir, “One Who Walked Alone” by Novalyne Price Ellis.  Starring: Renee Zellweger, Vincent D’Onofrio, Anne Wedgeworth, Harve Presnell, Benjamin Mouton, Helen Cates, Leslie Buesing, and Chris Shearer.

Movie Diary for the Week of May 14-20, 2017

Perhaps because the movies I saw last week inadvertently had a common theme that was none too happy, this week I was determined to see movies that were more varied from each other.  The four movies that I saw could be paired loosely into two pairs (two of them being drama and two of them being science-fiction) as I ended up staggering between the two genres.  Here are the movies that I saw this past week:

 

a-united-kingdom

A United Kingdom (2016) – dir. Amma Assante

Rating: 81/100

I had been looking forward to this film, as I really liked Amma Assante’s 2013 film, Belle.  This film tells the remarkable true story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), who was the heir to inherit the kingdom of Botswana, and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), the British Caucasian woman Khama fell in love with, married, and brought back to his homeland.  As with Belle (which was about a mixed race woman adopted into British aristocracy), the movie comprehensibly lays out the details of the political climate and vicissitudes that the couple had to face.  These include not only the obvious disapproval of interracial marriage in the 1940s (including that of Seretse’s uncle) but also the devious machinations of British diplomats who threaten to give up Botswana as a protectorate against South Africa, a neighboring country practicing apartheid.   Some may see the movie’s portrayal of the lead characters as too noble (and the beginning romance does seem a little too rosy even if the couple bonds over swing dancing, which I always enjoy).  However, I admire Assante’s strengths as a filmmaker to portray characters that are decent yet recognizably human.  She is one of the few filmmakers making stately political films in the classical tradition with lush cinematography and romantic flourishes.

 

katherine-waterston-facing-xenomorph-alien-lu

Alien: Covenant (2017) – dir. Ridley Scott

Rating: 62/100

This second prequel to Alien and follow-up to Prometheus (which I liked) moves closer to the sci-fi horror tradition of the original 1979 classic.  This one, however, leaves me more conflicted about whether I was satisfied.  On the good side, there is a fantastic dual performance by Michael Fassbender playing two androids (David, from Prometheus, and a new one, Walter aboard the ship, the Covenant).  Katherine Waterston also continues the tradition of a strong female heroine leading the series (although her character is not as well defined as her predecessors).  There are some effective (and gory) sci-fi horror scenes and some visuals that I could admire with sheer pleasure.  However, perhaps in response to the complaints about Prometheus leaving too many unanswered questions, this one just settles for straight-up horror instead of actually exploring some of the deeper questions posed by the earlier film.  It also leaves a lot of inconsistencies that I will leave to discussions in spoiler reviews or message boards (and I may weigh in some of my own thoughts for that).  I think director Ridley Scott, rather than simply caving in to audience expectations, should have pursued the ideas from Prometheus in a more streamlined fashion, as many elements established from that one are ignored.

 

aneducation

An Education (2009) – dir. Lone Scherfig

Rating: 78/100

I went back to see this movie not only to see Carey Mulligan’s star-making performance but also see more films starring Rosamund Pike that show her accomplished range (and it speaks to her versatility that she did not make me think at all about her most famous diabolical role in Gone Girl when watching A United Kingdom).  Mulligan received comparisons to Audrey Hepburn for this role and her alacrity and instant likability play a great part in setting the proper tone to Lone Scherfig’s movie that deals with dicey subject matter.  She is a 16-year old girl growing up in early 1960s Britain who is drawn into the pleasures of high-class society by an older man, David (Peter Sarsgaard) in his 30s.  Her frequenting of jazz clubs and traveling to Paris distract her from her pursuit of going to Oxford (via the studies she finds boring) and are all obviously part of the elaborate, unsavory seduction.  The movie could have been too depressing or unsettling but the movie maintains a tone that is not soft or exploitative but level-headed in the eyes of a teenager who learns an object lesson (and Mulligan’s performance prevents her character from seeming like a victim).  Pike plays the crucial role of one of David’s friends who becomes something of an older sister figure to Mulligan in the “high class” society that she ultimately does not want to partake in.  It is also a pleasure to watch several accomplished British actresses like Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, and Sally Hawkins fill small but important roles.

 

movie_colossal-2016

Colossal (2016) – dir. Nacho Vigalondo

Rating: 72/100

Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is a jobless party girl who drinks too much but then finds that her actions may be connected to a giant monster that is attacking Seoul, South Korea. That is the weird, wacky conceit of this movie that ultimately does not quite maintain the level of credibility to pull it off but manages to be mostly satisfying anyway thanks to a decent emotional thru line.  After Gloria is thrown out by her boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens) in NYC, she moves back to her hometown in Connecticut and reconnects with an old childhood friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis).  When she enters a park in her neighborhood, she finds that the monster in Seoul actually mirrors her actions exactly.  The first half treats the idea comically, but the story turns more serious to become a character study on the destructive nature of rage and alcoholism.  We can go along with the conceit without a scientific explanation but what strains the credibility are some character shifts that seem abrupt without a proper buildup.  However, Hathaway’s performance holds it together for us to forgive those gaps, and the movie symbolically conveys how we should be more aware of the consequences and the potential monstrosity of our own actions.

Movie Diary for the Week of May 7-13, 2017

It certainly wasn’t planned this way but the movies that I watched this past week turned out to carry a common theme of marriages under pressure or at the breaking point.  I am not a cynic but, as you may see from my least favorite of the week, the bond of marriage and the fissures that can happen in it should be treated with proper gravity and not be trivialized.  Here are the movies that I saw this past week:

 

image

Innocence (2000) – dir. Paul Cox

Rating: 33/100

This is the first movie that I have seen by the late Australian filmmaker, Paul Cox, whom I have read has dealt with romance in interesting ways.  I would like to check out more of his films, but this film of his from 2000 leaves me utterly unmoved.  The movie tells the story of two people in their 60s, one a widower, Andreas (Charles Tingwell) and still married Claire (Julia Blake), who decide to rekindle the passionate and reckless romance they shared five decades ago.  The story tries really hard to convey that sense of unbridled passion in their relationship (and based on the IMDb rating that is 7.5/10, many people seem to be moved by it) and how it is meant to be an emotional reawakening for all characters (even the cheated on husband played by Terry Norris).  To me, however, the film is not only a trivialization but a thoughtless idealization of Claire’s adultery that has hardly any reason or foundation to stand on.  Even with years of emotional paralysis, would Claire throw away her decades-long marriage on a distant memory of a young and possibly foolish romance?  The romance is not “innocence” as the title suggests but a mere illusion of it.  The scene when Andreas and Claire try to confront why they parted ways is completely unconvincing and, if you really stop to think about it, Andreas is really a jerk who contacts Claire simply because he is lonely.  A movie like Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County also dealt with adultery but at least that movie took seriously the weight of familial loyalty and responsibility against the prospect of recapturing romantic idealism.  In this one, even Claire’s adult son is supportive of his mother’s affair from the very beginning, which seems hardly realistic.

 

bg_site

The Past (2013) – dir. Asghar Farhadi

Rating: 88/100

This is the first of two movies by acclaimed Iranian filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi that I saw this week and it is his follow-up to the Oscar®-winning A Separation, which I absolutely loved.  Farhadi moves his milieu to France where a French woman, Marie (Berenice Bejo) is finalizing a divorce with Iranian Ahmad (Ali Mossafa). Ahmad left her returning to his home country four years ago and she has started a new relationship with another man, Samir (Tahar Rahim).  Much like A Separation, Farhadi shows his storytelling gift for creating an emotional puzzle out of a decidedly tangled scenario.  In depicting the reactions of all involved including the consequences of the situation on the domestic front, the story spins out revelations based on who is aware of what information surrounding a pivotal event.  In doing so, Farhadi ensures that we empathize with all characters with rare concentration.

 

maxresdefault

The Salesman (2016) – dir. Asghar Farhadi

Rating: 86/100

Farhadi won his second Best Foreign Language Film Oscar® this past year for this movie (though he intentionally did not attend the Oscar® ceremony in protest of the travel ban).  This time, Farhadi places Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman as the backdrop for his story.  Emad (Shahab Hosseini), who is playing The Salesman in a production of Miller’s play, contemplates on what to do when his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) is attacked in the new apartment that they have just moved into.  As with his previous works, Farhadi frames his story around a crucial dire event and, in dealing with its ramifications, he subtly conveys details about cultural values in middle-class Iran.  The emotional intensity is driven by these subtle details that the story leaves us to intuit (such as the reasons for why Rana does not want Emad to act on anything).  By putting us in the position of intense observer of human behavior, the movie builds a moral and emotional quagmire where we can only identify and sympathize before starting to place blame.

Movie Diary for the Week of April 30-May 6, 2017

From the somewhat obscure to the kickoff of the summer blockbuster season has been the trend of my movie-watching week.  Here are the films that I saw this past week:

 

Heropage-980x560_54

Three (2016) – dir. Johnnie To

Rating: 62/100

One of the most prolific directors working in Hong Kong, Johnnie To has his latest film set in a hospital where a surgeon doctor (Wei Zhao), a potentially crooked cop (Louis Koo), and an armed robbery suspect (Wallace Chung) form three pegs of an unpredictable triangle.  The movie spends an hour setting up clues to what we know could amount to a tense climax.  However, it also meanders with other surgery scenes that may be effective in a medical drama, but interrupt the buildup of suspense in this one.  The slow-motion action scene at the climax, while overdone (especially by the standards of director To, who usually directs controlled explosions of violence), is rather impressive in how the camera tracks and glides through all the characters in a hospital room during a shootout to ultimately create an odd Yin-Yang effect.  It also culminates a key theme of what we can and cannot control in our circumstances.  As a suspense piece though, I was left wandering a few times to be completely effective.

 

the-lost-city-of-z-2016-5k-movie-wallpaper-13295

The Lost City of Z (2016) – dir. James Gray

Rating: 84/100

Director James Gray (We Own the Night, Two Lovers) takes on his most ambitious project in telling the true story of Lt. Col. Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who led an expedition to Amazonia in the early 20th Century in hopes of finding civilization in what he called the City of Z.  Gray specializes in exploring characters who uneasily try to traverse between two worlds, one familiar and the other unfamiliar.  Here, he explores this theme with an intriguing middle-gaze balancing between the risks and dangers of the unknown and the complacency of high-class British society.  With clarity and visual detail, the movie maintains this thematic approach in showing a British man seeking proof of an undiscovered culture in the lands of Amazonia.  In telling the story, however, there is a great deal of fictionalization of the history (my friend, Stephen Morton sent me this helpful article on the artistic licenses the movie takes).  However, until the haunting final shot, the movie provides a vivid and engrossing account of a mysterious adventure.

 

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Vol-2-wallpaper

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017) – dir. James Gunn

Rating: 78/100

For every summer since 2007, the summer movie season has been kicked off with a superhero movie and 2017’s starts with this one.  While it cannot capture the magic of the first one, partly because you can’t give the jolt of surprise twice, this sequel comes pretty close.  All the characters, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) are back from the first and their wisecracking jokes are still very funny (especially from Drax, who is a riot in this one).   The movie also nicely adds a few characters played by 80s icons such as Kurt Russell and a few others I will avoid mentioning, which is in keeping with the 80s cultural nostalgia the film banks on for much of its humor.  While the plot drags a little bit compared to the first one (particularly in the middle section), I was pretty much sold that I would like this one from the opening where Baby Groot dances to Electric Light Orchestra’s Mr. Blue Sky while all his adult team members are fighting a gigantic monster in the background.  A side observation: with the presences of Vin Diesel, Kurt Russell, and a former WWE wrestler, and what ultimately turns out to be a family story, is this series edging closer to a space version of a Fast and the Furious movie?

Movie Diary for the Week of April 23-29, 2017

Lately, I have been finding that my limited time to write full, long reviews is not quite keeping up with my desire to watch more movies and expand my cinematic universe.  Thus, I am going to try keeping a movie blog diary with short reviews of movies that I have seen in the past week.  I may write full reviews for select titles but I would like to express my thoughts on the movies I watch in short form.  So here are the movies that I saw this past week:

 

Nostalgia-for-the-Light

Nostalgia for the Light (2010)

Rating: 96/100

This documentary set in the Atecama Desert in Chile is one of the most mesmerizing films that I have seen in recent years.  In this desert, astronomers search the skies for clues about the origins of life while a group of women who search the grounds for remains of their loved ones killed under Pinochet’s regime.  Both groups are looking for signs of life from the past and they both hold out hope that they will find them.  Patricio Guzman’s film is a wholly ambitious and symbolically complex rumination on how the vastness and mysteriousness of the universe can bring some comfort to the victims of a vast and mysterious evil.

 

Film Review Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper (2016)

Rating: 83/100

There are many who, having only seen the Twilight films, still harbor doubts that Kristen Stewart is an actress of considerable depth.  However, Stewart has been building a steady career out of independent films and Oliver Assayas’ Personal Shopper is a fine showcase for her ability to essay fascinating characters out of small, not grandstanding gestures.  On the surface, the movie could be described as a ghost story set in the Paris fashion underworld.  However, it is at its core a study of grief centering around a character who, carrying an illness that may take her life at an early age and having lost her twin brother, ruminates on the dividing line between this world and the next.  Some of the plot elements like a murder mystery don’t quite come together but you won’t be able to take your eyes off Stewart who is in every scene.

 

The-Case-for-Christ-1

The Case for Christ (2017)

Rating: 71/100

A biopic about the religious conversion of Lee Strobel who started out as an investigative journalist for the Chicago Tribune and, after his wife became a Christian, went on to become a prominent Christian author of many books including the source novel for this film.  Even as a Christian myself, I have found most Christian-themed movies to be overly preachy.  However, this film by director Jon Gunn smartly structures the story as a piece of investigative journalism that reasonably and historically argues the case for Christianity.  The drama is solid, even if I wished some elements including Strobel’s back story with his father were better fleshed out.  However, this is one of the rare movies that I would recommend as accessible to curious people outside the Christian audience.

 

13-Hours-Secret-Soldiers-of-Benghanzi-3-1200x698.png

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)

Rating: 63/100

Michael Bay tries to show that he can make a serious issue-oriented movie about warfare rather than the merely bombastic portrayal of the military he most often displays.  He partly succeeds, thanks to a solid turn by John Krasinski and battle scenes that are far more coherent than his usual, visually chaotic action (which honestly, physically give me a headache).  The story centers on the Benghazi conflict where a group of six ex-military contractors try to protect a CIA base from a group of locals who attack the compound.  Bay, however, does not provide enough context for the political complexities in Libya and, while he nobly portrays the contractors who risked their lives, the supporting characters are portrayed thinly as naysayers who impede on the central characters.   A decent effort by Bay standards, but not up to the standard of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down.

Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast

The new Disney live-action rendition of Beauty and the Beast is a movie that just about justifies its own reason for retelling on the big screen.  Initially, the recreations of the familiar pieces from the animated 1991 film are so slavish that they simply create déjà vu and unfavorable comparisons to the original.  However, with a few improvements along the way, this latest version ultimately finds and lets the charm and durability of the story shine through.

I will say straight up that the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast has been my personal favorite Disney animated film.  Compared to many of the other Disney animated films like Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin that seem to have two people falling for each other practically overnight, Beauty and the Beast takes its time to actually have two people, Belle and the Beast getting to know one another to find and embrace the inner beauty in each other.  It also has the courage to twist the Disney trope of the dashing, pompous prince character, Gaston into the motivation of an outright villain.  Above all, it has the highest sheer quantity of memorable songs in any single Disney film, I think, rendered beautifully by composer Alan Menken.

emma-watson-beauty-beast-trailer-today-170221-tease-01_6e9eb899159e40b1de2168a4c1bd527e.today-inline-large

When this 2017 version re-renders the first of these songs, “Belle”, the words, workmanlike and dutiful kept running through my mind to describe the direction and choreography.  The scene checks off the familiar visual and musical notes of the scene where Belle (Emma Watson) is into reading at a time when not many women are well-educated and others see her as peculiar.  It does it so slavishly that it plays honestly more like a live-action street parade of Disney characters rather than an organic scene.

To be fair, there are a few story points here and there that are more fleshed out.  The back story of the curse that turns the narcissistic prince into the Beast (Dan Stevens) is one (including a proper personification of the enchantress played by Hattie Morahan) and another is how Belle’s father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) in this one not only breaks into the Beast’s palace but trying to steal a rose for his daughter.  I also liked one addition where Belle tries to show a young girl in the village to read while doing her laundry.  Crucially, Belle’s choice to be held captive in the palace instead of her father is her own unilateral decision this time.

null

Despite these small improvements, dutiful is the word that I kept thinking through much of the film’s first half that sets up the familiar characters including Gaston (Luke Evans) and the prince’s servants that have been turned into antiques.  Part of the problem is in how director Bill Condon and his editor, Virginia Katz cut many of the scenes too quickly to let them breathe.  The Beast’s first shadowy appearance to Maurice atop a roof is drained of all menace by an unnecessary edit.  Many scenes do not seem to have any passion behind them such as not having Belle show any real sense of fear or wonder as she is held captive.  When the film played its chaotic rendition of “Be Our Guest”, I was almost ready to check out.

Thankfully, when it gets to the scene when Belle gets away into the forest and is attacked by wolves in the forest, but eventually saved by the Beast, Condon and the filmmakers seem to find their footing.  It is a turning point in the interaction between the two leads, and when the film arrives at this point when they start respecting each other to eventually fall for each other, it turns around as well.  The scenes between Belle and the Beast are allowed to play out longer and the musical scene in which Belle finds out about the Beast’s past is beautifully rendered.  There is also a good, understated musical number added for the Beast when he lets Belle go to tend to her father in need.

NEz4LtEajc1dBI_1_b

One good thing about Disney’s recent iteration of turning their animated films into live-action versions is seeing accomplished and veteran actors take on the classic animated roles, aided by impressive motion capture work.  This is true here with the prince’s servant characters that are antiques.  Emma Thompson is a great trade for Angela Lansbury in playing the teapot, Mrs. Potts and singing the titular song, “Beauty and the Beast” during the ballroom dancing scene.  Ian McKellen, a regular for Condon’s films, and Ewan McGregor, donning a French accent, create a nice banter as Cogsworth and Lumiere, respectively.  It is also welcome to see Kevin Kline lend his gravity to Maurice and Josh Gad finds relish in playing the expanded part of LeFou, Gaston’s sidekick.

170303_MOV_Beauty-Beast_TRL2_STILL_8B.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2

As the leads, Emma Watson and Dan Stevens acquit themselves well.  That Watson is not as expressive as she could be in the first half and Stevens is not as menacing as he could be is not necessarily their fault (and anyone who has seen Stevens in the 2014 thriller, The Guest will know he can play truly menacing).  Once the direction and editing get out of their way after the first half, their genial and romantic chemistry comes through as they talk about books and their backgrounds and dance during the ballroom scene.

So does this movie fully convince me that Disney should keep going through their animated vault to turn their films into live-action versions?  Quite frankly, no, as I personally felt that even 2016’s The Jungle Book did not work and was way overrated and 2015’s Cinderella was just passable.  However, I am glad that the filmmakers were able to re-capture some of the magic of the original story anyway and, for the majority of it, show enough care to the story to respect it.

Rating: 70/100

IMDb Page

USA.  2017.  Directed by Bill Condon.  Screenplay by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spillotopoulos.  Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Hattie Morahan, Hayden Gwynne, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Nathan Mack, Ian McKellen, and Emma Thompson.  Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images.