Monthly Archives: March 2017

Beauty and the Beast (2017) Review

SPOILER WARNING

I initially had a great idea for how I would write this review.  I expected the film to be one of those “so bad it’s good” movies, which would have given me lots of comedic fodder, but even if it ended up not being a laughably bad film, I knew the chances of it surpassing the original were small.  That being said, it had a lot of creative ideas in the pre-production process that seemed almost brilliant – did I mention that I fell out of my chair laughing with joy when I first heard about the casting of Emma Watson as Belle?  That alone is such a perfect idea that I’ve been planning on seeing this movie opening weekend for years – a level of planning I almost never make for any movies at all – and sure enough, I went on the Thursday before opening weekend.  It was while I was on my way to the theater that I realized how much of the news that had already been released about the film seemed like a “blue sky” session gone wild, which gave me the very clever idea of writing this review as a story about a group of friends spit-balling wild ideas about how to remake Beauty and the Beast while playing a card game until finally they conceived of a gay Lefou.  This was a fun idea for a review, but once I actually saw the movie, all of the fun was sucked out of me, and I wasn’t in the mood to write a “fun review.”

It’s not that the movie is all bad.  It’s that every time the movie adds something clever, it follows it with absolute idiocy.  Similarly, every time the movie does something idiotic, it follows it with something clever, keeping the film from becoming pure “nanar.”  This is highly disappointing because the film’s balancing act keeps it from becoming good enough to be enjoyable and from becoming bad enough to be laughable.  It’s smack-dab in the heart of the mediocre valley.  Perhaps I could have laughed if the original film wasn’t so close to my heart, but having seen the original multiple times over the past few months, I can’t help but find any moment that’s just sub-par, let alone the bad moments, entirely sickening.  After all, the 1991 original was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture, and it may very well be the best of the Disney Renaissance films, thus making the remake look like poo in comparison.

I should point out, just as the Walker brothers have, that this comparison is inevitable.  I can’t look at this film as a stand-alone movie because it constantly cues me to compare it to the original – that’s almost all this movie ever does.  I would go so far as to say that each and every scene, actions, or moment in the movie happens either because it happened in the original, or just because it didn’t happen in the original.  Those are the only two motivating factors.  The film’s cast and crew clearly tried their best to do what all remakes should do and “add something” to the original so that the remake has a purpose, but it seems director Bill Condon takes the idea of “adding” to the story literally: adding anything that will make the movie longer.  While the 1991 film uses clever transitions and even some almost jarring smash-cuts to move through the story quickly, brilliantly telling a full, dramatic story in only 90 minutes, while this film is so stretched out and padded that the horse gets a scene running back to Belle from the castle (followed by a ridiculously stupid moment in which Watson talks to the horse as though she expects it to talk back).  In short, it’s abundantly obvious that this film is inferior to the original, but it unfortunately gets to share the original’s name and legacy.

This is not okay – it’s a freaking outrage.  This fills me with unspeakable anger.  The kind of anger that gives me a freaking adrenaline rush that’s burning up the calories from my dinner.  The kind of anger that makes my legs hurt because I keep freaking hitting them.  The kind of anger that makes me need to go for a long walk after typing each freaking sentence.  The kind of anger that raises concerns about how long I can keep writing this freaking review before I slam my fists on the keyboard so hard it breaks and I throw my freaking computer screen at the wall.  I’ve been trying to write that more clever version of this review for days, but I’ve found that I just don’t have the freaking patience anymore because of how much this freaking movie makes me want to freaking scream.

But maybe it’s not clear to everyone else why or how this movie is so freaking pathetic.  Maybe some people walked out of this movie with a sense of nostalgia for growing up with Disney VHS tapes in the 1990s.  Maybe I need to explain what it is specifically that irks me about this freaking disaster of a remake.  I anticipated this, so I made a list, featuring dozens of the film’s problems.  Here are my top ten issues with the 2017 Beauty and the Beast remake:

10. The Visuals and Camerawork

By gosh, where’s the freaking warmth?  Where’s the freaking color?  While the animated film is beautifully colored, making its vivid palette part of the spectacle (and, as other have noted before me, part of the way characters stand out), this movie looks the way nearly all other films from the past decade look: bland.  The only part that’s truly beautiful is the “Be Our Guest” number, and even that is held back by the fact that the CGI is so obviously CGI.  The characters look freaking demon-possessed half the time because of how terrible these CGI designs are, and the use of any practical effects would have been a joy.  The use of the camera isn’t too great either, making it nearly impossible to see what the heck that freaking glittery golden stuff is on Belle’s ceiling that forms part of her dress, and most disgracefully, creating an emotional distance from the romantic leads during the “Beauty and the Beast” number because there is visually no sense of intimacy nor musicality.  Also, while I usually don’t feel the need to pick on a film’s editing between shots, this film’s cuts actually break “The 180 Rule” in a dizzying way, making Condon look like a novice filmmaker who couldn’t pass film school.

9. The Comedy

I’ll concede that some of the jokes in the film made me laugh, but there is a noticeable absence of all the ad-libbed comedy that made the 1991 film so entertaining.  The jokes all feel contemporary here rather than timeless, which is especially irritating when the Beast uses words like “touristy.”  That kind of modern-day slang is just annoying because it makes the film feel distinctly dated to the 2000s, and it sucks me out of the story entirely.  The film seems endlessly amused by jokes about the period of time in which the movie takes place, from the make-up to the overall lack of literacy in the village, which gets old after a while.  There are also countless silly little gags just designed to make the children giggle, but I watched this movie in a theater with several children.  They rarely giggled.

8. Needless Explanations and Filler

I’ve sort of already addressed this, but Condon felt the need to show and tell each and every insignificant aspect of this story.  The power of the opening narration in the original film is due in part to the fact that all of the scenes which take place in the past are told in stained glass windows, whereas the remake interrupts its narration to show us the whole freaking scene playing out with the live cast, throwing in some forgettable music to pad out an otherwise snappy beginning.  The film uses a scene from other versions of the story in which Maurice picks a rose from the Beast’s garden, but this scene isn’t necessary, nor is the addition of Agathe taking care of Maurice.  Heck, I think the Enchantress is a much more interesting character when she’s never seen in the movie.  I also don’t need to know how Belle’s mother died because A) it’s implied by the freaking time period, and B) dead mothers are just an expectation in Disney movies – they’re part of the freaking grammar.

7. The Enchantress

Part of why I argue that the Enchantress should be kept off-screen is that any reminder of her existence breaks down the logic of the movie.  In the original film, it’s bad enough that she stupidly curses the entire castle and all its inhabitants for the bad manners of one man – an act of cruelty that makes it hard to see her as a good and wise character – but the remake makes her flaws as a character and narrative device far worse.  Now she seems to know the exact time when the spell will be broken, suggesting that she has a magical sort of omniscience.  This means that she was well aware of all the suffering of all the residents of the Beast’s home, and she was aware of the way Belle harassed Gaston, along with all of the other problems caused by her curse.  We can also presume from Maurice’s scenes at the fork in the path that she arranged a tree to block people from noticing the path leading to the Beast’s castle – like a perception filter – and it happened to be struck by lightning just at the moment when Maurice arrived, prompting him to move towards the castle (so I assume she was also in on the lightning strike, as well as the mending of the tree that followed).  So, why did she wait so freaking long to let Belle and the Beast hook up?  This fatalism just makes the whole story much stranger, and it gets especially odd when she lets the people in the castle turn into their assigned objects before she reverses the curse (although technically the curse was broken by Belle after the last petal fell, so I guess the Enchantress is just really flexible when it comes to due dates).  As far as I’m concerned, she’s the real villain in the 2017 film, and that’s just pathetic.

6. The Logic of the Curse

This is the most strangely detailed and elaborate curse in the history of witchcraft.  It was already pretty bizarre in the animated film, with some faceless forks, knifes, and shakers in the “Be Our Guest” number whose status as former humans is up for debate.  Now the freaking doors – parts of the castle itself – are inexplicably alive, and somehow the wall decorations shaped like musical instruments come to life and start playing music; what the heck were they before the curse?  The curse goes further by adding a book that can literally take Belle and the Beast anywhere they want to go, which is all the Belle could ever wish for in the world, but she hardly uses it (even when it would be highly convenient for the sake of the plot for her to use it).  This is like handing The Brain a switch he can flip to become king of the world and finding that he only likes to use it as a freaking decoration for his cage.  The curse goes further by creating a perpetual winter around the castle, probably in the writers’ attempt to fix the timing issues with the length of Belle’s stay at the castle in the animated film, and it’s made the townspeople forget that they’re ruled by … well, anyone.  So I guess they’ve just been managing themselves perfectly fine without any freaking government, making me wonder how much anarchists and communists must love this movie.

5. LeFou

So.  We’re really doing this, huh?  My news feeds actually contained videos and articles about LeFou of all character getting a subplot in which he “explores his sexuality.”  Whether he’s gay or not doesn’t matter – no one wants to see this clown exploring his freaking sexuality in a freaking family movie from freaking Disney.  No one.  That being said, those who did come to support the film for it’s “explicitly gay moment” got ripped off because Disney chickened out like a bunch of freaking wimps and kept it all as short and ambiguous as possible – your grandma wouldn’t even notice that the subtext was there at all.  What’s particularly stupid about all this is that the only character Disney has been willing to make a homosexual over the past few years is a character whose name literally means “the fool,” so it’s a pretty freaking poor excuse for inclusiveness all things considered.

4. All of the Other Characters

In general, this film’s characters are flatter than the ones in the cartoon – just comparing the two “Come into the light” scenes will reveal this decrease in character depth, and that’s just the beginning.  The whole town is filled with characters who inexplicably think reading is strange and stupid – even the school teacher – and they are so cartoonishly hateful of Belle’s creativity that they ruin her incredibly convenient innovation in laundry washing (because that movie about a woman who invents a mop went so well) for no freaking reason.  In the castle, all of the characters seem about as selfish as The Beast, and there is a strange vibe of ill-will from the cast concerning Beast’s inability to woo and/or keep Belle that makes the characters less likable.  Bill Condon seems to care so little about character motivations that he decided Maurice wouldn’t be an inventor before he even knew that Belle would be an inventor in this version, leaving me wondering if he was just trying to take away as much character as he could possibly get away with for the fun of screwing with my freaking head.  Chip the teacup is less charming, Mrs. Potts is less warm and endearing, and that freaking wardrobe is somehow even more annoying, so this cast is a pretty big letdown on the whole.

3. The Relationship Between Belle and the Beast

Okay, so maybe the cast isn’t all bad – the casting of the Beast is great!  But his chemistry with Watson isn’t even as interesting as oil and water – it’s like water and the planet Jupiter they’re so distant.  I already mentioned how this problem arises in the way the “Beauty and the Beast” number is shot, but it’s in the acting and dancing as well, with the two of them staring at each other blankly as they dance in a way that has absolutely no intimacy.  Gone is the moment when Belle cuddles up in the Beast’s fur – instead we have dancing that’s historically true to the period, because who needs emotion when we can have logical accuracy!  The best example, however, is in the reveal of the library, which is a charming give the Beast gives to Belle in the animated film.  For this movie, they tried to give Belle and the Beast a bond over reading, but the Beast just becomes more of a jerk, essentially saying, “Your tastes in books suck.  Let me show you some real books.”  It’s worth noting that the extended edition of the 1991 film adds a scene in which Belle and the Beast bond over reading because the animated Beast can’t remember how to read, so Belle teaches him, and it’s perhaps one of the most charming and endearing moments in all of cinema, but the 2017 film sets it up with Belle teaching a child to read and then inexplicably doesn’t freaking follow through with it.

2. All of the Other Relationships

Not only does LeFou have a vaguely sexual subplot, but he also has a moral one in which he questions his allegiance to Gaston, making LeFou (again, “THE FOOL”) into a far more serious character.  Consequently, the dynamic that he and Gaston have is completely unclear in the new film, ruining the classic and elegantly simple dynamic of the 1991 movie.  Lumiere and Cogsworth, too, seem to have lost their rapport, now sounding as though they are completely different ages and from completely different worlds.  Did the two actors ever even freaking meet in person?  The subplot about the harpsichord and the wardrobe being a couple separated by the curse is rather stupid seeing as how the big furniture battle at the end reveals just how easily the wardrobe could’ve walked down stairs to be with her lover at any freaking time.  There is a nice attempt at creating a bond between Belle and Potts, but that feels pretty shallow – the only real relationship in this movie that works well is the one between Belle and her father, and even that one’s rather weird since Maurice keeps secrets from Belle about her mother for no freaking reason.

1. The Music

This is a musical. The music needs to be good. Instead, Emma Watson’s singing voice was dubbed by your Amazon Echo.  For the original film, they were smart enough to go to New York and cast actors who had experience on Broadway, but this did not seem to be a priority for Disney this time – at least not with their leads.  The actors they do have with professional singing experience and stage experience have relatively few singing parts.  The lyrics and arrangements of some of the songs have been changed, but not in helpful ways – after all, if they wanted to make changes to Gaston’s song, they could have just used the Broadway version, which contains more lyrics.  The new songs are entirely forgettable, and the inclusion of “Days in the Sun” is odd because its purpose could have been achieved by using “Human Again” from the Broadway show and the extended edition of the 1991 film, which would have picked up the level of energy by 1,000%.  Overall, however, the musical numbers in this movie are so utterly void of life and energy that I wished Condon had asked Damien Chazelle if he could borrow one of the first few numbers from La La Land just to wake up the audience (sure they don’t work with this story, but in all fairness, they didn’t really contribute much to La La Land‘s plot either).

It is actually one of the musical numbers that made me realize I hated this movie, and just within the first ten freaking minutes.  Lin-Manuel Miranda once noted that there’s a particular line in the big “Bonjour” number that really establishes Belle’s character in a brilliant way: “It’s my favorite part because- you’ll see.”  Miranda pointed out that this line makes no sense at all as a sentence, but in the context of the scene, it works.  In the animated film, this comes when she’s showing a sheep the page in the book she’s reading, and she can’t even tell anyone about this part of the book before she’s expressed how excited she is to tell people about this part of the book.  In the remake, she just sings the line into the air with a blank look on her face, suggesting no one on set bothered to think about the meaning behind the words they were singing.  This sort of copying and pasting material without thinking it through is typical of the film.  Nearly every aspect of the 1991 film felt like it had a distinct purpose, usually motivated by the characters, yet in the 2017 film, everything happens just because it does.

It seems to me that nearly each and every one of the film’s priorities is wrong, right down to its apparent ignorance of the fact that the soundtrack ought to be good.  Condon has so little understanding of dramatic irony that he thinks showing the Enchantress as one of the townspeople adds irony, yet he’s totally okay with letting Gaston fall to his death due to what essentially boils down to unlucky timing and/or bad infrastructure.  While the film is relentlessly focused on making the story more logical – reaching higher levels of historical accuracy than the animated film did and fixing mathematical issues regarding the length of the curse – it has no freaking understanding of the narrative logic that makes the original work.  When this obsession with unimportant logic is combined with the film’s utter lack of emotional depth, the resulting story might as well have been told by freaking Spock.  I wanted the film to at least be interesting, and it does have its moments, but for the most part it’s just a dreadfully boring cash-grab, and in this case, Disney doesn’t deserve my cash.

Laura Review

MINOR SPOILER WARNING

While the exact list of what constitutes a “film noir” is always up for debate, I argue that one of the most under-recognized criteria is that weird and seemingly random moment that has the audience asking, “Where the heck did that come from?”  This film clearly checks that box.

Structurally, Laura is not too unconventional, essentially relying on the three-act structure of most films, but to me it feels like two acts.  This is because one twist in the story (which comes in around the 45-minute, placing it at the very middle of the film) is such a big game changer that it seems to suddenly turn the film in a totally different direction.  It almost becomes a different kind of film, because the way I think about what the point of this movie is is determined by this twist.  Perhaps more significantly, the first half of the film is just plain boring, whereas the second half is entirely captivating.  I almost didn’t finish the film because, in spite of some great performances from this great cast, it wasn’t grabbing me after a half hour.  Seeing as how this is now one of my favorite films in the mystery genre, I think it goes without saying that I’m awfully glad I stuck it out.  (It’s also great to have one of the most famous films in the genre checked off my list, and to know the origins of the great  David Raksin jazz song of the same name.)

What makes it an interesting movie, in my opinion, is the question of subjectivity.  At this aforementioned turning point in the movie, the film grammar suggests that we’ve gone into a dream sequence.  The problem is that we, the audience, don’t know for sure, so we’re spending the second half of the two movies trying to solve two mysteries at once: the murder mystery, and the question of whether or not the protagonist is dreaming.  This makes the film an absolute joy from then on, with more twists and turns to up the hype, and an ending that offers great satisfaction for anyone with the patience to make it this far.  Since this is one of the few famous films noir to have an almost permanent residence on Netflix (streaming), I highly suggest devoting 50 minutes to watching this movie – just 50 minutes – and anyone who isn’t hooked at that point can stop.  On the other hand, anyone who does stick through the whole film gets to experience a great example of what one of the bigger-budget Hollywood films noir looks like, and that alone is worth the wait.

The Third Man Review

Have you ever seen one of those movies that pulls such a clever trick on you with its slick, surprising writing that you just sit back, swallow your pride, and give it a nice, slow clap?

This is The Third Man, which is one of those odd films known as a “British Noir.”  It’s within the cinematic territory of film noir, most certainly, yet it comes from another country, which goes against some definitions of what can be counted as real film noir.  It’s really a shame, too – I want to count it as film noir because I think it’s the best film noir.  I’ve written before about how film noir is my kind of genre, with over-the-top drama, cynical representations of humanity, and an atmosphere of extreme, theatrical darkness, but there are very few films in the genre that I really enjoy as movies.  Sure, nearly each and every one I’ve seen has looked great, but the stories, characters, and general logical structures have often been severely lacking, so I can really only think of two or three films noir that I can say I love.  Of course, with the addition of The Third Man, it’s three or four, because this is almost certainly my favorite thus far.

It may seem like I’ve been so disappointed by films noir in the past (see Detour) that I could very easily be pleased by a film in the genre that just had a decent story, good plot twists, smart dialogue, and enjoyable characters, but I actually came into this film with high expectations.  The cinematographer on the short film I’m working on at the moment told me it’s her favorite movie of all time, which is an odd thing to hear about a 1940s British drama from a millennial college student.  I was ready to heavily scrutinize this film, but there’s really so little here to hate.  The characters are stronger here than they are in nearly any noir I’ve seen since Double Indemnity, which is probably my favorite American noir, and the visuals here (including atmosphere, camera angles, lighting, editing, location choices – all of it) may be the best I’ve seen in any noir since Key Largo, which is possibly my second-favorite.  I love the writing of this movie particularly because it’s so intelligent in the way it delivers information and transitions to new scenarios, consistently throwing the viewers off guard while keeping them engaged.

The one hinderence to this sense of engagement, however, is the pacing.  Some of the film has excellent pacing, but much of it seems to lag, making for several scenes that are just plain boring.  Even the ending, which I think is fairly difficult to get wrong when it’s been set up so perfectly such that any almost any imaginable ending after the climax’s conclusion would have provided satisfactory closure, is remarkably boring.  I imagine that the slow pacing is largely for deliberate, artistic reasons, but it’s still a major fault on the movie’s part for me because it pulls me out of the story – just as I get sucked into the emotions of the characters, a tedious moment arises that makes me zone out and miss information.  This is very frustrating, and what makes it so strange and disappointing is the film’s regular use of rapid, quick-cutting montage to add intensity to the scene, which should pick up the pace, but actually seems to hold it back.  I think with just a little more focus on the plot, this film would have gotten a higher rating out of me.

All that being said, I don’t think I’ve ever been so impressed by a movie in this style/genre before, and I tip my hat to Carol Reed and Graham Greene for telling one of the far best mystery stories I’ve ever heard.

Fantasia Review

As a film student who’s grown tired of hearing that “film is a visual medium,” there’s something quite refreshing about seeing a film that is famous for its visual achievements, yet serves as a great example of how sound can drive storytelling.  The way that Disney and his team turned ballets and symphonies that could have been interpreted in any of a thousand ways into memorable audio-visual experiences is extraordinary.  The method of letting music guide a film’s story (or, in this case, stories) can have widely varying results, yet this presents one of the best, employing a special reworking of “Vertical Montage” theory that creates exactly the sense of audio-visual harmony Sergei Eisenstein would have loved.  I have been fascinated for the past couple months with the idea of creating video productions that experiment with creating shapes and streaks of color that depict what musical sounds might look like, but I see that Disney has at the very least laid the groundwork in this area if not beaten me to the punch.

While it’s true that the film gets tedious and tiring rather quickly, it’s delightful when broken up into bite-sized parts and spread out over a few days, and I suspect that it might work well as the kind of film one could play in the background at a party without worrying that everyone would get distracted.  Not every piece is animated in the style I would have chosen, but the visual style is, overall, gorgeous, with beautiful shades of blue in the cartoons and even more beautiful lights and colors in the brief live-action portions.  I’m not inclined to give a film a good review for its visuals alone, but I don’t think I’m doing that here.  Fantasia strikes me as an artistic achievement that advances cinematic storytelling and paves the way to new kinds of experimental film, all while showcasing Disney’s unassailable power as a creative force.

The LEGO Batman Movie Review

SPOILER WARNING

This film’s strengths and weaknesses both pertain to the issue of “heart” in film.

If not for the fact that this is a spin-off of The LEGO Movie, the writers would have been free to simply fill the entire film with fun Batman jokes and absurd mix-ups and lunacy that only make sense in an animated comedy.  The LEGO Movie, however, has a lot of heart to it that tied the film together nicely and offered a solid foundation for its comedy.  I argue that LEGO Movie is probably one of the better examples of heart done well because, by that point in the movie, it feels needed and welcomed, as opposed to being forced down our throats at the very beginning like in other family films.  I often think back on an argument between Siskel and Ebert (which I explained in my Scrooged review) in which Gene Siskel said Back to the Future II should have stopped to take the time to add more heart.  I think this is a fairly stupid position to hold seeing as how a movie should really bring in heart at times when it is necessitated by (and it necessitates) the story, but unfortunately, The LEGO Batman Movie makes its heart-warming scenes feel almost out of place, even though they inform much of the story and supply the main character motivation.  Somewhere in the crazy, convoluted mess that was the writing process for this film – consisting of a grand total of five people getting screenwriting credits – the story kept getting reworked until the final result felt like certain scenes were in the script simply to satisfy a “kids movie checklist” of some sort, and most of the bullets on the list pertained to grabbing the heartstrings.  Since I watched this film in a theater filled with children, it was very easy to tell that these scenes simply did not succeed at grabbing the audience.

The rest of the movie, however, is filled with the best kind of heart: passion.  LEGO Batman is one of those films with the rare quality of feeling like a great fan project was given a Hollywood budget and free range.  The film may be loaded with fan-service and a little too dependent on the laughability of previous incarnations of Batman, but it just loves its world and its characters so much that the passion is infectious.  The beauty of the thing, of course, comes from the fact that this is a LEGO-based film, so it can do things with Batman that couldn’t work with the real Batman, and that couldn’t work with a parody, but work perfectly in the space in between.  After all, who doesn’t want to see the Dynamic Duo fight off the gremlins, the Joker recruit Godzilla, or freaking Voldemort casting spells in the Bat Cave?  In a Batman movie that audiences took somewhat seriously, this would enrage people, and in a YouTube parody, it wouldn’t have much power or meaning, but in this movie, it is both official and non-canon at once.  Consequently, the writers were able to put Batman against all of his greatest enemies at once at the start of the movie, making the audience wonder where on earth they could possibly go from there, and then live up to that question by raising the stakes to a level that we never knew could be part of the game.  The movie somehow managed to bring back so much classic Batman material dating back to the 1940s (including an obscure villain played by Vincent Price on the 1960s series) and bring in great new material (Batman vs. King Kong, a touching Batman/Joker bromance, etc.) without feeling overcrowded.

My one regret is that the theater didn’t have more excited, happy Batman fans in it to laugh with me.  Please see it with friends and have a good time.