The Guest (****) While we’re on Adam Wingard…


The Guest – 2014

Director Adam Wingard
Screenplay Simon Barrett
Starring Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Leland Orser, Sheila Kelley, Brendan Meyer, Lance Reddick

Dan Stevens is everything one would hope an intensely “touched” veteran could be in yet another solid collaboration between Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett. The film is a solid thriller that devolves into a high minded gore in the last act while managing not to lose any of the intensity Stevens carves out in the first two.

The strength of the film is in the script and Wingard exploring the range of his lead antagonist. Stevens enters the story as David Collins, a soldier in Caleb Peterson’s platoon who comes to visit Peterson’s family sometime after their son died in service. He says some of the right things and does enough other things to work his way into the family of four that includes Laura (Kelley, Spencer (Orser) and their two remaining kids Anna and Luke (Monroe and Meyer).

The fact that he doesn’t win everyone over in one, or even two fell swoops bodes well for the talent. Anna takes her time, but even after she is won over a bit, she is not so smitten that she just falls in line. As a result, we get to see Stevens constantly at work, attempting to improve his footing on the shifting sand. Even better, the Petersons get to experience their own problem with the constantly moving landscape.

It’s a winning choice that we never get a clear backstory for Stevens. To go much further than they do would risk going into Bourne territory. Instead we get a man who seems unhinged but moves with cold precision simultaneously.

One can understand how a film like this might slide under the radar. The title doesn’t tell you much and I personally got it confused with The Gift at times. Give it a chance, though. You won’t be disappointed.

(**** out of *****)


Beauty and the Beast: Old and new it stands out of time…

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Beauty and the Beast – 2017, 1991

Directors: Bill Condon (2017) and Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise (1991)
Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos (2017) and Linda Woolverton (1991) based on the story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Starring:  Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson (2017) and Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury, Rex Everhart, Jesse Corti (1991)

Disney has been remaking their animated classics for so long now, I can’t remember a time when they weren’t. I think it may have started with 101 Dalmatians but in all honesty most of them are not good enough for me to go back and research. Over the last few years, the most notable have been their attempts to put women on the screen as real life princesses or (in Angelina Jolie’s case) should have beens. The one that everyone will talk about and remember has just arrived.

Everyone’s real hero of the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger (no one wants to imagine she really married the doof who shall not be named) is now as likely and deservedly remembered as Belle. Although not being considered a singer before being cast in this musical, Emma Watson creates her own version of the role that Paige O’Hara mastered a generation ago.

The question of whether the movie update is necessary is immaterial at this point. A more pointed question would involve a contemplation on whether or not live action should include as much if not more animation than the original animated film. I am not going to discuss that either, though. I am really just here to celebrate both films, since, miracle of miracles, they both turned out to be pretty great.

To do this, I am just going to discuss the elements of each film that stand out more for me than the other. At this point, can we really review a film that everyone will see and love…except for those who insist on pointing out flaws. Well, I will try, but it will all feel like quibbling when I throw criticism to the side and just say it is a classic despite them.

First thing is first. What parts of the new film are not as good?

  1. The first time we see Belle’s village: For a second, I got a sickening feeling. Everything seems so close and claustrophobic, it felt like I was watching the recent redo of The Smurfs. There is no feeling of span in the town and it feels like Belle is walking in a really tight circle. The empty bookstore feels bigger than the whole confines of the village.
  2. Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury as Lumiere and Mrs. Potts can’t be beat: It is a personal preference, as McGregor and Thompson do well in the same roles. To McGregor’s credit, he just moved forward with his much less distinctive voice and personality. While it isn’t as memorable, it works. Orbach completely mastered the role, though, making Lumiere seem older and more virile at once. Thompson is a blander version of a character one would normally consider to be quite bland. No one ever made us sit down, make ourselves comfortable and have some tea like Lansbury.
  3. The ballroom scene. Especially true after the remastered version of the original pumped it up about 200%, there is just no beating the myriad colors and sweeping grandeur of the original. It’s one of the great animated scenes in cinematic history.
  4. I just wish they would not have cast Stanley Tucci. It’s so tiring to see him in every movie, even when they give him bad teeth to inhabit.

So what was made better in the new film? Surprisingly, quite a lot.

  1. LeFou: Gad is an inspired casting choice. His nuanced performance works in every way possible. The original was barely a placeholder for Gaston, to the point where I wondered why he was even included in such a large musical number. This time around, the character is fully fleshed out, an improvement in every way. The only time it doesn’t fit is when the residual lines from the original make it necessary to have him be somewhat illiterate and ill-informed. It is quite likely the LeFou has read most of the same books as Belle.
  2. Maurice: Good Lord I hated Belle’s dad in the original. I would have thrown him in the loony bin or old folks home right off the bat if I had to listen to his babbling. Totally moronic and typical Disney Dad, with his head in the clouds while missing every possible thing on the ground. He even thinks she should hook up with Gaston. Kline presents a slightly preoccupied, but deeply saddened man. He is completely aware of his daughter and he wants to protect her from the horrors he’s experienced, while showing her the beauty he sees in life. It’s completely understandable how they could be related in this version of the tale. She enjoys the same things he does, with her own spin. Incredible that Disney finally gets a Dad right, for once.
  3. The night-time trip to Paris: This adds a completely new dimension to Belle, her father and heretofore absent mother. This scene has a great song (How Does a Moment Last Forever) and in its inclusion, we allow a moment of true bonding between Belle and the Beast. This is the kind of scene upon which romances are built and it makes what follows all the more meaningful.
  4. Letting Belle get plastered by the snowball: It was always a little weak to have Beast hoisted by his own petard in the original.

To delve any deeper, you really have to just accept the differences between these two as just trades for each medium. Human Again (from the restored version) is traded for Evermore. The wardrobe is now an opera singer instead of a maid. My eldest noticed that Philippe was a different sort of horse. The library is remarkable either way. Gaston is as delightfully deplorable now as he was in animated form. Alan Menken is a treasure. I don’t know how he keeps drawing classics from this well.

It would be unfair to not recognize Watson’s achievement. Paige O’Hara has created, in all truth, the best Disney Princess. Instantly memorable for her pluck and her voice, all other Princesses have yet to reach the bar she set. Watson wisely avoids the pitfall of trying to match O’Hara’s voice and instead applies her own spin on the character. The songs and her performance are equally good and entirely different. I found myself hearing her voice in my head for songs that I have heard for a quarter century with O’Hara’s. She’s elevated the live action princess role that Amy Adams created so effortlessly and placed her own stamp on cinematic history, between this and Potter.

Dan Stevens is a little old, even for a 27-year-old Watson, but the role works, especially if one considers the time passing under a spell. It’s close enough and not yet creepy. His voice in Evermore is remarkable and nearly worth the price of admission on its own.

Celebrate these films. They are gifts to humanity. There have always been beauties who were drawn to beasts that they had to learn to understand. There have always been beasts who are society’s winners that smart girls know to avoid, too. This film has brought hope to many a bookworm girl and boy that they will someday meet and learn to accept one another. And grow. Everyone wants to feel like they can do that.

Both films (***** out of *****)

A Walk Among The Tombstones (***1/2): Deliberate, with a few surprises


A Walk Among The Tombstones – 2014

Writer and Director Scott Frank
Starring Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Boyd Holbrook, Sebastian Roché, Brian “Astro” Bradley, David Harbour, Adam David Thompson
Based upon the book by Lawrence Block

There is something very lived in about Liam Neeson’s Matthew Scudder, the protagonist from A Walk Among The Tombstones. Given the this story takes place in the 10th of 18 of the Block novels featuring Scudder, we get the feeling of the history that he lives with every labored step and every hesitant breath. There isn’t much that he has not seen, but that doesn’t matter much, because people end up in the same place, no matter how they get there.

This is the second Scudder novel turned into a film. The first being a labored effort starring Jeff Bridges and featuring the writing efforts of Oliver Stone and Robert Towne. It was one of the last big budgets given to Hal Ashby, and he was fired right after principal photography wrapped due to Ashby’s past erratic behavior and that he pretty much discarded the script. Having the cast shoot from the hip was a bad choice, because Block makes his characters work through dialogue.

Scott Frank has written some of the best adapted screenplays ever. Get Shorty and Out of Sight belong on every one’s top 50, while he made The Wolverine more real than he ever has been before or since on the big screen. The work he does here feels respectful to the point of being deliberately clunky. Taking place before Y2K, we see a film that would have fit in that time or even earlier. Cell phones were still used primarily for calling then, and so were pay phones. Both play a big part here, too.

Scudder is a recovering alcoholic who is fully in tune with the process. He’s made peace with who he was and who he continues to be: an unlicensed P.I.. When he is approached by an addict after a meeting, he goes to see the man’s brother, Kenny (Wilson, nothing like the guy one would remember from Downton Abbey). Kenny is a drug dealer who recently lost his wife to men who ransomed her. When he could not meet their financial demands, they literally cut a deal. Now he is out for revenge. He asks Scudder to find them and let Kenny know where they are, and that is it.

In the process of finding the men, Scudder discovers there is more to the case than anyone would have guessed. He also finds some help in the form of a homeless boy, TJ (Bradley). The relationship they strike up is near to every cliché one could think of for the situation, but Frank takes Block’s work and steers just clear of each one, leaving the film feeling fresher than it probably should.

It’s after the extortionists meet up with one of Kenny’s dealer friends that the action and Scudder’s dialogue begins to heat up. There is something about Neeson speaking frankly on the phone that gets the old engine revving. We know who’s going to come out on top, even if the person on the other end of the phone does not.

There is a lot to appreciate in Frank’s adaptation of the material here. The direction is somber, but not Se7en level despair. Scudder and TJ live in the same reality, even if TJ does not quite understand yet. He’s smart enough to survive it. The nemeses are a breath of fresh filth. Their approach to their lack of sanity works because we don’t hear them explain it, even when they try to start blabbing. Frank is smart enough to leave everyone damaged by what they’ve experienced, because, well, we were kicked out of Eden at the start of all stories.

Conversely, there is not a terrible amount of mystery to the general direction of the plot. The characters start at point A and we can tell by who they are who makes it to point B, C, or D. There is enough here, though, to call for another venture, perhaps even a series. There’s definitely more here than in the Taken ventures or the dreadful November Man. It’s the little things that make one feel the difference between an enjoyable story and one that makes you feel you just gave up precious minutes.

(***1/2 out of *****)