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 *****)

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Free State of Jones (****) – The rebellion to the rebellion

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Free State of Jones – 2016

Written and Directed by Gary Ross
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali,
Keri Russell, Brian Lee Franklin, Jacob Lofland, Sean Bridgers, Brad Carter

Who knew that there was a rebellion to the rebellion? There are several passages in Free State of Jones where it feels like one is being educated without sacrificing too much in the entertainment department. We get the feeling of a movement from the ground up in watching Matthew McConaughey move further away from stardom and closer towards investment in the character of Newton Knight, a southern Civil War deserter turned man for all people in Jones County, Mississippi.

His quest begins early enough, when he sees a young man from his town (Lofland) who is conscripted into fodder for the South. Knight does what he can to protect the boy, but, come on, what are his chances? He takes the boy back home to his family and knowing his desertion puts him in peril, decides to stay with his wife and child anyway. While there, he discovers that local forces have been confiscating from the poor and leaving the rich to continue profiteering.

He begins to go Robin Hood on these forces and it leaves him wounded and wanted and into the good graces of a band of runaway slaves. He quickly becomes one with the group, leading them to resist from the protection of the swamp.

The Siege of Vicksburg leads a large swath of the Southern army to desert and Knight’s group is there to welcome them. As the group grows, they begin to become more successful in their efforts to procure their county as a land free of the tyranny of the slaveholders who own the land and give pittance to everyone else.

Gary Ross treats the material respectfully. It’s filled with plenty of moments that every story contains, but there are also nuggets here and there revealing things about the Southern U.S. before and since the war that are borne of the horrible legacy of the Democrats that took hold of the region. This includes the strange dynamic of the Knight clan that is a direct result of the circumstances.

The story is interspersed with a court case regarding Mississippi’s miscegenation laws in the 1950’s and one of Knight’s descendants. This, along with the last 30 minutes of the movie goes some way to detract from the hopefulness exhibited earlier. The overall effect is muting, but feels authentic. This includes an genuine representation of the way Democrats of the South eliminated the rights expressed in the 15th Amendment until Republicans in the U.S. Congress helped to finally secure justice to all people 100 years after its passage.

This is the kind of film that will be hard for the Hank Williams, Jr. set to comprehend. The South that perpetrated the Civil War were predominantly plantation owners who convinced the poor in their towns to side with their cause. In showing a group of real outsiders as being the most American in spirit, it goes a fair distance in educating.

THE FREE STATE OF JONES
The journey starts here

The key role in the film outside of its main protagonist is Ali’s Moses. Through Moses, we see the absolutely integral story of the Free State of Jones. When we first see him, he has an inhumane contraption stuck around his neck. Through the removal of this sign of oppression, we see Moses grow into one that fights for his own rights through combat. Eventually as the war ends, his fight becomes more figurative, but no less worthy and definitely still lethal. Ali’s performance is something that will resonate.

McConaughey is certainly uninterested in presenting himself as a movie star. His performance stands in direct contrast to, say, DiCaprio’s overly desperate attempts and dramatization in The Revenant. Whereas that film goes out of its way to change history in order to make its protagonist the only sympathetic figure in the story, we get more from …Jones by showing Knight as an overly well meaning, slightly charismatic but also a flawed individual who has a loose understanding of marital fidelity. There are no attempts at swaying the material to make it look like he has no choice. In fact, we see that he quite clearly has options.

This reviewer will take McConaughey’s complicated and somewhat creepy Knight over the good guy with no flaws any day.

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

Jupiter Ascending (**): Plateaus quickly, then sinks under its own insignificance

jupiter-ascendingJupiter Ascending – 2015

Written and Directed by The Wachowskis
Starring Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Maria Boyle Kennedy, James D’Arcy, Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Jupiter Jones (Kunis) is the daughter of a broken young Russian couple.  When her father is killed while she is in the womb, her mother journeys with the rest of the family on a shipping boat towards America. Midway across the ocean, she is born. Little does she know, that doesn’t even explain her path to personhood by a longshot.

Working as a lowly maid for rich people in New York, she is rescued by Caine Wise (Tatum)  from an attempt on her life by agents of Balem Abrasax (Redmayne). Before she can say “Who is Abrasax?” it is explained to her continually in pieces as she is shuttled around from battle to battle, place to place, new character to new character. We never get one grand explanation, but each person she meets picks up where the other left off, almost like they’d read the script. This method worked in The Matrix, because the people who rescued NEO were all on the same side. It’s very hard to say any two people share the same allegiance here, so the result feels clumsy.

The clearest sign of script trouble comes in the 2nd act. Jones has been rescued from Kalique Abrasax (Middleton), who really never had her in a position of danger. As she rests for a moment on a spaceship, many miles from home, she listens to Wise’s breathy explanation of her position at that moment. In the midst of it, she answers his game plan talk with a speech on how hard it was for her to “find the right guy” when she was back home on Earth. Wise listens to her, catching her off-beat and out-of-place vibe, then says that he has no place with her. He is a genetically engineered, or “spliced” bounty hunter, which apparently does not even rate as high as a dog, compared to her. Her answer, “I like dogs.”

When dialogue like that derives from the Wachowski’s, it could mean anything. Either way, the entire sequence is just dumped there, out-of-place and juvenile.

More about the Abrasax clan. They are 3 siblings of a recently murdered mother who is a doppelgänger for Jones. There is a reason for this that I will not get into. I don’t want to be part of the reason you are bored with this film. Of the 3, Kalique is the best represented. She explains why it is that she, her mother and siblings are all hundreds of years old. She also exhibits a patience that they other two lack to such a degree that it is hard to believe that either of them made it past 100 years old. Her section of the film stands out like a beacon, but as soon as she departs, the light of sensibility leaves, too.

Her younger brother, Titus (Booth) is suave and tries to impress Jones with his intentions and his words about how alike Jones and his mother are. Then he immediately proposes marriage to her. The kinds of red flags this would set off for the normal viewer of this film is not aligned with that of The Wachowski’s sensibilities, it would seem. The only thing seemingly wrong with the scenario according to the script would be that Titus wants to kill her immediately afterword. Jones seems oblivious to this. Perhaps she’s never seen The Princess Bride, or studied anything of Roman, English or any other royal history.

It’s supposed to be some sort of climactic point when we are finally graced with Balem (Redmayne), who is the oldest and has inherited the most from his mother (including the planet, Earth). By the time we arrive at his palace / refinery, we’ve been given so many glimpses of his petulance we are more annoyed with him than intrigued.

Not since Jaye Davidson in Stargate has there been a weaker looking bad guy. Redmayne is terrible in the role. His idea of showing that he is a bad guy is to never close his lips when he speaks. By the end of the movie, it’s hard to resist the urge to seek him out so one could smack him in the mouth just to shut those lips up. His character throws the balance of the story off.

It seems that there would be no reason that anyone in power would really listen to him or do his bidding. There is a concerted effort in the middle of the film to show the legalese of the universe that Jones is thrust into. It’s a not subtle at all reference to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, that even has him playing a cameo as a Minister of legalese. It’s supposed to be a humorous change of pace for the middle of the film that ends up stopping everything in its tracks. After all the paperwork is done, though, still nothing stops the bad guy from doing bad stuff if he wants to. Even if Jones wound sign a paper authorizing it.

This film represents a vision of the universe outside our own. There are elements borrowed from better films all jumbled together to give the appearance of originality. It’s treading on some very old ideas, and not very interestingly so. The acting, for the most part, is awkward and the tempo is off, but that is nothing new for Wachowski work. They can make stuff that looks cool, but they cannot build tension in a scene to save their lives. If you don’t believe me, try to imagine if anything you see in this film gives you the same type of thrill – or even close – to the simple pacing of this scene (in two parts) from Jurassic Park:

It’s hard to blame Kunis or Tatum (but not Redmayne) for their relative ineffectiveness in the midst of the chaos they are enduring, They both seem lost to the events going on around them. The editing of the story is so choppy and yet bloated, one would need to keep notes (à la The Matrix Reloaded) and cross-reference inconsistencies to imagine what their motivation might have been intended to be at that particular moment.

I think the era of the big budget Wachowski film may be over. To say they went out with guns blazing would be true, from a certain point of view. When you have so many guns firing in so many directions, it gives the viewer the sense that the point of the shooting is to desperately hit something, anything. What’s more, no one can really tell what the heck is going on. This is likely to hide the reality that if they knew what kind of story it was, most would not even care to know.

(** out of *****)

 

Belle (****) is a beautiful complicated being

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Belle – 2013

Director Amma Asante
Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Sam Reid, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Tom Felton, James Norton
Screenplay Misan Segay and Asante

Belle has a premise quite unlike any I have seen.  This is not to say that there are no films that have covered the idea of race, freedom and proper British society in the 18th century, but none has ever crossed my path. The film derives from a strikingly unique portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Mbatha-Raw) and her cousin, Elizabeth Murray (Gadon). Not only is there an obvious bond of affection between the two captured in the portrait, but the importance of the painting derives in the mulatto Dido’s eye line is exactly parallel to that of her white cousin, which is something that did not happen by rule, even in civilized Britain of the time. The true details of her life are quite well documented, but the facts don’t contribute to the story being told here. This is quite alright, though.Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle, once attributed to ZoffanyOur story kicks off in 1768 (1765 in real life) when Dido is delivered to the care of his Uncle William Murray (Wilkinson), 1st Earl of Mansfield.  Her father, Sir John Lindsay (Goode), is a captain of the HMS Trent, and this prevents him from taking her with him.  Her mother, his love, Maria, was an enslaved African woman that he met in the West Indies who passed on, prompting Lindsay to England and recognizes her as his natural heir.  This places a conundrum for his Uncle, but he dutifully accepts Dido as his ward and indeed treats her as his own.

The trick of Belle is in propriety.  John Lindsey ignored what was proper for the time by having relations with a slave, and he further bucked society by proudly proclaiming his love for his daughter. Then he goes away, and never really makes his acquaintance of his daughter. Meanwhile, William and his wife Lady Mary, voice their concerns over how all of this will go over in proper society…then they spend the next 3 decades as her wards, educating her and raised in their house as a fellow aristocrat. There are limitations to this situation, however. When entertaining others of their rank, Dido is forced to eat by herself.

How can I be too high of rank to dine with the servants, but too low of rank to dine with my own family?

It’s a question that is never answered openly, but we see it answered nonetheless. William and Mary have an important role to play. They are constricted somewhat in their outward affections by their role and his job. He is the most powerful judge in England and cannot seem to be compromised. This is important because the local vicar’s son, John Davinier (Reid), is interested in apprenticing under Murray. His position on some key cases (Zong massacre and Gregson v Gilbert) has him seemingly crossing swords with Murray.

In the periphery, we have Elizabeth, searching for a husband. This is difficult because, unlike Dido, Elizabeth of the film is not legitimized (again different from real life), so she has little value to would be suitors. The primary suitor James Ashford (Felton) is basically Draco Malfoy, the suitor.  His presence really outlines how worn this particular plotline is, compared to the integral matters being tackled elsewhere in the story. Of course Draco’s dad is part of the pro-slavery movement, and they are trying to leverage weight of betrothal into a winning combination at court.What is interesting is Draco’s brother, Oliver Ashford (Norton) seemingly loves her only for her. This is something I wish could have been pursued more aggressively.

The film is a rewarding one, in particular for the performance of Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Her face and body are so expressive, she gives everything she has to the viewer to the point where her journey is ours. She is going to play Alicia Masters in the new Fantastic Four, which should be a big upgrade from Kerry Washington in the first go-round. Gugu has an extensive background in British Theatre, Television and Radio. Hers is a star on the rise and rightly so.

Wilkenson and Watson give performances equal to their stature. To say they are old pros is a slight to how effective they are. Knowing that either of then are involved is a major selling point to any film.

Asante’s direction is well paced and nearly flawless. That she falls into convention is really more of a product of the time. Certain scenes are always required to create atmosphere and its no real big sin that we have to watch more than a few formal dinner parties. Mercifully, though, she keeps them short and to the point. The musical score, by Rachel Portman, is at once exquisite and driven.

The thing I am most thankful for is how Belle opened my world just a crack. Life is forever becoming and forever learning. Something as simple as paintings  with black people looking up to their white counterparts never would have occurred to me, until I saw it through Dido’s eyes. I know Dido and Elizabeth are much more than a painting. For that I am thankful.

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