Beauty & The Beast

One word: underwhelming.

This movie is production-designed within an inch of its life. Like, literally it’s clogged with lustre and decadence. I find no fault with how it looks; a good faith effort was made to pay tribute to the original, to remind us of the classic animated movie from 1991, while still forging its own little identity, diverging enough from the already-trodden path to inject it with a life of its own.

Unfortunately, none of the new material really lands. Is this just me, loyal to the film of my childhood? Sadly not. But it does pale in comparison. No matter what Bill Condon does, this film inevitably fails to capture the magic of the first.  This is hardly surprising since it beautyandthebeast-beast-windoweschews the magic of animation. Well, traditional animation. The truth is, “live action” or not, Belle is the only human being in that castle. Yes, Ewan McGregor danced around in a motion capture suit to play Lumiere, and Dan Stevens waltzed in steel-toed 10-inch stilts for the ballroom scene, but they’re both playing CGI characters. Why hire greats like Emma Thompson, Ian McKellan, and Audra McDonald, only to hide them behind computer graphics, appearing “live” only in the last 20 seconds of the film? It seems a waste. I rather liked the live action remake of Cinderella, but then, that was always a story about humans, wasn’t it? Jungle Book  (which already has been) and Lion King (which is about to be) turned into “live action” films have little to no humans in them, so what’s the point? They were MADE for animation. Let’s leave them be.

Emma Watson, as Belle, is brilliant casting. She was originally cast in La La Land but left the project to do this instead. I think it was the right choice for her. Her voice is lovely and pure, and she reminds us that Belle isn’t just beautiful, but also smart and brave. Ryan Gosling was originally cast as the Beast and left this movie to do La La Land, and I think that was the right choice for him. Dan Stevens took over the role of the beast, and he’s okay. Director Bill Condon had hoped to create a beast look out of prosthetics, and he did film it that way, but in the end he was overruled and a CGI beast face was superimposed. Kevin Kline as Belle’s father, Maurice, is a wise choice. He’s older and less of a buffoon than in the animated film, but they don’t quite make sense of the character despite adding some back story. Luke Evans has the pleasure of playing everyone’s favourite cartoon narcissist, Gaston. No longer roughly the size of a barn, he’s still the cocky, selfsure Gaston we remember. It’s his sidekick who’s less recognizable.

The animated Le Fou is nothing more than a clown. In the 2017 version, Disney is proud to proclaim him their first openly-gay character, to which I say: hmm? This was maybe the movie’s biggest let down. Le Fou does not strike me as gay. He’s the kind of closeted gay that you only know about because it was issued in a Disney press release. What little humanity he shows already makes him too good for Gaston, but no real motivation is ever ascribed to him. It’s a Disney movie, so of course there is no real sexual tension, but nor is there even the slightest hint of romance or passion. There are more lingering glances between a young girl and a horned beast than there are between these two men. Nice try, Disney, but I’m not buying it. And it’s probably not the greatest idea to tout your first and only “gay character” as this bumbling idiot who languishes with an unrequited crush on a real prick, whom he helps to hook up with women. That’s pretty condescending.

But I take it back: Le Fou is not the most disappointing thing about the movie. In my little batb-02422r-2-a7172c76-a61b-423e-a41b-5965b3fef116girl heart, the biggest disappointment was The Dress. To me it looked cheap. And I’m sure it wasn’t: I’m sure that a dozen people toiled over its construction. I’ve heard it used 3,000 feet of thread, 2160 Swarovski crystals, and took over 12,000 designer hours to complete. Not worth it. The dress is disenchanting. In the original version, the dress is luminous, we believe it is not merely yellow, but spun gold. The one Emma Watson wears seems like a poor knock-off. It feels flat. And what’s with her shitty jewelry? In the cartoon, Belle’s ht_belle_beauty_beast_kb_150126_4x3_992neck is unadorned; why ruin a perfect neckline with even the most impressive of baubles? But Emma Watson’s Belle accessorizes her ballgown with a shitty pendant on a string. I can only assume this is blatant product placement and this cheap trinket will be sold en masse in a shopping mall near you, but it’s so incongruous it’s a distraction. For shame.

 

And for all the little changes this movie makes, tweaks to the back stories and the plausibility, one glaring detail remains pretty much the same. In the 1991 movie, the wicked witch condemns the prince to live as a beast until he can love and be loved in return; if he fails to do so before the last petal falls from the enchanted rose, he will remain a beast forever, and his household staff will remain household objects. In the animated classic, we know that the beast has until his 21st birthday to make this happen, and that this has been a period of 10 years. Therefore, the curse bestowed upon him befalls him at age 11, and for what? Because he didn’t let a stranger inside the house while his parents were away? He’s ELEVEN! And his servants are blameless. It always struck me as an extremely cruel not to mention unfair punishment. In this recent film, the role of the witch is expanded, but this only makes her motivations murkier. We see how harshly she has condemned a young prince, but she seems to overlook much worse transgressions. If this is hard for me to swallow, I imagine it must be even more unsettling for children who need to know that rules and punishments are meted out fairly, at least.

I could not have skipped this movie, the pull was too great. But there was no childhood here to be relived, just a fraudulent imitation that had lost its sparkle.

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SXSW: Porto

porto-F70243.jpgThe loss of Anton Yelchin somehow seems larger as time passes.  As you probably know, he died tragically about a year ago, crushed by his own (faulty) car as he checked his mail.  The outpouring of grief from his peers was massive at the time, and the more I learn about him, the more I get it.  He was a glue guy, an artist, a student of film, a true professional.  He made everything easier for those around him.  Those sentiments were echoed by Gabe Klinger during the Q&A for Porto at SXSW.  Porto is Klinger’s first narrative feature and he freely admitted how much Yelchin helped everyone involved and made the project better, because of Yelchin’s vast knowledge of and experience in making movies.

Technically, Porto is an interesting movie because it was shot on three different types of film: 8mm, 16mm and 35mm.  And it IS film, none of this was shot using a digital camera, and the movie feels better for it.  There is something about film that digital can’t match yet – a depth, a richness, and a darkness.  All those elements are appropriate for Porto, which is a story of intense love and loss, and the film types neatly indicate which time period we’re currently watching.

Porto’s lack of continuity makes a conventional story feel a bit more unconventional, but it also leads to repetition.  I wondered during the film whether that repetition was a consequence of Yelchin’s death but it appears to have been an intentional narrative choice, since a little post-movie research shows that filming was complete before he died.  The fact that a few details were added, or the scene extended, helped explain the repetition but I still found it to be a distracting choice.

That distraction was a minor one, especially considering the great chemistry between Yelchin and Lucie Lucas that’s on display here.  The leads’ performances make Porto worth watching.  Yelchin and Lucas have a spark that makes the audience feel the allure and power of this very brief relationship, and that in turn makes us understand why they still reminisce about their short time together.  I am sure Lucas deserves as much credit for that as Yelchin, as she’s his equal on screen.  Still, it’s hard not to focus on Yelchin since this might be the last time we see him, and I am struck by how much I took his effortless performances for granted until he was gone.

 

 

SXSW: Signature Move

Zaynab is a Pakistani-American immigration lawyer who is a) learning wresting moves from a former pro wrestler who went by the name Jolt and b) keeping a new relationship with Alma secret from her conservative Muslim mother who doesn’t know she’s gay.

“Mothers and daughters aren’t friends in our culture,” Zaynab tells Alma. “That’s a very American concept.” Zaynab’s father is dead and her mother lives with her, almost claustrophobically, obsessed with SIG-MOVE-2-1024x683TV and spying on the neighbours but unwilling to leave the house. She’s particularly keen on spotting eligible men with her not-inconspicuous binoculars.

Zaynab, meanwhile, is just trying to find herself, in “life, love, and lady wrestling,” as the subtitle suggests. Signature Move, directed by Jennifer Reeder, is a mixture of culture and possibility, with Zaynab (Fawzia Mirza) wishing she could could live her life confidently out but juggling the reality of her mother’s disapproval and the pain the secrecy causes her new girlfriend. I particularly love seeing the generational difference between Zaynab and her mother (Shabana Azmi), how the mother will speak in her native tongue, and the daughter will respond in English as if this is the most natural thing in the world. Alma (Sari Sanchez), meanwhile, is perhaps her opposite, but she draws her out of the darkness while also having her own notions of identity and sexuality challenged. It’s an interesting little slice of life indie film that brings a refreshing twist on the tired romcom format to the screen.

SXSW: Bill Frisell, A Portrait

Bill Frisell’s discography is incomparable. He’s worked with the best of the best, all of whom consider HIM to be The Best. He’s an actual guitar hero, his influence widespread, his sound envied and copies and admired. But Bill remains an unsung guitar hero, his name not well-known to those outside the business, and he’s pretty content to keep it that way. This documentary, however, is a character portrait of this very interesting man, and very influential musician.

MV5BM2Y1N2I1OTktMGIxYy00N2I1LTljOTMtZjBjM2IzNDRiNjg4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzMwNzMyMjk@._V1_The good thing about this documentary is that so many people line up to talk about Frisell: director Emma Franz assembles the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, and more, and the amazing thing is that all of the people have nothing but glowing things to say about the man. The GREAT thing about this documentary, though, is that it contains plenty of live music to love and appreciate, and gosh he’s got a lot.

Bill Frisell seems reluctant to talk about himself (he is however, inclined to sing the praises of other artists), so every nugget teased out feels like a treasure. This documentary will look at the very things that shaped his sound, with particular time spent peering into his brilliant mind and trying to understand music the way he does. There’s lots of great insight here, an intimacy I hardly dared hope for.

His guitar collection is impressive, but not as impressive as his genuine love for each one. It’s so endearing. What a great documentary to have stumbled upon, and I sincerely hope that it’ll be available for your perusal also.

 

SXSW: Lake Bodom

True story: in June 1960, four kids (two 15-year-old girls and their 18-year-old boyfriends) went camping. Three of them were found dead, stabbed and bludgeoned to death; the fourth was bloodied and blank, with no recollection of the violent attack. This case has remain unsolved in Finland for nearly 6 decades, but theories have turned into legends, and this film is born of those campfire ashes.

In Lake Bodom, Atte (Santeri Helinheimo Mantyla) is obsessed with lake-bodom-2016-movie-featuredthe murders. He talks his friend Elias (Mikael Gabriel) into helping him recreate them, hoping to solve them once and for all, but Elias is in it for the sex, not so much the solving. They coax along two best friends who think they’re going on a very different trip – Ida (Nelly Hirst-Gee) is happy to escape her oppressively-religious home life, and Nora (Mimosa Willamo) is just happy to spend time with Ida.

Since this is a horror movie, you know what’s coming next: this isn’t just a recreation. Shit goes down! But Lake Bodom isn’t quite as predictable or straight-up as that. There’s a series of twists that defy expectation, melding several horror tropes into a single film, keeping you guessing and interested and creeped the fuck out. This film looks better than any horror film has to. Some of the shots are full-stop beautiful, which only adds to the ambiance. Atmospheric and well-paced, Lake Bodom provides thrills and anxiety in equal measure, earning every drop of blood splashed across the screen.

Lake Bodom has a relatively low body count, but if you’re in it for the gore, no worries: it makes each one count. In detail. Graphic, brutal detail. Fans of horror who are tired of the same old thing are going to love this. Well, love and hate this. It really is quite scary and maybe not as “fun” as a traditional slasher flick – there’s real meat here, if you can stomach it.

Lake Bodom will be released exclusively on Shudder May 2017.

 

 

 

The Last Word

the last word 2So, Harriet (Shirley MacLaine) likes things done a certain way. She gets so impatient with those who can’t follow her instructions that she often winds up having to do everything herself as she frequently pushes her gardener, cook, and hairdresser aside. So it should come as not surprise that she would want final say on her own obituary.

Enter Anne (Amanda Seyfried), the aspiring writer who Harriet hires to write her obituary. It’s not an easy job. Not just because Harriet is a demanding micro-manager. Despite all her considerable success, everyone Anne interviews about her-even her priest- hates her. So an 81 year-old who’s spent her life being nasty to people sets out to use the time she has left to rewrite her own history, dragging the almost-always exasperated Anne along for the ride.

If you’ve heard of this movie at all, by now you’ve probably heard that it’s pretty bad. And it really kind of is. But I honestly think there is a really good idea for a movie hidden somewhere within this unapologetically trite screenplay. One of the movie’s better scenes features a hilariously confident Harriet barging in on an independent radio station making a shockingly effective case for why she should be hired as a DJ. They give her a chance and it’s kind of awesome.

the last wordIn the right hands, a dramedy featuring the 82 year-old MacLaine playing an unlikely host of a radio show for hipsters could be a lot of fun, which The Last Word generally isn’t. More importantly though, making this subplot the actual plot might have given the movie some much-needed focus. Because for a movie about making every moment count, The Last Word has an astonishing number of throwaway scenes and uninspired subplots.

So in a comedy with no real focus except that Life is Precious So Don’t Waste It, it falls on its stars to keep it watchable. And although “watchable” may be a strong word for a movie like this, MacLaine’s still got it. Actually, to carry any movie in your 80s is pretty impressive and I give her full credit for finding a way to breathe some life into a character that would otherwise have been too vaguely written to be interesting. Seyfried isn’t exactly bad so much as she just doesn’t do anything to really help make Anne stand out from any of the other Millennials who have learnt valuable and unexpected life lessons from seniors in the movies lately.

MacLaine does impressive wok but neither the script or her co-stars are there to back her up.

 

 

SXSW: Colossal

colossal-F71894Other than a major difference in size, Godzilla and a drunk have a lot in common.  They both stumble around erratically, they both have a temper, and they both wreck a lot of stuff.  Though Colossal does not feature Godzilla, presumably due to licencing issues, it does feature a giant monster terrorizing an Asian city (though this time it’s Seoul, Korea instead of Tokyo, Japan).  As you’d expect, the monster’s appearance is big news, so even Gloria (Anne Hathaway) hears about it eventually.  It takes a while for her though because of how drunk she got the night before.

Gloria’s got a lot of problems.  She’s just been kicked out by her longtime boyfriend for drinking too much and she’s been unemployed for way too long.  She’s got no direction and no prospects, so after losing her relationship and place to stay, she heads to her hometown and meets up with her childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis).  Since Oscar owns a bar, Gloria stays there all night drinking, and a giant monster appears in Seoul about the time she’s stumbling home the next morning.

Colossal is different than I expected, which is not a bad thing.  Writer/director Nacho Vigalondo has created something unique, something much different than any kaiju movie I’ve ever seen.  Colossal is slow paced and focuses largely on people, not monsters, and the characters’ personal growth (/lack thereof) is a very important part of the story.  I don’t want to say more about what Colossal is or isn’t, as I think trying to figure out this movie is part of the fun.  There are definitely some surprises along the way, and those were high points for me.  It’s always interesting when a movie takes an unexpected turn and Colossal offers a few of them.

In support of the unique story, Hathaway and Sudeikis both deliver excellent performances, and the quality of those performances is why this movie works so well.  Seeing Gloria and Oscar reconnect after all these years, discovering each other as adults, is something we can all relate to but we soon learn that the stakes are a little higher here, because Seoul is in peril every morning.

Colossal is set to be released in North America on April 7, 2017.  If you’re interested in seeing a different kind of kaiju movie, one that is more character study than city-destroying rampage, then Colossal is worth watching.

Free Fire

Free Fire is basically a movie about an HR issue. Justine and Ord are two “point guys” in an arms deal. She’s bringing Chris (Cillian Murphy), an IRA guy who needs some M-16s to the table, along with his rag-tag crew, and he’s bringing Vernon (Sharlto Copley), the money-obsessed guy with a van full of guns (although, notably, NOT M-16s) and his own motley crew. From the minute these two rival gangs meet, the two sides are twitchy. All they have free-fire1to do is exchange the briefcase full of cash for the crates full of guns, and the deal is done. But they just rub each other the wrong way. Everyone’s got an unchecked ego, everyone wants to be the boss, and nobody’s going to make this easy. If arms dealers had HR ladies stashed away in some ficus-strewn office, all of this could have been resolved with a stress ball and some trust exercises. But arms dealers tend to offer very few benefits as employers, so instead it goes to hell.

It goes gloriously to hell. It turns out that the driver of the first gang had an issue with the driver of the other gang the night before, and seeing each other turns a bad situation worse. Suddenly everyone’s whipping out their little pistols and bullets are flying. How many bullets? About 7000 rounds, said director Ben Wheatley. That’s a LOT of bullets. So the whole of the movie takes place in this abandoned warehouse where this arms deal has been all but forgotten, everyone shooting at each other, everyone forgetting which side they’re supposed to be on, the sides in fact disintegrating as it quickly becomes every man for himself.

I knew going in that Free Fire is a 70s shoot-em-up genre film, but I had failed to fathom how funny it is. Sharlto Copley is an absolute scene-stealer, his over-the-top character MV5BZjk1NjRiNzctZWFiOS00MGJkLWE0YWEtYTI5ODBmYzQwNjg4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUwNzk3NDc@._V1_really embodies the pure fun and wackiness of this film. It’s madcap madness and I totally loved every minute of it. I didn’t know I could have so much fun at a Ben Wheatley film. A terrific script by Wheatley and Amy Jump is quotable, the cheeky dialogue rolling off the tongues of a delightful ensemble cast. The frenetic, non-stop energy sometimes makes it difficult to keep track of who is shooting who, and where, but once you realize that even the principal players are confused, it really takes the pressure off. The anarchy is entertaining and you can tell it was as gleefully acted and directed as it is consumed. No true hero ever distinguishes him or herself , which doesn’t mean you won’t find your own favourite to root for, only that’ it’s an even playing field where anything is possible.

Free Fire was meticulously choreographed by Wheatley but still required logistic heroics of cinematographer Laurie Rose and precision editing by Wheatley and Jump. The movie charmed me with its audacious humour but it also pulls off an hour-long assault that sounds one-note on paper but honestly, I could have had more. I love the recklessness, the wickedness, the irreverence; I was greedy for it the whole way through and Ben Wheatley served it up as only he could.

 

 

 

Check out the comments section for a Q&A with Wheatley and some of the cast!

SXSW: Mission Control

Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo tells the story of the people who inspired the whole world with the accomplishments of their space program. The first men were young, the average age about 30, most didn’t even know what computers were but they were tasked with sending a man to the moon. They basically had to invent NASA and space travel from the ground up, on the thrillingly generous salary of $6770 a year.

This was such an important time in human history that you can’t help but be drawn in to this drama. In fact, it’s a real credit to the director, David Fairhead, that this documentary feels thrilling even though we all know extremely well how the story turns out. But it’s also contemplative and insightful, the men recounting the hard times that led to the successes, the loss of life that inspired them to do better, to do great things. And they certainly did.

This documentary focuses on the people manning the stations in mission control – the men in contact with astronauts during their space flight. Any problems encountered by the space craft is on their shoulders, with practically no time at all to fix unfathomable challenges and absolutely no room for error. Failing is not an option.

Mission Control is interesting not just for interviewing the people behind the history, but for painting them as real people, country boys and working class kids from smokestack towns. The position of astronaut or NASA engineer or rocket scientist were complete unknowns when they were growing up. And yet they became this remarkable team who defeated the odds and accomplished such great heights.

Fairhead’s documentary has got some really cool archival footage of those first journeys toward the moon – Apollo 8, 11, and even 13, which is as tense as you’d think. These guys remember this time like it was yesterday, right down to details you’ve never considered, like what the room smelled like when people were working for 5 days, nonstop, under stressful conditions, smoking like chimneys, no time to reapply deodorant. But these interesting details are also enhanced by beautiful VFX work and a really nice orchestral score. It’s exactly the kind of tribute that these men deserve.

 

SXSW: Atomic Blonde

I was sitting on the floor of the Austin Convention Center, waiting to get into the SXSW conversation between Nick Offerman and Nick Kroll when I got the news: Stella was gone. Out for a walk in the mountains near her Zurich home with her husband and her beloved Boxer, Odin, she slipped in some snow and fell 40m to her death. Just like that, one of the most vibrant women I’ve ever known, gone forever. Unfortunately I’ve had some experience with losing people unexpectedly, but that doesn’t make it easier. It’s unreal, incomprehensible. Sean held me tight as I fell apart in the middle of hundreds or thousands of happy festival-goers. I think Sean’s first thought was to get my soppy self back to the hotel room where I could grieve less publicly, but instead I found myself being filtered into the Nick Offerman thing, and then following my rigorous SXSW schedule, one thing after another: Bob Odenkirk and Fred Armisen, followed by Lemon, followed by Atomic Blonde. But it just so happens that the screening for Atomic Blonde ran late, and as I sat in an increasingly crowded theatre listening to a DJ spin some danceable 80s music, I had too much time to think, and my thoughts were filled with Stella, my own Atomic Blonde. This review is inadequately dedicated to her memory.

Atomic Blonde is a cross between James Bond and John Wick, except its protagonist, Lorraine (Charlize Theron), could kick both their asses without smudging her lipstick. Charlize made a splash as a kick-ass hero in Mad Max: Fury Road but this movie is pure Id, all sex and violence, with some 80s fashion and music thrown in for your hedonistic pleasure. Lorraine is an undercover MI6 agent sent to Berlin in the days before the Wall comes down to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and recover a important list containing the names of double agents.

James McAvoy plays David, a fellow agent who’s been in Berlin a little too long. Berlin is, of course, in a state of chaos. Everything is changing, everything is moving fast. Lorraine has basically been sent into an impossible situation, and she’s going to have to fight like hell just to survive, let alone fulfill her mission.

The fight choreography on this film is amazing. Full stop incredible. Director David Leitch co-directed the first John Wick (uncredited) and will direct the second Deadpool, but he got his start in stunt work in films like Blade, Fight Club, Daredevil, and The Matrix films. His action sequences, which are perhaps 80% of Atomic Blonde, are faultless but relentless. The actors are BRUTALIZED.  Charlize Theron had 8 trainers to prepare her for the role, and she trained alongside Keanu Reeves as he got ready for John Wick 2. Theron is fearless and dauntless. The violence is graphic and unending. The story, however, isn’t quite equal to it.

The story is retold during an investigation conducted by an MI6 officer (Toby Jones) and a CIA executive (John Goodman). They’re an odd couple good for a couple well-needed laughs, but it drags you out of the action and out of Lorraine’s flashy world where her slick 80s ensembles (big props to Cindy Evans for creating so many memorable looks) are an interesting juxtaposition to Berlin’s crumbling dumpster fire of a city. And the thing is, with a premise that’s almost silly in its duplicity, the action is really the justification for this movie’s existence. With long cuts and mind-numbing body counts, the fight design won’t disappoint action purists. But anyone requiring a satisfying story should maybe look elsewhere.