Posts Tagged fantasy
Year of release: 2017 Directed by Bill Condon. Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, and Audra McDonald.
That Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s latest live action adaptation of one of their animated classics, works as well as it does, is an impressive testament to the power and beauty of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s score, which is the main star of this movie.
After the success of the live action updates of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon, it was only a matter of time before Beauty and the Beast received the same treatment, especially considering there already was a successful Broadway musical based on the 1991 animated film. However, considering those three aforementioned films all notably broke with their far less than perfect predecessors, the 1991 animated Best Picture nominee is in many people’s opinion (including my own) the finest work of art that Disney has ever produced. As might be expected, director Bill Condon’s excessive reverence for the original results in a copying of the source material, which inevitably pales in comparison.
I do not mean to suggest that this Beauty and the Beast is bad; for the most part, I more or less enjoyed it, as needless as it was. The production design is exquisite; the cast is solid; and of course, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s score sounds great with any decent performers.
In my mind, the biggest problem is that in addition to the unoriginal copying of the animated film, down to camera movements and costume design, is that the few times this film does break away and introduce something new, those changes are rarely for the better.
For instance, the film opens by acting out the entire prologue in which the Prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed and transformed into the Beast. While we get to see some lovely set design and hear Audra McDonald sing (more on that momentarily), seeing the Beast as a Prince undermines his ability to frighten us by turning him into something of a deserving victim. The notion that he’s a real monster, not just a monstrous person, heightens the Stockholm Syndrome element of the fairytale, and it also makes both his ultimate transformation and Belle’s heroism more dramatically satisfying.
Even the one good change from the original is undermined by later changes that should have been rejected in early drafts of the script, never mind being shot. Maurice (Kevin Kline) and Belle (Emma Watson) have a wonderfully supportive and intelligent relationship which starkly contrasts the bumbling old crackpot whom Belle supports in the original. However, in this film there is no possibility for the townspeople to say, “Crazy old Maurice,” which inspires Gaston’s devious plot to force Belle’s hand in marriage. Nonetheless, the film is beholden to that plot point, and the way in which it is now set up necessitates other changes to the original which are so evil and sinister that they seem jarringly out of place in a fairytale geared toward family audiences. To make things worse, those changes occur two scenes before the title number, which really impacts our ability to enjoy the gorgeously lush song.
Regarding the performance of the title song, Emma Thompson has an excellent voice, and while she unfortunately has to stand in the shadow of Angela Lansbury’s iconic performance, she proved herself capable of that when she played Mrs. Lovett in the NY Philharmonic production of Sweeney Todd three years ago. The more striking change, at least for me, was the decision to change the key of the song from the warm and rich D-flat major of the original to a cooler and higher pitched E-flat major. That’s the biggest difference, and probably the main reason many people will say the song is has less emotion here than it does in the original.
As to the rest of the cast, everyone gives their roles their all, even if all of them are outperformed by their counterparts in the original. Emma Watson is a fine singer, but she notably has the weakest voice of the entire cast, which is a little bit of a problem, considering she’s the lead. Her feminist portrayal of Belle comes across effortlessly. As Gaston, Luke Evans has a surprisingly good tenor, which is a notable change from Richard White’s baritone, and Evans makes the bullying malevolence of the villain even more apparent. Josh Gad’s fairly sympathetic portrayal of Le Fou is another break with the original, as is his overhyped “gay moment,” which consists of three fleeting sight gags about trite stereotypes.
The staff of the castle gives enjoyable vocal performances, even if their character design lacks imagination compared to the castle itself. Ian McKellen (Cogsworth) is a fitting curmudgeon, Ewan McGregor (Lumiere) has so much zeal in his performance that he overcomes his goofy French accent. Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) is enough of a comforting presence without copying Lansbury. Audra McDonald (the wardrobe) has by far and away the best voice of everyone (as to be expected), and it is a massively missed opportunity that she only has two brief verses to sing.
Finally, as the Prince and the Beast, Dan Stevens’ performance definitely lands more on the prince side of the character, which I think is problematic, because it weakens his transformation. Stevens has a very good baritone, and his performance of the Beast’s new solo, “Evermore” by Menken and Tim Rice, is haunting and beautiful. That performance, coupled with Josh Groban’s rendition over the end credits makes me fairly confident in saying that song will win the Oscar for best original song. It’s also a pretty great song which naturally fits into the original score.
As much as I would want to resent this film for being an uninspired attempt to replicate the original when there were so many possibilities to take this fairytale in a new direction, there’s enough good material that I have to give credit where credit is due and admit that the film was a mostly enjoyable rendition of the tale as old as time, even if it can’t hold a candle to Disney’s animated masterpiece.
Personal recommendation: B-
Content Advisory: A couple risqué sight gags, intense scenes of peril and menace. MPAA rating: PG
Suggested Audience: Teens and up
Year of release: 2016. Directed by J. A. Bayona. Starring Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, and Liam Neeson.
As someone who deeply admired Patrick Ness’ 2011 young adult novel A Monster Calls, let me start by getting one (pretty much my only) complaint out of the way. The character of Lily was cut from the film. She’s listed in the credits, which makes me think her scenes were filmed and then cut for time. If you have read the book, it’s easy to guess who she is, but in the film she’s just another student in the background. While the scenes with her aren’t crucial to the plot, in the book there is one moment between her and Connor right before the story’s climax that I found to be the story’s most heartbreakingly beautiful act of compassion toward someone suffering from grief. Needless to say, I was really disappointed it was not included in the film.
That out of the way, A Monster Calls is still really good. Lewis MacDougall impressively does the difficult job of capturing all the conflicting emotions of 12-year-old Connor who is deeply worried about his Mum’s cancer, resents the special treatment he gets because of “what he’s going through,” and doesn’t know how to face his fear and anger. As his Mum, Felicity Jones portrays the concern of a mother who wants to believe she will recover while trying to spare the details of her sickness from her son. Finally, Sigourney Weaver embodies Connor’s stern, no-nonsense Grandmother whose manner of grieving is incomprehensible to a 12-year-old boy.
And then, of course, there is the Monster voiced by Liam Neeson. A yew tree on the far edge of Connor and his Mum’s property, he awakes and comes walking for the seemingly simple task of telling Connor three stories and hearing a fourth from him. Needless to say, Connor thinks he has no time for “stupid stories” and especially despises the fairy-tale trappings of the Monster’s stories. However, as the Monster tells Connor, “Stories are not safe.” They don’t always tell us what we want to hear, and they can often reveal truths about ourselves and others that we don’t want to face. After that speech, it made me think Neeson was cast because he has voiced a lion who is also “not safe.” Either way, it was a great choice on the part of the filmmakers.
The fourth tale that Connor tells the Monster will be the nightmare that has terrorized him ever since his Mum took ill. In the book, we don’t learn what that nightmare is until Connor tells it at the end. The film, however, opens with that nightmare, and the tragic image of Connor letting his mother fall of a cliff as he’s unable to save her hangs over the film, setting up the deepest fear which plagues Connor. For the visual medium of film, it was a good choice to realize Connor’s turbulent emotions which the Monster has come to help him face.
However, Monsters, like stories, are also not safe. We quickly learn that the Monster’s stories are not just fantasies, but they have ramifications in the world as well. The beautiful watercolors which animate the Monster’s stories are brought into Connor’s life in a way which the book hints at, but the film makes explicit, another small change I appreciated. Neeson’s vocalizations range from concerned compassion to threatening rage, and they can change quickly and unpredictably as Monsters are wont to do. In some ways, the Monster reflects Connor’s own emotions which change from anger to sorrow in an instant. The two most devastating actions of Connor are met with unexpected reactions, and Weaver’s response to her grandson’s shocking behavior is one of deep hurt but also understanding.
Understanding from others can be one of the most difficult things to accept when we are grieving, whether it’s from teachers, parents, friends, or even school bullies. (That’s why the scene with Lily I mentioned in the first paragraph should have been included; it’s the first compassionate moment of understanding which Connor accepts, and it comes as a striking contrast right after the bully’s worst treatment of Connor.) Even without that scene, the most perfect example of understanding and empathy is Felicity Jones’ 100 years speech to her son when she acknowledges the pain and anger he feels, and that scene is every bit as eye-watering here as it was in the book.
Fantasy and stories have always been ways of learning, and in A Monster Calls Connor learns they often do not tell us what we want to hear, and they often do not have the happily-ever-after that we desire, but the messily-ever-after they prepare us for makes them dangerous and beautiful, like this film.
Personal recommendation: A-
Content Advisory: Painful themes of parental loss, some rather nasty school bullying, scenes of fantasy violence and peril, and a mildly risqué animation. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested Audience: Teens and up.
Year of Release: 2016 Directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
I like musicals. Actually, that’s not true. I love musicals. My top ten favorite films list includes Singin’ in the Rain, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Sweeney Todd, all of which I have seen more times than I can count. When Criterion released a box set of the complete Jacques Demy films, I purchased it as soon as I could. I enjoy and have defended the artistry of Rob Marshall’s adaptations of Chicago and Into the Woods (his adaptation of Nine, however, is indefensible). I own the complete vocal scores for seven musicals and the vocal selections for countless others. I think Love Me Tonight and All That Jazz are both astonishing works of cinema as well as great musicals, and I routinely encourage everyone to watch the former (the latter being too graphic for a general endorsement). John Carney’s Once and Begin Again both made my top ten for their respective years, and Sing Street stands a decent chance of making my top ten this year. In middle school and high school I wrote two musicals, each over two hours in length (I wrote score, lyrics, and libretto – the musicals were not good, but it’s a testament to how much I love the art form). All that is to say: few things fill me with as much joy as a well made musical, and few things pain me as much as a musical gone wrong.
Naturally, when I heard about La La Land, I was ecstatic. An original musical produced on a lavish scale with extravagant set pieces and vibrant colors is something I am hard wired to love. I instantly caught the Jacques Demy influence in the trailer; Chazelle had proven his directorial chops with Whiplash, a film I respect even though I don’t particularly enjoy it, so I thought his skill would lead to a triumph here. The early raves were all encouraging, and even though the few naysayers convinced me to restrain my expectations, I was still convinced I was going to love La La Land.
I really, really didn’t.
From the first scene, the film failed to transport me the way that a good musical should. The opening set piece during rush hour on the LA freeway is extravagantly staged, fun to watch, and “Another Day of Sun” is an infectious tune that should bring a smile out of anyone, but the film’s focus during what should be a stunning production number is on Chazelle and his bag of directorial tricks. The entire sequence is filmed in one long take, and consequently, the focus is rarely on the dancers but on the camera and the odd positions it must adopt to move from performer to performer. During that number, I was frequently saying to myself, “Cut to a long distance shot so we can see the whole ensemble, or at least zoom out,” followed by, “Don’t violently whir the camera from person to person, cut to them, and time the cuts to match the musical phrases.” There were a few moments in the number when the music and the dance overcame the technical distractions, and the film briefly soared as it was meant to, but sadly, not for the entire scene.
In a nutshell, that is La La Land’s biggest problem. For every wonderful breathtaking moment of inspiring beauty (and there are a lot), there are one or two moments of clunky technical distractions grounding the film to earth.
After the opening set piece, a title card tells us the first segment is titled, “Winter.” We meet Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress and writer who works as a barista to pay the bills, and then Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist with a strong rebellious streak. The segment is bookended by their two rough first meetings. Unfortunately, we don’t learn much about them beyond their occupations and basic personalities. Neither one gets a song to describe their motivations for their dreams, and we are not given any reason that they should be together beyond this is a musical, and that’s traditionally what happens in a musical.
The next segment, “Spring,” is probably the best in the film, and the main reason for that is “A Lovely Night,” the meet cute song and dance for Mia and Sebastian. Gosling and Stone’s dancing is impressive and the framing against the LA sunset works beautifully. It’s the only moment in the film where everything comes together perfectly, due to the stars’ execution and to Chazelle allowing the camera to pull back and observe without intruding. Stone and Gosling’s chemistry is also at its best as their attitudes toward one another change from disdainful to reticent admiration.
“Summer” and “Fall” trace the standard trajectory of a musical romance, and Mia and Sebastian encourage one another to pursue their dreams. The film goes through the expected ups and downs, and it always stays watchable, but it never becomes transcendent.
As good as Stone and Gosling are (and they’re really good), there’s only so much they can do with two characters who are a compilation of every musical cliché. I am aware many great musicals have thinly sketched characters, but all of those musicals have something other than spectacular set pieces to drive the story forward. For instance, Seymour and Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors have little personality beyond their massive lack of self esteem, but that plays directly into the villain’s manipulation which drives the story. The supporting characters in Company have little stage time, but they all have crucial song lyrics that make their characters more unique than Mia or Sebastian are here. The guy and girl in Once don’t even receive names, yet their songs develop their characters much more than the song lyrics or dance sequences in La La Land. (To be fair, “The Fools Who Dream” is a great song which adds a lot of depth to Mia’s character, but that’s undermined by the following scene.)
The most damning flaw throughout the majority of the film is Chazelle’s obnoxious desire to film all songs in one take. The result of such a choice is that he often has to move or position the camera awkwardly, dragging it along walls and missing moments of choreography. Personally, I’m blaming Tom Hooper for doing that in Les Miserables and Alejandro Iñarritu for convincing everyone that long takes are good in of themselves with Birdman.
However, the ending undoes any goodwill I was inclined to give the film. Admittedly, Justin Hurwitz’ score is excellent, Mandy Moore’s choreography is stunning, and the production design is gorgeous. None of that makes up for the sloppy, ham-fisted copying of vastly superior musical. To avoid spoilers I won’t say what musical (although I mentioned it in this review), but after La La Land reaches the conclusion of its story, Chazelle adds a gratuitous coda which has an identical outcome to the ending of said musical. The most offensive aspect is the way in which Chazelle tacks on the coda without setting it up and without the nuance or poignancy it has in the original film. If I hadn’t see that musical, I might not have minded La La Land concluding the same way it does, and I might have found La La Land’s conclusion bittersweet and touching. However, I’ve seen that vastly superior musical countless times, and I’m thinking about watching it right now, so La La Land’s coda struck me as borderline plagiarism.
Also, speaking of distracting copying of other musicals, one of the jazz set pieces used a theme copied directly from another great musical from the same director who made the musical referenced above. Finally, if the poorly copied coda weren’t enough, in the middle of it Chazelle inserts a dream sequence with references to every major musical which influenced La La Land. It’s redundant and only serves to drag out the ending as it screams out how self-aware it is.
Just like The Artist was a silent film for people who had never seen a silent film, La La Land is basically a musical for people who don’t particularly care for musicals. If you want to see La La Land, I’m not going to discourage you, but do yourself a favor and watch several Jacques Demy musicals first, most importantly The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, both of which soar head and heels over this film, and neither of which this film would exist without.
Personal Recommendation: C+
Content Advisory: An instance of profanity, implied premarital cohabitation, and a couple strong vulgarities. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested audience: Teens and up
Year of Release: 2016 Directed by David Ayer. Starring Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Viola Davis, Cara Delevingne, and Jared Leto.
The biggest problem with DC’s latest attempt to set up the Justice League is that Suicide Squad is nowhere near bonkers enough. Given the original premise, it quickly falls back on generic superhero film tropes, playing it safe and sometimes boring. Basically, Suicide Squad is a remake of The Avengers in which the team of superpeople is compromised by their past unethical actions, which we never really see, raising the question: why aren’t these bad guys, bad?
A flashback tells us Will Smith’s Deadshot is a ruthless assassin, but he spends most of the film worrying about his daughter (and repeatedly telling us he’s a bad guy). Diablo (Jay Hernandez) spends all his time worrying his powers will kill people, because of what the film suggests was technically a tragic accident. Honestly, Batman’s (Ben Affleck) sucker punching of Harley Quinn – disturbingly played for laughs – is more unethical than most of the actions of these supposedly evil villains.
Captain Boomerang and Killer Croc (Jai Courtney and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, respectively) merely fill in gaps between set pieces; it would make no difference to the plot if they were taken out. And then there’s Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.
Robbie’s gleeful abandon and scenery chewing is so campy and over-the-top that I couldn’t help enjoy her performance (and, by extension a good chunk of the film as well.) If all the cast had thrown themselves into their characters with equal panache, and if the script had thrown caution to the wind embracing a nonsensical, nonlinear, go-for-broke, style-over-substance method of storytelling, this could have been one of the best superhero films yet. I’m not sure who would constitute the audience for such a film, but I know I’d really enjoy watching it. Wait, that film already exists; it’s called Batman Returns.
Speaking of Burton’s 1992 cos-play camp-fest – which for the record, I think is arguably the best comic book film there is (unquestionably if you exclude Nolan’s Dark Knight) – Michelle Pfeiffer basically played the same type of character that Robbie plays here, and played it better. You could also believe Pfeiffer’s Catwoman was evil and conflicted, unlike Robbie’s Harley Quinn who comes across more as a juvenile delinquent, another undermining of the “bad guys” premise.
As it is, Suicide Squad has glimmers of the campy vitality it needed a lot more of, and for this non-comic book geek, they were enough to make this marginally more enjoyable than Captain America: Civil War. For anyone else who has normal taste, it looks as if Suicide Squad will be roundly hated, which I wouldn’t argue.
Other pluses are director Ayer’s choice to keep the violence on a more contained scale than other recent supertype films, and the choreography of fight scenes is not a chaotic frenzy, even though his color palette quickly becomes monotonous.
As to actual villains, the film gives us three: Viola Davis’ unethical and eminently hateable antiheroine Amanda Waller, Cara Delevingne’s diabolical Aztec witch Enchantress whom the team must assemble to defeat (and whose plan and final confrontation looks like a knock-off of Gozer the Gozerian with updated special effects), and Jared Leto’s Joker who randomly pops in when the script needs him to throw a wrench into the proceedings. Leto has so little screentime, it’s hard to know what to make of his funny voice and creepy sensual antics, other than it seems he’s going out of his way to make sure no one thinks of Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson.
Like many recent superhero films, the script feels overstuffed with too many characters who make no difference to the plot. I appreciated the efficiency of the opening montage in which Waller details who she’s recruiting and gives us a brief overview of their past, but the film takes no time to develop them later, other than Harley Quinn and Deadshot.
For a film that was meant to make us root for antiheroes as they attempted to do some good, I honestly can’t even call these members of the Suicide Squad that. Either we don’t see them as evil, or the few bad choices they make they later regret and wish to avoid repeating. The result is just another superhero film with two (maybe three) memorable characters and a cast of easily forgettable action-fillers. But the soundtrack uses the opening of Bohemian Rhapsody, so let’s bump it up half a letter grade.
Content Advisory: Much action violence, frequent partial rear nudity, unethical behavior throughout, occasional vulgarity, and a few mild obscenities. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment
Personal Recommendation: C+
Directed by Robert Eggers. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, and Harvey Scrimshaw.
Everyone should see The Witch.
Okay. That’s a hyperbolic opening sentence which neither takes into account differences of tastes and sensibilities nor describes what makes The Witch a compelling, thought provoking viewing experience vastly different from most other films. Of course not everyone should see The Witch, but anyone who appreciates thoughtful, challenging works of art which wrestle with faith based questions should give this film a chance.
The Witch is a powerful work of art about faith gone badly wrong and the horrific consequences thereof. While those consequences unquestionably make The Witch a horror film, it’s hardly one I would call scary. Rather, the creepy and unnerving atmosphere, achieved through a perfect blend of fantasy and tragedy, gives the themes of religion, fundamentalism, and destruction of the family a fresh vitality. In other words, both horror aficionados and those who rigidly eschew horror films should throw out any expectations and allow The Witch to unfold in its unusual and spectacular manner.
The story itself is fairly simple: a Puritan family is exiled from their colonial village because the father has been challenging the ways of the towns’ elders, whom he claims are heretics. After they set up their farm on the outskirts of the woods, the infant disappears one day while the oldest is playing peek-a-boo with him. Not long after that, increasingly unusual events begin to plague the family, creating rifts between all the relationships: siblings, spouses, and parents and children.
With its masterful recreation of superstitious, seventeenth century, colonial New England, The Witch transports its audience to an era long since passed where characters behave in ways that make little sense by modern standards. Regrettably, several screenings have had a few audience members’ laughing in shock because they are unable to accept the perspective of characters whose mentality is completely foreign to twenty-first century America. However, the unapologetic immersion in seventeenth century Puritan New England by writer/director Robert Eggers is what makes The Witch so thoroughly engrossing.
Eggers’ script is full of archaic language which would be right at home in a Shakespeare play, and his dialogue frequently focuses on sin and the fear that one might die in sin and thus go to hell. That fear naturally applies to children and infants, and it is a pressing concern for the family, especially young Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), who cannot comprehend what his baby brother did to deserve to go to hell. While his father (Ralph Ineson) acknowledges God’s mercy as a possibility, the strict sect of Puritanism to which the family adheres places an extreme focus on sin and damnation, almost to the point that sin is greater than God’s mercy, a warped perspective which will feature prominently later in the film.
At the center of the story is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), on the verge of becoming a woman, suffering from guilt for losing her infant brother while she was playing peek-a-boo, her mother’s scapegoat for anything that goes wrong on the farm, and increasingly uncertain about the rigid fundamentalism of her faith. The opening shot of her silently staring wide-eyed into the camera portrays a young girl who sees her family’s future jeopardized as her father is banished from the village community. That young girl gradually becomes more assertive through the course of the film, but since her family and religion both devalue her, her journey to adulthood hardly follows a normal trajectory. The two other scenes when she stares directly into the camera frame her mental and spiritual journey. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then the film unnervingly captures a very troubled and lonely soul.
Overshadowing Thomasin’s coming of age and the family grief is the omnipresent threat of a witch in the woods that border the farm. It goes without saying that Thomasin and her family believe in witchcraft, and a very early scene shows the audience the witch. However, the overarching question is whether or not the witch is really a threat or if there is another demonic presence haunting this family. The answers are skillfully suggested throughout, particularly in an early tracking shot which distorts its subject in a brilliant fashion. The final answer will seem perfectly natural to viewers who have bought into the characters and world on display. For those who haven’t, the denouement will probably be the biggest head scratcher in the film. Either way, it pays off in spades.
As a director, Eggers brilliantly chooses what to show and what not to show. He times the cuts to leave just enough room for doubt so that the tragic, fantastic atmosphere is greatly heightened. He places Mark Korven’s visceral, textural score against Jarin Blaschke’s bleak cinematography so that the world of the film is immersive. Finally, his Bergmanesque wrestling with faith, doubt, and isolation suggests a cross between Winter Light and Hour of the Wolf.
It’s very rare to see a film that demands to be seen multiple times to fully digest it. With The Witch, first time feature film director Robert Eggers has crafted such a film.
Content Advisory: Fleeting depictions of disturbing satanic rituals, some gruesome violence, shadowy nudity, and horrific unusual deaths. MPAA rating: R
Suggested audience: Adults with discernment
Personal Recommendation: A