Thursday, March 30, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: A Provincial Remake, But Some New Magic Flickers

Dan Stevens and Emma Watson in Disney's remake of "Beauty and the Beast"
“You can’t judge people by who their father is,” Mrs. Potts sagely intones. This preoccupation with parentage is new to this version of Beauty and the Beast, Bill Condon’s half-enchanting, half-enervating remake of the 1991 animated classic. But while Mrs. Potts’ wisdom is undeniable—she speaks in the voice of Emma Thompson, after all—it is impossible to view this latest child of Disney without considering the long shadow cast by its progenitor. Every work of art must be judged on its own terms, yet the question lingers: Was there a genuine reason to make this movie, an artistic justification beyond the piles of cash that the studio is already raking in? Or, to turn another of Mrs. Potts’ observations into a question, is there something there that wasn’t there before?

Yes and no. Operating under the all-seeing mandate of a corporate overlord, Condon and his screenwriters, Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, have transported the original’s two-dimensional drawings into spit-and-glue live action with a predictable degree of fidelity. This immediately lowers the remake’s ceiling; imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is perhaps the laziest form of filmmaking. Yet this new incarnation of Beauty and the Beast, while expectedly faithful to the original, is not entirely a retread. Narratively, it has some additional backstory, which is arguably extraneous but which nevertheless adds heft to the movie’s thematic interest in the bond between parents and their offspring. Musically, beyond the instantly hummable hits from one of the biggest-selling soundtracks of the ’90s, it exhibits a handful of original songs, several of which are lousy but a few of which are actually pretty good. And of course, it features the services of a litany of estimable British and American actors, who help imbue an otherwise commercial enterprise with artisanal craft.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Kong: Skull Island: Doing the Monster Mash, Upriver in Vietnam

Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston take a gander at King Kong in "Skull Island"
One of the lasting lessons of Jaws was that shrouding your monster in mystery elevates its threat level; over the film’s first half, we grow to appreciate the terrifying power of its man-eating shark, but we don’t actually see the beast for well over an hour. Kong: Skull Island may aspire to the heights of classic ’70s cinema, but it deems this particular piece of Spielbergian wisdom to be hogwash. Here, we glimpse the titular ape almost instantly, and while he’s obscured by shadow during the prologue, by the time the first main set piece rolls around, we’re treated to the sight of King Kong in all his massive glory. He’s big, he’s mean, and you had better believe that he’s going to knock your puny little helicopter right out of the sky.

Subtle and suspenseful, this is not. But while Kong: Skull Island is undeniably blockheaded, its bluntness is also kind of disarming. Here is an unpretentious big-budget movie that is unapologetic in its prioritization of action and spectacle. If you want thoughtful storytelling or complex characters, go to the art house. Here there be monsters.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Logan: For Ailing Hero, a Road Trip and a Reckoning

Hugh Jackman returns one last time as the Wolverine in "Logan"
The most valid criticism of Marvel movies is that they’re all the same. That’s an exaggeration, certainly, but there’s an undeniable whiff of formula that pervades the MCU, a familiarity that sometimes slips into complacency. The oversized casts, the pithy banter, the FX-laden fight scenes, the mundane aesthetic, the cameos and the fan service and the post-credits stingers—all of these combine to form a brand that, while powerful and successful, threatens innovation and disdains originality. (My favorite MCU entry, Guardians of the Galaxy, is delightful in part because it is only tenuously connected to its eponymous universe.) Some of the individual titles are good, others are bad, but few even try to be great.

Logan, the seventh movie to feature Hugh Jackman as the Wolverine (ninth if you count his single-scene appearances in X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Apocalypse), is not a great movie. Its villains are bland, its action sequences are mediocre, and its pacing is occasionally sluggish. These are flaws that would cripple most comic-book movies. But Logan, which was directed by James Mangold from a script he wrote with Scott Frank and Michael Green, is not most comic-book movies. A welcome outlier in a cinematic landscape of alarming uniformity, it is decidedly unlike its peers: bold, thoughtful, and surprisingly powerful. Above all, it is distinctive.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Get Out: The Stepford Jives

Daniel Kaluuya in Jordan Peele's horror movie "Get Out"
The hero of Get Out suffers. Over the course of the movie, he is assaulted, humiliated, choked, tied up, shot at, and regularly deprived of his physical and personal liberty. It’s a crucible of pain. But nothing is more terrifying, more indignifying, than when he’s forced to hobnob at a fancy garden party with a bunch of rich white people.

OK, I’m exaggerating. But Get Out, the first feature by comedian Jordan Peele, is more than just another fright flick. It’s a film that examines, with insight, empathy, and anger, the challenge of being a black man in white America. Peele is not exclusively interested in making you jump out of your seat (though he proves plenty good at that). He also wants to clamp you to your chair and make you grapple with the current state of race relations in this country, to wrestle with his characters’ prejudices and maybe even your own.