Live-action ‘Beauty and the Beast’ a cashgrab snore

Disney continues its run of uninspired, derivative live-action adaptations with “Beauty and the Beast.” Directed by Bill Condon, the film follows Belle (Emma Watson) as she meets the Beast (Dan Stevens) who… well, you know the plot.

The film feels more like an excuse to photograph lavish set design as its story is exactly the same as the animated film. Right down to the jokes pretty much, there is nothing new in this film, and the end result is that the movie is boring. You know what’s going to happen exactly as it happens. So while it’s pretty to look at, that’s no excuse for good story.

The cast is fine for the most part. Luke Evans is adequate as Gaston in a role that is far too villainous for its own good. Emma Watson does an okay job with Belle, but Dan Stevens as the Beast, in all his CGI monstrosity, is distracting. All the digital effects substitute realism for design and the result is a disconnect with whatever story we have. Special effects are supposed to blend in with the story, not be a central focal point.

In conclusion, the film is less a film than a mass marketing enterprise. It sells nostalgia instead of ingenuity. It sells it well though. The film has grossed half a billion dollars in the United States. Instead of nothing ventured, nothing gained, Disney has finally achieved nothing ventured, millions gained.

 

‘Selma’ a stirring film

Director Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” could easily have been another standard biopic, an awards-based driven film that uses Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy for its own Oscar potential. Thankfully, the filmmakers have wisely kept such chest pounding to a minimum as the story focuses on only a brief section of Dr. King’s life, the period of time in Selma, Alabama where blacks were voting rights drew national headlines. Much like Lincoln” two years earlier, seeing a great man act in a single event helps reveal his past, his message and the hope he instills for the future.

David Oyelowo gives a terrific performance as Dr. King, carefully blending oratory, humility and fear together in a searing portrait that gives the audience a bit of the man behind the legend. Carmen Ejogo stars as Coretta Scott King in a much too brief role, the dynamic between them really the anchor of the film, the struggle between love for the cause and love of the family. As the drama in the state begins to accelerate and pressure is put on government officials such as Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) over the rights of minorities as well as the general safety of everyone involved, the film ramps up the drama and tension to great effect, providing a parallel to our own times with recent events such as Ferguson, Missouri and other instances of police brutality. Whether intentional or not, these parallels give the film an urgent feeling of a need for righteousness.

While the overall film is very strong and the central message both timeless and current, there are some elements of the film that are a bit manipulative. Several protesters are designed as overly sympathetic, meant to pull on heartstrings. This feels manufactured and more rounded characters, with real flaws, would have produced just as strong an emotional reaction. The film also categorizes people as either racist or not, and various levels of gray between the two would have added more balance. And the presence of Oprah, while certainly a strong performance, pulls the viewer out of the story onscreen, same as the abundance of star-laden roles in “12 Years a Slave” pulled the viewer out of that story. For films about the importance of the everyday person and how groups of dedicated anonymous citizens can positively influence the world, it is usually stronger to focus on actual unknown actors rather than stars.

Some may find issue with how President Johnson is portrayed and whether or not his hesitation with the voting rights issue was true. While this is certainly a valid point, without opposition from the White House, the film would not be as strong and the message of needing to promote the general welfare despite politics would not carry across. What matters most of all is that President Johnson did sign the Voting Rights Act and his legacy is secure enough (or tarnished depending on your point of view) to not be influenced by a single film.

The violence and a call to action in “Selma” feel real. The film’s greatest achievement is its ability to not only recollect the past, but also tie in the message of equality to the present and give the audience a view of a still unfinished journey in this country. Whether that journey will ever be completed remains to be seen, but as long as movies like “Selma” continue to remind us of the roads we have crossed and have yet to cross, the call to action will not die.

 

‘American Honey’ starts strong but fizzles

Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, “American Honey” tells the story of Star (Sasha Lane), a poor girl from Texas who decides to join a ragtag group of young adults trying to sell magazines in the Midwest. She is recruited by the charming but shifty Jake (Shia LaBeouf), whom she falls for.

The film starts out promising, really putting you in the action of the story as Star takes a flyer on this group of “rejects.” Her desperation for survival and her attraction to Jake really shine through and the camerawork makes you feel as if you are really there.

However, the film is nearly three hours long, and by the middle of the story, the viewer knows where the narrative is going which really makes the last half feel especially cumbersome.

It’s a shame because the story as a parable is very interesting; a modern-day Oliver Twist set in the Great Recession. Some stronger editing and a stronger ending would have really made the film a winner.

‘Captain Fantastic’ a solid if unspectacular film

Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic” tells the story of Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a dad who raises his 6 kids in the woods of the Pacific Northwest away from civilization, which he believes to be tainted. When the kid’s mother dies, he is forced to begin a trek with his family out into the “normal” world to attend her funeral.

Viggo Mortensen is terrific in the lead role, displaying a great balance of acceptance, anger and humility over the situation. Each of the child actors performs very well, and they all have great chemistry together.

The film starts off very promising, posing questions about the affects of consumerism on the family, the value of connecting with nature and the role of fatherhood. It is a prototypical road-trip movie and follows the formula well.

However it peters out near the film’s conclusion as the theme becomes a bit muddy. Is Ben crazy to try and raise his family without outside interference? Is he admirable? Was the kid’s mother’s final wish a reflection of her personality or an effect of her mental instability? What is the film trying to say? The movie has trouble making its final say.

But in the end, the film is enjoyable, brisk and interesting. It won’t stick with you for long, but it’s not a waste of your time either.

‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’ a solid work of craftsmanship

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) tells the story of Riggan (Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor known for playing the superhero Birdman in a number of films, as he tries to stage a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a last desperate plea for true artistic brilliance. He is forced to deal with a dwindling budget, his demanding agent (Zach Galifianakis), squabbling actors (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and his recently-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone), all while tackling the little voice in the back of his head that continually reminds him how much of a failure he has been throughout his life (which also just happens to be his Birdman alter ego).

The film creates the illusion that it was shot in one continuous take, various effects used to hide the cuts. By removing the cuts in the film, the viewer is forced to stay with the characters continuously, never having the luxury of an edit to escape the drama onscreen. At times, this becomes a bit of a show-off technique and distracts from the plot, some of the scene transitions a bit overdone, but the effect is nevertheless compelling and commendable for a movie of this type.

Michael Keaton steals the show for his portrayal of Riggan. His own self-doubt echoes in every frame of his performance. The rest of the cast is also very good, especially Edward Norton and Emma Stone, who portray their incredibly flawed characters with a strong degree of empathy.

The film is able to balance comedy and drama in a very compelling way, keeping both in check as Riggan breaks down over the course of the film. It is an incredibly raw vision of life, full of love and hate for the self, for others and for the world. Films that are able to balance both humor and tragedy carry a richness with them that creates an encompassing feeling for the viewer, and Birdman, with a few tonal discrepancies, handles this balance very well.

What is most interesting about Birdman however, is how many themes it manages to juggle without toppling over into incoherence. The film is about how self-love and self-loathing are equally present in ourselves, the inability of true works of art to overcome works of pedestrian violence and sex, how pressure and failure can drive you over the edge, how motivations can actually mean little in the grand scheme of things, how an age of instant media can create sensationalism for sensationalism’s sake, among a list of other things. Indeed, there are so many interpretations from just one viewing that multiple screenings are sure to elicit further theories. The film rustles inside the viewer’s head, and that is all an audience member can ask of a movie nowadays.

‘Steve Jobs’ a blast

One of the complaints you often hear about biopics is that they don’t get the facts right. They take too many liberties with the source material and distort their subjects so much that it becomes a disservice to the individual. And while this is true in some circumstances (“A Beautiful Mind” (2001) for instance), it is unrealistic to expect biographical truth from any film. The human life is too complex, too nuanced, too multi-dimensional to completely capture in two hours. All we can expect is a dramatization that captures the spirit of the individual. So it is that “Steve Jobs”, the latest biopic of the famed computer whiz, directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin, captures the spirit and complexity of its titular subject.

Jobs, played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender, is presented as a megalomaniac, running over anyone who doesn’t follow his lead. The real Jobs’ widow attempted to shut down the production of the film because of its harsh portrayal, but there is no denying that just based on the facts of the man’s life, his refusal to recognize his daughter, his firing and return to Apple and his strained relationship with co-inventor Steve Wozniak, that the man was no saint. The film expertly captures the dark nature of the booming computer business from the 1980s into the 1990s, and Jobs represents the struggle at the top of the food chain, the man who refuses to be swept aside, who knows that his vision is the only one that can bring about the revolution the world deserves. So while he is indeed a jerk, he is also an icon that has transformed the world, and the film views him as such.

The film is structured in three specific acts, each featuring the debut of a new Jobs’ product: the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT cube in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. The same characters keep appearing in these scenes as well, each helping to peel back a layer of Jobs: Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld, Katherine Waterston as Chrisann Brennan and three different actresses (Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo and Makenzie Moss) playing Jobs’ daughter, Lisa.

Jobs spends the film arguing with those around him, taking credit for things he likes, bashing things he doesn’t, using people as a means to an end. He mentions during one of his fights with Wozniak that, “Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.” He is the conductor of the computing world, pushing everyone he knows to reach the apex of technological perfection. And with tried and true Sorkin-esque dialogue, it is an impressive display of barbs, quips and put downs.

This is not to say the film does not have issues. It goes by so fast sometimes that it is difficult to keep up. Jobs borders so heavily on unlikable that many may simply lose compassion in the man (though his personal drive makes him endlessly interesting). And there is not a complete conclusion, the third act ending abruptly on a somewhat predictable note.

But Sorkin, Boyle and Fassbender are all at the top of their game. It is a moving, heartfelt film that illuminates one of the 20th century’s most interesting individuals. It reminds us that we are still in the midst of the technological revolution, but no one has yet to take the baton from our previous conductor.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” a lackluster end to the franchise

“The Hunger Games” franchise has always suffered from two contrasting factors pulling it in opposite directions; the one pushed by the studio trying to make a teen pop sensation, filled with love triangles and movie stars and glitzy action, and the other pushed by the source material, somber and melancholic, filled with allusions to revolutions and dystopian futures. Those conflicts come to a head in the final installment, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 2.”

Directed by Francis Lawrence, the film picks up right where the last film left off, with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) recovering from her injuries after a brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), tried to kill her. Determined to kill President Snow (a fantastic Donald Sutherland), the man who has caused her and so many others such heartache, Katniss blows past the leader of the resistance, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), and sets off on a daring mission to infiltrate the Capitol headquarters, assisted by a band of fellow soldiers, including her longtime friend/romantic interest, Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

While the last film was a mostly humdrum, sleep-inducing affair, this final film is filled with action pretty much from the get-go. The action sequences themselves are not particularly impressive, but they are engaging enough.

The problem is that the film could really say so much more about the current political climate and how violence has become a form of entertainment and how social revolutions transpire, but the storyline is bogged down by its need to adhere to a PG-13 rating and emphasize its teen appeal.

Jennifer Lawrence appears tired of the role of Katniss and who can blame her; with each successive film, the concept has grown more and more stale. Without any actual Hunger Games in the final two films, the interest in the story is markedly lower. It certainly does not help that the third book is the weakest written of the three, with Katniss having few substantial decisions in the plot. With her on the sidelines being swallowed up by events out of her control, the viewer loses emotional stakes in the character. She really needs to be front and center, directly confronting the forces of antagonism with legitimate stakes in her life, regardless of what’s written in the books (the conclusion of the film is a prime example of a protagonist needing to participate more). It can not be stated enough that film adaptations work best when the source material is used as a guideline, not a blueprint. Katniss simply needs to drive the plot more for there to be sustained interest in the movie.

The film is also in such a rush to get through the narrative that it cares little for potential character-building moments. For that reason, the emotional impacts of many important moments are lessened because we are not fully immersed in the character’s lives. It is another one of the problems of splitting films in parts and releasing them years apart; the halves are not as powerful as their sum.

The film is exciting at times, moving at others, but really feels like a missed opportunity as it is more of a by-the-numbers project. Film series should built up to their conclusions and “The Hunger Games” got less interesting with each passing sequel.

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