BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

If a description is necessary of Disney’s 2017 live-action re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, let it be this: Moviemaking by committee. Not one frame of this two-hour and nine-minute hollow money grab smacks of personality or identity. Nor does it carry the weight of craft, charm or the unbridled joy found in either the 1991 animated version or the 1946 live-action film from Jean Cocteau. Instead, Beauty and the Beast opts for familiarity, redundancy and unnecessary indulgences that neither expand the world nor reveal uncovered truths.

Sticking close to both the ’91 animated telling and the ’94 Broadway musical that followed, Beauty and the Beast tells the tale of a selfish prince (Dan Stevens) who is bewitched by a sorceress (Hattie Morahan) to look as hideous on the outside as he is on the inside. To lift this curse — which has also entrapped, rather unkindly, his servants — he must open his heart to love and be loved in return. Lucky for the Beast, there is a poor provincial town just across the woods with a young girl named Belle (Emma Watson, bland) who dreams of life out there in the great wide somewhere.

Drawing these star-crossed lovers together is Belle’s father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), who, for rather foolish reasons, becomes a prisoner of the Beast. To free her father, Belle agrees to take his place. While Maurice returns to the village to get help, the servants of the castle release Belle from her tower and try to encourage Beast to open up to her. He does, she reciprocates and all’s well that ends well — after a little skirmish with the townsfolk and a particularly pushy brute (Luke Evans, the best thing in a bad movie).

Chances are the vast majority of Beauty and the Beast’s audience will know the story beat-by-beat, lyric-by-lyric before entering the theater and the writers (Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos) play into that. They tease out the songs and the major set pieces with annoying pregnant pauses; indulging in as much build-up as possible before finally allowing Lumière (Ewan McGregor doing a horrendous French accent) to launch into “Be Our Guest.”

Yes, all the songs from the movie are here. As are a few written for the Broadway musical and two new ones written specifically for the movie. Some are fairly decent — “The Mob Song” is the only number that seems to rouse up any energy — and some are downright dreadful. The great Audra McDonald is on hand as Belle’s wardrobe and unfortunately doesn’t sing every song on the soundtrack. It would have helped if she did.

It also would have helped if Emma Watson had something to react against. Beauty and the Beast is the latest in Disney’s attempts to updated and re-release their canon of animated classics as live-action movies, a term they should use loosely. With inanimate/animate characters like Lumière, Cogsworth (Sir Ian McKellan, who is quite good), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), Chip (Nathan Mack) and Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci) as her co-stars, Watson has little to go off of and meanders around the castle in a perpetual state of confusion. The Belle found in the ’46 version was downright terrified of her seven-foot man-beast captor who lived in a castle where the walls moved. The ’91 Belle, on the other hand, was positively enchanted by the prospect that the stories she’d only read about were coming to life before her very eyes. Either of those reactions seems plausible. Confusion? Not so much. A talking candelabra shouldn’t confuse you; it should either scare the shit out of you or make you jump for joy.

But it’s not the vocal performances, the music, the characterizations or even confused and uneven performances that make Beauty and the Beast a disappointment. It’s the lack of invention and imagination. Even the worse of the Disney animated movies still accomplished a remarkable task: they took a pile of drawings and made them move. And when they excelled, as they did with the ’91 Beauty and the Beast, those drawings moved us in ways that still has us reeling 25 years on. This Beauty and the Beast tries to cash in on the magic without capturing what was behind that fairy dust in the first place. That was the first mistake, the rest just followed suit.

Josh Gad and Luke Evans in Beauty and the Beast. Image courtesy of Disney.

Directed by Bill Condon
Screenplay by Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos
Based on the fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Produced by David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Hattie, Morahan, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Nathan Mack, Stanley Tucci
Walt Disney Pictures, Rated PG, Running time 129 minutes, Opens March 17, 2017
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THE SON OF JOSEPH

The Son of Joseph begins with two young men poking a rat in a steel cage with a prod. The rat scurries from one part of the cage to the other, trying to evade the prod but his efforts are futile. At one point the rat starts to fight back, biting the rod. “Try poking his eyes out,” one tells the other. “I can’t,” the friend responds. “He’s too clever.”

For the next 110 minutes, we are that rat and writer/director Eugène Green is the man prodding us with both his ideas and his style.

Divided into chapters — ‘The Sacrifice of Abraham,’ ‘The Golden Calf,’ ‘The Sacrifice of Issac,’ ‘The Carpenter,’ ‘The Flight Into Egypt’ — and proliferated with religious iconography — Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac hangs on Vincent’s bedroom wall — The Son of Joseph is a movie rife with Biblical references. Resolutely Judeo-Christian, this story of a young man, Vincent (Victor Ezenfis), in search of his biological father instead finds a surrogate, Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione), who is both patient and understanding.

Vincent sets-up Joseph with his single mother, Marie (Natacha Régnier), a quiet woman who likes going to quiet movies, and the two hit it off and Vincent gets both a lover for his mother and a guide. Joseph even convinces Vincent to give up his plan of vengeance against Oscar (Mathieu Amalric) because, as Joseph says, “God is in us. He tells us to love.”

Both a deadpan comedy and a religious allegory, The Son of Joseph is a cross between the works of Robert Bresson and Yasujirō Ozu. Green aims for a movie with a deliberate pace and style that both engages and distances the audience. Much like Ozu, characters speak directly into the camera as if we are on the receiving end on both sides of every conversation. Like Bresson, the performances are stripped of overt emotion, transformed from actors into “models” (Bresson’s word), thereby rendering each line and expression into its basest form.

While this approach works for most of the movie, Green lacks Ozu’s knowing humanity and Bresson’s rigor. Instead, The Son of Joseph tries our patience until we fall into sync with its rhythm and surrender ourselves to its images, which are quite lovely. For some, that moment may come too late and produce too little. So it goes.

Victor Ezenfis, Natacha Regnier, Fabrizio Rongione in The Son of Joseph. Image courtesy of Kino Lorber

Written and Directed by Eugène Green
Produced by Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Didier Jacob, Francine Jacob
Starring: Victor Ezenfis, Natacha Régnier, Fabrizio Rongione, Mathieu Amalric
Kino Lorber, Not Rated, Running time 117 minutes, Opens March 17, 2017
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DONALD CRIED

You can’t go home again, but people certainly do try. Often with disastrous results.

Peter Latang (Jesse Wakeman) left his small Rhode Island home years ago, but the death of his grandmother has beckoned him back to the snowy working-class neighborhood of Warwick. En route, Peter loses his wallet and finds himself stranded on familiar ground. With no one else to turn too, he calls on his former next-door neighbor and childhood friend, Donald (Kris Avedisian).

Peter isn’t exactly thrilled by having to rely on Donald, but Donald couldn’t be happier than to lay eyes on Peter once more. Peter left Warwick in search of New York, money, women and power. Donald didn’t move one iota. Instead, he stayed in the same house, listened to the same heavy metal, slept in the same bed — under a pornographic poster — drove the same minivan and, most likely, kept the same haircut. For Donald, it’s as if time stood still while he was waiting for Peter to return.

Some might take one look at Donald and see him as a man stuck in the past. They would be wrong. Donald isn’t stuck; he chose to remain like this. High school was Donald’s high water mark. His friends were just as awkward and goofy as he was. They were probably pretty bad at school, with girls and with their parents. Who cares? As long as they had each other, some movies to watch, music to listen to and a secret clubhouse to hideaway in, life was manageable.

There is a cringing familiarity to Donald Cried — writer/director Avedisian’s debut film — but it’s not just the discomfort Donald brings Peter. Everyone has at least one Donald in their life. They dread running into them when they go home for holidays and funerals, dread making up excuses for why they never stay in touch and they especially dread falling back into old habits around them. If Donald Cried was strictly about the Donalds of the world who never grew up, then it would be a cruel joke on a specific type of person. Instead, Donald Cried isn’t about the overgrown man-child waiting for you at home, it is about the Peters who leave because they think they’re better than the Donalds.

Sans wallet, Peter must rely on Donald for rides and money. To accomplish this, he connects with Donald just enough to get what he wants: a ride here, a 20-spot there and a couple of joints by the river. There is even the promise of a movie date until the prospect of sex with his realtor (Louisa Krauss) distracts him. The way Donald reacts to this news tells you everything you need to know about their formative years.

If we’ve all known at least one Donald in our lives, then we’ve all been a Peter at one point or another. You can go home again but maybe you shouldn’t. You may not like whom you’ll find there. Especially if it’s you.

Kris Avedisian and Jesse Wakeman in Donald Cried

Directed by Kris Avedisian
Screenplay by Kris Avedisian
Story by Kris Avedisian, Kyle Espeleta, Jesse Wakeman
Produced by Allison Rose Carter, Sam Fleischner, Kyle Martin
Starring: Jesse Wakeman, Kris Avedisian, Louisa Krause
The Orchard, Not Rated, Running time 85 minutes, Opens March 17, 2017
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GET OUT

get-out-posterGet Out opens with a scene that might as well be ripped from a newspaper headlines. Well, maybe it was. Andrew (Lakeith Stanfield), a black man walks alone, at night, along a neighborhood street so quiet, so pleasant, so blandly cookie cutter, it must be a white suburban neighborhood. Andrew talks on his cell phone, trying to locate his friend’s house, when a White Trans Am rolls up on him, pulls a U-turn and slowly follows him. “Not today,” Andrew mutters to himself before doubling back.

The scene is taught with racial tension — this is more than a simple allusion to Trayvon Martin — but Stanfield plays it for laughs. It’s a terrifying situation, one all too familiar to a black man in a suspicious white world. What weapon does he have at his disposal besides gallows humor?

Andrew isn’t the only one who needs to watch his back. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) has been dating Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) for a couple of months and it’s time to meet the parents. They don’t know he’s black — she’s white — but that won’t matter to them. Sure, they’re the upstate country club type but Rose assures Chris that her father loves black people, would have voted for Obama for a third term if he could have. And Mom, well, she’s Mom. They’re parents and as far as Rose is concerned, their only sin is being lame.

As any savvy watcher in the audience knows, this is far from the truth. Chris’s best friend, TSA agent Rod (LilRel Howery) also suspects that a trip upstate is a bad idea. Partly because Rod is on to something and partly because he is weary of white people in general. Chris might be too but he’s trying really hard to be politically correct in a world that isn’t ready to reciprocate. Chris remains guarded but he’s trying to trust. Trust Rose, trust his potential in-laws and trust that America might actually be post-racial.

In the hands of writer/director Jordan Peele, Chris’s plight is equal parts reality and nightmare. When Chris meets Rose’s father, Dean (Bradley Whitford), he is reassured that even though he and Missy (Catherine Keener) have black servants — who behave oddly and are extremely suspicious of Chris — that they are progressive, loved Obama and hold Jesse Owens in high regard, even going so far as to frame a picture of the latter and hang it on their wall — how many white suburban kids slept under a poster of Magic Johnson? Of Michael Jordan? Of Kobe Bryant? But listen to the way Dean says that there is “black mold” in the basement. Chris hears it too. It’s the same tone the police officer used when he asked for Chris’s driver’s license.

What happens at Armitage house is too good, too unusual, too expertly crafted to spoil. Peele may be a comedian by trade but comedy is about timing and being able to tell a story. Get Out is well told, impressively rendered and creepy as all hell. It also sports an awful lot of laughs without labored set-ups or forced punch lines. The whole movie flows with ease as if what happens inside the frame is the most natural and acceptable thing in the world. What a horrible thought.

British actor stars in Get Out from Universal Pictures

British actor Daniel Kaluuya stars in Get Out from Universal Pictures

Written & directed by Jordan Peele
Produced by Jason Blum, Edward H. Hamm Jr., Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Lakeith Stanfield, LilRel Howery
Universal Pictures, Rated R, Running time 103 minutes, Opens February 24, 2017

 

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THE PIRATE

the-pirate-poster

If I didn’t laugh I should be very annoyed. —Manuela

On the island of Calvados in the 18th century, little orphan Manuela is all grown up and ready to be married off to a rich suitor. He is the rotund mayor, Don Pedro (Walter Slezak), but she (Judy Garland) dreams of being swept away by the handsome and dashing pirate, Mack “the Black” Macoco.

Enter an acting troupe led by the wonderfully hammy Serafin (Gene Kelly), a hoofer dolled up with a chevron mustache and a John Barrymore wig. Serafin falls for Manuela and upon learning that she desires to be Macoco’s bride pretends to be the infamous pirate to woo her. It works, but it pisses off Don Pedro, who is, in fact, Macoco in hiding, and plots to have Serafin hanged for Macoco’s crimes.

Released in 1948, The Pirate is pure pleasure. With direction by Vincent Minnelli — his third film with wife Garland — music by Cole Porter and choreography by Kelly, The Pirate zips and sings with sure footed panache. It’s a farce, complete with cheesy sets, hammy acting and ridiculous plot twists, but the players all know what material they are working with and work wonders with its silly premise.

The movie’s show-stopping song and dance number, “Be a Clown,” which features the incomparable Nicholas Brothers, might best describe the movie’s modus operandi.

If you become a doctor, folk’s face you with dread
If you become a dentist, they’ll be glad when you’re dead
You’ll get a bigger hand if you can stand on your head
Be a clown, be a clown, be a clown.

Much like John L. Sullivan’s third act realization in Sullivan’s Travels, laughter is “all some people have. It isn’t much but it’s better than nothing.”

The Pirate has plenty of laughs — particularly when Manuela gets so furious with Serafin that she starts shrieking — plenty of color and a whole lot of clowns.

Gene Kelly and Judy Garland perform "Be a Clown" in The Pirate

Gene Kelly and Judy Garland perform “Be a Clown” in The Pirate

Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett
Produced by Arthur Freed
Starring: Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Walter Slezak, George Zucco, Gladys Cooper, The Nicholas Brothers
MGM, Not Rated, Running time 102 minutes, Released May 20, 1948
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PICKPOCKET

pickpocket-french-poster

A while back my good friend Pablo Kjølseth — the master behind CU-Boulder’s International Film Series — asked me to guest write a post for TCM’s Movie Morlocks, now retitled Streamline in conjunction with FilmStruck. I chose to write about one of Robert Bresson’s best, Pickpocket.

An excerpt:

Above all things, cinema is a style. Movies are a glorious and exciting exploration of the human condition, but without style, the images simply hang to the screen, failing to be anything more than a light flickering on a blank canvas.

That’s why those who crack the code are so lauded, and few have been as voraciously lauded as the French director, Robert Bresson (1901-1999). Though he only made 13 features over the course of four decades, every one of his films bear a signature style, the mark of a master.

Full review here: http://streamline.filmstruck.com/2015/09/20/pickpocket/

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LA STRADA

la-strada-posterA while back my good friend Pablo Kjølseth — the master behind CU-Boulder’s International Film Series — asked me to guest write a post for TCM’s Movie Morlocks, now retitled Streamline in conjunction with FilmStruck. I chose to write about one of Federico Fellini’s best, La Strada.

An excerpt:

Fellini began his career as Roberto Rossellini’s assistant director and one-time actor (L’amore, 1948) while Rossellini was helping to develop Italian neorealism. But the kind of neorealism Fellini adopted was not the harshness of post-war existence — as depicted in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. — but of a Franciscan variety. Fellini’s neorealism includes a deep and forgiving love for all of God’s creatures and that love is on display in La Strada’s final scene with Zampanò’s break down on the beach while the waves lap away at the shore. A motif runs through Fellini’s best works. Here, the dream runs out of steam, and the only thing left to confront are the Heavens. For La Strada, Fellini closes with Zampanò’s agony. Three years later, Fellini gave Masina her due and closed Nights of Cabiria with her beautiful, life-affirming smile.

Full article here: http://streamline.filmstruck.com/2015/11/01/la-strada/

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