Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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Dressed for the occasion, but who wears it better?: Walt Disney Pictures

Even for Disney, it’s an audacious move to out-musical your own musical. THE JUNGLE BOOK upped the spectacle and downplayed the songs, CINDERELLA was out to make sense of its protagonist in her time and place and again skipped the singing. Their latest glossy remake BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is the animated film and more, with faithful reproductions of iconic images and songs, orchestration and choreography all amped-up and given real broadway oomph.

A vain and greedy prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed to live as a beast until he can inspire true love through his actions rather than his appearance. When ahead-of-her-time dreamer Belle (Emma Watson) comes across the Beast’s cursed castle while searching for her missing father, two of society’s outcasts find an unexpected connection.

As unnecessary as this remake in theory is (the animation being one of those near-perfect examples of the form), director Bill Condon and every artist and craftsman involved do this re-telling justice. Alan Menkin returns along with Tim Rice to embellish the already beautiful songs (I loved the liberal sprinkling of notes on the harpsichord throughout and the unexpectedly dark additional line about war widows in “Gaston”).  Rest assured, the new rendition of “Be Our Guest” is truly glorious, one of the most impressive musical numbers I’ve seen and understandably the most expensive in history since Emma Watson is the only “real” element in the hugely complex sequence.  Watson, Stevens and Ewan McGregor as candelabra maître d’ Lumière all show off their formidable vocal range and Luke Evans may well have been born for his role belting out songs as the ultimate goofy narcissistic baddie Gaston.

They had to get the central pairing spot-on, and though Watson is charming and Stevens able to convey a lot of pain and disguised vulnerability through his sexy-Beast CG makeup, I wasn’t as instantly compelled by their relationship as I was in the animated version. Maybe it was because the animated Beast was more bestial in his appearance and physicality, his contrast with and love for Belle more marked, whereas Stevens’ Beast is a very tall and attractive man with big blue eyes, velvety fur and hipster beard (Belle even cheekily asks him if he’d consider growing it back when he returns to human form at the end). But then Beast shows, and gifts, Belle his library and with it his heart,and they had me. The couple connect through a love of literature, feeling outcast and pain in their past (more explicit in this version) and present. Anyone who doesn’t feel their heart flutter slightly as the unlikely couple begin their tentative and tender waltz clearly left their heart outside.

The production design, from lovingly crafted costumes to meticulously detailed and  decorated sets and CG character designs, is decadent. The opening sequence featuring Beast’s initial transformation at a extravagant ball (Stevens looking and acting like a silent movie LeStadt) grounds the world in time and place and gives the designers cues to draw upon throughout as we rely increasingly more on CG to populate this story. The rich colours, glittering gilt and marble and expansive spaces with iridescent light were almost too much to take in in IMAX, especially as Belle and Beast whirled around the ballroom.

I will say the film’s early steps are slightly faltering, introductions unnecessarily stretched out and I’d have liked some references to Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE beyond “handy” wall lighting, especially considering Condon’s choice of French end credits. Though the film is currently the longest of Disney’s remakes, I think it could have also stood to be longer still to expand on some of the briefer musical sequences. Disney may have out-musicaled their own musical, but if money wasn’t an object (and bring Disney, it probably wasn’t)  then this could have been pushed even further.

Beauty and the Beast does not disappoint, in fact it dazzles. Condon emphasises theatricality in all things and brings out the story’s innate melodrama through an accomplished ensemble singing their hearts out in stunning surroundings. Only great passion could have justified this remake, and that is what comes across above all else: love for these characters, this music and this world. SSP

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Review in Brief: Eddie the Eagle (2016)

EDDIE THE EAGLE does exactly what it needs to do. It’s undemanding and feelgood, and wisely doesn’t claim Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) changed sport in any lasting way (he didn’t). Eddie himself even admits that he is only allowed to compete because Olympic officials couldn’t be bothered to change the rules for qualification for half a century.The ski-jumping scenes are visceral and exciting, making great use of Gopro-style cameras to capture the fear and adrenaline of the athletes. Matthew Margeson’s Vangelis-riffing soundtrack in reassuringly 80s. The sporting movie clichés are out in force, with early success halted by a grievous career-threatening injury, the team have their fallouts and there’s at least three training montages. Olympic sport has become institutionalised, officially sanctioned and without colourful madmen, and that’s a real shame, but telling the stories of these quirky and unique talents still has appeal, especially when it’s presented in such a likeable fashion. SSP

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Review in Brief: Supersonic (2016)

I like Oasis as a band, I don’t love them. Both Gallaghers are magnetic, but incredibly abrasive personalities. SUPERSONIC is Oasis in their own words, so you do get the arguments and the clashes, but no major revelations. “Liam’s got a better walk than me” says Noel mockingly when asked about his brother’s positive points. I really liked the scene reconstructions taking audio recordings and applying them to cleverly edited archive footage (credit to SEX & DRUGS & ROCK & ROLL director Mat Whitecross for entertainingly twisting reality) but elsewhere it feels very style over substance. I think Noel probably over-estimates the band’s impact on the music world at large, but if the band are directly involved, you’re not exactly going to contradict him are you? Yes, Noel is talented (as far as I’m concerned, he is Oasis) but the band’s charisma and catchy riffs can only take them so far. Definitely one for the fans. SSP

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Review: Eagle vs Shark (2007)

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Who says games are destroying our social skills?: New Zealand Film Commission/Unison Films

You can always spot a Taika Waititi project, and EAGLE VS SHARK is unmistakably that. He’s got a unique comic voice and an appealing sideways view of the more painful and complex aspects of our world. Just look at how he juxtaposes a mortifying death with an awkwardly hilarious funeral scene straight after in HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE, or how characters grapple for meaning and understanding in this, his feature debut. He also likes silly songs, which is very endearing in a filmmaker.

Lily (Loren Taylor) is lonely and unfulfilled, until she gets to know fellow misfit Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) at a costume party. An odd romance blossoms and Lily travels with Jarrod back home so he can confront his arch-enemy.

“Life is full of hard bits, but between all the hard bits are some lovely bits” as mused by Lily may be one of the most simply profound meditations on our short time on Earth I’ve ever heard. Taylor co-wrote the story with Waititi and this quote is typical of the low-key wit of the script at large (another highlight is Jarrod’s botched attempt at a threatening phone call, “Tell him justice is waiting for him” / “OK Justin, I’ll tell him”.

If NAPOLEON DYNAMITE explored crippling battles with depression and played violent video games instead of drawing ligers, it would probably turn out something like this. A hugely dysfunctional family, colourful locals and a protective, small-town mentality towards unusual behaviour (especially if said unusual behaviour happens to belong to a member of your family).

I like that the film doesn’t make excuses for Jarrod’s behaviour. He comes across as a tool, just as he should. He’s a tool with depression, and we should feel sympathy for him, but we should also feel for the misery he puts his family and Lily through. Anyone who’s been through similar experiences with a family member or friend will likely find their heartstrings plucked most painfully by seeing how Jarrod’s dad (Brian Sergent) closes himself off to his family and the world at large following an immense loss, but equally you’ll feel for Jarrod unable to confront his issues healthily or prove himself in his father’s eyes.

There’s an absolute killer of a scene towards the end that sums up what has gone wrong with Jarrod’s fractured family, when Lily asks Jarrod’s dad to answer what should be a very easy question about his son. Animals are key to the story, and at the same time not relevant at all. Our cute-peculiar pair get to know each other at an “animal party” and identify with and feel a connection to creatures they feel a bond with, and misidentifying with an animal, or having someone else misjudge your character causes much pain and upset. Stop-motion animation is also used sparingly, but to moving effect in realising a symbolic companion piece. Who’d have thought mouldy apples could be affecting?

Eagle vs Shark is a pleasantly surprising and sometimes profound dramedy packed with Waititi’s trademark quirks. It’s a small story without spectacle, but also an intimate one which refuses to simplify mental illness and its impact on friends and family. This could have been a downer, but Waititi and Taylor have a light touch and help to make this a quirky highlight of last decade. SSP

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Review in Brief: Justice League Dark (2017)

JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK is appropriately dark and pleasingly weird, with incantations, jumping between plains of reality and a giant poo monster charging round a hospital. Yes, you read that last one right. It’s not every day you see Batman (Jason O’Mara) forced to take a back seat and leave saving the day to those with the right skill set, but that’s the intriguing premise here. It’s nice to have a group of comic book characters the vast majority won’t be that familiar with (Constantine, Zatana and Swamp Thing among others) and coming to learn what they’re about on the job, as it were. After some sleuthing and an entertaining spellcasting duel, the film unfortunately ends in the standard superhero battle in a city (not far enough removed from the second half of SUICIDE SQUAD for me) but there’s more than enough oddness and neat visuals to recommend. SSP

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Netflix Original Triple Bill: Ghosts, More Ghosts & Greetings Cards

Another day and still a load of original content produced for streaming on Netflix. As ever it’s a varied(ish) bunch and I’d sooner recommend some efforts than others.

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Haunted house calling: Netflix

I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE (2016) Yes, it’s another haunted house story where a rich invalid still lives inexplicably alone in a ridiculously creepy house. It’s Gothic central. It’s not at all original plot-wise, but the same can’t be said for the way this story is told or for its unique aesthetic.

Director Oz Perkins and DP Julie Kirkwood do some really interesting things with lighting and focus to build the creepy atmosphere. At times your eyes are made to strain, the camera refocuses as your own vision does…then you see something. Or you think you did. The story is a real slow-burner, but the payoff is unnerving and Ruth Wilson’s performance keeps the whole thing together.

The narration might be a bit overwrought, the framing devices (probably intentionally) confusing, and what did and didn’t really happen is left very ambiguous, which might not be to every viewer’s taste (I don’t really mind). The film starts off trying to say something profound about ghosts, pretty much the same that was said with THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, and though it never quite reaches that height, it marks out Perkins as a talent with a distinctive style to watch for in future.

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Pitching to the phantoms: Netflix

SPECTRAL (2016) This is the kind of film that has soldiers shooting at a ghost, and when that doesn’t work and their bullets pass straight through their target, they switch to heavier ammunition. Of course, when they work out the ghosts are allergic to iron, they conveniently end up in an iron foundry for a HOME ALONE tooling-up montage.

It so wants to be a supernatural version of ALIENS, even down to including a Newt-alike, but the characters just aren’t there. There’s no memorable dialogue or any meaningful moments among the grey action. Also, the poster made it look like James Badge Dale had a laser sword, which he doesn’t (it’s actually a camera that sees in a different spectrum) so I felt a bit cheated.

As shonky as SPECTRAL is for the most part, I’ve got to give Dale props for throwing in “If I reverse the polarity” in his tech babble speech and managing to keep a straight face. In fact, he’s such a consistently reliable actor he almost sells the whole silly concept. This might have made a cool video game, or even a passably entertaining TV series with more time for characters and world-building, but it doesn’t make a one-off movie that’s anything more than drab and unaffecting.

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The only face for card shopping: Netflix

GIRLFRIEND’S DAY (2017) Here’s an idea for BETTER CALL SAUL fans: let’s whet their appetite for Season 3 with something nowhere near as good that still stars Bob Odenkirk. Let’s give them something that thinks it’s THE BIG LEBOWSKI but is probably closer to the Coens’ LADYKILLERS remake. This has nothing to do with the Coens, but it’s clearly what they were shooting for with deadpan black comedy and every supporting character being needlessly quirky.

Sadly, Odenkirk doesn’t get to play Saul Goodman again. Ray Wentworth is Saul after a purge of life and soul. He still drives a rubbish car, is down on his luck and is framed in Hopper-esque wide shots, but he is a poor cousin of the dirty lawyer with a heart of gold.

The film has an appealing weird streak running through it (I hope there really is an alternative bar only frequented by those working in the greetings card industry out there), but it feels chopped to bits and Lord knows what the message was supposed to be. I know it didn’t really matter what the inside of the Girlfriend card said, but it does matter what an audience was meant to feel at the end of this, and I mostly just felt bewildered.

Best of the bunch: I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, because it’s got a clear gameplan and artistry on its side. SSP

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Review in Brief: David Brent: Life on the Road (2016)

Things haven’t gone too well for David Brent (Ricky Gervais) even by the standard of the last time we saw him on THE OFFICE. Now he’s just a guy and not the boss, no one is obliged to put up with his rubbish anymore. In LIFE ON THE ROAD he’s the most tragic he’s ever been; just as inappropriate and blind to the discomfort of others as ever, but now chucking every penny to his name at a rock tour that doesn’t leave Berkshire. The songs are just bad enough to be comic songs, but well performed enough to be conceivably real. This line is exploited wonderfully in a coda at the end that establishes which real pop star Foregone Conclusion ended up performing with after Brent (mild spoiler) returns to his office job. The film admittedly sags at points, but the cringe-factor is still there and even after all these years you love to hate spending more time in this sad little man’s company. SSP

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Review in Brief: Train to Busan (2016)

It must be a nightmare thinking up new ways to portray zombies, but the walking-seizuring, rictus-grinning infected of TRAIN TO BUSAN are certainly original, creepy and funny creations. You don’t need much of a shake-up in terms of the confined location – we’ve had zombies in a mall, zombies in an apartment block, zombies in an airport, zombies in a North London pub – so zombies on a train isn’t a stretch. This is classic South Korean genre fare, with black comedy and broad slapstick to accompany the horror, and as a Korean export, it’s also a zombie film where you don’t see a gun until the last 5 minutes of screen time. There’s no reason for it to be 2 hours long, and the latter stages of the journey feel padded and unnecessary, but with an incredibly likeable bunch of characters and a worthwhile message (be a good person even in the worst of situations) it’s a pretty satisfying ride. SSP

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Review: Moonlight (2016)

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Magic in the moonlight: A24/Plan B Entertainment

It took winning the big Oscar for it to come to my local cinema, but MOONLIGHT was well worth the wait.

The life and times of Chiron (Alex R Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) as he tries to find his place in the world through childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

This is hypnotically dreamlike storytelling with the camera drifting through life just as the characters do. DP James Laxton either hangs close characters’ faces, taking in every nuance minutely or we float along just out of reach as they seek the answer to who they are. You’re in a trance of pristine visuals, fluid storytelling and heart-wrenching performances throughout. Mainstream film hasn’t had a notable example of magic-realism for a while, and it’s a joy to see the style return guided so delicately by writer-director Barry Jenkins.

Little; Chiron; Black. The three chapter headings mark where and how Chiron sees himself at any given time. Don’t expect any big twists or plot turns; this isn’t that kind of story. The story may be set in deprived Miami and feature dealers, addicts and gangsters, but only two guns are produced and neither are fired. People come and go, they get out and are trapped, they change in some ways and stay the same in others.

What finds these three actors are. I believed Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes were the same person at different stages at his life – they seem to adopt the same posture, the same phisical and facial tics, the same expressions of pain and relief, the same inner energy, determination and resolve. This is especially remarkable considering they never met during filming.

Chiron’s three key contradictory relationships that make him who he is – dealer mentor Juan (the excellent Mahershala Ali), whose relationship with Little remains innocent and never takes the dark turn you might expect; the destructive cycle of his hot/cold addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris) and Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland), who awakened, destroyed and rebuilt Chiron all over again. We see the ill-gotten gains of Juan’s business and Chiron’s mother is justified in flipping his accusations of irresponsibility back on him in a standout scene, but that doesn’t make him or partner Teresa (Janelle Monáe) any less of a kind couple. His mother may intermittently shun him, verbally abuse him and make him victim of her destructive lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean she loves Chiron any less. Kevin is a note of stability for Chiron from childhood, helping him discover his sexuality and gifting him rare moments of happiness, but he still commits the cruellest act in the film and changes Chiron forever. No wonder Chiron is living a lie as a wannabe Juan with ripped body and glittering grill when he and Kevin reconnect in adulthood. He’s never had consistency in his life and he’s been forced to metamorphosise to survive. “Chiron, is this you?” Kevin asks. At this point, he doesn’t know himself.

I found the middle chapter following Chiron in his painful and confusing teenage years to be the most compelling, though the final stretch as he reconnects with his past and looks to the future leaves things uncertain but also strangely, and soothingly, positive. We get the feeling it will turn out OK for Chiron as long as he stops putting on a front and starts being who he wants to be, not what society dictates.

What a shame that Moonlight will only be talked about in relation to that Oscar gaff for the foreseeable future.What I predict is that only one of the two films will be lasting, still significant in years to come, and it’s not this one. Moonlight is an achingly beautiful story and an important and high-impact one to be told in today’s America. SSP

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Review in Brief: Blair Witch (2016)

From the off, you get a reference to “footage assembled from DV cards” and it’s clear the world has changed since Adam Wingard took over this series. Following film school students trying out technology for a documentary class makes a lot of sense, added to that the familial connection to the original victims. It’s equivalent to the rebooted EVIL DEAD having a character go cold turkey as a justification for teenagers going on a trip to an isolated cabin in the woods. Maybe this much real-world logic shouldn’t be brought into horror as sooner or later your scare story is going to have to rely on someone doing something stupid. “We faked it because it’s real” soon becomes a reality as events become more explicitly supernatural than last time, and if you weren’t already claustrophobic by the time the finale comes round, you will be. I think because they show more it’s more frightening, but less scary than the original. If that makes sense. If it doesn’t, I’ll be over here staring at a corner of a room. SSP

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