Film Review: Wonder Woman (2017)

Dir: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis
Runtime: 2hr 21min
Spoiler Level: Light, discussion of any spoilers will take place under a “Continue Reading” tag and will be preceded by a bolded warning.

Though reactions to 2016’s Batman V Superman were polarizing at best, Gal Gadot’s debut as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman garnered a significant amount of praise. Her role in the film also served as the beloved character’s first (and long overdue) silver screen appearance, and set the stage for her very own film – arguably the first major superhero movie to focus on a female character, if you ignore Elektra and Catwoman, as I do. And may I just say… IT’S ABOUT TIME.

images.jpgPersonally, I’m not a lifelong Wonder Woman fan, so my first real introduction to her (outside of Cartoon Network’s old Justice League show) was Batman V Superman, and though her screen time was limited, her impact was huge and she was one of the major highlights of the film – and it piqued my interest for her solo outing. Her initial appearance created some buzz, but also raised some questions… the main one being, can a superhero film centered on a female hero succeed in a male-dominated genre?

At last, we have an answer: and Wonder Woman totally delivers. Not only can it stand against some of the more “landmark” superhero films, it qualifies as one of the better ones – and Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince / Wonder Woman carries the film with just as much (if not more) strength as her fellow DC counterparts and even the Marvel tentpoles, like Captain America and Iron Man.

Wonder Woman follows the titular hero from her idyllic childhood on the mythical island of Themyscira to her eventual involvement in the War to End All Wars. As she strives to defeat the cause of hatred in the hearts of mankind, Diana discovers that the world outside her isolated island home is not the place she thought it was and she struggles to determine what her role should be – or if she belongs in the world of men at all.

DC has burned us before (I mean, I didn’t bother with Suicide Squad but I got the gist)  but where previous installments fell into horrendous spirals of “too much” and “not enough” in various categories, often coming across as more convoluted than captivating, Wonder Woman is a solid superhero outing with an excellent cast, superb music, jaw-dropping action, and an engaging story that is a thrill from start to finish.

As far as casting goes, DC has done pretty well so far, and Wonder Woman is no exception. Gal Gadot is equal parts charming and intense – she pulls off the ultimate badassery of the titular character as she campaigns against evil, while also channeling the earnest naivete and curiosity of Diana as she strives to navigate the intricacies of the world of men. Chris Pine is affable, yet serious as Steve Trevor, an army captain who introduces Diana to the world outside of Themyscira and supports her in her mission against Ares, offering his guidance and witty remarks. Their chemistry is electric, and their interactions are both a source of humor and heart throughout the film. The supporting cast is full of great performances – with Connie Nielsen as Hippolyta, Robin Wright as Antiope, David Thewlis as Patrick Morgan, Danny Huston as Ludendorff, Elena Anaya as Doctor Poison, Lucy Davis as Etta Candy, Saïd Taghmaoui as Sameer, Ewen Bremner as Charlie, and Eugene Brave Rock as Chief – but really, it’s Gadot and Pine who steal the show with their emotionally-charged, dynamic partnership. I legit cared about both of them; they created reasons to be invested in their individual arcs, their relationship, and the overall plot.

Where most DC films thus far have fallen short on the “humor” track, Wonder Woman’s got humor and charisma without completely losing the darker, gritty tone of its predecessors. Parts of the film do feel hopeless; the saccharine “everything will be okay” sheen perpetuated by comic book films is peeled away to reveal real, raw darkness – some of which cannot be defeated entirely. The action is mostly superb, the pacing is decent, and the scenery is gorgeous; it’s one of the most visually-engrossing films I’ve seen this year, as it successfully portrays the bleakness of war-torn Europe, utopian beauty of Themyscira, and the grey gloom of early 20th century London. The music, composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams, builds on the previously-introduced Wonder Woman theme from BvS (which is SO FREAKING GOOD) and generates new pulse-pounding accompaniment to Diana’s battles and the landscape of WWI. All in all, this film does a great job of maintaining balance – where previous films have either been “too much” or “not enough” or some catastrophic fusion of the two, Wonder Woman stays on course and the end result is a film that essentially fires on all cylinders, despite a couple of stumbles.

For a movie that is starring a woman and is helmed by a woman, the “feminist theme” of the narrative is not overt or over the top. It’s woven naturally into the dialogue and through the actions of the characters, but there’s no harping; no soapbox preaching. Basically, Diana doesn’t talk about kicking ass – she just does it, and in spectacular fashion, too. The film also carries a powerful message about the nature of man, and delivers it exceptionally well. It’s a theme that many superhero films have heralded in the past, but this film manages to do so in a way that feels fresh and new, not just a regurgitation of the same old stereotypical tropes.

Of course, as with all good movies, there are some negatives. Parts of the dialogue in the third act toe the line of heavy-handed on the corn front, but there’s always a sprinkle of cheese or two in a film adapted from comic books, so it’s not exceptionally bothersome. The action is a bit hard to follow at times, with the frequent slo-mo and CGI and pacing switches, but I’ve come to expect that as par for the course when it comes to DC films. Though the action gets a bit distracting at a few points, the fight sequences are absolutely beautiful 95% of the time. The “No Man’s Land” bit in particular is, to put it bluntly, f*cking BRILLIANT.

Say what you want about Zack Snyder, but it’s pretty obvious that he cares 1000% about the properties he/DC is adapting to the big screen. He didn’t direct this one (I love him, but that’s probably a good thing), and yet, his influence is definitely felt in some areas (the slo-mo, the fight scenes, his typical trademarks, the story) and if we hadn’t gotten a glimpse of Diana in BvS first, the buzz surrounding this film might not have reached such a high mark on the hype-o-meter. He’s made some missteps, and DC/Warner Bros have definitely mishandled things in the universe thus far, but if this film is any indication, the daughter of Zeus may have steered this franchise back on course.

Under the stellar direction of Patty Jenkins (I am soooooo looking forward to seeing more from her), for the first time, a DC film actually comes across more of a sleek, polished machine with heart rather than a muddled mess that tries too hard, with a clear and coherent story, some of the best action scenes to come out of a superhero film in recent memory, and a cast of charming, compelling characters that it is easy and exciting to root for. Jenkins succeeds in portraying the softer side of Diana coupled with her incredible strength in a superhero origin tale that is engaging from the sands of Themyscira to a snowy war-torn village. The DCEU has been off to a stumbling start, but hopefully the bombastic Wonder Woman will help garner some momentum that will carry into November’s upcoming Justice League and beyond.

Overall rating: 9/10

WARNING: SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT. DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE SPOILED.

Continue reading

Film Review: Everything, Everything (2017)

Dir: Stella Meghie
Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson
Runtime: 1hr 36min
Spoiler Level: Light, mostly; discussion of the ending will be below a “Read More” and will be preceded by a bold warning.

I have a policy about films with approval rating below 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is to not spend money to see them in theaters unless I have some sort of investment in the story/previous films/source material. Even scores in the 50’s are questionable. But, since I read and enjoyed Nicola Yoon’s YA novel Everything, Everything last year, I figured I might as well head out for Tightwad Tuesday and see how well the pages transitioned to screen.

16601948_699564803538333_7623149780067371960_o.jpgEverything, Everything follows 18-year-old Maddy (Stenberg), who suffers from an illness that severely cripples her immune system and basically makes it impossible for her to go outside. But when Olly (Robinson), a boy her age, moves in next door, Maddy starts to wonder even more about what she is missing out on. As she and Olly grow closer, Maddy decides that she wants to experience everything, no matter the cost.

Overall, I’m not a stickler who believes that book to movie adaptations have to be 100% accurate and true to the book, so I’m usually not a “the book is so much better” person. For a novel to make the leap to screen, changes always have to be made. Always. Sometimes, the changes can be for the better, as with The Lord of the Rings, or they at least stick mainly to the source material, like Harry Potter. However, they can also totally decimate the work on which they are based, like the Percy Jackson movies. Sea of Monsters is flat-out unforgivable.

Luckily, Everything, Everything, while it trims plot-lines and neutralizes characters, doesn’t fall into the “decimated” category. From what I remember of the novel, the film stays close, and the heart of the work – Maddy’s relationship with Olly, and her evolution as a person – is not severely damaged by the changes. It’s not a perfect adaptation, but I’d say it’s acceptable, and nowhere near Percy Jackson territory.

Stenberg is charming and bright as main character Maddy, and Robinson is equally as effective as her co-lead, Olly, although he does need a haircut. I’m glad he managed to escape that crazy dinosaur park, though. Unfortunately, Olly also gets less development than Maddy; they touch on his history and the issues he’s facing with his family, but don’t explore as deep as the book does, which made his character seem “unresolved” in some ways. He’s kind of relegated to “cute boy next door with some emotional baggage” but doesn’t get as much exploration or resolution. As a pair, their chemistry is convincing, but their connection suffers from the same pitfalls as several similar films/projects; it treads the dangerous line of “insta-love.” I didn’t really feel that way about the book, as their relationship seemed to grow over a greater length of time and with much more conversation, but in the movie, while their relationship is totally adorable, the risks that Maddy ends up taking just seem… a bit rash. But hey, it’s teenage romance, and maybe I’m getting jaded in my old age. I will say that as a duo, Maddy and Olly are mega adorable and felt more or less like a real young couple than some unrealistic idealization of teen romance.

The “texting” sequences are especially impressive and engaging; I liked the visualization of Olly and Maddy being inside Maddy’s architecture projects, speaking face to face, as opposed to through a screen, as it helps to better portray the development of their romance. The little pop-ups representing their email/text interaction works too, but I’m glad it didn’t dominate the entire film. Could have done without the narration, though; that’s something YA novel adaptations can’t seem to get away from, but it’s a superfluous inclusion that defies the “show not tell” mentality and undermines a viewer’s ability to draw conclusions on their own. Like, there are other ways to include exposition without a narrated info-dump at the beginning. Also, I must say, the astronaut is definitely the best supporting character in the film.

Other supporting characters of the fairly small cast include Maddy’s mom Pauline, played by Anika Noni Rose. Her portrayal is equal parts calculated and loving as she juggles the dual role of mother and doctor and grapples her own demons while dealing with Maddy’s illness. Ana de la Reguera is great in her role as Carla, Maddy’s nurse, as she does a great job of showing how Carla sympathizes with Maddy and wants her to experience at least a few aspects of a “normal” life. But really, it’s Stenberg and Robinson that helm the ship, and they do a fair job of plucking at your heartstrings; it’s easy to root for them and hope for a happy ending, even in the face of such bleak, unrelenting odds.

As far as other elements go, the music is nice; I’m not a big fan of insert songs, but the choices seem to fit the narrative, and the score was charming, if not exactly memorable. I loved how Maddy’s wardrobe changed over the course of the film, reflecting the growth in her character – even Olly trades in his signature black for a spot of color at one point. The sets are decent and the colors pop, and, as I mentioned before, the visuals are utilized in a compelling way. All in all, each portion of the film is solid and comes together smoothly; it looks and sounds great.

If you’re a fan of Yoon’s writing or are a hopeless YA fan (like myself) just looking for a way to pass a rainy day, then Everything, Everything is definitely worth a watch.  It’s a touch cliche, it’s escapist (to a degree), and it’s a love story – all the ingredients of great young adult media But if such content really isn’t your style, it might be wiser to sit this one out.

Overall rating: 7/10

DISCUSSION OF ENDING AND SPOILERS BENEATH THE “CONTINUE READING,” YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Continue reading

Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Dir: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Kurt Russel
Runtime: 2hr16m
Spoiler Level: Light (ANY MAJOR SPOILERS WILL BE UNDER A “READ MORE”)

MV5BMTg2MzI1MTg3OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTU3NDA2MTI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_.jpgBack in the summer of 2014, I knew nothing about Guardians of the Galaxy, but when Marvel’s film adaptation rolled into theaters, my best friend and I decided to venture out to see it on opening night. I knew there was a raccoon involved, and I do love my nocturnal, trash-eating rodents, so I figured it would be worthy entertainment for a Thursday night.

However, I did not expect it to become my favorite installation in the MCU up to that point. The original Guardians is an action-packed, visually-engrossing space opera laden with laugh-out-loud humor and fantastic music, and 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is a worthy sequel and excellent addition to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, even though it doesn’t quite achieve the same level of quirky charm of the first.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 follows the titular band of space misfits as they continue their travels through space and adapt to their new role as “heroes”, but after a mission goes awry, they must work to resolve their internal conflicts while also navigating various precarious situations, including the question of Star Lord’s parentage, the sisterly rivalry between Nebula and Gamora, and Baby Groot’s inability to understand even the most basic directions.

Naturally, with such a stacked cast, it’s easy for the more “supporting” characters to get shoved aside so the main cast can bask in the spotlight, but GotGv2 does a decent job of balancing the plot and the narrative focus between all of the characters. I think this contributes to the somewhat “nonlinear plot” of the film, as this film is far more character-driven than it is plot-driven, but that’s not necessarily a drawback; in fact, I think it’s the film’s strength. Each character seemed to get their own sizable piece of the action, and in most cases, the character arcs “overlap” to help ensure enough time is devoted to each person/creature. Gamora has to grapple with her dysfunctional relationship with Nebula, which also gives the viewer a better look into Nebula’s motivations. Drax strikes up an unusual (and hilarious) friendship with Mantis, and Rocket finds an unusual kinship with Peter’s old mentor/guardian Yondu (Michael Rooker), which also opens a window into Yondu’s past as a ravager and his history with Peter. Peter struggles to reconcile the dreams he once had about his real father with the reality of his actual father, Ego, in addition to dealing with an “unspoken thing” with Gamora. And Baby Groot is… well, he’s Baby Groot. Every moment he is onscreen is a moment to treasure.

But this focus on the characters only seems to add more of an emotional impact to the film, even if the result is a less “plot-driven” film than the previous one. I mean, while there’s a solid plot and all, the individual stories and plotlines are kind of loosely interwoven until the climax, where they all crash into one another; but instead of stretching the story too thin, I think it adds a unique sort of depth. After all, a film about a superhero team should give adequate screen time to each of the members, and this film does a great job of doing just that. It didn’t feel like anyone got left behind, and certain events over the course of the film packed more of an emotional punch because of the enhanced focus on the entire cast, not only the leads; this is especially apparent in the treatment of Yondu and Nebula, who get more of a layered portrayal this time around.

New additions to the cast include Pom Klementieff as the empath, Mantis, who expresses a genuine naivete and wide-eyed sweetness that balances out some of the “rougher” members of the team. Mantis contributes to a lot of big laughs throughout the film, especially through her interactions with Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer. Kurt Russell oozes confidence and charisma as Star Lord’s father, Ego, and Elizabeth Debicki is “gold” in her appearance as High Priestess Ayesha of the Sovereign, though her screen time is limited. Also, Sly Stallone is in this for a hot second – didn’t know that until I saw the opening credits.

Much like with the first film, the music in this film is fitting for the plot and all around fantastic to listen to, and the effects are amazing, per usual – especially the design of Ego’s Planet. There’s plenty of action, and several sequences that are just an absolute blast to watch, especially in IMAX/3D. Plus, for a film/property that is generally more light-hearted in tone than other Marvel installments, GotGv2 isn’t afraid to land a roundhouse kick right to your feels in a couple of spots. Unlike Mantis, the film is beautiful – on the inside, and the outside.

Alas, with the good comes the bad; while the film features several legitimately hilarious moments (I’ll discuss a couple of them under the spoiler cut), some of the humor feels a bit forced and awkward, especially in the beginning – though obviously, this might differ for other folks depending on their sense of humor. It takes a bit of time for the film to find its groove, and a few jokes failed to hit the mark. However, Drax (along with his interaction with Mantis) is definitely the comedic heart of the film, along with the lovable Baby Groot. Everyone gets a few quips, and the film eventually finds a rhythm and sticks to it, despite a faltering start.

If you’re a fan of the first film, or just love a good, humorous jaunt through the distant reaches of the universe with a twig, a couple of aliens, a human/celestial, and a cybernetically-engineered trash panda, then prepare yourself to get hooked on a feelin’ (again) by Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2.

Overall rating: 9/10

SPOILERS BENEATH THE “READ MORE,” YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Continue reading

Film Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

Dir: Niki Caro
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Michael McElhatton
Runtime: 2hr6m
Spoiler Level: Light (Unless you are somehow unaware of the events of WWII)

I have a few rules when it comes to seeing movies in the theater, and one of those rules is: If Jessica Chastain is in it, make every attempt to see it. I haven’t regretted it yet – she’s stellar in just about everything. Then again, I did manage to miss out on Snow White and the Huntsman: Winter’s War. So, there’s that – though I’m sure Chastain is not the primary cause for that film’s poor performance.

Since The Zookeeper’s Wife has finally landed in my hometown, my mom (my frequent cinema-going companion) and I ventured out to see it, despite a relatively lukewarm reception.

The_Zookeepers_Wife.jpegThe film is based on the true story of zoologist Jan Żabiński (Heldenbergh) and his titular wife, Antonina (Chastain) who operate a zoo in Warsaw, which features a variety of impressive, exotic animals. When WWII ignites in Poland in the summer of 1939, their zoo is no longer able to function as it once did, and as the Jewish residents of the city are herded into the ghetto and the horrors of Hitler’s rise overtake Warsaw, the couple must adapt to their new circumstances and they begin the incredible task of secretly harboring and ferrying both friends and strangers to safety via their re-purposed zoo.

The film’s best feature is the cast; Chastain is predictably marvelous as Antonina, conveying an empathy for animals (she’s basically an elephant-whisperer) that is only matched by her compassion for and willingness to help those in need, even if it means risking her own safety. She becomes the center of the film, but Heldenbergh’s portrayal of Jan is similarly impressive; I found his scenes and character development equally as compelling, even though Chastain’s character is intended to be the heart of the film. The pair function extremely well together, especially as Jan and Antonina struggle to adapt to the new state of their zoo after the bombing, then grapple with the decision to involve themselves in daring attempts to rescue those trapped in the ghetto, and all the ensuing battles they face each day they put their own lives (as well as their young son, Ryszard, played by Timothy Radford and Val Maloku) at risk. A major highlight for me was how both Antonina and Jan expressed hesitance about taking Jewish friends and strangers into their home, and weighed the possible repercussions that would befall them if they were caught rebelling against the Nazis. Jan and Antonina’s decision was not easily made, but, after they arrange to assist one friend, it soon opens the door to even more dangerous attempts and intricate plans, and that initial hesitance quickly evolves into sturdy resolve. Watching the strain of the war and their resistance efforts on their family and their relationship was the most engrossing aspect of the film for me; though the film is called The Zookeeper’s Wife, it was Jan and Antonina’s actions, struggles, and scenes as a duo that left the biggest impression.

The third lead, Daniel Brühl, is convincingly sleazy and intimidating as German zoologist Lutz Heck. Granted, anyone with the name of “Heck” is guaranteed to be at least somewhat villainous, but Brühl’s portrayal, while occasionally vicious, is also grounded by his humanity – at times, he even comes across as brash and foolish rather than calculated and cunning. His motivations, though horrendously skewed and deplorable on the moral scale, are not done without purpose. As a result, the character is not degraded to a 2D, mindlessly-evil Nazi, which makes for a different sort of monster; one much more frightening and believable. However, at a few points, I felt like I was watching a palpably angry Helmut Zemo. Also – sidenote – super nice to see the talented Michael McElhatton (A.K.A., Father-of-the-Year Roose Bolton from Game of Thrones) in something where he isn’t a complete asshat!

However, despite a handful of great performances (shout-out to the adolescent camel, who is the star of the animals) the other aspects of the film struggle to stand out. The music (Harry Gregson-Williams) is excellent, the costuming/makeup is superb, and the cinematography is gorgeous, especially the lush colors. However, despite those key factors, it’s a great film that isn’t great; it tries to make the viewer scramble for the tissue box, but, though there are heartbreaking moments (Urszula’s plight, the devastation of the zoo, the horrific conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto,) the film’s maneuvering and shifting direction makes it difficult to invest and pinpoint what the focus is meant to be, which creates a conundrum – the film tries to do too much, yet, as a result of that, it also does too little. Each time it plucks up a new thread, it leaves others dangling, even as it strives to have them all tied up in a neat bow at the end. The viewer can experience a vast spectrum of emotions (and it delivers lots of gut punches), but it ends up being more of a detriment to the film than a high point. Stylistically, the film is stunning and it’s a visual triumph, but from a narrative standpoint, it hits a few snags that no amount of heartwarming or heart-wrenching moments can patch up.

But I will say that the film is worth watching, if just for the performance of the lead actors, and the overarching story of the is a compelling one, as it draws on a segment of history that, while well-known, still contains so many untold stories. Had I not seen the film I might never have known about the Żabińskis and their zoo. It might not end up earning many statues at the end of awards season, but the film is entertaining; it delivers a strong message, features powerful performances, and it’s got a bunch of cute animals… not all of the animal-based scenes are cheerful ones (be forewarned, oh ye of tender heart!), but seeing adorable lion cubs is never a bad thing.

I haven’t read Diane Ackerman’s book, which the film drew from, nor have I read Antonina’s diaries, which are only available in Polish, so I don’t know exactly where the film crossed over from “historical” to “historical fiction.” I’m sure artistic liberties were taken, with certain events exaggerated and others downplayed. I wonder about the tension between Antonina and Lutz, the backstories and introductions of some of the people they assisted, a few other key interactions between the characters, and the events of the final confrontation, as certain elements of the film seem like they were added for dramatic effect. I’m not a stickler for 100% accuracy (largely because it’s pretty much impossible) but the more accurate, the better – more toward the Tora! Tora! Tora! end of the spectrum than Pocahontas. I mean, I like The Patriot well enough but they shouldn’t be showing it in history classes. In any case, The Zookeeper’s Wife, while it blurs the fictional line, doesn’t tread into Braveheart territory, and despite artistic liberties, the scenes and scenarios felt plausible, and nothing left me saying “There’s no way that happened.” I’ve poked around a bit on the internet, and, from what I’ve gleaned thus far, it seems that the film does contain several historically accurate scenes and depictions, which is encouraging, but I haven’t delved too deep.

Though it might not land itself on any “Best Of 2017” lists, The Zookeeper’s Wife is far from a letdown. It shows an important perspective of a war that has been recounted hundreds of times in literature, film, and other media; a perspective that many might not know anything about. It’s not perfect, but if the film brings a greater awareness to the real story of Jan and Antonina and their zoo, and inspires others to do more research into that tidbit of the past, then the film has accomplished something great, even if the film itself fails to break new ground.

Overall Rating: 7.5/10

Film Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Dir: Bill Condon
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, lots of big names.
Runtime: 129 min
Spoiler Level: If you’ve seen the 1991 version, light. It’s a tale as old as time so you should probably know the gist by now…

I am part of the lucky generation who grew up during the majority of the “Disney Renaissance” period, which started with The Little Mermaid (1989) and concluded with Tarzan (1999). Though I love all of the titles that came out during that decade, my favorite installment in the echelon of Disney’s most enchanting films is 1991’s acclaimed Beauty & the Beast.

Beauty-Beast-2017-Movie-PostersWhen I heard that Disney was planning to make a live-action version of the animated classic, I was conflicted. The recent Disney live action remakes have been impressive in their own way – Cinderella (2015) added new dimensions to a well-loved story, The Jungle Book (2016) brought new twists and amazing visuals, and the heart-warming Pete’s Dragon (2016) had a bigger impact than the animated version. But when it comes to one of Disney’s most iconic properties, why even do a remake? What can a remake accomplish that the original – a critically-lauded, award-winning, massive success – didn’t already do? What is the purpose of a remake, besides taking a cartoon and making it live-action?

As such, it’s easy to dismiss movies like this as a cash-grab…and on some level, this film is one. Blatantly, even. But Disney’s 2017 spin on the tale as old as time contains almost as much magic as the original – it’s a faithful, gorgeous adaptation that breathes new life into a familiar tale of love, family, and the true meaning of beauty.

Like the original fairy-tale and the 1991 classic, Beauty and the Beast follows Belle, the titular “Beauty” who is considered odd by the other residents of her small, provincial town. After trading her fate for her father’s in a life-changing decision, Belle becomes a prisoner of the mysterious (and mega-grouchy) Beast in an enchanted castle full of magical objects. But as the pair spends time together, both Belle and the Beast begin to discover that there might be something there that wasn’t there before.

The cast is superb; especially considering, unless you’ve never seen the original, it is difficult not to compare them to their 1991 counterparts. For me, there were no major moments of “Oh, so-and-so was/is so much better than so-and-so” during the film- the new voices and faces were not swallowed by the shadows of their predecessors. Emma Watson is mostly lovely (but also wooden at times) in her role as Belle, while Dan Stevens growls and charms as the Beast, and their chemistry (even with Stevens cloaked in CGI) creates a captivating romance. Ewan MacGregor makes a fine Lumiere, who gleefully (and frequently) spars with the uptight Cogsworth, played by a wonderfully gruff Ian McKellan. Emma Thompson channels the maternal mentality of Mrs. Potts, while newcomer Nathan Mack brings cheer to spunky teacup Chip. Audra McDonald is brilliantly bombastic as Mme. de Garderobe, and Stanley Tucci, as the harpsichord Cadenza, is a pleasant addition to the ensemble. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is great as Lumiere’s love, the feathery Plumette. Kevin Kline’s turn as Maurice, Belle’s father, is a spirited change; Maurice was more of a kooky, bumbling-yet-lovable oaf in the animated feature, but in this version, his character is granted a more solid identity, and his motivations are made clearer.

Luke Evans nails his role as the suave, ego-maniacal villain Gaston, providing a convincing blend of brawn, arrogance, and Machiavellian scheming, while still somehow managing to earn a few laughs. And while he might not actually be “roughly the size of a barge” in real life, Evans’ spectacular vocal ability makes up for it, and his performance is one of the highlights of the film. Josh Gad’s portrayal of LeFou, Gaston’s sidekick, is another example of excellent casting – he manages to balance the comic-relief with genuine characterization. The role garnered some buzz prior to the film’s release due to the revelation that the character in this version is meant to be gay, an announcement that caused some (ridiculous) backlash. I was expecting the change to be obvious, but the role is, other than a few nuances, very similar to his cartoon counterpart, so the inclusion of his sexuality is more “blink and you miss it” than anything else, and it’s been blown massively out of proportion. Also, shout-out to whatever horse (or horses) played Philippe, because damn, that horse had to run. I got tired just watching him.

Since the film is padded by about 50 minutes of additional running time compared to the original, a significant amount of new material is packed in – and the bulk of it helps to answer questions and sew up plot holes from its predecessor. The Beast’s curse is discussed in greater detail, the Enchantress has an expanded role, we get more insight into both Beast’s and Belle’s backstories, several characters get new “layers” to their personalities (the Beast ACTUALLY READS some of the hundreds of books in his library, for example), elements from the original fairy-tale are woven into the narrative, some humor is sprinkled in (I full-on LOL’d at least three times), and, of course, there are new musical numbers – so the Beast finally gets to belt out his own anguished solo. The additions and tweaks served to expand the story, while keeping the original plot largely the same; a compelling combination of both old and new.

One major draw of the animated film is the music; Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s original score and songs are some of the greatest in Disney’s ever-growing jukebox. Though a handful of lyrics have been altered for the new film, the big songs manage to retain their allure; “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” are delivered with spectacle and enthusiasm (thank GOD they kept the “I’m especially good at expectorating” line), and Emma Thompson capably captures the charm of “Beauty & the Beast,” holding her own against Angela Lansbury’s version. I also loved “The Mob Song,” and was thrilled that Audra McDonald  featured in “Beauty & the Beast – Reprise.” The score from Beauty & the Beast has always been my favorite from Menken, and the new film introduces additional themes/motifs that blend seamlessly with the original sound, which somehow accomplishes the difficult task of making an already amazing score even better.

As expected, the visuals of the film are stunning. Tangent; since I’m a slave to consumerism, I shelled out for the IMAX 3D and definitely thought it was worth the extra cash. Generally, I prefer IMAX because it’s mega loud and can usually drown out any obnoxious chatter in the theater. I know some folks consider 3D superfluous, and they’re right about 97% of the time, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t freaking cool. I like 3D, so sue me. Maybe I want a tiny teacup flying at my head, OKAY? Sprinkles aren’t necessary on ice cream, but I will enjoy them if given the opportunity, even at an additional cost. End tangent. The new interpretations of the characters (including the Beast) are fitting for a somewhat “darker” atmosphere, and the sets are breathtaking; the castle in particular. The costumes were also brilliant (I liked the more “French” flair to the outfits) and, though it’s early, I would not be surprised by an Oscar nod for the costuming, or the set design.

Disney faced a tall order when they decided to tackle a live-action remake of their already-beloved tale as old as time, and this new interpretation hits a lot of high notes. That said… I do have some complaints. Allow me to remove my rose-tinted nostalgia goggles and discuss the less magical aspects of the film…

While we get a peek into the Prince/Beast’s backstory, I would have liked a closer look. His backstory is touched upon, but not explored enough to answer subsequent questions. My curiosity was piqued, but left unsatisfied, and it makes me wonder if a longer look into his past was left on the cutting room floor. On a similar note, some of the more “emotional” scenes in the film did not strike me quite as hard as they did in the animated version. I’ve seen the transformation scene about 7 billion times and I get choked up each and every time; but not in this one. Then again, I did get a little teary during the finale. So maybe it just took my tear ducts a moment to catch up. The editing is also choppy in places during the first arc of the film, but nothing too grating, and the message is too heavy-handed at times, especially when it comes to Belle’s (and the film’s) insistence that she is “not a princess,” as a “show not tell” approach would have likely been more effective.

It is also worth noting that the entire cast can sing. Nobody is onscreen wailing like a dying rhino, ruining the music, and I wasn’t cringing in my seat during any of the big numbers. But it is noticeable (and somewhat distracting) when some members of the lead cast can sing, while others can sing. This is most apparent with Watson’s performance as Belle. I’m not saying that she’s a bad singer, because she isn’t – but the auto-tuning made the distinction more jarring, especially when coupled with seasoned vocalists like Audra McDonald or Luke Evans. This Belle had an innocent, sweet sound to her voice – fitting for the young woman who yearns for adventure in the great, wide somewhere – but it sounded unnatural at the same time. If you stack Watson against Belle’s original voice, Paige O’Hara, or Susan Egan, the original Broadway Belle, it is no contest, but I still would have preferred an authentic sound over the saccharine sheen of auto-tune.

Also, while I liked the added songs, none of them stuck in my head apart from “Evermore,” the Beast’s solo number –  it brought new emphasis to Beast’s emotional state at that point in the narrative. The absence of “Human Again,” the song cut from the 1991 film, was a huge disappointment; it’s replacement, “Days in the Sun” is nice, but it doesn’t pack as much punch as the original tunes. I also hoped for one or two of the songs from the Broadway musical to get tossed in, especially the haunting “If I Can’t Love Her,” but “Evermore” served a similar function, and the score does include a motif from “Home” in the scenes where Belle examines her new living quarters, which was a nice nod to the Broadway version. Perhaps Menken and co. preferred to inject new material because they are gunning for on Oscar; if so, “Evermore” is their best bet. It’s early, but I’d love to see it earn a nomination.

Overall, the film preys on nostalgia, but that’s all part of “the business.” At least there’s actual effort and work put into it, as the additional material shows. Was this film necessary in any way? No – because the original film didn’t need to be improved upon in any meaningful capacity. But Disney’s latest remake is not a soulless, vacuous copy-and-paste job like some cynics would lead you to believe; it’s a refreshing look at a familiar story, and if you’re a fan of the original, I’d suggest giving it a fair chance. It’s not like you have to like one version and hate the other, and I think some folks set their expectations for this film so high that anything less than perfection was doomed to fall out of favor. Regardless, it is possible to appreciate both versions of this tale; the new allows for a revitalizing look at an enchanting classic, and the old maintains timeless magic and a concise, yet effective story. Besides, if you’re one of those folks who are anti-remake (I am most of the time, but it depends on the film) you should probably strap in for the long-haul, because there are plenty more on the way.

While it’s true that this film did not need to be made… I’m glad it was, flaws and all. With this installment in it’s continuing stream of live-action remakes, Disney has crafted a spell-binding experience made to charm old fans and woo new ones, and if you’re on the fence about seeing it, or if you’re one of the adamant naysayers, I’d say it’s worth seeing if you’re willing to go into it with an open mind. It might be bittersweet and strange, finding you can change, or even learning you were wrong.

Overall rating: 8.5/10

 

Film Review: Lion (2016)

Dir: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara
Runtime: 121 min
Spoiler level: Light

Last week, the local movie theater gods heard my prayers, despite the fact that January seems to be the month where new movies go to meet their doom. I wanted to check another Best Picture nominee off my “to see” list, and when I checked the Fandango app, I got the notification that Lion was starting a run at one of my local theaters, in answer to my plea. Sometimes, the local movie theater gods are benevolent and merciful.

lion.jpgI haven’t read the book that the film is based on, nor did I know much about the story going into it – but I’m glad I went in mostly blind, with only a general idea of what was about to unfold across the screen.

Lion, which is based on true events, follows Saroo Brierly, a young boy who ends up nearly 1000 miles away from home, with no idea how to get back. Several years later, as memories and “what-ifs” about his previous life begin to haunt him, he tries to balance his search for “home” with the life he’s built for himself and with the family who raised him.

The first segment of the film, following little 5-year-old Saroo’s separation from his family and his struggles in Calcutta, culminating with his adoption by Australian couple Sue and John Brierly, is utterly engrossing. Sunny Pawar’s performance as Saroo is the spellbinding heart of this film; watching him wander through dirty subway tunnels, flee from malevolent pursuers, and cry for his brother Guddu and his mother is heartbreaking and harrowing. That look at what life was like for him, from the suspicious people he encounters to the awful places he ends up – especially considering this film is based on a true story – makes his experiences as a lost little boy desperate for home all the more impactful, and it’s as wrenching as it is captivating.

Unfortunately, the film loses a bit of steam once Saroo ages up. It jumps right from young Saroo to adult Saroo, with a brief look at one year post-adoption, when the Brierlys add Mantosh to the family. These scenes are powerful, but it skips over adolescence, and ultimately, I think this made a bit of a lopsided narrative – the switch wasn’t seamless and the pacing suffered for it, as it seemed like a chunk was left out of Saroo’s history. Rooney Mara’s character, Lucy, acts more like a device than a fleshed-out character; her purpose is to give Saroo someone to interact with besides his adopted parents, often while they’re staring meaningfully at one another whilst laying on a mattress. The viewer only gets a glimpse into her life, through snippets that function as a tool to get Saroo to reflect on his own experiences. Mara’s performance is fine, and the chemistry between Patel and Mara is fine, and I understand why the character is there, but, although the story is not focused on her, the character lacks a concrete identity, which I found difficult to relate to in the context of the film. Since I haven’t read the book, I don’t know what content was added/cut or what liberties were taken with these characters (I certainly wonder about the depiction of Saroo’s adopted brother, Mantosh, who struggles with self-harm, as his backstory and prior to adoption is not really explored in the movie) but within the parameters of the film, the middle portion fell a bit flat, especially compared to young Saroo’s journey in the first arc.

The music is excellent – a fusion of strings and piano that enhances the atmosphere. The editing/cinematography also aids the flow of the narrative, with scenes contrasting the roaming wild of Australia to the varied landscape of India, representing how Saroo’s life has changed with his surroundings. Saroo’s memories trickle back to him throughout the film, with images and scenes of young Saroo and Guddu interwoven within various scenes, which then transition seamlessly back to older Saroo as he yearns for answers and desperately scours Google Earth for a glimpse of something familiar, something that says “home.”

Despite the pacing in the latter part of the film, the overall acting is stellar throughout. Eight-year-old Sunny Pawar deserves ALL OF THE AWARDS for his performance as young Saroo. ALL. OF. THEM. He carries the entire first arc of the film, with palpable joy, anguish, desperation, fear, and hope, and his interactions/scenes with Abhishek Bharate, who plays Saroo’s biological brother Guddu, are both heartwarming and gut-wrenching. Patel’s performance as the older Saroo, featuring occasional impish smiles and playful banter, is rife with emotional turbulence, and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t have to brush my tears away a few times when he spoke of his fractured past and how it feels to be “lost.” Coupled with the visual components of the film, Patel does a great job of showing how Saroo struggles to move forward while feeling such an incredible pull toward his past. Kidman’s portrayal of Sue Brierly is superb, though I found myself wishing she had more screen time – I almost feel as though the Lucy character could have been cut or minimized in favor of shedding more light on the mother-son relationship between Saroo and Sue, as well as her experiences as a mother to two adopted boys. Also, I was so pleased when David Wenham’s name showed up in the opening credits, as I had no idea he was in this until the film started – I am always down for an unexpected Faramir appearance.

Lion might not be getting the same amount of buzz that Moonlight and La La Land have garnered during the awards circuit, but this film, with its powerful, multi-layered definitions of “family” and “home”, lets out a big roar.

Overall rating: 8/10

Film Review: La La Land (2016)

Dir: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling
Runtime: 2h 8m
Music: Pasek and Paul (lyrics) Justin Hurwitz (score)

WARNING: This review contains potential SPOILERS for general plot details. MAJOR SPOILERS (likely pertaining to the ending of the film) will be forewarned in BOLD and under a “Read More.”

1Sheet_Master.qxdOne of my local movie theaters runs a promotion called Tightwad Tuesdays, so when the Damien Chazelle helmed musical/romance film La La Land finally arrived in my area, I snagged tickets a week in advance. It’s a sweet deal ($6 tickets, cheaper popcorn) but often, when I indulge in Tuesday screening, it’s not unbearably crowded. In fact, when my mom and I went to see Cinderella one Tuesday afternoon in 2015, we were the only two people in the theater. Usually, it’s not that slow, but I had never seen it packed.

This past Tuesday, my mom and I arrived at the theater about fifteen minutes early for our 1:15 showing, got our popcorn (and our annual popcorn bucket, complete with Matt Damon’s face to promote The Great Wall), and when we got into the theater, it was already at half-capacity. By the time the previews started, almost every seat was taken, save the front two neck-breaking rows of seats where no one sits anyway. Granted, I was the youngest person there by a significant margin, but I suppose the positive reception to the film had managed to saturate my sleepy little Pennsylvania town.

I have been wanting to see this film since I saw the first trailer and the buzz began to spread earlier in the year. Anticipation heightened my expectations, and I was not disappointed. I was charmed from the first notes of the opening number, and stayed captivated throughout; this film is truly deserving of its Golden Globes sweep.

La La Land is primarily focused on the romance between Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz pianist with dreams of “saving jazz” and opening his own club, and Mia (Emma Stone), a barista and aspiring actress who endures several failed auditions in her efforts to kick-start a career. As their romance unfolds over the course of a year, they attempt to navigate the obstacles and challenges of life in “La La Land” and strive to make their dreams come true.

The opening act of the film is an homage to classic Hollywood musicals, with infectiously-catchy songs like “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd,” but while one foot is tapping jauntily to the beat, the other remains planted in “reality.” The film does a fair job of lending itself to nostalgia (in a relatively self-aware manner) but still manages to divert from well-worn paths to break new ground. For example, the charming song and tap-dance number “A Lovely Night,” reminiscent of classic films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952), is a whimsical scene, playing on the “two leads bicker while denying obvious chemistry” trope, but the number is interrupted by the chime of an iPhone. If that’s not a modern, relatable mood-killer, I don’t know what is.

The first arc the film portrays the rush of a new, passionate romance, while still managing to poke a bit of fun at itself, but it’s almost too much like a fantasy. I mean, no one breaks into spontaneous dance numbers while gazing out across the city skyline, and while literally dancing among the stars is a dream come true for the romantic soul in all of us (and my favorite sequence in the film), it’s not physically possible. It’s an idealization; a culmination of “Hollywood” romance.

The second act is where reality sets in, and the film hits a different, more grounded note. There are fewer musical numbers, save the now Golden Globe winning “City of Stars” and John Legend’s “Start a Fire,” as Seb and Mia start to face professional and personal challenges. The mood of the film shifts from the playful tone of new romance to something a bit more real, and though some of the magic fades, it is a reflection of life, of a relationship that has left the honeymoon stage and is now encountering obstacles as both characters try to achieve their respective dreams.

Together, both the vibrant opening act of the film and pragmatic second half manage to strike a balance between expectations/reality, and though the tone of the narrative evolves to suit the course of their relationship, it doesn’t disrupt the plot or flow of the film overall. Without revealing too much of the specific events of the film, I’ll say that La La Land hits a lot of high notes; I enjoyed the lighthearted, humorous moments, the romance, the instrumental interludes, and the emotional scenes.

As far as music goes, the songs are a significant part of what makes the film so magical; it’s easily my favorite score of the year and my personal front-runner for the Oscar. I, like Mia, didn’t even really like jazz all that much going into the film, but I came out of the theater with the tunes whirling around in my head, and I had to suppress the urge to dance on my way to the car. Here it is, a few days later, and I’m still humming the theme. Highlights for me were “City of Stars,” “A Lovely Night,” and the instrumental pieces, “Planetarium” and “Epilogue.” Hurwitz’s score flirts heavily with an old-school sound, complete with Disney-esque trills and chimes that made me half-expect Bambi to come prancing onscreen, but it adds a modern, jazzy undercurrent that makes it less saccharine. The lyrics of each song, written by Pasek and Paul, are also worth re-examining upon completion of the film; some lines take on new significance after viewing the final sequences.

I also appreciate that Gosling and Stone, while not “powerhouse” vocalists, sound like real people signing instead of trained professionals – though Stone totally killed it in “Audition.” It made them seem more genuine, and I thought both of their performances (in song and dance, especially with those extremely long takes) were stellar – the acclaim they’ve been getting is well-deserved. As far as the characters go, I thought both Mia and Seb were well-developed and written; their personalities complemented one another, and their chemistry throughout the film is palpable. Mia learns to appreciate new things through Seb’s influence, and vice versa, and they grow and change in a believable way as the film unfolds. There are so many iterations of “struggling musician” and “barista/actress” out there, it could have easily tumbled into a mess of cliches, yet Gosling and Stone each brought a fresh perspective to their roles. The film is their film, and they are the true beating heart of it all, but the supporting cast (J.K. Simmons, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, etc) are great, despite limited screen time.

Visually, the film is stunning, with amazing costumes, set design, and effects – as I mentioned, the “Planetarium” sequence is my favorite part and I might go see the film again just to see it on the big screen one more time. The cinematography is great, with the exception of a few panning shots that came across blurry, like a carousel going too fast. The use of long, uninterrupted takes for the song and dance numbers was superb. Color is used in a way that reflects the passing of the seasons and the emotional tone of the film, and it also helped enhance the dreamlike quality of many sequences.

All in all, La La Land is a well-written film that is beautiful to look at, but it’s much more than a pretty blend of color and song; all of the components – acting, music, pacing, plot – function collectively to create an engrossing story about love and life in the “City of Stars”, which, although it might partially rely on nostalgia and ideas we’ve seen onscreen thousands of times before, also puts a new spin on classic themes. It is an ode to “those who dream,” and a reminder that there might be “someone in the crowd” who can completely change your life. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go put the soundtrack on repeat for the next several days.

Overall rating: 9/10

 DISCUSSION OF THE ENDING IS UNDER THE “READ MORE”, STOP NOW IF YOU WISH TO REMAIN SPOILER FREE.

Continue reading