Film Review: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Dir. Taika Waititi
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Karl Urban, and Idris Elba
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 2hr10m
Spoiler level: Light, some mention of plot points but no end spoilers.

Of all the MCU major Avenger film trilogies, I have generally considered the Thor films to be the weakest, so I went into the third installment, Thor: Ragnarok, with tempered expectations. Two hours later, I came out of the theater with sore cheeks from laughing so hard and my expectations thoroughly blown away, as if by the sheer force of Hela’s wrath, Hulk’s incredible smash, or Thor’s lightning prowess.

MV5BMjMyNDkzMzI1OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODcxODg5MjI@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_.jpgThor: Ragnarok follows the titular hero (Hemsworth) as he strives to free Asgard from the chaotic rule of his previously exiled elder sister, Hela, Goddess of Death (Blanchett). In an effort to prevent Ragnarok, Thor must endure capture by an outcast Valkyrie (Thompson), forced combat with the Hulk (Ruffalo), continuing sibling strife with adopted brother Loki (Hiddleston), and the loss of his beloved Mjolnir.

I’ve always thought that, when in the presence of the other Avengers, Thor’s character tends to get overshadowed, but Hemsworth nailed it in his third solo outing and has officially proven that Thor can hold his own against the likes of Iron Man and Captain America. He rocked the heroic moments and his humor was on point – Thor’s otherwordly humor has always been a highlight of his character, and it’s dialed up to ten for this film with hilarious results. The “Get help” bit had me laughing so hard I was afraid the woman behind me was going to ask me to get a grip. Hemsworth’s chemistry with Hiddleston as Loki is also stellar, and Hiddleston continues to ooze both charm and deception in what is likely his last outing as the semi-sympathetic villain, and stands as possibly the most well-developed menace of the entire MCU. Blanchett is delightful as the near-unstoppable Hela, and shows what might have happened had Galadriel become a queen as great and terrible as the dawn. Ruffalo returns as Bruce Banner/the Hulk, and his rapport with Hemsworth is a highlight along with Hulk’s overall development, as he now carries conversations and doesn’t devolve into smash mode on a constant basis. The introduction of Valkyrie is a pleasant one, as her complex history and abilities as a fighter prove her to be an excellent ally for the Asgardian hero. Hopkins also briefly returns as Odin, and though his appearance is short, it makes an impression. Idris Elba as Heimdall and Karl Urban as Hela’s conflicted henchman Skurge are both great in supporting roles. And how could I leave out Jeff Goldbum, as Grandmaster? All I can say is… he’s Jeff Goldblum. And it’s fantastic.

The cameos are enjoyable, with a peek at one of 2016’s breakout heroes Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and three surprise cameos (I won’t spoil them) during an early scene on Asgard. It’s a “Is that really __________?” moment, thrice over, and done very well. Sad we didn’t get to see Sif this time around, but honestly, the film is enjoyable enough that I didn’t even feel her absence, and I didn’t feel the loss of Jane Foster one bit (I do love Natalie Portman though, for the record, and Jamie Alexander as well). I didn’t even miss Thor’s hair! Additionally, the music is great, the colors are fun and bright, which creates a much more visually-pleasing aesthetic than some of the previous films, which have a darker, more serious atmosphere.

The strength of this film is easily the humor and more lighthearted nature, as the film-makers perhaps looked to the success of Guardians of the Galaxy for what tone and direction to take, and it certainly pays off. I laughed out loud several times, and just started giggling again thinking of a particular joke. Though, that’s not to say that the action doesn’t deliver, because it does; the battles are all vivid and engrossing and none of the action sequences feel dragged out or too long. The overall pacing is done well, and though it seems as though the plot starts to meander a bit in the middle, the jokes and the character interactions keep it from feeling drawn out, and the final battle does not feel rushed and crammed into the end. The narrative is balanced between action with dire consequences, focus on the lead character and his inner conflict, and all of the external conflicts going on at the same time, with Hela’s wrath being unleashed upon Asgard, the Grandmaster’s gladiatorial games, and Thor’s efforts to wrangle a new team to assist him with saving the realm(s). With so many players on the field and such a stacked cast, it would be so easy for this film to devolve into a muddles mess with several personalities vying for screen time, but each plot point gets a decent amount of attention and no character feels like they got left to the wayside. And, though it might just be my inability to pay attention to detail, I didn’t really predict how the final conflict was going to play out, and there were enough surprises throughout the film to keep me on the edge of my seat.

After the lackluster Thor: The Dark World, I wasn’t looking forward to Ragnarok as much I was some of the other MCU installments, but the third Thor outing definitely stands as one of the best, might be a top contender for the funniest, and has made me even more excited to see our favorite golden-haired Asgardian prince in action during Infinity War next year.

Overall Rating: 9/10

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Five “Anytime” Films

Everyone has at least one “anytime” movie – a movie that, while scrolling through the channels on a rainy Saturday, you can tune into no matter how many times you have seen it, and still enjoy it. And here are a handful of my favorite “anytime” movies!

1.) Jumanji (1995)
Whenever this film comes into conversation, my first comment is always, “I f*cking LOVE Jumanji.” Unless there are children around, of course. Then I just say, “I LOVE Jumanji.” And it’s true – the film about a jungle-themed board-game come to life to terrorize a small New England town is one of my all-time faves, and also one of my most personally-treasured Robin Williams performances. Sure, the effects are super dated by today’s standards which causes a bit of a kink in the immersion factor, but I adore the story and the characters/performances so much that I watch it any time it’s on TV. The trailer for the sequel/remake coming out next month actually made me laugh, so I might end up seeing it, but I don’t think it will ever triumph over the original. And though I’ve seen it several times, I never put together that Jonathan Hyde plays both Van Pelt (the hunter) and the dad until very recently.

2.) The Princess Diaries (2001)
I saw this movie in theaters when it first came out and instantly fell in love with it. Though I love nearly all of her performances, I think Mia Thermopolis will always be my favorite Anne Hathaway role, as she was just so convincing and relatable as the awkward girl turned unexpected princess. I think I’ve seen this movie well over a dozen times and I still enjoy it 100% each viewing. The Hathaway/Andrews chemistry is unreal and my favorite scene is toward the end, when grandmother and granddaughter enter the ballroom together. I also have this film to thank for introducing me to Meg Cabot, one of my all-time favorite authors!

3.) Remember the Titans (2000)
I first saw this film in school (junior high, I think, though I can’t for the life of me remember what class) and it resonated with me in a way I didn’t expect. I even went out and bought the DVD not long after and used to watch it on a portable DVD player during every long car drive. The true story of a recently desegregated football team during the 70’s features an important message and I haven’t gotten tired of it after multiple viewings. Plus, the music is stellar, and the acting is great!

4.) The Mummy (1999)
I know this isn’t widely regarded as a “great” film, but boy is it entertaining! The effects are dated and it doesn’t do anything groundbreaking plot-wise, but it’s a fun romp in the sand with decent humor and action, and I absolutely love Brendan Fraser. The scene where he screams back at Imhotep makes me laugh every single time I see it. Besides, it might not be a masterpiece, but at least it isn’t trying to be; and it’s still better than the 2017 remake/reboot. And the super-fast scarabs still scare me! I also bonded with my study abroad friends from college over this film after we spotted John Hannah (who plays Jonathan) at a cafe near our university one morning.

5.) Spirited Away (2001)
The first time I saw this film, I was so spellbound I watched it two times in one day. Miyazaki is a master storyteller and Studio Ghibli’s animation is always enchanting, but I think Spirited Away is the one Ghibli film that has the highest “re-watchability” factor. I can jump into the film at any moment – whether it be after Chihiro’s parents have been turned into pigs, or when she’s helping a contaminated river spirit – and watch it through to the end, and still enjoy it just as much. Chihiro’s journey in the spirit world is a timeless one, and the magic of the film does not get old upon multiple watches.

~~~~~

If you’re in need of a new read, check out my YA novel, I’m With You! The ebook is only $1.99 or (£1.55) and paperback is $9.99 (£7.99) on Amazon Amazon UK.  Paperback is also $9.99 on BN.com.

 

Film Review: Home Again (2017)

Dir. Hallie Meyers-Shyer
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Michael Sheen, Nat Wolff, Pico Alexander, Jon Rudnitsky, Candice Bergen
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 1hr37m
Spoiler level: Light

This past Tuesday, for the first time in ages, I went into a film without looking at the RT score. I saw the trailer a couple of times, chuckled a bit, and decided that I wanted to see it based on that, and it turned out to be a wise move; the RT score is currently at 35%, but I still loved the film!

Home_Again_poster
By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54570184

Home Again follows newly-separated and newly-40-year-old mother of two Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), the daughter of a renowned filmmaker, who, while attempting to rebuild her life, ends up offering her guest house to 3 aspiring 20-something filmmakers. Naturally, as the boys lives become entangled with her own, Alice learns how to let go, move on from the past, and embrace the future.

The story is straightforward and solid, but many plot points are predictable; Alice striking up a romance with Harry (Pico Alexander), her ex-husband Austin (Michael Sheen) re-entering the picture and stirring up a whole bunch of tension, the boys negotiating with producers and directors on their dream project, etc, but don’t let the familiar premise fool you; the narrative does contain a few (mostly pleasant) surprises. While there’s shades of tales told many times before, there are a couple of fresh twists to keep the viewers guessing or hoping for a particular outcome. There’s a smooth balance of humor and drama, though perhaps less romance than a traditional rom-com, as the film takes the time to explore a variety of real-life issues, such as ambition versus reality, turning a new page, and taking risks.

The exploration of numerous ideas is both a boon and a bane, as there are times where the film feels as though it is stretched too thin and tries to do too much, so certain plot-lines don’t get as much resolution or attention as they deserve. Issues get resolved in a “last minute” fashion, almost like an afterthought. For example, there’s a plot device about Alice’s deceased father being a filmmaker that is intriguing, and is a stepping stone for Alice connecting to her three unlikely house guests, but sort of gets discarded in the latter half of the film. The music and montages seem to aim for an old Hollywood type feel, but at the same time, the tone doesn’t remain consistent. When the boys get into an argument, it gets resolved in a disproportionately swift manner compared to the set-up. As such, the pacing suffers a bit, as resolutions don’t live up to the set-ups, but regardless of this, the film doesn’t drag – I found myself engaged throughout.

The cast also delivers; Witherspoon carries the film with a charming performance that reflects both strength and vulnerability as a woman dealing with a new start at 40 years old. The 20-something trio (Nat Wolff, Jon Rudnitsky, Pico Alexander) all shine in a unique way, particularly Rudnitsky as George. Michael Sheen and Candice Bergen are also great in their roles, despite having less screen time, and both of the children (Lola Flanery and Eden Grace Redfield) were delightful in their supporting roles, and looked like they could be the actual children of Witherspoon and Sheen.

Honestly, the film is not awards fodder, but it provided me with a fair amount of laughs, and even if it treads familiar ground, it conveys a message that doesn’t get old despite multiple re-tellings. If you need an enjoyable way to pass a rainy afternoon or have a couple of hours free in the evening with nothing else to do, and you enjoy a decent rom-com for a bit of light-hearted fun, this film is a treat. Or, you know, if all the showings of It are sold out, this is a nice, if not comparable, alternative.

Overall rating: 7/10

Shameless plug: My book tour for my YA novel, I’m With You, is still ongoing! Check it out here: LINK! Plus, the ebook is only $1.99 or (£1.55) on Amazon Amazon UK. 

Film Review: Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Dir: Miguel Arteta
Starring: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Chloe Sevigny, etc.
Runtime: 1hr 23min
Rating: R
Spoiler Level: Super lite

After viewing this film, I’ll say one thing for certain; I am so glad that I was not invited to this dinner.

Beatriz_at_Dinner.jpgBeatriz at Dinner follows the titular character, an employee/massage therapist at a cancer treatment center, who ends up staying for dinner at a client’s house when her car fails to start. Beatriz attempts to navigate the evening while reflecting on her personal circumstances and how they compare and collide with the wealthy lives she is surrounded by, ultimately creating tension between her and powerful businessman Doug Strutt.

The film follows a relatively simple premise, and is buoyed by the stellar performances from the cast. Hayek is brilliant as Beatriz, the central character, and capably delivers a range of tangible emotion, from quiet, tempered despair, to deeply-rooted resentment, to cautious hope for the future. Lithgow is irritatingly good as Doug Strutt; I love Lithgow, but definitely felt that he needed a good punch in the face for this role. Britton, Sevigny, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, and David Warshofsky all play their parts as poised, simpering, shallow, occasionally frustrating, and yet multi-layered members of this dinner party. Each character could easily be a real person and each actor delivers a convincing and thought-provoking  performance with complexities that make it difficult to really hate any of them, with perhaps the exception of Lithgow. Everybody knows somebody like each of the dinner guests, and that is the strength of the film; it is a believable tale, with believable people and a relevant message. Even the “bad guy” isn’t just a standard corporate suit caricature; he’s got layers, like an onion. But the film is mostly carried by Hayek; the camera follows her every move, analyzes every tiny facial expression, and navigates her story, though it never really delves deep enough into her psyche to give us a clear picture of Beatriz’s motivations or the underlying reasons for her conflict with Strutt. There are clues left, and theories that can be woven together to make some semblance of an answer, but much of Beatriz’s psyche remains a mystery, even as the film draws to a close.

Since the film takes place predominately over the course of a single dinner, the pacing is a bit slow, but there is enough happening that the progression does not feel like a tedious drag. The tone is fairly balanced, and the dialogue is believable; I feel like I’ve heard people having similar conversations and discussing similar topics, but the writing did not feel tired or overdone. The tension in the film is also palpable; as the dinner drifts into different topics and controversial statements, the awkwardness and discomfort is real. There were several parts that made me squirm in my seat, as the discomfort was practically radiating from the screen. It’s a film that creates a very definitive mood, and it succeeds in it’s ability to generate a realistic atmosphere and emulate situations and characters that could very well exist in the world today, and probably do.

Unfortunately, the film’s efforts at subtlety occasionally miss the mark and fall more ham-fisted than is intended, or fly too far beneath the radar to be thoroughly detected. Overall, the film utilizes a commentary that is easily applicable to the world today and features an extremely prevalent message about society/money/greed, and for the most part, it comes across beautifully, but there are moments where the film picks up steam only to abruptly lose momentum and grow aimless. The end also left me with more questions than answers, and though I think films that stir up questions and make the viewer wonder are often a good thing, Beatriz at Dinner raises a few too many ambiguities and the conclusion comes across as “unresolved.” However, for the performances and the commentary alone, the film is definitely worth checking out, though lingering mysteries and dangling threads might leave you more frustrated than appeased. But if you’re looking for an action-based thriller with a quick pace, then this dinner party isn’t for you.

Overall rating: 8/10

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.

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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