Film Review: Beauty and the Beast

I have mixed feelings about the current trend Disney have for live action remakes of their animated movies. While The Jungle Book worked for me, I was less fussed on Cinderella and Maleficent, and the fact that a live action Dumbo is on the way fills me with dread, although as I am soon to marry a Disney addict I have resigned myself to my fate. Taking on one of the studios best efforts was a big gamble, but thankfully this one pays off.

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The story is simple enough, a vain and selfish Prince (Dan Stevens) refuses to help an old woman shelter from the rain but it turns out she is actually a powerful enchantress. She curses him by turning him into a beast, and he will remain a monster until he learns to love and wins the love of another. The enchantress also curses all the residents of the castle turning them into objects related to their jobs, which seems a bit harsh and if the Beast doesn’t succeed in finding a love before the last petal falls from a magic rose they will become inanimate objects for good and he will remain a beast for ever.

Years later we meet Belle (Emma Watson), an intelligent and free spirited young woman who lives in the nearest town. The locals aren’t too sure about her, regarding her love of reading and individuality as peculiar, nonetheless her beauty has caught the attention of Gaston (Luke Evans), the local hero who is a vain, self centred braggart. She spurns his advances and dreams of there being more to life. Her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), is a maker of clockwork machines and leaves to sell them at market, however, on the road back he is waylaid and finds a mysterious, crumbling castle. He attempts to take a rose for his daughter but is imprisoned.

Belle sets off to find him, and arrives at the castle, where concerned for her father’s health she volunteers to take his place. Maurice’s claims are dismissed in town, although Gaston sees an opportunity to exploit the situation.

Meanwhile, at the castle Belle befriends the Beast’s cursed servants and slowly begins to discover there is more to the Beast. Similarly, her presence serves to quell his anger and he begins to care for his hostage. Their relationship, encouraged by the servants strengthens but Belle misses her father and when she becomes aware of his troubles is upset. The Beast allows her to leave.

Will Belle be able to save her father? Will she return to the castle? What will Gaston do when he discovers the existence of the beast? And will the curse ever be broken?

This remake works for same reasons that the updated version of The Jungle Book did, by honouring the original through the use of certain aspects, but by giving characters a different spin and adding new touches. Characters like Maurice, Gaston and his sidekick La Fou (Josh Gad) are given more background and are slightly more complex.

Maurice is the best example, with Kevin Kline moving away from the clownish, mad-inventor of the animated version to create a sadder figure. Belle’s mother is long deceased at the start and his grief is evident throughout, and the backstory adds more emotion to the tale. Also, his character here rings truer with the clever, independent young woman he has raised.

But despite this the main strength is the magical, charming romance at the centre and here credit goes to the leads. Emma Watson is perfectly cast as Belle, and does a great job of making her a likeable, strong character. Belle is a great heroine, free thinking and brave, she nobly sacrifices herself for her father and faces the Beast fearlessly. Throughout she shows strength, intelligence and kindness.

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Belle: A great heroine

She handles the singing wonderfully, and is utterly charming throughout. Similarly Dan Stevens’ vocal work as the beautifully realised Beast is expressive enough for it to work, conveying the feelings that develop between them.

The central romance unfolds at a decent pace, and the film benefits from giving the Beast more backstory beyond that he was just a bit of a wanker. It also explains why the rest of the castle don’t hate him, feeling partly responsible for failing in to raise him to be a good man.

One thing the film does well is quickly cover up some of the plot holes from the original, like the fact that the town seem oblivious to the giant castle mere miles away, with the enchantress having cast a spell for them to forget all about it and the people are there. This also means there is a nice touch of when the mob storms the castle some feel deja vu and one of the villagers always has a sense of having lost something, it being revealed it is the loved ones he had at the castle…

These changes are well done and mostly serve to make the film play better as a live action piece as a straight adaptation might have suffered in translation. But there are plenty of moments that are retained, notably in costume and music. The ballroom scene in the original is an iconic scene and was groundbreaking for the time, and it helps that the castle is just as beautiful here and that the dance scene is one of the most moving moments in the film. The song remains an absolute wonder, and the scene is magical, prompting one small child in the cinema to actually cheer and applaud at the end.

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Other scenes are translated to varying degrees of success, the swagger of “Gaston” is a standout here, especially as fresh jokes are added and Josh Gad is brilliant as Le Fou. Luke Evans as well impresses, capturing the strutting, arrogant character wonderfully even though he isn’t roughly the size of a barge. While Evans is reliable as ever, I left the film suspecting that Dwayne Johnson would have been brilliant for the part, especially if he channeled the charismatic arrogance of his wrestling days.

However, for me “Be Our Guest” didn’t match the original, and Ewan McGregor’s Lumiere wasn’t half as charming as Jerry Orbach’s and the character design for him and Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth were made a bit too “realistic” and a lot less endearing or friendly looking than their animated counterparts.

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The old ones were a lot friendlier looking, I’m just saying

Similarly Mrs Potts isn’t quite as cute as her old self, but is voiced by the ever excellent Emma Thompson, who takes over from Angela Lansbury and does a stellar job.

But these are minor quibbles and the movie does well in bringing new things to the table. There is a new musical number, performed by the Beast that is genuinely moving and as I mentioned earlier the characters and some story aspects are changed. The fact that the servants are becoming increasingly inanimate is a heartbreaking touch, with them all moving towards losing their humanity. In fact a sequence where they are transformed is an emotional gut punch that had my eyes a little watery.

Before it’s release a lot was made of the fact that Le Fou was being turned into a gay character. The fact is that Josh Gad’s character is far more complicated than the original and his sexuality is only a part of that. Le Fou is loyal and clearly in love with Gaston, but it is suggested that the two have been together a long time, having served together in an unspecified war. Le Fou’s admiration for his friend is clear, but what is a nice addition is the fact that he is not just a dimwit who goes along with everything. His conscience starts to peak through, and there are moments when he acts as a calming, soothing presence for Gaston, staying his hand.

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Le Fou tries to calm Gaston

As Gaston’s obsession with Belle grows and he reveals his true, selfish nature Le Fou realises he has made a mistake and tries to make it right. It’s nice that a secondary character, largely a buffoon is given a bit more depth and Gad is consistently amusing.

All in all this is a very successful film which tells a familiar story in an utterly charming way, beautiful to look at and entirely engaging. I was sucked in early on and utterly captivated, in much the way that six year old Chris was back in 1992. In fact, I’d say this packs more of an emotional punch than the original.

It’s a delight from start to finish, with the familiar and the new combining to make a film which is great in it’s own right. MWF loved it as well, so hardcore Disney fans can rest assured that it doesn’t let the house of mouse down.

Verdict: A wonderful, magical experience which uses the animated version as a jumping off point to go in new directions and add greater depth. Moving, amusing and utterly, marvelously charming. 8.5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen

The Emma Thompson version of this story is one of my favourite Austen adaptations and a film I really love, even though I knew it had taken some liberties with the story. Having read the book there are a few big differences, but you’ve got to make changes when you switch the medium you’re telling a story in, and it gets the major things right.

The story follows the two eldest Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne. Elinor is the oldest and the cool headed one, sensible, reasonable and restrained, while Marianne is flighty, prone to romantic fantasy and a kind of proto-emo. Their father passes away and along with their mother and younger sister they are forced to rely on the kindness of their father’s son from an earlier marriage, John. John has promised to take care of them and begins with a fairly generous idea, however his own selfishness, and the machinations of his tightfisted wife, Fanny, soon lead him to decrease this offer to the point of meaningless.

Elinor begins to develop feelings for her sister-in-law’s brother, Edward, a match which is frowned upon by Fanny due to Elinor’s lowly status. Edward is a shy, quiet guy who’s family attempt to push him towards great things while he merely wants a nice, quiet and happy life. Their mother finds a new home and they all move to a small cottage, where they are welcomed warmly by Sir John Middleton, Mrs Dashwood’s cousin and adapt to their new surroundings and circle. Sir John’s friend, Colonel Brandon, falls for Marianne, who is oblivious and becomes infatuated with a dashing young man Willoughby.

Not the edition I have, but dig this illustration, captures Marianne’s emo moping.

The book follows the problems that arise within both of their relationships, highlighting the differences in the sisters as they attempt to find happiness at a time when class, standing and wealth were vitally important. Over the course of the film there are massive revelations, and characters reveal their true natures.

Its a marvelous book. The twists and turns in the story keep it interesting, and Austen writes with great wit and intelligence. There’s a lovely sarcastic streak in some of it and a gentle, warm humour throughout. There’s a particular sequence where she writes about Edward being “dead” to his mother, where the metaphor is kept running for quite a bit, its a wonderfully clever and funny sequence.

Austen’s real skill is in her characters, the roguish Willoughby is rather charming and towards there end there is a small pang of sympathy for the character although its clear his troubles are largely of his own making. Other characters are extremely well done, including the endearing Mrs Jennings, a matchmaking, rather silly, yet kindhearted older woman who I really warmed to, partly because she reminded me of my Nan.

The protagonists are very good, Elinor’s reserve is admirable and she’s a likable character, having to govern the more flighty members of her family and cover for their failings. Its a wonderful insight into the world of manners, with her calm, polite exterior masking the inner turmoil she feels at various points in the novel.

Marianne is rather different, she quickly becomes caught up in her emotions and seems to revel in them, often showing immense lack of consideration for others. Yet, she is still a largely sweet character, if a tad irritating at points due to her love of having a good mope. I think in a way her character suffers because we mainly see her actions from the perspective of Elinor and it would’ve been nice to see a bit more of events from her point of view.

I think for modern readers the highly mannered nuances of the book’s time is a bit of a challenge, nobody comes out and says how they feel and there’s a repression of emotion in favour of good manners throughout. For example, one of the book’s antagonists, the insufferable Lucy Steele and Elinor are forced to spend a lot of time together and appear to the world to be friends while throughout there is a subtext of rivalry and dislike. Its entertaining to read and watch characters subtly feud in this way, but I doubt I’d have been able to cope. Biting your tongue that much must have been a hell of a chore at times and you couldn’t just tell someone to eff off.

In a way that’s what makes the character of Brandon so admirable, a character who has suffered much yet maintains this quiet dignity throughout. In the movie he’s played with great sensitivity by Alan Rickman, and I was pleased to see that in the book he’s just as likable and decent, a great character and a good role model, even though I doubt I’m capable of that kind of restraint.

The excellent Alan Rickman as Brandon.

Similarly Edward, while flawed and having made a massive mistake in his past shows real grit and decency when he finds himself in trouble and its easy to see why Elinor falls for and forgives him. (I found out recently that the Jane Austen Society of North America criticized the casting of Hugh Grant in the role saying that he was too good looking, which must be one of the nicest things to be criticized for).

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, although I must admit I preferred Emma (review of that here).

Verdict: Its a fantastic book, romantic, funny and charming, brilliantly written and engaging. 9/10

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Movie Review: Brave

Success and acclaim can be as much of a curse as they can be a blessing in the world of art.

Last week I wrote about how JK Rowling’s immense success with the Harry Potter books might be a problem for her new novel The Casual Vacancy, and here the issue comes up again, regarding the studio Pixar.

Since 1995, when they released Toy Story, Pixar have been at the forefront of clever, entertaining and emotional family films. Over the course of the last 17 years they’ve knocked out some brilliant, instant classic movies- the Toy Story trilogy, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E and Up.

 

That means their quality level is pretty high and while this is a good thing and they continue to push on as a studio with a good reputation it means that their slightly less successful efforts suffer in comparison. I haven’t seen some of their other films, but I have seen A Bug’s Life, and it proves my point- on its own its a fairly entertaining, decently crafted family film, but when its placed in the Pixar stable it looks like an old nag.

That’s part of the problem that the latest movie, Brave, has. If Dreamworks had put this out you’d think they’d stepped things up a notch and raised their game*, but for Pixar its a lesser work.

The film is set in Scotland at an unspecified point in history, but let’s say we’re looking at medieval times. A spirited, thrill seeking princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is increasingly frustrated by her mother Elinor’s (Emma Thompson) attempts to teach her the refined manners she will need when she’s queen. Elinor is not aided by her husband, Fergus (Billy Connolly), who takes things less seriously and seems to like his daughter’s adventurous streak.

Elinor (Thompson) and Fergus (Connolly)

Things are exacerbated when Merida discovers that a tournament is due to be held between the eldest sons of the major clans to win her hand in marriage. As her clan’s first born she joins the archery competition and wins, stating that she has won her own hand and will chose to marry whoever she wishes. This causes outrage among the clans and threatens war, as well as leading Merida and her mother to have a blazing row before Merida storms out of the castle.

After storming out Merida meets an old witch (Julie Walters) and gets her to make a spell which will change her mother. However, the spell isn’t that straight forward and instead of changing her personality it transforms her mother into a bear, causing Merida and Elinor to have to go on the run and figure out how to reverse the spell before it becomes permanent.

Its a fairly old school plot, but it really works. The conflict and relationship between Merida and Elinor grounds the film and gives it emotional resonance, kind of reminding me of the father-son angle of Finding Nemo. Father-son stuff gets a lot of time in family films whereas mother-daughters don’t get as much time (the only one I can think of is Freaky Friday, oh, and maybe Uncle Buck) .

Merida is a strong female heroine, willful and fiercely independent, refusing to allow her life to be decided by others. Its a traditional idea, but the script allows Merida to be a fairly realistic teenager- awkward, clumsy and at times unthinking in her actions in a believable way. However, when the chips are down she shows genuine strength of character. Surviving on her wits and courage she winds up having to look after her mother which allows her to show her inner strength and which helps rebuild the relationship between the two.

The relationship is shown in a fairly good way, with Elinor being fairly sympathetic and Merida coming to realize that she may have been too hard on her mother. Like The Lion King its the kind of film that will make kids appreciate their parents more and towards the end it tugs at the heartstrings in a way which will get many teary-eyed.

The ticking clock element works rather well, keeping the story moving, and the film’s primary villain, a monstrous bear which took Fergus’ leg at the start of the flick is a nice touch. Its a genuinely menacing, scary beast and ties in with the spell, giving a reminder of what’s at stake and a warning of what might become of Elinor.

Aside from the central story the film has much to recommend it- as ever with Pixar the graphics are stunning and it presents a breathtakingly beautiful Scotland, its little surprise that the Scots have used it in their tourism campaigns. The world is wonderfully realized and the characters are fantastic, presented in a slightly cartoonish way which nonetheless works.

As you expect from Pixar its also incredibly funny- the brawling between the clans is handled with gleeful anarchy and enthusiasm, and there are numerous sight gags throughout. Some of the supporting cast, including the three heads of the clans are incredibly amusing, bickering and blustering their way through and there’s a running gag of one of the sons having an accent so thick he’s unintelligible.

A lot of the comedy comes from Merida’s younger brothers, curly haired triplets who don’t speak but who run riot through the castle wreaking havoc. They’re wonderful creations and provide some of the film’s laugh out loud moments.

The voice cast are on fine form. Billy Connolly in particular is good value, possessing a familiar, friendly voice which you instantly warm to as the rather dumb but good hearted king, and it must surely have been the easiest casting in the world- “Hmm, we need someone to play a loud, lovable Scottish king?”, its a discussion that must have lasted all of 30 seconds (seriously, your only other options would be Sean Connery- too old and smooth sounding, or Gerard Butler- too tough sounding).

Emma Thompson does well as the queen, even if she doesn’t talk for half the movie. When she does she manages to imbue genuine emotion into Elinor and her Scottish accent is softer and more refined than most of the other characters, which fits with the uptight, dignified character she plays. I also really liked that she’s shown to be the brains of the operation- calming the unrest between the clans and handling the public speaking when Fergus loses his way, Thompson brings real dignity and authority to the part.

What makes it not quite match Pixar’s other works is that it feels a bit old fashioned, and more Disney than Pixar, but as I said, taken away from these it definitely stands up as a good film for all the family.

Verdict: An entertaining and well made family flick, not Pixar’s best work but still a thoroughly enjoyable movie, with a good central plot and some nice comedic touches. 7/10

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO

*Dreamworks Animation have made some decent flicks (Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Megamind, How to Train your Dragon) and smartly, teamed up with Aardman (Chicken Run, Flushed Away, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) but have kind of sullied their good name with some lacklustre efforts (Madagascar, Shark Tale) and an over reliance on increasingly lazy sequels (I haven’t seen Cars 2 so it might be rubbish, but the Toy Story sequels were genius and came together to form one of the greatest trilogies of all time, Pixar seem to have more respect for their characters and fans).


Movie Review: Men in Black 3

Spider-man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, Scream 3.
Second sequels, or threequels don’t have a great track record (Rocky III being the exception of course), so I was a little nervous about seeing the third in the Men In Black series, especially as I wasn’t overly fussed on the second.

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However, these fears turned out to be unfounded as it was quite an enjoyable sci fi comedy, largely due to some good work from the cast and a rather clever time travel storyline.
Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) continue their defence of the Earth, and run into an alien assassin Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), who has been imprisoned for 40 years after K stopped him and caused him to lose his arm.
J’s attempts to learn more about the case are hindered and causes friction between the partners.
Boris decides to leap back in time and help his younger self succeed and kill K, causing time to change, with J the only person who can remember the other timeline.
The new MIB boss O (Emma Thompson) fills him in that K failed and J travels back to 1969 to save K and make sure history goes the way it should. He teams up with the young K (Josh Brolin) and they rush to stop Boris.
First of all, I really liked the whole time travel thing, especially the genius casting of Brolin as K.

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He looks the part and captures TLJ’s trademark deadpan toughness, while also conveying a youthful enthusiasm and energy that has been lost over the years. I can’t think of any example of casting a younger version that works as well.
The youthful K also adds something fresh to the mix, and the interplay between Smith and Brolin really works and it gives Smith a chance to play the partnership’s leader.
Smith is as likable and charming as ever, and carries the film with ease.
Tommy Lee Jones appears at both ends of the film and is still funny doing his deadpan schtick. Although TLJ does look old in some of his scenes, it kind of works and you still get the sense of him being a guy who takes no shit.
There are some fairly standard time travel gags but there are some nice touches, particularly in the retro stylings and aliens.
Also there’s a fantastic alien character who can see all possible futures which is a fascinating idea.
The villain, Boris is a really cool villain, genuinely intimidating and designed in a really cool, if gross way. There’s a genuine ick factor to the effects.

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The rest of the cast does quite well, and there’s a nice turn from Emma Thompson, who gets one of the best bits in the film, and is awesome as ever.

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I saw one of those TV tie-in shows which featured quite a bit of Nicole Scherzinger, so it was a surprise that her role in the film is extremely brief.
Yes, it riffs on some of the same jokes and TLJ and Smith retread the same stuff they did in the first films, but they do it well, and there are some nice touches, along with Brolin’s good work to make it an enjoyable movie.
Verdict: Far from groundbreaking but a step up from the second movie. Everyone does a good job and the look, as ever is great. Brolin excels playing the young K and the gags and action keep it ticking over nicely. 6/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO