Beauty and the Beast

If you loved Beauty and the Beast and just enjoyed it, don’t read the following. Seriously.

I usually don’t like to see “event films” or those preceded by great hype, on the opening weekend. I had to wait longer than I wanted to see Beauty and the Beast, and was disappointed that I’d waited too long to see it in 3D, which had been recommended. But I generally try to avoid the “event “ aspect of a film so I can more properly enjoy and evaluate it without the attendant hoopla. I may have needed the hoopla to enjoy this film to the fullest. But my wife wasn’t in a hurry to see it, my best friend (also my film buddy) lives six hours away in Manhattan, and my grandchildren live 900 miles away. Hence the delay.

I don’t find the story particularly touching or overwhelming, as some do. So I found myself evaluating it musically (can’t help that) and to study it as an example of what can happen when a live-action film attempts to recreate and rework an animated classic. As a singer, pianist, musical director, and musical performer, I am a massive musical snob. (The last time my wife and I saw a musical on Broadway, we found ourselves criticizing both the voice and the vocal technique of the lead; the habit can be distracting to say the least.)

It turns out that I cannot separate the musical strengths and weaknesses of the film apart from how it addressed the challenges of bringing an animated creation into “real life”. For instance, in an animated film, you can make the character look any way you want, and you can get the best voice actor to do the lines, and the best singer to sing the songs. Sometimes that can be the same person, but it doesn’t always have to be. In most films of today, we seem to be looking for actors who can carry a tune, and hope for the best (see La La Land).

With our lead, there are wins and losses. Emma Watson has been criticized for having a weak singing voice. Her voice is fine, if not big, and not particularly colorful. She’s out-sung by nearly everyone else in the cast, yet it doesn’t really show. But she doesn’t really own her numbers vocally—she just delivers them well enough. The other challenge for the role is finding someone who is right physically and temperamentally. In this era of reinvention with our current emphasis on girl power, she is an excellent choice. She’s funny and feisty, and believably tough. But…(spoiler alert—I’m about to go into dangerous waters here)…while she is a lovely, pretty actress, she is not classically “beautiful,” and the first song (and her name) rings just a little false because of it. Now before I get blowback from anyone, please know that this is not a criticism. It’s just that in the animated version, one can draw Belle according to classic standards of “beautiful.” Again, Watson is lovely and very pretty (and I’m being quite precise in my wording here—but just not the specific version of beautiful that made the animated version work.

Probably the best vocalist in a major singing role in the film is Luke Evans as Gaston. I was reminded of Aaron Tveit in Les Misérables, who stood out even in a smaller role, and as a relative newcomer to films, but who blew everyone else away vocally. Evans’ voice and arrogance were great. But, truth be told, he was just a bit long in the tooth for the role. He’s currently 38, which likely puts him at 36 when he made the film. Coincidentally, he and Watson share a birthday, but he is 11 years older than she.

Matthew Crawley, I mean Dan Stevens, brought the right gruffness and tenderness to his role as the Beast. Listening to his singing, I was impressed that though he didn’t have Evans’ skill, he was quite good. Why the powers that be decided to nearly drown his big solo out with orchestration is a mystery; we would have been happy to hear more of the unadorned voice. His performance brought out the tenderness and sensitivity behind the harsh exterior, and helped make the most difficult narrative transitions more credible.

Kevin Kline as the father is such a theatrical and film legend that it’s nearly impossible to separate him from the character. Emma Thompson walked well in Angela Lansbury’s footsteps as Mrs. Potts (really, who else could have played this part?) and sings with charm and precision, particularly in the title number. Ewan McGregor nearly stole the show as actor and singer as Lumière. His “Be Our Guest” is the musical highlight of the film, and he goes far beyond his work in Moulin Rouge! in pulling it off.

Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza does what he usually does—improves every film he’s in. And I am particularly prejudiced toward Audra McDonald (Madame Garderobe). McDonald should have a major role in every musical made until she breathes her last. Her voice is the biggest in the film and almost too much (both in size and in richness, making everyone else sound just a little…less), but the voice fits the role. When is the right leading musical film role going to come around for this incredibly talented woman, who has won six (count ‘em, six!) competitive Tony Awards in this first half of her career, at least one in every possible acting category?

The art direction is spectacular, as are the costumes, and the extraordinary special effects, which allow for such believable integration of real-life and animated characters. Technically, the film is exceptional.

But after fawning over it technically, the dissonance creeps back in. The swirling camera and gorgeous animation of the 1991 version created a breathtaking and breathtakingly beautiful sequence. There was no way the “real” version could match it. The new version tries, very hard, but doesn’t reach the aching beauty of its earlier counterpart. The sweep and splendor is simply impossible with a human girl and a man on a version of stilts (under the digital costume Stevens had to endure).

Then there’s that plot point—that Belle falls in love with her captor, and that while he begins to fall in love with her, he still doesn’t release her (until the end). The new version quickly addresses the issue of freedom and how the lack of it could possibly injure the chances for true love. But then we move on, as we must narratively—but far too quickly and dismissively. The old version was a fairy tale told in animation, and we can accept the situation more easily. Here we have an animated beast but a real young woman, and her situation is just that more uncomfortable pulled out of the fairytale world and into the real one, where being held captive is a cold and sordid reality we are fighting as a society. (Is a musical version of Room coming next?)

Then there are the “updates.” The colorblind casting (or was it really?) felt both bracingly modern and somewhat distracting. What works on stage doesn’t necessarily translate to the screen. (I’ll leave that there.) Film’s realism poses certainly challenges.

Then there was all the brouhaha about the gay content. I came to the film already tired of some modern films giving us the “proper sociopolitical” context of the story it has just presented (e.g., Loving, The Imitation Game). Yes, the references here in Beauty and the Beast—in terms of performance and narrative—are few and could easily be missed by children. But I enjoy looking deeply into films of all types, and find it annoying to find an advocacy of any kind outside of documentaries, especially when it’s so unrelated to the main storyline. How might it have been received if a sympathetic character wore a “Make France Great Again” T-shirt? How distracting—and disconnected from the story—might that be? Or how about a Moor showing up and either being welcomed warmly or finding himself deported? How far might that throw the viewer out of the story? Real issues are real issues, but they don’t all belong in a fairy tale.

Josh Gad’s performance as Le Fou, the unnamed guy who finds himself dressed as a woman, and the dance at the end are not just distracting, but insulting. Le Fou is played right at the edge, but the film plays light with the hero worship, and it can be read in several ways. If Le Fou is supposed to be gay, how “progressive” is it to have a person whose name means “fool” turn out to be such a moral weakling? And who even ventures over to the dark side in support of Gaston?

The “accidental transvestite” is played as cute, but the character’s rather deep enjoyment of his predicament jerks the film into a direction far away from most fairy tale concerns, and far away from its target audience. Then his pairing with Le Fou at the end is both distracting and confusing. If Le Fou is gay, do we assume that he’d automatically be paired with a transvestite? I know plenty of people that would argue vigorously with that suggestion.

If The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast are the first efforts of a trend to bring animated films into the real world (which they are)—albeit a real world with overwhelming special effects—the filmmakers are going to have to consider wisely the challenges of translating animated worlds into real life. Certain events, plot points, and relationships that work in animated worlds may need to be more carefully adjusted and modified to work in non-animated films. If we thought stage-to-screen offered challenges, perhaps this new trend presents even more and is a new and fertile field for study and analysis.

 

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Black Narcissus (1947)

I was familiar with the famous British writing and directing team of (Michael) Powell and (Emiric) Pressburger from film school. But until recently, my exposure to their work had been quite limited. I’m in the middle of remedying that.

I had the chance two years ago to see a 35mm film version of their The Red Shoes (1948), often called one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, Technicolor film ever made. Seeing it in the theatre, on film, I can’t argue with that. It was stunning.

That film was preceded by Black Narcissus (1947), which won Oscars (rare then for a foreign film) for Best Cinematography (by the legendary Jack Cardiff) and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color. That film, too, is stunning, and more than visually. But let’s start with the look of it. Three-strip Technicolor (what we tend to think of as Technicolor) was just a dozen years old by 1947, but already there was an American and a British look. The American look was bright, more primary-color oriented, and tended to feature high-key lighting. There were of course American experiments, such as The Garden of Allah (1936), A Star is Born (1937), Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Yearling (1946) that tended to soften the often hard edges of Technicolor films. But during this same period, the British developed a softer look, with moodier, more directional lighting not seen in their American counterparts.

Black Narcissus is a prime example, and worth a look just for that. Every shot bursts with color, ranging from eye-popping brilliant to subdued, gentle, and lovely. If you haven’t seen a color Powell-Pressburger film, it will surprise you, as it looks like nothing you’ve seen before. They have created a world of beauty, danger, and mystery, even hysteria, all in a gorgeous package.

It would be easy to say by today’s standards that the film is too beautiful, and some shots too self-consciously so. But that is all of a piece with the rest of the film. The whole film is just over the top. It’s a melodrama that doesn’t present itself as such. Everything about the film is just a little “too,” and that is part of its strength.

The story is of a group of nuns that make their way to the Himalayas to inhabit something of a castle and serve the local community with medical care and education. Without spoiling too much, the challenge isn’t anyone or any particular situation, but the entire area itself. The setting becomes a character in itself, and a powerful, elusive one that consistently undermines the group and their efforts.

Again, by today’s standards, the special effects may not seem as dazzling as they must have seemed then. But knowing that the film was shot entirely in England, and primarily on sound stages, is amazing when one sees the final product. It’s said that some folks from India wrote to say that they recognized the places filmed, even though every steep cliff and mountain is an optical trick. It’s as great an advance in the area of special effects as King Kong and Gone with the Wind were in their day.

A surprising theme for its time is the issue of sexual hysteria. The film belongs to a young (actually, too young) Deborah Kerr, who plays the Sister Superior with precision and passion (and who won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress). But it is Kathleen Byron whom a viewer will never forget as the nun who loses her focus, her control, and the reins on her libido. (Here again, the use of color by the directors and cinematographer is invaluable in advancing the story.) Her breakdown and transformation is frightening, and the shot of her face as she begins her final scene seems shockingly modern. The cause of much of the tension is the presence of David Farrar, who walks around in shorts, and occasionally, shirtless, representing masculinity, machismo, and male sexuality all at once. He is the focus of Byron’s character’s lust, but his strongest moments come in his powerful conversations with Kerr’s character—two strong polar opposites, attracted and repelled (at least on her part) at the same time.

The film fairly pulsates with spectacular color, geographical and sexual tension, with a classic melodramatic plot that unleashes itself slowly and powerfully. For those who want to see what luscious color can look like in the hands of an artist, it doesn’t get better than Black Narcissus. The same can be said for those interested in what can be accomplished with technology and without having to travel to far-off lands. The story itself is intriguing and gradually captivating. How it’s told takes the film to another level.

 

 

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Logan

Logan is the final installment of the Hugh Jackman Wolverine film series. (Major spoiler alerts ahead). He goes out in style.

Or should I say a change of style. Logan is R-rated for a great deal of bloody violence and a plethora of F-bombs. It looks and feels darker than any Wolverine film before it, and even than any previous Marvel film.

The story is stripped down and simple in a Hell or High Water way, a film with which it has several shared characteristics: uncomplicated, with a small number of actors doing good work, and moody. The mood here is one of painful aging and impending demise, with the requisite dark cinematic palette to match.

Most of the attention has been rightly paid to Jackman, who at a distance looks like those bad pictures of a bushy-bearded Mel Gibson. This isn’t the handsome, energetic Wolverine; it’s the older, even more cynical and jaded version who walks with a limp and whose previous cautious attitude has been replaced with a darker and even more angry pessimism. He swears a lot and bites nearly everyone’s head off verbally. He’s also more quick to kill with more gruesome violence than has been seen before.

The plot is straightforward. Logan is caring for an aging Charles (Patrick Stewart, looking thin and playing older than he is) when his life is interrupted by a woman who wants this young, apparently mutant, girl to be taken to North Dakota so she can be safe and with those of her kind. Things happen, and of course the three end up on the run. The little one turns out to be mutant with major skills, especially in the killing department. She’s a young female version of Wolverine, and questions arise regarding her possible parentage.

While the two principal males are at the end of their lives, the elegiac nature of the film gives way to youth and the driving attempt to keep the young girl safe. Those two moods and trajectories bounce off one another nicely from then on.

Aside from the dark tenor of the film, the defining element of the film is a new child star, Dafne Keen. She is a tween British/Spanish actress who knows how to rage and destroy one minute, and then act like a typical preadolescent the next. It’s quite the performance. I remember when Spielberg’s War of the Worlds came out in 2005, and it was noted that Dakota Fanning’s performance of the continually terrified young girl must have taken a toll on the young actress. I had similar thoughts watching Keen jump, roll around, leap madly, and slice and dice with abandon. Even knowing that she had a stunt double, that’s a lot of intense anger and bloody destruction to put a young girl through. Her character is every bit as angry—perhaps more so with the focus and energy of youth—and is as much the killing machine as Logan. The actress holds her own in all her scenes with Jackman and Stewart, even the quiet ones. A young star is born.

Two other minor characters add color to the film. That’s an ironic statement when it comes to the underutilized British actor Stephen Merchant, the ghostly-pale Caliban, who is missed when not on screen once he’s introduced. The villain is Boyd Holbrook (Gone Girl and Netflix’s Narcos), who has a strong screen presence but whose character isn’t as defined or as clearly motivated as his role might suggest.

One surprise is all the Christian references throughout. There are a couple of Jesus-on-the-cross visual references made with Logan, and there is a surprisingly respectful presentation of a Christian family. No snide remarks, no deviance under the surface, and no weirdness. For a character marked by unbelief generally placed in the context of a godless world, this religious emphasis—never upended or rendered impotent—is a fascinating flavor to add to the end of a multi-film arc.

Technically, director James Mangold (Walk the Line, Wolverine, 3:10 to Yuma) has given us a good-looking film with great focus and energy, exemplary action scenes, and an exceptional amount of rack-focus shots that have left this author confused as to the reason for their existence. Serious warning: If you think this is just another Wolverine film and want to see how things wrap up, know that this is a rough, profane and violent film at times. Yet it also opens the door for the possibility of a new franchise. Perhaps Wolverette?

 

 

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Two Semi-Classics: Anne of the Thousand Days and Anastasia

Being a history nut as well as a film person, I try to fill in the many gaps in my film experience with classic or semi-classic historical films. I recently had the opportunity to see 1969’s Anne of the Thousand Days (about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn) and 1956’s Anastasia (about the possible survivor of the massacre of Russia’s royal family in 1918). Both were big, colorful, dramas that were certainly of their time.

Anne of the Thousand Days features Richard Burton as Henry and the then-new surprise of French Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold. The film is a typically ‘60’s epic that was nominated for 10 Oscars and only won for Best Costume. You may know the type—lush, lovely, and with a background of grand orchestral medieval music. Based on a 1940’s play that took a couple of decades to make into a film because of its subjects of adultery, incest, etc., the film feels “literate” from the word go, but does manage to cover a great deal of history, politics and human interaction in its 2+ hours.

The great Burton isn’t quite big enough, physically or in terms of power, to be Henry, though he rages with great effect at times. It’s a slight misfit of actor to character, but hardly noticeable. What is the most enjoyable aspect of the film is Bujold, who has erased every other Anne Boleyn I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen many). She is young, feisty, stubborn, conniving and almost completely believable. The script forces a change of heart on her at one point that even her talents can’t quite help us to go along with. But other than that, this is the Anne for the ages. The legendary Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey) won Best Actress that year for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, while the Golden Globe Award went to Bujold. For once, the Golden Globes may have gotten it right.

For those comfortable with an extremely literate, big, colorful, thumping medieval story taken from a play, this is for you. The story is still intriguing (in both senses of the word), the acting is strong and the look is sumptuous.

Anastasia is probably best remembered as Ingrid Bergman’s Hollywood comeback after her scandalous years with Roberto Rossellini. Apparently a few years and one strong Oscar-winning performance (her second, after Gaslight) were enough to allow her to retake her place as a Hollywood star. Though clearly several years too old to play a twenty-something, Bergman is excellent as the is-she-or-is-she-not survivor of the royal family’s massacre. She has the marvelous acting opportunity to play a confused street person in rags who gets the Pygmalion treatment and ends up looking comfortable in the finest attire, carrying herself as the princess she might be. One strength of her performance is that she never quite seems sure at times if she is or isn’t the princess. This adds layers to the film that its rather straightforward plotline doesn’t provide.

The surprise of the film, though, is her co-star, Yul Brynner. Oscar students will remember that the year of Anastasia—1956—was the year of Brynner’s Oscar-winning performance in The King and I. And while that performance is a worthy winner, perhaps the better perspective is provided by the National Board of Review’s award to him for Best Actor for The King and I, The Ten Commandments, and yes, Anastasia. His performance in Anastasia is every bit as good as Bergman’s, and it’s a pleasure to see him outside of either Siam or the American West. It’s a good fit for him as a person as well, as he was born Yuliy Borisovich Briner in Vladavostok, Russia.

Adding to the acting level is Helen Hayes, who plays the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, and whose performance was so strong in a smaller part that she was nominated in the Best Actress category in that year’s Golden Globes along with Bergman (who won). Apparently, the film’s producer wanted the talented British actress Helen Haye, who likely would have been excellent, and looked the part. But the casting director assumed that the request was a typo and contacted the American acting legend instead.

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of fancy as well as history in the film, and it’s not a source of learning accurately about the Romanovs or even the main character Anna, who existed in real life, but didn’t experience much of what the film suggested. The film is in CinemaScope, and provides a great example of the beauty and the restrictions that format can provide. But, like Anne of the Thousand Days, it’s an enjoyable visit to the past—England, Russia, and middle-century British and American film.

 

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Lion and Loving

I recently saw Lion in the theater and later that day, watched the DVD of Loving. The similarities were striking.

Both are based on true stories, one very recent, and the other, still within my lifetime. Both were good-looking films (Lion is more self-consciously beautiful), with good to excellent performances. Both could have exploited their emotional storylines, but instead are rather cool products (Loving is more subdued) that pull back from the excesses possible in their stories. Lion could have been a tearjerker, and Loving could have been an angry political statement. It’s to their credit that they are neither.

Lion tells the story of a young man separated by his family, raised on another continent, and facing a growing desire to connect with his biological family. He is played as a child by the adorable and talented Sunny Pawar, and Pawar has to hold the screen and the film in a way that rivals Tom Hank’s work in Cast Away. There are long periods without dialogue where we willingly follow him, and emotionally, we are with him all the way.

He grows up to be Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire and The Exotic Marigold Hotel), who does the strongest and most sensitive work of his career here. Patel has become Hollywood’s go-to Indian leading man, and his comic chops have been well demonstrated. What is a joy to watch his fine dramatic work here. The script tends to wander a little in the middle of the film, but like Pawar, we are with Patel all the way.

As good if not better is his adoptive mother, played by Nicole Kidman. Kidman is such a celebrity and strong film presence that I almost forgot that she could be an excellent actress, as she is here. She is precise in her acting decisions, and yet relatable and maternal. It’s a pleasure to be reminded about what she can do.

Rooney Mara plays Patel’s love interest, and it is here that the story is at its weakest. Mara is “fine” in her role, but it’s underwritten, and the actress, in spite of strong performances in the past, is rather recessive here. There are any numbers of ways the story could have used her character to push things along narratively, emotionally, or even in terms of cultural difference. But none of these possibilities is explored in any depth. The whole relationship is a lost opportunity.

The film moves along at a firm but measured pace, which can add some frustration (“OK, I get it—can we move on, please?”). But the restraint prevents the film from jerking the viewer from one emotional high to the next, and the gradual accumulation of fact and emotion is released, satisfactorily, at a genuinely touching climax. Then (spoiler alert) there is a kind of second climax that too earns whatever tears are being shed.

Loving, too, moves at a measured pace, but perhaps suffers for it a little more than Lion. Coming out in a year of increased racial tension, the film focuses intently on the relationship between the two—a black/Native American woman and a white man, rather than the social or political context around their troubles. The fact that the case against them went to the Supreme Court is underplayed, always playing second to the supposedly close and loving relationship of the two.

The script certainly makes it clear that this is a couple that is simple, deeply, in love, and that Jim Crow laws and attitudes are the enemy of their relationship, almost as if they stood alone in just wanting to be left alone. The film almost moves outside of the context of racism at times to support the concept that any two people who care about one another should be able to get married. That’s a more modern argument that tends to obfuscate the time period and the particular prejudices of the time and the story. The film at least states that their struggles will benefit other interracial couples who want to marry, but in the film’s attempt to circle back to the central love relationship, it puts a great deal of pressure on the two central actors to warrant our primary attention in the midst of so many other important issues.

So it’s really up to Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton to work at continually drawing our attention away from the unfairness, hypocrisy, anger, prejudice, and judicial swirl around them, knowing (as many in the audience would) how important this case was and how loathsome the hate around them. But they don’t quite succeed. Negga is the stronger by far, but perhaps because of direction, her performance involves a growing confidence that is less gradual than bumpy. Nevertheless, this is an actress of intelligence and substance, and the performance is a lovely thing to behold. Edgerton, meanwhile, underplays his role so much, and has such a continual scowl-like expression that it is hard to connect with him. He and Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) presented us with two of the most internal male performances of the last year, but Affleck’s is full of such radiating pain, confusion and suppressed anger that we can read into his silences and stillness. Edgerton plays a hardworking regular guy who just happens to love a woman of another race, but we don’t get inside of his head or heart enough to see either her attraction to him or how the brouhaha around his marriage really affects him.

The film generally avoids stereotyping, but there is a rather evil policeman and a borderline overeager lawyer. Other than that, the film presents what is ostensibly a collection of real people; it’s just that we can tap into only a few of them.

The film also falls into the current trap of over-informing us with the printed word at the end of the film–of not just the subsequent events, but the specific importance of it, interpreted for us in a way we can neatly wrap up and put in our pockets. The otherwise strong The Imitation Game did it as well, and Hidden Figures nearly fell into that trap, but stayed within the borders of the story we just saw. This is a tendency that reduces these films, just as the film is wrapping up, to something less than a work of art and more of a visualized sociopolitical statement.

Happily, in Loving we have a film that will stand as THE film about the Loving family and their story. There have been lesser films about great subjects (Red Tails, In the Heart of the Sea, Jackie), so we finally stand grateful that the subject, if perhaps too intensely focused, is well presented by this film.

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Kong: Skull Island

Saw the latest King Kong film. A definite mixed bag. And I have no idea why anyone thinks we need another Kong movie at this time. (Of course…duh…it’s making money, especially overseas.)

The effects are good. And the action scenes (or should I say scenes of violence) are well done. Definitely not recommended for younger audiences, as the rate of intense animal munching is pretty high and graphic.

With Oscar winner Brie Larson (Room), Oscar nominees John C. Reilly and Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, and future Oscar nominee Tom Hiddleston (Loki in the Thor films), the acting is solid, though the acting choices are questionable at times. Even Jackson manages to rein things in until he goes all Samuel L. Jackson on us, right down to the profanity.

The direction (full disclosure—the director is a friend of a friend) by Jordan Vogt-Roberts is rather solid, considering the challenges of audience expectation, the Kong legend, other modern action/danger films, and especially the difficulty of balancing believable human interactions with believable computer-generated monsters. Each scene is lovingly photographed (often to the point of nearly looking posed) and is credible and convincing on its own.

The problem is the script and the missing narrative arc. We don’t know whom we are to follow. We start with Goodman’s character, and (spoiler alert), he ends up being lunch. Hiddleston plays the presumed hero, and acts the part with conviction, but his story never really takes off., nor does the film’s. After a rather typical and lame set-up to the action, we arrive—after the expected struggles—at the island of the title. Then, instead of a long and slow buildup to the creature that the classic (and never bested) 1933 version presents, we are thrown into a quick and unexpected confrontation with the biggest Kong we’ve seen in a long time. The beast does a great deal of damage in a short period of time, and we’re left not knowing what comes next. That’s a great start. Unfortunately, we never get a sense of direction after that. There is a thin plotline involving getting to a certain part of the island. But then we meet Reilly’s character, which moves us in one direction. Then we find that (oh, how we all love reverses, yes?) it’s imperative that we keep Kong alive and well for… some reasons, which take us into another direction. Aside from numerous (perhaps too many) cinematic references to Apocalypse Now (in keeping with the reverses, we have napalm in the evening), there is little to keep us engaged except wondering which dangerous and huge creature we might meet next.

Human interaction is minimal. Nothing really happens with our two attractive leads (Hiddleston and Larson), which leaves a possible rich vein unmined. Some folks we like get eaten, which combines disappointment with our surprise. But the bottom line is that the various tensions and conflicts in the film never coalesce into a coherent, engaging storyline. Surprises and dangerous encounters can’t take the place of a solidly building narrative. We don’t know whom we’re to follow, as our loyalties bounce around, and we don’t know where to place our hopes, other than in a generic wish that the core group survives.

Goodman, Jackson, and Hiddleston are some of the most relatable and enjoyable film actors today. And that brings me to the mystery of Brie Larson. Perhaps it’s just me, but this lovely (actually, too lovely and put together throughout this film) and very talented actress is a rather opaque and nondescript screen presence. My film class addresses the issue of who is a star, what it takes to become a star, and the differences between stage and film actors. Larson is unusual in that her beauty and talent put her in the obvious star category. But she practically evaporates off the screen. As she is the only female in any kind of important role in the film, that’s a great loss. Between the thin script and her screen presence, this is almost an all-guys film. Considering the often controversial and complex roles played by women in the Kong series, her lack of definition as a character and the strange lack of presence, this is almost an all-guys film. Considering the often controversial and complex roles played by women in the Kong series, her lack of definition as a character and the strange lack of presence of the actress conspire to bring an imbalance to a film sorely in need of it.

After all the Kong iterations, with this entry, the Peter Jackson version (Jack Black, really?) and the forgettable ‘70s version, we still crown the 1933 version the King of the Kongs.

 

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Passengers

Passengers

 

Passengers arrived months ago with a great deal of marketing but ended up with a rather soft landing. If not for a positive review when I was looking to see a video, I would likely have let it slip by. I’m glad I didn’t.

The film is held up by two pillars. The first is the production design, which is beautiful, well deserving of its Oscar nomination. It’s the lighter and more positive side of a film like Ex Machina.

Then of course there are the leads, who either hold the film together or are the reason to avoid it. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are two of the most likable and sympathetic actors today. (And this being a Hollywood film, of course they are both good-looking.) Her seriousness and intelligence blend well with his sturdy Everyman quality, especially as his is livened with a sense of humor that keeps the film grounded in some kind of earthly reality.

Neither actor completely nails the part. Perhaps the direction by Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) ended up more concerned with the technical elements rather than the human ones. Lawrence rose to the occasion in each scene, covering a full emotional range throughout the film. But a solid character never completely emerges, and she is more of an accouterment to Pratt’s character and a projection of his desires and fears than a unique human being at times. Pratt is growing as a serious actor, and you can almost see his awe at finding himself a leading man. Again, he works hard in each scene and earns our sympathies early. His humor is invaluable to the film, too, and those lovely comic grace notes lift the entire film. He manages to do a respectable Tom Hanks/Cast Away feat of carrying a good deal of the film alone as well, and proves his leading man status in the process.

The film owes a good deal of its success to the presence of two other actors. The inimitable Michael Sheen (The Queen) is Britain’s answer to our own Stanley Tucci, who improves every film he is a part of. Here, Sheen plays a character we are happy to see at every occasion, and whose character moves the film forward while providing a series of opportunities for the main characters to express themselves in ways they couldn’t with just one another. He’s a complete delight. The other actor? You’ll just have to see the film.

The film looks like it might be simply a typical story of two pretty people caught in a space challenge of some kind. If pressed too hard, the holes and occasional lapses of believability in the story might pull some viewers out of the film. But the film concerns itself with issues far more interesting than the simple plot line. Try these:

  • The issue of honesty in relationships
  • What/who we are attracted to and why
  • How changed circumstances put people together who may never have looked at one another in their “normal lives”
  • Forgiveness
  • How loneliness, neediness and pressure can lead to questionable decisions
  • How danger/pressure can move us past our differences and offenses

There are others, of course, and they are worth not only discovering, but also discussing. If you let Passengers slide by, it might be time to pay the film a visit.

 

 

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