Capsule Reviews: Beauty and The Beast, Kong: Skull Island

The original 1991 Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite classic Disney movies, right up there with Aladdin and 101 Dalmatians. Perhaps not coincidentally, these three movies also feature my favorite Disney villains, as I absolutely love Gaston, Jafar, and Cruella De Ville. Disney has had huge success making live-action versions of their classic animated films (The Jungle Book raked in more than $900 million worldwide last year), and Beauty and the Beast is the latest to receive the live-action treatment.

Well they’ve got another hit on their hands, since Beauty and the Beast scored a massive $350 million opening weekend worldwide. But is it good? I am happy to say that yes, it is. The new film delivers a faithful interpretation of a beloved classic, not without a few flaws, but the overall package is good enough to render its flaws easy to overlook.

The film’s cast is tremendous. Emma Watson as Belle, Dan Stevens as the Beast, Kevin Kline as Maurice, Luke Evans as Gaston, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, Ewan MacGregor as Lumierre, Ian McKellen as Cogsworth. The movie’s weakest link from an acting perspective is probably Emma Watson. I feel bad saying that, since I do like her, but she feels a bit one-note in comparison to the rest of the cast, like maybe she’s not having quite enough fun with it. She’s not terrible by any means, but her version of Belle is basically Hermione in a different setting. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but is also not the movie’s best feature.

I’m not going to say much about the plot, since most people are probably familiar with it. The new movie hits the same beats, while adding a few new wrinkles along the way. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the filmmakers have found a few ways to cleverly raise the stakes that I thought worked very well. Not all of the new plot additions are as good, though. There are a few subplots that felt out of place, including a subplot about Belle’s mother that didn’t go anywhere.

But everything you loved about the original is here. There are a few little snippets from the first movie that I liked that aren’t in the new movie, but that’s okay. It’s still a very faithful adaptation, clearly made with a great deal of care and attention to detail. And there’s an undeniable thrill in seeing these beloved characters and stories on the big screen in live action. Never underestimate the power of nostalgia.

While the cast is great overall, I like to talk about villains, so let’s talk about Gaston for a second. Gaston has always been one of my favorite Disney villains, an amorous lunkhead who turns out to have a real mean streak. I think of him as being like Johnny Bravo, if Johnny Bravo had been cruel and mean instead of just stupid. Gaston is Johnny Bravo gone terribly wrong, and Luke Evans plays him perfectly. He looks like he’s having a great time, and how could it not be fun to play a character as dastardly as ol’ Gasty? And he is a nasty piece of work, too. He punches Maurice in the face and leaves him in the woods for the wolves, and later shoots the Beast in the back. What a cad! Expect to see him in my villain roundup at the end of the year, he more than earns his place.

And yes, there was something of a hullaballoo when Disney announced that the character of LeFou would be gay. But this is something I thought the movie handled well. It’s not ostentatious about it. The viewer can tell that LeFou is gay, but the movie doesn’t make a big deal out of it. It’s something there for the viewer to notice, but the filmmakers don’t rub it in the audience’s face. It also results in some very funny moments, and Josh Gad plays the character well.

Beauty and the Beast is a fun, lively retelling of a timeless classic. It’s a bit clunky at times, but it was obviously made with care and attention to detail. The visuals and production design are excellent, and I had a lot of fun seeing some of my favorite Disney characters on the big screen in live action, along with all the classic songs from the original movie. I especially loved Lumierre and Cogsworth, since they have always been two of my all-time favorite Disney supporting characters. And Lumierre got to say “Sacre bleu! Invaders!” which was a line I loved as a kid. But the movie doesn’t rely too much on nostalgia and remembers to tell a fun and meaningful story. So if you haven’t already, go see it. It’s not perfect, but it’s a worthy retelling of a timeless classic, which makes it easy to recommend.

Speaking of famous cinematic beasts, there’s a new King Kong movie that came out a few weeks ago. It’s a movie with flat characters and a paper-thin plot, but I enjoyed it anyway. It’s action-packed and the special effects are tremendous, and for all its flaws it feels like an experience. There are some amazing-looking shots in this film. Helicopters approaching a giant ape, backgrounded by a hazy yellow sunset. The reflections of explosions in the sunglasses of a madly-grinning helicopter pilot. A man in a gas mask chopping flying creatures in half with a samurai sword. These are the kinds of images that sear themselves into your memory.

Skull Island was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, an indie director making his first foray into the world of big-budget blockbusters. While he does struggle to make the characters interesting and give the movie a consistent tone, he nails the visuals and the action sequences. The dull characters are surprising, given the excellent actors portraying them. It’s a pretty major feat to have Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly in your movie and still have most of the characters be so forgettable.

The movie wears its influences on its sleeve. You wouldn’t be far off in thinking that it’s like Apocalypse Now with a giant ape, and the parallels to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are also pretty obvious. Hiddleston’s character is named Conrad and Reilly’s character is named Marlow, for crying out loud. I guess calling Samuel L. Jackson’s character Kurtz would have been too on-the-nose. But the movie is entertaining enough that I didn’t mind its flaws too much, and since it takes place in the same universe as Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla movie, a Godzilla vs. Kong movie is currently in development, so we’ll just have to wait and see how that turns out.

 

Logan: A Brutal and Epic Sendoff

For the longest time, I had a list of my top five favorite movies. They were Die Hard, The Dark Knight, Hot Fuzz, Casino Royale, and Gladiator. Then in 2015 Mad Max Fury Road was released, and my top five became a top six.

Well, now it might have to become a top seven.

James Mangold’s Logan is a deeply moving film, and I left the theater with tears in my eyes. I was saddened by the end of the film. Saddened by the end of a story I love, and by the fact that one of my favorite fictional characters will not be seen again onscreen the same way. But at the same time, it was a good sort of sadness, the kind of sadness that you feel when a story you love is over, but you feel that it couldn’t have ended any other way.

Logan is an aptly named film. In many ways, this is not a superhero movie. It’s not a story about Wolverine, the superhero. It’s a story about Logan, the man.

It’s also a story about the toll that all the years of fighting and world-saving can take on a person, even one with superhuman regenerating powers. This movie takes beloved and iconic characters and brings them lower than they’ve ever been before, and the results are breathtaking.

Unlike its predecessors, this is a not a family-friendly movie. Seriously, leave the kids at home for this one. The success of Deadpool last year paved the way for R-rated superhero movies, and Logan takes full advantage of the freedom provided by the R rating. This is a far more violent film than Deadpool, much more realistic and less exaggerated. There are buckets of blood and gore. Limbs and heads are severed, bodies and craniums are slashed and impaled in gruesome detail.

But the film isn’t violent just for the sake of being violent. The violence in the film comes from a place of character, and all of it has meaning. Fans have long wanted a Wolverine movie that lets him really cut loose with his claws, and this is that movie. One review I read described the movie like this: the language is blue and the violence is red. It’s a completely accurate description.

In the movie, which takes place in 2029, mutants are a dying breed. We’re told that no mutants have been born in 25 years. Logan makes a meager living as a limo driver, and hides out in a compound on the Mexican border, where he cares for an ailing Charles Xavier.

Logan and Charles have both seen better days, to say the least. Logan’s healing factor isn’t as potent as it once was, and his body has started to betray him in other ways. He wears reading glasses because his eyesight is starting to go, and when he pops his claws early in the film, one of them only comes out halfway, prompting him to look at it in bewilderment.

Charles is in arguably worse shape. He’s now in his nineties and is starting to become senile. He takes medication to suppress his seizures, and what happens when the world’s most powerful telepath has seizures? Nothing good. The first time we see Charles, he’s rambling incoherently and refusing to take his meds. He’s belligerent and uncooperative, and tells Logan how much of a disappointment he is, and accuses Logan of wishing he would just die so that he wouldn’t have to take care of him anymore. As a person with a grandparent with Alzheimer’s, all of this cut me right to the bone.

But even if you don’t know someone with a degenerative brain disease, it’s not hard to sympathize with Charles. This is a character who in his previous appearances has been the embodiment of civility and intelligence, a bastion of order in the chaos. To see him brought down so low is upsetting. It hurts.

This is a film that deals with things no other superhero or comic book movie ever has. It’s about getting old. It’s about the inevitability of death and the unstoppable current of time. It’s part western, part road-trip movie, part passing the torch to the next generation.

That next generation arrives in the form of Laura, an 11-year-old girl with the same powers as Wolverine, right down to the claws that come out from between her knuckles, who is being pursued by sinister forces. Logan reluctantly agrees to take her north to the Canadian border, to a safe haven for mutants that may or may not even exist, with the bad guys in hot pursuit. Along the way we find out more about Laura, where she came from and what she has already gone through, and the three of them, Logan, Charles, and Laura, start to become a family.

Laura is played by a young actress named Dafne Keen, making her big-screen debut. And she knocks it out of the park. Laura is silent and unexpressive for much of the movie, and when her ferocity is unleashed it’s truly frightening. The mystery of Laura’s origin is compelling and provides a strong driving force for the movie’s plot.

And it conveys so much about the personalities of Logan and Charles. Logan doesn’t want to help Laura at first. He doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore. But in the end, he can’t help it. He simply has no other choice. Charles does want to help her, perhaps feeling the same kind of motivations that led him to open his school for mutants all those years ago. Maybe he just wants some purpose to his life, some light in the darkness that the last years of his life have become.

It’s hard to tell exactly where this film fits in to the X-Men series’ cinematic continuity. The series has gone through several reboots over the years so it’s not clear what is canon and what isn’t. But that doesn’t bother me with this movie. I prefer to think of the X-Men films like I think about comics. They’re different interpretations of the same characters, and maybe they’re not meant to take place in the same universe. The point is that the fractured continuity of the X-Men film series doesn’t effect one’s enjoyment of this film. I don’t care if it takes place in the same universe or not, it’s still a superb movie.

And let’s talk for a second about Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart. The first X-Men movie came out in 2000. Jackman and Stewart have been playing Logan and Charles for nearly two decades. When we see them in such dire straits, part of the reason it’s so affecting is that we’ve never seen them this way before, and we have memories of them in better days. Seeing them brought so low would have been moving anyway, but the fact that the movie carries nearly twenty years’ worth of previous movies behind it lends it even more weight. Needless to say, both actors are magnificent in this film, in what both have said will be their final appearances as these beloved and iconic characters.

There is a lot of action in this movie, and all of it is thrilling, but not necessarily what I would call “fun.” The action is well-filmed and choreographed, and it is easy to tell what is going on. But again, this is not a fun movie in the way that, say, an Avengers movie is fun. I would equate the experience of watching it to something like watching Gladiator. Spectacular action scenes, but hard to watch because of the brutality and the sheer emotional weight. The movie is beautifully directed by James Mangold, who also co-wrote the screenplay. He also directed Logan’s previous solo movie, 2013’s The Wolverine, and has a strong understanding of what makes Logan a compelling character. He directs the film with skill and grace, and it really feels like he cares about the characters. He has created a riveting film, from its startling opening scene to its haunting final image.

The movie’s first trailer was accompanied by a Johnny Cash song, “Hurt.” The trailer was one of those rare movie trailers that turned out to perfectly encapsulate the feel of the film it was promoting. It captured the movie’s melancholy tone, while conveying the emotional strain of the pain these characters experience. The song includes the line “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.” Logan and Charles live in a world of pain of all kinds: physical, mental, emotional. But the movie is about them realizing that there’s more to life than pain. There are things like love and family, and those things are what matter, those things are what last. It’s a lesson Logan and Charles have to learn the hard way, but it resonates throughout the film and beyond.