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.

 

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A Stroll Among the Gravestones

A man sits in the passenger seat of a car. He argues with the man in the driver’s seat, then gets out and walks into a bar. He goes in and sits down in a booth facing away from the door. When he sits down we see his badge and realize he’s a cop. He’s clearly a regular, since he doesn’t say a word to the bartender and he doesn’t need to: the bartender brings him a cup of coffee and two shots of whiskey.

Three men enter the bar. They are unwelcome, and the bartender tells them to get lost. They respond by blowing him away with a shotgun. The cop sitting in the booth pulls his gun and shoots at the men. They return fire and flee out the front door of the bar. The cop pursues them, and they exchange gunfire in the street. The men try to drive away, the cop shoots the driver and his blood sprays over the windshield.

The remaining two try to escape on foot, the cop kills one of them and shoots the third in the leg. The movie’s opening credits begin: we see a woman, filmed in close-up. We get the sense that we could be seeing something intimate. And we are, but not in the way you might expect. We see the woman’s eyes, which are wide and clearly terrified. A tear runs down her cheek. Her mouth is duct taped.

Such is the beginning of A Walk Among the Tombstones, one of Liam Neeson’s latest films. Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a New York City cop who, eight years after the shootout shown in the movie’s opening sequence, has retired from the police department and now works as an unlicensed private detective. He’s been sober ever since that day in the bar, and regularly attends AA meetings.

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He’s sitting in a diner when a man from one of his AA groups approaches him. The man identifies himself as Peter Kristo, and tells Scudder that his brother Kenny would like a word with him. Scudder reluctantly accepts. He goes with Peter to Kenny’s house, and deduces from the opulence of Kenny’s house that he’s a drug trafficker. Kenny tells Scudder that his wife has been kidnapped. Scudder tells him to call the police, Kenny replies that he already paid the kidnappers four hundred thousand dollars, but they killed his wife anyway.

Scudder doesn’t want to get involved. But when he gets back to his apartment, Kenny is there. He tells Scudder what the kidnappers did to his wife, which is unspeakable. Despite his reservations, Scudder agrees to find the men.

Needless to say (but I’m going to say it anyway), A Walk Among the Tombstones is one of Liam Neeson’s darkest films. It pulls no punches. The movie is based on a novel by Lawrence Block, and is one of a series of novels featuring Matt Scudder. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know how closely the movie does or does not follow the book.

It’s a movie that tells a fairly simple story: evil men are kidnapping the wives of drug traffickers and doing unspeakable things to them. We see glimpses of the men, but the first couple of times we see them their faces are partially offscreen, or hidden in shadow. It isn’t until the movie is almost halfway over that we see them in the light, and they are just a couple of guys. Just a couple of normal guys eating breakfast and reading the newspaper. Two guys named Ray and Albert. If you passed them on the street, you wouldn’t think twice about them. You’d never guess what evil was lurking under the surface.

AWATT Ray and Albert

And that’s what compelling to me about this kind of story: it’s completely plausible. this is the kind of thing that could be happening right under your very nose, and chances are you would never realize it.

Some of Liam Neeson’s recent action films are a bit implausible, I’ll admit. They’re fun, but they can be pretty far-fetched. As much as I enjoyed Non-Stop, I’ll freely admit that the plot is a bit of a stretch.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is the opposite. It’s not fun and it is very plausible. There are scenes in this film that are deeply disturbing and very hard to watch. But the film’s director, Scott Frank, wisely doesn’t the let the film go too far. He pulls back just short of showing the worst details of what Ray and Albert do to their victims, but he shows enough to get the point across, and what we do see is chilling.

It’s a tricky balancing act, but Frank pulls it off pretty well. This is a film that could easily have gone too far and turned into exploitation, and it does toe the line a couple times, but fortunately Frank is smart enough to realize that he doesn’t need to get too graphic, and what is left to the imagination is always worse than anything he could actually show. Still, there’s more than enough here to earn the movie its R-rating. The violence is brutal and disturbing, but fortunately for the viewer it stops just short of being gratuitous.

A Walk Among The Tombstones

The movie wears its influences on its sleeve (Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are name-dropped several times), but it manages to avoid most of the clichés associated with the hard-boiled private detective genre. The whole recovering-alcoholic trope is a bit played out, but it didn’t bother me, since it’s important to Scudder’s character and there’s a compelling reason why he stopped drinking, which we don’t find out until later in the film (Spoiler alert: during the opening shootout, one of Scudder’s shots took a bad bounce and killed a young girl who was out with her mother).

The acting in the film is solid across the board: Liam Neeson is great as always, giving a compelling performance as a guy who knows he’s done bad things in his life, and is doing his best to live with himself. Kenny Kristo is played by Dan Stevens, our old friend from The Guest. While in that film he was lean and muscular, in this one he appears downright gaunt (and with good reason, the ever-useful trivia section for the movie on IMDb tells me Stevens lost 30 pounds for the role).

AWATT dan stevens

And once again his American accent is convincing enough that you’d never know he’s actually a Brit (Why is it that British actors can do great American accents while most American actors can’t do a convincing British accent to save their lives? There are probably lots of people who don’t realize that Christian Bale, for example, is from Wales).

A Walk Among the Tombstones is not an easy watch, and it’s certainly not very uplifting. But it’ll stay with you, and maybe even make you think about the nature of evil in the world. I don’t know why bad things happen to good people, but I’m glad this movie was made. It allows for the possibility of redemption, maybe not for Ray and Albert but certainly for Scudder. It’s a well-made and well-acted modern noir that, while not without its flaws, is still very compelling in painting a picture of the darkness that exists just below the surface.

The Worst House Guest Ever. Of All Time.

I have never watched the TV show Downton Abbey, but I know quite a few people who have, including my parents, and I know that there was quite an uproar a while back when (spoiler, I guess) a major character was killed off. The actor who played that character is a fellow by the name of Dan Stevens, and one of his first roles post-Downton was in a little movie called The Guest.

the guest poster

In The Guest, Stevens plays a man who shows up unexpectedly at the door of a perfectly normal family on a perfectly normal day. The family is the Peterson family, who are recovering from the loss of their son/brother Caleb. The man who rings their doorbell introduces himself to Laura Peterson, the mom of the family, as David Collins, and says that he knew her son Caleb in the army and was with him when he died, and that before he died, Caleb made him promise that he would look after his family and tell them he loved them, which is what David is there to do.

Laura is understandably taken aback by this, and when David tells her he should be moving on, she insists that he stay with them for a while. David initially resists (though not too much) but agrees to stay for a few days. Laura even gives him Caleb’s old room.

This is a basic plot setup, but if you think about it, it’s a plot that could go in any direction from here. The direction in which it ends up going is unexpected, and while I thought it was awesome in a twisted kind of way, I can understand how it might turn off some people.

After we meet David and Laura, we meet the rest of the Peterson family. These include Spencer, the dad, Anna, the daughter, and Luke, the younger son. David inserts himself into their lives and becomes part of their family unit. Laura likes him because he helps out around the house and because he reminds her of her deceased son, Spencer likes him because he makes a good drinking buddy, and Luke likes him because he’s kind of a surrogate older brother who beats up a couple of bullies who picked on Luke at school.

the guest david

The only one who’s not really buying it is Anna. She knows something’s up when she calls the military base David claimed to be from asking for information and they tell her the man she’s asking after is dead. This allows some shady government types to get wind of the fact that someone might have information as to the whereabouts of one David Collins, or, perhaps more accurately, someone claiming to be David Collins.

Anna tries to warn her family that David is not who he says he is, but by this point he has managed to worm his way into their family so thoroughly that Anna’s parents and her brother don’t believe her.

Throughout all of this, there are warning signs. David’s preferred drink is a fireball (cinnamon schnapps and Tabasco sauce, which sounds revolting), which he pays for at a bar with a thick wad of hundred-dollar bills (“Cash is easy to come by,” he says smoothly when Luke asks him where he got it). He carves a jack-o-lantern using a butterfly knife, and he asks a guy if he can get him a gun (when asked why, he replies effortlessly “I’m a soldier, I like guns”). Most troublingly, Anna overhears him talking on his burner cell phone to a guy where he says something about how he’s lying low but there may be people looking for him, and a couple of people around town mysteriously turn up dead.

The problem is that despite these warning signs, the viewer can’t help but like David. He’s a charming, handsome guy, and there’s something very appealing about him.

THE GUEST

Dan Stevens is fantastic in the role, and though I know he’s a Brit his American accent is good enough that I probably wouldn’t have guessed that he’s a Brit if I hadn’t already known that beforehand. He’s incredibly slick and well-mannered, and he’s as good at seducing the viewer as he is at seducing the Peterson family into believing that he is someone he’s not.

Also, there’s this scene (WARNING TO LADIES: INCOMING BEEFCAKE ALERT):

the guest beefcake

There’s a pretty hilarious bit of backstory to this particular scene, which you can read at the movie’s trivia page on IMDb, which you should really do because like I said, it’s kind of hilarious.

From this point on, I have no choice but to completely spoil the rest of the movie. Most of the time I try not to do this, but there are some things I want to talk about with regards to this film that I just can’t talk about without spoiling the movie’s tumultuous final half-hour. So, consider yourself warned: things are about to get spoilerriffic.

So one day, when David is helping Laura hang the laundry out to dry, two black SUVs full of men wearing body armor and carrying machine guns show up, asking for David. When David sees them, he promptly pulls out a gun and shoots one of them in the head. An epic firefight ensues and the Petersons’ home is thoroughly shot up. When Laura asks him what’s going on, he apologizes to her and then stabs her dead with a kitchen knife. He kills all of the gunmen except for one, then crashes his car into Spencer’s head-on and apologizes to him as well before shooting him dead.

the guest KILL

Then he goes to the diner where Anna works. Upon not finding her there (the lone survivor from the shootout at the house, who turns out to be a military policeman named Carver, reached her first), he kills Anna’s friend Kristen and, with a look of regret, tosses a couple of grenades into the diner to take care of the rest of the witnesses.

He then heads to the high school, which Luke is helping to decorate for the fall dance, and where Anna and Carver have gone in order to find Luke, since Carver tells Anna that David has been programmed to not leave any loose ends and is systematically killing off anyone who might be able to identify him. At the school, David kills Carver and faces off with Anna and Luke, who manage to finish him off after shooting him several times and stabbing him several times with his own butterfly knife.

“You did the right thing,” David says to Luke. He gives him a thumbs-up, croaks, “I don’t blame you”, and finally dies.

In the aftermath, Anna and Luke are being tended to by paramedics, when Anna spots a fireman walking with a distinctive limp, just like David had been earlier after being shot in the leg. The camera zooms in on the fireman and, though his face is partially obscured by an oxygen mask, David’s killer eyes stand out. Anna shouts “What the f—k?” and the movie ends.

Well.

The Guest is a movie that defies easy classification. In my opinion, it’s a family drama/action movie/slasher flick/black comedy. I hope it’s not too weird that I find it darkly funny that David ends up killing like 20 people. It’s also sad that he does that, I mean, I liked the Petersons. They were a little clueless to be sure, but they were good folks, and I felt bad when David murdered the parents. Although I was also chortling in a Holy-shit-is-this-actually-happening sort of way.

I also liked how the movie takes certain tropes and turns them upside-down. In most movies, when government agents unexpectedly show up and try to kill somebody, it’s because they, the agents, are evil, and are trying to kill the protagonist for their own nefarious purposes. But in this movie, the agents are actually the good guys and are there to kill David because he actually is a dangerous psychopath. I love that because it is the exact opposite of what the viewer expects, and it’s refreshing to see a movie go in a direction that is completely different from the one you expect.

the guest MURDER

It can be a bit jarring when a movie tries to juggle as many different genres as this one does, but in my opinion it worked really well. The pacing is very good as the movie barrels towards its spectacularly violent conclusion, and is helped along by a funky retro soundtrack that gives the movie a kind of throwback 80’s vibe which I really liked.

I also really liked the ending. It’s a classic horror movie twist ending that pulls the rug out from under you, where it turns out the killer ISN’T ACTUALLY DEAD AND HE’S STANDING RIGHT BEHIND YOU. I can understand how such an abrupt ending would tick off some people but I just loved the sheer audacity of it. I also liked how the film’s story gave some explanation for David’s incredibly violent behavior, while still leaving his character open to interpretation, which ensures that David remains mysterious and doesn’t turn into just another Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees clone.

The movie was written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard, whose previous collaboration was a slasher flick called You’re Next, which is one of the best names for a horror movie ever. I kind of want to see it now because I liked The Guest so much, even though I don’t usually go for slasher flicks. But Wingard and Barrett clearly know what they’re doing, and I think we can expect some really cool stuff from them in the future.

The Guest is a movie that won’t appeal to everyone but if you have an idea of what you’re in for and keep an open mind, you might really enjoy it. I did.