Monday, 20 March 2017

200th Review: Beauty and the Beast

An adaptation of the Disney fairy tale about a monstrous-looking prince and a young woman who fall in love.

You could say that the notion of turning beloved characters and stories into brands was invented by Walt Disney. He built his empire on the image of Mickey Mouse (1928) but Disney really engrossed the brand concept in 1955, with the launch of Disneyland, where children and adults alike could see familiar characters in completely different context, which made them new. This new live action movie is a remake of the 1991 Disney classic, which itself was an adaptation of a French tale as old as time. This version is the latest successful adaptation of Disney's animated films after Cinderella, Maleficent, The Jungle Book and Pete's Dragon

This remake is very faithful to the original, there are few new songs, extra scenes and few story elements that have been changed and shifted around to fit modern days; but for the most part, it maintains the original feels. This film will be a rush of nostalgia for viewers over a certain age and magical enough in its own right to convert newcomers.

At the beginning when Belle walks out of her house and wanders through the village singing "Belle", that lovely song that mingles optimism with a yearning for something more, the shots and beats are all in place, the spirit is there, you can see within fifteen seconds that Emma Watson has the perfect soul to bring your dream of Belle to life. In fact, Emma Watson has a natural strength and sweetness, that fit perfectly with the role and she also meets the role's musical demands. She never gives in to extravagant emotion or retreats into depression, but maintains a kind of even-tempered dignified romantic solitude. 

The supporting cast is, in general, amazing. All impressively digitally rendered, this cast almost steals the show from Belle and the Beast. Dan Stevens as the Beast has a voice close to Darth Vader trying to channel his inner Hugh Grant. If the Beast CGI is not always perfect  - and this is my main and most likely only downfall for this film - it is good enough to prevent any major distractions, even in the centre piece ballroom dance. Though, it is hard to shake the feeling that the technology might have been up to the challenge in a couple of year's time. 

Now, the songs. A huge benefit for this adaptation is that it gets to revisit Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's songs. Once again, "Be Our Guest" is a highlight, but there is also joy in seeing Belle and Gaston's numbers given new life. Moreover, a good animated fairy tale is, of course, more than just a movie. it is a whole universe. The form has been invented by Disney eighty years ago with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs  (1937). A film I still think has never been surpassed and when you watch something as transporting as this film or Bambi, Toy Story, Hercules, The Little Mermaid, Mulan or Beauty and the Beast; every gesture, background ad choreographed flourish, from the facial expressions to drip-drop of water, everything flows together with a poetic unity. That is the catchy miracle of great animation. 

The 1991 Beauty and the Beast is a film of big, memorable set-pieces, and the challenge here was to outdo them. Plus, of the additions made to the plot, most are minor twists centred on Belle, increasing the independence she already had in the original compared to some other Disney heroines. Crafting inventions, hatching escape plans. Belle is also given a little more backstory, which adds to the foundation of her relationship with the Beast. 

Finally, I keep comparing Beauty and the Beast to the animated version which raises a question: is that what we are suggested to be doing? Or should the film simply stand on its own? The movie wants to have it both ways, but then, that is the contradictory philosophy of reboot culture: we are drawn in to see the old thing... but we want it to be new. 

Overall, you have seen this film before but when it is redone with such warmth and craft it is impossible no to be won over anew. Though, animation, at its finest, is already a glorious imitation of life. To me, it is still not clear why the audiences need an imitation of the imitation.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Hidden Figures

The story of a team of African-American women mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the US space program.

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle MonaĆ© are Katherine Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, a trio of Nasa scientists who each played their part in sending astronauts into space. They are also African American women, which might explain why this piece of history has remained untold until now. I have always had an interest in space exploration, science and astronomy as a whole growing up so I was pretty excited to (FINALLY!) see that film. 

All the performances are amazing in this movie. Each leading lady gets her own arc, even if you can clearly tell that Henson is the main focus. What I loved about this film is seeing a new angle; one of these female characters who were aware that times were changing and that society was evolving not for the better for them so they adjusted their behaviour. 

The genius of Theodore Melfi's film is not in the originality of the script but in the novelty of the story and the liveliness of the performances. Hidden Figures is very realistic and does not overflow the audience with feelings and drama. Though it is also and surprisingly a family movie, you definitely can take your children watch that film. I will go further and say that you even SHOULD take your little girl and boy see that film, try to get them interested in science and rockets. Due to that family audience rating, it does make the subject a little theatrical sometimes but it is fine as children should grow up films like this one. It has a good message and it is rare to see a true story based on female characters. 

Once I saw the movie, I began to think about the title and it is really smart because 'Hidden Figures' stands as both mathematics, the numbers and what someone has to figure out and seek beyond them to take men into space; and also these three important female figures who have been in the shadows for so long. There are stories out there in the world quite similar to this one, that we as an audience, are most likely never going to hear about. 

Overall, Hidden Figures is a fascinating film, I am glad this movie was made so we could all know more about this story. It is such an important chapter of what the space race was and is today.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Farewell Logan

In the near future, a weary Logan cares for an ailing Professor X in a hide out on the Mexican border. But Logan's attempts to hide from the world and his legacy are upended when a young mutant arrives, being pursued by dark forces.

This film is the final portraying of Wolverine by Hugh Jackman, he has been Logan for almost two decades now, let that sink in... This movie is a strange contradiction as it is both the most violent film in the series and the most sentimental one - when it's not showering you in blood, it is (successfully, in my case) trying to make you spill tears. From an emotional standpoint, I was in pieces going into that film, then watching it while keeping that original feeling I was also very satisfied, this is more in line with what Christopher Nolan did with Batman for instance. This is a very sombre and serious drama that contains brilliant burst of action. 

Fans who grew up with Wolverine will quickly realise that Logan is not the same, time-heals-all-wounds superhero the X-Men movies introduced to us, but while there might be more of his blood on the floor than usual, you can still see the old fire break through at times. Wolverine is old, tired, broken down, beaten physically and emotionally. This man is a complete shadow of what he used to be.

This is a dark, violent movie, in which very little hope remains for these characters. Just a tiny shred of it remains in the characters' eyes. It is so engaging to see these characters we learned to love through the years, put in a place that is so dark, so small and almost completely forgotten in this universe, that you just want them to climb out of the hole they are in. Then, characters all grow to appreciate one another again, learn to help each other and be heroes again. 

The connection between Logan and Charles is fascinating to watch as someone who has seen their relationship grow over multiple movies, much credit must go to Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart who give their most heartbreaking performances of these characters yet. Indeed, it is heartbreaking to watch the once great Professor X reduced to an almost prison-like existence, born out of the fear of what his sick mind might do to the world. Unsurprisingly, Logan's bedside manners leave much to be desired and yet this is a softer, more caring Wolverine than we have seen before. Other versions of him would have left Charles behind or put an end to his misery. Here, all Logan wants to do is keep him safe. 

Hugh Jackman is once more and sadly for the last time, perfect; see our beloved Wolverine so broken was heartwrenching and he did a fantastic job at portraying that again. Though when his shirt comes off, revealing what is undeniably the film's best special effect: his impossible ripped and pumped-up physique, at 48, you just have to applaud the dedication. 
Patrick Stewart is a legend for always and always until the end of time. Moreover, makeup can only do so much to convey the pain of old age and the loss of so much. The rest was just them. Then, the little girl, Dafne Keen/X-23, is amazing and savage at the same time. For the majority of the movie she just sits there and stares at people but she doesn't "just stare", it is like she sees right through your soul. She is the daughter Logan never slowed down enough to allow himself to have. The loner here has to learn to put someone else first.

Plus, Boyd Holbrook, Pierce's opening scene is one of my favourite of the movie and he makes it clear from the moment he appears on the screen that this world is built for him. He is determined to recapture Laura but this strong desire does not make his character one-dimensional either. In contrast to Richard E. Grant's Dr Zander Rice, who is clearly lacking in this area.

This is also the first Wolverine movie to be Rated-R (thank you Deadpool), though this film is brutal, there are so much blood and limbs. I loved it! They did not hold anything back,. Wolverine goes absolutely crazy on people. This film is earning its R-rating multiple times over (the first word of dialogue is: "Fuck"), the opening fight sequence is a good indicator of what is to come. The action is particularly breathtaking, even more so than usual. There is a definite Western sense to this movie; that director James Mangold is going for. Taking it that far to make his character watch Shane on TV. Logan is most definitely not and X-Men movie. Hell, it is not even barely a superhero movie. X-Men Comics physically exist in this world and they are viewed as fictional stories that people wrote based on the real heroes. This is really smart 1) because we get Hugh Jackman as Wolverine reading about Wolverine in a Wolverine movie -cool and 2) because it takes place in the future of the timeline established in Days of Future Past, so you can do a lot with what took place between those two films. It is a fresh idea and why not a fresh start? 

Finally, there were a few "surprises" and mostly shocks in Logan, that I did not see coming and there is no way on earth I am going to spoil them here. What I will say is that, if you can accept that Logan is not really a superhero movie, but more a western about the relationship between a father and son, and a father and daughter, then you won't be disappointed. There is more depth to this tale than the ones that have come before, but that doesn't mean the hallmarks of Wolverine are missing. 

Overall, Logan stands out as not only a great movie, but as something which is truly different for this genre. This is not a fun movie and you will leave feeling a little bashed and bruised yourself. Give yourself a drink and half an hour to recover after watching, and I am sure you'll come to the conclusion that this is the Wolverine movie you have been waiting for all those years.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Killing is John Wick's Business and Business is Good

After returning to the criminal underworld to repay a debt, John Wick discovers that a large bounty has been put on his life. 

"John Wick is a man of focus, commitment and sheer fucking will."

Indeed we are all too aware of Wick's relentless nature and remarkable skill set. The biggest compliment I can pay this film is that I lost track of the body count within the first 15 minutes. If that sounds like high praise to you, then you will absolutely love Keanu Reeves' bullet ballet. In the unexpectedly awesome 2014 franchise starter John Wick, Reeves played a legendary hitman who wiped out untold Russian goons because one of them made the mistake of killing his dog and steal his car. 

Keanu Reeves is like a haunted Ronin living by the 21st-century code of the Samurai. There is also a little Matrix reunion between Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, with Morpheus pitching up as a pigeon-fancying overlord to a street assassin network. In fact, there is a laundry list of interesting character actors who keep dropping to spice up the bloodbath, like Fishburne, Common and Ian McShane as the grandmaster of the whole masonic order. 

But it's Keanu Reeves, with his natty suits and icy stare, who grabs you by the throat - figuratively and literally - winding you with intensity, driven by his remarkable athletism and some wonderful choreography. Of all characters Reeves has ever played since hanging up Neo's sunglasses a decade ago, it is probably safe to say he did not expect John Wick to be the one to stick around a little bit longer. Plus, Keanu famously means "cool breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian. Here it should stand for "cool beard shoots you in the face". 

It must be said, director Chad Stahelski, cinematographer Dan Lausten, production designer Kevin Kavanaugh, stunt coordinator JJ Perry and their teams, are wizards working at the top of their craft. John Wick is one of those movies that sneaks up on you with how clever it is and Chapter 2 pushes those weirdly wonderful choices even further. What this new film does well, is to expand on the underworld network hinted at in the original. Naturally, we return to the Continental. Screenwriter Kolstad, also shows what happens when a hit is put out on someone. Likewise, we get to see more of just how deadly Wick's world is. This idea of a secret world of professional killers adhering to a set of civilised conventions may sound absurd to you but fascinating to me. It is what makes the Wickverse more intriguing and far richer than a usual action movie. 

John Wick takes elements of Greek folklore that appeared in the first film - gold coins - and blow that out into an entire mythologically inspired criminal underworld. Gold coins, like talismans, the guns obviously become swords and the suits become armours. Expanding this world of well-dressed killers beyond New-York in Chapter 2, taking our hero to Rome; which has a much older history. It grounds and gives this world a lot more history and folklore than they could have done in America. "Myth" doesn't just mean "ancient", it means there is a lot of roots to the story and John Wick is just passing through. 

Overall, I have to admit Chapter 2 doesn't quite hit the heights of the original - partly because the element of surprise when it comes to the fight - work is gone. But it builds well upon the original. Characters keep asking if John Wick is back. Yeah... I'm thinking he's back.