Disney has been on a tear lately with its slate of live-action remakes but Beauty and the Beast is the first title to come from the relatively recent Renaissance period of the early 1990s. The 1991 classic, based upon the French fairy tale, was the first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture, and back when the Academy was only proffering five nominees for the category (Toy Story 3 and Up earned Best Picture nominations after the category expanded up to ten). This is a beloved movie still fresh in people’s minds. I was curious what Disney and director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) would do with the material, what potential new spins, and how faithful they might be. Regrettably, the 2017 Beauty and the Beast is a charmless, inferior remake of a Disney classic. In short, there is no reason for this movie to exist.
Belle (Emma Watson) is a small French town’s least favorite daughter, namely because she always has her nose in a book and wants “more than this provincial life.” Gaston (Luke Evans) is the most popular man in town and a dreamboat that ladies savor, and maybe also Gaston’s silly sidekick, LeFou (Josh Gad). The hunk is determined to marry Belle at all costs but she wants nothing to do with the brute. Belle’s father (Kevin Kline) falls prisoner to a ghastly Beast (Dan Stevens), a monster who used to be a prince who was cursed for his vanity. The Beast’s servants were also cursed, turned into living objects, like cowardly clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), lively lamp Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), and a tea kettle (Emma Thompson), feather duster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), harpsichord (Stanley Tucci), dresser (Audra McDonald), and probably a chamber pot somewhere. Belle trades places with her father, becoming the Beast’s captive. The servants encourage the Beast to put on a charm offensive and change his ways to woo Belle, because if he cannot earn reciprocal love before the last pedal falls from an enchanted rose, then they will all be doomed to live their current fates.
I figured, at worst, I would be indifferent to the live-action version of a great animated musical, especially since they were following the plot fairly closely. I was not indifferent; I was bored silly, and as the boredom consumed me I felt the strong urge to simply get up and leave. Now I didn’t do that, dear reader, because I owed all of you my complete thoughts on the complete film. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I debated escape, which is a rarity for me (I’ve never walked out of a movie, but Beauty and the Beast now joins a small number of films where I considered the inclination). The source of my urges spring directly from the realization that I knew exactly what was going to be coming at every step, even down to shots, and I knew it was going to be worse than the source material. It felt like watching the soul slowly get sucked out of the 1991 film. It was imitation that squeezed out all the delightful feelings from the original, stamping out joy and replacing it with an awkward, stilted facsimile. There’s also the problem of live-action being a medium that distorts some of the charming elements from the animated movie. The anthropomorphic servants are especially unsettling to watch.
The new additions are few and completely unnecessary, adding a half hour to a classic’s efficient running time. It’s kind of like remaking Casablanca and adding forty minutes of stuff that doesn’t belong, which might as well be known today as Peter Jackson Syndrome. With Beauty and the Beast, there are four or five new songs added, and they are awful and needless. Two of them are back-stories for Belle and the Beast/Prince, both of which were already covered earlier either explicitly or implicitly. They are the clear clunkers and further evidence that the 2017 additions are artistic anchors hampering an otherwise great musical. The Prince is given more screentime pre-Beast transformation but it covers the same ground that a simple voice over achieves in the original. I don’t think much is added seeing Stevens get gussied up and partying with the pretty people of his village except as an excuse for costuming excess. Some of the elements added also feel remarkably tacked on and feebly integrated, like the Beast’s magic teleportation book. He has a book that will take the user anywhere in the world, which Belle uses once to visit her parents’ old home and learn redundant information. At no point is this powerful magical device ever used. Why introduce a teleporting book and never bring it up again, especially if only to reveal something superfluous? Why does the Beast need a magic mirror to spy on people if he can teleport there? These are the unintended questions that befall poorly planned story elements that nobody asked for.
The 2017 Beast also wants to celebrate itself for being more inclusive, feminist, and forward thinking than its predecessor, but this claim is overblown. Much has been made out of Condon’s claims of an “exclusively gay moment” in the movie devoted to LeFou, which wouldn’t be that surprising considering his Gaston-adoring behavior walks a homoerotic line in the original. This “exclusive” moment is LeFou dancing with another man and seeming to enjoy himself, or at least not hating the idea. It lasts for a grand total of two seconds on screen as part of a closing epilogue scanning across our happy characters reunited on the dance floor. It seems like much ado about nothing, especially since the 1991 film had the exact same comic beat of a man discovering an unknown joy of dressing in women’s clothing. Watson has been an outspoken actress, a UN human rights ambassador, and has said in multiple media interviews that it was important to make Belle a more actionable feminist figure. There was certainly room for improvement considering it’s a romance that many have cited as a clear case of Stockholm syndrome. If a modern remake of Beauty and the Beast were going to make socially conscious strides, it would be here, naturally. It’s pretty much the same movie except now she creates a washing machine by completely occupying the town fountain. That’s it. Considering that the movie added thirty minutes to the running time, you would think a majority of that would be judiciously devoted to building a plausible bridge from the Beast being Belle’s captor to being her lover. Nope. It’s a more forward thinking movie in fairly superficial ways that feel overly designed to warrant applause, like the inclusion of two interracial couples in the small staff of a seventeenth century French castle.
I went in and thought, if all else, I would at least have the instantly humable and highly pleasurable songs to fall back on. Then I realized this imagined respite was a fallacy. Like every other element in the film, the singing was going to be worse than the originals, and it was. The biggest aural offender belongs to our heroine, Miss Watson (The Bling Ring), whose singing vocals are Auto tuned within an inch of their lives. I have no idea what Watson’s singing voice sounds like in real life but I can almost assuredly bet it does not sound like what comes out of her mouth in this movie. The Auto tune effect was immediate, and overwhelming, and it felt like daggers in my ears for the entirety of the film. Auto tune flattens out a singer’s vocals and makes them sound tinny, unreal, almost like the comedown from sucking helium. I listened attentively to the other performers and it seemed like Watson was the only one given this exaggerated treatment. I’ve said before I’m not a fan of Watson as an actress, feeling she plateaued at a young age from the Harry Potter series, and her performance here will not change my mind. Similarly, the Beast’s vocals are so enhanced with bass that it would be hard to judge Stevens authentic singing voice. McGregor (T2 Trainspotting) has proven his singing chops before but a French accent was clearly something that got away from him. Evans (The Girl on the Train) is acceptable as a singer but lacks something of the brio that makes Gaston a larger-than-life pompous ass. Gad (Frozen) is right at home with musical theater. If I had to pick a musical highlight I would cite “Be Our Guest” simply for the visual barrage of colors and playful imagery that is absent most of a rather dreary looking movie. The other performers are adequate and sing their parts with equal parts gusto and reverence, but they’re all clearly weaker singers than the less known cast of the 1991 edition. It leaves one with the impression of a shabby celebrity karaoke version of a better movie.
Beauty and the Beast isn’t just a disappointment, it’s an artistic misfire on multiple fronts that is looking for applause but doing too little to even earn such consideration. It wants to be forward thinking for a contemporary audience but they’re empty gestures, as it just copies the 1991 movie down to similar shot selections. The 1991 movie is great, no question, but I don’t need a Gus van Sant Psycho-style remake that only serves to make me appreciate the original more. This movie has no reason to exist outside of the oodles of cash that Disney will probably collect from repackaging its much beloved classic to a new generation of fans and an older generation seeking out millennial nostalgia. The singing is off, especially from a painfully Auto tuned Watson, the new songs and scenes are pointless, and even some of the production design resembles a play that ran out of budget halfway through. If you’re a fan of the original, you may find entertainment just reliving the familiar beats and notes from the 1991 film, just to a patently lesser degree of success. It’s not like Disney’s other live-action remakes of their extensive back catalogue of titles. The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon were sizeable improvements, and the agreeable Cinderella found some welcomed maturity to go with its fairy dust. Those movies found new angles, and in some cases had little relationship to their original material as in the case of the wonderful and heartfelt Pete’s Dragon. These are examples of filmmakers who were inspired by their sources but told their own stories. Beauty and the Beast, in contrast, is just the hollowed out husk of the original, now made putrid.
Nate’s Grade: C
It’s not going to be called conventionally appealing, or successfully funny, but Mortdecai is not exactly the colossal unwatchable bomb that critics brought out their knives for in the first month of 2015. It’s a curiosity that has some merit in its failure but it’s hard to lambaste this lark too much because it never takes itself too seriously. Johnny Depp plays Mortdecai, a roguish art dealer who also traffics in stolen paintings. Gwyneth Paltrow is his co-conspirator and wife. Paul Bettany is Mortdecai’s long-suffering manservant always getting into dust-ups or occasionally shot by his master. The weird left turns the comedy keeps taking don’t exactly make the movie better but they save it from being completely unmemorable. Your enjoyment factor will weigh heavily upon your tolerance for Depp in full foppish mode, an effete dandy who struggles with his conflating love of his mustache and his wife’s distaste for it. The entire story is a shaggy dog caper about stolen art that involves the Russian mafia, MI 5, and Nazi gold, and nothing matters. The actors look to be having a good deal of fun, playing dress up and trying on silly accents. I can’t say I laughed out loud but I did occasionally smile at the absurd commitment. I mostly sat wondering how something like this gets made, and then I saw that Depp was one of the producers and that answered that question. Mortdecai may not be worth the invective but that doesn’t mean it’s good.
Nate’s Grade: C-
This holiday season, the movie with the most acting, by far, is likely to be August: Osage County, the adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Tony award-winning play. It’s a large dysfunctional family getting back together and opening old wounds, so, you know, the most relatable Christmas movie for some. It’s easy to see what attracted such A-list talent to this project because these characters are actor catnip; each is overflowing with drama, secrets, revelations, anger, and it’s all channeled through Letts’ barbed sense of humor and wickedly skillful dialogue. With Meryl Streep as the pill-popping matriarch, Julia Roberts as her resentful daughter, and a host of other inter-generational conflicts and secrets, you may feel exhausted by the end of its 130-minute running time (the stage play was 3.5 hours, respectively). The emotional confrontations feel like grueling pugilist matches, the melodrama kept at a fever pitch, but the film is never boring. Streep is her usual astonishing self and the deep ensemble gives each actor something to chew over. This is the best Roberts has been in years, and she’s not afraid to get nasty (“Eat your fish!”). Just when you think the story might soften, Letts unleashes another body blow, allowing no uncertainty that this is a family doomed. The story also provides insights into tracking the path of cruelty through the family tree, limb by limb. August: Osage County is stridently funny but also punishing in its no-holds-barred approach to family drama. If you’re looking for a movie that makes your family seem normal and even-tempered, this may be it.
Nate’s Grade: B
On December 26, 2004, an underwater earthquake triggered one of the deadliest tsunamis on record, devastating coastal cities along the Indian Ocean. Over 230,000 people are believed to have perished from the waves and resulting damage. The Impossible tells the harrowing and ultimately inspiring true-story of one family and their vacation from hell. We follow Marie (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) as well as their three sons, from oldest to youngest, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). They’re vacationing in Thailand for the holidays and then the tsunami hits, separating Marie and Lucas from the group. They are swept away by the punishing waves and Marie is badly hurt. Henry is desperately searching for his loved ones, Lucas is desperate to get his mother proper medical attention, and there are thousands just as desperate and just as in need.
It’s nigh impossible to watch this movie and be unmoved. It’s not very subtle when it comes to its themes and messages, but man is it ever effective. The family struggle could have easily descended into melodrama with a sappy, maudlin reunion, punctuated with swelling music to hit you over the head. It’s a fairly simple story with little to its plot. The family gets separated and then they desperately search for one another and, surprise, they reunite. It is after all based on a true story and they all lived, so there’s that. It’s the startling level of realism, the exceptional performances, and the poignant moments of human kindness and grace that suckered me in big time. I was an emotional wreck throughout this movie but in the best way possible. I cried at points, sure, but my tears and my emotions always felt genuinely earned. There’s no doubt that this is one manipulative movie. It knows what strings to pull, what buttons to push, and it does so with finesse. Last year I decried Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close for being overly manipulative and overdosing on false sentiment. However, with this movie, my investment was never in jeopardy. I was completely absorbed by the story and felt great empathy for the array of characters as they persevere. The horror of that 2004 tsunami is told in one small story, personalized, and giving an entry point for an audience to engage without feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of destruction and death.
Let me go into further detail about that wall of destruction, given astonishing, terrifying realism. The recreation of the tsunami ranks up there as one of the most frightening sequences I’ve ever seen in film. It’s a solid ten minutes of chaos, and you will feel the frenzy of that chaos. You’re put in the middle, floating along with mother and son as they helplessly try and cling to one another. The scope of the disaster will leave you gasping. I know they must have used sets and water tanks but I’m left stupefied how it all came together to look so seamless. It sounds macabre to compliment the marvelous recreation of mayhem, but director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) and his team have turned disaster into world-class drama. It’s not just the powerful waves as well, there’s the field of debris just under the surface to contend with. When the first wave hits Maria, we experience her complete disorientation. The sights and sounds are blurs, the water oppressive, and the debris sudden, jolting, unforgiving. It’s the closest any person would ever truly want to get in the middle of a tsunami.
The majority of the film is about the family coming back together, and while their reunion is indeed a tearjerker, I found the film littered with many small moments that just soared emotionally. When a disaster of this magnitude hits, I’m always struck by the wealth of human kindness and cooperation that emerges in response. There’s something deeply moving about helping your fellow man in need, even if you cannot understand his or her language. Maria is aided by the Thai locals who do not treat her differently because she’s a white woman. She is just another person in need.
Whenever disaster strikes, we think of the people who plunge into the middle as heroes, but simple acts can be just as comforting and thoughtful. There are small moments of kindness, like lending a stranger your cell phone to call home, that speak volumes. In that one instance, Henry is so distraught, the weight of everything hitting him as he tries to put it into words, and his call is abrupt and somewhat incomprehensible thanks to his rising emotions. Henry is urged to call back, not to leave it at that, to leave his relatives dangling with such precious little and the alarm in his voice. So he’s given the phone again, and in a more measured demeanor, Henry is able to talk about the situation and promise to find his wife. It’s such an everyday gesture made invaluable to Henry. There’s a woman talking to Thomas about the stars in the sky, how we don’t know which are dead but they continue to live on, and the subtext is a bit obvious but it’s still heartfelt. Then there’s Lucas’ mission of organizing the triage center, scouring the grounds looking for missing family members. He takes it upon himself to make a difference rather than sitting idle. It’s that human connection in the face of adversity that proves most uplifting.
Watts (J. Edgar) gives a performance of tremendous strength and fragility. The tenacity and resilience she has to keep pushing through is remarkable. She’s so strong but vulnerable at the same time, showing you the fine line she walks to stay above the fray for her child. She endures great physical trauma, a gnarly gash in her leg peeling off like tree bark. Then there’s the emotional burden of trying to be a mother to a child desperately in need of a sturdy parent. Watts could have readily played to the heights of the emotions, resorting to hysterics, but the quiet strength of her character makes her underplay the burdens she endures. She can’t simply just break down. You don’t get a true sense of the toll she has suffered until her life-and-death struggles at the very end.
The supporting team around Watts also deserves accolades. McGregor (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) has several heartbreaking and heartwarming scenes, striving for hope. Lucas has to rise to maturity when his mother is wounded, protecting her, supporting her. Acting novice Holland rises to that challenge with great courage, though there are moments that still remind you he’s only a boy, like when he bashfully turns his back upon seeing his mother’s exposed breast. That awkward, indecisive moment where a young boy doesn’t know how to handle the sight, seeing his mother so exposed and vulnerable, is quite effective. The other actors who round out the family (Joslin and Pendergast) are quite superb as well. The family feels like a cohesive, loving unit, and every performance feels believable.
The Impossible is based upon the true experiences of a Spanish family, and yet the onscreen family we follow is white, so what gives? It’s not surprising for Hollywood to whitewash a story to appeal to a wider audience. Should we have any more sympathy for this family’s plight because they are white? Would we feel less if they were Spanish? I think the perils and victories would be the same regardless of language or ethnicity, but I can’t fault the producers for snagging talent like Watts and McGregor. If you have actors of this caliber that wish to come aboard, then by all means change the ethnicity of the characters. I was too consumed in the story to care that much about this facet.
Watching the unflinching and stunning events in The Impossible, you will likely shed some tears, be they from horror, sadness, or happiness at the family’s reunion. While the ending is never in doubt, the movie has plenty of other potent and poignant small moments to keep your emotions safely stirred. It’s a visceral experience that will shock and exhilarate. There were moments where I felt like I had to cover my eyes. But The Impossible is not disaster porn, ogling over the suffering and endurance of the misfortunate. It’s as much about the response to tragedy as it is the wallop of that cruel tragedy in 2004. The perseverance, the open-hearted help of one’s fellow man, the strength of human connection, the long ripples of kindness, it all comes together to form one compelling, often moving, and quite memorable film experience. Add some formidable performances, top-notch direction, and tremendous technical achievement, and The Impossible is a rousing drama that speaks to the best of us even in the worst conditions (think of it as the antithesis of Ayn Rand’s philosophy). It may be manipulative, it may be somewhat straightforward, and it likely climaxes too soon, but when the results are this powerful and emotionally engaging, then I’m happy to have my buttons pushed.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen will likely not be outdone in 2012 for strangest title of a mainstream film release. It is indeed about the crazy idea of brining salmon to an emerging system of rivers in a Middle Eastern country. You’d expect some cultural conflicts and even some can-do uplift by the end. What I wasn’t expecting was a hokey romantic comedy to take hold of the movie. Ewan McGregor plays a repressed fish expert who partners up with Emily Blunt, whose company represents a wealthy Yemen sheik with a cockamamie dream. I felt that the sheer magnitude of project, transforming an environment, the triumph of the human spirit and cooperation, would be compelling enough. But this trifle of a romance demands the greater attention. There’s a contrived plot point where Blunt’s boyfriend of three weeks is presumed dead in Afghanistan. Guess who comes back later? This entire storyline hinges around the fact that she was only with the guy for three weeks; even she admits, “I never got to know him better.” The coupling feels extra tacky because McGregor is married too. Sure his marriage appears to be in a rut, but does that excuse his behavior? The political satire of the British government also feels pretty tin-eared and forced, like they’re compensating with volume for wit. Then there are the corny moments like McGregor foiling an assassination attempt on the sheik with a fly fishing rod. Yes, he whips it around the attacker’s arm like Zorro. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a nice enough little film, at least it would have been had it ever been allowed to jettison the yoke of a lackluster romantic comedy.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Haywire is director Steven Soderbergh’s experiment in the field of the action thriller, and it’s sparse and arty and pretty boring too. Soderbergh takes another non-actor, this time MMA fighter Gina Carano, and builds a spy thriller around the talents of this imposing fighter. Carano is no actor and her flat line delivery will routinely remind you of her limitations, but man alive does this woman just kick ass. To Soderbergh’s credit, the fight scenes occur in longer takes at a safe distance so that we the audience can watch and comprehend. Carano impresses as a physical specimen, both as a fighter and in other ways (she’s certainly got movie-star looks). I just wish this had been a more traditional action movie instead of Soderbergh’s jazzy, clinical genre experiment. There’s a handful of fights and a handful of chases, but mostly the plot is tied up in knots of who betrayed who and why. The dialogue volume is also curiously kept at a very low level, which obscures many conversations (I was forced to turn on the subtitles just to keep up). The plot itself is such a familiar rehash so why doesn’t Soderbergh pump it with more action? A bevy of stars appear in this thing (Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum) but gives them precious little to do. Unless Haywire is in fight mode, it’s a rather soggy bore. The minimalism in a genre known for bombast is commendable but when that minimalism also stretches into plot and character and pacing, then you’ve entered into another Soderbergh indie experiment. For my money, Haywire is too sparse, too generic, and too dull to recommend, but I’d love to see more of Carano cracking skulls.
Nate’s Grade: C
Burying a parent is one of the most gut-wrenching hardships of life, a passage I have thankfully not had to endure yet in my own life. Writer/director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) turned his own heartbreak into a subdued, life-affirming movie called Beginners. This gentle movie is comic, poignant, and frustratingly limited thanks to a miscalculation in its structure.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is reeling from the loss of his elderly father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). After the death of his wife, in his seventy-fifth year, Hal came out as being gay his whole life. And he decided to have some fun in those last years too, notably with a hunky younger boyfriend (Goran Visnjic, remember him, ER fans?). We get several flashbacks with Oliver and his ailing father, who was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer soon into his gay reemergence. In the present, Oliver, as a dissatisfied graphic designer, is trying to find his bearings after burying both of his parents. Hal’s dog, a Jack Russell terrier, is mourning as well, refusing to be left alone. As a result, Oliver takes the small dog with him wherever he travels, including social events. He meets Anna (Melanie Laurent) at a friend’s costume party. He’s dressed as Sigmund Freud and she mimes having laryngitis. Anna, a young actress who spends most of her life in hotels, invites him back and the two explore the possibility of a relationship. She’ll be off to another film shoot in a month, but the two become inseparable during the time they have together. Anna learns about Oliver and his complicated relationship with the complicated man he knew as his father. Oliver, and in flashback Hal, are beginners on a road to making sense of their lives.
What eventually holds Beginners back is its clipped structure. The film diverges into two main storylines, father and son (60%) and son with new love (40%). The new love stuff is presented fairly linearly, however, the father/son material is not, consisting of memories that can be triggered by objects or offhand sayings. Like (500) Days of Summer, memories are presented not in a linear fashion but through a connection of theme or tone. Rarely do we recount memories in a chronological fashion, and as such Oliver is beset by deluges of images of his father ailing at various points. But it’s like Mills took that fleeting memory approach to heart because Beginners is a slave to the altar of jump cuts. The editing, and the narrative, is constantly leaping forward; scenes rarely last longer than 30-45 seconds, making the film feel like somebody had their finger mashed against a stubborn fast forward button. As a result, the film feels hurried and unsettled, and this clipped structure mollifies the emotional impact of the movie. It’s because the romance only feels like someone’s remembrance of those burgeoning happy beginnings. The film doesn’t feel like it is in its own present; we’re in 2003 and Oliver will occasionally inform us, in High Fidelity-styled notation, of life at that moment. It feels like the entire enterprise is an assembly of past memories ping-ponging off one another. Another hurdle is that Anna and Oliver’s main conflict concerns their fear of happiness. Each had parents who wed as unhappy people, had unhappy unions, and both are fearful that they too will commit to living unhappy lives. It’s not an impossible feat, to be sure, but it does make it somewhat harder to relate to your characters when the main relationship problem is that they cannot accept happiness. While psychologically interesting in larger scope, due to the structure of Beginners, this conflict for Anna and Oliver seems petty and insufficient. The antsy story structure limits the emotional resonance of the movie. What should be a nourishing meal about the human condition ends up being a tidy snack instead.
Don’t get me wrong, Beginners is still a fairly moving film in its own right. Just the very nature of the story, dealing with the last months of an ailing parent and what to do next, is destined to hit poignant pockets of drama. Plus you have gifted actors doing fine work to wring out those tears. Mills’ tale is semi-autobiographical, which allows for several personal insights that can wound, like direct shots of honesty. Oliver narrates the steps taken after a parent’s death, including the mundane yet painful trivialities needed to convince every bill collector that their client has left the Earth. When Hal is informed that he has a spot of cancer the size of a quarter in his lung, the screen flashes to black as the doctor continues her somber diagnosis. A quarter appears. Then five nickels, finally twenty-five pennies. It’s a small little visual insert, and yet it manages to seem like a believable, personally relatable moment when delivered such thundering news. Something the size of a quarter will be responsible for your father losing his life. Five nickels. Twenty-five pennies. The scenes with father and son, coming to terms with saying goodbye, reflecting on lives lived and lives deferred, is what gives Beginners its beating heart. The clipped present-day romance plays more like a post-script attempt to forge a neat resolution after all that heavy grief.
Plummer gives a performance that is equal parts weighed with the gravity of death and the electricity of life. After his wife’s death, Hal finally has an opportunity to embrace who he has been his whole life. Mills and Plummer are delicate with how they handle the relationship between Hal and his wife (Mary Page Keller in flashback). Neither hated the other, and both did express love, but they were together in a marriage of convenience, both of them hiding who they were from preying eyes (Oliver’s mother hid that she was Jewish). Plummer’s celebration of life, the twinkling realization of accepting who you truly are, is an uplifting path for his character, and thanks to both Mills and Plummer it never feels like he’s dancing on the grave of his long-suffering wife. He’s not celebrating her death; he’s embracing who he is in the twilight of his years. He’s looking for a small amount of kindness and comfort while finally being socially recognized without fear or intimidation. Plummer is delightful during Hal’s happier moments and heart wrenching during the realities of his failing body. Plummer deftly bites into one of those juicy, Oscar-bait roles.
McGregor acts very well even if his character is kept in a very tight box of emotional expression. His character seems to sleepwalk from scene to scene; often little is said and much left to the imagination through pregnant pauses or gestures. McGregor does a fine job of balancing the different timelines of grief his character is experiencing. He’s in comic shock about his father’s newfound immersion in a gay lifestyle, he’s in mourning about the recent loss of his father, he’s in annoyance tinged with guilt about the burdens of taking care of a man that was often absent in his own life, leaving him in the care of his mother, resigned to a life of dutiful despondency, and he’s infatuated with the possibility of romantic love, a cleansing force. It’s a lot for one actor to keep straight and McGregor does an admirable job. Laurent does not fare as well. The Inglourious Basterds‘ actress is forced to rely mostly on wry smiles and her penetrating eyes. She also cocks her head to the side a lot, or a least that’s how I recall. She’s given something of a thanklessly underwritten role but she manages to be adorable from her first moment onscreen, which is her most vital acting accomplishment here. She’s supposed to be that happy ending we want Oliver to have.
Beginners is a moving, charming, and perceptive movie. If only there was more of it. The clipped, hurried jump cut-heavy structure keeps the audience at a certain distance and capping the emotional resonance. The father/son stuff is going to be easier to empathize with, both good times and bad, than two good-looking thirtysomethings afraid of being happy because their parents are screwed up. Ultimately, the film’s pretenses of a budding, quirky romance will take away from the more genuine father/son bonding late in life. You’ll get weepy at turns, maybe even swoon here and there, but the rewards are sadly too momentary, never cohesively assembling into a full-fledged narrative. Beginners has an equal number of hard truths and light moments of whimsy (the subtitled dog is a hoot), but ultimately it’s a movie that makes you wish it had left a better impression when it had the chance.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Ewan McGregor (Angels & Demons, Big Fish) stars as The Ghost (no, he never earns a name even in the closing credits). He’s an expert ghost writer for best-selling autobiographies, and his services have been enlisted for his biggest client yet. Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is a former British prime minister currently embroiled in a legal scandal. He’s being accused of handing over British citizens to the United States to be tortured, all in the name of the War on Terror. Lang and his wife (Olivia Williams) have holed up in a fabulous house along Cape Cod, hiding from swarms of international media. The book’s due date is soon approaching and nobody is really pleased with the first draft. Mike, the first ghost writer, can’t help with the revisions on account that his abandoned car was discovered on a Massachusetts ferry and his body washed ashore the next day. The Ghost begins to suspect that Mike somehow stumbled across some very potent and damaging information, and the secrets are hidden somewhere in that manuscript.
Consider me pleasantly surprised at how effective this small little political thriller turned out to be. It doesn’t have an overworked narrative agenda, but the few things it does it does quite well. Firstly, it’s a pleasure for a thriller to actually make the audience feel as paranoid as the main character. He treats the idea of a conspiracy as nonsense to begin with, but then he starts to second-guess that car traveling behind. What about that guy two blocks down talking to himself? The screenplay achieves a palpable sense of paranoia, nicely placing you in the emotional state of our lead. You may run questions through your head as well, wondering who can ultimately be trusted, who to turn to next, what information to divulge and to whom, whether to get into the mysterious car or not. The best “thriller” moment is the Ghost waiting in his car and driving for cover, but even that is done in a style that doesn’t feel ripped from an action blockbuster. I’ve watched so many thrillers that get by on studious attention to the routines of the genre, and while The Ghost Writer doesn’t exactly break new ground, the movie keeps the threat of danger real. Actually, on that very note, The Ghost Writer does something unexpected, which is that it begins to lull you into a false sense of security or complacency, and then it robs you of that sense of security in the end. I enjoyed the film’s climax, though even at my screening I heard dissatisfied grumbles on the way out.
The movie is without exchanges of gunfire, explosions, or any nefarious, shadowy individual pressing a red button and laughing maniacally. The Ghost Writer exists in a world very similar to our own. It’s a conspiracy thriller in the same vein as The Constant Gardener or Michael Clayton. The menace is far more subdued; the danger getting tighter as we push forward yet the threat feels deceptively relaxed. It’s the kind of conspiracy thriller that feels like a workable conspiracy, which means that most of the dirty work is implied or done behind the scenes. This means that you have to work a little harder to engage with The Ghost Writer because it chooses not to spell out its litany of danger and those who are dangerous, but it also makes for a more effective experience of paranoia. The film even seems to follow this edict in its visual presentation. The movie has an eerie cool feel to it thanks to the downcast, icy blue-hued cinematography and sleek, sparse art direction, suggesting something is amiss but you can’t quite put your finger on what. It’s also continuously raining, a favorite, if overused, cinematic metaphor.
The Ghost Writer intelligently explores a current international imbroglio, making the political crisis relevant without reaching for a soapbox. The politics of torture is a topic that doesn’t appear to be disappearing any time soon. Torture also provides a fine, morally queasy subject matter to dive into and pick apart. Willful involvement in torture presents several ethical challenges for a character (unless you’re Jack Bauer), which can prove to be a meaty area to watch gifted actors chew over all that rueful decision-making and hand wringing. But alas, this is not a message movie like the slew of 2007 Iraq/torture films that fell flat, mostly because those lukewarm-to-awful movies felt a message supplanted entertainment. The Ghost Writer is a piece of entertainment first, an adult and a cerebral movie that has a striking sense of humor. The dialogue is surprisingly quippy, full of great one-liners amidst all the peril and uncertainty. So while the movie has some points about global politics, ownership and responsibility, the role of media and rewriting history, the movie doesn’t commit entertainment suicide trying to service a message.
Personally, I found the behind-the-scenes work of a ghost writer to be just as interesting, if not more so, than the conspiracy unraveling. The editing process can be fascinating for such a high profile political leader; deciding what moments to emphasize, what moments to forget, what narrative will be fashioned to make sure that a politician comes out on top, spiting his enemies without looking bitter. It’s a delicate balancing act and a precarious responsibility for the ghost writer, controlling a human beings life story for the annuls of mass market history. And these ghost writers get no recognition, even after mimicking the speaking/writing styles of their subject, and these are often subjects who are used to having their thoughts and opinions groomed, tested, and prepared by others, so what difference does their autobiographies make? I believe Sarah Palin could not write her own name without the aid of a ghost writer and/or a bevy of trained subordinates. While this storyline pretty much expectantly falls by the wayside once the conspiracy stuff emerges, I felt that the movie did a respectable service to honor ghost writers everywhere (Palin’s own ghost writer was Lynn Vincent).
The cast all seemed to dig their juicy roles, judging from the performances. Brosnan and Williams are obviously playing versions of Tony and Cherie Blair, so it’s fun to watch both actors enjoy their thinly veiled roles. Brosnan (Mamma Mia) is terrific and Williams (An Education) has this disquieting calm about her that only breaks in a handful of telling moments. Many actors have these small, sometimes one-scene, parts but they make the most of them. Kim Cattrall is spunky as Lang’s loyal personal assistant (her accent isn’t flawless, but that alone is better than her work in the Sex and the City movie). Tom Wilkinson (Duplicity) also shows up as an Ivy League professor with a mysterious background, and the man knows exactly how to play a treacherous gentleman. You may be shocked to see a bald-headed, bulldog-looking Jim Belushi appear on screen, and he’s good too as a publishing exec with no patience for niceties. But the movie is McGregor’s and the actor does not disappoint. It’s pleasing to watch his character transform from observer to actor. He’s a charismatic guy that speaks his mind and a worthy hero to root for.
And it took until the final paragraph for me to mention director Roman Polanski’s current legal woes. The Ghost Writer was Polanski’s last film he directed before being obtained by Swiss authorities and set to be expedited back to California for a 30-year-old rape charge. It’s hard not to read somewhat into the premise: a man hiding from authorities with a charge hanging over his head. This may well prove to be the last film we’ll see from the 77-year-old director judging from the pending legal issues. If it does indeed serve as the last piece in the career of a talented director, it will at least be a high point. At least Polanski’s last film wasn’t the abominable Ninth Gate.
Nate’s Grade: B+
This movie was a big letdown given the cast, the strange true origins of this fantastic tale, and even with the title. This odd little film feels tonally off. The material feels mishandled, mixing broad humor and with military satire and the dark realities of the war in Iraq. The premise is solid — a Pentagon program training psychic soldiers, men convinced they could run through walls or terminate goats through the power of thought. Why then does the movie feel so misguided and rudderless and, ultimately, boring? Never has such an outlandish concept, based on true events, felt so devoid of edge. The satire picks safe targets and the comedy remains farcically broad. I think the film’s downfall can ultimately be traced to the decision to turn this material into a fictional narrative. I would have preferred an actual documentary detailing the men, women, and goats involved in the real Pentagon program. If truth can be stranger than fiction, why dress it up and then dull it through fiction?
Nate’s Grade: C
Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks, with a better haircut) is the world?s foremost expert on ancient symbols and texts, which is why the Vatican recruits him for a very important mission. The Pope has recently died and Vatican City is in the middle of the cardinals deliberating who will be the newest leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Four of the cardinals, top candidates for the Pope position, have been kidnapped. The Illuminati, a centuries-old secret society, says that a cardinal will die every hour, from 8 PM to 11 PM, and then at midnight Vatican City will be destroyed. The Illuminati was made up of followers who felt the church was rejecting science, and so we?re told that in the 16th century the Catholic Church responded reasonably by branding the Illuminati followers and executing them. 400 years is a long time to wait for revenge. To make matters worse, antimatter was stolen from the CERN facility in Switzerland and placed somewhere within Vatican City. The battery holding the antimatter is scheduled to die about, conveniently, midnight, and the antimatter will result in a huge explosion (science note: antimatter is real but it is entirely harmless and not combustible). With the help of Carmenlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGreggor), acting church leader until there’s a new Pope, and particle physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), Langdon must race against time to save the Catholic Church.
The time element gives the movie a sense of urgency that was missing before, and a kidnapping plot provides a firm structure and supplies more chances for action than unraveling a 2000-year old church conspiracy on the divinity of Jesus. The plot of Angels & Demons works out like a high-stakes scavenger hunt, shuttling Langdon across the many sights of Rome to find the next clue. However, the narrow timeline of killing a cardinal on the hour every hour makes for some tight squeezes, both for Langdon and the cardinal-killing man. I never understand why the villains give themselves such a small window to work with. I know the whole “dead cardinal every hour” thing has a nice ring to it, but is it wholly practical? There’s all that driving around Rome and the Vatican, which has got to be crowded since millions are awaiting news about a new Pope. Beyond this, why must Langdon and crew always show up to a site with like five minutes before the cardinals will be murdered? Are they stopping to get subway sandwiches in between? The timeline and plot setup provide more action sequences that make the movie fleetingly entertaining in spurts.
What doomed the Da Vinci Code movie was not the endless blather, though that certainly bored me to tears, but the fact that the film wanted to have its cake and eat it too — it wants to be a brainy thriller but get away with hokey thriller shortcomings. Angels & Demons suffers more or less the same killing blow. The flick wants you to shut your brain off and swallow these trite lapses in judgment and reality, forgiving the movie for zero character development and polluting the narrative with stupid genre stock roles, but then it also wants you to pay close attention and activate your brain to untangle the origins of symbols, conspiracies, and church doctrine. Angels & Demons introduces the idea of a ticking clock so it’s a far better paced affair than the previous film, but the movie still finds ways to get bogged down. Once again, Dan Brown’s novel has been adapted to a series of chases and sit-down chats, although this time Langdon does a lot of speed walking while he dishes out the minute history of church doctrine and architecture. To borrow from my own review of The Da Vinci Code: “You can?t be a brainy thriller and fill the story with hokey moments and lapses in thought, and likewise you can?t be an enjoyably straight forward thriller if you bookend all your action sequences with talky sit-downs to explain the minutia of your story.”
These stories are just meant to work better on the page than on screen. Puzzles and word games work when the audience can take a moment to pause but film is a medium of images and cannot simply go dead waiting for the audience to posit a guess. Movies don’t have time for you to chew things over. So then the puzzles just devolve into waiting for Langdon to explain everything, which he will do at great length. This can get tedious at a rapid rate. Langdon is less a character in this movie and more a walking, talking encyclopedia of exposition. He is robbed of anything that could be charitably described as characterization. Symbol decoding just does not work on the big screen, and Langdon is an expert whose profession is limited in application. I can’t foresee too many instances where a top-notch symbologist will be needed at a moment’s notice. Sure, it’s nice to get a history lesson and see plenty of those swell ancient churches, even if the filmmakers had to recreate them as sets because the Vatican refused them entry to film, but what point do these Dan Brown thrillers serve as movies? There is an intriguing discussion between science and the role of the church somewhere in this movie, but good luck finding much to stir your intellect. I confess never having read one of Brown’s tomes, including the super colossal mega-selling do-it-all Da Vinci Code, but surely the man deserves a better fate than to have his works die on the big screen as lamentably lame thrillers.
There are no characters in Angels & Demons, only stock roles and suspects. Langdon’s female sidekick (Zurer,Vantage Point) serves no other purpose but to translate Latin and Italian. Really, if Langdon is a scholar on the conspiracies revolving around the Catholic Church then perhaps he should put in the time and money to learn the language. The Vatican police are there as escorts and little else. Stellen Skarsgård (Mamma Mia!) serves as the chief of the Swiss Guard, the Pope’s security team, and Armin-Mueller Stahl (Shine, Eastern Promises) is a German cardinal running the ongoing recounts for a new pontiff. Both men are presented as sly, untrustworthy suspects. Stahl’s character routinely dresses down McKenna as well, saying the young pup in the collar is not fit for church hierarchy. It?s not much to go on but the “characters” are just figures that occasionally get in the way of the film’s long-winded art history tour.
I think a lifetime of watching movies has just made my mind too analytical to be surprised by the twists in these kinds of dead weight thrillers. I?m already thinking ahead from the first minute and I don’t think I’m alone. When we are introduced to two characters, one gruff and unhelpful and one kindly and overly helpful, it is rather obvious which character will be revealed as being treacherous to provide the biggest jolt. Does anyone still suspect that Hollywood would produce a pointedly obvious evil suspect and then have it actually be that person? Not in today’s class of Hollywood thriller. You see kids, today’s Hollywood thriller is more concerned with piling on the twists than constructing a story that sticks together upon reflection, which is why many a Hollywood thriller simply falls apart as a jumbled mess by the time the end credits roll. Sometimes the endings sabotage everything logically that happened before. For an example of a textbook modern thriller, go rent the French film Tell No One and marvel at how the movie manages to be mysterious without being ludicrous. Angels & Demons doesn’t quite suffer from this screenwriting malady, but the essential evil plot by the eventually revealed evildoer is the most convoluted, ridiculously complicated scheme I have seen since that terminal 2005 thriller, Flightplan.
Director Ron Howard is able keep the film moving, almost distracting the audience away from the plot holes, but Angels & Demons is an adaptation that was doomed to fail from the start. The film plays like a lecture on tape with the fast forward button stuck. I might find more of the blitzkrieg of acts and anecdotes more intriguing if I could verify that they were all accurate. This is a thriller that wants to be seen as smart, so it empties exposition without haste, but it also wants to get away with narrative cheats common in your direct-to-DVD idiotic thrillers. You cannot simultaneously tell me to engage my brain and then a second later tell me to shut it off, sorry. Angels & Demons would have been better served without the Illuminati conspiracy and just plunged fully into the debate about bringing religion into the modern age, the friction between science and religion. Any substance the movie does present ends up being window dressing to an average potboiler mystery. This isn’t an awful movie but it never rises above “acceptable waste of time.” Hanks and Howard will probably be back in due time with the movie version of Brown’s upcoming new novel, The Lost Symbol, which will be released in September 2009. I just hope the duo, and screenwriter Akiva Goldsmith, have learned enough from their mistakes. I myself have little faith.
Nate’s Grade: C