Beauty And The Beast
Belle (Emma Watson) lives a frustratingly dull life in her provincial French town caring for her doting father (Kevin Kline) and fending off the unwelcome advances of town boor Gaston (Luke Evans). Things change when her father is imprisoned in an enchanted castle full of people turned into accoutrements: Belle takes her father’s place, and comes to better know the castles master, the fearsome but lonely Beast (Dan Stevens), and the curse that keeps him and the others trapped.
Disney’s latest sub-genre, the live-action remake of an animated classic, has gifted us some great experiences and some turgid bores, but they keep raking in the moolah so we’re bound to get just about all of them before too long. The latest, from director Bill Condon, aims to capture the same kind of wonder that Branagh did with a fairly by the numbers adaptation brightened up by its sense of colour and style, but doesn’t really reach the same heights. Sometimes you can just tell when something has been made with a singular idea in mind, with the rest of the film constructed around it: here, I would wager the production team was over-flowing with ideas for how to re-create “Be Our Guest”, “Gaston” and “Beauty And The Beast” in live-action form, and little else besides, as Beauty And The Beast excels when people are singing and falls a little flat else-where.
It’s not the fault of a fairly excellent cast. Watson is endearing as Belle, though a tad auto-tuned, and Stevens doesn’t let the fact that his performance is buried under CGI stop him. But it’s the rest who really steal the show: Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellan as Lumiere and Cogsworth, Emma Thompson as Ms Potts, and Kevin Kline’s as Belle’s sweet, but somewhat hapless, father. But they’re all upstaged by the duo of Evans, as the loutish but immensely entertaining Gaston, and his campy right hand toady Le Foux (Jash Gad), who adds a little something to every scene even if it’s just an obvious man-crush. Watson and Stevens can’t muster up quite the same chemistry in the films central relationship, even as the script attempts to make the Beast a bit more sympathetic to counter the well-earned Stockholm Syndrome claims.
In the end, barring a few new songs, most notably Stevens’ excellently delivered “Nevermore”, Beauty And The Beast is so like its basis that one wonders just what the point was (aside from making lots of money of course). Where Branagh cut out the songs and expanded the role of the Wicked Stepmother, and the Prince, Condon largely keeps things as they are, save for showing a bit more of Belle’s early life. One feels that he should have taken more of a risk in a story ripe for darker overtones alongside the frivolity. As it is, Beauty And The Beast is a perfectly acceptable bit of modernized nostalgia-bait, but lacks the staying power of some of its immediate predecessors. I hear Mulan is next. They better not mess that up. A partial recommend.
Kong: Skull Island
1973: As the United States military withdraws from the Vietnamese quagmire, scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) enlists the help of a bitter Army Colonel (Samuel L. Jackson) an expert British tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and a photojournalist (Brie Larson) to explore the legendary Skull Island, a lost world of abnormally large insects, mythical lizards and one giant ape.
“It’s time to show Kong that man is the real King!” proclaims Samuel L. Jackson at one point in Kong: Skull Island, perhaps the worst example of the films primary flaw, namely a script that one hopes was the writers abandoning all pretence of seriousness instead of actively trying to achieve it. Much like Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, you can’t really critique Kong: Skull Island too much: at the end of the day, it provides a giant gorilla engaged in combat against a multitude of other giant creatures, and that’s pretty much all you can expect. Or, at least, that’s what the films production and promotional aspects would have you believe, hoping perhaps that you’ll forget Peter Jackson’s gargantuan effort with the same material back in 2005, that managed to inject a brain into a story long associated only with adrenaline.
The human cast of this struggle along, their performances a mishmash of staring off into the distance at the latest CGI monster and trying to blurt some of these atrocious lines with a straight face. Top marks have to go to Brie Larson’s reporter, who declares “I know what a mass grave looks like” when surveying some animal bones, with this viewer half expecting her to add “I’ve covered wars you know”. The film meanders with illogical focuses on bland supporting characters it wants us to suddenly care about before Kong unceremoniously smushes them with his foot, while the bigger players just don’t have enough to work with, especially Jackson, caught in a “Heart of Darkness“-esque military madman role that is as played out as it is forgettable (and hey, Peter Jackson just quoted Heart Of Darkness in his one, and that was enough).
At least the film looks great. This Kong might lack the expressiveness of Andy Serkis’ take, but is built more for combat, and he duly throws some giant punches, against Huey’s, against Giant Squids, against big quasi-dinosaur things, whatever takes his fancy. The monsters are well-realized and the film generally looks quite impressive, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts grasping fully the chance to make what is essentially a Vietnam War movie with some giant creatures thrown in. It’s just the smaller beings in the film that have trouble fitting in. As an overly-dramatic post-credits teaser outlines, this is just the next step in a Monsterverse of films that will see Kong take on Godzilla, before the two presumably team up against some other abomination. I’m not sure my brain will allow me to keep following this franchise any further though. As it is, Kong: Skull Island shows that it wants to be the new “noise and fury” blockbuster, perhaps looking to fill the gap Michael Bay occasionally leaves. Not recommended.
Ghost In The Shell
Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is the first in a new breed of cybernetic humans, where only the brain of the original body has been retained in a robotic shell, along with the soul, or “ghost”. Major has limited memories of her previous life, that cause her to question her role as part of a Neo-Tokyo anti-terrorism task force, with a mission to hunt down a rogue hacker targeting the people who brought Major into being.
Leaving aside the obvious case of “whitewashing” that this film has become the posterboy for (and that is actual worse than you realise, going by a late third-act semi-twist), I might have been the perfect audience for this, having little knowledge or appreciation for the anime source material. And I think that might remain the case, as this film, an “AI/Cyborg/Does this unit have a soul?” exercise, is so vapid and shallow that it just does not speak well for where it came from.
Ghost In The Shell strikes me a movie designed more so for fans of the anime, aware of its characters, intricacies and plot-lines, than it is for those with little experience at all. The basic lack of characterisation for so many principals, chief among them “Major” herself, is extremely disappointing, as director Rupert Sanders and the writing team seem to just think that, having watched the anime, you’ll be able to fill in the gaps yourself. Cramming a lot into its limited 107 minute running time – why couldn’t this have gotten two hours? – Ghost In The Shell fails to engage you in the same was as, say, Ex Machina, or even 2015’s RoboCop which all covered similar territory in similar ways, just with markedly better results.
Not enough is done to make the audience actually root for Major and her quest to discover her past life, and the supporting cast, from Pilou Asbæk’s Batou (the one with the ridiculous eyes, something the live-action should have altered from the anime) to the absolutely empty “Chief” (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano) can’t carry the slack. The film can’t find the correct balance between Majors search for self-fulfilment and the hunt for a dangerous megahacker, being at its best with the latter, and the third act veers wildly between being an introspective about what it means to be human in a world full of cyborgs and then a video game-esque finale boss sequence. Without spoiling much, a film with the kind of pretensions Ghost In The Shell has should never be uttering the words “Activate the Spider-Tank!”.
All that being said, Ghost In The Shell at least looks cool, with a great deal of thought clearly having gone into designing this “not too distant future” world. The swirling, towering holograms of Neo-Tokyo make you feel like you’re in a slightly alien place, while the robotic cast members, most notably some Geisha girls early on, slam the uncanny valley button deliberately hard to really get you unsettled. I thought of David Wong’s Futuristic Violence And Fancy Suits and its depiction of such a world. And then I thought that would probably make a better movie. The visuals can’t get Ghost In The Shell by, any more than they could for the other two films in this list. A really flat, disappointing affair, and that’s before you get into the racism. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures and Paramount Pictures).