Category Archives: Movies

The Foreigner: Movie Review

The Foreigner is one of the stranger action movies you’re likely to see; a big budget, movie star vehicle action movie without a single likable or relatable character.  And considering that it stars Jackie Chan, that’s kind of amazing.

Because Jackie Chan, in addition to being one of the two greatest physical comedians who ever lived (his only rival, Buster Keaton), specializes in playing nice guys. He’s got that big grin, and all that energy; he’s charming. He specializes in playing good guys who find themselves in circumstances where the only possible way out is through advanced martial arts. That’s the combination that makes Jackie Chan movies such a delight; astonishing action sequences, and preposterous plots. He’s a rescuer of innocents, an inadvertent foiler of dastardly schemes. Even Jackie’s occasional struggles with English are appealing. He’s sixty three, now, and not as quick with a punch or a fall, but this is a movie I marked on my calendar. A new Jackie Chan movie is not to be missed.

And he really can act. In The Foreigner, he plays Quan, a London restauranteur, and father of the lovely Fan (Katie Leung: Cho in the Harry Potter movies), a teenaged girl with a British boyfriend. She pops into a shop to buy a dress for a Big Date, which is promptly destroyed by a terrorist bomb. Quan is devastated. And for the rest of the movie, Chan plays this guy as someone who has essentially been destroyed emotionally, turning him completely single-minded. He is going to find and kill whoever killed his daughter. Nothing else matters; no power on earth can stop him. Beyond that one desire, he seems completely numb. It’s a tragic and moving performance. But not likable. His single-mindedness turns him into a end-justifies-the-means kind of guy; essentially, he becomes something of a terrorist too.

And he’s not much interested in doing detective work. The bombing was carried out by a newly-minted IRA splinter group. Quan sees on the news that a former IRA member, who has settled into a role as a British minister to Ireland, Liam Hennessey (Pierce Brosnan), is trying to head up the effort to discover who bombed the store. So Quan focuses on Hennessey. Who, we discover, does in fact know a lot more than he’s saying to the Press. The movie becomes a cat-and-mouse duel between the two men, with Quan terrorizing Hennessey’s family to force Hennessey to tell him what he knows.

Hennessey’s no prize. It turns out, he has a mistress, Maggie, or Sarah, or something, superbly played by a fine actress named Charlie Murphy who I’d never heard of before. But Maggie/Sarah is one of the terrorists, and she sleeps with various men to further the nefarious terrorist plans, which also involve blowing up an airplane. Meanwhile, there are all sorts of political machinations involving Hennessey, his uneasy relationship with the British crown, represented by a cabinet minister, Katherine Davies (Lia Williams), with other Irish crime bosses, and his own wife, Mary (Orla Brady), who despises him and may well betray him. I’m oversimplifying–the plot is more convoluted even than I’ve described it, but it’s all made clear in the picture.

Problem is, we don’t like any of them. The battle of wits between Quan and Hennessey is what carries the picture, and it’s edge-of-the-seat compelling. But we don’t actually care who wins, ultimately, because they’re all pretty awful people.

When I taught dramatic structure, I used to introduce students to two kinds of theatrical naturalism, which I called Naturalism A and Naturalism B. This is a Naturalism A structure, but it’s also an action movie, a melodrama. Melodramas have good guys and bad guys; heroes and villains. Naturalist pieces have no heroes, nor really any villains. Everyone’s just trying to survive.  We’re to watch it dispassionately, with much attachment to any characters. That’s what this is. A cold-blooded, well-made, superbly acted exercise in pure detachment, with utterly amoral characters pursuing a fairly loathesome objective. I mean, is Quan seeking justice? Or just revenge? And what is the difference?

I found it fascinating, and riveting, and not remotely ingratiating. My wife was as fascinated as I was by it, but ultimately found it quite disappointing. If you’re expecting a Jackie Chan vehicle, a fun action/comedy, you’ll be disappointed too. If you don’t mind a pretty well made formalist exercise, and a chance for Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan to show off their acting chops, you’re more likely to find it to your taste.

“Guys.”

I’ve been reading Katy Tur’s new book, Unbelievable, about her time as an NBC correspondent covering the Trump campaign. Tur’s a tough-minded and tenacious reporter, and her book is riveting. She’s also, incidentally, an attractive woman. And she has one chapter about the incredibly inappropriate sexual things men have said to her under the most ludicrous circumstances. Including the time when Candidate Trump, the guy who wanted to be President, who she happened to be covering, came up to her, apropos nothing, and kissed her.  When she describes these incidents, she dismisses them with a single, contemptuous word: “guys.” Just “guys.”

I hate that. I know what she means, and she’s right, and I’m glad she put it in her book, but I also hate it, what it says about men. Speaking as a dude, a fella, a ‘guy’, I don’t know what’s wrong with these people. Katy Tur had the most important political story of my lifetime, and she reported it with intelligence, nuance, integrity and unrelenting courage. Why can’t that be enough? Why can’t that be all?

When I heard about the current Harvey Weinstein news story, about the sordid and disgusting sexual history of the legendary Hollywood producer, my first thought was, sad to say, “so?” I mean, isn’t that the oldest of American pickup lines: “I’m making a movie, and there may be a part in it for you?” Film producer is also a sleaze? Also, NBA player is tall.

I taught theatre at the university level for twenty years. I’ve also directed maybe 50 plays, in college settings and professionally. I’ve also pulled down a few checks as a script consultant. That puts me in the very very furthest, Pluto-adjacent, outer edges of show-biz, I suppose. And the school I taught at was a religious school, and we always had to warn about students about, you know, professional realities. Some directors/producers/casting directors are honorable and competent and professional. Many are not. Watch out. Be careful. Carry pepper spray. All that.

But, you know, even as an outsider, it’s not hard to see how the sexual objectification of women is built into the very fabric of Hollywood. It’s not just who might proposition you in exchange for an audition. How many movies have roles for the male lead, and the female love interest? How often is the actor in his 50’s or 60’s, and the actress in her mid-20’s? How many movies or TV shows include gratuitous, not just nude scenes, but underwear scenes, bikini scenes, naked-from-behind scenes? How often are women depicted either as objects for male sexual interest, or as loyal and supportive and dull?

Everything about Hollywood seems sexually charged. Isn’t ‘glamour’ synonymous with ‘alluring?’

I thought of Dory Previn, the first wife of legendary Hollywood composer Andre Previn. You probably don’t know her work, but she was a terrific singer/songwriter, a cutey-pie voice singing lyrics of unmatched savagery, and a ferocious critic of Hollywood morés, such as they were. Here’s a lyric from her song Hooray for Hollywood.

They lead you like an animal to slaughter; you’re inspected, you’re rated, you’re stamped, standard or prime. They hang you on a meathook when you age, but female meat does not improve with time. They cut you up, and take the part that’s tender, and when they’re through, all that’s left of you is tough, tough, tough. The flesh is willing, but the spirit’s growing weaker. Enough, enough, enough, enough, enough.

Then straight to the chorus: “Who do you have to f*** to get into the movies? Who do you have to lay to make your way? Hooray for Hollywood!” (Dory Previn was outraged when her husband had an affair with an actress, Mia Farrow, 17 years his junior. When she objected, he had her committed to a mental institution, where she was subjected to electro-shock therapy).

Here’s what’s really horrible: Harvey Weinstein was one of the good guys, if by ‘good guy’ you mean talented, with an eye for a good script. How many genuinely great movies did he produce? Pulp Fiction, Ciderhouse Rules, Jane Eyre, The Englishman Who Fell Down a Hill but Came Down a Mountain, Emma, The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, Mansfield Park, Chocolat, Gangs of New York, maybe 50 others, first for Miramax, then for his own company. Everyone knew he was a sexual predator. Everyone protected him, I think, in part, because he made great movies. Disgusting human being. Gifted artist. Like Roman Polanski. Woody Allen. Mel Gibson. Cosby. Michael Bay, Oliver Stone, Lars von Trier. How many people in Hollywood does that describe? I’ve seen lots of films by all those guys, and enjoyed them. I also voted for Bill Clinton, twice. Am I complicit? Am I responsible?

Here’s what else I know, though. Whenever an actress auditions for a movie, TV series, or play, she accurately perceives herself as a professional, as a hard-working, talented, skilled artist, looking for an opportunity to show what she’s capable of. That’s how she sees herself, because that’s who she is. She is fully aware that there are dozens, or hundreds of other women auditioning, all of them capable and talented. She also knows that getting cast is a long shot, and that sheer dumb luck will play into it. She wants to read well. She wants to act well. What I absolutely guarantee is this: she isn’t thinking “wow, this is my chance to have sex with a disgusting overweight unattractive man 40 years older than I am! Lucky me!” She did not show up to that audition to be sexually harassed. She was not signalling a desire to be sexually assaulted. She does not want to see the film’s producer naked. She’s applying for a job, seeking a professional opportunity. And deserves to be treated as such.

I’ve auditioned hundreds of actors, and cast many shows. What am I looking for? The “right” actor for the role. What does that mean? Can’t tell you. It’s a matter of feel, a question of instinct and experience. When will I know any particular actor is “right?” You just sort of do.

But yes, of course, to a limited extent, appearance enters into it. If I’m casting Romeo and Juliet, I need young actors in those two roles. And Juliet should be, well, pretty. Her physical appearance is one factor I need to take into consideration. But what you have to think (what you inevitably do think) is this: ‘is she pretty enough to be plausible in the role?’ What you can’t ever think (and I can truly say, I never have thought, not once, not ever), is this: ‘gosh, she’s cute; I wonder if she’d like to date me?’ I mean, why would you even think that? You have X amount of time to get the show up, and Y amount of things that have to be done and rehearsed and polished first. And Y>X, always, forever. And you’re going to waste your time making a fool out of yourself, and btw, an enemy of someone you still have to work with? While also wasting everyone’s time? How dumb can you be?

One thing would help: too high a percentage of producers and directors and writers are male. Hiring more women isn’t tokenism. It’s called ‘increasing the talent pool.’ When the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, they didn’t sign ‘a black guy.’ They signed ‘a superstar.’ More female writers and directors will result, ipso facto, in more great movies. Which, frankly, I want to see.

So many women I know, so many former students, so many colleagues, so many talented artists I have worked with in the past have come forward lately, post-Weinstein, and said, quietly, honestly, eloquently, “Me too.” It breaks my heart. It disgusts me as well. The Harvey Weinsteins of the world disgrace my entire gender, and my entire life-long profession. Yes, as a matter of fact, directors and producers are in a position of power. But you’re also doing something important and valuable and beautiful. You’re creating works of art, collectively, everyone working together. Why would someone want to profane that, turn it ludicrous and disgusting, for no reason? Katy Tur knows. “Guys.”

To all of you, let me say this. I am so sorry. I am horrified, I am appalled, I am sickened. Thank you for coming forward. Thank you for telling the truth. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, so let’s start disinfected, root these attitudes and approaches out and destroy that entire power-mad mindset. Because this is about the abuse of power. And it’s repugnant.

War for the Planet of the Apes: Movie Review

War for the Planet of the Apes is, among other things, about an authoritarian American leader who is bound and determined to build a wall between him and his perceived enemies, and also wants the Apes to pay for it. It’s also about Native American genocide, and the persecution of Christianity by ancient Rome, and other incidents of needless brutality perpetrated by the strong over the weak. It’s about a tragic class of cultures. It’s about leadership and suffering. It’s just an extraordinary movie.

This is the third movie, and I think probably the last movie, in the Planet of the Apes reboot that began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, and continued with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014. All three movies have starred the remarkable Andy Serkis as Caesar, a preternaturally intelligent Ape, and a born leader. In the world of these films, a search for a cure for Alzheimers resulted in two unintended consequences. First, Apes, given a drug as part of the research, grew vastly more intelligent. Second, the drug created a pandemic that wiped out most of humanity. The Apes escaped to the forests; mankind retreated to various military compounds. An Ape vs. Human war ensued, driven in part by human paranoia and xenophobia, but also in part by a terribly mistreated Ape, Koba, who sought revenge against his human tormentors.

As this film begins, Koba is dead, killed by Caesar in the previous film. But a well-armed, well led army has begun a war of extermination against the Apes. Caesar continuous insists that he has no interest in killing humans. He realizes that humans and Apes probably can’t co-exist peacefully, but sends the message; leave him the forest, and leave him alone, and he won’t attack humans. That’s not good enough for The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). He intends to wipe Apes off the planet. In one attack, he kills Caesar’s wife and oldest son. Caesar sends the rest of his people away, and heads out, looking for The Colonel, with a small group of close followers. He thinks that killing the Colonel might be enough to get humans to leave him alone. That’s his object.

Caesar is a born leader, tactically advanced and with a sophisticated sense of what humans want and how to defeat them. But he’s stuck on horseback, without more advanced transportation or communication technology. Apes can use human weapons, but have limited ammo. Much of this movie is about Caesar’s journey to find The Colonel, and the discoveries he makes along the way. One discovery involves men who have either been murdered or buried alive. They seem to suffer from a disease that robs of the power of speech. Caesar also meets a young girl, Nova (Amiah Miller), similarly afflicted. She can’t talk, but she is an intelligent young woman, capable of sign-language communication (which is also the main way the Apes communicate), and courageous and loyal. Caesar takes her with him, lacking any better idea what to do with her, and she proves a valuable ally.

The initial plan was for Caesar to go questing after the Colonel, while the rest of his people sought refuge in a desert south of their woods stronghold. But the Colonel’s technological advantages have defeated Caesar’s plan, and Caesar’s people have been captured and taken to a fort The Colonel is building by an old army supply depot. The fort needs a wall. The Apes are set to the task of building it. And Caesar is captured as well, though his Nova and his two ape comrades are free.

Not all Apes, however, are on Caesar’s side. The army has coopted quisling apes, which they call ‘donkeys,’ And, like black overseers during slavery, the ‘donkeys’ prove more vicious and brutal than their human bosses. They also have devised a unique punishment for recalcitrant apes (and for Caesar, eventually). They crucify them.

It turns out that the Colonel has essentially seceded from white society, because of this odd muteness disease. It’s a mutation from the initial Alzheimer’s disease that proved so devastating for humans, and so beneficial to Apes. The Colonel quite ruthlessly executes anyone with the disease. Another army, from ‘up north,’ is on its way to bring him to justice. The wall is protection against another human army. Meanwhile, Caesar only wants to rescue his people. The last thing in the world he wants to is for Ape society to get caught in a crossfire. He just wants them to be free. And, like Moses, he’s willing to bring them to a Promised land he himself will be unable to enter.

Harrelson is wonderfully psychopathic as The Colonel. Serkis, is, of course, utterly brilliant as Caesar. CGI acting is simply acting; his performance is simply that of a superb actor at the top of his craft. The CGI just builds off the performance.

The whole film is rich and powerful. So many historical resonances; so much to take in. I was deeply moved by the entire film, as I was with the previous films. It’s a wonderful movie. It got a little lost in the shuffle of summer movies, but it’s certainly as moving as any. See it on the big screen, if you can, and bask.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Movie Review

Coming into this summer movie season, one of the films I was most excited to see was this one: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Written, produced and directed by Luc Besson. Regular readers of this blog know how much I love me some Luc Besson. There’s no one else like him. He’s known particularly for two kinds of films; really dumb action movies (like Taken), and equally stupid sci-fi (like Lucy). The Fifth Element is his; one of the most over-the-top, insane, incomprehensible, over-designed, thoroughly entertaining sci-fi epics ever made. Valerian promised to match it.

Boy, did it ever. Essentially, the City of a Thousand Planets refers to this massive, planet-sized space station, where representatives from every inhabited world in the galaxy/universe/multiverse gather for purposes both commercial and diplomatic. They call the place Alpha. That’s where the movie is set, on Alpha, combination Mall-of-the-Galaxy, entertainment complex, and UN. It’s an exceptionally cool place to set a film in.  Imagine the bar scene in Star Wars, multiply it by a million, and give the filmmaker state-of-the-art CGI and an endless design budget, and you have the look of this movie. It’s absolutely dazzling. Incredibly silly. It features all these chase scenes where Valerian (Dane DeHaan) zips rapidly through dozens of world venues, and you realize the filmmakers spent immense amounts of time creating fascinating worlds that would get maybe two seconds of screen time; spectacular backgrounds for the actors to basically zip through. It’s just astounding. It even has a scene where Valerian gets stuck with his arm in a different dimension than the rest of him. Don’t you just hate when that happens?

It has to be that visually sumptuous, because the plot doesn’t really hold our interest. The movie starts on sort of a beach planet, where shaved-head gorgeous skinny aliens enjoy the most leisurely of life styles. They have a pet critter, which sort of looks like a cross between an armadillo, a mole and an iguana, which has this neat trick. If you feed it something, a pearl, say, it poops out tons of them, perfect replicas. So the skinny beach bum aliens have all these pearls, each one releasing massive amounts of energy, and when they need more, they get their pet to poop them some.

Then, some kind of war wipes out their planet and their civilization.

Jumping ahead 30 years, and Major Valerian and his sidekick, Sergeant Laureline (Cara DeLevingne), are part of the security forces for Alpha. Oh, and he’s in love with her, and wants her to marry him, an idea with which she is unimpressed. So there’s that romantic intrigue underlying the whole story, infusing their every scene with immense amounts of sexual tension, theoretically. In practice, DeHaan and DeLevingne have as little chemistry as they have charisma, so interpersonally, the Valerian/Laureline pairing’s a bit of a fizzle.

Anyway. Earth, for some reason, provides security for Alpha, and V and L are the main agents of that security, and for some reason, they’ve come across one of those pearl-pooping critters. And Laureline even knows details of how to feed and care for it. (Bathing it in massive amounts of radiation, apparently). And they’re tasked with getting the critter to someone, with some baddies trying to stop them. That’s the plot, I think.  I don’t remember who wants it, or why. Oky, I may have missed some narrative nuances. The movie’s pace is frenetic, and the images are distracting. I’ll admit it, I spent a lot of the movie wondering what the heck was going on. This did not detract from my enjoyment of it. It’s a Luc Besson film. They’re not supposed to make sense.

Anyway. For some reason, Valerian and Laureline keep getting separated. Once, for example, Laureline finds herself working as one of many waiters, providing food for a vicious tyrant lizard creature. The waiters line up, and one at a time they approach this Lord-thing, tray of food on their heads, and he takes a bite, then spits it out, snarling at them. Laureline shows up, wearing, for some reason, a wedding dress and a big hat, and the Lord-creature assumes that he’s to cut off the top of her skull and scoop out her brains, the first food-offering that appeals to him. She resists, fights back, and mayhem results.

Valerian also gets lost, and for some reason, finds himself in the nightclub of Jolly The Pimp (Ethan Hawke), who manages Bubble, the world/galaxy/universe’s greatest stripper. Bubble is played by Rihanna, and she’s a shape shifter, and does this entire pole dance routine as a series of stripper icons (cowgirl, school girl, dominatrix etc). Rihanna is completely brilliant in the role, and although her scenes make no narrative sense at all, she’s the best thing in the picture, for the fifteen minutes or so before (SPOILER ALERT) her character tragically dies.

Eventually, it turns out that the beach bum planet people didn’t all die. Some of them have been hiding on Alpha. And they want their pearl-pooper back, which Valerian initially resists, because, regulations. Which Laureline persuades him to ignore. And so the aliens zip off to settle another beach-y planet they’ve found. And the film’s bad guy, Arun Filitt (Clive Owen), who has been tracking and trying to kill Valerian all the while for some unaccountable reason, is defeated and arrested, a foreordained result, again, completely devoid any dramatic tension at all.  It’s a Luc Besson film, so of course there’s also a big Family Values speech, after which Laureline decides to marry Valerian after all, obviously. I mean, of course she does, though DeLevingne’s acting of her big moment couldn’t have been more perfunctory.

Is the movie any good at all? Of course not. It’s a Luc Besson film; of course it’s idiotic. But it looks great, and, like all the man’s oeuvre, it’s a fun kind of dumb. The two leads are very attractive plus they can’t either of them act at all, but they pull off their stunts well enough, and are surrounded by other actors who can act, and so the movie limps along without much in the way of character development or humanity. It’s such a great looking film, it races along appealingly, and the people I saw it with expressed themselves perfectly satisfied by it.

It’s everything I was hoping for. It’s a Luc Besson sci-fi epic. It’s visually amazing. It won’t bore you. It also has a message. It takes a strong, resolute stance against genocide. And it has a lizard that poops pearls. I’m not sure what more you want from a movie.

Wonder Woman: Movie Review

I wouldn’t necessarily say that Wonder Woman is a great superhero movie. I’d say it’s just a really good movie. It’s exciting, and, best of all, it’s morally rigorous. At its heart, it’s a movie about an extraordinarily gifted and powerful young woman who is convinced she knows how to save the world. Her weakness, as a protagonist, is naiveté, innocence, based on a childhood in which she was raised on myth, not history. Ultimately, she has to cope with disillusionment and confusion. She has to make a crucial decision; given humanity’s propensity for war, are we worth saving? I know, that’s a familiar sci-fi trope. But it’s still compelling.

Gal Gadot plays Diana, who is pretty much a goddess, immortal, raised by Amazon warriors. She’s superbly trained in the ways of combat, which is weird, because the Amazons live on a remote island, guarded by mists, where no one ever comes with whom they might fight. They’re anti-war, like most great warriors, but war, for them, is at best a faded cultural memory. Still, they spend their days training. They’re in incredible shape, and they are amazing with bow, arrow, spear and hand-to-hand combat. But why? Who are they preparing to fight?

And then World War I intrudes. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) comes flying in, his plane shot to pieces, and crash-lands in the Amazon’s lagoon. Diana dives in and saves him. A German flotilla sees him land, charges in after him, and Diana, and her Mom, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and her BFF, Antiope (Robin Wright; so good to see Buttercup again!), fight them off. And Antiope dies, but only after executing the most spectacular stunt in action movie history. Movie’s worth seeing just for that one stunt. And also the scene where Diana takes out a German machine gun nest. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Diana (never once, in the entire movie, called Wonder Woman, BTW), decides that Ares, God of War, has to be the instigator of WWI. I mean, a massive war, tens of millions of casualties, fought for the most idiotic reasons; of course, it has to have had malevolent and superhuman origins. The God of War done it. Has to be.

Except he didn’t. Didn’t need to. We see, briefly, Field Marshall Douglas Haig (James Cosmo), head of the British Expeditionary Force, and he expresses typically Haigian indifference to his own soldiers’ high casualty rates. It’s hard to imagine the combination of pig-headedness, callousness and sheer imbecility of the British (and French and German) High Commands, but the completely insane way in which WWI was prosecuted, on all sides, is a matter of historical fact. No wonder Diana is misled, and goes on a search for Ares, who, she’s been told, she can kill with her special sword.

I’m delighted that the movie is set in the First World War, and not the Second. WWII might tend to support the ‘some enemy hath done this’ school of thought about warfare origins. I mean, Hitler, right? But no. No enemy hath done this. We’re perfectly capable of doing it to ourselves.

Finally, of course, Diana meets Ares, played by Professor Lupin, otherwise known as David Thewlis. And he tells her the truth. And initially, she can’t handle it. And finally, she does.

At the time I watched the movie, it didn’t occur to me how cliched that final confrontation between Diana and Ares really was. My son pointed it out to me. Final fight scenes between superheroes (good v evil, of course), are inherently undramatic; guys flinging other guys into buildings, doing massive amounts of property damage, but not actually hurting anyone. When you’re impervious to being damaged by ginormous collisions with big steel-and-concrete structures, then why do you insist on flinging your opponent around the way they all do. What are you accomplishing? It’s boring, honestly; nothing’s at stake. Diana and Ares are having a deep and profound conversation about the nature of evil, and why Men (feminist, right?) fight wars. They didn’t need to bash up buildings to have that convo. Also, spoiler, but the movie suggests that she decides for humankind because she’s learned about love by falling for Steve Trevor. It’d be more interesting if she fell in love with human beings, more broadly understood. For women, and their children, since this is a feminist superhero movie. Not just some dude, making this a romantic melodrama.

So it’s not as feminist as it imagines itself being, and the ending isn’t anything innovative. It’s still a fine film, beautifully conceived and superbly acted. And it stars Gal Gadot, who is a miracle as Diana. The whole cast is terrific, in fact, including Chris Pine, who gives depth and relevance to a pretty thankless pretty boy role.

It’s really good. If it could have been a bit stronger, so what? It’s the best summer action movie so far this year. It’s so good, in fact, that for a second I forgot who the President was. That’s my new benchmark.

 

 

Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2: Movie Review

Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2 was one of the summer movies this year I was most looking forward to. I hoped that I could catch it in its opening weekend, but other family members wanted to see it too, and coordinating schedules proved a challenge. But last night, we finally gathered at the cineplex. And we had a good time. It’s a surpassingly strange film, far more interesting in terms of its theology–I’m not kidding–than as the goofy comedy action movie it purports to be. But it’s entertaining; I’ll give it that.

Let’s start by talking about dramatic structure. Hollywood action movies follow the basic structure of late nineteenth century melodrama. All of them, without exception. Hero, heroine, comic sidekick, villains and their sidekicks, bad guys doing dastardly deeds, ultimately defeated by good guys, usually involving a fight, with awesome stunts. The plots are often rather baroque, with multiple subplots all racing towards a satisfying and exciting final confrontation. Still, there’s always a discernible hero, with a strong objective. Often it involves some kind of quest. The hero is trying to blow up the Death Star, or steal the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis, or steal a magical orb from one bad guy, and using it to activate an ‘infinity stone,’ or something. That last bit was, as far as I can remember, Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) quest in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. In order to accomplish that, Quill assembles the team known as the Guardians of the Galaxy–Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (a raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (a tree, voiced by Vin Diesel). Comic sidekicks, in other words. It was an amusing, but frankly pretty conventional superhero action movie plot.

This sequel is very different in structure. For most of the movie, Quill and his pals are just trying to stay alive. As the movie begins, they have been hired by a gold-skinned, genetically perfect species called The Sovereigns, to protect Anulex batteries from destruction. A massive beastie attacks; they fight it, and win. But Rocket, the scamp, steals some of the batteries they were hired to protect. So the Sovereigns come after them, and destroy their ship. So there’s no noble objective, no quest. They’re just trying to stay alive, because they’ve infuriated an entire civilization for no good reason.

In my review of the first Guardians movie, I compared it to Star Wars. That would make this one The Empire Strikes Back, and sure enough, we get a “Luke, I am your father.” moment. (It’s not anything like Empire in any other sense). The father, in this case, is Ego (Kurt Russell), who we earlier saw, in a flashback, with Peter’s Mom, looking absurdly like Kurt Russell, age twenty. (I don’t know how they did that, but it’s a very cool effect). But the Ego who shows up and declares himself has aged, and says he has been searching for Peter for years. And so, Ego takes Peter, Gamora and Drax with him to his planet, leaving Rocket and Groot (now, baby Groot), behind to repair their badly damaged ship. Where they are captured by another group, the Ravagers, under the putative command of Yondu (Michael Rooker). They’re professional thieves, and Yondu essentially raised young Peter. But they’re on the outs from other Ravagers, who have rejected them because Yondu broke the Ravagers’ code, by selling children into slavery.

At this point, the movie gets very weird. We’re a third of the way in, and nothing like a plot has managed to reveal itself–no quest, no objective, other than just staying alive. And Ego is a generous and welcoming host, and his planet is beautiful, considering that he lives on it by himself, with one aid, the empath Mantis (Pom Klementiev). At which point, the movie becomes an exploration of the doctrine and theology of apotheosis.

Apotheosis: the process by which men become deified. Ego, turns out, is a God. He became a God over millions of years, during which time he constructed this planet to glorify, well, him. Peter’s his son, and Peter is divine. He has a share of Ego’s creative power. He can create worlds of his own, if he wants to. And he’s immortal. Human Mom, Divine Father. The music set it up beautifully. The songs are the best parts of this movie, as they were in the previous one, and as Ego’s ship descends to his planet, we hear George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”

As a Mormon, I found this unexpected twist fascinating, because apotheosis is, sort of, a Mormon doctrine. “As Man is, God once was; as God is, Man may become.” Right. But the more Peter (and his friends) dig into it, the more we learn about Ego’s divine reign. He’s awful. He’s kind of a monster. Peter is not his Only Begotten–Ego’s fathered lots of children, who he then executed when he finds that they lack the divine spark that Peter has. Anyway, it looks like Ego’s kind of bored, and wants his divine son to hang around, for company. There’s also a bit of a ‘we can rule the universe’ vibe to it.

It turns out that his spark of divinity resides at the planet’s core, where it can be gotten to and blown up. Since Ego’s plan for ruling the universe involves mass slaughter, killing him seems like a good idea. He’s a God, and he’s immortal, but apparently, he can also be killed. So that becomes the big quest thing, the movie’s plot. But it comes very late in the movie. And has almost nothing to do with Peter, our protagonist, who does very little to accomplish it. Mostly, it’s pulled-off by Groot and Rocket, who escaped from the Ravagers (with help from Yondu, and also Gamora’s ferocious sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), who wants to kill Gamora, because of how their father pitted them against each other as children.

And that’s another theme of the movie, isn’t it? The abuse and murder of children. Yondu’s great sin, the thing that got him excommunicated as a Ravager, is his sale of children into slavery. He loved his adopted son, Peter, but Peter’s childhood was grim; a series of petty crimes. And, of course, that’s Ego’s great sin, too; the murder of his own children. Although almost nothing in the movie establishes Peter Quill as a Christ figure, he’s torn between two fathers; the brutality of Ego, his biological/divine father, and Yondu, the Dad who raised him, a Joseph the Carpenter figure.

So this is a movie about apotheosis, about men becoming Gods, about the most profound ideas of divinity, and divine responsibility, and the endless challenge of eternal life: boredom. Eternal life without eternal progression, really: the Mormon conception of hell. And it’s a movie about child abuse, about fathers abusing their children, and even murdering them.

And absolutely nothing in the tone of the movie, the approach of it, suggests either profundity or tragedy. It’s a clever, fun, post-modern comedy action flick, stylistically. Self-referential, with lots of jokes and deadpan insults splendidly delivered by Chris Pratt. Peter imagined, as a child, that Nightrider-era David Hasselhoff was his father, and sure enough, Hasselhoff himself gets a cameo. The Looking Glass hit, Brandy, is solemnly declared, by Ego, the greatest piece of music ever written. I love this exchange: “We’re friends!” “You’re not friends! You do nothing but fight!” “You’re right. We’re not friends. We’re a family!” (And, of course, the music’s perfect yet again: Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain). It’s a clever, funny, self-consciously self-referential movie, with jokes based on the characters, yes, but on ’70s and ’80s pop music, and other tropes drawn from superhero movies.

It’s an odd combination: theology, and post-modern jokiness. It’s too genial a movie to dislike. But what do we say about it? That it’s reaching for a profundity it doesn’t ever earn? That it’s fun but plotless, and let’s just ignore the theology stuff? Or this: that the Divine can be approached many ways, reverentially, yes, but also through jokes and fight scenes and goofiness? Ambitious failure? Or better, deeper, more interesting than it needs to be, given its origins as a summer superhero movie? And do we even have to choose?

Alien: Covenant, Movie Review

My daughter and I went to see Alien: Covenant last week, having seen all the previous Alien movies, so why not this one? Like any Ridley Scott film, it’s stylish and attractive; the production design is attractively creepy, beautifully eerie. The acting was generally good, and the scary moments were appropriately scary. The fact that the movie really didn’t work very well at all isn’t really the fault of the production team. Editing, lighting, special effects: kudos to all. Sorry things didn’t work out overall.

We went to a weekday matinee, and the theater was close to empty. Which meant that my daughter and I felt freer than usual to talk a bit during the screening. And she kept saying “here’s what’s going to happen next. This is going to happen, and that’s going to happen, and that character there is going to die.” And I’d think, “I can see where you’re coming from. That’s clearly what they’re setting up. But it’s can’t possibly all be that obvious. Surely, a veteran filmmaker like Ridley Scott–just a few months shy of his eightieth birthday, with forty films in the can, an amazing career–will throw in some plot twist, surprise us, change things up.”

Nope. He never did. My daughter got it all right, every twist and turn. She got one thing wrong. She assumed that the character played by Danny McBride, a veteran spaceman named Tennessee, would be killed by the alien before the end of the movie. Because: Danny McBride. Fine actor, and it was nice to see him in a dramatic role, after all the obnoxious comedies he’s done. Still, it’s an Alien movie: I figured he was toast. So, here’s your spoiler: he survives.

But see, here’s the real problem. This is, as I understand it, the second movie of what should become a trilogy, closing out the Alien saga with Prometheus (2012), Alien: Covenant (2017), plus a third one, apparently. And based on the first two movies of that trilogy (if it happens, because IMHO, another movie’s completely unnecessary), what Scott’s trying to accomplish is to provide us with a complete, fully fleshed out origin story for the aliens. How did they come to exist, how did they spread, where did they come from, in short, what’s the deal with the monsters? And I don’t care, and I don’t think anyone else does either.

Here’s what I assumed: the aliens came from some planet somewhere. They evolved. They’re the apex predators on that planet, just as we humans are the apex predators on ours. At some point, some idiot brought them aboard a space ship, where they survived by, among other evolutionary traits, burrowing inside the body of a rival species so they can burst spectacularly out of some poor schmuck’s chest. That’s what I assumed. They’re a life form; they evolved. And I’m good.

Sorry, no. There’s an elaborate backstory. Michael Fassbender plays two androids, a good one and an evil one. I’m not going to give away anything more. Just know this; you’ll figure it out an hour in, and then you’ll doubt yourself, because it couldn’t possibly be that dumb. Yes it can.

So there’s lots of sound and fury. It ends up not signifying a darn thing. Various characters fight valiantly against creepy, evil, skeletal, fast moving aliens. And, mostly, succumb. The Ripley this time is a ship’s officer named Daniels. She’s played by Sam Waterston’s daughter, Katherine. She’s very good. She’s a fine actress, and she plays desperation convincingly.

Also, Billy Crudup is in this, and that’s always a treat. He’s such a fine actor, and he plays a complicated, compelling character, the ship’s captain (accidentally), out of his league and in over his head, but doing his level best to keep everyone alive. And screwing up, but still. Crudup is the reason to see the movie, I think, to the extent that there is one.

Other than that, I can’t even say it’s a big disappointment. My expectations were low enough, to be honest. This movie fell short nonetheless. Remember a few weeks ago, a very similar (VERY similar) evil-aliens-in-a-space-ship flick called Life? It was derivative and obvious and not very good. But the alien was scary, and I thought the movie, overall, worked a lot better than Alien: Covenant.  Shame, really. The first Alien movie was terrifically scary. The second one, Aliens, was even better. But the franchise hasn’t held up, and that’s disappointing.

 

The Circle: Movie and Book review

The Circle is a 2013 novel by Dave Eggers. I suppose you could say it’s both dystopian and futuristic; it has a 1984/Brave New World vibe. I found it more or less by accident, and liked it so much I recommended it to my wife and daughter. They both read it, and liked it as much as I did, and so, last Friday, we decided to go together to see the new movie based on it. The movie was quite good too, though we agreed it wasn’t quite as effective as the novel. I should point out that the movie got horrible reviews, with a very low score on Rottentomatoes.com. And also that liking the novel is, apparently, exceptionally uncool. Guilty as charged: I liked both movie and novel a lot, and think the critics that didn’t like either are wrong. I will add that the theater was packed when we saw the movie, and, shamelessly eavesdropping as people left, heard enough to think that pretty much everyone who saw it the same night we did liked it too. Found it as chilling as we did.

I’m going to take it a step further. I think it’s an exceptionally prescient and important novel. I think the questions it raises are important ones, and exactly the sorts of questions we should be asking ourselves right now. So there.

The Circle is a high tech company; that’s its name. It combines the best features of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Paypal, Amazon, and any five other exceptionally big, hi-tech companies. It’s the coolest place to work you could possibly imagine. It offers the best benefits–dorm-like housing, gyms, off-the-charts health care–provides the best after-work social life, and sells the best products. Today, you may have an Amazon account, a Facebook account, a Twitter account; you probably have thirty internet accounts, each with its own password. The Circle gets rid of all that inconvenience; you get everything through The Circle.

Mae Holland is a young woman, bright and ambitious, working in a dead-end temp job. But she has a friend, Annie, who works for The Circle, and who gets her an interview. Which she aces. Next thing you know, she works in Customer Care. Better money than she’s ever made in her life, plus they extend her health benefits to cover her parents. This is huge, as her father suffers from MS. Mae is ecstatic.

Except, it turns out, her social score is kinda low. She goes home weekends, to help her Mom; she’s a no-show at various Circle parties. Her bosses notice, and she’s called on the carpet; kindly, of course, but firmly. After-hours social events are, of course, completely voluntary. But a low social score is, hmm, a matter of concern.

Circle-world is a place where everything is enumerated, evaluated, rated, assessed. Every customer care interaction is scored on follow-up customer surveys, and she’s encouraged to follow up on the follow ups, inquire about low scores.  She’s also given a side responsibility; product surveys, attitude polls. Plus, you know, there are all these parties she has to get to. She acquires a boyfriend, Francis, who, after love-making, wants to know how he did. What’s his score? And who gets real whiny if he doesn’t get a perfect 10. It’s not worth the hassle telling him he’s closer to a 3.

The tone of the novel is matter-of-fact and straightforward. Eggers specializes in scenes that are both comic and kind of horrifying. Mae is our window into this company, and her character serves Eggers well. She loves the place. She’s a compelling character, and we want to shake her; we want to shout ‘run!’ But she doesn’t. Whatever unease she may feel, she works off by kayaking. Or in love-less, frantic, self-destructive sex with Mystery Man, Kalden. We can absolutely see what makes Mae the most all-in Circler of them all. Though we’re worried to death for her.

But there are warnings. Not just Kalden; Annie, her friend, who landed her the gig, is clearly losing it. And Mae’s specifically warned by her ex-boyfriend, Mercer. Mercer’s kind of a doofus; he makes chandeliers from deer antlers, and is pretty much a Luddite. Or at least, an anti-Circle version of one. Mercer is close to and wonderfully kind to Mae’s parents. But Mae wishes he’d just stop pestering.

The Circle has a political agenda, too. The company has three CEOs, one of which, Eamon Bailey, is, of course, like, the perfect boss. Kind, generous, endlessly sympathetic, a plausible surrogate father for all the young Circlers. And Eamon is the main spokesperson for the multiple uses for SeeChange, a small, easily overlooked digital camera with excellent video and audio pickup. Eamon urges followers to put SeeChange cameras everywhere, every public place. SeeChange, he says, will end both government tyranny and terrorism, through complete, radical transparency. He also urges all politicians to go transparent; wear a SeeChange camera 24/7. People behave better, he says, when they know other people are watching. He suggests that transparency is a basic human right. Privacy is Theft becomes one of the company’s slogans. (Sharing is Caring is another). And Mae, to set an example, goes transparent too. Wears a camera everywhere; is on display, on the internet, always. A more-aware ramped-up Truman Show.

Okay, spoiler alerts. All these policies and devices are revealed publicly, in a big  Circle auditorium (which in fact, is not an arena, but a proscenium, the one public space configuration that most emphasizes performer domination and control. Bailey’s radical democracy looks a lot more authoritarian the more we interrogate it). Anyway, Mae introduces a new Circle innovation; using SeeChange to find missing miscreants. It becomes a game; let’s see if we can find this fugitive from justice, everyone! And they do, in less than ten minutes. Then the crowd insists that Mae use that technology to locate Mercer, who has become something of a hermit. (Of course they all know about Mercer; they know everything about her). And all those busy SeeChangers out in the world find where Mercer’s holed up. Panicked, he gets in his truck, tries to escape, run away from all the cameras and drones. And Mae doesn’t call it off. And he runs his truck off a cliff.

To people who essentially live virtually, for whom the internet and it’s many uses and possibilities, I can see how this movie could be seen as a gratuitous attack on the coolest thing on the planet. I think that may explain at least some of the bad reviews. But Eggers is on to something; people do not necessarily act better when they know people are watching, especially when they’re part of a crowd. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed describes dozens of instances where people’s lives have been ruined by the collective judgment of internet users. And we may not have quite reached the point of The Circle‘s notion of radical transparency, and SeeChange cameras may be a few (very few) years off, but everyone has cameras, and it’s much much more common nowadays for particularly shocking (but context-less) images to go viral. Dr. David Dao was, no doubt, treated shabbily by United Airlines, but United flies millions of passengers around the world without untoward incident. Should the company pay? Undoubtedly. Should it be hounded out of business? Am I an old, clue-less white guy intimidated by technology? Of course I am. How implausible is the fictional Circle? Not remotely. Is Eamon Bailey something of a cartoon villain? Okay, sure. So’s Big Brother.

The movie takes the same essential scenario as the novel, but creates a filmic narrative around it. Mae’s two love interests disappear–there just isn’t time for Francis, who is in any event an essentially comedic character. If the movie had gone for satire instead of cautionary tale, Francis might have worked. As it is, I didn’t miss him–he’s completely absent. Kalden likewise goes away, sort of; in the book, he is eventually revealed to be Ty, the Circle’s Founder and one of its three CEOs. That revelation comes much earlier here, and Mae and Ty don’t have a romantic/sexual relationship. Biggest of all is this change: Mae isn’t a Circle-worshipper in the movie. She actively wants to destroy it. And does, but that’s creepy too; she wins by buying in most completely to Eamon’s doctrine of radical transparency.

The casting is well-nigh perfect, with Emma Watson as Mae, Tom Hanks (who else?) as Eamon, John Boyega as Ty, and Bill Paxton, in his last screen role, quietly superb as Mae’s father. The one misstep, I thought, was Ellar Coltrane as Mercer, who never really found his footing in the role. Best of all, IMO, was Scottish actress Karen Gillan as Mae’s friend, Annie. In the book, Annie ends up in a coma, but it doesn’t really have the resonance of the movie, where we can read Annie’s self-loathing self-destruction in the actress’s face. That’s what movies are great at; faces.

The movie’s good. It’s great to look at, beautifully acted, and tells the story of The Circle with economy and dispatch. I found it almost as chilling as I found the novel. I did find the novel a bit richer, but that’s often the case of novels-turned-movies. Above all, I found myself cherishing privacy more than ever. I’m a fairly social person, I think, and I love social media. Up to a point. Any tool can be abused, including, of course, the most powerful tool of them all. The internet. Can we love it, and also find it terrifying? I rather think we can, and should.

Gifted: Movie Review

As we lurch our way into summer movie season, full of preposterous chases and heroes in spandex and wicked awesome ‘splosions, it’s always nice when our local cineplex also features a movie about, you know, human beings. Makes for a refreshing change of pace. That’s Gifted; that’s its role in the cosmos. To remind us that movies can also just be about people.

Not that the people in Gifted are all that ordinary. Mary Adler (McKenna Grace) is, by any measure, an unusual seven-year old; a mathematical genius. She lives with her uncle, Frank (Chris Evans), who repairs boat engines for a living, and who has home-schooled her up til now. As the movie begins, she’s about to start her first day in school, and she doesn’t want anything to do with it. Her best friend, Roberta (Octavia Spencer), who lives next door, doesn’t like the idea either. Frank, on the other hand, thinks she needs a normal-ish childhood. She needs friends her own age; she needs social skills. (She does have a cat, a one-eyed stray she adores). And so, off she goes, into the classroom of a kind, sweet teacher named Bonnie (Jenny Slate). Who she dazzles when she’s able to multiply two three digit numbers in her head.

And Roberta’s fears come to fruition. Bonnie talks to her principal (Elizabeth Marvel), who pulls some strings and gets Mary a full-tuition scholarship to a special academy for gifted children. Which Uncle Frank turns down, a decision the principal finds incomprehensible. (She’s the first of the movie’s awful-female-authority-figure characters). But word of the whole Mary situation somehow manages to reach the ears of Mary’s only other blood relative, her grandmother (Frank’s mom), Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). Who is a monster. Well-meaning, certainly. But someone who has, uh, plans.

Most of the rest of the movie involves the slow revealing of the backstories of three people; Frank, Evelyn, and Mary’s brilliant mother, Diane, who committed suicide, but not before turning over custody of her daughter to her brother. Diane was a math prodigy, who spent her life working on one of the Millennium Prize math problems. (There are seven such problems, only one of which has, currently, been solved; the premise of the movie is that Diane was working on one of the others). Evelyn thinks that Mary could finish her mother’s work, and wants her to receive the training that might make that possible. Frank, meanwhile, wants Mary to be a kid. And a custody battle ensues.

I liked the movie quite a bit. I thought Chris Evans and Jenny Slate were both marvelous, and Octavia Spencer is always great, though this movie didn’t give her enough to do. And the child actress who played Mary, McKenna Grace (who also plays the President’s daughter on Designated Survivor) was terrific. Adorable, like any little kid, but also plausibly bright. As the plot unfolded, it also kept surprising; my wife’s main reaction was that every time she thought she’d figured it out, it managed to throw in a plausible but unforeseen twist.

I agree. At the plot level, it’s inventive and interesting. At the character/moral level, it’s more predictable. It bothered me, the moral mapping of the movie, which almost Marxist. Academic: bad. Worker class: good. It’s one of those movies that suggests that the lives of egghead intellectuals are somehow less grounded, less in touch, less moral than the lives of good old solid salt-of-the-earth blue collar folks. Frank was once a philosophy professor. Now, he repairs boat motors, and that has made him a more caring, compassionate guy. Roberta is, again, salt-of-the-earth. Not one of those fancy-schmancy intellectuals. We approve of Frank’s budding romance with Bonnie, because, you know, she’s a school teacher. Smart, of course, but not too smart. But Grandma’s a schmuck.

The academics we meet are all creeps. Grandma Evelyn takes Mary to MIT, so her capabilities can be tested by a math professor. The prof is an arrogant jerk, who, giving Mary a problem to solve, throws some mistakes in there on purpose. And Mary catches those mistakes, but doesn’t correct him initially, because she’s a polite, well-raised child who doesn’t show up grown-ups. Prof of course, is nonetheless impressed by Mary’s ability to write formulae on a chalkboard. In a custody trial scene, we meet Mary’s biological father (completely absent her entire life), and his ignorance of and indifference to Diane and whatever became of the child he fathered are revelatory.

And, of course, Evelyn is horrible. Just horrible. She’s clearly the villain of the piece, and her ambitions for her granddaughter are so obviously self-serving, it becomes completely implausible that any judge, anywhere, would grant her custody over any child. (Especially when, it turns out, she tries to murder Mary’s cute one-eyed cat!) Lindsay Duncan is a marvelous actress, and she does her best to give Evelyn some moments of vulnerability, but the writing defeats her. On a movie-evil-woman-character scale, she edges out Cruella DeVille.

The blatant villainy of Evelyn throws the film off a bit, for me. I liked the movie a lot, and loved all the acting performances, and loved the little girl, and liked the story. What I’m going to say next is weird, because stories are stories, and history is just a narrative, but it’s a film I think I would have liked better if it were based on a true story. It was just implausible enough that it could have used that hint of authenticity.

Still, if you just can’t face the thought of yet another superhero movie, and just want a pleasant, feel-good, comedy/drama about a real sweet kid, I’d go see Gifted. There are a lot more reasons to like it than to not like it. Plus Chris Evans is genuinely charismatic. And McKenna Grace is sensational.

 

Beauty and the Beast: Movie Review

It’s fairly easy to dismiss the new Disney Beauty and the Beast as the conscience-less money grab it frankly kind of is. I mean, it’s a remake of a ‘beloved Disney classic,’ which is to say, one of the good animated Disney musicals. I loved the original movie, despite having to see it (or parts of it) many many times, and was wary of this one. But the value in cultivating a both/and aesthetic is realizing there are many ways to understand any cultural phenomenon. My wife and I went to Applebee’s for dinner before the movie, and our waiter waxed rhapsodic when we told him what movie we were going to see. He’d seen B&B twice, was considering taking his girls to see it again. Loved loved loved it. Which helped put us in a receptive state of mind.

My initial response to this Beauty and the Beast was to think that the weak link in the cast was Emma Watson. This really bothered me, because I like Emma Watson. My wife loved her in this; she thought the weakest cast member was Dan Stevens, who played the Beast, who I thought was one of the movie’s strengths.

Emma Watson strikes me as an exemplary young woman, courageous and intrepid and bright as hell. Hermione Granger is all that too, plus aces at magic, but I really don’t think I’m conflating the actress with her best known character, except to the extent that they’re actually similar. Hermione is a bookworm; Emma has a degree from Brown in English literature. Hermione is an activist for the ethical treatment of magical creatures; Emma is a UN Goodwill Ambassador, and a fervent feminist. They seem alike because they are alike.

Not to go all sexist, but what Emma Watson is not is a great beauty. She’s certainly an conventionally attractive young woman, and she has a modeling contract. But in Beauty and the Beast, she’s nothing special, and she flat isn’t the prettiest girl in the village. We see a trio of prettier village girls. So why is Gaston so besotted?

Because she’s all the rest of it; bright and intrepid and level-headed. He’s none of those things; he’s a spectacular narcissist. But as played by Luke Evans, he may be half-witted, but no one else in the village is even half. He has a tiny, pin-headed inkling that she’s special, that she’s unusual. And he wants to possess her. She’s a challenge. She dares turn him down. He’s a soldier and he’s strong and he’s so very good-looking; why she would turn him down?

Evans’ Gaston is a spectacular comic creation. He’s so good, it threw me off. Obviously, this insatiable mirror-gazer wants a shiny object on his arm; I was led to think that ‘beauty’ should be more beautiful. But Gaston wants to dominate. He wants to be adored, by more than his not-all-that-closeted friend LeFou (Josh Gad). I wanted a more movie-star-charismatic Belle. Emma Watson wasn’t interested. She got it, and I didn’t, initially. What distinguishes Belle from the rest of the village is precisely her independence and intelligence. That’s what constitutes her beauty, much more than an accident of bone structure.

And so, when she’s confined to Beast’s castle, what attracts her is not the Beast’s library, but the fact that he’s read all the books in it. They argue about Shakespeare. He is a former Gaston, a reformed Gaston; a spoiled rich brat who everyone adored, until cursed by a witch. He’s had to read, study, think, meditate. And at times, the Beast part of him takes over, and he rages. But the servant/furniture pieces all understand him better. They know he’s capable of kindness and gentleness. So when he orders them not to feed her, they respond by throwing her a feast. (And are so excited about it, she doesn’t get a bite to eat). And Belle comes to see it too, his essential goodness.

Granted, it’s still the Disney musical. We know all the songs; half the fun was anticipating what they’d do with them. (Hey, “Be our Guest” is coming up!) I’ve heard complaints about Watson’s singing voice. I thought she was fine. (Bear in mind, I also liked Russell Crowe’s singing in Les Mis). I wouldn’t want them to dub her voice; her singing fit her approach to the role. This is a more nuanced Belle, a quieter, smarter Belle. She didn’t need to be a Broadway diva anymore than she needed to be a movie star icon. She’s an actress; she thought her way through this character. And it works.

Of course, the movie looks great. The Disney Cinderella and Jungle Book both looked great. They’ve got the money to make these things look terrific. (If this is a corporate money grab, at least they make sure we get our money’s worth). And a who’s who of great British actors provide the voice work for the servants: Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor.

There aren’t any details to point to and say ‘see, they got that wrong, that isn’t as good as the animated film.’ It is forty-five minutes longer than the cartoon, and I didn’t think the extra time was padding. They used it to explore Belle’s family history; the death of her mother, and her close relationship to her father (a wonderful Kevin Kline). I liked that extra detail.

Ultimately, I thought the movie gave good value. One of my favorite actresses gives a fine, nuanced performance in a classic role. What’s not like about that?