Music is the key. A while ago, I argued that to grow in quality, Disney’s live-action remakes should embrace more and more of their source material’s music. Cue an all-singing, all-dancing take on the studio’s landmark Beauty and the Beast from 1991, with that animation’s composer Alan Menken back to update the movie’s musical repertoire. Remaking the first animated Best Picture nominee is a major throwing down of the gauntlet, but this Beauty and the Beast has captured the spirit of the original, while also making smart and significant changes to craft an impressive new experience.
In 18th Century France, a Prince (Dan Stevens) selfishly rejects hospitality for an old woman, who turns out to be an enchantress. In so doing, he dooms himself to a seeming eternity as a Beast, his servants to transformation into household objects, his castle to an eternal winter, and his rule to be forgotten by his subjects. But his isolated world intersects with one of them, the bookish Belle (Emma Watson), and for the first time there’s a sliver of hope that the enchantress’ curse can be lifted. As Belle meets Prince Charming but won’t discover that it’s him until Act 3, will the Beast let this sharp-witted inventor steal into his melancholy heart? And will the castle finally see days in the sun again?
The whole picture falls apart without the foundation of Belle and the Beast’s romance, and it’s more convincing here than it’s ever been before. The key is the library scene. In the original, the Beast presenting Belle with the library was a grand romantic gesture suggested by Lumiére, whereas here, the Beast opens this world of letters to Belle with the casual manner of a boy showing a girl his back catalog of National Geographics. The two bookworms, charmingly played by Watson and Stevens, forge a genuine connection by the end of the movie.
Director Bill Condon (Chicago, vivid and a total blast) and co-screenwriter Stephen Chbosky (Rent, fun but lacking any storytelling spine) have both written movie musicals before, and that experience yields smart touches throughout. Like Love Actually or Hugo, there are several romantic subplots to track, maximizing the payoff for the inevitable happy ending. Plot holes from the original are swiftly papered over. Belle is a bit more of a modern hero. Characters in interracial relationships and others questioning their sexuality are represented without fanfare or comment. This Beauty and the Beast invites comparison with its animated predecessor, but while the two are kindred they move to profoundly different rhythms, and it’s details like these that enrich this telling.
Another great detail is that in the “Gaston” musical number, there’s a moment where people struggle to sync up their dancing. So, realism within a fantasy setting is what the filmmakers are reaching for, and what they achieve. But that also means that the most zonked out elements, chiefly the Busby Berkeley acid trip that is “Be Our Guest”, feel oddly disconnected from everything. What is there to the visuals in the sequence beyond the celluloid equivalent of drowning in confetti? The setpiece’s gimmick is that Belle is repeatedly presented with food that is whisked away before she raises a fork. Sure, that’s a tried-and-true comedy routine found in everything from A Hard Day’s Night to Spider-Man 2, but it doesn’t make any sense here. It doesn’t fit the story being told. I’m about to commit Disney heresy here, but maybe “Be Our Guest” should have been scrapped in favor of the other vintage household object showcase “Human Again” – or maybe a medley of the two. At least then a helping of humanity would fly at the audience along with the trays of bon fromage.
Yeah, that sequence isn’t my favorite. And just as a guideline, the two wolf attacks bookend what’s probably the clunkiest part of the film. But even in the weeds of these (relatively) rough patches, the cast is outstanding. (They better be, because the movie sort of gives them two curtain calls.) Emma Watson’s Belle is warm, but not soft – it’s satisfying to see how she cuts through her little “Madame Gaston” number with palpable fire. Dan Stevens’ striking eyes fit the Beast, and the character’s journey from full-on Krampus to romantic hero is sketched pretty well. (A nitpick, though: There’s a big moment where the Beast/Prince yells, “I am not a Beast!” Okay. But the film never gives him a name!) The household object characters are voiced by an impressive repertory company, of which Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson are only two. Luke Evans’ Gaston is both more appealing than his animated counterpart, and more villainous, with Evans adept at milking the comedic and threatening aspects of the role. Both Maurice and LeFou are clownish characters from the original given a humanity transplant. But the real breakout is Josh Gad as LeFou, given an entirely new arc ranging from broad comedy to soul-searching redemption.
And finally, the music in this musical. Newcomers Watson and Stevens hold their own alongside musical veterans like Evans and Gad, and the songbook itself has gotten an update. Incorporating lost lyrics from the late Howard Ashman into “Gaston” and the title song, composer Alan Menken honors his former collaborator’s legacy while also penning three original songs. (No songs are retained from the Broadway musical.) “How Does a Moment Last Forever” is poignant and sweet. “Days in the Sun” is a catchy check-in-on-all-the-characters number. And the third…
Earlier I committed Disney heresy and I think it’s time for more. I don’t think the animated Beauty and the Beast quite has a signature standout song. For me, it doesn’t have a “Let it Go” or a “Part of Your World”. But incredibly, in 2017, Alan Menken gives it one. “Evermore” is an utter showstopper, an operatic swing for the fences. In the Beast’s new and vital turn in the spotlight, Dan Stevens sells the low feelings and high notes, and Menken’s baritone ballad becomes the jewel in Beauty and the Beast’s musical crown.
I know I ragged on the “Be Our Guest” sequence before, but I approve the song itself for the iPod playlist. The slowed-down tempo is an improvement, and Ewan McGregor as Lumiére chews into the lyrics with gusto. In fact, it’s a microcosm of the contrast between the original animated feature and this retelling; the new film is slower, making for a fulfilling opportunity to see the sights. I like how several songs are given reprises to keep them in the minds of the audience, and the other original songs are present and correct, with my favorite of the classics being the elongated introductory piece simply titled “Belle”.
With an appealing cast, convincing romance, beautiful production design (I love how the design of the castle is opened up, exposed stairways and all), lavish music, and a commitment to storytelling, the Beauty and the Beast remake is in good health. As it respects the original while weaving new magic of its own, it continues Disney’s streak of live-action remakes embracing the musical landscapes of their predecessors. (But word on the street is the next one, Mulan, is dispensing with the songs!?) Be its guest, and keeping the original in mind, you might find there’s something there that wasn’t there before. 8/10.
P.S.: The influence of Jean Cocteau’s striking and dreamlike 1946 version of the story is there from time to time. The most noticeable touch: the hands affixed to the castle, holding torches. And because the end titles are translated to French, the title card is framed by the Cocteau-alike La Belle et la Bête.
P.P.S.: In the animated version, LeFou poses as a snowman at one point. Now, LeFou actor Josh Gad is most well known for voicing the snowman Olaf in Frozen. Coincidence? Also, the Beast reads a book about the forbidden love between Lancelot and Guinevere at one point, and Beast actor Dan Stevens played Lancelot in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. Finally, Luke Evans (uber-skilled archer Bard in The Hobbit films) plays Gaston, whose preferred weapon in the animated film is a bow and arrow. Here, war veteran Gaston opts for a pistol.
Frozen spoilers follow.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’ songs in the animated smash-hit Frozen are great. On the face of it, they’re great because they’re catchy and fun as hell to sing along with. But more than that, these songs are complex. I don’t mean technically or musically complicated – they hide layers that only become clear once the audience is aware of the complete picture of the film’s story. They work in the moment in their immediately apparent modes, but each takes on a new resonance when considering the broader story. In most Disney musicals, the songs are straightforward; what you hear is what you get. Not so here – this is multi-level storytelling, so thrilling when pulled off well. So what’s going on beneath the surface of this story of two regal sisters and the nature of true love?
Let’s start by looking at Frozen’s two traditional ‘I Want’ songs, Anna’s “For the First Time in Forever” and Olaf’s “In Summer”. Anna sings of her perfect romantic night with a sophisticated stranger now that Arendelle’s gates are opening, and throughout she mimes the poses of women in paintings. She wants a storybook romance. For the first time in forever / I’m getting what I’m dreaming of / A chance to change my lonely world / A chance to find true love. And so, even as we’re caught up in the beauty of the song, we’re also being told exactly how she’s exposing herself to Hans’ manipulation. And sure enough, she chooses to marry a man she has just met. Meanwhile, Olaf the guileless snowman spends a whole song wishing for the thing that the other characters know will kill him.
Anna and Olaf achieve their basic goals, but not in the way they intended. Anna ends up neither married nor engaged, and furthermore enters into a relationship not with the charismatic fairy tale prince Hans, but with the humble and antisocial snow merchant Kristoff (whose existence outside the castle was thus outside anything she knew her whole life). Olaf sees summer, but would have melted there and died if not for Elsa’s intervention. Life gave Anna and Olaf not what they wanted, but what they didn’t know they wanted, which is a beautiful endpoint to an arc.
And I stress, this isn’t how ‘I Want’ musical storytelling usually goes. Quasimodo wants only a mundane life “Out there”, and gets it by movie’s end, vindicated by his friends. Ariel wishes simply to be “Part of Your World”, and has entered the human world as the credits roll. Moana burns to voyage on the ocean and see “How Far I’ll Go”, and, you guessed it, embarks on a grand seafaring adventure. The desire is fulfilled, like an empty box being filled with a checkmark. In Anna and Olaf’s cases, they discover how much stranger life is than they thought, through realizing that what they wanted was in a lot of ways ignorant and naïve, but no less worthy of respect. This stuff is mature. The ‘I Want’ pieces are tinged with the bittersweet, even if that’s only noticeable to the viewer. It makes the story more human.
In the reprise of “For the First Time in Forever”, sisters Anna and Elsa have a roller coaster of a communication breakdown. There is misunderstanding on both sides, and the conflict is on the surface. Whereas in the case of Anna and Hans’ duet “Love is an Open Door”, it only comes out in retrospect how the two singing partners are at cross-purposes. The conflict is veiled and obscure, but with hindsight adds a layer to the song and its function. And so every real-life couple who duets the song has to think in the back of their minds, “Does one of us have an agenda here?”
What further complicates the song is Hans’ enigmatic character. A usurper of the crown he is, but the film concisely portrays Hans as a natural leader and an effective monarch… who happens to use evil means to gain a throne. He’s not just the one-dimensional villain; left to his own devices, he would have been a decent king. But his path to power is ruthless. He wants it too much. To him, the opportunity for power, the open door, is a lovely thing indeed. You can subtly see this in the song.
Anna: But with you –
Hans: But with you – I found my place.
Anna: I see your face.
Both: … and it’s nothing like I’ve ever known before!
In the same moment: Anna focuses on Hans. Hans focuses on his position. And yet the clumsy romantic and the charming conspirator still harmonize beautifully in song. “Love is an Open Door” is an obvious but significant example of a song taking on multiple dimensions with the benefit of hindsight.
And this brings us to the biggest showstopper of them all, Elsa’s “Let it Go”. Not so much an ‘I Want’ number, it’s more like a ‘Maybe I Don’t Want the Thing Everyone Said I Should Want’ song. Its placement in the movie also serves as the audience’s first meaningful insight into Elsa’s character, as this literal ice queen had predominantly been seen through Anna’s eyes. Taking on this burden, “Let it Go” makes an interesting choice: it’s achingly personal, but also universal. Anyone who’s ever been made to feel different, or repressed, or closeted, has an empowering anthem in “Let it Go”. Let it go, let it go / And I’ll rise like the break of dawn / Let it go, let it go / That perfect girl is gone.
Still, some have said that this über-popular karaoke staple is about abandoning responsibility, an act of selfishness. While on one level that’s true, I think of the song as representing something that is not only worthy of championing but also ties in perfectly with Frozen songs having multilayered themes. You as the viewer can project any baggage of your own onto “Let it Go”, as long as you’re breaking free of it; it does have a plot function of abandoning the queenship; but above all, it represents Elsa’s right to make her own mistakes.
As a musical, Frozen is unique, in that the film deploys its songs without being overwhelmed by them. The songs are mostly confined to the first act, setting them up to be subverted or further toggled with later. (The songs are frontloaded. First act: four full songs and a prologue. Second act: two full songs, a ditty, and a reprise. Third act: no songs.) “Frozen Heart” is a Greek chorus that foreshadows the larger story. “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” begins in childhood innocence and ends in suffocating depression. “For the First Time in Forever” is a joyous ‘I Want’ song that nonetheless sets up exactly how to take advantage of Anna. “Love is an Open Door” is a romantic duet and a clockwork manipulation. “Let it Go” is a swirling anthem that on some level is about shutting out the world. “In Summer” is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ song with a singer who’s none the wiser. These are significant choices, the choices of a film that’s going for your brain just as it’s going for your heart and your funny bone. Frozen is a phenomenon, a cultural touchstone, a subversive 21st Century fairy tale. I think it happens to be an ironclad masterpiece, with a nonetheless humble scope, where there are always new things to discover. And the Lopez’ songs are music that keeps on giving.
The story of Paddington Bear is a simple set-up: a (sentient and adorable) bear makes his way from darkest Peru to England and finds a home with the Brown family; tea-time adventures ensue. So when I tell you that writer-director Paul King’s translation of the source material onto the silver screen is brilliantly funny, charming and thematically rich, the accomplishment is all the more impressive.
As this very British film begins, Paddington immediately punctures the stodgy and posh English character, and the laughs just keep coming. Clever wit, Rube Goldberg slapstick, sight gags, jokes about millennials, they’re all here, ticking off the boxes of an audience spectrum from little kids to teens to adults. But what really impresses me is the way some of the humor is used to illuminate very defined and meaningful themes of immigration and racism. I’m not kidding! This stuff is gold in Paddington, as it hits upon a genius conceit: because Paddington’s status as a bear is only treated as exotic rather than unbelievable, the screenplay has a readymade allegory to comment on racial issues. When the Brown family passes the unattended Paddington in the train station, Mr. Brown moves to shield his children from the bear, fearing that the stray will try to “sell them something”. This is sharp satire.
The visual tableaus in this movie are entertaining in and of themselves. The world of Paddington is fully realized and thought out. I don’t just mean the bit about talking bears walking around, but that this is a place where the colors are a bit heightened, the people as well, and the sets just pop. Seriously, Gary Williamson’s production design is fantastic. And it’s just a pleasure to inhabit this world, which is a bit like Wes Anderson meets Home Alone.
This is also a very cinematically literate film, with a sequence like a DIY Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol Burj Khalifa set piece and a shot that is most likely an homage to The French Connection! And the colors are desaturated in a usually vibrant setting when the story takes a darker turn, which is so satisfying to notice, because it shows that the filmmakers are really thinking things through.
The ensemble as a whole just rocks, with Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, and Peter Capaldi knocking it out of the park, Ben Whishaw a great fit to voice Paddington, and this is not to mention Nicole Kidman as a despicable villain. There are one or two jokes that don’t quite land, so the film is not perfect. But it is damn near bulletproof, with a wonderful script from King, storybook production design, and the wherewithal to deal lots of laughs and lots of substance to chew on as well. 9/10.
The Last Five Years
I’m a musicals guy. The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, A Hard Day’s Night, Chicago, Pitch Perfect, Frozen. So here comes The Last Five Years, a film whose storytelling is conveyed almost entirely in song, and I think two things. One, that sounds awesome, like a constant conveyer belt of entertainment. Two, it sounds like it would be super-tough to maintain the impact of those songs over a 90-minute runtime. So I can now report that yes, the film is entertaining if you’re on its wavelength, and that yes, these songs get samey pretty quick.
Maybe part of that sameyness lies in the tight focus on the central drama. So what’s the film actually about? It’s about a young couple’s five years together (2008-2013), and from the first scene/song the audience knows that it ends in messy divorce. The film’s structure has Cathy (Anna Kenrick) and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) singing the lead in alternating songs, and adding to the crisscrossing device, Cathy’s songs start from the post-divorce period and rewind through time, while Jamie’s songs start from the beginning of their relationship and progress forward through time; the streams converge at Jamie’s proposal song to Cathy.
Both performers give it their all, and the constant musical conceit keeps the engine of the film running. It’s just that the songs tend to blend together after a while as they hit very similar dramatic and comedic beats. And I should mention that The Last Five Years is based on a stage musical, so there are occasionally oddly stagey moments that don’t jibe with the naturalistic vibe of most of the film.
Best song? Well, even though I certainly think Kendrick as Cathy is a better singer and performer, Jamie’s song “Moving too Fast” stays in the mind as a standout. (And its jazzy backbeat gives it energy, a beat the really reminds me of Jeff Beal’s “Start the Watch” cue from the Monk score… by the way, I love that show.)
Really, The Last Five Years comes across as this monster triple-album of a musical that might be hard to appreciate at times, but I had fun with it. If you can stand “miles and piles” of more-or-less similar songs, I recommend it (and yes, that’s a reference to a song from this film). I couldn’t ask for a much better descriptor than one of Cathy’s lines in this very film: “That’s pretty long, but it’s fun”. 7/10.
Clouds of Sils Maria
French filmmaker Olivier Assayas writes and directs this enigmatic drama, set primarily in Sils Maria, a settlement in the Alps. Respected actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) got her big break in the junior role in a drama featuring a relationship between a young seductress and an older woman, and is now being approached for the latter role. Being eyed for Maria’s old role is tabloid-attracting Hollywood sensation Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz). Maria retreats to Sils Maria (where this script was written), and with the help of personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) must prepare for the role and her co-star.
The dominant aspect in this film about acting is predictable: the performances. Binoche takes the insecurities of the acting world and brings them home with empathy and class. Matching her as a calming anchor is Stewart, whose “straight woman” is key to the duo’s dynamic. The two leads tear through Assayas’ script, alternately wordy and overly atmospheric, and their chemistry drives the film. Incidentally, Stewart’s performance got her a historic award: the first César Award (French equivalent of an Oscar) to ever go to an American actor. It’s well deserved. Rounding out the trio of main characters is Moretz’ naive thespian, bringing a schizophrenic energy to a film that at times really can use an unpredictable edge.
One thing that somewhat annoys me is that this is another film like Birdman that scores some cheap shots against superhero movies. There’s a sequence where Maria and Valentine watch Jo-Ann’s performance in an X-Men knockoff; despite a reference to a character actually called the Scarlet Witch (as in Avengers: Age of Ultron), the fictional film has this horrifying, strobing cinematography (in 3D, no less) that looks like it would make anyone want to throw up. But this diversion does have some nuance: Valentine stands up for the merit of the genre when done well, the deliberately silly dialogue is fun, and in Clouds of Sils Maria‘s world at least, we have a female-led superhero movie apparently meeting with financial success (*cough* please be good, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel *cough*).
Anyways, the film’s verbosity is contrasted by the ending, which really goes for the throat of ambiguity and thus keeps a distance from the audience. A major character’s fate is left up for grabs, as it were, and there’s fickle character work that dares you to call the film out on it. This is an alienating effect that you just have to accept, and it fits in with a film that at times seems more interested in appearing transcendent than in meeting the audience halfway.
The powerhouse acting, picturesque setting, and empathetic screenplay are all pluses in Clouds of Sils Maria‘s favor. But its obscurant tendencies do, ahem, cloud some of its good intentions. It’s a well-made film, nurtured by the auteur Assayas. It just thrives on an irritating ambiguity too much in the home stretch. A weak 7/10.