Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Movie Reviews: Logan, and Beauty and the Beast

We are fortunate to live within walking distance of a charming old movie house. It's been in constant operation since 1916, which apparently makes it the tenth longest-running movie house in the whole country. Before the show, local businesses run ads, which means you might get to see the neighbor's house, or the neighbor's kids, up on screen. The ticket prices are just right, too, being, as I understand, heavily subsidized by the local college to provide in-town amusement for the students. So we feel it's our duty to catch movies, if we're going to watch them big screen, within the limited run window the three-screen theater provides.

In an unusually heavy week of media consumption, we saw two movies in the course of two days: Logan and Beauty and the Beast. Vastly different, in terms of theme, rating, audience, storytelling, and quality.


The first of the X-Men franchise to break the R-rating barrier (and this would be a good note to end the franchise on too, studio guys), Logan is violent, gritty, and amazingly well-done. Set in 2029 in a future in which mutations have been eliminated, it features an downmarket, seedy Logan (there's no point in calling him Wolverine, because there's no longer any X-Men to form a team) who is losing his ability to heal. Instead of cage-fighting, he makes his money driving a limo along the Mexican border. The money goes toward seizure control medicine for Professor Xavier, whose mental debilitation now has dangerous effects on the general public. Logan and Professor Xavier are the sole survivors of the mutant population -- a population which is now medically extinct, or so they think until a little girl named Laura is cast into their care by a Mexican nurse who begs them to take her to safety in Canada. Despite himself, Logan feels obligated to protect the girl, especially as she resembles him a number of startling ways.

The rating is absolutely essential to this movie. Most of the comic-book movies I've seen have been firmly entrenched in fake-awesome territory, too glossy for much emotional investment. The violence in this movie -- and it is bloody and brutal -- is the only realistic way to depict the effect of a character who can sprout six swords from his fists, and has some genuinely frightening bad guys to use them on. His actions have consequences, consequences which batter his soul as well as his body. And his aging, aching body is fearful indeed. The scars of his fights don't vanish anymore. His face is weathered and ravaged by this strange new mortality and the copious amounts of alcohol Logan consumes to deal with it.

Patrick Stewart gives a bravura performance as the decrepit Professor Xavier, suffering from what might be Alzheimer's. He is confused, angry, foul-mouthed as the elderly can be. His hectoring of Logan is Shakepearean, King Lear with the last child standing. But he is willing to give his life to protect and nurture Laura. The prickly relationship between Logan and Professor X is acutely, painfully on point to anyone who's ever been a primary caregiver.

I don't know if this is the sort of movie that wins awards, but if it's nominated for anything, it may be Best Supporting Actress for Dafne Keen, the young lady who plays Laura. The child is ferocious and intense and inscrutable. She dominates every scene she's in with her big dark eyes. Laura rivals Logan himself for sheer feral savagery, but she's beautifully vulnerable. Never once does she strike a false note.

And that's true of the whole. Its integrity is remarkable in a genre devoted more to style than substance. It builds no goofy mythologies. It refuses to prostitute itself with cross-promotion nudgery. It is complete in itself, a story which contains its beginning and its ending without packaging up everything neatly in a shiny metal suit. I admired it, which is something I can't say for any other product of the combined imaginations of Marvel and DC.

We took our 14-year-old daughter, an X-Men fan, to see Logan as her first R-rated movie. She's less squeamish than her mother in some ways, or at least she didn't watch a good portion of the movie through her fingers. We asked her afterwards what she thought.

"It was good," she said. "I'm glad it was only rated R for violence."

I can't say better than that for parental guidance.

Beauty and the Beast

If you're looking for blood, you won't find any here. It's not hard to find things to say about this movie -- I'm bursting over with them, too many for this review -- but let me start off with: if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you'll like. If you and your children bond and create family memories over the magic of Disney, then go ahead and take the family and agitate not yourself with critical analysis.

For everyone else: it's not that I hold Disney's original Beauty and the Beast to be the golden standard of the tale as old as time. I rather don't. But although I'm no fan of the original, I am a fan of Things Being Done Well, and this new production seemed almost militantly set on sabotaging itself in that regard. This pudding was desperately over-egged. Whatever could be bigger and more lavish was cranked up to 11 without regard for story or theme. Each musical orchestration swelled harder than the last, to the detriment of honest emotion and the little voices of the principals. Every moment had to be bigger than the cartoon equivalent, which is a dramatically risky approach to take to remaking a movie that won Best Picture in its first incarnation.

What's so frustrating is that it didn't have to be this way. There were the bones of a good movie buried here. Glimpses of originality broke through, new and even interesting takes on the story, which started to win over even a viewer predisposed to dislike the film (read: me). And then, just as it seemed that the movie might break out into something creative and original -- the decadent Louis Quatorzesque court of the young prince, some exchanges about Shakespeare that seemed a notch above the general Disney romantic tension -- it snapped shut like a clam and forced itself back into the musical template of the 1991 movie.  This production would have done well to model itself on the recent remake of Cinderella, stepping away entirely from the particular framework of the animated version to make fine dramatic sense of the live-action format, but it was hobbled at every turn by the superior cinematic musical potential afforded to animation. The resulting movie is a strange hybrid, a buck-raking piece of nostalgia with no excellence to recommend it. In ten years, when the charm of novelty has worn off, it will be a forgotten mid-tier product, without the heart or economy of the original, preferred only by those in whom it evokes memories of their first time at the movies with Grandma.

Let us speak of Emma Watson's oddly uninspired turn as Belle. She wears her costumes prettily enough, but her graceless movements seem to be patterned on the cartoon original, without the charm the medium provides. Hand-drawn Belle could seem dreamily absorbed in her book; Emma Watson seems absorbed in herself, wandering around the marketplace as if she has no idea how to navigate a two-street town, tramping gracelessly along the rim of a well regardless of the people sitting there washing laundry. The cinematography does her no favors, and neither does the auto-tuning of her wispy voice. We think of British actors as having the range to tackle any part, but not everyone is trained at the Royal Dramatic Academy, and no where was this more evident than when Emma Watson and Dan Stevens (who, though he did not play Hamlet at Cambridge, did play Macbeth there) start quoting Shakespeare together. No one denies that Miss Watson was a fine Hermione Granger. Perhaps modern roles, and modern dialogue, are her forte.

What's not her forte is singing. Disney seemed to realize this limitation and accommodate it by surrounding its star with a mostly untutored group of vocalists (Dan Stevens and Ewan MacGregor deserve a bit more praise than most; Luke Evans as Gaston does yeoman tenor's work on a baritone role; and Josh Gad as LeFou is a bona fide Broadway talent). This ensemble is supremely unbalanced by the inclusion of the glorious, powerfully melodious Audra McDonald as a talking wardrobe. The only memorable moment of the mercifully forgettable new songs was the moment when Audra McDonald and Emma Watson have a duet together. Why? Why would the powers that be want to humiliate their star so by contrasting her with a soprano of breathtaking artistry and ability?

And since everything about the iconic ballroom scene was amped up past all genuine emotional investment, why couldn't Disney have authentically amped up the title song by giving it to Audra McDonald instead of Emma Thompson as the understeeped Mrs. Potts?

You've heard the hullabaloo about LaFou being the first openly gay Disney character, and you've read the pearl-clutching about the "exclusively gay moment" director Bill Condon is proud to have inserted into the script. This, my friends, is a big nothingburger. The "gay" moments, when they can be deciphered from sheer buffoonery, are infinitesimal (and of infinitesimal duration), and more reminiscent of Elmer Fudd wearing Valkyrie braids than anything else. Disney has had its juicy controversy and reaped its social plaudits, while revealing an opinion of gay people as worthy of the vast dignity of being the comic butt of every joke.

Included too in the cast is the new character of a priest who lends Belle her supply of books. There's been some happy commentary about this in the Catholic blogsphere, but dramatically, the character is the gun that doesn't fire in the third act, fading strangely out of sight at a time when he could actually be effective to the plot and the characters. This is a weakness of the script writing more than anything, which lays down threads and single lines of exposition it never takes up again. Why does the character of the enchantress keep recurring, without any explanation? (Why couldn't Hattie Morahan have played Belle and Emma Watson traded places with her as the Enchantress?) Why does the village talk of "crazy old Maurice" when he seems perfectly normal and all his inventing prowess has been transferred to Belle? Why does the village hate literacy so when historically, France had a higher literacy rate than Britain or America of the same period? Why waste time with new songs that could have been used to develop some backstory or expand the characters?

Visually, the film is stunning, in every definition of the word. The design is striking, if you don't think much about how it all holds together. No money was spared on CGI and back-lot set building, and it shows.  The costuming is lavish (and, in the case of Belle's village dress, pleasingly detailed and charcter-specific). The exception is Belle's unmemorable ballgown, in the same cartoonish shade of yellow as the original.

Not that it matters. Disney's gonna make money hand over fist with this one, quality notwithstanding. One of the recurring conversations among artistic Christians is why we don't have more good Christian art in this day and age. This movie, friends, and the happy reception it has had, and will have, among good salt-of-the-earth believers, is why we can't have nice things. Most people don't want good Christian art. They want Disney nostalgia turned up to eleven. Marie Antoinette never said, "Let them eat cake," but her successor in lavishness, Disney, is cramming its sugar cake down willing throats.


Melanie Bettinelli said...

Ok now I really want to see Logan. I had very little desire to see Beauty and the Beast already. What a wasted opportunity.

Brandon said...

I've been intending to see Logan, but keep not really having the time. I'll definitely have to keep trying.

Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite animated movies -- I rate only a few higher -- so I have been extraordinarily skeptical of the live action version, and intending not to see it; it's the sort of thing that would have to be done exactly right, and there have been lots of signs that the sweet spot was not hit. So I guess I'm doubly confirmed in not seeing it, now.

mrsdarwin said...

I think that if you're interested in the original Beauty and the Beast, it could be worth seeing this one just to see where things are done differently. (Don't waste your money at the theater; wait for the RedBox release.)

I did like that the Beast was more self-aware and was educated; I liked the fact that the particular Shakespeare fandom that made Belle feel she was so different from everyone was a sign of conventionality to the Beast; I liked Dan Stevens (actually the reason I went to see the movie, tbh). But there was so much wasted opportunity that padded out the running time. A digression about what really happened to Belle's mother (why is this even a question? Did no one die early in pre-Revolution France?) involved an interesting gimmick that's never touched on again, while also giving us a scene that doesn't move the plot forward. Also, it slowed the movie with another dull new song. Still, at $1, and watching from the comfort of home, it does well enough for an evening's kibbitzing.