First Listen: Emma Watson Singing As Belle (INSTAGRAM)

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Ooooooooo, isn’t this a-may-zing!

Thanks to some early Instagram access to Beauty & The Beast doll merchandise, we can now hear the first clips of Emma Watson‘s singing voice as Belle via a Belle doll (yes, that is her voice).

UPDATE: And now with that leak, Disney has released an official high quality version of the song clip (below).

Enjoy. Get giddy. Or just melt. Whatever your feels tell you.

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A MONSTER CALLS (Movie Review)

amonstercallsmovie
**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for thematic content and some scary images)
Released:  December 23, 2016 limited; January 6, 2017 wide
Runtime: 108 minutes
Director: J.A. Bayona
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, (voice of) Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell

Available to rent through Amazon Video or buy on Blu-ray and DVD. Proceeds from purchases made through these links go to support this blog.

Take E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, strip away all of its charm, humor, joy, and wonder, leave in only the most wrenching emotional baggage, then increasingly double down on that for two hours…and you basically have A Monster Calls.

It’s easy to love the idea of this movie, of what it wants to be, a Guillermo del Toro-lite dark fantasy fable with YA aspirations. Based on a beloved illustrated novel, A Monster Calls is for those who connect with fairy tales, legends, and ghost stories, but well beyond their magical surfaces and more deeply to their ability to help us confront and cope with life’s biggest fears. But such stories need some uplift along the way, or some paternal / maternal / pastoral figure or temperament, but this adaptation has none.

Instead, it has that scary monster who appears in a boy’s nightmares.

Voiced by Liam Neeson (as if fresh off a Taken shoot), the monster is like a rogue talking tree from Middle Earth with an intense disposition and his own particular set of rules. He appears just-past-midnight in the dreams of Conor, a distraught boy whose mother is suffering from terminally ill cancer. In each dream-visit, the monster tells a fable. They’re darker, more complex tales (think Tolkien, not Lewis) in which things aren’t always as they seem. The stories all serve a purpose: to help Conor see his world, and his enemies, in new ways.

The challenge with the monster’s stories isn’t how they’re rendered; told through iconic watercolor animations, they’re a visual highlight. The problem is that these segments really don’t build off of each other, merely repeating the same thematic arcs and dynamics (which are exclusively heavy). Akin to fantastical role play counseling sessions, their lessons are pummeled into Conor through the monster’s brand of shock therapy.

There are no peaks and valleys to the narrative, only sequential lows, and the monster is not a comforting friend that guides Conor through various horrors; on the contrary, he’s a confrontational Id. After awhile you begin to wonder, “Does this kid need to keep being put through this? Do we?”

Conor is played by Lewis MacDougall, and the grueling grind of his psychological ordeal is no fault of his own. If anything, this endurance test on Conor’s psyche makes MacDougall’s performance all-the-more impressive. He gives it his absolute all, bearing heart, tears, and soul. God bless him, he must have been absolutely exhausted at the end of this shoot.

Sure, there’s wondrous filmmaking on display, particularly the monster itself which is a truly spectacular creation. Director J.A. Bayona (The Impossible, The Orphanage) continues to impress as a filmmaker of great visual instinct, tone, and atmosphere, and his intent to communicate hard but necessary truths is undoubtedly earnest, but the relentless sobriety and compounding weight just sucks all the life right out of the whole thing. The progressive net effect is a fantasy far too dire to effectively work its lessons into a viewer’s heart and mind, perhaps especially a kid’s.

Despite tackling grim stuff for a family movie (it’s definitely too much for grade schoolers and younger), its seriousness still could’ve been a virtue if it hadn’t been strictly somber from start to finish. A lack of any other level or perspective seriously cramps its desired cathartic potential, and only those who may relate very specifically to Conor’s journey – even beat for beat, whether literally or metaphorically – may glean some meaningful rewards.

Bayona is clearly a gifted filmmaker, a real visionary, and everyone should be thrilled he’s been given the reins to Jurassic World 2. But here, as a purveyor of scarring realities to a still-maturing target audience, he simply tries way too hard. The best fables find hope even in tragedy, and they rely just as much on poignancy as they do grief (maybe even more so), but all that remains in A Monster Calls is angst-ridden sadness.

About the only hope it provides is the message that it’s okay to grieve, even necessary, which is a good message (and indeed, the movie’s heart is in the right place), but man, what an exhausting dirge to make that point.

Narrowing Down The Best Movies Of 2016: A Conversation

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This isn’t a Top 10 list, but it’s close.

Through early and mid-December, fellow Tulsa Voice film critic Joe O’Shansky and I had an ongoing back-and-forth about where our heads and hearts were at in the middle of the year-end Awards screener season. We were considering many worthy contenders for that final 10. This is that conversation (click here).

Our final Top 10 lists will be published in the first edition of The Tulsa Voice in January 2017, and linked to on this blog.

LION (Movie Review)

patelkidmanlion
*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for thematic material, language, and some sensuality)
Released:  November 25, 2016 limited; December 25 wide
Runtime: 118 minutes
Director: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, Sunny Pawar, Priyanka Bose, David Wenham

Available to rent through Amazon Video or buy on Blu-ray and DVD. Proceeds from purchases made through these links go to support this blog.

Indie movie mogul Harvey Weinstein has an Oscar touch. He’s been winning Best Picture Academy Awards since his Miramax days (and nominated for a slew of others), and has continued to do so with his brother at their self-named company. Notorious for promoting multiple films during each awards season, Weinstein has gone all-in on one in 2016: Lion.

It’s easy to see why. This stirring heart-grabber has Oscar-bait written all over it. Yet it also plays better, less cynically, and (for the most part) more sincerely than that. It even takes some risks, particularly in the first hour.

Based on the true story of a young Indian boy separated from his mother at age 5 (who’d go on to search for her at age 25), director Garth Davis (in his debut) never tries to crassly manipulate tears from our ducts. The emotions you’ll feel are earned, whether they’re merely warm fuzzies or ones that actually induce a steady stream of salt water from your eyes. Grown men have been crying at film festival screenings. You’ve been warned (or sold, as the case may be).

Lion is told in two parts; a young boy lost, and a young man looking. The first hour focuses on the series of tragically unfortunate events that caused Saroo Brierley to be transported nearly a thousand miles from his home (and mother) at the age of five, how he survived, and where he eventually ended up. As a narrative it has a nicely patient progression, told through an arc of moments rather than a familiar plot structure.

Davis doesn’t cut corners for English audiences. The first half of his film is subtitled, spoken in native Indian dialects, and a white person doesn’t appear on-screen until about fifty minutes in. The whole stretch works like a silent movie in a lot of ways, largely a visual and experiential narrative, not driven by dialogue or exposition. You’re just thrown into it all, like little Saroo is.

It’s fascinating, too; sort of an Oliver Twist on the streets of Calcutta. It doesn’t necessarily need to go on for as long as it does, but the deliberation of this boy’s journey certainly helps to magnify it. Maternal hearts will be kicked into anxiety overdrive, not only for little Saroo but also for the countless other kids like him (that we see) who live and sleep on the streets.

As if that won’t be wrenching enough for tender-hearted moms, then comes hour two when he’s adopted.

Through an agency, Saroo becomes the son of a couple in Australia, where he’s brought and raised. Nicole Kidman plays the mother, in a notably unglamorous wig, and in hour two the story jumps ahead twenty years to see Saroo now grown (played by Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel). He still wonders about his birth mother, and how heartbroken she still might be over his vanishing from the face of her earth.

Before Saroo goes on his quest to seek her out, Davis lets us spend some time with Saroo, his Australian parents, and his adopted brother. It’s a worthy focus, in part because it’s not entirely necessary, but one that adoptive families in particular will appreciate. It shows, with real honesty, that while adoption is very beautiful it can also be very very difficult.

For some kids, there are scars too deep for one family to heal, no matter how open and available love is in the home. It’s an aspect of adoption that needs to be portrayed more often, especially with the empathy and compassion shown here. For any person who wonders if a parent could love an adopted child as intensely as a biological one, Lion should help dispel that false assumption.

Once the story shifts into its climactic drive, Lion becomes increasingly more conventional, at times even cutting corners a bit too quickly. It also loses some of its veracity by playing up Patel’s rugged, smoldering sexiness; he seems perpetually ready for a GAP photo shoot.

Still, consistent with the first-rate ensemble, Patel invests himself deeply into the conflicted psyche of Saroo, and Rooney Mara plays a girlfriend that grows to become his conscience (she even laughs, a rarity for the habitually shy and mannered actress). Kidman stands out in a way she hasn’t in years (since 2010’s criminally underseen Rabbit Hole, to be precise, her best perf to date), and one scene in particular should land her an Oscar nod.

As the film progresses, a sense of inevitability permeates; it undercuts tension and drama just a bit, even though the personal stakes couldn’t be higher. Still, as the inevitable approaches, the raw emotion of it all really catches you, and makes its impact. It’s a beautiful thing.

FENCES (Movie Review)

fences
*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for thematic elements, language, and some suggestive references)
Released:  December 16, 2016 NY & LA; December 25 wide
Runtime: 138 minutes
Director: Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Stephen McKinely Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson

Available to rent through Amazon Video or buy on Blu-ray and DVD. Proceeds from purchases made through these links go to support this blog.

Couldn’t make it to New York City in 2010 to see the heralded run of August Wilson’s Fences? No problem, now it’s coming to you. Consider this the long overdue national tour, with all but one of that production’s ensemble in tow.

If La La Land is a true fusion of cinema and theatre, then Fences is merely a play on film. You can almost hear the stage boards creaking under their feet. That’s not the worst thing in the world, especially when the cast and source material are this good. But it does make you wish that Denzel Washington, who directs as well as stars, would’ve hired his good friend Spike Lee to helm (or at least asked himself What Would Spike Do?) so as to give it a more inspired vitality, an urgency, maybe even a provocative flair.

Running for 88 performances on Broadway in a revival that gave the two-time Oscar-winner his first Tony Award, Washington’s primary ambition seems simply to document for posterity his stage director Kenny Leon’s take on Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning text. It ranks among the great American plays, with arguably the two best stage roles ever written for black actors, about a 1950s Pittsburgh African-American family that finds itself at a crossroads.

Troy Maxson (Washington) is a middle-aged garbage man who never made it as a big league ball player, simply because he had the historical misfortune of pre-dating Jackie Robinson. He’s met his responsibilities to his wife (Viola Davis, also reprising a Tony-winning performance) and teenage son for eighteen years, but he must finally confront whether he’s truly done right by them (a virtue he self-righteously makes a point of demanding in one of several belittling diatribes to his only child). In truth, he’s abused his position of authority to transfer and unload a festering bitterness towards life.

For the first ninety minutes of this two hours-plus drama, there’s little more to Washington’s directorial style than to set up cameras at reasonable angles and just let them roll. He actually shot on location in a low income Pittsburgh neighborhood, but it gains him no authentic immediacy. By appearances, it could just as easily been shot in some corner strip of any studio backlot.

The net effect is merely having the best seat at the Cort Theatre, where the revival ran. Washington makes little effort to expand beyond the essential stage design of this single Pittsburgh home (other than a fourth wall), the street that runs in front of it, or the small, barren back yard where several confrontations go down.

The uninspired, purely straightforward capture of the material isn’t the only aspect that makes it feel more like a play than a movie; the delivery and pacing of the performances flow in rhythms of the stage, not the screen, with a quick, constant pace meant to draw the audience’s attention (as actors must do in theatre) as opposed to using film language via framing, editing, etc. to achieve the same goal (as directors must do in movies).

And yet, after a crucial turning point, Washington surprisingly (and subtly) shifts gears in tone and style for the final forty-five minute stretch. It actually looks, feels, and paces like a movie. No longer are characters’ burdens and hopes communicated strictly through words – lots and lots and lots of words, via monologues and speeches – but now also through image, pure emotion, and even some visual poetry.

Fences becomes an actual movie of human drama between a husband and a wife, a father and a son, and the friends and family that have endured this man’s destructive ways. It’s a sobering account of the perverse entitlement that bitterness creates, and its wake, but also a poignant portrait of grace extended toward the innocent and unworthy alike.

With Fences, you’re in for some great theatre – anchored by two absolutely towering performances (Davis especially) – but only workmanlike cinema. As a director, Washington may not elevate the material but, as Troy Maxson demands, he does do right by it.

PASSENGERS (Movie Review)

passengersship
**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for sexuality, nudity, language, and action/peril)
Released:  December 21, 2016
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen

Available to rent through Amazon Video or buy on Blu-rayDVD, and 4K. Proceeds from purchases made through these links go to support this blog.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that we have an actual honest-to-God original big budget genre movie not based on a pre-existing property or franchise. Unicorn sightings are sure to follow.

Cool.

Now that we’ve done that, let’s sigh at what we’re actually left with. Passengers is a sleek and spectacular piece of science fiction moviemaking that glosses up a story perpetually idling on impulse engines. Worst of all, it never delivers on the hook heard in its trailers, as spoken by star Chris Pratt’s character: “There’s a reason we woke up early.” Apparently, there’s not. I’m not even sure that line made the final cut.

Going from Castaway In Space to Sci Fi: A Love Story to a Poseidon Misadventure final stretch, Passengers has an intriguing premise with a compelling ethical dilemma that struggles to know what to do with itself. It’s all predicated on the ridiculous basis that a starship carrying thousands of hibernated people for 120 years across space and time to colonize a new planet would have no – and I mean zero – safety precautions in case anything went wrong. In the future, apparently, everyone’s forgotten about the Titanic.

But even if you shrug your shoulders and just go with it, there ends up being not much to go with. Two of the passengers wake up 90 years too early, the first of an increasing amount of impossible (allegedly) malfunctions that steadily escalate over a few years. Fortunately for us, the two passengers bear a striking resemblance to the two biggest box office stars in the world right now, Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. If you’re gonna get trapped in the cold death of space, it might as well be with a couple of sexy people on one heckuva starship.

And therein lies part of the problem. For as bad as it is to be doomed to live and die before everyone else arrives at the desired destination, the ship itself is a floating space age utopia. The guy is stuck with a hottie and the gal is stuck with a beefcake. I mean, it could be worse.

Of course it does get worse, in part because of a betrayal of trust, but also because the red alerts really start to stack up…but not before the narrative has slogged through one act of existential boredom, fears, and anger, followed by a second act of inevitable, perfunctory romancing. Michael Sheen’s robot bartender provides some charming dry comic relief with a creepy subtext, suggesting a sophisticated movie that, unfortunately, never materializes.

Neither do these characters, each so blandly conceived. He dreams of building things, she dreams of writing things. All that amounts to is Pratt and Lawrence doing their thing, but only Pratt distinguishes himself from previous roles by adding some genuinely understated dramatic chops to his aw-shucks likability. The star power here, as strong as it is, isn’t enough to humanize the rote script (it’s as lost in space as its characters are) or get us emotionally invested in whether these two make it or not. Honestly, you just won’t care.

Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange, Prometheus) eventually contrive some moderately effective plot mechanics in the third act but, even so, suspense is temporary and fleeting (buoyed by some inspired anti-gravity visual concepts). The more things amp up the more it all feels desperate to get some sort of dramatic traction going, even with the inherent high stakes. (Thomas Newman’s score feels like an odd fit, too, akin to the earthbound domestic dramas ala American Beauty that his style is associated with.)

The first-rate visuals – from special effects (very good) to technology and set designs (stunning) – are just enough to make the price of admission worth it, insofar as blockbuster eye candy goes (ditto the leads). Unfortunately, they’re not enough to elevate a reaction much beyond, “Eh, it’s alright I guess.”

Some Thoughts On ROGUE ONE’s CGI Controversy (SPOILERS)

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Attack of the Clones indeed.

Coming out of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (my review), people are polarized over the use of CGI visual effects in one particular regard, and they’re making their opinions known across the interwebs in full, er, force.

Of course I’m referring to the resurrection of Grand Moff Tarkin, played by the late Peter Cushing, to his 1977 visage and form via Industrial Light & Magic. Fans are divided about its efficacy; some are amazed by the quality and feel it adds a lot to the prequel, while others find it “not quite good enough” to the point of unnecessary, aggravating distraction. The anti-VFX cloning crowd believes that a new actor should’ve been hired, close to Cushing’s likeness, so that the character could be as authentic as everyone else on-screen. (Here’s a screed from Collider.com’s Matt Goldberg.)

First, my two cents. Even though the technology still isn’t 100%, man, it sure has come a long way. It’s really impressive. Yes, there are imperfections to quibble about if you’re so inclined, but it’s a genre movie and I think the nitpicking in this case (by some trolls, not all skeptics) is bordering on obnoxious nerdom.

(See video below for details about how the effects for both Tarkin and Princess Leia were produced.)

Also, to gripes about the effect becoming dated at some point (and maybe even sooner rather than later), well, most visual effects technology become dated at some point. It’s a thing. Indeed, movies become dated in a whole number of ways. But if they’re good, they’ll endure. It’s only when the movies are bad that we’re bothered by their dated elements (effects, clothes, hairstyles, and otherwise).

I suspect that had a real-life lookalike actually been used instead, the nitpickers would still have come out in droves with the reverse complaints. They would likely have argued that Tarkin is too iconic to be played by anyone else, and that an actor lookalike is a distraction that they couldn’t get past. Furthermore, they’d suggest, CGI has come so far (just look at that young Tony Stark in Captain America 3!) that certainly a CGI Tarkin would’ve been the better option, even with its imperfections.

Some people will never be pleased.

Here’s the bottom line: this isn’t a technology that can be developed “on the side” until it’s exactly right. It takes money – blockbuster movie money – to evolve and advance. It has to be done in tentpoles like Star Wars, or it’ll never be done at all.

But to paraphrase Ian Malcolm – just because they could, does it mean that they should? After all, what are the long-term implications of such animation, particularly when the technology reaches its full potential? Will former screen legends be bastardized for profit? Will new actors be marginalized?

My hunch to both: no and no.

New actors will always emerge because people will always have a craving for new. If they didn’t then, similarly, people would never need another rap album, or rock album, or old pop standard album, or whatever, because there are great copies of those by legends already. But, of course, there are new albums in those genres all the time, and always will be, because we’ll always be intrigued by fresh takes.

As far as bastardizing icons for profit, well, only if the late actors’ family estates have something to say about it. Legally speaking, this isn’t something filmmakers and studios will be able to do willy-nilly. In the case of Cushing, Lucasfilm garnered the rights to his image from the Cushing estate. And as a matter of fact, their reaction to the final result is actually pretty neat.

Talking with Variety, Joyce Broughton – Cushing’s former secretary of over 30 years and current estate executor – was deeply moved by seeing the performance. “When you’re with somebody for 35 years, what do you expect?” Broughton says. “I can’t say any more because I get very upset about it. He was the most beautiful man…I have to say,” she adds, “I’m not a Star Wars fanatic, but I did think whoever put it together were absolutely fantastic. It’s not just a silly sort of thing. It’s really good!”

In addition, many current actors are already getting their visages scanned to provide these opportunities for their family’s estates in perpetuity.

This is not only an inevitable thing but, I believe, a good thing. It will actually help past eras of films and icons to be rediscovered and endure. Besides, the market will ultimately rein in bad Hollywood decisions with this new technology. Like with anything, viewers will tell Hollywood – through their pocketbooks and social media – what’s good, what’s bad, and when a line has been crossed.

As long as Hollywood does right by actors with this new technology, everyone will be happy.

One thing’s for sure: after seeing this, George Lucas probably wants to get his digital hands on his six Star Wars episodes again.