“Beauty and the Beast”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I understand that it’s next to impossible to avoid letting your nostalgia for the original 1991 animated Disney film “Beauty and the Beast” fool you into thinking this live action remake is fantastic. I get it. It is arguably one of the greatest animated films of all time with iconic characters, scenes and songs. So iconic, in fact, that I wish the Disney machine would’ve just left it well enough alone. This nearly shot-by-shot retelling may have its moments, but they are few and far between. The film amounts to little more than a mediocre cash grab that putters along, fueled by the good will from its audience.

The film is surprisingly poorly directed by Bill Condon. The big CGI animated scenes that should be true show stoppers (like the classic “Be Our Guest” dinner performance) are choppily edited and packed with so much visual noise that they are ugly and at times ungainly. The entire project reeks of desperation as everything in the movie looks and feels overdressed and hollow, from the choreography to the mediocre costumes. The animated Beast (Dan Stevens) looks fake and terrible in the way he talks and moves, and don’t get me started on the ghastly singing all around.

The cast is so perfect (I’ve been excited for months after the accomplished list of actors was announced) and I can’t believe they actually blew it. Something feels completely “off” about many of the performances here, especially from Kevin Kline (Maurice), Josh Gad (Lefou), and at times, Emma Watson (Belle). They look uncomfortable and confused, awkwardly delivering lines and sometimes even changing acting styles throughout the film. Watson and Stevens lack even an ounce of chemistry, which sorely hurts the entire project.

There’s the typical overacting from voice talent Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) and Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza), and a really bad vocal turn from Ewan McGregor as everyone’s favorite candelabra, Lumiere. It’s not all rotten, thanks to Ian McKellen as Cogsworth the clock (he turns in an inspired voice performance) and a very funny, boisterous, and cartoonish Luke Evans who gives Gaston his due.

The film exhibits such loyalty to the source material that it often reeks of desperation in its blind insistence to mimic the original. Scenes are set up shot-by-shot and reenacted, and the love story now feels a bit dated for today’s sensibilities. With the new Disney trend of writing tough, I-don’t-need-a-man strong female characters (“Frozen,” “Moana“), this movie feels like someone is rewinding the time clock back to the early 90s, regressing to what now feels like an old-timey attitude towards men (those filthy beasts!) and women (if I stay long enough, maybe I’ll learn to love him!).

The runtime is over two hours and there is just far too much going on in this overstuffed, bloated, and disappointing film. It may remain true to the source material, but that alone doesn’t make it a good movie.

“American Pastoral”

LOUISA: 2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I appreciate Ewan McGregor‘s assured confidence in tackling the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “American Pastoral,” but he never should have chosen Philip Roth‘s difficult material to make his directorial debut. McGregor is capable enough as a director but his talents lie onscreen, not behind the camera. He treats this material with a pedestrian, humdrum lens and turns it into a flaccid family melodrama rather than a provocative American tragedy, which is a bit of a shame.

The subject matter, with its ‘America in turmoil’ theme and emotions boiling over with disenchantment towards the government establishment, could have been made into a timely and relevant commentary on today’s society. Instead we get a by-the-book film with little to no artistic interpretation, and the end result feels as shallow as it is hollow.

“American Pastoral” tells the story of former legendary high school athlete Swede Levov (McGregor) and his former beauty queen wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly). The classic hardworking family finds their lives turned upside down when their rebellious teenage daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) becomes a political terrorist during the Vietnam War.

The 1960s-era film has a few good looking scenes but everything about it feels far too staged, from the camera angles to the set design to the performances (the acting is skilled across the board, but it’s hard to truly enjoy anyone’s performance when the film itself is so bland).

This movie tries to cover far too much ground and sadly drowns in the provocative source material.

 

“Our Kind of Traitor”

LOUISA:  3.5 STARS  MATT:  3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Our Kind of Traitor” is the perfect anti-summer summer movie: it’s a thoughtful, talky, decidedly adult spy thriller that’s elevated by exceptional performances from top-notch acting talent and a clever, sharp script. You aren’t going to find lots of shootouts or pointless action scenes here, it’s the situations that will keep your mind actively guessing from start to finish. Director Susanna White instead chooses to focus on brains not brawn, and the result is an engrossing dramatic film with much greater depth than I expected.

Perry (Ewan McGregor) is a university professor who is on a getaway in Morocco with his barrister wife Gail (Naomie Harris). While sitting alone in the hotel bar, he strikes up a conversation with Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who turns out to be a Russian mobster whose family is on the fast track to execution by even badder bad guys. Dima requests that Perry hand deliver a flash drive with secret information to the British government upon returning to the U.K. and sensing the imminent danger to the man’s family, Perry obliges. Soon after, Perry is approached by MI6 agent Hector (a standout performance from Damian Lewis) and becomes an integral component of an involuntary spy game.

All of the leads play perfectly off each other, each bringing a contrasting, distinctive style of character to the screen. McGregor is perfectly clueless as a professor of poetry, Lewis is proper and resourceful as a by-the-books Englishman agent dealing with government red tape, and Skarsgård is spot-on as a genial, boisterous thug. Each of these men easily deserve major award nominations for their performances.

This is a well made tale of espionage and is far better than the last John le Carré adaptation (2011’s dreadfully convoluted “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy“). “Our Kind of Traitor” is the perfect choice for adults who are just sick and tired of all the noise that’s currently clogging theaters. This isn’t your typical mindless summer fare, and I encourage all grown ups to seek it out.

MATT SAYS:

If you like intelligent, twisty spy thrillers, “Our Kind of Traitor” is for you.

Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris play Perry and Gail, a couple from the United Kingdom vacationing in Marrakech to try to repair their broken marriage. While out for dinner, Perry meets Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), a member of the Russian mafia who lives the high life. After getting to know the man, Dima entrusts Perry with secret information and asks Perry to give it to MI6. He does, and Perry and Gail quickly find themselves in the middle of a top secret operation that takes them to Paris, Bern, and the French Alps.

McGregor convincingly plays the quiet-but-decent college professor Perry, who is all too trusting and more than willing to help his new friend in any way he can, and Harris works well as Gail, his barrister wife who would and should be the voice of reason — until she too falls for Dima and his family. Skarsgård is a little out of his comfort zone, speaking with a Russian accent and long hair that would look completely ridiculous on anyone else. Damian Lewis does an excellent job as the MI6 agent Hector with questionable allegiance and motivation. As the spy game plays out, you find yourself guessing as to what might happen next, and who could be double-crossing whom.

Unlike some movies in this genre (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” comes to mind), “Our Kind of Traitor” succeeds because the plot isn’t too convoluted. It’s easy to figure out both who the characters are and what the conflict is about. There is no nonlinear narrative or jumping back and forth either in time or in situations; the movie coheres well. Throwing Gail and Perry directly into the thick of the espionage functions to hold interest, and the Walter Mitty-esque everyman angle makes it easy to relate to and sympathize with the couple.

Literary-minded folks will love this one, as it feels like a good, satisfying summer read: nothing feels forced, illogical or ridiculous and the ending is satisfying without being false.

“Miles Ahead”

LOUISA:  3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Miles Ahead” is nothing if not ambitious. This Miles Davis biopic is obviously a passion project for Don Cheadle (who not only plays the lead but also co-wrote, produced and directed the film), but the unconventional style and tone simply doesn’t work as a whole. I’m not saying that Cheadle isn’t a skilled director, I just think he needs more on-the-job training to get better at it. This is his directorial debut and his confused style simply needs a bit more focus — and that’s something you gain from experience.

The movie is visually frustrating and mixes far too many filmmaking styles to the point where it quickly becomes an exasperating mess. I tried to internally argue that maybe Cheadle was attempting to capture the visual feel of jazz, the music genre associated with liberating riffs and the freedom to drastically shift moods and tempos without limitation. I still have been unable to convince myself that this is the case and instead I have to face the facts: this film stumbles and never fully recovers.

The story is mostly fictional fantasy, so don’t go in expecting to learn anything significant or meaningful about Davis’ life. The film neglects to portray much of the creative inspiration or background of the troubled and talented artist. Even the few random true bits are tackled with great poetic license, making the film feel like everyone involved was trying way too hard to prove they could make an unconventional biopic.

“Miles Ahead” takes place over the span of a few days in the late 1970s and focuses on a strained crime caper plot where Miles (in an effortlessly cool performance from Cheadle) and shaggy-haired Rolling Stone reporter Dave (the ever charming Ewan McGregor) set out to reclaim a secret session recording that has been stolen by slimy agent Harper Hamilton (played in an over-the-top caricature style by Michael Stuhlbarg).

The fictional aspect of the story is unnecessary and feels more like a slap in the face than what should have been a thoughtful tribute to the musical legend and cultural icon. You won’t learn anything about the famous trumpeter’s life or career as the film chooses to focus instead on ridiculous shootouts, car chases, cocaine-fueled parties and boxing matches. At least we get a few glimpses into the personal background of the man, mostly about his estranged wife Frances (the lovely Emayatzy Corinealdi), told in way too brief flashbacks. Sadly, the set pieces are more enjoyable than the story. The real star should’ve been Davis’ music, and there’s not enough of it.

For its sheer ambition, “Miles Ahead” earns an extra half star. The film is worth seeing if you are a fan of Miles Davis, but it’s not as good as I wanted it to be. In a word: disappointing.   


Matt was unavailable for review.

“Jane Got A Gun”

LOUISA:     3.5 STARS     MATT:   3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I don’t respond well to westerns but I love a good ass-kicking heroine, and “Jane Got A Gun” delivers just that. Try to ignore the miscasting of Natalie Portman as the titular Jane and relish the perfect casting of Joel Edgerton as a rancher who helps her defend her home against a gang of ruthless outlaws. Ewan McGregor, playing an unintentionally campy sort of Black Bart villain complete with a giant black hat and horrendous fake teeth, is shamefully wasted here.

Director Gavin O’Connor seems ill equipped to handle a western and it shows: while the story fits the formula (outlaws are a’comin’ so let’s get some guns and hole up in our homestead and shoot ’em all when they come for us), it’s visually unappealing (washed out images make the film look drab, and confusing editing that jumps around makes the movie feel like there are big chunks of story missing). However, the script here is really good and I genuinely cared about the characters. Fans of the genre will find this worthy of a viewing.

The extra half star rating is for the charming (and misbehaving) white horse who steals the show in every scene he is in. Keep an eye on that equine, he is one to watch.

MATT SAYS:

Anchored by strong performances by Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton, “Jane Got a Gun” is a simple story, well-told. The movie is set in the bad old days of the American West where murder, thievery and white slavery are commonplace and the line between good and evil cannot be clearly drawn and the ability to kill, and kill well, is a highly-valued talent. In 1870s New Mexico, life is driven by the categorical imperative, and Jane is forced by circumstances to take lives to protect her own and those of her family.

The Western has all but fallen out of favor with the modern movie-going public, however movies like this one remind us that the setting can serve as a powerful backdrop for fresh new stories that can reinvigorate the genre. Like the “The Homesman” in 2014, “Jane Got a Gun” is a rare female-driven Western, one that features an expansive landscape but a story that is small and simple in scope. And like that movie, this one is worth watching.