April 25, 2017

MOVIES: "BEAUTY AND THE BEAST"


The live-action "Beauty and the Beast" is a lovely and faithful rendition of the animated version--faithful to the point of an almost frame-by-frame facsimile. Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as The Beast play their roles with precision. The stunning Audra McDonald--that voice!--plays the operatic chifferobe.

"GAY" OVERTONE?

There was a much-publicized (before the film even released) "gay kiss" and "gay overtone" to the film--a rather false claim. I didn't see anything remotely like a "gay kiss," and neither did anyone else I quizzed who saw the film. The same-sex affection of LeFou (Gaston's manservant) to an oblivious Gaston (the incomparable Luke Evans--looking like Errol Flynn) is shown briefly in a comment or two, and then in a sophisticated double-entendre song (with enhanced entendre, differing from the animated version). Children would surely miss the alternate meanings. But here's the thing. LeFou and especially Gaston are horrible people! Gaston in particular is murderous, conniving--hopelessly pompous, conceited and in love with no one but himself. There is no way the filmmakers were trying to "promote acceptance of a gay lifestyle" by putting forth treacherously villainous "gay characters."
However, there is a quick, troubling scene where manly soldiers fighting in the castle are instantly and magically dressed up as "Marie Antoinette" style women: the voiceover says something to the effect of: "Go forth! Be free to be pretty little boys!" Instead of the soldiers being horrified, they embrace their "inner woman" with delight. Hmmm....

BEAUTY IS WITHIN

A distinctively delicious, seasoned British female narrator gets us right into the story, overemphasizing every precious syllable of every familiar, winsome word. We hear and see The Beast's back story, the curse, the harsh punishment and high stakes he is engaged in. We can see immediately that--although a pretty exact replica of the animated version--this is not going to be a lazy re-telling. No effort will be spared to spin a lavish yarn. There's lots of CGI, but the virtuality is well-blended with actuality. (CGI is well-justified, what with the walking, talking clocks, candelabra, chifferobe, footstool, tea cups, etc.) The wonderful dictum, premise and "karmic statement" is pronounced by the rebuffed enchantress to the selfish prince-turned-animal: "BEAUTY IS WITHIN." The prince-turned-Beast must get someone to fall in love with him or he and his whole household will remain frozen as they are: he, a beast, and they, inanimate objects.
The opening scene is a big musical number in the little French village which is our setting, and we sit back and relax and go along for the ride. The pace and exposition is pretty exquisite: clever and never lagging. Belle, while externally beautiful, is also "different," like The Beast himself. She's a bookworm (an unusual pursuit for young ladies of the time). Therefore, in a sense, her beauty is also "within." Her deceased mother--from Paris--was also different, "until people started imitating her." [Incidentally, my own father was a clothier, and in his later years did not dress so dapperly any more. When we would bring this to his attention, he would boom: "I AM fashion!"] Belle's father, a kindly Geppetto-like man, is a watchmaker. Kevin Kline plays this rather minor character with nuance, warmth and relish.

TAMING THE BEAST

Belle's father heads into town and Belle asks for only one item--as is her tradition: a rose. The father's horse gets lost and they wind up at the Beast's castle for the night, but they don't encounter The Beast until, on his way home, Belle's father innocently picks a rose from The Beast's garden. The Beast imprisons him in the castle. The horse gallops back to Belle who has him take her back to the castle where she tricks both her father and the Beast into letting her take her father's place. This act of kindness begins to melt the Beast's icy heart ever so slowly--especially when he realizes that she might be a savior if he can get her to fall in love with him.
Meanwhile, Belle's father returns to the village and tries to recruit help, but his story sounds fantastical. Gaston--enraged with jealousy that Belle may be falling in love with The Beast--has her father locked up as insane, stirs up the townspeople through fearmongering, and they all set out chanting "kill the beast!"

DISNEY BELLES

I think I would like to have seen a longer character arc for The Beast--where he doesn't get so easily  "tamed." I would rather have seen more of Belle and Beast working it out, fits and starts, victories and setbacks--all because of his character flaws (and maybe a few on Belle's part!) Like Katniss in "Hunger Games," Belle is near-perfect with no character development necessary. I guess that's becoming true of all Disney heroines: just be "feisty" and "strong" and buck all "feminine gender roles"--as if that's the only kind of girl-woman we should want to emulate. The Beast could have been even more scary and merciless at the beginning, even though he cruelly imprisons Belle's father: "a life sentence for a rose"--as he was given. The Beast speaks of his own punishment as "eternal damnation," presumably because fairytale characters and creatures never die!

TALE AS OLD AS TIME

The particularly charming title song: "...tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme: beauty and the beast," remind me of John Paul II's phrase in regard to male-female love: "the perennial gift," and also the fact that while men civilize the world for the benefit of all humanity (transcendence), women "civilize" men--for the benefit of all humanity (immanence). Men are experts at the impersonal/objective, while women are experts at the personal/subjective. Both types of truth must always work together. Men are experts at the impersonal/objective, while women are experts at the personal/subjective. Both types of truth must always work together, hand in hand, like a dance.

OTHER STUFF:

--Audra McDonald singing "Summertime": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNLbRdoB9Z8

--At times, the soundtrack is like a 1940's film. Purposefully, I'm sure.

--I would have appreciated some silence in the film, but it's the only slothful move in the filmmaking: a constant, bombastic score.

--"The prince had a good mother, but a bad father who twisted him up."

--Makeup/costume/CGI managed to make the Beast handsome throughout.

--Isn't it true and strange? Guys can be kind of grizzled and women will still find them attractive. Or even more attractive.

--Couldn't help thinking of the remotely similar story line of "Phantom of the Opera."

--"Be Our Guest" is also a great song.

April 17, 2017

MOVIES: "FROZEN"




Here it is, folks. My long-awaited review.

-thin story -bad music -mean-spirited -minimal sets -useless men -unfunny snowperson -underdeveloped relationships

April 3, 2017

MOVIES: "BITTER HARVEST"


The new film, "Bitter Harvest," is a long overdue depiction of the "Holodomor"--the starvation of 7-10 million Ukrainians (1932-1933) at the order of the communist Soviet Union's Jozef Stalin. Does it succeed as a film? Not exactly, but it should still be viewed in order to raise awareness and get a quick history lesson (so many films today neatly serve this vital purpose). Why did Stalin do this? Ukrainian opposition to Soviet confiscation of their lands, and other harsh, imposed policies. And even more astonishingly: HOW did Stalin do this? He closed the borders (so there was no escape nor news of the horror abroad) and sent henchmen to wrest every last grain of wheat, every last bit of food from the populace.

HOLODOMOR

Before the Nazi Holocaust, there was the Holodomor. Mass-scale slaughter is the fruit of atheistic, anti-human ideologies that see persons as disposable "problems"--standing in the way of "progress."

The film begins by showing us the pre-Soviet Ukraine ("breadbasket of Russia") dreaming of freedom from the long reach of the Russian czar, but living the peasant life of hard work and simple pleasures. Family life is strong, farm workers pause to pray in the fields. There is quick exposition and the story really moves along (it could actually have taken more time here to invest us in the characters). Actually, some of the action is happening so fast (with all the "beats" of the film of equal length) that "Bitter Harvest" could be called the pejorative "episodic." Yuri (Max Irons)--the grandson of a famous Ukrainian warrior--falls in love with a girl of his age when he's still a young boy, and we follow him and his lady love, Natalka (Samantha Barks, who was Eponine in "Les Miserables"), for the rest of the film. Happy times are not to last in the Ukrainian countryside. The Bolshevik Revolution is headed straight for them.

HIDDEN HORROR

Yuri was raised to be fiercely patriotic and is told: "No one can ever break your spirit or take away your freedom."  Yuri develops into an artist, marries Natalka and goes to Kiev, even as the Russian noose is tightening around his peoples' neck, including his own family's. Natalka does not go to Kiev, but stays behind to care for their parents and help on the farm. (Stalin's predecessor, Lenin, dies, and Stalin calls him "soft." Stalin will now show no mercy, and he will use the Communist propaganda machine to cover up his hideous plans. Deportations to Siberia begin. "Push them, crush them.")
There are a few scenes that give us an idea of the heroism and suffering endured. The Soviets begin collecting valuables (and eradicating religion). A Ukrainian priest hides gold icons. The Soviet operative demands he hand them over: "There is not God, evil, sin or hell." The priest answers: "Hell is the inability to love," for which he is slain.

THE LONG ESCAPE

Yuri's young artist friend, who also went to Kiev, believes in Communist ideals and believes they will be good for the Ukraine and make it a great nation--until he realizes that controlling, enslaving, murderous ways are part and parcel of the system. Suddenly, artists may no longer express themselves freely. They must create highly-stylized, conformist, promotional, Soviet-art posters. Yuri's friend kills himself and Yuri winds up in prison where firing squads are a daily event. Our film finally slows down a bit as Yuri manages to escape and head back to his wife and family in the country. The rest of the film is a long trek to this effect, wherein Yuri encounters homeless and starving people (who don't really look in too bad a shape), and there are minor uprisings. The rest of the film really drags as Yuri reunites with Natalka and they try to escape the Ukraine.

TOO MILD

The cataclysmic, intentional, sinister, raw, mind-boggling evil and the staggering proportions of the Holodomor are not captured in "Bitter Harvest." I kept waiting for it, but that movie is still to be made. The filmmakers had to make the story personal (the story of Yuri and Natalka), but what transpires is highly improbable--or, perhaps, portrayed improbably. Perhaps an engaging "based on a true story" will emerge from this piece of history, and that will become a great film. Toward the end of this film (the entire drawn out escape sequence) the soundtrack becomes an awful, generically heroic, churning, grinding loop that really grates on the nerves.

UKRAINE TODAY

The Ukraine's struggle never really ended, even after the dissolution of the former U.S.S.R. Through the years, my Ukrainian friends told me that KGB-types continued to hunt down and assassinate those who were Soviet-resisters. Some of my friends won't even use their actual surnames.
Mandatory follow-up viewing: "Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom" (2015) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4908644/videoplayer/vi3224023833?ref_=tt_ov_vi , Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary. 6,000 Ukrainians have already died in the Euromaidan-protests-that-became-a-battle-that-has-now-expanded-to-include-the-conflict-over-the-annexation-of-Crimea-by-Russia/pro-Russian separatists.
This lovely and winning sentiment bookends the movie:

"Before I grew up
and realized that dragons were real
and evil roamed the world,
I fell in love."


OTHER STUFF:    
             
--Another good follow-up film, "The Desert of Forbidden Art" http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1536458/videoplayer/vi2827590681?ref_=tt_ov_vi

--Read history correctly: STALIN WAS AN EVIL BEAST.

--Thankfully, word did eventually get out about the false, manufactured "famine," as well as photographs.

--"Holodomor" literally means: death by starvation. The full horror of what transpired was only revealed after the Soviet Union fell, circa 1991.

--In 2003, Russia signed a U.N. Declaration admitting to the Holodomor.

--I'm wondering if--even when the word got out (see news item below)--the rest of the world at the time just didn't believe such a feat/catastrophe was possible. Compounded by denial on the part of the U.S.S.R., perhaps the Holodomor was just dismissed from our collective consciousness?




--Wassyl Slipak, a Ukrainian opera singer, a singer with the opera in Paris, died in 2016 fighting for Ukraine.