Wednesday, 22 March 2017

FILM REVIEW: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST



Walt Disney Studios Films

Putting aside the question as to why Disney would choose to remake one of its most acclaimed films -- 1991's Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar -- there is the question of relevancy: how can the story of a young woman, held captive by and eventually falling in love with a 'beast', be okay in a post-feminist world?

Perhaps that's why Disney, and director Bill Condon, chose Emma Watson to play Belle? The former star of the Harry Potter series is better known these days as an advocate for feminism, women's education and all-round equality. Her Belle doesn't have time for the trivial attentions of men, and certainly not local hero, Gaston (a vainglorious Luke Evans); she'd rather read books and study mechanics, like her clock-maker father, Maurice (Kevin Kline).

That's why Belle thinks nothing of trading her freedom for his when, after taking refuge in a secluded castle, Maurice is imprisoned by the Beast (Dan Stevens); a Prince who, along with his house staff, was punished for his vanity and cruelty with eternal "ugliness". The only way to break the spell: true love.

Of course, the issue of Stockholm Syndrome has always been present in the tale of Beauty and the Beast, even if the term was coined long after the story, by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, was first published almost 300-years ago. And Disney is certainly hoping the young ones, who've no doubt already watched and loved their animated version and know the lyrics to every song, won't have time for questions about women in captivity when they have a dancing candelabra and a singing teapot.

Perhaps that is why this version of Beauty and the Beast (and all the recent Disney animated-to-live action films) exists: because today's movie-making technology allows it to; CGI bringing to life all of the staff-turned-household objects that was once only possible in animation.

Not that Condon's Beauty and the Beast is terrible, far from it, it simply adds nothing to the 1991 classic other than real people. Watson, a limited actress though with a surprisingly good singing voice, makes for a headstrong Belle, while the make-up and CGI does most of the heavy lifting for Stevens' Beast (and yes, the Beast is far more attractive than the Prince in human form).

Evans' Gaston is a particularly despicable form of male entitlement, and Josh Gad as LeFou, Gaston's aide-de-camp, adds some comic touches (though the less said about the 'exclusively gay moment' the better). The voice cast, however, despite its star wattage (Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth)), doesn't add all that much to proceedings. (Also, why do some characters speak with French accents and others English? Not even Belle and the Prince are French.)

The magic in this Beauty and the Beast exists solely within the world of the story and doesn't emanate from the screen. For true romance and movie magic, you'll have to revisit the 1991 animated film.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

FILM REVIEW: LOVING



eOne Films

Love is love. It's a simple sentiment, really, yet one that in practice continues to confound and confront the powers-that-be of Church and State. As Australia embarrassingly continues to stumble behind the rest of the Western world in recognising marriage equality, Jeff Nichols' Loving arrives not a moment too soon; reminding us of time when similar battles were being fought and, sadly, that the more things change . . .

Beginning in late 1950s Virginia, Loving tells the story of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga), childhood sweethearts who, with the impending birth of their first child, drive to Washington from the still segregated Virginia to marry.

The Lovings are preparing to build a life together, however, the law in Virginia is not prepared to accept a white man and a black woman - or vice versa - living in holy matrimony. After several arrests, which include police raids in the middle of the night, the Lovings agree to a commuted sentence in return for leaving the state and the promise never to return. But in the city, away from her family and the country where she ran and played as a child, and envisioned her children doing the same, Mildred wilts.

A letter to the Civil Liberties Union catches the attention of Robert Kennedy, and before long the Loving's case for inter-racial marriage is being heard before the United States Supreme Court (comedian Nick Kroll plays one of the Lovings' lawyers to slightly distracting effect).

Nichols' film, just his fifth and his second in the past year after Midnight Special, is an understated and restrained piece of filmmaking that allows the emotions of the Lovings -- similarly restrained but no less palpable -- tell the story. Ruth Negga, who received a Best Actress Oscar nomination, and Joel Edgerton, who gives a career-best performance, convey the deep-rooted love of Mildred and Richard through looks, gestures and body language. There is no emoting or grand gestures by either actor.

The same goes for the drama. A typical Hollywood film would have us in that courtroom hearing the arguments and the history-making verdict handed down. Here, it's treated almost as second-hand news by way of a phone call. Nichols' approach is the opposite of Amma Asante's in last year's A United Kingdom; a similar story of inter-racial love overcoming prejudice which was old fashioned and far from subtle in its telling.

Richard and Mildred Loving had to wait almost a decade for that Supreme Court decision and legal confirmation of what they, their friends and family already knew: that love is love. Here's hoping Australia doesn't waste that much time in reaching the same conclusion.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

FILM REVIEW: THE EAGLE HUNTRESS



Sony Pictures

It is not intended as a backhanded compliment or even a dismissal of Otto Bell's fine documentary, The Eagle Huntress, when I confess that for a lot of its brief 87-minute running time I found myself thinking, “This would be a great animated film”.

The story of Aisholpan Nurgaiv, a 13-year-old Mongolian girl to become not just the first eagle hunter in her family but in the country – defying tradition and patriarchy, as well as Mother Nature – is the kind of story Disney and Pixar often excel at. Even Laika, given their recent success with Kubo and the Two Strings, could work wonders with both the story and scenery.

Beautifully shot by Simon Niblett (and by drones, I would hazard to guess given some of the amazing aerial shots), The Eagle Huntress even looks like a fairy tale: the landscape of the Mongolian steppe, with its green expanses and snowy mountains, lending itself to the big screen.

For centuries, eagle hunting has been an integral part of Mongolian culture, both as sport and as a means of providing for one's family. As such, eagle hunting has always been a man's pursuit. Aisholpan, the eldest of three children, has grown up watching her father hunt and train with eagles and knows that she, too, will be an eagle hunter. Her father, Rys, has no issue with his daughter's dream, encouraging her every step of the way; whether stealing an eaglet from a rocky mountain ledge or training the bird to fly to her arm at her command, or teaching both she and her eagle to hunt for foxes in the winter snow.

Whether the male elders of Mongolia, who gather for regular eagle hunting contests, will be as accepting of Aisholpan's dream is another thing entirely, and is the thrust of Bell's film. Will she prove herself among her older, more practiced eagle hunters? Will her optimistic school girl spirit withstand the scrutiny and disapproval of the male elders?

Narrated by Daisy Ridley (who is also one of the executive producers, along with Morgan Spurlock), Aisholpan's fate is never really in doubt. But as the story of girl with a big dream and a big smile, Aisholpan's fairy tale come reality is an inspiring one - no matter what format it is told in.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

FILM REVIEW: JASPER JONES



Madman Films

Australian cinema doesn't have a great tradition of adapting local literature for the big screen which seems odd given the number of yearly bestsellers by homegrown authors, as well as a back catalogue of classic novels and world renowned writers to plunder. Look at the recent success of The Dressmaker for one.

Jasper Jones, Craig Silvey's 2009 novel, was a bestseller as well as critically-acclaimed, so its adaptation for the big screen (by Silvey and Shaun Grant, and directed by Rachel Perkins) seems like a no-brainer. It also targets a Young Adult audience, a demographic and a genre often under-served by Australian film.

It's the summer of '69 in the small West Australian town of Corrigan, and a murderer walks among the town's folk. Not that the locals will ever be aware. As far as they, and the local police are concerned, the eldest daughter of the mayor has disappeared: at worst kidnapped, but most likely to have run-off to the 'big lights' of Perth. But 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) knows better.

On a sweltering night, and days before the alarm is raised, there's a knock on Charlie's bedroom window. It's Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath), Corrigan's half-caste outcast, and he's come seeking Charlie's help. Why exactly isn't made clear (though it is better explained in the book), but the bookish Charlie agrees to go with the older, bolder boy to see what he wants -- and he soon regrets it. For down by the river, in a secluded spot, a girl (the mayor's daughter) hangs lifeless from a tree.

The secluded spot is Jasper's hideaway and the girl, Laura Wishart, was his friend. But the good people of Corrigan aren't about to see it that way: a dead white girl, a guilty black boy. Case closed. Jasper wants Charlie's help in solving the murder, and Charlie -- having helped dispose of the only evidence that a murder has occurred -- reluctantly agrees.

Jasper Jones is a study of the insidious nature of small town Australia, of injustice and of barely concealed prejudice -- it may be Australia 1969 but it could just as easily be 2017, and not just in the rural towns -- with Silvey's nods to, and inspiration drawn from Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird (those parallels made apparent in the book, but, wisely, less so in the adaptation; and any comparison between those films would be detrimental to what Perkins has produced).

Jasper Jones is also a coming of age story, where Charlie has his eyes opened to the harsh realities of the world and the fallibility of his parents (Toni Collette and Dan Wyllie). But its not all heavy going. There's Charlie's blush of first love with Eliza Wishart (Angourie Rice), although tainted somewhat given she is the younger sister of the dead girl. And then there's Charlie's friendship with the indomitable Jeffrey Lu (Kevin Long), a Vietnamese migrant and cricket tragic who refuses to let the bigoted, small minds of the small town bring him down.

Sadly, just as in the book, McGrath's Jasper is a supporting player. But all of the young actors acquit themselves well, while Collette, Wyllie, Matt Nable (Corrigan's police sergeant) and Hugo Weaving (the resident crazy man, Mad Jack Lionel) provide solid support even if plot-wise, Jasper Jones is a little wobbly at times. It's a faithful if not entirely successful adaptation.

On a positive note, high school English classes will no doubt be taken along to see Jasper Jones, not only boosting the box office but hopefully fostering an ongoing interest in Australian film and literature. And that can only be a good thing: perhaps inspiring a new wave of local filmmakers, one's keen to take Australian stories from the page to the screen.