“People mocked her. Until the day they all started imitating her.” Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There’s “Something There,” all right. Disney’s 2017 live action Beauty and the Beast is an absolute delight. Maybe I just needed a movie like this right here, right now, but this update spoke to my heart and soul and had me staying through every last bit of the credits, with tears streaming down my cheeks and a big smile on my face.

I’ve been agnostic about the artistic need (not the commercial one) for the unyielding march of Disney’s flesh-and-blood remakes/reinventions, since the runaway success of the garishly underwhelming Alice in Wonderland. True, each subsequent entry has improved upon the last, from the DOA Oz the Great and Powerful to the well-cast if underwritten feminism of Maleficent, from the poignant but ultimately forgettable Cinderella to the sparkling eco-parable The Jungle Book, culminating in last summer’s exemplary if underappreciated Pete’s Dragon.

Beauty and the Beast (not unlike its animated forebear) takes the lessons from all that came before and synthesizes them into a crackerjack entertainment. Yes, there is the requisite if servile devotion to iconic imagery and character beats (the blue dress, the yellow dress, an elegant waltz in a cerulean-hued ball room, Gaston’s Freudianly overcompensating pompadour). Yes, the film suffers from a borderline overuse of CGI. For a “live action” remake, there is likely as much if not more animation in this version than the last, and poor Emma Watson (“Belle”) does her level best to act in awe of the green-screen universe surrounding her. I can imagine the direction: “Emma, a plate is flying at your head now. The forks are doing a can-can. A feather duster just sailed past your ears!” And, of course, there is a Disney Store stockroom’s worth of infinitely merchandisable new characters – dolls, Tsum Tsums, magnets, action figures, porcelain statues, and home goods … oh, the home goods.

Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) has embraced it all but never to the detriment of story or character, fleshing out the more problematic elements of the source material and casting some of Hollywood’s best and brightest (and most empathetic) to deliver the goods. Do we really want kids fantasizing about Stockholm Syndrome as a path to true love? Thankfully, Emma Watson (Harry Potter) brings a feminist agency to Belle that is refreshing and necessary. The character will never be Gloria Steinem, but even Steinem mined captivity in the Playboy Mansion as a launchpad to address the objectification and mistreatment of women. (Too pedantic or too glib of me? Probably both.)

Kevin Kline plays Belle’s father Maurice, bringing some of the strongest character development to the piece, haunted by a desire to protect his only daughter from a world that claimed his beloved wife too soon. It seems to be a requirement that every Disney protagonist loses a parent (or two) as a spark for their hero’s quest, but Condon, alongside screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, gives us a haunting and loving portrayal of a father-daughter united by tragedy but undeterred in intellectual curiosity.

As before, Belle is an oddity in her “poor, provincial town” because, well, she likes to read … and to challenge the status quo and to question why anyone should simply accept with gratitude the lot in life they are handed. What once seemed like a quaint notion in a nearly 30-year-old cartoon, now seems frighteningly au courant in 2017 America. Early in the film, Maurice describes Belle’s mother to his child as a way of helping Belle cope with the small-minded community in which they are trapped, “People mocked her. Until the day they all started imitating her.” Preach.

Through a series of minor calamities and overt misdirection, Belle finds herself at the castle of the Beast (Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens), a foppish prince who was transformed into a monster because of his unrepentant vanity and cruelty. The Beast holds Belle hostage in exchange for her father’s life, after Maurice tries to steal a rose from his garden. Nice guy, eh?

Bletchley Circle‘s Hattie Morahan does a fine job with her limited screen-time as the sorceress who curses the prince. In fact, the entire opening sequence, narrated by Morahan, is a surreal homage to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 take on the material; it is a rather un-Disney-like preamble, with l’enfant terrible (Stevens, again), prior to his transformation, contemptuously awash in a baroque swirl of powdered wigs, fright makeup, and gilded … everything. (In other words, a typical Saturday afternoon at Mar A Lago.) It’s so repulsively camp that we as an audience have zero sympathy for what befalls the prince and his wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time waitstaff. You do the crime, you do the time.

As for Stevens’ work as the Beast, I don’t envy any actor whose performance is buried under a mountain of computer-generated pixels, but, like Robbie Benson before him, the trick to this character is in the voice work, and Stevens’ evolution from feral to forlorn to fetching is spot on.

Regarding the enchanted crockery, cutlery, and assorted housewares who populate the Beast’s castle, Condon offers us an embarrassment of riches. Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson all have a ball with their respective roles, with McKellen, Thomspon, and McGregor as standouts. The original film was no slouch in that department either (Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers), and this next generation similarly provides comic relief and even greater melancholy as the Beast’s “family,” loyal to a fault and ever-hopeful that he will find himself and, in the process, discover true love and break the curse. Condon’s casting is flawless here.

Rounding out the ensemble, Luke Evans (The Hobbit series) portrays a Gaston that is not “roughly the size of a barge” but whose smarmy ego, rampant insecurity, and loathing of women and animals are ginormous. Gaston has always been the true “beast” of the story, and this production doesn’t shy away from depicting him as the worst of all male impulses and an unfortunate corollary to the darker elements in present day society. A little bit Robert Goulet and a little bit Errol Flynn and a whole lot of unbridled id, Evans is on fire throughout. Josh Gad (The Book of Mormon) as sidekick LeFou is more understated than the trailers (or the silly trumped-up controversy surrounding the flick) would have you believe. Gad’s sweaty, subservient fawning over Gaston is balanced with some lovely notes of self-doubt that provide a more thoughtful characterization than I was expecting.

And, yes, the songs. All of the ones you know and love – and that will be keeping you awake in a continuous loop in your noggin at two in the morning – are all there. The song stylings of this cast won’t put any Broadway babies out of a job, but they all acquit themselves nicely, using the relative intimacy of film over stage to inject these anthemic numbers with a healthy dose of nuance. There are four new songs contributed by original composer Alan Menken with lyrics by Tim Rice (Howard Ashman wrote the lyrics for the original score). I, for one, thought the additional numbers blended seamlessly, with particular standouts being “Days in the Sun” (beautifully expressing the longing of the house staff to return to their human forms) and “Evermore” (the Beast’s big number wherein he finally knows what true love is only to see it walk out his castle door). These numbers sound like Sondheim cast-offs that just didn’t quite make the cut for Sweeney Todd. And that’s a compliment.

This new model Beauty and the Beast may disappoint some for not reinventing enough, and it may trouble others for contemporizing too much. I, for one, thought it was just right. The 2017 version remains a tale as old as time, true as it can be, and speaks to the underdogs, the marginalized people, those who are bullied by the cool kids or punished for being too indulgent. Indeed, it is bittersweet and strange, finding you can change, learning you were wrong. Beauty and the Beast reminds us that life does get better.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Countdown: The Twilight Saga – Breaking Dawn – Part 2

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 20 days until the release date of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Here’s a snippet from Roy’s review of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2: “At this point, my dislike for the Twilight film series is legendary—at least among my friends. I have found this cinematic saga plagued with countless cringe-worthy moments, soap opera silliness, zero sense of irony, and a whole lot of bad wigs. Seriously, how has the makeup crew kept their jobs for all five films? Really godawful.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html

Haunting truths – Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, The Counselor, and The Fifth Estate

Me with my mom Susie Duncan Sexton at Grand Wayne Center prior to performance [Image by author]

When you visit your childhood home, you can’t help but feel like a kid again. You may be careening past 40 years of age, but one look at a stuffed animal you used to cuddle or a board game you used to play and you’re 12 again. I cherish my visits with my parents in Indiana as we always have laughter and thoughtful conversations and adventures and movies. And I always feel blissfully childlike.

Cover of Duncan Sexton’s second book, now available
[Image Source: Open Books]

It is with this deep-feeling and introspective state-of-mind – impacted also by the impending, always ethereal Halloween holiday and by a couple of manic weeks helping my mom shepherd her second book Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels to print (order it here – sorry, can’t help myself … but seriously, it is amazing!) – that I approached one of our family’s signature movie (and in this instance also theatre) marathon weekends.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What did we see? What didn’t we see! Thursday night, we found ourselves at Fort Wayne, Indiana’s gloriously preserved Embassy Theatre with the John Mellencamp/ Stephen King/T-Bone Burnett horror musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County making a stop on its trial tour of the Midwest. The show is told in old-fashioned radio drama style with actors and musicians on stage the entire performance and with minimal props and a vintage microphone in the middle of the stage (though that last bit is mostly for show as all the players also wear those Britney Spears/McDonald’s drive-thru/Time-Life operator headset things).

The spartan approach works generally well, at least during the first act, as the spooky tale unfurls of two feuding brothers, their bloody end, and the generational impact their war eventually would have on the nephews they would never have a chance to meet. The show stars Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek, Thirteen Days) and Emily Skinner (Tony-nominee for Side Show) as the family’s world-weary patriarch and matriarch (respectively) who want desperately for the current generation to just get the heck along.

Ghost Brothers cast at curtain call [Image by author]

Greenwood and Skinner and Mellencamp’s rockabilly/ bluegrass score are the assets of an otherwise uneven show. With a more-than-adequate supporting cast, the show rumbles through a strong first act exploring the corrosive effects that lies and jealousy and stubborn misunderstanding can have on every branch of a family tree.

The second act, however, doesn’t fare nearly as well. Logic, sensible chronology, and audience sympathies are all tossed out the window for a muddled, hasty denouement riddled with carnage and too many smart aleck remarks. The latter are delivered nonetheless with aplomb by the ever-present “Shape” – played by a firecracker Jake LaBotz – who lurks behind all the players encouraging bad deeds and ill intent. Other standouts are Kylie Brown wringing every last bit of malicious glee from her role as the resident temptress Anna (she’s one to watch!) and Jesse Lenat doing triple duty as narrator, guitarist, and angelic yin to LaBotz’s yang.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Next up on our tour of cynical debauchery was Ridley Scott’s new film The Counselor. Script problems would plague pretty much every selection of the weekend, and this one was no exception. The first 30 minutes of the film are cringe-worthy with Scott’s trademark cinematic fetishization of sleek mid-century furnishings, gleaming sports cars, and objects otherwise found in lost issues of the J. Peterman catalog completely unchecked. Eventually, however, the film clicks into high-gear and these initial missteps are quickly forgotten (and one might argue seem intentional: rampant, glib superficiality in stark contrast to the soul-crushing darkness that follows).

Michael Fassbender stars as the never-named, vacuous, materialistic title character whose love of self and stuff leads him to make some dodgy deals with fabulously attired, endlessly entertaining, totally skeezy drug dealers. The latter are portrayed by the always dependable Javier Bardem as well as Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt, turning in frothy/smarmy/delightful performances. There are a host of fun cameos that I don’t want to spoil, but let’s just say this is a cast to die for. And pretty much every one of them does.

The Counselor is a Trojan Horse of a movie. It seems to be escapist fantasy – a Vanity Fair photo-expose of the rich and powerful, tacky and corrupt, brought to burnished, big screen life. Yet, the real agenda of screenwriter Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) in his first piece written directly for the movies is to taunt us with the trappings of wealth and then peel back every sordid layer of the blood, pain, and (literal) human filth underpinning these lavish, undeserved lifestyles.

Much ink may be spilled about Diaz’s … er.. relations with a yellow Ferrari in the film, but that scene (notably Bardem’s exasperated monologue, Diaz’s keen power-play, and Bardem’s and Fassbender’s wry facial expressions) is dynamite – funny, distressing, horrifying. It is a perfect snapshot of the scuzzy glitz personified by these Machiavelli-meets-Jersey Shore super-thugs.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Finally, we made our way to Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, a film unfairly painted with the broad brush of box office failure. Yes, it has a script that devolves into train wreck – the final act squanders the spidery intrigue of the film’s first two-thirds with some US-government silliness led by the otherwise reliable Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci. However, Benedict Cumberbatch sparkles as Julian Assange, whose controversial website WikiLeaks is the film’s chief subject matter.

Condon takes his time tracing the rise of WikiLeaks, a website that effectively shielded a whole host of geopolitical and corporate whistle-blowers from those powerful enough to otherwise bully them into submission. Condon doesn’t lose his audience in cyberpunkery and technobabble; rather, he delivers strong characters in an easy-to-follow (if at times unconventional) entrepreneurial narrative, highlighted by quick edits, blessedly appreciated subtitles, hyperconscious symbolism and theatricality, and a great Daft Punk-meets-Kraftwerk-meets-Blondie score.

Assange, who in real life famously disparaged Cumberbatch and his performance and the film itself, actually comes off a sympathetic character. Assange’s chronic disappointment with the world and its inhabitants has turned him into the ultimate underdog, railing against a crushingly capitalistic infrastructure that espouses free speech while secretly depriving it at every turn.

Perhaps it is my predilection as fall edges closer to winter to turn inward and seek patterns where they may or may not exist, but, to my mind, all three pieces – Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, The Counselor, and The Fifth Estate – centered on a singular theme: that the choices we make to seek, reveal, or bury the truth – any truth – affect our futures irrevocably.

At some point, in all three pieces, some character ruminates on the pointless energy of grief and regret and that, once the decision is made to lie or to tell the truth, events are set in motion that can never be undone. The heroes and anti-heroes of these works are all haunted by truth – revealing it, hiding it, weaponizing it – and, as a consequence, we audience members depart the darkened theatre wrestling with the specters created by our own life choices, from childhood to the present.

Five films and about ten painful hours of my life: Breaking Dawn, Part 2

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

At this point, my dislike for the Twilight film series is legendary…at least among my friends. I have found this cinematic saga plagued with countless cringe-worthy moments, soap opera silliness, zero sense of irony, and a whole LOT of bad wigs. Seriously, how has the makeup crew kept their jobs for all five films? Really godawful.

So no one is more surprised than yours truly that I actually (kinda) enjoyed the blockbuster finale. I suppose my delight is in part because it is finally over.

This last installment is well-paced, embraces its inherent silliness, provides a crackerjack twist, and finally allows some its better players to cut loose. Thank the gods of angsty adolescent teen vampire/werewolf romance, but talented folks like Michael Sheen, Dakota Fanning, Peter Facinelli, Ashley Greene, Nikki Reed, Billy Burke, and Elizabeth Reaser finally get to have some fun.

I realize now that a big issue I have had with all the other films has been the hermetically sealed self-seriousness with which they approach truly sophomoric, just plain goofy material. Yeah, I know I made a lot of you Twihards really mad with that last statement. Sorry. This film – just like the better Harry Potter adaptations – takes some liberties and offers up some pure popcorn-chomping fireworks. Kudos to director Bill Condon for redeeming himself…’cause Part One was atrocious.

I freely admit that I still just don’t get it. I don’t know why folks are gaga about these characters; I don’t know how author Stephenie Meyer manages to make vampires and werewolves so darn uninteresting; I don’t know how the Cullen clan have the good fortune to own such gorgeous homes (I would kill for those book-lined, postmodern, glass-walled rooms); and I don’t know why in the world anyone in their right mind would name a child Renesmee.

I will give the filmmakers this: they ended their series with a bang, and I for one had a fun time at the movies tonight. It took five films and about ten painful hours of my life (never getting those back) to get there, but bully for them…and their overflowing bank accounts.