Friday, 26 May 2017

A Musician’s Look at Beauty and the Beast

[A special review from Becka deHaan, Walter's daughter]

Like Vic, my favourite Disney animated film is the original 1991 animated version of Beauty and the Beast, so a comparison of the new remake to the original is unavoidable.

Belle looks up at the Beast

My first response to the remake is that I absolutely detest all that autotune usage, particularly on Emma Watson's voice. There are other voices on which I suspect it as well, but, unlike with Belle, those cases are not distracting (there are varying degrees to which auto-tuning can be applied). I couldn't really even detect Watson’s raw talent at all, except where vibrato was employed, and such was sparse indeed. My advice to filmmakers: Either dub a singer in there (as with Anastasia, Princess Jasmine, etc.) or cast someone who can both act and sing up to par. Or, as Vic says in his review, live with the substandard vocals (I hadn't been impressed with Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables, but now I am, because at least they didn't auto-tune her voice). Anyway, as a result of the auto-tuning, Belle's singing in the remake was a sadly-far cry from Paige O'Hara's warmth in the 1991 animated version. I found myself singing it like Paige, right out loud, on my way home from the theatre, to put the proper version back into my head.

As for the Beast, I found Dan Stevens' slight lack in sung vocal power surprising, given how well he pulled off the role in general.

Some songs in the remake were actually transposed altogether to different keys from the original and some were not, and that is fine. However, there was a distinct and notable increase in modulations and key-changes within songs, such that it almost made me dizzy. Whether these modulations and key-changes were added as a form of what I'll call audio-cinematography, or whether they were trying to work with the talent they had (It's hard for me to imagine Watson nailing her line as she walks into the book shop, originally peeking on high E-flats here emphasized: "There must be more than this provincial life,” so in the remake the piece modulated so that those high notes were a full perfect fifth lower for Watson.), or both, I found it over the top, and I wished they could have stayed or come back "home," if you will (finishing in the same key as starting), more often. Also not sure what they were trying to accomplish with the timing of the dinner version of the title song, the accompaniment sometimes in 3/4 time as if to construct a more-romantic waltz, with the melody remaining either in 4/4 or just plain being sung freestyle (only a single hearing has not enlightened me as to which one). Whichever it is, it didn't do it for me.

Finally, I'm really not a fan of the remake's twist on the ending, namely having the last petal fall, everyone turn into non-living castle-items, Agathe coming onto the scene to hear Belle saying right out loud, "I love you!" and having the rose re-grow and the spell broken. How could that happen? It was too late. Theologically, grace exists, yes, but not to the violation of justice. It seems like a cop-out, nothing short of a violation of the terms of the spell itself. I don't see anything wrong, or too-predictable, with "I love you," being sobbed (in my opinion, O'Hara providing much-more-convincing sobs than Watson) as a whisper mere split-seconds before the last petal falls. Not to mention that the remake doesn't time that with the score for that part. They have that score--easily my favourite portion of the incidental score--left without cry or dialogue at all. To me, that section of the original score, with its long, drawn-out, warm, suspended string chords modulating downward as the sadness increases, synchronized with O'Hara's sobs containing the words, "No! Please. PLEASE... Please don't leave me..." and the still-sobbed, weary whisper, "I love you,," is all too precious to be tampered with. They did somewhat redeem themselves in the remake by having Belle's crying meet the sudden swift thirds in the strings' mid-range that signify the beginning of the transformation. But then they have the pre-kiss meeting silent! A little hard for the blind viewer, who adores the original, to swallow. What happened to: "Belle! it's me!” "It is you!" THEN they kiss.

Overall, the remake gets my thumbs--or mug--up too, but it certainly won't replace the original; I'm glad I have the dvd - we literally wore out the vhs tape!


Monday, 22 May 2017

78/52



One of the most famous scenes in film history lasted 52 seconds and had 78 cuts; thus the title of this very enjoyable documentary from Alexander Philippe. The scene in question is the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. 78/52 focuses on that scene and its influence on the future of film while also looking more broadly at Psycho as a whole (as well as at some of Hitchcock’s other films).

Coincidentally, just a week before watching 78/52, I had read (in one sitting) David Thomson’s magnificent book, The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, which focuses on precisely the same themes. Thomson is one of the many interviewees in 78/52, but he gets only two short quotes, which is one of the film’s many flaws. 

The 78/52 interviewees include film directors, Hitchcock family members and people involved in the making of Psycho. These are all logical choices. However, the interviewees also include young actors, like Elijah Wood, who comment on the shower scene as they sit on a couch and watch it. While some of the comments are entertaining, many are less than insightful and the interviews allow for too much repetition, making the film about twenty minutes longer than its content justifies.

Another problem with the interviewees is that they are almost all men. Given the subject matter, which focuses in part on how the role of women in film (especially violent films) was impacted by the shower scene, this is a glaring error in judgment (IMHO). For example, if Philippe is going to show a group of young male actors commenting on the shower scene, he should at least have had another group of young female actors doing the same.

Related to this is my biggest complaint: the lack of follow-up to the film’s observations regarding the way Psycho influenced the countless slasher films of the 70’s and 80’s, films that objectified women and linked voyeurism and female nudity with gruesome violence. Thomson’s book analyses this brilliantly, while 78/52 simply observes the phenomenon (maybe because a number of the directors being interviewed had made these slasher films). If the film is suggesting in any way (and I believe it is) that these slasher films were a positive addition to film history, that alone would prevent me from giving the film the four stars much of it deserves.

Nevertheless, remember that 78/52’s flaws did not stop me from thoroughly enjoying this documentary. Among its many highlights were the careful examination of the painting that Hitchcock used to cover Norman’s spy hole and the brief comments by director Peter Bogdanovich, who said that when he left the theatre after watching Psycho on opening day, he felt as if he had just been raped. This is an incredibly profound comment that needs some serious attention and/or elaboration, but again the film just leaves it hanging there. 

Ah well, 78/52 was so beautifully-filmed and so much fun for me (as a film buff) to watch that I must give it a solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Thursday, 18 May 2017

A Quiet Passion



Terence Davies (like a certain other Terrence), has a unique style of filmmaking that usually impresses critics but isn’t always popular with the average viewers. A Quiet Passion is no exception to this. I am one of Davies’ fans, while acknowledging that while I think his films are brilliant, they are not always entirely enjoyable. A Quiet Passion is also no exception to this.

A Quiet Passion tells the story of 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson through a series of carefully constructed scenes that take place at various times in her life. The reclusive Dickinson didn’t move around much, so almost all of the scenes take place in and around the large family estate in Amherst, Massachusetts (the film was, however, largely filmed in Belgium). This lends itself to Davies’ style, which focuses on carefully-set family scenes and precise dialogue. While the dialogue in this case is brilliantly-written, and may be true to its 19th-century setting, it doesn’t always feel natural. The progression of scenes also makes the story feel less natural. But in spite of this (or because of it), the film feels poetic in a way that perfectly matches its subject. 

Indeed, the intelligent thought-provoking dialogue and the extraordinary performances of the two women who deliver most of the lines are what make A Quiet Passion an almost-masterpiece. Dickinson is played by Cynthia Nixon, while Jennifer Ehle plays Emily’s sister, Lavinia. Nixon, in particular, has to be perfect to make the film work at all, because the film is so focused on her words, her moods, her poems and her inner life, all of which are conveyed wonderfully by Nixon. While Dickinson was often far from happy (and sometimes quite bitter), there is a lot of humour in her words and in the film as a whole, though it is far from a comedy.

The cinematography and score are strong, adding to a very solid period-feel. 

I found A Quiet Passion utterly fascinating from beginning to end (especially the conversations about religion), but didn't feel engaged enough in Dickinson's life to fully enjoy the film (hampered somewhat by Davies’ style). So while I think the film deserves four stars, I will need to give it somewhere between ***+ and ****. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

TV60: The Returned, Season Two



I promised to revisit this show after I’d watched the second season, which I have now done. See my review of the first season (February 7, 2016) for information about the story.

The second season of The Returned (French version) is as haunting and mysterious as the first season. This seems to be the end of the series and I still have no good idea of what happened (though some answers can be found). I can, however, say that the zombie theme (it can be described as a zombie show, though with no resemblance to The Walking Dead) was not advanced in any negative way, so the disquieting uncertainty I referred to in my previous review has been dispelled. 

Meanwhile, the quality of this gorgeous, quiet, slow-moving and thought-provoking TV serial remains at the highest level any TV show can hope for, with outstanding acting and character development throughout. The very occasional graphic violence remains a concern, but given that my previous uncertainty has been dispelled, I am now ready to give The Returned the **** it deserves, and call it superb television.

As for the American version, I do not plan to watch it and would suggest you start with the French version. 

Thursday, 4 May 2017

TV59: Black Mirror



Speaking of discussable shows, it’s long past time that I reviewed one of the the best Netflix TV shows out there: Black Mirror. Created by Charles Booker, this British series is a collection of completely self-contained episodes; there is almost no continuity whatsoever (i.e. all different actors, writers, directors, etc.). In this, and in its subject matter, it resembles most closely The Twilight Zone, of which I was a big fan back in the day. 

What sets Black Mirror apart, however, is the way its individual episodes (there are 13 available at the moment) focus on are out-of-control technological advances, usually taking place in the very near future and often providing spot-on prophetic warnings of where we are headed (if we’re not there already). Each episode tackles a different subject and often in very different ways, so that some episodes feel like pure horror while others can be quite funny satires and others beautiful dramas. Most of the time, Black Mirror episodes are downright terrifying to watch and think about; personally, I loved that. 

As can only be the case in an anthology like this, some episodes are brilliant four-star classics, while others can be disappointing. However, the overall quality of writing and acting is way above the norm for TV (there are often film stars in the lead roles) and brilliance predominates. And if you don’t like where an episode is heading, you can always skip it without any worries. To review the series properly, one would have to review each individual episode, which I don’t have time to do. All I can do is briefly highlight my favourite seven episodes:

Fifteen Million Merits (photo above) superbly satirizes our celebrity cult and reality-TV world, with great acting from Daniel Kaluuya and Jessica Brown Findley.


Be Right Back stars Hayley Attwell and Domhnall Gleeson at their best in this romantic exploration of the future of AI and social media. 


White Bear is a terrifying exposé of the media’s role in criminal justice cases, the prominence of violence as entertainment, and much more. 


White Christmas is another terrifying (though often satiric) episode with a criminal justice/out-of-control technology theme. It stars Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall as two men in a remote cabin who share stories of what brought them there. 


Nosedive explores similar ground to The Circle, with Bryce Dallas Howard playing a woman desperately trying to hold on to her social media popularity ratings. 


San Junipero is a beautiful romance with a twist, starring Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as two women who fall in love in the seaside resort of San Junipero.


Hated in the Nation stars the marvellous Kelly Macdonald as a detective trying to solve a number of deaths related to social media. 

All of the above episodes get an easy ****. Most of the others get ***+ (there are only one or two true disappointments), so I am giving Black Mirror as a whole **** as well. This may be the finest episodic TV show ever made. Not to be missed (if you can handle the dark intensity of most of the episodes). 

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The Circle



Panned by critics and viewers alike, The Circle would appear to be a complete waste of time. We went to see it anyway, partly because we enjoyed the last Tom Hanks/Dave Eggers collaboration (A Hologram for the King) much more than the critics and viewers did, and I’ve very much enjoyed James Ponsoldt’s last two films (The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour). And while The Circle is a disappointment at many levels, the fact remains that it has something very important to say and provides material for hours of fruitful discussion. That alone make The Circle worth watching. 

I knew nothing about the plot of The Circle (which is based on a novel by Eggers) before we arrived at the almost-empty theatre. But now that I know it is partly a dystopian thriller and that it stars the popular Emma Watson (not to mention Hanks), it seems strange to me that there is so little interest in the film. I can only assume that negative word-of-mouth spread at a record pace through various kinds of social media, which is, of course, ironic, given the subject of the film.

But knowing its subject is guaranteed to lessen your enjoyment of The Circle, so if I have sparked your interest at all, you should watch the film before reading on (noting that low expectations are in order - this is a seriously flawed film). 

Watson play Mae Holland, who lucks out, thanks to Annie (Karen Gillan), her best friend, and gets a job in the world’s most exciting company: The Circle. Led by Eamon Bailey (Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), The Circle is breaking new ground in global transparency (keeping governments honest) through the deployment of its mini-cameras and its promotion of full (and I do mean full) transparency among members of congress. Mae is at first disturbed by this, but when she experiences the benefits of such surveillance herself, she becomes its number one promoter and moves up in the company, becoming a favourite of Bailey. Mae is even willing to become the first person at The Circle to become completely transparent, wearing a camera all day long. Needless to say, major problems await.

As already mentioned, The Circle has way too many flaws, but some of the apparent flaws disappear if the film is watched purely as satire (i.e. not as a dystopian thriller warning us of some dark future but as a satire of what is already happening in our dystopian present). So yes, The Circle is didactic, hyperbolic and full of characters (especially Mae) whose actions are unconvincing, but these are forgivable problems in a fascinating (in a ‘where is this headed?’ sense) satire of our current obsession with cameras, drones, security and transparency. If only The Circle had focused more on being a satire. 

Because it doesn’t work as a thriller and what I said above does not excuse some extremely awkward scenes (one with Watson and Eller Coltrane, who plays Mercer, an old friend from home who has no use for this technology, stands out as particularly bad) or the fact that the plot lacks cohesion. The character of Tyler Lafitte (John Boyega) is the prime example of a character whose presence in the film won’t work without far more character development and far more consistency in his role in Mae’s life (a role which is entirely wasted here). Other characters suffer similar fates. 

This is not one Watson’s best performances, though her acting is hampered by the screenplay and she does fairly well with what she’s given. Hanks, as always, is a delight to watch and does an excellent job as the lovable villain. The other actors have their moments, but occasionally struggle, while Bill Paxton, in his last performance ,is effective as Mae’s father. The cinematography and score are solid. 

The Circle is not a classic, but it’s not as bad as some people seem to think it is and it has more discussable ideas (simplistic as they may be) than most of the other films currently playing - combined!. And those ideas desperately need to be discussed in our Facebook/smartphone society. I’m glad I watched it and I would watch it again (for more discussion), so I’m giving The Circle a solid ***. My mug is up.