Beauty and the Beast

Genre: Musical

Director: Bill Condon

Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopolous

Cast: Emma Watson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Luke Evans, Dan Stevens, Stanley Tucci

Running Length:  130 minutes

Synopsis: Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” is a live-action re-telling of the studio’s animated classic which refashions the classic characters from the tale as old as time for a contemporary audience, staying true to the original music while updating the score with several new songs.

Review: Disney seems to have found a surefire formula in remaking its beloved animations into live-action films, and with Cinderella and The Jungle Book already done and dusted, this year’s release focuses on arguably one of the most enduring Disney cartoons of all time – 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, which holds the honour of being the first animated film ever to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. While 26 years (!) have passed, the magic of the cartoon has not faded with time, and therein lies the first issue with the 2017 Beauty and the Beast: while it is undoubtedly a well-produced, entertaining movie, this new film at many times feels like a poorer cousin of the original animation.

The best parts of the new film are all templated from the animation, and director Bill Condon has remained largely faithful in these recreations, down to the camera movement and choreography. Yet the most classic sequences all come up a little short in their recreation, none more evident than the iconic ballroom scene, which loses much of the multiplane magic that was presented in the then-groundbreaking usage of computer animation.

Fortunately, the cast is largely beyond reproach, with everyone possessing at least adequate vocals (though my personal preference is still Paige O’Hara’s Belle and Angela Lansbury’s Mrs Potts), and Emma Watson being essentially the perfect casting choice for a real-life Belle. While this is billed as a live-action film, many of the actors exist for a great part of the film as voice actors, and only showing up in human form at the very end. In fact, the “Be Our Guest” segment can hardly be called live action apart from Emma Watson being present in the scene, and executed almost entirely via CG.

The added segments – which includes new songs and additional backstory – are unfortunately a mixed bag. The Beast’s new standalone song “Evermore” showcases Dan Stevens’ strong vocals, but much of the other additions feel extraneous. The original film ran an economical 84 minutes, but this over-padded version clocks in at over two hours, resulting in the film’s energy flagging multiple times.

Beauty and the Beast shows how nostalgia can be a double-edged sword – while it’s certainly a lovely walk down memory lane for those who are old enough to have experienced the original animation, the constant referencing also kneecaps this version from attaining true greatness. I believe viewers who have not seen the first film will undoubtedly find this version hugely enjoyable, both young and old(er).

And of course, there’s the elephant in the room that I have not addressed up to this point in the review – the “gay controversy” that erupted right before the film’s release, due to the “revelation” that LeFou is indeed intended to be an openly gay character. It has even resulted in the film being pulled entirely from the Malaysian market, due to Disney’s outright refusal to excise minutes of the film to meet the country’s censorship requests. While I applaud Disney’s stance on this issue, this so called “gay controversy” is nothing more than a storm in a (chipped) teacup, and is such a non-event that it is laughable (and sad) that so much outrage and handwringing have ensued. No need to break out the pitchforks and sing The Mob Song, because there’s virtually nothing there that wasn’t there before.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)


Pitch Perfect 2

Genre: Musical/Comedy

Director: Elizabeth Banks

Screenplay: Kay Cannon

Cast: Anna Kendrick, Skylar Astin, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson, Ester Dean, Alexis Knapp, Hana Mae Lee, Adam DeVine, Kelley Jakle, Chrissie Fit, Hailee Steinfeld, Katey Sagal, Elizabeth Banks

Running Length: 114 minutes

Synopsis: After a disastrous wardrobe malfunction while performing for the President, the Barden Bellas, who are now three-time national champions, have fallen from grace and lost their mojo. Their only hope for redemption is to clinch the top spot at the World A Capella Championships, but they face their toughest battle yet against the formidable German team, Das Sound Machine.

Review: Don’t be fooled by the title – just like the original film, Pitch Perfect is actually a rather pitchy attempt. While Elizabeth Banks’ directorial debut is a perfectly credible one, the seams do show whenever the singing stops. Fortunately, there is a LOT of singing to be found in Pitch Perfect 2, and the astute choice of Banks and screenwriter Cannon to lavish more attention on characters like Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy makes the proceedings much easier to bear despite the near two-hour running time.

One of the bigger changes from the first Pitch Perfect is that the sequel is much more female-empowered, with virtually every male cast member relegated to the sidelines. There are two romantic subplots (which arguably take up too much screen time despite their affable conclusions) but it’s really all about the girls – this is a movie that passes the Bechdel test with flying colours.

Kay Cannon’s script is filled with great one-liners, mostly given to Rebel Wilson, who is a blast to watch in her expanded role, and also Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, who return as colour commentators Gail and John, letting rip one sexual innuendo after another. However, Cannon can be accused of trying to include too much in the script – while there are a good number of other plot threads, including Beca’s (Anna Kendrick) internship at a record label, a lot of it feels like filler and doesn’t particularly engage on any level. Bellas newcomer Hailee Steinfeld boasts a lot of charisma, but honestly she isn’t given too much to do, though it can be assured that she will be given a meatier role in the (inevitable) next installment of the franchise.

Much like Glee, the strength of the Pitch Perfect franchise lies not in the drama, but in the musical numbers. In this aspect Banks has managed to do an excellent job. Not only are most of the songs great selections, but whenever she puts together a music set piece it is almost always note perfect. While the performances of Das Sound Machine are all great, nothing beats the finale performance by the Bellas, featuring the song Flashlight (which, among others, includes Sam Smith and Sia as co-writers) and virtually guaranteed to leave one with goosebumps, forgiving almost all the flaws that have come before it.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


Into the Woods

Genre: Musical

Director: Rob Marshall

Screenplay: James Lapine, based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine

Cast: Anna Kendrick, Daniel Huttlestone, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Tracey Ullman, Lilla Crawford, Meryl Streep, Simon Ruddell Beale, Joanna Riding, Johnny Depp, Billy Magnussen, Mackenzie Mauzy, Annette Crosbie, Chris Pine, Richard Glover, Frances de la Tour

Running Length: 124 minutes

Synopsis: Into the Woods is a modern twist on the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tales, intertwining the plots of a few choice stories and exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests. The musical follows the classic tales of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone), and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy)—all tied together by an original story involving a baker and his wife (James Corden & Emily Blunt), their wish to begin a family and their interaction with the witch (Meryl Streep) who has put a curse on them.

Review: Although it may seem like a kid-friendly movie – after all, it’s a mashup of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Rapunzel – Into the Woods is anything but. Adapted from Stephen Sondheim’s 1986 musical, there has been some modifications to the tale (unsurprising, given it’s Disney releasing the film and the story features a bunch of Disney Princesses), but the story is still a dark, albeit comical one. Rob Marshall has won acclaim previously for directing a stage-to-screen musical (Chicago), and although Into the Woods is perfectly serviceable as an adaptation, there’s no real wow factor in the transition, despite the star-studded cast.

Although I believe that Meryl Streep is likely to get her 19th Oscar nomination for her role as the witch (her singing is, surprisingly, quite decent), she’s not the focal point of the movie. And despite once again displaying her formidable talent in singing, neither is Anna Kendrick’s turn as Cinderella, which is honestly quite a bland, dispirited performance. It is Emily Blunt and James Corden who form the emotional centre of the film, and Blunt especially impresses, managing to steal the limelight from anyone sharing her scenes (yes, even Streep) and having a nice enough singing voice to complement her acting chops. Chris Pine also deserves a special mention for his extremely exuberant performance as Prince Charming.

This is Rob Marshall’s third movie musical, and yet the director still shows little flair in translating stage to screen. Although already more expansive than both Chicago and Nine’s stage-bound setpieces, Into the Woods still feels somewhat claustrophobic despite its woods settings, with little visual invention. That is, except the excellent “Agony” sequence, which sees Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen unabashedly hamming it up in what is essentially a medieval MTV. If more of Into the Woods was filmed in the same vein, it would definitely have stood out from the rest of the pack.

In other aspects, the film generally fares well. Art direction and production design (particularly the costumes) are well done, and most of the CG effects are acceptable, apart from the really lackluster work on the giantess. One could assume that Disney picked up on this adaption because it is a reimagining of its own Disney Princesses franchise (Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were however excluded from the film version, ostensibly because their appearance in the musical wasn’t the most family friendly, if you catch my drift), much like how it greenlit the live action Maleficent. However, while Maleficent is a far more imaginative work, Into the Woods is just a rudimentary adaptation that thankfully still manages to entertain.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


The Muppets * * *

Genre: Comedy / Musical

Director: James Bobin

Writers: Jason Segel & Nicholas Steger, based on characters created by Jim Henson

Cast: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones

Running Length: 103 minutes

Synopsis: On vacation in Los Angeles, Walter, the world’s biggest Muppet fan, his brother Gary (Jason Segel) and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) from Smalltown, USA, discover the nefarious plan of oilman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to raze the Muppet Theater and drill for the oil recently discovered beneath the Muppets’ former stomping grounds. To stage a telethon and raise the $10 million needed to save the theater, Walter, Mary and Gary help Kermit reunite the Muppets, who have all gone their separate ways: Fozzie now performs with a Reno casino tribute band called the Moopets, Miss Piggy is a plus-size fashion editor at Vogue Paris, Animal is in a Santa Barbara clinic for anger management, and Gonzo is a high-powered plumbing magnate. Will the Muppets be able to band together and save the theater in time?

Review: It’s sad but true – while most children will still recognize the Muppets, they are no longer as culturally relevant as back in the 70s and 80s. Anyone who is above the age of 30, however, will likely have fond memories of watching The Muppets Show or Sesame Street during the formative years of their lives (myself included, of course). As such, although The Muppets is positioned as a movie for the young ones, the adult viewers are likely to be the ones who will find themselves enjoying the movie (and riding the incessant waves of nostalgia). It’s still a fun watch for the kids, for sure, but there’s no doubt the older audiences are the ones who will be able to tap into the emotional centre of the film.

It’s not exactly a sophisticated plot, and the human actors aren’t given much to do. However, in the same vein as the older Muppets movies, The Muppets is chock-full of cameo appearances, and it’s quite fun to spot all the stars that appear in the film. Also, the fourth wall is repeatedly broken in the movie in amusing ways, which again is a nod to the history of the Muppets, on both the small and big screen.

Although positioned as a musical, there really aren’t that many songs and performances to truly classify The Muppets as a true musical. In fact, after the first reel, which does feature a number of decent song and dance performances, director James Bobin seems to divert his attention elsewhere, resulting in sporadic songs that feel increasingly at odds with the rest of the movie. However, of the 9 songs featured, 3 are classic Muppets songs, which will definitely be familiar to anyone who has grown up with the Muppets.

Despite its imperfections, The Muppets is great fun both for newcomers to the franchise and “old-timers”, and is certainly an excellent choice for families during this holiday. Who knows – with this reinvigoration, it may represent a new era for The Muppets, moving them back into the limelight, which would not be a bad thing at all.

Rating: *** (out of four stars)


Burlesque * * *

Genre: Musical

Director: Steve Antin

Writer: Steve Antin

Cast: Cher, Christina Aguilera, Stanley Tucci, Kristen Bell, Cam Gigandet, Eric Dane

Running Length: 119 minutes

Synopsis: Escaping from her small town and dreaming to make it big in LA, Ali (Christina Aguilera) stumbles upon The Burlesque Lounge, a musical revue that has seen better days. She manages to secure a job as cocktail waitress from Tess (Cher), the club’s proprietor, but aspires to perform on the club’s stage one day. Along the way, Ali garners the affection of Jack (Cam Gigandet), bartender at the club and a struggling musician, makes an enemy of Nikki (Kristen Bell), a star performer. She also has the help of Sean (Stanley Tucci), the keen-eyed and sharp-witted stage manager. Ali’s eventual success on the Burlesque stage restores the club back to its former glory, but financial woes still plagues the club and threatens to shut it down for good. 

Review: Burlesque is not a masterpiece by any measure, but that doesn’t mean it is not an entertaining movie – Christina Aguilera’s acting debut is unimpressive, but at least has a killer voice and a hot-enough body that is she uses to their full extent in the movie. She also wisely surrounds herself with capable actors and delectable eye candy, and it also helps the song and dance sequences are great fun to watch. And then, of course, there’s Cher, who finally returns to the big screen after a seven year hiatus. The 64-year-old veteran seems to be pumped full of botox,  but looks incredible for her age, plus she shows that both her acting chops and pipes are still in fine form. This may be Christina’s star vehicle but Cher roundly beats her in every department.

Steve Antin has aimed for a film that seems like a mix between Cabaret and Chicago, and although it isn’t quite there, Burlesque does score a number of triumphs. One of the more impressive moments of the show is Cher’s showstopping performance of a power ballad, unsurprisingly written by Diane Warren. And despite much focus on the Christina-Gigandet romance, the duo with the most chemistry is actually Cher and Stanley Tucci, who plays her gay BFF and their interaction serves up the best emotional scenes of the show. For audiences who prefer to focus on the aesthetics, Burlesque is also chock-full of beautiful people of both sexes, ranging from the gorgeous Kristen Bell to the sizzling hot Cam Gigandet.

That said, Burlesque’s plot is paper-thin with minimal characterization, and the decision to let the running time stretch to almost 2 hours actually hurts the film – there simply isn’t enough to sustain such length. In fact, there are probably some music videos out there that boast more plot than what Burlesque has on offer. Also, while the song and dance sequences are impressively staged, they are subject to way too many quick cuts and edits, which distracts from the action.

Despite the flaws, Burlesque remains far more watchable than other celebrity star vehicles like Glitter (Mariah) and Crossroads (Britney). The film doesn’t push any boundaries and is about as superficial a movie as can be, but like real life, sometimes it’s just fun to play in the shallow end of the pool. This is a bona fide guilty pleasure.  

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)


Nine * 1/2

Genre: Musical

Director:  Rob Marshall

Writers: Michael Tolkin and Anthony Mingella

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren, Fergie

Running Length: 115 minutes

Synopsis: Set in Italy in the 60s, Nine details a week (give or take) in the life of famous Italian film director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) who is about to embark on his ninth film project, titled Italia. There is a slight problem – Guido is actually suffering from writer’s block, and despite the production being in place and almost ready to go, not a single line has been written for the screenplay. As he awaits the arrival of his muse, Claudia (Nicole Kidman), who has agreed to appear in Italia, Guido tries to escape the paparazzi and checks into a spa-hotel. Unfortunately, a bevy of women and problems follow – his mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz) shows up, as does his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard). His marriage with Luisa is on the rocks due to Guido’s philandering, but Guido is desperate to try and keep the relationship alive. Also present is his friend and costume designer Lilli (Judi Dench), who tries to offer her advice to little avail, and American journalist Stephanie (Kate Hudson) who expresses her interest in Guido. Guido also has flashbacks to his childhood, where he meets his mother (Sophia Loren) and observes the erotic dance of Saraghina (Fergie), a prostitute. As the days wear on it soon becomes apparent that Guido is headed towards a breakdown and that the production of Italia may grind to a halt.

Review: It may be Rob Marshall’s second musical-to-movie adaptation (the first being the Academy Award-winning Chicago), but Nine is testament to the phrase “lightning doesn’t strike twice”. Perhaps it’s because Nine the musical is itself adapted from Federico Fellini’s 8½, and like the game of “Telephone”, too much was lost the third time round.

And whilst all the ten songs featured in Nine are big production numbers, the singing is barely passable for most and some of the numbers lean a little too much towards burlesque, actually coming across as being quite sleazy. The songs are not memorable either, and apart from Fergie’s strong performance on “Be Italian” and the totally anachronistic but quite enjoyable performance from Kate Hudson in “Cinema Italiano”, the rest of the songs simply meld into one large burlesque blur.

It doesn’t help that Daniel Day-Lewis is slightly miscast for this role, and despite his totally decent acting, Guido is a very unlikeable protagonist that not many audiences will be able to root for. Coupled with the fact that the women save one – Marion Cotillard has the only meaty female role and does a good job in portraying Guido’s long suffering wife – are one-dimensional walk on roles, seemingly only there to up the glam and sexiness factors, the whole film is thus comprised of famous faces with barely passable singing voices playing unengaging characters. That is as far from a winning formula as it could possibly be, and the result is clear. Watching Nine is akin to watching paint dry – a terribly soporific experience, and even the song and dance numbers only help to alleviate the tedium momentarily.

Rating:  * ½ (out of four stars)