Film Review: “Beauty and the Beast”

Starring: Dan Stevens, Emma Watson and Luke Evans
Directed By: Bill Condon
Rated: PG
Running Time: 129 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Our Score: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Disney has effortlessly remade one of its greatest films. That in itself should be commended because of the power that “Beauty and the Beast” still holds for old and young fans of the Disney brand. The 1991 animated classic still has some of the best theatrical music in their catalogue. It also has a story that managed to retell a fairy tale classic while thumbing its nose at formula, something that still feels fresh over a quarter of a century later. So how did Disney recapture the magic?

The sincerity by everyone involved is clear from the costume and set designers to the cast populating the screen. Emma Watson’s portrayal of Belle is spot on, from her obvious attractiveness to Watson matching Belle’s powerfully independent demeanor with stoic glares and gentle warmth in her eyes. There is subtle personality changes that evolves Belle from the two-dimensional hand-drawn character of yesteryear into a three-dimensional character grounded in reality that dances off the screen.

As for Dan Stevens, he had a tougher time capturing the brutish nature of his character, since the Beast is CGI. While I’d be willing to place bets that his voice was digitally tinkered with, Stevens’ ruffs, gruffs, and even singing, makes him stronger than Robby Benson’s portrayal back in the early 90’s. It also helps that we get a lot more backstory behind the Beast’s character and an extra layer of geniality beneath the coarse fur and fangs.

Going in I had my doubts that Luke Evans could play such a vain, muscular villain like Gaston, but luckily I was proven wrong by his character’s roguish suaveness and cunning wickedness. Josh Gad pairs with him nicely as a much more good-natured LeFou in this update. The cutlery and castle furniture are just as charming as their voice actors, Ian McKellan, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, GuGu Mbatha-Raw, and Ewan McGregor, who’s leading the way as the talking candlestick, Lumière. McGregor doesn’t disappoint when he voices the show stopping “Be Our Guest.”

The story remains true to the original, scrambling up a few pivotal moments, adjusting pacing, sewing in ideas from the Broadway adaptation, and taking some creative liberties (which I’m sure you’ve read or heard about one in particular in the media by now). After 25 years, it makes sense that some nuts and bolts have to be shifted and modernized, but it never forsakes the heart and spirit of the movie. The story’s soulful mix of romance and music remains intact.

There are about 30 more minutes of content that gives the audience a deeper of understanding of the characters, and not just our two lovebirds. We relate and feel more for the talking furnishings and silverware more than we did previously. While purists might fold their arms and slouch in their theater chairs in disgust over these changes and the vision, others will be enchanted by this interpretation, finding something there that wasn’t there before.

“Beauty and the Beast” is a magical retelling that will make fans of young ones and make Disney loyalists fall in love with the story all over again. While the original is still the standard bearer for Disney storytelling and animation, this 2017 version isn’t without its own merits. The 21st century “Beauty and the Beast” is a lot more melodic and even more visually extravagant without ever being gaudy. Its familiarity makes it a must-see, but its newfound charm makes it an instant classic for newcomers.

Film Review: Free State of Jones

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali
Directed By: Gary Ross
Rated: R
Running Time: 139 minutes
STX Entertainment

Our Score: 2 out of 5 Stars

American Civil War movies are either critically claimed masterpieces (“Gone with the Wind” or “Glory) or the bane of moviegoers existence (“Gods and Generals” and “Gettysburg”). “Free State of Jones” fall somewhere in between. There’s enough entertainment and magnificent acting to keep it afloat, but too many nauseating history lessons and a lack of narrative to make it watchable. It may get some future use in high schools across the country, but could also be a punishment for a rowdy classroom.

“Free State of Jones” follows Newton Knight (McConaughey) a MacGyver of 19th century America. He’s a nurse as battles wind down, a soldier when war flares up, a farmer at home, a blacksmith and carpenter when the script calls for it, and many other things. Knight watches too many of his friends, family, and countrymen die for a cause he doesn’t believe in. He views the Civil War as a rich man’s war being fought by the poor residents of Mississippi. So he goes AWOL, evading troops on the lookout for the fresh deserter.

Knight goes into hiding in the swamps where he befriends runaway slaves and slowly starts attracting other deserters to his camp. Over time, he collects more slaves and deserters to help form his own militia. Their core belief isn’t anti-Confederate, but more around the belief that no army or government should steal from the people and that the people have a right to what they create with their own bare hands.

The movie takes place from 1862 to 1867, which already has any historian reading that scratching their head. The Civil War ended in 1865. Un-effectively, “Free State of Jones” is like two different movies. One about the small rebellion against Confederate beliefs and the fallout of the Civil War in the South with Knight having to constantly defend the rights of his African American friends.

Narratively, it’s a mess. At no point does the movie blatantly or subliminally promote a unique theme or message. “Free State of Jones” is another; white man comes to save the day for minorities, history lesson from Hollywood. The movie highlights the corrupt system in place after the war, which prevented minorities from voting in the political process. That could be a link or statement of affairs today in this political climate, but I’m not willing to give the creative team behind “Free State of Jones” that much credit.

It’s a well shot movie that captures the essence of war, but McConaughey is the true highlight of the movie. He works well with the emotional and physical toll of war as he progressively becomes older in “Free State of Jones”. But I can’t help but dislike his character for some of the selfish plot points in the movie. It doesn’t help that the movie constantly jumps forward around 80 years into the future where Knight’s relatives are going through a legal battle. It’s another speed bump that slows down the overall pace of the movie.

“Free State of Jones” is definitely a unique tale for the Civil War that highlights the divide in a traditionally proud part of the country. Even today, people still sport Confederate flags and re-enact famous battles. There’s something interesting that can be said about how war can divide even the most patriotic of people. But “Free State of Jones” doesn’t want to talk about that. It seems more obsessed with messages we’ve heard before and reminding us that slavery is still evil.