Beauty and the Beast – Film Review

These live-action reimaginings keep on coming. Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, Cinderella and The Jungle Book all banked hefty returns, so it’s unsurprising Disney would want to keep plundering its animated back-catalogue for more box office gold. But those tasked with adapting Beauty and the Beast must have felt a sense of foreboding. After all, it’s one thing to remake a cartoon released before the Second World War, and another entirely to update a Best Picture-nominee for which many parents will still hold fond memories. One misstep and the filmmakers can expect an angry mob barging down their doors.

Happily, fans of the original will have no need for pitchforks or flaming torches. In the very capable hands of director Bill Condon (the man who brought us Oscar-winning musicals Dreamgirls and Chicago), Beauty and the Beast is a lavish, exquisitely detailed, sweepingly whimsical adventure that honours its source material without being slavish to its vaunted reputation.

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Unlike Snow White and the Huntsman, which foolishly retooled its classic tale to feature more swords and moody glances, Condon leaves the plot largely untouched. After her father (Kevin Kline) is captured for stealing a rose, ambitious bookworm Belle (Emma Watson) agrees to take his place as a prisoner in an enchanted castle where she meets, and gradually falls in love with the Beast (Dan Stevens), a vain prince cursed with eternal bad-looks after refusing hospitality to a sorceress.

The success of this entire endeavour rests on the casting of the two leads, and Condon nails his choices. Watson is sweetly beguiling as Belle, bursting onto the scene to challenge her provincial town’s backward way of thinking during the movie’s opening number. Naturally, her character’s been given a feminist update, gaining a desire to teach young girls to read – much to the chagrin of the town elders – and a knack for invention that serves her well as she tries to escape the castle. Let’s not get too excited though – she still falls way short of Frozen’s Anna and Elsa. For all her talk of not being a princess, Belle’s problems are still largely solved by her choice of male suitor and wearing pretty dresses. Thankfully, there’s just enough steel in Watson’s gutsy performance to make it work.

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As for the Beast, Stevens is possibly even more impressive. Stomping around the grounds of his decaying home with giant horns and a reverberating growl, Stevens is effortlessly convincing as a ferocious monster. What’s even better is that Stevens never looses sight of the wounded, soulful man hidden beneath the fuzz, which helps to make his gradual softening that much more believable. The CGI used to transform him into a hirsute monster might not always live up to expectations, but Stevens is superb throughout.

It’s the supporting cast who get to have the most fun, though. Luke Evans throws everything into his performance as agonisingly vain war hero Gaston, Peacock-strutting around the screen with his chest puffed out, pausing only to wink at his reflection in every available surface; meanwhile, a stellar voice cast are having a ball as the castle’s anthropomorphised crockery. There’s Ewan McGregor’s garrulous candelabra Lumiere, Ian McKellan’s crotchety clock Cogsworth, Emma Thompson’s mumsy teapot Mrs Potts and Nathan Mack’s plucky teacup Chip, along with the new addition of Stanley Tucci’s harpsichord Maestro Cadenza.

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Their enthusiastically camp performances lend themselves perfectly to the bombastic Broadway tone of the piece. The sets are ornately designed and intricately detailed, yet they retain a stagey feel that creates a fresh theatrical energy to the film’s big musical numbers. The ballroom scene always has its charms but the standout sequence by far is the Be My Guest dinner set-piece, which plays like a trippy throwback to Golden Age musicals with its broad scope and whimsical invention. An extended runtime also allows for the addition of a couple of new numbers which will stick in your ear just as much as the originals – high praise indeed considering the near universal praise Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s 1991 score received.

If there is a blunder to be found, it’s in Josh Gad’s misguided portrayal of Gaston’s loyal ego-booster, Le Fou. You might recall Condon made a rather large song and dance about the character having a “gay moment” in the film, which caused a hate storm big enough to see the film banned in Russia. Yet, it turns out to be a lot of fuss about nothing. Gad’s Le Fou is played as a creepy, clingy acolyte who briefly dances with a man. If that’s truly intended to be a representation of the gay community, it’s mildly offensive, and raises the question of why Condon bothered drawing attention to the performance at all.

Still, those who feared this new take wouldn’t come close to the animated original will be pleasantly surprised. Condon has enlivened this age-old tale with gusto and flair, crafting a lavish, enchanting, unashamedly heart-warming musical that will please new fans and old sceptics alike.

Runtime: 129 mins; Genre: Musical; Released: 17 March 2017;

Director: Bill Condon; Screenwriters: Steven Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos;

Stars: Dan Stevens, Emma Watson, Luke Evans, Josh Gad

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La La Land – Film Review

Arriving in UK cinemas less than a week after it swept every gong going at the Golden Globes, it’d be easy get carried away by all the hype surrounding La La Land. After all, this is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to the searing jazz thriller Whiplash, starring two of Hollywood’s most likeable actors in Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling; a film that has had critics doing summersaults over one another to tell you it’s this generation’s Casablanca. It must be really good, then. Right?

It’s certainly enticing. A fizzy extravaganza of catchy-yet-soulful ditties and exuberant dance numbers that’s coupled with two exquisite performances from its oh-so charming leads, La La Land dazzles in its early moments, but it runs out of energy long before the audience has even had time to get comfy in their seats.

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Set in modern day Los Angeles, La La Land is clearly made with a nostalgic affection for the MGM musical tradition. Shot in retro CinemaScope on the sun-drenched backlots of Warner Bros. studios, the film oozes old school glamour and charm from its first fantastically orchestrated song-and-dance number on a gridlocked stretch of freeway to the classic tap dance routine across the Hollywood hills at sunset. Every single frame of this movie will have you itching to revisit the likes of Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon and The Young Girls of Rochefort.

While the style might be a throwback to a bygone era, the story itself is a thoroughly modern romance. An expansion of Chazelle’s student film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, it follows Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling), a failed actress and struggling jazz pianist chasing their dreams in the big city. The path of their relationship immediately subverts expectations as they flip each other the bird while passing on a freeway. When next they meet, in a dimly lit bar where Sebastian tinkles a mournful melody on his piano, convention states they should fall madly in love as soon as their eyes meet. Instead, Sebastian barges past Mia, frustrated at being fired once again for refusing to play the agreed set list.

When they do eventually fall into each other’s arms, culminating in a surprisingly sincere, gravity-defying dance among the stars at a local planetarium, the relationship is unexpectedly fleeting. Drawn together by their shared artistic failings, Mia and Sebastian are soon pulled apart when they again feel the tug of their creative ambitions. In the same way Whiplash was about much more than drumming, La La Land is not just a homage to Hollywood musicals: it’s a vibrant salute to those who dare to chase their dreams and the personal sacrifices they must make in order to achieve them.

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That this tale feels more charming than bleak is at least in part due to the effortless chemistry of Stone and Gosling, playing an onscreen couple for the third time after Crazy, Stupid Love and Gangster Squad. Stone’s sweet, ambitious and vulnerable Mia is the perfect counterweight to Gosling’s cooly insecure Sebastian. They can even hold a tune pretty well, a fact that is frankly sickening when you consider the many other talents they also possess.

Yet charisma and good looks will only get you so far – yes, even in Hollywood – and La La Land struggles to sustain its early promise. Much like Whiplash had a bold new take on an established genre only to peter out toward the end, Chazelle’s sophomore effort blows through all its creative juices in the first act leaving the rest of the film to tread water for the remaining 90 minutes. It’s almost like Chazelle forgets he’s making a musical, creating something more akin to a movie trailer as scene after scene goes by without anything of note actually happening.

By the time the film’s bittersweet final moments arrive, you’ll be itching for the credits to role rather than being swept up in the passion, skill and considerable heart that must’ve gone into bringing this long-gestating project to the screen. Perhaps some dreams are better left unfulfilled.

Runtime: 128 mins; Genre: Musical/Romance; Released: 12 January 2017;

Director: Damien Chazelle; Screenwriter: Damien Chazelle;

Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, J.K. Simmons, Rosemarie DeWitt

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Theatre Review

On the surface the Brixton East theatre may not look much like a place of wonders, with its shabby walls and concrete floors, but through the sheer imagination of Matthew McPherson’s intimate yet lively production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this unassuming theatre tucked away on Barrington Road is transformed into a place of delightful dreams.

The play begins in a rudimentary fashion befitting its modest venue, as a live band plays folksy tunes from a pallet stage while the cast mingles among the crowd. It feels almost as if the audience has merely stumbled upon a dress rehearsal rather than a fully-fledged performance. But in keeping with a production that revels in keeping its spectators guessing, expectations are swiftly flipped on their heads as a band of fairy children lures the audience upstairs to a cosy loft that has been transformed into a magical forest. Complete with swinging ropes and incandescent fairy lights, it’s looks like the treehouse of every 10-year-old’s dreams. In fact, McPherson makes excellent use of the limited space throughout, creating a carnival atmosphere through the use of live music and setting the action in amongst the crowd.

This stripped back approach allows the performers to take centre stage and fully express themselves. Louise Williams’ fairy queen Titania has real depth – enchanting and ethereal but with melancholic undertones – while her fairy servants have the perfect air of feral whimsy. Amy Ambrose’s Helena is also a delight, coming over as a cross between Miranda Hart and Rebel Wilson – all fumbling limbs but with a dose of filthy humour as she lusts after Razak Osman’s Demetrius. But by far the biggest laughs come via Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals – the artisan performers who are rehearsing the entirely inappropriate tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe to celebrate the nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta. This play within a play is blissfully funny and performed with distinction, gusto and real craft. Nathan Wright’s excellent Bottom dies with all the ridiculous flourish of an amateur actor enjoying his moment in the limelight.

The performance is not entirely faultless, of course. The are a few too many wardrobe malfunctions, at times the dialogue sounds garbled and hurried, and the ending feels abrupt and rushed. Yet this is still a remarkable production, brimming with intimacy and spectacle, and showcasing the wonders that can be achieved with a small budget and a very big imagination.