Beauty and the Beast(1991)

Released: November 1991

Directors: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise

Rated G

Run Time: 84 Minutes

Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures

Genre: Animation, Musical

Paige O’Hara: Belle
Robbie Benson: The Beast
Richard White: Gaston
Rex Everhart: Maurice
Jerry Orbach: Lumiere
David Ogden Stiers: Cogsworth/Narrator

Disney has a rich history of storytelling that goes all the way back to the late 1930s with Snow White And The Seven Dwarves.  Colorful characters, catchy music and extraordinary animations are what Disney is known for.  When it came to animated movies, there really was no one else in town.  At least no one that animation the way Disney did.  Some of Disney’s best works came out during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s with films like Bambi, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, and 101 Dalmations.  These were some of the best movies ever made.  Disney had a very long streak of really good movies up until the 1980’s.  That particular decade was a bit of a rough patch for Disney, because they ended up some pretty dark movies like The Black Cauldron, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Return To Oz.  While these movies weren’t awful by any stretch of the imagination, people were not overly receptive of Disney doing dark material.  This was also the decade when famed animator Don Bluth left Disney and started making his own movies like An American Tale and The Land Before Time.  Both of which ended up being better than what Disney was releasing that decade.  In the 90’s, Disney was in a new Golden Age of animated films with movies like Aladdin, The Lion King, Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan.  However, it was Beauty and the Beast that really gave Disney that push they desperately needed to stay relevant.

The film begins as we are told of a prince who lives in giant castle.  This prince encounters a haggard old woman and drives her away, only to reveal a beautiful enchantress who curses the prince and his castle.  Being turned into a horrendous beast, this prince is forced to live in seclusion until he can learn to love others.  Meanwhile, at a nearby town, the arrogant and boisterous Gaston has declared that he will marry Belle, the daughter of an eccentric inventor.  After being humiliated by Belle, Gaston still has his sights set on her.  At the same time, Belle’s father Maurice is on his way to a fair for his newest invention when he gets lost.  After being chased by wolves, he ends up at this mysterious castle where he becomes imprisoned by the beast.  After Maurice’s horse comes back without him, Belle goes to look for her father when she happens upon the same castle.  She encounters the beast and strikes a bargain with him to release her father.  While this particular kind of story isn’t particularly original, it is still very compelling in its own right.  While the original story may have originated about 4,000 years ago, it’s been adapted across the centuries into novels, poems, plays and more recently, movies.  Beauty and the Beast is not just a love story, but it is also a story of redemption.  While there was a TV series starring Ron Perlman in the 80s that was pretty good, it was Disney’s 1991 film that gave the story its clout.  It’s exciting, funny and romantic.

What really sets this film apart from any other Disney movie is its characters.  While there are elements of a damsel in distress in this film, Belle is not your typical damsel in distress.  She’s beautiful, smart and funny.  Yet she’s kind of looked down upon by other people because her father is a very eccentric but kind-hearted inventor.  Belle carries herself with confidence and is willing to make sacrifices to protect the ones she loves.  Gaston is clearly the villain of the picture, but his desires are not about global conquest, but rather to win Belle’s heart.  He’s arrogant, callous, and he has a big chin.  In the castle, we have some furniture and other objects that come to life because of this particular curse.  The two that truly stand out are Lumiere and Cogsworth.  Lumiere is a candlestick holder and Cogsworth is a clock.  These guys are absolutely hilarious.  They are the animated equivalent of Abbott and Costello.  The way they bounce of each other is side-splittingly funny.  You also have Mrs. Potts and Chip who were transformed into a teapot and cup respectively.  The beast is at first terrifying because of his immensely bad temper and the way he looks.  He’s absolutely monstrous.  The more he interacts with Belle, the more he begins to change.

The animation quality of Beauty and the Beast is extraordinary.  The characters are all uniquely designed with their own personalities.  The background artwork is something to truly behold.  The attention to detail on the forests and the castle are immensely impressive.  When you have such uniquely animated characters set against such gorgeous backdrops, you have an exceptionally beautiful film.  Visually, this movie is unlike any other that Disney had attempted before.  One of the most interesting things about this particular movie is Pixar Entertainment’s involvement here.  Yes, THAT Pixar.  This was one of the first movies that Pixar had worked on while they were still a part of Disney’s animation studios.  The one scene where this is really prevalent is the ballroom scene.  The ballroom itself is CGI while Belle and the Beast are hand-drawn animated.  It works so well, that the ballroom scene has become one of the most iconic shots in movie history.  It’s grand and its spectacular.

The one thing that really made this movie special for me was the music.  The music which was done by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman gives the film its emotional core.  This isn’t the first that music was used to progress a story.  It’s happened for decades.  The way that Beauty and the Beast does it is beyond exceptional.  The score by Alan Menken is absolutely astounding, but it’s the songs that are used that most people will remember.  The opening song that Belle sings not only reveals facets about her personality, but is also funny at times, but incredibly charming.  Be Our Guest that’s sung by Lumiere is definitely one for the history books as one of the most extravagant musical pieces I’ve ever seen in a Disney movie.  But the one song that, even after 25 years, can still affect me on an emotional level is the film’s namesake, Beauty and the Beast.  This song captures the spirit and essence of the film perfectly.  These are songs that I just don’t get tired of listening to.  In fact, Beauty and the Beast won not only two Oscars for the music, but two Golden Globes as well.  That’s how good the music is.

Are there any downsides to the movie?  Honestly, there isn’t any.  I can usually pick out problems and issues right from the get-go, but Beauty and the Beast gets everything right.  From the voice acting and music to the absolutely wonderful animations and character designs, Beauty and the Beast is, for the lack of a better word, perfect.  I don’t go around calling movies perfect, because most don’t get everything right.  Beauty and the Beast does.  Maybe it’s because it’s one of the movies I grew up watching as a kid, but everything about this movie resonates with me on so many levels, both emotional and intellectual.  The messages in this movie about not judging people on their appearance is not only NOT heavy-handed, but also done in a way that’s extremely entertaining.  In my honest opinion, Beauty and the Beast belongs in everyone’s collection.  It’s funny, exciting, scary and charming all at once.  Beauty and the Beast is truly a tale as old as time.

Final Score: 10/10.


Released: October 2016

Director: Ron Howard

Rated PG-13

Run Time: 121 Minutes

Genre: Mystery, Thriller

Distributor: Columbia Pictures/Sony

Tom Hanks: Robert Langdon
Felicity Jones: Sienna Brooks
Omar Sy: Christoph Bouchard
Irrfan Khan: Harry Sims
Sidse Babett Knudsen: Elizabeth Sinskey
Ben Foster: Bertrand Zobrist

In 2003, there was a little book published by then-unknown auther Dan Brown called The Da Vinci Code.  The book followed symbologist Robert Langdon as he tried to reveal the mystery of whether or not Mary Magdalene was a companion to Jesus Christ.  As a result, the book received a great deal of controversy.  The leaders of the Catholic Church in the Vatican City were quick to condemn the book and its author for “blasphemous” ideas.  That’s kind of what drew me to the book: The controversy.  While the book takes an alternative path as far as actual history goes, the question of whether or not that Jesus had a wife was and still is a legitimate question.  While Catholics around the world were quick to condemn the book, it nonetheless had a huge following.  So much so, that a film based on the book was released in 2006, starring Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon.  The film, like the book, was targeted because of its ideas, but still ended up doing quite well at the box office.  As a result, Ron Howard, the director of The Da Vinci Code, was commissioned to make a follow-up film called Angels & Demons.  Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons was actually a prequel to The Da Vinci Code, as far as the books were concerned.  The film adaptation of Angels & Demons, also starring Tom Hanks, was released back in 2009.  Last year, a third adaptation of Dan Brown’s novels was released in October, called Inferno.

Inferno begins as Robert Langdon is waking up from what appears to be an attack that left him with a temporary form of amnesia.  Taking care of him is Doctor Sienna Brooks.  Shortly after he wakes up, they are attacked by a mysterious assassin.  Escaping the building, Robert is having bizarre visions of Hell.  After ending up in Sienna’s apartment, Robert discovers a tube that contains an object that shows a painting of Dante’s version of Hell.  It seems that Robert is being targeted because he can find the location of a particular bio-engineered super-virus that could wipe out half of the planet’s population.  It turns out that an eccentric billionaire, Bertrand Zobrist had major concerns about the overpopulation of the planet and was in the process of deploying this weapon when he was discovered by the World Health Organization.  The story is interesting enough and has enough twists and turns to keep you interested.  I like the fact that they shed light on overpopulation which is a very real problem.  Zobrist clearly cares about the future of this planet, but his plan to annihilate half of mankind is pretty silly.  I will fully admit to really enjoying The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, but some of the stories are pretty far-fetched, even if they do present some really interesting ideas.

What draws me to movies like Inferno are the characters and locations.  Some of these locations are simply spectacular, because they are often filmed on location.  Not many directors and film-makers get the opportunity to film at locations like Vatican City or certain parts of Italy or Istanbul.  There is a level of detail here that’s very much appreciated.  The fact that this movie was shot on some of these locations makes it feel a little bit more authentic.  Some CGI is going to be used to enhance certain visuals and effects, which is pretty much standard these days.  One of the coolest things that I saw in this movie were Robert’s hallucinations.  These were varying depictions of Hell, which were described in Dante’s Infernowhich is the first third of The Divine Comedy.  I really appreciate the fact that they used Dante’s poem as a basis for the mystery presented in this film.  I have read Dante’s Inferno, and it is some very terrifying stuff.  He describes each level of Hell with incredible detail.  We get to see Ron Howard’s interpretation of the poem in some of Robert’s visions.  It’s quite spectacular, actually.

Performance-wise, nearly everything here is by-the-numbers.  The real stand-out in the film is Tom Hanks.  Tom Hanks is clearly one of the best actors of his generation and he excels in nearly every role he plays, whether it’s comedic or dramatic.  He’s really quite good here, as well.  Felicity Jones does a decent enough job as someone who is essentially Robert Langdon’s intellectual equal.  Sidse Babett Knudsen plays Elizabeth Sinskey.  The character apparently had a romantic relationship with Langdon years before when  things went south.  I didn’t read the book that Inferno is based on, so I couldn’t tell you if that was in the book or not, but it seemed kind of shoe-horned into the whole thing and didn’t seem necessary.  Some characters just don’t seem to belong here.  Ben Foster’s Bertrand Zobrist dies early on in the movie, but has a huge part to play through videos and flashbacks.  It seems unfortunate that most of the characters in this film take a back seat to the action.

This is an action movie, make no mistake about it.  It’s paced like one.  The previous films took the time to delve into what’s going on and the history of things that were involved in those stories, but here, everything seems rushed.  There are plenty of coincidences that just seem…unnatural.  People often complained about the previous films about doing that, but those movies were still really good in my opinion.  Here, there’s more chases and guns and less exposition.  It feels like Inferno is trying to turn Robert Langdon into some kind of Bourne-style superhero, which the character really isn’t.  The thing that really helps Langdon is his memory.  He remembers everything.  That’s kind of a switch-up for this movie, but it isn’t done particularly well.  Even Hans Zimmer’s music is by-the-numbers and I find Zimmer to be a very reliable film composer.  He did the Chaveliers de Sangreal for The Da Vinci Code, which is a fantastic piece of music, but aside from the end credits, there’s nothing here that’s memorable, and unfortunately that’s my ultimate conclusion for Inferno.  Did I like it?  Yeah, I did.  Is it a great movie?  No.  Is it even a moderately decent movie?  Meh..?  Aside from the haunting visuals of Robert’s hallucinations, this movie a very basic thriller.  It doesn’t change up the formula and it doesn’t really take risks.  It’s worth looking at at least once.  But is it going to hold up after repeated viewings?  I don’t think so.  Of the three films that we got based on Dan Brown’s books, Inferno is easily the worst of the bunch.

My Final Score: 6/10.  It’s average at best.

The Birth of a Nation(2016)

Released: October 2016

Director: Nate Parker

Rated R

Run Time: 120 Minutes

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Genre: Drama, History

Nate Parker: Nat Turner
Armie Hammer: Samuel Turner
Penelope Ann Miller: Elizabeth Turner
Jackie Earle Haley: Raymond Cobb
Mark Boone Jr.: Reverend Zalthall
Aja Naomi King: Cherry
Gabrielle Union: Esther

History is a subject that is very important to me.  In my opinion, history should be important to everyone.  It allows us a sense of discovery about where we come from and who our ancestors may have been.  It also teaches us valuable lessons so that we can in turn teach OUR children so they don’t make the same mistakes that we or our ancestors made.  While history allows us a glimpse into the past, it’s also not 100 percent accurate.  History, especially during times of war, is more often than not, written by the victor.  That’s just how it has been throughout human history.  Because of that, we are often aware of only one perspective of a particular event.  We are not necessarily given the whole picture.  There are many stories during the American Civil War that have yet to be told, because they are often glossed over in favor of the bigger picture.  However, that bigger picture is generally made up of SMALLER pictures.  You know the saying “the devil’s in the details?”  Some of the most important aspects of our history start out small, and like wildfire, spreads.

The Birth of a Nation follows Nat Turner, a slave, from boyhood until he becomes a preacher as an adult.  He was allowed to study and read the Bible so his masters could get their other slaves to “calm down.”  After witnessing multiple atrocities forced upon himself and those he loves, Nat begins planning a rebellion to free his fellow slaves.  While that little description is the gist of the film’s plot, it’s important to understand that Nat Turner’s story is based on historical fact.  In 1831, Nat Turner led a rebellion against the slave owners, which cost the lives of nearly 60 white men, women, and children.  While the rebellion didn’t immediately have the effect that Nat was going for, it was a major turning point in American history.  It planted the seeds for the Civil War which began 30 years later.  Now, one could make the argument that what Nat did was an act of terror, and from a certain perspective, that is true.  But if all you’ve known is slavery and oppression, how would YOU respond?  This story is extremely compelling.  This is an extraordinary story about one man’s struggle against a very evil, and very real, practice.  It’s heartbreaking and inspiring all at the same time.  This is a movie with a message.  It has a lot to say, and it is important that we listen, no matter how ugly it can get.

The story would be absolutely nothing without strong performances, and we have that in spades.  Nate Parker himself is exceptional as Nat Turner.  We see his character go from somebody who preaches the word of God to someone who is forced to address the slavers’ blatant abuse of the Bible to justify their actions.  This man gives it his all.  The lovely Aja Naomi King plays his wife, and she just knocks it out of the park.  When we first meet the character, she’s combative and trying to get away.  Aja gives the character a very sympathetic turn.  Armie Hammer hasn’t been give the credit that he deserves, I feel.  While his character doesn’t come across as overly sympathetic, he doesn’t strike me as pure evil, either.  When he’s not drunk, the character comes across as fairly reasonable.  Penelope Ann Miller’s character, Elizabeth is probably the most sympathetic of the slave-owners.  While Elizabeth still refers to Nat’s people, as “his kind,” she has more compassion for her slaves than most people would have during that period.  There are some truly despicable characters in the film, though.  Jackie Earle Haley’s Raymond Cobb is an absolute slimebag.  The character is a “slave-catcher” and isn’t above shooting blacks on the spot.  Haley is a hell of an actor and like Armie Hammer, deserves more credit than he’s been given.  The performances in the film are phenomenal.

A lot of people have complained that The Birth of a Nation is nothing but another “movie about slaves.”  Here’s my response to that criticism:  I don’t think we have enough movies that deal with the subject.  It’s something that people need to understand is a very horrible thing, and it hasn’t gone away.  Sure, slavery is illegal, but it hasn’t been abolished.  Not entirely.  It exists in different forms but it’s still there.  This film shines a light into one of the darkest periods in American history.  The fact that Nat Turner’s story isn’t being taught in schools across the country is sickening.  Are there issues with the film?  Sure.  You can tell that this is Nate Parker’s directorial debut, and as such you can see that he made some mistakes as far as editing goes.  Some scenes are cut off too soon, while others linger for too long.  My biggest complaint with the film is with the title.  Make no mistake, Nate Parker did this on purpose.  You see, in 1915 there was ANOTHER film that went by the name, “The Birth of a Nation.  It was directed by D.W. Griffith and was a civil war epic that depicted Southerners and the KKK as the good guys.  THAT film is as controversial today as it was a century ago.  For Nate Parker to use that title strikes me as odd.  Legally, he was allowed to.  The copyright on the movie and the title expired decades ago, so it’s public domain, which means that anybody can see it for free.  Here’s the thing, though: If you Google The Birth of a Nation, you’ll end up with different results.  I consider myself a student of history, so the original film is an important piece of film history.  For Nate Parker to try and bury that is wrong.  I did my review of the film and you can check it out by hitting the reviews tab at the top of the page.  It was something I felt needed to be mentioned here.

Overall, my impression of The Birth of a Nation is a rather positive one.  I think it’s a really good movie that tells an important story and has a message about oppression.  The film has its issues, but the overall package is very impressive, especially for Nate Parker’s directorial debut.  I think it will become more important as time goes on.  I actually rather like this one and I hope that everyone can take something away from it.

Final Score: 8.5/10

Underworld: Blood Wars

Released: January 2017

Rated R

Director: Anna Foerster

Run Time: 91 Minutes

Distributor: Sony Pictures

Kate Beckinsale: Selene
Theo James: David
Tobias Menzies: Marius
Lara Pulver: Semira
Charles Dance: Thomas

I’m going to do a special feature on this, but for now let me say this:  January is the worst possible month for movies.  There’s a reason for this.  Most movies that come out in January end up not being very good.  Why is that?  It seems to be the dumping place for movies that studios have the least faith in.  It’s been like this for quite some time.  If a movie is released in January, it doesn’t end well.  The movie itself might not necessarily be bad, but people won’t go out to see it.  It’s a new year, and it’s cold out.  People don’t want to leave the comfort of their homes.  Movie studios know this and they place questionable releases in the first month of the year.  With that being said, it’s 2017, so we have a ton of new movies coming out this year.  So, what’s the first one I see?  A sequel: Underworld: Blood Wars, the fifth entry into the gothic vampire/werewolf action film saga.  Is it any good?  Let’s dive in.

Underwold: Blood Wars begins as the legendary “Death Dealer,” Selene is on the run from a coven of Vampires because she killed Victor, a High Elder.  She’s also being targeted by Lycans(werewolves) because her daughter, Eve, has special blood that could make the Lycans invincible against the Vampire clans.  However, nobody knows where Eve is, not even her own mother.  Marius, the new leader of the Lycans, has organized a large enough force to challenge the vampires on their own doorstep.  In order to fight the Lycan horde, the Vampire coven is forced to recruit Selene in their fight for survival.  The film’s story has a lot of problems and most of them are a result of the previous film, Underworld: Awakening.  The biggest issue here is the fact that Eve is mentioned at all.  She doesn’t even show up.  She appears in flashbacks and a quirky vision at the end of the film, but that’s it.  Since nobody can find her, that means she’s safe, if we are going by this film’s logic.  If Eve is safe, then where’s the fucking tension?  As problematic as the last movie was, Selene had something to fight for.  When she found out she had a daughter, she was willing to do ANYTHING to keep the girl safe.  So, if the girl is no longer a part of the equation, what motive does Selene have to continue fighting?  The answer is simple:  She doesn’t.  What we have here is a tired retread of what’s come before:  Selene is asked to come back by the vampires and is promptly betrayed….again and has to fight her way out with the aid of another person….again.  At least, in the last movie she was an unstoppable force.  Here, it seems as though if the character was written to be helpless for a good chunk of the film.  There are a couple of threads here and there that are fairly interesting.  David is the son of a High Elder, which essentially makes him royalty.  It’s also revealed that there were other covens around the world.  The one in the west was destroyed when humans discovered that vampires and werewolves existed.  There is also a coven far to the north, where their vampires have special…gifts.  I like the fact that Blood Wars is trying to add to the mythos of the franchise, and that is arguably the most interesting part of the franchise.  However, there is no payoff to all that background information.

Since the story is a bust, how’s the rest of the film?  Let’s take a look at the acting.  I’m going to be honest with you, I’ve had a bit of a crush on Kate Beckinsale when she first donned the black leather outfit.  She’s beautiful and she’s bad-ass in the role.  She clearly loves playing the character and doing all the fights and stunts, so she has the biggest stake in the film, obviously.  Her performance is easily the best in the film.  Her character is both strong and vulnerable at times, and Kate gives the character a pathos which is clearly lacking in many movies these days.  She helps drive the film forward.  The only other actor in the film that also pulls his weight is Charles Dance as Thomas.  The guy has a grace and elegance about him that also gives him a very commanding presence.  I’ve always liked Charles Dance as an actor.  He has a gravitas unlike anyone I’ve ever seen.  Everyone else though, is pretty disposable.  There’s nothing here that’s Oscar-worthy.  Razz-worthy?  Possibly.

Okay, the story’s a bust and the acting is a very mixed bag, so how’s the action?  This is an area in which the movie excels.  The action is surprisingly hard-hitting and very, VERY violent.  You’ve got gunfights, swordfights, and general hand-to-hand fisticuffs.  It’s pretty varied.  I’m fairly impressed.  In the northern fortress, when the Lycans attack, it’s a brutal affair.  People get torn to shreds and we get to see werewolves get sliced in half.  It’s pretty much non-stop.  When the first bullet flies, the movie just shifts into overdrive.  As a straight-up action movie, Blood Wars has it where it counts.

Ultimately, a lot of the problems that I have with this film are not just story-related.  The editing is all over the board.  For a lot of things that are happening on screen, the movie is not long enough to take it all in.  In fact, there were several instances where I feel that certain elements of the film that could have been necessary, where taken out.  The editing was sloppy.  I can only hope that the home video release has an extended version, because there’s stuff here that’s missing.  It feels like Sony wants this franchise to die.  I hope it doesn’t, because there is enormous potential for some truly epic story-telling.  I love the background information.  I love the lore.  It’s all very interesting.  It’s just a shame that the movies surrounding this aren’t so hot.  Look, I’m going to be honest.  I’m a pretty hardcore fan of the Underworld movies.  Even Awakening.  I can honestly forgive a lot of the issues that the film has because I’m a fan of the franchise, but not a lot of people will.  If you are a die-hard fan of the series, then you will find something to love here.  I did, but I also see the problems that the movie has.  So, because of this, I will give two final scores.

Final Score for Fans of Underworld: 7/10.
Final Score for Everybody else: 5/10.