"Beauty and the Beast" is the only animated feature in cinematic history to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award as one of only five nominees. It also happens to be my favorite movie of all-time. I've seen it in 2D, 3D, on VHS, DVD, TV, and even at the Fathom Events Sing-a-Long event (Sadly, I was a little too young to experience it in IMAX back in 2002.) And the Tony Award-winning musical was the first Broadway show I ever attended.
This Disney animated classic was released in 1991, and therefore, is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year. While it didn't open in theaters until Nov. 15, The Academy is always rather busy around that time, so "Beauty"'s Silver year was honored with a special screening earlier this month in LA. The stars, including Angela Lansbury and David Ogden Stiers, as well as several of the creators (including co-director Gary Trousdale and animator Glen Keane - both of whom I've had the chance to interview), attended and revealed stories and surprising secrets about bringing this iconic story to the screen.
And "Beauty"'s buzz keeps growing, as Disney has unveiled the 90-second teaser for the live-action version, which will be released on March 17 (St. Patrick's Day) 2017. And already the trailer has made history, beating the record previously held by "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" for the most views in a 24 hour period - 91.8 million. The content has been well received - giving all of us hope that the film will be elegant and the story handled with care.
The casting of "Beauty" was one of the biggest on-going stories of 2015, and any bit of production news or release of images lit-up social media. The world WANTS this "Beauty and the Beast" to be special. Like "Cinderella" and "The Jungle Book", this "tale as old as time" is cherished and beloved, but there's something even more important about "Beauty" that has taken fans' interest to an even greater level.
The potential for incredible musical production numbers is real, with the classic songs combining with new ones from the great Alan Menken. The cast choices were inspired - headlined by Emma Watson, Emma Thompson, Josh Gad, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Kline and Stanley Tucci. And the script for this new version was written directly from Linda Woolverton's '91 script, in some cases (as we learn in the trailer) word for word.
With so much on the line, Disney and director Bill Condon simply CANNOT mess this up - can they?
Six long years ago, Tim Burton took us down the rabbit hole for his live-action version of Disney's 1951 animated adventure "Alice in Wonderland". It was the second highest-grossing movie of the year ($1 Billion+ worldwide), though not because of the quality of the film (many critics, including myself, thought it was extremely dull). "Alice" benefited heavily from being the first major 3D release after "Avatar". "Alice Through the Looking Glass" is based on Lewis Carroll's follow-up novel. But, as always, liberties are taken from page to screen, as this cinematic sequel is set more than three years after "Wonderland", not six months, as in Carroll's written work.
It's 1875 and Alice (Mia Wasikowska) has just returned home after sailing around the world on an exploration expedition aboard her late father's ship. Complications arise when her financiers (led by a spurned suitor) threaten to take her mother's home away unless Alice signs-away the rights to the vessel, which would end her career as a ship captain. Stressed and unhappy, Alice is visited by an old friend, the blue butterfly Absolem (voiced by the late Alan Rickman), who invites her to walk into a mysterious mirror and soon she's back in Underland.
Alice immediately learns that The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp reprising his Golden Globe nominated role from the original) is not well, mourning his family members supposedly perished in a fire. But the Hatter has found reason to believe that's not true and they're still alive. He asks Alice to go on a quest to find his parents and siblings, and it's a race against time and Time - both the actual minutes and seconds and the person who controls it, named Time (Sacha Baron Cohen).
"Alice Through the Looking Glass" has the overall look and feel of a direct-to-TV, Disney Channel special more than a major theatrical release. This comes across in the over-the-top performances, James Bobin's direction (Burton is only a producer this time), dominated by in-your-face close-ups, and in the time travel scenes that are so engulfed in CGI and green screen it's impossible to take them seriously. The story is presented as complex, but when broken-down is rather basic, and like its predecessor, the script is stiff, stale and blatantly unfunny.
Also returning is Helena Bonham Carter as the evil Red Queen. She teams-up with Time to seek revenge on her sister, The White Queen (Anne Hathaway), for a childhood event that's revealed to have begun their longtime rivalry. Bonham Carter doesn't provide the comic relief that is intended and Hathaway doesn't get much to do at all. Colleen Atwood, who earned an Oscar for the first "Alice", crafted the costumes once again, and they're just as big and bold this time around. Expect honors for her come Awards Season.
But the only parts of "Alice Through the Looking Glass" that truly works are the themes and messages, which are handled well and nicely presented, even for the younger members of the audience to understand: consequences from not telling the truth, family requires loyalty, friendship relies on trust, and thoughts on time and learning from the past and using those lessons to improve one's present and future are all well-meaning and effective, though certainly not groundbreaking by any means.
Slightly more tolerable than the original, but still far from the entertainment experience it should be considering the material and a $170 million budget, On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Alice Through the Looking Glass" gets a C-.
Since the end of the original “X-Men” trilogy, this franchise has produced passable, but far from X-traordinary results in two “Wolverine” efforts and two origin chapters involving younger versions of Professor X, Magneto and Mystique. “Apocalypse”, No. 9 in the series, finishes the prequel trilogy with just about the same X-ecution.
Set in 1983, 10 years after the events of “Days of Future Past”, “X-Men: Apocalypse” sees Charles Xavier (reprised by James McAvoy) running his “School for Gifted Children” full-time, now in Westchester, NY. Erik (Michael Fassbender) is living in Russia, hiding his true Magneto identity as a husband, father and mild-mannered metal worker. And Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is also keeping a low profile. These characters are supposed to have aged a decade since the last film, but returning director Bryan Singer isn’t too concerned with that.
The old gang is forced back in the game when the first-ever Mutant, Apocalypse (played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac), is accidentally awakened after being buried underground in Egypt for thousands of years. He’s looking to become the King of the Mutants, wipe-out everything on Earth and start over. But he needs the Professor’s mental powers to complete his plan.
The complicated relationships between the members of the X-Men family are put to the test once again, including Raven and Hank (aka Beast). Lawrence and actor Nicholas Hoult split-up after a five-year relationship prior to filming “Apocalypse”, so it’s definitely interesting to watch their reunion scenes.
Fassbender is quite good, and his is the most compelling storyline in the film. There are also a few smart references and flashbacks to “First Class” and other “X-Men” movies, as well as a “surprise” (but unfortunately, over-publicized) cameo that provides some much-needed energy.
However, nearly every scene in “Apocalypse” drags and is way too talky. There are nearly two dozen characters directly involved, and Singer does a poor job weaving them together, creating an uncomfortable distance. Apocalypse is a weak, bland villain, and a “Sweet Dreams” scene involving Quicksilver, that combines slow-motion and fast-moving elements, has the arrogantly, unfunny tone of “X-Men” spinoff, “Deadpool” - and we don’t want to go there.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “X-Men: Apocalypse” gets a C.
"The Nice Guys" captures the rich flavor of the 70s, thanks to director Shane Black ("Iron Man 3"). He assembles a likable leading pair in Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, who play incompetent private eyes Jackson Healy and Holland March. These longtime detectives partner-up to investigate the disappearance of a young girl involved in the crime and porno scenes of 1977 Hollywood. The script has its shares of surprises, is filled with energy and easy to follow.
But here's the problem - "The Nice Guys" juggles too many balls. It never feels satisfied with its current tone, so Black constantly shifts the focus between quirky, goofy humor, noisy blasts of stylized violence, minors in peril and serious moments of in-your-face murder. Meanwhile, hovering-over all of this, is Healy and March's relationship. Make no mistake, this is a buddy comedy - that also tries to be so much more.
The continuous attempts at laughs (including a dream sequence that includes an appearance by a giant bee) really bugged me, constantly taking me out of the moment, with the jarring dramatic elements, as a result, lacking in impact. If "The Nice Guys" had been played-out as a drama, infused with elements of disco flare, cool clothes, a hip soundtrack and subtle touches of humor it would've been much more successful.
March's 13-year-old daughter, Holly, is played by Australian native Angourie Rice in a star-making role. She shares a lot of screen time with veterans Crowe and Gosling and holds her own. Kim Basinger's character is pivotal to the plot, though she only appears in a couple of scenes.
"The Nice Guys" is a nice change of pace from what we're recently used to in the genre ("Ride Along 1/2, "The Other Guys", "The Heat") - and is more of a throwback to the effective cop buddy comedies made back in the 80s ("Midnight Run", "48 Hours", "Beverly Hills Cop", "Lethal Weapon 1/2"). But the mismatch of content never allows it to reaches its full potential. These Nice Guys don't finish last, but they don't win, either.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Nice Guys" gets a C+.
“Neighbors” was Universal’s highest-grossing movie of 2014, so it’s no surprise that the studio decided to ring the doorbell again. Like “22 Jump Street”, “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” doesn’t hide the fact that it’s basically re-hashing the same plot. The difference: Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill’s second go-around as undercover cops was consistently funny while Seth Rogen and Zac Efron’s college sequel simply isn’t.
Even with its wildly ridiculous storyline, “Neighbors 2” is based in reality: In the U.S., Sororities are not allowed to throw parties. And since the release of the original “Neighbors”, Abercrombie & Fitch have gotten rid of their shirtless models.
Kicked-out of his friend’s house and not pleased with his job “demotion”, Teddy (Efron, who still spends much of the film without a shirt) gets desperate and decides to visit his old college frat house. His former neighbors, Mac and Kelly (played again by Rogen and Rose Byrne) are happily expecting their second daughter - and looking forward to moving into a new home in 30 days.
When Teddy realizes that a new college sorority, Kappa Nu (led by Chloe Grace Moretz’s Shelby) plans on renting his old Delta Si house, and throwing incredible parties to make enough money to pay the rent, Teddy decides to become their mentor. Of course, this doesn’t make Mac and Kelly happy, as they need a quiet neighborhood until they sell their house.
Cue a non-stop stream of revenge pranks, including the return of the airbags gag - and the results are much more deflated this time. The original “Neighbors” had a decent number of quality jokes and smart comical references amidst all the chaos. I chuckled less than half a dozen times during “Sorority Rising”, and half of those were thanks to a few celebrity cameos. Many scenes go on way too long, are awkwardly staged and have absolutely no purpose.
The five (!) writers (Rogen being one) relied on the wild college life for humor - but we’ve seen this in so many other movies - it’s not shocking and far from amusing. There’s also plenty of anti-sexism preaching, but it’s difficult to take seriously when squished between moments of babies playing with sex toys and teen girls in wet bikinis.
How about a legitimate twist in the story? Nah - Rogen and returning director Nicholas Stoller didn’t dare mess with success. “Neighbors 2” is this year’s biggest, most blatant money-grab. If you think you know what you’re in for, expect to be underwhelmed.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” gets a D.