Mike at the Movies

Beauty and the Beast (PG) *****

This may be the best film I have seen since “West Side Story” years ago. From the rapid opening, which morphs quickly into the story of the curse of the Beast, to the final, exquisite ballroom scene, this film is immaculately conceived, beautifully filmed and tastefully acted.

The special effects of the “implements” of the Beast’s castle that come alive are charming, funny and cleverly integrated with the live characters—mostly Belle and the Beast. Their return to life at the end of the film as the curse is lifted is one of the funniest and most touching scenes in the film, especially when one of the tools reunites with his wife and mutters that he would prefer his previous state! But that is only one example of the laughs in this film.

LeFou (Josh Gad) has the most laughs as the comical sidekick to the villain, Gaston (Luke Evans). Gad has taken some perverted heat from sexual snobs who object to his homosexuality, hinted at several times and then confirmed in the final scene, but it is doubly wrong to get angry at such a loveable character. Dan Stevens as the Beast is hobbled as an actor by his costume, but the designers allowed him an expressiveness that becomes more and more important as the film progresses and Belle stirs his humanity and his desire to return to real life. Emma Watson as Belle is perfect—absolutely stone-cold perfect in the part. Her youth, beauty, natural charm and expressive face are all used to maximum effect as she struggles through saving her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), from wolves and having Beast save her, fighting off the horrible Gaston who wants only to marry her, to the threats of the villagers who, stirred into a frenzy by Gaston, attack the Castle.

The film’s depth can be seen in moving lines like “Can anybody be happy if they are not free?” asked plaintively by Belle. She is, at the time, as trapped by the Beast as he and the tools are by the Curse.

Beast laments at one point, “I let her stand within my melancholy heart.” Belle’s progression in the Beast’s regard is indicated largely by her change of style in rooms. She starts in the dungeon with her father, tricks the Beast into letting him go, and quickly moves up to a gilded suite—all gold and fancy beds and plush furniture!

I cannot rave enough about “Beauty and the Beast.” The two actually bond through a love of Shakespeare, and I’m also a sap for the Bard. Take the kids. The ones in attendance with us loved it and laughed at most of the funny spots. They didn’t like Gaston either. And if anybody wonders why the characters speak with French accents, the original tale of “Beauty and the Beast” is by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and dates from 1756. This is one you may want to see more than once. I would recommend that you see it the first time as soon as possible. C’est formidable!

Life (R) ****

This is an unusual sci-fi film in that it doesn’t seem to be science fiction. The acting is very fine, led by Jake Gyllenhaal as scientist David Jordan and his complement for the last part of the film, Rebecca Ferguson as British Miranda North. The cast is international because the ISS or International Space Station is. There are other Brits, one other American (Ryan Reynolds), Japanese and Russian crewmembers as well, few of which make it to the finale. This is a real film meaning that nobody is guaranteed survival, and part of the suspense is wondering which character will make it to the end.

The danger is, at first, charming evidence that there is life on Mars: a delicate, violet-appearing little thing that the crew soon deems Calvin after a school in New York City. But things start to go wrong when the ship’s doctor, Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), is grabbed by the little thing. It soon incapacitates his right hand entirely. The threat of Calvin soon expands as he does. He seems hungry for human blood and energy of any sort, even a flashlight. He soon rules the spaceship and things go from dicey and cute to deadly and dangerous. All this is done amidst staging that is marvelous in its consistency and imagination. Everybody floats through the weightless ship without crashing into each other, and sealing off every nook and cranny from the ravenous Calvin is clearly a challenge nobody can meet.

Rather than, as it started, a mission to get Calvin to Earth for study, it becomes a mission to get rid of Calvin in any way possible. The suspense mounts to a stunning conclusion. Along the way there are deep discussions of what it means to live and die among the various nations and perspectives—Gyllenhaal’s David Jordan is particularly pessimistic—and challenging perspectives on Calvin and what it signifies to Mankind.

This is not a film for the younger set. They won’t understand it, they won’t like it and it will scare the stuffing out of them. For adults who like to think through their films, this is good stuff. Life, indeed.

CHiPS (R) ****

This is one of those films that I give high ratings to because it is a fun film. I cannot give you many clear examples of dialogue, though, because so few are printable in the paper.

Dak Shepard, who wrote and directed the film, is a former motorcycle racer. Jon Baker spent a lot of time in the hospital being stitched back together after accidents: 23 surgeries and more to come. Michael Peña is actually an FBI agent whose cover name is “Punch” Puncherello. He is sent to LA, along with his sex addiction, to help solve a series of robberies of armored cars made with the help of guys on motorcycles.

It turns out that the gang hitting the armored cars involves dirty cops, led by Vic Brown (Vincent D’Onofrio). Jon and Punch chase the gang around LA but they are under-powered, so Punch orders super bikes from the FBI and the boys change uniforms from CHiPs brown to fancy blue with more padding. The new bikes are almost fast enough to keep pace with the funny lines, most of which I cannot reproduce.

Punch’s problem is that he has to stop frequently for sexual exercise with himself, a problem that makes it difficult for him to ride a motorcycle. Jon is still in love with his sluttish wife, from whom he is separated, played by Kristen Bell. The script is dirty but clever, the motorcycle gags clever as are the chases, and adults will have a good time. The older folks may recognize the EMT in Jon’s last trip to the hospital: the original Punch Puncherello on the TV series, Erik Estrada. The audience we were with was properly screened for those below 18 and roared more often than chuckled at what was going on. Good, riotous fun, even if, as Punch tells Jon: “You eat more pills than Elvis!”

Power Rangers (PG-13) **

Warning: This review is written by an older, cynical man who likes good movies and good acting. That this film has neither characteristic is colored by those facts. Proceed with caution. Take five high school kids in detention, have strange things happen to them for over 5/6ths of a film, after numerous and lengthy side trips, make them into Power Rangers and turn them loose against Bryan Cranston (Zordon), trapped in a matrix and Elizabeth Banks, (Rita Repulsa) trapped in a role with a director who demands that she act more and more demented and chew more scenery, turn the CGI loose to create all sorts of monsters and add a cute little robot named Alpha 5 (Bill Hader) and let ‘er rip for the last sixth of the film and you have “Power Rangers.” Fortunately, all of the Rangers are of different races and ethnic backgrounds—good for balance—and the boys are handsome and the girls attractive. For more balance there’s even a suggested lesbian scene between Rita and Trini (Yellow Ranger) played by Becky G.

This is one of those films in which major and minor characters both die and are miraculously returned to life. That’s too bad. There’s lots of CGI violence, and the kids make their way from planes to parts of a good monster without a frame being missed, but most of the teen and below audience didn’t care; they applauded wildly at the end. I didn’t.