A quintet of “Beast-themed” movies, of course, as this weekend’s events in Charlottesville taught us, not all beasts aren’t human, and “A United Kingdom” (the best of the bunch) targets a much more nefarious type of beast.
Life…This somewhat overrated sci-fi film is about an international space station that picks up Martian life which is–you guessed it–deadly. Of course, the film owes a big debt to “Alien,” and the 1,000 knock-offs since then, and you have to wonder if astronauts would ever make contact with alien life and it doesn’t wind up killing them. However, the creature, nicknamed “Calvin” actually is terrifying, and the film makes an admirable effort to stay at least somewhat accurate to science, and what an alien’s biology might be. At this point, I’d rather watch a sequel to this than another in the “Alien” franchise. Grade: B-
Table 19…This is about a wedding table full of beasts, or undesirable guests, and the first half is almost shocking in how terrible it is. What’s worse than a one-joke movie (we’re treated over and over again to “insider” jokes about wedding table assignments)? A movie where that joke isn’t funny to start with. The second half makes more of an effort to flesh-out the guests, and comedy pros like June Squibb, Craig Robinson, Lisa Kudrow, and the always-worth watching Stephen Merchant do what they can. Still, it all leads up to an ending where you can’t help feeling the lead character is actually making a huge mistake for herself. Grade: D+
The Great Wall…Nothing could be sadder than watching Matt Damon try to win over an international audience by making a Chinese movie so lousy, there’s no way he’d sign up for something this bad stateside. Even though you know a movie like this doesn’t care about dialogue–it has to be minimal and clunky so as to translate well–you find yourself puzzled at how lousy the special effects, plotting, and action sequences are. Even solid actors like Willem Dafoe seem lost in a China-backed movie you can practically feel the anxious fingers of censorship on. Grade: D
Beauty and the Beast…I love the animated “Beauty and the Beast,” and consider it to be on par with WWII-era Disney classics like “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” “Pinocchio,” or “Sleeping Beauty.” But since last year’s “The Jungle Book” live-action remake worked so well, I was excited to see what Disney could do this time. How disappointing it was to find most of the movie’s best sequences are tired retreads of the animated film’s, and most of the new additions (EXCEPT for the briefly shown IR couples at the end) feel like space-fillers. And I question the casting, as this may be one instance where worse actors would’ve served the movie better. Luke Evans is too small and respectable to play Gaston whereas The Rock would’ve had a blast with his cheeky narcissism, and Dan Stevens’s Beast is too snide by a mile, lacking the warmth and lonely hunger of Tony Goldwyn’s animated version. Plus, Sofia Boutella might have been able to generate a lot more heat than Emma Watson’s somewhat stiff and stuffy Belle does. And Kevin Kline just looks lost, although most of the voice actors and Josh Gad do what they can. Grade: C-
A United Kingdom…So much about this movie works so well that I thought about reviewing it in the type of single-review I reserve for newer films, even though this came out six months ago. This is the true, under-known story about the Prince of what would become Botswana (David Oyelowo) falling for a white British woman (Rosamund Pike), only to be kept apart by “respectable,” scheming British officials, South African politics, and the Prince’s Uncle. It doesn’t take as many filmmaking risks as last year’s low-key triumph “Loving,” but that’s also because this is a much more complicated plot involving international politics, tribal systems, royalty in exile, and the future government of an entire country: the British discourage the marriage partly because they’re afraid South Africa will declare war over it. Can you imagine an interracial marriage of the last century possibly causing a war? The stakes are so tremendous over such a mundane thing as an individual couple’s love that the “neutral” manners of a nefarious British official (played with maximum hypocritical smugness by Jack Davenport) seem even more ghastly. It makes me a little bit angry that trash like “Get Out” grosses more in its opening weekend than a film like this—about people who actually have to fight a real battle against white supremacy, and the way that fight weighs on you—made in its entire run, and even critics don’t see the value in it (83% vs. 99%). Grade: A