I don’t need to wax poetic about the lasting appeal of Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast, nor its nigh-unparalleled influence on my generation. It’s a flawless cinematic masterwork (no successive Disney film has yet to touch its venerated quality), and ingrained in our DNA. So naturally, five successful ventures into their live-action reboot experiment, the studio chose it as their next guaranteed cash cow.
The question here was always two-fold. Is this going to be any good? And Is this necessary?
For the latter, of course not. None of Disney’s live-action remakes have been necessary, despite their solid, if unremarkable, quality. They reinvent just enough to put a new spin on familiarity yet never stray too far from established convention. That fact leads to the additional inquiry of how much do we want them to stray. No one’s forgotten Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella or The Lion King, nor are they unattainably locked away in the Disney vault of yore. But if these scrumptious-looking remakes are going to exist, would we prefer something unrecognizable, or something that appeases with its predictability? Something borrowed, something blue?
Despite my existence as a life-long devotee, I’d love to see Disney take creative risks. Oof, how I’d love that. Revamp Beauty in ways we never suspected — introspective, darker, more in line with the original tale and the French films of both old and new (Jean Cocteau’s 1946 black and white take, the criminally under-seen 2014 adaptation), or even Angela Carter’s novellas The Courtship of Mr. Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride. Hire a director who understands the subversive nature of fantasy and its monstrous-on-the-surface outsider protagonists, ala Guillermo Del Toro. Don’t take the easy route of making what constitutes as a filmed version of the Broadway play with a bigger budget.
Which brings us to the first question.
It’s great. Of course it is. Disney knows its audiences’ expectations and the winning formula to secure their affections. This new Beauty satisfies to the point of nostalgic tears and pleased applause. In the secret depths of my heart, a shameful admission if I want to be A Good Film Critic, I wanted a by-the-numbers, animation-brought-to-life comfort movie.
Which is exactly what Beauty and the Beast is. Whether that’s enough or an irritant, or both, depends on your perspective.
I’ve watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer since I was eleven years old. At twenty-seven, I reflect.
Thank you Willow, for showing that while society may ostracize you as a shy, socially awkward, bookish computer nerd, there’s nothing wrong with you; those are, in fact, your strengths. People who value and uphold you exist out there, somewhere, even amongst a literal hellscape. Thank you for figuring out your passions and sexuality openly and without shame; for demonstrating female friendships as the most inspirational, grounding, and empowering of all; that there’s redemption from the soul-consuming darkness of grief; that loving other women is normal, natural, okay.
Thank you Anya, for reassuring a girl who never allowed herself to display rage, who always felt out of step with expected humanity, it’s okay to be angry, bitter, and vengeful. To never reconcile centuries-long distrust of men, and never have to. To keep living after the douchebag you trusted leaves you at the altar.
Thank you Tara, that compassion and acceptance and the internal power of witchcraft are as transgressively affecting as physical strength.
Thank you Sineya, Kendra Young, Nikki Wood, and Xin Rong, for proving the saviors of the universe aren’t only white blondes.
Thank you Dawn — despite the will of the oppressors, you alone are capable of deciding your future; your body is more than someone else’s desire.
Thank you Cordelia — being the popular girl who crushes on boys and cares about prom doesn’t make you shallow, vapid, or worthless, and there’s always room, and time, to grow.
Thank you Joyce —a lesson in cherishing every moment with your mother.
Thank you Giles — a father figure who realizes the best thing for his surrogate daughter is letting her choose freely.
Thank you Faith, Darla, and Drusilla — embodying the power of societal non-conformity, embracing their goals without regard for opinion, rejecting the “good girl” image because it is neither condemnation or limitation.
Thank you Angel and Spike, for teaching me early the stereotypically pretty boys you crush on can, in an instant, become privileged, hateful, violent, and abusive. Thank you Xander and The Trio for proving even the seemingly kind male friends can be the same, and the worst of all enemies.
Thank you Buffy Anne Summers. For showing that wearing miniskirts, nail polish, and lip gloss never negates your strength. That a girl isn’t the hapless victim, but a hunter. For fearing, failing, crying, and fiercely, unrepentedly loving while simultaneously snapping off witticisms. For losing herself and running away. For refusing to run. For crumbling against unthinkable expectations. For getting up again, bruised and bloodied and fearsome.
For telling a pre-teen girl when you lack weapons, friends, and hope, all that’s left is you, and it’s enough.
For making every woman a hero — even though we already were, just without superhuman abilities. We don’t need to be Chosen according to the rules of some inexplicable preordained destiny, because we make our own. All of us are powerful. All of us are Slayers.
“The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live.”
I’m thrilled and honored to announce I have a piece in this month’s issue of the remarkable Bright Wall/Dark Room!
I wrote about my life-long emotional connection to the protagonists of Studio Ghibli, and you can find it on BWDR’s website. I highly encourage you to subscribe if you can. Their content is masterful and worth your support.
Here’s an handy-dandy excerpt from my piece:
If we accept the auteur theory at face value and cite the director as a film’s primary architect, then Miyazaki’s are fashioned from the ground up on foundations of love. Acutely, irrevocably so—too many captured echoes of life’s intimacies to absorb with casual detachment. Reciprocal human kindness and painstaking hand-drawn animation form their bone marrow; their DNA, the compassionate self-discovery of women. Venerating Miyazaki’s emancipated heroines may be old hat, but they are, effectively, stewards of my life. Inspiration. Aspiration. Ariadne and her thread, unraveling a path of actualization.
At different forked roads in my 27 years, I saw Miyazaki’s women and thought, I can? And each, in her distinct way, said Yes.
The name Hannibal Lecter was a constant in my household. Long before I was cognizant of the context, I knew the infamous character and his creator, Thomas Harris, were held in reverence. My mom and sister vociferously devoured (pun intended) the 1981 novel Red Dragon and its fame-eclipsing sequel, The Silence of the Lambs, on constant repeat. When the trilogy-ender Hannibal was published in 1999, I was nine years old, and vividly remember the ecstatic family furor leading up to its release. That haunting, grotesque cover of harsh reds and blacks, depicting a snake-like creature devouring an agonized man, is one of the iconic images of my youth.
I wasn’t allowed to read them, of course, despite my growing interest in crime fiction. The most I managed was sneakily skimming the first fifteen pages of Hannibal at my sister’s kitchen table. I was entranced, to say the least; the seed of fascination had been planted through osmosis.
Four years later at thirteen, I’d already seen my fair share of violent R-rated movies: Terminator 2: Judgment Day under parental supervision, Halloween by myself one late night in a darkened basement. My parents knew what I gravitated toward and cautioned rather than forbid, unless something struck them as inappropriately explicit for adolescent minds (i.e. Bram Stoker’s Dracula). So when I begged my mom to let me rent a VHS copy of The Silence of the Lambs from our local rental store, she allowed without issue. She even let me watch it alone, unsure of her own interest given her devotion to the novel.
Every cinephile remembers the moment when a specific movie blew their minds apart. Nothing would touch the effect Silence of the Lambs had on me for at least a decade.
For ages I didn’t understand why, or how, or even the full extent. I just knew, like a lightning strike to my bones, something had switched in how I understood the language of film, the crafting of it; its potential to challenge, inspire, prophesize. Clarice Starling, and by extension Jodie Foster, was the definitive heroine of my formative years. Thomas Harris became a literary icon, once Mom granted me freedom to consume the books. I rented it over and over and over again, wearing out the tape that didn’t belong to me; I pored over TVGuide schedules so I could record it off a movie channel onto a blank VHS; it was one of my first DVD purchases when I had enough earned money in my pocket.
I watch it around Valentine’s Day every year (not an idea I take credit for— the film was released on February 14th, 1991), and I’m never not enthralled anew, even as I’ve memorized every frame, every cut, as every music cue strikes goosebumps of remembrance.
The best part? It isn’t about the good doctor.
Keanu Reeves is American cinema’s greatest action star.
Wait, what about — nope. It’s Keanu.
Over thirty years in showbusiness, dozens of revered films to his credit, an inarguable pop culture icon with chameleon-like genre versatility, and it took until 2014’s majestic, breathtaking sleeper hit John Wick for the man to finally start receiving, in slow drips, the cultural appreciation he deserves. He’s a solid box office draw with an adoring fanbase, but if I had a dollar for every time I heard the “Keanu Reeves is the worst actor ever and only says Whoa” adage, I’d be Scrooge McDuck levels of rich. And it’s not true.
Remove the stunning fight scenes and fascinating worldbuilding from Wick (impossible as that sounds), and so much of its success resides on Reeves’s deliciously broad shoulders. The crumbling planes of his face evoke more grief than a spoken soliloquy. The martial arts skill honed into effortless presentation, a pristine-suited harbinger of death both terrifying and electric in equal measure. Infinitesimal switches in posture simultaneously convey a fury deadly as several hundred bullets and the chasm-deep devastation of a lost, broken man. The character, the actor, overflows with feeling, in polar opposite to the stoic and emotionless archetype — his brokenhearted rage informs every decision. Those prolonged stares aren’t cold, they’re vengeful Old Testament fire. And he bleeds. You feel the pounds of flesh taken; no macho Terminator bullshit here. Wick is a man — a humanized grim reaper antihero, but a man all the same, one we cheer for even as he leaves a massacre in his unshaven wake. (I mean, if someone killed my cat…just sayin’.) That’s all due to Reeves, in a role acknowledging and — if I may be so bold — weaponizing his talent for quiet, layered intensity and understated lethality.
John Wick: Chapter 2 does everything a sequel should. Bigger, louder, and somehow even better, it subtly unveils new layers to Wick’s character, expands its unique mythology with stunningly believable authenticity, and enhances its predecessor’s esteemed action through elaborate scenes of visceral beauty. It operates on the same level as Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather Part 2: realizing its formula, preserving, and elevating, while also ensuring the franchise’s place among the genre greats it idolizes.
(Spoilers from word one.)
M. Night Shyamalan and I have always had a complicated viewer-filmmaker relationship. He directed three of my most beloved movies — Signs, The Sixth Sense, and Unbreakable, the latter an underrated masterpiece. He also made one of my most loathed, The Last Airbender, a tone-deaf white-washed adaptation of the stunningly progressive animated series of the same name, not to mention a run of uncharming B-movies. But it’s impossible to deny his talent for suspense, atmosphere, and emotionally satisfying genre payoffs (I even love the much-reviled The Village and argue it was ahead of its time), so I’ve spent years rooting for him to have a career renaissance.