REVIEW: Haywire (2011)


Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Lem Dobbs
Starring Gina Carano, Ewan MacGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton, Michael Angarano, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas

Ah, my first Steven Soderbergh review of the Movie Maestro. Been looking forward to this, wondering off and on which film of his would draw the first honor. And that film is Haywire, the action-packed spy thriller that introduced to the cinematic world that pioneer of women’s mixed martial arts, Gina Carano.

Freelance covert operative Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is hired out by her handler to various global entities to perform jobs which governments can’t authorize and heads of state would rather not know about. After a mission to rescue a hostage in Barcelona, Mallory is quickly dispatched on another mission to Dublin. When the operation goes awry and Mallory finds she has been double crossed, she needs to use all of her skills, tricks and abilities to escape an international manhunt, make it back to the United States, protect her family, and exact revenge on those that have betrayed her.

Ask any Soderbergh fan why they love him so much, and invariably, the answer will be his cool, minimalist style. Haywire is an actioner that benefits heavily from his milky smooth touch with camerawork and editing; I wish more action directors were like him. Every set piece is clean and simple, allowing Carano and her exquisite stunt work (she did them all on her own, of course) to take center stage, free of the stupid, unnecessary shaky camerawork that plagues the action genre these days.

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The screenplay by Lem Dobbs matches Soderbergh’s visual punch with a deft, swift narrative that bounces between flashbacks telling the bulk of the story and the framing flight of Mallory and innocent bystander Scott (Michael Angarano) in his car. While most audiences seemingly didn’t appreciate the story, feeling it to be too hard to follow, but I disagree with the masses yet again. It doesn’t spoon-feed its audience, rather, it tells you only what you need to know, letting the plot naturally unravel, like the best of the classic spy thrillers from the days of Hitchcock and early James Bond.

Image result for Haywire filmSoderbergh’s other trademark, a highly capable cast, is also on prominent display, with regulars Tatum and Douglas supporting MacGregor, Banderas, Fassbender, and Paxton. In reality, however, all of these incredible actors are playing the supporting fiddle to Carano as the main star of the film. This is a bold and uniquely feminist move, swapping the normal action dynamic clean across gender lines. To put it bluntly, it’s like watching Jane Bond and her gaggle of Bond Boys. It’s actually quite fun, especially when any number of the confident men underestimate Mallory.

I don’t know if Mallory herself works as well as the concept, however. Carano is extremely commanding in the combat scenes, but does tend to fall more on the flat side in the more quiet dialogue pieces. It doesn’t help that apparently her voice was significantly altered in post, although I do not know to what extent this affected the performance. I also have found references to Laura San Giacomo, another Soderbergh regular, having overdubbed her voice, however I cannot find proof and there are other contradictory statements on this matter. In short, this being Carano’s first film, she isn’t exactly A-grade material yet.

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This doesn’t discount Haywire‘s strengths. It’s a tight and fun spy film, smart in execution and filled with enough action to please die-hard enthusiasts. All in all, it’s a worthy addition to Soderbergh’s catalog, and a great 90-minute stunt film to fill an evening with.


REVIEW: Beauty and the Beast (2017)


Directed by Bill Condon
Written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos
Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan MacGregor, Ian McKellan, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci

Beauty and the Beast. The only animated film to be nominated for Best Picture. Remade in live action. Need I say more?

After leaving her small provincial village to find her missing father, the beautiful, independent Belle (Emma Watson) encounters a large, horrifying Beast (Dan Stevens) living inside a dark, forbidding castle with living antiques as his only companions. As Belle stays more with the Beast, she learns that true beauty is found within.

In a way, it is pretty much useless to complain about Disney’s latest cash grab: remaking their animated classics as live action special effects pieces. They’re making more money than dirty politicians, so they won’t be going away anytime soon. What can and should be criticized is what they do with them. Maleficent was an intriguing idea, a potential Macbeth-style tragedy that sunk into safe predictability, while Cinderella and The Jungle Book dazzled with their visual punch but failed fans by not retaining the musical genre. And as for Alice in Wonderland, well, the less said about those films, the better. Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast seeks to restore that lost faith with a full musical production and a story that stays true its source film with more ancillary additions.

The problem is, these new or alternate versions of familiar scenes and subplots are superfluous or simply not well done. Key plot points and dialogue exchanges that were handled effortlessly in the 1991 film are either drawn out with no clear reason or flown through as if everyone was impatient about getting to the next song. I know that songs and dance numbers are the main point of musicals, but there needs to be more setup in place to ensure I’m not visibly confused as to why the actors are racing through the plot. For example, the lead-ins to “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” seem to be missing much of their meat, as if the filmmakers just assumed that the audience was more than familiar with the 1991 film and could fill in the blanks.

Other times motivations are shifted in illogical ways that give rise to the actors having to jump through wide emotional hoops that they just can’t clear, most frequently during scenes between Watson and Kevin Kline as Maurice. Belle taking her father’s place in this version felt so devoid of emotional energy that I caught myself yawning. And then there’s the Enchantress herself, a character who didn’t even actually appear in the original, but appears here as part of Maurice’s over-extended and unneeded side-journey, only to offer no lines, no solution, no point. By the end of the narrative, she has become the Deus ex Machina, simply appearing to utterly destroy the last bits of a emotional climax that I was fully buying up until then. Sorry, but that’s how DCEU films happen, and that’s not cool.

The songs themselves are still as amazing as always, and many include more or alternate lyrics originally written by Howard Ashman himself before his death, who still receives top credit. Bravo, Disney. You still did good there. Three more songs written for the stage production are included, with “Evermore” taking my favorite spot. Likewise, the visual effects on display are as dazzling as they should be, and I am pleased to report that the designs of the Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, and the other caretakers did not resemble any of the more disappointed viewers’ descriptions. Visually and musically, Beauty lives up to expectations, so it still has that going for it. It’s just too bad that for every one or two things to admire about it, there’s at least one more that brings the whole house crashing back down.

Oh, and for the last time, can we all just agree to shut up about the “gay” controversy? It was so far overblown from both sides that I almost didn’t appreciate that the character of Lefou is actually given a full arc into a conscientious hero. I suppose I can’t blame the film for this though, just its audience.

In two words, I would describe Beauty and the Beast as a mixed bag. Heading into a showing will net you a visually arresting fine time with a soundtrack to match, but you may end up scratching your head as to why the story feels so lopsided in places and plain illogical in others. Approach with reservations, unless the kids want to see it.