Pan a surprisingly effective update
One of the year's best films, David Lowery's Peter Pan and Wendy provides a more adult, melancholy take on J.M. Barrie's seminal tale, a brilliant reinvention that looks at the deceptive allure of childhood, the resistance to maturity and the cost of responsibility with an unflinching eye. The plot is much the same as previous adaptations, starting at the home of the Darlings where John and Michael (Joshua Pickering and Jacobi Jupe) are lost in their imaginary world of sword fights and grand adventure, while their sister Wendy (Ever Anderson) is contending with her awkward pre-teen years. And of course, the boy that won't grow up (Alexander Molony), makes his appearance, intent on bringing the siblings to Never Neverland. The trip takes place, the Lost Boys are discovered, John and Michael are taken by Captain Hook (a menacing and heartbreaking Jude Law) and all manner of adventures ensue.
Again, the outline of the story remains the same; however, it's the subtext in the screenplay by Toby Halbrooks and Lowery that makes it much more than a simple children's story. Hook's backstory is expanded upon, giving the character far more depth while providing us with a logical motivation for his actions. The relationship he has with Pan is far from arbitrary or simply a yin-yang arrangement. Rather, it is rooted in a past that is rife with betrayal and pain, an emotional bond between them that was ripped asunder. Questions of destiny, identity and free will abound, as do clever pieces of symbolism that add heretofore unexplored layers to the story. The meaning of Hook's metal appendage takes on a more melancholy air than before while the notion of clocks and time as well as absent parents come to the forefront in powerful and touching ways.
Often, we wonder why the same old stories are remade again and again. Disney is guilty of that more than any other studio, yet the work here by Lowery and Halbrooks for once justifies this revisitation. By providing meaningful motivations to the characters and adding depth to the story's themes, they have created a film this is familiar, yet far more impactful, a work that transcends its narrative boundaries to become something universally evocative. And, while Peter Pan & Wendy does make for perfect family viewing, don't be surprised to find yourself more emotionally engaged than the children you watch it with. Streaming on Disney+.
Beau only for the brave
Maddening from beginning to end, containing stretches of stultifying tedium and sequences of artistic brilliance, Ari Aster's Beau is Afraid is, if nothing else, one of the most unique cinematic experiences you're likely to have this or any year. A departure from the director's two previous films, Hereditary and Midsommar, this is a darkly comic horror tale of the mind. We share in the protagonist's psychosis, as we see the world through his perspective, one that's filled with daily violence, disappointment and doubt. However, as the title indicates, the prevailing emotion that hobbles Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) throughout is fear as he suffers from a debilitating sense of dread, a condition that dictates everything he does, and more importantly, doesn't do.
Like Dickens' David Copperfield, Beau's story begins with his birth, an event that sets a pattern that will dog him his entire life. His mother in hysterics, her child needing to be resuscitated, it is a moment of tension and angst that will be repeated again and again between mother and son. The first of many fade-outs occur and we then see Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), an obviously depressed middle-aged man, going into what is surely the latest of hundreds of therapy sessions. He's set to visit his manipulative mother, a foreboding proposition fraught with potential triggers.
What ensues is a nightmare odyssey as Beau sets out for his mother's, meeting one ridiculous obstacle after another, none of which can be overcome without courage and fortitude, both of which are in short supply where our hero is concerned. Phoenix gives a great performance; there are few actors as committed as he is, and there's no question the film wouldn't work without the dedication he displays. If ever the phrase "your mileage will vary" applies to a movie, it's this one. Some will be entranced, others repelled. As for those grappling with issues of parental abandonment or emotional abuse, this may prove cathartic or traumatic. Daring and polemic, Beau is, if nothing else, a distinctive statement from a director who has no fear where it comes to plumbing the most disturbing human behavior and exposing it for the world to see. In theaters
Strong ending nearly salvages Love
Shekhar Kapur's rom com, What's Love Got to Do with It? limps out of the gate and meanders to the point of tedium during its second act but finishes very strongly, the film shifting gears to provide a powerful, poignant ending to an otherwise average genre exercise.
Having grown up next door to one another, Kazim and Zoe (Shazad Latif and Lily James) have been friends nearly all their lives. Though they've never dated, their relationship is still an intimate one, many secrets and feelings having been shared over the years. Kazim drops a bombshell when he informs Zoe that he has decided to enter an arranged marriage. Though the custom is an ancient one, it has a distinct 21st century twist to it. Referred to as an "assisted marriage" and facilitated through agencies such as the "Matrimonial Advice Bureau," there is a larger demand for this sort of situation than you'd imagine. As a documentary filmmaker, Zoe knows a good subject when she sees one and convinces Kazim to allow her to record his journey from bachelor to groom.
Working from a screenplay by journalist and documentary filmmaker Jemima Khan, the film isn't above tipping its cap to various genre entries it pays homage to, When Harry Met Sally and Love Actually the most obvious. If nothing else, Kapur and Khan at least steal from the best, going so far as having Zoe employ the device of couples recounting how they first met for the camera, as Rob Reiner did in Harry. These moments are quite effective as they allow the filmmakers to fold in various perspectives from both the English and Pakistani cultures regarding matrimony.
These scenes are the only ones that keep us engaged for most of the movie. And yet, the finale is quite something. It's as if the film finally finds its footing when its characters are forced to come to terms with their lives of denial. A touching reunion is subtly rendered, while the ultimate pairing of the two principals doesn't feel contrived or forced. In the end, Love is a miscalculation on Kapur and Khan's part; they should have focused on Kazim and Zoe's relationship, not the dull machinations that led to it. Available through Video-On-Demand.