Richard speaks to “CTV News at 11:30” anchor Zuraidah Alman about movies in theatres and on VOD to watch this weekend including the Gillian Jacobs college comedy “I Used to Go Here,” the Mick Jagger thriller “The Burnt Orange Heresy” and the biodoc “Howard: The Howard Ashman Story.”
Richard sits in on the CFRA Ottawa morning show with guest host Matt Harris to talk the new movies coming to theatres, VOD and streaming services including the college comedy “I Used to Go Here” starring Gillian Jacobs, the psychological thriller “She Dies Tomorrow,” the crime drama “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” the kid’s fantasy “The Secret Garden” and the biodoc “Howard: The Howard Ashman Story.”
Howard Ashman may not be a household name but the songs he wrote have certainly played in your home. A new documentary on Disney+ about the lyricist behind Disney animated classics like “Aladdin,” “Beauty and The Beast,” “The Little Mermaid” gives insight into the life of an artist whose life was cut short at 39 years.
Using a combination of archival footage, new interviews with the people who knew him best and lots of music, “Howard: The Howard Ashman Story” tells the story of a young boy who let his imagination run wild, creating dioramas with plastic figures and toys, doing shows in his backyard, complete with costumes and props when most kids were still making mud pies. Of a kid who could imitate any actor from any play he ever saw and who became a storyteller, writing musicals while still a teenager.
After college he struggled in NYC before starting his own theatre with a group of like-minded creatives in 1977 called the WPA. It was at this hole-in-the-wall theatre above a seedy donut shop off-off-off Broadway, that he found his calling. While working on a 1979 musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “God Bless You, Mrs. Rosewater,” he discovered his remarkable ability to write lyrics that cut to the heart and soul of whatever story he was telling.
When “God Bless You, Mrs. Rosewater” failed to translate to the Great White Way in a splashy Broadway production he decided to create something with a limited cast but with an attention-grabbing gimmick at the centre. For inspiration he looked to Roger Corman’s cheesy z-grade “Little Shop of Horrors.”
That adaptation was a giant hit but his next project, “Smile,” a flashy Broadway musical about a beauty pageant in Santa Rosa, California, co-written with Marvin Hamlisch, flopped, taking the wind out of his sails.
That’s when Disney Studio Head Jeffrey Katzenberg called, offering Ashman found a new home and creative inspiration. “Animation may be the last great place to do Broadway musicals,” Ashman says in the film.
There, working with composer Alan Menken, he wrote a trio of scores for three classic films that are still beloved today.
At this point in the doc “Howard: The Howard Ashman Story” is a slickly produced biography, mainly told in Ashman’s own words, detailing the creative life of a prolific, perfectionist songwriter.
The film deepens in tone when Ashman’s HIV diagnosis is revealed during the production of “The Little Mermaid.” The day of the diagnosis he did an on-stage interview at New York City’s 92nd Street Y. When asked what his future plans are, he replies that he doesn’t have any. It is a shattering insight into the mindset of a man just handed a death sentence.
Knowing his time was limited, Ashman worked on the three Disney films at the same time, creating a trio of films that would become the bedrock of the Disney Renaissance, while keeping his illness a secret from everyone except life partner Bill Lauch. It’s a heartbreaking illustration of the shared experience of many people with AIDS who struggled to keep their condition a secret for fear of losing work or relationships.
It’s here that director Don Hahn’s decision to not feature talking head interviews becomes clear. The interviews are all done off camera, focusing the story on the subject. You can hear the emotion in the voices of Ashman’s loved ones as they discuss his last years and their words are made all the more powerful by the images of Howard that dress the screen.
“Howard: The Howard Ashman Story” is more than a nostalgic behind-the-scenes doc. It’s a touching portrait of a man, who, like so many gay men of his generation, ran out of time.
Richard sits in with CTV NewsChannel anchor Marcia MacMillan to have a look at the big weekend movies, the live action version of “Beauty and the Beast,” the drug addled “T2 Trainspotting” and the no-holds-barred “Goon: Last of the Enforcers.”
Poet Paul Éluard said that to understand Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version of La Belle et la Bête — Beauty and the Beast — you must love your dog more than your car. His comment is baffling only if you haven’t seen the movie.
Once Cocteau’s film is seen, it’s apparent that what makes his version rewarding is that it values the organic over the mechanical — even the special effects are handmade. It refuses to allow the technical aspects of the film to interfere with the humanity of the story.
This weekend Disney will have their collective fingers crossed that audiences will favour their poodles over their RVs as they release the big-budget, live-action version of Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson.
Director Bill Condon says the animated 1991 Disney classic was an inspiration for the new film, but adds he also drew from everything from Twilight and Frankenstein to a 1932 musical comedy called Love Me Tonight when creating the look for the new movie.
He also mentions La Belle et la Bête. “A film I really love.” His take on the Beast looked back to the movie, cribbing the character’s combination of ferocity and romance from Cocteau.
Before taking in the new version this weekend, let’s have a look back at the little-seen 70-year old Cocteau classic.
Loosely based on the timeless Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont fairy tale, the action in La Belle et la Bête begins when a poverty-stricken merchant pilfers a rose from a grand estate owned by a strange creature. The Beast strikes a deal with the man.
He’ll spare the life of the merchant in return for the hand of one of the man’s daughters. Reluctantly the merchant offers Belle, a beautiful girl who had been courted by the oafish Avenant.
At first she is repulsed by the Beast, who looks like the love child of the Wolf Man and Mrs. Chewbacca, but over time his tender ways and nightly offers of marriage warm her heart and she learns to love him for his inner beauty.
Cocteau’s version strays from the original story and Condon’s adaptation with the addition of a subplot involving Avenant’s scheme to kill the Beast and make off with his treasures and an unexpected magical personality switcheroo.
It’s meant to be a happy ending, but not everyone loved the new coda. When Marlene Dietrich saw an early cut of the film at a private screening, she squeezed Cocteau’s hand and said, “Where is my beautiful Beast?”
Other audiences embraced Cocteau’s vision. In his diary the poet wrote of a test screening held for the technicians in the Joinville Studio were the film had been made. “The welcome the picture received from that audience of workers was unforgettable,” he wrote.
Others criticized La Belle et la Bête for its straightforwardness, complaining that the characters are simply drawn, the story one dimensional. Taking that view, however, misses Cocteau’s point.
At the beginning of the film he asks for “childlike simplicity,” inviting the viewer to connect with their inner child, eschew cynicism and embrace naiveté for the film’s 96-minute running time.
In 1946 the request was meant as a salve for a post-occupation France that was still dealing with the aftermath of a terrible war.
Today, in an increasingly contemptuous world, the message still seems timely and welcome.
Poet Paul Éluard said that to understand Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version of “La Belle et la Bête”—“Beauty and the Beast”—you must love your dog more than your car. It’s a good line that suggests Cocteau’s adaptation values the organic elements of the film — even the special effects are handmade—while refusing to allow the technical aspects of the film to interfere with the humanity of the story.
The same can’t be said of the new, big budget live action Disney version of the story. Inspired by their classic 1991 animated story of belle and beast, the remake relies too heavily on computer generated splendour and too little on the innate charms of the story.
Emma Watson plays the bright and beautiful Belle, the independent-minded daughter of eccentric inventor Maurice (Kevin Kline). She is, as the townsfolk warble, “strange but special, A most peculiar mad’moiselle!” She has caught the eye of dimwitted war hero Gaston (Luke Evans) who unsuccessfully tries to win her hand.
Taking one of his new gizmos to market Maurice picks a rose as a present for Belle but runs afoul of the Beast (Dan Stevens). Once a self-centered prince, he was changed into a part-man, part-wolf, part Chewbacca creature by a witch as punishment for his hedonistic life. The only way to beak the spell, she cackles, is to find someone to love him before the last petal falls off an enchanted rose. “Who could love a beast?” he asks.
On the hunt for her father, she makes her way to the Beast’s remote castle only to find Maurice locked up for rose theft. She pleads with her hairy host for a moment with her father, and while giving him a hug pushes him out of the cell, slamming the door behind her. Trading her freedom for his, she is now the Beast’s prisoner. The staff—once human, now transformed into the enchanted candlestick Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellen), a teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and wardrobe (Audra McDonald) although it feels like a missed opportunity to not have Daniel Craig play a eavesdropping microwave—see Belle as just the person to look past his ghastly appearance and see the true princely beauty within and lift his curse and theirs.
Director Bill Condon has made a classic big screen musical with state of the art special effects. Up front is a perfectly cast Emma Watson, who brings more tenacity to the character than we’ve seen in past versions as well as a considerable amount of charm. She is the movie’s beating heart, the human presence in the midst of a considerable amount of pomp and circumstance.
Condon decorates the screen, over-dressing almost every scene with layers of pageantry and CGI. It entertains the eye, particularly in the Busby Berkeley style “Be Our Guest” sequence but overwhelms the film’s humanity. This is a movie that loves its car more than its dog.
“Beauty and the Beast” is a handsome, straightforward movie that adds little to the animated classic. Some of the details have changed. Belle and Beast mourn their deceased mothers and Gaston’s minion Le Fou (Josh Gad) is now gay but the dreamlike of the 1991 version is lacking. The story just seems less magical when built from a collection of pixels.