The nature of “The Beast” and Kong Skull Island while we’re at it.

So, what did I think of the 2017 “Beauty and the Beast”?

First my actual review: It was enjoyable. I recommend it to people who liked the original cartoon and want to see different actors and designers take it on, allowing people to see it in live action. It’s a bit like seeing one of Disney’s stage plays or even any stage play with a different cast than you’ve seen before: a chance to revisit old friends doing something just a little, not a lot, different.

My problem, and I’ll admit, I got over it, is what the movie represents.

I don’t hate Disney or modern mass-produced pop-culture in general. Neither shouldn’t be the only thing that’s out there but neither is. There’s always stuff for other tastes if you know where to find it.

No, I’m talking about the movie’s problem, which also its greatest strength: It’s very much like the cartoon.

Sure they add some new songs, add extra scenes including backstories for some characters, use a somewhat different design to avoid anything too cartoony, but much of the dialogue, plot, characters costumes, etc. are exactly what you’ve probably seen bef0re. For the most part, it’s not a re-adaptation of an earlier version of the fairy tale. It’s a remake of their own. Nothing is too different.

“Certain as the sun/Rising in the east,” indeed.

Now that’s what people came to see. I’ll admit that the whole nostalgically etched-in-my-mind lines, moments and songs have a certain appeal to me because by this point they have to. But shouldn’t we want something different from what we’ve already seen?

It’s rather odd that right now one of the other less-successful blockbusters out there is Kong Skull Island, which I also enjoyed, deliberately avoids this problem in favor of keeping only the title character and setting while avoiding any direct analogue to the original’s iconic Empire State Building scene. Its most interesting character, played by John C. Reiley, d0es not correspond to anyone in the Peter Jackson movie and probably not in the original either (full disclosure: never saw the original). Kong Skull Island did, however, have everything I wanted in a big monster flick, with plenty of action scenes and monsters. If you want that, Kong Skull Island is for you.

As a side note, nowadays Disney is more original than they ever were at the height of their Renaissance, as people call the 1990s era. Would Renaissance era Disney have ever made a completely original (apart from some allusions) story about a police rabbit in a city of racist animals?

Somehow, and this is rather strange: Beauty and the Beast at first when I heard about it seemed a bit too soon. Which is downright weird because of how old it actually is.

What happened was that my family owned it and my sister, being a big fan 0f it, and I liked it too as I recall, in spite of it being considered a girls’ movie kinda ran it into the ground. But I haven’t seen it in ages. So that’s the backstory here. I assumed before seeing it the movie would come off as clichéd, then, when watching the movie, realized I hadn’t seen the older movie recently enough for it to come off that way.

Inherit the Wind

I recently saw the movie Inherit the Wind. Inherit the Wind is a movie based on a play which was based loosely on the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Dayton Tennessee, in which a man went on trial for teaching about the evolution of humans from other animals.

I say loosely because all of the characters’ names are changed except for the single bit part of a boy named Howard and offstage characters like Charles Darwin. Even the town’s name is changed to Hillsborough. No matter how many lines and scenes got taken from the trial’s transcript, the play is a work of fiction with some characters invented completely. My upcoming book Ben and Larry in Cumberland will mention the Scopes trial, but won’t say much about Inherit the Wind, the play or the film. After all, the last thing I want to do is confuse readers with three different parallel universes.

The main issue that relates the trial to my book’s focus, the Cumberland Trail, is Dayton’s flagging coal industry. Coal doesn’t even figure into the movie or the play, which makes sense. Inspired by the House Un-American Activities committee, the movie is about the right to hold differing opinions, or as the movie puts it “The Right to be Wrong.”

What strikes me about the play and movie is not their relation to the era in which they were written and produced: The fifties and early sixties. When movies dealt with serious issues back then, they did so with optimism and full conviction. Inherit the Wind has characters making powerful speeches about science, education and open-mindedness. More recent movies about serious issues like Crash and Syriana have been more cynical. I do not know which approach is better.

HG vs. BR

I had wanted to see John Carter.   I was planning on seeing it with Goyo (an exchange student staying with us) who said he wanted to. Later though, Goyo said that he would prefer to watch The Hunger Games because he said that John Carter “is the same as Avatar.” Maybe, but by that logic Avatar is the same as Dances with Wolves. Also, isn’t the story for John Carter a century old?


Fiction generally has always stolen or borrowed things. Science Fiction especially. In part that’s because audiences to relate to things on other worlds if they resemble something familiar. Also, stealing is good if it works and is convenient for what you’re trying to do. What better way to show off all the odd alien costumes you can come up with than by putting all of them in an old western saloon? To make it less obvious, replace the piano player with an alien Benny Goodman knockoff band, and then you have one of the most famous scenes in movies period.


But I didn’t really care that much, so I figured I could see the Hunger Games. I hadn’t read the book, but I could say the same for John Carter.


We got there early, but because of the crowds we had to sit near the front, which may have been a mistake. Yes, people complain about the shaky cam thing, but I felt like making the audience dizzy was exactly what the movie was going for, so it worked.


Much of the movie was off-putting in one way or another, but again, that was the movie’s intention. I had heard that it took place in the future. Given that we’re in the 2010s, I figured that Earth people in the future would dress like earth people do now (as in the 90s-2000s films Avatar, AI, Minority Report, or to a lesser extent V for Vendetta). But not here. Here they  took their cues from my own home region, some time between the  1860s and the 1960s, right down to the home-stitched dresses.


Then we get to the Capitol. In the Capitol, most people seem to dress as if they though Jacobim Mutagu (the villain from Zoolander) had taken over (I would not put it past him). It’s not just fashion. Even the names are foreign sounding.  It’s through the lens of a foreign world that the movie throws us into issues of power and spectacle.


Why am I talking so much about these aspects of setting? It’s because I just now finished watching the 2000 Japanese film Battle Royale, which is also an adaptation of a novel. In it, a group of teens fall asleep while they think they are riding home from their boarding school on a bus only to wake up and find that the Japanese government randomly selected them to fight to the death on a deserted but guarded island and they are all wearing tracking collars. Oh, and only one of them can survive. They all start out from a central location, each with a bag that contains a weapon.


I’m not going to go any further into summarizing Battle Royale because I want people to see it. The odd plot turns and random chance encounters are part of what make it a good movie, and I don’t want to ruin it for anyone.


For obvious reasons though, even without some of the plot points I didn’t go into (most of which go in totally different directions) some people accuse The Hunger Games of plagiarizing Battle Royale.  Suzanne Collins author of The Hunger Games, claims she’d never heard of it. I’m with her on this one. She may well have heard of it, but my impression, just from comparing film adaptations, is that it wasn’t her initial inspiration. Even if it was, she took it in a totally different direction. The two are far more different than Avatar is from Dances with Wolves.  


The Hunger Games is a single protagonist’s story set in a far-future world different from ours. Battle Royale switches between perspectives and plot lines and in Battle Royale it’s our world, slightly in the future after a wave of youth violence and a bizzare adult reaction to it. Not only that, but  BRi is just a small section of the world, one particular class of kids who already know each other, while in HG they’re from all over the country, and few of them know each other. In Hunger Games the Game is an accepted fact of life. In Battle Royale the Game is a bizarre thing thrown on the teenagers, and one of the kids laughs at the idea before getting stabbed.


Again, though, just based on the adaptations, if I had to choose one, I’d say that Battle Royale is the better movie. The different plots pay off when one set of people collides with the other and you don’t know when they will collide. Anything could happen. Although it’s set in Japan, the world of the story is so similar to the present-day world that the murders has a  more jarring, “These could be people you went to school with”-type feel. That the island has empty houses on it adds to that mood. The government’s motivation is more confusing, but the motivation of the man running the operation, a former teacher, could not be clearer. Again though, this is a matter of comparing movies with very different focuses and themes, and I’m glad that both movies exist. If it wasn’t for the Hunger Games, I would not have heard of Battle Royale.


On Helping: a Movie and Life Review

I saw The Help and liked it. It’s about a woman (called “Skeeter”) who collects the stories of black maids in her town. Movies like it should be made, and more movies need to deal with the working class. Also, I hate criticism that we white people shouldn’t write about people from other backgrounds. If we can’t then I think we’re leaving out a lot of stories. Still, the movie got me thinking. My thoughts had less to do with the movie and more with movies in general and the idea of helping.

There’s a whole genre of “helper” movies from Hollywood. Movies in which a white person goes in to a non-white community to help them and succeeds. The Help doesn’t really fit in this category, as we don’t see Skeeter victoriously ending discrimination. Instead it ends with her damaging the relations between people around her, even if she does bring out the non-racist side of her mother. Also, her goal is not to help so much as sell her book, so she’s a little more complex than your average Hollywood helper.

Helper movies split into two types: Helper dramas (The Blind Side,Music of the Heart) and warrior helpers (Avatar, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Laurence of Arabia).

Ironically, given the focus on action, the warrior helper movies seem to have  more dynamic helper characters (they often switch sides). Helper Dramas are usually about characters who start out right and end just as right. Again, The Help just barely fits here, but there’s one side it doesn’t show, and that’s struggling at first. To be fair, she does struggle at first, but none of it is her fault, more to do with the risks of the time period.

I worked with migrant farm workers in South Carolina, signing people up for a health program and then recording an interview with one worker about his life. You can read more about my memories of that time at this blog. When I started out I was asking people what they ate for breakfast, who cooked for them and other weird awkward questions as icebreakers. I took notes even when I was just making light conversation, making me look like a census taker. People had to point these things out to me for me to change them. Usually these people were Latino. Why are there are no stories about people who try to help but start out doing it all wrong? Or even more importantly, a story of a helper failing?

In SC doing healthoutreach work.
Ben doing health outreach Work

I may, in the future, write the story I’m describing, although I have other projects at the moment. Right now I just thought I’d throw the questions out there and see what people thought.