25 for 25 – Put on Your Red Shoes and Dance the Blues

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Nowadays, movies are saturated all the way through with stories about struggling artists and that has been so since the nascency of the very artform (the oldest I can think of on the spot is the historical Jazz Singer from 1927, but you can be damn sure that’s a great underestimation on my part) and because every artist takes their art seriously, even if they’re talking about different artforms and mediums, they all essentially have some sort of emotional investment in the struggles of the artist. Life struggles, physical struggles, psychological struggles, financial struggles, it’s oh so very hard to be an artist but worth it because of what you create and how it obviously affects others, these are all the revelations each one of these movies discover over and over and over again.

And so I suppose on the very genesis of it, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger aka The Archers (always getting duo credits for director, producer, and writer, but  were not doing anything special when they decided to make a movie about a ballet based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale “The Red Shoes”, but the execution behind it… it leaves most of those other movies in the dust. The Red Shoes seems more intent overall as a movie to utilize as many of the tools of cinema as it can to make the psychological state of its lead dancer Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) into a complete abstraction and succeeds marvelously. Powell and Pressburger are responsible for some of the inarguably most beautiful movies of all time and I sincerely think The Red Shoes‘ design is easily their best. Meaning that I think The Red Shoes is one of the best-looking movies to ever exist, fuck it. And a lot of that praise from revolves around its central scene.

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I’m not sort of guy who subscribes to the idea that only one element being masterful is enough to carry a movie to pantheon-level. I like to think of film as collaborative and needing every element to work perfectly before it can get better. But if I end up talking exclusively about the ballet close to the end of this, I want you to understand: this is a movie shot by Jack Cardiff, the Archers’ regular, and designed by Arthur Lawson and Hein Heckroth and even the mundane one-on-one discussions are set in such aristocratic palatial interiors that it’s all wonderful to look at. But that ballet is why this movie is a masterpiece, just everything else around it is great. But first the context to that scene:

In the development of that very ballet adaptation of the Anderson story, the impresario of one of the most acclaimed ballet companies in the world Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook based essentially on Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballet Russes) has employed the dancer Vicky whom he finds an arresting amount of potential in and the young conservatory student Julian Craster (Marius Goring) whom he hires after discovering that one of the company’s composers has in fact been a professor of Craster’s and plagiarizing his work. There’s hardly much more beyond backstage drama going on within the film leading up to the ballet, but one of those very threads of backstage drama wraps itself around Vicky’s ankle and tries to tear her apart. And that thread is the romance that blossoms between her and Craster in their preparations and artistic arguments for the upcoming show that begins to disturb Lermontov. Not of a romantic jealousy, though. Lermontov is of the strict opinion that there is no room for domesticity in the hunt for artistic greatness and we earlier see him dismiss his prima ballerina Irina (Ludmilla Tcherina) for her imminent marriage. The gendered factor aside, it’s very clear that Vicky wants to be able to live her life in love with Craster AND wants to reach her full potential as an dancer under Lermontov’s guidance, but Lermontov absolutely will not allow her to have both and it leads to a domestic clash of attitudes between Craster’s young anger and Lermontov’s stubborn classicalism with the helpless Vicky in between unable to use her autonomy to truly pick one or the other and all three of the leads are superb on this front.

But Shearer gets the best most showy role and she gets to do it in the middle of one of the all-time greatest dancepieces ever put to film, particularly because it is the sort of dancepiece that could only be set to film. Scored by the Brian Easdale’s composition conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham with the Royal Philharmonic, the scope of Lawson and Heckroth’s sets and backgrounds to the play do not fit into any reasonable proscenium scale, there is no way this production can work within a stage, but because The Red Shoes is a movie and not a stage production, it gets to cheat at it and have all these angular, surrounding expressionist village sets full of depth despite their artificiality and the superimposed easy on the eyes skies of red and blue to begin heightening our emotional reactions to these colors and at the center Shearer and Leonide Massine (playing the Shoemaker within the play) pantomime essentially the relationship between Vicky and Lermontov, the Red Shoes being the most obvious metaphor for Vicky’s desire to dance and once they’re on her shoes in a magical movie trick of stop motion, she dances oh so elegantly and wonderfully and then precariously and then interminably and it turns from blissful to frightening just from the curtness of Vicky’s movements and the stamina Shearer must have and then the world keeps spinning around her and we witness that with her sways and the backgrounds now becoming easy light colors that would be so comfortable if it wasn’t obvious how much it pains the girl in the red shoes until the ballet itself climaxes in a manner that foresees the tragedy of the drama behind the production itself.

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The bad news is that it tells the story of the movie already in the most overt manner and once The Red Shoes reaches those heights, it never ever returns to them. Everything after seems mundane in its aftermath despite being made two of the least mundane filmmakers in all of 1940s British filmmaking. And it almost ends up being a waiting game for the rest of the movie to get to the ending you already know it’s heading towards, but maybe that’s just if you’re me and prefer your storytelling by such overt visual abstractions rather than by narrative drama. Because by god, do Shearer and Walbrook and Goring still do their best in their performances to match up in the Archers’ scripted melodrama what that ballet was able to do in craft and I personally find it worthy of a cool down. The Red Shoes feels like a complete challenge to Musical Cinema beyond, the 1950s being plumfull of centerpiece dance numbers like An American in ParisSingin’ in the Rain, and The Band Wagon trying to match up to Powell and Pressburger’s daring marriage of film and dance and music and stage to become the ultimate artform, but there can only be one pair of Red Shoes and it looks like Powell and Pressburger are wearing them. I guess they can split it.

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Be Our Pest, Be Our Pest… Put My Patience to the Test

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I don’t know if we feel safe with identifying the very beginning of this exhausting span of Live-Action (or Photorealistic CGI) remakes of their animated classics as 1994 with Stephen Sommers’ The Jungle Book, 1996 with the Glenn Close vehicle 101 Dalmatians, or 2010 with Tim Burton’s nightmare version of Alice in Wonderland. In any case, despite being really impressed with the Jon Favreau version of The Jungle Book and David Gordon Green Lowery’s version of Pete’s Dragon last year, I think Bill Condon’s remake of Beauty and the Beast has proven to be enough to exhaust me from wanting these things to happen again, no matter how many Donald Glovers you cast as Simba. It’s not a fatigue things where there’s too many of them (I mean, there are, but one was already too many), it’s a “THIS MOVIE IS FUCKING BAD AND POTENTIALLY THE WORST OF THE REMAKES SO FAR GIVE OR TAKE A REWATCH OF BURTON’S ALICE IN WONDERLAND THAT WILL NEVER FUCKING HAPPEN” thing.

I am aware I may be overreacting, given that Beauty and the Beast is a movie that I can find very few problems with and one of my favorite Disney movies of all-time (hence a contender for one of my favorite movies of all time outright), but I can’t think of any which way that most of the changes made to the story or aesthetic of the original animated film could be assumedly directed towards the good end of things. Like for real, the times when the movie isn’t being totally offensive to my eyes are how it just tries to or Ewan McGregor as the candelabra Lumiere actually displays campy swagger within his scenes, thus invigorating energy into the sloggish film just from his own voice acting (the design of the character… ehhhhh… we’ll get back to that.

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This film has entirely drained me of my willingness to sacrifice time and energy to provide a prose review so I’m opting to just rush this as quickly as I can by listing all the things about this movie that I either very much enjoyed (for there are indeed things that I enjoyed that tried – but failed due to overwhelming circumstances – to dull the pain of watching this) and by listing everything about it that I fucking hated. I will not forgive this movie for the following items:

  • Dan Stevens has been on a roll already from Downton Abbey to Legion to even a star-making performance (in a perfect world) in The Guest, a movie I otherwise dislike. He’s not in The Cobbler enough to let that derail his career, why the fuck would you dare to ruin his stride by giving him the rubberiest beast face one could ever see and morphing his voice? This is an unfair way to tarnish his legacy!
  • Speaking of the visual aesthetic of the thing, all of the characters who are transformed into frightening looking frigid items that inspire more shock and body horror fear than the sort of magical wonder Beauty and the Beast as a story should aim for? In some cases, like Lumiere, the physicality of the thing is outright ghastly and devoid of a way to match the personality to the look (which is why I enjoy animation so much). Is this deliberate? I hope not because it just shows contempt for the whole concept. Like, this screenshot from Twin Peaks is essentially the vibe I get from every single physical design of the house staff:

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And yet their voices are so cheerful.

  • Speaking of the aesthetic, did Sarah Greenwood’s unicorn shit all over the fucking set and they couldn’t clean it up in time? This castle of the beast is a garish gold! The provincial town is fine if still lost in time, but who looks to these movies for temporal identity.
  • If you’re going to have a cast of singers, this isn’t La La Land where they’re meant to feel like real people. They better damn well sing and I will never EVER FUCKING EVER forgive director Bill Condon for having an autotuned Emma Thompson throw her Lansbury impersonation to perform a Daft Punk rendition of Beauty and the Beast. Let alone Emma Watson sounding like T-Pain overdubbed her.
  • Josh Gad’s self-aware post-modern performance would be welcome in a movie that’s obviously supposed to feel like a parody of Beauty and the Beast and even then… the stuff he says is just not funny. There has never been a comedy actor that’s made me more conflicted than Gad.
  • Tim Rice is not Howard Ashman. Because Ashman was a God and Tim Rice is a terrible lyricist. So please, stop using Rice’s fucking songs. “How Does a Moment Last Forever” and “Evermore” do not remotely compare to “Gaston”, “Beauty and the Beast”, and “Belle”. Not to mention the visuals of those numbers are just fractured and not nearly as sweeping as the original.
  • More importantly somehow the movie thought “Daddy Issues” was the answer to making the Beast seem a much more interesting character and ignoring complaints Stockholm Syndrome. Instead it makes The Beast seem so petulant and it’s inconceivable how the brand new “feminist” version of Belle would be even remotely attracted to him.
  • The consequence of all this is padding a fleet 86 minute fairy tale to a 129 minute overgluttonous grotesquerie.

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And because I am absolutely generous, I will also list everything I like about this movie’s existence.

  • The costumes are good in a cosplay contest winner sort of way. Nothing truly expressive, but Jacqueline Durran obviously wants to emulate the original in the most theatrical manner and gets the job done.
  • Ewan McGregor gives a fun vocal performance as Lumiere just chewing up scenery without even being physicially on-screen and his chemistry with Gugu Mbatha-Raw lights things up enough (pun intended).
  • McGregor, Mbatha-Raw, Stanley Tucci, and Audra McDonald have the most hilariously fake accents I’ve ever heard and put so much character and personality in their limited screentime that I would have much rather THEY were the stars of the movie.

And that’s it. None for Gretchen Wieners. Fuck this movie.

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