New from Every Movie Has a Lesson by Don Shanahan: MOVIE REVIEW: Beast

Image: Universal Pictures

BEAST– 3 STARS

Without a doubt, there is a quality level when it comes to the signature sounds of movie creatures. Most are manufactured creations, from the roars of mythical kaiju like Godzilla and the extinct dinosaurs of Jurassic Park to the throat clicks of Predator and the screeches of Xenomorphs in the Alien series. The best examples are memorable and brilliant work, yet there’s something about natural authenticity that raises a few more goose bumps and neck hairs. For Beast, it’s all about the snarl!

Anyone who’s watched an MGM movie for a century has heard the majestic pop of a lion’s roar. That’s all well and good, but the part that’s even better is the growling lead-up. The guttural purr of a lion is all-natural, distinctive, and menacing. The sound is an evocative draw and an arresting warning at the same time. It’s a precursor to danger. You hear it and your human instincts go off like fireworks because, as a wise character in Beast says, if it’s between you and the lion “it is not a fight you are designed to win.” 

That snarl revs the cardiovascular engine of Beast. It makes supervising sound designer and sound editor Glenn Freemantle (Men) the hidden hero of the movie, even though his audio is applied to a CGI antagonist fleshed out by visual effects from Enrik Pavdeja, a first-time full visual effects supervisor after a steady and successful career in the compositing department. Still, the fight-or-flight responses match the appeal of Beast. Creature Feature” fans will be properly put through their paces for a good time.

NYC doctor Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) is escorting his two teenage daughters, Norah and Meredith (TV actresses Leah Jeffries and Iyana Halley), on their first trip to South Africa. The impetus of this needed vacation is a bittersweet one as the family lost their beloved wife and mother to cancer in the last year. This is an absentee father’s attempt to retrace the matriarch’s history and heritage to the land where they first met. Their welcoming host is Nate’s old friend Martin Battles (District 9’s Sharlto Copley) who works in the nearby game preserves. 

LESSON #1: PARENTAL REGRET IS HUGE– The presence of Elba playing a failed family man weathering the grief and pushback from his daughters offers some dramatic underlayment for Beast before the claws and teeth arrive. His regrets and the overdue healing with his children provide additional character motivations beyond the carnal survival pressure coming later. They are not enormous, but the emotional asides shared between them and the heroically excessive fatherly promises dealt out lift the movie beyond simple chases.

Hiding the full view of what will be the main event combatant just like Jaws a generation ago, the movie’s opening before meeting our four key people introduces what is waiting unbeknownst to them out in the terrain. There’s a male lion who has survived poachers and is now running roughshod over the whole area. Putting an immediate and horrifying damper on their safari excursion, Martin and the Samuels clan discover the aftermath of this lone lion’s massacre of an entire village. Sure enough, they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time to be next.    

LESSON #2: “CREATURE FEATURES” THRIVE ON ABNORMAL BEHAVIOR– As the situation gets worse, Copley’s character ascertains beyond the typical protective territorial behaviors of lions to declare this particular big cat “knows who the real enemy is” with its targeting of humans. Let’s be honest. No one comes to “Creature Features” for the blasé details they can get in an encyclopedia. They’re coming for a dialed up wow factor and a wild body count. Our big bad lion in Beast behaves in ways that would make every zoologist cringe out of their khakis. 

LESSON #3: STAY PUT– Likewise, these kinds of movies tend to be rampant with foolish character decisions and ungodly resiliency too. With every “what the hell just happened” shout, our panicking girls inadvertently do their absolute best to put themselves and their stoic father in harm’s way over and over again. Stay put means stay put, whether that’s a car, a tree, or at home with air conditioning. We’ve seen Anaconda. Do we really think fire is going to stop our marauding monster before one more showdown? Going back to that notion of “not a fight you are designed to win,” Beast says “hold my beer” and tosses Idris Elba a hunting knife. 

You cannot call that completely smart, but that’s what we want watching a movie like Beast. Rampage screenwriter Ryan Engle has dabbled in movie monsters before and made Liam Neeson look like a badass twice (Non-Stop, The Commuter). Director Baltasar Kormákur knows how to dress up man-versus-nature peril with Everest and Adrift. Their collaboration was ideally suited to juice up Idris Elba to swim through this bloodbath of reasonably clever situations and creative pitfalls.

That’s the thing. All Beast has to do is look good from its filming locations in and around Mapungubwe National Park in the Limpopo province. Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It) deserves the most visual credit. Some “Creature Features” overplay the animal POV as a means to add movement and perspective. We’ve seen the kind of camera that pretends to slither on the ground, peak through the water, or stalk through the movie’s chosen fauna. It’s a cute and cheap trope. 

Rousselot slickly stays on the humans. He leaves the camera up at the body level and within close quarters of the people for often long takes. When the tension rises, so does the swirling action of his chosen angles that envelope the situation. By doing so, Rousselot and frequent Jim Jarmusch editor Jay Rabinowitz shroud the stalking lion to the unseen fringes and backgrounds where he can often come from anywhere. In this way, Beast moves very well in its 93 minutes to pounce at the prescribed times the audience finds itself eager for a spill or thrill. 

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LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#1062)

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