THE LION KING (2019)

July 16, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you have come here to read yet another take on how this next-gen remake of a beloved film doesn’t bring anything new to the story, you’ve come to the wrong place. I love cinema as an art form, and when analyzing a movie, I typically look for the good and enjoyable, rather than focusing on every element I might be able to criticize … never forgetting that the on screen presentation is the culmination of work performed by many dedicated people so that I might sit back in a comfy seat within the confines of an air-conditioned theatre and be entertained for a couple of hours. And entertained I was.

It only takes a few moments for the awe to set in. The look is at times so realistic that kids may actually believe animals can talk. More than once the fur of an animal or the splash of the river reminded of a National Geographic program with ultra-High Definition photography. So let’s clear up something right now. This has been labeled as a “live action” remake of the animated classic from 1994. You should know, even if your eyes tell you otherwise, that there is nothing “live” in the film. Instead, everything you see on screen is computer-animated/generated. No, the lions and elephants aren’t real and neither are the trees or distant mountains. The look of the film is as revolutionary as when the first TOY STORY stunned us in 1995. We had never seen animation like that then, and we’ve never before seen computer effects like this. What is familiar are two early songs, “The Circle of Life” and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”.

Of course, neo-realism can be admired only as a technical achievement when we are discussing a movie in which lions talk and warthogs sing. So while we marvel at the technical achievement, let’s not lose sight of the story … what made the original so popular and beloved 25 years ago. Although it’s approximately a half-hour longer than the original, this one is exceedingly close to a scene-for-scene remake. Only minor tweaks will be noticed, mostly in the demeanor of Scar and the banter between Pumbaa and Timon – each actually improving on the first film. What remains is the coming-of-age story that will now touch many new hearts and minds.

Kids will be immediately entranced with the cubs, Simba and Nala, voiced by JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph (the daughter in Jordan Peele’s US), and with Zazu (voiced by John Oliver), the goofy and comical bird tasked with keeping an eye on the two adventurous youngsters as they get themselves into trouble. James Earl Jones (now 88 years old) reprises his iconic voice role as the wise Mufasa, and Alfre Woodward voices Sarabi, the pride’s leading female. Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent as the bitter Shakespearian villain Scar, but I couldn’t help but wish Jeremy Irons had returned for this interpretation of the jealous and power-hungry brother of Mufasa.

The energy level jumps once Simba meets Pumbaa the warthog and Timba the meerkat. Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner take the comedy routine to a new place, and we can only assume much of their banter is off-script. Kids may not get every joke, but they are sure to respond to this odd couple. Donald Glover and Beyonce voice the grown Simba and Nala, and both are outstanding – especially with their singing (no surprise there). Nala’s role is expanded a bit … as expected when you cast Queen Bey. Her original song “Spirit” is included but it’s her duet with Glover on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” that is a real musical standout.

Director Jon Favreau has been in the chair for such hits as IRON MAN 2 (2010), IRON MAN (2008), and ELF (2003), and he was also behind Disney’s live-action remake of THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016). The writing credits belong to Jeff Nathansan (CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, 2002) for the screenplay, Oscar winner Brenda Chapman (BRAVE, 2012) for the story, and Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton for the characters. The latter three were among the 28 writers credited for the 1994 version. Also back is composer Hans Zimmer, who won an Oscar for his 1994 score, and songwriters Elton John and Tim Rice, also Oscar winners for their 1994 song, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”.

The beloved 1994 version didn’t win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature film because the award didn’t exist until 2002; however, it did spawn the 1997 Broadway smash musical. This more realistic version is rightly rated PG rather than G, as some of the scenes are likely to be a bit intense for younger viewers. And it’s important to remember that this version is meant to bring Simba’s story to a whole new generation – it’s not meant to replace the 1994 version for those who were kids when it came out so many years ago. The story and characters, while familiar to those age 30 and up, will be a whole new viewing experience for today’s kids. So while we may prefer the 1994 animated version, kids today will likely be enthralled by this updated look. And we all better get used to it, because Disney has 18 more “live action” remakes in the works (some of which will actually be “live” action).

watch the trailer:

Advertisements

LONG GONE WILD (2019, doc)

July 16, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. As described here, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentary BLACKFISH “changed everything” in regards to Orcas being held in captivity. But then Bill Neal’s documentary proceeds to lay out all of the problems that still exist and some new challenges that are occurring in Russia and China. So maybe everything hasn’t changed.

We are told that in North America, there are 22 killer whales in captivity, 20 of which are at Sea World parks. These “killer whales” are really Orcas, the majestic black and white creatures that are featured in Sea World shows and promotional paraphernalia. In the wild, they hunt and feed on Blue whales, the largest animals on Earth. In captivity, they are fed flash-frozen fish from a bucket, and forced to swim in pools too shallow to protect their skin from the sun … and worse, separated from their family and community.

The film provides a timeline and history of Orcas in captivity. 1965 was the year that Ted Griffin’s Seattle aquarium put Namu on public display. After that, Shamu became the stage name for the main attraction at all Sea World parks. Of course, the film touches on Tillikum, the main focus of BLACKFISH and the Orca involved with the publicized death of a trainer. Tillikum was also the sire to many offspring used in the Sea World community.

Filmmaker Neal includes interviews with authors, scientists, former trainers, and researchers. Author David Kirby (“Death at Sea World”) and Biologist Dr. Naomi Rose are two featured players who bring much insight to the topic. The “wildlife trade” now involves Russia capturing Orcas in the wild and then selling to China for millions of dollars. China is building marine parks modeled on what the United States had in the 1960’s, and the poor facilities are a major concern for those involved with protecting the species.

For many years, science and education were the defense offered for keeping these animals in captivity. It’s now very obvious that entertainment … or more precisely, profit, is the driving force. The film leaves us with the updated statistics. Worldwide there are now 60 Orcas being held in captivity in 15 parks throughout 8 countries. The heartfelt plea from those involved with the Whale Sanctuary Project is “Don’t buy a ticket”. If only everything had really changed.

watch the trailer:


STUBER (2019)

July 11, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A wild and over-the-top chase-fight-shootout at the Staples Center is the action-packed opening sequence, leading us to believe we are about to spend 90 minutes watching a mountain-sized rogue-cop out for vengeance. And then, as soon as that He-Man cop squeezes into the front seat of an electric car Uber, everything changes. The seismic shift in tone transitions our movie into a throwback to the 1980’s buddy action-comedies, only with a few contemporary twists. Whether that’s an improvement will depend on your preferences.

As intense as that opening sequence is, we can’t help but chuckle as we see Dave Bautista and Karen Gillan, co-stars of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, reuniting on screen as police partners Vic Manning and Sara Morris. Their attempts to apprehend drug dealer Teijo (Iko Uwais, THE RAID: REDEMPTION) goes horribly wrong and sets Vic on his mission to track down Teijo as he strives to avenge the death of his partner. It’s this personal vendetta that has Vic prioritizing the job and his need for revenge over his relationship with his daughter Nicole (Nathalie Morales, BATTLE OF THE SEXES).

Vic inadvertently schedules his LASIK surgery on the same day as Nicole’s gallery showcase of her sculptures, and this decision leads to his being crunched up in the front seat of Stu’s UBER (“Stuber”, get it?). Kumail Nanjani (THE BIG SICK) stars as Stu, the timid, peace-loving guy who also has a lousy job at a retail sporting goods store, and makes bad financial decisions based on his WHEN HARRY MET SALLY situation with Becca (Betty Gilpin). Stuck in the friendzone, Stu’s unrequited love has him in the role of good guy to call whenever Becca gets dumped or needs money.

Director Michael Dowse and writer Tripper Clancy turn the film into a road trip around the L.A. area, with each new destination punctuated with another comedic exchange between the intimidating Vic and the ‘I just wanna be with Becca’ Stu. In supporting roles, we get Mira Sorvino as Vic’s police Captain McHenry, and Jimmy Tatro as Stu’s entitled and clueless store manager Richie.

Other than the frenetic opening sequence, most of the action scenes play second fiddle to the comedic interactions between opposites Vic and Stu. Unlike FREE FIRE where the comedy and action complemented each other, this film oddly allows some of the violent moments to double as punchlines … these end up failing as both action and comedy. The film is certainly at its best when Vic and Stu are riffing off of each other, especially in the cozy front seat. The eyesight gag is overplayed and gets old pretty fast, but Kumail again proves he’s a master of deadpan one-liners. The hulking Bautista more than holds his own (despite the incessant squinting), and the film touches on today’s man vs the traditional idea of a man’s man. It’s a bit of a throwback to such buddy films as 48 HOURS, MIDNIGHT RUN, and TANGO & CASH, but it also provides a contemporary take on rogue cops, romance and masculinity. It’s no LETHAL WEAPON, but the banter between Kumail and Bautista provide quite a few entertaining moments.

watch the trailer:


SWORD OF TRUST (2019)

July 11, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Lynn Shelton has put together a very successful career that began with her contributions to the early days of mumblecore (Andrew Bujalski, the Duplass brothers, et al). Along with her filmmaking, she has mixed in some fine TV work, including multiple episodes of “GLOW”, “Fresh Off the Boat”, and “New Girl”. This time out, with a script she co-wrote with Mike O’Brien, she stays true to her offbeat roots and love of characters with character.

There is a story here, and in fact, it was the synopsis that contributed to me agreeing to review this one … well that, and the previous work of Ms. Shelton. Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and her partner Mary (Michaela Watkins) have returned to Alabama with the expectation of inheriting Cynthia’s grandfather’s house. Instead of the house, Cynthia instead walks away with an antique sword, whose accompanying drawing and handwritten letter supposedly prove that the South won the Civil War.

A visit to Mel’s Pawn Shop begins the process of finding a buyer for the sword. Cranky Mel is played by Marc Maron, best known for his stand-up comedy. As a shop owner, he seems constantly annoyed by his dim bulb employee Nathaniel (Jon Bass). The two couldn’t be more different, as Nathaniel spends his work days plugged into conspiracy podcasts (including one run by the film’s co-writer Mike O’Brien in a quick cameo). However, it’s Nathaniel that discovers the “truthers” who believe the ‘South won the war’, and are the best possible fit as buyers for Cynthia’s sword.

Director Shelton makes an appearance as Deirdre, Mel’s former lover. As a couple, their rocky history includes significant drug use and little contribution to society. Also appearing is Toby Huss as Hog Jaws, the oddball middleman involved with the sword transaction. “Seinfeld” fans will recall Mr. Huss as “The Wiz” from that popular show.

This is a deep cut indie, and the humor will either appeal to you or you’ll find it absolutely absurd (or maybe both). The entertainment is derived from the ‘little’ moments and the manner in which the characters interact.  It appears many scenes were improvised, a trait of early Shelton projects, and with such talented comedy actors, it’s no wonder. The offbeat story simply exists to give these actors a reason to be funny … something they do quite well.

watch the trailer:


MIDSOMMAR (2019)

July 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Summer movies are traditionally tentpoles and teen flicks … big budget action movies and those aimed at an audience that are on a 3 month reprieve from school. We are quickly learning that rising star filmmaker Ari Aster cares little for tradition. Well at least he seems to thrive on twisting tradition and spinning off in an unusual direction. His feature film debut was last year’s mega-hit HEREDITARY, a horror film which was noted in most every critics association Top 10 list for 2018.

HEREDITARY was filled with darkness and dread, and Mr. Aster’s second film begins with a similar setting: it’s a dark and cold night as Dani (Florence Pugh, LADY MACBETH) frantically searches for her bi-polar sister through emails and phone calls. During her search, we realize that her relationship with boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor, SING STREET) is a bit strained. The brilliant pre-credit sequence results in a horrific tragedy striking Dani’s family. Christian does his best to offer support, but he’s a typically weasel of a man who feels more at ease hanging out with his grad school buddies than providing love and compassion to his needy girlfriend … and he’s not man enough to tell her, despite the urging of his friends.

An awkward group conversation leads Dani to accept an invitation to go on the boys’ trip to Sweden. The purpose of the trip is twofold: to participate in a 9 day long village festival held every 90 years and for Josh (William Jackson Harper, “The Good Place”) to work on his thesis. The other guys in the group are Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) whose family in Sweden is hosting the festival, and Mark (Will Poulter, THE REVENANT) who provides much of the comic relief thanks to his overall cluelessness about pretty much everything related to graceful societal interactions.

And with that set-up comes one of the most deranged, unsettling and bizarre movie experiences this year (or most any year) is likely to bring. Try to picture a Folk Horror Comedy Fairy Tale Break-up Pagan Cult film, which at any given time reminds of MOTHER!, THE WICKER MAN, THE WIZARD OF OZ, THE VILLAGE, SUSPIRIA, and a handful of other cinematic oddities we’ve seen over the years. It is quite likely the sunniest horror film you’ve ever seen. And that’s a literal description … like the production could have been solar-powered. Most of it is filmed outside during Sweden’s Midnight Sun – constant sunshine accompanied by mostly bright white skin and even brighter white cotton costumes (embroidered as if meant for Woodstock). The daylight messes with your senses and expectations. Bad things are supposed to happen in the dark, not in broad daylight enveloped by picturesque wonders of nature. Although the opening is cold, dark and punctuated with tragedy, the rest is so bright, it almost blinds you to the atrocities on screen.

So without giving away anything, here’s what we are in for: a welcome to Sweden mushroom trip, a Waco joke, a caged bear, a sacred tree, a Powerball game you hope to lose, and flowers and trees that seem to breathe. We also are reminded not to forget the birthday of our significant other, living to age 72 is not really rewarded in this commune, and no one should ever dance till they drop – even to be named the Queen of May. Of course, as with most horror films, it’s easy to sit back as viewers and question the decision-making of the characters, but it’s not like they realize they are in a horror film … at least not until it’s too late!

Ms. Pugh (who reminds of another talented young actress, Haley Lu Richardson) is terrific here. Her character experiences shock, personal grief, a strained relationship, hallucinations, and a shot at revenge. The excellent music from Bobby Krlic, better known as The Haxan Cloak, is a mix of compositions and songs that create the mood for each character and scene. I was so shell-shocked at the end, that I’m unable to confirm that the version of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)” is that of The Walker Brothers (Scott Walker died earlier this year) or that of another band. Director Aster’s second film proves the exaggerated and diverse spectrum of what constitutes a horror film, and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s disorienting camera work perfectly complements a rare cinematic blend of frightening and funny. The cheery faces and pastoral beauty very nearly distract us from what might be the ugliest break-up movie ever.

watch the trailer:


MY DAYS OF MERCY (2019)

July 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. There have been some fine movies centered on death row. These include: THE GREEN MILE (1999), DEAD MAN WALKING (1995), THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE (2003), and TRUE CRIME (1999). The only one I can remember that even comes close to also being a love story is MONSTER’S BALL (2001), and if you’ve seen it, you would likely agree that it’s not exactly a warm and fuzzy story of romance. With this latest, however, Israeli director Tali Shalom-Ezer and British writer Joe Barton combine for a romantic story where death row plays a vital part.

Ellen Page stars as Lucy. She travels around the country in a well-worn motorhome with her older sister Martha (Amy Seimetz, UPSTREAM COLOR) and their little brother Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC), as they partake in the anti-death penalty demonstrations outside the prison gates as the next execution takes place. Across the parking lot, the pro-death penalty side hold their own signs and keep their own vigil. Lucy’s eyes lock on those of a striking young woman from the other side. When they meet, the ironically named Mercy (Kate Mara) aggressively flirts with the shy and confused Lucy, and the two sneak out for drinks at a bar.

Soon Lucy is anxiously awaiting the next protest so that she can meet up with Mercy. The sexual tension builds as they get to know each other, and their awkward friendship turns romantic. Their activism for different sides of an important topic doesn’t have any negative impact on their attraction to each other. Each woman has been personally affected by the death penalty, and as viewers we struggle with the idea that these two lovebirds part each time with what amounts to ‘see you at the next execution!’

Elias Koteas (TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, 1990) plays Lucy’s death row dad, and Brian Geraghty (THE HURT LOCKER) plays the attorney who is simultaneously working on his case and on Lucy’s sister Martha. The acting here is top notch as Kate Mara balances the two sides of Mercy, and Ellen Page flashes her familiar JUNO snark – albeit with the heft of a wisened adult. Ms. Seimetz adds to her list of always-interesting characters, and has a couple of truly outstanding scenes.

Blending love and the death penalty makes for an unusual combination, and we do understand that folks choose their side based on personal belief and circumstances. For the film, the death penalty issue is a bit of a distraction to the story of these two people, though it’s admirable that Mr. Barton chose to give them a personal stake in two different cases, rather than the same – which we would expect in a lesser movie. The use of “last meals” is quite creative, as we see the actual food, as well as the name of the inmate, the crime, and the prison.

The fallout from executions is widespread. Perhaps no one wants a narrative film focused entirely on such a depressing and divisive topic. We do ask ourselves if a romantic relationship is even possible for two who are diametrically opposed on such an emotional topic. It’s an ending that lets no one off the hook easily. Life is hard. So is death. Make your choices wisely.

watch the trailer:


WILD ROSE (2019)

July 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Quick … name all of the female Country music singers from Glasgow, Scotland! Yep, that unicorn is the premise for this film from director Tom Harper and writer Nicole Taylor, both best known for their British TV work. Rose-Lynn Harlan (played by Jessie Buckley) is being released after a year in jail on drug charges. She uncomfortably adjusts her white boots over the ankle monitor and sets off to conquer Nashville with her singing.

Of course there are a few obstacles to her Music City dream. See, she’s a single mother with two kids, and she’s from a working class area where putting food on the table and paying the bills is a significant achievement. Ms. Buckley stars as Rose-Lynn, and by stars I mean she carries the film and flashes great promise as an actress. Her no-nonsense mother Marion is played by 2-time Oscar nominee Julie Walters, and while Rose-Lynn has stars in her eyes, mother Marion pushes her to take a housekeeping job and be a mother to her kids. The scenes with Rose-Lynn and her kids are devastating, as she has no parenting instincts, and is solely focused on herself.

We know where all of this is headed, and it’s a credit to Ms. Buckley and Ms. Taylor’s script that we care enough to follow along. Rose-Lynn is employed to clean house by the wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), and we get one of the funniest vacuum cleaner scenes ever. Susannah soon takes on Rose-Lynn as a pet project with the goal of helping her get to Nashville for her shot.

Some rough language is peppered throughout and it’s spouted with the heaviest of Scottish accents, so much of it sounds a bit comical rather than threatening. The film is a bit uneven, but the mainstream approach keeps it from going too far off track, and it quite comfortably fits into the “crowd-pleasing” category. “Three chords and the truth” is used to describe country music, and if that’s your musical taste, you’ll likely enjoy the songs. However, if you prefer ‘Country and Western’, you’re flat out of luck. Either way, look out for Ms. Buckley.

** I saw this at the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival, and it’s now getting a theatrical release.

watch the trailer: