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:

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ROCKETMAN (2019)

May 30, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s billed as a musical fantasy. If you are familiar with Elton John’s discography and history, you’ll want to keep that in mind as the film unfolds. The reward is a colorful spectacle worthy of one of pop music’s most successful songwriters and greatest showmen. Director Dexter Fletcher (EDDIE THE EAGLE, 2015) and writer Lee Hall (BILLY ELLIOT, 2000) make frequent use of Elton’s music within the fabric of the storytelling. It’s no traditional biopic, nor should it be, given the wild ride of the man whose story is being told.

Taron Egerton tears into playing Elton John like it’s the role of a lifetime. And he succeeds in a way that makes it seem that could be true. Most of us first recognized Taron’s talent as “Eggsy” in KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2014), though I’m not sure we expected such a dynamic step up so soon. This is not some actor merely mimicking the movements of a celebrity. This is an actor taking possession of a role. Without the costumes, Taron doesn’t look much like Elton John. He certainly doesn’t sound like Elton John … though his voice does justice to the classic songs. Despite those things, he is captivating on screen, both in the dramatic moments and the musical mania.

Elton’s childhood and the strained relationship he had with his parents (played here by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Macintosh) are given much attention, as is the support and love of his grandmother (Gemma Jones). With two self-centered parents wishing he didn’t exist, the child piano prodigy might never have attended the Royal Academy of Music if not for grandmother Ivy. Of course, the professional relationship that meant the most to Elton’s career was his songwriting collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and much of the film is devoted to this prolific partnership – in fact, one of the most spine-tingling moments occurs as Bernie hands Elton the words to “Your Song” and Elton proceeds to set it to music right in front of us and Bernie. Whether that’s historically accurate or not, it provides a thrilling moment on screen for the creative duo.

Elton John in rehab is used as a framing device for the film. This allows him to walk us through his life … after admitting to having issues with drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping and anger. In other words, one of the most successful musicians of all time was a mess. And we get to sit front row as he details his early sexual confusion, his desire to be loved, his early professional frustration, and finally a career that exploded – covering him with money, adoration, stress, and more frustration. We see the warts and all.

Supporting roles are filled by Richard Madden as John Reid, Elton’s lover and manager; Tate Donovan as Doug Weston, owner of Sunset Blvd’s Troubadour; Rachel Muldoon as Kiki Dee, Elton’s collaborator on  their big hit “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”; and Stephen Graham as Dick James, the famous music publisher who first signed Elton.

As someone whose favorite Elton albums are “Tumbleweed Connection”, “Madman Across the Water”, and “Honky Chateau”, it’s easy for me to appreciate the time period covered here (roughly 1970-1983), and also to recognize the ‘artistic license’ taken with the timelines and events. His 1970 gig at Troubadour features a rowdy version of “Crocodile Rock”, which wasn’t even written yet … although the scene makes for great cinema. Many of the songs that advance the story are used out of sequence, but it’s quite effective to see and hear them in context. His marriage to Renate Blauel and the rehab stint featured both occurred after 1983, which we can assume is the story’s stopping point given the use of the “I’m Still Standing” video as a finale. Even the use of John Lennon over Long John Baldry doesn’t really matter since this is all about the spectacle, and for spectacle, you’ve likely never seen costumes (including eyeglasses and headdresses) used to such startling effect … and so frequently. The baseball “uniform” Elton wore during his 1975 Dodger Stadium gig has always made me a bit uncomfortable, but it’s recreated beautifully for the film.

Given that comparisons to the recent BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY are inevitable, it should be noted that director Dexter Fletcher rescued the final production of that film before finishing this one. Freddie Mercury and Elton John are two of the most fascinating figures in music history, and while both films are enjoyable, it’s ROCKETMAN that is willing to take the riskier path by highlighting the flaws of a creative genius. So criticize if you must, but you’ll probably still be singing in your seat.

watch the trailer:


ALL THINGS MUST PASS (2015, doc)

November 6, 2015

all things must pass Greetings again from the darkness. I do not envy those experiencing their childhood in this modern era. Sure, they have far superior electronics and hundreds more TV channels, but they also have very little independence (most can’t even walk alone to a friend’s house or a park) and they likely will never experience the pure joy of perusing the stacks at Tower Records (or any other record store) for hours … experiencing the thrill of discovering a new artist or style of music that rips into their soul. OK, I admittedly suffer from a touch of “old man” syndrome, but filmmaker Colin Hanks (yes, the actor and son of Tom) has delivered both a cozy trip down memory lane and a stark accounting of good times and bad at Tower Records.

With humble beginnings as little more than a lark, Tower Records began when Russ Solomon’s dad decided to sell used 45 rpm singles in his cramped Sacramento drug store. He bought the singles for 3 cents and sold them for 10 cents. Within a few years, Russ purchased the record business from his dad, and proceeded to run it as only a rebellious kid from the 1960’s could. From 1960 through 2000, the business grew each year. It expanded the number of stores (peaking at 192 worldwide) and constantly adjusted to the musical tastes and the delivery method – 45’s, LP’s, cassettes, CD’s, etc.

Using some terrific photographs and video clips, accompanied by spot on music selections, director Hanks brilliantly and generously allows the actual players to tell the story. The expected celebrity drops are present, and even the words of David Geffen, Dave Grohl, Bruce Springsteen and Sir Elton John carry emotion. However, far and away the most impact comes from extended interviews with the unconventional and charismatic Tower Records founder Russ Solomon and his devoted and forthright employee team. Their sincere recollections provide the roadmap through the phenomenal growth, as well as the devastating end in 2006. We understand how these stores became so much more than retail outlets … they were cultural hotspots for at least two generations. We also learn some things we probably shouldn’t … like the definition of “hand truck fuel”, and the reason Russ installed hot lighting in the listening booths.

Mr. Hanks surprises with his ability to balance nostalgia and the harsh realities of the downfall of an iconic cultural business. The film captures the key role Tower Records, while also pointing out that the crash was due to more than just Napster and digital music delivery. An interesting case study for business majors highlights the importance of vision vs debt. For more insight from Colin Hanks, check out the interview from film critic Chase Whale: http://www.hammertonail.com/reviews/documentary/a-conversation-with-colin-hanks-all-things-must-pass/

“No Music. No Life”. The motto of Tower Records was somehow inspirational, and fit perfectly for stores that featured mammoth album artwork on their store fronts, their own “Pulse” magazine, and staff that couldn’t fathom life without music … much less wearing a suit and tie to work. This was truly “a chain of independent stores”, and trust me when I tell you that hanging out at Tower Records was more fun than having hundreds of cable channels.

watch the trailer: