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The Lion King (2019)

Ever since the run-up of Disney’s live-action remakes, I’ve been predicting what would happen with the newer films, and it all seems to be coming true. The problem with Disney remaking hit animated movies from the 80s and 90s is that there hasn’t been enough distance. The immediate audience is going to demand their nostalgia exactly as they remember it, and they will not be happy with anything less. It’s not like a scenario where the original movies could be improved upon, like 2016’s beautifully tender Pete’s Dragon. What these live-action remakes offer is an uglier, inferior version of an animated classic. There’s no reason for most of them to exist. They won’t be different; they won’t be interesting. It’s a sludgy, auto-tuned cash grab that shows no end in sight. Before this year, I did not expect Tim Burton’s Dumbo to be the best of the three 2019 Disney live-action remakes, but here we are. I guess the concept of Disney eating its own tail with these live-action remakes is symbolic of the studio “circle of life,” and the perfect segue way to The Lion King, a remake missing the wonder and magic of the 1994 original.

King Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones again) rules over an African prairie and preparing his young son Simba (JD Mcrary and Donald Glover as an adult) for his eventual rule. Mufasa’s scornful brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) conspires to have Mufasa killed and Simba banished. Blaming himself for his father’s death, Simba runs away and finds kinship with a meerkat named Timon (Billy Eichner) and a warthog named Pumba (Seth Rogen). They preach a carefree life of “no worries.” This new life is interrupted when Nala (Beyoncé Knowles), Simba’s childhood friend, returns seeking help to remove Scar from the throne. Simba must confront his fate and treacherous uncle and bring balance back to his ailing homeland.

The biggest appeal of director Jon Favreau’s Lion King remake is the stunning special effects. It’s been ten years since James Cameron brought to life a photo realistic alien world that dazzled audiences, and the advances have only made the professional fakery more startling. This movie was completely “filmed” inside a computer. Every single shot, every blade of grass, every pebble, every photo realistic morsel onscreen is the result of digital wizards. In 2016’s The Jungle Book, there were still some physical elements filmed, chief among them the human boy, but now it’s all done away. The remake looks like an HD nature documentary. One could question the use of the technology, $250 million to recreate what ordinary cameras on location could achieve, but I’ll choose to congratulate Disney and Favreau on the remarkable technical achievement. The Jungle Book was a big leap forward and The Lion King is that next step. However, the special effects are ultimately the only selling point. Come see how real it all looks, kids. The rest of the remake left me feeling unmoved and occasionally perplexed.

This is an almost exact shot-for-shot recreation of the original movie. It made me think of Gus van Sant’s 1998 Psycho remake and why anyone would go to this much trouble to make a copy. You’ll feel a tingle of recognition with different shots and scenes and then that feeling will transition to disappointment and lastly resignation. It’s the same, just not as good.

So what exactly is different with the live-action Lion King of 2019? Very very little. Despite totaling a half hour more movie, it really only has one added incidental Beyoncé song, a small character beat where Timon and Pumba explain their philosophy on more fatalistic terms, an explanation how Nala left the pride lands, and more poop and fart jokes. The filmmakers have added realism in appearance but also added more scatological humor, which seems like an odd combination. There is a literal plot point attached to giraffe poop. Instead of a whispery feather, petal, whatever finding its way to the baboon Rafiki to let him know Simba is still alive, now we watch the life of a tuft of fur as it travels from creature to creature, at one point being consumed on a leaf by a giraffe. The next image is a ball of poop being rolled by a beetle with our tell-tale tuft of lion fur. I guess it’s more emblematic of the whole “circle of life” theme, but I didn’t think Disney was going to literalize the poop aspect. The new Beyoncé song is fairly bland and unmemorable. That’s it, dear reader. Lion King 2019 is 95 percent identical to Lion King 1994 in plot, and yet the original writers do not earn a screenwriting credit thanks to arcane animation writing guild rules, and that is madness. It’s their story, it’s their characters, and it’s almost entirely their dialogue, and to not have their names rightfully credited where they belong is wrong.

There are some definite drawbacks to that photo realism as well. When lions and other animals are photo realistic, they have facial structures that don’t exactly emote, so it looks like all the animals often just have their jaws wired shut. You’ll listen to the vocal actors go through a range of emotions and watch these plain, unmoved faces that you start to wonder if maybe all of the dialogue should have just been voice over. As soon as I saw Mufasa speaking, I was immediately shaken by the image and longed for the expression of the animation. I never got over it and it made me feel removed from the film, even more so. This is the trade off of realism; animals don’t actually speak, you know. Another trade off is that the film becomes much more intense especially for younger kids. I would not recommend parents take the littlelest ones to this movie because now, instead of watching a traditionally animated band of characters brawl, you’re watching realistic lions and hyenas scrape, claw, and hurl one another to their deaths. If kids were traumatized by parts of the original movie, I can only imagine the nightmares that await. Strangely, the photo realism also mitigates the film’s sense of scope and impact. The stampede sequence feels far less dangerous because the camera doesn’t pull back that far, showing a massive herd from a distance. Subsequently the sequence loses some of its urgency. Then there’s also simply identifying who may be who when those fights come, because you’re trying to pick out realistic animals instead of distinct creatures with specific character designs.

The aspects you enjoyed with the 1994 Lion King will still be enjoyable, even if they suffer in direct comparison. Hans Zimmer’s score is still magnificent. The songs are still catchy, though some of the arrangements are a bit under-cooked, like the speak-sung “Be Prepared.” The song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” occurs absurdly early in the Simbla/Nala reunion and takes place in the sunny afternoon. So much for “tonight” (the famous Nala “bedroom eyes” moment is also quite diminished from a real lion’s face). The jokes are still funny because they were funny the first time. The things that worked the first time will still work to some degree, even if the presentation leaves something to desire. Several of the vocal artists just sound flat, especially Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) who comes across so blasé. I missed the casual menace of Jeremy Irons. The best vocal performances belong to Eichner (Difficult People) and Rogen (Long Shot), maybe because they’re already broad personalities, or maybe because they felt the most comfortable to occasionally steer away from the original script, finding small room to roam. Florence Kasumba (Black Panther) also delivers a snarling and effective performance as one of the hyena leaders, Shenzi. They’re the only vocal performances that fare well in competition.

I need to defend the art of animated films. There is nothing wrong with animated films simply because they are animated. A live-action version is not better simply because it’s more “real.” I hear this same argument when it comes to making a live-action anime. Animation is a wonderful medium and has a magic all its own that often live-action cannot emulate. The animated Lion King is beautiful with bold colors, strong visual compositions, and emotive characters with specific designs. The live-action Lion King is missing much of that, at least when it’s not recreating exact shots from its predecessor. I don’t know who this movie is going to appeal to. Parents will be better off just playing the original for their children at home. Die-hard fans of The Lion King might enjoy seeing their favorite story told with plenty of cutting-edge special effects magic. I would have been happier had the filmmakers attempted something like Julie Taymor’s transformative and ground-breaking Broadway show. I would have been happier had they just recorded the Broadway show. The new Lion King is a lesser version of the 1994 movie, plain and simple, and if that’s enough for you, then have at it. For me, these Disney live-action remakes are making me feel as dead in the eyes as a photo realistic lion.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Obsessed (2009)

When it comes to derivative, generic, formula-laden movies, usually you can predict every step of the plot with great accuracy from the trailer. Obsessed may be the first movie I could predict every moment based just from seeing the poster. This poor man’s Fatal Attraction follows a surprise-free trip to the end credits. Idris Elba is a family man who is harassed and stalked by his increasingly psychotic temp/temptress (Ali Larter). The movie doesn’t even have the temerity to have its lead cheat on his wife. There?s an interracial angle that is never really dealt with, meaning that the lone plot detail separating Obsessed from its peers is also swept under the rug. Everything here is borrowed from better movies with more style, substance, and heat. Larter doesn’t work as an antagonist or a figure of lust. She acts like a disinterested and icy when she should be flirty and smoldering. The plot quickly gets ludicrous as Larter’s repeated seduction attempts get brazen and confrontational. It strains credibility that Elba would keep trying to keep things under wraps. This girl needs to be referred to the police. Alas, I suppose these stalker thrillers wouldn’t be as interesting if people reacted realistically to psychotic behavior. Beyonce Knowles is the angry wife who gets to exact vengeance during the movie?s all-out, hair-pulling climactic catfight. But it’s a long slog until that catfight.

Nate’s Grade; C

Dreamgirls (2006)

When the smoke cleared after the 2006 Academy Award nominations, there were some media members in disbelief. How could Dreamgirls, an expensive, glitzy musical that many perceived as the front-runner for Best Picture, fail to even get nominated in the Best Picture category? Theories abounded; the mostly white Academy couldn’t acknowledge a movie steeped in black culture, the film fell prey to backlash against a momentous hype machine that rubbed people the wrong way, or even that it was unfairly judged against recent musicals, like 2002’s Best Picture winner Chicago, instead of being judged on its own merits. After having now seen the film, I have an altogether simple explanation: the Academy thought there were better movies and I couldn’t agree more. Here are five reasons why Dreamgirls just didn’t cut it.

1) The film just falls apart after the halfway mark. The focus is on the rise of the all girl group the Dreamettes in the 1960s Detroit music scene. Effie (Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson) is the strong-willed lead singer with big curves and a big voice. She’s pushed out of the way by her band mates so pretty face Deena (Beyonce Knowles) can front and sell records. Effie is our star and she doesn’t take the news well, and explodes in an emotional fury that results in the film’s true showstopper song, “And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going.” Trouble is, there’s still an hour of movie left. The second hour of Dreamgirls feels like a plot layover, as our characters don’t do much more than stuff their hands in their pockets and grumble. It’s astonishing how deflating the second hour to this movie is, and the film cannot sustain a viable interest or energy, leaving the audience to tap their toes to songs that already ended an hour prior. It’s a troubling sign when a film peaks at the halfway point and seems to only stall and sputter after.

2) The songs are not that special. Dreamgirls would have been far more entertaining if what we got was some honest, soulful, groove-inducing Motown music. Instead, what we get is the same pop filler that the characters bemoan what commercialism has transformed their music into. None of these ditzy ditties are very memorable and many of them start to just blend together, thanks in part to montage-obsessed editing. The other focus of Dreamgirls is on the rise of Motown, how a very Berry Gordy-like figure, played by Jamie Foxx, patterned black music and made it hit for white listeners. I think this was the most depressing part of the film for me, the fact that I could have done without the music in a musical.

3) The tone lacks clarity and can be grating. For about 80% of the movie when the characters sing it’s on stage as performance. Then two characters sing their displeasure with each other and the audience is like, “What the hell?” I accept the laws that govern musicals, and people spontaneously bursting into song and choreographed hoofing does not bother me, but whatever the choice it needs to be consistent. When the audience is used to seeing the singing contained to the stage, it becomes jarring when it transpires in reality. Director Bill Condon (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters) cleverly worked around this problem in his screenplay for Chicago by placing all the song-and-dance moments as glimpses into one woman?s musical-obsessed psyche. It seems so careless and easily remedied, so what were they thinking?

4) Dreamgirls is desperate for Oscar attention. At the end of the movie, after an awfully messy run to the finish line, come the end credits, however they aren’t so much as end credits as they are “for your consideration” ads. When the director of photography credit appears you see a man in a camera crane. When the costume designer is credited we see her sketches and the real outfits side-by-side. Some of it is silly, like when the casting director is listed and we see, no kidding, a checkerboard of faces, like the movie is saying, “This is what a casting director does, look.” The sequence is moderately annoying and a little patronizing, but it is a splendid example of the filmmaking ethos. It feels like the over zealous studios thought that by throwing together a bunch of musical staples and covering it with fancy decoration that they could fool audiences into thinking they saw a full-blooded story.

5) You fail to feel for any of the characters. In the rush of production numbers and period detail, the characters all suffer horrendously. The Dreamettes are obviously a take on the Supremes, and Deena is obviously supposed to be Diana Ross; they even recreate iconic Diana Ross pictures with her. By this token, it seems like the filmmakers felt they could slack off on characterization and just banish their actors to the ghettos of genre archetypes. I didn’t feel for anyone, even Effie once she got her walking papers for being essentially fussy, overweight, and sticking with her integrity. She tries to pick up the pieces of her life but even she seems disinterested once the stage lights no longer shine upon her. The characters have about a dewdrop of depth to them and can be summarized each by one sentence. Shallow characters and a less-than-compelling second half doom the movie.

There are enjoyable aspects to Dreamgirls, notably the performances from the supporting players. Eddie Murphy experiences nothing short of a career resurgence playing Jimmy Earl Haley, a groundbreaking soul singer with a fiery stage presence. Murphy puts his all into the performance and is such a live wire that Dreamgirls seems downright downtrodden without him. Former American Idol contestant Hudson has been collecting accolades for her diva-like performance, and while her singing is full of bluster and verve, I cannot say the same for her acting. She gives a solid overall performance but doesn’t try hard to hide her inexperience with acting. I wouldn’t have given Hudson an Oscar, but then I wouldn’t have given Oscars to a lot of the eventual winners (Julia Roberts, your hardware rightly belongs to Ellen Burstyn).

Film critic David Poland was nearly beside himself with Dreamgirls‘ omission from the Best Picture contenders. He argued that had it been nominated it would have won (I’m not sure how that logic works, but I do have a bridge I’d like to sell Poland). Dreamgirls is not bereft of technical charms and entertainment, but to posit this as anything above a mediocre musical is just plain madness. The characters barely leave an impact, the music is the same pop pap it laments, and the movie just simply peaks too soon. There’s nothing daring or innovative with this song and dance revue, and for long periods it feels like a pandering exercise in dress-up and nostalgia. I suppose in the end the Academy just thought there were five better movies than Dreamgirls, and, for once, I agree with them.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002)

Is anyone else getting tired of watching the same re-heated jokes again and again with the Austin Powers franchise? Making ‘Goldmember’ is basically considered money in the bank, so I’’m sure the creative people toiling behind the scenes don’’t want to rock to boat of a financially proven formula. But when you become creatively stagnant then what was once entertaining turns sadly redundant.

I think there was four actual things I laughed at in the whole movie, and that in no way should justify admission price. I might be alone in my thinking but I feel the Austin Powers spy-spoof series is just getting less and less funny the more financially successful it becomes. Do we need to see more scenes with the grotesque and unfunny Fat Bastard? Do we need more scenes with the requisite underwritten female role (this time played by Beyonce Knowles)? And do we really need Austin at all? I mean if you want to talk about the weak link in this comedy troupe, it’’s the name bearer himself. Whenever the film has to switch back to Powers the comedy drops to the floor. I would gladly pay good money to see an entire Dr. Evil movie. Michael Caine is the only solid addition to this movie.

It doesn’’t matter what goes on in this some hour and forty minutes of screen time, because it will be huge. Many of the jokes fall flat, are devoid of wit, and just go for the cheapest and most scatological way out. I’m not saying I expected much seeing the latest Austin Powers movie but I did expect to laugh, and not doing so is the biggest sin for a comedy.

Nate’s Grade: C

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