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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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Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

15 years. 6 movies. 3 different lead actors. 2 reboots. I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of the American public likely knows more about Spider-Man than their relatives. In 2002, the first Spider-Man movie kicked off the new century by affirming to studios that superhero movies are a sound financial investment. Director Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire kicked off the glut of superhero cinema, paving the path for the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and its own unparalleled run of financial and critical success. Then the overreach killed off Raimi’s Spider franchise in 2007 and overreach again killed off Sony’s Spider reboot in 2014. Sony wisely sought out an assist from the gurus of Marvel, striking a deal and having the web-slinger return to the MCU. Fans rejoiced. Spider-Man: Homecoming announces itself as a brash, exhilarating, hilarious, and amazingly assured film that immediately lines up with the upper tier of the MCU. Marvel should use this as Exhibit A, submit it to Fox, and say, “Here’s how we can do your franchises better.”

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is your ordinary 15-year-old from Queens, New York who was given amazing powers after being bit by a radioactive (or genetically modified) spider. It’s been weeks since he was called into action by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to thwart Captain America (Chris Evans). Now Peter is back home and waiting for his literal call to adventure, for Stark to officially call him up to join the Avengers. Peter anxiously waits for school to end so he can don his Spider-Man suit, modified by Stark Industries, and fight local crime and injustice. This mostly amounts to stopping bicycle thieves, helping old ladies with directions, and other inglorious tasks. Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) would prefer he focus on his studies rather than the time he’s been spent on the “Stark internship” (his fib to cover said crime-fighting). New weapons begin appearing on the streets, built from the discarded alien technology from The Battle for New York. Spider-Man investigates the source, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a pilot who adopts the moniker of The Vulture while in the sky with his winged jet pack. The formidable weapons pose a real pressing danger to society, and Peter pushes further, at his own peril, to confront the Vulture and stop the flow of high-tech weapons.

For many fans of the webhead, this will feel like the first time they’re watching the Spider-Man of the comics on screen. This is the first film incarnation where Peter remains in high school for the entire duration of the movie, and it’s also thankfully the only telling that eschews an origin story. He just is Spider-Man, however, the arc of the movie is him settling into that identity. It’s in many ways a coming-of-age story for the superhero set, as Peter has to come to terms with his earnest desire to help others and his own maturation, both as Spider-Man and as a high school sophomore. He’s learning just as much to be Peter as he is Spider-Man. Just because he has these powers doesn’t mean he’s ready for the rigors of the world. Homecoming is very much a high school movie. There are familiar John Hughes influences throughout, and the film smartly subverts certain high school tropes (driving lessons, prom dad from hell). It presents our hero struggling with asking the cute upperclassman (Laura Harrier) to the dance just as much as the demands of being a fledgling local superhero. His interior life is much more available and relatable but he’s still a teen navigating the world. Also, by having Peter be the youngest film incarnation yet, it allows for the satisfying indulgence of superhero wish-fulfillment. Whereas the X-Men powers are naturally linked to the progression of puberty, those are usually portrayed as a curse, something that ostracizes, confuses, and produces great anxiety and fear. With Spider-Man, being a superhero is the coolest thing in the world. He’s not consumed with angst like Andrew Garfield’s broody Peter Parker and his weirdly special DNA (what was the deal with his parents and that conspiracy? Oh well). Watching this exuberant Peter Parker embrace his new abilities with glee is a great way to keep the movie light and bouncy.

This is also, bar none, the funniest film yet in the MCU (yes, even dethroning Guardians of the Galaxy). With the lighter tone, the movie finds consistent opportunities to inject comedy, from the irony of Peter trying to lead a normal life, to the awkwardness of Peter’s attempts at crime-fighting, to his over eager demeanor, to misunderstandings and hasty excuse-making to conceal his double life, to the sterling supporting cast of characters that contribute different flavors of jokes when called upon. If anything there is so many talented supporting players I wanted even more time with them (Donald Glover, Hannibal Buress, Martin Starr). This cast is a comedic embarrassment of riches.

I was laughing pretty much from beginning to end with Homecoming. Just thinking back on the school’s morning announcements (complete with anchor Betty Brant) makes me giggle. Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is the movie’s chief source of comic relief, and in less careful hands he would become rapidly annoying. Instead, he’s a reliable presence and given a character arc with a payoff of his own, his desire to be Peter’s “guy in the chair.” It’s genuinely impressive screenwriting when even the comic relief sidekicks have arcs. Zendaya does an impressive job of selling every one of her jokes, which traffic in a very specific smart-aleck, apathetic tone. She’s graduated from the Disney Channel to the bigger leagues. There’s a hysterical series of inspirational education videos featuring Captain America, and if you stay past the end credits there’s a great payoff for that. There’s even some sly meta jokes calling back to Raimi’s Spider-Man. Every joke at least lands and most of them hit hard, benefiting from strong development and timing.

Nevertheless, just because it happens to be one of the funniest movies of the year, Spider-Man: Homecoming still finds plenty of space to be dramatic and thrilling. The comedy doe not tonally detract from the other elements. This is not an insubstantial movie just because it knows how to have some fun (take notes, Zack Snyder and DC). This is not a flippant movie because of tone or the heavy joke quotient. There are sincerely sweet moments born out of the characterization, like when Aunt May takes it upon herself to teach Peter how to dance (this would not be possible with a geriatric Aunt May). Director Jon Watts (Cop Car) has a steady command with his high-flying visuals and maintains the tight walk of tone that allows all the elements to work together as a blissful whole.

There are superb action sequences that advance the story forward and allow for the characters to grow. It’s exactly what good action is supposed to do, besides, you know, quicken the pulse. The humor can also arise naturally from these set pieces. Take for instance Peter suiting up while attending a suburban house party. He spots some alarming energy discharges on the other side of the suburb, but without any tall buildings for him to latch onto, he has to hoof it the whole way on foot. It’s a smart comedic aside and it helps to remind us that this Spider-Man isn’t an instant pro after getting his powers. It all comes together best in a D.C. rescue at the Washington Monument. It bridges the personal with the action. The bifurcated ferry set piece serves as the Act Two break and it’s a killer segment that pushes Peter to his limits to solve a dilemma that seems incapable of being fixed. There may not be any action scene to rival Raimi’s finest but the character-centric action and the organic development of the complications lays a foundation for a consistently entertaining film littered with joyful payoffs.

The biggest fear I’ve read from Spidey fans was that the involvement of Robert Downey Jr. would tip the scales, turning a Spider-Man movie into a defaco Iron Man sequel. Considering America loves Iron Man, I don’t see how his inclusion is a problem. Civil War was still very much a Captain America film even though Iron Man was the co-lead. Tony Stark represents a distant mentor for Peter and also the gatekeeper. Peter is anxious to become an Avenger and looking for Stark’s approval, which brings an enjoyably unorthodox paternal side from Downey. If there is a complaint I can foresee, it will be that Spider-Man is too similar to Iron Man thanks to the special suit. Spider-Man’s suit has its own Jarvis-style A.I. program (adeptly voiced by Jennifer Connelly, wife to Paul Bettany, former voice of Jarvis) and extra special gadgets including a spider drone and unusual web shooting options. It provides a new sense of discovery for the character since we’re already starting with him powered. The second act is Peter getting accustomed to the boost his suit gives him, becoming reliant upon them, and then having it stripped away as a natural Act Two break so that the conclusion has even more stakes without the security of the suit. It makes Peter much more vulnerable. The Iron Man parts are more a background motivational force and this is still very much a Spider-Man film.

Holland (The Lost City of Z) is already my favorite Spider-Man. Period. He made such an immediate and strong impression in Civil War that I was greatly looking forward to his first big starring venture, and Holland does not disappoint. This is the first Spider-Man that doesn’t feel crushed by the heavy burden of being a superhero. He’s a kid eager to grow up and join the world of other caped crusaders, but he’s modeled his crime fighting from what he’s seen on TV. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He’s still an awkward kid, and Holland brings great authenticity to the smaller character moments and the bigger heroic strides (while maintaining a convincing American accent). This is a more relatable, vulnerable, and interesting Peter Parker. Even though he thinks he should be beyond the mundane life of high school, he doesn’t ever act pompous or look down on other characters, which is endearing. At times Holland feels like he’s going to explode with energy, as if life is too much to process in the intermediary. He’s a teenager and the world feels so big and open. It’s an instantly engaging and likeable portrayal that wonderfully capitalizes on the introduction from Civil War. This is a Spider-Man, and his spider world, that I want multiple sequels to further explore and challenge.

Keaton’s Vulture already ranks as one of the best villains in the MCU (a low bar, I admit), and that’s because the movie humanizes him and gives him significant moments. He’s just a regular working-class man trying to provide for his family. In fact the first five minutes of the movie focus exclusively on Toomes and explains his sticky situation. He feels cast aside by those in the upper echelons of power. His eventual “you and I are the same” speech to Spider-Man has credible points. You can see, from his perspective, how he’s an underdog sticking it to the rich elites. Shockingly, there’s only one death in the entire movie and even that is an accident. Toomes is not your standard comic book villain, and there’s a brilliant third act twist that makes him even more centrally involved in the narrative. That opens a delicious sequence of dramatic irony. Keaton has a quiet menace to him that’s very unsettling. It’s all in the lower register. His character doesn’t blow up. He just narrows his brow and intensifies that scary stare. I’m glad the filmmakers realized that more Keaton was an asset to the film.

Let’s also take some time to celebrate the sixth Spider-Man movie for having a diverse population of characters that would actually represent Queens. Peter’s best friend is of Filipino descent, the girl he crushes on is biracial, the loner girl is biracial, and even the high school bully, Flash Thompson, is Hispanic, played by Tony Revolori from The Grand Budapest Hotel. This might be Marvel’s most diverse cast yet, though “yet” being the operative word considering that Black Panther is arriving in early 2018.

This movie is a total blast. Spider-Man: Homecoming actually manages to give new life to a character that has already appeared in five other movies. That’s an amazing feat. Another amazing feat is that six different screenwriters, including the director, are credited with this movie, yet it feels fully coherent in its vision and presentation. This is Peter Parker, the teenager struggling with self-doubt, hormones, and an eagerness to grow up, and the movie feels much more human-scaled, forgoing giant CGI smash-em-ups for something more grounded, personally involving, and ultimately successful. Just because Homecoming is fast-paced and funny doesn’t mean it lacks substance. I was elated during long portions of this movie, impressed by the steady stream of setups and payoffs, the incorporation of the many characters and comedic voices, and the varied action set pieces that were focused on character progression. If you are tired of superhero stories, I’d still heartily recommend this movie. Dear reader, I feel like I’m failing you and turning into a frothing fanboy because I can only think, at worst, of negligible quibbles against the film. Everything in this movie works. Everything. It’s everything I was hoping for and then some.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Martian (2015)

MV5BMTc2MTQ3MDA1Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODA3OTI4NjE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Based upon Andy Weir’s nuts-and-bolts scientific “what if” tale, The Martian is the movie equivalent of Apollo 13 crossed with Cast Away. Just far less personable volleyballs. But there are potatoes. Space potatoes.

After a powerful storm on Mars forces NASA’s crew to flee, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead and left behind. He wakes up hours later, shrapnel in his gut, and retreats back to the Mars mission base. He has to survive close to two years before he has any hope of being rescued on the hostile world. Before that, he has to establish some kind of communication with NASA, and even before that he has to somehow grow food in the arid Martian soil. Back at home, NASA is debating their limited options to bring back Watney and whether or not they should tell his crewmates that he survived.

In conversations with my friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey, he said that The Martian was the opposite of Gravity, a film he subsequently loathed, because it was smart people making smart decisions. There is an inherent enjoyment watching intelligent people tackle and persevere over daunting challenges, and this sets up The Martian for lots of payoffs and satisfaction. We see both sides of the problem and it provides even more opportunities for challenges and payoffs. Naturally the stuff on Mars is more compelling because of its extreme dangers and isolation, but the Earth scenes are also enjoyable as the NASA determines the soonest they might reach their lost astronaut. Just like the similarly themed Apollo 13, there are challenges to be overcome and the solutions are not without risk themselves. I enjoyed how the screenplay kept throwing out new obstacles; just when you think you can breath for a while the status quo is upset again. The slew of new obstacles doesn’t feel contrived either but rather realistic setbacks. It’s a wonderful storytelling structure that constantly keeps things moving forward and ramps up the urgency. As a result, we don’t ever feel safe right until the climax, and even then you’re still sweating it out because of all the complications and adjustments.

-1It’s revitalizing to watch a movie that treats science with a sense of reverence. Mark Watney endures in the most hostile of environments through his ingenious use of the resources he has because of his understanding of science and math. Just as MacGyver proved there was something satisfying about watching a guy make a bomb out of a toilet paper tube, some chewing gum, and a bobby pin, it’s entirely enjoyable watching Watney think his way out of problems, and this starts early on. Watney’s first problem after he regains consciousness is to remove an embedded piece of shrapnel in his gut. The scene plays in a methodical fashion without any obtrusive edits, allowing the full task to settle in with the audience. The man has to perform surgery on himself and dig inside himself, and if he doesn’t get this done soon, sepsis might set in (no doctors without borders here). From there, the situation only gets more serious as Watney’s food supply, even when generously rationed, will only last a fraction of the time it would take NASA to send a rescue team. He has to grow food on an alien planet. That itself could be its own movie, a glossy crossover special from the SyFy Channel and the Home and Garden network. This is a survival story that doesn’t rely upon coincidence or some sort of divine intervention but on the understanding and admiration of science and its possibilities. Though America’s favorite astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says that in this movie universe, all the science decisions are being made by science professionals rather than, you know, politicians who adamantly open ignorant statements with, “I’m not a scientist.”

Another aspect I wasn’t quite expecting but took hold of me is how uplifting The Martian turns out to be. It’s a celebration of human endeavor and particularly cooperation, as the United States reaches out to other nations for assistance. Watching the determined souls risk their lives to retrieve one fallen man is the kind of thing that represents the best in us. Sure, there’s something to be said about the fact that it’s one prized American life that countries are spending billions of not trillions of dollars to rescue and perhaps that money would be better spent helping more lives on Earth. There’s also the curious fact that the world has spent a ton of money rescuing Matt Damon in movies. From Saving Private Ryan, to Interstellar, and now The Martian, we seem to value Damon above all else.

This isn’t exactly a one-man show with half of the running time flashing back to Earth but Damon’s star quality and acting chops makes it so you don’t mind being marooned with this man. Watney’s recorded messages are a slick way to deal with the internal thinking of its protagonist while giving the character more opportunities to charm thanks to a rich sense of gallows-level humor. At no point is Mark Watney flippant about his unique predicament but his sense of humor goes a long way to further engender the audience’s good will. He’s not moping and having existential crises; he’s getting to work, and it’s through the problem solving that we get to know this character, his ingenuity, his personality, his fears, and his distaste for disco music. Damon steers clear from playing the character too large and bearing his soul as the metaphorical representative for all of humanity and its place in the cosmos. He’s just one guy who happens to be lost millions of miles from his home planet, and he’s making the best of it.

maxresdefaultBeing a Ridley Scott film, naturally the film is downright impeccable from a technical standpoint. The photography is great, communicating the frightening and awe-inspiring scope of the alien topography, especially when compared to maps for scale. The visuals find ways to further help communicate Watney’s dilemma and diminished resources. Scott’s visual sensibilities are so naturally attuned to developing tension. I was holding my breath at times from the suspense of certain sequences even though I long assumed that Watney would make it back home safe and sound. A scene with a desperate need for duct tape was a real nail-biter. There isn’t a bad performance among the star-studded cast of actors who must have been grateful for even a tiny morsel of screen time. I have no idea what Kirsten Wiig really does in this movie as the NASA PR person besides fold her arms in rooms, but hey, she’s there, along with Donald Glover as a socially awkward physicist. Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) gets to pour over the regret of leaving a friend behind, Jeff Daniels gets to once more practice his skill of being an authoritarian blowhard he honed from The Newsroom, and I even was able to tolerate Kate Mara (Fantastic Four), so that’s something.

The Martian is a natural crowd-pleaser. It’s engineered from the start to engage an audience with its survival thrills, present a series of increasing payoffs with new challenges and solutions, and by the end of our journey we’re treated to a rousing finish that carries a poignancy and sense of inspiration about the best in all of us, what can be accomplished through grit and cooperation and sacrifice. It’s a movie that let’s the science of survival be the ultimate star, with Damon serving as a handsome host to guide us through the marvels of the universe and duct tape. When dealing with the vastness of space and the vulnerability of human life, it’s easy to feel insignificant in comparison, but that’s where the human will to endure and to work together comes in and reconfirms the possibilities of the collective inhabitants of this giant blue orb. The Martian is a sci-fi thriller, a potent human drama, and one of the best times you can have at the movies.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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