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Hamilton (2020)


Multi-hyphenate sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton sounds like a bizarre misfire, a hip-hop-infused musical about one of the lesser known Founding Fathers, and yet not only does it succeed so magnificently, so transcendentally, it’s one of those rare artistic pinnacles that lives up to its own momentous hype. This is one of the crowning artistic achievements of the twenty-first century. I’m exceedingly grateful for a filmed version of the vaulted stage experience, with the original cast, that allows me that front-row view my bank account never would afford. This is going to be a film review of what is, essentially, a live theatrical performance, but really this written review is going to be a celebration of Hamilton and what I consider to be so phenomenal.

In 1776, Alexander Hamilton (Miranda) is an immigrant looking to make his name in the American colonies and the looming war with Britain for independence from King George III (Jonathan Groff). He meets and befriends Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), an ambitious upstart who seems fatefully linked with Hamilton through the decades. Hamilton falls in love and marries Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo) but also has a close relationship with her older sister, Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry), who keeps her real feelings at bay to protect her sister. Eager to get into the action, Hamilton accepts a position as George Washington’s (Chris Jackson) right-hand man as the battle comes to New York and the colonists do the unthinkable and defeat England as we conclude the musical’s first act. “You’ll be back,” King George retorts.

Next comes the tricky part of building a functioning country in the aftermath. Hamilton is appointed to be Secretary of the Treasury by newly elected President Washington, but his federalist principles are fought against by some pretty big names in the cabinet, like James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) and Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs). Both are wary of a centralized government and prefer more power to be held by the states. The Founding Fathers jostle for ideological supremacy and Hamilton gifts his opponents with the burgeoning nation’s first political sex scandal with Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Aaron Burr rises in local and national politics but sees Hamilton as a constant thorn in his side. With the presidential election so close in 1800, Hamilton’s endorsement of Jefferson over Burr is the final straw, and Burr demands satisfaction in a duel against Hamilton that will prove tragic.

For fans of musical theater, Hamilton is a two-hour-and-forty-minute joyously exuberant celebration of a bold artistic vision, the electricity of live theater, and broadening American history in a manner that makes it far more accessible, relevant, and humane for a modern audience. The very nature of having minority actors portraying the Founding Fathers and their famous wives is part of Miranda’s appeal that he wanted to tell the story of America with the America of today. Ordinarily, African-Americans would never get an opportunity to play Washington or Jefferson, or a Chinese-American woman playing the role of Eliza Hamilton, and there is definite power in representation, in seeing these different faces playing these historical figures. The deliberate color-blind casting makes America’s history feel more inclusive. It’s such a simple act, opening the ethnicity of historical roles, but it produces a beautiful result and provides even more cross-textual commentary, like slave-owning presidents played by black thespians.

Another miraculous effort by Miranda is his ability to generously humanize many of the characters, including the man who eventually murders Hamilton himself. Very often when we talk about the Founding Fathers and other Great Figures of History from oh so long ago, they take on a mythic quality and seem less human, less flawed, and less relatable. They seem practically superhuman, absent our doubts and desires. Miranda’s portrayal of the men and women of America’s founding does the opposite and makes these people feel relatable, flawed, and human yet again.

This includes Hamilton as well. He’s obsessed with his sense of legacy, has a pretty healthy ego that gets him into trouble, and might have been having an emotional affair with his sister-in-law, never mind an actual affair with Maria Reynolds. He’s so concerned about his “good name” and rumor of impropriety (he was accused of embezzling government money to pay for Ms. Reynolds’ husband’s extortion) that he literally confessed to his marital misdeeds and published it. Hamilton is consumed with writing his ideas (“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”) and an impending early death, something he amazingly escaped during a hurricane in the Caribbean that destroyed his village as well as his mother’s fatal illness. He was so eager to get into the heat of war that Washington had to sit him down to persuade him that dying as a martyr isn’t as glamorous as living and seeing through your ideals. Hamilton’s death at the hands of Burr is likely the most widely known fact about both duelists, but the musical brings each to glorious and troubled life with unerring compassion without excusing their real failings.

Burr serves as the narrator of our near three hours, setting the stage for Hamilton’s story with his own regrets and jealousies framing his recounting. He’s a complex character worthy of his own biopic, an orphan who finished college in two years, had an affair with the wife or a British officer, lost her at sea, and championed retail politics centuries before it was the norm. His personal philosophy was one of caution, diametrically opposed to Hamilton jumping after whatever he wanted no matter the consequences. Burr longs for being near the real center of power, and his showstopping number “The Room Where It Happens” is an ode to his desire. He begins as a friend and ally of Hamilton, then political rival, and finally as a mortal enemy. He’s too calculated with his personal beliefs, never wanting to be too challenging and at risk, which is an embodiment of his social-climbing ambition as well as his callow decision-making. To Burr, avoiding risk and not accruing enemies is simply smart business. The musical does an excellent job of humanizing Burr (“Now I’m the villain in your history book”) and offering a perspective in opposition to Hamilton but not without its own measurable merits.

The domestic side of Hamilton could be its own movie to itself. The relationship between Alexander, Eliza, and Angelica is complicated to say the least. Angelica was the elder sister and in her stellar song “Satisfied” she details the social pressures of being in that position, being expected to marry into a desirable match that will see the family name and fortune to prosper. Feeling initially unsure about Hamilton’s intentions, she introduces him to her sister Eliza instead, and it’s a choice that she feels conflicted about ever since. Angelica dearly loves her sister (“I love my sister more than anything in this life/ I will choose her happiness over mine every time”) but cannot help but still feel a yearning for her brother-in-law. However, when the Reynolds scandal comes to light, she will defend her sister to her dying breath. That sisterly deference makes Angelica such a fascinating figure, and it certainly makes the Hamilton marriage more intriguing and roiling with pent-up desires. Eliza sings about removing herself from the narrative in “Burn” and how her husband has “forfeited the rights to my heart.” She’s been trying to impress upon her husband to be happy in the moment (“Look around, look around/ How lucky we are to be alive right now”) and enjoy his accomplishments rather than looking ahead. Her eventual forgiveness of Hamilton is one of the most emotional moments of the show that causes me to tear up. And she serves as a final testament to Hamilton’s legacy during the final number, after his death, and fills in the gaps of history by asserting her own agency back into the observed “narrative.”

I’ve gone over 1300 words, dear reader, and I haven’t even talked in depth about the music, so allow me to say that Hamilton as a musical is just about music perfection. Hip-hop is such a densely wordy platform that allows so much information to be imparted at lightning speed, which means that lyrically these songs are jam-packed with clever asides, allusions, and rhyming recitations of history. The songs are instantly quotable and filled with deep consideration from witticisms to also important dramatic themes and perspectives. I was amazed at Miranda’s composition skills in particular how he’s able to weave and build off character leitmotifs. It’s brilliant how something like Hamilton’s declarative early song “Not throwing away my shot” about his ambitions can come back during his duel with Burr where he raises his pistol in the air, away from Burr, and literally throws away his shot. Or how the beat of a song can imitate a failing heartbeat in a fractious moment of tragedy. Or how King George’s self-involved songs are fashioned to be like 1960s British invasion pop ditties. Or how cabinet arguments become riotous battle raps between Jefferson and Hamilton. Or how the same actors who played Hamilton’s wartime buddies in Act 1 are playing his political rivals in Act 2 (“Have you forgotten Lafayette?” he asks of Jefferson, the same man who portrayed Lafayette). There are layers and layers to the compositions here and the music is remarkably assured; almost every song is a certified earworm, and it’s an entirely sung musical. Every person will have their favorites, and for me they include “Satisfied,” “The Room Where It Happens,” “History Has Its Eyes on You,” “Dear Theodosia,” “One Last Time,” and the moving finisher, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Even if you don’t like rap music, Miranda’s offerings are so catchy, so accomplished, and so bursting with excitement, that it’s near impossible to resist.

This movie was filmed in 2016 from the original Broadway cast, many of whom earned Tony awards for their sensational work (Diggs, Goldsberry, and Odom Jr.). Everyone is truly excellent but my favorite performer, by far, is Diggs (Blindspotting). He gets to spit lightning-fast rhymes in a French accent as Lafayette, and his portrayal of Jefferson as a dandy in the style of Andre 3000 from Outkast is enormously entertaining. His “What Did I Miss?” introductory number is a perfect impression for Jefferson’s arrival onto the stage. Diggs’ is so charming even when he’s being a scoundrel trying to plot the doom of Hamilton. His battle raps with Miranda are a highlight and Diggs also seems to get the most tricky lyrical arrangements because of his peerless skills at maintaining flow and diction (“I’m in the cabinet, I am complicit in/ Watching him grabbin’ at power and kiss it/ If Washington isn’t gon’ listen/ To disciplined dissidents, this is the difference./ This kid is out!”). There’s a reason Diggs has become the other breakout star of the show.

Soo (The Code) breaks my heart with her Act 2 solo numbers and then mends it back as she reasserts herself on “Who Live, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Goldsberry (Altered Carbon) has such a fire to her. Groff (Mindhunter) is hilarious as King George, though his singing involves a lot of literal spitting. Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) is exceptional as the titular character who comes from nothing and through the power of his ideas creates America’s financial institutions that are still standing to this day. But it’s his personal relationships that better define him in the play. The fatherly relationship he has with Washington is affectionate (“One Last Time” has an extra poignancy knowing Washington died shortly after leaving office) and his hopes for his newborn son (“You’ll Blow Us All Away”) speak to a larger truth about parenting that also links up with the foundation of a nation in infancy. There’s also his complicated love divided between Eliza and her sister. Miranda has such a natural charm and swagger and earnestness that seeps into his performance and every performer.

So is there anything about this movie-wise to separate it from a bootleg of the show? Director Thomas Kail (also the director of the musical) does make smart use of when to go tighter on his actors, to zero in on the emotions and expressiveness, and when to go wider for best impact. The stage is designed like a bullseye with a rotating circle, which can play up the dramatic confrontations between foes, especially the duels. I was impressed at points where the movement of the stage would be perfectly timed with camera focus and edits, allowing other characters to loom over the shoulder, or pop into focus, giving the production a greater sense of filmed visuals. However, this is really a filmed version of the stage show, so as a movie, it’s only going to do so much with those trappings. The unreality of theater has to be accepted but the movie version does a great job of maintaining the intimacy of the shared theatrical experience. It’s even nice to hear the applause after the musical numbers or some of the laugh lines hit home.

By this time, you’ve likely heard about the Broadway-smashing Hamilton success story of Miranda and his crew but do yourself a real favor and watch the movie with the OG cast. Yes, there are historical shortcuts taken for dramatic license and not everything you see on stage will be one hundred percent accurate with the long record of history, but it all clicks for the greater storytelling aims. Some might be uncomfortable with the re-visioning of the Founding Fathers, either by the open-ethnicity casting or glossing over their slave-owning faults, but Miranda’s larger goal of making history reflective of the people who currently live today is admirable. In short, unless you have the kind of money to blow on a front-row ticket, enjoy the Hamilton movie experience until Miranda eventually wrangles his artistic milestone into a more movie-movie version.

Movie Grade: A

Show Grade: A+

The Incredible Jake Parker (2020)

The Incredible Jake Parker is an Ohio indie written/directed/produced by Angelo Thomas, who just graduated from his arts college this spring. The 22-year-old adapted his own book into his first feature, all while finishing college and taking on activist responsibilities. The fact he has a finished feature film before he even graduated college, a film that was scheduled to open in multiple cities, is a damn impressive feat. Thomas is already well ahead of the game. Unfortunately, Jake Parker became another victim of COVID-19’s theater closings, and the limited release has been postponed. I was graciously given a digital link of the film to review and, even though I know people involved with the production, I vow to be as objective and constructive as possible with this film review. I honestly think the delay might help the movie, allowing for further critical examination and technical tinkering. As is, The Incredible Jake Parker is a well-made, albeit criminally short, indie that feels like it’s missing necessary development and potential drama to convey the steps in the journey of its titular star.

Jake Parker (Liam Wall) is a teenage musical sensation but he’s got a secret. He’s rapidly losing weight, enough to alarm doctors and his manager. Jake is anorexic. His tour is put on hold while he checks into a treatment center that will help him reflect and grow. He’s angry and eager to leave, but the more time he spends with the doctors and fellow patients, the more that Jake is able to tackle his personal demons with his body issues and figure out the man he wants to be.

The filmmakers behind The Incredible Jake Parker have an important and very personal message they take very seriously. Thomas has been open about his own troubles with an eating disorder and has spoken across the country about his experiences and insights. The character of Jake Parker is obviously informed from his own struggles and triumphs. Eating disorders are also a malady not typically associated with men, so smashing that taboo and educating viewers is admirable. We even see this flippant attitude in the movie where catty media figures wave away the implications of an eating disorder, especially for men, and prescribe just “eating a hamburger.” Body dysmorphic disorder is particularly affected by our omnipresent media culture that applies value to being thin, desirable, and staying within the codified boundaries of what is deemed appealing. That level of scrutiny and pressure can affect anyone’s mental health, let alone a performer whose press coverage and album sales can be affected by his good looks. It’s understandable to fall sway to negative thoughts that one’s body just simply isn’t good enough. The movie is filled with useful information about eating disorders as well as steps one can take to regain control over their body and mind and make healthy choices. By that regard, the movie can provide a great outreach to connect with people, especially young people, and inspire them to improve their own mental health and physical well-being. That’s what good art can do.

Now, with all that being said, it doesn’t feel like those good intentions have latched onto a suitable and engaging narrative to carry the burden of its worthy message. The movie is only 64 minutes long before its end credits and has the unmistakable feeling of missing development. We spend the first act establishing the problems for Jake and then in the last five minutes he finds effective solutions to those problems, but the connective tissue, the work, is missing in between. I’m going to go into some mild spoilers here though I don’t consider these to be significant because, realistically, did you expect Jake to not get better? I went back and re-watched what was Jake’s breakthrough therapy session and it amounts to being told that resilience is key and to find his inner strength. The very next scene involves Jake requesting ice cream to dine with a friend, seeming to now be able to manage his eating disorder, but why? Why was this a big breakthrough for Jake and why does it come with so much movie left? There’s another personal revelation that Jake is hiding that takes precedent in the last 15 minutes, which is odd to include so late after he seemed to overcome the movie’s big conflict, and even stranger to consider the fear it could pose to his musical career given modern-day sensibilities. It’s included to provide another scandal but it’s also there to get the plot even further across the hour-mark. Even his other late conflicts resolve so easily, some over text messages, that it begs the question of why introduce obstacles if they are so quickly overcome? When you wrap up your main internal struggle so early and with little elaboration, it leaves us questioning why we still have a movie.

So absent more in-depth examination on those problems, maybe we can use the extra time allotted to get to know Jake more as a character or the other residents of his treatment center, building a friendly network of lovable people leaning on one another to get better. The supporting characters are typically defined by their problem and stay that way. Mom (Rachel Coolidge) is an alcoholic, though we don’t see her drunk or even drink in hand if I recall, and Dad (John French) is a workaholic, though we don’t see him in a hurry to leave (the closest family Jake has is his British manager). Jordan (Sarah Levitch) has an eating disorder and was abandoned by her parents. I’m assuming the supporting characters at this treatment center all suffer from eating disorders but that could be my mistake. I have to go with this assumption because there is a raft of supporting characters that don’t open up about their specific problems, only occasionally their feelings of being helpless or being ashamed. A support group is a fantastic setting to derive some character-driven drama, forcing people to confront their pasts, mistakes, sense of self, vulnerabilities, relationships, and even butt heads before growing closer. It’s a conflict crucible ready for meaty scenes and yet it too is MIA. If Jake’s ultimate triumph over his personal demons is derived from the support he feels with the friends he’s made, then it would naturally need to feature meaningful interactions with supporting characters where we get to understand them and watch that progression of friendship and trust. It’s not that the material with these characters is bad, it’s just that they could all benefit from more of it.

I do want to congratulate Thomas and his team for putting together a very professional looking movie. Even though its budget is a fraction of the Hollywood indie, The Incredible Jake Parker looks polished and proficient. The lighting and cinematography are a highlight of the movie, often finding compelling ways to frame the angular jawline of our titular star in anguish. It was filmed over nine days in Louisiana (boo) with some second unit work filmed in Columbus, Ohio (yeah). The songs we do get from Thomas and co-writers Austin Moore and Liam Wall are peppy and well composed with impressive production value. Just watching Wall sing is enjoyable and he seems at his most comfortable when he’s belting a tune and guitar in hand. The acting overall is generally good. Wall (Gold Dust) is a little stilted at times though it works for the awkwardness or clenched-jaw resentment he holds onto like a lifeline. Sasha Jackson (Blue Crush 2) has a few nicely delivered moments expressing her maternal worry and hope for Jake, who is more than just a client. The assorted supporting players make pleasant impressions, enough so that I desperately wanted them to have even more interactions to better allow the actors to shine.

Given Jake’s musical profession, I was expecting the film to include moments of his singing and guitar-playing for performances and songwriting, a reflection of his inner struggle for control and creative expression. What I wasn’t expecting was the movie to become a traditional movie musical where the characters just break into song and look into the camera. It first happens around the half-hour mark and took me aback, but I liked the two-minute introspective song and thought, “Okay, well if this is going to become a major element of the storytelling, I’m ready now.” I kept waiting for another moment of song-breaking and it didn’t occur until nearly the very end of the movie. It lasted, and I counted, 34 total seconds. Why break reality if it’s only going to last as long as a television commercial? If these two moments are the only ones that break reality to become a movie musical, then why include them if they only amount to two-and-a-half minutes? Could the sentiment not have been expressed with Jake merely playing his guitar and singing to himself rather than the music kicking in from on high? I was actually expecting more musical numbers simply because Wall can sing and play the guitar, as evidenced in the grabber of an opening scene where Jake records his amateur song that goes viral. He has talent so it would make sense that he writes a new song to discuss his journey, something he could perform at the very end to express his maturation and lessons learned, a new Jake Parker. That inspirational song, “Incredible,” plays over the end credits but why not actually see Wall perform the song to the camera, with the emotion pouring out of him, to mark the climax? It’s not like the film was running too long. Imagine the end of 2018’s A Star is Born and instead of Lady Gaga delivering that last powerful song to sum up her experiences, it just played over the credits.

There are some other technical areas where The Incredible Jake Parker could benefit from some further attention before its big release rollout. The sound mix is often noticeably amiss with different shots having fuzzy interference that’s all the more noticeable when it’s edited with shots without. Some shots don’t seem to be using sound from other takes, so an off-screen character will sound distant because their dialogue was recorded away from the boom microphone. Why not pull sound from that character when they were on mic and layer it over? The color grading isn’t consistent at points, most notably when the film transitions from purchased stock footage that is vibrant in color to the more muted colors of the actual movie. I’m also hopeful that a new musical score can be applied (not the songs, the actual score) because it’s often too plain. The bigger technical element that could use another overview is the editing. Jake Parker is edited with a formula that a spoken line equals a shot cut. A character speaks. Next shot. A character speaks. Next shot. Repeat. It’s a stolid rhythm that can gum up the visual flow of scenes. The movie is crying out for another careful pass in the editing suite. It’s little things in the edit and pacing that can help mitigate whatever filming limitations there may have been.

The Incredible Jake Parker is a musical with a message and some spiffy technical acumen, especially considering that Angelo Thomas is only 22 years old and pulled this all off. Even though it’s only 68 minutes with credits, there is much to be impressed with this first film. There’s a late montage of real people (I’m assuming) who speak about their own struggles with eating disorders and mental health, their advice, and what a figure like Jake can mean to them, and while it may be manipulative my heart felt full-to-bursting while watching this genuine outpouring. It made me even more certain that had the film given more space to Jake’s journey, I would have been even more dazzled. Rare is the film I say could use an additional half hour minimum. The Incredible Jake Parker has all the hallmarks of great drama, with the insights of a man who lived it, so I wish we could have really dived into the development of its title character and his incredible story.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Valley Girl (2020)

valley_girlIf you’re a big fan of 80s music and looking to congenially pass 90 minutes, I suppose you could watch the new musical Valley Girl as it whisks you away on a cloud of simple nostalgia. That’s the word for this movie. Everything is very simple, from the stock characterizations, to the boy-meets-girl romance, to even the performance of the dozens of popular 80s songs, which are reworked into being blander vanilla versions that reminded me of what Kids Bop does to music. We follow a titular valley girl (Jessica Rothe, so great in the Happy Death Day franchise) as she falls for a punk rocker (Josh Whitehouse, struggling in the singing department) from the wrong side of the tracks. The romance is very familiar as are their trials of stepping outside their individual comfort zones for the other person. The big problem with Valley Girl is that the first half feels like it’s at warp speed; nary a minute goes by without a song-and-dance number barreling onto the screen. The second half, in contrast, has only a handful of these numbers and tries to expand the characters but by that point it’s too late. I don’t care about them. Since it’s a jukebox musical, the songs should be selected to provide better insights into the characters’ emotional states, but too often they feel superfluous and clunky. “Hey Mickey” introduces our selfish jock (Logan Paul of YouTube infamy) at a pep rally. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is about having fun on the beach. “Boys Don’t Cry” about dealing with being sad. It’s that kind of application. There’s a frame device where an older mom (Alicia Silverstone) is recounting her 80s experiences to her teenage daughter, and this could have provided a satirical and clever development, allowing the recounted experiences to blend into fantasy and her hazy memory. Valley Girl isn’t a bad movie, just one lacking significant purpose outside nostalgia and cleaning out a big music clearance account. If watching watered down 80s hits sounds like your thing, then party to the max, man.

Nate’s Grade: C

Mock & Roll (2019)

As far as Ohio indies go, Mock & Roll might have one of the smartest creative approaches. It’s a mockumentary following the mishaps of a Columbus, Ohio band trying to make it big. Director/co-writer/editor Ben Bacharach-White (Jimmie Van Zant’s American DeTour) and his cast and crew make good use of limited resources, blessed casting, but the movie could have been even more had it devoted more attention to its comedy writing and doc tricks.

We follow the band Liberty Mean, with lead singer Robin (Aditi Molly Bhanja), guitarist Rick (Chris Wolfe), bass player Tom (Pakob Jarernpone), and drummer Bun (Andrew Yackel). They are a parody band that sticks to only one source, parodying the songs from the rock band The Black Owls. Their mission is to put together an album, gather enough fans, and take the South by Southwest Festival by storm. Robin’s brother, Sully (William Scarborough), is documenting the band and their wacky hijinks as they play punk bars, try crowdfunding, undergo drug trials, stumble into the underground world of art dealing, and land in jail.

Mock & Roll is an amiable experience and one comparison became so fundamentally clear to me that afterwards it’s all I could envision. This movie feels exactly like a Nickelodeon or Disney Channel live-action tween series. I know that may sound like a complaint but it’s not intended as one. The comparison just became so obvious to me that I was amused throughout to see the finished film hold to this creative endeavor, whether intentional or unintentional (I’m guessing unintentional). The exuberant energy level of the performers, the comedy scene writing that has specific beginnings and ends, the episodic nature of plot, the “let’s put on a show with our friends” mentality, the wacky hijinks, the direct communication with the camera, it felt like an extended collection of episodes for iCarly or Wizards of Waverly Place or Hannah Montana. Again, I do not intend this as a criticism, but the style and delivery of storytelling, as well as the genial likability of its cast, made me draw this comparison.

The best thing this mockumentary has going for it is its spirited cast who go beyond their limited characters. The difference maker in mockumentaries is characterization. The Christopher Guest mock docs (Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman) don’t have revolutionary storytelling but rely upon seasoned actors to really dig in deep with their unique characters, so that no matter the situation, something will spring out of the interaction and response to conflict. The characters in Mock & Roll are scant. The one with the most outward personality is Rick, puffing his chest out with bravado and swagger. The other two male characters, Tom and Bun, are working on the same note, basically deadpan absurdity. They’ll wax philosophical or bizarre at any moment. Robin, unfortunately, seems to be the straight-man role to center the rest of the group.

While these roles limit what comedy styles are available in the different vignettes, the performers go above and beyond and make the movie enjoyable. Wolfe (Where Are You, Bobby Browning?) is a standout as Rick and his voice reminded me of T.J. Miller. He has a natural charisma but also can easily channel a grinning doofus, which gives him the widest comedy berth. I would happily watch Wolfe in other movies and think he has a bright future in comedy. I would hire him. Yackle (False Flag) appears to be the best improviser on the set, able to pull wonderfully bizarre details from thin air and deliver them with understated care. His riff about Beethoven being deaf, and also blind, and having wooden hands, and that’s what made him great got a solid laugh from me. Jarernpone (Dark Iris) has a similar acting technique except it’s unloading deep philosophy without breaking a sweat, also performed at an understated rate, where the comedy best resides. Bhanja is a welcomed presence among the boys and I wish she had been given more to do. She shows promise and an engaging personality even in limited form. There are two supporting players of note, Scarborough (The Incredible Jake Parker) as Robin’s mostly unseen documentarian brother Sully, and Ohio superstar KateLynn Newberry (Dark Iris, Widow’s Point) as Rick’s girlfriend tasked with building a crowdfunding campaign for the band. Both are enjoyable to the point I wish they had been onscreen more often. Newberry has such a great nonplussed frustration with the band’s self-deluded antics.

The episodic nature works for Mock & Roll until it simply doesn’t. At 77 minutes long pre-end credits, the movie feels far more like a collection of scenes than as a film narrative with a recognizable three-act structure. The vignettes don’t last longer than maybe eight minutes, which is another reason why they feel like anecdotal segments of a 22-minute TV episode. There is an advantage where if I’m not engaged in one scenario, and many are hit-or-miss, I know that another is coming up (after these commercial breaks). A disadvantage, however, is that nothing feels like it builds off the previous actions of the story. You could rearrange any of the first hour and would only impact the overall plot minimally (a reference to a crowdfunding campaign here and there). The episodic nature robs the movie from feeling like its plotting matters or builds to needed payoffs and running gags that make it more satisfying to watch than, say, a collection of unrelated skits.

Then in the last quarter of the film it becomes a prolonged segment that transforms into a baffling Boogie Nights homage. The gang get involved in art theft transportation (a miss), and then it happens again with a criminal art smuggler Dante (Brian Bowman, Dark Iris). This entire segment feels like the Wonderland/Rahad Jackson sequence late in Boogie Nights. Bowman is meant to be Alfred Molina in an open bathrobe, wavering between inebriated and dangerous. The plot beats follow the sequence and even some of the dialogue exchanges are similar. So the question arises, naturally, why even bother? The segment isn’t funny and doesn’t seem designed to be funny. Throwing the characters into an increasingly uncomfortable scenario that presents more and more danger could produce some great cringe-worthy moments of awkward comedy. This doesn’t happen. It just keeps going and it’s the only segment that actually builds off the events of previous segments, and I wanted it all to just go away. It’s too long, too turgid, and doesn’t have nearly enough construction in its comedy to justify the jaunt into criminality. The ending is also so flippant that it feels like it could all have been removed for the impact it has. If you’re going to break the formula established for an hour, it better be worth the excursion.

This transitions into some of Mock & Roll’s design flaws that keep it from being a stronger movie. The fact that the central band is a parody band of The Black Owls will mean next to nothing to an audience, the far majority who do not know whether The Black Owls are a real band or not. They are real but a quick check on Spotify shows they haven’t exactly crossed a listening threshold, so when the Liberty Mean band members talk about the band’s real songs, we won’t know the reference points. We don’t know the reference so we can’t appreciate the parodies, and the performances of Liberty Mean are fleeting, and many don’t even allow us to hear the parody songs themselves. If this was the given reality, Mock & Roll would have been better to just have them parody a silly fake band, or a band that everyone in the audience would be familiar with, rather than settling on a local rock band that allowed their music to be given featured placement. The idea of Liberty Mean as a parody band, and the nature of parody, also feels sadly underutilized. I was hoping the movie would go into a direction where one of the band members splits off, forms their own band, but it’s a parody band of Liberty Mean, so a warped parody of a parody.

There are many fun possibilities for comedy with a parody band (a rival band nemesis, per se) but the comic shenanigans that Liberty Mean encounters are lackluster. The comedy segments are one-idea concepts that fail to develop and surprise as they go. The band plays at a punk bar and everyone seems to make a big deal out of this like it’s a grave offense, but the audience doesn’t understand why this would be any different. We’re not graced with any unsavory “punk bar patrons,” or specifics beyond that the acoustics might not be as precise. The band agrees to take part in an experimental drug experiment and the results are boring. They get high, they see hallucinations, but it’s nothing terribly interesting or different than you would expect. I’m starting to loathe drug tripping sequences in comedy because too many assume characters acting stoned is funny enough. There is also a lack of editing used for comedy potential with Mock & Roll. Watch The Office, or any other faux doc series, and an added benefit is that edits are part of its intention, so a quick cut or an inserted interview line allows a dense layering of jokes. Or at least the opportunity. Strangely, none of the band members are ever filmed individually for their takes. There are many comic and storytelling options through mockumentary that aren’t used.

Mock & Roll is a smartly modest film that coasts on the good will of its exuberant cast. Crafting a mockumentary approach for a fictional band is a clever way to make an indie film that can stand out with limited resources. The technical attributes are solid, especially the sound, though there are occasional questions like whether what we’re seeing is meant to be doc footage or simply reality, because when Sully is the only cameraman, who else is filming when he’s in the shot? The good nature of the movie is enough to warrant the time spent with an agreeable cast that seem to be having a good deal of fun. The episodic pacing works to keep things moving; however, it also makes the events interchangeable and lacking stakes. The comedy writing is often underdeveloped and reliant upon the performers to do most of the heavy lifting. It is breezy, genial, and fun, thanks to a cast that has great chemistry. I could see further adventures for Liberty Mean but would prefer a new creative approach. Mock & Roll could have been weirder, wilder, or simply better written and make better use of its documentary format.

Nate’s Grade: C+

I Still Believe (2020)

I Still Believe was one of the last wide releases before theaters shuttled thanks to COVID-19. It was a low-budget Christian indie by the Erwin brothers, Andrew and Jon (I Can Only Imagine, October Baby). My expectations were already low and the final film is equal parts earnest and goofy, but where it goes wrong is with its stretched-out passion play built on suffering.

Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) heads to college and falls instantly in love with art student, Melissa (Britt Robertson). He’s a budding Christian musician and gets his big break from fellow “student” and successful musician, Jean Luc (Nathan Parsons). Jeremy and Melissa’s relationship is tested when she is given a cancer diagnosis, but he’s unwavering in his support. They pray for help and struggle for meaning, with Jeremy turning to music for answers.

As with many Christian indies, I’ve discovered that the elements of filmmaking and storytelling are generally secondary to whatever the message is the film wishes to confirm for its built-in audience. So the details don’t really matter as much as the bigger picture, which in this case I assume is to inspire in its audience that even when they are suffering that God has a plan for them. I can see how people can find that topic comforting because one of the nagging questions in theology is over why a loving God would allow terrible things to happen to good people. The best the film can surmise is that there is a “greater good” sort of response we cannot know, and that the death of one person could have ripple effects and inspire many millions more. That’s what I Still Believe is proposing with its true story, namely that the tale of Jeremy Camp’s deceased first wife happened to inspire millions and bring them closer to God through Camp’s music and storytelling over his loss. Either you find that comforting and an answer enough or you don’t, but if you question that logic, then the movie demonstrating this resembles a cruel passion play.

Even before I started this movie, I knew that Melissa was going to die, and I knew her ultimate purpose was going to be to push the man along on his own spiritual and artistic journey. She dies so that you can become a better guitarist, Jeremy. I don’t mean to sound crass considering these are based on real people, and the real Melissa really died, and her friends and family felt real grief. My critical aims are with how the movie handles this and not her real tragic loss. I think many can be irritated when a movie says a character’s ultimate suffering was all to prop up another character; I’m reminded of numerous Hollywood stories about African-American suffering where it props up a white savior character to learn or achieve Important Things. This nagging feeling would have been lessened had Jeremy come across as a more compelling character in the movie and, even, a more compelling artist. He’s a pretty bland white dude and his music is fairly vanilla acoustic guitar soft rock. The music is earnest, it’s pleasant enough, but there’s nothing that really stands out, but that assessment is personal, I admit. I struggle with movies that try to convince me of someone’s artistic ascendance but don’t feel like they back it up with the evidence for that fame. The character of Jeremy onscreen is a nice guy, well-meaning, but he’s more interesting when he’s in the goofy love triangle with Jean Luc. Once Melissa gets her cancer diagnosis, his characterization just gets put on hold. He becomes a loving caretaker and then, once she inevitably passes, he becomes a loving and bereaved husband.

This is where I rankle because that cancer diagnosis comes so early and that is all the movie becomes afterwards, and when we all know where I Still Believe is ultimately heading, it becomes very tedious and arguably garish. The cancer diagnosis happens with an entire hour left to go, which means we’re left to watch Melissa get sick, everyone worry and cry, and when her remission happens with a half hour left to the movie, you know we’re just biding time until it comes back again because what else are we going to do with all this extra time? It’s not like Melissa, fresh from beating cancer, says to her man, “Let’s pull off a heist.” We all know where this is going, so this momentary reprieve and the movie treating it like, “Hooray, look at what prayer has done,” feels downright cruel because we know it’s not going to last. We know the rest of the road ahead is going to be watching her returned suffering, which is the entire movie. It is a passion play where we watch a young woman suffer and die so that we will ultimately get some songs written about her memory and experience. For those outside the target audience, this can become borderline offensive, and from a storytelling standpoint so much is left simply broad.

The most enjoyable parts of I Still Believe for me are how goofy it can be especially with its fuzzy details. This is a movie without any sense of humor and yet it can inspire laughter. Jeremy seems to be attending a school where he never has to do any work. This school is also I guess a regular stop for Jean Luc, an alum who has already become famous and has a backing band, so why does he just keep showing up to perform on this campus? Doesn’t he tour outside the school? Also, Jeremy is almost immediately successful. He’s thrown onstage in what amounts to the film’s Star is Born moment when Jean Luc invites Jeremy to share his special song to a live audience. From there, Jeremy is recording, performing regular to packed crowds, to the point that I questioned when he has a sit-down with his college dean about quitting school to tend to the ailing Melissa, I was shocked he was still attending school at all. Isn’t he just a successful musician now? My opening impression of Jeremy as he goes off to college is positive, as he calms down his impaired little brother who is bereft with the departure. Then over the opening credits he’s playing his acoustic guitar on a charter bus and I thought how rude that would be. But by far the most amusing part of the movie is the love triangle between Jeremy, Melissa, and Jean Luc. First off, every time a character says the name “Jean Luc” with such seriousness I giggled. The actor seems so much older than everyone else, though he’s only two years older than Robertson (who is 7 years older than Apa). The love triangle is enough to keep Melissa from being public about dating Jeremy, and when he presses her on it, she pushes back that he should return the jacket that Jean Luc gave him, as if these are equivalent. And then she keeps bringing it up. Jean Luc isn’t even a character so much as a platform of opportunity for Jeremy and then a contrived obstacle for their blooming romance.

The acting overall falls into that earnest yet occasionally goofy territory of many Christian indies. It’s not quite camp but there are moments where characters are so serious that things feel a tad off, like we’re just seconds away from everyone breaking into laughter. Apa (Riverdale) is blandly appealing but feels very much like Zac Efron lite. He does all his own singing and guitar playing which is more technically impressive than the character he has been given. Robertson showed such promise with 2015’s Tomorrowland and seems to be given little to do here. She’s slated in that dewy role as the Wise Woman Fated For Tragedy, which is kind of like the more somber terminal illness equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Even in her last moments, she seems to have a radiance of knowledge. I wish I could say there was strong chemistry between the leads but Apa has better chemistry with his guitar. Then there are Jeremy’s parents played by Gary Sinise and, surprise surprise, recording star Shania Twain. This is only her third film appearance and she is given so little to do that, frankly, it didn’t impress me much. The best performance in the film happens late when Jeremy meets a fan (Abigail Cowen) who monologues what Jeremy’s songs and experiences have met to her and how they’ve changed her life. It’s a moment that feels emotionally affecting even if you know it’s here to literally remind the audience of the theme. That same woman would then go on to become Jeremy’s wife, so good for them.

I Still Believe isn’t offensively bad, campy, or even theologically misguided in its view of morality like a hokey Kirk Cameron vehicle. It feels like a glossy made-for-TV movie that just happens to be made for a majority-Christian audience. The message is paramount, and all else serves the message, which means the characters are uninteresting, the story is redundant to the point of piling on cruelty, and the overall earnest tone can approach unintentional goofiness. It feels like much of the film is padding the running time with lengthy musical performances like a concert movie. It’s also a movie without enough story to cover its near two-hour length. Either you connect with the overall message that there can be meaning in suffering or you see past it and take umbrage with the movie presenting a woman’s suffering as character development for a soon-to-be popular musician. This is like a Christian weepie version of The Fault in Our Stars, which was another movie we knew where it would be headed, but it lacks the effort level. The Erwin brothers shoot everything either with annoyingly distracting handheld camerawork or swooping drone footage. The film has technical merit but filmed like it’s a collection of B-roll for some prescription drug ad (all those smiling, warmly lit faces on the beach having fun). I Still Believe is a blandly dull movie built upon extended suffering and extended musical performances. Maybe it knows its audience too well but I doubt anyone outside the flock will find inspiration here.

Nate’s Grade: C

Cats (2019)

Cats, beyond all reason, is a musical sensation. Andrew Lloyd Webber based the show on the poems of T.S. Eliot. The original production played on Broadway for eighteen years from 1982 to 2000 and I don’t know a single person that likes it. It was only a matter of time before these jellicle cats were headed for the big screen in a big-budget folly. The first look the public got of a Cats movie musical trailer was met with revulsion and horror. I was anticipating the worst and yet I still wasn’t fully prepared for the jellicle disaster strutting around with undue confidence.

Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables, The Danish Girl) made the colossal misfire to film his action in motion capture bodysuits and provide CGI hair and cat features to them later. This choice dooms whatever meager chance a big screen Cats might have had. There’s a reason the Internet erupted in collective horror when the first trailer was released, and Hooper and his producers tried assuring the public that those were early renditions of the technology and it would be improved upon its holiday release. Dear reader, I am here to tell you that the horror of that first trailer is alive and well in every unnatural moment of this nightmare. The uncanny valley has been a busy transit stop this year with the unsettling live-action (?) Lion King and now Cats serves as a dire warning about the perils of modern technology. Just because you can try and give human beings CGI fur and ears and tails doesn’t mean you should. The look is never fully transporting and often it appears like human features have been slapped onto a furry background composite, like a snowman’s facial features while it might be melting. Then there’s the additional levels of scary anthropomorphism, with mice and marching cockroaches. Why not just use prosthetics and makeup like every stage production? I think the Cats producers wanted to do something to distinguish it and in doing so they unleashed one of apocalyptic seals.

Whatever film version of Cats was destined to be disappointing because the source material is so lackluster. The Broadway musical was so popular for so long, I assume, primarily from its creative use of costumes, makeup, and staging to bring to life a fanciful world of felines. The CGI decision takes away whatever admirable craftsmanship and charm the stage show might have conveyed and replaced with nightmare fuel for the eyes. Absent the initial appeal, we’re left with a truly underwhelming story populated with underwritten characters that only really exist when they’re singing and otherwise just operate in background space. It’s a show that feels powerfully redundant with a plot structure that amounts to cats being tapped to deliver an explanatory song about themselves and then to move onto the next. It’s very much, “I’m a cat. Here’s my cat song,” followed by, “I’m a different cat. Here’s my different cat song.” Without further plot advancement, it feels like the silliest job interview with the worst candidates seeking the position of Cat Who Gets the Honor of Being Reborn in the Sky. By the end of the movie, I was convinced that I was watching an even scarier version of Midsommar and that this cat gang was really a religious cult that was selecting a ritual sacrifice to their blood-thirsty Egyptian Gods.

It’s a storytelling experience that never connects because this is designed entirely for children. Much of the show feels like a children’s television series that was hijacked by a sexual deviant. The film is replete with simplistic moral messages that you would find in children’s television, things like “Believe in yourself,” and, “Invite others into your play,” and, “Wait your turn,” and, “Treat others with respect,” and other easily digestible platitudes. This isn’t a complicated show and children would not be tasked with remembering the many characters and their stupid names because most of them are meaningless to the larger story. There is nothing complex about this story, which was compensated by the production values of the original stage show. The large stages the actors frolic around are fun to watch because they’re built to scale, meaning the tables are gigantic to present the world from a cat’s perspective. However, the proportions vary wildly and at whim. The cats will seem much larger than their world and much smaller; dining cutlery will appear far larger than a cat’s whole body, or they’ll strut on a railway and look like they’re three inches tall. Couple that with inconsistent world building and ill-defined magic powers (teleportation works except when it doesn’t) and it becomes very hard to hold onto anything as a baseline. The attempts at whimsy through the exaggerated scale become another point of confusion and unease as this world continually feels like a simulation that doesn’t quite add up.

I really want to examine just how ridiculous so many of these character names are. Apparently, a cat chooses their name (sorry, pet owners, but you’ve been giving them slave names?) and they’re selecting some pretty insane identities. Without further ado, we have Bombalurina, Bustopher Jones, Grizabela, Macavity, Jennyanydots, Rum Tum Tugger, Rumpleteazer, Mungojerrie, Mr. Mistoffelees, Munustrap, Griddlebone, Tantomile, Jellylorum, Growltiger, and without a doubt, my favorite, Skimbleshanks. You could play a game guessing whether the names were cat names, pirate names, or something an elderly human said during a stroke.

The songs are also another source of disappointment. There’s the lone exception of “Memory” and Jennifer Hudson kills it with the kind of emotion the rest of the movie was missing, but everything else feels like it’s droning on and absent a strong sense of melody. The synth score also feels very dated and hard on the ears. The only saving grace for a movie that puts this concerted emphasis on the performances would be the song and dance numbers, and the dance choreography is bland and undercut by the editing, and the songs are forgettable. The Skimbleshanks number is a slight variation because of the force of personality from the character, being introduced like a fancy feline member of the Village People, suspenders and literal handlebar mustache and all. He also has an impressive tap number that leads into the exciting world of… sleeping cars on a train. It’s hard for me to impart any emotional impact from the songs because they’re so plainly expository, explaining a different cat’s life from being mischievous to being fat and lazy. These are not interesting characters in the slightest (sorry, Skimbleshanks) and their songs are like boring third grade essays about their home lives.

Nobody walks away completely clean from this movie but the actors with singing experience come closest. James Corden (Into the Woods) is a real highlight from his comic asides that feel like he’s puncturing the bizarre self-serious nature of this silly movie. Jason Derulo has a slick amount of charm to be a commitment-challenged alley cat. Hudson (All Rise) is a strong singer and made me think of her character from Dreamgirls being a cat and singing her big number. The lead heroine, Francesca Hayward, has a genuine grace to her presence and a nice face to stand out amid a world of scary human-looking cat deformities. I wish she had more moments to showcase her balletic talents. The older actors fare the worst, unfortunately. Judi Dench (Murder on the Orient Express) looks pained and sounds it too. Her fourth-wall breaking song that concludes the film, instructing the audience on how to address and treat their kitties, is inherently awkward. Elba (Hobbes & Shaw) provides a palpable sense of menace to his devil figure, until he appears without clothes and I audible gasped and groaned. In one instant, any sense of menace vanished as I watched a naked black cat version of Idris Elba dance a jolly jig. I know these actors signed up for this but that didn’t stop me from feeling a resigned sense of embarrassment for them.

And now is the time to talk about the unspoken audience for a live-action Cats, and that’s the contingent of furries or soon-to-be discovered furries. I was wondering before if the filmmakers would be cognizant of the unorthodox appeal of their film production to a certain select group of audience members, and I am here to say they are completely aware and play into this. There’s a musical number where Taylor Swift sprays catnip (a.k.a. magic horny dust) that drives the cats crazy and they writhe and purr with wild abandon, striking evocative poses with legs raised. There may not be any visible genitals but that doesn’t stop Rebel Wilson’s character from a joke about neutering. In news reports, Derula has been upset by his phantom phallus in the movie, which is slightly hilarious considering he signed up for this, but it’s also indicative of the weirdly sexual vibes the movie is playing around with but at an infantile level of wonder. There is going to be a generation of moviegoers who watch Cats and discover that they are turned on by sexy human versions of animals slinking around, lifting their legs, and rubbing their fuzzy little butts.

I was waiting for Cats to end long before it did because so much felt so pointless. The false whimsy was covering ineffective and repetitive storytelling, malnourished and unimportant characters, confusing world building and powers, middling songs (with one sterling exception), and direction that seems to make the whole enterprise feel like a children’s cartoon. It’s too simple to be intellectually stimulating, too weird and confounding to be whimsical, too sporadic and repetitive to be emotionally involving, and vacillating between complete seriousness and wanton silliness. I’m not even a hater of Hooper when it comes to his idiosyncratic direction of big Broadway musicals. I enjoyed his rendition of Les Miserables and thought several of the artistic choices made the movie better, especially the live singing. With Cats, I don’t think there was a possibility of this ever being a good movie as long as it was a faithful adaptation of a not great stage show. However, there were decisions that made this movie much much worse, namely the scary marriage of technology and flesh. If somehow you were a fan of Cats, or somehow consider yourself one as an adult, or a furry, you might find some degree of enchantment. For everyone else, Cats is a cat-astrophe. Sorry.

Nate’s Grade: D

Here are some pun-laden blurbs offered by a colleague, Steven Gammeter, in preparation for writing this review:

1) “You’ll need to change the litter box after this movie.”

2) “Follow Bob Barker’s lead and spay and neuter these Cats.”

3) “It feels like you’re living all nine of your lives while sitting through this movie.”

4) “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

Frozen II (2019)

While it’s become somewhat fashionable to call Frozen overrated, I still think it’s a great movie with an even better soundtrack, songs that I can instantly think of and hear them immediately in my head. I figured Disney would be very careful about a Frozen sequel out of a tactic understanding that they didn’t want to damage their brand. It was six years ago so I figured they hatched a sequel worthy of the big screen and legacy of their billion-dollar hit, but what I received with Frozen II was more akin to a direct-to-DVD sequel that is meant to jump start an afternoon cartoon series called Elsa’s Magical Friends. Prepare for mediocrity, folks, and start dialing back those expectations. The story revolves around Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) discovering her past, traveling to a magical land, meeting magical tribes of creatures, and helping to unite a divided people. The sloppiness of the storytelling is staggering. The plot is filled with exposition and the world building is clunky and unclear, designed more to move things along and set up cute creatures ready for holiday merchandise. The characters arcs are nebulous, in the case of Elsa considering she’s never longed to discover a past, and resoundingly lightweight in the case of everyone else; Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) is worried about having the perfect proposal (yawn), and Anna (Kristen Bell) wants to support her sister but also doesn’t want her to march off into danger needlessly (yeah, and…?). Olaf (Josh Gad), the magic snowman, remarks about the nature of change, but by the very end of the movie nothing has really changed, and that’s even after a gigantic potential sacrifice that Anna makes by her lonesome. I felt some emotional pull for the characters but that was because of the holdover of my feelings for them and less because of the situations they found themselves in with this sequel. And let’s get to the songs, which are shockingly forgettable. I was forgetting them even in the middle of them being performed. There’s no “Let It Go,” but there’s also nothing as low as the troll song, but what we’re left with are milquetoast ballads and tunes low on hum-worthy melodies. The best song might actually be a jokey power ballad along the lines of Bryan Adams where Kristoff sings his woes. That’s right, a Kristoff song is maybe the best track in this movie. That feels like a pretty big indication something went wrong. It felt like the kind of quality you’d expect from a direct-to-DVD sequel’s array of new songs. Frozen II feels so bizarrely perfunctory and routine, absent a cohesive theme holding everything together and providing a firm landscape to direct the characters, and going through the motions. It’s not a story that adds greater depth to this world. If you’re expecting something along the lines of quality from the first Frozen, it’s better to simply let those feelings go. And what’s the deal with Elsa’s neck on the poster? It’s far far too long.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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

Yesterday (2019)

What if you were the only human who knew The Beatles ever existed? That’s the high-concept premise of Yesterday from director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and famed writer Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Notting Hill). We follow Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), and to say he is a struggling musician is an understatement. His best friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) is a constant source of encouragement and unrequited affection. He’s ready to quit when suddenly a world blackout results in him getting hit by a bus. He wakes up in a hospital badly bruised and apparently the world has never heard of The Beatles songs. Jack uses his unique knowledge and launches his musical career by passing on their material as his own. Suddenly he’s a superstar with a craven new manager (Kate McKinnon) and opening for Ed Sheeran. As he catapults to a new level of fame, he starts reconsidering his feelings for Ellie and fame in general.

Yesterday is a fantasy fitting of The Twilight Zone but cheerful and whimsical that it could fit well into the pantheon of Curtis’ other famous romantic comedies. It’s a relatable wishful scenario where you have the inside track to take advantage of pre-established works and zooming ahead to fame and fortune. It’s like a direct passage to the goal of creative acclaim. The movie is generally fun as it works on dramatic irony for laughs, as Jack introduces person after person to the songwriting of the Beatles. It’s a fun magic trick that doesn’t lose its charm. Even the musical score adopts several familiar melodies from The Beatles and Boyle highlights certain landmarks and their connections to the history of the tunes. I enjoyed Jack trying to remember the lyrics for “Eleanor Rigby” and coming up with various alternatives. There’s an amusing running joke about what else is missing from this parallel universe, including Coca-Cola and Harry Potter (there’s a great joke missed having Jack try and spectacularly fail to write Harry Potter). It’s a regular source of silliness and Boyle visually trains the film to automatically do a Google search for the missing item and what is found instead. There’s no rhyme or reason for what is missing; I doubt Curtis is trying to speculate that without Coke we wouldn’t have the Beatles and so on. The movie has an easy charm and affection that makes even its looser moments more agreeable. I was hoping for more moments of subversion, like when Jack is trying to play “Let It Be” for his parents for the first time and they keep absentmindedly interrupting. What if certain Beatles songs didn’t break through as popular today as they did in the 1960s? Does “I Want to Hold Your Hand” seem to quaint for modern listeners? There aren’t many surprises in store with Curtis’ script, which uses the fantasy gimmick as a vehicle to tell a pretty ordinary love story.

The problem with the gimmick is that there really is no downside for Jack. He zooms to  international stardom. There is a small idea that he feels like a fraud by getting famous from the creativity of others but this is barely toyed with. Here’s one instance that could have better highlighted that inner turmoil: while on tour with Ed Sheeran, the musician challenges Jack to an impromptu songwriting contest, to go off to their respective corners and in ten minutes come up with a brand-new song. As presented, Jack comes back and plays “The Long and Winding Road” and everyone is spellbound. He wins. The scene could have played out with Jack trying his own material on the piano, either a tune we saw him working on before his accident or something truly original from the moment, and he could watch the crowd looking indifferent. His panic would flash in and he would cave, resorting to a Beatles song to win them over again. That moment could have showcased his internal dilemma of feeling like a fraud but his need to impress and win easy adulation. There is real downside for his passing off the Beatles songs as his own (spoilers to follow for the paragraph). At the very end, on the world’s stage, he announces the truth and that he didn’t write one of his hit songs, instead giving credit to John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Except even after this declaration, he doesn’t suffer any consequences. He maintains his fame, fortune, happiness, and gets the girl. Surely the media would seek out these cited songwriters and they would not know what he was talking about at all. Then what? Apparently nothing, as the world must have just accepted Jack as possibly being mentally ill.

Since so much of the film hinges on the romance between Jack and Ellie, it makes the obstacles keeping them apart feel foolishly arbitrary and annoying. It feels like there should be no stopping these two crazy kids from getting together but the movie manufactures questionable reasons. Firstly, Ellie is practically throwing herself at her friend in every scene for the first half, obviously hinting at her desire to be seen as something more than a friend and manager. At one point she even point-blank asks him why he doesn’t seem to view her as a romantic option (it’s not like Jack is being mobbed by other women), and the man doesn’t even articulate a reason. He just stares dumbfounded at her, as if he too is realizing a plausible reason hasn’t been conveyed. He doesn’t say, “I never knew,” because of course he knows, and he doesn’t say, “I didn’t want it to ruin our friendship,” or anything else along those lines. There isn’t even a protest. Then when he is famous, he starts thinking about becoming romantically involved, and Ellie says she doesn’t know if she can manage his new lifestyle. He’ll be in L.A. and she’ll be in her English small town, and he must choose one life over the other. This is a false choice. He’s rich and famous. He can live wherever the hell he wants, including a small English town with her. This is even glimpsed during the end credit epilogue, meaning it was completely an available option. The reasons both of these characters reject one another are just unreasonable. Lily James is playing a charming woman and should not have this much trouble having a man want to be with her.

Because of this forced and arbitrary conflict, keeping the lovers apart until finally letting them at each other, Yesterday is ultimately capped with its enjoyment level. It’s pretty much a gimmick that is meant to serve a more traditional rom-com, which Curtis knows how to do easily. Why then has he seemed to put so little effort in why these two should be kept apart? The yearning you need to feel in every rom-com feels one-sided and then switches over, making the chase feel like running in place for the sake of stretching out this conflict. It doesn’t make sense. There were realistic obstacles available with this premise, from Jack’s ego taking over thanks to everyone projecting the Beatles acclaim onto him, and he could just have become a shallower person that Ellie stops seeing as a desirable mate. That’s the easiest thing and Yesterday doesn’t even do that. Other women aren’t ever an option too. When Jack hits the big time, he isn’t fending off groupies and other industry sorts that want a piece of him. At no point does Ellie have any competition for his heart or any other part of him. They’re good together too, cute, and seem obvious that they should be together, so this foolish keep-away game feels grating.

Here’s a closing question: if the Beatles songs were released in a contemporary market, would they be the era-defying hits that they were? I’m somewhat doubtful. For an experiment, show Yesterday (or even 2007’s Across the Universe) to teenagers generally unaware about the Beatles catalogue. Do they instantly take notice? Do they ravishingly consume the songs and seek more? I’m sure some will; just because music is old doesn’t mean it can’t connect with a new, appreciative audience. However, would these songs be global hits instantly launching the songwriter to stardom? The Beatles are an indelible part of our culture and have influenced generations of artists. It’s hard to overstate their artistic influence but partly because of the time and place of that influence. Would Beethoven be as influential if he had gone unknown by history until the twenty-first century? Anyway, Yesterday is a cute but rather slight movie that reminds you about the power of music and the annoyance of contrivances withholding a happy ending until the final say-so.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Rocketman (2019)

It seems like Bohemian Rhapsody was a trial run for actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher. He had previously directed an inspirational sports movie (2015’s Eddie the Eagle) amongst other smaller films but he really came to attention when he filled in for the final weeks of Rhapsody after the original director Bryan Singer was removed. Fletcher helped steer the movie to its finish, and what a finish it had, collecting $700 million worldwide and four Oscars. Now Fletcher is a lone credited director of another musical biopic, Rocketman, chronicling the highs and lows of Elton John’s personal and professional career. Does it soar?

Elton John (Taron Egerton), nee Reggie Dwight, struts into rehab and tells his life story, from his humble days in England with distant, unsupportive parents, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley Dwight (Steven Mackintosh), meeting lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and forming an instant connection, signing a record deal and traveling to America, blowing up immediately in popularity, his on-again-off-again relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden), and all the drugs, parties, and excesses of rock and roll that Elton turned to in order to feel better about his own crippling loneliness.

I wish more musician biopics took the approach of Rocketman, blending real-life with glitzy, dreamy fantasy sequences to create a musical fantasia. It just makes running through the typical tropes of biopics that much more entertaining. I appreciate the fluid nature of being able to dip into the fantastical at a moment’s notice, opening to a world of dance and delights, which keeps things lively and serves as a better integration of the artist’s songs. Take for instance last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which showed the formation of some of Queen’s most famous songs in comically abbreviated, almost impossibly easy creative sessions. They go from clapping to cutting away to a completed “We Will Rock You.” That movie became a series of sequences demonstrating how the band made its songs. With Rocketman, the songs are more designed as vehicles to the emotional journey of Elton John. When he thinks back to his childhood, we blast “The Bitch is Back,” and when he’s talking about his first performance experiences in his town’s pubs, we get “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).” When Elton’s family is at a breaking point, each member sings a section of “I Want Love.” When Elton feels alone in a giant party, and nursing his unrequited feelings for his writing partner, he warbles “Tiny Dancer.” When he’s caught up in his attraction to his manager, they duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” By going this route, the filmmakers have opened their movie to more narrative and emotional potential.

The steps into fantasy also communicate Elton’s emotional state, especially as he starts spiraling into more drugs and loneliness. His elation translates into feeling like he and the audience are floating on air in one scene. His sense of succumbing to addictions and urges is demonstrating by a darker rendition of “Bennie and the Jets” where he crowd surfs into a sweaty orgy of flesh, people pulling at him, wanton desires obscuring anything else. It also plays into Elton’s fraying mental state. After a fantasy number, he says, “Where am I?” We too don’t know where he is. We too don’t know how much time has passed. It’s a clever conceit to get the audience to feel the protagonist’s distaff confusion about what is real and what is drug-addled. This approach also allows for some obvious visual metaphors that seem more palatable. When Elton literally hugs the child version of himself, and thus is allowing himself to finally be loved by himself, in a literal physical act, you mostly buy into it as catharsis because of the flights of fancy.

The use of songs comes into play in three shapes: 1) breaking out into song as a fantasy sequence meant to communicate the inner emotional state of the characters, 2) Elton or others performing songs as diagetic musical performances happening in real life, and 3) the musical score built upon other Elton John tracks. It pretty much means the film is wall-to-wall Elton John, which works especially well considering it is the man’s biopic, but it also creates a world of sound that belongs to this man. Even the musical score adopts his signature tunes, which provides a nice undercurrent since he is telling his own story, so why wouldn’t he rely upon his own music score to provide that extra oomph?

There is a notable downside to the interwoven fantasy angle and that’s instilling a sense of added skepticism with the audience. Every biopic is going to make fictional inventions for the sake of storytelling, be it combing characters, making the internal external, or reordering scenes for maximum drama. It’s when a biopic goes overboard with the deviations from the truth that it can alienate the audience (though this didn’t bother the $700 million gross for Rhapsody). By Rocketman choosing to amp its fantasy elements, this is going to test the believability of scenes. I’m not talking about whether or not the crowd at L.A.’s Troubadour actually floated for Elton’s first U.S. live performance. Obviously that’s an exaggeration. But it calls into question moments like Elton and Bernie Taupin meeting by coincidence, Elton storming off from Madison Square Garden straight to rehab, and in particular his relationship with his parents. There’s a phone call where an adult Elton comes out to his mother, and she responds that she always knew her son was gay. It’s at this moment where the audience may be thinking, “Oh, that’s a sweet little moment to bring out her humanity.” Then in the next breath she castigates him for “choosing” a lifestyle that will condemn him to never knowing love. Yikes. It’s such an outlandish statement that I questioned whether this scene actually happened or was dramatic license to further sock it to Elton (apparently Howard had the same concern and it’s legit). The downside of asking an audience to accept the unbelievable additions is that they may be in search of them too.

The movie hinges upon its star and Egerton delivers. He previously sang Elton John (Sing) and previously saved the real Elton John (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), so it seems like his career has been destined for this role. Egerton is great at capturing the magnetic presence Elton had as a performer. He’s sprightly, larger than life, and fully inhabits the manic stage presence that became a force to reckon with. He also does a great job of communicating the insecurities, doubts, and yearning of a person who has been fighting for acceptance and affection and feels he is incapable of either. Being in the closet is only one aspect to Elton’s self-loathing (he did come out as bisexual in 1973). The character’s biggest emotional hurdle is loving himself, which might sound corny but is given genuine pathos by Egerton, who rages for that fleeting feeling. Egerton has been a charismatic performer from the first moment I saw him, and he feels like a natural fit for this role, ably handling all his own singing to boot. Not even Oscar-winner Rami Malek did that.

The other actors do fine with their smaller roles. The problem is that the supporting cast is kept in tidy boxes of one-note requirements. Taupin is supportive. Reid is manipulative. Sheila is self-absorbed. Stanley is detached and non-approving. Each serves a very distinct purpose, and their underwritten natures would be more of a hindrance if the film weren’t entirely predicated upon Elton John’s personal experiences and interpretations of those events. I will say I was surprised that Sheila was played by Howard (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). I kept thinking to myself, “I need to look up this actress.” I didn’t recognize her with the weight gain and, later, the dodgy older age makeup.

With all these wild visuals and extravagant consumes, the strangest thing to me about this whole movie is the role of Elton’s primary lover and manager, John Reid. This person makes another appearance in another musical biopic — Bohemian Rhapsody. This same character was played by Aiden Gillan (Game of Thrones) and he got Queen to new heights before seeming to glom onto Freddie Mercury and convince him to leave the band for a solo venture. He’s portrayed as a conniving villain in Rhapsody, and he’s portrayed as another conniving user in Rocketman, and two different actors who were both on Game of Thrones play both versions. Where’s this guy’s biopic?

Fletcher has found a clever and playful approach that accentuates his story and provides insights into a clever and playful musician. I was routinely smiling throughout Rocketman, which knowingly takes elements that would be campy and corny and says, “So what?” It’s also an R-rated movie that doesn’t shy away from John’s sexuality in a safe manner, at least “safe” for a Hollywood studio film aimed at mass appeal. I enjoyed myself throughout Rocketman as it floated by on its sense of whimsy and heartache, anchored beautifully by Egerton, a compelling and charismatic young lead who gives it his all. Rocketman is what more movie biopics should aspire to be like, sequins and everything.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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