The Lion King (2019)

The Lion King Poster

Director: Jon Favreau

Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson

Cast: Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Earl Jones, John Oliver, Keegan-Michael Key, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogan, and Alfre Woodard

Like with most good things, there comes a point where the end must eventually come. The Lion King live action remake is officially that moment in terms of these cinematic cover versions of classic Disney animated films, where the wheels have finally come off. And this is coming from a guy whose power went out on the hottest day of the year, so he took his family to the movies for some sweet air conditioned relief. In other words, I was an easy audience to impress.

But impress it did not. Jon Favreau returns to direct his second of these live-action remakes after the 2016 hit The Jungle Book, a film that kind of jump started this whole remake-craze at Disney. I guess it’s also fitting that he also helms the one that starts its descent.

The Lion King opens with a live-action rendering of the opening scene from the 1994 animated film. It is starkly identical to the original, where animals all gather around Pride Rock to view the presentation of the newly-born king to be, Simba set to the excellent song, “Circle of Life.” This opening does succeed at programming the audience for nostalgia, and it is quite impressive how exact the animators were able to recreate this scene with life-like CGI creatures. Bringing back James Earl Jones to voice Mustafa serves a comparable purpose, setting the table for what could be a nice mix of old and new. Unfortunately, this similarity to the original does not end here, to the point where I’m not sure exactly what screenwriter Jeff Nathanson is really responsible for beyond that of the original screenplay from 1994. The Lion King sticks to the script more than any of these remakes have to date.

The plot of The Lion King remains Hamlet, Disneyfied. The brother of the king, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), desires the throne to the pridelands for himself leading him to hatch a plan to murder the king and his son, steal the queen, and usurp the throne. Simba (voiced first by JD McCrary and later by Donald Glover) escapes Scar’s minions; however, he blames himself for the death of his father and leaves the pridelands. In exile, Simba embarks on a journey of self-discovery eventually discovering the true meaning of duty and courage.

Ultimately, this film sounded like a slam dunk. Beloved story, cutting edge special effects, creative director, and some of the greatest talents of their generation. Ultimately, all of these talents are wasted including the two hugest entertainers on the planet, Donald Glover and Beyoncé (who voices the adult Nala, Simba’s childhood friend). Arguably the most impressive piece of entertainment to come from this movie is actually off-screen: The companion soundtrack The Lion King: The Gift, curated by Beyoncé. The music of the original film written and performed by Tim Rice and Elton John was always the keystone to that film, so arranging for the musical giants of Glover and Beyoncé made a lot of sense. That being said, their efforts on screen do not really deliver, while as a soundtrack off-screen they actually do. Aladdin, released earlier this year, did a far better job of creating a more sonorous experience even with arguably lesser musical content.

All in all, The Lion King is very rote, stale, and unimpressive (aside from the visual effects, which are stunning). The decision to play it so safe with this film is a real disappointment and the result is a clunky film with no personality. The only highlight comes in the form of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan’s portrayal of Timon and Pumba, Simba’s meerkat and warthog companions. They represent the only segment of the film that attempts to find some fresh territory by playfully riffing on the nostalgia of their characters (and some other Disney favorites) while also truly entertaining the full audience from young to old.

Timon, Simba, and Pumba
Timon, Simba, and Pumba in the new live-action remake of The Lion King

This is also one of Disney’s more frightening and violent films in terms of younger viewers, and the decision to make it live-action only emphasizes the violence and danger. The hyenas are also more disturbing, which is a head scratcher because they are laughing hyenas. The hyenas do not even laugh; this is low-hanging fruit. While an attempt was made to add a layer of humor to their characters, one of which is voiced by comedian Keegan-Michael Key, that decision felt like an afterthought. An afterthought that should have been obvious when Cheech Marin and Whoopi Goldberg did such a good job voicing two of them in the original animated film.

Hyenas
I’m not laughing…

The Lion King is a forgettable rehash that could have been a wonderful update on a classic. When these films do not bring something new to the table, it is hard to see them as anything but a shallow attempt to take our money with familiar branding. And that may have been their goal all along with these films, but if you want me to have a Hakuna Matata attitude about these things, at least make me feel the love. C

The Lion King is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 58 minutes.

Doctor Strange

dr_strangeDirector: Scott Derrickson

Screenwriters: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, and Benedict Wong

If you’re like me, you watched 12 years a Slave in 2013 and during the scenes between Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup and Benedict Cumberbatch as plantation owner, William Ford, you thought – man these two guys would be great in a superhero film. Well, rejoice because just 3 years later, Doctor Strange is that film. But don’t rejoice too much because in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this film ranks at the bottom of my list. It has also been 3 years since Thor: The Dark World, which is the last time I wrote a sub-par review of a Marvel film, coincidentally. I think it was Jimmy Stewart who said, “Every time a Cumberbatch/Ejiofor film opens, a Marvel film will suck.” Something like that. Well, now two worlds collide, creating a Cumberbatch-paradox the like of which has never been seen since Cumberbatch solved the enigma code!

Doctor Strange answers the question: What if Tony Stark was a surgeon? Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a successful New York surgeon with an ego the size of Stark Tower. When distracted driving turns deadly, Strange is laid up in a hospital with irreparable damage to his hands essentially ending his medical career. Friend and fellow surgeon, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) attempts to comfort him, but she’s about as successful as Pepper Potts was at convincing a dejected Tony Stark to stop making robots. When Strange catches wind that a previously untreatable paralytic patient of his is suddenly miraculously recovered, he investigates leading him on a journey to Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu to find The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), in the hopes that he can be healed and resume his surgical supremacy.  The Ancient One sees more in Strange than a surgeon however and agrees to teach him despite his arrogance. Under the teachings of the Ancient One and another sorcerer named Mordo (Ejiofor), Strange learns that the Earth is protected from other dimensions by three mystical sanctums in three separate global locations, and it is the job of the sorcerers to protect these sanctums.  He also learns the ancient spells that allow him to access various panes and dimensions of existence permitting him to bend space and time to open portals of access throughout the planet (and maybe beyond based on the post-credit scenes).

tilda
Opening interdimensional portals with Kate McKinnon as The Ancient One on SNL
A technique also taught by Kate McKinnon as Tilda Swinton on Saturday Night Live during Cumberbatch’s monologue on the November 5th, 2016 episode. Much of this ancient knowledge is under the protection of the Librarian, whose name is Wong (Benedict Wong).

What did the Librarian say when he was asked if it was fun playing Sherlock Holmes on TV?  

-You have the Wong Benedict!
 A previous apprentice named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) has recently gone rogue, slaying the previous Librarian and stealing an ancient spell that could destroy the sanctums and unlock the power of the Dark Dimension. Now Strange must battle Kaecilius to protect the Earth from what lies in the Dark Dimension.

So, what’s wrong with Doctor Strange? Not everything. I’d like to take a moment in this review to say I still rather enjoyed Doctor Strange. I also did like parts of Thor: The Dark World; I gave it a B-, but Marvel has set the bar so high, that films that sink to the bottom still have merit. Visually, this is the most ambitious and dazzling film in all 14 Marvel films. Clearly inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the sequences of inter-dimensional shifting and battles are breathtaking and outstanding, so kudos director Scott Derrickson who leaves his horror comfort zone behind for sci-fi/fantasy blockbuster territory. Still, like Barack Obama said, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” Oddly enough, many of the same problems I had with Thor: The Dark World are present in Doctor Strange. The film plays with so many already established archetypes and story devices, for the first time I experienced the feeling that some of this is getting old. I enjoyed Cumberbatch as the title character and I can easily picture some incredible opportunities for his character and powers in other films. Still as far as his stand-alone film, it suffers from too much, “been there, done that.” Another male, egotistical genius battling his arrogance for enlightenment. Another intergalactic time and space mess characteristic of Thor: The Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy, both of which share the bottom ranking in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Doctor Strange. Another recycled hero cycle story-line. It remains clear that the most attention was spent on the digital effects this time around, as opposed to punching up the dialogue, plot, and placement in terms of the other films in the franchise. The climax, however was quite clever. Still, I’d be far more excited to see Stephen Strange become a Bruce Banner-type who is an endearing and forceful player in the overall universe, but not in his own films. Of course, here we are going into the film’s second weekend and it’s projected to cross the $400 million mark at the global box office, so Doctor Strange 2 is an inevitability.

So what grade does the #14 out of 14 MCU films get from The People’s Critic? The clever climax and impressive effects are bogged down by the slow-paced second half, recycled content, and flat characters. Therefore, for the first time, I have to dig through the Basement and award a Marvel film a C+

Doctor Strange is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes. There are two post-film scenes: one mid-way through the credits, and another after the credits, both of which are marginally important enough to endure the 10 minute credits to see.

The Martian

Martian PosterDirector: Ridley Scott

Screenwriter: Drew Goddard

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Jeff Daniels

Quite honestly, if you have seen Apollo 13, Cast Away, Interstellar, or The Right Stuff, then ironically, The Martian, the new film from Ridley Scott about an astronaut left behind by his crew on Mars, treads no new territory.  That being said, why did we all love those movies if they basically explored the same things?  The answer is that we have an insatiable appetite for watching humankind’s intelligence put to the test.  When The Martian is over, that is the piece that stays with you, not the performances or even the directing, but the way human intellect is pooled to solve unsolvable problems!

The Martian stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a NASA botanist who is part of a six-person, 31-day mission to explore the surface of Mars.  When an unexpected dust storm escalates with no warning, Watney is struck by debris, disabling his spacesuit’s communication device and forcing his crew to assume he has been killed.  With the storm jeopardizing the integrity of their ship, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the tough call to evacuate the planet early and consequently leave Watney’s body behind.  Now as Lewis and her crew begin the 10-month journey back to Earth, Watney awakens from being struck unconscious to discover that he is alone on a dessert planet 34 million miles from Earth and potentially years from being rescued, and that is if he can somehow communicate to NASA that he is not dead.

For a film with such a discouraging scenario at its heart, The Martian is extremely upbeat thanks to a terrific performance by Matt Damon who masterfully captures the brilliance of Andy Weir’s original character from his novel of the same name.  Damon displays a resourcefulness, wit, and spirit with his portrayal of Watney, and it reminds us all of the importance of “mindset.”  A film that could so easily present a protagonist’s slow dissent into madness at the mercy of isolation is instead wisely turned on its head early on when Watney declares, “I will not die here.”  Whether or not this declaration becomes fact remains to be seen, but this decision to persevere is precisely why this film is such a joy to watch and not a test of our sensibilities.  Watney’s decision to live comes with the caveat of finding a way to survive for an indeterminate amount of time on a planet with no atmosphere, extreme temperatures, and no food or water source.  It is endlessly fascinating to watch Watney work his way through these dilemmas and according to director Ridley Scott, NASA validates nearly all of the survival methods Watney employs in this film.

It is no spoiler to reveal that Watney does eventually manage to contact Earth and establish that he is alive, creating a new element of tension as the film evolves from a survival film (like Gravity) to one that introduces the concept of rescue.  As exciting as it is to examine the power of the individual in films like Gravity and Cast Away, The Martian introduces a type of global effort that can be assembled when the people of Earth put aside their differences and work together on a common goal.  Consequently, like Apollo 13, The Martian wisely balances the space scenes with others that show the ingenuity and frustration of the scientists on Earth as they try to develop some kind of plan to save Watney.  That being said, a simple glance at the promotional poster for The Martian clearly demonstrates that this film was developed as a vehicle for Damon, but there are many other big names in this movie and boy are they wasted.  Michael Peña, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, Sean Bean and others all share about 20% of the running time and don’t get to do very much.  This is slightly disappointing especially when one thinks back to Ed Harris and Gary Sinise in Apollo 13 and realizes how powerful these roles could have been with some slight refocusing.

With Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and soon Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we are firmly in the midst of a science-fiction renaissance.  While box office has plenty to do with this current fad, what makes these films most enticing to the big name directors is their opportunity to dazzle us visually.  I saw The Martian in 3-D, which I normally avoid.  I still believe that 3-D releases are nothing more than a way to make you pay an extra few dollars for a ticket, but I will admit that Ridley Scott has crafted a beautiful and exciting film with The Martian that does use the technology to immerse the audience in the experience better than most.

The Martian is everything you want in a big budget, exciting, tense blockbuster.  It is entertaining, researched, and impressive.  Still, while it features brilliant people doing brilliant things, The Martian does all of the heavy lifting.  It would have been nice to walk away with a little bit more to think about, but it does let you walk out with plenty to celebrate, and that is good too. A-

The Martian is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes. 

12 Years a Slave

ImageThere’s a moment towards the end of 12 Years a Slave where Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) looks directly into the camera and seemingly at the audience.  He stares for an extended moment, as if to say, “Can you believe that only 150 years ago – this happened…in the United States of America?”  12 Years a Slave is the quintessential American slavery-era film; it is heartbreaking, disturbing, tender, raw, and also beautiful.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northrup, a free, New York citizen who is a victim of a horrific kidnapping scheme where Southern slave traders abduct free Black citizens and transport them South forcing them back into slavery.  Northup’s life and family are ripped from him so suddenly that it is astonishing.  The title is pragmatically evocative of how long Northrup will endure his injustice, and director Steve McQueen makes sure the audience feels every bit of it as well.

The film is based on Northrup’s own memoir, a literary example preciously rare as so many slaves died before they could tell their stories or were never taught to read and write.  A pervasive struggle Northrup faces in the film is searching for tools or opportunities to write.  The film opens with Northrup covertly trying to make ink out of blackberry juice and fashion a pen out of stray twigs.  McQueen wisely emphasizes the oppressive silencing that occurred in order to, in some way, try to explain how such outrageousness was even possible for so long.

McQueen frames Northrup’s experience by casting recognizable faces as various archetypes of 19th Century Southern society.  Paul Giamatti plays a slave merchant in all of its absurdity, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the hypocritical plantation owner who seemingly appreciates humanity but wants to turn his eyes from the horror he knows is happening right under his nose, and Brad Pitt plays…Jesus; I’m pretty sure he’s playing Jesus.  However, one player, other than Ejiofor, gets to sink his teeth into a role that is far more substantial, Michael Fassbender.  Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, a slave owner who owns Northrup for nearly 10 of his 12 years in slavery.  Fassbender is terrifying; his character is reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes’ character in Schindler’s List, yes – he’s that chilling.  However, what sets him apart from being a typical embodiment of evil is that as the film goes on, it is clear that Epps is mentally ill.  This element does not garner sympathy for his actions, but it does reveal some of the helplessness inherent in a society that avoids the value of human life.  The end result is a decaying infrastructure that eats away at itself until it collapses.

Of course, this is a showcase for Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor who has been on the brink of greatness for some time now.  Ejiofor’s performance is certainly in the running for the best of the year.  He harnesses strength as he portrays the effects of a dark and obtuse time in human history.  As Solomon Northrup, he leads the audience through a series of events that certainly require a bold and fearless guide.

12 Years a Slave is a moody masterpiece that I’m sure offers more context in repeat viewings, but I don’t know what kind of person would be able to sit through this film more than once.  McQueen contrasts the most abhorrent events of our young country’s history with some beautiful filmmaking, glorifying the Southern landscapes in rich, luscious irony.  His camera is up close and personal, using countless close-ups with the clear objective of putting slavery “in your face.”  The emotion is real and raw, not melodramatic.  Towards the end of the film, Northrup finally breaks down, which is inevitable.  He weeps for what he has missed.  It is a history lesson of the best and worst kind.  A

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