Friday, July 19

The Lion King Review



The Lion King

Dir: Jon Favreau

Starring: Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, John Oliver, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, and James Earl Jones


W.C. Fields famously quoted about the filmmaking process, “Never work with children or animals”. 


There was a moment a few years ago, while watching a young filmmaker work on getting a cat to walk through a dog door, when these words haunted a production set for 2 hours. After numerous requests, which very quickly became pleas, of “cut” and “action” the director asked if there was any way to make a digital cat for the scene. 


One week later, director Jon Favreau released the photorealistic digital remake of the beloved 1967 animated film “The Jungle Book”; a visual feast of the advancements in technology that made a jungle full of animals come to life like a nature documentary. With a star-studded group of voice actors, this new rendition of “The Jungle Book” was the spark that opened up the possibilities of Disney Studios revisiting more than just their human focused stories. 





“The Lion King”, the 1994 landmark cartoon that changed the trajectory of Disney’s animation studios, is the newest past property to be reimagined through photorealistic strokes of digital artistry. The result is a technical marvel without much dramatic spirit, an absolutely beautiful painting that struggles consistently with adding emotional touchstones to its flawless digital rendering.


From the opening sequence, the breathtaking progression through the Pride Lands as baby Simba is introduced to the world, the amazing digital wizardry is immediately on full scale display. Nearly every character, landscape, and motion from the original animated film is mirrored with such meticulous care and constructed in such high definition clarity that you won’t realize you are smiling until you realize that you already started singing “Circle of Life”. It’s a gorgeous technological feat. 


As the film progresses into the heft of the narrative, with its Shakespearean-esque cues and sing-a-long musical numbers, the technology remains impressive but the emotional components of these characters get lost in all the realistic animal composition. The flexibility of standard animation, which allows moments to compose backgrounds for atmospheric effect and exaggerate features for heightened reactions, assist in making Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) death so tragic and allowing Scar’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) murderous deeds to feel so threatening. 




What this new film does is craft what looks like a Disneynature film; with such fine-tuned character compositions, Simba’s (JD McCrary) playfulness while singing “Just Can’t Wait to be King” seems dulled and at times oddly structured. Scar and the Hyenas appear so visually threatening on first introduction, with glowing eyes and sinister stalking motions, but they lose that edge the moment they sing or clumsily tumble into one another during altercations with the lions. 


It doesn’t help that the film is trying so hard to be a shot-for-shot remake of the original cartoon. In the same way that the threat, thrill, and tension was lost in director Gus Van Sant’s recreation of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, the heart, humor, and harmony of this updated version of “The Lion King” also feels lessened by its need to match scenes and emotions from the original. 


There are few moments when the joy and pleasure of the original take over, especially when Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) are on screen discussing slimy cuisine and singing about their life motto or when the formal Zazu (John Oliver) is flying around providing morning reports. 





The talented voice actors throughout the film all have opportunities to shine but it never lasts too long. Beyoncé voices older Nala and sings exceptionally well, Donald Glover plays older Simba and offers a maturity that feels somewhat timid with hints of kingly confidence, and James Earl Jones brings all the gravitas, almost exactly so, from the original performance. 


“The Lion King” is very often a beautiful experiment of how precisely detailed and richly composed technology can make an artificial world resemble the real thing. Unfortunately, it’s still a few steps away from providing this recreated film with the heart and soul found so affectionately in traditional methods of animation that made the 90’s version of this film such a classic. 


Monte’s Rating

2.50 out of 5.00

Tuesday, July 9

Random Cinematic Year in Review - 1974


By Emery Snyder @leeroy711



Preface: I have decided to write this series at least in part because I don't make it out to see new films very often and I've found that I spent too much time at the end of the year attempting to see all the big releases (many of which I'm not even interested in) for no other reason than to make an obligatory 'year end list'... This is a way that I can continue writing about films without feeling the pressure to see a bunch of stuff that I wouldn't otherwise take the time to. I'll still see most of them eventually, just on my own time. I use a random number generator to pick a year and I use letterboxd.com to determine the actual release year.

1974

1974 turned out to be a year of reconciliation and retribution in a couple of very notable ways. We were only one year out of the decade long conflict in Vietnam and Americans seemed to be ready to start cleaning the slate. And on May 9th, The House of Representatives began the impeachment inquiry of President Richard Nixon for his involvement in the Watergate Break-In. After years of insisting on his innocence, Nixon eventually chose to resign in August in order to avoid the embarrassment of a trial and conviction. Although his successor would pardon him of all wrongdoing, Nixon's legacy would forever be tainted.

Later that year in October, the sports world would hand out its own brand of retribution in Kinshasa, Zaire. Heavyweight boxer, Muhammad Ali would attempt to regain his championship title. He faced and undefeated George Foreman and was a 4-1 underdog. Ali had his title stripped in '67 for refusing to fight in the Vietnam conflict.

Known as the greatest sports event of the 20th Century, Ali unveiled his “rope-a-dope” technique, dodging Foreman’s strikes, tiring him out. Late in the 8th round, Ali knocked Foreman out, becoming only the 2nd boxer in history to regain his title.

As usual, the cinematic world served as a reflection of these social queues. Risks were being taken, new and unique stories were being told and the techniques developed would serve to change the landscape of film (especially American film) for the decades to come.

NOTABLE FILMS


DARK STAR 
Directed by John Carpenter


Please notice that this is a list of “notable films”, which does not necessarily mean ‘great’ … or in this case, even ‘good’ films…. And while there are plenty of adjectives to describe John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s low-budget sci-fi student film, insignificant isn’t one of them. I would make the case for anyone interested in the modern history of horror/sci-fi to watch this. This is an opportunity to witness the genesis of what would become two of the most important voices in genre film. Watch it with all the knowledge and affectation for everything that has been created and/or influenced by Carpenter and O’Bannon. Because the last thing that I want to do is imagine a world without Michael Myers, the Pork-Chop Express, Xenomorphs or brain-eating Zombies. 


YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN / BLAZING SADDLES
Directed by Mel Brooks


I grew up with both of these films. As I would later grow into my cenefilia and all its more discerning (snobbish) tastes, I would come to be more dismissive of BLAZING SADDLES’ humor as juvenile. But a recent rewatch had me laughing like I was twelve years old again… Still juvenile, but also a bit genius. I still think that YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is the better film. But it is a testament to Brooks’ fortitude and talent that his two best and most iconic films were released in the same year.



PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE
Directed by Brian De Palma


I like to imagine that this is an accurate depiction of American life in 1974. It's not, but it's a lot of fun to think that this is was served as run-of-the-mill entertainment back then. It’s absolutely insane and insanely watchable. This is such a perfect blend between the magical realism of 70's rock-opera and what was quickly becoming De Palma's signature Hitchcockian flair. 



THE GODFATHER: PART II / THE CONVERSATION
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola


I won’t say too much about what may be the most famous trilogy in cinematic history. A lot of fellow cinefiles prefer the second GODFATHER. It’s a more epic tale with arguably more compelling performances. Personally, I still prefer the first GODFATHER but, I actually think THE CONVERSATION is better than any of the Corleone films. This taut, semi-political spy thriller is light on frills and heavy on the paranoia.


If there is anything you can say with certainty, it’s that the 70’s were great for Coppola. GODFATHER (’72) and APOCALYPSE NOW (’79) along with these two, make four masterpieces within seven years. The vast majority of filmmakers will never even make one.


THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE

Directed by Joseph Sargent


At some point, I’d like to write more about films shot on location, in major American cities in the 70’s. In San Francisco, we got INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (’78) as well as the aforementioned THE CONVERSATION. Neo-noir like Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (’73) as well as Mark Robson’s disaster flick, EARTHQUAKE (’74) brought the streets of Los Angeles into every cineplex in the U.S. And New York got plenty of work as well with films like Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER (’76) and Friedkin’s THE FRENCH CONNECTION (’71). There are so many other examples. But for my money, Joseph Sargent’s subway heist thriller that pits hijacker, Robert Shaw against seasoned detective, Walter Matthau in this tense standoff may take the NYC cake.


The thing that you hear most about this film is the referential fact that Quinten Tarantino borrowed the idea of a gang using colorful pseudonyms to protect their anonymity for RESERVOIR DOGS (’92). Not enough is said however about how well developed this ensemble of characters is. It’s filmmaking like this that has been reverse-engineered by our 90’s indy darling directors to the greatest effect.


THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
Directed by Tobe Hooper


It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this low budget horror film. Its cultural influence has been sighted in writing about everything from American industrialization to feminism to vegetarianism. And on a technical level, it is full of small, yet significant camera movements that filmgoers recognize now as the language of visual storytelling; but were in fact, quite groundbreaking in the mid-70’s.


A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE

Directed By John Cassavetes


Gena Rowlands’ performance is among the greatest ever committed to film. This is one of ten she made with her writer/director husband, Cassavetes. Mabel (Rowlands) is the devoted wife of Nick (Peter Falk). In spite of her best efforts, her emotions keep betraying her, twisting her mind in and out of a boiling pot of love, rage and insecurities. This likely remains the most raw and honest depiction of mental health ever committed to film.


ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL
Directed by Werner Fassbinder


Like the social commentary in most of Fassbinder’s filmography, this one is way ahead of its time. Its message is still progressive today. And the struggles faced by our two main characters are still unfortunately relevant today. Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem give magnificent performances as ill-fated lovers, constantly butting heads against culture, age and taboo. This film seeks to cause you pain by humanizing those society has left out of the equation.  


BLACK CHRISTMAS

Directed by Bob Clark


Everyone loved to invoke Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (’60) when discussing the history and influences of slasher cinema. I’ll give credit where it’s due. PSYCHO was revolutionary, in more ways than one. But today’s slasher film has a lot more in common with Bob Clark’s criminally underrated horror/thriller about a sorority house under attack during the Christmas break. I don’t think there has ever been a creepier film. Everything from the POV camera to the voice on the phone creates an inescapable atmosphere of dread and tension.


CHINATOWN
Directed by Roman Polanski


“CHINATOWN” is my ‘go-to’ answer to the question: “What’s your all-time favorite movie?” I’ve watched it and will continue to watch it many times in my life. So, there’s quite a bit I could say about it, but I’ll keep this brief and within the context of this post. Polanski’s masterpiece also perfectly reflects the era of American cinema in which it was released. Only six years after the abolishment of the Hays Code, this neo-noir harkens back to the Hollywood stories of the 40’s for the technical inspiration required to tell a story with subject matter as dark as its tone. It was almost as if the great techniques, developed by Lang and Wilder in decades past had often been squandered on neutered stories. The seventies were different though. Topics once thought forbidden or too taboo became fair game, allowing more freedom for the storytellers.

I watch CHINATOWN about once a year or so, often curious about how well it will hold up to my evolving tastes. I am always surprised at how I still respond to it. I’ve stopped expecting to outgrow it.

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Tuesday, July 2

Midsommar Review


Midsommar
Dir: Ari Aster
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, and Will Poulter

Death, dying, and the grieving process can be a personal and unique experience. For each individual who must endure watching someone leave, mourn the death of someone important in their lives, and ultimately grieve the fact that life will proceed without that person in their lives, the process can be a mixture of emotions both good and bad. But it is a process that is wholly unique for the individual. 

In some cultures, this process has a defined set of steps that must be followed. For Native American tribes, the grieving practice is often incorporated into the processing of the burial arrangements with each tribal community having a different set of operations that are incorporated into the traditional practices. Some of these specific practices are vastly different, oftentimes misunderstood or challenged by non-tribal people, from the “normal” process demonstrated throughout traditional America. But when you break it down, all the steps in the grieving process are present. 

Director Ari Aster, who expertly crafted one of the best horror films of the last decade with “Hereditary” which also featured one of the most stunning lead performances of 2018 from Toni Collette, returns for his sophomore film and focuses again on emotional trauma felt and caused by humanity. “Midsommar” is a film about clashing cultures, emotional codependency, and romantic manipulations wrapped up in dark shrouds of black humor. 

Dani (Florence Pugh) is still grieving a family tragedy when her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) invites her to a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer celebration in Sweden. Dani, lost in utter heartache and grasping to remaining fibers of her relationship with Christian, reluctantly pushes herself to commit to the trip. Not long after entering the mysterious community at the start of an 11-day festival, the couple begins to participate in strange rituals, drinking concoctions that lead to hallucinatory nightmares and partaking in bizarre ceremonies with unusual outcomes.

“Midsommar” functions on numerous levels, with influences ranging from films like “The Wicker Man” for thematic control and “The Color of Pomegranates” for color and design. However, the films of Ingmar Bergman seem most influential throughout the film, specifically “Scenes from a Marriage” pairs beautifully with the narrative components and tone being operated throughout this film.

It’s within the narrative that “Midsommar” is most impressive. Aster has already proved with “Hereditary” why genre film is such a good vessel for complex narratives and emotional storytelling but also why horror films can specifically evoke so many different types of emotions in the process of deeply affecting the viewer. “Midsommar” is operating with many of the same processes but the story here is reaching farther, tackling issues of foreign predispositions, cultural misunderstandings, gender dominance, the power of femininity, relationship codependency, and the many meandering meanings of romantic relationships. 

At its core, “Midsommar” is a break-up film mixed with the grieving process that follows the end of a relationship, it's an examination of that terrible relationship everyone has tried to save only to suddenly, and often times disastrously and painfully, come to the realization that it cannot be saved. Mr. Aster layers relationship concepts ingeniously throughout the film; through the ritual of cult ceremonies that operate as metaphors for sex and desire, through the process of aging and the death and dying rite involved in the relationship one has to another and the pain of moving forward without that person, and through the miscommunication of culture and tradition in examining just how different perceptions of love can be. 

The composition of this film is familiar in tone and structure to “Hereditary”, however, the themes are fashioned in a far different way. The horror elements, which are violent and shocking throughout, accommodate the bleak yet humorous tone that Aster is trying to achieve. It’s interesting that throughout this film, where the emotional strings are being plucked at vastly different strengths, the humor feels so natural. It helps bring some levity to the dark subject matter that is transpiring in bright daylight scenes, sometimes tinged hallucinatory perspectives.

These concepts do not work without the brilliant performance from Florence Pugh who in the first few minutes of the film completely invades the viewer's emotional space through devasting pain and sorrow. The remaining performance is a range of emotions that are genuinely composed. Jack Reynor plays Christian, the not-so-great boyfriend character, who convincingly displays that he is more self-obsessed and self-concerned than he is dedicated to his relationship. 

“Midsommar” is a beautifully photographed film that is most often composed in the bright shining sunlight. There is an uneasiness to horror films that operate in daylight, that the evil being orchestrated has no remorse for whatever it plans on doing in full, clear view. It’s an achievement to the director of photography Pawel Pogorzelski who has proven such an immense range with the collaboration with Ari Aster in two films. From stunning wide frame shots of peaceful yet inescapable environments to unnerving wandering shots seemingly taken from something watching in the clouds, all the way to the gory glory of shocking violence, it’s all beautifully and purposefully rendered.

“Midsommar” is the second film for director Ari Aster, that’s an impressive two-film catalog already. Mr. Aster continues to strengthen his voice and skillset as a filmmaker, but his perception for how one can utilize genre to tell emotionally complicated stories is the real achievement for this filmmaker. “Midsommar” demonstrates that sometimes the scariest monster isn’t a monster at all, sometimes it’s the emotion connected with the fear of loss and outlook towards the unknown. 

Monte’s Rating
4.50 out of 5.00