Movie Review: Go to the New-ish ‘Lion King’ for the Technical Marvels If You Must, But Stay for the Goofy Sidekicks

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CREDIT: Disney Enterprises

Starring: Donald Glover, JD McCrary, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, James Earl Jones, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, Keegan-Michael Key

Director: Jon Favreau

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: PG for Leonine Fratricide

Release Date: July 19, 2019

I’ve expressed before that Disney’s recent spate of remakes of its animated catalog is not an inherently bad idea. Plenty of stories have been told and then subsequently retold in fresh ways. For a classic example, William Shakespeare’s plays have remained relevant as many different versions have had their say over hundreds of years. But the major difference, and this is especially clear in the case of The Lion King, is the source document. A feature film that has been recorded on and uploaded onto a variety of durable formats sets a more indelible imprint than an initial theatrical performance that was presented before such recording technology existed. If you want to revisit the journey of Simba’s ascendance to the throne, you can always pop in the DVD or find the right streaming channel. Thus, a fresh feature length retelling demands that there be something new on offer.

The Jon Favreau-directed photoreal Lion King remake does in fact offer something new, at least (or if only) on a technical level. Every speck of dirt and strand of fur is rendered in painstaking fashion. But to what end? I’m reminded of Steven Soderbergh’s mashup of Hitchcock’s original Psycho and Gus van Sant’s remake, which is the sort of thing that you do just because you feel like it. And so, as far as I can tell, the team at Disney recreated the “Circle of Life” opening sequence with an updated animation style just because they felt like it. I have a bit of a Pavlovian reaction to that wonder of a kickoff, but this time it was just a secondhand Pavlov to a secondhand routine.

On a positive note, I will admit that I found this viewing experience valuable for making me feel more amenable to the adult perspective of believing that Simba just needs to get around to taking care of his responsibility. But I don’t know if that is a unique feature of this version or just a function of me happening to see this particular version instead of the original on this particular day.

In conclusion, while I have mostly focused on the disappointments, I do ultimately recommend nü-Lion King thanks to the Timon and Pumbaa of it all. As Simba’s meerkat and warthog companions, Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen are given more free rein than anyone else in the cast to find the characterization that suits them. Their performances avoid any inadvisable postmodern Shrek-style smart-aleckry, while also suggesting that they are at least self-aware of the all-franchise-fare-all-the-time pop culture landscape they are operating within. If you’re going to go back to the well, you can’t be too precious about what came before, and thankfully, enough of Timon and Pumbaa’s non-preciousness is on display here for us to get by.

The Lion King is Recommended If You Like: The wonders of animation technology, Perfectly suited yin/yang comedy duos

Grade: 3 out of 5 Circles of Life

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Mini-Movie Review: ‘The Farewell’ Examines the Emotional Truths Behind a Huge Little Lie with Humor, Pathos, and Empathy

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CREDIT: A24/YouTube

Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara

Director: Lulu Wang

Running Time: 98 Minutes

Rating: PG for General Family Reunion Awkwardness

Release Date: July 12, 2019 (Limited)

If my grandmother had cancer and my parents and aunts and uncles decided to hide the diagnosis from her and instead organize a wedding so that all her loved ones could visit her one last time, I imagine my reaction would be a lot like that of The Farewell‘s supremely frustrated Billi (Awkwafina). But of course, I cannot imagine that anyone in my family would actually do that, so it’s a little hard for me to even wrap my head around this scenario as a real thing. But it is a real thing, as writer/director Lulu Wang based it on her own experience. And I suspect she wanted to have quite an impact on people like me who are not part of a culture that would engage in this type of subterfuge. That impact valuably exploits the empathetic power of cinema: by the end of The Farewell, I still do not come anywhere close to agreeing with Billi’s family’s decision, but I understand why they believe it is the right thing. Wang’s film will have you laughing, crying, and hopefully thinking about what works best for your family in sickness and in health.

The Farewell is Recommended If You Like: Weddings and Family Reunions in All Their Messiness

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Little Round Butts

Movie Review: ‘Stuber’ Sends Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista Running L.A. Around With Their Heads Cut Off

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CREDIT: Karen Ballard/Twentieth Century Fox

Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Natalie Morales, Betty Gilpin, Mira Sorvino, Iko Uwais, Jimmy Tatro, Karen Gillan

Director: Michael Dowse

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Explosive Police Detective Work and a Visit to a Strip Club

Release Date: July 12, 2019

Humor hits different people in different ways, so while it’s theoretically possible that some viewers may find Stuber hilarious, I must be honest and admit that I found it tiresome almost immediately. It all starts, or fails to get into gear rather, with that title. Stuber looks completely meaningless, and it essentially is, as so many nicknames are. The “Stuber” in question is Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), a big box employee who also works on the side for a ride sharing company that offers the perfect opportunity for an unremarkably simple portmanteau. Is this one big 90-minute long product placement vehicle for Uber? Eh, who cares, we’ve got bigger problems to deal with.

Anyway, Stu finds himself picking up a passenger who keeps him on retainer over the course of one very long day. That would be Dave Bautista as Vic, an LAPD detective who’s supposed to be taking some time to relax because his boss told him that a big drug case is being taken over by the feds and also because he’s temporarily blind from laser eye surgery. So of course Stu and Vic don’t see eye-to-eye, as that is how unlikely buddy comedies work. Alas, everything’s too loud and predictable to be endearing. Although at one point some guy does get his face blown up by a propane tank, a moment that kind of shocked me back to life. So overall, that’s about a minute worth of fresh material.

Stuber is Recommended If You Like: Action Comedies That Don’t Know When to Quit

Grade: 2 out of 5 Uber Stars

Super Fun-Time Movie Review: Toy Story 4

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CREDIT: Pixar/YouTube

As I wrote this review of Toy Story 4 almost a week after seeing the movie, the main feeling that I have upon reflection is one of peacefulness. When Toy Story 3 arrived more than a decade after its predecessors, it brought with it familiarity but also emotional upheaval with all the life changes it sought to deal with. Number 4 is similarly concerned about new chapters, but the kind that you never saw coming, yet somehow feel so perfectly right when you let them happen. So did I cry when Woody made his final decision? I did not, not because of a cold heart, but because my warm heart was so proud of the scary, but promising, step forward I had never considered as a possibility in this series. If toys and franchises are basically immortal, sometimes they have to make big bold choices, and it’s a feat when one of them feels like the best decision for everyone involved.

I give Toy Story 4 10 Voice Boxes out of 12 Skunk Cars.

Movie Review: Agony and Catharsis Fight for Prominence in the Emotional Turbulence of ‘Midsommar’: Which Makes It Out on Top?

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CREDIT: A24

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren

Director: Ari Aster

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: R for Graphic Pagan Rituals

Release Date: July 3, 2019

Plenty of horror movies have served as metaphors for emotionally turbulent life events (Don’t Look Now, The Babadook, and director Ari Aster’s own Hereditary, to name a few), but never before have I been so relieved by that fact than in the case of Midsommar. Because if it weren’t a metaphor, its ending would be way too distressing to bear. The conclusion is about as terrifying as one could imagine given the premise, but it’s leavened with a sense of relief, as a breakup that really needed to happen has finally happened. If that sounds like a spoiler, rest assured that I’m just stating the inevitable.

Midsommar opens with Dani (rising supernova Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor, aka Seth Rogen’s long-lost Irish cousin) looking like they are both about to realize their need to split up, but then Dani experiences a sudden family trauma, and dumping her is fully out of the question at this point as she really needs someone to lean on. If nothing else, Midsommar is about the importance of having a reliable network of emotional support, and the danger of how that need can be manipulated. That fact is unavoidable when Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) takes Dani and Christian and their other friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) to the Swedish commune he grew up in. It’s summer in Scandinavia, which means that the sun seemingly never sets, thus providing the perfect setting to confirm, or perhaps exceed, our worst suspicions of what a “commune” in a horror movie really means.

Ultimately, I am not quite sublimely thrilled by Midsommar; not quite underwhelmed, but perhaps just whelmed. It delivered what I expected, based on the trailer and Florence Pugh’s unrestrained agony on the poster. In that vein, it reminds me quite a bit of Get Out, which was similarly groundbreaking in its concept but rather straightforward in its accomplishment once I got onboard with its premise. But Get Out has proved ripe for revisiting and benefited accordingly, and I imagine that the same might be true in the long run for Midsommar once it is less weighed down by expectations. It certainly has the indelible imagery to make repeat visits worthwhile.

Midsommar is Recommended If You Like: The Wicker Man, Hereditary, Emotional Turmoil Raising the Stakes of Horror

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Unexplained Bears

Movie Review: ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ Offers Goofs Galore and Surprise Reveals Aplenty

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures/YouTube

Starring: Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Angourie Rice, Martin Starr, J.B. Smoove, Marisa Tomei, Tony Revolori, Remy Hii

Director: Jon Watts

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Nicks and Bruises from Webslinging Around and Awkward Situations That Teenager Somehow Stumble Into

Release Date: July 2, 2019

The name of the game is the ol’ switcheroo, the bait-and-switch, the smoke-and-mirrors routine … yeah, that’s the ticket. It’s only been a couple of months since the release of Avengers: Endgame, but despite all that seeming finality, the MCU must continue. And the first arrival in this new status quo is Spider-Man: Far From Home, which means we’re going to kick things off with an in memoriam montage that features Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” Comic Sans lettering, and a Getty Images-watermarked photo. But there are also some baddies to defeat, although Peter Parker (Tom Holland) would much rather focus on his school’s European class trip and taking things to a more romantic realm with his friend MJ (Zendaya). You get the sense that this cinematic iteration of Spider-Man would also like to just focus on the high school ecosystem. But superhero movie requirements beckon, and Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers’ script does a fun enough job of incorporating Peter and his pals’ shenanigans into the CGI blowout.

The topsy-turvy hook begins with the fallout from the fact that the people who were snapped away in Infinity War and then returned in Endgame (referred to here as “the Blip”) have not aged the five years that everyone who remained did. Adding to all the pandemonium is the appearance of Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), a caped-and-suited fellow who claims to be from a parallel Earth and is here to help fight some monsters that have escaped from his world. But not all is as it seems, as characters may not be who they say they are, relationships have sudden accelerations and decelerations, and it really isn’t what it looks like when a classmate discovers Peter taking his pants off next to a much older woman.

That sense of the wool being pulled over and off and back on everyone’s eyes lasts all the way through to the end of the credits, with the extra scenes turning out to be surprisingly essential in clarifying what just happened. Peter’s efforts to puncture his way into what’s really going on have a satisfying vibe of getting past the bullshit. However, that level of satisfaction is not met with any corresponding visual panache, as Far From Home plays it way too safe in the standard-issue Marvel CGI department. If this is the post-Endgame status quo, at least it won’t be so stressful.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is Recommended If You Like: Spider-Man: Homecoming, High Quality Character-Centric Jokewriting

Grade: I don’t know how to grade these Marvel movies anymore. I could give it a 4 out of 5 for Fun, but I also want to downgrade it to 3.5 out of 5 for (Lack of) Originality, and then I also want to downgrade it to Less Than 3.5 out of 5 for Frustration about this being yet another good-but-not great Marvel movie. So my overall grade is all of that somehow mixed together.

Wild and Crazy Movie Review: Anna

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CREDIT: Shanna Besson

Luc Besson’s Anna features the most time-establishing title cards I have ever seen in one movie. We jump five years ahead only to ten minutes later skip back three years back (i.e., two years after when we began.) Do you think we skipped something important by shooting forward six months? It turns out you’re right, so let’s return to three months ago. This at first feels like self-parody (possibly intentional, possibly not), but it ultimately all slots everything into place and becomes the jigsaw puzzle construction that ensures this film’s modest pleasures come into focus. We needed some sort of experimentation to liven up this otherwise straightforward take on yet another “poor Soviet village girl self-actualizes by becoming a KGB spy/double agent/triple agent,” which there probably aren’t that many examples of, although it feels like there’s a ton. It’s that whirligig approach that makes Anna fun enough. Also, it features montages set to “Pump Up the Jam” and “Need You Tonight,” which is hardly groundbreaking but plenty welcome.

I give Anna 30 Helen Mirren Cigarette Drags out of 50 Helen Mirren Russian-Accented Sick Burns.

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