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

Best TV Episodes of 2018

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CREDIT: Guy D’Alema/FX/FX Networks

If you’re still catching up on the best TV of 2018, the following playlist would be a great way to go about it.

1. Atlanta, “Teddy Perkins”
2. Saturday Night Live, Donald Glover/Childish Gambino
3. Atlanta, “Barbershop”
4. Mystery Science Theater 3000, “Mac and Me”
5. Big Mouth, “The Planned Parenthood Show”
6. BoJack Horseman, “The Showstopper”
7. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “The Gang Solves the Bathroom Problem”
8. The Assassination of Gianni Versace, “A Random Killing”
9. Barry, “Chapter Eight: Know Your Truth”
10. Pose, “Giving and Receiving”
11. Joe Pera Talks With You, “Joe Pera Talks to You About the Rat Wars of Alberta, Canada (1950–Present Day)”
12. BoJack Horseman, “Mr. Peanutbutter’s Boos”
13. Murphy Brown, “Thanksgiving and Taking”
14. Atlanta, “Woods”
15. Murphy Brown, “#MurphyToo”
16. Better Call Saul, “Winner”
17. The Last O.G., “Swipe Right”
18. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “Mac Finds His Pride”
19. South Park, “A Boy and a Priest”
20. Sharp Objects, “Milk”

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ Succeeds When it Commits to Its Icons Fully or Creates Something Wholly New

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(c) Lucasfilm Ltd. and TM. All Rights Reserved.

This review was originally published on News Cult in May 2018.

Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Director: Ron Howard

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Lasers and Space Derring-Do

Release Date: May 25, 2018

Nobody can play Han Solo as iconically as Harrison Ford, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Now that we actually have Alden Ehrenreich’s version to dissect, we can render a more practical verdict about just how successful he is or isn’t. And while indeed young Solo has nothing on classic Solo, the task is not necessarily as impossible as originally advertised, which we know because we do not have to look far to find someone else pulling off that goal, as Donald Glover’s take on Lando Calrissian manages to be just as iconic as, if not more so (time will tell, ultimately), Billy Dee Williams’ version.

To be fair, Glover probably has the easier task, insofar as it is the less restricted one. While Ford is one of the major players in four Star Wars films, Williams only has about 15 minutes of screen time across two episodes. Ergo, Glover has plenty more freedom to fill in the blanks and create new blanks never hinted at previously, while Ehrenreich is locked into coloring necessary backstory, like earning the life debt that Chewie owes him and making the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs. But the biggest difference is in the quality of preparation. Glover feels like someone who has been auditioning to play Lando his whole life, while Ehrenreich feels like someone who has been training to be an actor, and maybe more specifically a movie star, but not so specifically Han Solo in particular. That specificity and passion is almost certainly necessary to pull off the job of simultaneously paying homage to a famous character and making it one’s own. Maybe there are some folks out there who have been playing Han Solo in front of the mirror their whole lives, but Ehrenreich is probably not one of them. He gets the job done, but he does not take it to the next level.

Solo does not rely entirely on checking off a bunch of backstory checkpoints. Like any well-bred Star Wars movie, it is populated with a menagerie of diverse characters. As far as the new faces go, most prominent are Emilia Clarke as Qi’ra, Han’s childhood friend and partner-in-crime, and Woody Harrelson as Tobias Beckett, Han’s smuggling mentor. They are appropriately cast, but they feel like could be any Emilia Clarke or Woody Harrelson character, as opposed to the roles of a lifetime that add new definition to what a Star War can be. Same goes for crime lord Dryden Vos, who can be easily and unfussily added to Paul Bettany’s murderers’ row of villain roles.

But not-so-quietly revolutionary is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s motion-capture performance as L3-37, Lando’s feisty, herky-jerky droid companion. Waller-Bridge’s success comes from a starting point totally opposite of Glover’s, as she had never seen a Star Wars film before auditioning. Consequently, her performance is not beholden to any droids that have preceded her. She takes full advantage of the individuality inherent to a set of beings that seem to have plenty of free will despite also being conditioned by their programming. Her relationship with Lando suggests an open-minded (pansexual even) imagination that might as well be explored in a cinematic universe as vast as this one. And therein lies a template for keeping fresh the perhaps infinite number of future Star Wars: anchor them in a deepened spin on the familiar while introducing a high-risk, wholly fresh concoction.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is Recommended If You Like: Community’s Star Wars homages, Watching poker when you have no idea what the rules are, Human-cyborg relations

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Parsecs

 

SNL Review May 5, 2018: Donald Glover/Childish Gambino

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CREDIT: Will Heath/NBC

My letter grades for each sketch and segment is below. My in-depth review is on NewsCult: http://newscult.com/snl-love-itkeep-itleave-donald-gloverchildish-gambino/

Michael Cohen Wiretap – B

Donald Glover’s Monologue – B

Jurassic Park Courtroom – A-

Friendos – B+

Raz P. Berry – “The Night I Watched You” – A-

A Kanye Place – B

Dirty Talk – B+

Childish Gambino performs “Saturday” – A-

Weekend Update
The Jokes – B+
Pete Davidson – B+
Leslie Jones – B-

Galactic Summit for All Black Humans – B

Barbie Instagram (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – A

Childish Gambino performs “This Is America” – B+

Prison Customer Service – B

Watch And/Or Listen to This: Donald Glover & Reggie Watts Make Music

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The boys are at it again!