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

And Now For Something Completely Funky: ‘Long Shot’ Movie Review

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CREDIT: Philippe Bossé

I’m not sure what Long Shot‘s sense of the political landscape is. It seems to believe that the difference between Democrats and Republicans can actually be quite nebulous, which is interesting to think about, and maybe true in some cases, but certainly not in the majority of my experience. It also has some valuable things to say about the importance of compromise, although it’s kind of shouty and generic about it. But anyway, this is mostly a love story.

At first blush, it might look like the same old tale between a beautiful blonde (Charlize Theron as a presidential candidate) and a lovable schlub (Seth Rogen as a journalist-cum-speechwriter), but it downplays any eyeroll-worthy aspect of that setup by clearly illustrating the mutual attraction here. So Long Shot works best when it investigates what ambitious people are willing to sacrifice or not sacrifice, and why, in the name of the people they care about, though it would have benefited from more specific political window-dressing.

I give Long Shot My Satisfied Endorsement.

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 5/3/19

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CREDIT: Philippe Bossé

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Long Shot (Theatrically Nationwide)

Podcasts
Primetime (Premieres May 9) – Hosted by Vox Cultural Critic Todd VanDerWerff!
The Ron Burgundy Podcast – This premiered back in February, but somehow I’m only realizing just now that it’s available.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Disaster Artist’ is James Franco is Tommy Wiseau is the Star Inside Us All

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CREDIT: Justina Mintz/A24

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Dave Franco, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron, Megan Mullally, Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas, Hannibal Buress, Nathan Fielder, June Diane Raphael, Andrew Santino, Charlyne Yi, Melanie Griffith, Sharon Stone, Bob Odenkirk, Judd Apatow

Director: James Franco

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for an Auteur Asshole

Release Date: December 1, 2017 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide December 8, 2017

When I watched Shane Carruth’s 2013 film Upstream Color – about a man and a woman who ingest a larva with the power to drastically affect the human mind – I was excited by the conscious-altering possibilities. But I was ultimately disappointed by the impenetrable narrative. Upstream does have its fans, but I thought an opportunity was missed by presenting an abstract subject with just-as-abstract storytelling. But now we have a film that is more along the lines of what I thought Upstream Color was going to be, and that film is The Disaster Artist, which imposes a typical biopic structure onto one of the strangest individuals of all time. There is the classic rise-fall-rise and a soundtrack that raises the roof with beats that were first hits about a decade before the events of the film, but all this normality only illuminates the unfathomability that is Tommy Wiseau.

Wiseau has achieved a very unique sort of fame as the writer-director-producer-star of the 2003 independent melodrama The Room. It has been called by some the worst movie of all time, but that descriptor is way off-base. A better take that others have offered is “the greatest bad movie of all time,” but that is still not quite right. “A surreal masterpiece” is the moniker that I prefer. For The Disaster Artist to be successful, it does not need to be as surreal as The Room, as The Room already exists. Although perhaps a perfectly valid option would have been to simply remake The Room shot-for-shot with a new cast, which The Disaster Artist does in part in a delightful post-credits segment featuring recreations of classic scenes from The Room presented side-by-side along the originals, displaying how the new versions are accurate to every inch and millisecond.

James Franco directs and stars as Wiseau, and this proves to be the perfect outlet for his incorrigible proclivities. Wiseau is infamously dodgy about his personal background, but based on his accent, it is clear enough that he is from Eastern Europe, though he claims to be from New Orleans. But it is perhaps most accurate to think of him as a vampire caveman alien, as his odd syntax, singular worldview, and inexplicable behavior go beyond simply being lost in translation. Nobody but Tommy could be Tommy, but Franco comes as close as possible. And this is not the sort of lark that much of his career has come off as. Instead, it is in service of a strangely uplifting story about never giving up on your dreams.

Alongside Wiseau is his Room co-star/friend-despite-all-obstacles Greg Sestero (who co-wrote the book of the same name that The Disaster Artist is based on), played by James’ younger brother Dave. The younger Franco is a little more boyish than the deeper-voiced Sestero, but they both have an all-American squeaky-clean handsomeness befitting the moniker “Babyface,” Tommy’s nickname for Greg. The Franco brothers have significantly different faces than Sestero and Wiseau, though their looks are well approximated by solid hair and makeup jobs. This is not an exact encapsulation of the original Wiseau-Sestero dynamic (how could it be?), but there is some weird magic in the Franco pairing that works as an avatar to this weird creative pairing.

I read The Disaster Artist when it was first published in 2013. I have not re-read it since, so my memory of it is not perfectly fresh, but I remember enough to know that there is some streamlining at play here. But the liberties that were taken serve to bolster the film’s thesis that has been borne out by the directions that Wiseau and Sestero’s lives have taken since The Room has become a cult classic. In one scene, Tommy approaches a producer (Judd Apatow) at a restaurant, who assures Tommy that he will never find success in Hollywood in a million years. “But after that?” Tommy earnestly asks. It has not literally taken him that long to achieve his stardom, but “more than one million years later” might be the best figurative way to explain how long it took him to realize his dreams, and that boundlessness beyond normal temporality is the engine that The Disaster Artist runs on.

The obvious antecedent to this film is Ed Wood, but that earlier biopic was released more than a decade after the death of its titular maker of the worst films of all time. Tommy’s story is not over, and now it is inextricably tied up with the most fervent fans of The Room, many of whom populate the cast of The Disaster Artist. There are several moments in this making-of in which classic lines from The Room are uttered in Tommy’s personal life that could come off as fan service but avoid that pitfall because of how nakedly autobiographical The Room is. James Franco and his crew of shockingly eager collaborators have invited us all to take place in this autobiography, and the result is intoxicating.

The Disaster Artist is Recommended If You Like: The Room of course, Ed Wood, James and Dave Franco’s old Funny or Die videos, How Did This Get Made?

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Doggies