The Lion King (2019)

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1994 saw Disney release ‘The Lion King’; a hand drawn feature that is one of my favourite films. 25 years later and it seems everything the House of Mouse touches is theirs, the shadowlands being the last area of cinema they haven’t bought out, but will another remake of their own movie be fit for a king?

King of the Lions, Mufasa (James Earl Jones) has a new son who shall one day rule the Pride Lands, however young Simba is a mischievous scamp, easily swayed by the words of Mufasa’s brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor); a big cat with big plans to overthrow the kingdom and be leader. After a terrible stampede, Simba (Donald Glover) flees and has to learn who he is if he ever hopes to be the king his father expected him to be.

Jon Favreau, who directed the live-action retelling of ‘The Jungle Book’ is back to helm this modern update, but it’s a film with no human characters to warrant it’s live action title and it doesn’t stray far from the original plot, leading you to quickly realise that it’s a film severely relying on nostalgia to please the senses. That’s not to say he’s a bad director because Favreau certainly knows how to make this movie a family friendly flick full of fantasia, but it comes across as a shot for shot remake with no apparent desire to add a little something different to the recipe.

Elton John and Tim Rice were the masters behind the songs in 1994 and this time around the movie manages to make these iconic numbers things you’d rather drown out. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” gets treated with the tiniest ounce of adoration and is subjected to a late afternoon glow instead of magical twilight romance. Then there’s a burst of Beyonce in the final stages, which is a jarring flash of Pharrell produced RnB, less subtle than her singing as Nala, and more an excuse to get the so-called Queen a chance to belt out and sell a record. Finally, the less said about Be Prepared the better. It’s honestly my favourite Disney track and now it’s hacked down to a short length and sounds more like a Scout meeting with no catchy doom to speak of at all.

I can’t be a total brute though as there are some astounding positives to be had. The cinematography is drop dead gorgeous though it has a distinct lack of playful colour but it is soaked with a stunning believable African backdrop, that could easily blend into a David Attenborough nature documentary. The live action brand still irks but as a photorealistic movie you cannot fault the design of the characters, even if their moving mouths and less than expressive emotions are weak, the textures of creatures from antelope to zebras are mightily impressive and the landscape is a marvel to behold. It goes without saying that baby Simba and his following cub days are aww-inducing and he’s a teeny ball of cute.

Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen who voice the outcast bug eating meerkat and warthog, Timon and Pumbaa are saving graces, as are a few moments with John Oliver’s take on the well intended but busy-body Zazu. This trio bring a good layer of comedy and manage to provide a variant style to the memorable work of Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella and Rowan Atkinson. Legendary James Earl Jones is back, as it seems he’s irreplaceable for the recording of Mufasa and rightly so because he does add a wise gravitas to the story.

So on the plains and in the jungles of Africa, this ‘The Lion King’ remake mainly has Disney fans sitting waiting for things to happen, seeing them said and done by visually impressive CGI instead of cartoon. It cannot shake the notion that the Circle of Life is a monetary scheme by Disney to rotate back on their catalogue and rake in sentimental audiences, myself included.

6/10

 

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Aladdin (2019)

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We’ve met a friend like Aladdin before; back in 1992 Disney released the two-time Oscar winning animation, and now in keeping with their recent trend of (money) spinning their back catalogue into live-action movies, we return to Agrabah to see the urchin fall in love again. Does this version reach majestic magic carpet heights or should it be bottled away for 10’000 years?

Adviser to the Sultan is Jafar (Marwen Kenzari) who seeks absolute power and the 3 wishes granted by a magic lamp in a faraway cave. Cue Aladdin (Mena Massoud); a market thief who might be the ideal candidate to enter and retrieve the item. However, it is Aladdin who winds up with the power of the Genie (Will Smith) within and his hopes of wooing Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) seem more powerful then their previous meeting.

No longer dealing with Cockney ruffians or Arthurian legend is Guy Ritchie, who directs this redo with some power in his corner, even if it’s apparent he doesn’t know how to capture musicals. The ammunition in his camp may mostly stem from the nostalgia of knowing and/or loving the original but he hasn’t majorly misstepped and, in fact the movie has plenty of punch, pizzazz and yahoo.

You can tell he’s behind the camera, with the update on the House of Mouse flick getting a few trick shots in, or at least moments that attempt a cool stylish flow; whether that be through slow motion or a mix of new and old. This doesn’t harm the film but never really adds a necessary spice either, though the blend of hip-hop and more traditional Asian influence is a flavourful dance delight after the main story wraps up.

The music of ‘Aladdin’ are favourites of mine so I was interested to see what new life and vocalists could bring to the table. Having composer Alan Menken and lyricists Tim Rice & Howard Ashman back on duty helps keep the Disney sparkle mostly in tact. ‘One Jump Ahead’ gets the toe tapping because the original music is a bop but the way the direction is handled is bizarre in the bazaar. The action on screen, for some reason is sped up in places which gives the entire scene an awkward, shoddy look.

‘A Whole New World’ is a serene thing of moonlit wonder; it doesn’t enhance the original but it doesn’t need to as the track is a classic. ‘Arabian Nights’ and ‘Friend Like Me’ both feature the former Fresh Prince combining singing and rapping to varying degrees of success. In terms of the latter and ‘Prince Ali’, the film has this hairography way of luring you into the joyful energy, colour and sound but it’s all a distraction to hide the fact the spins on the songs are less than special.

The costumes sometimes look cheap and the animal sidekicks are sadly left to the sidelines, none more than 1992 animated wise-cracker Iago. Aladdin himself is a dull lead, he has splashes of charisma and Massoud certainly gets the street rat hustle in his bones but he has more chemistry with monkey Abu than with the Sultan’s daughter. The biggest strength is in the politics, really the only change the script has seen in 27 years. The way Ritchie and John August ensure that Jasmine possesses a hungry desire to be more than a figure of beauty is awesome and no doubt empowering to many.

Will Smith has some golden moments and the CGI of his ‘Avatar’-esque appearance isn’t always ropy but he doesn’t burst out of Robin Williams shadow. Kenzari plays the sinister level well, it only notches to pantomime villainy near the end but he’s a good figure of evil. Naomi Scott is the one who steals the crown and is a royal gem to watch. There is passion, not only in her updated tale but within the very life of her eyes you can see and feel the drive and care she has for Agrabah, her father and the people. A new musical number is stunning with a pop ballad sound that you’d turn up if it came on the radio.

So, even if ‘Aladdin’ is less a diamond and more a rough copy of what’s been before, Jasmine and the heart of the main story are a wonder that do much better than the trailers would have you believe.

7/10

 

Pet Sematary (2019)

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Stephen King’s ‘It’ was a box office smash and with Chapter 2 around the corner, his back catalogue is being mined for further cinematic attraction. This time we enter the land of the living dead, for a second go-around with ‘Pet Sematary’; an original came out in 1989. Thirty years between the two and this one has you calling out for it to be lowered in an unmarked grave.

Louis (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) have moved from Boston to a small town in Maine in the hope of slowing down a bit and having more time with their son and daughter. However, their new property means they own a huge amount of land, some of which is used as a local cemetery for pets and a place behind this could spell reanimated trouble for the family.

Jeff Buhler’s screenplay leaves you with so many why questions; not because the film is cleverly subjective, posing you thoughts about what can be taken away from it personally, but because the script is far from tightly written and chucks up numerous fur-balls of dumb oversights. A large portion of Buhler’s adaptation makes no sense and/or provide whopping plot holes to dive into.

I have no doubt that the authors work goes into way more depth and broaches the gritty context of our mortality with better attack, but in terms of the movie it winds up skirting around deep issues and tosses in jump scares and many, many predictable story beats. A hissing cat with matted fur and creepy kids are always going to be horrifying images but that does not mean you can constantly rely on that to pray you’re a solid horror film; you must contain a burrowing sense of something extra below the surface, which the film has to begin with, but swiftly loses.

A birthday scene outside their new abode is well executed and certainly grips you with shocking tension, even if it’s overladen with slow-motion. There are also some neat early discussions about death and the afterlife which shine like rare beacons in a film that is otherwise a faulty bulb in need of a burial.

It’s irritating because what it has to say and tries to say about grief are meaty talking points but this is never rounded out to become a compelling, and engaging movie about that subject matter. The fear of dying is replaced by misty woods, masked children and a tribal land that could easily fit into the bleak, dull world of ‘The Nun’. Instead of being a serious topic with scary aspects it becomes an increasingly laughable, mildly serviceable horror flick.

Some people may find the whole thing nightmarish and lap it up like a feline to milk but the majority of it for me and especially the final five to ten minutes were presented in an unintentionally hilarious manner. ‘Pet Sematary‘ is more like kitty litter than frightening catnip to lose yourself to.

5/10

Dumbo (2019)

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Another Disney remake is in town, though this time it tries something different to show off because it’s inspired from the short 64 minute run-time of 1941’s ‘Dumbo’. This grants filmmaker Tim Burton the chance to go above and beyond, but does he?

The Medici Brothers Circus; led by Max (Danny DeVito) pulls in punters across America and with the arrival of a new baby elephant he hopes to show off a new hot attraction. However, this cute calf has freakishly large ears which two young children learn can help him fly. The arrival of Vandevere (Michael Keaton), an owner of a hugely popular amusement park sees Max, Dumbo and his circus troupe hit bigger but more troubling heights.

Considering this film has the zany, possibly former brilliance of Burton behind the camera, you’d expect the element of circus life, freaks and outcasts to be right up his twisted street but this quickly becomes a movie that fails to soar, and is far from the engagingly dark and playful retelling it should be.

Calling it boring would be a smidge too harsh but it definitely drags its lumbering ears throughout and feels like a movie that never, ever needed to be remade; the extra story feels totally wasted and unexciting. It’s a Disney big-top event which will have you almost wanting a refund on your ticket, unless you’re a teeny tot amused by the antics of li’l Dumbo.

To be fair, there are some good aspects. A final shot is awesome and is jaw droppingly beautiful in the way it stirs up ‘Planet Earth’ vibes with a lick of paint from the House of Mouse. The baby elephant himself is captivating as heck it has to be said, the CG animators have created life in the eyes of Dumbo, his dopey blue sparklers and his adorable smile do wonders in loving this floppy-eared creature.

Now, more than the overstretched plot and plodding nature of it all comes my biggest disappointment with the movie. The Pink Elephants on Parade portion may as well be non-existent because what this family feature does is present a dull, short bubble show devoid of any trippy quality which Tim Burton was 100% the man to provide. The classic cartoon from the very start of the 40’s still manages to be one of the most amazingly animated excursions into weird hallucinogenic wonder, but if you’re eagerly awaiting a clever, twisted take on that sequence then leave your expectations at the door.

DeVito is as DeVito as ever and the boisterous mannerisms are greatly played. Colin Farrell seems to limp and whine through in a role that sees him struggling to be dad and performer, till the obvious latter stage breakthrough. Keaton puts on what I can only assume is a drawl of an accent to seem showy but it’s distinctly odd and he’s far from an excellent villain, in fact some earlier Rufus character possessed more sneer than the Dreamland owner.

1941’s ‘Dumbo’ had you believing an elephant can fly and now in 2019 he jets off again but this re-imagining is grounded thanks to having next to zero oomph and spirit and the unshakeable fact that it never needed to be made.

5/10

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

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The ‘Millennium’ series of books by author Stieg Larsson was first brought to life on the big screen in Swedish drama/thriller ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ with Noomi Rapace playing the lead in a trilogy, later the first story was remade by David Fincher and that’s where it ended…until now. Acting as a kind of reboot and telling a new story featuring Larsson’s characters, would this film warrant a fresh take?

Righter of wrongs Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) is a top class hacker. She’s called to help Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) who wants his nuclear based program moved out of the reach of potential danger. None more so than the Spiders who track Balder to grab his FireFall program for world destroying gain. Salander has more to face when she realises the centre of the Spider’s web is controlled by someone she knows.

Fede Alvarez has a small but superb track record with ‘Don’t Breathe’ and the remake of ‘The Evil Dead’ under his belt so you’d think he’d be a dab hand at kicking life back into the American re-telling of the Lisbeth saga. In a way he is, he ensures the film features a tingling amount of action but in terms of the intoxicating mystery and complex darkness it leaves a lot to be desired.

This feature comes across like a slick espionage action/thriller when it should be more focused and driven by the complicated, rebellious profile of its central character. It doesn’t help that even the opening credits are like a wannabe James Bond sequence. On top of this, throughout the narrative there are number of plot conveniences which make you roll your eyes and a last act sequence is almost laughable in how 007-like the heroine is helped along.

Honestly, the film isn’t awful, there are some great visuals and gripping moments but it would have been a darn sight better if the promotional side didn’t reveal so much through their trailers. The fact they included a substantial spoiler and chunk of a final confrontation in their first trailer is ridiculous and inexcusable and goes a long way in terms of trailer content for a lot of films these days. If you haven’t seen anything about this film then you’re in luck because the story will probably be more engaging when you don’t know exactly how everything will play out.

Claire Foy with her multiple piercings, ruffled black hair and leather trousers is a world away from her regal perfection as the Queen in ‘The Crown’, but she’s just as brilliant here. She knocks back any critics who’d deem her the wrong choice for Lisbeth as she embodies the grungy hacker with grit. Sure, her accent does slip into sounding like Elizabeth II with a Swedish lilt from time to time but aside from this Foy is a cool positive for the film.

‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ is a reasonably entertaining film but nowhere near as dark and riveting as the 2009 original. Everything is just polished too much that it takes away from what Lisbeth Salander represents.

5.5/10

Suspiria (2018)

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Premiering at the Venice Film Festival, ‘Call Me By Your Name’ director Luca Guadagnino’s homage to the 1977 ‘Suspiria’ is a film that has vastly polarised critics and audiences alike and is definitely an example of a weirdly hypnotising film, whether it be good or bad.

Dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) has always felt an urge to be where top choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) is. This desire takes Susie to the Tanz Academy in Berlin where she quickly grows accustomed to the methods of Blanc and other madams and their front as a dance school slowly disappears to reveal them as a chorus of witches.

Off the bat I must admit I have not seen the Dario Argento original but shall definitely seek it out after watching…whatever this was. The whole look of this update doesn’t go down the usual glossier redo but keeps the film in bland, bleak tones of browns, greys and whites which makes the bursts of red all the more alarming. The entire feature has this odd pull; like it’s drawing you into a state of hypnosis which nicely mirrors the inexplicable connection Susie has always had with Madame Blanc.

Guadagnino utilises on some neat shots and clever style choices throughout this film. Whether the frame rate is slowed right down or cameras suddenly whip and zoom toward someone, there’s definitely a smart tactic made by the director in presenting this strange horror with a flair of confidence and compelling curiosity.

People will likely be talking about the near final scene for a while. A carnival of Dionysus proportions with a river of red is outlandish and mad. This creepy coven shows off a beastly display of blood and ritual that is so horrific and over the top that it’s very nearly unintentionally amusing. Better flashes of horror comes from a dance section with the ladies draped in ropes of red which is amazingly choreographed and an earlier back and forth rite of passage between a debut rehearsal and a victim trapped in her own freakish hall of mirrors. This moment is squeamish and damn effective.

‘Suspiria’ does have an abundance of flaws though, a major one lies with the screenwriter’s choice to present the narrative in a 1970’s setting with too much room spent on the aftermath of the Berlin divide and post-war anxieties and grief. This theme is fine but on the whole it drastically takes away from what could have been a more focused look at just the dance academy and its witches. Thom Yorke’s soundtrack provides a heavy dose of piano which adds to the mesmerising quality but often makes the movie like a lullaby to rest your eyelids to. Also, that carnival explosion of gore and coven craziness has a great sinister sound backing the visuals and then Yorke’s vocals come in again and make the whole thing feel dreamy and ridiculous.

Johnson definitely knocks back anyone who says she can’t act because her turn as Bannion is a fantastic journey of passion, training and a personal core of unsettling change to where she ends up. Swinton is as strangely alluring and magnetic as always, just the way she delivers her lines like a precise poet carries a maternal yet worrying edge. The likelihood is that she also plays two other characters and one is of an aged male doctor which further proves what a brilliant chameleon Swinton is as an actor.

‘Suspiria’ to the uninitiated really goes places you won’t expect and feels like a mysterious yet slow descent into hell. It’s often too drab and floaty but has great attacks of visual horror along the way.

4.5/10

A Star is Born (2018)

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From comedy star in ‘The Hangover’ to more dramatic turns in films like ‘American Sniper’, Bradley Cooper has certainly been down many avenues and now he throws his stetson behind the camera for his directorial debut; a musical romance and fourth remake of the ‘A Star is Born’ brand.

Hugely famous country star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) seriously struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. On a desperate trawl to find a bar, Maine staggers into one where waitress by day-singer by night Ally (Lady Gaga) is performing. He quickly falls for her looks and talent and they begin a whirlwind relationship that sees Ally become a singer/songwriter idol.

In the 1950’s Judy Garland headlined the first remake and the 70’s saw Barbra Streisand take the lead in a rock and roll setting, one Bollywood film later and now it’s mega popstar Lady Gaga’s turn to take the cinematic stage. There’s no doubt that she’ll be up for an Oscar nomination because her performance is sensational and she makes the film what it is. The road to success with tricky obstacles and media manipulation is ripe for the times currently in Hollywood and the music perfectly encapsulates Ally and Jackson’s rocky relationship.

This movie is like a biopic of Gaga’s career, you can just see how the films’ content of moulding someone to how the management want them to be, mirrors her Poker Face days, before her songwriting and more heartfelt tunes took flight. The pop music side of Ally’s journey and the SNL showbiz aspect are necessary attributes in showing how the industry works and really demonstrates Ally as a strong individual to stick with all these changes in the dream of being recognised for her talent. She also sticks with Maine because he saw that spark within her, their relationship may be odd and harbour some cheesy moments but it feels real and the pair work beautifully together.

At a certain point it does feel like the film stretches ever so slightly and you could almost check out of the plot but thanks to the music you get drawn back in. Also, there is a very predictable narrative to follow but there’s some stunning cinematography from Matthew Libatique which goes from a pristine bathroom to a gorgeously crimson tinged drag club and the films final shot rests on a powerful, stunning image and though it is silent it sings a thousand words. On top of the great DoP work, the musical numbers themselves are toe-tappingly heartfelt and ‘Shallow’; a song penned by Gaga and Mark Ronson is gunning for an Oscar nom as well and rightly so because it screams with drama.

Cooper, with his flushed red cheeks and slurring Western drawl embodies the stereotypical drunken cowboy singer but softens this rough edges with a clear love for his Ally rose. Gaga is incredible throughout, her voice is a God given gift that fills the heart and the speakers with power. It isn’t just her singing talents that sell the film, she makes Ally a fully rounded character and you truly buy into her rise to stardom with a difficult romance aiding the way.

‘A Star is Born’ is a country and western musical for modern times and like TV show ‘Nashville’, it hits with lyrical gems and dramatic characters to soar to the top of the charts.

7/10