The Lion King

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Cute cubs and cool tech. That’s what’s most impressive about the new version of The Lion King. And the voice work, particularly Seth Rogen and John Oliver.

The Lion King has been a gold mine for Disney. The original film in 1994 was that year’s 2nd biggest film behind Forrest Gump and the stage productions on Broadway and elsewhere have run for decades will still be performed when you and I are long gone.

So don’t ask why this new version was made. It was made because computer animators are ridiculously adept with natural-looking renderings. It was made because director Jon Favreau and crew did such a good job with 2016’s The Jungle Book remake. And it was made to allow a more contemporary cast of voices.

The 1994 version remains a classic. But the new telling of the same story provides a fresh take for fans of the original with new versions of The Lion King’s classic songs. For a new generation, this is their version.

The appearances and the movements of all the animals are stunningly realistic. At some points, this film resembles a Disney nature film. The baby lions Simba and Nala are cuter than your cute kitty at her/his cutest. If they sold plush toys at the theater, you’d want to get one on the way out.

Regarding the voices: I missed Robert Guillaume’s wonderful work as Rafiki the mandrill from the original and Jeremy Irons’s menacing voice as Scar. Other than those characters, the new voice acting crew is superb.

Donald Glover and Beyonce Knowles-Carter are the voices of the mature Simba and Nala. John Oliver is Zazu, a bird. (If you watch his Sunday night HBO show, it’s weird to hear him without an occasional F-bomb.) Seth Rogen is Pumba the warthog and is just a strong as Nathan Lane was in the ’94 TLK.

The great James Earl Jones is Mufasa in both versions. Couldn’t find anybody to replace him!

If the first version hadn’t been made in 1994, would this new version have the impact in 2019 that the original had? I think probably not. But that’s a discussion you can have in the car on the way home from the movie.

Then have it again in 20 years when the hologram version is presented in your family room with a whole new cast of voice actors. The Lion King, you see, has its own Circle Of Life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Stuber

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The first ever “Cops And Ubers” movie? I think so!

Stuber pulls that old sitcom and buddy movie trick of pairing two extremely different guys and watching the sparks (and, in this case, bullets as well) fly as the conflicts just keep on coming.

Stuber is funny. It is violent. Stu (Kamail Nanjiani) is a sporting goods clerk who moonlights as an Uber driver. (Hence the nickname Stuber, given by his boss.) Victor (Dave Bautista) is cop with a vendetta. Stu is a generally mellow fellow. Victor is not.

Stu’s concerns are getting a 5-star rating from each of his passengers and taking his relationship with his girlfriend into the serious zone. Victor’s concerns are avenging the death of his partner and attending his daughter’s gallery opening of her sculptures.

What Stu hopes to be a brief trip with Victor turns into a longer ride with confrontations along the way. Among the highlights is a cartoonish battle in the sporting goods store—items are thrown, heads are bashed and it’s hilarious.

Also in the cast are Natalie Morales (not the NBC-TV newswoman) as Victor’s daughter Nicole, Betty Gilpin as Stu’s girlfriend Becca and Mira Sorvino as policewoman Angie.

Is there sufficient chemistry between Nanjiani and Bautista to take this duo further? Both actors have a lot on their plates right now but a reuniting of the two a few years down the road could have possibilities.

Director Michael Dowse and writer Tripper Clancy cram a lot of plot and action into a fast-moving 90 minutes. Of course, Stuber is rated R.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday

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Sweet, cute and funny. That’s a quick description of Yesterday, the new film from director Danny Boyle.

You’ve seen people like Jack Malik (Himesh Patel). Strumming a guitar and singing in the corner of a bar or restaurant. Not awful but also not great. Being ignored by most patrons except a handful of friends.

Jack has a day gig in a warehouse in the UK and is ready to give up on his musical ambitions. Encouragement keeps coming from his manager and biggest fan Ellie (Lily James). But then something outrageous happens that causes the entire world to erase all memory of the Beatles and their music.

Except Jack. He remembers. And his handling of this exclusive knowledge drives Yesterday’s narrative. I advise you to buy into the fantasy and not question certain plot points. You’ll like (and maybe even love) Yesterday more if you play along.

When Jack performs Beatles songs as his own compositions, people are impressed by these classic tunes. Because they are new to them. He’s stunned when Ed Sheeran (as himself) knocks on his door to draft Jack into his musical realm.

Jack enjoys the fruits of worldwide success but knows that he is a fraud. He likes the acclaim but is conflicted with guilt feelings. Meanwhile, Ellie, who is left behind when Jack goes abroad, keeps appearing on the edges of Jack’s orbit.

Will Jack’s fake songwriting ability be uncovered? Will Jack and Ellie become a couple? Will music biz manager Debra (Kate McKinnon in a hilarious role) ever let up the gas on her hard-nosed attitude?

Director Boyle, whose resumé includes Trainspotting, The Beach and 127 Hours along with Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire, delivers a movie that is consistently visually interesting—at times to advance the story and at other times to keep his audience involved. Musical performances in film can sometimes be tedious; in Yesterday they all look good.

The script is by Richard Curtis who has also has an impressive curriculum vitae. Films he’s written include Notting Hill, Bridget Jone’s Diary, War Horse and Love, Actually. Yesterday is a movie that’s funny but not annoyingly so. The romcom angle may be subtle to some viewers but will be plainly obvious to those looking for it.

A must-see? Maybe not. But this fun, light story—featuring some of the best pop music of our lifetimes—will make you happy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toy Story 4

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“Tell me a story.” Mission accomplished again by Pixar. Toy Story 4 shows that you can go to the sequel well over and over if you keep delivering compelling stories.

Oh, and it helps to have characters who are, by now, not just familiar but also beloved. Cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) gets the main spotlight in TS4. He’s one of many toys in the closet of young Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) and he is NOT one of her favorites. But he’s the one who is most concerned about Bonnie’s ability to cope with the pressures of kindergarten orientation.

A handmade toy that Bonnie assembles from a plastic spork and a pipe cleaner becomes her primary concern. “Forky” (Tony Hale) becomes a member of Bonnie’s toy menagerie but he has little self-respect. Woody steps in to help him focus.

Bonnie’s family takes an RV trip to a town with an antique store. The store and its wares provide an intriguing setting for toy adventures.

Woody reconnects with Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and meets new characters Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and Duke Caboom (Keanu Reaves). The latter two are inspired by Mattel’s Chatty Cathy and the Evel Knievel motorcycle toy that never performed quite as well in real life as on the TV spot.

Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) keeps showing up and continues to push a button on his chest that generates a recorded soundbite. He considers this his “inner voice” and takes guidance from those brief gems.

Among the film’s most entertaining voice actors are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as a pair of stuffed animals who escape from a carnival game prize wall.

Toy Story 4 is filled with delight and fun surprises from beginning to end. There are a couple of scary situations but the peril is less intense than that seen in Toy Story 3.

Pixar’s animation and tech skills have been a given for a quarter century. Other studios have also turned out impressive images and effects. But it is Pixar’s storytelling ability makes most of their films special.

Toy Story 4 is yet another Pixar winner.

(Note: In a change from the usual Pixar format, there is no animated short running before TS4.)

 

The Dead Don’t Die

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What a disappointment! What a waste of talent!

It is true that The Dead Don’t Die actually was the opening film of the 2019 Cannes Festival last month. It still stinks.

Who’s to blame? Jim Jarmusch. He wrote the script. He directed. He’s the guy responsible of the slow pace of the film’s feeble story. He’s the guy who is stingy with the funny stuff. For a “zombie comedy,” the laughs are scarce.

The cast includes people you know and like. Bill Murray is a police chief in the typical American small town of Centerville. Adam Driver is his partner. Chloe Sevigny is also on the force. Tilda Swinton is the new undertaker in town. Tom Waits is a local hermit. Also in the cast: Danny Glover, Rosie Perez, Steve Buscemi, Selena Gomez, among other familiar faces.

The set-up: The world is in a minor panic after fracking messes with the earth’s rotation. This triggers, among other events, a return to the above ground world by the previously dead at the Centerville cemetery. It’s a decent framework for comedy storytelling but it never gets traction.

Sturgill Simpson’s theme song is played several times in the film. His song is okay but the running gag is weak.

Look, I’m sure people worked hard to make this movie. I respect their efforts. But The Dead Don’t Die is one you should wait for and watch via streaming or cable. Not worth the price of a ticket.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penguins

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Penguins are my favorite non-human animal. I never get tired of watching penguins. So, yes, I love this movie. I would love Penguins even if it sucked but, happily, it does not suck.

Disney has, for decades, told animal stories by constructing narratives around the filmed actions of nature’s creatures. This storytelling involves giving certain animals names and relating some of their actions to human behavior. This format was a staple of the old Disney TV shows and now is reprised in Disneynature films.

In Penguins, the central figure is a penguin named Steve. He migrates across Antarctica to breeding grounds where he builds a nest out of rocks and finds a female partner named Adeline. They incubate eggs, birth chicks, feed the youngsters and introduce them to the world and its dangers.

Penguins is filled with glorious shots of penguins on land, on ice and in the water. The way they pop up out of water always tickles me whether I see it at Sea World, the St. Louis Zoo or in this film. Their almost circular leaps as they move through water (similar to those of dolphins) are also fascinating and something not observed when they are in captivity.

Ed Helms of The Office and The Hangover movies is the film’s narrator. Along with his straight reading of the script he provides several ad-libbed reaction sounds to on-screen events.

How did the filmmakers get so close to obtain this footage? Action shots of the crew run alongside the movie’s closing credits, showing the men and women and their equipment as they record the activities of the penguins and their predators.

Like many of the best movies for young kids, Penguins has a short run time: just under 80 minutes. It is a film that makes me happy.

Now if Disneynature would just make a film about my second favorite non-human animal, manatees, I would be even happier.

 

 

Superpower Dogs

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Dogs are fun. Beloved members of the family. Most people ask little of their dogs beyond companionship.

The dogs featured in the new IMAX film Superpower Dogs are dogs who work. They are trained to rescue and to track.

As is the case with many IMAX films, Superpower Dogs has spectacular visuals. A dog is helicoptered in to find a skier trapped by an avalanche. A dog dives into the ocean to practice a water recovery. Bloodhounds track poachers. These segments have gorgeous aerial shots of the Canadian Rockies, the Mediterranean and the plains of Africa, respectively.

A California beach scene is the setting for a dog who surfs (!) and provides emotional support and delight to special needs children.

The development of Halo, a Dutch Shepherd, as a search and rescue dog begins with her selection in Michigan.  Her story continues throughout the film with her training in multiple locations and her testing in New York.

Superpower Dogs is one of the better recent IMAX films. Its pacing is brisk. Its stars are compelling and charming. Clever graphics illustrate such aspects as the underwater movement of a swimming dog and the internal receptors that give bloodhounds their special talent.

Director Daniel Ferguson has assembled a cinematic canine collection that will certainly please dog lovers and will likely amuse cat persons as well.  is narrated by Chris Evans.

 

 

 

 

Pet Sematary

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That delicious discomfort that drives us to watch scary movies! Hey, it’s a Stephen King story. Which means Pet Sematary has plenty of creepy elements to make an audience tingle with uneasiness.

Weird noises. Flickering lights. Doors that shouldn’t be opened but are opened anyway. Haunting flashbacks. A gory injury. A mysterious neighbor. And the discovery that a new home is nearby to a pet cemetery with a misspelled sign.

As with the recent film Us, a family unit of mom, dad, daughter and son pulls into a new house where all seems idyllic. Also, as in Us, the mom has dark memories of a frightening episode of her life.

Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) are parents to Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Louie Lavoie). The crusty neighbor is Jud (John Lithgow).

The new home is on the edge of the woods, on the edge of a small town in Maine. In short order, Ellie takes a walk into the woods to check out the pet cemetery and the strange wall of tree branches where she has her first encounter with Jud.

When the family’s cat dies, Jud leads Louis to a burial ground beyond that wall. The cat’s interment sets off the events that lead to some grisly outcomes.

Does Pet Sematary break new ground in filmmaking? No. But co-directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer have constructed an entertaining 100 or so minutes of scary, suspenseful storytelling. And it’s always fun to see John Lithgow onscreen.

Don’t expect a revelation. Or a classic. But the newest version of this Pet Sematary, sourced from Stephen King’s book, is good, creepy fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mustang

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Horses are magnificent creatures. Like humans, they can be out of control. Wild.

In The Mustang, men who are behind bars in a Nevada state prison are given the opportunity to help tame wild mustangs. Like the men, the mustangs have been herded into pens.

Roman Coleman (Mattias Schoenaerts) is an angry, violent inmate. He’s had time in solitary. He tells the prison therapist (Connie Britton), “I’m not good with people.”

When given the chance to work in the prison’s horse program, his first days are spent shoveling manure. Later, with guidance from the program’s crusty leader Myles (Bruce Dern), he learns techniques to calm the horses.

And, of course, Roman’s process parallels that of the magnificent creatures.

But The Mustang layers more elements atop this simple story of reform and redemption. Along with interactions with the horses and his fellow inmates, Roman has several visits from his daughter Martha (Gideon Aldon). He even makes a sort of friend when fellow inmate Henry (Jason Mitchell) helps him handle the horses.

He expresses regret to Martha for his violence that damaged her mother. He listens as Martha talks of caring for her mother after the incident. He sits in a group therapy session with the therapist and hears that other prisoners had similar violent outbursts that led them to prison. He begins to communicate and show a bit of humanity.

The Mustang is the first feature length film by French director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. She opens the movie with beauty shots of mustangs running wild on the open range in Nevada.

The Mustang offers more than just another tale of a bad guy revealing his good side and being capable of empathy. It shows the grisly existence of prison. It also shows how a person may relate better to an animal than to another human being.

 

Dumbo

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Where’s the magic? Where’s the delight? Where’s the fun? It’s not here.

Tim Burton’s live action remake of Disney’s 1941 animated film Dumbo is lacking in the qualities that have made Disney films special. Burton’s Dumbo is just okay, not special.

Yes, the CGI version of the baby elephant with big ears looks real. When he flies, the depiction looks good. The technical aspects of Dumbo are solid.

Yes, the cast is star-studded. Max Medici (Danny Devito) is the owner of a struggling circus that plays small towns a century ago. Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is the circus performer returning from WWI minus a left arm. V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) is the Barnum-like showman who brings Medici’s circus to New York. Colette (Eva Green) is Vandevere’s girlfriend and star acrobat.

Yes, there are cute kids. Nico Parker is a charmer as Millie Farrier, Holt’s daughter. Son Joe Farrier is played by Finley Hobbins. (Mrs. Farrier is deceased—yet another Disney dead mom!)

Yes, there is a message about turning a perceived handicap into an advantage: Dumbo’s deformity gives him the ability to fly.

Yes, there is spectacle. The Medici circus, with its variegated cast of performers (animal and human), works hard to entertain in its tent and on the midway. When Dumbo’s extraordinary talent is revealed, the circus goes big time to Dreamland, a giant amusement area like Coney Island.

Yes, all the pieces are there. And yet, something’s missing. As one who grew up with Disney films and TV shows, I recall being emotionally invested in so many of their stories and characters. It didn’t happen for me with this newest version of Dumbo.

Interestingly, in the film’s production notes there is a quote from director Tim Burton in which he admits that as a kid he did not like the circus. To his credit, Burton’s Dumbo is not as gratuitously weird as his films sometimes are.

With live action versions of Aladdin (May 24) and The Lion King (July 19) in the pipeline, one can only wonder if they will recapture the Disney magic that the animated versions from the early 90s had.