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 own cute kitty at her/his cutest. If they sold plush toys at the theater, you’d want to get one on your 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 does a nice job.

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. Billy Eichner as Timon the meerkat is just a strong as Nathan Lane was in the ’94 TLK. Hakuna Matata, indeed.

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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Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

Tasteless humor is okay—if it’s funny. When it’s not funny, it’s just gross and dumb.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is gross and dumb. The first Neighbors movie (2014) had the dynamic of Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) coming to grips with their adulthood and changing attitudes. Plus the competition between Mac and noisy next-door frat boy Teddy (Zac Efron) was hilarious.

In the new film, Mac and Kelly are selling their home. They have a contract but the sale won’t close for 30 days.

A trio of sorority pledges learns that the girls’ groups aren’t allowed to party on campus, so they manage to rent a house off campus, the one next door to the Radners—much to the dismay of Mac and Kelly. The three, Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz), Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein), waste no time causing Mac and Kelly great upset.

Meanwhile, Efron’s Teddy is coping with his ascent into adulthood. His former frat-mates are moving on while he languishes in immaturity. He teams up with previous rivals Mac and Kelly to derail the sorority from pulling off their hell-raising shenanigans (which include a disgusting stunt with feminine hygiene products).

Among the supporting cast, it’s good to see Lisa Kudrow as the college dean, Kelsey Grammer as Shelby’s dad, Selena Gomez as a sorority president, Jerrod Carmichael as Teddy’s chum Garf and Hannibal Buress as a police officer.

Buress gained notoriety a couple of years back for mentioning, during a standup routine, Bill Cosby’s sexual assault allegations. After his remarks were spread, Cosby victims came out of the woodwork. In Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, when a couple realizes they’ve accidentally taken powerful drugs, the guy says, “We’ve been Cosbied!”

I had Moretz pegged for real stardom. She has talent, a distinctive look and on-screen confidence. But she moves back a couple of steps in this ridiculous role. She just turned 20 and still has plenty of career ahead, but her choice to be in this bad film is a misstep.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is disappointing on numerous levels. My main issue with the N2:SR is… it’s just not that funny. A comedy should make you laugh a lot instead of making you look at your watch, waiting for the end titles to show up.

 

 

 

 

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is like a stage play. The movie is filled with speeches delivered with more passion in the film than one would imagine they might have been in real life. Those speeches are also likely more eloquent than were their real-life antecedents.

The script is by Aaron Sorkin whose screenwriting includes The Social Network, Moneyball and A Few Good Men. Sorkin loosely adapted his screenplay from Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography, published shortly after the death of the Apple giant.

The film is brilliantly directed by Danny Boyle. He includes cinematic elements—split-second flashbacks are particularly effective—but gives his actors plenty of room to shine.

Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is a man with a narrow focus: his products and their introductions to the world. He has difficulty with personal relationships. He is an egotistical perfectionist who is concerned about design as well as function of his products. He also is obsessed with his own public image and his legacy.

The story is told in three acts, each preceding a product launch: in 1984, the MacIntosh; in the late 80s, the NeXT “black cube” computer; in the late 90s, the iMac.

Jobs interacts throughout the film with Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Apple’s marketing chief. She is the one person who is rarely intimidated by Jobs and, of necessity, is able to abide his casual disregard for other humans.

Jobs’ Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) has cashed in his chips but hovers on the perimeter, seeking acknowledgement from Jobs for the Apple II computer. Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels) who Jobs recruited for the position has a respectful but sometimes tempestuous relationship with Steve.

Three young women portray Jobs’ daughter Lisa, most notably Perla Haney-Jardine as the oldest version, at age 19. The evolving storyline involving his daughter makes Jobs seem like less of a selfish jerk.

Steve Jobs is not a bio-pic. The 2013 film Jobs, starring Aaron Kutcher in the title role, came closer to being a life story but it stopped at 2001. Click HERE to read my review of that earlier film. A documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine was released last month and is available on demand from iTunes and Amazon.

The actors, screenwriter and director of the new film create a close-up view of the man, his vision, his drive and his many flaws. The music of Daniel Pemberton adds to the tension and gives the scenes momentum. It’s an interesting and entertaining way to look at this intriguing visionary.

Trainwreck

Amy Schumer homers in her first major league at-bat. Trainwreck is funny and she is the movie’s title star. Just as importantly, she also gets the lone credit on the “written by” card.

Amy Townsend (Schumer) is not a loser. It’s her love life that’s a trainwreck. She’s a woman who men pursue. But most of her hookups are just one-night stands, a few of which are hilariously depicted in the film.

She’s a writer for a Maxim-like men’s magazine called S’Nuff. Her editor Dianna (Tilda Swinton) assigns her to write a profile of a sports medicine doctor, Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), whose patients include several big name pro jocks. Among them is LeBron James (played by, in a casting coup, LeBron James, who turns out to be an excellent performer).

Following her first visit with Aaron, he takes her to dinner. They spend the night together and begin a normal relationship, which is not Amy’s normal M.O. The inevitable bumps in the road occur leading to a happy resolution and solid laughter along the way. Along with the raunch, there’s some real sweetness.

The cast also includes Brie Larson as Amy’s sister Kim and Mike Birbiglia as Kim’s husband Tom. Colin Quinn is wonderful as Amy and Kim’s cantankerous, ailing father. Daniel Radcliffe and Marisa Tomei appear in an art house film that Amy attends with one of her less refined boyfriends (WWE wrestler John Cena). Ezra Miller and SNL vet Vanessa Bayer appear as Amy’s co-workers.

Director Judd Apatow has delivered raunchy romantic comedies with a heart before. He has nurtured talented actor/writers before. (See Seth Rogen.) Apatow’s a pro who knows where the good/bad taste line lies and dances all around both sides of it. Schumer’s script (which he acknowledges he tweaked) has some holes, but is fresh and funny.

Amy Schumer is riding high on a positive wave generated by a successful Comedy Central TV series and tons of good media publicity for Trainwreck. The horrible comments made earlier this year by internet trolls regarding her physical appearance—she’s not the traditionally glamorous babe seen in most rom-coms—have led to backlash in her favor.

Trainwreck would be a respectable effort if it came from a veteran. Coming from a rookie writer/actor, it’s damned impressive.

Hot Pursuit

 

Hot Pursuit is a disappointment. It’s not funny. Just minutes into the show, it becomes obvious that the film, which is essentially one extended chase scene, is going nowhere.

Policewoman Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) and drug lord wife Daniella Riva (Sofia Vergara) are travel mates in this would-be madcap comedy. Like last year’s Tammy, the set up is okay, the stars are likable, but the movie, ultimately, is a failure.

Cooper is assigned to escort Riva to Dallas where her drug lord husband is set to testify against a former partner. But the pickup is botched when gangs burst in with guns blazing. Cooper and Riva escape and take to the road in a classic Cadillac convertible, the first of several vehicles they’ll use to get to their destination.

Witherspoon, despite being raised in Nashville, speaks with a southern accent that sounds inauthentic. Vergara, brings little beyond her Modern Family TV persona to her role. Neither excels at physical comedy. Hot Pursuit is a mess.

Who gets the blame? Director Anne Fletcher delivered another bad road trip movie The Guilt Trip (with Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand) in 2012. The writers David Feeney and John Quaintance are veterans of (mostly failed) TV sitcoms. With the exceptions of comedians Jim Gaffigan and Mike Birbiglia in small roles, the supporting cast has no real charm.

Witherspoon and Vergara have producer and executive producer credits, so they are among the culprits.

I’ll concede there are a handful of chuckles, but if you want big laughs you won’t find them here. (Even the outtakes that are shown during closing credits are not funny.) Do not pursue.

Neighbors

 

Neighbors is one of those movies that’s funny, but you wish it were just a little bit funnier. Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) are a couple with a baby girl who get new next door neighbors—a college fraternity!

Teddy (Zac Effron) is the leader of Delta Psi and Pete (Dave Franco, younger brother of James) is his best friend and backup. Upon move-in, the chapter meets and promises to do something memorable like previous members have done. (Flashbacks show earlier Delta Psi’s inventing Beer Pong, for instance.)

Mac and Kelly figure they should play nice. They drop over for a visit, offering weed as a good will gesture. They promise to call Teddy instead of the police should things get too loud.

Things get too loud quickly. When Teddy doesn’t answer, a cop (Hannibal Buress) is summoned. A peaceful coexistence between the neighbors proves to be impossible and leads to a climactic party and confrontation.

The fight between Mac and Teddy as the party rages is one of the funniest since Hugh Grant and Colin Firth faced off in Bridget Jones’ Diary. Their final encounter at the end of the movie is also a silly bit of fun.

Neighbors is rated R for raunchy, but it could’ve been worse. There are many small to medium laughs and a handful of big ones. Rogen as Mac is not unlike other Rogen characters you’ve seen. Byrne seems to slip in and out of her native Aussie accent at random.

Lisa Kudrow as the PR-minded college dean is the highlight of the supporting cast. Fans of Workaholics may recognize cast members from that show in a cameo. And the baby Stella (Elise and Zoey Vargas) is one of the cutest infants you’ve seen onscreen since Swee’ Pea in Popeye.

I can relate to Mac and Kelly. I speak as a suburbanite who’s had noisy parties thrown in my neighborhood by high school and college students, when their parents were out of town. But nothing in my world has ever come close to the havoc wrought by Delta Psi in Neighbors.

 

 

The Guilt Trip

Somebody had the great idea to cast Seth Rogen as the nerdy estranged son of doting Jewish widow mother Barbra Streisand. That person might want to rethink his/her future in the movie biz.

The Guilt Trip is an instantly forgettable film starring two people who have little chemistry. A weak and rarely funny script from a flimsy story idea doesn’t help. Did producers think that when these two appealing stars got together before the camera that magic would just spontaneously happen? Well, it didn’t.

Rogen plays a 30-ish LA chemist who flies back to Jersey to visit his mom before driving back west with stops along the way to pitch the cleaning solution he’s developed. A story his mother tells inspires him to invite her to make the week long trek across America with him.

Things that could’ve been funny are not, such as the choice of a book on CD they listen to in the car. Or Rogen’s uninspiring sales technique. Even the challenge at a Texas steakhouse to consume a monster chunk of meat in one hour produces little in the laughter department. Even the “hilarious” outtakes that run during the closing credits are ho-hum.

Much of the blame for The Guilt Trip’s failure goes to the old pro, Streisand. First, she’s had so much work done that she doesn’t quite look like Barbra Streisand anymore. Second, her character is only moderately wacky. Over-the-top zany might’ve worked better. Dialing back the wackiness does allow for a few moments of sweet motherly sensitivity.

Rogen is a talented actor and writer, but he does better in R-rated movies than in this PG-13 film. (Despite its tamer rating, there is a penis joke. A lame one. The joke, that is.) His name and reputation will sell tickets, but The Guilt Trip will not add to his long-term box office appeal.

This is a movie to watch on an obscure cable channel in four or five years when nothing else is on. There are better films in almost every other theater in the multiplex. This is not a trip you want to take.