Movie Review ~ Luce


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A married couple is forced to reckon with their idealized image of their son, adopted from war-torn Eritrea, after an alarming discovery by a devoted high school teacher threatens his status as an all-star student.

Stars: Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Norbert Leo Butz, Astro, Marsha Stephanie Blake

Director: Julius Onah

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  If there’s one thing that’s been plaguing many recent theatrical releases, it’s an infestation of predictability.  Used to be that curse was relegated to the big budget franchise blockbusters that operated on formula as part of their plan on delivering exactly what an audience expects but I’ve noticed a lack of creativity creeping into the smaller films arriving as well.  Blame it on an industry more averse to risk than ever before, hardly willing to gamble on not quite a sure thing.  Yet it’s these roll of the dice titles that do make their way into theaters that remind you how fun it can be to not know what’s going to happen next, to not arrive at the conclusion a half hour before the characters do.  Films like Booksmart, The Farewell, The Kid Who Would Be King, and, yes, Crawl are all part of the 2019 unpredictable list.  All from different genres, but all are going after something off the beaten path.  You can go ahead and add Luce to that roster now.

Based on JC Lee’s play that had been well received in its 2013 NYC premiere at Lincoln Center, it’s been adapted for the screen by Lee and director Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox).  I was unfamiliar with the play and had managed to screen the film without seeing the preview and I’d encourage you to do so as well.  Besides, there’s something pleasant about going into a movie with no expectation because you’re letting the film set its own bar it has to jump over.  It’s clear from the start that Lee and Onah know they’ve set their stakes high and are confident enough to traverse the increasingly barbed terrain introduced over the next two hours.  What they have is a tense, at times terrifying, look into the dark recesses behind privilege and the expectation of excellence.

When Amy and Peter Edgar adopted their son Luce as a young boy from Eritrea, one of Africa’s poorest countries, they wanted to give him a better life and over the last ten years they think they’ve done a good job.  Luce is a star athlete and an honors student, a polite and sensitive young man with a bright future and, after years of therapy to help resolve the trauma he suffered before he was adopted, reasonably well adjusted.  As the film begins, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr., The Birth of a Nation) is giving a speech at a school function after which his parents are introduced to Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water), Luce’s world cultures teacher.  The tension is evident and when pressed by Peter (Tim Roth, The Hateful Eight) later about Miss Wilson, Luce dismisses her to his parents as a “bitch”, much to the dismay of Amy (Naomi Watts, Allegiant) who knows her son has more respect than that.

This is the first crack in the relationship not only between mother and son but between husband and wife. While Peter initially sides with Luce over his caustic relationship with an overly difficult teacher, when Miss Wilson makes a further claim about a concern she has observed and Luce’s behavior toward her, the loyalties switch and suddenly Amy is the one defending her son while Peter takes the opposing view.  Turns out the minor concern Miss Wilson has is only the tip of an iceberg of secrets involving the school that provide some surprising twists and turns for all involved.  At the center of all of it is Luce, and though his past positions him to be someone we want to root for and believe in, could he harbor the dark side Miss Wilson observes or is he the golden child being misunderstood by a teacher holding him to a different standard?  Or perhaps he’s neither and no one, not even his involved parents, knows the real Luce.

These questions are posed with skill by Lee and Onah, creating shifting allegiances not just with the characters on screen but with audiences trying to decipher it for themselves.  One moment you think you’ve figured things out and the next Lee has thrown a curve ball and perhaps you’ve jumped to a conclusion that’s too easy and also…why was it so easy for you to jump to that conclusion in the first place?  Questions of nature vs. nurture are explored as well as racism not just between blacks and whites but within the same rice.  Films adapted from a play can often have the feel of being too talky and stage-y and Luce does have its fair share of scenes that I’m sure were lifted verbatim from the original text but it never feels stage bound.  Lee and Onah have opened up this world to include all.

The performances across the board are outstanding and it reinforces the already strong material with an extra layer of steel.  It’s a long standing joke that Watts often gets the roles that her best friend Nicole Kidman passes on because they look so similar and Watts can seem like Kidman-lite but I can’t imagine anyone tackling this role and displaying the nuanced layers brought forth as well as Watts does.  I’m often very on the fence with Roth but he’s paired believably with Watts and handles a late breaking personal revelation with the appropriate amount of inward turmoil.  As Luce, Harrison has a tricky line to walk because he can’t ever show his cards too much or else the audience will finalize their conclusion about him.  By keeping us off-balance with his charm one minute and his Bad Seed-iness the next, we know not to get too close to Luce…but also not to take our eyes off of him.

Octavia Spencer was working long before she won her Oscar for The Help and has continued to show up in an impressive amount of movies every year.  They aren’t all winners but she has a way of rising to the top of any project she’s working on…even serving as producer of last years’s Best Picture Oscar Winner Green Book.  Sometimes her performances get a little campy but, if marketed and promoted right, her role in Luce could get her another Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  I’d argue Lee has made Miss Wilson the most multifaceted of all his characters in the film because not only do we see her dealing with the Luce situation, we observe her trying to take in her mentally disabled sister (Marsha Stephanie Blake) who has her own set of devastating challenges.  That Spencer gets the absolute best moments in the movie doesn’t hurt her chances of staying in the Oscar conversation.  No actress working right now can convey so much with just a shift in her eyes.

The summer days are dwindling down and the “big” movies are largely behind us.  While the kids go back to school and we all have a little more free time on our hands and breathing room in the theaters, here’s hoping theaters find space to include Luce and you seek it out.  It’s well worth your time and provides edge of your seat entertainment that even the best of the 2019 supposed summer thrill machines couldn’t muster.

Movie Review ~ Where’d You Go, Bernadette


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A loving mom becomes compelled to reconnect with her creative passions after years of sacrificing herself for her family. Her leap of faith takes her on an epic adventure that jump-starts her life and leads to her triumphant rediscovery.

Stars: Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig, Billy Crudup, Judy Greer, Emma Nelson, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I want to take this very public forum to officially chastise myself for not finishing Maria Semple’s popular bestseller Where’d You Go, Bernadette before the movie opened.  Though the release date for the film was delayed twice, I just never got around to completing what I heard was a fun read.  I literally carried the book around in my bag for months and it still was passed over in favor of other fiction I had on my list to get to.  Blame summer going too fast, blame a busy schedule, but definitely blame me for not getting my butt in gear.

I’m wondering if I had finished the book what I would think of the film version that’s finally seeing the light of day after the aforementioned release date shifts.  Some in Hollywood viewed this as a sign the movie was in trouble but others looked at its Oscar-nominated director, its Oscar-winning star, and the adaptation of the still popular novel as a slam dunk for a late summer sleeper hit, like Crazy Rich Asians was in about the same spot last year.  While I can’t say for sure if fans of the novel will be pleased, I can say that while the film isn’t an outright misfire and has a few spirited moments, it’s suffering from a curious lack of purpose, a feeling echoed by the titular character.

From the half of the book that I did read, the film seems to hew closely to Semple’s examination of Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine) a middle-aged mother living with her successful husband Elgin (Billy Crudup, Jackie) and teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) in a dilapidated reform school on the outskirts of Seattle.  Unlike most mothers that have children at Bee’s prestigious school, Bernadette doesn’t have time for the PTA or social activities but instead prefers to stay in her home away from the outside world.  Her daughter is her best friend and her husband is her ally but not her confidant. Her only real connection is through Manjula, her assistant in India that is delegated much of the household planning.

When Bee reminds her parents they promised her she could have anything she wanted if she maintained her grades at school, she chooses a trip to Antarctica, which sets into motion a series of events that will change the Fox family forever.  Socially awkward Bernadette is terrified of the thought of leaving the comfort of home, bringing back memories of her life before Bee came along when she was a sought after architect whose brilliant designs made her a top name in the business.  Disappearing from her career after a highly publicized debacle, a meeting with a former colleague (Laurence Fishburne, Last Flag Flying) opens up the wounds from the past right around the same time the family is about to leave for their trip.  What happens next is a journey of self-discovery not only for Bernadette but for the entire Fox clan…and disappointingly it’s not exactly the amusing mystery you think it’s going to be.

I find it fascinating that director Richard Linklater was attracted to this project.  Though Linklater has shown up in different genres over the years, most recently with the genius Boyhood in 2014 to the all-out fun of Everybody Wants Some! in 2016, he feels like an odd fit for a movie about a woman experiencing a mid-life crisis.  The special charm the director has in eliciting the unexpected isn’t found here, even from the usually reliable Blanchett who can’t ever decide if she’s playing high drama or marginal camp.  It’s a quirky movie and I appreciated that it embraced some of its weirdness…but it didn’t go far enough in my book.  A key ingredient is just not there and it feels like the movie is held back because of it, never truly finding its footing, though it does feature several rather swell sequences.

At 103 minutes, I’m wondering if Semple’s comedic meditation on a woman feeling constrained and fleeing into the most unexpected of remote hiding places might have worked better with a little more heft to it.  Why not have it be a four or five episode mini-series on HBO or some streaming service that could have let Linklater and Blanchett breathe a bit more?  It doesn’t feel like a project that needed to be a feature film in any way.  There are enough supporting characters like Kristin Wiig’s (The Skeleton Twins) tightly-wound mom that can’t stand Bernadette, the strange appearance of Judy Greer (Halloween) feels like much of her performance was left on the cutting room floor, or any number of the small cameos from Linklater’s friends would have provide plentiful material to justify extra time.  Instead of going deeper in with Bernadette and her family, we only skim the surface and that doesn’t make for a satisfying meal.  What is there feels curtailed and constrained…Bee and Bernadette are supposedly close yet there are some major life events from Bernadette’s life Bee doesn’t know about?

Where the film does have strong points in calling out the struggles people feel at certain points in their life when they know they have so much going for them but can’t overcome some obstacle, be it real or imaginary.  They have the kindling and matches but can’t make the fire.  Bernadette knows she has a creative mind that is wasting away in her rundown manse but fear of repeating her past mistakes is keeping her locked away in the prison she’s made for herself.  There’s some good reflection of that very real feeling on display and for that, I give the movie much credit.  If only that clear message wasn’t surrounded by so many hazy tangents.

Movie Review ~ Blinded by the Light


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In 1987 during the austere days of Thatcher’s Britain, a teenager learns to live life, understand his family and find his own voice through the music of Bruce Springsteen.

Stars: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Ganatra, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Hayley Atwell, Dean-Charles Chapman

Director: Gurinder Chadha

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  I suppose it’s nice to know that in this climate of constant disagreement, there is something we can find common ground on.  Though we may not be able to see eye to eye on politics or the environment it seems that we all can agree that Bruce Springsteen is, in fact, The Boss.  The New Jersey singer/songwriter that experienced his, ahem, glory days in the mid ‘70s through the late ‘80s and has enjoyed a steady career since has a way of unifying even the most contrarian among us.  A 2016 biography of his rough upbringing was a national bestseller and a subsequent solo show on Broadway was the hottest ticket in town.

Ever since Bohemian Rhapsody became an unlikely hit (like, totally unlikely given how bad it really is) there’s hope that even the smallest bit of rock and roll nostalgia will equate to big box office.  May’s Rocketman, a musical biography of Elton John, was an absolute delight and danced circles around Bohemian Rhapsody but it didn’t have the same staying power and though Yesterday marketed itself as a light-hearted romantic fantasy set to a Beatles score, in actuality it was a total misfire that was sent back to Abbey Road without any fanfare. I haven’t checked lately, but I’m sure other long gestating projects inspired by the songbooks of classic musicians gained some traction thanks to the Freddie Mercury/Queen film.

All that being said, it’s easy to see why Blinded by the Light is hoping to draw those Springsteen fans in based solely on name recognition alone.  Yet, like Yesterday, filmgoers are getting the old switcheroo and are in for a movie that feels different than what was advertised.  Far from the breezy and fun promise put forth in the trailer, this film that was inspired by a true story goes in hard on tired tropes and an astounding amount of cliché.  I arrived at the screening knowing nothing about the movie so had no preconceived notions of what to expect and was still left feeling let down.

It’s 1987 and Javed (Viveik Kalra) is coming of age in a small town in England.  This is during the time of Margaret Thatcher when the economic situation for the middle class was turning dire and the racial tension against non-British was heating up.  Living with his traditional Pakistani parents who work tirelessly to make ends meet, Javed hides a secret wish to become a writer.  Composing poetry in the privacy of his room and away from the watchful eye of his strict father (Kulvinder Ghir), Javed’s world is changed when a classmate gives him a Bruce Springsteen cassette.  By this point, Springsteen was already a worldwide sensation with numerous number one hits…and he’s also seen by the teens of the time as old news.  So when Javed starts to dress like Bruce and quote his lyrics like scripture, it doesn’t get him a free pass to sit at the cool kids table.

Director Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) can’t seem to find an element of the movie to hone directly in on so everything plays a bit like an episodic chapter book.  Secondary characters like Hayley Atwell (Avengers: Endgame) waltz in and out of the action at will and it creates a disjointed feel that interrupts any rhythm the director is going for.  That’s partly on Chadha the director but mostly on Chadha the screenwriter and her co-writers Paul Mayeda Berges and Sarfraz Manzoor.  There isn’t a stereotypical stone unturned in Javed’s rebellion against his father and no development that isn’t telegraphed well in advance.  While this isn’t a spoiler review site, if I told you the climax of the movie hinges on a Big Speech Javed gives that suddenly, somehow, opens the eyes, ears, and hearts of those that previously didn’t understand him…would you be at all surprised?

That’s all fine because, you know what, there’s space for these kind of formulaic films as well but it’s all in the execution and Kalra simply isn’t a compelling enough lead for us to care if he gets to go to Springsteen concert or not.  It’s strange, as an audience member I never seemed to be on his side when the movie truly wanted us to be.  The lucky thing for Kalra is that Chada has cast the engaging Ghir as his withering father and the memorable Meera Ganatra as his strong-willed mother.  Ganatra’s quiet pain when her husband loses his job and she has to sell off her wedding ring to help pay the bills is heartbreaking…I kept wanting to know what kind of music SHE was listening to.

The oddest thing about Chadha’s film is that it so desperately wants to be a musical that it almost can’t help itself.  One musical interlude with Javed, his friend, and a punk girl he develops feelings for, is modestly entertaining but clumsily performed.  I kept feeling like if Chadha had gone all the way with incorporating more of Springsteen’s music into the movie as fantasy sequences or with more creativity (and not just having his animated lyrics flying around the screen) the film would have garnered more interest.  At nearly two hours, it was frankly a bit of a bore to sit through.

A biographical film of Bruce Springsteen will most certainly get made but who knows when that will be.  Until then, it’s unfortunate that Blinded by the Light is the only movie out there representing The Boss’s work because it lacks the same forthrightness that have made his songs enduring classics.  While it’s endearing to see how the blue collar musician’s music stretched over the pond and had an impact on the life of another and empowered him to aspire higher, the workmanlike delivery by the filmmakers keeps it frustratingly grounded.

Movie Review ~ Piranhas (La paranza dei bambini)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A gang of teenage boys stalk the streets of Naples armed with hand guns and AK-47s to do their mob bosses’ bidding.

Stars: Francesco Di Napoli, Viviana Aprea, Renato Carpentieri

Director: Claudio Giovannesi

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: When I heard a movie called Piranhas was making the rounds of the festival circuit and getting accolades, my Spidey-senses started tingling. A horror movie about killer fish had received a prestigious roll out? Of course, doing my homework like every critic should clarified the film was less about razor-toothed creatures from the deep and was more in line with the growing slate of Italian-produced films centering on mafia influence and mob families. So, my dreams of monster movies making a run for Oscar gold would have to wait.  Still, these youngsters are every bit as dangerous as those pesky toe nibblers.

Originally titled the far more docile and innocuous La paranza dei bambini (The parade of children) adapted by author Roberto Saviano from his source novel “The Piranhas: The Boy Bosses of Naples”, for distribution outside of Italy the film was renamed Piranhas and I can see the rationale behind it. Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, piranhas aren’t usually a danger to humans unless they are in a stressful situation. By nature a timid fish, they most often gather in a school to fend off their predators when they come under attack.  The boys that form the central “school” of piranhas in this film are from poor families in a section of Naples, Italy that was once prosperous but has now fallen on hard times. These families are barely scraping by and when the young teens see an opportunity to fight back against the mafia thugs gleaning wages from the hard-working townspeople, they gather to attack. Leading the charge is Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli) a 15 year old living with his single mom and younger brother who has a chance meeting with Agostino, the nephew of a former crime boss that was well respected in their infamous neighborhood, the Rione Sanità.

Teaming up with Agostino as well as his own impressionable friends that are in search of a leader and needing a purpose, they start off small by dealing drugs for a local mob boss before going across town and graduating to working with firearms. When Nicola sees they are becoming exactly like the men that have oppressed their families for so many years, he takes steps to counter their burgeoning violent acts by cleaning up his own neighborhood and making a better life for those around him. A new relationship with a girl from a rival town plays out like a West Side Story narrative without the song and dance act and only spells more trouble as loyalties change and crime begins to spin out of control.  What Nicola thought was an improvement might actually be another wave of crime he helped usher in.

There’s a lot of familiarity to be felt when watching Piranhas. We’ve seen this story countless times, youth being exploited by experience and falling prey to the excesses that come with quick success. Kids that start off the movie barely getting enough money to go out for the evening and formerly shoplifting for new clothes can now walk into these same stores with wads of cash and buy anything they want. The adrenaline that comes with their authority, as expected, begins to go to their heads and the limits of how far their influence reaches starts to be tested with increasingly dangerous results.  The changes over the course of the film are subtle, but drastic and ultimately devastating.

The movie may remind astute viewers of 2008’s similarly themed Gomorrah and for good reason. It’s based on the non-fiction book that was written by the same author that penned Piranhas. While both films deal with the Camorra (a crime-syndicate operating in Naples), Gomorrah’s narrative was more sprawling than the one taken up here. By honing in on this small group, there’s more room to get to know them, if not individually, than with some familiarity. Even if director Claudio Giovannesi doesn’t bring much in the way of style to the film,  that’s not to say it isn’t an involving experience. There’s a raw energy to the performances (many of the actors are novices) and the way he follows them through their routines gives the movie a voyeuristic feel…like we’re always watching over their shoulders and just as much at risk as they are.

The threads of the movie get a bit tangled as we near the end with some routine plot twists that at this point are, I guess, standard for any mob movie. What I appreciated about the film most was its way of reserving dialogue for only important information but letting the majority of the movie speak by the actions of the actors. A lot happens in the final few minutes of the movie and it’s largely dialogue free – yet what’s happening is as clear as if someone was narrating it for us.  These films can’t ever be classified as “pleasant” to watch but the rough edges of the cast lend authenticity to the action that makes it a compelling piece to sit through.

Movie Review ~ Them That Follow


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set deep in the wilds of Appalachia, where believers handle death-dealing snakes to prove themselves before God, a pastor’s daughter holds a secret that threatens to tear her community apart.

Stars: Alice Englert, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman, Kaitlyn Dever, Thomas Mann, Lewis Pullman, Jim Gaffigan

Director: Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I admit it, at my age I’ve become one of those fair weather church-goers who only venture into a pew for the holidays or for special events.  Even then, I often find myself contemplating thoughts of the coffee hour after rather than what hymn in next in my book.  I’m not going to get into a religious discussion here but I have my own communion with a higher power and don’t necessarily need the building to have that bond.  I do respect how helpful the act of “going to church” is for people, though, and have seen first-hand how it’s a lifeline for those in need of support or comfort.

I speak on religion first in this review of Them That Follow because I want to be clear that I’m no expert on the practices displayed within or pass no judgement on the churchgoing folk the film centers on.  Lately I’ve been stepping back from my Midwestern safety bubble and taking into consideration the cultures of other walks of life and using the films I see as a way to open up new doors for me to explore.  I tell you, it’s helped greatly in finding a take-away in even the most middle of the road movies I’ve seen.  Such is the case with Them That Follow, a short wanting to be a full-length movie that only simmers when it should be boiling over.

A congregation of Pentecostals in rural Appalachia are presided over by Pastor Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins, The Hateful Eight) who preaches of the devil’s trickery and the need to cleanse oneself from wicked sin.  To rid oneself of sin, his congregants show their devotion to God in the handling of venomous snakes. If the snake strikes, the parishioners are left to fend off the venom on their own.  If they survive, it is Gods will and they are forgiven.  As the film opens, the church is under the watch of the local authorities investigating the death of a person that perished under these extreme circumstances.

Unbeknownst to the Pastor, his daughter Mara (Alice Englert, Beautiful Creatures) has gotten pregnant by Augie (Thomas Mann, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), a local boy that has been exiled from the church for rejecting their teachings.  While Mara contemplates her future within the community and what this baby means in the wake of her recent betrothal to Garret, a handsome new arrival (Lewis Pullman, Bad Times at the El Royale), her faith is tested at every turn.  How long can she keep the secret from her father, the man she’s been promised to, and the man she has feelings for but can’t be with?  It all comes to a head when Augie comes to visit the church and makes an unexpected request.

The poster for Them That Follow and the trailer hint of a movie with a more sinister edge but writer/directors Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage don’t have enough plot to get around any twists and turns.  What we have is a movie I think would have worked quite nicely as a short film but, at feature-length, strains to make a case for the extra running time.  I was actually surprised to find this didn’t originate as a smaller project first because the final act especially has a few taut moments that would have worked better if the first 2/3rds were trimmed down. Another distraction adding to the feeling is a slow pace that keeps the movie from finding a rhythm within this community.  You can’t have a slow-burn if you aren’t willing to light a fire in the first place.

Those skeeved out by snakes are advised to steer clear of this one.  There are ample shots of the large reptiles slinking around the forest as well as over the bodies of the church-goers throughout the film.  Despite the threat of danger, there’s little tension to be had because the filmmakers haven’t raised the stakes high enough for audiences to be holding their breath.  While Goggins relays his usual dialed up, toothy, performance it surprisingly doesn’t reach the fever pitch of fire and brimstone that would have goosed the film in positive ways.  While Englert’s quiet moments are keenly felt, she’s a bit of a non-entity when sharing the screen with more formidable co-stars.  Strangely enough, I’ve sometimes gotten Mann and Pullman confused so it was nice to see them in the same frame to clarify once and for all they are different actors.

There are a few upsides to the film.  The location filming is quite lovely.  Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart) is a nice presence as Mara’s timid friend abandoned by her mother that comes to live with the Childs family.  Harboring her own feelings for Garret, she has to watch her best friend agree to a marriage she clearly doesn’t want while the man she likes has no idea she’s interested.  Dever handles this balance nicely, never playing her role too addled or selfish in the face of her love going unrequited.  Then there’s Olivia Colman, following up her Best Actress Oscar win for The Favourite playing a character named Sister Slaughter who finds herself divided between her loyalty to her community and her son, Augie.  Colman’s choices are unexpected, small, and intense…all the makings of a well-thought out performance.

In many ways, I’m glad Them That Follow didn’t devolve into some gory horror film with religious undertones.  It could easily have pivoted to something completely different but not wholly unexpected but it resisted and stayed in a safe lane.  True, there is one squirmy scene near the end but it’s largely an off-screen event so there’s little horror to be found aside from the isolation Mara feels.  While it does provide some additional interest for me to learn about these snake handling communities, there’s not much about the film as a whole that’s worth circling back on with much consideration.

Movie Review ~ Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Stories have a way of becoming all too real for a group of teenagers who discover the terrifying tome of a young girl with horrible secrets.

Stars: Zoe Colletti, Austin Abrams, Gabriel Rush, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint

Director: André Øvredal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: There were a few books in my elementary school library that, should you be lucky enough to catch them on the shelf and check them out, were signs of great prestige. As a fifth grader, I remember being so desperate to read the first volume of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark that through some junior detective work I found out who currently had the book and made a deal with them to be there when they returned it so I could swoop in and have it next. Then they went and screwed it up by returning it in the book drop first thing in the morning, forcing me to haunt the library until they opened and I could retrieve it. I definitely carried the book around on top of my Trapper Keeper so all could see during the day while I saved the reading for the evening.

The three books that make up the trilogy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark have become famous, if not quite literary classics on a Dickens level but legendary in their own right for their popularity with youngsters and their unpopularity with their parents. Often banned in libraries for their intense content and routinely challenged at school board meetings, the slim (none are more than 130 pages) collections of terrifying tales by Alvin Schwartz have inspired countless imitators over the years. It’s telling that none have come close to the simplicity of the way Schwartz relayed his collected stories of urban folklore with sinister twists.  Since the first entry was released in 1981, they have held up remarkably well.  Revisiting a few selections recently I was amazed at how vivid the storytelling remained all these years later.

I’m actually surprised it took so long for a film version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to find its way to the light.  It just missed the anthology-movie boon of the late ‘70s and lacked the hard edges that became popular in the mid ‘80s. Some of the urban legends have expanded into their own films or were lifted in part into the plots of other horror flicks but nothing has come out that bore the title that stirs so much nostalgia in my particular generation. These small volumes were to me what the Goosebumps books were to kids that came up after I did. While I was unsure at first in the wake of the recent silliness of the Goosebumps film and its even wackier sequel, it was encouraging to see this movie greenlit under the watchful eye of Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) who then hired up and coming Norwegian director André Øvredal to handle the directing duties.

While I’d love to report the final product was every bit as spine-tingling as I wanted it to be, the overall experience was more like revisiting something that was scary when you were younger but had decidedly less of an impact when you returned to it as an adult. Though it has a handsome production design and a fairly engaging and intense opening act, it quickly turns back from the horror elements I craved in favor of embracing its PG-13-ness in all its vanilla gore-less glory. Usually, I’m a fan of less is more and wishing a filmmaker would be creative in their power of suggestion rather than crude in their need to shock but by the end I desperately wanted Øvredal to amp up the chills.

On Halloween night, friends Stella (Zoe Colletti, Annie), Auggie (Gabriel Rush, The Grand Budapest Hotel), and Chuck (Austin Zajur, Fist Fight) run afoul of a local bully (Austin Abrams, Paper Towns) and wind up exploring the deserted Bellows mansion and uncovering its dark history. With a drifter (Michael Garza, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1) along for the ride, the friends uncover a mystery tied to the family that owned the house and ran the local paper mill before vanishing into thin air. When Stella takes a book from a hidden room within the expansive manse, she unleashes a vengeful spirit that starts writing stories in the book, stories of murder, stories of monsters, stories that feature her friends who begin to disappear at an alarming rate.

It was a nice touch for screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman (The LEGO Movie) to set the film in the low-tech 1968 when the country was tuned into the continued conflict in Vietnam while deciding between Nixon and Humphrey for the presidency. By having the movie take place half a century ago, there’s a certain unsullied charm to the investigation Stella launches into the sordid history of her town. The kids may be going through some of the same growing pains experienced nowadays but with the war not yet totally encroaching on their lives they remain, well, kids and not the woke meta meme-ified generation that we have now.  If anything, there’s too much time spent on character development at the expense of keeping the forward momentum the movie really needed to gain some steam.

As he showed so brilliantly in The Autopsy of Jane Doe (for real, check out that underseen gem), Øvredal has a way with creating a distinct atmosphere that greatly influences the overall feel of the production. Though set in 1968, the movie isn’t screaming ‘60s and Øvredal puts more emphasis in fleshing out the Bellows mansion and, later, a hospital that holds key clues to the mystery. I only wish once we were in these locations Øvredal was able to turn the dial on frights a few degrees higher. It’s all appropriately creepy but never truly scary, like the filmmakers were afraid (or opposed?) to delivering what seems inherently promised by the title.  Aside from several notable sequences that achieved their desired impact of raising both goosebumps and pulses, there’s a curious lack of follow-through despite a valiant set-up.  A creepy scarecrow turns out to look more menacing than he actually is, a toe-less ghoul is all moan but no mayhem, a plain teenage zit harbors the best pop for your buck even if it’s achieved with some iffy CGI.

Maybe I’m being too hard on the movie though. Perhaps the books were meant for my generation while this film is intended as a low-impact primer for budding (young) horror fans. After all, reading the books opened up my imagination to run wild with the delightfully demented legends Schwartz included. So could it be that Øvredal and del Toro held back from giving the full horror monty to viewers in the hopes they would create some of the scares themselves in their minds? It seems a bit of stretch but at the same time this isn’t your standard cut and paste waste of space either. There’s some sophistication to the movie, for sure, just not the quality scares I had came looking for.

Movie Review ~ Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Lawman Luke Hobbs and outcast Deckard Shaw form an unlikely alliance when a cyber-genetically enhanced villain threatens the future of humanity.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Eddie Marsan, Helen Mirren, Eiza González

Director: David Leitch

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: To their credit, Hollywood studios have been actively trying to elevate the summer movie to being more than just a two-hour mélange of special effects and explosions in a cookie cutter plot about world domination. For example, the sophistication of where Avengers: Endgame wound up is a far cry from the early days of the first Iron Man. Audiences have shown (in most cases) to have ever evolving and distinctively discerning tastes and the same old action movie just won’t do any more. Sometimes, though, there’s nothing wrong with a little cinematic comfort food and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw is the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese of summer blockbuster entertainment.

With each installment growing in popularity and box office returns, it was a natural next step for the producers of The Fast and The Furious franchise to think about the future of the series and how to keep their product going. While the main series could keep speeding forward thanks to a seemingly never-ending roster of characters that rotate in and out, were there any fan favorites that could anchor their own film? When Dwayne Johnson (Rampage) joined the group in 2011’s Fast Five, Special Agent Luke Hobbs quickly stood out thanks to Johnson’s natural charisma and the way the writers worked his character from law-man adversary to comrade over the next three films. Jason Statham (The Meg) made the biggest change, with his Deckard Shaw starting as the revenge-seeking villain in 2015’s Furious 7, eventually switching sides and joining the crew…though he never did take a liking to Hobbs.

Even before The Fate of the Furious came out in 2017, this spin-off was already in the works and, depending on who you ask, it came at the right time. Some of the stars not involved were, um, furious that the next installment was going to be delayed while producers were focused on this stand-alone film and there is reportedly bad blood between Johnson and Vin Diesel regarding professional behavior on set. Best to let their biceps cool down on opposite sides of the world. That freed Johnson and Statham to team up with original The Fast and the Furious writer Chris Morgan and Atomic Blonde director David Leitch for a new adventure and it’s clear this is the beginning of a beautiful partnership.

In London, an MI6 agent (Vanessa Kirby, Me Before You) ingests a deadly virus rather than let it fall into the hands of a genetically enhanced legionnaire (Idris Elba, Zootopia) sent by a mystery figure to retrieve it. Now on the run with a ticking time bomb flowing through her veins, her best hope is to rely on Hobbs and Shaw to help her find the scientist that created the virus and is the only one who knows the way to get it out of her safely. Adding to the complexity is a history Shaw has with the super-soldier unyielding in his pursuit and the fact the MI6 agent is his estranged sister. Together, the trio evade continue to evade capture in increasingly impressive action extravaganzas while Hobbs & Shaw learn to work as a team and put aside their beef.

Truth be told, the first half an hour or so of Hobbs & Shaw is a bit of a rocky ride. The set-up of these films is usually the weakest part and that’s the case here, not to mention the film having to juggle re-introducing two main characters sufficiently before they can bring them together. There’s frankly too much time spent getting the guys in the same frame and that feels like wasted energy for a movie that thrives on pure adrenaline. A useless cameo by Ryan Reynolds (Life) as an annoying co-worker of Hobbs grows tiresome almost the moment it begins, though I could have easily spent more time with Shaw visiting his cheeky mum (Helen Mirren, Eye in the Sky) in prison. It’s when the two meet up for the first time when the movie kicks into gear.

With Statham and Johnson doing what they do best, it’s no huge news bulletin to note they are both extremely watchable and have terrific chemistry. They have a nice yin and yang sparring about them that never goes too far and never falls in favor of either man. Though the film throws in some nice surprises along the way (including one great cameo I wouldn’t dare spoil) it remains focused on its two leads while leaving space for others like Elba and Kirby to shine. Speaking of Elba, his next-gen soldier might be a bit far-fetched and not fully explored but he doesn’t oversell the advanced tech power he possesses. As with most of his performances, Elba looks like he’s having a great time and that energy is infectious. As the lone female leading presence, (though there are several females in power positions besting their male counterparts, a nice touch) Kirby holds her own impressively both in the dramatic scenes and in the physical stunts and fights she’s involved with. Kirby’s star is definitely on the rise and her performance here only cements that ascent.

With an edge of your seat finale set in beautiful Samoa, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw is an out and out audience pleaser that elicited the first mid-movie applause I’ve heard in quite some time. Even clocking in at 135 minutes (including multiple post-credit sequences… completists will need to sit through a lengthy credit crawl for a final scene) the movie justifies its length by giving you every bang for your hard-earned buck. Sure, it’s a silly ride at times but it’s an exciting one all the same.

Movie Review ~ Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A faded television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Luke Perry, Timothy Olyphant, Emile Hirsch, Damian Lewis, Lena Dunham, Mike Moh, Austin Butler, Margaret Qualley, Bruce Dern, Zoë Bell

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Rated: R

Running Length: 161 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Plenty of directors have shown an affinity for their medium throughout the course of their careers…you kind of have to when you’re in an industry that loves a good pat on the back almost as much as they love a great opening weekend.  I’m not sure if I know of a filmmaker, however, that truly loves movies as much as Quentin Tarantino does.  Though the writer/director is notorious for his outspoken ways and has come under fire recently when some questionable actions on the set of the Kill Bill movies resurfaced, he’s never shied away from wearing his movie nerdishness loud and proud.  A fanboy for movies that range from popular classic to underground cult, Tarantino has an eclectic taste which has helped him to cull numerous reference points for his films throughout the years.

So it’s fitting that he’s finally gotten around to making a film about Hollywood, creating a story about a waning star and his stunt double crossing paths with faces both factual and fictional. Far from being an expose on the dark side of the Hollywood lifestyle, Tarantino is more interested in recreating the feel of living in this mecca that lured so many dreamers and, more specifically, how one man comes to terms with his fading career.   As with many Tarantino films, the object from the first frame is total immersion in the time and place and though it has recognizable actors from 2019 you could easily believe it was made 50 years ago.  You’ve likely heard it also has something to do with Charles Manson, Sharon Tate, and the infamous tragedy that occurred on August 8, 1969 but…more on that later.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, back onscreen after a four-year absence and reteaming with his Django Unchained director) is a former star of a mildly popular western television show looking for his next project.  Unable to rest on the laurels of his previous role much longer, he seeks the advice of a blunt talent agent (Al Pacino, Stand-Up Guys, nicely dialing down his tired Pacino-y mannerisms) who urges him to consider leaving Hollywood to star in a series of spaghetti westerns filming in Italy.  The majority of the film tracks Rick over the next two days as he prepares to film a guest spot on a television series while mulling this new international opportunity.

At the same time, Rick’s stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, World War Z) acts as chauffeur, handyman, gopher, and overall sidekick to the man he takes onscreen falls for.  Earning a bad reputation in the industry for a mystery surrounding his wife, Cliff can’t get much work outside of his employ with Rick so he sticks around hoping his boss will land another role that will call for his talents.  The two men have a clear kinship that extends beyond any lines of stardom and there’s an unspoken respect and loyalty flowing both ways, which is established so well Tarantino doesn’t need to fill in any gaps for the audience into how the two were paired in the first place.

What Tarantino does do, though, is take numerous opportunities to cut away to previous jobs Rick and Cliff worked on with varying degrees of success.  It’s fun to see DiCaprio loosen up dancing and singing (terribly) on Hullaballoo and an extended sequence where Cliff has it out with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the movie but is quite entertaining on its own merits.  Where it gets tricky is when Tarantino indulges himself too much, taking us on long drives through Los Angeles (we get it, it’s a bigger town than we think) and burns valuable time with clips from Rick Dalton’s previous appearances.  Still, those drives through Los Angeles give production designer Barbara Ling (The Lucky One) an excuse to recreate some fantastic locales in exquisite detail.  All theaters would need to do is pump in some smog and you are right there in the heart of L.A.

The first hour of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood ambles nicely into interesting territory as we get our bearings (courtesy, again, of those long car rides) but it’s Cliff’s chance meeting of a hippie waif (Margaret Qualley, Novitiate) and offering her a ride home when the movie starts to get intriguing.  When they arrive at Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, CA and Cliff meets the girl’s “family” his alarm bells go off and the hairs on the back of your neck will start to stand up.  Tarantino makes this not just the turning point of the movie but it’s centerpiece as well, as Cliff slowly realizes things aren’t what they appear to be and the property, which he is familiar with from his career with Rick, wouldn’t just be turned over to these creepy hippies.

Here’s where I have to give the slightest caveat of a spoiler alert coming up. While I won’t give any key plot details away I’ll need to make a few points known.  It’s not something you won’t already know.

Though many of us know about Charles Manson and his Manson Family, I was fuzzier on some of the finer details and didn’t realize until later when it was that Tarantino shifted into a slightly alternate timeline to the events as they originally occurred. The actual involvement of Manson and his followers in Tarantino’s movie is, honestly, minimal but it is a key piece of the overall story Tarantino has worked out regarding Rick and Cliff.

That means Manson victim Sharon Tate becomes a character in the film as well, showing up as Rick’s next door neighbor and giving Tarantino another real life individual with a timeline he may or may not feel the need to play around with. Though brought to life with vibrancy by a nearly silent Margot Robbie (Mary, Queen of Scots), Tate is a minor player that Tarantino prefers to keep at a distance when things take a dark turn.  Clearly, he only wants to remember Tate when she was young and beautiful, even going so far as to have Robbie going to see herself as Tate in a movie but watching the actual footage of Tate in the film.  For other celebrity sightings, keep your eyes open for appearances by Steve McQueen, Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning, Effie Gray, in a chilling cameo), Mama Cass, and Connie Stevens.

It’s not spoiling anything to say the night of August 8, 1969 is the final destination of the movie.  The ending of the film is still a bit of a puzzlement to me and I think I’ll need to see it again to firm up my thoughts on how successful it is. I’d be interested in hearing what the families of the victims think about the way Tarantino handled the events of that night and if the choices he made moved any immovable dials in their heart.  Like most Tarantino films (and quite like 2015’s The Hateful Eight) the director pulls all the stops out for the final reel – audience members at my screening seemed to go along with it but my reaction was more muted.

The real story here are the performances of DiCaprio and Pitt, arguably two of the honest-to-goodness biggest stars Hollywood has right now.  Both have toplined countless films and brought them to box office glory but combining their talents was a real win for Tarantino and a boon for the film as a whole.  As with many of his performances, I found DiCaprio good to a point, but the actor always gets to a certain level where you clearly see the effort being made and then it falls apart for me.  A scene of Rick chastising himself after a lackluster performance in a scene goes on far too long and, because we’ve already seen Rick’s vulnerability, is redundant.  It’s a good thing DiCaprio has Pitt next to him for so much of the movie because this is Pitt’s most radiant time to shine.  Wearing the barely visible faded scars of a stuntman long in the business, Pitt’s best moments are when he’s not saying anything at all but just reacting to what’s happening around him.  It’s one of his all-time great roles and, coupled with the much anticipated Ad Astra, could mean 2019 winds up being a very good year for him.

At nearly three hours, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood could arguably be trimmed by a good twenty minutes, though I think it would be at the expense of some tone setting and establishment of characters.  No question, there’s a less laborious way to get through the movie but I didn’t find myself bored, easily making it through this one more than I have numerous films half its length.  It’s a must-see in theaters and try to catch it in 35MM should it be playing in that format nearest you.  Then go read up about the people and places you see and untangle the fact and fiction braid Tarantino has weaved.

Movie Review ~ The Farewell


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A Chinese family discovers their grandmother has only a short while left to live and decide to keep her in the dark, scheduling a wedding to gather before she dies.

Stars: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Ines Laimins, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo

Director: Lulu Wang

Rated: PG

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: In recent years, I’ve come to be mighty skeptical of any movie that has buzz coming out of the Sundance Film Festival. Though the fest has produced several hits throughout its time, lately its been more infamous as a birthing place where great, good, and so-so movies without distributors get gobbled up by studios who then don’t know what to do with them. The great ones see their releases totally bungled, the good ones rarely find a wide-release, and the so-so ones usually get the most eyes on them.  Thankfully, most of the just plain bad ones disappear quickly into your streaming service library.

This year the two movies that I heard the most about were female-led and female directed. The first to arrive was the moderately well-reviewed comedy Late Night, starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling. Though it was positioned well by Amazon Studios as counter-programming to the summer blockbusters that were in full swing when its June release date rolled around, it tanked. Big time. So big that its rumored jobs were lost at Amazon Studios and a complete revaluation of their film acquisition policies in progress. As much as I would have liked to see that film do better business considering the stars, I kind of get why it didn’t catch on. Though it had laughs, I didn’t leave the theater wanting to tell my friends about it.

The same can’t be said about the other Sundance favorite now arriving in theaters. I’m telling all my friends, family, co-workers, and even a few people off the street that look like they’d be up for it about The Farewell. Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical dramedy is the absolute most winning film I’ve seen all year, equal parts comedy and drama and never less than 100% authentic in its emotions. It’s a film that starts strong and just continues to build and take root in your heart over the next hour and a half. If a PG rated film like this can’t get families (with older children) into the theater and be a sleeper hit of the summer, then nothing can.

While waiting to see if her grant proposal is approved, a thirty-year-old struggling writer in New York City arrives at her immigrant parents house to do, what else?, her laundry. It’s here Billi (Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians) learns her beloved Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is dying of terminal lung cancer. Her father (Tzi Ma, Skyscraper) is grief-stricken while her mother (Diana Lin) explains to Billi that the family has decided not to tell Nai Nai about her diagnosis but instead will gather in China to say their goodbyes under the pretense of a shotgun wedding for Billi’s cousin. What’s more, Billi can’t come along because she won’t be able to keep the secret. Recognizing this will be her only chance to say goodbye, Billi makes her way to China several days after her parents, surprising them and threatening to upend the plan.

Over the course of the multi-day wedding celebration, Billi gets an education about China’s cultural complexities of withholding a terminal diagnosis from a loved one and how it’s not just about “lying” but about showing respect for their final days. Additionally, she finds a greater understanding of her parents difficult immigration to America and grapples with the ripple effects it had on her upbringing. While Nai Nai stresses over crab being served at the wedding instead of lobster, her family is agonizing over making sure she doesn’t accidently see her test results and finding a way to say good-bye without actually saying it.  As the family participates in numerous traditions leading up to the big day, we get a small insider view of Chinese culture and, while certainly not comprehensive, it’s valuable to be a fly on the wall for many of these celebrations, discussions, and remembrances.

Though it sounds like the makings of a dreary, teary film (and trust me, there are tears), Wang’s film is overflowing with life and demonstrates an assured way with comedy as well, drawing laughs from unlikely places and characters. Much of the comedy comes from the differences between cultures and customs but there’s a fair share of one-liners that are howlinginly funny. Family reunions are stressful enough and with emotions dialed up, everyone is on edge and that leads to a number of funny sequences and some especially awkward wedding speeches.  All of the moments feel unexpected and off-the cuff, never straying into the saccharine areas we think they’re going to go and which they maybe might have the tendency to lean.

Known for her stand-up and previous comedic roles, Awkwafina does, if not a complete 180, then a 165 degree turn as Billi. Finding a way into the comedy without being the center of it, she also doesn’t grit her teeth to get into the drama of the film either. This feels like an actress taking on another role and knocking it out of the park, not simply a comedian stretching outside her comfort zone and achieving an unexpected bullseye. Tzi Ma and Diana Lin are wonderful as her parents, both getting key scenes with their daughter that tell us much about their life and love for their family, with Lin specifically tackling a difficult arc accepting responsibilities for how she raised Billi. The real standout here is Zhao Shuzhen in a performance that has Best Supporting Actress (or at least a nomination written all over it). Warm, wise, and always with a twinkle in her eye, each frame of film she’s in is enriched by her presence and each line of dialogue is of sage import. It’s fairly unforgettable, as is her final scene.

Sure to be the best film to come out of the lackluster summer of 2019 and absolutely the one of the top movies of the year, The Farewell is a real treasure to be treasured. I haven’t stopped thinking about it nearly a week after I’ve seen it, nor can I stop telling people how good it is. Opening in limited release before expanding wider, this is one to keep your eyes open for because I have the feeling this is the “little film that could” hit everyone has been waiting for.

Movie Review ~ The Lion King (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After the murder of his father, a young lion prince flees his kingdom only to learn the true meaning of responsibility and bravery.

Stars: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, John Oliver, Alfre Woodard, Beyonce Knowles, Chiwetel Ejiofor, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, John Kani, Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, Keegan-Michael Key

Director: Jon Favreau

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: There seem to be two camps of Disney animation aficionados. The first feel the studio hit its apex of its second golden age of hand-drawn animation in 1991 with Beauty & the Beast and the other side believe the tipping point was 1994 with the release of The Lion King. Both are a little right because each represent new advances not just in animation but in storytelling and musicality. Fans of the The Lion King are many and while I don’t count myself as one of the ride-or-die devotees of this Hamlet in the Serengeti tale I do appreciate it’s mature themes and humanistic approach to life and loss.

Even though I don’t find the film to be as precious as others, I was considerably surprised Disney would take the risk of adding this beloved classic to their growing roster of revisited films for a new generation.  It was easy to get Cinderella to go to the ball, Aladdin to find his magic lamp, and Pete’s Dragon was downright delightful…though it was considerably harder to convince audiences to see Dumbo take flight. Even so, how would they capture life in the African veldt in a somewhat realistic way? Going off of the success of the photorealistic computer generated animals created for 2016’s The Jungle Book, Disney handed the reins to back to director Jon Favreau and asked him to fully immerse himself in the technology to bring The Lion King to life.

Frankly, while the film is gorgeous to look at and makes the transition to screen far better than any other 2019 release has, it’s ultimately a bit of a pointless endeavor due to it being a nearly shot for shot remake of the animated original with very little creativity added in. At times, the film is frustratingly stuck in 1994, completely ignoring all of the new music added into the subsequent 1997 behemoth Broadway musical and many of its wise decisions in narrative structure. Once I resigned myself to it being so furiously beholden to the original film, I was able to settle in and admittedly got swept up in some of the grand scale of majesty, both visual and emotional, on display.

I have a feeling there will be a lot of audience members coming out of this 2019 retelling of The Lion King looking for someone to blame for the film not living up to their expectations so I’m going to run down the list of blame-ees to see if we can’t land on a culprit.

Blame Jon Favreau (Spider-Man: Far From Home). This one’s easy. Blame the director who brought only a concept to the table. Yes, the technology for The Jungle Book was a massive undertaking and the results quite splendid but the same magic doesn’t translate here. Going for realism over fantasy limits the film with rules in ways the animated one didn’t have to abide by. There’s little ingenuity to how the movie is constructed, with much of it, including the still goose-bump inducing ‘Circle of Life’ opening (sung by long time London Rafiki Brown Lindiwe Mkhize), just a complete copy of the first film.  I’m familiar enough with that opening sequence to recognize similar focus pulls and camera zooms so I’d love to see the two sequences side by side to see how close they are to each other. I’m a bit taken aback at how frightening Favreau let this one get. Animals that were slightly menacing as animated cells are positively terrifying when realistically rendered – parents should take note of the trio of teeth gnashing hyenas that are decidedly not played for laughs. There’s an attack/chase scene in this that rivaled Crawl for it’s tension and element of surprise.

Blame Julie Taymor. Poor Taymor has long been a scapegoat in the industry so why not throw her to the aforementioned hyenas here as well, right? I guess you could say she “ruined” The Lion King for multiple generations by creating such an unforgettable Broadway musical out of the original material. With brilliant costumes, soaring additional music, and a genius creativity flowing through each and every nook and cranny it set a new standard for what was possible in translating a film to stage.   Actually, she did what I feel the studio should have done here and that is to take the original film, retain the best parts about it and make something equally amazing out of it that lets both exist independently of the other. That doesn’t happen here. I can’t imagine people will be more inclined to watch this 2019 version over the 1994 original and then only if they couldn’t get tickets to the Broadway show.

Blame the cast. While it was nice to hear James Earl Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) back as Mufasa and Billy Eichner is dang delight as Timon, much of the casting falls flat. What’s worse, several of the actors just plain and simple can’t sing. As perfect a villain voice as Chiwetel Ejiofor (Secret in Their Eyes) provides as Scar, his speak-singing his way through a stupefyingingly truncated ‘Be Prepared’ and unsure high notes are a real bummer. As Pumbaa, Seth Rogen (Sausage Party) is the worst offender and while the part doesn’t require a good voice it at least requires someone to stay on pitch. Donald Glover (The Martian) is also a bit of a dud as the adult Simba showing little fire while Beyonce Knowles-Carter’s Nala (Dreamgirls) doesn’t exactly sound like she’s part of a regal pride of lionesses.  Everyone sounds like they’ve just been woken up from a nap, the lions were definitely sleeping tonight before recording their lines.

Blame the Disney executives. Here is where I think we have our winner, the big baddie of them all. Though this can’t be called a live-action remake seeing that the entire film is computer-generated, it represents another attempt by Disney to again cannibalize their catalog. For what purpose? The argument I’ve heard is that “every generation deserves their version of these stories” but that’s just…stupid. By signing off on giving The Lion King a CGI upgrade but not bothering to incorporate any of the new music (aside from Beyonce’s incredibly mediocre Oscar-bait single which has no place in the film) or making inventive creative choices they’ve not provided a purpose for the movie to exist other than lining their purses.  At its best, this new Lion King takes flight because of the durability of the source material and at it’s worst it’s merely a product crafted mindlessly for consumption with a pretty awful Elton John sung tacked into the credits for good measure.

Yet I’m still encouraging people to see this film and will likely see it again myself in theaters.  It’s absolutely better than the dull Dumbo and wooden Aladdin and operates on a different scale of filmmaking.  When all is said and done, the bottom line is that the movie is incredible to look at and what works the best is what has made The Lion King a classic since it was first released 25 years ago. The songs from Elton John and Tim Rice are melodic and will stick in your head, Hans Zimmer’s score is rousing, and the storyline of parental loss and finding strength within is as resonant as ever. I’ve listened to the soundtrack now a few times since seeing the movie and still get chills when the chorus of ‘Circle of Life’ fully kick in. No improvement on the original was needed to reinforce those feelings, though.