THE LION KING – movie review

THE LION KING
Walt Disney Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson, story by Brenda Chapman, characters from Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton
Cast: Voices of John Kani, Seth Rogen, Donald Glover, Keegan-Michael Key, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Early Jones, Beyoncé, Billy Eichner, Amy Sedaris, Alfre Woodard, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Eric André, John Oliver, JD McCrary, Florence Kasumba
Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 7/10/19
Opens: July 19, 2019

Lion King Movie Poster (2019)

John Badham’s “Point of No Return” is a carbon copy of Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita,” but there are qualitative differences between the two that should be obvious to people who have acquired a taste in film. Similarly Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King” is a copy of Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s 1994 film of the same name, and here again, the quality of the current version is obvious. Favreau’s version is blessed by a quantum advance in animation technology known as photorealistic computer animation which takes away the illusion of artifice in favor of rendering the subjects quite life-like. You may be able to tell the difference between animals photographed at Serengeti and the same beings in which no real animals are used (or harmed), but the eight-year-old who takes you to “The Lion King” will be stunned by the naturalness of all that the child can see. One wonders whether in the future live actors will be automated out of jobs just as are the movie personnel who sell you tickets at the multiplex will have to look for some job that has not already been deleted by machines.

Even without the new technology, Disney could continue the reign as the animation king of blockbuster films. “Beauty and the Beast,” for example, is a familiar enough tale, yet when you watch it again you may find it to be fresh. In the same way though the songs used in the current “Lion King” may be familiar enough—think of “Hakuna Mattata” (what a wonderful phrase…ain’t no passing craze”) and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (“in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…” ah weemoway”). When sung by a variety of creatures of the jungle it’s as though you’re hearing the songs for the first time.

Whether you think that Disney’s trope of creating animals that talk and sing like human beings is no problem, a hakuna mattata, or whether you believe that this way of conveying animal behavior is overdone, is a matter of opinion. The way that the lions, the hyenas, the warthogs, a variety of birds speak our language does take away from their individuality since, after all, giraffes are not zebras, but such is not likely to be a problem for the small fry.

As in the 1994 version, “The Lion King” is about family and the importance of home, but those of us in the U.S. now having to put up with a circus of campaigning for top gun a year and one-half in advance cannot help thinking that we have a president and we have a number of people who would like to unseat him. Similarly, Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is the respected monarch of the Pride Lands, particularly as he believes (unlike a few of our politicians) that what makes a king is not what he takes but what he gives. Yet among the Pride Lands, his own brother wants him killed so that he can ascend the throne—which makes this a kind of Shakespearean theater. Mufasa’s son Simba (Donald Glover as an adult and JD McCrary as the cub) has been readied by the king of beasts to take over when his time comes, and this is where the Circle of Life comes in, but Mufasa’s brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is determined not to let this happen as he has monarchial ambitions. Scar’s allies are a group of nasty hyenas (Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, Keegan-Michael Key) who realize that Simba must be lured into a forbidden part of the kingdom so he can be killed and eaten.

The villains are ugly. Scar is easily recognized despite having the mane of his brother because he has been grayed out, the typical bold color of lions is desaturated. The hyenas, whose dialogue is fast and idiotic, are as ugly as animals can be. Comic relief is supplied by Pumbaa, a warthog (Seth Rogen) who adopts Simba when the future king has run away from home, and is never seen without the company of a Meerkat who pops on and off Pumbaa’s head. Beyoncé’s voice serve as Nala, Simba’s childhood sweetheart who insists that she could never marry Simba while Alfre Woodard is the voice of Sarabi, the Queen, and Simba’s mother.

Unlike the 1994 version which is rated G for general audiences, this one features an MPAA rating of PG given the realism of the violence (animals falling from cliffs into fire, for example) and perhaps more disturbing for the young ‘un in the audience, there is talk of death which could be even scarier than watching scenes of violence and death, such as the statement that life is not a circle but a straight line. When you come to the end of the line, that’s it.

As you can probably guess the visuals are splendiferous. Favreau takes a story that so many of us know about from the original and from the stage version where it is still holding court at the Minskoff, and with photorealistic animation can make you think you’re on a prohibitively expensive safari—yet paying no more than $20 a ticket.

Music is composed by Hans Zimmer, with songs written by Elton John and Tim Rice.

118 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B
Technical – A
Overall – B+

LOVE, CECIL – movie review

LOVE, CECIL

Zeitgeist Films in association with Kino Lorber
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Screenwriter:  Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Cast:  Rupert Everett, (narrator). Cecil Beaton, Hamish Bowles, Leslie Caron, David Hockney, Isaac Mizrahi
Screened at: Critics’ link, NY, 6/15/18
Opens: June 29, 2018
Love, Cecil Poster
“I’m an ordinary man,” explains Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” to his best friend Col. Pickering, “Who desires nothing more than just an ordinary chance to live exactly as he likes, and do precisely what he wants. An average man am I, of no eccentric whim, who likes to live his life free of strife, doing whatever he thinks is best for him. Just an ordinary man.”  Of course Higgins was not what he claimed.  Now imagine a person who really does fit the bill as “an ordinary man.” You would be imagining the very opposite of Cecil Beaton, who won Oscars in both production design and costume design for “My Fair Lady” helping to make that musical one of the Broadway icons of the last century.

In Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s love letter to Cecil Beaton, she affords us a look at the career and inner life of an extraordinary man, a man who has created color, imagination, and fantasy; in short a vivid look at all that is beautiful about life.  A Renaissance person who could not sit still and focus on a single career, Beaton was above all a photographer, but exceptional as well as a theatre set designer, a creator of costumes, a lighting designer, and even an actor who appeared in Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermeer’s Fan.”  Not mentioned by this film which, after all, limits itself to a mere 99 minutes, he designed the sets and costumes for a production of Puccini’s “Turandot.”

Vreeland, in her métier as a person who made documentaries on Diana Vreeland and Peggy Guggenheim, is obviously a great supporter of the artist, who died in 1980.  She might be accused of being in love with Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton CBE, though she does point out an unfortunate incident in which Beaton, who published six volumes of diaries, used the word “kike” on one page of Vogue magazine, perhaps the most obscene term used by anti-Semites to describe the Jewish people.  Beaton tells the camera that he has no idea why he wrote this, that he is not anti-Jewish (never mind that a good segment of the British upper classes at the time were indeed), and that he regrets that Vogue had to shred thousands of copies and fire him.

We become privy to vast array of Beaton’s portraits in black-and-white and color and to a few segments of the colorful “My Fair Lady” and “Gigi.”  In the former musical, the song “Ascot Gavotte,” which portraits the British upper class at a racetrack saying how positively ecstatic they are when the horses are running, though with the stiffness and lack of emotion that have become stereotypies of the upper orders.

Of his loves, he cites Greta Garbo, who surprised Beaton by allowing him to photograph the woman who “vant[s] to be left alone.” As the official photographer of the Queen mother,  he is overcome with emotion as he is invited to photograph Queen Elizabeth II in a series of shots that went way over the time limit he is granted.  He left behind photographs of his two male lovers, and cautiously tells us that he did not get along with George Cukor, who directed “My Fair Lady,” and for some reason hated Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

See this on the big screen where you can best revel in the gorgeous costumes, vivid set designs, dramatic sketches and portraits, and snippets from two of the all-time great Broadway musicals.

Unrated.  99 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

LA LA LAND – movie review

  • LA LA LAND

    Summit Entertainment (A division of Lionsgate Films)
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director:  Damien Chazelle
    Written by: Damien Chazelle
    Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, J.K. Simmons
    Screened at: Park Avenue, NYC, 11/16/16
    Opens: December 9, 2016
    La La Land Movie Poster
    If you’re of a certain age or simply catch up on movies made before you were born, you are likely to say “They don’t write musicals the way they used to.”  You’re thinking of the oeuvre of George M. Cohan, George and Ira Gershwin, Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.  Some of their traditional musicals are revived on Broadway, and deservedly so.  Consider “My Fair Lady,” the perfect musical; South Pacific with its outdated(?) theme of racial tension, “Yankee Doodle Dandy, which features a stirring performance by the great James Cagney.  The splashy modern musicals are no slouches: think of the ones still playing on Broadway like “Chicago,” “Les Misérables,” “The Phantom of the Opera.”  The distinction between the old and the new is more a line drawn on sand than on stone.  Capitalizing on the idea of doing a traditional musical, Damien Chazelle, whose “Whiplash” shows him as a man who understands and loves jazz, knocks out “La La Land” (a slang term for Los Angeles) with an opening and closing that will look familiar to any who have taken in the lavish spectacles of the forties and fifties.  “La La Land” opens with a small screen logo of the company, Summit Entertainment, then surprises the audience with an expanded screen and a mention that this is a Cinemascope production.  At the conclusion, we see the letters “The End.” Now that’s something you don’t see at movie endings any more.

    “La La Land” is the sort of musical that might find a better environment off-Broadway than in the big ones, with one exception, the spectacular opening number, a single take, choreographed with brilliance and sung with abandon but a diversified group of Los Angeles drivers and passengers in one of those daily, tortuous jams.  When one driver in a convertible, Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) honks and passes the auto driven by Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), Mia gives him the finger, which is not the best way to start a romantic relationship, but in this case, absent the bird, there would be no coupling off.

    Hearing music back on land Mia enters a crowded restaurant to find Sebastian, who at first conforms to the manager’s demand that he play Christmas clichés but then takes off with the kind of jazz piano he knows and loves.  This gets him fired by the boss (J.K. Simmons), so, teed off, he knocks Mia on the shoulder as he passes Mia—which qualifies as a meet-cute.  For Mia, this is love at first sight; never mind that she doesn’t like him.

    They get together, they talk, they dance, they click. They find out that they’re not simply drivers: they are human beings young enough to hold onto dreams.  Sebastian likes jazz, but only the kind that he considers pure.  He tries to influence Mia to share his affection for the music.  In the planetarium they dance, literally rising through the air like a modern Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, gazing at the stars above, sharing their fantasies.  He wants to stop playing what the band leaders want and to start his own club.  She wants to be an actress, and takes off from her job as barista in the Warner lot whenever her smartphone informs her of an audition.

    Mimicking the splashy colors favored by Jacques Demy in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”—which featured the stunning Catherine Deneuve as a 17-year-old in the French town of Cherbourg—and Demy’s use of saturated colors in “The Young Girls of Rochefort”, Chazelle alternates dazzlers like the opening scene, with fast-moving jazz compositions, Gosling on the keyboard, and slow, moody, lyrical songs.  Unlike “South Pacific,” “My Fair Lady,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “The Music Man” and scores of other musicals, there are no memorable songs in “La La Land,” nor are the lyrics that clear to make out.  The dancing cannot match that of the pros like the aforementioned Astaire and Charisse and the singing is not on the level of South Pacific’s Ezio Pinza.  Nor does it have to be.  Though many critics will rave and gush, ultimately this is a middling musical measured against the gold standard works of the forties and fifties but is well worth a visit for setting a romantic mood, enjoying the jazz, and feeling as good as you can after the recent political debacle in the U.S.

    Rated PG-13.  128 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online