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The Lion King (2019)

I’m still unconvinced by all these Disney remakes, and I’m particularly skeptical about “live action” remakes that aren’t actually live action at all, but just fancier animation. That said, I didn’t hate The Lion King (2019), and that’s head and shoulders (or can I say mane and tails) ahead of where I thought we’d be. I was fully prepared to hate this but instead the CGI animation’s beauty and realism swept me away. But while that sounds like a strength, it’s also the movie’s weakness.

The thing about traditional animation, like the original The Lion King (1994), is that literally ANYTHING can happen in a cartoon. They’re not constrained by any limitations. Your heart can awooooooga out of your chest when you’re in love, your feet can pedal a car, you can literally levitate off the ground in sheer happiness. And yes, a cross section of jungle animals can come together in perfect harmony.

The problem with this gorgeous, accurate, and photo-real animation is that these lions, who look exactly like the ones you see on National Geographic (minus the buttholes and genitals, Sean wants you to know), are still being made to talk. And sing. But not dance. That would be crazy. So director Jon Favreau and company are asking you to embrace the realism of Scar, who has none of his cartoony presence, but suspend your disbelief enough to invests in his sibling rivalry and Hamlet-style ambition, but then not be too disappointed when they drastically cut his big musical number.

Recently, while reviewing the earlier Toy Story movies, I noted, with some wonder, that Woody has 229 animation points of movement in his face. But while The Lion King’s animation WILL astonish you down to the dew drops in a spider’s web, the animals’ faces remain nearly blank. Their mouths move minimally, to indicate that they are speaking, but there’s not a lot of expression going on there, and I can’t help but feel that this gets in the way of my investing in them emotionally. The original Simba cried when his father died. He was a mere cartoon character, but I felt for him. When I re-screened the movie recently, that scene nearly broke me, reminding me of my nephew and his relationship with his dad. The new movie just couldn’t move me in the same ways.

And it’s not just the emotion that’s lacking, it’s the joy. I Just Can’t Wait To Be King is one of my all-time favourite Disney songs, but it’s not quite the same because in “real life,” ostriches don’t allow lions to ride them. So I’ve heard. And it’s hard to get zebras and giraffes and hippos to agree on choreography. So the song still sounds great, but there’s a little less pizzazz to the musical number.

Speaking of songs: you may have heard Beyonce is on board, voicing the grown-up Nala, and contributing an Oscar-eligible brand new song to the film’s soundtrack. I sort of thought I might miss some the iconic voice work from the original film: Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Jeremy Irons. But in fact, the 2019 film does an excellent job of filling those roles. It’s different, but it works. Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Oliver, Alfre Woodard, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner: it’s a tall list, packed with talent, and everyone’s working at peak capacity. But I will say: it’s actually really great to have James Earl Jones return in his role as Mufasa. First, it seems impossible to replace him, and harder still to find someone with balls enough to try those step into those paws. But mostly it feels like he is passing the baton; he’s a link from the old to the new (it’s been 25 years!) and it is comforting as heck to hear that voice again.

Most of The Lion King 2019 edition is a toned-down recreation of the original, but there are a few new scenes, expanded roles for Timon & Pumbaa, and especially for some of the female members of the pride, drawing inspiration from the Broadway musical where Nala and Sarabi are featured more prominently. I mean, if you get Beyonce, you use her, ya know?

I suppose if you’ve never known another Lion King, this one has a lot to recommend it. For fans of the original, this one won’t really compare. But if you’ve got room in your heart for two Lion Kings, you might just feel the love (tonight).

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Mary Magdalene

In bible times, everyone named their girl babies Mary, which has led to a lot of confusion over the years. Mary Magdalene is often confused for the Mary who was a whore – you know, the “sinful” woman who washed Jesus’s feet. In fact, Mary Magdalene, which is to say the Mary who came from the fishing village Magdala, was not a prostitute; she left her village to follow Jesus. She was the 13th apostle, never so named because of course she was a woman, but the truth is, the bible mentions her by name more times than it does any of the actual apostles. So Mary Magdalene was important. She witnesses Jesus’s crucifixion, his burial, and his resurrection. The catholic church now owns her as a saint in her own right.

This movie is a feminist take on a story that has always been told from the male perspective. When Sean asked me how I liked it, I said something like “Well, it’s the role Joaquin Phoenix has been dying to play.” To which Sean thoughtfully responded “Mary Magdalene?!?!?!” and I had to say “No, dummy, Jesus” to which Sean should have gone quiet but instead admitted “Oh yeah, I forgot who else was in that story.” So yeah. This is Mary Magdalene’s story of her time spent with that weird dude named Jesus.

In the movie, Mary M. (Rooney Mara) is a more independent woman than most. She does MV5BMTBjNDI1MTQtNDFlOS00MGE0LWI3OGYtYTIzMjBiY2NmMDQyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTk2NDA3MTM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1500,1000_AL_not want to get married. So her father and brother obviously assume she is possessed by demons and try to drown them out of her, which mostly consists of drowning her. She barely survives their ‘help.’ Then they have the balls to act all shocked when she runs away from home to join the circus. I mean Jesus. She joins up with the Jesus train, which is not all that different from a circus when it rolls into town.

Jesus (Phoenix) is charismatic and he draws a big crowd. Mary M. isn’t the only one desperate to hear about this wonderful kingdom, free of oppression. But she realizes that women in particular might like to hear more about the end of tyranny, so she schools Jesus on how to talk and minister to them directly. Oh, the other apostles are shocked and appalled. Of course they are. Who is this woman who is automatically Jesus’s new teacher’s pet? Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is particularly jealous and mistrustful. Of course, if you know anything about the bible, you know they’re all in for more difficult times thant these. The official film synopsis calls it a “dramatic turn of events” which is hard to say about the most-repeated story for the past 2000 years. It’s not exactly an M. Night Shyamalan twist. Spoiler alert: Jesus dies! AND he is risen! Lord have mercy.

Director Garth Evans takes a winding and melancholy route to death and resurrection, but it’s beautiful, and the cast is really strong. Mostly I just loved hearing this overly familiar story from a female perspective for once. It broke down the world’s most pervasive myth and made you think about it from outside the box – not a lot, just a little. It pushed the boundaries. But just accepting that the boundaries are flexible to begin with is a huge deal, and I found myself looking at the thing from all kinds of new and interesting angles.

Opens April 12 just in time for Easter for a special one-week engagement at Toronto’s Cineplex Cinemas Yonge-Dundas and VIP, Mississauga’s Cineplex Odeon Winston Churchill Cinemas, Vancouver’s International Village, Calgary’s Cineplex Odeon Eau Claire Market Cinemas, Edmonton’ Cineplex Odeon South Edmonton Cinemas, and Montreal’s Cinéma Cineplex Odeon Quartier Latin.

Children of Men

It’s 2027 and the world’s youngest citizen has just died at the age of 18. People take it hard. With fertility down the tubes, humanity is staring in the face of its own extinction and it’s a pretty bleak picture.

Theo, a former activist, is kidnapped by some scary dudes (Charlie Hunnam, Chiwetel Ejiofor) who turn out to be working for his ex Julian (Julianne Moore). The two haven’t seen each other in 20 years, since their son Dylan died in a flu epidemic, but as the world’s countries have collapsed around them, Julian has led an underground rebellion, and she needs Theo’s help. They need to illegally transport a refugee, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), and while Theo’s cousin can secure the necessary papers, they obligate Theo into accompanying her. Which ends up being just as well because shit goes down and Kee needs Theo. But the world needs Kee: turns out, she’s pregnant with the world’s first baby in 18 years. Now it’s up to Theo to get her safely to a refuge at sea, but no one, not the government, not the angry mobs, not Julian’s own people, are going to make it easy for him.

MV5BODQ4ZjMwMjEtMjc0Ni00MzA4LWE3N2ItODA3NmEwNDU3ZTE3L2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDAxOTExNTM@._V1_First, this doesn’t need to be said but I will say it anyway: fucking Alfonso Cuaron. What a brilliant director. This is just such an astonishing work in film. The sense of urgency is brilliantly sustained throughout. There are so many scenes in this one movie that are best of career, highlight reel stuff that you can never quite catch your breath. There’s a long scene, kind of a car chase in reverse, where the car in question is specially outfitted so that a custom-rigged camera can rotate not just inside the vehicle, but outside the windshield as well. It’s fantastic, heart in throat stuff.

Cuaron stays away from exposition but the film never lacks. We aren’t told much about Theo but we’re shown quite a lot – nearly every scene contains an animal, and that animal is always drawn to him; he never touches a gun; his private cry for Julian; his aborted cigarettes; his seemingly unflappable response to crisis; his need to save others, even strangers. A character emerges without wasting a lot of time on formalities – that’s how you establish a frenetic pace.

And Cuaron’s setting of the film is second to none. It was filmed in 2005, just a few short weeks after London had its own terrorist bombing. Cuaron uses imagery from Pink Floyd (who often sang about oppression, war, and being) and Banksy, a guerilla street artist and political activist. At one point, the camera pans by cages with prisoners inside and one of them gives us a brief glimpse of the “hooded man” from the Abu Ghraib prison torture pictures, seen in the exact pose as the real pictures. There are specific calls to past wars, and political movements (Michael Caine has based his character on the fervent pacifist, John Lennon, Theo’s workplace is a nod to George Orwell’s 1984) but I was surprised how well it holds up, feeling every bit as relevant to today’s issues as those of a decade ago. Which is obviously not a good thing for the world but shows what a specific and visionary film maker Cuaron is. And meticulous. There are so many details, musical cues, religious references, nods to thematically-relevant literature that you lose count. You can’t even notice most upon first-watch, but you absorb them and get immersed in this gritty world and all of its noise and flaws and trauma.

With stunning lensing by Emmanuel Lubezki and astonishing, seamless editing by Cuaron and Alex Rodriguez, Children of Men is must-see moviedom in every sense. Cuaron is an immense talent; his is a filmography that must be discovered and rediscovered at every available opportunity.

Sherlock Gnomes

It was 2011 when we first met garden gnomes who come to life when no humans are watching. Back then, two rival yards, that of the Montagues, and the Capulets, were at war, except Gnomeo fell in love with the forbidden Juliet, and they all got a happier ending than the one Shakespeare wrote for them, set to a soundtrack of Elton John songs.

Cut to: the May long weekend, 2018. Jay and Sean are in the mood to kick off the summer in style, so they drive to the nearest open drive-in, which is playing a TRIPLE feature which we only realize in retrospect was a night of sequels: Sherlock Gnomes, Deadpool 2, and Super Troopers 2 (in order of how they played, and how much I enjoyed them).

As you may have gleaned from the title, instead of revisiting Shakespeare, this time the gnomes tackle Arthur Conan Doyle. London is being terrorized by a garden gnome thief, MV5BM2RhOTI1YjktOGYwMS00MDdkLTg0MWYtNGIxNmRkMWM4NDI5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODEyMzI2OTE@._V1_which may sound petty to you, but if all your friends and family are gnomes, you’d understand why Gnomeo and Juliet are so concerned. Luckily London is also home to the kind of taste-makers likely to have literary garden gnomes in their flower beds, so a ceramic version of Sherlock himself (and his ceramic sidekick Watson) show up to solve the crime and save the day.

I liked Gnomeo and Juliet in a “just fine” kind of way, and was surprised to find that a sequel, 7 years after the first, was to be released. I wasn’t even sure if it was a sequel. The first had big names as voice actors – Maggie Smith, Michael Caine, and Emily Blunt and James McAvoy in the titular roles. I assumed they couldn’t possibly be back for a sequel with little to no promotion, and yet they were, in addition to Johnny Depp as the master detective and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the beleaguered Doctor Watson.

The thing is, this movie is once again strictly fine. But it doesn’t have much raison d’etre. It doesn’t aim for much more than kid appeal, which makes its sporadic attempts at literary humour feel out of place. It’s hard to believe that a movie, and in fact two movies, were green-lit specially for the crowd (which I need to believe is pretty small) who find garden gnomes wearing thongs to be hilarious, and movies based on that one running joke to be oddly satisfying.

I didn’t really love this movie, but then I saw Super Troopers 2 and realized that I could probably find just a little bit of leniency for any movie that wasn’t it.

Secret In Their Eyes

Thirteen years ago, Detective Jessica Cobb’s daughter was found murdered in a dumpster on a case she was working on. Her close friend and colleague Ray was the one to find her. There’s no good way to break that news to a mother, and there was no way to stop Jess from climbing into that dirty dumpster to cradle her daughter’s dead body. The case was mishandled and the killer never found, mostly because her body was discovered outside a mosque in the months following 9\11 and counter-terrorism took precedence over murder investigations. This group of detectives, once close-knit, is ripped apart at the seams from the grief and the guilt.

Cut to: thirteen years later, Jess (Julia Roberts) and Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) meet up again, in the office of a new supervisor, Claire (Nicole Kidman). Ray has some news: he thinks SITE_030515_182.CR2he’s found the culprit. 696 000 caucasian male inmates in American prisons every year; if you look at 1906 faces every night, you can cycle through the entire population in a year. Ray has done this for 13 years and finally has a bite. That’s just to let you know that it may be Jess’s kid who died, but it’s haunted Ray too. They haven’t kept in touch but Ray has never stopped looking. Jess isn’t sure she has the strength to follow the legal channels, but Ray convinces her that under Claire’s direction, things will be different.

This movie is about ghosts, and sacrifice, and justice. It’s a 2015 remake of a 2010 Argentinian movie that probably doesn’t need to exist since the original is so compelling. This one is not quite so complex and yet it’s harder to follow, the jumping back and forth between time lines not quite so clean. But Julia Roberts as a shadow of a woman, contorted with grief, is worth watching (her mother died during production; she returned to work after just 5 days), and so is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who brings a lot of grit and empathy to the role. Nicole Kidman even has a scene in which she’ll suck the air right out of the room. They’re great, and at times they elevate the material, but this movie lacks the thrill part of a thriller. There’s no real suspense generated, it just sort of feels like we’re waiting, and it’s the gloomiest waiting room you’ve ever spent 111 minutes in. Is the ending worth it? Well, I’ll tell you this: there is no happy ending when a mother’s only child is raped and murdered.

 

Doctor Strange

strangeMarvel did it again.  They took another obscure supporting character, built a movie around him, and made me eager to see his next appearance in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.  This time, that obscure character was Doctor Strange, Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme.

Anyone who’s read Marvel comics even sporadically knows who Doctor Strange is, because every so often he’d randomly pop up in your favourite hero’s comic to provide assistance or a few words of wisdom or encouragement.  As you may already know, my favourite hero was (and is) Spider-Man, and every ten issues or so I could count on Doctor Strange appearing through a portal, sticking around for 10-12 panels to move the story along, and then exiting as quickly as he entered.

strange-2But in this movie, because Doctor Strange is the star, we get to follow him through those portals and see what happens next from his perspective.  And it’s a hell of a ride.  Naturally, I could have done without the origin story but fortunately it’s injected with a welcome dose of humour that makes it speed by.  It helps that the opening scene features a battle that will leave the viewer wanting more and provides purpose and urgency to Strange’s magical training.

The special effects are spectacular and the visuals are glorious in IMAX 3D, just as last month’s sneak peek led me to believe.  It’s probably also tolerable in regular 3D or god forbid, stupid boring flat 2D, but I’ll never know, at least not until the movie comes to Netflix and I half-watch it while folding laundry.

The icing on the cake is that Marvel has assembled some first rate on-screen talent to supplement those trippy visuals, led by the Doctor himself, Benedict Cumberbatch, who is perfectly cast and does his usual baritone voice/good acting thing featuring a solid American accent.  If only I could do a British accent half as well (preferably cockney but I’m really not picky). Taking in a few more episodes of Sherlock can only help, right?

Add some Canadian flavour in Rachel McAdams, doing her regular accent as far as I know (honestly, if we don’t say “about” can you even tell we’re not American?), and a few more Brits in Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tilda Swinton (also both doing American accents even though their characters are worldly people currently living in Nepal), and by my count you’ve got one Oscar winner and three other Oscar nominees, whose talents really help sell silly comic words like Agamotto and Dormammu.  We’ve come a long way since the Stallone-Schneider superteam in Judge Dredd!

Doctor Strange is pure comic book joy.  It’s a welcome November blockbuster that will keep you entertained from start to finish.  I give it a score of nine spiritual goatees out of ten.

Doctor Strange: IMAX 3D Sneak Peek

Last night I got to see what amounted to an extended trailer for Doctor Strange, in IMAX 3D.  At one time not too long ago, 3D movies were a real draw to me.  I remember dragging Jay to several 3D re-releases of movies we’d seen a million times before (but only in boring old 2D).  After intensive therapy (mainly arm punches from Jay), I’m mostly over that phase.

strangeeye

Nowadays, I usually see movies without the dopey extra glasses, but after last night’s sneak peek I am convinced that I should see Doctor Strange in 3D, punching be damned.  The visuals are trippy enough to live up to Steve Ditko’s acid trip 60s backgrounds, depicting all the crazy dimensions that Doctor Strange passed through on his adventures, and that’s a high bar!

The preview’s centrepiece was an absolutely incredible city chase sequence, with gravity changing constantly, New York City collapsing onto itself, and destruction raining down on all sides as copies of buildings collide with each other.   Other scenes included nightmare dimensions full of grabby baby hands, fractal patterns expanding and contracting as Doctor Strange plummets through them, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t even begin to describe.  doctor-strange-comic

Marvel has done a great job of translating its characters to the screen while retaining the soul of the comic, particularly for second tier characters (with Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy being the best examples).  Doctor Strange seems set to follow that same path and with those other movies having paved the way, seems destined to depart at least a bit from the tried and true formula that we have seen way too often.

Whether the movie actually ends up being worthwhile is yet to be determined, but with a stellar cast (including Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mads Mikkelson), an hour of IMAX-specific footage, the report that Marvel had to adapt the visuals to make the 2D version make sense, and the amazing effects in the preview, IMAX 3D is the clear platform of choice to view Doctor Strange’s adventures when the film opens November 4th.