The Lion King *** (Pictured Above)
The trouble with Disney's live-action remakes of its classic animated films has always been a simple one: Each has lacked, through no fault of its creators, the initial spark of genius that infused the original works. There's a unique energy that is born of audacity, and it's evident in every frame of films like Dumbo, The Little Mermaid, and, yes, The Lion King: a cartoon that combined elements of Shakespeare's Hamlet with a particularly violent episode of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. On the heels of Disney's recent Dumbo debacle, the studio had nowhere to go but up with its Lion King remake, and this new version of the 1994 movie offers an undeniably lush vision. But technological wonders only get you so far, and the film ends up not so much a re-imagining of the first take as a lavish hack job. I'm happy to report James Earl Jones is back to lend his rolling tones to the voice of Mufasa — but as much as I like Billy Eichner, this update gets nothing but raspberries for failing to bring back the great Nathan Lane as Timon.
Yesterday **** (Pictured Above)
Nearly sixty years after they burst onto the scene in the early 1960s, the music of The Beatles is the stuff of elevator music and supermarket soundtracks. Director Danny Boyle's new musical fantasy takes advantage of that universal familiarity with the group's songs, but it also captures something that those of us who were around in those days have all but forgotten: The sheer exhilaration of discovering The Beatles. Himesh Patel plays Jack, a struggling British musician who wakes up one day to realize he's the only person in the world who remembers The Beatles, or any of their songs. As he strums out tunes like "Yesterday" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand" — first for his friends, then for an ever-growing audience — he is hailed as the greatest singer-songwriter of all time. Pulling off a conceit like that would be a high wire act for any filmmaker, but Boyle wisely doesn't dwell on any sort of explanation for this surreal case of global amnesia (a delightful running joke has Jack casually discovering a selection of other things missing from this alternate reality). Instead, he lets his appealing cast, and more than a dozen timeless songs, sweep us along with the whimsical narrative. Jack does need to deal with conflicting pangs of guilt over making his fortune on the shoulders of others — but some sly musical references note that pop music has been doing just that ever since John Lennon and Paul McCartney first started jamming together. A poignant episode near the end drives home the film's familiar but timeless message: There's a price to be paid for getting everything you ever wanted.
Through sheer determination — often of the most reckless kind — 24-year-old Tracy Edward in 1989 became skipper of the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Round The World Race (now known as the Volvo Ocean Race). Through old home movies, director Alex Holmes introduces us to Edwards as a surly, rebellious teenager who escaped a troubled home life by becoming a cook on private yachts. An aimless existence seemed guaranteed for her until, inspired by a chance meeting with King Hussein of Jordan, Edwards became obsessed with the notion of showing the male-dominated world of yacht racing that women could do a lot more than rustle up grub for macho sailor men. The rampant sexism of the era is reflected in news clips (“How will they avoid cat fights?”) and in the dismissive comments of male counterparts. That condescending tone barely softens even after the crew survives a harrowing passage near Antarctica, but the women mostly refuse to take the bait: They plug along, eyes on the horizon, through seas both smooth and scary. Edwards and her cohorts, interviewed for the film and looking ready to set sail again on a moment’s notice, provide the film’s heartfelt narration.
Toy Story 4 ****
Toy Story 3 was such a perfect wrap-up of what we all assumed was a trilogy, it's hard not to on some level resent the appearance of a fourth installment. Yes, it's nice to spend another hour and a half with Woody and Buzz & Co., and Pixar's mastery of computer animation continues to push the boundaries of the miraculous. But there's an air of desperation here, especially in the frayed storyline, which spins off in too many directions with no clear destination — a radical departure from most Pixar films, which are models of streamlined storytelling. First we find Woody stashing himself in the backpack of the toy gang's new owner, a little girl named Bonnie, as she heads of for her first day of Kindergarten. There she creates a new "toy" — really just some googly eyes pasted on a spork and a pair of pipe cleaner arms. Delightfully voiced by Tony Hale (Veep), Forky would have been a perfectly sufficient focus for the film as he learns that even though he's trash, he's loved by a little girl, and that's enough. But no, soon we're off on a road trip in a motor home, and through some incredible coincidence Woody happens to spot Bo Peep, his old flame from the original Toy Story, in an antique store. But that reunion only leads to a dark tale of a creepy talking antique doll who rules over a small army of hideous ventriloquist dummies. Then there's a made chase through a carnival, etc. etc. The whole thing resembles an explosion in a writers' room — yet there's no denying the moments of visual bliss, and the endearing qualities of the characters, old and new.
Dumbo ** (Pictured Above)
The biggest problem with Disney’s live-action remake of its animated classic Dumbo is as plain as the trunk on your face: It’s just no fun. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could suck all the whimsy out of a story that involves an adorable baby elephant who, urged on by his little mouse friend, discovers he can fly by flapping his enormous ears. But Tim Burton, the man who made Batman a brooder and Willy Wonka a weirdo, has managed the trick. First of all, this Dumbo’s world is dark. Gotham City dark. Even the opening scenes, set at the circus’ winter home in Florida, seem to be lit with a 15-watt bulb. Then there are the morose brother and sister, who in this version sub for the original’s perky mouse as Dumbo’s friends. Their mother has just died in the 1918 flu epidemic, and their father (Colin Farrell), who apparently has not smiled since the Titanic sank, has just returned from World War I minus one arm. Baby Dumbo is revealed cowering under a bale of hay only after a cruel animal handler prods his mother from her shabby rail car using a harpoon-like prodder, and within minutes she is torn from him for good, jailed as a “Mad Elephant.” Before long she is sold to a sadistic animal trainer as big tears fall from Dumbo’s enormous blue eyes. Are we having fun yet? (FULL REVIEW)
Murder Mystery ***
It appears someone invited Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler to spend a few weeks in Monaco and Italy, and all they had to do in return was step in front of some cameras once in awhile and pretend to be a working class New York couple who get caught up in an implausible jet-set murder case. And that's not a bad trade-off, because the two are clearly having a ball in Murder Mystery. The film's creators clearly put as much thought into the title as they did the plot, which wants to evoke Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express when it's really a lot closer to Neil Simon's Murder By Death. Still, there is enormous fun to be had in the company of two engaging stars, and the backgrounds are to die for. On Netflix.
Ice On Fire ****
The title of this thought-provoking climate change documentary comes from a truly bizarre scene in which researchers punch holes in the ice on an Arctic lake, strike a match — and jump back as five-foot-high jets of flame shoot into the air. It's methane gas, released from the lake floor as the Arctic's permafrost thaws. But after an hour or so of the usual gloom-and-doom about the environment, director Leila Connors does something unexpected: She presents us with a checklist of ways the climate can be saved — and, indeed, how scientists and industry are right now pushing back against rising temperatures. Leonardo DiCaprio provides the heartfelt narration. On HBO
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote ***
Terry Gilliam spent 25 years trying to realize his vision of a modern-day Don Quixote still fighting windmills across the rugged landscape of Spain. The final product is, if not a masterpiece on a par with his earlier classics (Brazil, Time Bandits), it’s a story well-told by a superb cast. Adam Driver stars as a TV commercial director named Toby who, through a series of mishaps, finds himself in the company of an old man (Jonathan Pryce) who is convinced he is the legendary Don Quixote. There’s much adventure and misunderstanding, and a few spectacular set pieces that recall Gilliam’s glory days as Hollywood’s most visionary director.
The Man Who Laughs (1928) ****
Fresh from the success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Universal Pictures turned to another Victor Hugo classic, The Man Who Laughs — the dark, at times nightmarish tale of a man (Conrad Veidt) cursed with a permanent, grotesque grin after being hideously disfigured as a child. Veidt is heartbreaking as the man in question; Mary Philbin transcends the histrionic conventions of silent screen acting to create a touching portrait of the blind woman who loves him. German director Paul Leni creates the last great Expressionistic film with angles, lighting, and dreamlike camera movement crisply preserved in this Flicker Alley restoration. The original film score, added for a 1928 release, is offered as a bonus, but the new music from the Berklee School of Music orchestra brings a fresh vibrance to the 92-year-old film.
The Truth About Killer Robots ***
This documentary exploring the implications of increasing autonomy in manufacturing, information, and service industries means to alarm us. But it slips into “The automobile killed the buggy whip industry” category — and the “humanoid” robots we are asked to resent seem barely a generation beyond Walt Disney’s audio animatronic Abe Lincoln. Streaming On HBO
If you’re going to remake a classic film, fine. Just give me a reason…one good reason…to do it. Maybe the old film's story has new resonance for a modern generation, as happened with Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Maybe, like the Cohen Brothers felt with True Grit, a filmmaker wants to create a version closer to the original source material. Or perhaps the film's characters benefit from being re-imagined in a different place and time, as Martin Scorsese proved with Scarface. But if the one and only reason you’re remaking a movie is to squeeze more money from the franchise, then count me out. And the CGI-addled Aladdin — bloated to a half-hour in length beyond the original and performed with all the understatement of a middle-school production — reeks of Disney’s moneychangers cynically cashing in their chips. Kids will have fun at Aladdin, but kids are easy to please, and Disney knows that all too well.
All Is True ****
The last days of William Shakespeare have always been clouded in mystery. In the intriguing drama All is True, director/star Kenneth Branagh engages in some heavy speculation as to how the Bard came to shed his mortal coil. We find 51-year-old Will (Branagh, looking uncannily Shakespeare-like) puttering in his garden in 1616, turning away admirers and still grieving over the long-ago death of his young son Hamnet. He does still have two grown daughters (Kathryn Wilder and Lydia Wilson), but they’re not much comfort to him — nor is his long-suffering wife Anne (Judi Dench). You’d expect the script — by longtime Mr. Bean writer Ben Elton — to be a bit wittier, if not madcap. But as director, Branagh walks us through the story with the patience of a gardener pointing out his favorite flowers — in this case a series of sterling performances, especially by Ian McKellan as an old friend who drops by to trade recitations of Will’s sonnets. All is True may or may not be true, but as the immortal words roll off these two masters’ tongues, the authenticity of Shakespeare’s genius is unmistakable.
The story of a massive space ship thrown off course while shuttling thousands of Earthlings to Mars is a haunting and harrowing meditation on the course of civilization. Swedish co-writer/co-directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja set their story on Aniara, the ultimate cruise ship, where passengers alternate between gorging at all-you-can-eat restaurants and shopping at high-end boutiques. Even after disaster strikes, that instinct for accumulation dies hard as the passengers, beyond any hope of rescue, continue to consume the ship’s limited resources. Yes, the themes of Earthly despoliation lurk behind a veil as wispy as a nebula (the captain comments, “We’ve created our own little planet”) — but the film’s fantastic vision and utterly committed cast make this one unforgettable cruise. It’s a one-way trip, of course, ending on a note that there’s always hope for life — if not necessarily life from Earth.
Ask Dr. Ruth ****
For most of us, sex expert Dr. Ruth Westheimer was born the day she ambled onto the set of Late Night With David Letterman in the early 1980s. But by then she’d already lead a remarkable life: Born in Germany, she was sent to live at a Swiss orphanage for Jewish children, one step ahead of the Holocaust that eventually killed both her parents. Shipped off to Palestine after the war, she trained as a sniper to defend her kibbutz against armed Arabs. She married and moved to Paris, where the Sorbonne offered scholarships to young Jewish people who’d been deprived education by the Nazis. Then it was off to New York, a degree in psychology, a stint at Planned Parenthood — and then, because no one else in her office was willing to do it, a gig hosting a weekly 15-minute midnight radio show focusing on sexuality. The rest, as they say, is history, and director Ryan White (Good Ol’ Freda) pretty much sits back and lets his chatty subject fill in the blanks. There’s no better company than the 90-year-old professor, largely because she stubbornly sticks to her upbeat persona — refusing to reflect on the tragedies of her life. That makes for fun conversation, but in the end you get the nagging feeling that there are some things Dr. Ruth won’t discuss, no matter how many times you ask.
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché ****
The men of Hollywood would just as soon you never hear this, but the first person to direct a narrative film was a woman: Alice Guy-Blaché of Paris. Prior to Alice’s arrival, the movie guys — most notably the Lumiere Brothers — only trained their cameras on street scenes. And for audiences, it was quite enough to watch a steam train pull into a station, or a shift of workers exit their factory. But Guy-Blaché, who was working as the secretary to the owner of a camera company, wanted to try storytelling with the camera. In 1895 she got her boss to lend her one — and for the next decade, she was not only perhaps the only female filmmaker in the world, she was a restless innovator. In her 1,000-plus films, she experimented with sound, color tinting, interracial casts and special effects. Jodie Foster narrates this illuminating documentary about history’s most important unknown filmmaker.
Charlie Says ***
Fifty years after Charles Manson’s “family” traumatized the world with the Tate/LaBianca murders, director Mary Haron (I Shot Andy Warhol) has found a surprisingly relevant way to revisit the grisly events: Through the eyes of the women Manson somehow hypnotized into carrying out the slaughter. Set three years after the 1969 murders, the film follows a graduate student (Nurse Jackie’s Merritt Wever) who’s been assigned to teach women’s studies classes to three of Manson’s former acolytes, now serving life sentences in a California prison. The women — Leslie Van Houten (Game of Thrones’Hannnah Murray) Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) — are still blindly devoted to “Charlie.” But the instructor is determined open their eyes to the awful implications of what they’ve done — even if that means shattering their blissful delusions and dooming them to a lifetime of crippling guilt. Former Dr. Who star Matt Smith seems an odd choice to play Charlie in the film’s difficult-to-watch flashbacks, but he admirably avoids revisiting the over-the-top Manson portrayals we’ve become used to. Smith’s Manson is disarmingly gentle and alarmingly reassuring as he woos these aimless young women into his orbit — and even when his black hole of evil becomes evident, this Manson remains undeniably charismatic.
The Fall Of The American Empire ***
With a title like The Fall of the American Empire, you’d expect Oscar-winning writer/director Denys Arcand’s drama to be sweeping in scope. Instead, it’s the finely focused tale of a meek deliveryman who stumbles upon millions of dollars following a botched robbery. Arcand, who’s Canadian, seems to want to say a lot about the chasm between the rich and the poor, and about redistribution of wealth. But his message gets tangled in a loopy plot in which everyone seems to make all the wrong choices at all the wrong times.
For the Birds ****
Richard Miron spent years filming the twisting, tortured story of Kathy Murphy, a woman who could never have enough ducks, chickens, roosters, and turkeys squawking around. When we meet Kathy and her long-suffering husband Gary, their Upstate New York trailer home has become a glorified coop for some 200 flapping, fighting, defecating fowl. “You have to have something that you believe in,” she explains, sitting in the trailer — the smell of which we can only, thankfully, imagine. “Something that gets you up in the morning.” Soon some very nice people from a animal control and a local animal preserve arrive. Miron follows the ensuing legal tussle, casting a sympathetic eye on one and all — especially Kathy’s husband. Eventually Kathy comes to terms not only with the prospect of losing her beloved birds, but also the support of the man she married. In time, the couple’s unfolding personal tragedy begins to eclipse the avian apocalypse that precipitated it.
Framing John DeLorean ***
The two directors and two writers who concocted this hybrid documentary/drama about the notorious 1980s auto hustler John DeLorean deserve marks for trying something different. On one hand they piece together DeLorean’s story through plentiful clips and compelling interviews with coworkers, friends and family. On the other, they dramatize the most pivotal moments, with Alec Baldwin playing DeLorean and Gotham’s Morena Baccarin as his third wife, supermodel Cristina Ferrare. So far so good, but there’s a third hand at play here: Much time is spent with Baldwin, getting in and out of makeup and standing around the set, holding forth on his views about DeLorean (although they never met) and how he makes his decisions on how to play him. That’s one hand too many, and the film gets pretty muddied as it flits among the three elements. One other needless distraction: The talking heads spend much time lamenting the fact that no one has yet made a feature film about John DeLorean, which is demonstrably wrong: Driven, with Lee Pace nailing the part, opened at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall.
Men In Black: International **
Nothing to see here — at least nothing that you haven't seen before. The creators of this cops-and-aliens sequel mistakenly feel the franchise is built on flashy weapons and grotesque CGI spacemen. The real appeal was the chemistry between hip Will Smith and his hangdog, world-weary partner Tommy Lee Jones. Stars Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth are appealing, but they, like us, seem somewhat numbed by the clamitous freak show surrounding them.
Meeting Gorbachev ****
You know ‘80s nostalgia has really kicked in when you find yourself at a documentary about the Soviet Union’s last president — and sort of longing for the good old days of the Evil Empire. Warner Herzog is an amiable interviewer, sitting down with the then 85-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev, who has lost none of the jovial bonhomme that endeared him to his countrymen as well as his geopolitical rival Ronald Reagan. Most striking is footage of the “young” 53-year-old Gorbachev taking his place on the Politboro, a human dynamo compared to the decrepit old men flanking him. It soon becomes clear he will be elevated to the top spot if only because he probably won’t die in the next year or two.
Two actresses — Amy Nostbakken and Nora Savada — share the role Cassandra, a 30-year-old woman who has just lost her mother. They play two sides of Cassandra's psyche, which are often at odds with each other. It’s a terrific conceit that starts out a little gimmicky, but by the end the performances become seamless, exploring the daily dialogues we have with ourselves. Director Patricia Rozema masterfully spins a web of plausibility around an outrageous premise.
The Perfection ****
Director/cowriter Richard Shepard (Matador, Girls) borrows from all the right people in this mind-bending thriller about two young cello players (Allison Williams and Logan Browning) whose common bond is an unhealthy history with their musical mentor (Steven Weber). You'll hear and see echoes of Jordan Peele's Get Out, David Cronenberg's Crash, Todd Browning's Freaks and even Hitchcock's Vertigo. But mostly you'll be riveted to a Grand Guignol tale of smart, talented women who go to unhealthy — if necessary — extremes to break free of a male-dominated culture. It's #MeToo meets #You'reNext. On Netflix.
The Quiet One **** (Pictured Above)
The Rolling Stones were the Bad Boys of the British Invasion, but while Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Keith Richards cranked up the sexual energy onstage and fueled their happy hedonism with drugs and booze, off to the side stood tall, serene Bill Wyman, plucking away at his bass guitar, staring off into the distance beyond the screaming fans, and heading home to his country house where he doted on his young son. That, at least, is the narrative posited by this music-packed documentary that draws upon Wyman’s exhaustive collection of home movies, interviews, and concert footage amassed during his 31 years as a Stone (he retired from the band in 1993).
We find him in the present day, hunched over a computer screen scanning old photos, surrounded by shelves of cameras, props, costumes, and gold records. Wyman is an amiable tour guide through the Stones’ story, and he comes off very much like a kindly grandfather regaling his grandkids with outrageous war stories. There’s rock-and-roll bombast aplenty in the film, but the best moment is one of the quietest, when Wyman tries to tell about the night his hero, Ray Charles, invited him to play bass on his next record. “I turned him down,” says Wyman, fairly bursting into tears. “I told him, ‘I’m not good enough.’”
Red Joan ****
Those who head for Red Joan looking for a star turn by Judi Dench can be forgiven for feeling they’re victims of a bait and switch: Dame Judi serves mostly as a framing device for a political drama in which her character’s younger self is played by Sophie Cookson (Kingsman). The pair share the role of a British civil servant who in the opening moments is arrested by the government at age 87, whisked off to an interrogation room, and accused of passing nuclear bomb secrets to the Soviets in the 1950s. It’s a true story — although for some reason the character’s real name has been changed from Melita Norwood to Joan Stanley. Dench’s Joan is wonderfully befuddled at the outset — or is she? Through flashbacks, director Trevor Nunn carefully lays out the story of how — and why — Joan betrayed her country while convincing herself she was serving it.
Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service) is transcendent as Elton John in this lush musical biography. The early 1970s trappings are gritty, and the film earns its R rating with healthy portions of drugs and sex. But director Dexter Fletcher (who anonymously directed much of Bohemian Rhapsody) has a surprisingly (and refreshingly) old-fashioned take on the musical genre. His film echoes All That Jazz, West Side Story, and even Oliver! The cast is uniformly perfect, especially Jamie Bell as Elton's lyricist — and unrequited love — Bernie Taupin, Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh as Elton's good-for-nothing parents, and angelic Matthew Illesley as young Elton.
In a season of sequels, here's one that gets the concept right. We get three Shafts for the price of one. There's Young John Shaft (Jessie T. Usher), the nonviolent son of detective John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson), the hard-hitting son of the legendary John Shaft Sr. (Richard Roundtree — the guy who way back in 1971 first appeared as "the cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about"). The plot is boilerplate chase-down-the-bad-guys action, but along the way Shaft takes the time to explore matters of family, values, and just how much the world has changed since Richard Nixon was President.
A strong central performance from Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy) can't breathe life into this by-the-numbers telling of the formative years of J.R.R. Tolkien, whose traumatic experience during World War I gave rise to the fantastic realms he created in his Lord of the Rings books. Superfans of the Middle Earth novels may delight in meeting the real-life figures on which Tolkien based his characters, and the author's romance with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) is sweet, but for better or for worse, a trip to the movies these days demands something more than a Masterpiece Theatre gloss.
We Have Always Lived In The Castle ***
Moody and mysterious, director Stacie Passon’s lovingly crafted thriller about two traumatized sisters and their wheelchair-bound uncle living in the wake of a torturous murder has moments of chilling beauty. Based on a novel by Shirley Jackson (The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House), the film has a decidedly Victorian feel as the main characters move among the delicately furnished rooms of their gabled mansion. The girls’ parents were killed via arsenic, a murder that was initially pinned on the older daughter (luminous Alexandra Daddario), but which could just as easily have been committed by the younger (nerve-wracking Taissa Farmiga). No matter the culprit, the family has been shunned by the nearby townsfolk, who were already predisposed to hate the family because of their wealth. The movie seems to be saying something about class warfare and society’s blind fear of the Other, but mostly it’s a showcase for Passon, her cinematographer Piers McGrail, her two lead actresses — and especially Crispin Glover as the uncle, desperately trying to make sense of the murders before he slips permanently into dementia.
Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation ****
If it’s a performance film about Woodstock you’re looking for, may I refer you to Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning 1970 documentary. Barak Goodman’s new film is something quite different, aiming to get to the heart of that August 1969 weekend when Max Yasgur’s dairy farm became Ground Zero for the Boomers’ self-identification as the Love ‘em All, Do Your Own Thing Generation. Drawing from hours of home movies, vintage photos and interviews with folks who were there — whether standing on that rain-swept stage or cheering from Woodstock’s muddy trenches — this is a compelling portrait of what it was like to be there, and what it all meant.
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