THE LION KING: Disney Another Step Into The Uncanny Valley

Say what you like about Disney: but they get a plan and they stick to it.

Starting with 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, the House of Mouse has been releasing a steady stream of ‘live-action’ adaptation of some of its most beloved animated classics. The sarcastic quotation marks are needed because many of these film have been less ‘live-action’ and more a smorgasbord of CGI. Whilst you could arguably level the same criticism against most mainstream action or sci-fi tentpole these days, the distinction becomes a lot more apparent when watching their latest triumph of digital wizardry: a near shot for shot remake of the 1994 hit, The Lion King.

The original Lion King was heralded as Disney’s return to mainstream culture after a long dry-patch which had seen them make a number of ill-fated stabs at live-action cinema (real live-action this time). The winning combination of the studio’s iconic hand-drawn animation, an exciting untapped setting and the music of Elton John led the original film to a huge box-office campaign, not mention a home video run which would see it solidifying itself in the hearts and minds of children all over the world.

It’s safe to assume that even before the roaring success of Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book adaptation, a Lion King remake was always on the cards and given the general goodwill that the former film received it makes sense that this new remake should be helmed by the same man. The same uncanny attention to detail has been paid to the character models here and, married with Favreau’s nifty VR camerawork, you’d be forgiven for mistaking these 1s and 0s for the real thing if it weren’t for all that pesky dialogue and awkward blocking.

As I mentioned, The Lion King is a near shot for shot remake of the original. Sure, some songs have been given a trim, Timon and Pumba’s relationship has been reformulated as a cypher for a modern queer relationship and one of the villainous hyenas have been given a touch more character treatment – but the film’s emotional beats remain unchanged from the original. You can hardly blame the writers for playing it safe. When you’re working with such a successful blueprint, not to mention the weight of expectation from fans of all ages who will want to see their beloved nostalgia soaked memories treated with respect, it must be difficult to put forward any new ideas.

So we look to the blisteringly real animation and the voice of Beyonce and Donald Glover to reinvigorate interest, but that’s where the film falls flat. Glover, usually an energetic present, is dialling in this work and although Beyonce is bringing her usual A-game to the tunes, she’s not a convincing voice actor and there are moments when you’ll find her delivery cringe worthy.

Critically, The Lion King has under-performed massively falling well short of the high bar set by The Jungle Book and even garnering less positive reviews than the criminally underwatched Pete’s Dragon remake. Disney won’t mind though. Currently the film ranks as the 9th top grossing film worldwide ever and, not even 5 weeks out the gate, it’s not difficult to imagine it climbing higher still. Only time will tell if audiences keep responding positively to more spoon- fed nostalgia, but with six more live action remakes in production and more still in development, Disney aren’t stopping to find out.

WIDOWS: Steve McQueen Surveys Modern Chicago

As far as left turns go Steve McQueen’s Widows is fairly considerable.

Although the screenwriter and director garnered international acclaim for motion pictures such as Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave he had been working in the arts for fifteen years prior to this. McQueen’s background had always been in the arts, working as a celebrate visual artist for years before taking the step to direct his first feature in 2008, Shame. That first film was acclaimed for taking an unflinching look at the 1981 Irish hunger strike and garnered McQueen his first award in the shape of the Camera d’Or, the first British director to do so. No digital marketing agency could have done a better job than this in raising the director’s profile.

This kick-started the director’s film career and led to the successful financing and production of the aforementioned titles. Although his first films are certainly impressive works, their subject matter is of such grave import that they can hardly be seen as ‘entertainment’ in the broad sense of the word. With Widows, McQueen makes ‘entertainment’ his primary ambition, whilst still making some important social commentary – a feat that should have by-the-books genre directors simultaneously looking over their shoulders and taking notes.

Jennifer Lawrence was initially eyed for the lead role, but had to decline due to scheduling conflicts, although this will have no doubt effected the film’s bottom line (as of writing the $42m production has made just over $19.5m after its opening weekend in the US), casting Viola Davis in any motion picture is, and always will be, a good sign. Davis plays Veronica Rawlings, the wife of a career criminal who is left widowed and owing millions of dollars to a crime boss (Brian Tyree Henry) who has plans to work his way into local government. All Veronica has to help her is her husband’s driver, three other threatened women, a notebook full of heist plans…and an adorable dog. Davis’ performance is another masterclass in stoicism, her co-conspirators even comment on her ‘bitch face’, but through a series of well-handled flashbacks featuring a restrained Liam Neeson, we get to understand why Veronica is this way.

McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) offer this same lucidity to pretty much the entire ensemble cast of Widows, offering us real insights into the motivations behind their dubious moral actions. Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall clash as a land surveyor turned politician and his domineering Father, although these characters are initially set up as antagonists to our heroines, their relationship humanises them and paints them in shades of moral greys – something that a conventional thriller of this ilk would not usually care to do. The fact that McQueen and co. manage to cram in so much meaty character development, as well as tell a thrilling heist story that subverts expectations, should send a clear signal to Hollywood that genre exercises can be more than just the sum of their parts.

We’ll have to wait to see if McQueen chooses to continue this journey into commercial cinema, but Widows certainly makes for a promising start.

SCI-FI FOCUS: Apocalyptic Visions

It’s the end of the world as we know it…

When Steven Spielberg brought Jaws to cinema screens in 1975, it didn’t take audiences a leap of the imagination to fear the eponymous shark.

The combination of big sharp teeth and a taste for human flesh was more than enough to get audiences’ pulses racing, but in the years following film-makers have been positioning a different kind of threat to mankind…

I’ve always had a bit of a soft-spot for apocalyptic movies, the ones where the world has ended and all that remains is a sun-scorched earth and a horde of raving lunatics. Movies like the Mad Max series spark my imagination and make me wonder if the world is really going to end up like that. Of course, whilst these movies are always a good laugh, it’s sometimes even more interesting to explore how these worlds get to this point. ‘The end of the world’ is often positioned as the final gambit by super-villains, but in these movies, the end of the world is very much in progress and protagonists are tasked with simply surviving…

The Day After Tomorrow


Only Roland Emmerich could enact the apocalypse as enacted by the environment as viscerally, whilst also telling the story of a Father searching for his son, whilst also telling the story of the son trying to sleep with a school crush, whilst telling the story of British climate scientists stuck in a bunker, whilst also telling the story of a plucky homeless guy and his dog. Believe it or not there are more moving parts in this fit to bursting environmental disaster picture and whilst it’s doubtful Al Gore would have approved of the dramatic fashion with which climate change was treated, at least the word was getting out there!

The Happening


One day you’re spraying your home with Japanese knotweed killer from Knotweed Help, the next day the planet is coming after you! M. Night Shymalan’s much-maligned effort from 2008 was perhaps rightly criticised for being a tonally misjudged, campy mess, but somehow it’s one that I keep returning to. Mark Whalberg plays a science teacher (yes – you read that correctly) who flees the city with his wife, accompanied by his colleague (Joe Leguizamo, much more believable as a teacher) and his daughter. There is no discernible threat in The Happening, so when ordinary folks start launching themselves off buildings and hanging themselves en masse, it’s suggested that something invisible is looking to off the entire human race.

Interstellar


The world is in the process of dying in Chris Nolan’s sci-fi monster Interstellar and it’s up to Matthew McConaughey to sort it out – well kind of. This is a movie that is as much about ‘saving the world for future generations’ as it is about time-travelling, absent parenting and giant planets that are wholly comprised of water. There are some pretty big weighty themes in this movie, not to mention some mind-bending concepts that might have you reaching for Wikipedia, however the cast is uniformly excellent and the emotional payoff, not to mention the timely environmental message, are totally worth the wait.

GOOD TIME: Psychoactive Noir Nightmare

You really have to take your hat off to Robert Pattinson, there are few young actors who have managed to so effectively escape their past lives.

Pattinson first broke out starring as brooding vampire Edward Cullen in the Twilight film series, the first Young Adult adaptation to gain traction after the success of Harry Potter. Whilst the Twilight films lacked the level of class that Britain’s favourite boy-wizard conjured, the films nonetheless gave a platform for its young stars, launching Pattinson’s career, not to mention that of Kristen Stewart’s and Anna Kendrick’s.

Much like his male lead counterpart in the PotterVerse Robert Pattinson has spent his time post-franchise trying to escape the shadow cast by his former teenage heart-throb self. Unlike Daniel Radcliffe (who has appeared in a series of frequently middling independent films since finishing with Potter), Pattinson, with his angular features and trademark brooding eyes, has been able to attract all manner of venerable film-makers such as David Cronenburg, Werner Herzog, James Gray and now, the enigmatic Safdie Brothers.

In Good Time we see the young actor in perhaps his most unhinged, psychopathic role yet – in many ways a reversal on his despicable yuppie in Cosmopolis. Connie Nikas is similarly loathsome, but comes from a different world altogether, his world is the grimy streets of Brooklyn which is wonderfully realised by the directing team through a myriad of adhoc camera angles and a throbbing psuedo-chill wave soundtrack from Oneohtrix Point Never.

Connie is a pathological liar and ill-prepared criminal, his every action is a reaction to a world that is consistently presenting him with new problems that are, ultimately, of his own making. His brother has developmental issues and Connie feels like he’s the person to help him, rather than the trained therapist we see at the start of the picture. After breaking his brother out of a well-meaning session, the brothers embark on an oafish robbery which results in Nick (Benny Safdie) being imprisoned, leaving Connie with the task of raising several thousands of dollars for his bail, whilst also running from the law.

Perhaps one of the greatest achievements in Good Time, is the hyper-realistic portrayal of Brooklyn. Everything from pedestrian filled shopping malls, to the hospitals and sidewalks is rendered at street level and whilst a neon-glare pulses throughout the film, it never once feels artificial. It’s the juxtaposition between this realistic portrayal and the surreal twists in the story that makes Good Time worth watching. The Safdie brothers have never been afraid of hiring little known character actors, or simply pulling performers off the streets, so the fact that they’ve represented Brooklyn so clearly is of no surprise. That they’ve been able to pair their own brand of gutter-level drama with a genuinely engaging story and compelling lead performance is the real achievement here.

Robert Pattinson has been plugging away for a long time since the end of the Twilight Saga in 2012 and his exemplary performance in Good Time should be more than enough to keep the work offers coming in…

WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE: Meta-Horror Meets Freddy

Wes Craven could be said to have a chequered filmography…

Despite creating some of the most enduring boogeymen and being a key player in the popularisation of the horror movie, his 40-year career was spattered with as many misses as hits, perhaps this is unsurprising considering his unconventional rise to prominence. In Craven’s first three films (The Last House on the Left [1972], The Fireworks Woman [1975] and The Hills Have Eyes [1977]) the young director explored such heady themes as incest and religious oppression, with a side serving of brutal rape and ultra-violence. These early films were incredibly controversial for the time and saw him ostracised from many of his friends and family.

After the relative success of The Hills Have Eyes Craven resigned himself to creating horror films and so began a lucrative, if curiously patchy four decade career that saw him direct dozens of feature-length movies. I can’t claim to have seen all of these movies, nor do I have the desire to watch all of them, however I do have a certain penchant for the Nightmare on Elmstreet series. Freddie Kreuger is a character that has stuck to my imagination since the first time I laid eyes on him at a Halloween sleepover as a young teen. I remember being frightened seeing the VHS cover and being fixated by the haunted eyes of the girl on the cover, I’d never seen an expression like that before and it gave me a real sense of foreboding before we popped the cassette into the machine and I was whisked away to a world of unreal nightmares and hapless teenage victims – I didn’t go to sleep that night.

Since that night I’ve been grimly fascinated with any Nightmare on Elm Street related media, you name it I’ve seen it. There are 9 movies featuring Freddy (including the odd but entertaining Freddy vs. Jason), as well as the horror anthology series Freddy’s Nightmares, they all have their flaws, but one in particular stands out to me as particularly brilliant.

Ten years after releasing the original, Wes Craven returned to his most iconic character putting a discerning meta-theatrical twist on the Elmstreet formula that had been wrung to death over the course of five featured films. In Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the titular director was able to envision Freddy in a much more visceral fashion and also pay homage to his original film, whilst telling a truly emotional story. The film is a wonderfully warped, half-winking nod to the Hollywood studios that Craven knows so well and gives original star Helen Lankenkamp a chance to return to the spotlight, only this time she plays herself.

New Nightmare doesn’t sound good on paper, but it works. The knowing tone of the film might be self-indulgent, but these meta-nods are balanced with some of the best scares and atmospheric set pieces that the series has to its name. Best of all, despite the fact that we know we’re watching a film, we can’t help but care for Helen. Her role as the harried celebrity who fears that she may be falling out of the spotlight was close to reality, by 1994 it had been 5 years since she had featured in a movie. Although she would eventually follow a lucrative career in Special FX artistry, New Nightmare remains a lasting testament to her acting and Craven’s creative mind.

OPINION: Vacationing Through Movies

I can think of no better tourism advertisement for a country than a successful film.

My formal introduction to many foreign countries has been in the form of a stellar film.

Sure, when you’re a kid you’re told about Japan, you’re aware of what it is as a concept, you’ve seen a couple of pictures and maybe your middle-class parents have taken you to Wagamama so you (think) you know what they eat, but at this point Japan may as well be on another planet. You don’t know anyone who’s been there and you might not have even met a Japanese person – the concept is an alien one. Great films don’t just introduce you to characters, they put you in places that you might not have been before and give you an idea of what it’s like to be there. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation was a film that did just this and introduced me to a whole perspective of movie watching.

Midnight in Paris


I’m not a huge Woody Allen fan. Although I understand that he’s made some iconic movies, I’ve often found his authorial voice to be a little overwhelming. Even when he’s not starring in his own picture, he’ll find a male lead to embody his odd foibles and eccentricities. Owen Wilson is Allen’s mouthpiece in Midnight in Paris, a film that manages to satisfy and exceed the expectations that I had of both director and lead, and had me searching for holiday villas in the south of France within moments of finishing the film.

The Darjeeling Limited


I visited India mere months after seeing the The Darjeeling Limited and wasn’t disappointed by the huge wealth of colour, excitement and drama that this beautiful country had to offer, although it’s safe to say that Wes Anderson’s vision of the country differs somewhat to the reality. Wes Anderon’s fourth feature film is by no means his best work, yet it stands out as the beginning of his journey into the fantastical everyday (a trend which would peak with The Grand Budapest Hotel) and clearly intimates his love for the country, as well as its iconic rail system.

The Beach 


Danny Boyle has as many detractors as fans these days, but he can arguably be hailed as the man to bring Thailand’s gorgeous islands to the world’s attention. Whilst The Beach is better remembered as a showcase for fledgling writer Alex Garland (who penned the original novel, as well as the screenplay), Boyle certainly has a knack for framing these Thai islands and made Thailand a must-visit location for teenagers the world over – including me…

In Bruges


This jet black comedy revitalised the career of Colin Farrell (an adorable naif speaking in his native accent) and simultaneously sold indie-film fans around the world to a winter city break in Belgium. Many films have attempted to tackle the subject of hit-men in a comedic way but very succeed in doing so. In Bruges not only makes its protagonists likeable, but it also completely sells the city as a place of cultural beauty, which can be as isolating as it can be romantic.

HEREDITARY: Family Tragedy & Occult Nightmares

The Horror genre has undergone something of a renaissance in the last few years.

Thanks to a number of talented auteurs, industrious producers and questionably motivated money-men, what once was a genre that was solely associated with schlock and gore has now been elevated to something much more cerebral. Of course, the blood spattered exploitation movies are still there, leering from the corner of the room daring you to no be disgusted with the buckets of gore that it throws at its hapless C-list actors. In fact, every movie trend (and horror is a genre that is so often typified by trends) has somehow managed to hold onto dear life, mostly due to their affordability because whilst the films themselves might not always appeal to mainstream audiences, they nonetheless offer a curious investors the chance to turn a quick buck at relatively little expense to themselves.

The best horror films have always been low-budget affairs, relying on atmosphere and suspense to deliver their payoffs rather than eye-popping visual effects and Hereditary certainly plays to those strengths, whilst also providing enough horror-house shocks and genuinely terrifying moments that will leave even die-hard aficionados a little disturbed. As the title suggests, this is a film about family, but it’s also a film about grief, mental illness and how the shortcomings, or strange proclivities of our parents can lead to us inheriting more than just their genes.

The wonderful Toni Collette brings her highly emotional A-game as not-so bereaved mother of two, Annie, who is surprised to find herself unmoved by the death of her mother. Her own daughter, Charlie (played by an unnerving Milly Shapiro) is similarly emotionless, despite supposedly having a close relationship with her grandmother. Perhaps it’s unsurprising then that the family, rounded out by Gabriel Byrne (solid as ever in a rather thankless role of confused Father) and Alex Wolff, are hardly the Brady Bunch. Annie creates miniature models of traumatic memories, Charlie has a macabre workshop of her own and Peter is a habitual weed smoker.

You’d be right to start thinking that Hereditary is more family drama than horror flick, in fact the film is far more effective when exposing the grim realities of Annie’s damaged childhood rather than drumming up more familiar genre chills. First-time director Ari Aster has an assure hand throughout, framing the Graham’s home in wide static shots that echo the doll’s house that Annie works over; he never relies on cheap scares and he handles the small cast well, but the film struggles to balance it’s effectively told family politics with the pseudo-supernatural horror that the picture devolves into.

‘Devolves’ is definitely right the word, as Hereditary certainly feels more chilling in its first half; when enough hints are dropped by the end of the second act even non-aficionados of the genre will see the trajectory of the Graham family and, ultimately, the film, which is a shame because the film does so well to avoid cliches up to this point. As it is, Collette’s full-bore performance and Aster’s camerawork will no doubt please Arthouse fans, whilst leaving casual moviegoers bemused and perhaps even bored.