Friday, July 19, 2019

Not Quite Feeling the Love Tonight: "The Lion King" technically impressive but a slavishly faithful facsimile without as much feeling


The Lion King (2019)
110 min.
Release Date: July 19, 2019 (Wide)

When childhood nostalgia is involved and a beloved animated feature already exists, it’s easy to be cynical and instantly write off another “live-action” Disney remake. While there’s no getting around that all movie studios are motivated by making money, any great story deserves to be told in a different form on the big screen and for a different generation when there’s cutting-edge technology to showcase. With that said, in this unnecessary trend, 2019’s “The Lion King” is just the exact same Shakespearean story from the 1994 hand-drawn animated film, only with a pretty, polished coat of CG paint and a more padded running time. After bringing something special to 2016’s “The Jungle Book,” director Jon Favreau’s latest photorealistic recreation is more of a slavishly faithful, scene-for-scene facsimile this time. Vastly impressive from a technical standpoint, but save for a few exceptions, this remake is inferior to its 25-year-old predecessor and only works sporadically on an emotional level.

The story of 2019’s “The Lion King” is the same as it was in, you guessed it, 1994’s “The Lion King.” Born to be the heir to the African animal kingdom, young cub Simba (voice of JD McCrary) learns about his place in the circle of life from father and current king Mufasa (the magisterial James Earl Jones, reprising his role from the original), while making friends with Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and being watched by majordomo Zazu (John Oliver). Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) soon plots against his brother to overturn the throne with the help from some hyenas by killing Mufasa and blaming Simba for his father’s death. Filled with guilt, Simba runs away and meets a carefree duo in the form of meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), who show him the ropes in how to eat grubs. All grown up, Simba (Donald Glover) reunites with his dear friend Nala (BeyoncĂ© Knowles-Carter), remembering who he is, and stands up to his uncle to take back what is rightfully his.

Playing out as a Disneynature documentary with lifelike animals who also happen to be anthropomorphic characters in a version of “Hamlet,” “The Lion King” starts off on a high note before going a bit slack and lifeless in the proceedings when Timon and Pumbaa aren't around. The opening scene with “The Circle of Life” is majestic and generates the kind of goosebumps it aims for, as the entire animal kingdom gathers below Pride Rock to witness the unveiling of future leader Simba as an adorable cub with tactile fur. The wildebeest stampede that imperils Simba while practicing his roar in a gorge is intensely staged, the tragic fall of Mufasa is affecting, and there is also a beautifully conceived new sequence that tracks a tuft of Simba’s fur through its own circle of life until it makes its way to baboon Rafiki (John Kani). After that, the script by screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (2017’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”) doesn’t make many alterations to the story, not that there needed to be, besides giving Simba’s mother Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) more of a voice and more agency to adult Nala who defies Scar. 

All of the vocal talent from the all-star cast is fine—and appreciably, the majority of them are performers of color, considering the story is set in Africa—although the casting of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, as wisecracking meerkat Timon and flatulent warthog Pumbaa, ends up being the most inspired. It helps that Timon and Pumbaa are the most welcome source of energy and comic relief, but Eichner and Rogen steal the show anyway as the most vocally expressive, making their banter feel fresh and funny every time (including a clever “Beauty and the Beast” gag worked in). Also, it’s a tall order to drip with menacing villainy like Jeremy Irons, but Chiwetel Ejiofor is effective as Scar. 

As spectacular as the animation looks, though, the hyperrealism of the talking-and-singing animals doesn’t always positively serve the story or engender the feeling that it probably should have. Hans Zimmer’s score is still intact, as are Elton John and Tim Rice’s songs (with the addition of a new song, “Spirit,” by BeyoncĂ©), but seeing as how the hyperrealistic animal characters are not animated and can’t really do much besides scamper forward while singing, the musical numbers are not as show-stopping as they were the first time around. That goes for Timon and Pumbaa’s anthem “Hakuna Matata”—it means “no worries”—and even the bouncy “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” with young Simba, Nala, and Zazu. Even if the technical wizardry bringing the animals to life is nothing to scoff at, “The Lion King” isn’t much more than a spectacle achievement when there isn't as much of the joy or heart to match.

Grade: C +

Friday, July 12, 2019

Gators in a House: "Crawl" a lean, mean thrill machine that does what it should

Crawl (2019)
87 min.
Release Date: July 12, 2019 (Wide)

Being trapped in a crawlspace during a Category 5 hurricane with water flooding in and several alligators is the stuff of nightmares and the simple premise behind “Crawl.” Directed by Alexandre Aja (2016’s “The 9th Life of Louis Drax”) and penned by brothers Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen (2011’s “The Ward”), the film is lean and mean with no time for a climate-change metaphor. With basic character development quickly dealt with, it’s one hairy, white-knuckle situation after another, and what “Crawl” does, it does quite efficiently and then keeps upping the ante. A creature feature released during the summer is like a Christmas in July present for genre fans.

University of Florida competitive swimmer Haley Keller (Kaya Scodalario) comes in second place at a swim meet just as a hurricane is brewing outside and everyone in town is evacuating. When her equally stubborn and divorced father, Dave (Barry Pepper), won’t answer her calls, she drives a couple hours to their in-escrow family home in Coral Lake to check on him and finds his truck in the driveway. Hearing a radio in the crawlspace under the house, Haley soon finds her dad unconscious and wounded behind all the pipes. As it turns out, one alligator (as far as they know) has crawled through the storm drain and ruined their only chance of easily escaping the crawlspace. Using her swimming speed and endurance and overall know-how, Haley will have to fend her and her dad off from many more gators that enter the space as the storm intensifies and the water fills up.

“Crawl” is a nonstop blast, a prime summer movie that will satisfy moviegoers who paid to see some expertly staged gator shenanigans. As a thriller, it is tight, straightforward, and more than capable of delivering all the stress-laden terror and giddy excitement that typify this kind of picture; it’s even respectably gory, however, more of a crowd-pleaser that’s never on the nastier level of Aja’s oeuvre (like 2005’s “High Tension,” 2006’s “The Hills Have Eyes” and 2010’s “Piranha 3D”). There are also carefully chosen shots, like the camera picking up a doorway with Haley’s progressive height throughout her childhood that will eventually show the depth of the water inside the home, and devious use of space and background (in one case for the latter, an attack on one member of an unlucky trio of thieves looting a whole ATM machine on to a fishing boat is glimpsed through a convenience store mirror).  

The cast primarily consists of Kaya Scodelario (2018’s “The Death Cure”) and Barry Pepper, who are easy to buy as a daughter and father cut from the same cloth. Scodelario is the focal point of the film, giving one hell of a physical and emotional performance as Haley, and the viewer vicariously experiences what she goes through in testing her bravery to save both her, her father, and family dog Sugar. And, as for the alligators and the storm, the effects are as convincing as they need to be to elicit genuine danger. Earnest scenes of father and daughter hashing out their troubled history, accompanied by music-swelling flashbacks to Dave coaching Haley, sometimes slow down the pace at times when the characters already have our investment, but that’s a mere nitpick for a film that is relentless, harrowing, and without any pretenses. The tautly paced and technically accomplished “Crawl” is a genre treat that actually warrants the tired “edge-of-your-seat” expression.

Grade: B

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Don't Let Them In: "Trespassers" often tense and stylish but mainly just nasty, and not in a fun way


Trespassers (2019)
88 min.
Release Date: July 12, 2019 (Limited & VOD)

There’s a certain line a horror film has to walk in order to be a merciless, gripping experience rather than cruel and unpleasant, but “Trespassers” (originally titled “Hell Is Where the Home Is”) ultimately crosses the line, doing its characters dirty and never earning the viciousness. Credit director Orson Oblowitz and writer Corey Deshon for bringing a prickliness to the character relationships and initially defying expectations before the actual home-invasion plot gets underway, but when one begins to root for three out of the four protagonists to just be put out of their misery, it’s a tell-tale sign that there’s not much to “Trespassers” besides being a purely nasty contained thriller.

Married couple Sarah (Angela Trimbur) and Joseph (Zach Avery) rent out a house from a couple of photojournalists in the Mojave Desert for the weekend in hopes of an escape from the tragic loss of their unborn child that has strained their relationship. Much to Joseph’s chagrin, Sarah has also invited her somewhat estranged high school friend Estelle (Janel Parrish) and Estelle’s boyfriend Victor (Jonathan Howard), who bring out the booze and coke. As the night presses on, both couples’ relationship troubles bubble to the surface but have to be tabled once a woman (Fairuza Balk) claiming to be a neighbor whose car has broken down knocks on the door. Sarah lets her in to use the landline since there's no cell service in the area, but the woman outstays her welcome. Everything goes to hell before a Mexican gang of masked, machete-packing intruders even pose a threat.

“Trespassers” is crafted with some pleasing tension and neon-infused style, complemented by Noah Rosenthal's cinematography and Jonathan Snipes’ propulsive, synth-heavy music score, once the intensity gets ratcheted up. There is a gasp-worthy moment involving a carafe and a “what-would-you-do?” sense of terror to the predicament Sarah, Joseph, Estelle, and Victor finds themselves in, and then there’s fifty-five minutes remaining. Angela Trimbur (2016’s “Trash Fire”) has the most sympathetic character to play and goes through the wringer as the final girl that Sarah so clearly is, even if the film doesn’t really deserve her commitment. It’s not that Zach Avery, Janel Parrish, and Jonathan Howard aren’t competent in their roles, but their characters aren’t given enough redeeming qualities to feel like well-rounded people, particularly toxic, thoroughly unlikable Victor, who might be the “smartest” in being against opening the door to a stranger but is so exempt of any sympathy. Although billed only as The Visitor and not clearly tied into the goings-on, Fairuza Balk adds a watchable, unpredictable weirdness for the short time she’s on screen, and whether or not it’s a nod to her character Nancy in 1996’s “The Craft,” Balk gets to say, “I am not the Wicked Witch of the West, honey.”

A lot of crawling around on the floor, fending off the intruders, and intruder-to-victim torture ensues, all of it bloody and brutal, but there’s no real draw to watching any of it go down. The stereotypical intruders’ motivation is pretty standard—they need a McGuffin from inside the house—and the weekend renters are just at the wrong place at the wrong time, natch. “Trespassers” delivers nothing particularly new, even if it's effective in spurts (a fight-to-the-finish brawl next to a pool is well-staged), but while the script gives its characters plenty of interpersonal drama to work with before their life-or-death struggle, there is precious little to care about. 

Grade: