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‘The Lion King’ Remake is a Visual Spectacle That Ultimately Lacks the Heart of the Original

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The Lion King Review

 

The plethora of Disney remakes that we have received in the last few years (and will continue to receive for a while to come) has left the general public with mixed emotions. On the one hand, most of them are actually quite fun, as well as an interesting way to introduce new audiences to older films. However, there is also the argument that Disney have created a very generous cash cow with these incessant remakes that play on the nostalgia of their audiences by merely reusing the stories that we have already seen before. When it comes to 2019’s entirely CGI remake of the 1994 classic The Lion King, it falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Director Jon Favreau (Iron ManThe Jungle Book) clearly had a specific photo-realistic vision, but his work here doesn’t seem to have the same payoff as it did with his remake of The Jungle Book, a film that was arguably far more suited to style.  Whilst The Lion King certainly has positives, its actual purpose as a film is difficult to determine.

Upon watching The Lion King, it is impossible not to comment on the incredible advancements in technology that we are seeing on the screen. From the opening shots of the sun rising above the African plains, to the dark and dismal elephant boneyard, to the lush greenery of Timon and Pumbaa’s jungle home, the scenery and the cinematography is astonishing on all levels. The film is entirely CGI (except for one scene), an amazing achievement in itself due to the level of detail; there are moments when it is easy to mistake what’s on screen for a nature documentary. Particularly impressive are the animal characters, as you can see every tuft of fur and every stretching muscle as they run. The time and effort that has been put into the animation is nothing short of remarkable, and it does elevates the film, making it feel truly unique.

That being said, the decision to commit fully to the photo-realistic element can also be the film’s downfall at times. I personally didn’t feel that blank, emotionless faces ruined the film, as I could tell that there was definitely some sentiment animated into the animal’s faces throughout — particularly in the more emotional scenes, such as the infamous moment where Simba runs for his life from a wildebeest stampede, or the finale where Simba confronts his uncle Scar. However, there are just as many times where the characters do indeed have a blank gaze as they talk to one another or attempt to emote.

Scar actually seemed to benefit from a bit of a vacant expression at times, due to his villainous and psychopathic nature, but this did not particularly work with anyone else. The appeal of the original animation was the relatable characters that were made all the more lovable by an expressive nature that added to their vibrant personalities. A scene between Simba and Nala in which they argue about Simba returning to Pride Rock to take his place as king is poignant in the 1994 version, but here it merely fades into insignificance, as neither lion seems to express much other than indifference.

Song numbers also suffer due to this reliance on realism. “Hakuna Matata” and “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” are songs that had colourful and visually entertaining sequences in the 1994 film, but these are scaled down to the extent that both songs consist mostly of the animals running around, singing, and doing little else. This happens to the extent where what is on screen doesn’t even match up to the lyrics. For example, in “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” Simba and Nala sing to the other animals, “Everybody look left! Everybody look right!” In the original, the animals all charged left and right when they sung, whereas in the remake, not even the cubs themselves look in any particular direction. Instead, they all continue running forward, a byproduct of realism that not only strips away a good deal of the fun from the musical numbers, but also strips away a fair amount of the personality.

It is impossible to talk about The Lion King without mentioning the accompanying soundtrack. What we get with the remake is pretty enjoyable, if not a little lacklustre at times (check out my discussion on the new soundtrack in more detail linked here), as classics like “Hakuna Matata” and “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” shine with great vocal performances. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen make “Hakuna Matata” their own, whilst paying homage to Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella with their witty partnership and charm. Donald Glover and JD McCrary also elevate the song as older and younger Simba, with both actors playing off of Rogen and Eichner well to capture the animals’ friendship. The stand out number for me was “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” which is bursting with energy from JD McCrary as young Simba and Shahdi Wright-Joseph as young Nala. Both are supremely talented, and their voices are perfectly suited for a pair of naughty lion cubs.

Despite a few songs that do not work as well, Zimmer’s reworked score is still a highlight here, as he manages to emphasise and embellish his original pieces to create something familiar, but also different enough to feel fresh and revitalising, even if it doesn’t reach the monumental heights of the original. But is it fair to have expected it to? Probably not, but all in all it does a pretty good job at capturing the essence of The Lion King.

As for the vocal performances, the best come from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, JD McCrary as young Simba, Shahdi Wright-Joseph as young Nala, Billy Eichner as Timon, and Seth Rogen as Pumbaa. Ejiofor exudes a chilling menace that contrasts Jeremy Irons’s snarkier performance, but it works equally well. McCrary and Wright-Joseph are both very convincing as playful lion cubs, due to the energy and excitement they bring to their roles. McCrary also manages to nail the emotional performances that are needed from him, particularly after Mufasa’s death. Eichner and Rogen shine as Timon and Pumbaa, providing some of the best moments from the film; the two work fantastically as a comedy duo, and keep the spirit of the characters that Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella brought to life in 1994, whilst also establishing a contemporary style of humor of their own.

That said, Donald Glover as adult Simba and Beyoncé as adult Nala at times come across as stiff and stilted, as if they have been directed to be less emotional. This is in contrast to Matthew Broderick’s Simba, who seemed to have a heart and sensitivity to his voice which reflected the character’s troubled past and his personal growth, and Moira Kelly’s Nala, who also provided more emotion and heartfelt soul (though Beyoncé does get a bigger role, and the new material is where she most excels most in the role). James Earl Jones does return as Mufasa, but he doesn’t sound anywhere near as intense and emotional as in the original. His words were once booming and powerful, but now comes across as indifferent more than anything else, contributing to the feeling that this remake isn’t entirely necessary.

Not helping is the fact that while The Lion King is not a shot for shot remake, it is the closest possible thing to it. This is a shame, as some of the original material that is brand new in the film ( such as Scar’s jealousy of the relationship between Mufasa and Sarabi, or the strengthening of the female roles such as Nala, Sarabi, and Shenzi) is engaging and interesting. Unfortunately, none of the new material is elaborated enough to make a real difference.

Favreau made a brave decision when he accepted the task of remaking The Lion King, and it seems like a situation of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t, as the film is such a monumental classic that a huge amount of people (including myself) not only consider their favourite Disney film of all time, but also a significant part of their childhood. To even touch a film that is so admired immediately puts you into dangerous territory.  It is unclear how much freedom Favreau and his team had with the remake due to being under the thumb of Disney, but whilst the decision to go photo-realistic provides some of the best visuals in any film to date, it also means that a good portion of the heart and soul from the 1994 version is quashed beneath the technology.

The Lion King will probably cement its place in cinema history due to its technological achievements, and this is deservedly so. However, despite its best efforts to once again capture the magic of the 1994 original, The Lion King remake sinks under the pressure of its revered source material, and suffers from a case of style over substance.

Antonia Haynes resides in a small seaside town in England where she has lived her whole life. She's a simple girl with a passion for zombies, writing, film, television, drawing, superheroes, Disney and, of course, video games. Her ideal day would consist of junk food, fluffy pyjamas and video games because quite frankly going outside is overrated. Follow her on Twitter on @RainbowMachete

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‘The Kingmaker’ is a Probing Look at the Wife of a Despot

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Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker

The Queen of Versailles, released back in 2012, was one of the best documentaries of the decade. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, it followed Jackie Siegel, the trophy wife of David Siegel, founder of the timeshare company Westgate Resorts. The film depicted the family’s construction of what was to be the largest residential home in the United States, which quickly went awry once the 2008 financial crisis hit their business hard. The documentary showed that Greenfield has a unique gift for understanding the lives and pathologies of the super-wealthy. Seven years later, Greenfield is back with The Kingmaker, another documentary portrait of a rich lady — one who, like Jackie Siegel, also had a cartoonishly evil husband and a weakness for both opulent residences and rare exotic animals.

The Kingmaker is a portrait of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines from the 1960s to the ’80s. Imelda is known in the popular imagination as the supportive wife of that country’s dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for frequently meeting with world leaders, and for her extensive collection of thousands of pairs of shoes. This one is set on the other side of the world, but is just as instructive, not to mention entertaining.

The Kingmaker Imelda

Greenfield’s film catches up with the now 90-year-old Imelda, and depicts her life today as she luxuriates around her various estates, reminisces about late husband, tells stories about meeting with leaders from Reagan to Mao to Saddam, and pushes the political career of her son, known as Bongbong, who ran for vice president of the Philippines in 2016. 

For the first half hour or so, The Kingmaker looks like an attempt to humanize and even rehabilitate Imelda’s image. She opens up about her mother’s death and her husband’s serial infidelities; he claimed he was constantly sending her around the world because he feared a coup, but really it was so he could conduct extramarital affairs.

We start to think this is, if not a puff piece, the equivalent of one of Errol Morris’ docs, where he gives a controversial political figure a chance to have their say while also challenging them. 

But eventually things turn, and The Kingmaker lays out that the Marcos family had in fact engaged in massive human rights improprieties, from torturing political dissidents to rigging elections, to a scheme that entailed razing an entire residential area in order to build a zoo of exotic animals which were imported from Africa via bribes. Perhaps it was a clue early on when Imelda revealed how well she got along with the likes of Richard Nixon, Moammar Khadafy, Mao Tse-Tung, and Saddam Hussein. 

The Marcos family also plundered billions from their own people, which paid for real estate all over the world, priceless art, as well as that famous shoe collection (The Kingmaker shows, among other things, that the Philippines could really use an Emoluments Clause.) What Imelda has to say now (she only ever refers to her husband as “Marcos”) makes it clear that she was not only complicit in the dictator’s crimes, but continues to defend and profit from them to this day. 

And from what we see of the Marcos’ son, Bongbong, he’s a uniquely untalented and uninspiring politician who has inherited all of his father’s corruption, but none of his charisma. The Kingmaker also ties in with the modern-day politics of the country, as its current president, Rodrigo Dutarte, is shown as the true heir to the Marcos tradition, depicted as a Trump to Bongbong’s Jeb Bush.

The Kingmaker also recalls Joshua Oppenheimer’s great 2013 documentary The Act of Killing in the way it demonstrates how national myths are established and carried through the generations. We see schoolchildren reciting why the imposition of martial law was actually a moment of national glory. 

Greenfield’s last film, last year’s Generation Wealth, was a big step down, lacking any focus and for some reason concentrating a great deal on people from the porn industry. But The Kingmaker is a return to form for the filmmaker, as it shows she’s honest enough to speak ill of her own subject. 

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past

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Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

Rojo vacation

After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

Rojo locker room

The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

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‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire

Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.

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Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous. 

This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection. 

Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom. 

When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness). 

These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us. 

Queen of Hearts

Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results. 

Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.

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