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New films: The Lion King, Marianne & Leonard, Stuber

Production still image of young simba from the 2019 re-make of "The Lion King"
The Lion King
Directed by Jon Favreau

Twenty five years after the much-loved, more traditionally animated version of “The Lion King,” this new film is the latest Disney project to re-make classic content in a more photo-realistic (or in some cases live action) style. And taken purely as a visual exercise it’s almost consistently excellent and impressive. I say almost primarily because the skies, especially the night skies, looked more like they belonged in the 1994 film than the 2019 re-make – with little depth or detail.

Put simply though, we’re almost at the point where the Disney folks could turn out a nature documentary and we’d be hard pushed to tell if it was all photographed or if key scenes had been digitally substituted – most of the animal detail is that precise.

However, that doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to storytelling of this kind. When you’re trying to keep animal movements and expressions within the scope of nature, you can’t have a character’s eyes pop out of their head or their chin drop on the ground, for example – or very much else in between – which is how at least some of the emotion is often conveyed in much animation. And in this case, there also seems to have been somewhat limited matching of mouth movements and dialog (I don’t know if it’s dubbed or subtitled for other countries) and so the spoken and sung words often didn’t seem well connected to the characters. It was odd, especially in a musical with such well known songs, sitting and wondering if I might have enjoyed certain sequences more if I had been reading subtitles, or listening from another room, rather than watching and listening to poorly synchronized visuals and dialog at the same time. I often found myself trying to appreciate what I was watching or what I was hearing more than the combination of the two together.

As for the songs, and this is surprising given some of the voice talent employed here (including Beyoncé Knowles and Donald Glover), some didn’t seem especially powerful – and it’s odd watching a song entitled “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” during a seemingly very well lit scene (a late summer evening perhaps?).

Overall, I felt that the new film is at its best when the visual excellence is allowed to shine through – but that’s in scenes where nobody is talking or singing, or when there is dialog or song delivered absent a closeup. Or with a character like Zazu (John Oliver), a bird, with a beak rather than lips, requireing less articulation. I ended up, again, at the end of a version of “The Lion King” having enjoyed Timon and Pumbaa (this time around Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen) the most, so that one aspect of the two versions remained consistent for me.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love
Directed by Nick Broomfield

As somebody whose knowledge of the life of writer and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen is even less extensive than my limited knowledge of his music, I was fascinated to watch “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” to see if it held my interest. It’s often an interesting test of a documentary, to see if it will capture the attention of somebody who isn’t, on at least some level, already wrapped up in or significantly favorably pre-disposed towards the subject matter. I suppose it’s fair to say I had some moderate level of pre-disposition, having friends who are enormous fans and liking at least a couple of Cohen’s more well known songs, which have a tendency to show up in multiple film soundtracks. But I found myself liking the film for reasons that I don’t think were intended.

Billed as an examination of the relationship between Cohen and the woman, Marianne Ihlen, often credited as having been his muse, I think the film ended up being something else – more of a reflection and consideration of a time and place than of that one on again, off again, but enduring romance. Cohen, along with Ihlen and several others, escaped lives and upbringings in various colder and less tolerant locations, and found themselves for different reasons on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960’s. Hydra, at that time, is described by almost all of those interviewed for the film, as well as by the disembodied voice of the filmmaker (who was also there and knew his subjects), as a place of open marriages, bed swapping, and abundant drug use.

The relationship between Cohen and Ihlen, while clearly profound and influential, seems itself to be a product of that place and prevailing attitudes towards sex, drugs, and monogamy during the 60’s and 70’s. While she influenced his music, and he wrote songs about her and maintained a friendship until her death, the freewheeling nature of their romance and the other relationships described in the film would be almost impossible now, post the rise of budget airlines, post-AIDS, post-social media, post-Instagram influencers. Hydra, now described as a playground for the wealthy, would have gone, overnight, from the free-spirited 1960’s muse-fest of starving writers and artists to the latest selfie destination and a place Cohen and friends would have, in turn, escaped rather than frequented for decades.

The film also, after dwelling on the early years, leaps ahead to the point where entire decades are lost as new fandoms emerged, but by then I was more engaged in the period comparisons I found myself wondering not so much what might have happened to Cohen if he hadn’t met certain people (would other people have taken their place) but rather what might have happened to him had he been born at a different time when such meetings and wandering lifestyles, and the extended absences, might have been less possible.

Moviebrief

Released last week, “Stuber” feels like the result of somebody who loved 2004’s “Collateral,” in which a contract killer (Tom Cruise) kidnaps a cab driver (Jamie Foxx) and forces him to drive him around Los Angeles as he kills people, but who also really wished it had been a comedy. Updated for both period and comedic purposes (contract killing not being quite such an obvious choice), “Stuber” considers a similar dynamic between a cop (who can’t drive after an eye procedure – Dave Bautista) and an unwitting Uber driver (Kumail Nanjiani). It’s really quite funny much of the time but it always feels like it’s caught between eras. The basic Uber-related premise is current but most of the major jokes and references are throwbacks to films and characters that most of the target audience likely wouldn’t remember (unless the audience is made up of 1980’s kids) – Andre the Giant, The Karate Kid’s rival dojo, and an extended and very detailed reference to “The NeverEnding Story.” So it seem like a (funny) update of an earlier film, to which it may bear no actual connection whatsoever, but a film that could have been based on an even earlier screenplay.

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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