Blinded By The Light: Connecting through good tunes

Pop culture can transcend all sorts of boundaries.

People from different walks of life can identify with one another over a favorite sports team, the filmography of a terrific actor or director or a classic album by a prized musical artist.

It’s this cultural bridge building that’s at the heart of director Gurinder Chadha’s latest feature, “Blinded By The Light,” inspired by the true story of a British Pakistani teen in the 1980s obsessed with an American rock icon.

Chadha is best known for the 2004 adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” and the 2002 family sports film, “Bend It Like Beckham,” the only feature film to be distributed in every single country on the planet.

Universal themes of family and finding one’s place in the world are the foundation of “Blinded By The Light,” which follows Javed, an aspiring writer living in Britain during a time of political and economic unrest under Margaret Thatcher.

He longs to leave his hometown and chart his own path while maintaining his relationships with a strict Muslim family and finds himself intoxicated by the promise in the music of Bruce Springsteen.

There’s a lot going on in Chadha’s work and some audiences will be off put by the film’s inconsistent tone.

At various times, “Blinded By The Light” is a musical, a political period piece, a romantic comedy and a family drama. Rarely do these genres mix together as Chadha smashes styles against each other like a compilation album.

But invariably, the individual pieces of the film are held together by two powerful forces: the bellowing, unforgettable tracks of Springsteen and a star-making performance from Viveik Kaira in the lead role.

An avid fan of “The Boss” herself, Chadha seamlessly integrates Springsteen’s discography into the film, relying on touchstone songs like “Badlands,” “Dancing in the Dark” and “Hungry Heart” to accentuate the tone of the film and bring audiences inside Javed’s mind.

Because Springsteen’s lyrics often unlock the emotions of a scene, Chadha occasionally cuts out the dialogue and cranks up the volume of the tunes while inventively showing the words dancing around Javed. This helps establish a kindred spirits relationship between Javed and the unseen rock and roller.

Musically, “Blinded By The Light” doesn’t go full bore into Springsteen’s catalog in the same way as recent musical films “Rocketman” with Elton John or “Bohemian Rhapsody” with Queen do.

“The Boss” is more the soundtrack for moments rather than the subject of the film.

A pair of dance numbers choreographed to “Born To Run” and “Thunder Road” don’t exactly fit with the rest of the film but work incredibly well on their own in a sort of homage to classic 1980s John Hughes films.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is the quality of its cast, comprised mainly of fresh faces to American cinema.

Kaira brings an emotional earnestness to Javed, a conflicted teen struggling to find himself amid familial, societal and political pressures. Usually, these coming of age tales focus on a single major obstacle, but “Blinded By The Light” forces Kaira to take on a lot very quickly and the young actor succeeds at rolling with the challenges presented on a scene by scene basis.

The actors pushing Javed are exceptional as well and Kulvindir Ghir’s excellent work as Javed’s father Malik cements the father/son dynamic as a core piece of a film that tries and largely succeeds at being more than a simple love letter to Springsteen.

Everything about “Blinded By The Light” has been done before in one way or another, but the way in which this particular story is told, its special lead performance and the universal themes it espouses make the film something almost every moviegoer can readily identify with.

A film that doesn’t particularly excel at any one aspect but is more than the sum of its parts, “Blinded By The Light” is the rare August release that must be seen in theaters.


Good Boys: Super bad on a sixth grade reading level

Why is “South Park” an animated series?

Couldn’t creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have made their crude and frequently violent show about prepubescent boys a live action series just as easily, if not cheaper?

The reason they don’t is simple: an animated overweight boy using expletives every other sentence while making sex jokes is funny because the animation separates the joke from reality.

“Good Boys,” a new live action comedy that tries to be one part “South Park” and two parts “Superbad,” isn’t really successful at either.

And it’s true, the first time audiences see three sixth grade boys look up “porb” on Google to see people kissing or use anal beads like nunchucks is decently funny.

The problem with “Good Boys” is that the longer this gimmick goes on, the less funny and more sad things get.

A comedy from the minds that brought such middling fodder as “Bad Teacher” and “Year One,” writer/director Gene Stupnitsky and co-writer Lee Eisenberg’s new film follows Max, Lucas and Thor – three outcast sixth graders calling themselves “the Bean Bag Boys.”

Through a typically ridiculous series of convoluted events, the trio must trade a medicine bottle filled with ecstasy for Max’s father’s drone helicopter that crashed into a neighbor’s yard in order to attend a “kissing party.”

What “Good Boys” has going for it is three likeable young stars, led by one of the best child actors in Hollywood today, Jacob Tremblay.

Best known for the 2015 Oscar-nominated drama “Room” and the 2017 family drama “Wonder,” Tremblay exudes a wholesome kindness that radiates off the screen. He brings this naturally endearing quality to Max that quickly fades away once he tries on S&M leather and the swear words start flying.

Brady Noon plays Thor evenly as the character’s bad boy exterior naturally clashes (for the sake of comedy) with his love of singing and musical theater.

The best performance of the trio is offered by Keith L. Williams as Lucas, the most strait-laced member whose parents are about to get a divorce.

Williams hits his punch lines hard knowing they’re intended for laughs, but this is rarely as overdone as it may seem.

The film’s supporting cast isn’t given much room to play with; “Saturday Night Live” alum Will Forte is here for show more than anything.

A surprisingly effective cameo from Stephen Merchant does bring one of the film’s few genuine laughs, however.

The crude premise of “Good Boys” isn’t exactly the film’s downfall. In better hands, this could be a largely entertaining affair.

But Stupnitsky and Eisenberg bring so little new to the table that “Good Boys” feels like an empty middle school rehash of “Superbad.”

That this film is being dropped in the middle of August while school starts back up should be a red flag. August is where underperforming movies go to die.

Same with the fact that one of the film’s producers, Seth Rogen of “Superbad” fame, is touted in marketing for the movie despite not appearing in it.

It’s the kind of comedy helped by watching the trailer as few times as possible. When all the jokes can be crammed into a two minute sizzle reel, you know you’re on the wrong track.

“Good Boys” is the kind of movie that will live on in frat houses eight years from now when the sixth graders this film is actually intended for will be old enough to drink while watching it.

It’s the third best film to be released this weekend behind the feel-good Bruce Springsteen- infused period musical flick “Blinded By The Light” and the better than it could have been Richard Linklater dramedy “Where’d You Go Bernadette.”

Save your money and watch this middle-school raunch fest on basic cable as it’s intended.


The Souvenir: Love and other drugs

Joanna Hogg doesn’t make life easy on her audience.

Subtlety and layers of hidden context abound in her latest feature, “The Souvenir,” a semi-autobiographical drama she wrote and directed about a young film student’s destructive love affair with an older man set in the 1980s.

Audiences are shown bits of Julie and Anthony’s time together in a piecemeal, fragmented way that’s part slice of lice, part melodrama and unlike any romance film viewers have likely seen before.

“The Souvenir” plays out like a memory piece, following Julie down the rabbit hole of a relationship she’s unprepared to have consume her so deeply.

Honor Swinton Byrne is astonishing as the idyllic ingenue of privilege whose inexperience living in a middle-class world is overwhelmed by Anthony’s increasing presence in her life.

Byrne approaches the role with a genuine naivety that goes beyond the fact that “The Souvenir” is her first major on-screen performance. It’s often as if Julie is dipping her toes into the real world for the first time, scene by scene, growing and changing in subtle ways that even she fails to recognize.

Tom Burke gives Anthony a dismissive distance that evokes an impression of callousness warmed or at least charmed by Julie’s infatuation. Over the course of the film, Burke reveals Anthony’s darker eccentricities slowly and meticulously so as to remove the veil from the eyes of both Julie and the audience in such a way that reveals Anthony’s true self while keeping Julie’s heart in the palm of his hand.

“The Souvenir” is a portrait of an artist struggling to define herself based on a submissive relationship with a domineering personality. Whether that portrait is of Julie the character, Joanna the filmmaker or somewhere in between is the film’s greatest unanswerable question.

Some audiences will find “The Souvenir” inaccessibly distant and cold for a variety of reasons: the film languishes in minutia rather than advancing plot in a significant way, there’s always a hidden double meaning lying under the surface of every scene, many conversations are technical meta-commentary on Hogg making the film audiences are watching in real time.

Viewers have been conditioned to expect reliability from filmmakers on a narrative structure and other basic conceits of dialogue and character development that Hogg ignores here.

It feels impossible to fully determine on an initial viewing whether events in “The Souvenir” happen linearly, are spiraling downward in circles or mismatched across the timeline as if they are moments in a dream coming into focus at random.

The same can be said about the reality of “The Souvenir” in a much more compelling way.

The things that happen to Julie within the main structure of the film appear to coexist with Julie’s work filming a fictional world based on her experiences that’s also layered within Hogg’s semi-autobiographical screenplay.

Complex cinematography also plays a role here. Hogg layers her film with old photographs and Super-8 footage Hogg took in her youth that’s meant to represent Julie’s developing work.

Blended with director of photography David Raedeker’s work in both film and digital crafted to look like 16 mm film, “The Souvenir” has a constantly fluid, changing visual style that magnifies the haze of memory the film aspires.

Acute audiences will rightfully find themselves questioning each scene, wondering where things are going or, more to the point, where things might have been. It’s a rare and provoking concept to formulate a feature film around, incredibly meta and a way to accent mood and character over plot.

“The Souvenir” seems better suited for a major showing at the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs) rather than the Oscars as Hogg’s feature is likely to be a frontrunner for Outstanding British Film and the Rising Star award for Byrne.

A complex look at the power of infatuation, “The Souvenir” certainly earns its place among the year’s best films and multiple screenings can only enhance one’s understanding and appreciation for Hogg’s introspective work.


Where’d You Go, Bernadette: Charmingly quirky

Film adaptations of popular novels are pretty commonplace.

There’s an agreed upon story structure, character development and even dialogue to pull from source material for the screenplay. Films become the living embodiment of the images we get in our heads while reading.

But what happens when you’re traditionally adapting untraditionally written storytelling?

Such is the case with director Richard Linklater’s newest film, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” a theatrical take on Maria Semple’s bestselling 2012 novel of the same name.

Written largely in Semple’s novel as emails, memos and transcripts, “Bernadette” the film is just as exceptionally eccentric as its titular character.

Cate Blanchett is delightfully strange as Bernadette, a reclusive mother and former architect who disappears suddenly just before leaving for a vacation to Antarctica with her rich husband and bright-eyed teenage daughter.

At first, Bernadette’s peculiarities are presented as humorous frivolities, but these traits hold deeper meaning and give Blanchett ample room to work within a unique character.

Armed with a wry wit on a quick trigger, Blanchett is ideal to bring Bernadette to life as the Oscar-winning actress has a confident matter-of-fact-ness in the role that is believable rather than caricature.

As audiences join Bernadette on her journey of self-doubt and discovery, Blanchett makes the character so winning that’s hard not to want to spend endless time with Bernadette at any point along the way.

Viewers’ attachment to Bernadette is also attributable to a charming performance from newcomer Emma Nelson as Bernadette’s daughter Bee.

Nelson is refreshing to watch on screen and a perfect foil for Bernadette, a woman Bee simultaneously challenges and adores in an idyllically quirky mother/daughter relationship. The young actress, who also narrates segments of the film, gives audiences someone to identify with easily and Bee’s wide-eyed, unwavering fondness for her mother impresses similar feelings onto the viewer.

Billy Crudup gives a solid effort as Bernadette’s caring but inattentive husband Elgie while veteran comedic actresses Kristen Wiig and Judy Greer are likable in limited screen time.

Yet the whole supporting cast – save for a terrific scene with Lawrence Fishburne – seems to structurally take a backseat to Blanchett.

Their subplots and scenes without Bernadette are less enjoyable as they are largely inconsequential, and it often feels like time better spent following Blanchett around some more.

This could be attributed to the screenplay, which nails Bernadette’s voice but lacks in cohesion.

Linklater works with co-screenwriters Holly Gent and Vince Palmo to adapt Semple’s novel in creative ways.

Bernadette dictates emails into her smartphone; her backstory is segmented in old news broadcasts and YouTube videos.

The filmmakers work tirelessly to bring a two-dimensional Bernadette off pages of written documents unusual in a normal model but fail to develop the world around her as thoroughly.

In this respect, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” feels a bit thin.

For Linklater, this represents perhaps the softest, gentlest film he’s ever directed. It’s a meandering, unbalanced effort that often lacks the panache his most ardent fans might come to expect from the director of “Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock” and “Boyhood.”

But “Bernadette” is a quaint, simple movie that will warm hearts over the course of two hours and should have a long shelf life as an easily rewatchable film you might put on in the background while cooking or trying to relax on the couch.

Though its luster may wane the further removed you are from it, “Bernadette” is a refreshingly charming film with another exceptional Blanchett performance that’s well worth a trip to theaters.


The Farewell: The value of a good lie

Many of the best films are personal, whether they be exact recreations of past events in the lives of those making them or simple adaptations of real life.

Writer/director Lulu Wang took a unique cultural moment from her own life for her second feature film, “The Farewell.”

“Based on an actual lie” as the film’s title card states, “The Farewell” fictionalizes a pivotal moment in Wang’s family as the structure for an intimate examination of life, joy and identity, both personal and cultural.

Billi, a Chinese-American immigrant, returns to China when her grandmother Nai Nai is diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. The film is a touching portrait of a multi-generational family in turmoil as they decide not to tell Nai Nai of her diagnosis but plan a rushed wedding as an excuse for family to see her one last time.

Designed as an ensemble piece, the acting in “The Farewell” is strong throughout and yet it’s the relationship between Billi and Nai Nai that carries the heart and soul of Wang’s film.

Actress and rapper Awkwafina gives her best, most dramatic performance to date in her first leading role as Billi.

The usually demonstrative performer takes a measured approach to the character, often saying more with a look than words in an emotional, personal turn. This isn’t to say that Awkwafina lacks comedically here, as the moments of humor are delivered with ease.

Awkwafina’s ability to take heavier material and play it authenticity is a wonderful surprise that makes “The Farewell” something special.

However, the film’s true star is Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai, a perfect burst of warmth every time she appears on screen.

The first-time performer is tailor made for the pivotal role of grandmother and family matriarch with a presence that is equally regal and vibrant.

“The Farewell” works as well as it does because audiences are able to easily relate to and fall in love with Zhao’s natural performance. For 90 minutes, she is the audience’s “Nai Nai,” the Chinese word for grandmother.

Subtle and soulful, “The Farewell” is a masterful demonstration of restraint. It’s a film that could have easily been pushed to its comedic and dramatic limits with forceful, awards-bait exaggerations of dialogue.

Wang and her cast take a carefully considered, nuanced approach to the storytelling, giving moments time to breathe naturally without pulling away from the invasive awkwardness viewers will certainly feel at times throughout the film.

This does not mean that “The Farewell” is excessive with its time. Wang smartly jump cuts from scene to scene (or occasionally within the same moment) to give audiences the feeling of time or location changing without actually spending the time to show the action on screen.

Wang insists on a present audience to engage with her film, one that can react to moments as they happen naturally without prompting on the part of the filmmakers.

This is especially true when it comes to the shrewd decision to make “The Farewell” a multi-lingual piece of cinema.

Rather than force characters to speak English instead of their native language to accommodate American audiences, much of “The Farewell” is spoken in Mandarin with English subtitles. This language barrier plays as a character point for Billi, whose Chinese is admittedly not great, and allows for her to openly communicate with family members in English without Nai Nai understanding.

“The Farewell” is assured to be a top awards contender on the independent circuit. Though its place come Oscar season is less certain, Wang’s film is one of two features to be released so far in 2019 – “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” being the other – that could make major waves at the Academy Awards.

Wang could easily be nominated for her well-crafted screenplay and direction, while Awkwafina and Zhao are certainly worthy of Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominations respectively.

Powerfully subdued and thoughtful, “The Farewell” is a terrific independent film that will remain among the year’s best and one that is worth seeking out in theaters.


Hobbs And Shaw: 2 Fast 2 Furious 2 Care

Remember that small dramatic action flick from 2001 about boosting cars?

Seven movies later, it’s harder and harder to remember that “The Fast and the Furious” was about a Los Angeles cop going undercover to infiltrate a gang of automobile thieves.

A prime victim of the money-hungry quest of studios to franchise everything, a small crime drama has become an international box office sensation that’s now spinning off characters into their own burgeoning franchise.

Hence, “Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw,” a bombastic, jet-setting adventure hoping to draw interest from moviegoers to watch the intelligence officer from “Fast Five” reluctantly team up with the bad guy from “Furious 7.”

This concept alone isn’t a draw. But when action heavyweights like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Statham are involved; studios start to dream in dollar signs.

As each movie in the franchise becomes more outlandish, the stakes continue to rise exponentially.

With “Hobbs and Shaw,” intelligence agencies force the titular rivals to work together to locate Shaw’s sister Hattie, an on-the-run MI6 agent who has injected herself with a virus that could wipe out half the planet’s population.

Johnson has the charisma to take another blandly written character and inject enough vibrant humor to make a two-hour joyride at least engaging, while Statham is best ripping off dry witticisms at Johnson’s expense rather than anything he’s doing on his own.

Golden Globe winner Idris Elba plays a cybernetically enhanced villain bent on unleashing the deadly virus world-wide. Though it’s clear Elba is only here to cash a paycheck that will allow him to continue high-quality independent film work, it’s still sad to see the talented actor and potential next James Bond mail in a performance like this.

Appreciably funnier than any “Fast and the Furious” installment, “Hobbs and Shaw” relies both on the solid chemistry of Johnson and Statham as well as some painfully obvious cameos to give the spinoff its own identity.

Director David Leitch pushes the film more towards his “Deadpool 2,” but rated PG-13 territory rather than his significantly better small action hit “Atomic Blonde.” The stuntman turned director shows promise with his vision, but it’s often uneven and panders too much to “Fast and the Furious” tropes rather than set the film apart too much.]

The best scene in the entire film is a well-choreographed, story advancing slow motion action sequence that pits Johnson and Statham against Elba late in the third act. Leitch blends fight mechanics that hint at his uncredited work co-directing the original “John Wick” film with a classic “Fast and the Furious” kinetic energy to pay off much of what the prior two hours lazily sets up.

Action throughout the rest of the film is less successful as much of the frenetic driving sequences feel ripped straight off the cutting room floor of other “Fast and the Furious” installments.

Things are also hindered by the fact that contractual stipulations as reported by the Wall Street Journal this week limit the amount of damage Johnson and Statham’s characters are able to take, often giving them superhuman resilience that weakens the story overall.

“Hobbs and Shaw” is not a comic book film, but casual audiences could easily mistake it for a new superhero flick given just how incredibly well both leads come off in the film.

Stakes in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise, for example, continue to accelerate at an exponential rate, but those films succeed in a more grounded nature as Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt’s mortality comes to a fuller bear.

The outlandishness of the stunt-work in “Hobbs and Shaw,” combined with the limitations put upon the storytelling due to the egotistical stars, makes it significantly harder for audiences to suspend disbelief.

Written at a “straight-to-DVD” level but produced on a blockbuster budget, “Hobbs and Shaw” has its moments, but wavers considerably on the enjoyment level.

It’s a film that would be best to catch while flipping channels on basic cable right before “Fast & Furious 9” hits theaters next year.


Once Upon A Time In Hollywood: Tinseltown fantasy

“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is everything one might come to expect from a Quentin Tarantino film and yet somehow, it’s also nothing like what one might expect from Quentin Tarantino.

Reflective of a man who grew up in the movies engrossed in every aspect of filmmaking, Tarantino’s ninth feature ramps up the dialogue and nonlinear storytelling while tempering down his trademark rampages of violence for a distinctly original piece of cinema.

It’s a slow-burn ode to late 1960s Los Angeles that embraces a deep nostalgia for classic television westerns and lesser known stars whose bright futures got derailed by choice or circumstance.

Audiences are propelled into this world by bouncing around between three mainstays of Hollywood at the time: a veteran television actor trying with fledgling success to transition to the big screen, his best friend and stunt man carrying the load however needed and up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate, freshly married to director Roman Polanski.

Written as a strong duality, the natural ebb and flow between the classically handsome actor Rick Dalton and ruggedly confident stuntman Cliff Booth is a joy to watch on screen. Both DiCaprio and Pitt inhabit the roles so fully that the characters feel ripped straight from a by-gone era while audiences are still able to see the A-listers on screen as Leo and Brad at the same time.

Tarantino knows the strengths of his acting talent and rarely does he lean into them as confidentially as he does here with DiCaprio and Pitt.

Pitt’s cool machismo as Cliff perfectly offset the more manic charisma of DiCaprio’s Rick; two men’s men hanging on to their waning years on soundstages in radically different ways, yet always together.

Both actors shine during individual moments, DiCaprio especially on the set of TV western “Lancer.” But it’s together where their unlikely kinship truly elevates “Once Upon A Time” for large stretches of flashbacks and side-plots about making television in the 50s and 60s as viewers tumble towards that fateful August night on Cielo Drive.

Margot Robbie floats through “Once Upon A Time” as if she were a figment of imagination or a half-remembered dream rather than simply the actress Sharon Tate, whom Robbie portrays in the film.

It’s both a gross underutilization and a perfect utilization of the Australian actress on Tarantino’s part.

Tate delivers by a wide margin the fewest lines among the film’s primary characters, a counterintuitive, but shrewd move by the filmmaker to keep Tate masked in a golden palate of mystery while brightening up the entire feature with an effervescent physicality.

The less revealed to audiences about Tate over the course of the film, the better as Tarantino holds the late actress up as a sunny palate cleanser from the minutia of Rick and Cliff’s journeys and an ode to Hollywood ‘what could have beens.’

“Once Upon A Time” also affords small glimpses into the lives of celebrities, industry talent and wayward hippies that easily could have garnered their own films or miniseries.

Tarantino expertly uses acting icons like Kurt Russell and Bruce Dern as well as he does young up-and-comers like a mesmerizing one-scene turn from Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme and Margaret Qualley as a hippie Cliff encounters.

The fact that a rare good late-career Al Pacino appearance here is the 17th or 18th best thing about “Once Upon A Time” says a lot about this film’s incredible depth.

Cinematographer Robert Richardson shows exemplary poise adapting to a wide variety of visual styles, matching television and film looks of the era. Richardson feels just as at home in 16×9 black-and-white as he does with early color film palettes.

When “Once Upon A Time” pulls off set, the camera widens to give audiences larger perspective and enhance Los Angeles as a character in the film.

There’s also plenty of opportunity here for viewers to find Tarantino’s hidden details, nuggets of nuance that inform and/or remind the time period. These can be broad strokes like major locations dressed to the era or subtle, yet accurate touches like what movies were showing at specific theaters, which shows were airing on television on a given night or what songs were in rotation on specific radio stations on certain days.

In this regard, “Once Upon A Time” is Tarantino’s most self-indulgent film. He often languishes audiences with leisurely car rides with Cliff that linger far too long for casual viewers or diatribes about “inside Hollywood” topics like casting former heroes as villains, job-to-job rivalries and other moviemaking politics.

These musings usually don’t further the plot in any significant way but provide a welcome depth and color for those interested in being fully immersed in the world Tarantino creates on screen. It does make the film’s nearly three-hour running time a bit much for some audiences to handle, though every second is carefully and critically constructed by one of the movie business’s premiere auteurs.

Hollywood rarely loves to reward films more than they do movies about Hollywood.

A well-made Tarantino film with three A-list stars at or near the top of their game will be heralded come awards season.

Tarantino should be in the running for best director and best original screenplay for his dialogue-heavy ode to Hollywood, while both DiCaprio and Pitt have potential in the lead actor and supporting actor categories respectively.

While ideally seen in 35mm film print at select theaters, the film is far too exceptional of a movie not to be seen on the big screen any way possible.

Among Tarantino’s best work, “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is certain to appear on many a best of 2019 list and could be a prime contender come awards season.


The Lion King: A joyless wonder

Looks aren’t everything.

Disney’s latest remake of an animated classic delivers a visually impressive cinematic experience that fails to hold muster over the course of two hours.

Released 25 years after the two-time Oscar winning original in 1994, “The Lion King” swaps hand drawn cartoon animation for near perfect, photo realistic computer graphics.

In so doing, Disney and director Jon Favreau have excised the soul of the film as a sacrifice to visual innovation.

The plot of “The Lion King” hasn’t been altered in any significant way in spite of being 20-plus minutes longer.

All the iconic songs penned by Elton John and Tim Rice are still there though sung by new voice talent. The script itself seems to be identical word for word by in large.

Yet something significant is missing.

Lion cub Simba still longs to be king of the Pride Lands, succeeding his father Mufasa, until a fateful stampede orchestrated by his nefarious uncle Scar changes the Pride Lands forever and sends Simba into exile.

What stands out most in the 2019 version of “The Lion King” are fantastic, revolutionary computer graphic work from the Disney Studios team to elevate a plethora of wild animals to a National Geographic documentary level sharpness. Each creature looks like viewers could reach out onto the screen and touch a live animal, and this sensation is oftentimes mesmerizing.

By insisting on a photo-realistic interpretation of “The Lion King,” however, all sense of emotion is lost, and the joy young audiences felt watching the original for the first time won’t be as pronounced here.

When the animals talk, their mouths move in small, natural ways that don’t seem as fluid as they should and Favreau often positions the camera on the side or behind the speaker to minimize this animation.

Showing the animals in such a documentarian way eliminates the cartoonish playfulness a young Simba brings to songs like “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” and “Hakuna Matata” or his genuine sadness at the end of the stampede.

It’s nearly impossible to animate true emotion in this style and the film solely relies on vocal performance to get audiences emotionally invested in the characters.

There are more name actors providing voice work in the 2019 version than the 1994 original, though the only holdover talent – James Earl Jones as Mufasa – is both the most obvious and best choice to reprise a role in the new film. Jones’ voice elevates the material and gives immediate gravitas.

Most of the newcomers are fine; Donald Glover works as the older Simba and John Oliver’s riff on the bird Zazu has a lot of charm in spite of the fact Oliver cannot sing.

Billy Eichner often steals scenes with his frantic, sarcasm heavy turn as the meerkat Timon and he has great chemistry with Seth Rogen, who is an awkward fit as warthog Pumbaa as his heavy belly chuckle evokes too many of the stoner comedies the Canadian actor is known for

BeyoncéKnowles-Carter stands out like a sore thumb as the biggest stunt casting in the film.

Though she can sing better than almost anyone on the planet, her acting doesn’t really hold water as her voice fluctuates while delivering dialogue between obvious reading off the script in monotone and concert-level hype yelling.

As in most recent Disney films, there’s a female empowerment action sequence randomly inserted with little setup or impact on the plot, this time led by a Knowles-Carter power yell reminiscent of Destiny’s Child.

Knowles-Carter does contribute a new song to the film, “Spirit,” sung in part during a visually stagnant running montage that doesn’t add anything to the film except an excuse to cram in a Beyoncé song.

There’s a strong chance that “The Lion King” may get shut out entirely come awards season as its questionable eligibility and poor critic scores may keep Disney from fighting a battle for its inclusion in the best animated feature category, especially given the strength of “Toy Story 4” and the upcoming “Frozen 2.”

The best bet for “The Lion King” is a nod in visual effects, which are largely stunning and could follow in the realistic CGI footsteps of a film like “War for the Planet of the Apes” to earn a nomination. Disney may also opt to push “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” in that category to the detriment of a “Lion King” nod here as well.

As good as the visual enhancements look, everything else about “The Lion King” is so underwhelming that fighting the crowds to see this remake in theaters might not be worth the expense.

Instead of validating Disney’s cash-grab insistence on reimagining their entire animated catalog, staying home to watch the 1994 original and taking a chance on a DisneyNature documentary instead is probably the better option.


Be Natural: Uncovering a film legend

Before there was Charlie Chaplin, there was Alice Guy-Blaché.

Odds are, if you know even just a cursory amount of movie history, the silent film star is one of the first people rattled off the top of the list.

The industry’s first female filmmaker – involved in almost 1,000 films as some combination of director, writer and producer – rarely comes to mind, if ever.

A new documentary based on years of research by an independent filmmaker and decades of historical preservation by international archivists seeks to correct all that.

Written and directed by first-time feature documentarian Pamela B. Green, “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché” is an interesting, frequently engaging look at a largely forgotten filmmaker whose influence and precedent setting far outweighed her notoriety.

Green paints a compelling case that Guy-Blaché’s former colleagues sought to revise film history in an attempt to diminish (or in some instances, erase entirely) her contributions to the world of early cinema.

The documentary premiered last year in the Official Selection of Cannes Classics before making its way through the film festival circuit. “Be Natural” is currently touring the United States and international markets on select dates.

“Be Natural” acts like a cinematic treasure hunt with Guy-Blaché and Green running concurrent searches over the course of the documentary: Guy-Blaché for her missing film prints and Green for information and sourcing on the director.

The documentary may wander a bit too much for some casual viewers, especially those unfamiliar or less interested in early cinema history.

Green often jumps between interviews with famous directors and actresses talking in vague generalities about what life must have been like for her as a pioneer in a male-dominated industry.

These moments are usually spliced with clips from various Guy-Blaché films in rapid succession to give a broad sense of her filmmaking style in the hopes of making the clips more accessible to casual audiences. At the rate these moments whiz by, however, it’s hard to discern a true sense of Guy-Blaché’s work as a viewer without having an interviewee or the documentary itself describe it.

Whether it was an editing choice or a lack of large segments of Guy-Blaché’s work, the biggest disappointment of “Be Natural” is the absence of several uninterrupted minutes of one of Guy-Blaché’s signature films to allow audiences to formulate their own opinions of her work.

Extended clips of her adaptation of the passion story, “The Life of Christ,” or the hysterical comedy, “The Drunken Mattress,” would have been welcome additions to the documentary.

Small fragments from these films – and a plethora of others – are littered throughout “Be Natural,” although each is so fleeting and often overlapped with other clips or interviewee dialogue that it’s difficult to appreciate any one film from Guy-Blaché’s filmography.

There’s also a chronological narrative layered into the documentary as Green attempts to piece together Guy-Blaché’s history from birth to death.

Intense crosscutting in the documentary requires audiences to bounce back and forth through history to the present to archived interviews from the 1950s and 1960s and this can be somewhat jarring for some audiences.

Green also includes telephone conversations tracking down potential sources that give important storytelling points, but often feel like rehearsed recreations of unrecorded conversations rather than fluid, spontaneous accounts.

This section admirably blends modern day sleuthing over Google and Skype with wonderfully rendered animations to provide historical context. The film’s 3D model of Guy-Blaché’s Solax Studio headquarters in Fort Lee, New Jersey, is especially effective as it contextualizes the entire filmmaking process succinctly and inventively while giving viewers a profound sense of space and place.

These dynamic visual moments are the most impressive directorial choice made by Green and really make the most impact as the documentary tries to make its subject matter as accessible to the lay public as possible.

“Be Natural” is a solid documentary in spite of its storytelling flaws thanks in large part to the compelling subject matter and exceptional animations. It certainly should make viewers want to seek out Guy-Blaché’s work as they become available online.

Ideally suited for ardent cinephiles, “Be Natural” should prove to have longevity touring various film festivals before finding a home on streaming services where it could be most appreciated.

Note: ‘Be Natural’ has yet to screen publicly in Texas and a screener copy of the film was provided for review purposes.


Stuber: Not a five-star ride

Kumail Nanjiani, writer and star of the 2017 breakout hit “The Big Sick,” is an extremely funny man.

Dave Bautista, former World Wrestling Entertainment performer and “Guardians of the Galaxy” co-star, is following in the footsteps of wrestlers past like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena and can be a very funny man in his own right.

Their first collaboration, a buddy comedy about a Los Angeles detective matched with a shy Uber driver, is not funny.

A generic and on the nose action flick destined for basic cable, “Stuber” is aptly named as its lead character Stu drives for the ridesharing service Uber, giving him the unwanted nickname Stuber.

Overly timid and stuck in the friend zone with a girl he secretly loves, Stu’s world turns upside down when he crosses paths with an intimidating, aging cop coming off Lasik eye surgery and in need of a ride.

What sounds incredulously silly on paper comes to life on screen as an increasingly less funny premise.

Talented as they may be, Nanjiani and Bautista have middling chemistry together and fail to elevate Tripper Clancy’s bland, unoriginal screenplay.

Nanjiani brings an earnest attitude to the role of Stu that makes the character relatively easy to root for in spite of his total ineptitude around women.

His dry delivery becomes disarming after a while and the awkward social commentary the film attempts to make on the concept of toxic masculinity doesn’t harm “Stuber” as much when it comes to Nanjiani’s performance.

Bautista, on the other hand, finds less success in this regard as his cold machismo and aggression both physically and in line delivery reinforce the “real men don’t cry” mentality that the film seeks to subvert.

There’s a whole secondary storyline keyed on Vic’s advanced age for law enforcement that doesn’t really work with Bautista as well as it might with a veteran actor in the genre like Bruce Willis. Despite the fact that the wrestler turned actor is indeed 50 years old, Bautista certainly doesn’t look or act the part and Vic having a 30-year-old daughter isn’t nearly as plausible.

The secondary characters in the film are largely ineffective and forgettable, especially Natalie Morales’ tepid turn as Vic’s estranged daughter.

Clancy and director Michael Dowse treat every character outside of Vic and Stu as figuratively – or in some cases, literally – expendable. This shallow approach to storytelling prevents the film from becoming something more than surface level hijinks and gives supporting actors so little to work with that their performances are one-note caricatures.

“Stuber” is mildly entertaining as Nanjiani and Bautista both give likable performances that make the 93-minute running time a relatively pain free watch.

The jokes just don’t land nearly as often as they should.

A lack of humor severely hinders the success of a film like “Stuber,” where the plot mainly serves as an access point for situational comedy.

What “Stuber” reeks of is a script penned in the wake of buddy cop films like 2014’s “Ride Along” and 2010’s “The Other Guys” that stagnated on a studio executive’s shelf until actors could be convinced to sign onto the project and jokes then tailored towards those performers.

In this regard, Nanjiani and Bautista are too comedically similar despite their vast physical differences and there’s no sense of balance to the humor.

Whether it’s the way the script is written or simply how the pair both approach the dialogue, Bautista’s relatively monotone delivery blends too much with a surprisingly timid Nanjiani, who proves to be much more effective when the dialogue is more biting.

For an R-rated comedy, “Stuber” doesn’t take enough chances to separate itself from the endless pile of action bro flicks rotating through HBO programming, which is probably the best place to watch this middling film.


Spider-Man Far From Home: Passing the superhero torch

Spider-Man has some big shoes to fill.

Following a 22-movie march to the events of “Avengers: Endgame,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has always been building towards something larger.

Left in the wake of the second highest grossing film of all time, superhero movies turn once again to a web-slinging wall-crawler to point the way forward.

Such is the daunting task before “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” a responsibility it both subverts and begrudgingly takes on.

Director Jon Watts’ second Spidey film successfully lowers the stakes for the MCU while maintaining a grandiose scale and spectacle fans have come to expect from the franchise.

“Far From Home” takes Peter Parker on a European tour as he hopes to take a break from his superhero alter ego and enjoy a class science trip until interdimensional elementals and the enigmatic Mysterio hijack Peter’s vacation.

Tom Holland further cements himself as the most authentic Peter Parker in Spider-Man film history, pairing his boyish good looks with a plucky awkwardness befitting the John Hughes-esque tone of the 80’s high school movies Watts’ take on the wall-crawler films emulates.

His performance is engaging on screen and makes viewers take notice in spite of the outlandishness around him whether that be intergalactic opponents for Spider-Man or typical high school drama for Peter.

Connecting with audiences is important here for the suspension of disbelief to the comic book Marvel-ness of the film’s plot and Holland makes the entire adventure more enjoyable to watch in much the same way Robert Downey Jr. did with the “Iron Man” films.

Holland also maintains solid chemistry with Zendaya, who sees an increased role from 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” as Peter’s love interest MJ. Zendaya works best in “Far From Home” when MJ delivers quick, dry one-liners though her performance is solid all-around as a secondary character.

Jacob Batalon and Tony Revolori continue to shine in carryover roles from “Homecoming” as Peter’s best friend Ned and rival Flash respectively, though newcomer J.B. Smoove steals scenes with his smart comedic timing as school chaperone Mr. Dell.

By far, Jake Gyllenhaal outclasses everyone else in “Far From Home” with a solid supporting turn that takes advantage of his range as an actor.

His performance in the film’s second half makes his inspired casting in the role of Mysterio readily apparent as Gyllenhaal sheds the character’s rather mundane exterior persona for much richer emotional territory. This is especially true in Gyllenhaal’s tonal shift in Mysterio’s relationships with others, which becomes increasingly demonstrative over time.

Because this film represents a changing of the guard for the MCU as a whole, “Far From Home” suffers slightly as a stand-alone movie as screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers have to account for the “Endgame” aftermath and set the stage for the next five years more than the film probably has room for.

This also gives “Far From Home” a regrettably larger scale than the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man feel of “Homecoming” that pushes the boundaries of the duality in Peter Parker/Spider-Man to its outer limits.

Building a world where high school trips become epic European vacations strains suspension of disbelief. This hinders the overall effectiveness of the young Peter Parker side of the film that did such a great job grounding “Homecoming” in authenticity against budding Avenger Spider-Man.

While “Far From Home” relies on CGI in its action a bit too much, the film also includes one of the year’s most visually impressive moments with Peter in a dream-like sequence that constantly moves without feeling choppy and maintains an unexpected crispness that should look equally impressive at home on a 4K Blu-ray.

Superhero fatigue has been frequently referenced in conversation about waning interest in the genre. Although “Far From Home” may feel like a step or two down from “Avengers: Endgame,” it’s still an impressive summer blockbuster that audiences of all ages should enjoy.


The Last Black Man in San Francisco: Relentless vision

Two men share one skateboard as they glide down winding hills in the Bay Area.

It’s a beautiful picture wrapped in early morning light, but what’s most striking is how instantly personal the relationship is.

Joe Talbot’s Sundance award winning film follows these two men across a changing city in a simple tale that evokes much more than it ever says.

A story of friendship and holding onto a place to call home at any cost, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is perfectly imperfect, a singular vision from a soulful first-time feature film director whose technical flaws bring his movie to life.

Written by Talbot and star Jimmy Fails based on Fails’ real life, the film plays silent observer to one man’s relentlessness trying to regain his childhood home built by his grandfather.

Alongside his best friend and introverted playwright Mont, Jimmy wanders in and around San Francisco searching for a sense of family and safety.

Fails never acts as Jimmy; he’s constantly reliving real experiences or fictionalized approximations of true events in a way that almost feels invasive on the part of viewers.

Talbot often lingers on private moments in Jimmy’s life that quietly resonate with audiences thanks to unspoken outpouring of emotion on Jimmy’s face.

It’s incredible to believe that Fails has never appeared in a feature length film before, let alone carried one as he does with “Last Black Man.”

Fails’ heart and soul drip off the canvas of each frame for an intimate, intoxicating performance.

Equally transformative as Mont is Jonathan Majors, who melts into the nuanced role with ease. Constantly writing or sketching in a red notebook, Majors’ Mont is a quiet obsessive brought to life through observation and careful consideration until something profound results.

It’s a performance worthy of supporting actor award nominations alone.

As a pair, Fails and Majors have an easy, familial chemistry that suggests deep-seeded friendship in unspoken terms and bring out the best in each other’s performance. Jimmy and Mont’s co-dependency is beautifully illustrated by the actors as a perfect symbiosis of friendship.

The soul of a dying city resonates throughout “Last Black Man” as the film poetically paints a portrait of gentrification with rich baths of sunlight.

Films often encapsulate a place to the point that the world of the movie becomes a character in its own right.

To a degree, that’s true here of San Francisco with its rolling hills and bay landscapes.

But the third lead of “Last Black Man” is an old Victorian house with a witch’s hat roofline, boldly inviting windows and a gorgeous pipe organ carved into its frame.

Talbot and cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra allow the house to feel immensely vast and yet very intimate by placing the camera at the widest angles to give viewers a sense of scope and help contextualize Jimmy’s attachment to an aging building.

The film also boasts an intoxicating score from Emile Mossari that enriches each scene with additional depth and emotion, though it’s a masterful take on “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” sung in the film by Michael Marshall to reflect a tonal change in the third act that solidifies the soundtrack’s essential core.

“Last Black Man” exudes such emotion moment by moment that it often overwhelms the storyline, which becomes less and less important as the minutes tick by until the fitting conclusion.

In this way, the film evokes the work of fellow Bay Area writer/director Barry Jenkins, especially his Oscar-winning film “Moonlight.”

Although “Last Black Man” has little chance of earning the same level of awards season acclaim, it would be no surprise to see the film littered across critics’ best of 2019 lists and a strong contender at the Independent Spirit Awards.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” will go down as one of 2019’s and most underseen films. It’s a striking and haunting piece of cinema that will resonate for a long time with audiences lucky enough to see it in theaters.