How 2019 is a One of a Kind Movie Year

This is something I brought up in my 800th blog back in the day, but I thought it was interesting enough to point out again (plus, heaven knows I could really use with more updates as of late). And this something is the simple fact that I think 2019 is shaping up to be a one of a kind year for movies.

“How so?” you may be asking. The reason is that 2019 is (quite obviously) the last year of the decade, but in an instance of “stars aligning,” many of the films being released in 2019 are appropriately bringing a close to this decade in cinema.

Take for example Avengers: Endgame, the biggest film of the year (and all time, boy does it feel good to say that). Though the first two Marvel Cinematic Universe films were released in 2008, the majority of the MCU has been the dominant force in movies of the 2010s. Year after year this decade, Marvel has released blockbuster after blockbuster in their colossal crossover mega-franchise. And though the MCU is scheduled to continue, Endgame brought everything in the MCU thus far to a grand, satisfying close. More than twenty MCU films were released during the 2010s, and fittingly, the MCU’s grand finale (up to this point) was released in the last year of the 2010s.

Similarly, the Star Wars sequel trilogy, which began with The Force Awakens in 2015, will come to its conclusion in 2019 with Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (Star Wars movies never were good with titles). This will make it the only Star Wars trilogy to be a part of a single decade. The original Star Wars trilogy began in 1977, with the two subsequent installments being released in the 1980s. While the Star Wars prequel trilogy began in 1999, and continued into the 2000s. But the Star Wars sequel trilogy is uniquely tied to a singular decade which, in a weird way, I think makes it the most decade-defining trilogy in the franchise.

On a much smaller note, the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, which began in 2010 at the very start of this decade, saw its third and final installment hit theaters this year, meaning Dreamworks’s trilogy bookended the movie decade. Hell, even the Stephen King “It” duology released its second half in 2019, after the first half became one of the most unexpected success stories of the movie decade.

Speaking of unexpected success stories, that brings us to Disney’s Frozen, which I think is safe to say was the movie surprise of the 2010s. Sure, you expect Disney animated films to be successful, but Frozen was on a whole other level, and with relatively little fanfare in the buildup to its 2013 release. Not only was Frozen Disney’s most iconic animated feature in decades, it became one of the biggest pop culture phenomenons in history. Fittingly enough Frozen – the biggest movie/franchise to originate in this decade – will see the release of its long-awaited sequel towards the end of 2019. And though there’s nothing definitively “final” about Frozen II (that we know of yet) like there is for The Rise of Skywalker or Endgame, the fact that this decade’s biggest contribution to pop culture will be getting a sequel as the decade comes to a close just feels fitting.

While the final year of any decade has film buffs reflecting on the past ten years of cinema and trying to compile their favorites from within that time, I don’t think there’s been another instance of another ‘last year of the decade’ where the finality of it was reflected so strongly in its films. Again, I feel it’s a “stars aligning” situation, where so many individual elements just came together. Perhaps some of these “endings” to the movies of the 2010s were intentionally released at the decade’s end. But the fact that so many of them fell so neatly into place seems like an unprecedented occurrence in the movie world. I’m happy to be experiencing such a unique year in film.

Musings of the Dojo: Dora the Explorer Vs. Quentin Tarantino

*Welcome to Musings of the Dojo! Here, I plan to reflect on certain things I’ve recently talked about here at the Dojo. Perhaps this will become a recurring thing here on my site. Or maybe I’ll completely forget about it after this one time…*

 

 

For those following my site, you’ve probably noticed that among my recent movie reviews are Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Dora and the Lost City of Gold, a live-action film adaptation of Dora the Explorer. In my reviews, I graded Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a 5/10, but gave Dora a 7/10. Could this possibly imply that I actually thought a movie based on Dora the Explorer was better than a Quentin Tarantino film?

I’m not implying anything, let me say it outright: I thought a movie based on Dora the Explorer was better than Quentin Tarantino’s latest film. And I don’t feel bad even in the slightest for saying that.

I don’t say this for the sake of contrarianism. Lord knows there are few things I distaste more than contrarians. And the world of independent internet critics has more than enough of those anyway (newsflash: conforming to non-conformity is still conformity). I say this as a Quentin Tarantino fan, I didn’t care for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s not a horrible movie (again, I rated it 5/10. For me, it’s when things get to 3/10 and lower when they’re in the “avoid at all costs” range), but it does feel like a product of complacency on Tarantino’s part.

Quentin Tarantino isn’t a stranger to rewriting history with his films, as he did just that ten years ago with Inglourious Basterds. So for Tarantino to make a movie in which the Manson murders are undone – and instead it’s the members of the Charles Manson cult who carried out the murder of Sharon Tate who instead end up dead by means of a stuntman, his dog, and a flamethrower – it just makes sense for the famed director. And the ending in which this rewriting of history takes place is the best part of the film. There’s something bizarrely wonderful about Tarantino using his trademark style and gratuitous violence to rectify a historical tragedy. The problem I have with Hollywood is that Tarantino seemed to have come up with a great ending, but couldn’t think of a path for the rest of the movie to take to justifiably earn that ending.

Tarantino spends too much of the film either indulging in some of his tropes (such as a disjointed narrative, with the stories of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters stories really having nothing to do with Sharon Tate), while staving off others (the director’s stylistic violence really only shows up at the end of the film). But the different storylines never mesh together in any seamless or meaningful way. Again, there’s something that feels complacent about it, like Tarantino was so confident in the ending and in his style that the actual story at hand, and how to tie everything together, were such afterthoughts that he forgot about them altogether.

I hope I don’t sound like I’m just ragging on Tarantino. Again, I’m a fan of his, I’d place him on my list of top 10 filmmakers. And Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t a total bust. It has moments that showcase the director’s brilliance. But that’s just the thing, it’s only in moments of Hollywood that we get glimpses of what Tarantino is really capable of. As a whole, however, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood just never comes together. It’s too fragmented – both in story and tone – for its own good.

Meanwhile, Dora and the Lost City of Gold – while perhaps not a great movie – was nonetheless better than it seemed to have any right to be. Yes, it’s a kids’ movie, and a bit silly. But it was a well made silly kids’ movie. It was fun, funny, didn’t feel like it talked down to its young audience, nor was it ashamed of its source material. And I feel it had a nice message for kids about being comfortable with who you are, even if you may be on the socially awkward side.

Essentially, I think Dora and the Lost City of Gold did a better job at being a Dora the Explorer movie than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did at being a Tarantino film. Yes, I understand this is comparing apples to oranges, so why bother doing it?

Simple, because I think as far as professional film critics, and even most self-proclaimed cinephiles go, this very idea would be considered some kind of blasphemy. Critics and film buffs too often like to put themselves on a pedestal for their perceived superior intellect to the average moviegoer, and their supposed open-mindedness. But frankly, they could definitely benefit from branching out a bit. As much as they like to brag themselves up, critics and film buffs too often have a very narrow view of what constitutes a good movie, and have a very strict ruleset placed on themselves that makes their often arrogant attitudes that much more unfounded.

Basically, any such critic or cinephile would scoff or outright belittle my stance that I found a Dora the Explorer movie to have more merit than Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, because that would go against their definition of what’s good, and would defy their rules. Thinking a Tarantino film failed to deliver while thinking a silly kids’ movie was effective would probably be enough for many critics – both professional and independent – to grab their torches and pitchforks and form a mob against me (or anyone who shares similar opinions).

Now, I certainly hope I don’t sound like I’m patting myself on the back. There are many instances where I agree with critics and film buffs (again, I usually think Tarantino is quite good). The last thing I want to do is put myself on a a pedestal similar to the people I’m commenting on. I’m merely trying to state that I think there’s a problem within the world of cinema that, like these critics and cinephiles, seems shackled to a very specific idea of how to appreciate movies. Just look at most critics’ lists of best films of any given year, and you’ll notice the same types of movies – usually those that pander directly to critics – dominate pretty much all of them. Sure, you might see a mainstream movie and an animated feature thrown in for the “audience cred” every so often, but such selections usually come across as mere tokens (especially seeing as so few critics would ever seem to consider placing such films on the upper half of their lists).

I really think this close-mindedness of “serious” film critics and fans has become a major problem. If you need some damning evidence, the Academy Awards nearly created a “Best Popular Film” category, as a means to throw a bone to the common moviegoer, only to retract the concept of the award soon thereafter, as it was basically an admittance to their insistence that only “their movies” are worthy of Best Picture.

The world of cinema would do itself a lot of good if those with voices in the medium would shed a good deal of their pretensions and lighten up a bit. Someone like me shouldn’t have to feel hesitant to state that they enjoyed a Dora the Explorer movie more than a Tarantino film. But that’s exactly the kind of atmosphere that critics and cinephiles have created around the movie world. You can’t be considered a serious lover of cinema unless you fall in line. And that’s a problem.

Okay, now I’m really getting sidetracked. I was initially just writing this as a means to express my preference to Dora and the Lost City of Gold over Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But I repeat that I was hesitant to do so, because of the stigma it might put on me, my site, and my overall views of movies by the aforementioned “serious” film buffs. Granted, I don’t exactly have a large following (to put it lightly), so it’s not as if I expected backlash per se. Just that it’s kind of sad that you could pretty much picture the exact reaction a more pretentious movie type would have should they read that someone actually thought Dora and the Lost City of Gold was a better movie than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Simply put, I think the movie world would benefit if, instead of adhering to a very, very specific idea of what constitutes good films, the more critical side of cinema followed the open-mindedness they like to preach, and judge films based on how successfully they accomplishes what they set out to do.

Of course we’re all going to have our preferences (and I am no exception), but critics and “serious” movie fans too often seem to surrender to some kind of hive mind with their preferences (“independent movie = automatically good.” “The more popular a movie, the dumber it must be.”). Again, we all have our preferences, but it’s important to bring individuality into critiquing. Movie buffs and critics frequently seem to lump things together with preconceived notions, instead of viewing a film for its individual merit.  And again, their preferences don’t even seem to be based on their own individuality, but a preconceived idea of what they’re supposed to like.

I again have to stretch that I am, in no way, shape or form, promoting contrarianism. Disliking things for the reasons that they are popular or acclaimed is every bit as toxic as critics’ “follow the leader” method I’m talking about. I stress that my point is critiquing any form of art should come from a place of individualism, both of one’s self and of the work you’re critiquing. You don’t want to cave into some preconceived hive mind, but you also have to be able to appreciate things even if they don’t fall squarely into your preferences. You, as an individual, should be critiquing things based on their merits as an individual work.

The cinephiles and critics expect Quentin Tarantino to make great movies, so surely Once Upon a Time in Hollywood must be a masterpiece. It was decided ahead of time. But a Dora the Explorer movie sounds like a stupid idea for the kiddies. Even though the latter did defy expectations and received a surprisingly warm reception, it of course is only allowed to go so far. And claiming it could possibly, under any circumstance, be better than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is certainly going too far.

Well, as a Tarantino fan, I expected a good movie out of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Instead I ended up bored and anxious with it, like Milhouse waiting for Itchy and Scratchy to get to the fireworks factory. Meanwhile, I didn’t’t have expectations for Dora, but I ended up having fun.

In short, I thought Dora the Explorer kicked Quentin Tarantino’s ass. And I don’t feel bad about it.

 

Dora and the Lost City of Gold Review

Nobody ever likes to be wrong. Especially in this day and age of the internet, when we can anonymously spout our views as condescendingly as possible, we don’t want to end up with egg on our face later.

But, y’know, being wrong can be a blessing at times. Case in point: I thought Dora and the Lost City of Gold – a live-action film adaptation of Dora the Explorer – looked like the stupidest movie ever based on its initial trailer. But lo and behold, it’s actually a good movie. I don’t say that ironically, either.

In my defense, what kind of expectations was I supposed to have about a live-action Dora the Explorer movie? That first trailer really didn’t do it any favors, either. It looked like a watered down Tomb Raider (it in itself a watered down version of a watered down Indiana Jones) that just used the Dora the Explorer franchise to draw in a younger crowd. But when the second trailer presented that “Can you say ‘delicioso?'” gag – in which a young Dora talks to the audience like in the series, only for Dora’s parents to look around dumbfounded as to who their daughter was talking to – it got my attention. Then when the film was released and began getting a warm reception, I thought I’d give Dora and the Lost City of Gold a look. I’m glad I did, because it is actually an entertaining and often very funny movie.

The movie begins by explaining away how the edutainment/kid-friendly series can be translated into a live-action film. As it turns out, the reason why Dora had so many adventures with animals in the jungle and other exotic locations during her childhood is because she’s homeschooled by her parents, who are professors traveling the world. Dora’s anthropomorphic backpack and map were simply products of her imagination, and her sidekick Boots is just a wild monkey that Dora liked to dress up. Humorously, Swiper – the mildly antagonistic fox from the series – isn’t explained away as part of Dora’s childhood imagination, but is indeed an actual talking, mask-wearing fox (comically voiced in the film by Benicio del Toro). The fact that certain aspects of the series are given explanation, but Swiper is as real as Dora and her parents, sets the mood for the silly nature of the movie ahead.

The majority of the film takes place a decade after Dora had her many adventures. Now 16-years old, Dora (Isabela Moner) is still traversing jungles, making discoveries, and yes, still talking to the audience (which she does via live-streaming in her teenage years, though the film still finds plenty of humor in the idea of Dora talking to the audience and breaking the fourth wall). But Dora’s parents, father Cole (Michael Peña) and mother Elena (Eva Longoria) think it’s time Dora took a break from dangerous jungle life, and to finally socialize with people her age. Dora is more than a little bummed, especially because her parents have deciphered the location of the legendary city of gold, Parapata.

Dora is sent to Los Angeles to stay with family and live a normal high schooler’s life. She is reunited with her cousin, Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) who has grown up to be a jaded teenager who’s embarrassed by his cousin’s highly optimistic and adventurous personality. I find this humorous just by the nature of it. Diego was the star of the spinoff series to Dora the Explorer, “Go, Diego, Go!,” so he was expendable in the sense that the film has no qualms with turning him into a stereotypical teenager, while Dora remains her happy-go-lucky, children’s television character self.

Naturally, Dora is a bit socially awkward, and quickly becomes the butt of jokes of the students around the school. She inadvertently makes a ‘frenemy’ in the form of the school’s know-it-all, Sammy (Madeleine Madden), and befriends Randy (Nicholas Coombe), the punching bag of the school bullies.

One thing I really liked about Dora and the Lost City of Gold is that it never feels the need to go down the “makeover” story arc in order for Dora to learn to accept herself. A lot of family movies have a “be true to yourself” message, but usually only get there by the end, with the hero (usually heroine in this scenario) needing to at first change themselves before they realize that doing so for the sake of others isn’t worth it.

Here, Diego tells Dora that her optimistic attitude, nerdy disposition, and childlike enthusiasm make her a target for the rest of the school. But Dora – rather than coming to some realization of the nature of the people around her and deciding to go the aforementioned “makeover” route – simply responds that she knows what people are saying behind her back, and that they’re laughing at her. She just doesn’t care because she can only be who she is. There’s something really refreshing about Dora’s confidence, and how a kids’ movie has a main character who is awkward and may not fit in, but who also doesn’t care about that and is comfortable in their own skin.

After adjusting to school life for a time, Dora suddenly loses contact with her parents just as they were getting close to finding the city of Parapata. Dora soon finds out why when – during a school field trip – she, along with Diego, Sammy and Randy, end up captured by treasure hunting mercenaries and wind up in Peru.

It turns out Dora’s parents have gone missing, and the mercenaries are looking for them in hopes of claiming Parapata’s treasures. The mercenaries now hope Dora can track her parents so they can find the lost city, before an old friend of Dora’s parents named Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), rescues Dora and her friends from the mercenaries’ clutches. It then becomes a race between Dora and her companions against the mercenaries – who have recruited none other than Swiper – to find Dora’s parents and uncover the secret of Parapata.

You probably want to laugh when you read such a synopsis, what with Dora taking on mercenaries and going on an Indiana Jones style adventure to a lost city. But Dora and the Lost City of Gold wants to laugh right alongside you. The film is very self-aware and often tongue-in-cheek, but not in a way that feels insulting to its source material. Yes, this is very much a kids’ movie, but it’s one that seems to be made for both young children who are being introduced to Dora the Explorer, and for the adults and teenagers who grew up watching Dora the Explorer. This is a movie that seems fueled by the very same ‘young children’s television logic’ of the series, but presents it with a coy wink and smile to the older audience. It’s a fish-out-of-water story, with said fish-out-of-water just so happening to be Dora the Explorer.

In that regard, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is actually a very smart movie. It’s easy to imagine in this day and age that a movie could have the gimmicky premise of a children’s TV character adjusting to the ‘real’ world (though in most cases these days, they would probably aim for a ‘hard R’ rating with such a concept, because Hollywood still hasn’t realized that taking cute things and making them “edgy and raunchy” is the most overplayed joke ever). But because this film actually uses an existing children’s franchise – and one as popular as Dora the Explorer no less – for such a premise, it melts away the ‘gimmicky’ aspect of it, and in turn the film is both a parody and loving homage to its source material. Dora and the Lost City of Gold is all the more entertaining for it.

I will happily admit to laughing out loud numerous times during the movie. It’s silly and fun, and in a way that doesn’t talk down to young audiences. Sure, the film may have a little more bathroom humor than I’d like, but I’m also not part of the film’s primary demographic. So if children think it’s funny, then job well done.

With that said, the film does find ways to make even that bathroom humor work within the context of Dora the Explorer. When one of Dora’s friends has to “go number two” in the middle of the jungle, the punchline isn’t so much the bathroom situation itself, so much as Dora’s attempt to make it “less awkward” by singing a song about digging a hole for her friend to use as a toilet. As you might expect, the song doesn’t exactly make Dora’s friend feel more comfortable about the situation. It’s obviously not high-brow humor, but I admit I laughed.

Admittedly, not everything in the film works. The special effects of the film – particularly the CGI used to bring Boots and Swiper to life – definitely look outdated. I get this isn’t a movie with an Avengers-level budget, but it’s always a bit of a shame how kids’ movies get shortchanged with such things, as if they don’t deserve the extra effort. Another issue is that the film’s third act might teeter a little too much into Indiana Jones territory, with booby traps and ‘jungle puzzles’ perhaps taking a little too much center stage over the humor and overall “Dora the Explorer-ness” that gives the film as a whole its charm.

I suppose some audiences might also get annoyed with how little Dora’s companions seem to contribute to the adventure. But I think Dora and the Lost City of Gold actually justifies having a main character who seems to be the only useful member of their group for two reasons: The first reason is based in the film’s logic. As the movie points out, Dora grew up in the jungle, while her friends have believed high school was as harsh as their lives could get, and have just been thrust into the jungle. So Dora, most appropriately, is serving an educational role for her team.

The other reason is more thematic. In the world of high school, Dora is a socially awkward misfit because of her adventurous attitude and profuse friendliness. But once everyone is in the jungle, the same things that Dora is mocked for in high school end up showing their many merits. While the film might at first seem like it’s laughing at Dora for her precocious nature and social naiveté, it doesn’t take too long to realize the film is actually saying that Dora’s spirit and enthusiasm – even with its basis in children’s television logic – is more genuine than the ‘real’ people of high school.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold may have a few hiccups here and there, but it’s also – beyond all expectation – a much better film than you’d think it has any right to be. It’s consistently funny and entertaining in a way that should satisfy children, their parents, and those who grew up watching Dora the Explorer and shows of its ilk. It’s humorous while also being respectful to both its target audience and source material. Special mention also has to go to Isabela Moner’s performance as Dora, which captures both the essence of the television character, while also bringing out the charisma and humor needed to make such a character work in a movie.

While Dora and the Lost City of Gold may not exactly boast the educational merits of the TV series it’s based on, I think it still has an important lesson to teach youngsters. Be nice to those who are socially awkward, and if you happen to be among them, take pride in who you are. Because if you and your friends end up lost in a jungle, we all know who everyone is going to have to rely on.

 

7

Extraordinarily Late: My Favorite Film of 2018

What better time to name my favorite film of 2018 than in the deep end of August 2019?

Okay, okay, you’re probably wondering “why even do this at this point?” and that’s fair. The reason I’m still bothering to write this is quite simple…

Because I want to.

You may now be wondering why I didn’t do it sooner, and the truth of the matter is, there is no particular reason other than I’ve just been busy (hence my slower updates over the last couple of months) and when I have had the chance to update this site, I’ve been preoccupied with other things, like reviews and such. And I would have got to this sooner, except there were still some 2018 films I had wanted to get around to seeing the past few months before I made anything “official” (at least, as official as things can be on a site where I can edit things later to reflect changing opinions). And well, it took me longer than expected.

While there are still a few 2018 movies on my list…I just really want to get this done. So, as of now, and after plenty of time for consideration, I now name my favorite film of 2018! Better late than never, eh? Continue reading “Extraordinarily Late: My Favorite Film of 2018”

The Lion King (2019) Review

I have a confession to make: I’m not that big of a Lion King fan.

Don’t get me wrong, Disney’s 1994 animated feature is a good movie, to be sure. But as a Disney fan, I never understood why it was held on a pedestal as one of the best films to come out of the studio. I would say Lion King fits somewhere in the high middle-tier of Disney’s animated feature canon. It showcases captivating animation and some truly emotional moments, but it also feels like it adheres too strongly to the studio’s conventions, as opposed to transcending them.

The characters fit squarely into Disney’s archetypes, with Simba being a cookie cutter main character (with Simba’s adult form being particularly boring thanks to Mathew Broderick’s phoned-in vocals), the comic relief characters can be a little too overbearing, and if I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t particularly care for the songs, with the exception of Be Prepared (songwriter Elton John felt he had hit a career low when writing Hakuna Matata, and though he’s long-since change his mind, I’m inclined to agree with his original stance).

Despite my feelings of the original Lion King being “good but not great,” its overall reception has made a remake inevitable in this day and age where Disney is seemingly remaking their entire back catalogue of animated classics.

There’s only one issue: while most of Disney’s recent remakes have been live-action, The Lion King’s all animal cast makes that an impossibility (certain animals can be trained to act – such as dogs or apes – but I think it’s safe to say that meerkats and warthogs don’t share that emotional range). So the remake of The Lion King is, like the original, an animated film. Only this time around, the animals are animated through photorealistic CGI, which ultimately works against the movie’s favor, as it removes the majority of the charm, personality, and overall visual appeal of the story at hand.

“I have to admit I liked John Oliver as Zazu more than I thought I would…”

There was some semblance of hope going into The Lion King remake. After all, it’s directed by Jon Favreau, who previously directed Disney’s 2016 version of The Jungle Book, which seems to have the warmest reception of all Disney’s recent live-action remakes (though I thought the new Aladdin was just as good). But there are a few key differences between Favreau’s Jungle Book remake and his version of the Lion King that helped the former and hinder the latter.

The first is that, although the 2016 Jungle Book was also primarily created through CG, it had a human actor in the lead role of Mowgli, so the idea of photorealistic animals interacting with him made more sense. The other big difference is that, while the original Jungle Book contains a few songs, it would be hard to refer to it as a musical. The characters simply sang a number or two here and there, so the photorealistic animal characters in the remake could get away with being a bit expressionless when they were singing (Balloo simply sang Bare Necessities as if singing in the shower, and King Louie was voiced by Christopher Walken, so it was to be expected that he would more talk I wanna be Like You than sing it).

2019’s version of The Lion King doesn’t have such benefits. It’s an animated film that doesn’t want to be an animated film. So while the CG used to bring these animals to life may be impressive, the movie loses its soul in the translation.

Without a human to interact with, making the animals look realistic in an animated film comes across as pointless, as their limited expressions can’t convey the range of emotion that their personalities require, a feat which comes without any hiccups when making the animals look animated. And seeing as The Lion King is a full-fledged, Broadway-style musical in the same vein as the other 90s Disney films (and some of their modern ones), it really works against the film that the animal characters can barely emote. You can’t have a big musical number like those found in the original, and have realistic looking animals be the ones to sing it without it coming across as awkward and lifeless. It’s a case of having ones cake and eating it too.

Another issue is that 2019’s Lion King is a bit too similar to the 1994 original. Some have had similar complaints with Disney’s other recent remakes, but those films still featured changes that felt meaningful when they were present (the newer Aladdin, for example, gave Jasmine a much stronger character arc, complete with a badass new song). The new Lion King, on the other hand, is a whole half hour longer than the original, but I’m having trouble thinking of how that is, since it follows so closely to the original.

Yes, the story is as it always was, which is to say it’s pretty much Hamlet but with animals.

Simba (DJ McCrary) – a lion cub – is the prince of the Pride Lands, being born to King Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role from the original) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard). This proves to be a deep cut for Mufasa’s younger brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who was first in line for the throne.

Scar plans various means to retake his place as future ruler of the Pride Lands, manipulating young Simba’s ego so that the young prince – trying to prove his bravery – makes his way to an elephant graveyard, with his friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) in tow. Scar intentionally kept one important detail about the elephant graveyard from Simba: it’s home to an army of hyenas who have a vendetta against Mufasa. Simba and Nala avoid a gruesome fate when Zazu (John Oliver) – a hornbill and Mufasa’s majordomo – informs the king of Simba and Nala’s whereabouts. Mufasa fights off the hyenas, leading a disappointed Scar to concoct a new plan; kill Mufasa.

I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler if I reveal that Scar’s plot to murder his brother succeeds (seriously, if you don’t know that by this point, where have you been for the past twenty-five years?). Scar, in collusion with the hyenas, orchestrates a stampede of wildebeests to kill Mufasa and Simba. Mufasa rescues his son and nearly escapes, before Scar personally throws his brother to the stampede below. Despite the remake’s issues, this iconic scene is still appropriately emotional.

A devastated Simba witnesses his father’s death (though not Scar’s involvement with it), with Scar planting the idea in Simba’s head that his father’s death was his fault. Simba runs away from the Pride Lands, falling under the care of Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa the warthog (Seth Rogen) two slackers who, while well-meaning, are basically negative influences when it comes to teaching responsibility. Meanwhile, with Mufasa gone and Simba presumed dead, Scar takes control of the Pride Lands with the aide of the hyenas, sending the kingdom into disarray.

Honestly, if you’re among those who absolutely adores the original Lion King, you may like this remake for its faithfulness to said original. Of course, I think fans of the 1994 feature are just as likely to wonder what the point of this remake is.

Again, Disney’s other remakes have played things close to their source material, often feeling like love letters to the originals as opposed to full-on remakes. But they still found time to make changes to set themselves apart. It seems like the only major change to The Lion King is that the hand-drawn, stylized animal characters bursting with personality have been replaced with realistic-looking animal characters who, by default, can’t showcase any of that personality they had in their more vibrantly-animated past lives.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been any changes made, just none that really amount to anything. Shinzi (Florence Kasumba), a hyena who was part of a comedic, villainous trio in the original, has been promoted to the leader of the hyenas. Not that it ends up amounting to much, since the change doesn’t really affect the plot at all, and she doesn’t get much screen time anyway. The remaining members of said trio, Banzai and Ed, have been replaced by Kamari and Azizi (Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre), who are still kind of a comedic duo so I don’t really see the purpose of the change.

These changes are few and insignificant. Most of the dialogue, and even camera shots, seem barely altered from the original. Though I will admit, bringing back James Earl Jones as Mufasa is a respectable decision (it’s one of those roles that simply can’t be recast, like J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of Spider-Man’s J. Jonah Jameson). Though at least one other actor from the original should have reprised their role, as Jeremy Irons is sorely missed as Scar. Chiwetel Ejiofor does his best to make Scar menacing, but his performance lacks the elegance, regality and vanity of Irons’.

Speaking of Scar, here’s where we get to the remake’s one big change from the original’s soundtrack… Be Prepared has been butchered! The once iconic villain song has been reduced to a single verse, with Chiwetel Ejiofor talking  through most of it in place of singing. Rumors suggest that Jon Favreau wanted to cut the song altogether, before settling on “merely” gutting it. Of all the songs to cut/edit, why was Be Prepared the one considered for the chopping block? In the original film, it’s the song that best expresses the character singing it. Personally speaking, I would have labelled Hakuna Matata – the song in which a warthog sings about farting – as the one musical number most in need of reworking.

Other than that baffling change, most of the songwork is more or less the same as it was in the original, with the obvious difference of them being sung by their new actors. There is one new addition to the soundtrack during the course of the movie (plus one during the credits) in the form of “Spirit” by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. While the new musical addition to the live-action Aladdin, Speechless, was a real show-stealer (I would even say it’s my favorite Aladdin song, despite not being in the original), Spirit is kind of forgettable. And despite the fact that Beyoncé voices the adult version of Nala, Spirit is merely a background number, and not actually sung by the character (which always seems kind of underwhelming in a musical).

While the voice work is mostly solid (despite my complaints with Ejiofor’s Scar mentioned earlier, they are only relative to Jeremy Iron’s performance from the 1994 film), the film actually repeats one of the shortcomings from the original in that Simba’s adult self (voiced this time by Donald Glover) is the most boring performance in the film. Both versions of The Lion King are filled with so much great voice work, yet the main character (at least in his adult form) is the one who stands out as bland in both versions!

I will say, much to my surprise, that I really enjoyed Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa. Both actors reportedly ad-libbed many of their lines, and seem to be playing the characters in a way that suggests both Timon and Pumbaa are aware they’re in a remake (at least to some degree). The film also gives Timon and Pumbaa something of a nihilistic element, with their “life is a straight line” outlook directly clashing with the “Circle of Life” philosophy Mufasa taught Simba.

Normally, I’m dead against nihilism, but what worked here is that – while many works in this cynical time depict nihilistic concepts as some kind of profundity or intellectualism – Timon and Pumbaa’s new worldview is the butt of a joke, one that highlights the shallowness and simplemindedness of nihilism (in one particularly funny scene, a naive Pumbaa, after hearing how Simba was taught about the Circle of Life, retorts with something along the lines of “That’s nonsense! If everything I did affected that guy, and that guy, and that guy, our carefree, do-what-we-want lifestyle would be pretty selfish and terrible”).

2019’s Lion King definitely has its merits. But of all Disney’s recent remakes, it also feels like the most unnecessary. The other remakes were live-action tributes to their animated counterparts, maybe tweaking certain story elements here and there, adding new dimensions to characters, or simply finding meaningful ways to mix things up a little. But 2019’s Lion King is as close to simply giving the original a new coat of paint as Disney could have gotten. If you’re among those who adores the original Lion King, that might not be so bad. But it goes without saying that this is the inferior version of Disney’s beloved classic. Yes, the CG used to bring these animals to life is impressive, but in focusing too much in emulating real life, this Lion King remake misses the point of animated storytelling and – ironically enough – robs the story of life.

Some of the positive elements of the original still shine through, the voice work is mostly solid (Donald Glover and Beyoncé being the exceptions), and I might actually like Timon and Pumbaa more after this remake. But despite being a half hour longer than the 1994 film, it’s hard to say what exactly pads this 2019 version’s runtime, as the changes made seem so minimal.

If the original Lion King had a voice, Jon Favreau’s version is merely an echo.

 

5

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Review

*Caution: This review contains major spoilers! Though I usually try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, I feel that the very nature of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and how its ending rewrites history, makes it an incredibly difficult film to discuss without talking about said ending. So again, big spoiler warning here!*

Quentin Tarantino has certainly earned his reputation as one of cinema’s premiere directors. His indelible vision is unique among his peers and contemporaries, with his excessive style feeling downright hyperactive when compared to pretty much anyone else in the industry. Tarantino is known for his unconventional narrative structures, over-the-top characters, and flamboyant aesthetics. But for all the wonder Tarantino’s style is capable of creating, it can also get the better of him at times. For every Tarantino film that is helped by his insistence on style, there’s one that’s hindered by it, with stories that feel disjointed as a consequence of putting said style over all else. Unfortunately, I believe Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s newest feature, falls into the lesser half of the Tarantino echelon for these very reasons.

Ten years ago, Quentin Tarantino released Inglourious Basterds, a film which rewrote history by means of ending WWII quite differently than how things went down in real life. Basterds received widespread acclaim, with many hailing it as Tarantino’s best film that isn’t Pulp Fiction.

Alas, this is where I must confess an unpopular opinion: Inglourious Basterds may very well be my least favorite Tarantino film up to this point (sure, Death Proof is usually considered the director’s weakest effort, but at least that film was supposed to be a cheesy B-movie). Despite the originality Basterds brought to the table thanks to its narrative structure and the fact that it, y’know, rewrote the final days of World War II, the film ended up suffering just as much (if not more) from it.

In its insistence on turning WWII into, well, a Tarantino film (excessive, stylized violence, an irreverent, smartass-y attitude, etc.), Inglourious Basterds ultimately felt like two different movies crashed into each other, and desperately scrambled to put all the pieces together into a singular film. The end result was a film that featured many scenes and characters who  felt pointless to the overall narrative (remember how Michael Fassbender’s character was introduced in one scene, only to be killed off in the next?), and two overarching storylines that felt more conflicting towards one another than anything.

Why am I going on about my unpopular opinion of a decade-old Tarantino film? Because the very things that made Ingloruous Basterds feel so clunky come back in full force in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Like Basterds before it, Hollywood rewrites real world history. And also like BasterdsHollywood seems to have a difficult time staying focused on a particular scenario, and features a number of scenes and characters that feel pointless to the overall narrative. And both films also have Brad Pitt in a prominent role.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is, in many ways, the spiritual sequel to Inglourious Basterds. Admittedly, Hollywood doesn’t feature the same Tarantino hallmarks of excessiveness in the same way Basterds did (this movie staves off the violence until the last few minutes of its nearly three hour runtime, though they’re also probably the most violent moments in any Tarantino flick). So even those who who loved Inglourious Basterds might get a wee bit antsy at times with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Though personally, I might give Hollywood the slight edge over Basterds, for two simple reasons.

The first reason is that the main characters of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are much more interesting than those of Inglourious Basterds. Hollywood stars Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a once-prolific television actor who, in 1969, is struggling with his career when he tried to make the leap to the big screen, which resulted in the cancellation of his show in the process. Dalton is often accompanied by his former stuntman and best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who keeps Dalton’s behavior in check amidst the actor’s emotional struggles.

The other reason I would bump this film slightly ahead of Inglourious Basterds in the Tarantino canon is that, while Basterds’ rewriting of history was a fun twist, it did come off as more of a stunt. An extension of Tarantino’s overall lavish stylization, if you will. It was a means for Tarantino to metaphorically jump out and say “Surprise!” to the audience. With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino rewrites history in a way that he takes a horrific, tragic event that it’s clear the director has strong feelings about, and gives it a happy ending instead. A kind of ideal fantasy version of history that only the arts could make possible.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tackles the tragic 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate (portrayed in Hollywood by Margot Robbie), her unborn child (Tate was eight and a half months pregnant at the time), and four other adult visitors in Tate’s rented home at the hands of the Manson “family” cult, specifically members Tex Watson (portrayed by Austin Butler), Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison) and Patricia Krenwinkle (Madisen Beaty).

Suffice to say, things play out a bit differently in Tarantino’s universe. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Rick Dalton happens to be Sharon Tate’s neighbor. Cliff Booth lives in a trailer with his pit bull, Brandy, but is just as often found hanging around at Dalton’s. In Tarantino’s universe, the Manson cult (fittingly portrayed as bumbling, incompetent dumbasses) run afoul of Dalton as they’re making their way to Tate’s house to commit the murders. The cult members are temporarily spooked off, until deciding to kill Dalton before moving on to Tate’s house. Once they break into Dalton’s place, however, the evil cult is greeted by Cliff and Brandy. Cliff is not only a stuntman (thus knowing how to take a hit), but also a war veteran, so he has  had more than a little combat experience. Though the Manson “family” members have murderous intent, they are ultimately a bunch of drugged-up cultists who probably wouldn’t stand a chance against a war veteran and his attack dog in a fight.

Spoiler alert: they don’t stand a chance.

Booth and Brandy violently kill Tex and Patricia with ease, while Susan Atkins (who, by accounts, is the one who personally took the life of Sharon Tate) is given a drawn-out, over-the-top death, with Dalton himself ultimately finishing her off with a flamethrower of all things. It’s a brutally violent sequence, but when you remember that the characters getting killed in the film are based on some of the evilest monsters in real history, it makes it a much easier pill to swallow.

Some critics have lambasted the final moments of the film for altering history with a “fairy tale ending” in which evil is vanquished and the innocent victims are allowed to live on and see a bright future. But the ending is possibly the film’s best aspect. It comes across as cathartic for Tarantino, to take a tragic event that affected an art form he’s loved his whole life, and to undo said tragedy entirely. The ending’s naysayers accuse it of being “wish-fulfillment,” but the way I see it, if it entails giving murder victims the chance to live full lives and for their murderers to get their comeuppance, that’s wish-fulfillment I can get behind.

More importantly, however, is that Sharon Tate’s surviving sister Debra – who for decades has been preventing Hollywood from exploiting her sister’s murder – approved the film, giving Tarantino her blessing upon reading the script. If someone so closely affected by such a tragedy can see the beauty in Tarantino’s “wish-fulfillment,” well I think that says it all.

I may be raving about the ending of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – and while it’s great that the film goes out on a high note – I still ultimately feel that it fails to reach its full potential, because the road to get to that ending is so bumpy. It’s a great final act that seemingly comes out of nowhere, since so much of the film seems to forget what it’s all building up to (at its worst, Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate – arguably the best character of the film – is largely forgotten for long stretches of time).

“OUaTiH’s depiction of Bruce Lee had me wondering what Lee could have done to sour Tarantino on him so greatly. Even if that wasn’t the intent, Lee’s depiction in the film has understandably fallen under scrutiny.”

There’s so much about the film that comes across as filler. One scene involving Cliff Booth having a confrontation with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) seems to serve no purpose other than to establish Cliff as a capable fighter as he one-ups Bruce Lee (though the film establishes Cliff’s toughness in other ways, making the scene in question seem all the more superfluous). The scene is also questionable for its depiction of Bruce Lee, who comes across as an arrogant hack who can’t back up any of the things he brags about. It just seems like a pointless defamation of Bruce Lee on Tarantino’s part.

You could argue that the film is more of a character study of both Dalton and Booth than it is focused on its rewriting of history, but that in itself creates a similar problem to Basterds in that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is torn between two different stories it wants to tell, with neither narrative interacting in any meaningful way. Dalton and Booth are never seen doing so much as conversing with Sharon Tate until the last frame of the film, and even then, the conversation is inaudible to the audience.

When Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is working as a character study, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, both Dalton and Booth can be interesting characters, and the relationship between the two is pretty unique. At first it seems that the film is going for the deadbeat friend angle, with Booth holding Dalton’s career back, due to the stigma against Booth (there’s rumor that Booth murdered his wife, a rumor that the film neither confirms nor denies). No one but Dalton will dare hire Booth, initially leading the audience to believe it’s his presence that’s getting in the way of Dalton’s once-promising acting career. But it doesn’t take long to see that without Booth, Dalton would be even more of a wreck, with Booth preventing Dalton’s demons from getting the better of him (well, any more than they do) through his level-headedness and friendship.

Both main characters have the potential to be some of Tarantino’s all-time greats, due to a few great character moments sprinkled throughout the film, their unique friendship, and the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have surprisingly good chemistry. Unfortunately, because Hollywood gets so sidetracked so often, they don’t quite reach their full potential.

One of Tarantino’s trademarks may be sharp dialogue that’s often removed from the plot. But here, if the characters spout any “removed from the plot” dialogue, it’s only because the plot is so loose and shaky to begin with, as opposed to giving us a deeper insight into the characters’ personalities, lives and interests. Dalton and Booth get a few good moments, but not enough to make the loose narratives feel like a justified excuse for the film to focus solely on their personalities.

“You gotta love how Tarantino and company made movie posters for fictional movies that exist within this movie.”

The film also deals with the emergence of the “New Hollywood” era. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood simultaneously seems to celebrate the New Hollywood era for the autersmanship that came with it, and lamenting some of Hollywood’s more simplistic tendencies that may have been lost in the transition (as reflected in Dalton’s struggling career, with Dalton becoming typecast as one-off villains in TV series, repeatedly falling to the up-and-coming actors who portray the heroes). It’s an interesting take on one of cinema’s biggest revolutions, and it’s obvious Tarantino has a lot of strong feelings about the era. So the film has a very personal retrospective feel to it in this regard.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is certainly a unique film, even by Tarantino’s standards, considering it keeps most of the director’s tendencies at bay until its final moments. I figure some of Tarantino’s fans will absolutely love it, and others (such as myself)… not so much. I still think it’s definitely worth a look if you’re a fan of Tarantino’s work, but I wouldn’t be surprised if my mixed feelings towards it are reflected on a larger scale.

Suffice to say, I don’t think Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is among Tarantino’s better films, as it has too many concepts it wants to tackle without having the ability to dedicate enough depth to enough of those concepts, despite being three hours long. And unlike a few other Tarantino films with long running times, Once Upon a Time definitely feels long.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood definitely has its merits and its moments (with particular praise going once again to Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Sharon Tate). But for every moment of Tarantino brilliance found in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, there are more than a few that will try the patience for even the great director’s more diehard fans.

 

5

Spider-Man: Far From Home Review

*Caution: This review contains spoilers to Avengers: Endgame’s plot. Though the fates of certain characters from that film will be absent*

Avengers: Endgame may have concluded the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, but Spider-Man’s second MCU solo outing, Far From Home, serves as something of the epilogue to Marvel’s “Phase Three,” and everything in the MCU up to this point. Far From Home obviously doesn’t share the sense of finality that Endgame had, but the effects of Endgame reverberate throughout Far From Home, letting audiences know that the MCU will never quite be the same again.

This is admittedly a little bit of a doubled-edged sword for Far From Home. It’s certainly a capable sequel to 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, but with the exception of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) himself, no one in  Spider-Man’s corner of the world seems to acknowledge the severity of everything the world (let alone the universe) is recovering from post-Endgame. Far From Home is a good Spider-Man movie (though it’s no Spider-Man 2 or Into the Spider-Verse), but it can at times feel like its scrambling to remember its placement in the wider MCU.

While past MCU films have, for the most part, taken place in or around the year they were released, Spider-Man: Far From Home marks the beginning of a new trend, as the MCU timeline currently sits in the year 2023 post-Endgame. Thanos wiped out half of all life in the universe using the Infinity Stones in Infinity War, before the Hulk used the stones to bring back everyone snapped out of existence into the current day in Endgame.

Far From Home does have some good fun with the premise, with a school news reporter mentioning how he was among those snapped out of existence for half of a decade, while his younger brother remained during those five years and is now his older brother. Some of these jokes land, but it is a little off-putting that Thanos’ cosmically catastrophic actions are almost exclusively referenced in a comedic sense. In Endgame we saw the devastation and tragedy of it all, with many people (including Captain America) seeking counseling because of the continued grief the world was suffering.

On one hand, Spider-Man: Far From Home has a Get Out of Jail Free Card for the consequences of Infinity War and Endgame being brushed to the side: Peter Parker and his friends are still in high school. If anyone is going to shrug off the fact that half of the entire universe was turned to dust and subsequently resurrected five years later, while still worrying and prioritizing their daily drama, it’s high schoolers. So the film can be forgiven when Peter Parker’s friends still go about their usual routines despite the fact that they were among those snapped out of existence for five years by Thanos. Less forgivable, however, are when characters like Aunt May (Marissa Tomei) crack jokes about the whole situation at fundraiser events. Some lightheartedness following-up the drama of Endgame is fine, but if you get too jokey with it, you risk undermining the ongoing narratives of the MCU (no one in Star Wars, for example, cracked jokes about Alderaan getting blown up by the Death Star).

Even though Far From Home’s placement after Endgame could have been handled better, its placement as a sequel to Homecoming is much more successful.

Far From Home sees Peter Parker and his classmates heading on a two-week field trip of Europe, where Peter hopes to take a break from super hero-ing as Spider-Man and confess his feelings for MJ (Zendaya), his classmate and crush. But seeing as a movie solely about Peter Parker on a field trip would probably be a bit of an underwhelming Spider-Man feature, things naturally don’t go quite so smoothly.

Agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) of S.H.I.E.L.D. have been investigating the sudden emergence of Elementals – monsters who are, naturally, based on the elements of earth, fire, water and wind – who threaten the balance of Earth. Normally in a situation like this, Fury would call on the aide of the Avengers, but in this post-Endgame time, the Avengers aren’t so easy to call upon. While the answers to the whereabouts of each Avenger will probably be revealed in their upcoming sequels, the simple fact of the matter is they are outside of Fury’s contact. Spider-Man is the only available Avenger, and so Fury, using his influence, has pulled the strings to set up Parker’s field trip to Europe, where the Elementals are spawning.

“I’d make a joke about how Mysterio looks like the Duke of Zil from Felix the Cat: The Movie, but the fact that I just explained that proves that no one would get the reference…”

A super-powered man from another dimension named Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), has fought the Elementals in his own world, and is determined to prevent the creatures from causing the same levels of mass destruction to this world as they did to his. Beck has been working with Fury, and needs help if he is to stop all of the elementals, hence the need for another hero like Spider-Man.

The film does a good job at dealing with Peter Parker’s double life, as any good Spider-Man film should. Sure, not all of the comedy works, and I still find this interpretation of MJ as well as Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) to be pretty annoying. But Tom Holland still makes for a great Peter Parker/Spider-Man, giving the character the right blend of humor and likability. Additionally, Jake Gyllenhaal’s presence enhances the film much in the same vein (but in a completely different way) that Michael Keaton did in Homecoming.

The story does have a few rough patches. Again, how Far From Home continues from where the MCU left off in Endgame could have been handled better. But as a Spider-Man sequel, Far From Home does another great job at telling entertaining, sometimes compelling stories through both of Peter Parker’s personas.

Spider-Man: Far From Home does feature a little bit of a twist involving Mysterio later in the film. Those who know about the character from the comics and other materials will definitely see it coming, but I can also imagine the nature of the twist might be divisive for some audiences. The MCU is no stranger to divisive plot twists, with Iron Man 3 in particular being a polarizing film due to its midway narrative shift. I can imagine some might feel Far From Home’s twist may bring that of Iron Man 3 to mind in some respects, though I believe the twist to be handled much better here, since it ultimately connects with established elements of the MCU and doesn’t undermine the themes the film had built up until that point like Iron Man 3 did.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is another solid installment in the unprecedented mega-franchise that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The comedy might not always hit the mark, especially when it comes at the expense of the rather serious events of the past two Avengers films. But it makes for a worthy sequel to Homecoming. Far From Home is consistently entertaining, with great action set pieces for Spidey and some good character moments for Peter Parker. And while many MCU films can feel like their events are merely stepping stones on the way to the next big crossover, Far From Home tells a nice, self-contained story, and ends with a fun tease as to where Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s story will go next (with a mid-credits sequence that includes a cameo that I won’t dare spoil here, but that I will say is the single best piece of fanservice I think the MCU has provided so far).

The film may present Spider-Man as a smaller-scale super hero (which seems a little questionable by this point), but Far From Home is another testament that our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man may just be the heart of the Marvel Universe.

 

7