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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Lion King


Title: The Lion King

Year of Release: 1994

Date Viewed: September 20th, 2011

MPAA Rating: G

It was hard not to be in a state of disbelief while walking along the carpet interior of the multiplex with a Lion King ticket in hand. Less than a week prior, the film was re-released to theaters sporting a new 3D look and once again claimed top honors at the weekend box office seventeen years after its first run of glory. I was there for it then too. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The success of The Lion King's 3D run came as a great surprise to many film followers including myself. It came at a time when 3D's drawing power was on a steep decline. Most cynics insist that the general public was tired of paying top dollar for an "inferior" screen format. I think it's because they were tired of paying top dollar period. Whatever the case may be, a large number of them made an exception to see The Lion King on the big screen again. Enough for the film to earn more than all the new films opening that weekend combined.

I remember spending a lot of time over the preceding weekend thinking long and hard about why the film is considered a modern classic. It had been too long ago to understand how it became such a huge box office hit in 1994. But there had to have been a reason why it continues to appear high on the favorites lists of the Walt Disney studio projects. I eventually came to conclude my own personal reasons for thinking fondly of it, but decided there was nothing definitive about them. That in turn reveals the true answer. The movie has something for everyone.

Since a musical number is what opens the film, allow me to discuss those first. We've got an establishment song: Circle of Life. Featuring the bellowing voice of South African musician Lebo M and the thundering percussion of composer Hans Zimmer, we're treated to a series of establishing shots of the African pride lands; home to its animal residents and royal family of lions. The newborn future king is being honored by a ceremony similar to the Christian tradition of baptism. Cue the finale and the title card. Feel your heartbeat. If there's no strong pulse, try removing the blindfold and ear plugs.

The second song is more bouncy and fun. The future king is naively professing his desire to lead the pride lands into the next era. But mostly just so he doesn't have to listen to parents anymore.

Because no Disney musical epic would be complete without one, the show-stealing villain number is there to trigger both chills and foot taps. Be Prepared is the title and the warning. Just how evil is this villain? The real-life persona he's most often compared to is Adolf Hitler.

Hakuna Matata is there purely for comic relief. It appears right after the dramatic turning point of the story. In other words, perfect timing. The lyrics are cheesy enough to risk embarrassment getting caught even humming it in public. A stress-free life like the song describes is mankind's universal wish. I suppose the trick is to keep reinforcing that dream until the mind is tricked into believing it as reality. It works on the main character but we soon learn some inner demons are too strong even for life's simplest philosophy. My third-grade teacher loved this song so much that she asked the class to write an essay detailing our ideal personal Hakuna Matata. This proved to be difficult for yours truly because a school assignment overrides any hope of realizing Hakuna Matata.

And then there's the love song; wisely converted from comical to mostly dramatic at the insistence of songwriter Elton John. The male demographic vote reduces it to least popular status but I'm apparently not manly enough to agree.

The plot should be vaguely familiar to anyone who survived university literature courses. The basic outline from William Shakespeare's Hamlet is borrowed with the story expanded by a prologue to set up how and why darkness has seized control of the land. The exiled future king Simba (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick) is summoned back to his homeland by the ghost of his father and deceased ruler Mufasa (voice of James Earl Jones.)

Never to be denied the chance to give guidance even in death, Mufasa makes it clear that the only way for Simba to fully cleanse the guilt of the past is to accept destiny and lead an uprising against his Uncle Scar (voice of Jeremy Irons): the wrongful heir to the throne. Simba's rebellion is essential not just for the liberation of the Pride Rock population but to preserve all the wisdom that his father passed down. Among the life lessons is the definition of bravery, respecting nature and the food chain, keeping power and responsibility in balance and understanding why nobody is nor should be immune to fear. As far as fictional wild animals go, one couldn't ask for a better role model than Mufasa.

What makes the villain so frightening is the ugly personality disguised under the ugly face. With brains even stronger than the brawn, Scar is the Cain to Mufasa's Abel. His sharply written dialogue themed with manipulation makes it hard not to feel some rage burning under the skin. I was eager to see him receive comeuppance long before any heroes realized the full reach of his corruption.

Need breaks from drama? The Lion King has it covered. Continuing the trend of the 90s (arguably Disney's golden age) the sideshow characters do everything from breaking the fourth wall to dissing their own production company to referencing pop culture. (Taxi Driver anyone?) Entertaining but startling and uneven when presented in the same film stock as a major character getting killed off at the start of act two.

For a film that was never intended to be screened in a three-dimensional format, the added effects created for the re-release are outstanding. The sunrise over Pride Rock never looked better. Zazu's flight to the top of the mountain never felt better. The action sequences were never more thrilling, especially the stampede scene. And the best moment tricked me into believing Scar was leaping directly toward me, leaving my defenseless 3D glasses to be disintegrated from the claws. There are more 3D conversions to come courtesy of the Walt Disney vault but there was a reason this film was chosen first.

Allow me to recap what The Lion King offers.

- Catchy and effective musical numbers and score
- Spiritual overtones
- Reimagining of a classic Shakespeare narrative
- Lovable heroes
- Frightening villains
- Valuable lessons of morality
- Credible voice work
- Sharp dialogue
- The "page turner" effect
- Breaking of the fourth wall
- Pop culture references
- James Earl "My voice is freakin amazing" Jones
- A shocking tearjerker
- Effective 3D effects (where applicable)

I like to think of the Lion King as a legendary traveling circus embarking on a big comeback tour. The metaphorical reason? Not every act appeals to everyone but there is something for everyone.

"And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life."

Rating: 8

Monday, December 19, 2011

Horrible Bosses


Title: Horrible Bosses

Year of Release: 2011

Date Viewed: September 7th, 2011

MPAA Rating: R

In his cynical book of advice for high school graduates, author Charles J. Sykes warned "If you think your teacher is tough, wait til' you get a boss."

Perhaps it's simply due to very good fortune but I cannot relate to that sentiment at all. Having so far been employed by four different companies, I have never worked under a supervisor or even a regional manager that came from Hell's gate like so many Generation X adults groomed me to expect. I think the real difference between a company leader and a teacher is that teaching jobs are more frequently a secondary career choice. It's rare but a treasurable thing to find a teacher who is motivated beyond the paycheck. Business leaders (the non-corrupt kind) take pride in creating/expanding jobs and/or ideas. The best leaders recognize the value in human labor and how the happiest workers are also usually the most productive ones.

We don't see any of those people in Horrible Bosses. It's a movie about exactly what the title promises. The sociopathic type of leaders who only care about the bottom line revenue. The type who take pleasure in exercising power purely for personal amusement. The type who enjoy breaking their employees' spirits. The type that everyone except me (*knocks on wood*) has experienced.

Three protagonists are stuck under the watchful eye of employers so nightmarish that it drives them into a breaking point territory that they never before considered; a plot to have them all murdered.

Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman) has possibly the slimiest and most sadistic boss in town; Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey.) Dave has spent eight years teasing a promotion endorsement for Nick but enjoys humiliating him too much to carry through with it. He forces him to work sixteen-hour days even during family emergencies and at one point berates him for arriving two minutes late to work. Nick wants to quit and find other work but realizes he'll never receive a positive recommendation from Dave. 

Dale Arbus (Charlie Day) is engaged to be married but operates under a female boss (Jennifer Aniston) who wants him for herself. Days are filled with sexual harassment and blackmail. Dale is stuck between a rock and a hard place because his status as a registered sex offender makes finding alternative employment ultra difficult.

Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis) likes his job and his boss....until he dies of a sudden heart attack. The office building is now operated by the proprietor's son Bobby (Colin Farrell); a cocaine addict and all-around rude person. Kurt's job more or less remains the same but he can't help but worry about the longevity.

The plot outline could be ripe for a serious drama. A vehicle for exploring middle class dark fantasies. But as the self-aware script points out, that had already been done before in Strangers on a Train and Throw Momma from the Train. The situations are driven for laughs sourced from the protagonists repeatedly failing to get any quality plan off the ground. Short-sighted stupidity, cruel fate and sometimes even the bosses themselves roadblock any chance for a body count. Even the assassin for hire (Jamie Foxx) ends up falling short of his reputation.

With the exception of Jennifer Aniston, all the aforementioned actors are hired to perform the routines they're best known for. That's actually a high compliment for Aniston because she has finally found something worthwhile to do outside of the stale rom-com genre. I feel some guilt saying that because truthfully the role is less than flattering and could be viewed as a step backward for feminism. Hopefully it serves as the start of a trend of selecting more interesting projects instead of a new typecast.

Horrible Bosses' humor is the zany over-the-top kind that requires the viewer to be at least mildly crazy to appreciate. But if you're already willing to root for people that advocate murder, that shouldn't be a problem, especially if the villains seem capable of doing far worse. Kevin Spacey practically makes a living off playing unpredictable characters that makes you wonder when exactly their lives jumped the shark. This isn't to imply laziness but Dave Harken is a role that Spacey can probably do while sleepwalking. He's had enough practice. Yet his master timing is still able to provide more than a few memorable "Did he really just do that?" moments. Much of the contrasting lighter humor comes from television favorite Charlie Day, especially when the script calls for his character to erupt in full-blown panic mode; a skill that Day has mastered to perfection.

The next work shift following my viewing of the film, I brought it up in a conversation with my own boss who is probably even more down-to-Earth than I am. Although I had already thought highly of him, I made sure to communicate how much the film helped me appreciate his leadership and validate my belief that the world would probably be a better place if everyone followed his example. It was that conversation that helped me realize why my boss had such an easy-going personality. He had worked under some of those fabled Generation X sociopaths who gave business leaders that intimidating aura. Thus he understood why superiority complexes were pointless. I was afraid to ask how many of them were still alive.

Rating: 7

The Constant Gardener


Title: The Constant Gardener

Year of Release: 2005

Date Viewed: September 5th, 2011

MPAA Rating: R

My viewing of The Constant Gardener felt like ordering a restaurant's specialty burger for the first time. The visible details promise a familiar experience even though the marketing claims a novel one awaits. But it's still something new and it's manufactured in capable hands, so why not try it? 

The Constant Gardener is an intriguing story sandwiched between two run-of-the-mill plot devices and wrapped in a disposable marketing label. Ralph Fiennes' photo-captured image on the DVD cover is typical of spy thrillers. Nothing to write home about yet. So let's look inside. The usual suspects are there. Unlikely romance. Disappearances. Murders. Conspiracies. All the reasons it attracted attention in the first place. Again nothing special but there remains the hunch that there's something worthwhile beyond the goal of passing time. At some point in the middle of things there is the subtle realization of a good decision.

The first eye-rolling plot device is how the lives of our two main protagonists twine into connection. Despite being a far distance from humorous territory, the movie borrows from the romantic comedy playbook. Guy and girl dislike each other at the first meeting. One makes a fool of him/herself. They're amused and before you know it are both in bed together. Apparently a bad first impression is the way to your soul mate's heart. But there's no overbearing interest about why they meet. The focus is on why they remained together even when one spirit goes missing. 

Ralph Fiennes plays a British diplomat named Justin Quayle who falls for a humanitarian for Kenya named Tessa and played by Rachel Weisz. They have pledged themselves to combat the plight of third world countries through their respective ways; the difference being Tessa prefers to be near the front and most perilous lines. It's the selflessness that makes her an admirable character and leads to the early screen revelation of her death. 

Despite the rocky road of their marriage, Justin is devastated by the loss and initially skeptical of the tragedy's meaningless circumstances. The discovery of a written letter confirms a deeper operation and quells suspicions of Tessa's romance only being a career power play. Thus begins a one-man quest for answers and justice. One that leads Justin to the same chaos that claimed Tessa's life and now threatens his own.

The Constant Gardener gets its name through the frequent use of plant imagery. Justin is shown tending to his garden much the same way Tessa treats her human patients; through gentle care and compassion. It's a stark contrast to the enemy she fights against; human experimentation on new corporate drugs. Inspired by real life similar controversies, the test subjects are the poor slum residents of African communities considered expendable by the companies that set up the process. Although it has the potential to help cure complex diseases such as tuberculosis, the ethics are called into question because of the manipulative or absent patient informed consent. Some experiments are carried out despite the strong projections of fatal results. The mindset is that it's acceptable for people with no promising future to have theirs snuffed out completely for the better good of science. A most heartbreaking moment forces Justin to treat an African resident as an expendable number for the sake of preserving his party's lives.

Until the mid-way point, The Constant Gardener opts to rapidly jump forward and backward through the timeline. This is common and fitting for stories that deal with the loss of a loved one. But this movie almost completely stumbles from the gate because of the misguided efforts to appear fancy. Too much time is wasted trying to understand the narrative, resulting in the loss of opportunity to be enthralled by it. There is redemption in the thrilling second half that's dominated by Ralph Fiennes' gift for drawing sympathy to his characters.

The other run-of-the-mill plot device left to mention appears at the film's final moments. It's all too convenient, was probably taken from that same romantic comedy playbook and was most certainly there to serve the domestic audiences' desire for full closure. Let's just say the real story is far from over. But at the same time, like a mirror effect, there's an image of sheer beauty that can only come from the work of a professional artist. The tagline "Love. At Any Cost." is lived up to. For a good long moment, the movie's flaws can be easily forgotten and the conflicting emotions of heartbreak and hope are allowed to reach their prime. Like finding a true love, it's something worth waiting for.

Rating: 6

Friday, December 9, 2011



Title: Paul

Year of Release: 2011

Date Viewed: September 3rd, 2011

MPAA Rating: R

It was around 6pm last Saturday. After a three hour session of clicking, typing and leaning my head into my hand in frustration, it was time for a snack break to recharge the brain batteries. It was a complex assignment yet the adrenaline was still running high. Homework is rarely ever this exciting but the college's film studies curriculum has brought many exceptions. As my mouth consumed the remaining pieces of dried mango, it occasionally stopped long enough to ramble about all the discoveries I had made within the past three hours. The assignment in question was a topic of my choosing: Film music composer James Horner's tendency to directly copy his own past material for use in future projects. My sister was the sole spectator; listening to me recall familiar tunes from movies of our youth. She wasn't even a quarter of the way amused as I was. Upon noticing this, I stopped, embarrassed.

"I'm such a geek," I confessed.

Then she replied with something I didn't expect. The exact words escape me but it was something along the lines of "That's okay. Being a fan of something is what makes you interesting."

And she was right. When you think about all the past and present friends that you've accumulated over the years, there's a good chance many of those friendships were spawned and are grouped by a shared interest. Celebrating that interest with someone that appreciates it as much as yourself is liberating. If the guest list is large enough, it becomes an event.

Today's movie is about two friends who live and are probably destined to die through their mutual love of science fiction. British comic-book fans Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Nick Frost) embark on a road trip adventure that begins as a celebration of extraterrestrial stories at San Diego's Comic-Con and finishes in their very own story at a Nevada desert. While touring locations relevant to alien urban legends, a road accident leads to a close encounter with a real alien being named Paul (voice of Seth Rogen).

On the run from government agents that formerly had him in custody, Paul asks his two new friends to help him reach a rendezvous destination so he can return to his home planet. It's like the final sequence in E.T. or the ALF series finale on a comedy acid trip. But don't expect very much sentimentality or even a lot of new ideas here. Expect references of past science fiction masterworks and the promotion of bad behavior. It won't make anyone proud but should please those who get a kick out of such genius lunacy.

It's clearly evident through here and their prior work that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (who also penned the script) have a strong affection for the media that inspired their own. Like the 2008 cult flick Fanboys, Paul is both a celebration and a lampooning of culture populated by obsessive individuals. Unlike Fanboys, Paul doesn't settle for just one culture. Extremism from different angles are represented through characters. Besides the sci-fi geeks, there are stereotypical government agents dressed in suits and sunglasses that will make any sacrifices necessary to keep their world control into fruition.

Paul himself doesn't even behave like someone from another planet but rather as an immature former fraternity resident who lives to recapture the glory of the prime days; via overdoses of marijuana. Even in a voice-only assignment, Seth Rogen still manages to demonstrate again why he's so natural in those roles. (That's a compliment, just to be clear.)

The personification of extremism that seemed to draw the strongest critical response was the staunch creationist character named Ruth, played by the always sporty Kristen Wiig. When Ruth sees Paul for the first time, she loses her bearings and screams for her God to terminate the alien being, going as far as spontaneously dropping to her knees in prayer while singing Amazing Grace. The scene and the character are played over the top and purely for laughs but not without drawing the criticism from believers who condemned the film for having an unfair depiction of Christians. (The IMDB message board threads is full of heated discussions.) Many played the straw man card; a mostly valid claim, but one that doesn't hold up when stacked against the lineup of other far out archetypes. And if someone already agrees to view a film about an alien life form; something that's undocumented on any scientific chart and few religious ones, is it really unfair to ask the same person to suspend their remaining pre-conceived notions on how life came to be? Even most atheists don't believe in life outside our home planet so the controversy doesn't really have ground to stand on anyway.

Shortly before the climax, the movie takes a break from the one-liners and stoner humor to tie up a loose end concerning Paul's past. He got his name from a young girl who witnessed his fateful crash landing. Now an elderly woman, she exhibits depression over the long years of ridicule she had to face from people who didn't believe her story, until Paul shows up again in her life to liberate the despair away. Of all the film's references to pop culture's affect on its aficionados, this one is probably the most important because of how it speaks to the young adult in all of us. Life has a turning point that asks us to let go of the preferred reality that the mind creates and accept the real one. To grow up, so to speak. Those who were exposed to stories about chosen heroes or worlds of imagination during youth would dream of encountering a similar fantasy in their own life before accepting it as nothing more than just that; fantasy. That's why films such as E.T. have such a strong appeal to the youth because of how it stimulates those dreams. Adults now have Paul for times when they wish to revisit the nostalgia and this time with a chance to hear all the F-words that the parents warned against. The best of both worlds indeed.

Rating: 7