Disney reimagines The Lion King using photo-realistic animation, a technology far beyond the original animated version while not quite using talking animals. It’s a powerful and often frightening experience for very young children telling the familiar story about a boy and his kingdom but as Disney movies usually indicate, life is unpredictable. Diverse animals live together ruled by the wise lion Mufasa who encourages and protects his citizens. He is killed and his evil brother Scar, one of the great villains in film history, takes the throne for himself. Mufasa’s son, the cub Simba, the true king, is driven away. He’s taken in by warthog and meerkat Pumbaa and Timon whose laid back humour and nuggets of wisdom hidden in sarcasm reboot him.
Simba returns home years later to reclaim what’s his, facing Scar and his horrible hyenas. Jon Favreau’s version looks close to real for all the digitization and retains its classic, horrific elements of loss, murder and violence. An that’s balanced by moments of profound love. That familiar soundtrack and new soundscape marry traditional regional African music with the sweep of Broadway and Beyoncé’s heart-swelling song Spirit. Danny Glover, James Earl Jones, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Chance the Rapper and Billy Eichner lead a terrific voice cast. Here’s Bey as Nala.
Rapper Awkwafina proved herself a gifted comic actor in Crazy Rich Asians and now she owns drama in The Farewell. She’s Billi, a Chinese-born, U.S.-raised New Yorker in a tenuous relationship with her parents; they go to China to spend time with her grandmother Nai-Nai who is expected to die soon. Thing is, granny doesn’t know, the family hides the reason they are there with a hastily staged wedding. Billi thinks the lie is wrongheaded but toes the family line to keep the peace and finds unexpected humour and pathos. Never sentimental, never inauthentic, writer/director Lulu Wang hits all the nerves – she should know – it’s her story. It’s more heartfelt than dour, it’s fun, sweet, provocative, and demands serious inner reflection. One of the year’s most moving films brings tears weeks after seeing it. Well done, Awkwafina, the conflicted heart of the story. Remember The Farewell come awards season.
Jesse Eisenberg goes against type as a nervous nelly in Riley Stearns’ black comedy The Art of Self Defense. Instead of his trademark frenetic, brilliant, fast-talking characters, he’s the classic “Before” man of fifties comic book advertising, nerdy, tentative and afraid of his own shadow. He’s also borderline mean to the only creature that can’t hurt him back, his little wiener dog, so we’re not 100% onboard for him. He’s badly roughed up by street bikers then enlists in a dojo to study martial arts where he learns from his sociopathic sensei (an hilariously outsized Allessandro Nivola) and his vicious assistant (Imogen Poots) that successful fighting is primarily mental. Stearns packs the script with neato facts about the arts “Punch with feet kick with the hands” and nonsense philosophies that make it seem as though breaking off an opponent’s arm might be construed excellent. The sanseis and Eisenberg interact, but the students merely do what they’re told and stare straight ahead, frightened for their lives. Eisenberg has some success and gradually joins the bosses in a kind of contagious psychopathy from which no good can come. Its’ surreal and funny and at the exact same moments, sickening, verging on horror. Still wondering if its good or if it stinks.
Push is a rude and necessary wakeup call to the state of fair housing around the world. Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing and based in Toronto travels to London, New York, Hong Kong, Toronto, Tokyo, Valparaiso, Sydney, Melbourne, Caracas, Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm and sees the same scenario in each city – affordable housing is disappearing. Liberty Village at King and Dufferin rents increased 425% in 30 years while income increased only by 123%. Long term residents are pushed out of neighbourhoods to make way – legally – for luxury housing for the wealthy, often as investments by foreigners. Often, they sit empty, as homelessness increases in the same neighbourhoods. Director Fredrik Gertten digs for answers with international experts and discovers something far more insidious than gentrification as the cause of this imbalance, foundational government negligence. Increasing deregulation allows companies like Blackstock to buy up entire neighbourhoods and superheat markets, then move on the next and the next. This clear-eyed, deeply disturbing investigation into government and market forces that quash citizens makes greed visible and reminds us that as the UN decrees, housing is a human right. Economist Milton Friedman presages Donald Trump with his ideology “not to be concerned with morality, don’t give losers your winnings”. Add corruption, legalese, airtight money laundering, complexity and more.
Great opening title in the nifty Chinese indie noir Absurd Accident advises We read the world wrong and say it deceives us!! How true. Li Yuhe’s Fargo-esque crime thriller takes place in the countryside in and around a diner owned by a sleepless, impotent man and his fiery, bat-wielding wife – his tigress. He hires a hitman to wipe her out when he discovers she’s cheating. Thing is, he read it wrong and has to backtrack fast and it is well beyond his capabilities. The maddening minutiae of everyday life help this little gem whiz along as bizarre subplots and moments play out. It pokes fun at cliched tropes like the cop on the night shift set to retire the next day, offers profitable new uses for gum, and lets the air out of pretension and certainty. Nothing’s what it seems. Oddly the characters’ breath can be seen in most scenes, indoor and out. Make of that what you wish. Absurd Accident stars Xixu Chen, Ye Gao, Suxi Ren, Bo Dong, Yunfei Lou and a host of Fargo steals. On Amazon Prime Video and Vimeo on Demand.
Larry Weinstein’s Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies examines another way people are manipulated and abused for profit. Advertising is as old as the hills as we learn how people learned to sell the sizzle and not the steak. Today it’s in overdrive, popping up on your screens, in all media, from sides of barns to explosive colourful sound and motion in most city centres. It works. People are consumed by consuming, lured by seductive bombardment. And its not just for fine whiskeys, movies and high-end purses, its for government and elections and political will. Just ask Russia. Political brainwashing, attack on minds, unconscious submission are not good for us.
Art is propaganda, from Orwell’s 1984, to Cree artist Kent Monkman’s rejigged historic Plein Air paintings to serve a larger meaning, the Irish guy that came up with that iconic, heroic portrait of Che Guevara, the propaganda of war, cinema, TV reality shows, street art, Royal Weddings, the deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo over a cartoon etc. Westerner Morten Travik is an event planner in North Korea who claims we’re being fed lies about the state. In the wrong hands, propaganda is deadly and it’s in every aspect of modern life. Even Weinstein’s film is subversive, adhering to his agenda. The film presents many more examples of “persuasion” from ISIS video art to the films of Steve Bannon. It’s exhausting and depressing and it’s not fake, it’s all too real.
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