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Jim Schembri’s new release movie reviews & Stephen Amis Interview

Jim Schembri

THE LION KING ***1/2 (118 minutes) PG

The advent of The Lion King is the latest example of a major release that leaves you wondering whether the film you’ve seen is the same one critics have been savaging with relish for the past few weeks.

While acknowledging the film’s technical achievement in remaking the 1994 traditionally animated Disney classic into a digitally animated epic where photo-realistic creatures talk and sing (but thankfully don’t dance), the film has been almost universally slagged off.

Almost in unison, US critics who saw the film about a week ago have knocked it as being slow, cold and uninvolving, a “deepfake copycat” (The Guardian), “a crushing disappointment” (Forbes) and even “a disastrous plunge into the uncanny valley” (Indiewire).

But let’s put the knuckle dusters away and keep our heads.

Is the new Lion King as good as the original? No, of course, it isn’t.

For all its wonders, digital animation is still yet to replicate the warmth and depth of expression possibly with traditional animation. As with Aladdin, the chief virtue of this lavish remake will be to drive people to rewatch the original classic.

With that said, this new Lion King is a terrific big-screen happening, a perfectly entertaining and engaging family film that sticks very closely to the original story while showcasing the staggering degree of realism now possible by Disney’s digital artists (each of whom were no doubt commanded to bring their A-game, and then some).

The film certainly honours the principle championed by ground-breaking Pixar co-founder John Lasseter, who has often insisted that wizz-bang technology and visual splendours don’t matter if audiences aren’t hooked by characters and story.

And the characters and story of The Lion King are now hard-wired into our minds.

Lion King Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones, who did the original) tutors his son Simba (Donald Glover) about the onerous duties that await him once he takes over the job of being the ruler of all he surveys.

Mufasa’s jealous brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has other plans, though. He ingeniously dispatches Mufasa, makes Simba thinks he did it, then commands his hyena henchmen to kill him.

Yet Simba survives, leaves, and grows up in the company of warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner), who are part of a hippie-type community of critters who don’t eat meat.

Trekking across the badlands, childhood friend Nala (Beyonce) summons Simba back to face down Scar, whose evil management style has turned the wild kingdom into a wasteland. It’s here where hard truths are revealed and Simba must stand his ground against one of the worst uncles in movie history.

It’s such a great yarn director Jon Favreau (who helmed Disney’s remake of The Jungle Book) would have had to have made a sizeable effort to bung it up.

It’s got to be said that gigs like this, challenging as they may be, are a bit of a gift where the studio’s directive to the director is pretty clear: Here, remake this classic; stick to the basics; keep all the built-in branding pristine; make it look great; don’t do anything stupid. Now, here’s $300 million. Go.

As unassailable as the original is, the big advantage the new film does have is that it no longer has the abstraction you have with traditional animation.

Thus, the story’s big dramatic moments – the conflicts, the confrontations, the fights, the killings – come across much more forcefully and with added scariness. Some of the scenes get pretty intense and the famous murder scene warrants a special warning, especially for young children. It’s very vivid.

Indeed, the realism achieved in the film makes you wonder how nervous Hollywood’s animal trainers must be getting. We’ve seen in such films as Planet of the Apes, Alpha and The Jungle Book how realistically digital artists can now render animals.

It can’t be too far away before a film comes out featuring a digitally created human that nobody can spot. We still have the comfort of the “Uncanny Valley”, that intuitive ability to detect a synthetic human, however close to perfect its creation may be.

We certainly see this intiuition kick in with those labour-intensive “deepfakes” that digitally mimic public figures and have them spouting invented dialogue. They look real, but they’re not quite – and you can tell. But what’s it going to be like when we have to be told what’s real and what isn’t?

As to the question “why does Disney do this?”, which many people ask, the answer is a simply, very polite, “Don’t be silly.”

When done properly, these remakes can take in a billion dollars at cinemas, and double (sometimes triple) that at home and in the stream. Both The Jungle Book and Aladdin did about a billion each, as did Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), the film that got this whole thing started.

Even with a $300 million budget, that’s a return too sweet not to pursue, no matter what critics might think.

Indeed, The Lion King has quickly become the latest example of a major film sneered at by critics and embraced by audiences. Since opening on 19 July, the film has taken $US564.4 million globally, putting it on track to clear a billion in about a week’s time. According to Box Office Mojo, The Lion King set records in the US for the biggest July weekend opening.

In Australia, the film took a thunderous $24.75m ($US17.4m).

Not bad.

 

THE WHITE CROW **1/2 (127 minutes) M

The performances might be on point and the period recreation of 1960s Europe rich in Cold War detail, yet Ralph Fiennes’ depiction of the Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s historic defection to the West is an oddly matter-of-fact affair.

As Nureyev, Oleg Ivenko certainly captures the dilemma of an artist trapped in a strict circumstance that constantly inflames his frustration. Provoking him is his quietly subversive dance tutor Pushkin (a bald-capped Fiennes), who pushes Nureyev’s passion and triggers his need for self expression.

Though never dull Fiennes, directing his second film after 2011’s fine Coriolanus, keeps the pace very measured and the mood tempered, even as Nureyev eagerly explores Paris life during one of his ballet troupe’s strictly controlled tours outside the Soviet Union.

The solid final 20 minutes of the film demonstrate how strong a director Fiennes can be, but it’s a slow, obviously deliberate build up that might test the patience of those who don’t have a standing interest in either the dancer or of this distant period in history.

The Cold War lost a lot of cinematic currency when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and its official end in 1991 made it tough for filmmakers to use as a means of suspense.

To his credit Fiennes, working from a screenplay by David Hare, builds sufficient dramatic tension leading to Nureyev’s move, conveying it as a human moment as well an historic one, yet he never quite pushes through to hit any major emiotional buttons.

 

APOLLO 11 ***1/2 (93 minutes) G

Though this outstanding assemblage of archival footage about the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon has no narrator, interviews, commentary or analysis, director Todd Douglas Miller creates a compelling narrative detailing just how big a step humankind took 50 years ago.

Featuring never-before-seen footage of the launch and of the mission itself, the film, brilliantly sculpted from hundreds of hours of video and thousands of hours of audio, effectively puts us at mission control and in the spaceship with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.

The film offers a truly visceral experience, creating the powerful illusion that the eight-day event is occurring in real time.

Cutting between the astronauts in the capsule and the chain-smoking crew on the ground, each transmission is filled with tension as we’re taken to the landing – which, we now learn,  was almost a crash – and those first steps.

It’d be a cold heart indeed who can watch this film without feeling a lump in the throat at key moments, with the capsule’s return to Earth being especially stirring.

If the film has a message it’s the simple question of why, after such an achievement so long ago, we humans have been so modest in our exploration of space and in our desire to return to the moon.

There is certainly an implied taunt that if they could do it way back then with such primitive technology, what is holding us back now?

In terms of audience appeal, the film will obviously nab baby boomers who saw the event on TV, yet the best audience for this rivetting chronicle are surely those for whom the moon landing was something that happened to and for another generation.

Apollo 11 seems designed specifically to correct that, to pull the event out from the mists of nostalgia, imbue it with the relevance and power of a current event and present it to the current generation.

  

DIEGO MARADONA *** (130 minutes) M

Revered as a soccer God by some, reviled by others, the increasingly rocky road Argentinian Diego Maradona traversed through the sport in the 1980s is unpacked in unflinching detail by gun doco director Asif Kapadia (Senna; Amy).

Recruited by a desperate Naples in 1984, it was as though Maradona’s mere presence would be enough to bring the team an ever-elusive championship and lift the social status of its passionate supporters, who are considered heathens by their northern cousins.

But politics, the press, public pressure and Maradona’s swollen celebrity collided to make the journey to triumph a bitter and resentful one. With government corruption, the Mafia and drug abuse weaving into the story, Kapadia unspools a cautionary narrative of success and its horrifying flipside, which is not failure but treason.

In Maradona’s case it comes on a national scale and with the ferocity of a buffalo stampede as his public persona switches from saint to Satan.

Made with Maradona’s consent and co-operation, the unflattering portrait the film paints of his darker side suggests his editorial input was either negligible or that he dearly wanted all the warts of his story to be told, in context and via archival footage, of which most of the film is composed.

Fans of his and of the game will find easy purchase with the film, but so too will people who are interested in yet another vivid example of how fraught success and fame are. Like certain drugs they can be pleasurable when handled with care and consumed in moderation, but dangerous when indulged.

 

DEFEND CONSERVE PROTECT **1/2 (76 minutes) PG

As clearly green-biased as it is, at least the title of this film does the job of signalling what an unapologetically activist, one-sided enviro-doc you’re in for. And it does have its moments.

Edited from hundreds of hours of footage taken by the crews of four small Sea Shepherd ships, director Stephen Amis takes us on a voyage with a seemingly fearless, sea-faring group of (mostly young) adventurers determined to make a small but loud dent in a Japanese whaling operation in the southern ocean.

The film certainly can’t be faulted for being topical, with the Japanese brazenly announcing recently that they’re doing away with the pretense of hunting whales for “research”. They’ve pulled out of the International Whaling Committee, scrapped the word “research” off the side of their main ship – it’s still there in the film, along with the website address – and they’re going back to commercial killing in local waters to supply Japan’s small whale meat market.

What is it about Japan and whales? Why do they come all this way south? What does their government say about the issue? What does our government say? Why aren’t these, and many other, questions asked?

Defend Conserve Protect isn’t that kind of documentary. In fact, you could argue that it’s not a documentary at all, but a cinematic op-ed piece, a genre ignited by Michael Moore with Fahrenheit 9/11 back in 2004. (Perhaps it’s a sub-genre of documentary?)

The film isn’t interested in the other side of the story or in balance, which is OK in this case because it’s upfront about it.

What it is interested in is giving voice to the majestic whales via a narration delivered by comedian/actor/supporter Dan Aykroyd, something the film would have been better off ditching.

So without an argument to test, the film is likely to be most appealing to those of like mind, which pushes it into the realm of propaganda.

Look, nobody likes the sight of whales getting harpooned and dragged onto a ship, and those sequences are pretty brutal. But it would be useful to know more about these whaling crews and of what happens on these ships.

More worrying, though, are the risks these green activists are willing to take to prosecute their cause.

In the film’s key sequence one of Sea Shepherd’s small ships deliberately gets between the factory ship and a massive fuel tanker, which are both giants. Sandwiched between them in rough seas, the little ship is clearly in peril as it gets knocked about. It’s gripping footage, to be sure.

Yet while we like to admire those who put themselves in harm’s way for a cause they believe in, there is a difference between brave, crazy-brave and straight-out stupid. Given how, ultimately, the act was token gesture of defiance, it would have been great to see that debated in the film.

On a lighter note, we also get to see what happens when one’s enthusiasm for a noble cause can override common sense, as when you push a vessel just that little bit too hard and render it useless.

Melbourne director Stephen Amis does a splendid job editing the many camera angles together to create a cohesive story.

Best known for feature films such as The BBQ and The 25th Reich, Amis has a long association with Sea Shepherd and says he received no payment for his work on the film.

Amis was kind enough to sit down with us to chat about the film in some detail, including the risks taken by the activists. He makes it clear that he was not part of the voyage, but was tasked with editing all the footage together, an endeavour that took him almost three years.

 He also speaks about his other works, including his Shane Jacobson comedy The BBQ, which he directed and co-wrote. A dismal box-office and critical failure, he speaks frankly about what happened to the film shortly before production. He also reports that, despite its theatrical run, the $3.8 million film did end up in profit.

Please enjoy.

Jim Schembri
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