Stephen Schaefer’s Hollywood & Mine – Boston Herald
We know Disney has perfected the CGI-created live action animals with their ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Jungle Book’ remakes. What makes ‘The One and Only Ivan’ special, different, enchanting is that Mike White’s adaptation of Katherine Applegate’s Newbery Medal-winning children’s book takes down all the noise, all the bombastic might we associate with Disney’s mighty wild beasts and their epic lairs to tell an affecting story between man and beast. It’s almost as if instead of their usual $200 million family-oriented extravaganzas, the Disney team, perhaps led by producer Angelina Jolie, made the equivalent of a $20 million off-Broadway show.
‘Ivan’ is set in a dying suburban shopping mall. It seems like it’s decades ago. There’s a small-change one-ring circus run by Mack (Bryan Cranston) whose animal acts include an aged elephant Stella (voiced by Jolie), a baby elephant Ruby (Brooklynn Prince), a rooster (Phillipa Soo), a chicken (Chaka Kahn), a poodle (Helen Mirren), a mutt (Danny De Vito) who isn’t in the circus but hangs out, preferably by sleeping on the chest of Ivan (Sam Rockwell), a massive silverback gorilla who is the star of this show and thus is proclaimed on a billboard, ‘The One and Only Ivan.’ There’s George (Ramon Rodriguez) who takes care of the animals and who brings his sweet little girl Julia (Ariana Greenblatt) backstage to do her homework. She’s attentive and discovers truths about Ivan that Mack has easily ignored.
We listen and watch as the animals talk to each other. There is death. Change. And the realization that Ivan has other abilities than to simply pound his chest and roar: Ivan can draw. Julia realizes he’s depressed in his cage in this windowless ‘home’ he’s had for nearly 30 years. How Ivan’s life transforms – and everyone else’s – is the simple, affecting story.
The end credits reveal there was a real silverback gorilla who inspired this tale; don’t miss them. In its pitch-perfect quiet tone under Thea Horrocks’ spot-on direction, combining the CGI world and real live actors, ‘The One and Only Ivan’ is really a one and only.
FREEDOM FIGHTER Timely, although postponed from a spring release by the pandemic, ‘Emperor’ (Blu-ray, Universal, PG-13), like this week’s upcoming online release ‘The 24th’, tells a little-known chapter of Black history, courtesy of co-writer and director Mark Amin. Shields ‘Emperor’ Green (newcomer Dayo Okeniyi) was African royalty who was enslaved and eventually escaped. His demise came with the historical uprising engineered by the abolitionist John Brown at Harper’s ferry.
Brown (James Cromwell) hoped his attack would incite a slave uprising throughout the South. The film fudges history to tell an imaginative story that springs from what little is known about Shields Green. He really did meet with Frederick Douglass (Harry Lennix), the great abolitionist, suffragist and champion of not just Black rights but equality for all. ‘Emperor’ sees Shields Green escaping from a South Carolina plantation after he’s killed several white men who have beaten his son. On his way north he is helped by abolitionist Levi Coffin (Bruce Dern). It’s an historical action movie with a hero for our times.
OUTGUNNED UNBOWED Scott Eastwood scored a decisive box-office boost, Orlando Bloom was hailed for career-best work and Caleb Landry Jones stole every scene — all for ‘The Outpost’ (Blu-ray, Screen Media, R), an intense, violent recreation of an actual Afghanistan battle. A comeback for director Rod Lurie, a West Point grad, ‘Outpost’ begins slowly as, gradually and inexorably, we’re drawn into the not-so-surprising Taliban assault and leave not one American soldier on this cursed military base alive.
The corps, mightily outmanned, had been notified that their ridiculously located camp – basically indefensible, surrounded on three sides by Taliban-controlled mountains — is going to be evacuated. Unfortunately, the Taliban know their exit plans as well and launch this brutal assault. It’s visceral, at times so incredible it’s hard to believe what we’re seeing – yet it’s the real deal. When the Taliban pierced the outpost perimeter and everyone was ordered to huddle inside for a last stand — the code word was Alamo – Eastwood’s Clint Romesha really did rally the troops and save the day. Bonus: Lurie’s audio commentary, rehearsal footage and a featurette on the camp.
STRATEGIC WEAPONS CAN BE HUMAN Shemar Moore has found a career-defining starring role as Daniel ‘Hondo’ Harrison in ‘S.W.A.T. Season Three’ (DVD, 21 episodes, 5 discs, Sony, Not Rated). It’s the ex-model’s third successful series after ‘The Young and the Restless’ (1994-2005) and ‘Criminal Minds’ (2005-2016).
‘Season Three’ begins with a serial killer using drones to bomb targets, an escapade which means senior LAPD Hollywood Lt. Piper Lynch must oversee all of the various departments on the case. Simultaneously Hondo’s guardianship of teen-aged Darryl becomes complicated when his estranged dad shows up to settle down and move right on in. That’s just the start of a series that alternates S.W.A.T. action with personal crises. Bonus: Deleted scenes & blooper reel.
PRE-CODE! AND RESTORED Strange, near-Freudian storytelling with flashbacks and dream-like sequences makes the restored 1933 ‘The Sin of Nora Moran’ (Blu-ray, The Film Detective, Not Rated) a pre-Code must-see. Nora, who is condemned to die in the electric chair for a murder she did not commit, is played by Zita Johann, the Austrian-Hungarian émigré best known for Boris Karloff’s original ‘The Mummy’ (’34). What’s unusual about ‘Nora Moran’ besides its then avant garde storytelling is its resurrection from being a ‘lost’ film by the Poverty Row outfit known as Majestic Pictures to its eventual restoration by UCLA. Perhaps the most eloquent factor about ‘Sin of Nora Moran’ is that its racy poster with a near-naked Johann by the legendary illustrator Alberto Vargas, is not just more famous than the film, it’s now ranked among the greatest film posters of all time. Check out Wikipedia’s Alberto Vargas page.
SUPER SUPERNATURAL Adapted from a novella by the 19th century English writer Thomas De Quincey (1821’s ‘Confessions of an Opium Eater’), ‘Those Who Deserve to Die’ (Blu-ray, Kino Lorber, Not Rated) could be called a supernatural revenge drama from Atlanta-based writer-director Bret Wood. This 2019 American independent film tracks 2 very different stories – as we wait to see if and when they converge. One has in a picturesque Deep South town a caped killer with a diabolical little girl committing unspeakable acts while simultaneously an injured war vet returns home for college and becomes emotionally attached to a social worker, the daughter of a State Supreme Court Justice (Lynn Lowry, the film’s only familiar face). Among the special features: Deleted scenes, the featurette ‘Malice of Alice: A Mother/Daughter Portrait’ and Bret Wood’s 6-minute 2007 short ‘Security.’
ASSISTED SUICIDE? OR MURDER Fans of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the Danish ‘Game of Thrones’ star, may find ‘Exit Plan’ (DVD, Screen Media, Not Rated) unexpected, a bold departure. Information is ever so slowly parsed, silence dominates and only gradually does a scenario become visible. Coster-Waldau’s Max is an insurance investigator who has just been told his incurable brain tumor is growing.
A fastidious man with a broomstick mustache, glasses and always alert eyes, he decides his imminent end would be too big a burden for his beautiful wife. He signs up for Hotel Aurora, a weird, isolated enterprise in the middle of nowhere who promise a leave-taking customized to the individual’s last wish. The DVD proclaims ‘Once you check in. You can’t leave.’ Which is frightening for those who do change their minds and are then, technically, murdered. As Max struggles to accept his fate reality seems to be … altered? In Danish with English subtitles.
MUSICAL ICON REVISITED At 81 singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot has triumphed over death (several times) and changing musical landscapes to emerge weathered but ebulliently vital. The extraordinary documentary ‘Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind’ (DVD, Greenwich Entertainment, Not Rated) takes its title from the 1970 song, a personal reflection on his disintegrating marriage, that was a Number One hit that went gold and supercharged his career.
As directors, writers and producers Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni’s expansively cover Canada’s revered native son not with genuflections but honesty. Here are the highs and lows of a career that seemed from the 5-year-old who first played piano to be marked by destiny. Lightfoot, a boy soprano, became a folk and country standout. Also, a singer-songwriter who faced troubling times. With Sarah McLachlan and Alec Baldwin.
LEGENDARY: A titan among Hollywood’s most accomplished and acclaimed actors Denzel Washington has often tackled real-life figures: ‘Malcolm X’ in Spike Lee’s biopic, boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter in Norman Jewison’s ‘The Hurricane,’ football coach Herman Boone in ‘Remember the Titans,’ Harlem drug dealer Frank Lucas in ‘American Gangster’ and the debate coach Melvin B. Tolson in ‘The Great Debaters.’ That’s quite a list. But the first of his 8 (so far) Oscar nominations came for playing another real-life figure, a hero who stood up and stood tall.
We’re talking about the South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko in Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1987 ‘Cry Freedom’ (Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics, PG). It’s an epic film from the director of ‘Gandhi’ and tells the intimate story of the friendship that developed in a country under white minority rule and flagrant suppression of Black lives in every way. Kevin Kline is liberal journalist Donald Woods whose consciousness is raised by Biko, who eventually becomes his great friend. As Biko continues to speak out, he is beaten and martyred in 1977. Woods is determined to bring Biko’s message – and the truth about his death at the hands of the security police who labeled it ‘a hunger strike’ – to the world. To do this, he has to escape the country and gain political asylum in London where he is eventually joined by his wife and family. ‘Freedom’ ends with a lengthy list of those anti-apartheid activists who died while in government custody under suspicious circumstances. Bonus: Eddie Von Mueller’s audio commentary.