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THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE

Producer: Cody Ryder, Andrew Kortschak, Stephanie Whonsetler and Walter Kortschak
Director: Riley Stearns
Writer: Riley Stearns
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, David Zellner, Phillip Andre Bottello, Jason Burkey, Mike Brooks and CJ Rush
Studio: Bleecker Street

B

Maybe the injunction to “Man up!” isn’t heard quite as frequently as it was a few years ago—except on the stages where “The Book of Mormon” is being performed, of course—but what might be the result if some poor soul took it seriously is treated in darkly humorous fashion in Riley Stearns’s “The Art of Self-Defense.” The film’s tone is audaciously quirky and surrealistic, but in addition to being wickedly funny, the movie is also genuinely disturbing.

The story is about Casey Davies, the quintessential dweeb played, in what most would consider perfect typecasting, by Jesse Eisenberg. He’s a wimpy accountant whose fellow workers, a trio of macho braggarts, look on him with contempt, though his boss seems pretty considerate. He lives alone, of course, and seems to have no friends, of either gender, except for his dog, a droopy dachshund. To put a little excitement into his drab existence he photocopies a naughty magazine he finds on a colleague’s desk and takes it home to masturbate to.

Then one night he has to go out to buy a bag of dog food, despite the fact that the neighborhood has been plagued by an outbreak of muggings. On the way home he’s badly beaten up by a bunch of black-clothed, helmeted thugs on motorcycles. It turns out to be a long recuperation.

The experience encourages him to look into buying a handgun for protection, but after putting in an application for one, he stumbles on a karate dojo, where an authoritarian owner who demands that everyone calls him Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) presides over a clutch of devoted acolytes—all men, except for Anna (Imogen Poots), whom Sensei allows to teach the children’s classes though he otherwise treats her as undeserving of being ranked with the men, though she’ a better fighter than any of them.

Casey decides to join the dojo, and after a rocky start is for some reason taken under his wing by the oddball Sensei, who dispenses the most horrendously macho bromides in a calm, authoritative fashion. Although viewers will certainly perceive him as a dangerous, creepy guy despite—or perhaps because of—his eerily unsettling demeanor (and his oft-stated reverence for his mentor, who—it’s revealed—died a ridiculous death in spite of his iconic prowess), Casey and the other disciples—save for Anna—accept his dicta unthinkingly, even when doing so results in their humiliation or physical harm.

While the picture shows how this sinister system affects some of the other students (most notably a pathetic, envious wannabe named Henry, played by David Zellner, who has the temerity to challenge things), the focus is on what it does to Casey, who becomes insanely devoted to Sensei’s teaching after being promoted; in order to enjoy the feeling of power his recently-won yellow belt gives him all the time, he has a regular belt made in that color for himself, as well as belts in other colors for his fellow students. He also quits his job to manage the dojo’s accounts, and—in a twist that some will consider going too far—he succumbs to the basest instinct that the supposed master’s pseudo-philosophy leads to.

It wouldn’t be fair to disclose how Casey’s faith in Sensei unravels, though it can be said that it involves both personal loss and the secrets he finds in Sensei’s inner sanctum, the “equipment room” that he forbids anyone to enter. There isn’t a great deal of surprise in the decisions Anna takes, but Stearns does have a trick up his sleeve when Casey finally has his inevitable confrontation with Sensei, although you might observe that both he and the character he’s created seem to have watched the first “Indiana Jones” movie.

With his fluttery, nervous air Eisenberg is a perfect Casey, and Potts actually manages to invest the unfortunate Anna with some real poignancy. But it’s Nivola who’s the real revelation. He’s had minor parts in some good movies before, but here he has a major one that he completely inhabits. He makes Sensei a genuinely chilling character, the complete anti-Miyagi.

In visual terms the film is a weird hybrid, with Charlotte Royer’s production design and Michael Ragen’s cinematography mingling what for the most part is a dingy sort of naturalism, complete with strangely empty streets, with splashes of oddball color and peculiar lighting. That, along with the lapidary pacing of Sarah Beth Shapiro’s editing, makes for a continuously off-kilter experience, like a hyped-up dream. Much of the picture does without a background score, making it all the more effective when Heather McIntosh’s brooding music kicks in.

“The Art of Self-Defense” is hardly a movie for everyone. But for those who think it might be a weirdly enjoyable to see “The Karate Kid” turned perversely upside-down in order to investigate the dark underbelly of what it means to be “manly,” here’s your chance.

THE LION KING

Producer: Jon Favreau, Jeffrey Silver and Karen Gilchrist
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: Jeff Nathanson
Stars: Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Oliver, James Earl Jones, John Kani, Alfre Woodard, JD McCrary, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Penny Johnson Jerald, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, Florence Kasumba, and Amy Sedaris.
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

C

Cannibalism has come to the Circle of Life—perhaps not literally, although there’s a good deal of chomping in Jon Favreau’s remake of “The Lion King,” and one can’t always be certain of who or what’s being devoured.

But on a less literal level, the movie is the latest in Disney’s project to cannibalize its own animated classics by retooling them, usually in quasi-live-action form (as with the recent “Aladdin”). That’s not possible in this case, of course, but moving another step beyond the already impressive realism that Favreau managed in his 2016 version of “The Jungle Book,” it often comes as close to natural verisimilitude as one might want. Except, of course, when the animals move their mouths to speak or sing, you might be fooled into thinking you were watching the sort of true-life adventure the company used to make back in the fifties. (The visual effects supervisors were Mark Livolsi and Adam Gerstel, the production designer James Chinlund, and the cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.)

The difficulty with that is that while a good deal of it is relatively happy and upbeat, there’s a good deal of violence in this story, and the more visually realistic it becomes, the more gruesome and unpleasant it is to watch, particularly for smaller children. It makes one dread what the result might be when such an approach is applied to the mother’s death in the seemingly inevitable new “Bambi.”

Apart from that concern, this new “King” isn’t—as some expected—simply a shot-by-shot remake of the much-loved 1994 original; it runs a half-hour longer, and the songbook is altered, in some cases expanded (there’s a new song by Beyoncé, for instance). But whatever the story has gained in terms of technical prowess, it has lost in charm and emotional impact.

The essence of the plot, of course, remains the same. Evil Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) kills his royal brother Mufasa (again voiced magisterially by James Earl Jones) and, persuading his young nephew Simba (JD McCrary) that he was responsible for the death, convinces the cub to go into exile. He is befriended by the happy-go-lucky duo of warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner), who teach him not to take things too seriously—and to curtail his carnivorous tendencies.

It’s in this idyllic environment that he grows into young lionhood (complete with a voice change to Donald Glover), until his childhood friend Nala (previously Shahadi Wright Joseph, now Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) shows up to persuade him to return to his land and reclaim the crown from Scar and his band of ravenous hyenas led by Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) and Azizi (Eric Andre). With the help of Nala, Pumbaa and Timon, as well as his mother Sarabi (Alfre Woodard), Mufasa’s ever-loyal aide the hornbill Zazu (John Oliver), and the land’s wise shaman, the mandrill Rafiki (John Kani), he succeeds. Peace and love return to the realm.

It would take a side-by-side comparison of the 1994 film and this one to measure exactly where the extra half-hour’s footage occurs (a good chunk probably is to be found in the endless closing credits), but even when scenes are effectively duplicated, they aren’t nearly as effective in this version. Perhaps that’s simply because though there are no human characters in either film (as there were in “The Jungle Book,” played by flesh-and-blood people), there was a human touch to the traditional animation of the earlier picture, while, as beautifully rendered as it is, there’s inevitably a soulless, machine-generated feel to the images here—a quality that’s undermined the Disney reworkings of their other animated films as well. Of course, it hasn’t stopped people from flocking to them, and they will undoubtedly fill the seats for this one as well.

And they will be rewarded not only by all those impressive though chilly visuals, but by solid voiceover work. Not all the newcomers match their predecessors, of course (as smoothly as he delivers his dialogue, for example, Ejiofor’s tones aren’t as unforgettable as Jeremy Irons’ were, and for all their exuberance Rogen and Eichner don’t efface memories of Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane), but most provide reasonable facsimiles of the originals, and a few actually improve on them.

Any remake of “The Lion King” would be unnecessary, of course, but while this one can be admired as a marvel of computer animation, it lacks the resonance of the original. As with its predecessors in this Disney series, one suspects that when in future years people reach for a Blu-ray of the title from their shelves, it will be of the earlier movie, not Favreau’s impeccably rendered but rather heartless one.