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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Strange But True

“The Lion King” is also new to Blu-Ray this week.

Right off the bat I was struck by the intriguing premise of “Strange But True.” One day a pregnant woman in her early twenties named Melissa (Margaret Qualley) shows up at the doorstep of Charlene (Amy Ryan) and her son Philip (Nick Robinson). Turns out that Melissa is the ex-girlfriend of their other son Ronnie (Connor Jessup) and claims that the child is his, since he is the only man she’s ever been with. One problem: Ronnie’s been dead for five years.

As your mind spins with how this may be possible, so do the minds of Charlene and Philip. Theories about frozen sperm and immaculate conceptions abound. Charlene, who is a bitter woman and skeptical at first, even goes so far as to go to the library where she used to work to do research on how it’s possible. She very much wants to believe that a part of her son will live on with this child.

The cast, rounded out by Greg Kinnear as Charlene’s ex-husband as well as Blythe Danner and Brian Cox as a couple who are the landlords/protectors of Melissa, is astounding. Everyone delivers top notch performances. Amy Ryan, however, is a standout as a woman who never got over the pain and grief of losing a son and wears her feelings on her sleeve. Her scenes, particularly in the beginning, are a powerhouse of emotional intensity.

There is also something to be said for the way the story of “Strange But True” unfolds. The movie, which is directed by Rowan Athale from a screenplay by Eric Garcia, is based on a book by John Searles. Fans of the book will no doubt compare and contrast with the movie. Having not read the book, I can only say that I like the movie for the way it played out. Starting with one event, backtracking two days, then bringing us up to speed by showing us all that transpired in that time.

Even more boldly, at one point Philip goes to see a fortune teller named Chantrel (Allegra Fulton). People in movies, as in real life, go to fortune tellers to seek answers to their great, big questions. By the time the scene with Chantrel is done, Philip—and we in the audience-are left with even more questions than when it started. This leaves the plot of the movie with a lot of gaps to fill, which it does pretty well.

The last act of “Strange But True” takes a sharp turn from the philosophical to the suspenseful. Even when doing this, the movie never loses as a grip on its own reality. Sure, the events that transpire do so because characters do certain things at certain times, but none of their behavior is hackneyed or forced. They behave in ways that are true to their character. All the while, the tension remains on high as the movie heads toward its tidy yet satisfying conclusion. Rent it.

Also New This Week

The Lion King

As a fan of director Jon Favreau’s similar animals only tale “The Jungle Book” from 2016, I expected the characters and setting of “The Lion King” to look fantastic. Favreau does not disappoint. The African savannah that is the setting for the movie is breathtaking, and all of the lions, elephants, zebras, impalas, and yes—meerkats and warthogs—look photo real.

The major complaint I hear leveled at live action/CGI movies with animals vs traditional animated ones is that the real-looking animals are too constrained by how they actually look and as a result are less expressive than their animated counterparts. I actually do see this point to a certain extent, particularly in the case of Pumbaa (voice of Seth Rogen) in this movie as compared to the 1994 animated original. There’s only so much that can be done with a real-life warthog to make him expressive. That said, the lack of expression and facial animation in no way impacted my ability to feel the emotional resonance of the scenes, particularly with what goes down for Young Simba (voice of JD McCrary) when his father Mufasa (voice of James Earl Jones, who it is awesome to have back for this version) is betrayed by the nefarious Scar (voice of Chiwetel Ejiofor). I think that scene might be even harder to watch with the animals looking so real.

The plot of “The Lion King” follows the same beats as the classic movie from 25 years ago. One of the reasons it was such a hit back then and resonates now is that it’s one of the more serious and somber of the Disney movies. The themes of royalty, family, outcasts, betrayal, and revenge are downright Shakespearean. This elevates the material up a notch from the comedic adventures/romances of other Disney movies and sets it way apart by appealing to older audiences.

Not that there isn’t fun and frivolity in “The Lion King.” John Oliver’s voice acting as the bird Zazu, Mufasa’s most trusted advisor, is energetic and funny, and of course Pumbaa and his meerkat pal Timon (voice of Billy Eichner) give the second act some much needed levity.

With the exception of some slow pacing smack dab in the center of the movie, most of which involves a tuft of Simba’s hair finding its credulity-stretching, happenchance way from the dark lands to mandrill Rafiki (voice of John Kani), the movie moves along at a pretty good clip. Another benefit of making “The Lion King” look realistic is for the joy of cat lovers, especially when Young Simba and Young Nala (voice of Shahadi Wright Joseph) play together. Their behavior goes to show that they really are just big cats. Or, the ones we have in our homes are small versions of them. Either way, “The Lion King” has some seriously accurate cat behavior on display. Rent it.

More New Releases: “Wonder Woman: Bloodlines,” which has a messy plot for such an entertaining movie, but at least unlike the 2009 animated “Wonder Woman,” this version of Diana (voice of Rosario Dawson) takes a cue from the 2017 live action movie and has her as more of a fish out of water character, rather than 2009’s very unappealing portrayal of her as an angry, judgmental, resentful, misandrist, bitchy stick in the mud; and “Satanic Panic,” strange, campy, and not fully fleshed out yet still enjoyable story about a pizza delivery girl who walks into a house after getting stiffed on a tip and stumbles upon a coven of Satan worshipers, starring Rebecca Romijn, Arden Myrin, and Hayley Griffith.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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