The Jungle Book

'The Jungle Book' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 15, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Justin Marks

Directed by: Jon Favreau

Forgetting about your worries and your strife is pretty easy to do when Jon Favreau’s bold decision to remake the Disney animated classic all but steals you away to a wonderful world filled with adventure, danger and English-speaking animals.

It’s actually quite amazing how talented a director Favreau (yes, as in Tony Stark’s favorite body guard, Happy) is as his latest passion project showcases a knack for both interpretation and reinvention, borrowing that which made the 1967 animation a timeless adventure while modifying certain elements with an even more intimate examination of life in this complex jungle, first envisioned by 19th Century poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling. Though it’s not the first time the actor/director has offered up a heaping helping of popcorn-munching entertainment, The Jungle Book could well be his most complete and emotionally satisfying piece. And it has just one human actor in it.

The Jungle Book, first and foremost, is the epitome of a Disney production. It’s wholesome, family friendly and heartwarming. Our capacity for empathy is a testament to the effectiveness of the digitally-rendered characters; by all accounts this is the film we remember, only it’s not animated. Bathed in the same effervescence of innocence and self-discovery that defines Disney’s animated offerings, Favreau’s interpretation gains strength as playfulness and good spirits eventually give way to danger and darkness as the story we fell in love with so long ago is played out once more but on a much more visceral level.

That the film actually benefits from treading familiar ground is also a testament to the strength of Favreau’s convictions that this is a story worthy of the live-action treatment. More importantly, The Jungle Book hits all the beats we expect it to, even finding time to add new dimensions to the many character interactions we’ve held so dear for nearly half a century. A fixation on the harsh realities of surviving in this tropical environment also helps steer the production away from utter predictability, even though the showdowns that threaten the very fiber of the MPAA’s standards for what makes a PG-rated film are expected from the very beginning.

Favreau (yes, as in the guy whom Paul Rudd puked all over in I Love You, Man)’s wisest decision was to place emphasis on characters, letting the nature-versus-nurture debate at the heart of this tale of survival manifest naturally. As Mowgli learns the kinds of things he’s capable of — he’s quite handy when it comes to building things — is he doomed to repeat the actions of his elders? Can he be taught to be different, to not abuse the power of fire?

Mowgli (introducing Neel Sethi) first comes flying into the frame with wolves in hot pursuit, an apparent training exercise designed by his panther protector Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to help the man-cub outlast predators. We get a deeper sense of his adoptive family unit as we’re introduced to the wolf pack clan gathering at the edge of a rocky precipice, preparing for the rains that are soon to come, soon to summon animals of all kinds to a nearby watering hole. Life seems pretty swell as a member of the pack, especially if you call the honorable Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) dad and the warm, fiercely protective Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) mom.

But then there are threats to such peace, like the prowling beast Shere Khan, a villain made viable on the virtue of Idris Elba’s deep, booming voice alone — a monster of a tiger whose facial scars are inextricably linked to Mowgli’s past. This isn’t, however, a villain introduced for the sake of it. Khan’s concern is actually one shared by all sorts of animals, including the wolf pack: that the man-cub will one day be a grown man and, based on experiences, fully grown men bring nothing but death and destruction to the jungle. Animals greatly fear their “red flower;” fire, the ultimate villain, plays just as dramatic a role here as it did in the 1967 version.

Mowgli’s fate, with one or two wrinkles thrown in, is the same as before: his future is largely unknown. Bagheera and Akela agree that he’d be safer with his own kind, and Bagheera sets off on a journey with the boy that will expose the pair to intermittent treachery and silliness, including, but not limited to, seductive snakes (Scarlett Johansson as Kaa is genius casting, even if she’s underused), oafish bears desperate for honey (Bill Murray is, and probably to no one’s surprise, the pinnacle of excellence here, making for an arguably better Baloo than Phil Harris) and one gigantic ape with delusions of grandeur. (On that note, Christopher Walken unfortunately shares Johansson’s plight of being stuck with an underserved subplot; it’s basically a cameo.)

You can’t really overstate the impact an A-list cast has on a movie like this; personalities fit the wild animals to a T and all signs point to everyone involved taking this project extremely seriously . . . even Emjay Anthony, who Favreau liked enough in the making of Chef to give him a small part as one of the wolf cubs. And the knock-on effect: we, the paying customers, get to kick back and enjoy the simple bare necessities of escaping from reality and into the visual wonderland and heightened sense of humanity only anthropomorphic animals who have a tendency to break out into song and dance can provide.

The Jungle Book is many things: it’s one of the year’s biggest surprises, an achievement in CGI rendering, and a new standard to which all upcoming family outings must rise this year. Above all, it’s an immensely enjoyable blockbuster-type release. It is that way from beginning to end. Even though a few scenes expose the more obligatory side of Favreau’s directorial style — King Louie really needed a longer introduction and a less rushed exit, as did Kaa — there’s more than enough here to proclaim 2016 as the year in which Kipling’s visionary tale about man and animal coexisting became immortalized.

Recommendation: The Jungle Book is proof that sometimes, just sometimes, with great risk comes even greater reward. Jon Favreau rewards audiences with a remake that stays true to not only the characters, but the emotional challenges and even a few of the songs that popularized the original animated version. Fans of the original, it’s time to let out that sigh of relief. Favreau and his excellent cast have truly outdone themselves. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “No matter where you go or what they may call you, you will always be my son.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Revenant

The Revenant movie poster

Release: Friday, January 8, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu; Mark L. Smith

Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu

There are some things in The Revenant that you can’t un-see. Like the bloody confrontation between the Arikara tribe and Captain Andrew Henry’s men in the very first scene. Or a human body torn apart by monstrous bear claws. These moments transcend shock value, they go beyond the call of dramatic duty, depicted so authentically so as to become genuinely upsetting.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow-up to his Oscar-friendly Birdman doesn’t get any less haggard as it plods onward, but the bloodletting slows just enough for us to catch our breath and get our feet back under us. Through a protracted adventure across harsh winterscapes, one that favors physical over verbal communication, Iñárritu’s epic vision confirms those who tough out the opening half hour will be well-equipped to handle everything Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass must go through in the ensuing two-plus hours.

Acclaimed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Alfonso Cuarón’s right-hand man, drops us into the early 1800s. It’s man against nature; us against the sprawling, unforgiving territory of the Louisiana Purchase. Even from a distance and in comfy theater chairs, feeling cold and exposed is an inevitability. Lubezki’s fiercely uncompromising artistry — a refusal to use anything but the natural light a pale sun and dusty, white-washed landscapes provide — ensures that of all the things we are going to feel, safe won’t be one of them. This is his movie as much as it is the director’s (and Leo’s). Iñárritu directs a script he co-wrote with Mark L. Smith, one that tells of a remarkable true story of survival and human courage.

The premise is simple, one of those one-line blurbs that could present a problem to those who weren’t enthralled by the chase in Mad Max: Fury Road; this is an all-out crawl against the odds as Glass hunts down the man responsible for killing his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) after Glass is mauled by a bear and left for dead by Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and his men. The Revenant isn’t interested in making things complicated because society at this stage isn’t exactly what you’d call civilized. People get by on raw bison liver and don the skin of bears they’ve just killed for protection from the elements.

Yet, there is a reward for enduring, not just in terms of its occasionally stomach-turning imagery. The bulk of the narrative pivots around Glass’ interactions with the great outdoors, the pace often slowing to a literal crawl but not once does it become lethargic. Of course, come the end we still hope the wait has been worthwhile — will we get that ultimate showdown between good and evil? How will justice be meted out? As much as we want to shield our eyes from the next confrontation, the trifecta of superior directing, acting and photography simply doesn’t allow it.

In a film like this, the protagonist is only as good as the villain he must face. While nature is in itself a force to be reckoned with, The Revenant has been gifted Tom Hardy, who plays John Fitzgerald, a thoroughly despicable fur trapper whose ideological differences with Glass’ headstrong explorer type drive the narrative forward. The tension between them can at times be unbearable, the look in Hardy’s eyes frightening and proof that Charles Bronson was merely practice for the big leagues. But the hostility of Native American tribes might well take the cake in terms of driving home the tragedy of what America once was.

So, what of Leo then? And why have I put off discussing him for so long? It should come as no surprise that some of the film’s best-kept secrets — many thankfully avoid ruination by not featuring in the overplayed trailers — hinge on what Leo does and does not do with his body. Imagining a role where an actor must do more to convey the physicality of early American life is nigh on impossible. As he inches his way from one life-threatening obstacle to the next, his Quaalude-induced spasms in The Wolf of Wall Street become a far crawl from true greatness. But Leo’s not just another decomposing body in a picture filled with death and decay.

Glass is a fiercely protective father. His paternal instinct is his trump card, a tenderness and passion for rearing his child the right way offering balance to a character with great potential to come across all too heroic and mythological. Whatever distances we try to put between ourselves and the brutes we face here, there’s no denying little has changed about the fact parents are willing to do anything to protect  their children from the indiscriminate terribleness of the world. DiCaprio is nothing less than incredible here. (I won’t say Oscar-winning lest I jinx the whole damn thing.)

It’s well-known The Revenant was a very difficult movie to make, though not for financial reasons. The cast and crew suffered brutal conditions. The shoot was described as “hellish.” If the actors look like they’re very uncomfortable in their respective scenes, that’s probably because they are. Many of the original staff didn’t see the project to its end. Shot on location in the Canadian Rockies and in Argentina, the film pulses with a vitality that’s impossible to stage. Natural beauty brilliantly disguises the film’s black heart. Every time I had to shield my eyes — I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it, but yeah, I did — I then reminded myself what a thing of beauty it was that I was witnessing.

things start getting hectic in 'The Revenant'

Recommendation: This film is not for the squeamish. Raw power, visceral imagery and blunt honesty combine with legendary performances to create a film that will be impossible to forget, much less imitate. I haven’t seen the Mexican auteur’s full filmography yet, but I have this nagging feeling he might have just hit a career high with this stripped-back and naturalistic production. A must-see for fans of DiCaprio. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 156 mins.

Quoted: “You came all this way just for your revenge, huh? Did you enjoy it, Glass? . . . ‘Cause there ain’t nothin’ gon’ bring your boy back.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Ernest & Celestine

ernest_et_celestine_ver3_xlg

Release: Friday, February 28, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Ernest & Celestine may only be an hour and twenty minutes long, but within such a short time span a world is created that no viewer can possibly walk away from willingly. No, they’ll have to call upon the indie/arthouse theater bouncers to physically remove me from this theater seat! (And. . well, it looks like they are doing that right now so I’ll have to be brie. . . .)

The one word that perfectly sums up this adventure? ‘Adorable’ comes to mind. ‘Warm.’ ‘Fuzzy.’ Yes, these are all good. But the one that really sticks out:

‘Awwwwww. . . .’

Work with me, people. Onomatopoeia counts, especially if the film in question is an animated feature, because that’s the sound we make throughout most of these things. This one in particular is an English-language version of a French adaptation of a popular Belgian children’s book series. It tells the story of an intrepid little mouse, Celestine (voiced by the young Mackenzie Foy) who melts the icy heart of the big, lumpy bear Ernest (Forest Whitaker).

Neither of the two seem to really fit in to their respective societies: with the bears living above ground, and the mice being relegated to the network of sewage systems below. Each population must fend for themselves in a world dominated by fear and a hilarious misunderstanding of one other. Mice fear bears for bears love to eat mice, but the sheer irony of it is that bears are just as fearful of the little rodents they’d sooner throw their paws in the air and surrender than put up a fight.

Ernest is a poor bear who lives alone and is now having trouble finding any food to survive the winter that is officially upon his doorstep, so he scrounges his way through the local village in a feeble attempt at filling his tummy. Police aren’t having any of it, though, and justice is swiftly brought to the panhandling bear. However, Ernest and his problems aren’t the first things introduced to us. Instead, the film opens up and immediately immerses us in the underground society of mice, where Celestine is settling into bed for another unpleasant night at the orphanage overseen by a dreadful mousekeeper (yes, that’s a term invented by yours truly) mysteriously referred to as The Gray One (Lauren Bacall).

This misery of a mouse likes to tell her children all sorts of horrible stories about the bears, though Celestine is inclined to not buy into them. Her encounter with one in particular will affirm that indeed, not all bears are bad. In fact, they can be quite lovable.

As a member of a society that builds and chews things for survival, Celestine is studying to be a dentist. Her instructor, the Head Dentist (voice of William H. Macy), has taken a keen interest in Celestine, as she hasn’t been keeping up with her teeth collecting like all of the other students. He demands she go out and scoop up 50 in a single night. During this mission, Celestine finds herself in hot water when, in the process of taking a tooth from one bear cub, she is caught in the act and chased out of the house by the terrified bears. She proceeds to stuff herself into a trash can to sleep for the night, where she is later found by Ernest while he’s out looking for leftovers again.

From minute one, Celestine is intent on Ernest forming a different opinion of her, other than the one he probably already has thanks to his being a bear and all. But Ernest isn’t like most and would rather Celestine just disappear not because she’s a mouse but because he’s a grouch and prefers to be left alone. When the two find themselves wanted fugitives after breaking into a candy shop, Ernest has no choice but to put up with Celestine for the time being. He takes her back to his secluded woodland hut, where he at first puts her in the basement. . .below ground, where mice belong.

As days turn into weeks and weeks into months the odd pair’s bond only strengthens, with Ernest slowly warming to the mouse’s presence. . .after his initial reluctance to break the rules. And the little squeaky one is just happy that someone finally cares about her. Unfortunately, while all is bright in Ernest’s neck of the woods, the town has formed a search party (bear and mouse police forces remain segregated until a hilarious scene in which they all meet in pursuit of the pair) to arrest and jail the pair of perceived renegades. The proceeding adventure is incredibly endearing to watch unfold.

Joint directorial efforts from Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar ensure Ernest & Celestine is consistently charming, absorbing and gleefully funny. Imaginative use of animation, coupled with the film’s innocuous tone and subject, might make the film seem as if its catering to a young crowd. Yes, the film is relatively harmless, and yet there are larger themes at play here, even beyond the amusing comparisons to the outlaws Bonnie & Clyde. The friendship between the two animals certainly functions on the surface as an odd-couple dynamic. These characters are well-developed and well worth loving.

On the other hand, as the film develops, we see more than a. . e-hem. . .bare resemblance to the relationships in our world that often face judgment — relationships of a non-traditional variety. The beauty of the film is that it’s open-ended in what qualifies for ‘non-traditional;’ defining what these are doesn’t matter, but recognizing the parallel does. This is a concept that children won’t necessarily pick up on while watching mice and bears running around on a beautiful watermark palette. But the allegory is as obvious as a bear caught in a mousetrap.

silliness

4-5Recommendation: A great little escape that features a terrific voice cast who turn in endearing work. There is no harm in bringing the kids along for a family viewing here, but a wide audience ranging from the single adult to the young married couple truly benefit more from some of the story’s subtler suggestions about coexisting in a judgmental and often misinformed society.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 80 mins.

Quoted: “Do you know the story of the little mouse who did not believe in the big, bad bear. . .?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com