REVIEW: The Jungle Book

17 04 2016

I do not have a strong attachment to the 1967 original Disney animated film “The Jungle Book.” I do not have strong feelings one way or the other about Jon Favreau’s 2016 live action Mowgli/CGI animal version of “The Jungle Book.” I remain, for the most part, fairly ambivalent, unable to summon strong words to praise or condemn any aspect of the film. And that makes for the hardest kind of review to write.

Might as well start with the good: Bill Murray as Baloo. The actor has become a cult figure over the past few years for his erratic and endearing off-screen behavior (as well as for his partnership with hipster darling Wes Anderson). When not acting inside one of Anderson’s dollhouses, Murray’s iconography can often overcome the project in which he participates. That film becomes “The Bill Murray Show,” for better or for worse. Favreau finds a happy balance of letting Murray entertain while also ensuring that he never distracts too much.

The CGI is quite good, I suppose, yet should we not be asking for photorealism from all movies these days? Call me a child of the digital age, but I only tend to notice computer animation when it goes horribly wrong. The graphics impress, though not to the extent that they truly wow.

“The Jungle Book” glides along on lots of charm and slickness, which gets it decently far. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) makes for a rather bland protagonist, one we mostly follow for the talking animals he encounters along his reluctant and perilous journey to rejoin his human companions. The episodic nature of the plot makes it hard for momentum to build, which is something that does not bother me in particular though seems an odd choice for a film pitched at youngsters. The message of cross-species cooperation to raise and protect someone who might be a predator is – timely, I guess? (“Zootopia” did it better.)

There is a lot going on, although there is simultaneously not enough going on. I could try to resolve or reconcile my feelings, but I would rather just leave them be. Other films just seem more worthy of that time. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Aloha

19 06 2015

Aloha posterResponding to the reactions to a film in a review is something I generally frown upon; however, I am willing to make an exception in the case of “Aloha.”  Before Sony could release any trailers or marketing materials, studio head Amy Pascal’s scathing comments about Cameron Crowe’s film hit the Internet and sealed its fate.  The film said the “goodbye” aloha before it could say the “hello” aloha.  And then, once the critics finally got ahold of the final product, the nail was in the coffin.

So when I finally got around to seeing “Aloha,” I came with unavoidably low expectations.  I did not seek to answer the question of whether it was good or bad; I just needed to know how bad.  Watching a film in that mindset makes for an entirely different experience, akin to being a child in a doctor’s office waiting for a shot with eyes clenched shut.  You know the pain will come soon but are clueless as to when.

I kept waiting for “Aloha” to come apart at the seams.  Maybe the relationship between paramilitary contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) and his spunky Air Force escort Allison Ng (Emma Stone, unconvincingly playing part-Asian) would just become a little too far-fetched.  Or perhaps Brian would wreck the marriage of his ex-flame Tracy (Rachel McAdams), leaving the life she built with her kids and husband Woody (John Krasinski) in shambles and destroying all sympathy for the characters.  Any number of plot points, from the relations with native Hawaiian tribes to an odd space mission, could easily have gone south.

Yet, against the odds, “Aloha” manages to survive its shortcomings and remain a mostly enjoyable time at the movies.  Sure, the script could have benefitted from some retooled dialogue, a few reordered or rewritten scenes for the sake of clarity, and a narrower narrative scope.  As is, though, Crowe has the basis for a charming – but not disarming – romance with a superfluous side helping of story critiquing the military-industrial complex.

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REVIEW: St. Vincent

19 11 2014

St. VincentAs Bill Murray’s zany candor becomes the ultimate cult of personality, it seems that plenty of people are completely entertained by just watching him be – whether in character or in real life.  “St. Vincent” thus assumes the position of a holy text in Murray’s civil religion. Writer/director Theodore Melfi essentially gives Murray an entire film where he can just exemplify his effortlessly authentic mix of odd and cool.

It really does not even matter that the mechanics of his performance are quite rusty, as most egregiously evinced by his seriously spotty Brooklyn accent.  As the harmlessly grouchy titular character, he gets the chance to spout plenty of memorable maxims (or Bill Murrayisms, as they are often called).  “St. Vincent” provides an hour and a half to spend basking in his wisdom for those not lucky enough to run into him at a hotel.

Murray does not just show up, though; he adjusts his acting style as necessary in order to mesh with Melfi’s sentimental but nonetheless winning story.  “St. Vincent” operates from a big, sympathetic heart that it wears on its sleeve.  Melfi could have done without so many mellow music montages to convey that emotion, however, since it comes so naturally from the actors.

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REVIEW: The Monuments Men

6 11 2014

The Monuments Men

On paper, “The Monuments Men” sounds like a movie that could be not only exciting entertainment but also great intellectual resonance.  The premise of the film, following a ragtag band of brothers assigned to save Europe’s greatest artworks from Hitler’s grasp, promises all the action of a World War II flick and a potent reminder of the vast importance of art.

Yet somewhere between the concept and the screen, George Clooney’s film takes its eye off the prize.  What he pulls together is rather disappointing given all the impressive elements at his disposal.  “The Monuments Men” is not necessarily a bad movie; it’s just a shockingly unsubstantial one.

Nothing really seems to propel the film forwards, leaving it suspended in a state of sustained mediocrity.  Though Clooney assembles quite the prestige cast, including Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, and Bill Murray, he rarely lets them play off each other as an ensemble.  From the outset, they split up in pairs on separate missions, inhibiting attachment and fracturing the narrative.

Obviously, a film steeped in history should try to model its narrative based on the actual events (although that rarely stops movies these days).  But there had to be some way for Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov to spice up the script without deviating too far from the facts.

Honing the focus, like picking a central character to follow with dedication, might have been helpful.  “The Monuments Men” has no shortage of amusing supporting characters yet no driving leading force.  At times, the film just feels like a series of short films and amusing moments tied together into one bland, bloated two-hour feature.  C+2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 22, 2014)

22 08 2014

As I said in my review of “Only Lovers Left Alive,” I have not seen enough of Jim Jarmusch’s work to make a definitive statement as to whether or not he is a great director. But I have seen Jarmusch’s 2005 Cannes prize winner “Broken Flowers,” which is enough to inform me that he has at least one great film to his name.

This dryly humorous pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” is second wave Bill Murray at his best (yes, even better than “Lost in Translation“).  He seems to have reached a status where he seems to reject the need for validation through actively courting our laughs, instead just allowing the comedy arise naturally from the events.  Murrray can then just sit back, maintain a stolidly unruffled facade, and just let the bizarre run-ins of “Broken Flowers” guide his reactions.

In the film, Jarmusch casts him as an aging Don Juan – appropriately named Don Johnston – served with a letter that suggests he fathered a child 19 years prior.  Don would be content to never investigate any further, but his inquisitive neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright) insists that he go visit the potential mothers.  So, in a sort of inverted “Mamma Mia,” Don takes off on a series of painfully awkward encounters with former lovers.

The parade of women, including Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton, always entertains.  But Jarmusch isn’t just wheeling out stereotypes or stock characters.  “Broken Flowers” takes each of these women and sets them on an unpredictable but well-imagined path after their split with Don.  It can’t help but raise the question of what exactly his effect on these women was.

To say too much more of what each woman brings to the film is to spoil the fun.  But just dive head first into “Broken Flowers” for off-beat fun throughout and a startling conclusion that packs an unexpected punch.





REVIEW: The Grand Budapest Hotel

3 06 2014

Just so we’re clear: I have no problems with auteurism.  For those of you who just saw a French word and panicked, I’m referring to a school of film criticism that looks for recurring patterns throughout the work of an artist (usually the director).  It can often be a very interesting lens through which to analyze a set of films, and auteurism has the ability to shine a light on filmmakers outside of the general circles of critical acclaim.

Like anything in life, the theory has a dark underbelly, and to me, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” represents the perils of auteurism run rampant.  The film is Wes Anderson’s “Django Unchained,” in the sense that it represents a moment of stasis in the progression of a great director.  Anderson is now more than a director; essentially, he’s a brand, expected by customers to deliver a certain consistency of product.

Put into the position of becoming a cinematic McDonald’s, Anderson takes the easy way out by providing an assembly-line reproduction of what he has already created to great admiration.  “The Grand Budapest Hotel” feels like a less vibrant remake of a film he’s already made – or, perhaps more accurately, it feels like all of them at once.  Despite being set in a semi-fictionalized interwar Central Europe, the world Anderson portrays seems reassembled from pieces of “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Darjeeling Limited,” and even “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Even more than Anderson’s last feature-length cinematic outing in 2012, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” takes his telltale stylistic flourishes and puts them to an exponential degree.  Every other take in the film had to be a tracking shot, so it seemed.  The cameos and other miscellaneous odd appearances by acclaimed thespians is now less of an amusing diversion and more of a distracting parade.  The off-beat characters feel less like quirky people and more like paper dolls traipsing around in the elegant house Anderson created for their frolicking delight.

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REVIEW: Hyde Park on Hudson

22 01 2013

Welcome to “Whose Movie Is It Anyway?” – also known as “Hyde Park on Hudson.”  Here, you’ll get to see a multi-million dollar production that shows you what a movie is really like at the stage where it’s still being scribbled out on cocktail napkins!  To call it a first draft of something great would be generous – that is, calling it a first draft would be generous.  It hasn’t even made it to that stage yet!

Roger Michell’s slapdash film changes protagonists throughout the entire movie like Britney Spears changes outfits at a concert.  Go to the bathroom, and you’ll come back and find an entirely different storyline being pursued.  One minute, it’s the story of Laura Linney’s Margaret Suckley, a cousin of FDR portrayed here as his mistress (though that’s based on an extremely loose interpretation of her personal letters).

Then, it’s also a biopic of President Roosevelt, played as a perpetually horny tortoise by Bill Murray.  Chronicling both the personal and the political aspects of his life, it fails to provide anything mildly interesting to observe.  Not to mention, doubts about the accuracy of his affair with Margaret put the entire movie’s validity in question.

Oh, and don’t forget the history lesson that makes up most of the mid-section of “Hyde Park on Hudson.”  The King and Queen of England comes to visit FDR’s private Idaho in New York, but sadly, this companion piece to “The King’s Speech” couldn’t land Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter to reprise their roles.  Nor, for that matter, could it capture the same sense of gravity about an impending world war that Tom Hooper’s film conveyed so well for a film that was otherwise rather lightweight.

In essence, there are three movies in “Hyde Park on Hudson,” and you will feel it drag under the weight of that confusion.  Expect to feel like you’ve watched three full-length features … but come out only an hour and a half later from the theater.  And don’t expect some kind of great convergence that makes it all worthwhile.  The climactic scene all boils down to the consumption of hot dogs.  Not kidding.  D1star