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

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 8, 2015)

8 01 2015

Now that Paul Rudd has officially debuted as Ant-Man, I expect that we’ll soon have to start referring to him as “Marvel’s Paul Rudd.”  Plenty of clueless fanboys will totally think of Rudd as the next Chris Pratt, a comedian that the comic-book magnate picks up from relative obscurity and turns into a bonafide action star.  And I will be sad.

But then, I will wipe away my tears and watch another one of Rudd’s hilarious comedies.  I will think of the time he and I shared a brief word in London, and I will remind myself of how his affable characters appear to accurately reflect his genial real-life personality.  I will remind myself that he is the perfect choice to play me in the movie of my life no matter what career move he makes next (although BuzzFeed recently told me that Benedict Cumberbatch would play me, another choice that suits me fine).

And finally, I will watch one of his comedies that stand head and shoulders above nearly all the other mainstream output.  For the most part, Rudd chooses projects with smarter wit and keener insight than the usual macho lineup of flatulence, misogyny, and homophobia.  Perhaps chief among these is 2009’s “I Love You, Man,” the bromantic comedy that serves as my selection for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  (Yes, I am fully aware this is hardly independent or little-known, although it certainly deserves to be more widely known.)

Rudd, rather than erecting a cool facade, plays his character Peter Klaven as unashamedly dorky and unabashedly earnest.  Though he means well, Peter often stumbles over his own nicety into the verbal equivalent of a pratfall.  The film begins with the happiest moment in his life: proposing to his girlfriend, Zooey (Rashida Jones).  After the initial bliss dissipates, however, things get awkward as Peter seems unable to provide enough groomsmen to match Zooey’s seven bridesmaids.  In fact, he does not even really have a potential best man.

Rather than disappoint his beautiful bride-to-be, and apparently unwilling to suck it up and ask either his father (J.K. Simmons) or brother (Andy Samberg), Peter goes on the hunt for a male best friend.  After a series of hilarious misunderstandings, he comes across Jason Segel’s palatably absurd Sidney Fife, a friendly bachelor that stumbles into one of Peter’s open houses while scouting prospects for a wealthy divorcée.  They hit it off immediately, easily finding conversation topics and mutual interests.

Sidney and Peter’s friendship is purely platonic, yet writer/director John Hamburg replicates the experience of watching a romantic comedy.  We get the beginning stage of figuring out tastes as well as boundaries; we see the way that they bring fulfillment to each other’s lives; we have the classic blow-up fight that turns into a dissolution of an amicable partnership.  As “I Love You, Man” progresses, it exposes the parallels between forging friendships and romantic relationships as well as the absurdities inherent in both.

Peter and Sidney are not just the average dudebro BFFs – they are types to explore and investigate the very nature of human connection.  Although, in the hands of talented actors like Rudd and Segel, they are also fully fledged people that I’d love to slap the bass with any day.





REVIEW: Chef

13 07 2014

Summer 2014 might host the documentary “Life Itself” that exalts critics, yet it also boasts Jon Favreau’s “Chef” that tears them down.  In the film, director Jon Favreau steps in front of the camera as Carl Casper, a chef whose meteoric rise in the culinary world has coasted to a plateau preparing dishes for the elite by the time we meet up with him.  Critics help build his reputation, but they are also apparently responsible for tearing it down.

Forced by his boss to prepare a rather formulaic meal when an influential foodie blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) stops by and subsequently receives a write-up indicating disappointment.  In his eyes, however, Casper might as well have received a review similar to that one of Guy Fieri’s restaurant penned by Pete Wells of The New York Times.  The now-notorious lambasting featured the critic mercilessly hurling rhetorical questions at the chef to the point where it seems like a personal vendetta.

Favreau bakes his opinions on the critical establishment following the roasting of his 2011 film “Cowboys & Aliens” into “Chef,” indicating an almost personal affront to the negative notices.  His attitude towards reviewers resembles that of a petulant child refusing to believe he can do anything wrong.  And despite a slapped-on ending to redeem the critics, Favreau never seems to acknowledge that he might just share a common goal with them – that of promoting and advancing a craft.

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REVIEW: The Wolf of Wall Street

11 01 2014

Sex. Cocaine. Hookers. Profanity. Quaaludes. Destruction. Money. Orgies. More profanity. More sex. More cocaine. More destruction. More money.

Normally these are the kinds of things that liven up a movie, but in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it’s pretty much all that’s being served. The movie is three hours of high-intensity bacchanalia in the life and work of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort. With a piece being played at such a prolonged forte, it’s quite frankly an exhausting and draining film to watch. While obviously satirical and darkly comedic in tone, the sheer amount of repetition dulls outrageousness into monotony.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is not without its profound moments of insight, however. Yet I was so exhausted by the relentless onslaught of anarchical madness that I lacked the stamina to really analyze Belfort’s speeches and Scorsese’s curious stylistic choices. Screenwriter Terence Winter and Scorsese present Wall Street as a synecdoche for America, and I’d be curious to re-watch some scenes again and subject them to further criticism.

But that dissection is going to have to be on video or as YouTube clips because I simply don’t think I could sit through “The Wolf of Wall Street” in its entirety again. The film may not condone the behavior it presents on screen, yet it’s so drunk on its own energy it luxuriates in all these obscene shenanigans. It doesn’t really matter if Scorsese communicates disgust for Belfort’s actions; by including such a large volume of his antics, he glorifies Belfort’s narrative over those left ruined in his calamitous wake.

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REVIEW: People Like Us

1 10 2012

“People Like Us” is the kind of tender, domestic drama that has become a specialty for writer/directors like Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman, Tom McCarthy, and Noah Baumbach.  It’s a story meant to provide insight into the human spirit by focusing on a tortured soul in a time of great duress and total life upheaval, lifting up the power of our relationships to either make or break us.  All achieved with the power of pathos.

Well, this movie doesn’t have the Baumbach brain.  Nor the McCarthy might.  And it doesn’t even come close to achieving Payne and Reitman heights.  But consider the two movies that writer/director Alex Kurtzman, along with his co-writer Roberto Orci, scribed prior to “People Like Us;” they were “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.”  Not exactly tender, heartfelt human dramas.

I’m not a proponent of grading on a curve (although I am a staunch proponent when it comes to my test being graded), but I will say that I’m wiling to cut Kurtzman and Orci some slack because they didn’t churn out “The Descendants” or “Up in the Air” on their first try.  (I will note, however, that “Citizen Ruth” and “Thank You for Smoking,” their respective debut features, are both highly impressive.)  All things considered, “People Like Us” is an entertaining and fairly keenly observed film.  It hits a few flat notes along its journey, but there are enough powerful and touching moments scattered throughout the film to make it redeemable.

As Sam, a barterer whose shady dealings lead him into hot water with the SEC at the time of his father’s death, Chris Pine shines in a role that allows him to shed the cocky exoskeleton coating him from too long in rom-com purgatory.  Baring flashes of his raw soul, he’s fairly easy to sympathize with in spite of his character’s frustrating actions.  Like Robert Pattinson in “Cosmopolis,” it’s not an announcement that a true dramatic virtuoso has arrived on the scene, rather a signpost pointing towards greater things to come.

The real story of “People Like Us,” though, is Elizabeth Banks.  Her struggling mother Frankie, a former alcoholic trying to keep her world in orbit, is the key to Sam coming to peace with a painful and unacknowledged part of his past.  It’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch her in all good intentions trying to restore her faith in others while we know she’s headed down a path that can only lead back to an all too familiar pain.  And it’s Banks who makes her such a light on the screen.  Frankie is not merely a character in her gifted hands.  She’s a person, with troubles, with issues, with worries, with anxieties, with struggles, with small triumphs … like us.  B





REVIEW: Cowboys & Aliens

27 07 2011

From the very beginning of Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys & Aliens,” a very uneasy unevenness settles on the screen.  The movie feels torn between whether to be an alien invasion movie that happens to be set in 1870s New Mexico or a Western movie where the villains happen to be aliens.  Rather than make an executive decision and splice the genres, Favreau settles for an unhappy medium, vacillating back and forth between which of the two he’d rather use for the particular scene.  The resultant jumble is just that, a movie that haphazardly joins various elements from both genres to create a bitter hodgepodge that barely satisfies on basic entertainment levels.

The film basically glides by plotlessly for nearly two hours, floating on the very thin premise that feels like an infantile idea to begin.  Combining cowboys and aliens sounds like a game played by a five-year-old when his mom throws the “Star Wars” toys in the Lincoln Logs bin.  It might be fun for a little while as the two clash, but we eventually come to the realization that the novelty can’t sustain, much like that child probably would as well.

The kids-at-heart writing this story, otherwise known as the guys who gave you such wide-ranging projects as “Star Trek,” “Transformers,” the television show “Lost,” “Children of Men,” “Iron Man,” and the unforgettable classic “Kung Pow: Enter The Fist,” have the attention span of that five-year-old child.  They fail to take the movie anywhere worthwhile past the original jolt of imagination that inspired them to combine the two worlds in the first place.  Once they get the whole thing assembled and need to get the plot rolling, they abandon it to play with Legos and leave the movie going on autopilot.

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REVIEW: Iron Man 2

10 05 2010

Iron Man 2” may not have all that much to offer us as a movie, but it provides significant fodder for conversation about what it means to cinema in general.  In my mind, it marks the first comic book movie of the post-“Dark Knight” era.  Filmmakers have seen what made Christopher Nolan’s film such a hit on multiple fronts, and they are trying to strike gold using the same tools: namely, character development and strong plot over explosions and action.  Jon Favreau and the other minds behind “Iron Man 2” had time to adapt their series in an attempt to replicate that success.

One thing this sequel gives us is confirmation of a theory that many have been advocating for almost two years: “The Dark Knight” really does mark a revolution in the way we watch movies and the way they are made.  As soon as we saw it, we knew that we would never watch comic book or action movies the same way.  We instantly scorned “Transformers 2” and other movies that only emphasized the visuals.  But now, similar movies are trying to shift the focus to plot.  That’s a really good thing for the average moviegoer because it means that studios are recognizing our intelligence!

But “Iron Man 2” also reminds us of an unfortunate reality: some revolutions are only revolutionary once.  Some are meant to repeated; the American Revolution, for example, inspired similar uprisings in France, Haiti, and all over Latin America.  “Iron Man 2” incorporates many elements used in “The Dark Knight,” hoping to continue the pattern of success.

But its inability to recreate what made Nolan’s film so incredible signals the dawning of an era in comic book movies not favorable to anyone.  From now on, there will be “The Dark Knight” and every other movie who wishes they were “The Dark Knight.”  These movies cannot simply try to concoct their own version as if there is some sort of a formula.  Nolan’s movie worked for so many reasons.  Now, filmmakers have to find their own way if they want to make a movie that doesn’t play like a cheap ripoff of “The Dark Knight.”  A key factor to the success of Nolan’s film was originality.  Any movie that tries to use that originality will end up creating banality.

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