The Lost City of Z


Charlie Hunnam suffers some slings and arrows.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street/Amazon) Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Edward Ashley, Angus Macfadyen, Clive Francis, Pedro Coello, Matthew Sunderland, Johann Myers, Aleksandar Jovanovic, Elena Solovey, Bobby Smalldridge, Tom Mulheron, Daniel Huttlestone, Nathaniel Bates Fisher, Franco Nero, Louise Parker. Directed by James Gray

 

As a species we have an urge to make known the unknown, to travel to uncharted places and make them charted. We also have a yen to leave a legacy, something that cannot be taken away from us no matter what life brings us afterwards.

Percy Fawcett (Hunnam) was such a man. A British army officer at the turn of the 20th century, he chafed in a career that was stalled due not to his own devices but because of his father’s indiscretions. Finding himself at a crossroads, he accepts a commission from the Royal Geographic Society to chart the area near the Bolivia and Brazil border to mediate a dispute between the two countries but not for nothing also to keep the flow of rubber to British industry.

Taking with him his assistant Henry Costin (Pattinson) he discovers a mysterious and alluring wilderness of rich culture and danger. The natives aren’t exactly pleased to see him and they show their displeasure with blow darts and arrows, forcing the intrepid crew into piranha-infested waters. More importantly for Percy’s future, he discovers some artifacts – pottery shards and such – of a civilization rumored to have been extremely advanced and from which the modern natives were descended. They inhabited a vast city which Fawcett referred to as Z (pronounced Zed by the English) and when he returned home he spoke about it. The results were not scientific curiosity but outright disbelief and ridicule. The British intelligentsia couldn’t believe the “savages” capable of any sort of advanced civilization.

Fawcett wants to return and find his lost city but World War I intervenes. When he finally goes a second time, he brings along James Murray (Macfadyen), a veteran of Arctic expeditions whose reputation allows the financing to fall in place but Murray is woefully unprepared for tropical conditions leading to a frustrating end of the expedition. Furious at the RGS for taking Murray’s side, Fawcett quits in disgust and raises the capital himself to mount a third expedition, this time taking his grown son Jack (Holland) with him. The results of that expedition would evolve Percy from laughingstock to legend.

Gray is a director with the kind of visual sense that characterize directors like Zhang Yimou and Werner Herzog. The movie is beautiful, mysterious, and breathtaking. When the first expedition is under attack, Gray shoots it in a way that the audience can feel the arrows whizzing by and the panic setting in as the positions of their attackers are hidden by the dense forest. This may be the most beautiful movie from a cinematography standpoint that you’ll see this year or maybe any other; cinematographer Darius Khondji should be given all the praise in the world for his efforts.

The script is lyrically written and the characters are all fleshed out nicely, giving the actors a great deal to work with. Sienna Miller, as Fawcett’s ahead-of-her-time wife with feminist leanings does an amazing job; you can see her inner spark slowly dimming over the course of the movie as she realizes that her husband, who had encouraged her independence, didn’t fully mean it and that she had in many ways wasted  much of her time on a man who was never there, although to her credit the real Nina Fawcett never gave up hope for her husband and son even when the rest of the world did.

The one tragic flaw of the movie is Hunnam. On paper he seems an ideal choice for the role; dashing, handsome and patrician. He never really creates a sense of Fawcett’s obsession; he thunders like a bull elephant from time to time but he doesn’t really pack the screen presence needed to really make the part memorable. It is interesting to note that Brad Pitt was at one time attached to the role but couldn’t make it work in his schedule; I think Pitt might have realized another Oscar nomination (and maybe a win) had he gotten the part. Hunnam is merely adequate which is a shame. It also should be said that Pattinson, nearly unrecognizable in a full beard and an actor I’ve never really connected with, delivers a superb performance here.

The fate of Percy Fawcett has been the subject of much speculation over the decades and the book this is based on presents one theory which is hinted at (but not shown in too much detail) onscreen. It is also worth noting that in recent years evidence has been discovered, not far from where Fawcett was last seen, of a vast network of roads and settlements that might just be Fawcett’s Lost City of Z. I am sure that wherever Fawcett is, he is smiling. I think he is likely smiling about this motion picture about his life as well. It is a very strong movie that is worth seeking out on the big screen, where it most deserves to be seen. This is a real-life adventure worthy of Indiana Jones.

REASONS TO GO: One of the most beautifully photographed films you’ll ever see. The subject matter is fascinating. The era is nicely captured.
REASONS TO STAY: Hunnam is a bit too low-key in the lead role. The movie is a tiny bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, a bit of violence (some of it involving war violence), brief profanity and some native nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Holland had to wear a fake mustache for the movie as he was unable to grow one of his own.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fitzcarraldo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 2017 Florida Film Festival coverage commences!

Kong: Skull Island


Kong goes ape!

(2017) Adventure (Warner Brothers/Legendary) Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, Toby Kebbell, Tian Jing, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero, Marc Evan Jackson, Will Brittain, Miyavi, Richard Jenkins, Allyn Rachel, Robert Taylor, Thomas Middleditch (voice), Beth Kennedy. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

 

Some monsters capture the imagination like no other. So it has been with Kong, the giant ape who since his first appearance in 1933 has been a mainstay in cinematic lore. There have been three American remakes of the original; in 1976, 2005 and now.

It is 1973 and the United States is withdrawing its troops from Vietnam. That doesn’t sit so well with Major Preston Packard (Jackson). However, before he and his boys can return home he is given a new assignment to accompany a scientific team to a remote island near Southeast Asia.

The scientists are led by Dr. Bill Randa (Goodman) whose Hollow Earth theories have been largely discredited and who is ostensibly researching seismic activity on the island but unknown to the soldiers that are accompanying him, as well as former SAS tracker James Conrad (Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Larson), an anti-war activist who smells a big story. Is she ever right!

Their helicopter fleet is smashed to pieces by a gigantic ape 100 feet tall. The survivors are separated and try to make their way to a rendezvous point with their ship on the north shore of the island. The military men are trying to hunt down other survivors while Major Packard seethes; he wants to take out the ape that decimated his men. The civilians find their way to a human settlement where they find a surprising discovery; an aviator named Hank Marlow (Reilly) who has been stranded on the island since World War II.

Their job is to find a way off the island but it is far more perilous than just a single giant ape. There are other gigantic creatures (water buffalo, for example, and Daddy Long Leg spiders with legs as long as tree trunks. Worse, there are reptilian creatures that have ascended from the depths of the Earth and are only held back from mass destruction by Kong, who kills the bad boys on sight. And just between you and me I’d rather have Kong on my side than against.

I will give Vogt-Roberts credit; he knows how to keep the action going. This is definitely a roller coaster ride of a movie. But as roller coasters go, this one is a bit tamer than I expected. Peter Jackson’s 2005 magnum opus has nightmarish critters that range from dinosaurs to gigantic insects to things that have never existed and thank God for that. There are some creatures here (a giant octopus for example) but none really have the creepy factor that Jackson’s movie had and even the Big Bads – the Skullcrawlers as Marlow dubs them – are not as nightmare-inducing as they could be.

Hiddleston has paid his dues in a number of supporting roles and is more than ready to take on a heroic lead, but for some reason his performance here feels muted. I know he has tons of screen presence – I’ve seen it and not just in the Marvel appearances as Loki – but he doesn’t have much here. It’s sad too because I think this was a good role for him. Faring better is Reilly who damn near steals the movie as Marlow, who isn’t always sure if he’s thinking or speaking with often hilarious results. He’s one of the best reasons to see this movie.

Like all the Kong movies before it this is a boy’s club with a token woman to tame the beast, although that really doesn’t happen here. This is also set entirely on Skull Island; Kong doesn’t go to New York or anywhere else. Larsen is an actress whose stock is on the rise, but her role seems like nobody really knew what to do with her. Mason Weaver is no damsel in distress and that’s a good thing for women everywhere, but part of the Kong mythos requires one and the movie feels lacking without one.

A movie with a budget of $190 million dollars should not leave the viewers feeling meh but that’s what this one did for me. Maybe I expected more out of a Kong movie than just a slambang action film; it needed to have an epic feel to it and to my mind that’s just what it lacked. All three of the preceding Kong movies had it but I suppose sooner or later that streak would have to come to an end. Given that this is part of a new Monsterverse that started with the Godzilla reboot of a couple of years ago and will include some of the most well-known giant monsters from Japan and the United States, you would think that more care would be taken to keep this franchise viable. I hope they can bring back that larger than life feeling again; what good are giant monsters without it?

REASONS TO GO: Some of the monsters are spectacular. Reilly just about steals the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie plods a bit in the middle. It’s not as exciting as other giant monster films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some pretty scary monsters; there’s also some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The appearance of Kong (the shape of his face and so on) was based on the look of the original 1933 Kong.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the Center of the Earth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Exodus

The Great Wall


Matt Damon steels himself.

(2017) Adventure (Universal/Legendary) Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, Hanyu Zhang, Lu Han, Kenny Lin, Eddie Peng, Xuan Huang, Ryan Zheng, Karry Wang, Cheney Chen, Pilou Asbæk, Numan Acar, Johnny Cicco, Yu Xiantian, Bing Liu. Directed by Zhang Yimou

 

The battles that shape the future of humanity don’t always take place in plain sight. Sometimes they remain hidden away whether to keep people from panicking or because it suits the leadership of those involved to have those battles take place behind great walls.

William (Damon) and Tovar (Pascal) are European mercenaries who are tasked with going to China to obtain gunpowder, a technology not yet available in the West. Along the way their party is attacked by a vicious iguana-like monster that William slays. As they venture further into China they are captured and taken before a general (Zhang). Most of the commanders including Lin Mae (Jing), the general’s right hand, believe these men to be thieves come to rob China of her secrets but the general is impressed enough with William’s feat of monster slaying that he refrains from executing them but the men are imprisoned as the army of the Nameless Order are on the eve of a desperate battle – one against an overwhelming army of those same creatures that William slew only in vast numbers.

The two Westerners are befriended by Ballard (Dafoe), a former Jesuit who has been retained by the general as a translator. The odds are against the army and if the monsters who are called Tei Tao break through the Great Wall, there is nothing between them and Beijing and from there they can go onto overrun the entire planet. William, recognizing that here is finally a war worth fighting, sways Lin Mae and soon the two are planning the final stand against the horde but William observes a means where the day might yet be saved.

Yimou is one of China’s most revered directors, best known in the West for his amazing opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics but among film buffs he has a resume that includes some of the most visually impressive films of the last 20 years. Given an astronomical budget by Chinese standards, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and the backing of a major studio it is not surprising that this was a movie I’ve been anticipating for the past few years. Unfortunately, despite all the elements in its favor the movie proves to be a disappointment.

The CGI creatures are unconvincing and look like CGI creatures. There’s nothing organic about them. We see entire hordes of them swarming like ants and the bird’s eye view of the swarm should be terrifying or at least intimidating but it comes off looking phony. If you’re going to fight monsters, they should at least look like they are actually alive and dangerous.

The chemistry between Damon and Pascal is nearly non-existent; the banter between the two sounds forced and unconvincing. Damon affects a bizarre accent that sounds like an Irishman who’d lived half his life in Nebraska. His Boston Irish accent in Good Will Hunting was far more authentic. I get a sense that Pascal is frustrated that his character has little or no depth to it and ends up being a generic second banana. They could have gotten a banana to play the role for all the personality the writers gave the part.

The color-coded armies that make up the Nameless Order are far more impressive and when Yimou is directing major battle sequences with soldiers bungee jumping upside down into the very mouths of the creatures the movie is far more thrilling. While he set design is largely muted, Yimou gets to go extravagant on his Forbidden City sets and he seems more comfortable with those.

This is a movie that fails to showcase Yimou’s visual sense to its fullest and inserts a badly miscast Damon in a role that seems to exist mainly to placate studio bosses unsure of making a movie made in China with a mainly Chinese cast as a tentpole; in fact, the release date was eventually moved to February after it appeared this was going to be a summer or Holiday release. That proved to be a wise move. Maybe someday a studio with a little bit more sense will let Yimou make an epic movie with a Chinese cast without having to insert a Western actor into the mix. I don’t know that American audiences are ready for that but they seemed to be all right with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A great movie will find its audience.

REASONS TO GO: Yimou has one of the most cinematic eyes in the history of movies.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie overall is kind of a hot mess.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence of a fantasy/war nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lau and Damon played the same role in Infernal Affairs and the Martin Scorsese remake The Departed respectively.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Mine

Gold (2016)


They may be in the middle of nowhere but at least they have a good pot of coffee.

They may be in the middle of nowhere but at least they have a good pot of coffee.

(2016) Adventure (Dimension) Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Bill Camp, Joshua Harto, Timothy Simons, Craig T. Nelson, Stacy Keach, Macon Blair, Adam LaFevre, Bruce Greenwood, Rachael Taylor, Frank Wood, Michael Landes, Bhavesh Patel, Vic Browder, Dylan Kenin, Stafford Douglas, Kristen Rakes. Directed by Stephen Gaghan

 

A wise man once wrote that “all that glitters is not gold” but gold does glitter and its pull on some men is irresistible. It is the lure of riches and fame but also of conquering the odds. Not many who go looking for gold actually find it.
Kenny Wells (McConaughey) is once such. His company – the Washoe Mining Company that he inherited from his respected and revered dad (Nelson) and which had been founded nearly 80 years earlier by his granddad – is foundering, a once-thriving organization doing business out of a bar and down to a few loyal employees who hadn’t been paid in months. The economic downturn of the 80s has hit Washoe and Kenny hard. As it turns out, Kenny is a bit of a carnival barker, trying to get funds from disinterested local bankers to take one last stab at the dream. While his girlfriend Kay (Howard) remains loyal and believes in him, things look pretty bleak for Kenny Wells.

Then he discovers the largely discredited theories of Michael Acosta (Ramirez) who had discovered a sizable copper deposit years earlier. A rock star among geologists at one time, Acosta is also on a downward spiral. However, Acosta believes there is a major gold deposit in one of the most remote areas of Indonesia.

At first, things go badly. Kenny has sunk every last dime he has and what little he is able to borrow into the venture. To make matters worse, he’s contracted malaria and nearly dies. Acosta nurses him back to health and even as the miners (who also haven’t been paid) have left in droves, the patience pays off as gold is discovered and not just a little bit – billions of dollars worth. Kenny and Michael have just hit the big time and for Kay, her ship has just come in.

Immediately as word spreads of the small company’s find spreads, Wall Street sharks begin to circle in particular in the form of Brian Woolf (Stoll) who is all smiles and white teeth but means to wring every penny out of Washoe that he can. It looks like easy pickings, too – Kenny’s drinking, always a problem for him, has reached massive proportions. He also smokes like a fiend and is paunchy and sometimes he’s not all together mentally speaking, or at least so it appears.

But Kenny proves to be cannier than people give him credit for. The small time operator has a few tricks up his sleeve as he fights to protect what he worked so hard to obtain. And for awhile, it looks like he might succeed until a bombshell drops that threatens all he has earned – and then some.

This is loosely based – VERY loosely – on the Bre-X mining scandal of the 1990s. For one thing, that took place in Canada rather than in Nevada and led to some major reforms on the Canadian stock exchange as well as in mining practices. The investigation also overwhelmed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who simply didn’t have the resources to investigate the scale of corruption that took place so there were never any charges filed.

Otherwise most of the salient facts that are shown here jive with what happened in Canada back in the 1990s. Some of the characters here were based on people who were involved in the real case (primarily Wells and Acosta). Otherwise, this is mainly a yarn about greed and dreams.

McConaughey went the “de-glamorize” route, wearing a set of crooked false teeth, gaining 45 pounds on a cheeseburger diet to get quite a bit of a paunch and wearing a hair piece with a bald spot and thinning locks. McConaughey, who is a very handsome man, doesn’t look that way here. In the past, I’ve praised Hollywood actors for going this route for the sake of their art but it’s becoming a much more prevalent event these days so I’ll refrain from a whole lot of compliments; let’s just say that the acting performance that McConaughey delivers is as good as anything he’s done regardless of the sideshow about how he looks here. He’s come a long way since the laidback Texas surfer dude he seemed to always be playing.

The movie runs two full hours and to be honest I’m not sure it needed to. Once the gold is discovered it begins to drag a little bit as the corporate setup takes most of the focus and that portion of the film isn’t nearly as interesting. The ending is definitely Hollywood too – I would have liked it to have been less heart-warming, particularly after everything the principles did to each other. It doesn’t seem terribly realistic to me.

Like many other films that Weinstein distributes, this bounced around the release schedule for a time before settling on a Christmas release in New York and Los Angeles and expanding nationwide in January. I’m frankly mystified that they’d open this up in the holiday season at all; there was never any real chance of Oscar attention here and to be honest this feels a little bit more suited to the less competitive January release schedule. Still, it is competently done and reasonably entertaining which given what dogs we usually get in January is saying something.

REASONS TO GO: McConaughey does a stellar job here despite all the make-up and hair tomfoolery..
REASONS TO STAY: Overall, the film feels long and seems to lose steam in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality, some nudity and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gaghan’s first film in eleven years, his last being Syriana.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fool’s Gold
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Live By Night

Assassin’s Creed


Michael Fassbender realizes that taking this role might have been a mistake.

Michael Fassbender realizes that taking this role might have been a mistake.

(2016) Adventure (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams, Denis Ménochet, Ariane Labed, Khalid Abdalla, Essie Davis, Matias Varela, Callum Turner, Carlos Bardem, Javier Gutiérrez, Hovik Keuchkerian, Crystal Clarke, Michelle H. Lin. Directed by Justin Kurzel

 

Is free will all it’s cracked up to be? What is free will, after all, if the decisions you make are uninformed? Is it better to have someone make our decisions for us for the greater good? Or is it better that we have our own free will even if our decisions tend to be rendered by self-interest and disregard for others?

Convicted murderer Callum Lynch (Fassbender) is about to be executed. Never mind that he witnessed his father (Brian Gleeson) murder his mother (Davis) in cold blood without explanation, he turned to crime on his own and for his crimes he will pay. Except that he wakes up – not in heaven, but in a strange corporate facility where Dr. Sofia Rikkim (Cotillard) informs him that he’s still alive and about to take part in a procedure that will tap his genetic memories. Memories of ancestors, or in this case of a specific ancestor – Aguilar (Fassbender) who was an assassin – excuse me, Assassin – who alone knows the location of an artifact called the Apple of Eden.

This is all a part of an ages-old feud between two warring factions, the Templars and the Assassins, each fighting for their philosophy of free will versus control. Think of the Assassins as Chaotic Good while the Templars are the Lawful Evil. In any case, the Apple of Eden contains the genetic DNA of free will; he who controls it can modify human behavior – eliminate violence altogether, says Dr. Rikkim. Oh boy!

The means of doing that is through a machine called the Animus in which Callum can inhabit the body of Aguilar, see what he sees and utilize his skills which, as it happens, he retains when he comes back into his own body. There’s also a robotic arm on the Animus which allows Callum/Aguilar to do all sorts of nifty parkour moves.

The problem is as it always seems to be is that not everything is what it appears to be. Dr. Rikkim seems to have the best intentions, but what of her industrialist father (Irons) and the haughty patrician lady Ellen Kaye (Rampling)? And when it turns out that Callum’s hated father (Brendan Gleeson) is in the facility, a reckoning is sure to follow.

Like many movies based on videogame franchises, the basic appeal is going to be to the gamers who are familiar with the game and know the mythology behind it. Those of us who aren’t familiar with the game are going to have a hard time navigating this movie which is convoluted and over-complicated. The latter two traits actually work in favor for a videogame; gamers want a complex game to navigate because that maintains their interest.

The visuals are compelling for the most part although there’s a tendency for the scenes set in the Inquisition to be overlighted and a bit washed out. Scenes that are set outdoors don’t look it and I have to think that’s because the CGI is insufficient to the task. Nothing takes you out of a movie faster than scenes that don’t look real. Also, I understand that the Eagle that appears several times in the movie is a game thing, it seemed overused to me and also looked badly animated.

The stunts however were mind-blowing, some of the best of the year. While I thought that the best one (involving a more than 100 foot free fall, a stunt not attempted for a Hollywood film for more than 30 years) should not have appeared in the trailer when it does show up in the film it’s no less breathtaking.

One doesn’t go to this kind of film for the acting, but given the pedigree of the cast including some of the finest actors in the world (i.e. Fassbender, Cotillard, Irons and Gleeson senior) the performances show that they were at least attempting to do their best. Stiff upper lips must have been needed given some of the things they had to do and say here, but one can’t fault the cast here for the film’s shortcomings.

It is ironic that the theme here champions free will and yet the medium is a movie, which is essentially a passive enterprise in which the audience simply accepts the vision and viewpoint of the filmmaker as opposed to the videogame in which the player makes choices. The audience here makes none other than whether or not to walk out halfway through. What we have here is another failed attempt by Hollywood to make a hugely popular videogame into a movie franchise; perhaps they should stop trying.

I’m not against videogames or videogame adaptations – far from it. I’m just against bad adaptations. I would love to see a film adaptation that actually does justice to a game and I know it can be done. It just hasn’t really been up to now for any franchise not called Resident Evil. Hopefully at some point we will see one – just not today.

REASONS TO GO: The stunts are incredible. The cast at least take the material seriously.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is overly complex and convoluted. All of the outdoor scenes look like they were filmed indoors in a simulation of late afternoon.
FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect with a videogame adaptation there is a ton of violence, some adult thematic elements and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was given a completely unique plot rather than bringing one of the videogames to the screen (there are nine of them in the Assassin’s Creed franchise) and Ubisoft has stated that all of their big screen films will have separate storylines from their games.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tomb Raider
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Fences

The Legend of Tarzan


Him Tarzan, you Jane...don't you wish!!!

Him Tarzan, you Jane…don’t you wish!!!

(2016) Adventure (Warner Brothers) Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Ben Chaplin, Casper Crump, Sidney Ralitsoele, Osy Ikhile, Mens-Sana Tamakloe, Antony Acheampong, Edward Apeagyei, Ashley Byam, Clive Brunt, Charles Babalola, Yule Masiteng, Mimi Ndiweni, Faith Edwards. Directed by David Yates

 

The pulp era gave us some of our most enduring characters and heroes. From the comic books to the detective novels, iconic characters like The Shadow, The Phantom, Superman, Doc Savage and Conan the Barbarian all were created in that era. Perhaps the famous one of all, however, is Tarzan. Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, he has been active in nearly every medium for nearly a century, from comic books to novels to television shows to of course the movies. Now comes the latest big screen Tarzan adventure, but what would the 21st century make of the pulp hero?

Tarzan (Skarsgård) has left the jungles of Africa and come home with his sweet Lady Jane (Robbie) to England, where he now inhabits his father’s title and mansion, and these days goes by the name of John Clayton, his given name. Meanwhile, back in Africa, Belgium’s bloodthirsty King Leopold II has quietly enslaved the natives in the Congo which was, at the time, a Belgian colony and has loosed his nefarious right hand man Colonel Leon Rom (Waltz) to take out the only man capable of stopping his plans – Tarzan.

Colonel Rom lures Tarzan back on an expedition ostensibly to inspect Leopold’s supposedly enlightened progress in the jungle and, as representatives of the English government imply, in the meantime assisting England with trade relations with the fractious monarch. Tarzan is decidedly reluctant to go back although Jane, who also grew up on the Dark Continent, is eager to return to her home and friends. Tarzan is accompanied by the American activist George Washington Williams (Jackson) who believes that Leopold is up to something – slavery, to be specific – and wants Tarzan to help him document it.

Of course, you don’t need Admiral Akbar to tell you it’s a trap. On a visit to the peaceful village where Jane grew up and near where Tarzan was raised by a tribe of apes, Jane is kidnapped by Rom and of course Tarzan chases him through the jungle relentlessly. What Tarzan doesn’t know is that an old enemy (Hounsou) awaits him on the other side of the jungle to take his revenge on the Lord of the Apes, in exchange for a boatload of diamonds that will enable Leopold to pay for a mercenary army to wreak havoc in central Africa. Definitely not cricket, that.

Skarsgård, who made so many fans on True Blood, makes a fine Tarzan. He reminds me a little bit of Viggo Mortensen with the kind of twinkle in his eye smirk that Mortensen has, particularly when he played Aragon. Skarsgård who took the role largely to please his father who’s a big Tarzan fan (his dad is noted actor Stellan Skarsgård for those not in the know) gives the pulp hero a brooding presence, perhaps more so than any other actor who has played him (and there have been plenty of those).

The pacing here starts off a little bit slow, but does pick up by the end. Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter flicks, knows how to build a level of action in his movies and by the time the final confrontation between Tarzan and Rom takes place, the audience is well-primed for it. As for that confrontation, trust me it’s a doozy. As far as thrills go, The Legend of Tarzan delivers.

One thing that was inevitable was that the modern liberal sensibilities of film critics were rubbed the wrong way. A lot of copy has been written about colonialism, and Tarzan as the Big White Bwana and there is truth to that – but considering Tarzan was created back in 1918, one must have at least some leeway for the times not only portrayed in the film but in the source material.

Although to be fair, in this case that source material was the Dark Horse comic rather than Burroughs’ original novels, which truth be told probably wouldn’t play well these days. Curiously, real people are used here – Leopold, Rom and George Washington Williams all existed and pretty much as they are depicted in the film. Adding Tarzan to the mix is an interesting idea, but it’s a lot like having Austin Powers try to stop the Kennedy Assassination, although of course the events in the Congo back at the turn of the 20th century are a lot less well-known to American audiences than JFK.

I will say that the lush backgrounds filmed in Gabon are absolutely extraordinary, although the actors mainly filmed on stages with green screens and CGI animals. And that to a very large extent defines what’s wrong with this film. They really wanted to go with realism in the story line, but rather than going with real animals, they went the CGI route and it shows at times. In other words, the filmmakers wanted to have their cake and eat it too, but ended up with a doughy mixture with too much sugar and not enough substance.

REASONS TO GO: Skarsgård has A-list potential. The film utilizes gorgeous African vistas, although most of the jungle scenes are on sets.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much CGI spoils the broth. The mix of real and fictional is less enticing than it sounds.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find plenty of action and violence, some rude dialogue and a bit of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the last film to be produced by Jerry Weintraub, who passed away shortly before shooting wrapped.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Greystoke
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Observance

The Jungle Book (2016)


Audiences are going ape for The Jungle Book.

Audiences are going ape for The Jungle Book.

(2016) Family (Disney) Neel Sethi, Bill Murray (voice), Ben Kingsley (voice), Idris Elba (voice), Lupita Nyong’o (voice), Scarlett Johansson (voice), Giancarlo Esposito (voice), Christopher Walken (voice), Garry Shandling (voice), Brighton Rose (voice), Emjay Anthony (voice), Jon Favreau (voice), Russell Peters (voice), Sam Raimi (voice), Ritesh Rajan, Sara Arrington (voice). Directed by Jon Favreau

 

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is rightly considered a children’s classic. The Disney animated version, while not near the top of their list, is at least considered one of the better animated films of its era, complete with a passel of Sherman brothers tunes that continue to be quoted by Disney in their theme parks and commercials.

A live action version continues Disney’s string of live action features based on their animated films and in many ways this is the most challenging project yet. Director Favreau, who is best known for the first two Iron Man films, was an inspired choice to direct this, having done family films as well as big special effects extravaganzas as well.

Mowgli (Sethi) is a young human child raised by wolves after the death of his father (Rajan). Alpha male Akela (Esposito) and his noble wife Raksha (Nyong’o) take on the responsibility of raising the boy as a wolf. Try as he might to fit in, Mowgli has just two legs and no claws to speak of. However he is a cheerful boy and an inventive thinker. Panther Bagheera (Kingsley) is also nearby, making sure that Mowgli is raised right.

Also nearby, unfortunately, is Shere Khan (Elba), a disfigured tiger whose burns had been received at the hands of Mowgli’s dad before the big cat sent him on his way to meet his maker. When Shere Khan finds out that Mowgli is about, he blows a gasket. No human will live safely in his forest while he lives, and Shere Khan sets out to eliminate Mowgli from the board.

Akela and Bagheera agree that Mowgli must leave the pack, despite the laws of the pack that seem to indicate that the pack is stronger together rather than splitting up. Bagheera tries to escort Mowgli to the safety of the human village but Shere Khan finds out and Mowgli and Bagheera are separated. Mowgli is found by Baloo ((Murray), a happy-go-lucky bear who finds a stroke of good luck when Mowgli, ever-inventive, figures out a way for Baloo to get the honeycombs that are high on the top of a mountain that Baloo is unable to reach. Even in this idyllic interlude, the jungle isn’t safe; not only is the tiger after Mowgli but so is King Louie (Walken), the clever but crazed leader of the apes who has an eye on the secret of fire which only Mowgli can unravel as well as Kaa (Johansson), a seductive serpent whose only concern is making Mowgli her lunch.

Sethi is the only onscreen actor who gets any significant time; all the other animal characters and indeed the jungle setting itself is all digitally created. It’s an impressive technical achievement, achieving a photorealistic jungle as well as the animals within it. The computer animators achieve actual personalities in the anthropomorphic subjects, with Baloo’s happy-go-lucky bear augmented by Murray’s acerbic wit; Bagheera’s sleek black form is bolstered with his expressions of annoyance and occasional contentment. It is somewhat ironic that only Mowgli himself is poorly drawn as a character.

It’s not that Sethi is a bad actor – far from it. He shows some real athleticism in his role, but the dialogue for him is a little one-note and Sethi doesn’t vary much in his line reading. Like some child actors, he comes off as a little too sure of himself and perhaps Mowgli’s wolf upbringing might explain this, but Mowgli comes off as almost arrogant to the point of Trumpness.

The voice actors all do wonderful work, particularly Murray and Kingsley, but Johansson, Nyong’o and Walken also distinguish themselves. Favreau is inventive in the way he uses tracking shots and flashbacks, and the movie is never visually boring.

The animated edition is where most of the cues for this movie arise, but there are also other elements from other movies, some surprising. There are nods to Apocalypse Now, for example, when King Louie reveals himself. The appearance of three songs from the original movie is all welcome and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Christopher Walken warbling “Wanna Be Like You.”

This is some of the best family entertainment you’re going to find in a year that’s shaping up to offer some truly interesting family films that this critic is eager to check out. That’s good news as there has been a bit of a dry spell when it’s come to high quality family entertainment. This one is going to make it into the video library for a lot of kids who will be demanding it from parents who won’t mind giving in. Definitely one of the best family films in years.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing animal effects look completely real. A classic honored with a terrific rendition. Nice little shout-outs to the animated version.
REASONS TO STAY: While Sethi is less annoying then he might have been, he was occasionally a bit overly smug for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence here as well as a child in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Disney version of The Jungle Book in which Bagheera and Shere Khan fight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tarzan
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Honeyglue