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

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Wildlike


Bruce Davison and Ella Purnell contemplate Alaska.

Bruce Davison and Ella Purnell contemplate Alaska.

(2014) Adventure (Greenmachine) Ella Purnell, Bruce Greenwood, Nolan Gerard Funk, Brian Geraghty, Diane Farr, Joshua Leonard, Ann Farr, Russell Josh Peterson, Bradford Jackson, Pamela R. Klein, Erin Lindsay King, Elias Christeas, Teddy Kyle Smith, Ching Tseng, Thomas Mark Higgins, Tom Okamoto, Leo Grinberg, Erick Robertson, Joe Tapangco. Directed by Frank Hall Green

Florida Film Festival 2015

When we read about teen runaways, often we look at them as anti-authoritarians who couldn’t handle being told what to do. We look down upon them, feeling that they are responsible for their own mess, and that certainly is true in some cases. The reality is that sometimes running away is the only option.

Mackenzie (Purnell) has come to Juneau, Alaska from Seattle because she really has no other choice; her father has passed away within the last year and her mother is entering treatment in Seattle for her drug dependency. She’s staying with her Uncle (Geraghty) who at first seems to be trying to be nice in the face of teen “whatever, go screw yourself” attitude and raccoon-like eye make-up from Mackenzie. She seems to warm up to him when he gives her an iPhone.

Then things get messy. A nocturnal incident leaves Mackenzie feeling vulnerable and alone; she knows she has to leave. So when the opportunity presents itself, out she gets. Armed with money she stole from her Uncle, she sets out to make her way home to Seattle but what she doesn’t realize is that Alaska is a big effin’ state.

Trying to get in out of the cold and the rain, she breaks into a motel room but it turns out that it’s not empty; Rene “Bart” Bartlett (Greenwood) has rented the room and he’s getting ready to undertake a difficult task – to hike through Denali National Park alone. When Bartlett discovers Mackenzie under the bed, she bolts, unnerving him.

For some reason she latches onto him and follows him to Denali and then into the wilderness, much to his chagrin. He tries to convince her to head back but she refuses and so reluctantly he takes the woefully unprepared girl along with him. What he ends up discovering is that he needs her as much as she needs him.

I’m not sure how to characterize this film, whether it is a coming of age film or an Alaska wilderness adventure or a social commentary. It has elements of all of these things and you wouldn’t be wrong in characterizing it as any of the three. It definitely has that in its favor; it is a tale told in a unique manner.

Also in its favor is the beautiful vistas we see throughout. Alaska is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and it just isn’t shown in movies nearly enough, probably having to do with the remoteness of most of the state. Filming here can be a challenge and the window of opportunity can be small seasonally speaking. Green, a first-time director who has hiked Denali himself on several occasions and has been a outdoors type for most of his life, knows Alaska well enough to choose some brilliant locations and to get the shots he needs. This is a gorgeous movie that will certainly inspire some to want to venture to the 49th state.

Also to its advantage is the performance of Purnell, who captures the look and attitude of a teen girl damn near perfectly. She’s got all the attitude in the world, affecting a “I don’t care” look that most teenage girls master at an early age but the inner vulnerability and scared little girl comes out at the right times. Mackenzie is 14 in the film and Purnell was 19 when the movie was made which is a bit of a relief considering some of the scenes she has to play here.

And there are a few scenes that are pretty difficult, particularly the one which is the cause of Mackenzie’s need to leave. It is handled respectfully, not in a prurient manner but more in a matter-of-fact kind of way. And yes, there is a creepy factor when you throw a teen girl and a middle-aged man into the same tent, but to Green’s credit (as well as Greenwood’s), the awkwardness mostly comes from the viewer’s own preconceived notion of why a middle-aged man would hang out with a young girl.

The movie doesn’t explain a lot of things, leaving the audience to kind of explain them on their own. We never get a sense of why Mackenzie follows Bart into the wilderness; it seems to be a random and spur-of-the-moment choice which, to b fair, is often how teen girls seem to act. I suppose it’s better to let us invent our own story rather than to spoon feed us but more framework would have been nice. There’s also a scene in which Bart and Mackenzie encounter a group of people testing out kites in which an important monologue is delivered but the music is so loud that it is difficult to hear what is being said.

Quibbles aside, this is a solid, well-made and beautifully photographed movie that will stick with you. Solid performances by most of the lead cast and a compelling story will leave you hooked. At present the film is on the festival circuit but hopefully it will be grabbed by a distributor for either a limited theatrical run or a VOD release. It deserves to be seen.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous Alaskan wilderness. Handles difficult subjects respectfully. Purnell gets attitude and look down pat.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit light in connecting the dots. Music overly loud in places it shouldn’t be.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing sexual scenes and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Purnell, an English actress, spoke with an American accent from the moment she got off the plane in Alaska and stayed in that accent 24/7 until she got on the plane for home when shooting was completed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Druid Peak
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Tomorrow We Disappear

Chernobyl Diaries


Chernobyl Diaries

Out of the frying pan…

(2012) Horror (Warner Brothers) Devin Kelley, Jonathan Sadowski, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Jesse McCartney, Nathan Phillips, Dimitri Diatchenko, Milos Timotijevic, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Zinaida Dedakin, Ivana Milutinovic. Directed by Brad Parker

 

Some things are just downright bad ideas. Teasing the starving mother of bear cubs is one of them. Calling Mike Tyson a sissy is another. However, you’d pretty much have to put sightseeing at the sight of the worst nuclear accident in history right at the top of the list.

Chris (McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Dudley) and her good friend Amanda (Kelley) are touring Europe the way only young people can – like complete idiots. Relentlessly taping everything, acting like goofballs in front of the camera, they head into Kiev to visit Chris’ brother Paul (Sadowski) who has been estranged from his family for awhile. Paul shows them a good time, but the continuation of the tour to Moscow is interrupted when Paul meets an extreme tourism operator named Uri (Diatchenko) who proposes a trip to nearby Chernobyl.

Actually, the trip would be to Pripyat, the town near the plant where the plant workers and their families lived which became a deserted ghost town overnight when reactor #4 exploded on April 26, 1986, giving those who lived there no time to even collect their belongs. The town slumbered in radioactive peace for 25 years, the radiation too high to allow any sort of return until recently. The reactor itself is still highly contaminated and can only be approached in complete protective gear and even then only for a few hours at a time.

For Type A personality Paul, this sounds like his kind of adventure. Cautious Chris, who means to propose to Natalie in Moscow (can anyone say Lieutenant Deadmeat?) is reluctant to go but Paul convinces Amanda, who is a photographer, that she can get the shots of a lifetime in Pripyat so Amanda convinces Natalie at which point Chris caves.

At first it looks like the trip is over before it begins – the army has closed off the town and isn’t permitting Uri, who has conducted several tours there, into the town. However wily Uri knows a back way into town and drives the four Americans, along with Norwegian honeymooners Michael (Phillips) and Zoe (Berdal) into the deserted town.

Most of the vegetation is dead and they find a  mutated fish near a stream on the edge of town (had they stayed a little longer they might have seen a whole lot of ’em) but it’s the silence that’s eerie. No birds, few animal noises of any sort. There are feral dogs running around the area which can be dangerous if there’s a lot of them but nothing too dangerous (other than that big mofo bear that runs through one of the apartment buildings, scaring the bejeezus out of them). That is, until they return to their van and find out that the van won’t start – the leads on the starter have either melted or something is wrong with them – and neither Uri nor Michael can repair it. They call for help but nobody answers. It looks like they’ll have to spend the night in the van. And it soon becomes very apparent that they aren’t alone.

Oren Peli, who created the Paranormal Activity franchise, wrote and produced this (first time director Parker was behind the camera). There are several similar elements here; a microscopic budget (under a million, chump change for most Hollywood productions), unknown actors (unless you count pop star McCartney), a genuinely terrifying premise and shaky, hand-held cameras (at times the angles and shaky-cam perspective make this look kind of documentary-like). However, this isn’t nearly as scary as Peli’s previous film.

For one thing, none of the actors are really memorable, although McCartney bears a striking resemblance physically and also vocally to a young Leonardo di Caprio. Diatchenko also is strong and likable as Uri. The rest are mostly unremarkable but pretty competent.

I accept that for most horror movies to work, there has to be an instance of people doing dumb, stupid or irresponsible things and this film is no exception. I would not, for example, venture into the night from the safety of a closed and locked van armed only with a handgun to investigate strange noises when you are already aware that there’s a bear wandering around. You would definitely not do it if you had special forces survival training, which one of the characters supposedly had.

The monsters – you can pretty much figure out what they are – do not really act consistently which is another problem. In some instances they seem to be stalking the tourists with almost military precision. At other times they are mindless, shambling things out of a George A. Romero movie. We really only see them towards the end of the movie although we certainly know they’re there.

I liked parts of the movie and to be honest, with a little more care in the script, particularly in character development – if I can’t care about the characters, I have no emotional investment in their survival. In this case the audience become voyeurs at a Grand Guignol show and walk away merely feeling dirty instead of entertained, but thankfully there is sufficient entertainment value here. It could have used a lot more tension though – and a little less arguing.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific concept.

REASONS TO STAY: Inept script. Lacks real suspense.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a surfeit of bad language and some pretty graphic and gruesome images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Oren Peli got the idea for the movie after seeing a photo blog of a girl riding through Pripyat on a motorcycle.  

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100. The reviews are pretty much all negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: [Rec]

ANTHONY BOURDAIN LOVERS: During a recent episode set in the Ukraine of his “No Reservations” travel program, chef/author Bourdain was taken to Pripyat and saw the amusement rides and vacant apartment buildings. There were no mutants caught on camera for the show however.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mr. Popper’s Penguins