Sky and Ground


A sign outside of a closed refugee camp is an ironic statement of our fear and humanity – or lack thereof.

(2017) Documentary (A Show of Force) Guevara Nabi, Heba Nabi, Shireen Nabi, Suleiman Abderahman, Oum Mohamed, Rita Nabi, Abdo Nabi, Abu Raman. Directed by Talya Tibbon and Joshua Bennett

I really can’t fathom man’s inhumanity to man. How screwed up a species are we when you consider how many people in the world have been uprooted from their homes, forced to live as refugees? Then again, I don’t think most of the rest of us even have a clue about the tribulations refugees face on a daily basis.

Guevara Nabi – so called because as a student in university he professed admiration for the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara – has fled Aleppo. Not because he wanted to; his instinct was to stay and fight for his city. However, he knew that the situation was untenable for his aging mother and the rest of his family and that for the safety of his nieces, nephews, sister and mom the family had to get out of Syria. They ended up in a refugee camp in Greece called Idomeni.

They are Syrians of Kurdish descent so the radical Muslim militants who were helping to defend Aleppo saw them as infidels who were just as bad as Bashir’s forces; Guevara knew that if his family stayed they would most likely end up dead or worse but the refugee camp had its own problems. Food was getting scarce and five days after they arrived Macedonia closed its borders. Two of Guevara’s brothers live in Berlin and could put the rest of the family up. The problem is getting there.

The problem is that the flow of refugees has caused many European nations to close their borders, fearful of terrorists sneaking in along with the refugees. Even Greece, where they’re staying, is getting ready to close Idomeni down and clear the refugees out. The way Guevara sees it, they have no choice but to try and move illegally through the Balkan states to safety in Germany where refugees continue to be welcomed.

This is no easy task. It involves moving an extended family including a frail mother and a child through rough terrain with hostile police who will arrest you and send you right back where you started. The villages are not much help either; it is rumored that there is a cash reward for turning illegal refugees in. Even the humanitarian organizations are liable to report your presence to the police. Smugglers are even more dangerous; they charge a high price and entire families have been known to disappear once they give their trust to a smuggler. Guevara doesn’t trust them but when one member of their group injures a leg he is forced to reconsider.

The film plays almost like a thriller at least to begin with; you are on the edge of your seat watching the family make its way through the perilous terrain of the Macedonian mountains and valleys. Every so often they end up mere feet away from policemen searching the countryside for people just like them. Throughout it all, they keep their spirits up as best they can and make the best of a bad situation. Sure there are complaints and sure sometimes they all question the wisdom of what they’re doing but never for one moment do they lose faith in one another.

It doesn’t hurt that the family is physically attractive but I think what you’ll remember more about them is that very faith I referred to; this is a family that is close-knit and even though they haven’t always been living in the same place (the mom notes that the last time the particular group she was travelling with had been all together in the same place was for a wedding seven years earlier) it’s obvious that the connections between all of them are strong, even the ones by marriage.

The movie does lose a little steam after the first hour as they get closer to their goal. The obstacles are a lot different as the environment becomes more urban and they are worried about being caught without passports on a train. You don’t get the same sense of imminent danger at every moment and maybe that’s a good thing but I think that it does become a different film at that point.

I have to give the filmmakers kudos because they are right with the family every step of the way. It couldn’t have been an easy shoot and of course they were subject to the same perils that the family was in being arrested and deported. Even so they allow us to get to know the family, to care about them and root for them to find sanctuary in Germany. It also gives us an insight into the refugee issue; it was shocking to me (although on reflection it shouldn’t have been) that little Rita Nabi hadn’t been to school in seven years due to the bombings in Aleppo. At 12 years old she can barely read or write.

We are also starkly reminded that the United States, once the shining beacon of freedom and hope, is closing her own doors to refugees who need that hope more than ever. That we could turn our backs on people like the Nabi family is a failure of what we’re meant to be.

Near the end of the film Heba, one of the nieces, says “We have no home. We have nothing but the sky and the ground…and family.” It shouldn’t have to be that way. Maybe films like this will bring us closer to a day when it won’t be.

REASONS TO GO: The film keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: About halfway through the movie loses some momentum.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first of a planned three-film series about the problems facing refugees entitled Humanity on the Move.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Exodus (2016)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Mighty Atom

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The LEGO Batman Movie


The Batmobile is getting a little bit crowded.

(2017) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Ralph Fiennes, Rosario Dawson, Siri, Zach Galifianakis, Jenny Slate, Conan O’Brien, Doug Benson, Jason Mantzoukas, Billy Dee Williams, Zoë Kravitz, Kate Micucci, Riki Lindhome, Eddie Izzard, Seth Green, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Jemaine Clement, Hector Elizondo, Chris Hardwick, Ellie Kemper. Directed by Chris McKay

 

After the breakout success of The LEGO Movie in 2014, it became clear that one of the reasons for that success was Will Arnett’s delightful portrayal of Batman. Completely clueless and a bit of a jerk, it became clear that he deserved his own movie.

The movie he got is a face off between Batman (Arnett) and the Joker (Galifianakis) but not in the traditional sense. Jim Gordon (Elizondo) is retiring as police chief and his daughter Barbara (Dawson) is taking over but the pragmatic Barbara has some questions. If Batman is such a great crime fighter, why is Gotham so overridden with crime?

For Batman’s part, he leads a lonely existence, dining alone at Wayne Manor while watching Jerry Maguire and laughing in all the wrong places. His faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Fiennes) reminds Batman/Bruce Wayne that he has a responsibility – for one thing, to raise the orphan Dick Grayson (Cera) that he had adopted. Batman, for his part, didn’t realize he’d adopted the boy, thinking it was a joke. Grayson discovers Bruce Wayne’s secret and takes on the costumed vigilante identity as Robin, much to Batman’s annoyance.

But Joker has a plan; to release all of the monsters from the Phantom Zone and overrun Gotham. What he really wants though is for Batman to admit that the Joker is his arch-nemesis which the Caped Crusader just won’t do. But he can’t take on all these villains at once. He’s going to have to put aside his ego and admit that he needs help.

The movie is very family-friendly; kids will love it and adults won’t mind it either. While the “family is important” message will resonate with adults, kids might find it a bit saccharine; kids tend to prefer anarchy and chaos when left to their own devices. The nerd brigade will like the infusion of various DC superheroes as well as monsters and villains from across the pop culture spectrum (curiously there are no Marvel superheroes or villains, at least none I can remember). Adults will appreciate the rapid fire jokes that keep the movie jumping, not unlike a ZAZ film from the 70s. However, like most movies that throw a lot of jokes into the mix, not all of them work. A lot of them hit the mark though, like the whole lobster thermador thing. While the satire of the comic book genre is spot on, McKay and his cadre of five comedy writers also skewer movie conventions with Arnett’s portentous voiceover as the movie opens “Black screen. All important movies start with a black screen.” And he continues, hilariously, as the various production company logos come on.

The animation is simple but effective and makes clever use of the LEGO bricks that make up the world. McKay, a veteran of Robot Chicken, knows how to keep the action moving and there are some pretty spiffy action sequences. It does fall apart in the final act when there are way too many monsters and it becomes hard to follow. The palate is a bit darker than The LEGO Movie but it is still bright enough to keep the smaller kids delighted.

I don’t think this is as successful as The LEGO Movie but that may well be because we were so caught off guard by that movie. The bar was a bit higher for this one and if it didn’t quite hit it, it came damn close.

REASONS TO GO: Equally fun for children and adults alike. A fresh view of Batman and at comic book superheroes in general.
REASONS TO STAY: The humor can be hit and miss.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some animated action and a few rude jokes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fiennes is the third Oscar-nominated actor to play Alfred Pennyworth.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deadpool
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Dig Two Graves

A Dog’s Purpose


Dennis Quaid goes nose-to-nose with one of the canine stars in the film.

(2017) Family (Universal) Josh Gad (voice), Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton, KJ Apa, Bryce Ghelsar, Juliet Rylance, Luke Kirby, Gabrielle Rose, Michael Bofshever, Britt Robertson, Logan Miller, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Pooch Hall, John Ortiz, Nicole LaPlaca, Primo Allon, Peter Kelamis, Caroline Cave, Jane McGregor, Robert Mann, Ron Vewymeren, David J. Lyle, Kelly-Ruth Mercier. Directed by Lasse Hallström

 

Let’s get one thing straight; I am a dog person. Seriously, Da Queen often shakes her head at the extent of my love for the canine species. I have trouble watching cruelty perpetrated to dogs on film (even in animations) and quite frankly all it takes is my dogs whimpering just the right way and I’m putty in their paws. In other words, I’m pretty much the target audience for this film so keep that in mind when reading the review.

The essential concept is that we look at the lives of a variety of dogs, all voiced by Gad, who have been reincarnated one life from the other complete with the memories of previous lives. Bailey belongs to a young boy (Ghelsar) named Ethan. Ethan rescued Bailey from the inside of a hot car and with the support of his mother (Rylance) and over the grumbling of his salesman father (Kirby) he is allowed to keep him.

As Ethan grows into his teen years (Apa) it becomes clear that his father is a drunk and abusive as well, frustrated over his lack of success. Ethan has become a high school football star and through Bailey’s timely intervention, the boyfriend of beautiful Hannah (Robertson). He is well on his way to a college scholarship but a tragic accident changes Ethan’s life forever.

Ethan does go off to college but only after breaking up with Hannah. Bailey goes into a tailspin (no pun intended) without Ethan and not long afterwards, his health fails and Bailey passes on. However, to Bailey’s surprise he wakes up young…and female. Now he’s…I mean, she’s…Ellie, a police dog whose handler (Miller) is lonely and maybe content to be that way – or maybe not. Still, Ellie is brave as can be and a fine partner for Al until…

…she comes back, this time as Tino, a chubby corgi who becomes the object of affection for college student Maya (Howell-Baptiste). Their relationship continues on past graduation and after Maya gets married and starts a family. It continues until it’s Tino’s time to leave and he comes back as…

Buddy, a lovable St. Bernard who ends up chained in the front yard of a dilapidated shack, ignored and neglected and occasionally abused, wondering what it all means until at last he finds a way to someplace familiar…someone who he remembers (Quaid).

Hallström has never shied away from sentiment and this might be the most sentimental of all his films. It’s based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron and while there are some differences in plot line, it is essentially the same where it matters. The subject matter is essentially a dog wondering what the point of it all is; what is his/her purpose in life and what is it about buttholes that is so dang appealing?

Of course this is really about the place of all of us in the universe, not just dogs. Do we just live and then die? It’s heady stuff for a family film and why the Judeo-Christian tradition of heaven and hell is largely ignored here, the film does suggest that our place in the universe is largely determined by how much we love. Dogs are a metaphor in that regard because after all, who is more loving than man’s best friend?

Some might be aware of the video that went viral just before the film that was released that showed one of the dogs – the one who plays Ellie – apparently being forced into the water and being submerged. It should be said that while PETA and other animal rights groups made a big deal out of it, as it turns out the video was doctored and CGI was used of the dog in the water. There’s no doubt that the film crew did have a reluctant dog that should not have been forced into the water (it had more to do with the position of where they were filming the stunt rather than the stunt itself which the dog performed on other occasions without incident) but there was no abuse going on and Hercules, the stunt dog in question, is alive and well. It’s another case of people manipulating truth to suit their own agendas.

The performances here are adequate. You know the old showbiz adage of working with animals and children – it applies here. The best performances tend to come courtesy of those with four paws. That’s not in any way denigrating the two-legged actors here; Quaid is fine as always and Apa looks to be an Elar Coltrane in the making. The focus is on the dogs here and so the humans tend to be more background than anything.

Some movies are tailor-made for critics and others are not; this falls in the latter category. For the most part critics don’t like emotionally manipulative films and this one is certainly that. Yes, the movie is rife with clichés and that’s a problem but I don’t think that kids are all that picky about such things. There are at least two or three places where tears were flowing down my cheeks without shame. As catharsis goes you won’t get better than what I got here in most any film.

REASONS TO GO: Dog lovers will be absolutely charmed. The film examines some pretty deep questions in a non-lofty manner. There’s a Middle American sensibility here.
REASONS TO STAY: Those who don’t like having their emotions manipulated won’t like this at all.
FAMILY VALUES: Children and sensitive sorts (particularly about animals) may have a hard time with the peril several dogs (and the family) are put into and may be unable to handle the passing of various dogs in the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bradley Cooper was originally slated to voice the various dogs in the movie but the scheduling couldn’t be worked out so Josh Gad was hired instead. Also, the bulk of the movie was filmed in Winnipeg.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Old Yeller
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Death Race 2050

Kubo and the Two Strings


Beetle, Kubo and Monkey on a quest for armor or at least an audience.

Beetle, Kubo and Monkey on a quest for armor or at least an audience.

(2016) Animated Feature (Laika/Focus) Starring the voices of Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Meyrick Murphy, Minae Noji, Alpha Takahashi, Laura Miro, Ken Takemoto, Luke Donaldson, Thomas Isao Morinaka, Zach Rice, Rachel Morihiro, Mariel Sheets. Directed by Travis Knight

 

We spend much of our time as adults trying to live up to what our parents wanted us to be, which is a harder trick than it sounds – particularly if your parents were taken from you at a young age. Indeed, we spend much of our lives trying to live up to our parents period. Some of us choose to divorce ourselves from those expectations but deep down, the desire is there.

Kubo (Parkinson), a one-eyed child, lives in a seaside town in Japan, a village that gave him and his mother Kameyo (Vaccaro) refuge when they floated in on a boat when Kubo was just a child. These days Kameyo is ill and Kubo supports them by telling stories, accompanied by his magic shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese musical instrument which causes pieces of paper in Kubo’s pack to be transformed into magical, living origami. He is beloved of the townspeople but there is an air of melancholy about Kubo – he misses the father he never knew, a great samurai warrior who had feuded with his mother’s two evil sisters (both voiced by Mara) and their father, the despotic Moon King (Fiennes).

When Kubo accidentally conjures up a demon and his mother disappears, he must go on a quest to recover his father’s armor, said to make the wearer invincible, and his sword which cannot be broken. He is accompanied by a monkey (Theron) who is more than what she seems, and a samurai that his been transformed into a Beetle (McConaughey) who is more brave than he is brilliant.

Together these three must face down terrifying monsters, insurmountable odds and a seemingly impossible quest. Their faith in each other is all that can get them through even as Kubo despairs of having a family ever again.

Laika, which has produced such gems as The Boxtrolls and Coraline, return for their fourth feature and as you might expect with that kind of pedigree it’s an impressive visual achievement. Melding CGI and the stop-motion animation for which Laika is justifiably famous for, the ancient Japan with all the mystery and magic the wizards at Laika can muster comes to vivid life. There will be lots of oohs and ahs when you get a load of this either on the big screen or at home.

Parkinson, who plays Rickon Stark on Game of Thrones, does some impressive work here, giving us a complete character who, unlikely other orphans in animated films, isn’t one-dimensional. Yes, there is grief for his parents but there is also a solid steel core of honor in him, inherited from his dad. He wants to do right and knows that he has inside him a special power that could well make everything right. However, he is fallible and sometimes does childish things, although never in an annoying way. Parkinson definitely makes the reading emotional without letting the emotions control the reading. It’s a good performance and bodes well for his future as an actor.

McConaughey has never done an animated feature before but his customary Texas drawl is absent here; you almost have to close your eyes and listen really carefully to know it’s him. Theron and McConaughey’s characters have some nice interplay and both do well with Parkinson. The voice work isn’t the issue here at all, and Takei lets fly a delicious “Oh, myyyyyy” early on in the film as an extra bonus attraction.

I do think the movie is a bit long; it drags somewhat during the middle and the epic fight sequences could have been trimmed a bit, although the one with the giant skeleton – c’est magnifique. And I like that while this resembles anime in construction, it’s an American take on the art form and quite frankly, it holds up nicely although it certainly won’t compare to classics like Akira, Grave of the Fireflies and most of Studio Ghibli’s work.

In a year of strong animated features in a summer where virtually everything else was disappointing, this stands out nicely as one of the best family films of the summer. I think it’s one of Laika’s most ambitious ideas in terms of story and visuals, but falls a little short of their best movies. For all that though, I think it’s clear that Laika is one of the top animated studios in the world, right up there with the aforementioned Ghibli, Pixar and maybe Illumination. It’s a good time to be a cartoon fan.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are incredible. A story that is simple yet mesmerizing.
REASONS TO STAY: The film could have used a little more editing.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the images here are scary, and there are scenes of peril and action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the directing debut of Laika CEO Travis Knight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forbidden Kingdom
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Light Between Oceans

Hollywood Beauty Salon


Lookin' GOOD!!

Lookin’ GOOD!!

(2016) Documentary (Paladin) Rachel “Hollywood” Carr Timms, Sanetta “Butterfly” Watkins, Darlene Holmes Malone, Glenn Holsten, Crystal Smith, Rashida Herring, Edward Kozempel, Anthony Young, Paris Tyree, Serena Carter, Viola Wilson, Clyde Joelle, Paul Barnes, Cheryl Cobb, Irene Tindal, Margo Chavis, Marva Evans, Diane Daniels, Wilbur Ruhl, Laverne Davenport. Directed by Glenn Holsten

 

As a society we have a tendency to try to funnel the mentally ill, the substance abusers and the poor into places where we can’t see them, where they can languish largely forgotten by the world. The sad thing is that these are all human beings – troubled to be sure, but still just as human as you or I. They have feelings, they have dreams, they have hopes and they have lives. Generally, we don’t give them credit for any of that.

One glimpse of Hollywood Beauty Salon may change your minds. These aren’t drooling, feeble-minded village idiots who can’t dress themselves; at least one of them has a college degree (two of them, at that) and all of them compassion for one another. The stories they have to tell are often horrific; tales of witnessing their mothers commit suicide when they themselves are only five years old and tales of abusive relationships ending in gunfire. These are tales of bullying and foster care, of drug abuse and despair. These people have overcome some genuinely nightmarish pasts and have done so hampered by schizophrenia, paranoia, bipolar disorder and clinical depression. It’s amazing that some of them are here at all.

One of their number, Rachel “Hollywood” Carr Timms, managed to fight through the pain of losing a baby followed in short order by her partner being murdered; suicidal and hearing voices, she got the help she needed and in fact got a license as a certified psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner, enabling her to give back to the community that helped her on the road to recovery. She set up a beauty salon in a mental health recovery complex in the largely African-American district of Germantown in Philadelphia, citing that feeling beautiful helps with the recovery process. Training some of the residents there to cut hair, do manicures and pedicures and apply cosmetics helps give the residents marketable skills they can eventually use to get employment.

But strangely despite the title, this isn’t about the salon, although it does serve as something of a center for the film. It’s about the people in it; their stories, told through dramatic recreations, animated sequences or the old-fashioned way – talking to the camera and/or to each other. Filmmaker Glenn Holsten not only shows us the stories of these people but in a curious meta sort of way, shows us how the documentary itself was put together. For my money, that’s some impressive innovation.

The gist of the film is that under the aegis of Timms, the Salon is about to put on their second annual Hair and Fashion Recovery Show, in which the various clients and stylists of the Salon not only show off their skills but also their tales of recovery. We get to meet Sanetta Watkins, who wants to be known as Butterfly – not only because she loves them and their colorful wings but because they are a symbol of herself, coming out of a self-created chrysalis of loneliness and blossoming into a functioning, social human being. We also meet Edward Kozempel, once a bright and promising flutist who is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and cancer – he loses everything, including his ability to make music and lives out in the streets until the program in Germantown finds him.

Dorothy Holmes Malone tells us a harrowing tale of how she grew up in foster care, always hungry and rarely being allowed to bathe except when social workers were coming for an inspection and endured a childhood full of bullying. She allows her tale to be told through dramatic recreation, her story so affecting one of the child actresses that she bursts into tears to be comforted by Malone herself.

But it is Hollywood’s story that really is at the emotional center of the film; it is hard to imagine losing nearly everything you love in life. She contemplated suicide and only her last remaining child, Cadence, convinced her to stay with the living. “Life is a choice,” she says in typical blunt fashion. She is as compassionate as they come but she can be a drill sergeant when she has to be. To me, Hollywood is the kind of hero America really needs, someone who overcame tremendous odds and gives back to her community in a tangible way. When she is doing some glamour shots for the Show, we get to see some of her inner joy and it is contagious. Everyone needs a little Hollywood in their lives.

Given the headlines of late of terrorism, mass murder and of a Presidential election that is perhaps the most depressing event in American history, it is refreshing to see a story like this one. One might even say it is necessary to our continued mental health to know that there are people out there with the kind of hearts and courage that these people exhibit just to get through their day. Sure, they break down from time to time but for the most part, these people are just like you and me. They have dreams. They have hopes. They have lives. And I’m glad we got to share a little bit in them. It truly made my day a lot better and how often can a movie do that?

REASONS TO GO: This is a movie that shows a whole lot of heart but brings a whole lot of tears. The stories as horrifying as they sometimes are all are triumphant in their own way. The animations truly enhance the story.
REASONS TO STAY: The story jumps around a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: Some very adult themes coupled with some sexual references and allusions to violence and drug/alcohol abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed over the course of four years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life, Animated
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Ghostbusters (2016)

The BFG (2016)


This is giant country.

This is giant country.

(2016) Family (Disney) Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Adam Godley, Michael David Adamthwaite, Daniel Bacon, Jonathan Holmes, Chris Gibbs, Paul Moritz de Sa, Marilyn Norry, Callum Seagram Airlie, Haig Sutherland, Shauna Hansen, Denise Jones, Gabrielle Rose. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

What dreams may come are the ones that spark our imaginations and inspire our journeys. No matter how small and insignificant we are, our dreams make giants of us all.

Sophie (Barnhill) is a level-headed young girl living in a London orphanage. Her life is a dull routine of rules (that she routinely breaks) and drudgery. Her only joy comes after everyone is in bed asleep. She then finds books to read, that transport her out of her dreary surroundings to places of luxury, adventure and excitement.

One night, she spies a giant man (Rylance) striding through London. Unfortunately, he spots her and so he plucks her out of her bed and carries her home with him to Giant Country. There, Sophie discovers that her Giant is a gentle one, so she names him (since he has no name) BFG, standing for Big Friendly Giant. She also discovers that there are nine other much larger giants who bully BFG and who are not so nice; they eat human flesh (BFG turns out to be a vegetarian) and are always hungry. They also have figured out how to travel to our world, where they pluck little children away from their homes and eat them. They’re led by the water-phobic Fleshlumpeater (Clement) and include such worthies as Bloodbottler (Hader) and Maidmasher (Olafsson).

The BFG also has an important function; every night while the Giants sleep, he strides over to Dream Country where on a gigantic tree dreams are formed. He captures the dreams (which flit around like multi-colored fireflies) and stores them, eventually making his nightly rounds in London to give people the dreams he’s caught. It’s a very taxing job but one that the BFG seems well-suited for.

Despite being 24 feet tall, the BFG is actually a runt as far as the other giants are concerned (they are at least double his height) and he is bullied endlessly, used as a bowling ball. Sophie knows that the bad giants must be stopped and the only one who can do it is the Queen of England (Wilton) which shows that Sophie can use a lot of work in her civics lessons.

Spielberg alone other than maybe Walt Disney understands how to tap in to the wonder and magic that children see the world as. His movies are classics that understand how to access the child in all of us; what made E.T. such an indelible classic is that he first of all doesn’t talk down to children, nor does he surround the kids in his movies with incompetent, bumbling adults. In fact, he gives credit to kids much more than a lot of the family film makers of the 21st century do.

Some were hoping that this would be a return to E.T. inasmuch as he was using the Amblin Entertainment team that was largely responsible for the iconic 1982 hit. The mood is a bit darker here, although Spielberg remains a master of evoking wonder – the dream tree sequence is vintage Spielberg. However, this isn’t to the level of some of his more beloved work.

Part of why that is may have to do with the difference in my age in Spielberg’s golden years and now. Perhaps I’m just being more of a curmudgeon, but I found myself getting annoyed with the BFG’s constant malapropisms and bizarre words (“figglers” instead of fingers, “strawbucklers” instead of strawberries) that make him sound like he has some sort of severe mental illness.

Barnhill’s character also rubs me the wrong way. She’s been getting much critical praise for her performance, but quite frankly I just felt…annoyed by her. It’s not that she’s doing anything particularly wrong as an actress and the character is, I suppose, well within the parameters that we should expect our plucky British heroines to be. She just felt condescending and sort of twee. I just felt like I’d just had a thousand Pixie Stix poured down my throat at once whenever she was onscreen.

Don’t get me wrong; there is every reason to go see this movie this summer and to take the family with you. Flawed or not, this is still Steven Spielberg and he knows how to make an entertaining movie that inspires amazement. This isn’t his best work, but his less-than-stellar efforts blow nearly everybody out of the water. There is also the possibility that I simply have outgrown him and that might be the most horrible contemplation of all.

REASONS TO GO: It does have plenty of charm and imagination.
REASONS TO STAY: The giant-speak gets incredibly annoying as does Barnhill’s plucky kid performance.
FAMILY VALUES: The very young may find this a bit frightening; otherwise there’s just some mildly rude humor to contend with.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the last produced screenplay by Melissa Matheson prior to her passing away in late 2015. The film is dedicated to her memory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Iron Giant
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Happening

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