The Jungle Book (2016)

JungleDirector: Jon Favreau

Screenwriter: Justin Marks

Cast: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Scarlet Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, and Garry Shandling

I mentioned in my review of 2015’s Cinderella that, “remakes, sequels, and formula retreads have littered Disney’s productions over the past few decades, but as they say, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”  That statement remains remarkably true with this year’s The Jungle Book.

Director Jon Favreau hops the fence from Disney’s Marvel studio productions to Disney’s, Disney studio productions; I imagine he’s eyeing one of those Star Wars spinoffs so he can pull off the Disney hat trick.   As usual, Favreau brings his time-tested bag of tricks along with him to make The Jungle Book far better than it might have been in someone else’s hands.  The Jungle Book retells the classic Rudyard Kipling story that also inspired the 1967 Disney animated classic as well as a Disney live-action film in 1994.  After the death of his father at the jaws of the fierce tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), orphaned child Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is taken in by a pack of wolves and raised as one of their own.  As Mowgli ages, his human instincts and ingenuity begin to manifest, causing the fearsome Khan to threaten the pack with his terror if the “man-cub” is not surrendered.  For his own good, Mowgli’s wolf-mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) entrusts panther, Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to escort Mowgli through the dense jungle and deliver him to the man-village for his own safety.

Yes, this is a faithful retelling of a story that has been told many times over.  So why do it and why is it worth seeing?  As was the case with 2015’s Cinderella, when one decides to tell a familiar story like this, it is important to have a purpose. Fortunately, that is precisely why Favreau’s version is successful. From the very start, we are immersed in the jungle landscape with standard-setting visual effects that leave all Jungle Book predecessors in the dust.  Furthermore, that “Favreau bag of tricks” results in style, fun, and pointed humor that makes the film feel fresh and exciting.  Case in point, opening the film with a neurotic hedgehog frantically claiming any object he finds as “mine,” voiced by Garry Shandling in what is likely his final role (the film is also dedicated to Shandling in the end credits).  Additionally, the landscapes are breathtaking and the narrative is full of life despite its having only one human character!  Like his work on Elf, Favreau brings a fantasy world to life by relating it so well to our familiar world.  Mowgli’s metaphorical journey resonates with audiences of all ages because like all good films based on a classic piece of literature, there are layers of appreciation for the central themes including relationships, integrity, and persistence.  Of course, unlike Zootopia from earlier this year, these themes are more or less just “there” and not executed expertly enough to support the kind of conversation and discussion the story has in book form.

Then there are the performances.  I’ve purposefully left this discussion of specific characters for last, as I could never have anticipated how much I was going to enjoy them.  First of all, our sole human actor, Neel Sethi is outstanding as Mowgli.  This kid is athletic, heartwarming, and talented.  Not many kids can carry a $175 million budget film all on their own, let alone on their first try!  But let’s get down to it.  Those who know me, know that I have a few cinematic heroes that I don’t shut up about: Woody Allen, Christopher Walken, and Bill Murray.  I recently wrote a little retrospective on Walken called “Talkin’ Walken: A Top 10 List,” and of course my favorite movie of all time continues to be 1993’s Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, who I have often written about and whose name is

IMG_5473
“Bill Murray” on the red carpet during the 2016 Academy Awards.

consequently also the name of my dog (see image on right).  Now both actors have done some stinkers and several of those stinkers involve either voice acting and/or animals, so imagine my trepidation when I heard that these two actors would be voicing roles of animals in a Disney live-action Jungle Book.  Still, like Mowgli I persevered keeping an open mind and hoping for the best.  The first of these two actors to appear is Murray as Baloo the bear.  Let me tell you, as a fan but also a critic, Murray is superb in this role.  Anyone who supported that conversation about how Scarlet Johansson (who also voices a role in this film) deserved an Oscar nomination for voicing an operating system in Her, should be right back at it supporting Bill Murray for this performance.  Yes, that sounds stupid, and that’s why that whole conversation was stupid in 2013, but he’s just as good.  Thankfully, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks had the wherewithal to have Murray sing “Bare Necessities” and forgo that whole “live-action remakes don’t include the songs” rule.  And speaking of singing, the classically trained singer, dancer, and actor Christopher Walken gets a crack at the film’s other most memorable number as King Louie with “I wan’na Be Like You.”  There is no appropriate maximum number of times you can hear Christopher Walken say “Shooby-Doo” or “Gigantopithecus.”

So it seems the Jungle Book renaissance is just getting underway.  A sequel to this film to be helmed once again by Favreau has already been green lit. Also, this summer a Jungle Book clone in the form of Tarzan (but not the Disney story) will also grace the big screen.  And even more confusingly, motion-capture magician Andy Serkis is directing and starring in his own darker, non-Disney version of The Jungle Book due out in 2018.  So don’t fill up on jungles and/or books just yet, but this one is an excellent first course.  B+

shoobyThe Jungle Book is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes.  If you stay a few minutes into the end credits, you will be treated to a reprise of Walken’s “I Wan’na Be Like You,” which I of course completely recommend.

Advertisements

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Force_AwakensDirector: J.J. Abrams

Screenwriters: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt

Cast: You know who is in this! Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Oscar Isaac

“Star Wars! Nothing but Star Wars! Gimme those Star Wars…don’t let them end!”   Bill Murray’s lounge singing character from Saturday Night Live will be happy to know that thanks to writer/director J.J. Abrams, Star Wars will not be ending any time soon! The record breaking blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a spectacular step forward for the franchise and establishes Abrams as the true geek-legend that we all hoped he’d be.

The Force Awakens is the seventh episode in the space opera and takes place 40 years after the events of Episode IV: A New Hope. The Republic’s victory after Return of the Jedi has prompted a new imperial force to rise from the ashes of the Empire, known as the First Order. The goal of the First Order under the command of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and Commander Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is to take advantage of a basically disarmed galaxy and enforce rule. Ren, a force-sensitive human, leads the charge colonizing planets with throngs of storm troopers at his heels. Fortunately, the Republic did not quite disarm the entire galaxy and a resistance under another force-sensitive human, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), continues to spar against the increasingly strengthening First Order.

But that’s all big picture, behind the scenes stuff. The main plot of Episode VII actually should feel quite familiar. When a young aspiring pilot named Rey (Daisy Ridley) with dreams of fighting for the Resistance happens upon a small droid with important information, she enlists the help from a know-it-all pilot named Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and a renegade storm trooper (John Boyega) to deliver the information to the resistance before it falls into the hands of the First Order. Familiarity is, however, not a liability for this film; it is a “force.” Abrams and company do the right thing in giving us a familiar story that introduces a host of new characters who must deal with the sacrifices, aftermath, and consequences of the generation before them. Boyega’s storm trooper Finn is especially fascinating. His inability to slaughter innocent citizens under the orders of Snoke and Ren lead him to team up with a Resistance pilot named Poe (Oscar Isaac), offering one of the most intriguing perspectives of any film in the franchise. His duality and sense of integrity to reject all he’s been raised to believe because he knows it’s wrong echoes the inner conflict of another Finn named Huckleberry, which I can’t imagine is a coincidence (Yes, this Star Wars film has layers!).

Honestly though, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a delight. It is exciting, it is insightful, it is nostalgic, and it is beautiful. Expectations and standards were at nearly insatiable levels for this film, and yet somehow it delivers. The new cast represents the finest acting that any Star Wars film has ever seen and the returning characters are not wasted or used for superfluous purposes. While it is joy to see Harrison Ford hold a blaster again, I could not get enough of Boyega, Ridley, and Isaac. Easter eggs abound for serious fans, but The Force Awakens plays to even those who have never seen the previous films. In fact, this film puts the final nail in Episode I: The Phantom Menace’s coffin. The best lightsaber battle in any Star Wars film used to be the one between Darth Maul and Obi-Wan Kenobe; it was the only reason to even watch that film. However, that distinction may now have to go to the spectacular climactic battle in The Force Awakens.

It is likely that you weren’t waiting to hear what The People’s Critic had to say before going to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens; a $500 million global opening weekend speaks to that pretty loudly. Still, it is my duty to report that those $500 million dollars are not wrong, and this is the one fans have been waiting for. For the first time since 1983, you can go in and not “have a bad feeling about this.” A

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Top 11 Saturday Night Live Movies

SNL 40th Anniversary SpecialIn honor of Saturday Night Live’s 40th Anniversary, I have decided to recognize the impact the show has had cinematically by listing the top SNL films. In terms of criteria for this list, I will consider films that include at least 2 actors and/or writers who can owe their success to the show. That means no Martin Short, no Christopher Guest, no Billy Crystal, and no Robert Downey Jr. Almost 50 films fit my criteria, but only 11 films have been made that are truly based on an SNL skit, and honestly most of them are terrible. Therefore, I have prepared a Top 11 list to replace that one and here they are!

Austin Powers11.  Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery – Clearly some of you are already calling shenanigans on this pick, but hear me out. Yes, this is a Mike Myers vehicle all the way and you have to go pretty deep to make this film fit my criteria but a relatively unknown Will Ferrell does play the scene stealing Mustafa, henchman to Dr. Evil. However, what really makes this film deserving of this list is the fact that Myers admits that his portrayal of Dr. Evil is directly based on an exaggerated version of SNL creator and executive producer, Lorne Michaels. Groovy, baby!

Happy Gilmore10.  Happy Gilmore – Adam Sandler films, on the whole, are relatively unremarkable, and at times they are downright insulting and offensive. However, as you’ll see later on this list, when SNL and golf get together, sometimes lightening strikes twice. Adam Sandler plays a hockey player turned golfer with a knack for the tee shot but that’s about it. Sandler’s buddy and cast-mate Kevin Nealon plays the zen-like foil to Sandler’s temperamental Happy and SNL writer Robert Smigel shows up for a moment to put the SNL stamp on this one.

Spies Like Us9.  Spies Like Us – This one may not have aged as well as the previous two, but it is the first one you can’t deny belongs on the list. Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd are two dopey government employees who get chosen by the CIA for a mission as decoys for two other real spies who are working to take down Soviet defenses. The Paul McCartney theme song alone is worth it, but the film works in the style of the old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road movies.

Bridesmaids8.  Bridesmaids – Don’t worry ladies, SNL is not just for the boys (although, this list does lean heavily in that direction). Kristin Wiig and Maya Rudolph craft a real crowd pleaser with Bridesmaids. Sometimes discussed as the female Hangover, this film is undeserving of such derivative talk. There’s real magic in the comedy of this film and it has everything to do with the chemistry of the stars and Wiig’s clever script, which earned an Oscar nomination, rare for SNL films.

Blues Brothers7.  The Blues Brothers – Oddly, as “SNL” as these characters are, Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, and James Brown are the reason to watch this film. Still the “getting the band back together” plotline to complete a “mission from God” is a lot of fun. Whether they’re leading 100 cops on a car chase through a mall or taking down the Illinois Nazi party, Jake and Elwood and their sunglasses are always on!

Trading Places6.  Trading Places – Based on a rather high-brow social experiment, Trading Places finds the lives of socialite Dan Aykroyd and street-bum Eddie Murphy suddenly switched as part of a wager between two rich CEOs.  The nature vs. nurture wager revolves around whether Aykroyd will resort to crime when he loses everything and whether Murphy will become a responsible executive when given opportunity.  As serious as this may sound, the movie is a triumph of the comedy legends.

Tommy Boy5.  Tommy Boy – Spade and Farley were a great team on SNL, so it was only a matter of time for the two to hit the big screen. Tommy Boy is a road movie with loads of quotable lines and some real smart supporting characters, including Dan Aykroyd and Rob Lowe. It’s definitely a film that can be viewed over and over and still be funny, of course it helps if “your brain…has a shell on it.”

Caddyshack4.  Caddyshack – This is one of those movies that is beloved by everyone. Bill Murray and Chevy Chase may have had a cantankerous relationship on the set of SNL, so much so that this film nearly did not contain a scene between the two of them, but there’s much more comedy to go around thanks to Rodney Dangerfield and Ted Knight. The sequel should be avoided at all costs, but Caddyshack may be the film that proved that the not-ready-for-prime-time players may just be ready!

Waynes World3.  Wayne’s World – “It’s Wayne’s World, Wayne’s World!” Mike Myers and Dana Carvey take Wayne and Garth’s public access show out of Wayne’s basement and onto the big screen in clearly SNL’s most successful skit-to-screen film ever. The key to its success is how smart this dumb movie ended up being. Chris Farley and Brian Doyle Murray make this the SNL-iest film on my list, and resident sleazebag, Rob Lowe is at his smarmy best. It really is excellent, party on!

Groundhog Day2.  Groundhog Day – While Groundhog Day may just be my favorite film of all time, I reserved spot two for it on this list as its SNL ties are not quite has strong as my number one pick. Chris Elliot and Robin Duke, along with Brian Doyle Murray (of course) are all SNL alums, but unlike most of the films listed prior, there is not a strong second SNL acting presence as this film is all about Bill Murray as Phil Connors who is trapped in a time warp, forcing him to relive that peculiar title holiday over and over. This film is by far the best overall film on this list and is genius writer/director Harold Ramis’s masterpiece, but as for SNL films, if there’s one Bill Murray and Harold Ramis film worth mentioning…who you gonna call?

Ghostbusters1. Ghostbusters – Murray and Aykroyd along with Ramis play university scientists in New York City who strap proton accelerators on their backs and start busting ghosts. Originally written for John Belushi, the film was rewritten and turned out to be a real solid hit. And the legacy continues as SNL cast alums Kristin Wiig and Kate McKinnon will head up the all female Ghostbusters reboot, to be released in 2016 and co-written by Dan Aykroyd.  Ghostbusters represents what the best of SNL films all strive for, to touch the pulse of pop culture in a way that kids, teens, and adults can all appreciate.

St. Vincent

St VincentI had always imagined that Bill Murray could be entertaining even if he was just watering a plant. His new film St. Vincent ultimately confirms my assumption but not before offering one of the most satisfying experiences at the movies this year.

St. Vincent is the story of Vincent MacKenna (Bill Murray), a selfish, filthy, cranky curmudgeon of a guy living alone in his Brooklyn home. However when Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door, Vince’s deliberately isolated existence is suddenly shattered. With Maggie’s job as a CAT scan tech requiring late hours, she must, in an act of desperation, lean on the dissolute Vincent to watch Oliver after school. Oliver’s new school is a religious prep academy that is uncharacteristically non-denominational. And while the school is universally accepting, the students are less so making it hard for Oliver to make friends even with Brother Geraghty’s (Chris O’Dowd) lessons about sainthood and brotherly love. Thus, Oliver looks to Vincent for guidance, and what follows is a well-executed, though familiar, tale of unlikely friendship. Think Up with most of the “Disney” rinsed off.

Selfish adults paired up with circumstantially victimized children is a staple of American cinema, and that fact could have easily stacked the odds against St. Vincent; however, the charm, heart, and most of all performances in this film prevent it from falling victim to the clichés and mediocrity that this genre is capable of producing. Writer/Director Theodore Melfi’s screenplay does not meander or wander away from its strengths, the principal of which is Murray. Murray’s turn as the crotchety Vincent is as fine a performance as he’s ever delivered and certainly the most sentimental. Yet, the film earns every laugh and every tear without setting foot into melodramatic or schmaltzy territory. While the screenplay does enjoy the occasional shortcut or coincidental predictableness, the larger motif about the existence of unconventional goodness in the world is quite successful. Newcomer Lieberher’s performance as Oliver is also very good allowing Murray’s character to feel that much more dynamic. McCarthy is great opposite Murray and Naomi Watts is surprisingly well cast as Vincent’s lady (of the night) friend, Daka.

St. Vincent is less a comedy than the trailers would have you believe. While occasionally funny, this film tugs at the heartstrings as hard as any drama ever dares. Still, genre-based confusion aside, the film works and delivers on a wide range of emotions that may help get Murray his first Oscar. A-

St. Vincent is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes. And if you want to see what I mean about Bill Murray being entertaining while watering a plant, click here or just sit through the film’s credits.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

ImageThe films of director Wes Anderson have obtained a cult status with a shrewd and astute base of fans. His niche style of film making is chocked full of trademark set designs, deadpan dialogue, and plots that can be best described as Norman Rockwellesque…on acid. However, with 2012’s Oscar nominated film, Moonrise Kingdom and this year’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson is looking to expand his fan base not by sacrificing any of his trademark oddities but by writing brilliant characters who are far more developed than those in his previous films.

Moonrise Kingdom was a nearly perfect cinematic experience, and it was Edward Norton’s portrayal of Scoutmaster Ward that made the film so enjoyable from start to finish. Anderson capitalizes on this character-driven amusement again with Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, legendary concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is the story of a fictional Eastern European hotel located in the republic of Zubrowka and the concierge, Gustave, whose reputation elevated it to its legendary status.

Told in flashback through the eyes of Gustave’s trusted lobby boy, Zero Moustafa to a young author, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a murder-mystery story that takes place between the World Wars where the Hotel becomes the constant in an ever-changing European continent.

Starting out in 1985, the story jumps and bounces through three main time periods. An aging author (Tom Wilkinson) addresses the audience to discuss how a writer is able to tell great stories. He mentions that great writers establish credibility with those with great stories so that they can write them. The film then jumps to 1968 where an adult Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) recounts the outrageous and fabled story of Gustave to a young author (Jude Law) about his own life under the charge of the famous M. Gustave.

Gustave is established as a gifted concierge who sacrifices often to bring joy and comfort to the guests of The Grand Budapest. When an affluent and elderly guest (a barely recognizable Tilda Swinton) passes away, the future of the hotel and the future of a rare renaissance painting are in jeopardy as the selfish family of the deceased are pitted against the preservationist Gustave.

Fiennes is excellent as Gustave, emphasizing the importance of identity, culture, and heritage in a time of extreme instability. His fearless adventures find he and Zero in all kinds of situations where they must rely on a slew of imaginative supporting characters all from the mind of Anderson.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, like many of Anderson’s films, has a fabled tone and novel-style plot progression. It also has spirit and heart that are on full display. Never has an Anderson film had more fun with foul language, dark subject matter, and true human consequences. This elevates The Grand Budapest Hotel to the height of Anderson’s achievements. A-

The Grand Budapest Hotel is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes.