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

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“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.

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Hail, Caesar!

HailDirectors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen

Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlet Johansson, and a boatload of others you will recognize including The Highlander!

I want to start this off by simply saying, Josh Brolin is today’s Humphrey Bogart.  The man knows how to rock a fedora and deliver a knuckle sandwich to any nosebleed who doesn’t know how to treat a dame (more on this in my Gangster Squad review).  It’s hard to believe that while Joel and Ethan Coen have managed to tackle westerns, crime, folk music, The Odyssey, even bowling, they have yet to take aim at the very business that has made them so successful for over 30 years, cinema!  Hail, Caesar! rectifies this glaring omission in their filmography and as impeccably as one would expect.

Hail, Caesar! has a plot, but that’s not why it’s good.  Basically, the film follows studio executive, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he attempts to keep his talent in line by covering up scandals and fixing production mishaps.  The film’s title is a reference to Mannix’s big-budget prestige picture for the studio starring mega-star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) that tells the “story of the Christ.”  When Whitlock suddenly goes missing, Mannix searches the studio lot for clues to his whereabouts.

Like I said, the key to this film is not the plot.  Like most classic cinema, the plot is a device to direct the entertainment.  The Coens revel in the glory days of cinema as Whitlock’s disappearance leads Mannix to wander from studio set to studio set and consequently from beautifully staged genre scene to beautifully staged genre scene.  Hail, Caesar! gives the Coens license to film Gene Kelly- style musical numbers, Gary Cooper-style western scenes, Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming spectacles, and high society dramatic capers all within the context of one goofy plotline.

Furthermore, the screen is filled with trademark quirky characters, some of which look to be lost from a Wes Anderson movie (I’m talking to you Ralph Fiennes!).  Still, an important consideration is that my admiration for this film has little, almost nothing, to do with the characters or the actors.  The closest thing to a classic and fully developed character comes in the form of Alden Ehrenreich’s role as a Gene Autry-type western actor named Hobie Doyle who is forced into a role that is way out of his comfort zone. His battle with the phrase, “Would that it were so simple” is very enjoyable.  Otherwise, the reason to see this film is for its harkening back to the classic days of cinema through the lens of the Coen brothers.  The all-star cast may get people in the seats, but this film will disappoint if you are expecting to spend much time with some of your favorite movie stars.  In fact, recognizable faces are strung together in such a way that once one actor goes off screen another comes in; it’s like a wack-a-mole of Hollywood stars.  Put simply, this is a movie for people who have a fondness for the art and presentation of the movies themselves.  If your ears perk up when a character is introduced as “Carlotta Valdez,” then this is a movie for you.

I make this distinction about Hail Caesar! because I feel it can disappoint if audiences go in with the wrong mindset, but it will dazzle and entertain if they go in with another.  While the film celebrates the importance of plot and actors, you almost have to put all of that aside to fully enjoy this movie.  In fact, the preposterous climactic scene involving the acts of a group of Communists is so absurd, the Coens are basically begging you to reexamine the point of this film.  Hail, Caesar! is a blast though, and likely not a coincidence that it is released amidst wider releases of all of the 2015 Oscar contenders.  The film revels in the eminence of motion pictures and can be seen as perhaps a thoroughly satisfying appetizer worth seeing before this year’s Academy Awards. B+

Hail, Caesar! is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes. 

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers2Director: Joss Whedon

Screenwriter: Joss Whedon

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlet Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, and James Spader

When all was said and done, 2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers, became the third most lucrative film in box office history. Now with James Wan’s Furious 7 poised to unseat the superhero spectacular, Iron Man and friends return to make sure the Avengers stay on top!

Still, how do you follow up the third biggest movie of all time? Well Joss Whedon, a guy who never met a cliché he couldn’t skewer, handles things very nicely with Avengers: Age of Ultron. When we last left our Avengers, they had just vanquished Loki and his alien army, saving New York and metaphorically the world. Four Marvel films have been released since 2012’s The Avengers, which have advanced the universal plot somewhat, but basically the team has had no need to reunite…until now!

Reviewing a film of this nature and anticipation is a bit of a challenge. Expectations are high, spoilers are forbidden, and a very thin line separates formulaic from entertaining. Nonetheless, Avengers: Age of Ultron ultimately lands on the entertaining side, mostly thanks to the “vision” (pun intended, see the movie) of writer/director Joss Whedon.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) seemingly refocused by his battle with The Mandarin from Iron Man 3, has decided that the world is still too vulnerable to outside threats. The answer? Implement a peacekeeping program called Ultron in the hopes of harnessing the power of Stark’s supercomputer JARVIS to shield the planet from future alien attacks. The problem is that Stark’s own program is conceived of an artificial intelligence so advanced that it develops a plan of its own, manifesting itself in a robotic personage and plotting to eliminate humanity in favor of an evolved robotic intelligence.  Of course, this is simply the conflict devised to reunite Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) for another adventure, but fortunately, the film does not rest on its laurels too long.

Here’s where Whedon shows his expertise and distinctiveness. The three clichés common with sequels are mixing things up, adding something new, and darkening the mood. With Avengers: Age of Ultron, Whedon does not avoid these potential pitfalls, but rather embraces them with vigor. So much so, that he shatters them with new energy. Whedon, a true comic fan, takes advantage of the development built through Marvel’s ten previous films and “mixes things up” by sprinkling in a series of events that fractures the team’s cohesiveness organically. He does this by mining some previously established developments rather than adding something in that would doubtlessly feel abrasive.

Ultron, eventually voiced by James Spader, is a very appropriate villain for the direction this franchise is heading. Aliens have been The Avengers’ most common foe, but Ultron takes a tip from arguably the best Marvel film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and becomes a metaphor for paranoia and fear. Ultron uses information as a weapon and in essence is also the impetus for introducing the film’s two newest characters The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Russian twins with an axe to grind against Stark’s weapons background and some pretty impressive powers. Of course, Whedon is not satisfied in adding something new simply for the sake of a sequel; instead, he uses the twins to give the film an opportunity to reveal more depth to the individual Avengers, something the first film was unable to do as an “origin story” and something usually reserved for the individual entries in the franchises.  Black Widow and Hawkeye, the two Avengers without an individual film about them, benefit most from this element of the film.

At the end, Avengers: Age of Ultron does not have the feel of high, global stakes like the previous film, but that is exactly why these films have not grown stale. We are constantly introduced to a new angle, and in this case, one that may leave some feeling a little confused on what the future holds for these beloved heroes. The one fault I find with the film is, while it has moments of thoughtfulness, I think given the amount of depth developed over ten films, this film could have been more ambitious. The scenes that work, work very well and while there is probably at least one too many fight scenes, there are still plenty of extremely enjoyable “quieter” scenes where these actors get to have fun with the characters and continue the tongue-in-cheek humor that fans have come to expect and appreciate. This is yet another infinity stone in the crown of the Marvel cinematic universe leaving this summer’s Ant Man as the sole film entry left that can smudge phase two of Marvel’s unstoppable success. A-

Avengers: Age of Ultron is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes. As promised by Whedon, there is one short scene mid-way through the credits, but no other extra scenes after that.

Her

ImageIf I didn’t know any better, I’d swear that every time Spike Jonze releases a movie, he’s targeting me as his core audience type.  When Being John Malkovich came out, I was studying film at the University of Michigan and attended a free campus screening of the film; Ann Arbor film majors ate that film up!  When Adaptation came out, I had just begun struggling to write my first and still as of yet unfinished novel.  Where the Wild Things Are was one of my favorite children’s books growing up.  Now with Her, he takes aim at my self-proclaimed geekdom with a film about a man who literally falls in love with his technology.  The only problem is that while it seems like every one of those films should have been suited just for me, for one reason or another, I only really liked Adaptation.  Fortunately, it seems like Jonze and I are back in alignment as Her is one of the most imaginative love stories since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. 

Her stars Joaquin Phoenix as the odd and appropriately named Theodore Twombly, a name that practically invokes the characters of Dr. Seuss.  This very well could be Jonze’s intention, as Her succeeds more as a fantasy children’s tale for adults than Where the Wild Things Are ever did.  Set in the very near future, Twombly works for the web company, beautifulhandwrittenletters.com where he is paid to weave the events of real couples’ lives into artistically poetic love letters that are then sent unbeknownst to their recipients.

The irony is palpable as Twombly’s personal life is still reeling from his recent divorce, even to the point of sabotaging a sure thing with a prospective lover, played by Olivia Wilde.  Instead, Twombly spends his evenings playing holographic video games and remembering what his life was like when he was happily married.  Enter Samantha ( voiced by Scarlet Johansson), the whimsically playful voice of his new computer operating system, designed to exist as a consciousness that is so intuitive that it understands and knows you on a virtually human level.  It is with Samantha that Twombly is able to open up and real feelings of passion, love, and connection soon follow.

Jonze has written and directed a fine hypothetical commentary on love in a modern world.  Never has the question, “Can romantic love exist in a vacuum?” been so cinematically explored.  What should feel absurd and ridiculous is made to feel thoughtful and reluctantly authentic thanks to pitch perfect performances from Phoenix and Johansson.  In one scene where Samantha attempts to physicalize their relationship in a very creative but creepy way, the film achieves true greatness in the style of warped kind of Frankenstein story

Jonze truly has created a monster here, and it is one that is surprisingly refreshing, creative, and tonally apprehensive.  There is no doubt that if Apple announced tomorrow that it is releasing the OS1, thousands of people would be blindly grinning through the streets as they share their deepest thoughts and secrets with their virtual lovers.  Stories already exist of people who abandon their lives to live fake lives in virtual worlds like World of Warcraft or Second Life.  Jonze puts a magnifying glass on this idea and shows us how close we are to shutting ourselves into this type of cocoon-like existence.

Keeping this film from completely falling down the rabbit hole is Amy Adams as Twombly’s friend and neighbor, Amy, another symbolic name – because it’s REAL!  Adams continues her quest to be the female Kevin Bacon (more on that in my American Hustle review), but she also grounds this film and prevents it from getting too far in the disbelief column.    Her is a cautionary fairy tale that is effortlessly engaging and easily Jonze’s best film yet.  A-

Her is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours.  Her was recently nominated for three Oscars including best picture.