MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE (2018)

December 6, 2018

 Greetings from the darkness. If your idea of “The Jungle Book” is Phil Harris’ Baloo singing a bouncy and memorable rendition of “The Bare Necessities” in 1967, or Christopher Walken voicing a giant orangutan in 2016, then be forewarned about this latest version of Rudyard Kipling’s classic stories … it’s dark and, at times, terrifying. It’s rated PG-13 to keep young kids away, so please keep your young kids away! One additional warning: this version is spectacular to look at and listen to.

Of course the story is quite familiar to most, but two things really stand out here: the amazing voice acting of the world class cast, and the look of the lush jungle with its vivid colors and textures. Director Andy Serkis is renowned for his stunning motion-capture work in such franchises as PLANET OF THE APES, LORD OF THE RINGS, and Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005) … along with many others … and for this project, he combines his motion-capture Baloo with top notch CGI, and the live performance of young Rohan Chand (THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY) as Mowgli, the man cub.

The voice acting is worth raving about. We first hear Cate Blanchett as Kaa, the ancient python, and within the first two minutes of the opening, we are captivated. Other standouts include an unnerving and intimidating Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan, the always-threatening Tiger, Christian Bale (periodically lapsing into Batman voice) as the growling black panther Bagheera, Naomie Harris as Nisha the mother wolf, and a terrific Peter Mullan as lead wolf Akela. The deep cast also includes the voices of Jack Reynor, Eddie Marsan and Tom Hollander, while Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”) appears as the hired tiger hunter, and Freida Pinto (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) appears as Mowgli’s caretaker in the man village.

Many scenes are particularly captivating – some are exciting, while others quite scary. The “no rules” monkeys are comedic relief … right up until they kick off one of the darkest segments of the film. And there is an ongoing theme of the fine line between being ‘special’, ‘different’, or a ‘freak’, and the lessons learned here would be valuable for kids … if this were a kids’ movie … which it’s NOT! Although it’s difficult to discern the intended audience for this film, it’s quite a visual spectacle and entertaining from beginning to end.

watch the trailer:

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YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968, animation) revisited

July 7, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “It was 50 years ago, Sgt Pepper taught the band to play”. OK, I know that’s not the lyric, but 50 fits better than 20 when we are talking about the latest re-mastered 4K version of the classic animated YELLOW SUBMARINE from The Beatles. Originally released in 1968, the story is by Lee Minoff and is based on the Lennon-McCartney song of the title. Additional dialogue and story elements were contributed by (at least) four other writers, including Erich Segal of LOVE STORY fame, and after all these years, the film not only remains quite entertaining, it has attained a certain legendary status.

Directed by George Dunning (animation producer), also instrumental in The Beatles “unaffiliated” animated TV series of the same era, the film requires a bit of historical perspective to bring the full picture into focus. This was the year before Woodstock, and the Beatles were no longer the four fresh faced lads from Liverpool. Their songs had not only changed the music world, it had changed them as individuals. Much of their charm had turned to cynicism, and drug use was prevalent. The band reluctantly agreed to allow production of this animated movie for the sole purpose of fulfilling their 3 film contract with United Artist (A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, HELP!). Other than the songs and a closing segment, they were barely involved … not even voicing their own characters.

The true legacy is what we see on screen, and after 50 years, it remains magical. The psychedelic pop art visuals were unlike anything most of us had ever seen. The colors and images seemed to explode in vibrancy and come alive before our eyes. Some have mistakenly credited pop artist Peter Max as the man behind the colorful images, and fans of Monty Python (especially Terry Gilliam) will easily recognize the stylistic influence. Sharp ears will pick up references to Beatles lyrics not included on the soundtrack, and much of the dialogue captures the droll tone of Lennon or the whimsy of McCartney. However, we never stop thinking about how much more effective this could have been with John, Paul, George and Ringo providing the voices.

An extended opening sequence provides the basics of the story – The Blue Meanies are coming (!) and they intend to expunge all music and color from Pepperland. The only way to stop them is with Beatles music. Once we ‘understand’ the story, we hear Ringo’s vocals kick off the title song over the opening credits. Through the adventure we meet some fascinating and creative characters, see an abundance of green apples (the logo for Apple Records), play spot the icon (with actual photographs), laugh along with Ringo and his “hole” in the pocket, and catch the essence of Beatles wit, though the dialogue is sometimes a bit muddled.

Of course, beyond the animation, it’s the music that matters. Two songs that stand out because of the corresponding animation are “Eleanor Rigby” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.  Some of the 11 Beatles songs mish-mashed from various albums include:  “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “All You Need is Love”, “All Together Now”, and “When I’m Sixty-Four”. There are also a couple of George Harrison songs that aren’t otherwise available, and a personal favorite, “Hey Bulldog”, which has its own sequence, and was originally only included in the UK movie version. We also notice the beautiful orchestra music composed by long-time Beatles producer George Martin.

At the time it was released, hippies would claim the movie looks better when you’re stoned, and it’s likely for those folks, that sentiment held true for most things in life. The message of the day and one present in much of the Beatles’ work, is that of Love. It’s a message that rings true today, and also part of why the film works so well for both kids and adults. Although we may be a bit disappointed that the fab four don’t provide the voices of their characters, the stunning visuals and classic songs make this a film for everyone. The short live action sequence at the end where we see the real John, Paul, George and Ringo is simply the cherry on top … or is that an Apple?

watch the (U.S.) trailer:


INCREDIBLES 2 (2018)

June 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. In 2004 THE INCREDIBLES became the 6th Pixar film in a row to dominate the box office, and also the 6th straight to “WOW” us with a combination of animation, story, action and characters. All these years later, Brad Bird, the creative force behind the original, is back with the much anticipated sequel. Mr. Bird’s career over those years has featured a blend of other animation (RATATOUILLE, 2007) and live-action (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL).

Bird is not the only returnee for the sequel. Also back is the entire Parr Family: Holly Hunter as Elastigirl/Helen/Mom, Craig T Nelson as Mr. Incredible/Bob/Dad, Sarah Vowell as Violet, Huck Milner as Dash, and Eli Fucile as baby Jack Jack. The story picks up not long after the original ended. “Supers” have been outlawed, and the Parrs are in some type of Super Protection Program – similar to Witness Protection. Of course when one is a superhero, doing the right thing just comes naturally, and the opening scene finds them battling their old nemesis Underminer (voiced by Pixar good luck charm John Ratzenberger, who voices a character in each of the studio’s films). Our heroes stop the crime, but cause significant damage to the city. This leads to our first social commentary when the powers that be scold the Parrs and inform them that the banks have insurance, and it’s cheaper to let the criminals get away so that the damage is minimized.

As superheroes non-grata, the Parrs try to go “straight” and live a normal life. That is until a powerful brother and sister corporate duo offer a proposal. Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn Deavor (twist that pronunciation just a bit, voiced by Catherine Keener) want to generate a PR plan to help rebuild the reputation of supers. The idea is to make Elastigirl the public face of the program by having her wear a body cam to show off her heroic deeds (in this age of ‘pics or it didn’t happen’). She’s chosen over Mr. Incredible for economic reasons, and he’s relegated to stay-at-home parent (or as we called Michael Keaton in 1983, MR. MOM – an unacceptable sexist term these days).

Elastigirl enjoys her time in the limelight, while Bob doesn’t much like being just Bob. Plus he can’t understand why they changed math, as he gets frustrated trying to help Dash with his homework. He’s also challenged with Violet’s teen angst over a boy, and even moreso over the discovery that Jack Jack has POWERS! In fact, Jack Jack has multiple powers, but as a baby, he has little control – though his battle with a raccoon is not a segment you’ll soon forget.

Also returning is Frozone – voiced by Samuel L. Jackson (minus his trademark “MF’er), and costume designer Edna Mode – voiced by director Bird. Other new voices include (Odenkirk’s fellow “Better Call Saul” castmate) Jonathan Banks as Rick Dicker, Isabella Rossellini as the Ambassador, and Sophia Bush as Voyd, one of the new generation supers (which includes Reflux – one you’ll just have to experience).

The big new villain causing problems for Elastigirl is ScreenSlaver, who hypnotizes large groups of people through their screens – more social commentary on our dependence on technology and the addiction/affliction we have toward device screens. The flood of superhero movies over the years since THE INCREDIBLES exposes the not-so-complex story in this one, but it’s terrific that the film keeps much of the original look and feel, and yet brings something new … baby Jack Jack is a star!

Filled with the beautiful colors and art design we’ve come to take for granted from Pixar, the film also features some of the best action sequences you’ll see in any movie. The train sequence with Elastigirl is simply spectacular – as is the final action sequence. It’s also nice to see the flip in gender roles as Mom (Holly Hunter) takes the lead. Michael Giacchino returns as the composer and he blends in a touch of James Bond theme with his wonderful work. If the film needed extra credit (which it doesn’t), certainly the inclusion of a “Jonny Quest” clip would qualify. Family films don’t get much better than this, and even though it runs 2 hours, the closing credits feature the theme song for each of the superheroes, and could easily have been a short film unto itself.

Speaking of short films, a Pixar tradition is to include one before new releases. This time it’s BAO, a Chinese mother/son and food-oriented story from director Domee Shi (animator on INSIDE OUT)

watch the trailer:


BIG FISH & BEGONIA (Dayu haitang, China, 2018)

April 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Animated films from Asia will likely always draw comparisons to the films of Oscar winner Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese master storyteller behind Studio Ghibli and such animated classics as SPIRITED AWAY, PRINCESS MONOKE, and THE WIND RISES. Some may find it curious to mention Miyazaki when discussing a project from two first time Chinese filmmakers, but their work here is so impressive, the comparison is justified. Not only that, it’s quite clear Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang have studied the master’s work and are believers in his style.

As with any animated film, success can only be had when both the look and the story hold our attention. Supposedly the film took 12 years to complete, and with its intricate weaving of Chinese culture and tradition, and the dreamy visuals, we understand why. While I don’t begin to understand the many references to Chinese mythologies and legends, and most of the classic Chinese literary characters are new to me, the movie has a spellbinding effect that draws us in and leaves us fascinated.

On her 16th birthday, Chun partakes in a rite of passage that involves spending 7 days in the land of humans. See, Chun is from a magical parallel world where “the others” control the human world seasons and tides. And we all know that if one is going to have control over another world, it only makes sense to have a basic understanding of that world and its inhabitants!  Chun is transformed into a red dolphin and shoots through a portal into the land of humans. It’s there that she is saved by a boy, whose courageous act costs him his own life when he is caught in a vortex. Chun is determined to deliver his life back to him … remember, she is from a magical world.

The story really takes off from here and becomes an adventure filled with love and sacrifice. We are told “Some fish aren’t meant to be caged, because they are meant for the sky”, and it’s not until the conclusion that we fully understand. Chun’s mission has her crossing paths with both the Keeper of Good Souls who lives with more cats than anyone should, and a creepy Rat Lady who is the Keeper of less fortunate souls and commands an army of rats for her dirty work. This game of cat and mouse between the two factions of soul-keepers is but one of the many webs of intrigue presented in the story.

As you would expect, these two parallel worlds collide and Chun, her friend Qui, and the hero human who is resurrected as a small fish named Kun are all at the center. Chun must protect Kun for his soul to survive, and this puts her in conflict with her own family who prefer the tradition of keeping the two worlds separate.

“Without happiness, what’s the meaning of longevity?” This quote is at the heart of Chun’s passion, and in fact, also drives her friend Qui to go above and beyond. A debt to be paid sprinkled with love and attraction adds a personal touch to the otherwise fantastical proceedings. Though the visuals are splendid and enough to keep us engaged, it’s the convergence of sky and sea – and Begonia flower power – that move this from a fancy cartoon into a story with depth and meaning. Remarkably, it’s the first film for these two filmmakers, though I do hope we mustn’t wait a dozen years for their next.

watch the trailer:


ISLE OF DOGS (2018)

March 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s referred to (sometimes affectionately, sometimes not) as Wes World. Many directors have their own style, though few are as immediately recognizable as a film by Wes Anderson. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, MOONRISE KINGDOM, FANTASTIC MR FOX, THE ROYAL TENNEBAUMS, and RUSHMORE all share a tone and style … a cinematic personality, if you will, that places them squarely in Wes World. Beyond the similarities, there is also a level of innovation and creativity in each of his projects. He consistently delivers a “Wow” factor, or in the case of his latest, a “bow-wow” factor (my one and only pun, I promise).

Expanding on the stop-action animation he used in FANTASTIC MR. FOX, director Anderson also plays homage to Japanese filmmaking – especially the animation of Hayao Miyazaki and the cinematic legend Akira Kurosawa. The film’s prologue, “The Boy Samurai” is a Japanese fable and sets the stage for a futuristic Japan where the Mayor of Megasaki, Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), has decreed that all dogs should be banned from society due to dog flu, snout fever and canine saturation. Kobayashi (an embittered politician who looks eerily similar to Japanese acting legend Toshiro Mifune) even ships off his nephew’s beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber) to Trash Island. In Part 1 “The Little Pilot”, that nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin) crash lands his plane on Trash Island while attempting to rescue Spots.

Part 2 (“The Search for Spots”), Part 3 (“The Rendez-Vous”), and Part 4 (“Atari’s Lantern”) break the story into segments, but the real fun here is in the visual effects and the banter amongst the dogs. The five main dogs we follow are Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Chief is a stray dog who is the group skeptic and doesn’t hesitate in greeting most anyone with “I bite”. We know this because director Anderson explains “Barks are rendered in English”.

While assisting Atari with his search, the five dogs alternate between gossiping and decision-making by committee … spouting one-liners that are consistently funny and incisive. Anderson co-wrote the script with Roman Coppola and his frequent collaborator Jason Schwartzman. Kunichi Nomura provided expertise to ensure the Japanese segments were accurately portrayed. The usual Wes-style droll humor is evident throughout, though viewers must make sure their hearing is fined tuned to catch some of the wise-cracks that almost seem like background noise at times.

In addition to the humor, political corruption and conspiracies are at the core of what could be described as an animated rescue adventure comedy. Narrator Courtney B Vance ensures we are following along with the story, although the artistic beauty of Trash Island – a garbage strewn wasteland – is enough to hold our interest. Keeping track of the homages is challenging enough, but we also get Haikus, Puppy Snaps, and Yoko Ono as a scientist. Greta Gerwig voices Tracy, an idealistic Foreign Exchange student who recognizes a corrupt politician when she sees one, and there are a couple of brilliant noirish scenes between Chief and Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson). A recurring visual of dogfights in a cloud of dust harken back to the days of classic cartoons and the unbridled violence that we’ve always found so comical in animation.

It’s a dystopian tale … well it is if you happen to be a dog. Cat lovers probably view this as paradise. An all-star cast of voice actors keeps us interested even when the story bogs down at times, although the look of the film always seems to be priority one. It’s such an easy movie to respect, however, one that’s a bit more difficult to speak passionately about. This review doesn’t address the ever-present complaints from those looking to create a race or nationality based scandal. To me, the film is creative and appears to be against unkindness and discrimination and corruption. Perhaps that message overrides some easily ruffled feathers.

watch the trailer:


HAVE A NICE DAY (2018, animated)

February 1, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. One need only read the credits to understand that this is a personal project of Liu Jian. It’s kind of comical to see his name come up as writer, director, illustrator, producer, and editor. He even wrote at least one of the songs featured in the film! An animated film from China that is clearly influenced by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and some modern day madcap caper films offers a nice respite from the typical January releases that hit the theatre.

Jian’s film is a crime thriller with socioeconomic subtext that hovers over each scene. An extended opening credits sequence provides the lay of the land (in this case, city) for the upcoming story. There is very little build up to the crime that ignites the cluster that follows. Xiao Zhang steals a bag filled with one million yuan. The bag belongs to “Uncle Liu”, a feared crime lord and gangster who sends his trusted and ruthless hitman “Skinny” to retrieve his money.

The old adage, “follow the money”, comes into play here. Following the money is not as simple as it sounds, as these aren’t brilliant criminal minds at work here. In addition to Tarantino, thoughts of the Coen Brothers came to mind, as did the Scorsese gem AFTER HOURS. Xiao Zhang has no heroic or altruistic motives. He simply wants to pay for a re-do of his fiancé’s botched plastic surgery. The zaniness around the money involves many colorful participants, each who have their own designs for the bag.

A couple of odd musical interludes involve Shangri-La and some ocean waves, and there is a God vs. Buddha debate that reminds of the infamous Mighty Mouse vs Superman argument in STAND BY ME. The film played well at festivals and at 77 minutes, it’s a briskly-paced chase movie that might have benefited from a bit more humor.

watch the trailer:

 


COCO (2017)

December 26, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Despite my two-decades long worshipping at the animated alter of Pixar, the trailer for this one just never struck a chord with me. Thank goodness there was a late night showing aboard my recent Disney cruise, or I might still not have caught this gem that ranks among Pixar’s best … and this is the studio that has gifted us the TOY STORY franchise, THE INCREDIBLES, UP, and INSIDE OUT – instant classics, each and every one.

Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina team up as co-writers and co-directors for the 19th feature film from Pixar Studios. It’s the second Pixar film this year (CARS 3), but the first original (non-sequel) since 2015 (THE GOOD DINOSAUR, INSIDE OUT). This latest not only offers the most advanced visuals to date, it also features a complex story that touches on numerous topics: Mexican culture, family legacy, religious traditions, loyalty, following one’s own path, respect for the elderly, and remembrance of those deceased. If all of that sounds a bit too heavy-handed and deep for kids, keep in mind that Pixar charmed us with UP, the story of a man whose wife dies – yet, they kept us laughing with one word …”squirrel!”

The story focuses on young Miguel and his desire to sing and play guitar despite his long-standing family ban on music. Miguel is convinced he is related to the most famous Mexican performer in history, Ernesto de la Cruz, and he concocts a plan that corresponds to Dia de Muertos to convince his family that he must be allowed to play music. The film is respectful to this tradition as the living pay tribute to those who have passed. The deceased are invited back for this one night with beautiful flowers guiding them from the Land of the Dead to that of the living.

Miguel’s adventure is quite a wild ride as he navigates the path between the living and the dead. Somehow the film is even a visual step up from the colorful beauty of UP and INSIDE OUT, with the city and the unique flying creature being exceptionally stunning. The Pixar charm and personality are evident throughout – even in Dante, the ever-present dog. Many Mexican celebrities and historical figures (including Frida Kahlo) are noted, but at its core, this is the story of a boy pursuing his dream, no matter the obstacles.

Pixar fans will be relieved to know that the Pizza Planet truck makes an appearance, as does A113, and numerous other Easter eggs. John Ratzenberger keeps his Pixar streak alive, and though Anthony Gonzalez (Miguel), Gael Garcia Bernal (Hector) and Benjamin Bratt (Ernesto de la Cruz) all do fine work, this one is not so much about the voice acting as it is about the tremendous story and art work. Remarkably, Pixar has done it again … an animated masterpiece that is among its finest yet. Parents should note that the film is rated PG, rather than G. There are talking skeletons and a couple of scenes that could frighten young kids.

watch the trailer: