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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MOONLIGHT (2016)

November 27, 2016

moonlight Greetings again from the darkness. It’s uncertain whether writer/director Barry Jenkins has developed the story from Tarell McCraney in order to highlight stereotypes, explain stereotypes, or both. The interpretation is up to the viewer, but what’s clear is that the film is one of the most sensitive portraits we’ve seen of growing up young, black, and sexually confused, while being mostly neglected by a drug-addicted mother.

Told in standard triptych structure, the film chronicles 3 stages in the life of a young male, with the chapters titled Little – Chiron – Black, for the names he is known by at each stage. As a 9 year old boy, “Little” (a nickname due to his small stature) is a wide-eyed near-mute who gets bullied and called names by the bigger boys. It’s at this stage where he is taken under the wing of local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), who offers a “safe place” to sleep and eat, with the bonus of swimming lessons accentuated by life lessons from Juan and his understanding girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). It’s a poignant and painful moment when Little connects the dots between his mother (Naomie Harris) and Juan.

As a high school adolescent, Chiron is now a nervous, totally-withdrawn kid who simply doesn’t fit in – and doesn’t understand why. His high-crime Miami neighborhood is even more dangerous for him now as the schoolyard bullying is often accompanied by violent behavior. His surrogate father figure Juan is no longer in the picture, but Teresa is still there for him – always at the ready with a meal, clean sheets, and a spoonful of wisdom.

In the final chapter, we catch up with a hardened “Black” (another nickname) 10 years after high school followed by a stint in prison. He has moved from his Miami roots, and it’s at this stage where we fully understand the influence of a role model on a boy who has few. When he reconnects with childhood buddy Kevin, we see the shredded remnants of young “Little” still present in the older, experienced “Black”. This circle of life is understandable, while at the same time being nearly unbearable.

In addition to Mr. Ali and Ms. Monea (both who are excellent in the upcoming Hidden Figures), and the standout work of Ms. Harris, the six actors who play Chiron and Kevin through the years are fascinating to watch. Alex Hibbert perfectly captures the confused “Little”. Ashton Sanders plays the awkward, dreading-each-day Chiron; and Trevante Rhodes (former University of Texas athlete) plays the adult “Black” with a quiet uneasiness that resonates on screen. The 3 Kevin actors are Jaden Piner, Jharell Jerome, and Andre Holland (a standout as the adult Kevin).

Beautifully filmed in all three segments by cinematographer James Laxton, the film reiterates the importance of role models, especially in the life of those whose path seems pre-ordained by circumstance. The harsh realities of drug addiction, absentee parents, schoolyard bullying, and the almost inevitable stint behind bars are contrasted with a plate of fries, the chef’s special from an old friend, and the soothing effects of sand and sea. Encouraging our kids to be true to themselves is a lesson that can fall on deaf ears when surviving the moment is first and foremost. This incredibly sensitive film is likely either a necessary reminder or an eye-opening education … depending on your own situation.

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SPECTRE (2015)

November 8, 2015

spectre Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t come to me looking for objective judgment on Bond. By the time we hear that familiar opening trumpet blast of Marty Norman’s Bond theme, I’ve already been swept away into the land of MI6 enchantment – gadgets, cars, women, over-the-top stunts, globe-trotting, global villains and quintessential coolness. And it doesn’t help that this time director Sam Mendes treats this 24th (official) Bond film as an homage to those that came before. At times it plays like a tribute – and maybe even a closing chapter (for Mendes and Daniel Craig?).

A long tracking shot drops us into the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico, complete with skeleton masks and giant parade props. We follow a masked couple as they maneuver through the crowd and into their hotel room, where 007 quickly leaps out the window and makes his way across roof tops towards his mission. It’s one of the more visually stimulating and explosive openings in franchise history.

The story combines the personal back-story of Bond’s childhood with his relentless pursuit of the evil empire known as Spectre … the crime syndicate that has been part of the Bond universe for many years and films. The tie-in to the iconic Bond nemesis Blofeld, this new mastermind Franz Oberhauser, and Bond’s adoptive family make for an interesting chain of custody. However, as is customary, it’s the characters and action sequences that deliver the entertainment bang.

Oberhauser is played by Christoph Waltz (understated given his track record), and the two Bond “ladies” are played by Lea Seydoux (the daughter of Mr. White, and the key to finding Spectre), and Monica Bellucci (the widow of Bond’s Mexico victim). Mr. Waltz takes advantage of his limited screen time, while Ms. Bellucci is limited to a few lines and a chance to model some lingerie. Reprising their roles are Rory Kinnear as Tanner, Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Jesper Christensen as Mr. White. New to the mix is Dave Bautista as Hinx (in the mode of Oddjob and Jaws), and Andrew Scott as C … the latest of those trying to shut down the “00” program. Whishaw brings a nice element to his role, while Bautista’s Hinx gets to participate in both a car chase and train fight … while uttering only a single word of dialogue.

The evil doers have gotten more intellectual over the years, and Oberhauser and Spectre have the goal of global surveillance and controlling information and data. It’s a modern theme for a Bond film that also seems intent on reminiscing. There are nods to most (if not every) previous Bond film via (among other things) Nehru jackets, cats, scars, and a white dinner jacket. And it’s nice to see the gun barrel sequence back in the opening credits where it belongs. As for the new song, Sam Smith has a very nice voice, but his Bond song lacks the punch of the best.

In terms of globe-trotting, we get Mexico, Rome, Tangier (Morocco), London and Austria. The (prolonged) car chase occurs on the deserted streets (and steps) of Rome and features two stunning cars – Aston Martin DB10 and Jaguar C-X75. In addition to the cars and previously mentioned train, it’s helicopters that earned a couple of worthy action sequences.

It’s Daniel Craig’s fourth turn as Bond, James Bond. He brings his own brand of emotion and cheekiness, while also possessing a physicality that allows the action sequences to work. He has made the role his, much like Christian Bale took ownership of Batman. For those who refuse to accept the new generation, director Mendes delivers enough nostalgia that even the old-timers should be entertained.

R.I.P. Derek Watkins

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SOUTHPAW (2015)

July 26, 2015

southpaw Greetings again from the darkness. Is it possible to have a boxing movie without a crusty old trainer? Or a cute kid?  Or a stubborn macho lead who makes poor personal choices?  It doesn’t seem to matter much as this latest from director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) checks off most of the expected cliché’s, and still slides easily into the canon of boxing movies that now covers nine decades.

This one packs a satisfactory punch both inside the ring and out. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Billy Hope (the name courtesy of first time screenwriter Kurt Sutter, known for “Sons of Anarchy”). Mr. Hope follows the expected arc: 1. On top of the World! 2. A nasty crash landing  3. Redemption and comeback. However, just because we are familiar with the trail, doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the hike.

Gyllenhaal continues his impressive string of performances that include End of Watch, Prisoners, and Nightcrawler. In the latter, he transformed his body by losing 40 pounds. This time, he packs on the muscle to become convincing as a boxer. The recent trend of actors getting fat, skinny, ripped or ugly to attract awards attention is nothing new to Gyllenhaal, who has made a career of melding into his roles.

The supporting cast includes Rachel McAdams as Hope’s wife. The two share a background as orphans in Hell’s Kitchen and have a strong relationship with each other and their young daughter played by Oona Laurence. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson plays Hope’s long-time manager who telegraphs his true colors much too early (and no, this doesn’t refer to the recent news involving Mr. Jackson). Naomie Harris is a bit underutilized as the social worker, but the film is at its best once Forest Whitaker enters as Hope’s last hope (sorry). Mr. Whitaker always elevates a film with his presence, and his character here would have provided a boost with even more screen time.

A few topics are touched upon, though none very deeply. The father-daughter story line was pretty effective, but the anger management issue could have been explored more effectively since it was so crucial to the story and Hope’s personality.

Eminem provides some new music for the film, and it should be noted that this was the final score composed by the great James Horner, who only recently passed away. Sure the film “borrows” from Rocky and Raging Bull and many other boxing classics, but at least it doesn’t go full “Champ” on us.

watch the trailer:

 


SKYFALL (2012)

November 11, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Celebrating 50 years on film for Ian Fleming‘s creation, we get the 23rd official James Bond movie. Many critics are hailing it as the best Bond film yet, though having seen all in the series, it is difficult to understand a proper form of comparison. The Sean Connery run varies significantly from the Roger Moore period, and though Pierce Brosnan brought a touch of seriousness back to the role, it wasn’t until Daniel Craig that the character and series took on an ultra-intense structure. Clear influences are seen in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, as well as the “Bourne” series.

This latest entry has some distinct advantages. Most importantly, Sam Mendes in the director’s chair brings a love and understanding of the Bond template, and the skills to deliver both top notch action sequences as well as realistic human drama. His background includes such fine films as American Beauty and Road To Perdition (also with Daniel Craig). Mendes brought on famed Director of Photography Roger Deakins (9 Oscar nominations) who delivers a look and feel superior to any previous Bond film. Also, the villain plays a key role in determining the strength of all Bond films. Here, Javier Bardem offers up a megalomaniac bent on revenge, and his unusual approach immediately vaults his Silva into one of the top 5 all time Bond villains.

 Of course, none of that matters without a strong Bond, and it is quite clear that Daniel Craig has made the role his own. This particular script from series vets Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan demands some real acting as Bond faces his mortality as well as his childhood roots. These issues combined with the physical demands of the action and the ability to toss in a few zingers, make Mr. Craig a nice fit for the tailored suits … and the classic Aston Martin.

It wouldn’t be Bond without the Bond “women”, and while there isn’t much familiarity of Berenice Marlohe, her Severine is interesting enough to capture our attention … even with Komodo Dragons hovering nearby. We also get Naomie Harris as Field Agent Eve, and the argument can be made that she is weakest link in the film. Surprisingly, the Bond woman central to this story  is M, played once again by the great Judi Dench. Much of the story revolves around her and there is quite a bit of ageism involved. Experience does matter … unless you are speaking of the new Q, played with fascinating geekery by Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas).  The museum scene with Q and Bond is one for the ages.

The usual global jet-setting is on full display with Istanbul, London, Macau, Shanghai and the Scottish Highlands. The traditional opening action sequence finds Bond racing across Turkish rooftops on a motorcycle, while wearing a beautifully tailored suit. These are the same rooftops on display in Taken 2, but it’s much more fun here. Then, as if motorcycles on the roof and through the Grand Bazaar of Turkey aren’t enough, we find Bond fighting atop a fast moving train … well, until M makes a business decision that quickly changes the arc of the story. By the way, the guy Bond is chasing on rooftops and fighting on the train is played by Ola Rapace, husband of Noomi from the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy (Daniel Craig starred in the English remake).

 When Bond finally meets Silva (Bardem), it is on the deserted Hashima Island. We quickly learn that Silva is no ordinary criminal and definitely not one to just sit and chat. His quest for revenge adds a personal touch. His personality and demeanor and background add elements previously missing from Bond films. It’s no surprise that the film’s best sequence involves Bond and Silva together and the tradition of the villain explaining what’s ruffled his feathers.

The climax of the film occurs on the hardscape of Scotland and forces Bond to come to terms with his past. There are also plenty of parental issues thanks to M and the caretaker played by Albert Finney. The personal forces at work in the script are more developed than in other Bond films, but we definitely don’t get cheated on explosions, gun play and hand-to-hand combat.

As always, music plays a vital role. Adele sings the opening title track and it plays over an unusual opening credits graphical sequence – somewhat bleaker than we are accustomed to, but no less dramatic. Also, Thomas Newman’s score is excellent and incorporates Monty Norman’s iconic Bond theme (though not often enough for my tastes).

This latest Bond film is a fine bounce back after the disappointing Quantum of Solace, and it may be the best made of all films. The idea of cyber-terrorism is very timely and a reminder that not all bad guys are trying to take over the world. Some just need revenge. Determining if it is the “best” Bond ever will be your call.

Just for old times’ sake:

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to judge for yourself if it’s the best Bond ever OR you want to see a blonde Javier Bardem as a creep, frightening villain.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have never bought into the James Bond mystique OR you can’t take a blonde Bond and a blonde Bond villain

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kw1UVovByw