Sunday, June 19, 2016

Catching Up: "Zootopia"

 4.5 / 5 

Ambitious, optimistic, naive Judy Hopps, newest recruit of the Zootopia Police Department, has been given 48 hours to crack the city's biggest mystery, and through a complicated series of events she's about to come face-to-face with Zootopia's notorious crime boss Mr. Big.

Judy's a rabbit, her unwilling partner in criminal detection is a fox named Nick, and Mr. Big, it turns out, is a tiny little rodent, a vole who looks and sounds an awful lot like Marlon Brando in The Godfather.  In fact, he's surprised his longtime rival Nick would intrude on such a day -- his daughter's wedding day.  Yet, he sighs, business must be done.

That one of the cleverest and most effective parodies ever attempted of The Godfather should be featured in a Disney movie starring bunnies, foxes, polar bears and voles is one of the many surprises in Zootopia, which blends equal parts Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Airplane! and 48 Hrs.

Young audiences, ostensibly the target for Zootopia, will know nothing of Nick Nolte, Eddie Murphy and Walter Hill, and quite likely next to nothing about Eddie Valiant and Toontown.  They'll just love the plucky bunny voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, who wants to fight crime and be heroic as the first (and smallest) rabbit member of the ZPD.  Kids will get a kick out of the way animals live and co-exist in Zootopia, and the movie uses a charming backstory to cleverly establish the idea that animals have evolved so much that predators and prey have inhabited the same city peacefully for many years.

That's where Zootopia gets most interesting, because what starts out as standard-issue authority-versus-rookie tension slowly becomes a dark and disturbing undercurrent to the movie, and as it does Zootopia becomes the first Disney animated film that really deserves its PG rating -- it ventures into some impressively dark territory.

It's got a story that's as well thought-out as, say, Roger Rabbit or even, I might dare say, that movie's inspiration, Robert Towne's script to Chinatown.  It may not be quite that good -- the Disney brand-management sheen gets in the way a bit too much -- but to say that Zootopia deserves comparison to Chinatown is not nearly as ludicrous as it may seem.

You doubt me?  I would have doubted me, too, before seeing it, but consider the scene in which the unexpected real villain of the piece reveals the motives behind the story -- which involves peaceful, law-abiding citizens being intentionally turned into violent criminals in an effort to build a climate of fear and distrust.  Sure, you've always been able to trust the dark-skinned jaguar who lives down the street, he's been a pal of yours for 20 years, but do you really know who he is and what he's capable of?  Wouldn't Zootopia be a better place if the minority predator population were simply removed, and everyone else could go back to living in harmony?

Even in a non-election year, that would be some pretty deep stuff for audiences of any age, but in the Year of the Donald, in the Year of the Muslim Terrorist, it takes on even greater resonance.  (And its ultimate happy-ending finding turns out not only to be one kids can get behind, but to be not all that far-fetched, really.)

Zootopia turns out to be about race relations, about minority rights, about racial and ethnic profiling, and about civil rights.  So, be thankful for one really important fact: It's funny.

It's charming, it's downright hilarious at some points (like in Mr. Big's scene), and it constantly engages the eye, the heart and the funny bone with its lightning-fast tours through the massive city of Zootopia, where virtually every street sign, shop sign, billboard and brand name hides a double meaning.  You could watch Zootopia for hours and hours simply to catch all of the jokes.

Then there are the endless references to other movies and TV shows -- from The Hunger Games to Frozen (multiple times), from the first Mission: Impossible to Lethal Weapon to Lost.  The latter is my favorite, using one of Zootopia composer Michael Giacchino's most unmistakable musical motifs in the middle of an action scene.

Zootopia is the rare movie that will satisfy everyone for the simple reason that it was designed by storytellers and pop-culture lovers who wanted to satisfy themselves, first.  There had to be immense glee every time someone brought forth an idea like Officer Hopps mobile phone, which has a logo of a carrot on it (with a bite taken out of it, of course) and notifies Judy that her mom and dad are requesting to "Muzzle Time" with her.  There's the scene in which sly fox Nick (voiced by Jason Bateman) sells popsicles to lemmings, who of course line up to do what the other ones are doing.

Zootopia is a movie to be savored -- it took me a little over two hours to watch its 1 hr. 48 min. running time because I kept pausing the image and looking around at the environments. (In one part of town, rodents shop Mousey's and Targoat.)  But I also found myself unexpectedly intrigued in the central mystery.  Crime mysteries are a rarity in movies, and Zootopia has created one that is genuinely compelling, with a solution that not only isn't easy to suss out, but that also involves a hilarious and lengthy reference to Breaking Bad.

Yes, Disney's latest animated feature for kids has, as one of its central plot points, the purification of plants into potent drugs by a criminal element (including two rams named, you guessed it, Walter and Jesse).

Zootopia is not afraid to go where the jokes take it.  Or the story.  While the timeliness of some of those jokes may make the shelf life of Zootopia considerably shorter than, say, Cinderella or The Lion King, its super-current pop-culture references at least ring true for now, and they are funny.  As a whole, the film itself rings just as true and is just as funny, which makes it a complete and utter surprise, a charming animated movie for kids that may work even better as an engrossing mystery for adults about kidnapping, racial tension, genetic experimentation, the link between the drug trade and government and -- well, let's just stop there before you get the wrong idea again.

Zootopia works quite well -- better than it should -- as a crime drama.  But you've come for the fluffy bunnies, the talking foxes, the sweetly scratchy-voiced sheep, the hilariously time-challenged sloths, and the inventive visual design.  Zootopia doesn't disappoint in any of that ... or in everything else it offers.  It's an intriguing evolution in the form and style of animated films, a step forward for Disney into a more robust, more relevant sort of animation than maybe has ever been tried in the company's history.  Zootopia is the extraordinarily rare Disney movie that tries to be different and better than any of its predecessors, and for that you can, at the very, very least -- and with a high degree of certainty, say: It would have made Walt happy.

Viewed June 18, 2016 -- VOD

Sunday, June 12, 2016

"De Palma"

 3.5 / 5 

Scorcese, everyone knows.  Coppola, too.  Spielberg, naturally.  And of course, Lucas, even if you think of him more as the creator of the Star Wars machine than an auteur.  They're the household names.

Then there's Brian De Palma, whose name doesn't quite have the same recognition to the average moviegoer, and who's the subject of a new documentary by directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow.

There was a brief and extraordinary period of time, De Palma recalls in the long, fascinating interview that forms the spine of De Palma, in which Marty and Steven and Francis and George and, yes, Brian somehow managed to take over Hollywood, not simply to become favored by its inner power circle but to become its inner power circle.

They were the auteurs, the movie directors influenced by the French New Wave of the 1960s, who wanted to experiment with the form and substance of film while making movies that were still recognizably mainstream, to push the boundaries of what audiences would accept by paying attention to what the audiences were saying they wanted.

While the studios were still making bloated musicals and big-budget disaster movies and lighthearted rom-coms starring Doris Day, these guys were blending traditional narrative film with bold and daring experiments, and their films were becoming blockbusters.  And best of all for the studios, they were cheap.

Yes, Lucas had his style.  And Coppola.  Scorsese had his style and the themes that he wanted to explore, and Spielberg had his uncanny eye, but what of De Palma?

His films were arguably, even more visually daring, even more thematically off-the-wall, even more challenging to audiences accustomed to the studio style of filmmaking.  De Palma experimented less with narrative structure than with visual style, to the point of audacity, utilizing techniques like split screen, deep focus and remarkably physical camera work.

De Palma takes a close look at the body of De Palma's work, and the movie is mostly a fascinating and grin-inducing trip down memory lane for film buffs who came of age in the 1970s or 1980s.  For cinephiles, De Palma comes about as close as you're likely to get to sitting down with such a talented filmmaker and getting him to tell stories -- why he almost didn't select Sissy Spacek to star in Carrie, how Sean Penn treated Michael J. Fox on the set of Casualties of War, how Cliff Robertson nearly ruined Obsession, why studio executives couldn't believe what they were seeing when they first screened Blow Out.

His stories are mesmerizing, and De Palma turns out to be a most affable and charming host, though he seems more interested in recalling the making-of stories (mostly, but not always, he veers away from gossip) and, in the documentary's major disappointment, less about discussing the impact and legacy of his work, or casting a critical eye on his own creations.

In that way, De Palma tends to uphold the mild insult many critics lobbed at him when he was making mostly thrillers: that he was "Hitchcock light."  De Palma doesn't provide the sort of psychological insight or technical field study of his films as Hitchcock so famously used to do.  He doesn't seem interested in examining them at all, in fact, merely recalling a story or two and then moving on.

The stories are fascinating, but not endlessly so.  Learning about his use of split-screen in Carrie's climactic prom scene is great, but hearing an equal number of stories about The Fury is unnecessary.  De Palma doesn't even like that movie.  And De Palma glosses over the most significant misstep in De Palma's career, the 1990 adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities, then gives as much time to De Palma's lesser and more recent work -- like Femme Fatale and Redacted, two movies I didn't even know had ever been made -- which seems needlessly completist.

The opportunity for insight into the work of a truly dazzling and fascinating filmmaker isn't exactly squandered here, but few who have interest in De Palma are going to be grateful for Baumbach and Paltrow's decision to delve into the different versions of the ending to Snake Eyes.  Baumbach and Paltrow want to cover every film De Palma has made, which leaves too little time to delve into the really significant ones.

For real film buffs, though, De Palma is still a treasure, not the least for the shot of Steven Spielberg wearing a protective helmet while watching De Palma shoot a gunfight for Scarface.  To see those directors together is a treat that can't be missed.  De Palma puts them together in the same shot, but never entirely makes the cogent argument it should: that De Palma is in the same league as Spielberg and the other great directors of the 1970s.

Viewed June 12, 2016 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Favorite Films: "The Rocketeer"

It's easy to love a perfect film, to watch Jaws or The Godfather or Chinatown or Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure over and over and realize that there's no way the movie could get any better.

Flawed films are tougher to love, and no Hollywood studio has made flawed films as consistently and as near greatness as Disney.  Almost from the very beginning, with movies like The Sword and the Rose, Disney couldn't quite crack the code of live-action films in the way it did with animation.  It was especially true of Disney in the 1970s and early 1980s, when it made movies that were downright terrible, like The North Avenue Irregulars and Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, leading up to three of the most ambitious and disappointingly muted films in its history: The Black Hole, Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Watcher in the Woods.

(Side note: I've always wanted to write more about The Watcher in the Woods than I did when I wrote a review of it in Mrs. Patterson's 10th-grade English class, but I just can't bring myself to put it in the category of my "Favorite Films." Still, it remains a source of fascination and a strange sort of awe to me.  If you've never seen it, do yourself a favor and don't; if you're one of the many who think of it as a childhood horror classic, do yourself an even bigger favor and never try to rewatch it.  If, however, you're a fan of some bizarre-but-true stories of what can go wrong in Hollywood, by all means read this terrific Vulture essay on this weird movie.)

By the time The Rocketeer came around, Disney had finally reversed its fortunes.  Thanks to Touchstone Pictures in the late 1980s, it was, in fact, a powerhouse in live-action movies, and very little that Disney produced failed at the box office.  Then, in 1990, came Dick Tracy, a film so expensive and so weighted down by expectation that even Disney's studio head said it "may not have been worth it."

Maybe it's because I was of the age to have been moderately aware of all of these machinations of Hollywood that by the time summer 1991 rolled around, The Rocketeer seemed the answer not only to the perplexing problems that Disney was starting to experience, but to the feeling of sameness that had started to creep into moviegoing.

Looking back, the age of the massive blockbuster had begun, and every summer promised aggressively loud, modern action movies about cops or aliens or sometimes both.  Everything about The Rocketeer looked different.

And, in fact, it turned out that The Rocketeer was different.  Too different.  It was a disappointment at the box office.  Critics had a hard time being enthusiastic about it.  Even its fans had a hard time being enthusiastic about it.  Twenty-five years later, that sort of reception is understandable.

The Rocketeer hasn't improved with age -- but, and here's the very important but, it hasn't gotten any worse, either.  It's remained just as off-kilter, just as charmingly not-quite-perfect as it was when it debuted a quarter of a century ago.  Something about The Rocketeer is not quite right for modern sensibilities; its pacing seems off, the acting feels a little forced and fake, which is exactly how the movie serials that inspired it used to feel, too.

Surprisingly, those flaws actually make The Rocketeer a better movie than maybe it actually is. It's a satisfyingly timeless movie, an action-adventure that romanticized and fetishized a bygone era so perfectly, it seems almost to have sprung fully formed from that time, which is both a compliment and a criticism.  It has the pacing and style of a big-studio movie from the 1940s, a period (as Disney itself came to perfectly describe it) "that never was and always will be."  The thing is, the pacing and style of movies had evolved by the 1990s, but The Rocketeer hadn't.

The sheer determination of The Rocketeer's director, Joe Johnston, to maintain that romantic, heroically glamorous appeal is exactly what keeps The Rocketeer so gosh-darn neat, which is exactly what it wants to be, should be and is.  It's just swell.

That's especially true considering how, 25 years after The Rocketeer, super-hero action movies have become insular and exclusionary.  They intentionally lock out audiences who aren't familiar with their stories.  The Rocketeer doesn't have that problem; if anything, it spends so much time trying to explain its story that you want it to pick up the pace a little bit.  But, then, to want it to be a different film is to want it to be something other than The Rocketeer, which is a terrible thing to want.

But, gosh, for a movie that I profess to adore, I feel awfully critical of The Rocketeer when there's so much to love, from its exquisite visual design to its polished-to-a-sheen cinematography.

There's its brilliant, hummable, perfect score by James Horner, with one of the all-time great musical themes.  (No, seriously, this is one of the very best movie scores ever written.)

There's the casting that's perfect down the line, from Bill Campbell, who manages to be both chiseled and giddy; to Jennifer Connelly, who's simultaneously sweet and sensual; to Timothy Dalton, who is almost as good at being Errol Flynn as Errol Flynn; to Alan Arkin as the sidekick and Terry O'Quinn as a perfectly cartoon version of Howard Hughes.

And yet, I can't deny that all of the dazzlingly perfect parts of The Rocketeer never quite add up to an equally dazzling whole.  There's a reason the movie has remained locked stubbornly in the world of fan-driven love, that it hasn't been and probably never will be rediscovered: It's just slightly too entranced by its own charms to be entirely lovable.

The Rocketeer may never make it onto any list of truly great films, which is fine with me.  Everyone knows the great films.  It's the not-quite-great ones that remain little secrets.  I like my little secret of The Rocketeer, I enjoy knowing I share my fondness for the movie with people who also find so much to love about it.

From the standpoint of Hollywood and Disney history, The Rocketeer holds an interesting place, it's an early casualty in the industry's fascination with making things bigger and more expensive, but not necessarily better, and one of the bigger stumbling blocks in Disney's long and not-always-easy climb from live-action obscurity to its global dominance today.

The Rocketeer needed to be made, and it needed to be made by Disney.  Like the jetpack its hero finds, it was designed to be a game-changer, but that wasn't its destiny.   The Rocketeer never became the hit, the "franchise" that its producers wanted it to be, and maybe that's for the best, but the way it turned out, its fate makes me love it that much more.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

"The Lobster"

 3.5 / 5 

Somewhere in the same strange city where The Lobster takes place, a man is waking up in the body of an insect and another is resisting the pressure to become a rhinoceros.

This intellectually probing but emotionally distant movie is as true to its odd proposition as Kafka and Ionesco were to theirs, but there's something even weirder (if that's possible) about The Lobster and its disturbing blend of gentle comedy, wicked satire and off-putting violence.

Still, the very fact that The Lobster got made, got released and is playing in the theater right next door to the latest Marvel blockbuster is some sort of proof that not everything is wrong in the movie industry.  The Lobster takes more risks per minute than any other movie you're likely to see this summer, maybe this year.

In the opening moments of the movie, following a brief and puzzling introduction, a man named David is forcibly removed from his home and taken to a tranquil hotel in the countryside, where he seems to understand the rules that are explained to him:

Because he does not have a romantic partner, he must stay at the hotel for 45 days, during which he can try to find someone to love from among the other guests.  If he doesn't, the punishment is clear: He will be turned into an animal of his choice.  David says that if he can't find love, he wants to be a lobster.

The hotel is a blend of the Grand Budapest, the Overlook and Hailsham, the insular school in Kazuo Ishiguro's similarly strange Never Let Me Go.  Its rules are clearly understood by its residents, less so by the audience, but it's the internal, not external, logic of the story that is of greatest concern to director Yorgos Lanthimos, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Efthymis Filippou.  This is not the first time they've worked together, and on the basis of The Lobster, I'd be intrigued but anxious to examine their previous work.  The Lobster is a movie more to be appreciated and considered than entirely enjoyed.

Frequently, a shrill alarm sounds in the hotel and all of the residents are sent on a hunt the capture "loners," survivalist-types who live in the woods that surround the property and who eschew the societal requirement of partnership.  Every loner they shoot with a tranquilizer dart nets them an extra day of humanity before the transformation to animal

One of the guests has been there for more than 300 days.  She's not just a sharpshooter, she's a blank-faced cipher who, it's said, lacks any emotion at all.  As David's days and prospects dwindle, he becomes pragmatic about "love" and settles for this austere woman.  (None of the characters except David is given a name.)  He almost fools himself into thinking he'll be able to make do with her, and in his desperation the movie's themes and ideas finally begin having some emotional impact -- and then she commits a horrific act of violence that jolts David into acknowledging his mistake and throws the movie into an even stranger second half.

He joins the loners in the woods, whose leader (Lea Seydoux) explains her group's equally restrictive set of rules to a rattled David.  When she invites him on a trip into The City to get supplies, he meets another woman (Rachel Weisz), to whom he is instantly attracted.

David is caught between competing ideologies: At the hotel, having a partner is the only thing that matters; the woods, it's the only thing that's forbidden.  David considers the alternative of falling in love without pressure and without a timeline, but his approach has its own perils, not the least of which is unforeseen jealousy.

As David and (as she's called) the Short-Sighted Woman form their attachment, the movie ironically loses some of its focus.  Skewering the idea that people are somehow less than fulfilled without a romantic partner propels all of the scenes at the hotel, but in the forest the satire is less sharp and less sure.  The Lobster piles ideas on top of ideas, so that the very notion that David and the woman might fall in love is too easy a conclusion -- and when the Loner Leader turns against the Short-Sighted Woman, the result comes across as less of a logical plot development than an almost desperate effort to add one more layer of symbolism to the story.

That action, which results in something terrible happening to the Short-Sighted Woman, leads to a final scene that will prove the height of frustration to most audiences.  The movie ends mid-scene, leading us on a difficult, often fascinating journey only to unceremoniously dump us at the side of the road just before we get to the destination. Just like its first scene, the last scene in The Lobster wants to be puzzling, but by that point it's more exasperating.

At turns funny, challenging, troubling and angering, The Lobster isn't entirely satisfying, but it is something that might be even more worthwhile -- it's entirely original.

Viewed May 27, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Favorite Films: "Lost In Translation"

The first time I went to Tokyo, I was drowning in a sea of tears that, like Alice, I had cried for myself, not knowing why, and as I wandered through the towering, endless city, whatever sadness I felt gave way to curiosity and fascination.  Tokyo was such a strange wonderland that I let go of what I did not need.

For days, I was adrift, surrounded by endless noise and movement, and yet none of it made any sense: street signs, advertisements, anything written or spoken became irrelevant.  I could be surrounded by everything and yet embraced by nothing, and it was revelatory.  I did need to pay attention to anything, I could just let it wash over me the way, maybe, a child does, wide-eyed and eager yet utterly alone even while surrounded.

Even the smallest pleasure of eavesdropping on conversations was futile, so instead of trying to discern the meaning of it all, I focused only on the experience.

In Tokyo, the only possibility for a foreigner is to live in the moment, to be so taken in by the incomprehensible sights and sounds that nothing else seems to matter.

When I finally returned, dazed and awed, into the thudding comprehensibility of everyday life at home, I tried to explain what I had felt in Tokyo, how my sense of dislocation was so overwhelming that all I could do was give into it and let it define me, even for a little while, but (like Alice again) I was unable to say what I meant; it had to be felt.

Sofia Coppola's dreamy, wondrous Lost In Translation lets it be felt.  This near-perfect reverie gives form to the strange magic that Tokyo seems to hold for many: Only when you arrive do you realize how lost you are, and how the only way to find your way back to yourself is to fist succumb to the he hazy, dizzying incomprehensibility of it all.

Lost In Translation is about two specific people, a movie star named Bob Harris and a young woman named Charlotte.  The movie star (played by Bill Murray, a real-life movie star) has too much of everything, especially experience, while the woman (played by Scarlett Johansson, before she was a movie star) has very little of anything, especially experience.

But they are both tired, physically and emotionally.  Somehow, they've become invisible in their own lives, and it has started to wear on them.  They have become fixtures in the lives of the people around them, as functional yet anonymous as a desk lamp.  They know they should matter more to people, and they know that people should probably matter more to them.

They both have ended up at the singular Park Hyatt, and the hotel is as much a character as Lost In Translation as they are, with its modern, dimly lit halls, its automated rooms with floor-to-ceiling walls that open up onto the sprawling, infinite city sixty floors below.  The hotel is as quiet and safe as a cocoon, which is kind of what it becomes to both Charlotte and Bob.  But after a while, it becomes too quiet, too safe, and when they break out of the shell they emerge in Tokyo.

For a while, Charlotte and Bob are on their own and they keep running into each other in the hotel, so they come to the conclusion that since they are both alone in Tokyo, they might as well be alone together.  That's how they spend their time together, against the city as it glows and hums at night, visually shouting out the messages that everyone around them understands but that make no sense to Bob and Charlotte.

The only thing they can do is what Tokyo requires: to be with each other in the moment.  Lost In Translation does not insist that they fall in love -- he is in his 50s, after all, and she is in her 20s -- but neither does it insist that they don't.  It's possible.  During their few days together, maybe anything is possible.

Lost In Translation is the rare mainstream American film that does not depend on a traditional plot or story structure.  It has a beginning and an end, but is mostly middle, watching its characters closely (and, it's impossible not to note, beautifully), seeing if and how all of this time alone with their thoughts will drive them to change, will result in any hard-won realization.

There is a moment toward the end when, perhaps, they do come to some conclusions.  Famously, the movie does not let us know for sure, because when Charlotte and Bob finally part, Coppola muffles their conversation.  We hear him whisper something to her.  We see her react.  But the movie does not reveal exactly what he says, or exactly how she feels about it.  Only Charlotte and Bob know for sure.  For a movie that spends so much time luxuriating in how wonderful it can feel to be disconnected, how satisfying it can be not to understand what is happening around you, its ending makes perfect sense.

Make of it what you will.  Just like everything else in life.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

"The Jungle Book"

 5 / 5 

Here, at last, is the validation of 90 years of experimentation, of trial and error, of overthinking things and underthinking things and making movies that have combined animation and live action even as technology becomes ever more sophisticated.

To find the cinematic roots of The Jungle Book, you'd have to go back much, much further than Walt Disney's 1967 animated film, or even 1942's lush Technicolor adventure, you'd have to go back almost to when Rudyard Kipling wrote the stories about Mowgli, Baloo, Bagheera and Shere Khan.  The stories were published in 1894, and less than 30 years later, while Kipling was still alive, Walt Disney's own Alice comedies took a little live-action girl and placed her into an animated realm.

In the ensuring years, we've seen Uncle Remus and Mary Poppins cavorting in animation, while Ray Harryhausen combined live-action with stop-motion creatures, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? created a convincing world in which "toons" and humans lived together, then all of that gave way to computer-generated animation that made the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park and the planets of the Star Wars prequels and the adventure of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but all of that and everything else -- the Harry Potters and the Marvel movies and the Padingtons, it seems, was just a warm up.

The Jungle Book is a visual masterpiece, a movie that so thoroughly and entirely convinces us that what we're seeing is real, it sometimes feels like a reinvention of the movies themselves.  But being a visual marvel doesn't always equate to being an entirely satisfying film, as Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace so famously proved. Likewise -- despite all the tongue-clucking certainty among particular groups of film enthusiasts lately -- The Jungle Book proves that being artificial does not require sacrificing storytelling, humanity or that all-too-rare quality in movies these days, joy.

The Jungle Book is brimming with joy.  This is the kind of happy, warm-hearted family film that Walt Disney himself might have made, one that cuts its sweetness with danger, peril and fear, which is entirely appropriate for a family film, because kids can learn from magical movies that life can be downright scary sometimes.  But the dangers Mowgli faces are those of high adventure, a spirit entirely befitting both Kipling's source material and the 1967 animated movie that largely inspired this one.

The Jungle Book is anchored by a sparkling, precocious performance by Neel Sethi as Mowgli.  Not only does he succeed at a task that has stymied most older performers -- that is, turning in a convincing performance against green screens and imaginary characters -- but he gives Mowgli a new dimension, a wry wit and intelligence, and a deep insistence that because his fate brought him into the jungle as a baby, the jungle should always be his home, no matter what anyone thinks.

The person (because the movie smartly insists on calling the animals "people") who most wants Mowgli out of the jungle is the tiger Shere Khan, who was physically and emotionally scarred by his only previous encounter with man -- which happened to involve tiny Mowgli.  Though Mowgli has been protected by wolves his entire life, Shere Khan becomes doggedly determined to hunt down the "man-cub" and expel him from the forest.  In this version of The Jungle Book, the Shere Khan-Mowgli dynamic is every bit as vibrant and urgent as, say, Valjean and Javert or Luke and Vader.  It's mythic stuff, and the movie treats it with exactly the right weight and seriousness.

Once Shere Khan flushes Mowgli from his wolf pack, the panther Bagheera promises to get the boy to safety.  But Mowgli and his protector get separated, which leads Mowgli on a series of adventures that bring him to such familiar characters as Kaa the snake, Baloo the bear and King Louie the -- no, not orangutan, but gigantopithecus, which is, basically, a really, really, really big orangutan.

The Jungle Book owes a lot of its success to the voice actors who bring these characters to life: Lupita Nyong'o and Giancarlo Esposito as Mowgli's wolf parents, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, Bill Murray as Baloo, Christopher Walken (the only slightly over-the-top performance) as King Louie and a host of familiar voices.  But they wouldn't be as effective without Neel Sethi as Mowgli; had he been just a little off, the movie wouldn't have worked, but it does, brilliantly, because he's so perfect.

Disney's insistence on remaking its animated hits as live-action movies may be a move unabashedly, even crassly, aimed at making money, but if Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella and now Jon Favreau's Jungle Book are the direction it's all heading (rather than Tim Burton's aggressively unpleasant Alice in Wonderland), then perhaps the whole enterprise can be justified.  So far, at least, The Jungle Book isn't simply the best of these movies, it's also, quite unexpectedly, the best movie of the year.

Viewed April 24, 2016 -- Cinerama Dome


Saturday, April 23, 2016

"A Hologram for the King"

 2 / 5 

There's one scene of genuine invention in Tom Tykwer's unfocused, meandering movie A Hologram for the King, and unfortunately it's the first one.  Like an epigraph in a book, Tykwer has Tom Hanks playing straight to the camera as he repeats some of the lyrics of the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime."

Our Everyman Tom is too old to be young and too young to be old, his wife has left him, his job has left him, and he's stuck in the vast desert of his life with no idea of which way to go.  "Well," he wonders, "how did I get here?"

Only momentarily does the movie again become as clever, mostly it's as laborious and obvious as that metaphor, with Everyman Tom, here named Alan Clay, a once-powerful executive of the Schwann Bicycle Company who made a decision to send its American manufacturing to China, a move that in real life really did destroy the company.  It destroyed Alan's career, too, and because that was way back in the early 2000s, Alan didn't get a big giant golden parachute for making a bad decision (as seems to be the case in corporate America today), he lost his job and his reputation. But A Hologram for the King isn't particularly interested in the details of business.

Rather, it wants us to relate to Alan, a man cast adrift like Everyman Tom has experienced before, though he has more than a volleyball to keep him company this time.  After the Schwinn fiasco, Alan became an IT salesman for a technology company that wants to sell holographic video conferencing to the king of Saudi Arabia.  So, the company sends Alan and a few colleagues to the desert kingdom to try to make the sale.  But the king is a no-show.

That leaves Alan endless days of waiting and worrying, of doing everything but the work he's supposed to be doing.  In fact, Alan doesn't seem to do much of anything at all, except show up once in a while, tell the anonymous colleagues that the king isn't showing up, and then fretting about his life.

Now, there's nothing wrong with fretting about your life.  Or, that is, there's everything wrong with it, and I should know, I do it as often and as well (or poorly) as anyone.  And if there's one thing that A Hologram for the King gets right, it's the way that Alan's fear of failure and of an uncertain future become manifest in physical ways that lead to even more neurotic obsession.

In one of the movie's endless digressions, which its aimless screenplay mistakes for plot, Alan has a large growth on his back, which he finally decides to puncture with a steak knife, leading him to a Saudi hospital where a rare female doctor (Sarita Chowdhury) reassures him that his problems are less physical than mental, and seems alarmingly unconcerned about a mass the size of a golf ball on Alan's back.  They bond over personal fears.  Later, when Alan has a full-on anxiety attack, he calls her, and though the stringent moral code of Saudi Arabia apparently frowns on it, she sits alone with him in his hotel room.  They fall in love.

That alone might have made a terrific movie, a sort of Saudi Lost in Translation, a movie that reverberates loudly through A Hologram for the King, but the romance only part of the plot.  There's also a budding friendship with Yousef a wacky, talkative driver, who's played well by American actor Alexander Black (yes, the movie features an American as the Saudi sidekick and an Indian as the Saudi love interest), who takes Alan on a long side trip, both literally and figuratively.  And Alan has a strange, momentary fling with a Danish woman he meets at the worksite.

There's lots of random discussion about the rampant growth and endless wealth in Saudi Arabia, the way cities spring up like man-made oases in the desert, and there are very weird, non-sequitur scenes in which Alan is ignored by the company that's supposed to be hosting him.

Throughout it all, the king keeps his distance, which is supposed to make the story feel a little like Waiting for Godot, I guess, and it might if the story were about a group of Americans waiting for the Saudi king, but it's not.  It's about an American man having a nervous breakdown and a crisis of faith in Saudi Arabia, a plot summary that should have made a fascinating, compelling movie, but it didn't.  A Hologram for the King lacks that kind of focus, it keeps shifting like the dunes, never settling in any one place, blowing around until it becomes as irritating and grating as the swirling sand.

In its few moments of clarity, A Hologram for the King offers a compelling glimpse at the movie it might have been -- surreal, assured, sad and sympathetic for the Alans of the world, whose lives didn't turn out the way they planned, and who want to know how they got here.

According to the credits, it took eight executive producers and 11 different production companies to make A Hologram for the King.  Between them, something went wrong.  The movie needed a little less Hollywood dealmaking and a little more poetic inspiration like the song that fuels its powerhouse opening scene.

Viewed April 23, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks