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


Monday, April 18, 2016

"Everybody Wants Some!!"

 4 / 5 

Writer-directly Richard Linklater calls Everybody Wants Some!! a "spiritual sequel" to his 1993 hit Dazed and Confused, but both movies owe an enormous amount to George Lucas's groundbreaking American Graffiti, building on and perfecting the marriage of casual, non-linear structure to nostalgia-tinged happiness.

Everybody Wants Some!! is deeply unconcerned about following a plot of holding to the traditional conventions of Hollywood narrative as it tells the loosely structured story of a group of college baseball players during the weekend before school starts at their unnamed Texas university.

The joys of Everybody Wants Some!! -- and there are a lot of joys in the movie -- are offset by something deeper and richer, an unexpected sense of self-awareness that recalls Linklater's Before trilogy.  What everybody wants, it turns out, isn't purely sex and pot, it's also a sense of connection and purpose.

Dazed and Confused ended with its characters every bit as dazed and confused when they finished as when they started, but Everybody Wants Some!! ends on a sweet note of self-discovery, a sense that what looks like hard partying and unrelieved macho-man posturing actually leads to small but significant insight into life.

Though played by a large ensemble, the nominal central character is Jake (Blake Jenner), an incoming freshman assigned to live in a rambling old house with other members of the university's baseball team.  Jake finds it easy to fit in with his odd assortment of teammates, who include a California stoner (Wyatt Russell), a hell-bent-on-winning team captain (Tyler Hoechlin), a couple of other freshmen (Temple Baker, Tanner Kalina), a country bumpkin (Will Brittain) -- and that's just the start.  Some of Jake's housemates, like J. Quinton Johnson's Dale, are more clearly defined than others, and if Everybody Wants Some!! has a major fault it's that it's hard to keep all of the characters straight.

The film follows them from day to day, party to party, over the long weekend, observing how they posture and preen, build themselves up and tear each other down, and compete to see who can get the women they most desire.

Jake has his eye set on one girl in particular, a theater major named Beverly (Zoey Deutch), who has quickly learned that in the feminist-infused summer of 1980, when the film takes place, she can be just as assertive and just as forward as the boys.

In the movie's best scene, she invites Jake to a party given by the "theater kids."  Jake's just gone through a frat-party-style blowout at his house, filled with kegs and sex and mattresses sliding down the staircase, so when he (and the baseball team members he's invited) show up to the highly stylized, highly stylish theater party, they become different people.  They've never experienced this level of wit and humor, and they're impressed.

Everybody Wants Some!! takes pleasure in watching the minds of these baseball-obsessed late-teens suddenly expand -- and even before they set foot in the classroom, the minds of these kids grow in expend in just these three days.  In that sense, Everybody Wants Some!! isn't just nostalgic -- with a perfect soundtrack to boot -- but hopeful: Jake and his teammates (with the exception of one particularly deluded pitcher, perhaps) might do more in college than play sports, and they might come out of the experience as better people.

You can spend two hours watching Everybody Wants Some!! purely for the nostalgia-drenched atmosphere: The movie doesn't simply feel like it's set in 1980, it feels like it was made in 1980, and on that level alone, it's a kick to watch.

But you may come away with an unexpected sense of surprise that the giddy smile that crosses your face when the movie ends is also a knowing one, because you realize that these kids may, to paraphrase a key sentence toward the end of the film, be finding their own frontiers -- which is, when you think about it, what everybody wants.

Viewed April 17, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, April 17, 2016

"My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2"

 3 / 5 

Watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 is like getting a "thinking of you" Hallmark card from a friend you haven't heard from in years: It's an entirely pleasant experience that leaves you wondering about the sincerity of the manufactured greeting, nonplussed at knowing this friend is still around, yet still inexplicably heartened and touched.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 is entirely innocuous and sweet, so sweet that by the final reel you realize just how much it believes in its vision of a family that cares this much about each other.  The sentiment may be overbearing, but it is sincere, and can you really fault a movie too much for having too big a heart?

Writer-director Nia Vardalos doesn't seem to mind that she's replaying the highlights from the first film, and after a while, we don't mind so much, either, and even the schtickiest of the schtick, like Andrea Martin's overbearing aunt or the tongue-clucking neighbors seem worth getting through because the rest of the performances -- as over-the-top as they are -- are so darned endearing.

The story this time plays out like a particularly geriatric special Greek-themed episode of The Love Boat, with the elderly parents of Vardalos' Toula (whose wedding was the focus of the first movie) discovering that their marriage license was never signed -- an oversight they interpret to mean they are not actually married.

Legalities aside, Toula's father Gus (Michael Constantine, in an effortlessly charming role) is disturbed by the news while mother Maria (a weirdly plastic but still funny Lainie Kazan) thinks the whole thing is a hoot.  "I'm a hippie," she shouts.  But when Gus refuses to offer her another proposal in a way she thinks is proper and fitting, she retorts that maybe she won't marry him after all.

So My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 becomes like Bridesmaids light (very light) as the whole family tries to push the two back together, then makes preparations for the wedding.

Despite its Greek-ness, everything about My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 is wholesomely white-bread, so much so that it's easy to see how the first movie became a short-lived TV sitcom.  The laugh track is missing here, but the movie knows how to earn its laughs solidly enough that it doesn't suffer for the oversight.  It's light comedy, but that doesn't mean it's bad comedy, and by and large the humor of My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 is genuine.

Of course, the entire Portakolos family is back, and they travel as a pack, never missing an opportunity to meet up, bicker and banter.  It doesn't feel real, but then, if superheroes can move in unison, why not large Greek families?

The newest addition this time is daughter Paris (Elena Kampouris), who's 18 years old and struggling to realize her own identity amid her overbearing family.  Her story is as sweet and innocuous as the rest of the movie, but the character never really takes hold -- not a surprise given the broad, ethnic farce that surrounds her story.

Still, small (and effective) revelations abound, like Paris discovering that she's not as embarrassed by her family as she thinks, that cousin Angelo (Joey Fatone) has something he needs to share with the family, that Maria's 50-year-marriage might have been bolder and more courageous than anyone has ever realized.

It's the little touches like these that make My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 as sentimentally sweet, and sweetly sentimental, as it is.  It offers no new insight, doesn't even tread any new ground, but all of the ingredients that made the first Greek Wedding an unexpected hit in 2002 are included here, and they combine again to make a dish that's both as tasty (and only occasionally bland) as the first.

Viewed April 17, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Midnight Special"

 4.5 / 5 

All around the edges of Midnight Special are hints of two previous movies, Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and John Carpenter's Starman, but writer-director Jeff Nichols does much more than pay homage to two of the great aliens-come-to-Earth movies, he uses their essence to create a film so brazen and moody that even its shortcomings feel like strengths.

From Close Encounters comes an insistent obsession with decoding messages received from an otherworldly source, and from Starman comes a road trip through America with a passenger whose mysteries and powers are revealed slowly -- so slowly, in this case, that audiences are likely to be split between whether Midnight Special is mesmerizing or just plain confounding.  This isn't a movie for the impatient, which manifests itself in an odd way: It's a dreamy, languid cross-country chase.

But just when its hypnotic pace and quiet tone threaten to overwhelm it, Midnight Special blazes with  scenes of stunning intensity, exploding out of nowhere, then settling back in to its rhythm.  While watching Midnight Special, I was thrown back into my seat with a near-physical force by its unexpected surprises.

The movie begins with the same sense of paranoid urgency that flowed throughout Nichols' Take Shelter, which also starred Michael Shannon, who here plays Roy Tomlin, who has absconded with his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), and is holed up in a cheap motel room with heavily armed Lucas (Joel Edgerton).  They've triggered an Amber Alert, but they're on the run from more than the police -- they've taken the boy from a Central Texas religious cult, who believe that Alton is their messiah, who will save them from a soon-to-arrive judgment day.

The thing is, the FBI might actually believe what the cult is saying.  There's something special about Alton, who wears swimming goggles and is only awake at night.  He sleeps all day, his head surrounded by giant noise-blocking earphones.  Alton has delivered what the cult interprets as religious messages, but government officials like Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) know to be highly encrypted, top-secret data intercepted from satellites.

What does the boy know and how does he know it?  Just as that mystery deepens, a new and bigger one shoots forth as beams of light from the kid's eyes.  It's a bewildering scene, and Midnight Special is just getting started with its wild visions.

Interestingly, Midnight Special was produced and released by Warner Bros., a studio lately known for the ways it has sought to make its DC Comics division into a movie powerhouse like Marvel by creating intricately interlocking films that expand the "franchise."  Midnight Special would appear, at least on the surface, to have absolutely nothing in common with a $200 million superhero movie -- except that, as its story and its revelations linger, it's clear that Nichols has designed and created a world as carefully constructed and elaborately conceived as those mega-budget blockbusters.

Sam Shepherd's cult leader, for instance, appears for only a few minutes of screen time, but he has built an entire religion based on the messages received by Alton, and the film only briefly explores a bit of it, leaving tantalizing gaps in the story.  Why has the boy developed such a fervent following?  What is it that the cult believes will happen on March 6, the appointed day of doom?

Whatever it is, Driver's field agent Sevier believes there's at least something to it, and he leads the government effort to find the boy -- which only intensifies when, during another one of those out-of-nowhere moments that shock and awe, Alton manages to pull a weather satellite out of orbit and bring it crashing down to earth.

Yet even as Alton grows more dangerous, and even as the powers he has seem to sap more energy and life from him, Roy refuses to keep Alton going to the very end, to March 6 -- when no one, not even Alton, knows what may take place.  Along the way, they're joined by Alton's birth mother (Kirsten Dunst), who is equally sure that no matter what happens to the world on March 6, something clearly is going to happen to Alton.

Estranged for years, now Roy and Sarah must support each other as they run from both the police and from the brutal kidnappers that the cult has sent to find and retrieve the boy.

If it sounds like a high-pitched chase movie, what makes Midnight Special so very unusual is the way it maintains its calmly urgent tone of heightened awareness throughout.  Nichols refuses to play by standard movie tropes, and even the one big car chase -- and it's a doozy -- tosses convention aside and tries some new tricks that ratchet up the tension even further.  The biggest strength of Midnight Special is that just when you think you have figure out its next move, you haven't.

Nichols has constructed his elaborate stories with layers upon layers of meaning, subtext and even plot itself, giving us glimpses at back stories (what is the FBI trying to do? Why is the government involved?  How is the story being reported by the news?) that show just how rich and complex it is.  There is something happening at every level in Midnight Special, not the least of which is the level that explores concepts of religious belief and religious faith.

Because once Alton reveals to himself and to his stunned elders exactly what and who he is, Midnight Special also adds in some fascinating commentary on mainstream religion, far from simply the cult-like views held by the compound from where Alton was abducted.

And in its final 20 minutes, just as Nichols bravely and unexpectedly did in Take Shelter, Midnight Special "goes there."  But where there is and what happens there is certainly up for debate.  I found it one of the most provocative, fascinating endings in a long time, open to so many interpretations, suffused with so many meanings, that the last 10 minutes of Midnight Special -- and what it might be trying to reveal  about our political and religious leanings here in these United States -- set it apart from anything else you're likely to see this year,

Midnight Special begins small, three guys in a hotel room, and ends up shockingly big, but its scope and ambition aren't its only surprises.  Midnight Special doesn't just earn and deserve comparisons to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Starman.  It belongs in the same league as them.  It's that good.

Viewed April 2, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood