The Jungle Book (April 17th, 2016)
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, and Idris Elba
Jon Favreau has really become one of the best big budget directors working today, with very little fan fare around it. He’s the man who kicked started the MCU with his two Iron Man movies and his style he brought to it has influenced the MCU since. And now you got him adapting another property for the Mouse House, and it’s poised to be another big hit for them, another big hit that is well deserved. When Disney started to readapt their old classic cartoons into live action movies, it was received with a shrug and some contempt due to the lesser nature of the pictures. No one really cared for Maleficent or either Snow White movies. But then they dropped an immensely faithful and high quality Cinderella movie, and the experiment started to get a little interest. So Jon Favreau doing The Jungle Book wasn’t such a bad idea anymore. It didn’t hurt that he and Branagh (Cinderella) were good directors, unlike the men who helmed the other pictures. And now that the movie is here, we can judge it and the verdict is immensely positive. Favreau has another winner on his hands. And he does so by crafting one of the most gorgeous and forward moving visual feasts in a long time. Cause everything in the movie, aside from the real boy playing Mowgli (Seethi) is rendered in a computer. They filmed this thing in a warehouse in California and you wouldn’t be remiss if you didn’t think that was possible. Because the technology on display is stellar and you immediately buy the reality that this movie is selling. Just by seeing realistic looking animals talk that you buy is all you need to know that this is next level work. Just having fantastic technology on display and some gorgeous visuals isn’t everything, otherwise you’d have another Avatar. And while he doesn’t reinvent the wheel to disastrous results like Maleficent or Snow White, he doesn’t necessarily stick to the old cartoon. He uses that and the Rudyard Kipling source material to make something instantly familiar but fresh enough to be a new experience for a seasoned viewer. You got the orphaned Mowgli being raised in the jungle and a villainous Tiger and a smooth talking bear, with all the things in the middle that you remember. But there’s also a deeper sense of danger to the movie, taking the danger inherent in Kiplings work to make the journey all the more thrilling and Mowglis decision in the end more meaningful. But this isn’t some white knuckle thrill ride intended for genre audiences. It plays for adults well, but kids will get a great kick out of it too because it’s very fun and charming. The animals are all cute (for the most part) and the humor is kid friendly. And you get a fantastically charming performance from Bill Murray as the ultimate smooth talking con artist Bear, Baloo. It’s a great role for the man and he nails it. Baloo is the high point of the movie for me, getting all the laughs and bringing to life The Bear Necessities. But for his lightness, you got a darkness brought to vicious life by Idris Elba as that horrific tiger, Shere Khan. He brings absolute menace to the role and makes the threat all the more real, brought to the fore by an absolutely vicious (for a kids movie) killing of a wolf to send a message. The balancing act that Favreau plays is fantastic, bringing to life the old 80s tone that kids movie used to have of being able to be fun for kids while also maybe scaring the shit out of them for life. Favreau shoots all this gorgeous digital work like a true pro, never failing to sell the fantasy at play. The set pieces at play here are all brought to life with energy, his time at Marvel helping out in a big way. If this is the kind of movie that Disney is gonna put out in their attempts to translate cartoons to the live action realm, we are gonna be in some absolute treats because the work Favreau did here adapting a upper middle rung cartoon in Disneys oeuvre is outstanding. So we can only imagine what Beauty and The Beast is gonna be like. Although there is nothing that can get me excited for Tim Burton adapting Dumbo, as he already committed cinematic abortion with a Disney cartoon in Alice In Wonderland. A movie that is fun for all ages and honors the history of Disney fantastically, this is a must see and the first great blockbuster of the summer season.
Invasion U.S.A. (April 18th, 2016)
Director: Joseph Zito
Starring: Chuck Norris, Richard Lynch, Melissa Prophet, and Alexander Zale
I’ve never dived into the vast and varied work of the master thespian that is Chuck Norris. I haven’t even seen his craft defining work in The Way of The Dragon, getting his ass kicked by Bruce Lee. So as per usual when it comes to B movies of the 70s and 80s, I got my first dose of Norris thanks to Shout Factory releasing the movie whose title is listed above. And boy oh boy is it something to behold. Coming from the infamous Cannon Films, this is a special piece of B movie sleaze. What we got here is essentially Chucks version of Red Dawn, with an invading force trying to take over. But unlike Red Dawn, the bad guys never get a real stranglehold on any territory. Because in a world where Chuck Norris is taking care of business, the plans won’t get beyond phase 1. Some unspecified foreign agents have snuck a small army into the states with the unclear goal of taking over the US. But the rub? One of the main terrorists (Lynch) has a connection to Norris, as someone Norris dealt with in his past CIA career. Lynch gets Norris’ attention which then aims him in the direction of their fiendish plot, which is actually something that got my attention in a big way. What may have been a bit trashy and sensationalist back in the 80s is something that kinda resonates today. The terrorists are going around committing mass shootings and bombings, sometimes in the guise of authority figures as a way to stoke paranoia in the community as to distract from their real plan. That is something that is really timely for today, with mass shootings a seemingly monthly occurence and the distrust of Authority is a palpable thing. It’s kinda shocking to see a movie play with some elements so absurd at the time become seemingly prescient in it’s insanity. Now, the real plan is never really elaborated on. But that’s besides the point. Because a movie like this isn’t made to really be some grand sociological statement, but a sleazy action movie with really mean streak. Cause this is a movie that starts with a bunch of immigrants on a boat trying to sneak into the country get machine gunned down by the bad guys, a neighborhood filled with Christmas decorations is razed by bazookas, and a Latino barbecue is shot up by bad guys disguised as cops. All these things happen before Chuck is caught up to them. He only gets to them when they try to bomb a mall packed to the gills with Christmas shoppers. It’s just so mean and unrelenting, that it takes you by surprise. It gives the movie a kick that makes it stand out from other action movies, because it goes to some dark places. And the ending is actually got a really big scale for the kind of movie it is, with a big shootout between the bad guys and the god damn army in a massive battle. Sure, the movie is a bit chopped up and unclear in some of the narrative. But all you really need is that Norris hates this motherfucker Lynch and will stop him and his hateful ways. Norris is his usual stoic self, the embodiment of conservative badassery. Lynch is chewing up the scenery with relish. The action is pretty well done and mean. It’s a movie that may not be technically a good movie, but one that is so interesting and odd that I kinda dig it.
Babe (April 20th, 2016)
Director: Chris Noonan
Starring: Christine Cavanaugh, Miriam Margolyes, Hugo Weaving, and James Cromwell
For a long time, I was absolutely flabbergasted that this was a movie nominated for Best Picture in 1996. I hadn’t seen it, but this was a movie about talking animals in a year where Seven, The Usual Suspects and Heat came out to minimal Oscar love (Suspects got a screenplay win and a supporting actor win and it’s the only one of those 3 to get any nominations at all). I was just unable to understand how a movie of its ilk could succeed in such a way. And I’m gonna be honest. Even having seen it now and liking it a whole bunch, I still don’t get it from the standpoint of historical choices from the Academy. It’s like when District 9 got nominated, or Mad Max: Fury Road. A little rambling intro here about my surprise with it’s success, but that’s where my mind was going into this. With a desire to see all of George Millers work, this led me here. Which is interesting, because he didn’t direct this work. He simply produced it, staying with it for a decade to allow the tech to catch up to it. So while that’s a reason to get into it, an added reason to watch it in the Miller oeuvre is that he did direct the sequel. And having watched this first entry, I feel like it’s not a movie with Millers stamp on it. I gotta see the sequel to see if the visual style or anything changes with Miller officially behind the camera. Now, for the movie itself. It’s god damn adorable. It’s a very sweet, charming movie about the way we get pigeonholed into predetermined roles and how rewarding it is to break free of those chains to become your own person (or swine). The effects work is pretty damn good, with the mixture of real animals and puppetry mixing well. The moving mouths may strain a little bit, and it feels a bit ancient a week after seeing The Jungle Book. But for the most part it work really well to sell the fantasy. The voice cast is great, making everyone feel like real characters. Props for having Hugo Weaving as a dick head alpha sheep dog. The movie has a real episodic feel to it, with no real narrative propulsion to it. Just some vignettes of the pig dealing with life on this farm, becoming his own thing and getting to know everyone. Getting closer to the farmer (Cromwell). These two forging a bond to do something special, to show everyone that you can do whatever you set your mind to. It does feel very much in line with Millers Happy Feet movies, with the idea of becoming your own person and breaking free of societal norms with a little environmental/animal rights bent to it. And it has a surprisingly emotional ending, a real cathartic expulsion of all the feels the movie has been building up the entire time. I’ve heard that the sequel is better and a little darker but with the same charm and the emotional ending, so I’m excited to get into that. Kids are damn sure to love this thing and it could entertain a grown up without a black heart.
Police Story (April 23rd, 2016)
Director: Jackie Chan
Starring: Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Cho Yeun, and Bill Tung
Jackie Chan does not get enough credit for his work. Which is saying something, because he is highly respected in the action field. But I don’t think it’s truly enough. Because not only is he the star and is he doing his own brain bending stunts, he’s the director of many of his movies and he’s the stunt coordinator of them. The sheer amount of blood and sweat and tears and time he puts into these movies is astounding. Even if the movie isn’t exactly perfect and feels a little stretched thin in terms of plot, the marquee moments are what keep you interested. The plot itself isn’t horrible. Jackie plays a cop on a task force whose mission is to take down a crime boss. But the evidence they have when they arrest him may not be enough to take him down, so they set up a ploy to make the boss think his secretary is snitching. This is to drive him to try to have her killed and get her to actually snitch. From there, there’s some cool twists and turns. By act 3, Jackie is framed for a cop killing and he has to clear his name. It’s nothing revelatory as a narrative in this genre, but it’s interesting enough and rightfully called out for the plans insanity. The problem with the movie and the narrative is that it feels like they didn’t have enough material to make a full length movie, so it’s kinda padded out with pretty lame slapstick comedy. Which isn’t to say that slapstick isn’t welcome in these kinds of movies, as Jackies Drunken Master movies are perfect examples of that balancing act. It’s just in here it’s so big and broad that it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the movie. I mean, he takes three pies to the face in one overlong comedy scene. That scene is no good and just filler. But take the scene where Jackie is transporting the witness and is attacked by goons armed with bats. It’s thrilling but also funny with how everything plays out in terms of the crazy stunts and the way he beats these guys. In that scene, the balance is perfect. And it shows off the immense skills of Jackie in an action scene, because it’s perfect and mind blowing. And while the movie isn’t 100 minutes of non stop action, the action in here is very substantial and wild. Because it needs to be said that these Chinese stuntmen are fucking insane. You see what these men do and what their bodies are put through, you automatically respect the movies dedication to testing the limits of the human body. I mean, for all the talk about Innaritu shooting in cold places for The Revenant before winning his Oscar, Jackie should have at least 5 Best Director Awards in terms of dangerous filming. Because Jackie almost died doing the centerpiece stunt, sliding down a pole 4 stories with electricity flying everywhere and then falling through a glass ceiling into a shopping stand. You got that, the bat attack, Jackie being trapped by the bad guys, and the crazy opening scene set in a Chinese slum. That opening scene was basically ripped off by Michael Bay for the end of Bad Boys II. So the beginning of this movie is crazy enough to end an American movie 20 years later. That goes to show you that this movie is absolutely crazy. So while the movie may have some flop sweat trying to stretch the movie out with lame slapstick comedy, it more than makes up for it with the kinda interesting narrative and the next level action sequences.