The Jungle Book: safe and sweet

Jon Favreau is a funny old chap. He started out with his buddy Vince Vaughn in Swingers (1996) then leapt up to the big time directing Iron Man (2008). He now gets the big gigs, inasmuch as The Jungle Book is a beloved children’s story by Rudyard Kipling – and also a 1967 film by Disney – so he’d better not mess it up.

Happily he doesn’t, but nor does he take any huge risks. What we get is The Lion King (sort of) done Life of Pi style. In case you’ve never heard of the story it centres on young man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi), found in the forest as a toddler by panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and raised by a pack of wolves. Then pissed off tiger Shere Khan (Iris Elba) learns of his existence and vows to kill him; as man is not meant to belong in the forest.

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So, to protect his animal friends from the wrath of Khan (when did this turn into Star Trek?), Mowgli goes on a little adventure to find the man village and be with his own kind. On the way he meets seductive snake Kaa (Scarlet Johansson) and Baloo the bear (Bill Murray) then gets captured by monkeys and meets King of the Apes Louie (Christopher Walken); the latter who wants to learn the secret of man’s fire by way of catchy song.

He then has a big showdown with the cockney tiger and it’s all very exciting. You could say what I’ve described – basically the film – is a huge spoiler but c’mon, it’s The Jungle Book. For most of us we’ve known the story for decades and Favreau doesn’t do a huge amount to play with the formula.

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Granted, he’s cast the actors well enough – Elba is menacing as Khan and Murray as Baloo is a treat and helps lightens things up – but the story is fairly straightforward and doesn’t hit you with many surprises. But maybe that’s what people want from something so nostalgic and beloved? Just don’t mess it up, it’s our childhoods.

What’s harder, horror or comedy?

Lately I’ve seen some shockers on both sides. Sitting on the sofa as the credits rolls I’m trying to pinpoint exactly what the issue is and why I didn’t engage with the characters or the story.

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Take horror for example. The problem is there’s – and I know many would contest this – only a certain number of ways to do horror. If you stray too far from tried and tested methods you risk getting too meta on the audience. However, if you stick too closely to stock scares and tricks people get bored. They’ve seen it all before. It’s not scary.

So as a genre it’s a tough nut to crack. A good example I’ve seen lately would be Stoker and an average one would be Silent House. The former a stylish and creepy tale deftly directed by Korean director Park Chan-wook. The latter an underwhelming remake of a Uruguayan film, La Casa Muda. Both films make reference to – and to some extent directly draw from – the great Hitchcock. Some of what they do works, some doesn’t.

On the comedy front I’m hard pushed to think of anything I’ve seen lately that particularly tickled the funny bone. This year quite a few comedies have flopped: A Million Ways To Die In The West, Sex Tape, Neighbors, The Other Woman… the list goes on. I hear 22 Jump Street was good and, whilst it wasn’t as hilarious as people said, I found The Lego Movie reasonably entertaining. Both were earlier this year though and in the last six months it’s been a bit barren.

So what’s looking promising coming up?

HORROR
High-Rise
This J.G. Ballard novel of a tower block cut off from society gets the Ben Wheatley treatment. Stars Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans and Elizabeth Moss.

At The Mountains Of Madness
Guillermo del Toro directs this H.P. Lovecraft tale of an expedition to the Antarctic gone wrong. This one’s still in production limbo but it might happen soon.

Maggie
A teenage girl contracts an infection that slowly turns her into a cannabilistic zombie. Her father, Arnie, stays with her whilst she changes. A change of direction for the Austrian Oak.

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COMEDY
Mortdecai
After dabbling in a few other genres recently Johnny Depp is back to what he does best, namely weird wackiness. Adapted from a series of novels this looks promising.

The Jungle Book
Yes, this is happening as a film. With Scarlet Johansson and Bill Murray and Jon Favreau directing it’s bound to be funny. Hopefully.

Pitch Perfect 2
Anna Kendrick and the gang are back in the sequel to this 2012 sleeper hit. Expect big songs, big laughs and Rebel Wilson stealing scenes.

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Grand Budapest Hotel: should Anderson go back to basics?

grandbudapesthotel-2Is it possible for Wes Anderson to get more Wes Anderson-y? His latest film suggests there’s little direction to go in terms of packing one film with Wes Andersonisms. The director’s trademark flourishs litter the film. Whether that’s a good or bad thing remains to be seen.

Don’t get me wrong though, I love his work. Massive fan and all that. The Life Aquatic remains one of my favourite films. Anyway, as usual I’m getting ahead of myself.

To recap: the plot here largely starts with an old man sitting in a dilapidated hotel recounting the tale of how he came to own it. We flash back to him as a young man; a lobby boy taken under the wing of the enigmatic and exacting concierge Mr Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes).

As a creation, Gustave is a delight. Fiennes, all at once, makes him camp, flamboyant, flirtatious, matter-of-fact and sincere yet somewhat eccentric.the-grand-budapest-hotel-zero-clip640 He seduces his elderly guests and recites poetry to his staff at the start of each day.

The story kicks into life with the death of an elderly patron of the hotel who leaves Gustave a priceless painting, Boy With Apple. The family, led by the snarling Adrian Brody and psychopathic Willem Defoe, are rather unhappy with this decision (to put it lightly). So what begins is a tale of murder, revenge, imprisonment, breakout and more.

Along with Fiennes Anderson has gathered an impressive cast, one that seems to grow with each film. Most have small parts yet – due to the way the film has been marketed – you spend a lot of your time ‘cast spotting’… Or at least I did.

Returning to my earlier point about Andersonisms, a large cast is one of them. Along with his tics and flourishs, this is something that’s beginning to distract me somewhat. This film, for me, will probably improve on second viewing as a result.the-grand-budapest-hotel-ralph-fiennes Same applies to Moonrise Kingdom.

All that aside, the story here remains focused on the two central characters: Gustave and his loyal lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori). The chemistry and interplay between the two is charming and drives the movie. Both are interesting characters with a story to tell. Both need each other – there’s clearly an affection there.

And in terms of quirky world building, Anderson has outdone himself again. The actual Grand Budapest Hotel is an impressive creation: from the quaint little lift up the mountain and its impressive lobby to the sumptuous colours (red for the hotel interior, purple for the staff); the detail and way in which the film was shot (eat your heart out instagram lovers) is classic Anderson and every scene, set and scenic landscape should be – once you inevitably buy this on DVD – savoured and appreciated at length.

My only real reservation in this film lies in the fact that, for all its brilliance, I feel Anderson has reached the end of his creative tether in terms of giving the audience what they want – i.e. more and more of the world through a Wes Anderson lens.grand

For his next project I’d love to see him strip everything back: the cast, the little flourishs and creative oddities, all of it… and then just tell a story in his own unique way.

That could be a refreshing sight to see. Like a full length version of Hotel Chevalier or something. C’mon Wes, make it happen.

Monuments Men: an admirable flop?

the-monuments-men-reviews-george-clooneys-delayed-nazi-art-movie-isnt-that-greatIf George Clooney has a passion project there’s a fair chance it will get made. He’ll recruit a good cast and pick a good story to tell. All these things you can consider crossed off. Done. Dusted. This time round he chose to adapt a book: The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel.

The plot, if you’re not familiar, is based on this true story. Ah, a dangerous Hollywood caveat you may cry, for ‘based on’ and what actually happened are often two very different things. But before we get to that, the story as it stands.

Near the end of WWII Frank Stokes (Clooney) persuades US President Roosevelt to let him put together a team to recover works of art stolen by the Nazis, then return said works to the rightful owners. As it’s based on a true story – one that’s crying out to be retold (having been told, in part, in other films before) – you can see why Clooney jumped on it.

It’s a noble and important part of history, one which hasn’t particularly been addressed in modern cinema. It’s also – potentially – epic in scope too. Beautiful locations, with an exciting dramatic need that drives our main characters; a ragtag bunch of unlikely heroes that they are. The pieces are all in place.George Clooney;Matt Damon;John Goodman;Bob Balaban
So… what do we get? A drama? A comedy? A caper? Well, none of these really. Or bits of all of them, depending on your point of view.

It begins with a montage of Art Curators Assemble!, with Stokes putting together an ageing team which, on casting, look to mostly be there for comedy purposes: Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman etc. The trailer too, suggests a ‘caper’; Ocean’s Eleven with Nazis or Saving Private Ryan the comedy years perhaps? Puts me in mind of a running gag in ‘Allo ‘Allo! which focused on the Nazis and the French Resistance attempting to keep hold of ‘The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies’ by Van Klomp. So it’s a comedy right? Well, no. Not exactly.

What we actually get is a rather plodding and inert tale of a bunch of guys that – upon finding they’ll get no help from superior officers in the field – decide to attempt to protect and recover the art largely on their lonesome. Nothing wrong with that you might say. But it’s tackled in such a pedestrian way that, as a viewer, you find yourself desperate for some jeopardy. Tanks, guns, evil Nazis… something.monuments_men
Perhaps part of the problem is that the main cast spend precious little time together. Once in France they split up and head off across Europe on various missions. It’s not all doom and gloom, there’s some good scenes along the way and the cast do what they can with the moments they have, but it just feels languid and, ultimately, unengaging.

And, as is the way with Hollywood butchering history, there’s a fairly heavy focus on Americans saving the day, largely ignoring the real life efforts by the British in this project. But we’re used to that, and could forgive this lapse if the script had some zip and vigour about it.

Despite all that, it’s important this film was made and the story was told. But maybe a TV miniseries would have given these characters room to breathe. This approach worked incredibly well for Band of Brothers. I guess we’ll never know now… but hats off to Clooney for an admirable effort.

Best twenty films of 2012

It’s been an epic year for films across a variety of genres. This list reflects my taste in films so I hope you enjoy. Sorry Twilight, you didn’t make the cut!

  • Skyfall
    skyfall-craigStrangely there are people who don’t like this film and say it’s not classic Bond. I think it’s the closest to Fleming’s Bond since Connery. To celebrate 50 years of Bond, the dream team of Mendes, Craig, Bardem and Dench pulled out the stops to make this film truly special.
  • Argo
    Can’t believe people still give Affleck a hard time for his early career. How many decent films does he need to direct before people will admit he’s a real talent? First Gone Baby Gone and The Town and now this. A proper, intelligent thriller.
  • Moonrise Kingdom
    This film is a great companion piece for The Life Aquatic, my favourite from Wes Anderson. As always, a great cast: Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton. Although focus is on the two, young actors who confidently carry the story. A sweet and quirky tale.
  • Looper
    Rian Johnson and Gordon-Levitt are fast becoming a match made in heaven. First Brick and now this time-travelling sci-fi tale of assassins. This film had an interesting mix of futuristic and retro, plus it marked Gordon-Levitt out as a leading man in the making.
  • Silver Linings Playbook
    SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOKForget Hunger Games, this ranks as my favourite Jennifer Lawrence film, just edging Winter’s Bone. She has great chemistry with Bradley Cooper, both of them playing flawed characters in this acerbic, edgy and alternative type of rom-com. Highly recommended.
  • Chronicle
    Earlier this year this film was released and flew somewhat under the radar. Shown in found footage style, the best way to describe the first half is Jackass with telekinetic powers. It then goes darker as it builds to an epic finale. Thoroughly deserving of a place on this list.
  • Dark Knight Rises
    The final instalment of Christopher Nolan’s game-changing bat franchise. Tom Hardy as Bane, Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, Gordon-Levitt as Boy Wonder in the making. This was an emotional, visceral ending to the best set of Batman films of all time.
  • Avengers Assemble
    Despite my last comment regarding Batman, Marvel Studios has firmly staked its claim as the lighter, more upbeat side of the superhero world. Joss Whedon pulling off an incredible trick to balance a film with a host of big characters, letting them all shine equally.
  • Ted
    ted
    Macfarlane knows his comedy. This film was his vision and really paid off. From script and direction through to mo-cap acting, he was the driving force. Mila Kunis and Mark Wahlberg added their dramatic and comedy talent to make this one of the funniest films of the year.
  • Life of Pi  
    Ang Lee’s tale of a young boy shipwrecked at sea with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker is a visual masterpiece. Taken from a Booker prize-winner novel, it makes you question the nature of belief and how you perceive the world. An uplifting and life-affirming tale.
  • The Raid: Redemption
    Combine the talents of a Welsh Director and up-and-coming action star in Iko Uwais and you get an unexpected, kick-ass treat. Introducing us to pencak silat, an Indonesian form of dance and self defence, it’s breathtaking to watch when used to beat up bad guys.
  • The Hobbit
    Peter Jackson has worked wonders yet again. The dwarves are great and Martin Freeman is the perfect Bilbo. His ‘riddles in the dark’ scene with Gollum is brilliantly scripted. If you’re even a fleeting fantasy fan you won’t want to miss this exhilarating tale.
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
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    Critically well received, this fantasy film has drawn comparisons with Pan’s Labyrinth and is well worth seeing. It tells the tale of six-year-old girl Hushpuppy who, when looking after her ill and hot-tempered father, must learn the ways of courage and love.
  • Rust and Bone
    It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Marion Cotillard – there’s a permanent picture of her on my blog. Here she beautifully plays a killer whale trainer who forms an unlikely romance with a bouncer. Jacques Audiard directs this passionate and moving love story.
  • The Master
    Possibly a career-best film from Paul Thomas Anderson and performance from Joaquin Phoenix? Ultimately, this film is about the fascinating interplay between war veteran Freddie (Phoenix) and movement leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
  • Seven Psychopaths
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    From the Director of darkly comic film In Bruges, this tale of kidnapped dogs and gangsters is hilariously scripted and brilliantly acted. With a cast including Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell and Woody Harrelson.
  • End of Watch
    Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena put in the hours with cops on the beat in South Central LA to form a real bond prior to filming. The results paid off, as this thriller cop movie has real believability and chemistry between the two leads.
  • Magic Mike
    Ladies of Tampa‘, croons Matthew McConaughey, before he smashes his guitar and strips in front of a horde of screaming ladies. This film, though, belongs to Channing Tatum. Before acting he was a stripper – this film gives an intriguing glimpse of life back stage in that world.
  • The Grey
    It’s Liam Neeson, he’s cold, he’s angry, wolves are trying to kill him. In a minute he’s going to get really mad – what’s not to like? This bleak adventure sees a bunch of oil workers stranded in the Alaskan wilderness after a plane crash – in the middle of a wolf kill zone.
  • 21 Jump Street
    21 jump street
    Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill team up in this cop buddy comedy remake. Tatum is – surprisingly – very funny, with great comic timing. Jokes are often set up and don’t pan out how you might expect, which is a good thing. Also, Johnny Depp has an outstanding cameo.