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.

Ladies and fellas: Top 10 performances of 2014

Sometimes a film isn’t that great all the way through, but an individual performance stands out. Sometimes a film is carried along by that performance, by an actor knocking it out the park at the top of their game. And sometimes the film is great all the way through, but it goes up another level when buoyed by a stellar lead performance.

In 2014 there were a fair few of both of these. And in the interests of balance I’ve split them out into the fellas and the ladies. Where do you stand? Any missing you’d like to have seen?

THE LADIES
Rosamund Pike as Amy – Gone Girl
Scarlet Johansson as Laura – Under the Skin
Margot Robbie as Naomi Lapaglia – The Wolf of Wall Street
Jessica Chastain as Murph – Interstellar
Kiera Knightley as Joan Clarke – The Imitation Game

INTERSTELLAR

THE FELLAS
Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom – Nightcrawler
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort – The Wolf of Wall Street
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing – The Imitation Game
Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof – Dallas Buyers Club
Iko Uwais as Rama – The Raid 2

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Lucy: does Luc Besson need reining in?

I saw Lucy recently – the latest offering from writer-director-producer Luc Besson – in a completely packed cinema. (It was the opening weekend.) What a full cinema indicates at this point is nothing in itself, but I’ll explain more shortly.

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Now I’ve been looking forward to this film for quite some time. I like Besson. Leon is a fantastic film which launched Natalie Portman’s career, The Fifth Element is a lot of fun and gave us the wonderful character Leeloo, Taken reinvigorated Liam Neeson’s career as an aging (and unlikely) action hero, The Transporter franchise turned Jason Statham into an action hero, and so on.

So… Besson has a good track record. In actual fact he’s pretty prolific as a filmmaker: as a writer (56 credits), producer (116 credits) and director (21 credits). That’s some output for a guy in his mid 50s. He’s known for a visually rich style and Wikipedia goes so far as to provide a quote which says Besson is the ‘John Hughes of action movies’. Now for those not in the know, John Hughes pretty much invented the coming-of-age teen movie in the 80s – so this is high praise.

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Having said that, action is an easily criticised genre of film, often said to opt for style over substance. Besson in particular gets this comment directed at him by critics. Some might say he’s the French Michael Bay, but maybe that’s going too far. Either way, this brings me full circle to his latest offering, Lucy. Some of Besson’s best work has focused on strong female characters (and actresses) and, in Scarlett Johansson, he may have found his best muse yet.

The film starts with her character Lucy, a bit of an airhead bimbo, living in Taipei. She gets duped into delivering a briefcase into the hands of a gangster, who then forces her to act as a drug mule by sewing said drugs into her stomach. They find their way into her system slowly unlocking the full capacity of her brain. From there things go awry in the typical way you might expect from an action movie.

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Yet… this feels slightly different.

Rather than the usual action fare where our protagonist’s motives are fairly standard (revenge, redemption, saving loved ones etc), this aims to ask some big questions about the nature of our existence and evolution. Indeed, the film is book-ended by Lucy saying that we were given the gift of life thousands of years ago, and what have we done with it?

Have we really evolved all that much? Are we still animals at heart? What would happen if we could unlock our brain’s true potential? The catalyst, in this case, are the drugs that Lucy ingests, pushing her brain – and the film – into uncharted territory, from action to sci-fi, as her abilities begin to develop to superhero (or superhuman?) levels.

Lucy

The more Lucy taps into these abilities the less human she becomes. Her humanity leaves her as she becomes cold, calculating and clear in the path she must take. In this respect Scarlett was the perfect choice for Lucy. She’s had a number of roles throughout her career that explore a sense of loneliness, disconnection and what it means to be human (think Lost in Translation and, more recently, Her and Under the Skin). And she can look almost alien at times; that delicate, doll-like face piercing you with an intelligent and searching gaze, one which demands an immediate response.

But despite her compelling performance and despite Besson aiming to ask some big questions, a lot of what you’ll find in this film is nothing new. It borrows heavily from countless other films. For example, as Lucy’s mental capacity increases from the standard 10% that most of us access, the film is divided into chapters to mark where she is on her journey: 20%, 40% and so on. This put me in mind of Tarantino, the master of the chapter format. Yes Besson makes it work here and it’s a nice touch, but it almost took me out the film because this method, arguably, is so closely linked to Tarantino.

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Besson also cuts the film, particularly in the opening scenes and a montage near the end, with animal procreation and birth scenes which felt, quite frankly, odd and rather jarring. Had the film reel got mixed up with a David Attenborough documentary? Or perhaps with Aronofsky’s take on the theory of creation in his recent film Noah? Either way, he laid the evolution angle on thick.

It’s said by some critics that a good barometer of a film is often audience reaction and, on an opening weekend in a packed cinema sitting near the back, this was fairly easy for me to judge. There were precious little laughs, no gasps, starts, or even much movement. Mostly, from what I could see at any rate, people were sitting there focusing. Taking the tale in, processing it, following the plot. Not immersed, not disinterested. Perhaps more curious than anything else. This could have been the response Besson was going for: as Lucy loses her humanity she looks at the world in a curious way. In this respect he may have wanted the audience to observe the film in the same manner.

Film Title: Lucy

A hugely safe bet as to what cinemagoers said leaving the cinema, in my mind, would have been, ‘Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting.’ Now whether you’re familiar with Besson’s work or not, you’ll have no doubt seen the trailer and expect to see Scarlett Johansson acquire some powers and kick ass. She does do this to a degree, but not in the way you might expect and perhaps not in the way you might like either.

Tonally too, the film is rather odd in places. The reactions that Besson has aimed to elicit from his actors just seemed confusing at times, as if they were unsure on his direction. Or maybe Besson kept using takes that were intended for the cutting room floor?

Perhaps, referring to the title of this blog finally, Besson has got to the point where, a bit like some of his American counterparts, he is simply too powerful. He writes his own films, directs them, produces them, and pretty much does what he wants.

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That’s not to say Lucy is a turkey by any means. There’s good stuff there. It’s a great premise with some smart dialogue in places, Scarlett was brilliantly cast and there were some solid action scenes. Yet, as an entire film, something doesn’t ring true. It doesn’t hang right. It’s uneven in tone and felt rushed in places where Besson should have taken his time and overindulged in areas that could have been skimmed over.

I suspect, though, that this will be a bit of a marmite film. Ultimately, you’ll have to judge it for yourself. It will no doubt make a lot of money – there’s rumour Universal have already approached Besson to do a sequel – yet, critically and from a story and character point of view, it probably doesn’t warrant one.

But go see for yourself. I might have to have a second viewing myself. It seems the kind of film that needs another one to let your mind fully settle on the story.

Karaoke? Yeah baby!

Joseph-Gordon-Levitt-500-Days-SummerSpontaneously bursting into song, that’s what it’s all about. By ‘it’ I mean random and unexpected musical scenes in films. They are like little rays of cinematic sunshine.

And, like all good moments of music that you experience in your life, a lot of these will have stayed with you as fond memories; for me, I’ve always had a soft spot for the songs in A Life Less Ordinary and Empire Records.

Some of these you may have seen coming – karaoke for example – but some, I imagine, took you by surprise in a wonderful way, as they did me. Here’s my selection:

‘Don’t Stop Believing’ Chris Evans – The Losers
Need to ensure no one gets in the lift with you? Just sing Journey with gusto. An unexpected and genuinely hilarious scene, one which works due to Evans’ ballsy delivery.


‘Beyond The Sea’
Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz – A Life Less Ordinary
A great scene in this underrated Danny Boyle film. It got me hooked on Bobby Darin for a fair while and remains one of my favourite Cameron Diaz performances.


‘Sugar High’
Renee Zellweger – Empire Records
It’s hard to pick one scene in a film packed with musical gems. This one is so much fun that it makes the cut. And Zellweger is so sweet singing her little heart out.


‘Hey Ma’
Anna Kendrick and Jake Gyllenhaal – End Of Watch
Apparently on a long drive the two actors were mucking about singing in character with director David Ayer in the back seat. He caught this and stuck it in the movie. That’s a moment.


‘Brass In Pocket’
Scarlett Johansson – Lost In Translation
This Sofia Coppola film which gave Scarlett her break remains my favourite of her performances. As she donned a pink wig, Bill Murray’s resistance was futile.


‘These Eyes’
Michael Cera – Superbad
Comedy that stands the test of time, now that’s tough. This film holds up though. A modern classic, encapsulated in this memorable scene. The hurtin’s on me yeah!


‘Here Comes Your Man’
Joseph Gordon-Levitt – 500 Days Of Summer
I have to say, I know one or two girls that would fall over themselves to get a piece of Gordon-Levitt. Here he gives us a masterclass in how to effortlessly rock a tank top.


‘Afternoon Delight’
Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd and David Koechner – Anchorman
Remember the first time you saw this film? Every scene held a wonderful surprise. This one was a classic example as I doubt anyone saw this 1976 song by the Starland Vocal Band coming.


‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’
Tom Cruise – Top Gun
I am sure I’m not the only one that’s had mates reenact this in the direction of unsuspecting women; essentially cornering them till the song is done. Ladies do love a crooner.


‘New York New York’
Carey Mulligan – Shame
Filmed with Mulligan singing live in one unbroken shot, this scene is so raw and affecting that I’ve only been able to watch it twice. Along with Fassbender, Mulligan elevated this film to pure art.


‘He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands’
Steve Buscemi – Con Air
Supremely creepy, yet mesmerising in a way. An innocuous little scene in the middle of this – clearly quite bonkers – Michael Bay movie has Buscemi singing like a loon as their plane prepares to crash.


‘Blue Shadows’
Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Martin Short – Three Amigos
This 1986 John Landis classic was packed with wonderfully witty musical ditties. Whilst ‘My Little Buttercup’ tends to get all the plaudits, honorable mention should go to this song too.

Take your ass back to the trailer park – part 2

blue is the warmest colorWith Oscar season almost upon us, there’s a lot of films out now or soon that should have you racing to the cinema. From drama, action and horror to comedies and a compelling biopic, here’s my pick of marvellous movies you need on your radar.

The Monuments Men (Feb, 2014)
Based on a book of the same name, this film has caper written all over it. Comparisons will inevitably be drawn with Ocean’s Eleven, as Clooney and Damon again take centre stage. This, however, is based on a true story. Essentially it’s ‘art curators assemble!’, as an unlikely band of misfits team up to recover works of art stolen by the Nazis during the war.


Kill Your Darlings
(Dec, 2013)
Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan play Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr respectively; with the film focusing on the birth of the beat generation’s most well known writers: Ginsberg, Karouac and Burroughs. Despite putting in a respectable turn in The Woman in Black, Radcliffe is still – for some out there – trying to establish himself post Potter. From the looks of it he’s gone some way to achieve that. DeHaan, too, continues to establish himself as a growing talent.


Nebraska
(Nov, 2013)
Rival to Wes Anderson’s quirky crown comes in the form of Alexander Payne; the man behind Sideways and The Descendants and a director on the rise. Here he tells the tale – filmed in black and white – of Bruce Dern’s Woody Grant; a man who think he’s won a million dollars and sets off on a road trip to claim his prize. It’s already won a stack of awards and received lavish praise from critics. If you like quirky, human films it’s a must-see.


Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
(Dec, 2013)
Actor, producer, singer, rapper… Luther! Stringer Bell! Stacker Pentecost! Is there anything Idris Elba can’t do? Apparently not as he’s now playing Nelson Mandela in this epic portrayal of the great man’s life. The film’s red carpet release coincided, tragically, with his death. In terms of the film, it looks to be a stirring affair but has received mixed reviews.


Carrie
(Nov, 2013)
Big cajones… that’s what you need if you’re going to remake a Brian De Palma classic. The 1976 original blew people away being universally praised and rightly so. So big cajones, in this case, comes in the form of Chloë Grace Moretz (fast developing as one of Hollywood’s best young female talents), Julianne Moore and director Kimberly Peirce – best known for her award winning debut Boys Don’t Cry (1999). As far as remakes go, it has promise but received mixed reviews. If you’re a fan of the original and/or Moretz, it’s worth checking out.


Her (Jan, 2014)
Here’s a brave move: take one of the most attractive women in Hollywood – one, Scarlett Johansson – and have her play a role where we only get to hear her voice. Brave or genius? Either way, it’s the sort of thing you expect from enigmatic director Spike Jonze. This film sees Joaquin Phoenix’s lonely writer develop a relationship with an operating system voiced by Scarlett. An intriguing idea – although puts me in mind Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, an episode called ‘Be Right Back‘ starring Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson.


The Raid 2: Berandal
(Mar, 2014)
Welsh director Gareth Evans and breakout star Iko Uwais are back with their sequel… Oh yes! The original film had a simple premise (bunch of cops get trapped in a drug lord’s tower block and have to fight their way out) and the sequel immediately picks up events from the first; with Uwais’s Rama going undercover with gangs to bust corrupt cops. Same old, same old you may say – just watch the trailer.


300: Rise of an Empire
(Mar, 2014)
THIS IS A SEQUEL! Sorry, couldn’t resist. Actually it’s a sequel, prequel and a sort of during-quel in some ways. Covering events before, during and after the 2007 original. Obviously we’ve got no Gerard Butler this time round. Filling the gap looks to be a heroine in the shape of the delicious and delectable Eva Green. What with this and Sin City 2, Eva’s star looks to be on the rise next year. A pleasing thing as she’s a mesmerising screen presence.


Blue Is The Warmest Color
(Nov, 2013)
This French romantic drama is the first film to win a Palme d’Or for both the director and lead actresses. Also the first film adapted from a graphic novel to win the award. Essentially it tells the tale of two female students who fall in and out of love. Critics have heaped praise on it with award winning director Pedro Almodovar naming it in his 12 best films of the year.

Marvel – masters of the cinematic universe

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For this posting I’d like to discuss the evolution of the Marvel universe. I recently – finally – got around to seeing The Avengers. Or, as it’s known in the UK, Avengers Assemble (damn you, Steed).

I have to say, having unavoidably seen and heard many reviews, I was worried I wouldn’t enjoy it and be expecting too much. Would it live up to the hype? Would it feel rushed/crowded with so many larger-than-life characters jostling for screen time? Well, much like everybody else, I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Great pacing, great action, great characters, great dialogue.

avengers natasha romanoffPlus all the Avengers were given – more or less – an equal amount to do, including the new characters: Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. The latter unsurprisingly well written, given writer/director Joss Whedon’s affinity for strong, female characters (Buffy et al).

So, before this becomes an Avengers review, back to the subject in question. I had a vague awareness of the fact there’s been quite a few films over recent years that have come out of the Marvel studio. However when you really look, it seems like an unstoppable wave. To name the live-action films we’ve had since 1998:

  • 5 X Men (2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2011)
  • 4 Spider Man (2002, 2004, 2007, 2012)
  • 3 Blade (1998, 2002, 2004)
  • 2 Iron Man (2008, 2010)
  • 2 Hulk (2003, 2008)
  • 2 Fantastic Four (2005, 2007)
  • 2 Ghost Rider (2007, 2012)
  • 1 Thor (2011)
  • 1 Captain America (2011)
  • 1 Avengers (2012)

I’ve left off the experiments that were Daredevil, Elektra and Man Thing, simply because they weren’t hugely successful and it’s unlikely there will be a follow up to any of these in the near future. Therefore I’m only including films where the characters have appeared more than once in the Marvel cinematic universe. So, from 1998 to 2012 (that’s 14 years, keep up), we’ve had 23 films. That’s 1.6 films a year! I’m not sure if what I’m expressing here is good shock or bad shock? Perhaps both.

snipes dorff bladeLooking ahead
I suppose, with this sort of prolific output, you’ll have successes and failures. In recent years, they’ve begun to have more of the former, both critically and commercially. For every mediocre Daredevil or Fantastic Four you’ll get a decent Spider Man or Blade.

Or, if you’re really lucky, strike complete gold and unearth Robert Downey Jr. A man born to play Tony Stark. Don’t believe me? Watch some of his early work, like Natural Born Killers. Check out this classic scene. For me, if you take his character there, throw in a little Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Tropic Thunder, you’ll get Tony Stark. Perhaps a leap but it makes sense to me!

Don’t stop us now
With recent successes of the Avengers’ characters, both in their ensemble film and stand-alone outings, the plan for Marvel films over the next few years is looking quite exciting. Next year we’ll get a second from the blonde Asgardian, Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3.  In 2014 we’ll have, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, plus – most intriguingly – a massive departure from the norm with Guardians of the Galaxy. A film which has a sentient tree and a raccoon with a gun as main characters.

I can’t say I’m excited about this one…yet. Although I do approve of the concept art above. What I like is that you cannot accuse Marvel of resting on their laurels or playing it too safe. That, in itself, is reason to be quietly optimistic. But I guess we’ll see. Oh, and there’s also a second Avengers due out 2015, just in case Guardians doesn’t go as planned.

Defenders of the universe
So, on the whole, I think it’s great Marvel are mixing it up. Yes, they’re putting out films for a lot of their mainstream superheroes, but they’re safer bets. Keeps the money coming in. They could just sit on that but, like any industry, if you’re not moving forward you’re doing the opposite.

So introducing a new host of characters is brave, yet wholly necessary. Eventually we’ll get sick of superhero films and want westerns or zombie films for a few years or something. But, if Marvel keep freshening things up, maybe we’ll stay a while longer. Maybe a character called Rocket Raccoon is just what’s called for – long live diversity!