THE JUNGLE BOOK
See it in 3-D, see it as big as you can, and see it in a theater you trust to project it right. Grabbing whole handfuls of both the original Rudyard Kipling stories and the 1967 Disney animated adaptation, Jon Favreau’s take on The Jungle Book is perhaps his strongest film to date in terms of blending live-action with a heap of special effects that manage to be both photorealistic and fantastical. This tale of a young Indian boy raised by jungle animals, most of whom can talk, weaves the boy Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi, who looks so much like the cartoon Mowgli, it’s scary) into an entirely artificial environment with all CG animals (the entire film was shot in downtown Los Angeles, according to the credits), but you wouldn’t know it from the breathtaking backgrounds, landscapes and utterly believable creatures that both protect and pose a danger to the boy.
The film also has subtle messages about man encroaching on nature, the danger of destructive forces in the jungle (one character wants to be the first animal to possess fire), and the loose definition of family. But beyond those messages, Favreau is about wish fulfillment aimed directly at children, and if a few adults get caught in his collateral wake, all the better. Favreau is a filmmaker who has always known how to tap into the minds and interests of younger people, whether those interests are Christmas (Elf), games (Zathura), superheroes (Iron Man & Iron Man 2), or playing cowboys and space monsters (Cowboys & Aliens). I’m not saying all of these films match the quality of The Jungle Book, but the intuition is the same. This new film is the ultimate trip to the zoo or a safari, where a kid can interact, maybe even be friends, with many of the most dangerous creatures on the planet. It’s a fantasy, but there was a time in my life where (probably when “Wild Kingdom” was still on the air) that I wanted to meet all of these animals.
Adapted by Justin Marks, The Jungle Book establishes that Mowgli was left in the jungle as an infant and found by the panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), a predator that walks the line between ferocious and kind, and brings Mowgli to wolves to raise him. Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito play his wolf parents, Raksha and Akela, who bring him up as one of their own, alongside their other cubs, including best friend Gray (Brighton Rose). But the vicious, human-hating tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba, who is apparently doing mostly voice work this year in Zootopia and the upcoming Finding Dory) lost an eye to human aggressors and wants nothing more than to kill all of them, including the innocent Mowgli. Rather than give up their adopted son, they send him away under Bagheera’s care to go back to the humans.
Along the way Bagheera and Mowgli get separated, and the boy meets up with an array of animals he’s never been exposed to before, including the weirdly seductive python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson, putting on an almost inappropriately sexy voice); King Louie (Christopher Walken), a gigantopithecus, who lives in an ancient temple populated by a swarming army of other monkeys; and the bear Baloo (Bill Murray), part con artist, part best pal, who offers Mowgli the chance to kick back and forget the dangerous work around them. And for time, that seems like the best place to be from everyone’s perspective, including ours.
Favreau has a few particularly nice touches in his take on The Jungle Book. Mowgli’s backstory and exactly how he got left in the jungle in the first place are addressed in a flashback while he’s under Kaa’s hypnosis. The filmmaker also includes a couple of the animated film’s most memorable song cues, but one of them would count as a full-blown musical number (stay through the credits to hear a couple more familiar songs done by the voice actors; it’s worth it). But it’s Favreau’s overall attention to detail in the stunning 3-D environment that is the most impressive. The live-action and visual effects are blended so seamlessly that at some point early on, you’ll just stop looking at the animals or backgrounds as anything artificial.
The Jungle Book works best as soon as you give yourself over to it. It’s a sumptuous visual treat, exploding with life, color and energy. There are a couple of sequences with Mowgli simply running through the jungle, climbing trees, jumping from limb to limb, swinging from vines, and you’ll wish you had the fortitude to be that happy being so active. Truthfully, there is a great deal of comfort to be drawn from the familiar, but Favreau isn’t whole-heartedly cutting and pasting moments; he’s allowing the other source materials to inspire and inform his production. It’s a fine line, but he walks on the right side of it, and the resulting film is a thing of elegance, a wild and sometimes scary ride, and a celebration of the natural world, which might seem ironic, but this film is about as far from cynical as you can get. See it, then see it again.
Read my exclusive interview with The Jungle Book director Jon Favreau and star Neel Sethi.
BARBERSHOP: THE NEXT CUT
In a strange way, the latest Barbershop installment is a far more mainstream and straightforward companion film to last year’s Chi-Raq, from director Spike Lee. In a strange coincidence, Barbershop: The Next Cut is directed by Lee’s cousin Malcolm D. Lee, who has helmed such popular fare as The Best Man and The Best Man Holiday, Undercover Brother, Roll Bounce and Soul Men. But both of their latest works, in exceedingly different ways, tackled the problem of gun violence on Chicago’s South side (although most of The Next Cut was shot in Atlanta).
It’s admirable that producer/star Ice Cube has allowed the Barbershop franchise to adapt to the times and take on darker topics in a comedic environment that’s a bit easier to swallow, rather than simply attempt to repeat the same formula from the previous two films. And while The Next Cut’s screenplay certainly gets message heavy at times, it also brings the cutting jokes full bore. The film has as much to say about gun violence, police shootings, and gangs as it does about trifling men and women, fashion, child rearing, soul food and hair cuts.
Sometimes the transition from a serious topic to a funnier one is a bit jarring, but just as often it’s skillfully blended in equal measure. There are certainly some subplots that seem like time killers more (one involving barber Rashad, played by rapper Common, fighting with his stylist wife Terri, played by Eve, goes nowhere), but when the film digs in and finds its groove, the results can be surprisingly thought provoking.
One of the more powerful storylines involves Calvin (Ice Cube) attempting his keep his teen son Jalen (Michael Rainey Jr.) from getting involved with neighborhood gangs, who seem to be spraying bullets in the area on a daily basis. Many who enter the shop (which is now combined with a beauty salon, so men and women occupy the same space and share in the conversation) ask questions about what these gang members are fighting about all the time, and it’s a fair question, the answer to which seems to boil down to some inflated sense of pride and unearned respect. The occupants of Calvin’s Barbershop come up with a plan to call for a weekend-long ceasefire, and offer free cuts as long as the guns stay holstered, hoping that residents will enjoy the respite so much that they’ll demand the violence stop more permanently.
The film is packed with fantastic and funny actors, each weighing in on every subject that comes up in the sacred barbershop space. Cedric the Entertainer returns as Eddie, the eldest barber, who also happens to cut the quick of every subject, sometimes hitting right between the eyes. Also working or dropping by are Regina Hall, Anthony Anderson, J.B. Smoove, Nicki Minaj, Lamorne Morris, Margot Bingham, Deon Cole, and even Sean Patrick Thomas as barber-turned-politician Jimmy James, who works in the mayor’s office and is attempting to help out from City Hall.
It has been 12 years since the last Barbershop movie, but The Next Cut doesn’t feel like a cash-in from a familiar franchise title. I think the filmmakers saw a need in the community where the Barbershop films are set and screenwriters Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver crafted a story around the issues at hand. The film isn’t breaking ground as a protest movie, but in its own way, it’s a call to action, a plea for change, and it’s using the popularity of the series as an instrument for peace. That’s my way of saying the film’s heart is in the right place, but so are its ideas and jokes. It gets heavy handed at times, but maybe hitting the audience over the head is the right means of delivering the message. And make no mistake, these messages aren’t just for black audiences; the urgent call for compassion goes across the board. This Barbershop dares to bend and expand the mold, even if it doesn’t quite break it, and the resulting work is something unique in comedic film right now.
Criminal is a very silly movie, and I’m fairly certain most of the people involved in making this film know it’s silly. “Silly” is not inherently bad, but too much of it can be severely detrimental to the well being of a film and its audience. Criminal takes the approach that if you throw every crazy idea on the screen, some of it might turn out interesting, and we know how well that always works out. There’s (junk) science fiction, action, a love story, political intrigue, hackers, and three cast members from JFK and two other actors who are in superhero movies that are out right now. So if you can’t find something to latch onto in this swirling mess of a movie, then maybe you’re the one with the problem. Think about it!
The film opens will CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) who is attempting to stash a master hacker nicknamed The Dutchman (Michael Pitt) from the bad guys. He suspects that he might be in danger, so he attempts to let his superiors know where The Dutchman is hidden, but before that happens, he’s killed. In order to extract this knowledge from Pope’s brain, the local CIA chief Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) enlists the help of a doctor (Tommy Lee Jones) who has been working on experiments involving moving memories from one brain to another. He’s never done human trials, but he’s aware of a dangerous, sociopathic criminal named Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner) who has a type of brain damage that makes him a prime candidate for this procedure, and within hours he’s receiving memories from Pope. I don’t make this shit up, folks, I just report it.
At first it does seem to work, but after Jericho escapes his CIA handlers, he starts having flashes of Pope’s memories, which begin as a jumbled mess but start to come into focus the longer he has them in his head. The problem is, the memories will likely fade after a couple of days, but instead of helping the CIA, Jericho seems more drawn to Pope’s family—wife Jill (Gal Gadot) and young daughter Emma (Lara Decaro)—although he’s not sure why at first, which leads to a couple of really awkward scenes between Jericho and the Pope family after he breaks into their home, but doesn’t bother to explain why.
Both the CIA and the criminal organization that killed Pope are after Jericho for what he knows about The Dutchman, and Criminal becomes one of those ridiculous games of waiting for the right memories to surface just when they’re most needed to move the plot forward. Director Ariel Vromen (The Iceman) and writers Douglas Cook and David Weisberg throw caution to the wind and opt to let their movie just roll along like a runaway train with cut brakes, only capable of ending when it completely derails and kills dozens in the process.
Spanish-born actor Jordi Mollà plays Hagbardaka Heimbahl, one of the single most generic villains I’ve seen in quite some time. He seems to be a better hacker than The Dutchman, he knows the CIA’s moves at all times, and he’s just vaguely foreign looking enough that he might be that threatening kind of European or perhaps Middle Easterner. Does it matter, really?
There’s a moment in the film where Costner’s Jericho gets so frustrated with both the situation around him and the chaos inside his head that he just lets out a primal scream that sounds like a animal howling more than a man. It’s meant to convey how mixed up this bad man is with a good man’s thoughts in his head, but the audience I saw it with laughed quite a bit (me included).
Criminal is a noble disaster with a raspy Costner trying to convince us he’s the worst bad guy on the planet…until he’s trying to convince us he’s got a nice guy inside him. Admittedly, Costner was a good choice for a role like this, but with writing so limp and loaded with familiar character types, he doesn’t stand a chance. Some may make a case that this disaster is pure anarchic genius; I’d love to read that argument, but there’s no way I’d be convinced. And now in my head, Criminal has made that shift from “silly” to “dumb.”
THE DARK HORSE
In many ways, supreme character actor Cliff Curtis has been the leading face of the New Zealand film industry. I know many of you assume that title belongs to Peter Jackson, but I’m talking about films shot in New Zealand that are actually meant to be set in that island nation. He’s been in such works as The Piano, Once Were Warriors, Whale Rider, and even produced one of Taika Watiti’s early works as a writer-director, Boy. In addition, his Maori roots give him a look that has allowed him (for better or worse) to play a range of ethnicities in film and television, from Middle Eastern, Latino, Indian, you name it. He’s also currently a lead in the AMC series “Fear the Walking Dead” and he has worked with some of the greatest living directors today.
But when he signs up to make a New Zealand production, I get excited because I know he’ll be throwing his heart and soul into the work. Never has that been more true than in his portrayal of the real-life chess champion Genesis Potini, who went from prodigy to mental patient with a bipolar disorder diagnosis. The Dark Horse picks up Gen’s story after his release from the hospital, taking meds, but still fragile and skittish, unsure what his place in the world will be from this point forward. He lands up on the doorstep of his older brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi), the leader of a street gang. Seeing that his nephew Mana (James Rolleston, the much grown up star of Boy) is on the verge of following in the violent gang life of his brother, Gen attempts to recruit Mana into a chess club that Gen is organizing with other local youths.
The film tells two stories: one about Gen attempting to stabilize his mental health, despite living on the streets and not always liking the person he becomes on meds; the other part of this film is about the kids and their Eastern Knights Chess Club, who Gen whips into good enough shape to go to a chess championship. Curtis gives a career-best performance in The Dark Horse (not to be confused with the horse-racing doc Dark Horse coming out in a couple weeks), with a stammering speech pattern, enhanced with Gen’s sense of guarded purpose of giving these kids a chance that he simply didn’t have. Genesis’s story was not well known throughout New Zealand, so in many ways this film speaks for him (he died in 2011) and other unsung heroes in the lives of struggling kids.
In another filmmaker’s hands, The Dark Horse could have easily been overly sentimental, but actor-turned-director James Napier Robertson keeps the edges of this story jagged and dangerous. The gang that Gen’s brother belongs to is downright scary and is a real danger to both Gen and his nephew. Also worth noting are the great child actors who make up the chess club, many of whom I’m guessing are first-time performers, which only adds to how authentic and honest their work here is.
The Dark Horse isn’t meant to be only a feel-good movie, although odds are you’ll feel somewhat more at ease about the future of these kids than you do when you meet them. Nor are we entirely sure that Gen’s struggles are done. But everyone seems to be pointed in the right direction by the time the film ends and a title card informs us of the future of the kids and the chess club. This is just a great, untold story about people whose stories are almost never seen on the big screen, and thanks to riveting work by Curtis, Genesis Potini’s legacy is secure, and hopefully it will inspire others to give of themselves they way he did. Move this one to the top of your must-see list. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
To read my exclusive interview with The Dark Horse star Cliff Curtis, go to Ain’t It Cool News.
Some filmmakers know how to scare you, and others know how to build tension to such a heightened level that you start to feel like a nervous energy is rising up under your skin, desperate to escape in a scream. I’m of a school that believes the longer a director can sustain that feeling in a viewer, the better the film. A scream is a release of tension, which defeats the purpose of building it in the first place. Allow me to introduce you to director Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, an exercise in knowing that something isn’t quite right, but rather than simply playing a waiting game with her audience, Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body) allows her characters some breathing and growing room for us to get to know them and discover what makes them tick.
Working from an assured screenplay from Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, The Invitation tells the story of a group of about a dozen old friends who gather for the first time in years at a dinner party hosted by Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman of “Game of Thrones”) in their lavish home in the Hollywood Hills. We are introduced to the group through Eden’s ex-husband Will (Logan Marshall-Green), who reluctantly comes to the gathering with his new significant other, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi, most recently seen in Miles Ahead).
Initially, we’re not quite sure what the purpose of the party is, but we assume that Eden, who seems almost disturbingly happy, has come to terms with whatever blew the group and her marriage apart in the first place and is attempting to rekindle these friendships. But Will still seems inherently unhappy, perhaps even angry, about his ex-wife having moved beyond a personal tragedy they shared, and he makes no secret about his dis-ease at the entire situation. Coming late to the party is a new face to most of the group, Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), whom Eden and David met at a recent “retreat,” where their lives seemed to have been made easier by a spiritual awakening. Eden learned to release her pain, and Pruitt gives a deeply moving speech about an equally awful experience in his life that he learned to overcome.
Not to get too punny, but Lynch is the lynchpin upon which the mood of The Invitation begins to shift. He can be a teddy bear in some roles, but he’s also the actor who played the likely Zodiac killer and Twisty the Clown, so his entrance into the film is a serious red flag. It’s best that I don’t delve any deeper into the plot of the film, because the pacing of the film is so important and the way it reveals its true self is remarkable. You’re neck deep in its waters almost before you realize you’re standing in it.
The movie is not just about building anxiety and a few payoff moments; it’s also very much about the different, sometimes conflicting, ways that people grieve and express their emotions, and the manner in which we move beyond pain or allow it to nearly cripple us. There are times when Will is the guy we like the least because he stirs up so much shit during the course of the night, and is often wrong about accusations he lobs at his hosts, the result of uncontrollable paranoia. Kusama disguises the deep threat of the film behind the tasteful opulence of the setting, and the masterful production design of the house is a key ingredient to the success of establishing atmosphere for the entire work. To its credit, The Invitation is about jump scares and loud noises; it’s about slowly but surely ramping up the uncertainty, the mystery, and ultimately the danger. And although the film spent most of 2015 on the festival circuit, I suspect it will land on a few Best Horror Films of the year lists, although I think it fits more comfortably in the category of “horrific drama.”
The Invitation opens today for a weeklong run at the Music Box Theatre. Director Karyn Kusama and co-writer Phil Hay will appear for a post-screening Q&A after the 7pm showing today.
To read my exclusive interview with The Invitation director Karyn Kusama and co-writer Phil Hay, go to Ain’t It Cool News.
THE ADDERALL DIARIES
Well, a month has gone by, so it must be time for a new James Franco film to land in theaters. This one is about the life of author Stephen Elliott (Franco) while he was desperately stuck in a perfect storm of terrible events in his life. Suffering from writers block, attempting to unblock with drugs, a new relationship falling apart, and charges that his popular memoir Happy Baby had a great number of made-up material in it to make him sound like he had a tougher life than he did, Elliott was on the verge of total collapse, especially when his publisher and agent are breaking down his door looking for any pages that might count as progress on an overdue new novel.
Although he’s promised them more of the same disturbing stories form his life, Elliott becomes obsessed with the trial of master programmer Han Reiser (Christian Slater), who was accused (land later convicted) of murdering his wife in 2006, and somehow saw a connection between Reiser’s situation and his own abuse at the hands of his father, especially after his mother died.
The Adderall Diaries is a loopy, twisted tale that bounces from Elliott entering into a seemingly healthy relationship with Lana Edmond (Amber Heard) to multiple confrontations with his aging, dying father (Ed Harris), to his visiting a dominatrix, and sitting in on the trials because it’s the only thing in his life that truly captivates him, and he’s hoping that finding a new way to cover it will make him the new Truman Capote or Norman Mailer.
We’ve seen countless films about substance-abusing writers, and I’m not sure this one adds anything new to the mix beyond the trial element. Franco is so good that he makes just about anything he’s in watchable, even if the material isn’t quite up to snuff. Writer-director Pamela Romanowsky (The Color of Time) captures the narcissistic nature of artists fairly accurately, but The Adderall Diaries is both fractured and sometimes sloppy (and not in an interesting way).
But the film does occasionally find ways to be compelling about the nature of memory, and how the same instance can be seen quite differently by two different people. Who is the hero and who is the villain in Elliott’s childhood? He thinks he knows, but his father offers up an alternate viewpoint that is not easy to dismiss or forget. The scenes between Franco and Harris are easily the best in the movie, as they bicker but somehow find a way to return to the key questions about their heated and traumatic past. I make a point to see as much as I can in the ever-expanding Franco playlist, just because he’s always making interesting choices, even if he’s not always making the best films. The Adderall Diaries is a mixed bag, but it’s not essential in the Franco filmography. The film opens today in the Chicago area at the AMC Loews Streets of Woodfield 20.
There is something about the Belgian-born actress Cécile De France that makes me believe that anything is possible. That’s not me saying she’s my favorite actress or a comment on her talent (she’s quite good in everything I’ve seen her in); there’s just something about her the conveys possibility, and it’s a feeling I don’t get from many actors, even the most talented. In her latest film, In Harmony, from writer-director Denis Dercourt (A Pact, The Page Turner), De France plays Florence, an insurance adjustor who has been assigned to handle the case of a French stuntman, Marc (Albert Dupontel), who specializes in horses and is paralyzed in an on-set accident. Florence represents the production’s insurance company, who is attempting to come to some financial arrangement with Marc, who is being told he will never ride a horse again.
At first, her approach is all business, and Marc bristles and threatens to sue the company for trying to lowball him. After a sexist co-worker jokes about Florence using her looks to calm Marc down, she decides to pay him an informal visit, talking not about the settlement but about horses, a subject that opens up a much more sensitive side to him and reveals just how devastated he is at the prospect of never riding again. Florence is married with children, so for her this isn’t meant to be a seduction but more a way of being less formal and stringent; but Marc is vulnerable, and he begins to have feelings for her that in turn open up the emotional floodgates in her, since her husband is something of an insensitive dweeb. Before long, everyone is drowning in feelings.
Based on equestrian trainer Bernard Sachsé’s memoir, On My Four Legs, In Harmony gets a bit messy in the final act, and while many may paint this as a love story, it’s more about how a new person can enter one’s life and open up a world of possibilities (there’s that word again). I never thought for a second that Marc and Florence would end the film together, but I did believe their lives would be changed substantially, particularly when the film’s coda jumps ahead a full year. In Marc, Florence sees how far from the life she’d imagined for herself she had strayed; meanwhile, Marc is reminded what his true passion is and does everything in his power to rediscover it.
Meant to be more inspiring than romantic, In Harmony still paints a convincing portrait of a poignant and motivating love affair. But most importantly, it reminded me that if I’m ever in a horrible accident to contact Cécile De France to help me recover. The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.
THE FIRST MONDAY IN MAY
I have no problem admitting that I get caught up in documentaries about the fashion industry, probably because they tend to focus on a specific designer who had an impact on, not just the world of fashion, but on the clothes that people wear day to day. Each designer is a little bit insane in their own way, which only makes them more interesting. So the idea that every year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute celebrates and concentrates on a specific area of fashion with its Met Gala (held on the first Monday in May, thus the title) isn’t much of a surprise to me, nor do I need convincing that fashion and art have a great deal in common, despite the fact that some believe the commerce aspect of fashion distances it from the art world.
The curator of the annual special exhibition is the Costume Institute’s Andrew Bolton, who focuses primarily on the exhibition itself, while his partner and event chair, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, primarily takes care of the gala, although her input into the exhibition is highly regarded. In 2015, which ended up being the museum’s most highly attended fashion exhibition, the theme was “China: Through The Looking Glass,” and The First Monday in May captures every detail of piecing together both the many galleries that made up the exhibit and the controlled chaos that is the opening night gala. The event features one of the single most impressive gatherings of pretty and/or famous people in one place in New York City all year.
The “China” exhibition had artistic guidance from the likes of filmmakers Wong Kar Wai and Baz Luhrmann, as well as a delegation from China, who seemed more concerned about there being very little representation of modern China. When pressed by Bolton about what exactly modern Chinese fashion looks like, the delegation admits that it’s a work in progress. Committee members of the Met itself are concerned that the art pieces that are being used as part of the exhibition are being pushed to the background too much and their significance downplayed. The micro-decisions that are being made on a daily basis, especially in the final weeks of planning and construction, are agonizing to watch, but nothing appears more headache-inducing than Wintour fine tuning the seating chart with its 500-600 guests, all needing to be seated in just the right spot.
Director Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times; Ivory Tower) also takes time to talk to a host of fashion designers, including John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, and others, all of whom have at one point developed a Chinese-themed line, often based on designs they saw in films (especially those by Wong Kar Wai). Karl Lagerfeld is even allowed to voice his contrary belief that fashion is not art; he considers himself simply a dressmaker. Rossi’s access to both the planning process and the resulting show and gala is all encompassing. When we finally get to explore the finished exhibition (often looking over the shoulders of a host of famous folks), it’s like walking into the most beautifully designed theme park in the world—elegant, accessible, informative, tasteful and awe inspiring.
The First Monday in May also gave me an impression of Wintour as a employer and overseer that even the film about Vogue, The September Issue, didn’t. She’s seen here, still enduring questions about The Devil Wears Prada, and about her reputation as a stern boss that no man would ever be asked. But for the good of the benefit gala, she accepts and answers these questions with far more dignity than those asking them.
From meeting about the politics of an exhibition about Chinese and Chinese-inspired fashion to a closing concert by Rihanna, The First Monday in May surprised me with how much I learned about art, fashion, Chinese culture, museum curating, and even party planning. Star gazers will get an eyeful, but so will those genuinely interested in the artful eye being the clothing. It’s a genuinely entertaining and even educational movie. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
On Thursday, April 21, prior to the 8pm screening at the Music Box Theatre, Elle Val Boutique and the theater are hosting an evening of fashion and cocktails in honor of the documentary. The event begins in the Music Box Theatre Lounge, with a fashion show that begins promptly begin at 7:30pm (doors open at 7pm).