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Josh Reviews Andy Serkis’ Mowgli

I’ve been following the long path of Andy Serkis’ Mowgli to the screen for years, and I am delighted to have finally seen it via its home on Netflix.  Mr. Serkis began developing this adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s stories (collected in the book All the Mowgli stories) back in 2013.  The script was written by Callie Klowes.  Mr. Serkis undertook the film as his directorial debut (though the project’s delays meant that Mr. Serkis’ second film as director, Breathe, was already released a year ago!).  Production began in 2015, but then it turned out that Disney was working on its own live-action movie based on this same material, Jon Favreau’s new live-action/CGI adaptation of the classic Disney animated film, The Jungle Book.  That film beat Mowgli to release by a long margin, hitting screens in 2016.  (I quite enjoyed it; click here for my review.)  Production delays, coupled with a desire to separate Mowgli’s release from that of Favreau’s The Jungle Book, continued to push back Mowgli’s theatrical debut.  Then, this past summer, Warner Brothers sold Mowgli to Netflix, bypassing a theatrical release and instead launching the film into people’s homes via Netflix.  (Click here for more on Mowgli’s journey to release, and click here for more on the film’s sale to Netflix.)

Mowgli is an enjoyable film, brought to life via gorgeous CGI and featuring a stupendous cast.  (By the way, the film’s promotional materials give the film the stupid subtitle of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.  I’m not sure why they felt the need to tack on that lame, useless subtitle.  Was it because they were planning on sequels, which would each be called Mowgli but with a different subtitle?  I’m pleased that, when the title appears in the actual film, it’s just called Mowgli, with no subtitle.  So that’s how I’ll be referring to this film in this review.)

Andy Serkis basically created an entirely new form of screen acting with his performance as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Mr. Serkis has become a master of performance capture, which allows actors’ performance on set to guide the work of the CGI artists who will later craft the appearance of the CGI character who will ultimately appear on screen.  Mowgli is a phenomenal showcase for Mr. Serkis’ skill.  Working as director and guiding his talented cast, Mr. Serkis has created a very unique-looking film, in which every frame of the film is filled with remarkable CGI characters who are nevertheless fully inhabited by and guided by the flesh-and-blood performers.

Far more than in Favreau’s The Jungle Book, the design of the animal characters here in Mowgli[continued]

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Marvel Triumphs Again With Thor: Ragnarok!

Thor: Ragnarok is the third Thor film, but more importantly it is the incredible seventeenth film in the continuing and expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Looking back over these seventeen films, it is astounding to consider the incredibly high quality that Marvel has been able to deliver film after film after film.  There hasn’t been a single truly bad film in the mix!  Even the weaker films (Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World, The Incredible Hulk) are all perfectly fine and entertaining.  And the recent run of films has been amazing; just this year we have gotten Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2, The Amazing Spider-Man, and now the terrific, hilarious Thor: Ragnarok.

As this film opens, Hela the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) returns, eager to wreak havoc on Asgard and the family of Odin who, she feels, wronged her millennia ago.  Thor’s initial attempt to confront her ends disastrously, as Hela destroys his hammer Mjolnir and banishes Thor to the far corners of the universe.  Thor finds himself on a trash-filled planet ruled by The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who oversees brutal gladiatorial-like competitions between captured aliens.  Thor will need to defeat incredible odds to triumph in the gladiatorial games, then somehow find his way back to Asgard to defeat the unbeatable Hela before she slaughters every last man, woman and child living there.

That all sounds like a very serious, dour story for the film.  But Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, is a marvelously loopy, silly, joy-filled concoction.  It has been widely praised as the funniest Marvel film, and it is definitely in the run for that title.  (I am not sure it is funnier than James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films or Joss Whedon’s Avengers, but it is defintely in the top five.).

I was a little worried, when I started hearing about the light, comedic touch that Mr. Waititi had brought to this film, that it would turn into a farce that wouldn’t have any emotional weight.  But those fears proved unfounded.  Thor: Ragnarok is an exciting action-adventure film that fits smoothly into the continuing story of the Marvel cinematic universe, while also being nearly non-stop hilariously funny.

In some respects, the movie completely reinvents the character of Thor, turning the somewhat pompous warrior we have met before into a complete goofball.  It has been clear before now that Chris Hemsworth had strong comedic chops — see his work in the rebooted Ghostbusters as well as the shorts revealing what Thor was up to during Captain America: Civil War.  What Taika Waititi has done is allow Chris Hemsworth to basically play Chris Hemsworth here, rather than the Thor … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Monuments Men

Two of the films George Clooney has directed are among my very favorite films.  I think his debut film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, is probably in my top 20-30 films of all time.  It’s a deliriously clever, mind-bending piece of work, with a dynamite script by Charlie Kaufman and a killer performance by Sam Rockwell in the leading role.  Then there’s Good Night, and Good Luck, a powerful look back at Edward R. Murrow’s challenging of Senator Joseph McCarthy with another killer performance by an actor in the lead role, in this case David Strathairn as Murrow.

I cannot believe that the same person who directed those two films directed the flat, disappointing The Monuments Men.  (Nor can I believe that the film was written by the same writing team, Mr. Clooney and Grant Heslov, who wrote Good Night, and Good Luck.)

The Monuments Men is based on a true story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program, an effort by the allies to find and safeguard important works of art and culture in danger of being stolen and/or destroyed by the Nazis during WWII.  (The film is based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Heroes, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter.)  The film stars Mr. Clooney, along with Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett.

Based on a fascinating, real-life story, and with such incredible talent in front of and behind the camera, The Monuments Men should have been a hoot.  Instead, puzzlingly, it’s a flat, instantly-forgettable dud.  There’s nothing bad in the film, it’s just that there’s nothing particularly good in the film either.

At no point did I feel any real sense of momentum and adventure in the film.  At no point was I sucked into the drama of the story, of the beat-the-clock chase for hidden artwork before it could be stolen or destroyed.  At no point did the fate-of-the-world drama of the Second World War, within which this small group of Allied officers was operating, bring any sort of life or tension to the film’s story.  Instead, what we get are a series of disconnected, mildly diverting anecdotes with these different characters scattered in different places across Europe.  (Another disappointment for me with the film, though perhaps one that was true-to-life, was that immediately after this great group of actors was assembled at the start of the movie, they’re immediately divided up and seldom seen again all together.  I thought we’d have a lot of fun watching this amazing cast interact with one another, but that was not to be.)

Speaking of the cast, here … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Blue Jasmine

It was over thirty years ago when Woody Allen himself made reference to fans who preferred his “earlier, funnier movies” (in 1980’s Stardust Memories, to be exact, and holy cow I can’t believe how long ago that movie came out).  There are a great many people out there, including myself, who remain fans of Woody Allen but who, decades later, continue to feel the same way.  Take the Money and Run, Play it Again Sam (which I should mention was not directed by Mr. Allen), Sleeper, and of course the peerless Bananas — these are spectacular films.  Bananas just gets funnier and funnier for me, every single time I watch it.  Part of me wishes Woody Allen would occasionally make another movie like those.  And yet, my very favorite Woody Allen films came after Mr. Allen began incorporating more dramatic elements into his films.  Annie Hall (1977) still stands for me as my very favorite Woody Allen film, and it is certainly one of my top ten favorite movies of all time.  But beyond just Annie Hall, so many of my favorite Woody Allen films came after he moved away from just making silly farces — Zelig (1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Everyone Says I Love You (1996), I could go on.

So it’s not quite as simple, for me, as saying that I simply prefer Woody Allen’s “earlier, funnier movies.”  And yet it’s clear to me that for the past two decades, I have not connected nearly as strongly to Mr. Allen’s new films as I used to.  Even the best-reviewed of Mr. Allen’s recent films — including, most notably, Match Point (2005) and Midnight in Paris (2011) — have left me cold.

So I am delighted to say that while I do still prefer his “earlier, funnier movies,” I found Blue Jasmine to be the best Woody Allen film in nearly twenty years.

Although there are a couple of funny moments, don’t go into Blue Jasmine expecting comedy.  This is a dramatic film, through and through.  But whereas I have found some of Mr. Allen’s previous straight-dramatic work to be dull and joyless (if I never have to watch Interiors again for the rest of my life, it will be too soon), I was thoroughly captivated by Blue Jasmine.

Cate Blanchett is mesmerizing as the titular Jasmine, a wealthy woman on the verge of a complete mental collapse.  Jasmine was a wealthy, high-society socialite, but she lost everything when her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) was revealed as a Bernie Madoff-type crook and arrested.  Jasmine is now forced to move in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Hanna!

Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is a young girl who has been raised in total isolation in a frigid, rural setting by her father Erik (Eric Bana).  When we first meet Hanna, it becomes immediately clear that Erik has been training her to be a fierce warrior — tough, smart, and fearless, with a keen tactical mind and skills with all manner of different weaponry.  Erik has apparently been in hiding from government agent Marissa (Cate Blanchett) for years, but now that Hanna has become a teenager she has grown tired of her isolation.  So Erik allows Hanna to let Marissa know where they are hiding, setting young Hanna on a violent collision course with Erik and Marissa’s secret past.

Hanna is a violent, fast-paced thriller.  This story could have been a slow-burn story of intrigue and subterfuge, but while there is no shortage of intrigue and subterfuge in the tale, Hanna is a kinetic, adrenaline-pumping film right from minute one.  The throbbing, techno-beat pumping of the score reminds me of Run Lola Run, and it drives the action scenes forward with at a propulsive pace that is also reminiscent of that terrific German film (read my review here).

This was not exactly the type of movie I expected to see from Joe Wright, the director of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement.  But his second collaboration with Saoirse Ronan is incredibly potent, and Mr. Wright brings extraordinary skill and style to spare to this film.  And truly, Hanna is an exercise in cinematic style from start to finish.  There’s nothing exceedingly unique about the story of spies and their dark secrets, but the execution by Mr. Wright and his team give the film a truly distinct flavor all its own.

They are ably assisted, of course, by the terrifically talented threesome of Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, and Cate Blanchett.  I haven’t seen Atonement, the first film that brought Ms. Ronan national attention a few years ago, but she is a captivating presence here.  There’s a bright intelligence to be seen behind her piercing blue eyes, and she is entirely convincing as the brutal, feral warrior she has been raised to be.  She also completely sells the moments of naive innocence exposed in Hanna when she’s confronted with aspects of the modern world that she’s never before experienced.

Cate Blanchett is touch as nails and entirely unlikable as Marissa, which of course is exactly what the role calls for.  Ms. Blanchett dials back her charisma to create, in Marissa, a woman who is clearly a shell of a human being, totally devoted to her job and her pursuit of secrets that has become her whole life.  She’s a great villain.… [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, and Valkyrie

I know some people who can’t stand to see a movie a second time — they think “been there, done that, I’d rather see something new.”  I certainly don’t have anything against seeing something new, but I’m also someone who loves seeing movies for a second time — and, if it’s a good movie, seeing it many more times after that!  (I’m the same way with books, comic books, etc. — I love re-reading stories that I enjoyed multiple times.)

I find that my feelings upon watching a film for a second time often vary wildly from the experience of seeing it originally.  I can absorb the film without all the baggage of hype, my anticipation, etc.  I can also more accurately judge the movie for what it is, rather than what I had hoped it would be or was expecting it would be.

During September I had a chance to take a second look at three films that I really enjoyed during last year’s Oscar rush of films (in late December 2008).  Did my feelings about them change, for better or for worse, upon a second viewing?  Read on!

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — read my original review here.  Benjamin Button was one of my very favorite movies from last year (it ranked as no. 6 on my list of my favorite films from 2008) and, if anything, I was even more in awe of it the second time around.  The film is magnificent.  It is one of those special collaborations where every single element works just perfectly, from the gorgeous sets and costumes, to the jaw-dropping visual effects (that create fully-realized environments from France to Russia to a tug-boat in the middle of the Pacific, not to mention the completely convincing creation and de-aging of Benjamin Button himself that is as wonderful a combination of makeup, prosthetics, and incredible CGI as I have ever seen), to the wonderful performances by Brad Pitt (who proves in every film he’s in why he is so deserving of his movie-star fame), Cate Blanchett, and a wonderful array of other talented actors.  Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac) knows how to incorporate cutting-edge visual effects into a film without ever letting those effects overpower the film, and he knows how to tell a deeply emotional tale without ever veering into schmaltz.  As I said: magnificent.  (I also had the fun of watching this film on Blu-Ray, and let me say that my jaw was on the floor at the clarity of the images, the colors, everything.  As the enclosed booklet notes, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was created in the digital realm without ever … [continued]

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

This is the film I’ve been waiting for.

Steph and I took advantage of our vacation to see a LOT of the big Oscar-hopeful films that have been released in the past few weeks.  As usual, there has been a crazy end-of-the-year rush of “serious” films, many of which won’t get a wide release for several weeks yet.  While we enjoyed almost all of the films we saw (and I’ll be writing about them all in the coming days), none of them really stood out.  Until David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

The film is magnificent.  It is emotional and haunting, and it is epic and transporting in all the ways that a truly special film is.  Spanning the years (almost a century) between the last day of World War I and the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button tells the life story of Benjamin (Brad Pitt), who is born as a baby with all the features of an extremely aged man, and who proceeds to live his life aging backwards.  But while Benjamin Button gets the film’s title all to himself, the movie is also every bit the story of his true love, Daisy (Cate Blanchett).  Pitt and Blanchett both turn in powerful, subtle performances.  Benjamin Button is a very quiet film — there are not a lot of acting histrionics to be found.  With the help of amazing makeup and absolutely seamless CGI work, Pitt and Blanchett breathe poignant life into these two people through all the many years of their lives, as one gets older and the other gets younger.  This is a story about loss, about loneliness, and about death, and it is made staggeringly powerful by the way that Pitt and Blanchett capture the audience with their performances.

Over the course of Benjamin’s curious life, he meets quite a few other interesting folks, embodied by some wonderful actors.  Taraji P. Henson plays Benjamin’s sweet and powerful adoptive mother, Queenie.  Mahershalalhashbaz Ali (who was the best thing about the cancelled-too-soon sci-fi series The 4400, and good god do I love his name) plays Tizzy, the man who, for too short a while, becomes a father figure for Benjamin.  Jared Harris plays another father figure, the charismatic, often-drunk Captain Mike, who helps the young Benjamin take his first steps out into the wider world.  Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) plays Thomas Button, Benjamin’s biological father, bringing complexity and depth too this man who we (and Benjamin) should hate but can’t quite do so.  Then there’s Tilda Swinton, who has been getting a lot of press, and rightly so, for her performance as Elizabeth Abbott, a … [continued]