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The Jungle Book

15 Apr

the_jungle_book_poster_key_artRudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is back in a live action version directed by Jon Favreau.  I must admit, I was a little apprehensive going in as the animated version is my favorite Disney classic.  Don’t get me wrong, I was looking forward to seeing it but terrified they would botch it.  If you are in the same boat, rest assured, they did a fantastic job!!!

To start with, the film is visually stunning.  The CGI and scenery are top rate.  If you have a chance to see it in IMAX 3D, don’t miss out.  The live action blends very well with CGI animals and environments to draw you in to Mowgli’s (Neel Sethi) world.

The story has the basics from the original, Mowgli the man cub is abandoned in the jungle, discovered by Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) and delivered to the wolves to be raised as one of their own by Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong) his overly protective mother wolf.  Of course along comes the evil tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba who does a wonderful job) to  deliver an ultimatum.  Turn over the man cub or face the consequences.  Thus begins the adventure.  It’s decided that in order to save him from the tiger, Bagheera must take Mowgli to the man village where he’ll be safe from Shere Khan.

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Along the way they are separated and Mowgli comes in contact with the usual characters, including the python Kaa, seductively voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who hypnotizes him and tries to eat him.  He then meets the rather lazy but spirited bear Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray) who helps him to decide that the jungle is WAY more fun than any old man village.  Finally the monkeys come along and kidnap him and carry him off to see their smooth talking King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken) who tries to convince Mowgli to teach him the secret of man’s red flower, fire.

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The story has a few wrinkles and twists off of the original but is well told and, as mentioned earlier, visually delightful.  The cast does a fantastic job and will keep you engaged from beginning to end.

I give the film 9 Cheeseburgers

9CB

Why are you still reading?  Go see this movie!!!

By Duane McClinton

Oscar Preview – Best Actress/Best Supporting Actress

28 Feb

A rundown of the distaff nominees. I’ll post some general observations/witticisms tomorrow before the ceremony.

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett (Carol)

One of the premier actresses working, this nomination may be one of those “I didn’t see the movie, but Cate Blanchett is always great” nominations that have been discussed recently, in light of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Blanchett is good as the society woman torn between the conventions of propriety and her sexual inclinations, but she’s always so good that this didn’t strike me as anything special. Still, I don’t have a particular problem with the nomination.

Brie Larson (Room)

If Leonardo DiCaprio is this year’s surest bet, Brie Larson is probably a close #2. With a turn-on-a-dime performance as a woman who is well and truly a victim but who is trying to make the best of things for her son, Larson’s performance should elevate her to the first ranks of young actresses.

Jennifer Lawrence (Joy)

Same evaluation as Cate Blanchett above, although I have more of a problem with this nomination. I just wasn’t overly impressed by either Joy the movie or Joy the character, as embodied by Jennifer Lawrence. A meh performance in a meh movie.

Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)

Rampling is a veteran actress giving an understated performance in a little-seen movie. It didn’t do much for me. I would have been happy with Charlize Theron for Mad Max, even though I didn’t care much for the movie.

Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)

I actually liked Ronan’s performance better than Brie Larson’s. Her Eilis was quieter and less showy than Larson’s Ma, but went through a wider range of emotions. Of course, the flatness was a part of Larson’s character’s circumstance, but I was just drawn more to Eilis. Like Larson, Ronan will be a name we’ll be seeing quite often in nomination lists.

My Pick: Saoirse Ronan (Seer-sha, for those pronouncing at home)

My Prediction: Brie Larson

Best Supporting Actress

JENNIFER JASON LEIGH (The Hateful Eight)

IMO, the worst nomination of the 20 actors. Leigh’s Domergue served primarily as the recipient of a whole lot of cartoon violence and a whole lot of misogyny, and I didn’t see the performance particularly rise above it. This nomination should have gone to Tessa Thompson for Creed.

ROONEY MARA (Carol)

Category Fraud, case 1: Carol is a lesbian romance, and Rooney Mara’s Therese is an equal partner to Cate Blanchett’s Carol. But someone figured that nominating both as leads would split votes, so the non-title character is considered supporting. Regardless, Mara does fine work as a 1950s shopgirl exploring a new aspect to her sexuality.

RACHEL MCADAMS (Spotlight)

The temptation is to say that as the only woman in a cast full of guys, McAdams holds her own with the big boys. That sounds sexist, but it’s kind of true. McAdams does just fine here, but honestly, this nomination and Mark Ruffalo’s on the male side seem almost like “Well, if Spotlight is a Best Picture nominee, there have to be some actors nominated”. This could have gone to someone else pretty easily.

ALICIA VIKANDER (The Danish Girl)

Right nomination, wrong movie. Category Fraud, case 2: Vikander was the female lead in The Danish Girl. In fact, technically, she is the Danish Girl. At least, she’s the one being referred to when the phrase is spoken in the film. She should have been nominated for Ex Machina where, again, the role was the female lead, but the case could be made that the two leads were the male characters and she was support. She’s having a really good year (despite The Man from UNCLE tanking), and I think she’ll win.

KATE WINSLET (Steve Jobs)

Another “Actor x is in a movie I haven’t seen, but they’re always good” nomination. Kate Winslet was the best thing about the movie, but that’s not saying a whole lot.

My Pick: Alicia Vikander for Ex Machina

My Prediction: Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl

Oscar Preview – Best Actor/Best Supporting Actor

28 Feb

I’m going to run through the actors in slightly less detail than I did the Best Pictures, so I’ll combine the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor in one post, and the Best Actress/Supporting Actress in another. In the spirit of #OscarSoWhite, I’m also going to offer a couple of suggestions for worthy alternate nominees who aren’t white guys.

Best Actor

BRYAN CRANSTON (Trumbo)

A good performance by (IMO) one of our greatest actors, but fairly one-note. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of growth or development of the character, a Hollywood writer who was part of the anti-Communist blacklist of the mid-20th Century.

MATT DAMON (The Martian)

Damon’s charm and wit as stranded astronaut Mark Watney carries the film, and in any year that didn’t have him up against Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, he might have a chance of winning. (Note: In my Best Picture writeup for The Martian, I said that Damon was robbed of a nomination. Obviously, his inclusion on this list means that he wasn’t.)

LEONARDO DICAPRIO (The Revenant)

A gutsy performance and a “he’s due” sentiment make DiCaprio the prohibitive favorite in this race. There’s not a lot of character development, and the dialogue is sparse, so this may turn out to be the Best Actor winning performance with the largest amount of grunting and groaning in Oscar history.

MICHAEL FASSBENDER (Steve Jobs)

An interesting actor in a not-so-interesting performance. This slot should have gone to Michael B. Jordan for Creed.

EDDIE REDMAYNE (The Danish Girl)

See above. Interesting actor in an almost caricature  performance. This slot could easily gone to someone like Domnhall Gleason (who had a huge year) for Ex Machina. (Okay, he’s a white guy. But I couldn’t decide which Compton guy was a lead, and wasn’t all that impressed with Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful Eight.)

My Choice: Leo

Prediction: Leo

Best Supporting Actor

Christian Bale (The Big Short)

Bale’s performance as one part of what was really an ensemble cast did very little for me. The character was quirky, but outside the fake glass eye and the unconventional-for-an-investment-genius wardrobe, there really wasn’t much there. I would have had less trouble with Brad Pitt being nominated for the same movie, as his role was more against type. This spot could have gone to Oscar Isaac for Ex Machina.

Tom Hardy (The Revenant)

A brash and rough-hewn turn, almost the opposite of the laconic Max Rockatansky (who he also played), Hardy’s Fitzgerald provided a worthy adversary for DiCaprio’s nigh-on-indestructable mountain man. My favorite of the nominated performances in this category.

Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight)

See my evaluation of Christian Bale, above. Ruffalo was part of a really outstanding ensemble, but I didn’t find much to distinguish him from the rest except for volume. This could have gone to someone else, maybe Corey Hawkins for Straight Outta Compton.

Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)

As a stoic Soviet spy with a Scottish (or was it Irish) brogue, Rylance brought quiet dignity to a role that could easily have been cartoonish.

Sylvester Stallone (Creed)

The sentimental choice, and probably an Oscar record for an actor being nominated for playing the same character the most years apart. There’s nothing wrong with Stallone’s performance, and this could well be viewed as sort of a “lifetime achievement award” for an actor who, while known primarily as an action star, turned in some really great performances over the course of his career.

My choice: Tom Hardy

My prediction: Sylvester Stallone

Oscar Preview – Best Picture

28 Feb

A quick look at the Best Picture nominees for 2016, in the order they were shown at AMC Theatres’ Best Picture Showcase. February 20 and 27.

Bridge of Spies

What is it?  A Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks movie set in the 1940s. In other words, Oscar Bait.

Who’s it by? Steven Spielberg, based on true events

Who’s in it?  Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance (Best Supporting Actor Nominee)

What’s it About? During the Cold War, an American lawyer is recruited to defend an accused Soviet spy in court. Following the crash of the American U2 spy plane, he is asked to go to the newly-divided Berlin to arrange a prisoner trade.

How is it? Good in an Oscar-baity, historical drama sort of way. Hanks does his Hanks thing, and Spielberg evokes the time period and expertly plucks at the heart strings.

Will it Win? No. It’s the most traditional of the Best Picture nominees, but in a diverse field (#OscarsSoWhite notwithstanding), it doesn’t really stand a chance.

 

Room

What is it?  A wrenching drama about the relationship between a young mother and her son.

Who’s it by? Irish director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Emma Donoghue, based on her novel

Who’s in it? Brie Larson (Best Actress Nominee), Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H Macy

What’s it About? A young mother, the victim of a kidnapping and repeated abuse, lives in a single room with her son, the product of her repeated rapes. Saying much more gives away things that probably shouldn’t be given away.

How is it? Very good. A harrowing drama, with some lighter, hopeful moments (unlike certain other nominated movies…see below). Larson is the odds-on favorite to win Best Actress (although my choice would be another young actress…see my Best Actress post, coming soon). This film ties for the hardest sell for viewers (“Hey, do you want to see a movie about a girl who gets kidnapped, imprisoned, and impregnated, or one about a guy who gets mortally wounded and drags himself across the wilderness?”), but for viewers who choose it, it’s well worth the time.

Mad Max: Fury Road

What is it?  A post apocalyptic chase across a desert featuring a one-armed woman warrior, a laconic cop, and a bunch of pregnant girls on the run.

Who’s it by? George Miller (Best Director Nominee), creator of the original Mad Max movies way back when

Who’s in it? Tom Hardy (Best Supporting Actor nominee, but not for this movie), Charlize Theron

What’s it About? In the desolate future of the Mad Max movies, the kick-ass Imperator Furiosa (Theron) is tasked by tyrannical ruler Immortan Joe to drive a tanker truck from the Citabdel he rules to Fuel City for (you guessed it) fuel to power Joe’s tricked out vehicles. She has another idea, however, and absconds with Joe’s favored wives, to deliver them to the idyllic Green  Place she was stolen from as a youth. Joe sends his forces after them, and a massive desert chase ensues.

How is it? This is the only one of the Best Picture nominees I had seen before, and I was less impressed by it the first time than the vast majority of critics. I went in to this viewing determined to see what the rest (and more than one of my Facebook friends) saw in it, and what I saw was this: An outstanding action/chase movie with impressive practical effects (i.e. stunts and effects that are done physically rather than using computer effects), but not much more than that. Judging by the smattering of boos when the theater manager asked “How did we like that movie?” following the marathon airing, I’m not necessarily alone in that judgement. I’m not judging or criticizing those who loved the movie — and there were enough that it got a freakin’ BP Nom, but I’m just not one of them.

The Big Short

What is it?  The story of the financial crisis of 2006-7, told through the eyes of four diverse investors who foresaw the crash and dared to bet against the housing market.

Who’s it by? Director Adam McKay (Best Director Nominee), previously known as the director of a whole bunch of Will Ferrell movies

Who’s in it?  Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale (Best Supporting Actor Nominee)

What’s it About? Eccentric investor Michael Burry (Bale) comes to believe that the US housing market is unstable and convinces major banks (who think he’s nuts) to create investment vehicles for him to bet against the banks, and a few other forward-thinking investors jump on board to ride out the coming financial crisis.

How is it? Very funny. McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph have come up with a clever way of explaining complex financial concepts, and the actors all inhabit their characters well, despite the fact that we all know how the situation they’re profiting off of turns out. I wasn’t as impressed with Bale’s performance as the Oscar voters appear to have been, though this may be one of many instances this year where an actor’s reputation carried them to a nomination rather than the actual on-screen result (see: Bridge of Spies, Jennifer Lawrence)

Brooklyn

What is it?  A young Irish woman emigrates to America and discovers love in the 1950s.

Who’s it by? Director John Crowley from a script by Nick Hornby (About a Boy), from Colm Toibin’s novel

Who’s in it?  Saoirse Ronan (Best Actress Nominee), Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters

What’s it About? A young Irish woman leaves her insular home town to live in Brooklyn, New York. She battles homesickness, discovers love, and is forced to choose between her past and her future when a family crisis causes her to return to Ireland for a temporary (?) visit.

How is it? Outstanding. My favorite movie of the BP Nominations, and Saoirse (pronounce it “Seer-sha” in your head) Ronan gives my favorite performance of any actor. Neither of which mean I think she or the movie will win; the movie’s too “small”  to be a Best Picture winner, and Ronan’s up against odds-on favorite Larson. Still, Ronan would be a wonderful upset winner, and I’d love to see the first Oscar tie in an acting category since 1968.

Spotlight

What is it?  All the attention that’s been focused on Clergy abuse around the world? This is what started it all.

Who’s it by? Director Tom McCarthy (Best Director Nominee) and screenwriters McCarthy and Josh Singer (Best Original Screenplay nominees)

Who’s in it?  Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Brian D’Arcy James, Mark Ruffalo (Best Supporting Actor nominee)

What’s it About? What it’s not about: The child abuse scandal plaguing the Catholic Church. What it’s actually about is the reporting that led to the breaking of the story of the child abuse scandal plaguing the Catholic Church.

How is it? Very good. An engrossing drama that depicts the growing horror on the part of the reporting team as their investigation into a couple of abusive priests leads them to the realization of just how wide the abuse — and its cover-up — spread. Again, Ruffalo’s performance was good, but not great, but he did stand out ever so slightly from a really great ensemble cast.

The Martian

What is it?  An astronaut is left for dead on Mars and has to find a way to survive and let the world know he’s still alive.

Who’s it by? Director Ridley Scott, screenwriter Drew Goddard (Best Adapted Screenplay nominee), from Andy Weir’s book

Who’s in it?  Matt Damon (edit: Best Actor nominee), Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena

What’s it About? An astronaut specializing in botany is stranded on Mars following an accident during a storm. While he tries to figure out how to survive, NASA has to juggle resources, publicity, and science to figure out how best to save him — or if they even should.

How is it? Very good. Damon was robbed of a Best Actor nomination (edit: no he wasn’t. it’s late, and I’ve been watching movies all day), and the movie relies heavily on his nature and personality. The effects are good, the philosophical debates are pertinent and realistic, and science rules!

The Revenant

What is it?  A wilderness guide is left for dead in the 1800s and must find a way to survive his injuries, the elements, and hostile Indians as he claws his way across the landscape.

Who’s it by? Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Best Director nominee)

Who’s in it?  Leonardo DiCaprio (Best Actor nominee), Tom Hardy (Best Supporting Actor nominee)

What’s it About? Wilderness guide Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and his half-Indian son are leading a fur-trapping team when it’s attacked by Indians. Decimated, the group debate on the best way to get back to their fort base. When Glass is mortally wounded, he is forced to battle nature and betrayal to find his way to aid and vengeance.

How is it? Beautiful and grueling. This is a lush movie which features the two best male acting performances of the year (DiCaprio is considered a lock for Best Actor, while Hardy is the longest of long shots). It’s also one of those movies that I’m glad I saw, because that means I don’t have to see it again. It’s the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture.

My favorite movies of the bunch: Brooklyn, The Big Short, The Martian

My choice for Best Picture: Spotlight or The Big Short

My prediction to win Best Picture: The Revenant

2015 Oscar Nominees – Whiplash

22 Feb

Every year, the list of Best Picture nominees includes at least one or two “smaller” movies, films which the casual moviegoer might not recognize but which have distinguished themselves within the nominating community.  This year, a number of films at least partially qualify for that distinction, but Boyhood has received quite a bit of attention due to its unorthodox filming schedule, and The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game are biographies of scientists known (at least in theory) to the public at large.  Which leaves us with Whiplash.

Whiplash is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s story of a promising drummer and his relationship with an abusive, drill-sergeant of a band director at a prestigious New York music academy.  Andrew Niemann (Miles Teller) is working in a practice studio when he’s approached by Terrance Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) to join Fletcher’s studio jazz band, the premiere band in the school.  From their first meeting, Fletcher’s style is apparent to Andrew; the director is arrogant and alternately abusive and dismissive.  In band rehearsal, this behavior is even more pronounced, as Fletcher openly berates and humiliates the band members, with special attention devoted to “squeaker” (new member) Niemann.  Still, Andrew is determined to be the best he can be, and is inspired to learn at Fletcher’s hands.

I’ve been a J.K. Simmons fan for years, from his appearances as Dr. Emil Skoda on the Law & Order shows, through to the father in Juno, and straight on to J. Jonah Jameson in the Ted Raimi Spider-Man movies.  Here, he fills Fletcher’s skin as a person who’s charming in public and a monster in private, oozing charisma in both.  His Best Supporting Actor Oscar is being viewed as something of a fait accompli, and deservedly so.  As his foil, the fresh-faced Teller makes an appealing outsider, a talented performer who evaluates the best course to achieve his goals and pursues them steadfastly, even if such a pursuit might be against his best interests.

Chazelle keeps the film moving at a breakneck pace, the percussion-heavy jazz soundtrack a beating heart and driving force.  Its naturalistic style is fitting for the subject matter, and the film even attempts to answer one of the most obvious questions that many abusive teacher/student films fail to answer: How does this guy keep his job?

I thoroughly enjoyed Whiplash.  You may not have heard of it, but you’d be very well advised to seek it out.

I give it 8 Cheeseburgers

2015 Oscar Nominees – The Theory of Everything

22 Feb

Ask anyone to name a famous scientist, and practically anyone who doesn’t say “Neil DeGrasse Tyson” would say “Stephen Hawking.”  But very few would be able to tell you anything about Hawking, at least anything that doesn’t involve his wheelchair or computerized voice.

The Theory of Everything aims to fill in the gaps, telling the story of Hawking’s relationship with his first wife, Jane.The movie starts as Hawking (Best Actor nominee Eddie Redmayne) is about to reach three turning points in his life: meeting his future wife, Jane (Best Actress nominee Felicity Jones) at a Cambridge University party; choosing a subject for his doctoral thesis; and being diagnosed with the motor neuron disease ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). As his control over his body deteriorates, his relationship with Jane thrives, and his academic reputation soars.  The film follows the progression of all three, and is as much Jane’s story as it is Stephen’s.

The challenge of the movie in general, and Redmayne’s performance specifically, is to take what could be a showy, “actory” role and to embody it, to make it real.  Add to this the fact that much of the public knows what Hawking looks like and sounds like now, thanks to the scientist’s appearances on television, most specifically The Big Bang Theory, and the challenge is multiplied. Fortunately, Redmayne is up to the task.  His Hawking starts off gawky and shy, and the progression of his infirmities could come across and mawkish or cartoony.  And, in some scenes, it does seem to be edging that way.  But then Redmayne demonstrates the intelligence and humor which remains vital within Hawking with a raised eyebrow or a twitch of the lips, and the performance is pulled back from the brink.

If Redmayne’s challenge is in large part due to the public’s familiarity with Hawking, then Jones’ is exactly the opposite; she has to make the audience believe that Jane is invested in Stephen despite his limitations and the increasing difficulty of being his wife and helpmate, without turning the character into one of many stereotypes: the long-suffering wife, the staunch martyr to her husband’s fame, or the bland and boring “woman behind the man”.  To her credit, Jones fully avoids these traps. And while her character is not limited by physical infirmity the way her husband is, some of Jones’ best work is silent and subtle, as in an early scene, in which Jane, after goading Stephen into a game of croquet, realizes exactly how far Hawking’s disease has already progressed.

As to the rest of the movie, there’s not much else to say; with lead actors of lesser caliber, the film would not be out of place on the History Channel or AMC.  That’s not said to criticize those outlets, which have produced some very good work but which, to date, have not produced any Best Picture nominees. The movie does nothing particularly earthshaking or groundbreaking in its structure or execution.  It simply frames its two leads and lets them act.  And, in this case, that’s quite enough.

I give it 7 Cheeseburgers

2015 Oscar Nominees – American Sniper

21 Feb

American Sniper is the movie adaption of the autobiography of Chris Kyle, the American Navy Seal who is credited with the most number of combat kills in the history of the American military.

The movie begins with Kyle on the roof of a building in the middle east, defending a military squad as they clear a neighborhood of potential insurgents.  Kyle’s mettle is tested when he must make a life-or-death decision involving a woman and a young boy. We then flash back to another act of violence involving a child, this one on an American playground, as Kyle defends his younger brother against bullies.  The family philosophy is summed up that evening by their father: each person is either a wolf (a predator), a sheep (a potential victim), or a sheepdog (a protector).  Young Chris is clearly a sheepdog.  Another childhood scene establishes that Kyle has a gift when it comes to shooting; he is able to make seemingly impossible shots with amazing accuracy.

Fast forward a few years, and Kyle is a rodeo rider with a strong sense of honor, who enlists in the Navy despite being almost 30, following the bombing of a US embassy in Libya.  Seemingly immediately, he becomes a candidate for Navy Seal training, and bests numerous much younger men to make it through the training.  His skills with a rifle make him a natural as a Navy sniper, and the rest of the movie follows Kyle’s adventures in the Navy and at home.

As portrayed by Best Actor nominee Bradley Cooper, Kyle is the living embodiment of the sheepdog mentality, strong, stoic, and unbending.  He knows his course and he stays his course, until his course changes.  Cooper is a fine actor, as he’s proven in previously nominated performances in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.  Here, though, he isn’t given a lot to work with.  There isn’t the sense that there’s a lot going on in Kyle’s interior.

But that’s the fault not of Cooper but of director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall (and maybe of Kyle himself, and the co-writers on his biography).  There aren’t any shades of gray in Kyle’s world, and none depicted here.  In fact, there are some choices that are really questionable, from a storytelling standpoint.  There are points in the narrative where a turning point is reached, but instead of seeing Kyle struggle with a decision and come out the other side a changed man, we as viewers are simply trusted to connect the dots.  In a different type of movie, this might be a sign of respect for the audience.  In this one, it seems to be simply lazy storytelling.  And don’t get me started on the plastic baby. Eastwood also does pay some passing fealty to the time-honored tradition of having an army corps made up of stereotypical ethnic “types”, and other of the war movie tropes are played out as well, among them the guy looking forward to going home who doesn’t quite make it in the way he’d expect, and the opposing snipers as gunslingers tradition.

Again, Cooper does fine with what he’s given, as does a near-unrecognizable Sienna Miller, who does the emotional heavy lifting as Kyle’s wife Taya.  Most of his army buddies are interchangeable, and on the whole, American Sniper is interchangeable with many of the similar movies that have preceded it.

I give it 6 Cheeseburgers