Friday, 23 December 2016

The Jungle Book

John Favreau, 2016, USA-UK

Of course the trouble with remakes is that they are always going to be compared to an original. In the case of John Favreau’s ‘The Jungle Book’ despite there being many versions this will be compared to Disney’s first animated adaptation, this being the second. The tightrope apparently needed to be walked for audiences is to tick all the right boxes from the predecessor, to just trace it over enough but also to offer something new. So of course good writing helps, but remakes can be mostly validated by using contemporary tricks that weren’t available at the time of the original. I am thinking here of Franck’s remake of ‘Maniac’ but this Disney remake of the well-loved ‘The Jungle Book’ fits that mould too. Not as if analogue animation, as it were, was ever lacking, but here we are.  (I should mention that I have not seen the original since I was a kid so came to this without any real demands.) 

If you were dazzled by Richard Parker in ‘Life of Pi’ – and I was – then there is plenty here to amaze. This is a time where talking animals are everywhere – apes; racoons; everything else - but the CGI variety on display here goes some way to making the human dream of anthropomorphising animals complete. Only Neel Sethi as Mowgli is live-action but everything else onscreen is artificial but this CGI moves with such convincing heft and nuance that it’ll be hard for anyone not be dragged in and persuaded. In this context, it should be noted how winning Sethi is, since he was mostly acting to puppet heads and blue screen; if he couldn’t hold the attention it would all collapse. Yes, he has some of the attitude we know from other American kid’s flicks, but he is just the right side of bratty. 

It’s immaculately conceived and frequently very beautiful but what is remarkable is how dark this version is, and not just that it’s often quite sheathed in shadows. The animals are realistic as can be which means – without any cartoonishness to mitigate – there is a constant tension of dread and threat that is barely relieved (it’s rated PG). When Sheer Khan kills, it is striking in its suddenness and cruelty; when King Louie pursues Mowgli by swinging across his city and then, gigantic as he is, crashing through its pillars, it reminds of the gargantuan threat of the dragon Smaug in ‘The Hobbit’. There’s quite a lot of reading The Jungle Book’ as ‘The Revenant’ for kids, and that’s a good way of conveying the relentless peril in this version. We have a brutal rendering of Sheer Khan (Idris Elba), of course, but there is also the hypnotic seduction by the snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson); even Baloo is all about conning Mowgli at first: of course he’s benign but he follows the trend of manipulation that both Kaa and King Louie (Christopher Walken) use. Oh, I’m sure Baloo is never meant to be seen as a dilemma, but duping Mowgli is initially his thing. King Louie is a mixture of the selfish conjob Baloo tries and the physical threat of Sheer Khan and as voiced by Walken, he’s all gangster. Shere Khan who is nearby trying to seduce and manipulate young wolf cubs. In this jungle, there is always a threat for youngsters, both physical and psychological. And in this way, the atmosphere is persistently dark in tone. Only the wolves and the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) – as the surrogate family of the man-cub – are straight with Mowgli.

So maybe the funny stuff doesn’t really land so much but that doesn’t capsize things. Then the film, although it’s not a musical, lurches into song to lighten things up; and when Mowgli is floating on top of Baloo dueting ‘The Bear Necessities’, it’s quite exuberant to see such an iconic animated moment come to life. If you are expecting a musical, you would have to refer to the original animated feature, and what favoured songs it can’t squeeze in initially it saves for the extensive end credits.  (Scarlett Johansson does a great version of Kaa's 'Trust in Me'.)

In the end, Mowgli stays with the wildlife and although this may be seen as a cynical way to make sure there’s a ‘The Jungle Book 2’, it can also be seen as his choosing multiculturalism whilst keeping his man-“tricks” and as a rejection of man as a destroyer of nature. Although Kipling has a reputation of a Little Englander, it always seemed to me a little more complex, that Mowgli and ‘Kim’ sided with mixing up cultures, favouring democracy and rejecting a single, dominant civilization. It’s in the animal meetings and truces around the drinking hole, for example (this is even more in evidence in the short stories). When the animals all band together to take down Shere Khan, it’s a rejection of fear and fascism. So, yes, it does end on a Disney positive note, but the bullying of society and nature have been well established by then. It’s quite meaty stuff.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016


Douglas Cheek, 1984, USA

A disgruntled policeman who is researching the alarming rise in missing persons investigates and uncovers an alarming conspiracy: a company has been dumping radioactive waste under the city, which has been turning the subterranean homeless into mutants, or “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers”. And their acronym leaves little doubt as to the trouble they cause.

C.H.U.D.’ has a cult following no doubt because it is so typical of low budget 80s horror fare and touches on nostalgia for that. It’s equally dull and delightful in that way, but it also possesses a somewhat shabby milieu and focus on the city underbelly that gives it a pleasing veneer of urban neo-realism. Well, perhaps not so-much realism as an urban context familiar from the era’s police shows as laid out in the opening sequence (hey, get out of the way, bird!).  The big companies are the villains – Corruption! – and the homeless are mostly the victims. It’s only when a respectable white woman goes missing that there’s an issue. Our other protagonist, as well as the disgruntled policeman (Christopher Curry), however, is not taken from this pool of neglect but is a photographer in the artsy way typical of these films (John Heard). There’s a sense that things are happening according to the fads of genre – it even gets in a shower attack in a film about subterranean monsters – but if you’re going with it this is more like horror comfort food than tiresome cliché.

These narrative whims turn out to be result of a troubled ‘C.H.U.D.’ production where it was re-written to contain. The monsters were originally conceived as the mutated homeless, leaving the social commentary less distracted by the fun of special effects and perhaps making this more like a Larry Cohen film or like ‘Combat Shock’ style social awareness horror than a creature feature. But a creature feature it is and they’re memorable and amusing in just the low budget way you would want. What we came for are the monsters so when they attack a diner (Hey, that’s John Goodman!) things heat up. They even helpfully elongate their necks to make decapitation easier. It’s not a classic by any stretch, but it’s just about above-average fun for genre fans.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

The Edge of Seventeen

Kelly Fremon Craig, USA, 2016

I started off well at the box office by asking for a ticket for 'The Edge of Tomorrow'. But, luckily, the lady knew what I really wanted to see and she knew I wasn’t asking to see the Tom Cruise sci-fi temporal-twanger years too late. 

The Edge of Seventeen’ is a winning indie coming-of-age drama about (and you may have heard this one before) a savvy, sarcastic outsider girl trying to figure out, you know, growing up in the vacuity of her peers that she can’t quite mesh with. Yes, so the premise is well-worn but what this does have are three highly engaging performances from Hailee Steinfeld as our funny and acerbic protagonist Nadine, Hayden Szeto as Erwin as the goofy and awkward guy who’s genuinely interested in her, and Woody Harrelson who comes to steal the show and win hearts as the teacher who’s sarcasm is more than a match for Nadine. Not that anyone else is lacking but these three performances are pretty much all you need. Harrelson is dour without being misanthropic; Szeto is thoroughly disarming; Steinfield is great as Nadine at her most witty and smart as well as when she is being selfish and obnoxious. The story goes through teenage crushes, embarrassments, fumbling dialogue, risqué and funny dialogue, angst, self-absorption and all that you might expect.
She’s trying to find herself an identity against the mainstream she feels no affinity for.  By having no outright villains, no bullies – no one is truly bad here – the film allows Nadine to be her own greatest antagonist which means she only has herself to fight. She feels real in that way rather than some ‘Breakfast Club’ teen-type. But it’s the breezy pace and Kelly Fremon Craig’s sympathetic script that pervades, particularly showing how Nadine’s brattishness comes from hurt feelings she can’t quite organise, despite her precociousness. Perhaps the ending is too neat, but why begrudge that when the intention is so generous?

Monday, 5 December 2016

"Paterson" - and the joy of everydayness

Jim Jarmusch, 2016, France-Germany-USA

Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Paterson’ has a certain pace and tone that demands it be met on its own terms; and come halfway through if you have recalibrated to its vibe, you will find the same pleasing irreverence and life-affirming aftertaste that perhaps he hasn’t quite captured since his early work. It’s not about melodrama or bad things happening; the ‘character arcs’ so beloved of narrative planning is here ever-so slight, or rather they do not dominate as typical of dramatic thinking. This allows the small details to rise to the surface, like the grunts of the dog, like the overheard conversations on the bus, like how Paterson’s girlfriend has a penchant for black-and-white impromptu designs. These details are not clearly comedic, but accumulation makes them gently funny: by the time Laura makes cupcakes with the same b&w avant guarde inclination, it’s amusing. Jarmusch lets the natural humour of things rise to the surface over time. It’s a film that rewards patience.

Paterson drives a bus through Paterson, New Jersey (which means his name is on the front of the vehicle like a giant nametag), and we follow him through a week on his usual life routine: wake up to kiss his girlfriend; eat breakfast; steal a few moments to write his poetry before driving the bus; get home to be in love with his girlfriend; walk the dog, stop off for a drink at his local bar. He writes poetry but this doesn’t make him vividly unique; rather, it is indicative of the kind of gentle remarkable qualities that make creative people distinctive. He’s quiet but not socially awkward. He’s no tortured genius, just working at an artform he loves. And like much else in the film, repetition of the poetry reveals its worth and joys. Adam Driver is noticeably different from the drippy emo-like Kylo Ren from ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, or even the slightly schlubby National Security Agency analyst in ‘Midnight Special’: here he makes the most of his hang-dog looks, and indeed the entire film can rest easily upon them. Golshifteh Farahani as Laura could have been his cookie girlfriend – the kind that indie romances see as liberated spirits – and she is that too, but it doesn’t condescend or raise her on a pedestal, which means she never quite becomes a manic-pixie girl.
The nature of the film allows this cookieness to be a means of her showing real affection and individuality.  And so on: the eccentricities of the characters that Paterson meets never allow them to become laughing stocks, never quite allowing them to become tropes. Jarmusch’s humanity and amusement at people’s quirks dominate.

It’s nice to see a film where the characters are possessed of a natural goodness, a decency that doesn’t demand ‘conflict’ to show who they are. However, there is a gun pulled at one point and, afterwards, the camera lingers on Paterson’s expression with the adrenalin still running, startled by his own reaction. No, here, it’s the everydayness that is revealing. We see Paterson developing his poetry over days, the text scrawled over the screen. Indeed, people seem to recognise each other as poets and artists, as when Paterson takes time to talk to a young girl writing  her own poetry – and through this encounter, we get an example of how one unrecognised artist can influence another. Life is full of such slight but worthwhile encounters, which Jarmusch has always presented as a thesis.

Peter Bradshaw notes that Jarmusch turns Paterson into a fantasy version of a real place: for example the fact that Paterson and Laura have “never considered or even heard of public performance or poetry slams, or sending his work to magazines, or self-publishing digitally.” Indeed, but it is very evident that they are quite apart from much of modern convenience; Paterson balks at have a smart phone, for example. As Bradshaw further says: 

“Yet so much of the rest of the movie is not quite real, or perhaps it is rather that Jarmusch does not replicate reality in the way other film-makers do.” 

And this feels closer to the truth: this is not quite neo-realism, and yet it is only the last encounter that seems truly to verge on fantasy, maybe because it is too on the nose in the way that marred ‘The Only Lovers Left Alive’. It is exactly what Paterson needs when he’s at his lowest and has to remind himself what he’s all about, and with that in mind it could indeed b e the work of his imagination.

Like ‘Brooklyn’, ‘Paterson’ is about the general decency of people but it’s also about how art colours their lives; like ‘American Honey’, it utilises a loose, baggy style that is ultimately and quietly uplifting. With a welcome lack of cynicism, Jarmusch focuses on an individual’s routine of life to celebrate the quirkiness and natural poeticism that makes the everyday worth living.