The Jungle Book (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in
The Pride L.A.

Rudyard Kipling was a product of his era.  An Englishman born in Colonial India, he grew into a prolific author and poet whose canon was informed by his childhood experiences there.  Though his literary gifts were undeniable, and much of his work is still widely read more than a century later, he has come to be seen as a champion of British Imperialism.  The world view of white-privileged conquerors, with their assumption of racial superiority over the indigenous populations they subjugated, is deeply embedded in the fabric of all his stories- including the much-beloved children’s tales for which he is most remembered today.

Needless to say, in a modern world keenly aware of the issues surrounding race, this makes him a controversial figure.  He is regarded by many as an unapologetic racist whose writing, even at its finest, was little more than propaganda for the cause of white supremacy.  Others vehemently insist that he was a humanist working from within the system to illuminate both the noble and ignoble traits of all people and thus promote a more egalitarian mindset.  Arguments and evidence are plentiful in support of either side, as well as of the myriad viewpoints which lie somewhere between those two poles.

Of course, the majority of modern moviegoers are unaware of this literary debate, which is undoubtedly why two major studios have both developed family-friendly blockbusters based on the most well-known of Kipling’s stories: “The Jungle Book.”  The first of these, directed by Jon Favreau from a screenplay by Justin Marks, is the Disney studio’s latest effort to remount one of their animated classics as a live-action film for the 21st Century generation.

Their previous version- the final film personally overseen by Walt Disney himself- was released in 1967, and though it has become a cherished favorite to those who grew up with it, at the time it was heavily criticized for taking Kipling’s rather solemn original and turning it into a rollicking, jazz-infused comedic showcase for a star-studded cast of voice talent.

This time around, Marks and Favreau have doubled down on that same approach, while also expanding the basic story framework to include elements from the Kipling tale (or rather, tales- what we have come to know as “The Jungle Book” is actually derived from several short stories concerning the man-cub, Mowgli, and his adventures in the jungle with his animal mentors).  The result feels like a satisfactory blend, a best-of-both-worlds crowd-pleaser which captures the serious tone and allegorical flavor of Kipling while still delivering the good-natured hi-jinks expected from a studio known for its fun-for-all-ages romps.

It’s also a technical masterpiece.  The use of CGI and performance-capture technology has yielded a breathtaking visual experience, giving us a lush and majestic experience of the Indian wilderness as well as remarkably believable depictions of the animals which comprise most of the cast of characters.  This latter element also benefits from superb vocal portrayals by the likes of Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, Idris Elba, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong’o, and the always-welcome Bill Murray.  Perhaps most importantly, newcomer Neel Sethi gives an on-point performance as Mowgli, a remarkable accomplishment for a young actor whose work took place on a soundstage far removed from the world on display in the finished product.

Yet for all its excellence, this new “Jungle Book” feels somehow overdone.  There’s a “bigger-is-better” philosophy at play which detracts from its meticulously-constructed authenticity; a larger-than-life quality may be appropriate to the material, but is it really necessary, for instance, for King Louie to be the size of King Kong?  Although Marks’ screenplay does a good job of underlining the humanistic parallels with the animal kingdom, the sincerity of his intentions is steamrolled by heavy-handed execution, perhaps most tangibly in the manipulative orchestral swellings of John Debney’s score.  And on the subject of music, the inclusion of the best-known songs from the 1967 film not only seems perfunctory, but also jarringly incongruous within the realistic environment created to evoke the period and setting of the story.   .

These observations are, of course, likely to be immaterial to most of Disney’s target audience- perhaps rightly so.  After all, whatever his socio-political philosophies may have been, Kipling wrote his Mowgli stories to entertain, and “The Jungle Book” certainly succeeds in doing justice to that purpose.  Still, one can’t help but wonder how much richer it could have been made by a subtler hand, one that might have allowed for a bit of reflection on how to reconcile our modern sensibility with the more troubling issues contained in an iconic tale that, like it or not, is deeply ingrained into our cultural consciousness.  Perhaps we will find out in two years, when Warner Brothers releases their take on it.

Until then, this one will do well enough.

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Hitchcock, the 2012 film exploring the relationship between legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock and his wife (and most trusted collaborator) Alma Reville during the process of creating his most famous film- the 1960 horror classic, Psycho.  Directed by Sacha Gervasi, and featuring tour-de-force performances by acclaimed Oscar-winners Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, it was a project long in development and eagerly anticipated, stirring high interest and expectations among film literati over its portrayal of a true cinema icon at work.

Based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of “Psycho,” a meticulously researched classic long considered a cornerstone in the literature of film studies, the movie’s screenplay, by John J. McLaughlin, takes a less documentary style than its source material, opting instead for a sort of mature Hollywood romance which focuses primarily on the complex dynamics between Hitchcock and his wife.  It opens in 1959 with the premiere of the director’s North by Northwest, a glamorous, wildly popular comic thriller which marked a triumphant return to familiar form after the box office disappointment of darker experiments like The Wrong Man and Vertigo; back at the top of the game, but unsettled by suggestions that he should now, at 60, settle back on his laurels and quit while he’s ahead (and by reviews which unfavorably compare the comfortable safety of his latest hit with the edgy freshness of his earlier work), Hitchcock begins to search for a new project unlike any he had done before.  Rejecting sure-fire hits and the solicitations of his wife to adapt her friend Whitfield Cook’s newest book into a film, he sets his sights instead on a sordid little novel by Robert Bloch, a gruesome tale of madness and murder inspired by the real-life case of 1940s serial killer Ed Gein.  Determined to make a film totally unlike anything he’s done before, he undertakes the project, even mortgaging his house for provide his own financing when his studio will not pay for the production.  Though initially skeptical, his beloved Alma throws herself into the project at his side, as always, providing her uncredited expertise in every aspect of the film- as she has done throughout their 30-plus years of marriage.  The pressures of working on such a risky endeavor, however, begin to take their toll, as Hitchcock’s personal obsessions begin to overwhelm him- his fixation on his icy, unattainable leading ladies in particular- and his overbearing demeanor pushes Alma to the limit of her patience, driving her to seek solace in the task of helping Cook- who may or may not have romantic designs on her, as well- to adapt his novel into a screenplay.  As jealousy on both sides threatens to drive a wedge between the Hitchcocks, both personally and professionally, the making of Psycho suffers from delays, personality conflicts, studio interference, and pressure from the censorship board, making the prospect of failure uncomfortably tangible.  Facing both financial ruin and the loss of his considerable reputation, Hitchcock must overcome his dysfunctional tendencies and restore the good faith of his most indispensable collaborator in order to salvage the film and avert disaster.  More importantly, however, he must suppress his massive ego and humble himself in order to repair the damage it has caused in his marriage and win back the only woman who has ever really mattered in his life.

Rebello’s book was written in 1990, and the exhaustive research the author undertook included access to Hitchcock’s personal notes and every available archival resource, as well as interviews with almost every individual who had worked on Psycho that was still living at the time, including stars Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh.  The wealth of information he compiled resulted in an intricately detailed portrait of Hitchcock’s creative process, and inevitably yielded considerable insight into the personal factors that informed the director’s work at this particular time in his career.  The book is a scholarly work, albeit an entertaining one as well, which is intended to document the making of a seminal film which would go on to have far-reaching influence on the future of the movie industry and, indeed, on the art of cinema itself; the details and observations of the Hitchcocks’ relationship, while fascinating, are primarily important to show how essential Alma was to her husband’s work and how integral the couple’s teamwork was to the ultimate success of the movie.  McLaughlin’s screenplay reverses this emphasis, shifting the primary focus to the domestic life of this legendary power couple and using the making of Psycho as a means to reflect the personal issues threatening their relationship.  The reason for this may seem obvious; building an engaging story around the nuts-and-bolts construction of a film- or any work of art, for that matter- might easily result in a dry and unemotional narrative, intellectually stimulating, perhaps, but lacking the kind of human connection necessary to appeal to a typical movie-going audience.  Even so, in the process of transforming the documentary book into a fictional narrative, Hitchcock crosses over into the territory of Hollywood fantasy, offering up a sanitized and streamlined version of real-life events in its effort to make its two leading figures into an unlikely pair of romantic protagonists.  This is not necessarily a bad thing; though McLaughlin glosses up the facts with fancy and compresses complicated situations into neat little packages, he gets the gist of it right, and though purists may squirm over some of the more overtly sentimentalized indulgences or take exception to some of the artistic license that simplifies painstaking creative decisions into 30-second vignettes, these conceits serve the larger purpose of revealing the great director’s human side- an aspect he kept closely guarded behind his iconic public persona- and the true extent of his wife’s involvement and influence in his work.

Whether or not you prefer a subtler, more realistic approach to your bio-drama, if you are a fan of Hitchcock in general, or of Psycho in particular, you are sure to find a good deal of enjoyment in the film’s playful exploration of these almost mythic cultural touchstones.  Hitchcock adopts the drily comedic tone so readily associated with the Master of Suspense, particularly in connection to his classic television anthology series- a program that was current during the making of Psycho and which had transformed the already famous director into an instantly recognizable celebrity figure and a household name.  Indeed, the movie even frames its story with segments reminiscent of the ones that bookended every episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in which the rotund host would provide wry commentary on the story being showcased; this conceit also serves to set up another device concocted by McLaughlin, in which Hitchcock engages in an ongoing fantasy dialogue with the aforementioned murderer, Ed Gein- a suitably macabre touch for a movie about an artist whose name is virtuously synonymous with the word.  Hitchcock maintains a close connection to the sensibilities of its central figure, using wit, intelligence, and a heavy dose of irony to tell its story and making sly observations about human nature as it entertains us with the surface details which are ostensibly its focus; and like any real Hitchcock film, it features the “McGuffin.”  For those that don’t know, of course, this is the term coined by the Master to describe a key plot device upon which the characters place great significance, providing an impetus for the story and seeming, on the surface, to be of the utmost importance, but which is, in fact, ultimately irrelevant to the real purpose of the movie.  In Psycho, for example, it takes the form of the $40,000 stolen by the movie’s ill-fated heroine; in Hitchcock, however, the McGuffin is Psycho itself.  It is the making of the movie that is the supposed center of the the plot, but in reality, it merely provides a lens through which is revealed the characters’ psychological and emotional traits, and serves as a catalyst for their personal transformations- the true subject at hand.

Entertaining as it may be, one can’t help feeling that there are a great many missed opportunities in Hitchcock.  To begin with, though the film’s overall ambiance bears a strong connection to Hitchcock’s ouvre, director Gervasi makes only a perfunctory attempt to emulate his visual style.  One longs for the kind of crazy tilted angles, overhead perspectives, stylized dream sequences, and other such dramatic elements that helped Hitch become one of the most influential and distinctive directors in cinema history.  Although I’m not one to criticize a movie for what it isn’t, it seems as if more of an effort could have been made to shape the film in homage to its subject; after all, the deliberate inclusion of the framing device sets us up for a Hitchcockian experience, and by the end of the movie, we are still waiting for it.  In addition, in its attempt to generate suspense (since history tells us that the Hitchcocks were more than successful in their efforts to turn Psycho into a game-changing hit), McLaughlin and Gervasi seem to be implying that Hitchcock himself is in danger of slipping into madness and indulging in a little murder and mayhem of his own- a patently ridiculous notion made even more pointless by the simple fact that no such occurance ever took place.  Their movie might have been better served by taking the time used up by this unnecessary digression to explore other interesting relationships, such as Hitchcock’s collaboration with composer Bernard Herrmann (who is only represented in a single scene depicting the now-famous disagreement over the use of music in Psycho’s notorious shower scene) or the couple’s relationship with daughter Pat, who appeared in a small role in Psycho (and several other of her father’s films) but who is never even mentioned here.

Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in this reverent portrayal of Hollywood royalty, not the least of which is its sumptuous recreation of mid-century life through its costumes and decor, and its all-too-few-and-too-brief recreations of the filming of Psycho.  When all is said and done, however, what makes Hitchcock a treat to watch, for either the dedicated Hitch-o-phile or the uninitiated novice, are the stunning performances of its two leading players.  As Hitchcock, the great Anthony Hopkins reminds us once more that he is one of the best actors in the business, capturing every nuance of the familiar voice and demeanor with uncanny accuracy; though he is buried beneath layers of makeup, prosthetics, and body padding- all of which physically transform the star into a remarkable facsimile of the iconic director- he conveys a deep and multidimensional portrait of this troubled genius, giving us an impressive display of his ability to capture the inner truth of a character and not just a highly skilled piece of mimicry.  Superb as he is, however, it is co-star Helen Mirren who truly dazzles us, shining through with yet another marvelous portrayal.  As Alma Reville, she is sharp, grounded, warm, strong, loving, and confident, a consummate artist and a woman who needs no validation from the Hollywood circus which surrounds her- as long as she has the acknowledgment of her husband, whom she makes clear from her very first moments onscreen is the object of her undying love.  Simultaneously simple and complex, direct and reserved, ebullient and stoic, and- above all-  radiant, she is the undisputed center of attention in her every scene, and when she delivers the inevitable climactic speech in response to her husband’s paranoia-fueled confrontation, the credibility and good will she has earned throughout turns it into the emotional highlight of the film and keeps us from minding that it is, in essence, a predictably formulaic device to move the story into its final chapter.  She and Hopkins are an utter delight together, captivating us with the sheer effortlessness of two seasoned veterans still very much at the height of their powers, and they constitute far and away the most powerful reason to see this movie.

The rest of the cast also performs admirably, with the lovely Scarlett Johansson, as Janet Leigh, standing out as she negotiates the difficult task of providing the director with his latest “Hitchcock blond” with grace, charm, and genuine sweetness.  Toni Collette is memorable as Hitchcock’s trusted and invaluable personal assistant, Peggy Robertson; James D’Arcy captures the twitchy, nervous persona of troubled boy-next-door actor Anthony Perkins; Kurtwood Smith is appropriately severe and amusingly officious as powerful censorship chieftain Geoffery Shurlock; and Ralph Macchio makes a quirky surprise cameo as screenwriter Joseph Stefano, who wins the job of penning Psycho by revealing the issues that he discusses with his own psychotherapist.

I am, as some of you may have guessed, a passionate fan of Alfred Hitchcock and his work.  Like most others who share my enthusiasm for him, I have been eagerly anticipating the release of this film, though I confess to having felt some trepidation when it was announced that the title was shortened from Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of “Psycho” to simply Hitchcock.  That change says it all; it reveals the shift in focus that turned the project from a dramatization of a historical event into a biopic trying to convey the man’s entire persona in less than two hours- though in truth, a better choice in title might have been The Hitchcocks.  For me, film biographies work best when they approach their subject within a slice-of-life setting, revealing aspects of their character through the examination of a specific, limited episode- Frost/Nixon comes to mind, or last year’s My Week With Marilyn, a film which bears a good deal of similarity to this one.  Hitchcock does take this more narrow approach, to an extent, but within its finite framework it tackles the ambitious agenda of encapsulating the director’s complicated personality- with all its obsessions, foibles, and dysfunctions- into a definitive portrait, a sort of Cliff’s Notes dossier that sums up, explains, and resolves the myriad questions and observations about this enigmatic man and shapes them all with a particular point of view.  It offers us a conflict and a resolution and gives us the obligatory happy ending, and while these things are not altogether untrue- Mr. and Mrs. Hitchcock did indeed remain a deeply devoted couple until his death in 1980, and he did publicly acknowledge her contribution to his work on many occasions- the way they are presented here seems far too pat, too simplistic to be completely believed.  It’s not that anything in the movie is a lie, exactly, but the need to turn their story into a plot with a beginning, middle, and ending somehow makes it feel like one.  Was I disappointed in Hitchcock?  The answer, obviously, is yes.  I do not, however, think it is a bad film; on the contrary, it is exceptionally well-made and phenomenally well-acted, an intelligent and entertaining piece that is more than worthy of its subject.  I recommend it to almost any audience- a knowledge of Hitchcock himself or even of Psycho is not necessary to enjoy the movie’s many pleasures- and I am confident that the upcoming awards season will be ripe with many well-deserved accolades for its stars.  My only caveat is this: Hitchcock is a film about the making of a masterpiece, but it is not a masterpiece itself.   Understand this going in, and you will undoubtedly have a good time- though if you’re anything like me, you may find yourself watching Psycho (for the 217th-or-so time) at home later that evening.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0975645/

The Avengers (2012)

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Today’s cinema adventure: The Avengers, the long-awaited 2012 action/fantasy feature from director Joss Whedon which unleashes the combined force of most of Marvel’s top superhero characters and has ensured, with its record-smashing box office returns, that the flourishing “comic book” genre is here to stay- at least for now.  The plot, of course, could have been lifted from any Cold-War-era sci-fi potboiler: when a god-like being from another world brings an army to conquer the earth, a secretive government organization assembles a band of disparate heroes to head off the invasion, forcing them to set aside their own differences- and face their own weaknesses- in order to unite against the common foe.  The details get a bit confusing, unless you are intricately familiar with the plot threads that have been unwinding through the various associated franchises leading up to this blockbuster, or unless you can follow the lightning-fast pseudo-technical jargon with which the various conceits are established; but none of that matters, because unlike many inferior attempts at making this sort of hyper-driven action spectacle, “The Avengers” hinges not on its ridiculous storyline- nor even on the mind-blowing, state-of-the-art special effects, though admittedly those provide a considerable amount of the fun- but on the characters which inhabit it.  The legion of “fan boys” at which this movie is targeted can rejoice that, after decades of clueless studio hacks trying to capitalize on the popularity of comic books without understanding or respecting the material, at long last the genre is in the hands of artists who have grown up with a reverence for it; gone are the days of bland, leotard-clad goofballs with no charisma spewing cheesy platitudes.  Here we are treated to a collection of heroes that we can truly believe in because we can relate to them: full of doubts, anger, trust issues and guilty consciences, they are nevertheless driven by hope to perform the duties thrust upon them; and there is never any question that they have the ability to face whatever the other-worldly would-be conquerors can throw at them, as long as they can overcome the obstacles they generate within their own flawed psyches.  By capturing this element, Whedon (who also wrote the screenplay, from a story by himself and Zak Penn) has captured the key to what makes these far-fetched, over-the-top stories so compelling: they are, in fact, mythology that has been re-invented in a form that appeals to a modern generation.  We see our own psycho-dramas acted out in symbolic form by these idealized versions of ourselves, and through their victories we see the possibility of our own.  To be sure, of course, it’s not the kind of doom-and-gloom mythology that takes us through the dark night of the soul, and it would be completely wrong to think that The Avengers aims at any emotional or spiritual resonance beyond an adolescent level; but still, no matter how many millions of dollars were spent on the CG eye candy, it would have all just been visual noise without that important, cathartic element.  The Avengers seeks to entertain, not to enlighten, but it’s a testament to the talent of its creative forces that it manages to do both.  Whedon has levied his success as a creator of niche-targeted cult entertainment into status as a mainstream artist to be reckoned with, and he directs with a sure hand and a clear vision, striking a perfect balance between action and intimacy and keeping the whole thing roaring along at a breathless pace that makes the two-hour-plus running time feel half as long.  He has considerable help from crack film composer Alan Silvestri, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, and an army of designers and special effects artists under production designer James Chinlund; and, of course, the work of his cast is exemplary, with the always-delightful Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and Scarlett Johansson standing out in particular.  Special mention must be made for the driving force behind it all: comic book legend Stan Lee (one of the Executive Producers of this and all the Marvel films, which are of course his babies), who has brought his remarkable work from the printed page to the big screen (in magnificent 3-D, no less) with meticulous attention to getting it right and a vision that invites comparison to, dare I say it, Walt Disney himself.  Before I am accused of gushing, I should point out that there are quibbles to be made here- the villain, Loki, is not exactly an imposing threat, for all his superhuman powers, and there are numerous points in the film when the perfunctory conflicts between the protagonists threaten to derail the driving pace- and I can’t say that The Avengers and the other films with which it forms a sort of super-franchise (pardon the pun) transcend the comic book genre, as Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman cycle has done.  Nevertheless, in a time when rising ticket prices make it less and less appealing to go to the theater rather than just wait a few weeks for the DVD/BluRay release, it’s a film that delivers what it promises and more; and that’s a feat at least as heroic as any of those accomplished by the superteam of its title.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0848228/

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