Tag Archives: Book

Appreciating The Boy Who Lived

I have now committed what I consider a major sin as a film critic for this year: I will not be reviewing Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. At least, not in a timely matter to where it will make a molecule of a difference in whether you will see it or not. I suspect that for the most part, Fantastic Beasts will perform very well at the box office this week. It’s written by J.K. Rowling herself, it’s directed by Potter loyalist David Yates, and it has a solid cast to boast proudly about, including the Oscar-winning Eddie Redmayne as the lead. I highly doubt that longtime Rowling fans will overlook this new venture into the Harry Potter universe, and I expect it to get a large turnout at the box office. Whether it deserves that turnout will be another matter decided once I have time to collect myself after Thanksgiving break.

I am a more recent fan when it comes to the Harry Potter franchise. My biggest appreciation of Harry Potter comes from the movies themselves, as I am one of the few that have not ventured far into the book series (I only read the first two. I lost interest after Chamber of Secrets).

Hardcore Potter fans criticize me frequently for watching the movies before reading the books, and maybe they’re slightly warranted in their frustration since they are more knowledgeable of the franchise than I am. After all, when Stephen Sommers changed the ending to Mark Twain’s endearing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I was livid. I can only imagine how Potter fans reacted when entire clops of characters were missing in multiple films altogether.

My defense is that by watching the movies before reading the books, it allows me to view those films through a different, vital scope that most don’t even think about: the eyes of a viewer as opposed to a reader. When watching adaptations, the job of a critic is to watch and judge the movie fairly on its own merit, not through the pages of the book that it was based upon. You can’t judge a movie through the same criteria as a book. That would be like judging a fish on its ability to fly.

Because of this, I rarely read the books before the movie comes out, and I actually make it a point to avoid reading them if I can. I’ve done this with numerous adaptations, from Lord of the Rings all the way to The Fault In Our Stars. I’ve always tried to watch the movie first, judge it on its own storytelling, then read the book and go back and see if my view has developed any further. It is not the movie’s job to adapt events, but rather emotions. If they invoke the same aesthetic and feel that the book did, I consider the film a successful adaptation.

I held Harry Potter to this same standard, ever since The Sorcerer’s Stone came out over 15 years ago. While my opinions of those films may differ slightly from fans of the books, we can all agree that Harry Potter is nonetheless astounding. Whether you’ve read the books or not, all of the elements are in there and retained. There is a boy who was orphaned after his parents died when he was just a baby. That same orphan was forced to live with a cruel aunt and uncle who spoiled their own son while neglecting their nephew. That boy gets swept up into a world full of wizards, witchcraft, and sorcery, and he learns about the true value of life, love, and appreciating the things that we’ve lost.

No matter what stance you have on the books, this much is intact in the film series: who Harry is, what are his desires, why he goes on this epic quest, and who he grows into as his journey comes to a close. This is why Harry Potter is one of the greatest film franchises of all time, as well as one of the greatest film adaptations. If both fans and non-fans can see, feel, and experience the same things in the movies, then the movie succeeded in adapting its source material. And Harry Potter definitely did that very well.

Another thing that impresses me with Harry Potter is the fact that this is a movie series, as opposed to a trilogy. Most movie studios do not have the gumption or the ambition to pursue book-to-film adaptations past three movies. Heck, Miramax films wanted to shrink The Lord of the Rings down from three movies to two, then to one. With Warner Bros. venturing to adapt all seven books as opposed to combining or omitting a few, Harry Potter went on to become the second highest grossing film franchise of all time, grossing over $7 billion at the box office.

(Although, I silently suspect Warner Bros. allowed the series expansion for more than just monetary reasons. With how large of a fan base Harry Potter had at the time, Warner Bros. might not have survived the backlash if they decided to mess with the official canon.)

Being a fan of film as opposed to a fan of Harry Potter has allowed me to appreciate its success without bias. It allowed me to go on Harry’s journey with him with fresh eyes, watching him grow from a boy to a man to a hero, facing all of his fears and overcoming them with the help of his friends. Fans of the books will voice that they went on it first, to which I fairly give them credit for doing so. But the point is I did go on that journey with him, and it is in no way less or more amazing because I haven’t read the books.

To which I now say that I am excited to see Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them for different reasons. This is an original narrative crafted from the mind of Rowling herself. There’s no concerns with being faithful to the book, or with taking narrative liberties, or with making changes fans won’t appreciate. The movie’s creativity doesn’t stop where the book does, mostly because there is no book to base it on. It excites me to see what new ideas and characters Rowling comes up with, and it excites me even further knowing that for once, myself and Harry Potter fans will be experiencing the exact same thing. This is new territory for all of us.

All of that excitement and anticipation will be paid off… soon. For now, I’m going to appreciate the boy who lived, knowing that I got to live right alongside him, as well as so many other muggles out there.

– David Dunn

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“DEEPWATER HORIZON” Review (✫✫✫✫)


Unexpected emergencies. Unexpected heroes.

The first thing that surprised me about Deepwater Horizon was realizing that it was rated PG-13. The violence in this movie is graphic and vivid, with its source material translating so well to the big screen that I question how different it really is from its actual events. Through every explosion, every flame set ablaze, every bone that is crushed, and every life that is taken, this is a film that seeks to honor its real-life subjects by showing us exactly what they went through. It is not for the average viewer, and it is definitely not for children. I would say younger than 17 is pushing it. 

In this adaptation of the 2010 BP oil spill directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor), Deepwater Horizon follows the oil-drilling crew in their final hours before the notable disaster. Mark Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, who has a family waiting for him at home. Gina Rodriguez plays Andrea, who has her boyfriend and a broken mustang back at shore. Kurt Russell is the hardened captain of the crew Jimmy Harrell. Dylan O’Brien plays Caleb, an oil driller who’s just trying to do his best job on-site. And then there’s John Malkovich, who plays the asshole that got everyone into this mess. 

The standout element of this picture, by far, is Berg’s treatment on this delicate topic. You might remember that I wasn’t very fond of his last film Lone Survivor, which I found to be too generic and predictable to do its source material justice. Here though, there’s nothing generic or predictable, not even in the opening shots. During an early breakfast conversation between Mike and his daughter, she innocently described to him her classroom speech about his job, explaining how her daddy “fights the dinosaurs” underneath the earth. While serving as sweet softener dialogue between these characters, it also doubles as exposition about his job, how he does it, what they do on a day-to-day basis, and what perils come with the occupation.

As she’s speaking, the coke she’s using to demonstrate suddenly bursts and floods the whole table. I’m thinking what would have happened if that coke was a few thousand feet bigger and was carrying oil instead of soda. 

This much is how Berg improves upon his technique from Lone Survivor to Deepwater Horizon. In Lone Survivor, our heroes were thrown into grisly escapades of war violence, with nothing building up beforehand to help us connect with these characters. Here, Berg connects us to the crewmembers’ humanity before ominously foreshadowing to their dreary fate. These are not normal movie characters. These are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters, all of whom are real people outside of the movie theater. They all have someone waiting for them at home, wrecked and nervous for their safety and survival. For the most part in war movies, our heroes more or less made the conscious decision to go fight for their country, regardless of who was waiting for them at home.

Deepwater Horizon’s heroes are different. None of these characters made the conscious decision to plant themselves square in the middle of danger. Nobody in the film was expecting the disaster to occur when it did or with how greatly it devastated them. This is a disaster picture first and foremost, and you’re frantically navigating the action with the film’s survivors as they look for a way past the spewing oil, the collapsing metal frames, the wild fires, and the empty sea gallows looming beneath them. This is a movie that completely understands what the real-life crewmembers were up against, and they bring you every detail of that disaster with nerve-wrecking alertness and urgency.

I have no qualms for this movie. At least, nothing that I can fairly hold against it. If you wanted to be picky, I suppose you could say that the editing was choppy and sometimes made the action hard to follow. But when you see the events unfold on screen, when the metal frames tip over and the rig catches on fire, you’re very quick to forgive the film for its tightly-edited action. After all, Deepwater’s residents barely had any time to process everything themselves. Why should we?

This is a masterful picture, guided delicately through its facts and events with its survivors and victims in mind. In its simplest state, Deepwater Horizon is a unique and riveting action film that perfectly captures the details of its real-life disaster. Through a more complex scope, it is a celebration of life, a commemoration for bravery, and a quiet mourning for the lives lost. 

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“13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Hell in half a day.

Here are the facts. On Sept. 11, 2012, the same day as another infamous tragedy, a U.S. compound in Benghazi was attacked. Four Americans were murdered that day, one of them being ambassador Chris Stevens. The rest of the on-site personnel fought for their lives for over 13 nightmarish hours against an enemy as cruel as they were relentless. This much is indisputable.

In the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks, there were accusers from all sides looking for someone to blame. The Republicans blamed the Democrats for being ignorant to the threat in the middle east. The Democrats wrote off the Republican’s criticisms as embellishing the truth. In their accusations against the other party, both forgot about the party that mattered the most: the American survivors. They didn’t care about left-wing or right-wing democracy. They cared about one more gasp of breath, the next plane that was flying out, how soon they could see their families again, maybe even hearing their voices one last time. You can talk politics about the situation all you want, but you cannot deny the 13 hours when someone’s family members were stuck in that hellhole.

I myself do not care about two party politics. They distract from the larger issues at hand, such as the growing anti-American sentiment in the middle east or getting our own citizens back home to us. Michael Bay apparently shares my emotions as he brings us 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, an exhilarating and heart-racing look at the soldiers fighting on the front lines, not the politicians making speeches from behind them.

In this adaptation of the real-life tragedy, 13 Hours follows the Global Response Staff (GRS), a team of ex-military operatives assigned to protect a U.S. compound based in Libya. Keep in mind, this is not an official embassy. Technically speaking, the U.S. isn’t even supposed to be in Libya. But legalities haven’t stopped the U.S. from operating outside the law before, and it’s not very likely to start now.

There are six men assigned to the GRS task force. One of them is Jack Silva (John Krasinski), a father of three with another one on the way. The rest of the team members aren’t so different from Jack. In one pivotal scene before the aforementioned events take place, all of the soldiers are on phones and videochats, talking to their wives, sons, and daughters back home, all whom are eagerly waiting to see each of them again. In this very important moment, we see these soldiers not as killers, but as human beings.

And of course, you already know what happens from there.

The best thing about this movie by far is the action. That’s so unusual for me to say, because most of the time, the action is the most overused part of any movie. Here though, the firefights are so exemplary, chaotic and explosive all at once, throwing our heroes through nearly impossible stakes that keep building as the movie goes on. The one thing Michael Bay is excellent at directing is action, and the firefights get so intense and on-edge that you question if our heroes can make it out multiple times.

But that’s not all Michael Bay does well here. Surprisingly, he exercises excellent restraint in slower-paced moments as well. In one early scene, Jack and fellow team member Tyrone Woods (James Dale) are at a standstill with a Libyan militia. I think I counted eight men training their guns against the two of them in their car. Woods tells them that a drone is flying over, and if anything happens to them, it’ll launch an airstrike against him and his men. After a narrow escape, Jack asks if they really had a drone on this assignment. Woods scoffs. “What do you think?”

I didn’t notice any obvious political motives from the film. I don’t care about them if they are in there. As a film critic, I’m not looking for those. What I am looking for is emotion, pacing, timing, things that help build the mood of the scene and help further implicate the ideas the movie is expressing. The best movies combine entertainment with relevance, and 13 Hours does that stunningly well. Think of a movie blending the paranoia of Zero Dark Thirty with the violence and grit from Black Hawk Down, and you get 13 Hours.

I’ve been very critical of Michael Bay in the past, and I think rightfully so. His Transformers movies have long plagued Hollywood with its stupid writing and absent-minded, overblown action sequences, while Pain and Gain was as offensive to its real-life subjects as it was to its movie theater attendants. With 13 Hours, however, Michael Bay finds himself in the zone, expressing his own style while at the same time spreading awareness on real-life issues. Thank God for those six men that found themselves fighting for their lives in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. Without them, those 13 hours could have gone a lot worse.

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“THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016)” Review (✫✫✫)

Introducing the legend of Tarza– oops, I meant Mowgli.

What is it with Jon Favreau taking the most obscure ideas and actually making good movies out of them? In 2008 he brought us Iron Man, which initially seemed like a sub par idea for a superhero, but then he delivered one of the greatest superhero films of our generation. Then he made Cowboys & Aliens, which sounds stupid by the title alone, yet he still managed to make a unique blend of genres in one exciting and interesting sci-fi western. Now we have his answer to Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book, and even though it’s a remake, it’s remains to be one of the most original and compelling experiences you can have at the movies this weekend.

Anyone who is watching this movie already knows the story of The Jungle Book. There’s a jungle, an adventurous human child named Mowgli (Neel Sethi), his wolf pack family, a lazy, carefree bear named Baloo (Bill Murray), a black panther named Bageera (Ben Kingsley), and a vicious tiger named Shere Kahn (Idris Elba), who harbors an intense hatred of mankind. At learning about Mowgli’s presence in the jungle, Shere Kahn swears to find the child and maul him limb-from-limb. The jungle unites together to take Mowgli away to a human village and save him from Shere Kahn.

Those of you who frequently read my reviews will notice that I am not a big fan of remakes. I am also, surprisingly, not a big fan of the original Jungle Book, which I thought was thinly written despite some outstanding musical numbers. Yet, despite my negative outlook for both of these things, I found myself quite pleased with this movie, both as a remake and as an adaptation of The Jungle Book.

The first improvement Favreau makes over its predecessor is its characters. Yes, we liked Mowgli, Baloo, Bageera and others in the 1969 quote-unquote “classic”, but we didn’t really know them. We didn’t really understand them. We had their surface personalities to admire, but that’s it. Where did Mowgli come from? Why does Baloo want to adopt this man-cub straight for no reason whatsoever? Why does Shere Kahn hate mankind?

All of these are questions I had as a kid that 2016 provided me the answers to. This is a jungle fable that is fully fleshed out and realized, not unlike most of today’s modern fantasy epics. The characters of Mowgli, Baloo, Bageera, Shere Kahn, Kaa and others all have their place and function in the story, and their narrative flows as freely as the nile river. We come to relate to these characters not as Disney properties, but as personalities in their own right.

But the best thing about The Jungle Book is easily its visual effects. Yes, I know that’s a recycled compliment in today’s visually-dominated industry, but its a compliment that The Jungle Book is more than deserving in. Utilizing both motion capture from the voice actors and studying the motions and movements of real jungle animals, Favreau illustrates a smart attention to detail as these animals breathe, move, and feel like their real life counterparts, minus their speaking. Neel’s interactions with the environment, likewise, feel vivid and alert, as if he truly is swinging on vines, jumping into rivers, and running through the jungle, as opposed to acting in front of a green screen. For most other movies, it’s easy to say it’s visually stimulating because it has big explosions or large collateral damage. What makes The Jungle Book so praiseworthy is that it has none of these things, and yet, it has no evidence of being unreal despite being almost entirely computer-generated. This is easily an early contender for the visual effects Oscar at the Academy Awards, and even if it doesn’t win, it definitely deserves a nomination at the very least.

Neel is functional but not outstanding as Mowgli. What do you expect? The kid is 13 years old, barely enough to be in junior high. He’s not expected to demonstrate a bravura performance at his age, and he doesn’t. His performance centers mostly on his choreography and stuntwork, and that’s just about as far as his acting skills reach as well.

The key performance, however, doesn’t come from Neel. It comes from these jungle animals, captured so accurately on screen visually and aesthetically to its environment. It’s true, Neel isn’t that impressive on his own, but he doesn’t need to be. His interactions with the other animals is what makes this story believable and so easy to get wrapped up into.

The Jungle Book, of course, wraps its adventure up all nice and tidy, almost too much so in regards to my tastes with Disney. But the plain fact of the matter is that I was surprised. Surprised that I was actually invested in Mowgli and his jungle adventures. Surprised that when I saw the jungle and its inhabitants, my first instinct wasn’t to make fun of them, but to be absorbed by them. Surprised that when watching The Jungle Book, I was looking at it through the eyes of wonder and curiosity as a child, not the hardened, distrusting gaze of a critic.

Disney has plans to produce live-action remakes of many of their animated classics, among them including Pete’s Dragon and Beauty and the Beast. If they follow the pattern of The Jungle Book, Disney has a good road ahead of them.

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“CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” Review (✫✫✫✫)

A war of humans, not heroes. 

I’m going to make a bold claim here. Captain America: Civil War is the best MCU movie to be made to date.

I know, I know, I’m probably a little overzealous when I say that. Except that I’m not. I’m fully aware of what its competition is. There are two other Marvel movies that I can compare Captain America: Civil War with. Those two are Iron Man and The Avengers. All three of them are exciting, suspenseful, nail-biting, eye-widening entertainment that are just as fun and memorable as they are emotional and meaningful. They’re not just great superhero dramas. They’re great human dramas.

But Captain America: Civil War is especially unique to even these entries. How? The biggest reason is because it isn’t formulaic. In Iron Man and The Avengers, we had our heroes, our villains, and they went at each other like rock-em sock-em robots. Granted, there’s deeper insight and perspective than just the two-dimensional hero/villain foreplay, but you can’t deny the framework that’s there. There’s a clear cut good guy and bad guy, as there is in most superhero movies.

But that black-and-white sense of morality isn’t well defined in Captain America: Civil War. In fact, there isn’t really an established sense of right and wrong in the picture, just characters whose ideals and values clash violently with each other. You can argue that there is a quote-unquote “villain” in the movie, but he’s more of a viewer than an active participant to the conflict involved. If we have to go by titles in this movie, what we have then is hero against hero, Avenger against Avenger, and friend against friend. The ensuing action is nothing else but thrilling, thought-provoking, mind-blowing, and heartbreaking.

In this sequel to both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) leads a new team of Avengers, consisting of Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). After an international event involving the Avengers ends in high casualties, General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) and Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) step in to introduce the Sokovia Accords, which states that the Avengers would no longer be a private organization, but instead will be employed and assigned missions by a United Nations panel.

There are two perspectives to the Accords. On one hand, the Accords would give a new level of accountability to the Avengers. They would be restricted in where they could go and what they could do, and the public casualties in turn could be lessened. Plus, the Avengers would now get paid for all of their superheroing. On the other hand, this could put a level of control and interference on the Avengers that would prevent them from doing the most good. Plus, being assigned to report to a panel leaves them vulnerable for manipulation, forcing them to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise.

Iron Man leads the side that’s for the Accords: Cap leads the side that’s against it. But regardless of both sides, there’s another player in the field whose looking to manipulate both sides to his advantage. And neither side realizes it until its too late.

The second Marvel movie to be directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo and the fourth to be written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Captain America: Civil War is a superhero movie ripe with context, a movie that asks uncomfortable questions that we would much rather remain unanswered. Just like how The Winter Soldier related its plot to today’s world of government control, survaillance, and corruption, Civil War also relates to real-world issues that appeals just as much to reality as they do to fantasy.

Take, for instance, the introduction of the Sokovia Accords. These documents, much like the connection between S.H.I.E.L.D. and H.Y.D.R.A. in The Winter Soldier, presents the theme of government interference and how those implications affect our world. Yes, the Accords would impose an element of control and responsibility over the heroes, but at what cost? This is a situation where civil liberties are being traded for security, and the question is raised on whether its a good trade or not. Juxtaposing this idea of control in between our heroes raises very important questions: questions that are startlingly resemblant of our world abundant with government surveillance and manipulation.

But the movie doesn’t suffer under its philosophical weight. This is still one of those fast-paced, funny, exciting Marvel movies that you’ve come to love. It’s just now a fast-paced, funny, exciting action movie that has deeper insight and drama than the previous entries did. The issues involved draw us deeper into the film’s conflict and to each of the outcomes that these characters face.

There are two of these characters that I haven’t mentioned yet. One of them is the rebooted Peter Parker/ Spider-Man, who is played here by Tom Holland as opposed to the recently discontinued Andrew Garfield. Holland’s appearance in the film is brief yet significant, and while he doesn’t serve a role as important as the others, his charisma, immaturity, and innocent charm makes him for a very entertaining and memorable character, one who sticks out in my mind just as much as Captain America and Iron Man. To be rebooted in just two years time is definitely too soon, and part of me wonders how well Garfield would have done if he had been given the same opportunities as Holland was. That doesn’t take away from the fact that Holland still wins us over and sticks out in our minds just as strongly as Garfield and Toby Maguire does. He makes me very excited to see what’s in store for him for his eventual return in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

The other character is T’Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). If there is a neutral side in this conflict, it is in T’Challa, although at one point he does fight on Iron Man’s team. He’s so great because unlike Iron Man or Cap, his perspective is the most human out of the other players. He is the citizen Cap and Iron Man are fighting to protect. He is the one that faces the most casualty out of any of the other players. This natural perspective into the film is so important, because it demonstrates an investment that isn’t coming from another superhero: it’s coming from the victim of both sides of the conflict. That pain and confusion is so important to understand Captain America: Civil War not just as a Marvel movie, but as a complex drama on its own two legs.

The performances, the action, the visual effects, and the direction all accumulate masterfully, and the Russo brothers demonstrate a better understanding of their characters than they did in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. What we have left, then, is an unchallenged masterpiece, a moral dilemma packaged as a superhero blockbuster that excites us just as much as it challenges us. Iron Man and The Avengers both challenged themselves morally and ethically, but not so much to the point where it’s entire plot was founded around it. There was still a right or wrong in those movies. There isn’t in Captain America: Civil War, and that makes it just as compelling as it is entertaining. The one downside to this film’s success: now the Russo brothers have to follow this up with Avengers: Infinity War. I don’t know how they’re going to do it. I would personally guess that they can’t do it. But I’ve been wrong before.

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“THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967)” Review (✫✫1/2)

Talk about bare necessities. 

In a 2012 TED talk titled “The Clues To A Great Story“, Pixar animator Andrew Stanton gave some fast facts about Pixar’s successes while creating Toy Story. The essence of his pitch laid in five tips: No songs, no “I want” moments, no happy village, no love story, and make me care. That last part is perhaps the most pertinent.

Well, in 1966’s Disney movie The Jungle Book, there’s a plethora of songs, one of them titled “I Wanna Be Like You”, a happy village, and a romance that’s rushed at the end of the movie. Oh, and it didn’t make me care about Mowgli, Baloo, Bageera, Kaa, Shere Kahn, or any of other jungle animals in this predictable, by-the-books story. Removing me from the experience was perhaps the movie’s biggest violation.

Oh, I admit there’s a lot going on in The Jungle Book. Based on a collection of short stories of the same name by Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman), a human orphan who was adopted by the jungle animals and taken care of throughout his youth. One day, the jungle wolves find out that Shere Kahn (George Sanders), a vicious tiger who has a intense hatred of human beings, has returned to the jungle and wants to kill Mowgli. In an effort to protect the boy and save him from Shere Kahn, Mowlgi and his friends Baloo the bear (Phil Harris) and Bageera the black panther (Sebastian Cabot) travel throughout the jungle to return Mowgli to the man village, where he will be reunited with his kind once again.

Back to the TED talk. When Stanton gave his presentation, he gave it knowing the genre’s conventions and with what audiences are used to seeing. Case in point, the singing, the on-the-nose “I want” moments, the happy villages, and the love stories. How many times have we seen each of these? Indeed, how many times have we seen it in most of the Disney movies, dating all the way back to Walt Disney’s first animated feature Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs in 1937?

Disney has used and reused these elements over and over again through the likes of Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty, and seeing those elements repeat again in The Jungle Book definitely doesn’t help in its representation. The film’s premise is not the worst in the world. It had good ideas of man versus nature that it could have been explored very well, and might have even stood out in a long line of conventional Disney pictures.

The problem is The Jungle Book is incredibly rushed, and character’s motivations are not explored much deeper beyond their surface value. Mowgli, for instance, wants to remain in the jungle instead of traveling to live in the man village, but we’re never told why. We assume its because the jungle is where his wolf pack family lives, but since they only appear in the first 15 minutes of the film and are never referred to again, that reasoning quickly diminishes. Baloo is a laid back and easygoing bear that wants to raise Mowgli as his cub, which is not only creepy and silly, but also just plain nonsensical. Why does Baloo want to raise Mowgli as his cub after mere minutes of just meeting him? Why does Mowgli trust this big, brutish bear that could eat him in a heartbeat to be his bear dad? Why are they more concerned about relaxing and chilling in the jungle when they both know that a man-eating tiger is after them?

Which brings me to Shere Kahn. He is perhaps the most underdeveloped of any of the characters, which is the most frustrating to me because he has the most potential for development out of any of the other characters. We’re told that he is a tiger that hates human beings. Okay, why is that? Was there some deep, traumatizing experience where mankind crippled him for life? Did he lose his tiger family to a human tribe? Did mankind kill and take his food supply? Why does Shere Kahn hate mankind?

We’re never given a reason. Shere Kahn just hates man, and Mowgli is a man, and that’s supposed to be it. There’s no complexion to their relationship, just typical archetypes that could be written by any screenwriter that has a thought in their brain and a head on their shoulders.

I acknowledge that the movie is fun, that is without exception. The characters, while flat and thinly written, do have interesting and unique personalities, with the most memorable character being an ecstatic orangutan named King Louie (Louis Prima). The musical numbers are the opportunities where character’s personalities shine the most, and their silly, wacky, and fun energy takes over the screen like an Elephant herd stampeding through the jungle. While the movie is definitely too conventional for its own good, I must admit that I had fun with the music and I especially liked seeing the characters sing along to them. It’s the parts in between where the movie slows down to a crawl.

I look at this movie, and I think of how many Walt Disney pictures came before that did so much better at involving its audience than The Jungle Book did. Look at Pinnocchio. Look at FantasiaDumbo. BambiPeter Pan. Look at all the wonder, the excitement, the feeling of adventure that those movies provoked. Look at those characters, their ambitions, and their reasons for having those ambitions. Look at the magic they instill, the sense of creativity and imagination in their journeys. Yes, those characters had songs, wants, happy villages, and love stories in their movies, but they all did one very important thing that The Jungle Book forgot to do: they made me care.

When Baloo sang “Bare Necessities” to Mowgli, I didn’t know the audience was supposed to take it literally. Walt Disney certainly did.

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“THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY” Review (✫✫)

Plus a few hundred feet more.

There are a few films that can take you out of one moment and immerse you into another, such as the fine aromas and delicacies of a French cuisine resteraunt. The Hundred Foot Journey is not one of those movies. By the time the movie ends, you find yourself thinking less about the main course and more about the half-cooked ingredients that went into it.

The plot follows one Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal), a young Indian chef who was forced to flee from his home after it was destroyed in a political riot. After gathering together his family, which includes his hard-headed Papa (Om Puri) and his four siblings, they pursue the legendary city of France, only to have their brakes suddenly stop working a few miles out of the city. “Brakes break for a reason,” his father tells them, words that we can take away as the best piece of dialogue out of the entire movie.

They soon meet Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), a stubborn French connoisseur who owns the one star French resteraunt that is exactly 100 feet across from their home. (Ahhhhh, now you get the title. “The Hundred Foot Journey,” har-dee har-dee har.) Now with Hassan’s family working to open their own Indian resteraunt, a rivalry forms between the two resteraunts as both of their cultures and cuisines clash with one another.

I’m sorry, did I make this sound relentlessly boring? I didn’t mean to, but hey: at least you’re getting an accurate depiction of my experience. The Hundred Foot Journey starts with a lack of interest and ends with just as much a lack of interest. Like many failed feel-good dramas, this movie meanders from point A to point B to point C, D, E, and so on and so forth until you’ve reached the end of the alphabet. There’s nothing in this story to compel you to care for the characters, no great sense of conflict or urgency that draws you in to its setting or premise.

Waitaminute, I take that back. There is one thing: Manish Dayal, the young actor who portrays Hassan. He handles his portrayal with genuity and earnesty, the only actor to do so out of the entire production. He’s the curious sort, an eager and passionate young chef who is drawn to all tastes of the senses, whether it is Indian or French. He demonstrates the most versatility in the picture, showing an excitement and enthusiasm so pure that we (briefly) slip into his mind to feel what he is feeling before the rest of the film rips us out of it. He’s a talented young actor, and his presence makes me eager to see how the rest of his career pans out. That is, once he finds better material than The Hundred Foot Journey. 

The rest of the cast members are paper-thin and forgettable. Yes, that includes the talented and charismatic Helen Mirren, who can’t help but look and feel like she’s phoning it in here. I suppose that’s not entirely a bad thing, considering I’d rather forget a mediocre performance rather than remember a bad one. But the plain fact of the matter is I don’t care about these characters, and their performances don’t help remedy my disinterest in the slightest. The most tragic case comes in French actress Charlotte Le Bon, who portrays Hassan’s love interest with a cute smile and sweet laugh to bump. Her performance is not the problem, it’s the one that she’s asked to portray. And she’s asked to portray a ditzy, typecast love interest that would be more entertaining if it were a Chef Barbie doll instead of a live actor.

The actors can’t help but give such bland performances. It’s not their effort that’s the problem, its the material that they’re given. The screenplay, written by Eastern Promises scribe Steven Knight, is complacent and predictable, and asks us to simply go through the motions instead of challenging us by making new ones. The direction by Lasse Halstromm is especially mediocre, as it seems the most involvement he had in directing was just pointing the camera and saying “action” to his castmembers. 

Halstromm’s involvement isn’t so much surprising as it is disappointing. He’s done great movies before (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Hachi), and yet, he’s equally had many lackluster ones as well (Dear John, Safe Haven, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen). What is with this guy? Does he make one great movie, then decide he’s on break for the next three? He can draw out great performances from his actors. He’s not only done before in previous movies, but in this one too. In one scene, after finding massive success as a professional chef, Hassan tastes a friend’s fried curry, and the spices and the freshness of the tastes brings him back to the memories of his home, his family, and the joy he once found in cooking. This was the most magical moment from the picture, as the tears Dayal gives in the scene feel genuine, honest, and real. Why couldn’t the rest of the movie be like that? What excuse does Halstromm have to make one great scene, then five bad ones after that? Is it just plain lack of effort? If that is the case, then that is the most pitiful excuse for the state of this movie. Many ambitious filmmakers can’t make the films they wanted simply because of a lack of budget or resources. To have the budget and resources and not skillfully use them is a slap in the face for all of the up-and-coming filmmakers out there.

There was one moment in the film where Madame Mallory dipped her spoon into one of Hassan’s sauces, took one taste, then threw the entire meal in the trash. Helen Mirren should have done the same thing to the script.

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“THE REVENANT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The broken spirit, revived. 

The Revenant is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and I never want to see it again.

The film tells the story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), an 1820’s frontiersman who got mauled by a bear, watched his son get murdered, was left for dead by his friends, and crawled 200 miles to society, seeking revenge against those who betrayed him. His story is not fictional. Author Michael Punke captured the true accounts of Glass’s life in the novel of the same name, which serves as the primary basis for this film.

At hearing about the film, you would never have guessed that this is a true story. Watching the film does little to suspend your disbelief, but as it continues on, you catch yourself slowly conforming to the film’s convictions, believing it more and more as it builds to its emotionally binding and captivating climax. Director Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu, who won an Oscar last year for directing Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, has made a film so vivid, eerie, and compelling that it could, and indeed does, pass itself off as reality.

Look at the huge risks Inarritu takes as a filmmaker. In Birdman, he took a great risk by filming in multiple long takes, editing them together to give off the illusion that Birdman was all filmed in one shot. Here, Inarritu takes another risk by shooting everything in natural light, using the sun to naturally fill the space that Inarritu captures on camera. The result allows us to experience The Revenant’s environments as they are, rather than being artificially constructed for the film’s sake.

Beyond its practical filming and staging, Inarritu is equally ambitious in his overarching vision for the film. To pick one word to describe The Revenant is impossible. It’s beautiful. Disturbing. Shocking. Heartbreaking. Violent. Gritty. Emotional. Meaningful. Spiritual. The scope of Inarritu’s filmmaking is simply incredible, peering into this man’s loneliness, desperation, paranoia, and drive as he struggles not only to survive, but to live beyond his son’s death.

Oh, this is a wonderfully shot film. In wide angles, cinematographer Emanuel Lubeski captures the sheer scope and vastness of his environments, capturing both the beauty and danger of nature around Glass. In tight shots, he perfectly encapsulates Glass’s struggle against life, nature, and himself as he fights to keep on living. DiCaprio lends just as much to Glass’ turmoil as Lubeski does. At times he doesn’t speak, but simply reacts to the environment around him, and his grief and angst is so believable that you buy his struggle not as a character or an actor, but as a real person.

All of these elements build to embody a perfect film. Yes. A perfect film. Why then, do I say that I never want to see it again? Because it captures its vision so perfectly that the filmmaking aspect no longer seems like an illusion. It doesn’t feel like you’re watching a movie: it feels like you’re watching life. You feel Glass’ nerves as he freezes in the cold, struggling breaths in between his slit throat and his stitches. You feel the pain stab through Glass as the bear’s claws tear into his flesh, literally ripping apart his fragile body as the blood replaces his decaying skin. And you feel Glass’ wrath and his pain, his internal torture where he knows that he will never be the same man again. The film is so convincing in its art that it becomes uncomfortable to watch. That’s what I mean when I say that I can’t see it again.

The film never tells us that it’s based on a true story in the opening and closing credits, and it doesn’t need to. We are already convinced of this through experiencing pure film.

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“BLACK MASS” Review (✫✫✫)

Fear him. Fear Whitey Bulger.

I would not recommend to any of my friends that they watch Black Mass. It’s not for everyone. In fact, I would argue that it’s not for most. It’s violent, twisted, bleak, convoluted, and has little sense of purpose other than to show us the dark depths of human depravity. In that regard, it is not a worthwhile moviegoing experience. But man, is Johnny Depp’s performance mesmerizing.

In Black Mass, Johnny Depp portrays Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, a notorious gangster who ruled the south streets of Boston for nearly 30 years. When he was finally captured by the FBI in 2011, he faced a 33-count indictment, including multiple counts of extortion, money laundering, selling drugs, corrupting law enforcement, and committing 19 murders. That number surprises me. After watching the movie, it almost seems low.

How was Bulger able to get away with all of this for almost three decades? Simple. He had help. When his childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) was hired by the FBI, Connolly believed he and Bulger could help each other out. As an employed FBI informant, Bulger could provide information to Connolly on rival gangs so the FBI could clean house for Bulger. Meanwhile, Connolly could provide protection for Bulger’s operations as a result of him being an informant. They both end up agreeing to each others terms and Bulger officially enlists himself as an FBI informant.

While watching this movie, I was wondering where I had heard this story before about an FBI informant using the bureau to protect himself from his own criminal operations. Then I remembered Martin Scorsese’s 2006 crime film The Departed, which involved Jack Nicholson’s character also using the FBI to his own purposes. I came to find out that his character was actually largely based around Whitey Bulger’s circumstances. The only difference is that The Departed is somewhat watered down compared to the actual accounts.

Yes, I just wrote that. The Departed is watered down compared to Black Mass. What is the world coming to when Martin Scorsese looks tame?

Black Mass is a sickening, deplorable film, one that outlines one man’s lifetime of crime in disturbing detail. Yet, the film is reasonably sickening because it isn’t actively advocating for Bulger. Indeed, in most of the film, he seems more like the movie’s villain rather than its hero.

So who is the main protagonist then? The movie doesn’t have one. It’s unusual, but it works for this sort of film. This isn’t a story we’re watching, but a report: an account on real-life events that is driven to inform on every detail as accurately as possible. The writers of the original novel, Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, served as consultants on the film, working specifically with director Scott Cooper on what did or didn’t happen based on their experiences.

It is reasonable to say they’re credible sources. Lehr and O’Neill have written numerous books on Boston crime, and Bulger was a key figure in all of their research. Their reporting was thorough and in-depth. They’ve met John Connolly on numerous occasions. Next to the gangsters that have lived alongside Bulger, these two would be the next best accountants on him and his life.

Bringing them on as consultants was wise of Cooper, and his attention to their details brings authenticity to the picture. In one of the most disturbing scenes of the film, Bulger is choking a hooker to death inside of a house. Cooper paused filming this scene because Lehr and O’Neill said one of the gangster that was present in the original events was not present on the set. The fact that Cooper paused filming for such a small detail impresses me. The fact that Bulger wipes his feet, shrugs, and says he’s taking a nap so non-chalantly after killing her disturbs me on how true this is.

Depp is another story altogether. He is completely and utterly eerie as Bulger, perfect in capturing the character’s details and relentless in portraying his acts of violence and cruelty. It’s not just that Depp gives a convincing performance: I literally can’t see any indication that Depp is even in the movie. His being is erased into Bulger’s existence, in his cold, steady stare and his fixed, stoic posture. He’s disturbing in the slurred, snaky voice he speaks in, and how he so casually inflicts pain and death as if he were the Grim Reaper himself. Depp is the highlight of the film, with his portrayal of Bulger evoking memory of Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs or Jack Torrence from The Shining. His performance isn’t just the best of the year: it’s a challenger for the best of the decade. It’s that momentous and memorable.

If I were reviewing Depp’s performance alone, he would be given four stars, because the truth is his performance is perfect. However, I am not reviewing one actor’s performance. I’m reviewing the movie, and the truth is the movie is sloppy. The camerawork by Masanobu Takayangi is smooth and steady, but everything else in the film is lopsided and rocky. The editing by David Rosenbloom is scattered and choppy. The chronology of events is non-linear and hard to follow. And the screenwriters of the film Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk skip an important part of Bulger’s story, which is his upbringing. It doesn’t have to be a flashback either; just simply explaining where the character came from and why he acts the way he does would have sufficed. We’re given clues throughout the movie, but no answers. We are asked to fill in the holes as the movie skips over important questions and just goes to Bulger’s tirades of violence.

Why is the movie called Black Mass? In the 19th Century, a Black Mass was secretly held by a Roman Catholic Church for Satan worship and in mockery of the Christian faith. A Black Mass is a crooked sermon concealing evil intentions. I believe a black mass was made when the FBI enlisted one of history’s most notorious gangsters as an informant. A black mass is also made when we enter the movie theater. The devil’s name is the same in both cases: Whitey Bulger.

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“STEVE JOBS” Review (✫✫✫)

Creator. Entrepreneur. Father.

Steve Jobs is defined by three years of his life: 1984, 1988 and 1998.

The movie, Steve Jobs, covers these years of his life. So will this review.

1984

Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is on edge. The Macintosh is malfunctioning. He is told by his technicians that the computer won’t say “Hello” to him. It’s 40 minutes before the product launches. His ex-girlfriend is waiting in the other room with her daughter, who Jobs insists isn’t his, wondering why they are both living on welfare while he is making millions. He paces back and forth in between his professional and personal problems. He tells his technician to fix it and walks off stage.

Fassbender is mesmerizing as Jobs. He’s ecstatic, energetic, passionate. He’s tense, egotistical, confrontational. He’s at peace when thinking about how many people’s lives this new computer will impact. He’s angry at people who come up to him, trying to stop him from completing his mission. His expression shows that they’ll fail. He’s too determined to let his ambitions die.

The filming in this sequence is enclosed, personal. It uses tracking shots to follow Jobs as he paces back and forth, looking at TIME Magazines, drinking his sparkling water, his mind racing with everything that needs to get done. The reel itself has a texture to it that I couldn’t quite point out until it hit me: this sequence is shot on celluloid film, reminiscent of the decade that it’s reflecting. A great choice of stylistic direction from Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), but just like the time period we’re in, we know that it won’t last long.

Jobs handles his personal issues. The technical issues are resolved. He steps out onto the stage and introduces the Apple Macintosh.

1988

The Macintosh underperformed in sales. Jobs is let go by Apple, the company that he helped start. He feels betrayed by his closest friends, alone in his struggle for significance.

He meets a few of his former colleagues who want to wish him well. Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) starts acting friendly to him, but then confronts him on not giving him enough credit on the launch of the Macintosh. He asks him what he does.

“I play the orchestra, and you’re a good musician,” Jobs says. “You sit right there and you’re the best in your row.”

The scene switches to another where Jobs is confronting a former confidant. The editing is off, choppy. It’s cross-cutting between this scene and a flashback so rapidly it’s hard to keep track of the two conversations. I don’t know what Boyle was trying to do here. Maybe he thought he was adding tension to the scene. I thought he was adding confusion.

Jobs visits his daughter in the next room, who is skipping class to come and see him. She’s in middle school. He tells her she needs to go to school before she rushes up to him and hugs his legs.

“I want to live with you, daddy,” she whispers to him.

She and her mother leave. Jobs is shaken. He steps out onto the stage.

1998

This is it: the launch that has come to define both Apple and Jobs for years to come. This is the most important act of the film, and the one I will talk less about for the sake of spoilers.

Jobs looks different. He looks older. His hair is whiter. He’s sporting the iconic glasses and turtleneck that most people recognize Jobs in. Fassbender is no longer just acting like Steve Jobs. He has become Steve Jobs.

The framing of shots is similar to the beginning. It tracks Jobs while he walks from one place to another. He’s more sure of himself in relationship to Apple, less sure of himself in relationship to his daughter. Boyle captures the panic on his face, the fear recognizing his failings as a person and as a father.

It’s nearing the end of the film, and I realize the thing that I love most about the movie is its screenplay. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin captures both the genius and fragility of Jobs, the sharpness in his words and the intimacy of his emotions. This is a good change of pace for Sorkin. From a filmography of lightning-quick, witty characters and dialogue from A Few Good Men to The Social Network, this is his most emotive work yet. It makes you feel more than it makes you think.

I exit the theater. I call my dad on my iPhone and tell him I love him. Steve Jobs too realizes that the greatest thing he ever made wasn’t an Apple product. It was his daughter.

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