Two new awards-caliber film releases couldn’t be more different. One of hyper-literate in a high-stakes world of drama, gambling, and crime, and another is somber, lackadaisical, and personal, chronicling a summer love that changed lives. One movie has scads of plotting it zooms through with high-powered visuals and voice over, and another luxuriates in the moment, a placidity on the surface interrupted by rising passions. One of these movies I found captivating and the other I found perfectly nice but unremarkable.
Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, clearly having studied at the altar of David Fincher, and he packs a lot into his 140 minutes chronicling the rise and fall of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic hopeful who found herself running an expensive, private series of poker games. She’s drawn into an unfamiliar world and through her tenacious grit, preparation, and fortitude, she is able to become a fixture amongst the rich. Then the FBI comes knocking and wants to charge her in conjunction with being part of a Russian money laundering operation. Driven by a fierce performance from Chastain, Molly’s Game is a gloriously entertaining movie that glides by. It burns through so much plot so quickly, so much information, that you feel like you might have downloaded Bloom’s book while watching. The musical Sorkin dialogue has never sounded better than through the chagrined, take-no-prisoners Chastain. The snappy dialogue pops, the characters are richly realized, and even during its more outlandish moments, like a surprise paternal reunion therapy session, Sorkin packs multiple movies of entertainment in one brisk, excellently manicured production.
In contrast, Call Me By Your Name is a slower peak into the discovery of romantic feelings between 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Set amid the sunny countryside of northern Italy, the film takes it sweet time establishing the lazy world of its characters and their closely intersecting orbits. I became anxious because the characters kept me at arm’s length, leaving their burgeoning romance to feel distant and tame. I understand the hesitation of both parties and the age difference complicating matters. I understand caution. But it feels like the film is cautious to a fault, to the point that one of them laments later why they wasted so much time. The acting is pleasant if undistinguished. The best scene is a terrific monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg as the world’s most lovably accepting father. For an earth-shattering romance, I too often felt unmoved and restless. If we’re going to spend this much time hanging out with these people we should get to know them more intimately, and not just in the physical sense. I missed the compelling artistic charge of something like a Moonlight. I’m a bit stupefied at all the praise heaped upon Call Me By Your Name, a fine indie drama that, for me, too infrequently delves below its pretty surface into something more substantial.
I don’t know if this recent comparison sheds light on any personal insight, but perhaps I just love big, showy, obvious plot that calls attention to itself, with characters that fill a room, rather than an airy romance that moves at the speed of its own breeze. Anyway you have it, one of these movies makes my Best Of list and the other just makes me shrug.
Molly’s Game: A-
Call Me By Your Name: B-
With the continued runaway success of the box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it becomes more and more preposterous just how strange and unique it can be. You would think a mega franchise this valuable would be more prone to playing it safe, hiring established visual stylists who can produce product. Instead, the MCU finds interesting creative voices that can succeed within their very big sandbox. Enter New Zealand actor and quirky director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows), one of the most surprising directorial hires in a decade of blockbusters. The Thor movies are generally considered some of the weakest films in the MCU, so there’s already plenty of room for improvement. With Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok is easily the best Thor movie and one of the funniest to date for the MCU. It’s finally a Thor movie that embraces its silly, campy, ridiculous world and finds space to cram in more eccentricity.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has returned to his home world of Asgard to find it in great peril. His brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been ruling in their father’s stead, and that’s not even the worst part. Thor’s heretofore-unannounced older sister Hera (Cate Blanchett) has been unleashed from her prison and is seeking the throne she feels is rightfully hers. She is the goddess of death and chafes at Asgard’s revisionist history, trying to paint over its history as conquerors for something kinder and gentler. Thor is banished to an outlying planet, Sakaar, that’s essentially a junkyard for the universe. He’s captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and sold to fight in the Grandmaster’s (Jeff Goldblum) arena. Thor is trained to fight in gladiatorial combat, and his opponent and reigning champion is none other than the Hulk a.k.a. Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) alter ego. Thor must break free, convince the Hulk for help, get off this planet, and save Asgard before it’s too late.
Waititi has acclimated himself extremely well in the large-scaled world of blockbuster filmmaking, and yet his signature quirky sense of style and humor are still evident throughout, making Ragnarok the best Thor film. Let’s face it, the Thor films are completely ridiculous and trying to treat them as anything but is wasted effort. These movies involve alien Norse gods traveling by rainbow bridges and even though they can traverse the cosmos in spaceships they still sling giant broad swords. The more the films embrace the inherent silliness of the series the better. Ragnarok is the Thor movie that gets all the serious stuff out of the way in the first act, tying up loose ends from 2013’s Dark World, checking in with Anthony Hopkins’ Odin and the requisite MCU cameo (a superfluous Doctor Strange), and then introducing Thor’s long-lost twisted sister. From Blanchett’s intro, the movie becomes what it was set out to be, a lavish and consistently funny buddy comedy. Gone are all the Earthly constraints from the prior two films. It’s all aliens from here on out. Thor has everything stripped from him, his hammer, his family, his hair, and becomes an underdog once again. It’s a surefire way to make a living god more relatable. Fighting from the ground up, Thor makes all sorts of new friends and enemies, and it’s this evolution into an ensemble comedy where Waititi’s film shines. There’s a jovial touch to the world building that extends from the visuals to the variety of odd characters. Thor has never been more entertaining as Hemsworth (Ghostbusters) is able to stop being so serious and embrace his underutilized comedic chops. The man has a stunning sense of comedic delivery and a dry wit that’s right at home for Waititi. Hemsworth and his daffy sense of humor have never been better in the MCU.
Even with the added comic refinery, Thor is still the most boring of the Avengers, so Ragnarok solves this by introducing a new bevy of side characters that steal the show. The wacky world of the Thor universe was always its best aspect, and each new film pushes the boundaries a little further out, revealing more weird and wild planets and creatures. It feels like a Star Wars where we spend our time with the weird, scuzzy part of the universe. Ragnarok pushes those boundaries the furthest yet and introduces an entire cadre of loveable supporting players that you want to spend more time with. Tessa Thompson has a wonderful and intimidating introduction as she swoops in on a spaceship, makes her badass claim of her prized bounty, and then trips and falls, as she is quite tipsy from drinking. She regains her literal footing and still seems a bit out of it, but the ensuring process she goes through to claim what is hers is thoroughly impressive. As a Valkyrie, this is one tough woman, and Thompson (Creed) has great fun playing bad. She really reminded me of a female Han Solo. Thompson has a wily screwball chemistry with Hemsworth, and both actors elevate the other with lively give-and-take. Thompson is a terrific new addition. She has an enticing, irascible appeal without overt sexualization that sometimes befalls the Marvel female sidekicks (Black Widow, Pepper Potts).
Another character you’ll fall in love with is Korg, a rock monster gladiator played in motion-capture and drolly voiced by director Waititi himself. My question: is it possible for a director to steal his own movie? This is a character that feels stripped from one of Waititi’s dry, absurdist comedies and placed into the MCU. Korg is a would-be revolutionary but really he’s a joke machine and just about every line is gold. By the end of the movie, I needed a Korg spin-off series to further explore this unusual character.
The requisite villains of the film definitely play their roles to full camp, enjoying every moment. Blanchett (Carol) is like a Gothic Joan Crawford, marching with a slinky step and a sneer. Her multi-antler helmet completes the operatic sweep of the character. You’ll forgive me for my above comment on recognizing female characters independent of their sexuality, but man oh man does Goth Blanchett make me happy (especially with her hair down). It’s a shame that the movie doesn’t really know what to do with Hela though. Every time we cut back to her I found myself getting somewhat impatient. I wanted to return back to the weird and wild world Thor was on. Blanchett is entertaining but her character can’t help but feel a bit shoehorned in (“Hey, you had a long-lost sister, and oh by the way, she’s basically Death itself, and she’s coming by to retake everything, so have fun with that and sorry for the short notice”). Goldblum (Independence Day: Resurgence) is left to his Goldblum devices and it’s everything you would want. His signature stuttering deadpan is just as potent in the MCU, and the film finds strange little asides for him to make him even more entertaining. Karl Urban (Star Trek Beyond) has a plum role as Hela’s second-in-command who doesn’t really want the job. They actually gave this guy a character arc. It’s simple, sure, but it was more than I was expecting.
Ragnarok is a swan dive into a stylized, candy-colored explosion of 80s album covers come alive. The visuals and action feel inspired as much from the art of Jack Kirby as they do the pages of Heavy Metal. The overwhelming feel is one of irresistible fun, something you lean back, soak up, and smile from ear to ear in between handfuls of popcorn. The final battle feels suitably climactic and revisits Led Zeppelin’s immortal “Immigrant Song” once the action peaks, coalescing into a crescendo of cool. The trinkly 80s synth score from Mark Mothersbaugh (The Lego Movie) is fantastic and helps to achieve an extra kitschy kick. This movie is just flat-out fun throughout. It finds fun things for the characters to do, like when Banner has to not Hulk out on an alien world filled with stressors to trigger such an occurrence. That sequence almost feels like the grown-up, polished version of Adam West desperately running around as TV’s Batman in need of trying to find a place to dispose of a lit bomb. There’s an archness to the action and character interactions that is playful without being obnoxiously glib. I also enjoyed a climax that involved more than just out-punching the villains. Some might even charitably read it as a commentary on the over reliance of apocalyptic grandeur.
Playing from behind because of its hero’s limitations, Thor: Ragnarok finally embraces the silliness of its franchise, opening up more comic channels and vastly improving its entertainment quotient. The weird word and its collection of odd and oddly compelling characters is the best feature, and though it takes Ragnarok a bit of time for house cleaning, it becomes a steadily amusing big-budget blockbuster that maintains a cracked and lively sense of humor. It’s allowed to be strange and silly and campy. Waititi’s imaginative voice is still very present throughout the film, pushing the movie into fun and funny directions while still delivering the sci-fi action spectacle we’ve come to expect from the MCU. Ragnarok isn’t as deep as Civil War, as perfectly structured as Homecoming, or as subversive and different as Guardians of the Galaxy, but with a droll creative mind like Waititi, it becomes about the best possible Thor movie it can be.
Nate’s Grade: B+
At what point can you tell an onscreen pairing just isn’t working? Chemistry is one of those elusive and ineffable qualities that can make or break a film, especially one that relies upon sexual tension and romantic yearning. If the actors don’t feel like they want to be with one another, it’s all going to fall apart. This is what I kept thinking as I watched The Mountain Between Us and was dumbstruck by the powerful lack of chemistry between its leads, each an accomplished actor in their own right. I don’t thin the movie could have been saved given its script but it certainly could have been at least better. If you’re going into The Mountain Between Us expecting a thrilling survival tale or a stirring romantic pairing, then you’ll be sorely disappointed.
Ben (Idris Elba) and Alex (Kate Winslet) are strangers who have the same problem. Their flights have been canceled and they have important places to be. He’s a surgeon. She’s a journalism photographer who is getting married. They share a single engine propeller plane to fly over the mountains and into the Denver airport. Unfortunately, the pilot suffers a stroke and the plane goes down, stranding Ben, Kate, and the pilot’s helpful labrador in the mountains. They’ll have to rely upon one another to survive in a hostile wilderness and seek rescue when nobody knows where they may be.
Watching pretty people endure hardships and persevere is as old a story as Hollywood, and The Mountain Between Us fails on so many levels, but none more so than chemistry. Elba and Winslet are meant to fall in love with one another over the course of their struggles and it is that love, we are told, that was the real key to their survival. If that sounds like Nicholas Sparks dribble, you’re on the right track, as the source material was very much a romance story. I’m sure the characters had to be better established and the romance felt more organic than what we get in the movie. I think the setup is an interesting place to start: two strangers who rely upon each other for survival and that co-dependence transforms into something they deem to be love. However, we don’t really get much in the way of the consequences of this except for an extended coda that doesn’t feel like nearly enough. Other than a spur-of-the-moment sex scene the movie doesn’t dwell on this looming romantic relationship in any way other than glances of gratitude. We hardly know anything about these characters before they are in a plane crash, and from there the survival against the elements takes precedence. Winslet spends most of the movie laying down and needing to be taken care of. If this movie needs to survive on their romance then it was doomed at casting. Granted, there is nil in the way of characterization and plot development for them to work with as well. At no point do you feel any emotional connection or even any sort of sensual heat between them. They seem far more irritated and put-upon by one another, but that’s supposed to melt away into something deeper and meaningful, though it never does. These are two talented actors but whoa do they not work together (other pairings were going to be Michael Fassbender and Margot Robbie, Charlie Hunnam and Rosamund Pike). Let this film be a lesson to everyone about the importance of hiring the right actors.
Given the life-and-death survival, it seems shocking that the film has such low or non-existent stakes. You never once feel like these characters are in real jeopardy. They always seem to luck out, whether it’s a perfectly placed flare gun to ward off a bobcat, a cabin that’s none too far from their crash site, or that same dead bobcat that can provide some nourishment. There doesn’t seem to be much of a struggle on screen other than walking through the snow. It’s missing the visceral realism that survival stories offer audiences as entertainment. Ever since watching Wind River, stories about characters running long distances in sub-zero climates is ruined for me. I keep thinking, “Why aren’t their lungs exploding now?” I was surprisingly bored through much of their survival outdoors because none of it felt that serious or memorable (this isn’t Kate Winslet’s personal Revenant). This is less a survival story than a sudsy romance. Apparently, how they survive is less important than their eventual acknowledgement of love. It removes all sense of danger. The inclusion of the dog is the single greatest antidote to realism. Ben and Alex have a cute pet this whole time. This makes The Mountain Between Us feel like a “movie” rather than a “story,” and so we just wait and wait for precious moments that will successfully entertain, few and far between they are.
Director Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now, Omar) makes fine use of the Canadian Rockies to provide breathtakingly picturesque landscapes. Even if you’re relatively bored with the characters there’s always the scenery to take in and enjoy. Abu-Assad does have one memorably effective sequence and that’s the plane crash itself. His camera bobs and weaves inside the tiny cabin as long unbroken shot, reminiscent of the famous sequence inside the car in Children of Men. It’s an effort level that isn’t really matched, or at least evident, for the rest of the movie. It peaks at the crash. The human drama seems more interested in the human drama than the survival thrills, which is fine, but if that was the case then we should have gotten better characters and the room for them to develop so that whatever romantic connections form feel and believable and desirable.
I have a solution to all of these issues except the chemistry one. This movie needed a radical rehaul at the structural level to be a better-developed and more interesting story. The movie needed to be told primarily AFTER Ben and Kate are rescued (spoilers, I guess, but I doubt many thought this was going to end in Greek tragedy). It’s during this fifteen-minute coda where the movie becomes its most interesting, and that’s because our characters have to readjust to the outside world but are forever changed. Starting from that point allows the characters to open up so much more and we see a different array of challenges, ones that are more relatable but also with an undetermined outcome. We know these actors are going to live by the film’s end without question. We don’t know if they’ll still be psychologically stable or whole though re-acclimating to their lives. This needed to be more like the second half of Room. This approach would give substantially more for these great actors to dig into. You could also use flashbacks to fill in notable experiences during their time stranded in the mountains. This would provide contrasts but it would also smartly allow us to skip all the dull stuff we know is just filler. This would also allow more genuine surprises and chances for narrative irony. At one point Alex develops the film roll she took during her time in the mountains, and at this point we already know she snapped a picture while Ben was asleep post-coitus. What if seeing these pictures was our first clue that some romantic intimacy happened? These two people bonded over the course of a couple weeks and no two other people may fully understand what they’ve gone through. Explore that with their difficulty to reconnect to the “outside world” and how much they have come to rely on one another after their rescue. That way it’s a character-piece about relationships with worthy material.
The Mountain Between Us is a mediocre romantic drama hindered by terrible chemistry, half-formed characterization, and a poorly developed story. When the life-and-death survival after a plane crash in the mountain feels lacking in stakes and peril, then you have a problem. When the romantic union between its mega-watt stars feels perfunctory, you have an additional problem, especially when it seems to be the point of the exercise. The Mountain Between Us plays, as one other astute critic wrote, as “Idris Elba fan fiction,” with the injured lead being tended to by the handsome and capable protector who can’t help but fall in love with this woman. It’s not an offensively bad movie but a fatally flawed disappointment that had potential given its premise. There needed to be a dramatic restructuring of the screenplay to emphasize their recovery, which would have better served the talents of these actors. Still, there are worse people to be stranded with.
Nate’s Grade: C
I have never read any of Stephen King’s popular fantasy series, The Dark Tower, so I walked into the long-awaited film adaptation with no investment. I walked out with very little investment. The film peaked at its casting, with Idris Elba as the mythic Gunslinger hunting down a notorious evil sorcerer, The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), a.k.a. Randall Flagg. For the first fifteen minutes or so, the world building is pretty straightforward and accessible. The Man in Black is looking across universes for special psychic children whose abilities he can focus to destroy the titular Dark Tower, a monument protecting the stability of all universes. A young kid is having prophetic dreams but appears emotionally disturbed to his family. Before a group of rat people hiding behind human masks can kidnap him, he runs away, finding a portal to Midworld, and into the path of the Gunslinger, who seeks personal vengeance against the Man in Black. From there the movie gets pretty hazy with its rules and lore. The production design of this alien world is a bit bare. The characters stay in an archetypal range and don’t give you much reason to care. The action is serviceable but unmemorable, the Gunslinger credo is rather cheesy especially when repeated with such self-seriousness, and sometimes it feels like McConaughey is in a different movie altogether. If you’re a fan of the series, I have to imagine you’ll be processing some level of disappointment by the end of the film. If you’re a franchise novice, like me, you may find some stray things to enjoy in the moment, but the film evaporates from your mind immediately after leaving the theater, banished to the dustbin of bland sci-fi action.
Nate’s Grade: C
I may be the last person on the planet to have finally watched Zootopia, Disney’s first quarter hit of the year, and I am very glad that I did. I was expecting something cute with the premise of a plucky rabbit (voiced winningly by Ginnfer Goodwin) joining forces with a wily grifter fox (Jason Bateman) in the sprawling animal metropolis, but what I wasn’t expecting was a fully thought out and stupendously imaginative world and a message that is just as thought out and pertinent. The anthropomorphic animal land is filled with colorful locations and plenty of amusing characters. It’s highly enjoyable just to sit back and watch. I knew I was in for something radically different and dare I say more ambitious when there was an N-word approximation joke within the first ten minutes. This was not a movie to be taken lying down. My attention was rewarded with an engaging relationship between the two leads, careful plotting, endlessly clever asides without relying upon an inordinate amount of pop-culture references, and ultimately a noble and relevant message about the power of inclusion, tolerance, and rejecting prejudice. The larger metaphor seems slightly muddied by the late reveal of who is behind the conspiracy to make the animals go feral, but I wouldn’t say it undercuts the film’s power. The characters charmed me and I was happy that each ecosystem factored into the story in fun and interesting ways. There are plenty of payoffs distributed throughout the movie to make it even more rewarding. Zootopia is a funny, entertaining, heartfelt, and immersive movie with great characters and a world I’d like to explore again. Given its billion-dollar success, I imagine a return trip will be in short order and we should all be thankful. Something this spry and creative needs to be appreciated.
Nate’s Grade: A
With J. J. Abrams’ departure from the franchise for the greener space pastures of Star Wars, there was a creative void to fill, and in stepped director Justin Lin (Fast and Furious series) and co-writer/star Simon Pegg, acclimating to the established new movie universe and providing a Trek movie that proves to be the most “recognizably Trek” in the series thus far. The crew of the Enterprise is stranded on an alien world after being attacked by a hive-like armada of ships. It’s a somewhat familiar formula, a distress call that ends up being a trap, from an unknown entity that is harboring vengeance against the Federation. This allows for several dispirit storylines to explore the surroundings but also the enjoyable character dynamics of the crew; the casting department hit the jackpot with this franchise, and it’s just satisfying to watch the actors deliver solid, satisfying character moments. The new character Jaylah (Kingmen’s blade-legged Sofia Boutella) is interesting, kickass, and a source of deadpan comedy conflicts with others. There’s a genuine sense of discovery that’s patiently paced, not so much the set-piece-every-ten-minutes of the Abrams films. Idris Elba (The Jungle Book) makes for an intimidating villain and I’m happy to report he doesn’t get lost under gobs of makeup. He becomes more Elba as it goes, and he’s given a credible motivation and back-story to explain his actions. The action is a bit less exciting than I was hoping for from Lin, whose special blend of crazy has been somewhat dampened as he adopts the house visual style of the franchise. Pegg and co-writer Doug Jung have steered the franchise into safer territory but also put the focus on the crew and their bonds, which is the secret weapon of Trek. You sense that Pegg and Jung are fans, and they even provide greater context and justification for the new Trek elements that drew earlier complaints, like the use of the Beastie Boys song which now becomes a fun moment of fist-pumping triumph. Star Trek Beyond (no colons necessary, apparently) doesn’t quite hit the same highs as the previous two films, but it’s a solid movie overall and might be the best movie for the most ardent fans of classic Trek. My last piece of advice: go into space construction in the future. The way they go through starships, you’ll always have a job.
Nate’s Grade: B
Victims of their own meteorically raised expectations, there’s still never been such a thing as a “bad Pixar” movie, and yet that doesn’t stop a growing lower tier from emerging, mostly the non-Toy Story sequels. I was wary about their latest, Finding Dory, mostly because I wasn’t completely enamored with its predecessor and also because it felt like writer/director Andrew Stanton was resorting to safe territory after helming the high profile flop, John Carter. It’s an amusing, cute, and effortlessly beautiful movie to watch but the threadbare plot reminds me of those direct-to-DVD sequels that were born from many a Disney animated classic from the 1990s. This is simply a story that didn’t need telling, much like Monster’s University, Cars 2, and The Good Dinosaur. This narratively fishy fish tale is firmly in that lesser league of Pixar cinematic adventures. I laughed here and there and there are some emotionally resonant moments as Dory looks for her missing parents, but so much of the plot feels transparently utilitarian, moving pieces around, and without the imagination and wonder the original provided. Hank the octopus feels less like a fully defined character and more a merchandizing opportunity. The majority of the plot takes place at a marine park, which limits the discoveries. Where are the narrative payoffs and economical storytelling of Stanton’s masterpiece, WALL-E? There’s an emotional lesson during the third act that would have hit harder had the filmmakers had the courage to see it through. I was picking up a heavy parallel with Dory and raising children with special needs. I would imagine much like the brilliant Inside Out that parents might get more out of the film’s emotional relationships than children. Finding Dory is fun and difficult to dislike, what with its loveably optimistic lead character; however, it does too little thematically to separate itself from a sea of imitators.
Nate’s Grade: B
It seemed like only a matter of time before those in the Mouse House started looking through the back catalogue of hits for inspiration. The Jungle Book is a live-action remake of the 1967 Disney animated film, but it’s only the first of many such translations to come. A live-action Beauty and the Beast is being filmed currently and plans are underway for a possible live-action Aladdin as well, though I pity the actor with the unenviable task of replacing the beloved Robin Williams. I was wary of director Jon Favreau’s (Iron Man) version just because it seemed, on the surface, like a quick attempt to fleece the public of their hard-earned money with a repackaged movie. What I got instead was a brilliantly executed adventure story with a beating heart, amazing special effects, and ultimately an improvement on the original. Imagine that.
Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a boy raised by a pack of wolves. He tries to fit in with his pack but he grows a bit too slow and he can’t help himself with “tricks,” making tools. During a drought that signals a jungle wide peace between predator and prey, the feared tiger Shere Kahn (Idris Elba) lets the rest of the animals know his demands. The “man cub” is to leave or Kahn will hunt him down. The mother wolf, Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), refuses to part with her child but Mowgli volunteers to leave to keep his pack safe. Kahn chases him deeper onto the outskirts of the jungle where Mowgli teams up with Baloo (Bill Murray), a lackadaisical bear who makes use of his partner’s affinity for tools and building contraptions. Mowgli’s new life is interrupted when he learns Kahn has attacked the wolf pack with the desire for Mowgli to return and face his wrath. Mowgli must team up with the friends of the jungle and use all his bravery and skills to defeat the ferocious Shere Kahn who has been lusting for vengeance for years.
Favreau’s version of The Jungle Book is a thrilling and thrillingly immersive visual experience that opens up the big screen as an exciting canvas. The visual wizards have made an entire ecosystem look photo realistic to the point that if somebody said offhand that Jungle Book was shot on location in India, I wouldn’t think twice. The environments are entirely CGI and they are brilliantly brought to life in a seamless recreation I haven’t seen so effective since 2009’s Avatar. It’s stunning what can be accomplished with modern special effects, and then there’s Favreau’s smart decision not to radically anthropomorphize his animal cast. These are not some hybrid human-animal combination but rather flesh-and-blood wild creatures that just happen to speak English when they open their mouths (depending upon your territory). The animals don’t fall into that pesky uncanny valley where your brain is telling you what you’re watching is fake and unsettling to the senses (see: The Polar Express). The animals and behave like the real deal and further cement the exceptional level of realism of the movie. From a purely visual experience, The Jungle Book is a feast for the eyes that helps raise the bar just a little bit higher for the special effects industry and its proper application.
The movie would only succeed so far if it weren’t also for its engaging story. Let’s be honest about the 1967 Disney animated film: it’s not really a good movie. It’s fun and has some memorable songs (more on that below), but as a story it’s pretty redundant and flimsy. Mowgli bounces around one potential animal group to another trying to find a home only to move on to the next prospective foster situation. I never made the connection before but in a way the movie North is this plot, minus the talking animals and general entertainment value. There are long segments of the original Disney film that coast just on the charisma of the vocal actors and the animation. Certainly the Beatles parody characters haven’t aged well. There was plenty that could have been added to this story and screenwriter Justin Marks does just that, making the characters far more emotionally engaging. I felt a swell of sadness as Mowgli is separated from his wolf family, his mother declaring that no matter what he still is her son. Marks also personalizes the stakes between Mowgli and Shere Kahn. Each side has a grudge to settle when it comes to vengeance rather than Kahn rejecting the “man cub” out of general fear. This Mowgli is also a much more interesting protagonist; he’s plucky and uses his “man cub” other-ness as an asset when it comes to problem-solving. We have a better hero, a better villain, wonderfully brought to life through the velvety roar of Elba, and a small band of supporting characters that are more emotionally grounded. The wolf pack feels like a genuine family, a community. The relationship between Mowgli and Baloo becomes the backbone of the second half of a briskly paced movie, and the predictable narrative steps feel earned, from Baloo’s con job to caring for his lil’ buddy. The attention to the characters and their relationships provides a healthy sense of heart.
The vocal cast is expertly matched with their jungle creatures, notably Elba (Beasts of No Nation) and Murray (St Vincent). Murray has an innate way to make his lazy character endearing. Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) gives a much better motion capture performance as a wolf than whatever the hell she was in The Force Awakens. Scarlet Johansson (The Avengers) is a nice addition as Ka the serpent, and as fans of Her can attest, her breathy voice can indeed be quite hypnotizing. Even the small comic relief animals are well done including the brilliant Gary Shandling in his last film role. Motion capture for non-primates seems like an iffy proposition considering that you’re either forcing the human actors to physically walk on all fours and pretend to be animals, which can be silly, or just copying the direct movements of animal models, which seems redundant then with the technological advances. I don’t know how they did it but it seems like The Jungle Book found a working middle ground that still showcases actor performances.
With a movie that works so well on so many levels, the few faulty areas tend to stand out, and I feel like somewhat of a cad to say that one of the biggest problems is the acting from its child star. I’ll give Sethi some leeway here considering he was never interacting with much more than a giant warehouse of blue screens, which I think we’ve shown doesn’t exactly lend itself toward the best live-acting performances (see: Star Wars prequels). When Sethi is in more action-oriented scenes, like running and jumping and generally being physically mobile, his performance improves. However, when he has to shift to portraying emotions beyond fight-or-flight that is where Sethi has trouble. When he’s playing “happy-go-lucky” early on with his wolf brethren, he’s way too animated in that way that unrestrained child actors can be without a proper anchor to moor their performance. There were moments that made me wince. I see no reason why an actor under ten should be immune to criticism when warranted. We live in an age of amazing child acting performances, notably evidenced by the incredible Jacob Tremblay in Room. We should expect better from our smaller actors. Unfortunately for Sethi, the visual spectacle is so luscious that the one human element sticks out more when he is also delivering a mediocre to poor lead performance.
The other minor detraction for Jungle Book is the inclusion of the two songs that really anyone recalls from the original Disney version, “I Want to Be Like You” and “The Bear Necessities.” I’ll even charitably give “Bear Necessities” a pass as it involves a moment of levity and bonding between Mowgli and Baloo and they’re simply singing to themselves as they relax down the river. It’s also the most famous song and if you think about it the “Hakuna Matata” of its day. “I Want to Be Like You” does not deserve the same consideration. It comes at an awkward time and undercuts the build-up of tension and does nothing short of rip you out of the world of the movie. At this point, we’ve been introduced to the hulking presence of King Louie voiced by Christopher Walken. The giant ape is portrayed like a mafia don and his sit-down with Mowgli has a real menace to it as he wants to provide “protection” for the man club at a price. It’s a moody moment and then this big orangutan starts singing and dancing. The illusion and reality of the movie is broken. At no other point does The Jungle Book come close to breaking its reality and it’s all for such an extraneous moment. There’s nothing conveyed in this song that couldn’t have simply been communicated through speech. Instead, the live-action movie makes a tortured homage to the older Disney source material, and it’s the one major misstep in its approach.
The Jungle Book is a magical movie that actually improves upon its cinematic source material. It’s a visual stunner that is completely transporting and another high-level achievement for the art of modern special effects as well as the proper usage of them in connection with fundamentally good storytelling. Favreau is able to open up a new yet familiar world and allow the viewer a renewed sense of awe. We also get characters that we care about, a strongly grounded sense of emotional stakes, and some thrilling action to go along with the CGI playhouse. I only have a few misgivings with Disney’s new Jungle book and one of those is really a function of its homage to the older Jungle Book. I’ll take the rare step and advise moviegoers to seriously consider seeing this in 3D (I did not). It’s a great visual experience, however, that would only take the movie so far if it wasn’t for Justin Marks screenplay adaptation and Favreua’s skilled direction. Now The Jungle Book can be a great visual experience, a great story, and, simply put, a great movie.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Truthfully, I likely never would have seen No Good Deed in the theater if it weren’t for two events. It’s not that it looked especially heinous, just ordinary and not worth rushing out to see. The first event was my father’s newfound love of Idris Elba (Pacific Rim, Mandela) as an actor, an appreciation I too share for the charismatic leading man. The other event is a tad uncommon. Being part of a critics group, I regularly get e-mails from publicists about upcoming screenings. At the last minute, I received an e-mail informing me that an advanced screening was canceled, but what piqued my curiosity was the stated reason: there was a late twist/reveal that the studio did not want getting out. Really? What appeared on the surface like an ordinary home invasion thriller suddenly became a tad more intriguing, tempting my mind with possibilities. And so, with all of this achieved, I watched No Good Deed waiting to be surprised. My lack of surprise was the only real surprise, because just as I believed, this is your standard home invasion thriller that wastes the talents and time of just about everyone on screen.
Colin Evans (Elba) is a very bad man serving a five-year prison sentence for assault, though it’s believed he’s responsible for several missing women and former girlfriends. During his parole hearing he escapes and heads to his ex-girlfriend’s (Kate del Castillo) home. Colin doesn’t appreciate that she’s moved on to another man, and so he strangles her to death. He then leaves and drives off the road, an accident as the result of a powerful thunderstorm rolling through Atlanta. He comes to the door of Terri (Taraji P. Henson), a mother and wife whose husband is away. He asks to use her phone and then take shelter from the storm. She lets him inside. Big mistake.
Doggedly formulaic, there is nothing about this story that separates it from the rest of the tired, dim-witted thrillers that prey upon fears of home invaders. If you removed the high-wattage stars from the film it would be completely at home on the quality-starved Lifetime Network, another poorly made suspense thriller about a bad man stalking a woman with subtle allusions to punishment for viewing the man as a sensual, dangerous opportunity. I was able to accurately guess every step of this story and I imagine you will have no problem with it as well (more on that “twist” later). How come there are no news stories about an escaped and violent convict? Colin severs the phone cords… but does nobody have cell phones in the neighborhood? In the opening credits, both Elba and Henson are listed as executive producers, which means that they attached themselves to this project because they wanted it to get made. They used their collective power to ensure this story would leap ahead of the thousands of other notable and compelling scripts in Hollywood (ahem). And the big question is why? I suppose there may be some fun from an acting standpoint to play such stock thriller roles as brooding boogeyman and bewildered ingénue. Except there’s nothing to these one-note characters. The screenplay does the minimal amount of effort to establish them as victim and victimizer, but you’ll never care about them or find them slightly interesting. Terri keeps making dumb decision after dumb decision; when you bash the bad guy in the head, you don’t stop after one blow. She’s a former prosecutor who worked in the homicide division, and yet she seems absentminded when interacting with mysterious strangers that appear in the dead of night at her doorstep. She’s lacking all street smarts. There’s nothing that sets apart Colin either (that name is a non-starter as far as striking fear). For a supposedly charismatic and brilliant narcissist, he doesn’t do anything that smart.
I’ll highlight the small handful of moments that stood out to me, which will include the ending and that presaged “twist.” Henson is 44 years old and a very good-looking woman, though it’s a tad odd when the movie contorts to place her in a T&A scenario. Colin, covered in fire hydrant discharge, insists she get in the shower with him so he can get clean. For the remainder of the sequence, the terrified Henson is shaking in her white tank top, her body alerting us to her cold. When was the last time a woman six years away from 50 was purposely squeezed into a moment of gratuitous titillation, let alone a non-white actress? Another part about Terri is that she’s a mother, a fact that Colin routinely relies upon with veiled threats of harm to her little ones. The funny part about all of this is when she has to sneak around the house that Terri has to grab her 4-year-old with one arm and the baby carriage with another, creating an awkwardly comical image. And it happens again and again. She sets the kids down, then goes back to carry them out, and then repeats. It made me laugh every time because it’s just so unwieldy. Another example of the botched screenwriting: Terri has a baby and at no point in the film does the conflict of keeping the baby quiet surface. She has to quiet the child or else Colin will find them. It’s a natural setup with such a young baby. Instead the baby is completely silent for the entire movie, peacefully sleeping though lots of physical activity, screaming, gunshots, a thunderstorm, and tree branches smashing through windows. This baby is unreal. How could this never be utilized? Again, more wasted potential, whatever slight potential there was to start with.
But this brings us to the so-called twist, which I will obligingly refer to with spoilers but rest assured, if this is the working definition of twists nowawadays, we’re all getting a little too carried away. When Colin takes Terri and her kids back to his dead ex-girlfriend’s home, the recently murdered woman’s phone rings. Who’s on the other end? Shocker, it’s Terri’s husband, who has been having an affair with this same woman. And… that’s it. That’s the twist, which is really more of a plot reveal but nothing along the magnitude of a “Bruce Willis is dead” revelation. As it happened, I thought, “Okay, that can’t be it, can it?” Oh, it was. What’s even more frustrating is that No Good Deed doesn’t build off this reveal. Colin was headed over to Terri’s address to make her husband suffer, but then what? Afterwards, Terri runs around the house and eventually dispatches Colin, and the movie ends with her moving out on her own, essentially the least complicated and most boring ending it could formulate. My father had a far more morbid rewrite that I’ll share with you, dear reader. His version would climax with the husband coming home and Colin casually murdering Terri and both of her young children, leaving bad hubby to forever suffer with guilt over the repercussions of his infidelity. While this ending would be controversial, it makes more sense in connecting the plot beats and at least stands on its own. At least it would be memorable.
No Good Deed isn’t a horrendous movie. It’s just dull from start to finish, never attempting to be anything beyond a mediocre thriller. Its complete lack of ambition is even more upsetting with the quality of actors who helped to get this film made. The direction is hackneyed, the visuals are poorly lit and clumsy, and the thrills are too generic and often stupid to be entertaining. The characters are dumb, the story is dumb, and the movie is dumb. Worst of all, it’s boring, the ultimate sin for a thriller. Unless you’re hard up for some precious Taraji P. Henson T&A (and no judgment, she’s a very beautiful woman), there’s no good reason to venture out and catch No Good Deed.
Nate’s Grade: C-
One of the most important figures in the twentieth century, you’d expect Hollywood to give Nelson Mandela his well-deserved close-up, and in 2013 we got a biopic on his wife and the man himself, with Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. It is a respectful, reverent, and relatively inspirational biopic boasted by a pair of great performances. Idris Elba (Pacific Rim/everything cool ever) nails the voice but also inhabits the courage of the man, the toll of his decisions, and the doubt that crept in at his darkest moments. Harris (Skyfall) gives a fiery performance as Winnie Mandela. You may be surprised, as I was, how active she was in South Africa’s rebellion against the government. The problem is that the film plays like a greatest hits collection without much more insight than we could glean from a cursory new report. Cramming the man’s life into 140 minutes is obviously going to be insufficient, but the speedy narrative does little justice to the man’s hardships and the complexities of South Africa’s civil rights movement. The cradle-to-grave approach in biopics is somewhat passé now. Rather movies like Lincoln and Invictus, also about Mandela, focus on pivotal moments that encapsulate the person. I think I have the perfect rewrite of this movie: adjust the focus squarely on the series of meetings in the late 1980s Mandela had with the South African government about political reform. Let’s dig deep into the political conflicts, the government’s fear to equal rights and possible recriminations, the smoothing of tensions, the building of trust, the fragility of a country in the balance. It may seem like more of a stage bound approach, but I think it has more immediacy, nuance, and works to summarize his lifetime of struggle and the change of his country. Oh well. Mandela is a respectful biopic but the man and his legacy deserved something better than a speedy run-through of his life’s checkpoints.
Nate’s Grade: C+