Movie reviews

Infinity Jest

The biggest problem with Avengers: Infinity War is its title. Sure, it makes sense given the plot, but I’m afraid Disney has rather put themselves in a corner. What can possibly top an infinity war? Unless the marketing department goes for broke next time with Double Dog Infinity War, it’s all downhill from here.

Let’s put the title aside. Hey, this movie really does work. I spent the last third of the film in humble admiration, not really for what I was watching on the screen but for the creativity and verve of those who put it there. This movie should have stunk and it does not. It should have been an incoherent mush of CGI and it is not. It should have been The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, and praise the Lord, it is not. Infinity War is fun, exciting, and surprisingly emotional. I liked it. I’d be fine if I never saw it again.

The story concerns the…eh, what’s the point. There’s a really powerful Bad Dude, who is looking for magical gem stones that will make him Baddest Dude, and it’s the job of the Good Dudes and Dudettes to come together and Stop Him. I think that’s enough to know. I’d wager that those who go in knowing less than that will have a better time than anyone. Whoops, my mistake.

I came away from Infinity War impressed with three things above all.

First, the humor of this film is more restrained and less forced than in previous Marvel episodes. I find the typical Marvel shtick of interrupting what is supposed to be a dramatically intense moment with a sick burn or golly gee willikers incredibly annoying. If I craved dumb humor I would have stayed in middle school. Infinity War dials this back and I appreciated it.

Second, this might be the best edited superhero movie I’ve ever seen. As I mentioned above, the math of a film like Infinity War usually adds up to a mess. I was very impressed at the clean action scenes, the careful pacing, and the comparable screen time for all our heroes (except for Scarlett Johansson, who continues to look like she’d rather be doing anything else). There are so many ways to make “intense” films unwatchable—see: Jackson, Peter—but Infinity War manages to be inviting, as well as loud and fast.

Third, I liked the ending. I’m told fans of the comics do not. That makes sense to me, because this is an ending for movie lovers and not necessarily for Marvel mythology lovers. If you’re a film fan like me who’s disenchanted with the superhero genre, I think you’ll watch and know what I mean by that. There’s a bravura in the film’s denouement that you won’t find in many other superhero pictures. That was a risk, and it paid off.

But of course, some will not like it. The good news for them is that journalists are currently writing entire pieces about how many upcoming Marvel films there are. There’s an old saying I heard growing up in the unpredictable daily weather of the Ohio river valley: If you don’t like the weather, keep hanging around. If you don’t like the latest Marvel film, keep hanging around.

David Foster Wallace once imagined a movie that was so entertaining it killed its audiences. I’m slowly coming to terms with the realization that I’ll be taking my grandchildren to see Avengers 32 and the 20th reboot of Spider-Man, featuring an androgynous AI as Peter Parker. At the rate we’re going, there’s a good chance I’ll pass away watching a Marvel movie. Oh well.

Movie reviews pop culture

Review: “Beauty and the Beast” (2017)

When the history of Hollywood’s current creative stagnation is written, we very well might regard the new live action version of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” as the quintessential movie of the era. It is a remarkably efficient summation both of nostalgia’s culture’s strengths and its weaknesses. Like a newly illustrated edition of your favorite novel, “Beauty and the Beast” brings color and movement to a classic story, and that’s about it. I found myself enjoying it, and then convinced afterwards that what I had been enjoying wasn’t the film itself, but the ghost that inhabited it. “Tale as old as time,” indeed.

Like many movies I see nowadays, rehashing the plot is pointless. You either know it or else decided several sentences ago to stop reading this review. Let me say instead that those who love the 1991 film will be satisfied with what they see here. Bill Condon’s version is faithful to the animated movie, almost to the point of doggedness. Entire shots are precisely recreated, and a majority of the dialogue remains unchanged. Whether you think that’s good or bad depends almost entirely on what you want from a film like this. Will seeing exactly what you’ve seen before cause you to cheer? An entire generation of film studio CEOs are banking on it.

But, as I said above, nostalgia culture has its strengths. A film that’s as deeply embedded into our cultural memory as “Beauty and the Beast” is a prime candidate for some delightful interpretation. In this version, much of that delight comes from the casting and the visuals. All of the cast are well chosen (with one crucial exception; more on that in a second), but the great Emma Thompson and Ian McKellen stand above all others. Thompson’s rendition of the film’s title song is a perfect update of Angela Lansbury’s famous performance. McKellen has a lot of fun as the valet-cum-clock Cogsworth, and Ewan McGregor suprised me with his funny, silky (if a little obviously derivative) Lumiere. Visually, the film is breathtaking, as lush and vivid and flawless as probably any live action version of this story will ever be. Everything is in order.

Everything, that is, except for Emma Watson. Watson has been sadly and egregiously miscast as Belle. This isn’t for lack of trying, mind you; Watson is a beautiful, gifted actress and she tries hard here, but she never connects with the material, and the script demands so little from her that her talents never have a chance. The problem, I suspect, is that Watson has been chosen for her physical resemblance to the animated Belle, and her role was conceived as a flesh-and-blood stand in for a character the producers had no intention of reimagining. This is a major disappointment in a category the film shouldn’t have disappointed in.

What else can I say? You know what you’re getting here. The point of fast food is that you don’t have to wonder what you’re going to get. It may not be great, but you’ve had it before, and we don’t always have time to take risks. There’s nothing wrong with some occasional fast food filmmaking. But, if the reboot era has you stressed, it’s fine dining I suggest.


Movie Review: “The Jungle Book” (2016)

There’s a really good chance that when you think of classic Disney animated pictures, you don’t think of The Jungle Book. Released in 1967 to positive reviews and solid box office numbers, Walt Disney’s final production before his death nevertheless hasn’t quite found a way to the cultural pantheon occupied by films like Cinderella, Pinocchio, or even Beauty and the Beast. We could probably come up with several explanations for this, but here’s the best I can do: Surrounded by its genre’s stories of magic, The Jungle Book is a story of survival. There’s humor, cheer, and fun songs, of course, but the soul of the tale is as dark as the pitiless wild Mowgli inhabits.

It’s that quality that made the movie an obvious candidate for a remake. That’s the best way to understand Jon Favreau’s marvelous offering. It’s neither sequel nor reimagining, but an update, a technologically dazzling and thematically richer version of the film everyone seems to have seen and so few seem to really remember.

The script, by Justin Marks, takes almost no meaningful deviations from that of the animated movie, with two exceptions. One of those I cannot describe without giving away a key part of the ending. The other change involves the wolf pack that adopted Mowgli, which plays a much larger role here. Mowgli thinks of himself as a wolf, and though his adopted canine parents know better, they teach, protect, and love Mowgli as if he is one. But the mob boss-like tiger Shere Khan threatens a murderous rampage unless the boy—who will grow up, Khan says, to build fire and destroy the jungle—is surrendered to him. Mowgli flees the pack, and his adventure in a vast, untamed wilderness begins.

Marks’s script improves on several aspects of the animated one, but the most rewarding improvement is thematic. The animated Mowgli was petulant, defiant and largely devoid of any psychological intrigue. Here Mowgli wants to know where he belongs. The snake Kaa puts Mowgli in a trance by showing him the real story of his jungle orphanage, and Mowgli continually has to remind himself not to use his “tricks” –his human ability to reason and invent–for it is those abilities that are incomprehensible to the wild animals he lives with. Identity is a key theme in Disney’s filmography, and it would have been easy for Marks and Favreau to browbeat their movie into a cliché. Instead, they’ve given us a subtle and rich narrative of belonging. “You can’t fight like a wolf because you’re not a wolf,” a character tells Mowgli in a key moment. “Fight like a man.”

This is, I think, closer to the heart of Rudyard Kipling than what was accomplished in 1967. Consider his classic poem “If,” which promises the reader that the reward for courageous virtue (“If you can keep your head when all about you // Are losing theirs and blaming it on you”) is maturity (“What’s more // You’ll be a man, my son”). Torn between what seems right (living with the wolves) and what seems inevitable (life at the man village), Mowgli finds peace with Baloo the bear, who gives him freedom to be human around him. This tale isn’t about becoming less of an animal but becoming more of a man, signaled by Mowgli’s (and the jungle’s) realization that love and sacrifice are stronger than DNA. Mowgli’s victory is, finally, in becoming who he is. Kipling, a Christian, did not intend The Jungle Book to be religious allegory, but it’s impossible to ignore the imagery here.

All of this is made vivid in Favreau’s vision. The jungle itself is less clear. Favreau and his photographer, Bill Pope (who also shot the Matrix films), have created a twisted and dense forest, layered in thick fog and opaque textures. It’s a visually enthralling world that serves its mysterious story better than the bright shapes of cell-shade animation.

But as good as the jungle itself looks, it’s no rival for the film’s digital animals. I can honestly testify, dear reader, that at multiple times during The Jungle Book, I could not tell whether the animals whose lips were giving dialogue were live creatures or CGI images. IMDB informs me that an enormous group of people were involved in the visual effects of this film, and I believe it. The interaction between the young actor Neel Sethi and his digital companions is stunningly gorgeous, an achievement magnified by the very wise decision to make the animals look like authentic species rather than faux-cartoons. The best compliment I can think to pay this film’s visual triumph may be this: It looks exactly like how a new reader of Kipling’s story would imagine it.

As for voice-talent, we might as well just do a Hollywood roll-call. Bill Murray (Baloo the bear), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera the panther), Christopher Walken (King Louie the ape), Scarlett Johanssen (Kaa the serpent), and Lupita Nyong’o (Raksha the she-wolf) are all delights. But the best turn is from Idris Elba, whose deviously sultry Shere Khan somehow manages to stand toe to toe with George Sanders’ timeless performance.

All the parts fall into place for Disney on this one. Favreau has reignited Kipling’s tale with soul and spectacle, and has justified, at least for a moment, Hollywood’s imagination stagnation. The Jungle Book’s technological achievement is serious, and will almost certainly trigger a deluge of golden-era remakes (my fear is that Disney could never pass up the chance to redo The Lion King with such tools). But let us lay that aside for now, and admire such a handsome and satisfying film.

Walt Disney Pictures presents a Jon Favreau film. Written by Justin Marks. Based on the book by Rudyard Kipling. 110 minutes. PG.