Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Jungle Book (2016) film review

Year: 2016
Running Time: 105 minutes
Director: Jon Favreau
Writers: Rudyard Kipling (book), Justin Marks (screenplay)
Cast: Neel Sethi, (voices) Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, Giancarlo Esposito, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken

The Jungle Book is now showing in cinemas everywhere and is distributed by Walt Disney Studios.

Originality is a dying concept in Hollywood with cinema complexes flooded by remakes and sequels. In a world where this is now an accepted notion, it is important to still see a point of difference in order to appreciate a film in it's second production run. Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book has done this and more.

What Favreau has done with the beloved classic is something which would have been deemed impossible years ago and even until recently the thought of a live action The Jungle Book could not have been taken seriously enough to imagine it being successfully carried out to the point of critical success. Yet, Favreau's vision has been executed gloriously with spectacular computer generated VFX landscapes and characters which connect on an emotional level as well being aesthetically pleasing.

Based on Rudyard Kipling's classic novel and drawing inspiration from the 1967 Disney film, The Jungle Book tells the tale of the man cub, Mowgli (played by Neel Sethi in his first starring role) who was found in the Indian jungle and raised by a pack of wolves as their own. When he is on the verge of becoming a man, he attracts the eye of the savage and feared tiger, Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) who vows to take out his anger towards men on Mowgli. Fearing the worst, Mowgli's loyal protector, the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) accompanies him on his journey back to the man village. Even though the strain is lessened by the new friendship with Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), the journey is not a safe one as Shere Khan is never far behind and other threats are waiting to take advantage of the seemingly helpless boy.

The Jungle Book is an astounding piece of cinema which showcases what CGI is capable of in 2016. There is only one piece of the film which is not computer generated and that is the character of Mowgli, but one could be forgiven for believing that the whole film was shot on location in the Indian jungle with the animals in their natural habitat. The result is absolutely stunning with visuals that are breathtakingly beautiful and at times agonisingly graphic as a result of their realism. It is important to keep in mind that the 1967 animated version of the film was overwhelmingly family friendly, but in real life the wilderness is unforgiving towards humans and animals are ruthless and unpredictable creatures. This is what Favreau has captured in his film and some scenes are rather tense and confronting due to the film's realistic view on nature and this may be unsuitable for younger family members.

Disney always does a fine job of playing homage to it's history and past projects. This 2016 version of the Kipling classic does contain elements borrowed from it's animated predecessor, but it's differences are refreshing and proof that in recycled ideas there can still be originality. What fans of the first Disney film will be appreciative of is the fact that there is still "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wan'na Be Like You" with just a tad of "Trust In Me" by Kaa. This new film is by no means as musical as the original, but manages to insert these iconic songs as a means of storytelling. Along with the obvious visual differences between the two films, there are also differences in the actual story and the ending to give an element of originality to a much told tale.

When we first meet Neel Sethi's Mowgli, one can see why he was cast in the much coveted lead and only human role in the film. Sethi has the cheeky and adventurous spirit which Mowgli is known for and his playful smile makes him instantly likeable. The Jungle Book is Sethi's first major role and although this is obvious at times, he does remarkably well considering he is taking on the always difficult task of being the sole player on the film set with no fellow actors to work off.

However, it is the animal characters who are the most intriguing and endearing which is an incredible triumph for Favreau as they are all purely a creation of CGI. It has always been a challenge of animated and now CGI characters to emotionally connect with a cinema audience and in this case, it is the animals that are actually more likable than Mowgli and definitely more captivating. It would seem that in this film there is an underlying theme that wasn't in the 1967 version, which is that of the environment and the threat to the natural habitat of these glorious animals. Man is seen as a greater enemy with the large part that fire or the "Red Flower" plays in the film. The Jungle Book is very much a reversal of roles from the real world. Animals are not acknowledged as, but appear to be the superior species while humans are the outcasts and while watching The Jungle Book, we are unknowingly seeing ourselves through the animals' eyes.

Again, it is a true triumph to feel so much and greatly relate to these characters purely created by CGI. Bagheera (as voiced by Ben Kingsley) and Baloo (Bill Murray) together are the two best friends anybody could ever ask for and compliment each other so well. Bagheera is a fiercely protective, commanding and strong character, but at the same time incredibly endearing and a beautiful creature. Baloo on the other hand is not as goofy as his Phil Harris voiced counterpart, but Bill Murray brings a more human feel to him and allows his humour to flow more naturally. The wolves can also be described as beautiful not just physically, but by nature and their pack is depicted as the perfect place for not just wolves to grow up, but any species and in particular, humans.

On the other side of the animals, the not so friendly characters may not create empathy with the viewer, but they do create tension and terror. Idris Elba's Shere Khan is terrifying and menacing. Nothing is scarier than a villain who's arsenal is part of his natural instinct. Yet in all the horror he evokes, he is still an incredibly beautiful and exotic creature to behold. It was a wonderful decision by Favreau to make Kaa the python a female rather than male, as Scarlett Johansson adds to the entrancing and alluring nature of the beast. She is another creature that is terrifyingly beautiful and one that those who afraid of snakes will maybe not enjoy seeing in 3D. King Louie (who has also been reimagined here as a gigantopthecus rather than an orang-utan) is a three way cross between his voice actor Christopher Walken, King Kong and Marlon Brando as he appeared as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. The result is incredibly intriguing, but also menacing and dangerous.

Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book is incredibly ambitious and therefore is a complete success with the way it has incorporated it's stunning use of CGI and managed to provoke depth and emotion in it's characters at the same time. It is a classic tale which has been respectfully enhanced with an entertaining and enjoyable film.


Monday, April 4, 2016

A Bigger Splash (2015) film review

Year: 2015
Running Time: 122 minutes
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writer: Alain Page (story), David Kajganich (screenplay)
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson

A Bigger Splash is now showing in Australian cinemas and is distributed by Studiocanal.

Lucas Guadagnino's The Bigger Splash is a slow-burning, sexually charged film about heightened emotions that is a stunning achievement in cinematography and editing.

After singing sensation, Marianne (Tilda Swinton) undergoes throat surgery, she takes a much needed therapeutic vacation to the Italian island of Pantelleria with her boyfriend, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). Their time of much needed and glorious solitude is disrupted when Marianne's past love and record producer, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arrives with his daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson). What was supposed to be an idyllic and uneventful summer of rehabilitation for Marianne and Paul turns into a time of temptation, hostility and jealousy.

Based on the Jacques Deray's 1969 film La piscine, A Bigger Splash lives up to it's name as it's impact is greater felt than in the original. Guadagnino's film is a psychological, sexual thriller which slowly simmers it's way to the inevitable showdown between all the characters. It's incredibly slow pace and techniques of building tension using symbolism and unique cinematography is particularly Hitchcock-esque and one would believe that if Hitchcock himself were to make a modern day film set in such a setting, it would greatly resemble A Bigger Splash.

Those who are strong in their belief of film as art will revel in the film's finer qualities and enjoy the slow burn nature it possesses, while those who prefer a heightened sense of tension by way of a fast moving thriller will not understand the appeal of A Bigger Splash. However, both parties will agree that the film is approximately 20 minutes longer than it should be with the final few scenes feeling unwarranted and misplaced. Yes, the film is a slow burn....until it reaches it's explosive conflict and suddenly everything speeds up. It is obvious that there is a point to including these final scenes, but they do feel out of place with the majority of the film.

A Bigger Splash has an unique way of looking at human qualities such as jealousy, addiction and temptation. The choice made for Tilda Swinton's Marianne to technically have no voice is a particularly interesting one. By taking away something like the gift of speech, it paves the way for other modes of communication to be heightened. This symbolises how while the characters may not always be saying how they are feeling, their emotions are showing loud and clear in other ways. The cinematography helps one to see these feelings where it is needed using particularly interesting means of doing so such as focusing in on certain images and using camera angles to give the viewer the same view as the characters in the film.

One cannot deny how aesthetically pleasing A Bigger Splash is. The location shots for the film are absolutely exquisite, but also create an atmosphere where one feels the dangerous and tempestuous air in paradise. It is easy to imagine what forbidden things could take place on an island such as Pantelleria, as it is comparable to the Garden of Eden with the temptation of the forbidden fruit. Adding to the beauty of the film is the wonderful costume design by Guilia Piersanti, particularly that of Swinton's wardrobe.

Tilda Swinton gives a stunning performance as glam-rock star, Marianne. She is particularly superb given her lack of dialogue due to her character's loss of voice and when she does attempt to speak, the frustration of her situation (or situations once you include the fact that her old flame is crashing her love nest) is evident. Matthias Schoenaerts does well by bringing to light the sheer awkwardness of the situation and trying to handle his addiction recovery by not giving into temptation when it is all around him. Dakota Johnson is fine, yet her character is an object of temptation for the men of the film and perhaps her sexuality is a little too obvious. She more often than not wears see-through clothes, when her sexuality would be just as obvious with a bit more covered up.

Ralph Fiennes is surely the star of the film with his life of the party character. The highlight of the film (as was it's premiere at the Venice Film Festival) is Fiennes' dancing to The Rolling Stones. Besides his dancing, he gives an inspired performance with a great deal of character. Harry may seem incredibly likable and fun to be around, but he is actually quite a destructive human being both to himself and others. He draws people in with his charm and then shows his true colours and remarkably he knows this and is unapologetic.

The slow burn nature of A Bigger Splash will divide audiences, but it's visual elegance is hypnotic for even non-believers.