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Movie Review: “The Jungle Book”

Rudyard Kipling’s original “Jungle Book” has been near and dear to my heart since I was a small child (spare me the critical theory about Kipling and colonialism, I was four and I liked heroic mongooses). The story is intimately familiar to many of us: Mowgli (Neet Sethi), an orphan boy lost in the Indian jungle and subsequently adopted by a wolf pack led by mighty Akela, is pursued by wicked tiger Shere Khan. Alongside a variety of animal friends, and in the course of several memorable adventures, Mowgli grows to manhood and prepares to face Shere Khan.

This movie captures and distills that simplicity, charm, and near-universal appeal.

Among the film’s many, many strengths, its voice casting – featuring Ben Kingsley as Bagheera the panther, Bill Murray as Baloo the bear, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, and Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the seductive python – is indisputably genius. Director Jon Favreau (of “Elf” and “Iron Man” fame) gratifyingly resists the urge to over-mythologize his story (read: we don’t get a grim-and-gritty backstory for everyone in sight!), and the lighter touch works to the movie’s great advantage. Moreover, Favreau manages to organize a fairly disjointed story into a semblance of linearity (in so doing, fixing several of the original 1967 cartoon’s odd pacing issues). Most notably, villainous ape leader King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken) has been upgraded from a skipping orangutan to a huge, menacing Gigantopithecus (whose signature song, “I Wanna Be Like You,” becomes a menacing, Godfather-esque tune).

Additionally, this movie’s CGI is outstanding, particularly where the film’s animal leads are concerned- fur and hair particle effects have come a very long way since the 1990s. Viewers can quibble in good faith about whether or not the totality of the greenscreening works to the film’s credit or its detriment (there are a few, although infrequent, lapses into digital “weightlessness”), but as a technical achievement, “The Jungle Book” is remarkable indeed. (As a random aside, its talking animals don’t look dumb at all, which gives me the faintest of hopes that someday we’ll get a top-quality “Redwall” movie to test the boundaries of this technology).

Picky audiences might come away with a few minor points of dissatisfaction. For one thing, the movie’s fiery climax (while big and epic and immensely crowd-pleasing) is a bit paint-by-numbers and unsubtle. Another small gripe: this movie is very, very fast-paced, so much so that there’s not a lot of breathing room. As some others have observed, this is one of the prettiest hyperreal digital universes since “Avatar” – it’s a bit of a shame there’s not much time dedicated to slow-burning, breathtaking awe.

As an early start to the summer movie season, “The Jungle Book” is a great success and well worth seeing. There’s simply no deconstructionism or cynicism here, nor does the movie subsist on pop culture references and sarcastic irony: Favreau plays this adventure story straight, and should be commended for it. This is escapist fantasy at its best, a vivacious throwback to a simpler and cheerier era. And just about everyone will enjoy it.

VERDICT: 8.5/10
A charming, eye-candy-laden Kipling adaptation that all ages will appreciate. Highly recommended.

Normalized Score: 6.9

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2016 in Fantasy

 

Movie Review: “Gods of Egypt”

I’ve admired director Alex Proyas’s previous films (“The Crow,” “Dark City,” “Knowing,” “I, Robot”) for years, and I happen to think his work (particularly “Knowing”) is seriously underrated by critics. “Gods of Egypt” forays into the realm of big-budget mainstream spectacle – and there’s definitely a reason it got a February release date. Simply put, this is an intensely frustrating film to review. Viewed in the aggregate: one-third of the movie is worst-of-the-year trash. Another third is head-scratchingly incomprehensible, suggestive of a deeper though convoluted underlying mythology. And a final third is visionary brilliance.

Heroic falcon god Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, of “Game of Thrones” and “Headhunters”) is denied his rightful throne by the evil Set (Gerard Butler), who seizes control of Someplace-That-Looks-Nothing-Vaguely-Egyptian and gouges out Horus’s magical eyes. Horus soon crosses paths with human Bek (Brenton Thwaites), who’s desperate to recover his slain love from the underworld – a terrifying hellscape ruled by jackal god Anubis. The two join forces in a video-game-style series of quests that take them to multiple exotic locales: cue a procession of monsters, Indiana Jones-style traps, and inexplicable explosions.

If you thought “Gods of Egypt” looked pretty dumb from the trailers, you weren’t wrong. The cheese factor is extremely high, to the point that I found myself wondering early on if I’d stumbled on a high-dollar “Saturday Night Live” sketch. The movie’s singular saving grace is that it doesn’t take itself particularly seriously. None of the gloominess of “Immortals” or “Clash of the Titans” is present here – this is an eye-poppingly colorful experience in all senses of the term, inflected with just enough humor and sarcasm to keep the whole thing from imploding. Elodie Yung as love goddess Hathor (who unfortunately never transforms into her Sekhmet lioness form…I was disappointed) steals the show, poking fun at the masculine swords-and-sandals fantasy “Gods of Egypt” quickly becomes.

Much has already been written about the movie’s whitewashed casting (seriously, it’s impossible to take Gerard Butler seriously as an Egyptian desert god), but the real problem lies deeper: what’s onscreen is a story that doesn’t reflect the core ethos of the myths on which it’s ostensibly based. The strange (to modern sensibilities) aspects of Egyptian legend – mortal terror of the unknown, the totalizing cultural fixation on death rites, the desperate reverence for the holy Nile, the inhumanity of the divine – are cast aside in favor of a good-versus-evil narrative that hits all the expected PG-13 story beats. This systemic westernization of the mythology feels cheap and culturally bankrupt.

That’s not to say, however, that “Gods of Egypt” is altogether unwatchable. To the contrary, it’s filled with really excellent action setpieces and some genuinely mesmerizing imagery. One example particularly stands out: midway through the film, Horus and Bek meet the sun god Ra. Ra spearheads an endless chariot journey around the flat, disc-like world, the sun itself in tow. Every night, when the sun dips below the horizon, Ra picks up his spear and goes to battle agains the gargantuan chaos dragon Apophis, a fight eternally resulting in stalemate. The implication is haunting: Ra, the mightiest god of all, is condemned to serve as a lone sentinel at the edge of the universe. He cannot abandon his post or existence itself will end: such is the price of absolute power.

Additionally, while it’s inexpertly rendered onscreen, there’s a great deal of interesting philosophy just beneath the surface of “Gods” (much more than the banal humanism of “Clash of the Titans,” its closest analogue).

Proyas’s films bear a discernible common motif: in the same way that Darren Aronofsky’s movies depict their protagonists’ obsessive pursuit of the Ultimate, so Proyas’s work stresses the centrality of mediation between humanity and the transcendent/incomprehensible. Just as “I, Robot” centered on the one robot to manifest self-awareness (bridging the gap between man and singularity), “The Crow” starred a gothic antihero channeling the spirit of a spectral figure, and “Knowing” depicted mysterious angelic extraterrestrials carrying out some inscrutable plan, so too do the deities of “Gods of Egypt” stand interposed between the film’s human protagonist and the unfathomable cosmic forces at play. Though the shadowy entities prowling in the background of “Gods” are positively Lovecraftian in character, they wear humanoid masks.

That said, in a fascinating change from Proyas’s previous work, the film’s soteriology has drifted from supralapsarianism to full-bore Pelagianism. While in “Knowing,” the film’s children were spared from the apocalypse via an act of incomprehensible – even Calvinistic – sovereign grace, here Horus declares that the preconditions for immortality are a life filled with good works. The metaphysical scheme underlying “Gods” is strictly graceless: only through moral acts on earth can humanity rise above the threat posed by absolute chaotic nothingness. Albert Camus would approve.

Is “Gods of Egypt” worth your time and money? It depends: with another six months of retooling, “Gods of Egypt” could’ve been great. Viewers who aren’t Proyas geeks like me will likely find the movie garish and forgettable (shout-out to my long-suffering girlfriend who sat through this next to me), though action-junkies will appreciate its adrenaline-soaked, hyperkinetic pace.

VERDICT: 6.5/10
A case study in frustratingly wasted potential: all the pieces are here, but things don’t quite coalesce.

Normalized Score: 2.4

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2016 in Fantasy

 
 
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