The Jungle Book

Is it possible for a movie to feel like a classic, but also seem fresh and original? Even though that may seem like a contradiction, director Jon Favreau’s new version of The Jungle Book has both qualities.

This is classic Disney stuff. Well, yes, it’s a remake of the 1967 animated Disney film.

It has the elements we’ve seen in numerous Disney films and TV shows. Animals interacting with humans, angrily and peacefully. Cute kids (human and animal). Benevolent adults and threatening adults (animal and human). Absent parents (human and animal). Moments of peril—some a bit frightening—and moments of sweetness. A manipulative—in a good way– soundtrack that plays almost constantly.

And a wise voice-over narration. On the Wonderful World of Disney TV show, it was generally the folksy Rex Allen Jr. Here it’s Ben Kingsley, who also voices the Panther, Bagheera, a good guy who helps guide the young man-cub Mowgli (the amazing Neel Sethi) through his upbringing in the jungle. (Sethi is an Indian-American, born in New York City, and he is brimming with charm and acting talent.)

The animals look realistic and move believably, thanks to actors wearing motion-capture gear and rapidly advancing CGI technology. There’s a reason the credits say the movie was made “in downtown Los Angeles” and that’s the outstanding work of the tech crews based there.

Along with Sethi’s charm and athletic skill, the highlights of the movie are two of the characters Mowgli meets in his quest. Baloo, the bear, is voiced by Bill Murray (who sings Bare Necessities) and King Louie, a monster gorilla, voiced by Christopher Walken (who sings I Wanna Be Like You). They are big characters, physically, and they make a huge impact on the story.

Other voice talents who shine are Idris Elba as Shere Khan, the menacing tiger; Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha, the wolf mother; Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, the snake; and Garry Shandling as Ikki, the porcupine.

Clocking in at 1:45, The Jungle Book moves at a fast pace that will keep kids of all ages engaged. For those who might say, “Why did they need to remake this movie?—the first one was just fine,” let me suggest you go SEE the new version and you’ll understand why. The Jungle Book is not flawless, but it is an impressive, entertaining movie. (Spring for the IMAX 3D screening if you can.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jersey Boys

 

Jersey Boys will delight most baby boomers. The music is terrific! John Lloyd Young does not look or sound exactly like Frankie Valli, but he can hit the high falsetto notes and deliver the goods.

Jersey Boys is not a definitive biopic. It’s the movie version of a stage musical. The script is by the same guys who wrote the book for the stage version.

Jersey Boys begins slowly with brief samples of Frankie’s singing and brushes with the law. It takes a a while before the Four Seasons sing their first hit “Sherry.” From that point on, Four Seasons hit songs come along at frequent intervals and all the performances are strong.

The other Four Seasons are Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen). The addition of Gaudio, the songwriter, is a key episode of the group’s formative years.

Tommy considers himself the group leader. Unfortunately, he mismanages the group’s finances and gets them into trouble with the mob. Shady father figure “Gyp” DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) provides guidance to the group through the crisis.

Another crisis involves Frankie’s estranged daughter Francine (Freya Tingley) who dies of a drug overdose, which supposedly leads him to record “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” as a solo project. (In real life, the song was a hit in the summer of 1967 and Francine didn’t die until 1980. Extreme dramatic license, I’d say.) Young’s performance of the song, starting in a studio and switching to supper club is a highlight.

In Jersey Boys, each group member breaks the 4th wall and speaks directly to the audience at various points in the movie. This device may have worked better on stage. In director Clint Eastwood’s movie version, while it may move the narrative along, it diminishes the reality of what’s onscreen.

Speaking of Eastwood, the movie contains one of my favorite director cameos of all time. (That’s all I’ll say. A tease, yes, but no spoiler.)

The closing number of Jersey Boys, a street dance performance of “Oh, What A Night” is the perfect finish for a movie that is to be enjoyed for its music. And, as mentioned, the music is terrific!

Stand Up Guys

An action comedy with three of our best actors as senior citizen crooks who get together for one last fling—can’t miss, right?

Stand Up Guys is not a total misfire. It has its moments. But it’s not as funny onscreen as it might have been on paper. The movie starts slow and has pacing issues throughout, but it is a suitable amusement.

Al Pacino is a paroled prisoner who, upon his release, is met by his old partner in crime played by Christopher Walken. Another bad guy has ordered Walken to kill Pacino by 10:00 a.m. the next morning or he (Walken) will be killed.

The two old chums go out for drinks, drugs and hookers. When his initial sexual effort fizzles, Pacino gobbles a handful of Viagra (or similar) pills to get the job done. The result is a successful hookup, followed by a visit to the emergency room for treatment of priapism. (Look it up.)

After they bust their old driver (Alan Arkin) out of a care center, they head out for more adventures including a return trip to the brothel and a joyride in a stolen Dodge Challenger (new version). More adventures lead to return visits to Walken’s favorite diner to satisfy Pacino’s ravenous appetite. He never knows when Walken will pull the trigger, but he behaves as if it’s inevitable.

I enjoyed Walken’s low-key performance and Arkin’s energetic performance, but grew weary of Pacino and his character early on. It seems like he’s trying too hard in this role. Julianna Margulies has a small, mostly forgettable, role as Arkin’s daughter.

Stand Up Guys is not a good as it should’ve been. It will not overwhelm you in any way. But if you are a fan of any of the three lead actors, you might actually like it!

A Late Quartet

A movie about a string quartet? How tedious could that be? In the case of “A Late Quartet,” not tedious at all—this is a lively, energetic movie about a talented group of musicians, performed by a talented group of actors.

You don’t have to be a Beethoven fan to appreciate “A Late Quartet.” There’s plenty of music, but the story is more about the musicians and their passions, musical and otherwise.

Christopher Walken is a recently widowed cello player who is diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s disease. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a violinist who is married to the quartet’s viola player, played by Catherine Keener. Ukraine native Mark Ivanir is the intense first-chair violinist who wants every note played perfectly.

But musicians do not always play every note perfectly. Christopher Walken’s character has a wonderful scene in the film in which he relates a tale about an encounter with violin great Pablo Casals. The point of his anecdote is that a live performance of music reveals personal interpretation.

The quartet has been together for nearly a quarter century when we meet them. The group is upset first by their cellist’s Parkinson’s, then by Hoffman’s character’s desire to make a change to the group. Then come marital issues between the couple and an upsetting romantic choice by the first chair.

Along with the quartet, a beautiful young actress with the unfortunate name Imogen Poots gives a nice performance as the aspiring violinist daughter of the couple.

Director Yaron Zilberman (such an unknown that he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page) who co-wrote the original script, does an excellent job of making these actors appear to be real musicians. (At least to my non-musician eyes.)

Yes, the story is a bit soap opera-ish, but the cast is strong and the music enjoyable. While “A Late Quartet” is unlikely to move beyond art houses, don’t let Beethoven scare you away from a good movie.

Seven Psychopaths

Among a strong cast, Sam Rockwell is a standout in “Seven Psychopaths.” It’s not that the performances from Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson and Colin Farrell were lacking. They’re all good, but Rockwell’s character has the most to work with.

“Seven Psychopaths” is an ultraviolent comedy. As with “Pulp Fiction” and similar films, the audience goes from repulsion to chuckles (or vice versa) in seconds. Some of its elements are serious. We see innocent people meet violent ends. But soon after, absurd events or remarks bring us right back to the funny.

Farrell plays an alcoholic screenwriter in L.A. who has an idea for a movie called “Seven Psychopaths,” but just can’t get started. Walken and Rockwell are dog kidnappers who then respond to “lost dog” postings to collect rewards. Harrelson is a hood whose Shih Tzu, Bonny, is taken.

Walken and Rockwell provide Farrell with ideas for the movie’s plot—the one he’s writing, that is. Some of the elements discussed for that screenplay do turn up in the movie we’re watching. The trio takes refuge in the desert after Rockwell kills his girlfriend (who is also Woody’s girlfriend). Woody, meanwhile, wants his dog back.

Among the supporting cast is Tom Waits as a psychopath who shares his personal story with Farrell about the killing he’s done. Gabourey “Precious” Sidibe appears briefly as Woody’s careless dog walker.

“Seven Psychopaths” benefits from the strong quartet of leads, each of whom has been in absurd comedies before. Each man has a commanding screen presence and, as a group, they help the movie over a bumpy section or two.

Worth noting are a couple of fantasy sequences (involving a graveyard shootout and a Vietnamese holy man) that add compelling action.

Writer/director Martin MacDonagh (who also wrote and directed “In Bruges” in ’08) has put together an totally entertaining movie. Its violence makes it off-limits for the squeamish, but for the rest of us, it’s fun.