Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Jungle Book

     "Remake" is not usually a good word. "Live-action adaptation", when the source material is a cartoon, is a risky endeavor that sometimes works and sometimes flops hard. A film wherein the only actor is a child, supported only by the voices of more notable names, is a hard sell. Talking animals in a live-action remake movie is an even harder sell. Yet The Jungle Book rises above these uncertain odds and turns out a surprisingly solid piece of entertainment.

     The Jungle Book adheres closely, but not religiously, to the Disney classic from the 1960's, even throwing in a few snippets of the classic songs. In many ways, it's inaccurate to call this film a "live-action" adaptation, when only the character of Mowgli is in fact live-action, with all the rest being computer-animated to resemble reality. It's really only slightly less animated than its 1960's predecessor, but its imitation of reality is nearly flawless in its execution.

I can remember a time when animated movies contained one, or maybe two at most, recognizable voices, but that seems to be a day long-gone, and now well-known actors are expected to be behind the animated faces. Seemingly strange choices on voice casting turn out to be exceptionally effective here. For example, Christopher Walken's distinct voice works extremely well as King Louie, who is re-imagined into a sort of crime boss (think Jabba the Hutt-- not the main villain, but a dangerous force to contend with all the same). Idris Elba shines as a much darker, more intensely fierce Shere Khan than the 1960's English imperialist portrayal. Scarlett Johansson's brief part as Kaa the python is chillingly effective and significant despite its brevity; a noted departure from the clumsy and comical snake shown in the old version. Every actor featured does a superb job, enhancing rather than distracting from the story and setting. 

     On a narrative level, The Jungle Book successfully gives gravitas to a well-known story that has generally been portrayed with levity onscreen. Jon Favreau's visionary direction of this adaptation walks a bold yet perfect line between a familiar children's adventure story and a coming-of-age tale of survival and responsibility. Mowgli swings from the trees and plays with the animals, but he must also face the reality that Shere Khan will ruthlessly kill him at the earliest opportunity. In this adaptation, there is more at stake than just Mowgli's life should he remain in the jungle-- Shere Khan's wrath also extends to Mowgli's wolf family, and any other animal that helps him.

     The Jungle Book is fairly straightforward plot-wise, but reveals history creatively. In an earlier post some time ago, I gave a tongue-in-cheek piece on villains whose backstory should not be told; among them was Shere Khan. This telling of The Jungle Book undoes that hope, but accomplishes it so well that I hardly mind. And in all reality, in this sort of more serious adaptation, simply setting Shere Khan on a murderous rampage without a reason would have been poor storytelling. The original Shere Khan was regal, elegant, and aristocratic, giving the impression that his hatred of man was innate rather than personal. Elba's incarnation of Shere Khan is fierce, unforgiving, and utterly relentless. Understanding why Khan is this way contributes greatly to the overall tone of the movie, and enhances the maturity of it by several degrees. The realism of Khan's portrayal (and all the animals for that matter) is so precisely tailored right down to every strand of fur and ripple of muscle that the only real indications that this is CGI as opposed to a well-trained circus animal, are the almost human facial expressions (and of course that the animal is talking) and the accuracy of his body language (*see footnote for further explanation).

     Disney has been on a role lately with its live-action adaptations and has a long list lined up to bring old classics to a new generation, with a new spin. If the live-action adaptation trend continues with the level of quality that The Jungle Book displayed, Disney stands a more than decent chance of being taken seriously again apart from its association with Pixar or its production of Frozen. The Jungle Book sets a high standard for future live-action adaptations to follow, being just nostalgic enough for the adults who will remember the original, but also new and fresh enough to not feel too repetitious. The end result is a familiar story told with greater passion and talent than ever before, casting a very great shadow for all future attempts at the story to escape. 

*A predator stalking prey has an unmistakable posture and tension throughout its body. This body language is a marked difference from a trained behavior meant to imitate hunting movements and patterns. If you compared the 1994 live-action Jungle Book to a wildlife documentary for example, you would notice that the movie tiger runs head upright, with a bit of a trot, sort of bouncing onto its prey. Compare that to actual footage of a large cat hunting or stalking, the head is low when running, the body stays low prior to pouncing, and the pounce is erupting with strength. The fact that Shere Khan displays the latter realistic predatory behaviors in this most recent adaptation is proof that a child was certainly not on set with a real tiger. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

     Somewhere beyond the adventure, beyond the thrill of discovery, beyond the glory of triumph over difficulty, is there purpose?

     The USS Enterprise is three years in to a five year mission, and Captain James T. Kirk is beginning to feel a bit stagnant. In their mission to seek out new life and new civilizations in the endlessness of space, Kirk feels that they are eternally striving for something that is forever out of reach, for there is never an end to the mysteries of the great unknown. Kirk is beginning to feel lost in the great beyond, where there's only himself, his ship, his crew, and the vastness of the borderless final frontier.

     The first Star Trek of this reboot in 2009 was an origin story, bringing all the characters together for the first time. Into Darkness introduced the most notorious enemy and tested the team's bond. Star Trek Beyond deals with the inevitable temptation for the crew to go their separate ways and find another purpose. Although Beyond's main characters are all still young, Beyond is something of a mid-life crisis. Kirk is a well-loved captain of a sterling crew, but is getting lost in the monotony of responsibility. His maturity has progressed enough for him to acknowledge that he actually needs to deal with this personal crisis rather than going for another one-night stand or drunken brawl, which means he is dangerously close to actually changing his trajectory. Spock has decided that his romance with Uhura must be sacrificed for more responsible pursuits (namely, the continuing of the Vulcan race). Although there is not all that much concern that Kirk or Spock will really leave each other-- at least not in any capacity that can't be fixed in a later movie --there is a question as to what will occur to seal the unity of the main crew of the Enterprise.

     Star Trek Beyond is by far the most original of the three movies. Where the first movie introduced familiar names and Into Darkness reimagined Star Trek's most celebrated villain, Beyond is free of the burden of exposition or nostalgia. In fact, Beyond makes decidedly fewer references to the original series, with very few winking remarks that only more hardcore fans will really catch. Beyond's villain Krall is both a new character and a new race for Star Trek, which allows the story a great deal of freedom with the characters' limitations and motives. The movie is more grounded, quite literally, as it takes place more on-planet rather than aboard the Enterprise. Characters are broken into unlikely pairings  (Spock with Bones, Kirk with Chekhov, Uhura with Sulu), giving a brief but usable opportunity to evaluate the characters away from their normal surroundings or chosen company. Ergo, very little about this particular conflict, setting, or plot direction feels familiar. 

     In most ways, Star Trek Beyond is not about any one particular crew member. Had this been the case for either of the two previous movies, it would have felt empty and unfocused, but works here because the movie depends on the audience's investment in the series as a whole. Certainly Kirk and Spock remain focal points among an ensemble, but their personal reflections about their lives quickly become unaffecting footnotes until the conflict dies down. Much of what the Enterprise crew faces in this installment simply would not work in an earlier story, so the level of severity of the conflict feels as appropriate as its unfamiliarity. Truthfully speaking, Star Trek Beyond is not a complex piece of storytelling, but it is executed with fidelity to the humor and action that we expect, and throws a few moderate twists into the wheel to add both intrigue and perspective.

     Star Trek Beyond is not a particularly deep movie except in post-cinematic analysis, but neither did it need to be. Action is exactly the sort of genre where lesser actors thrive by using the excesses of adrenaline indulgences and testosterone highs to distract from mediocre acting. Sci-fi action gets an additional crutch in that no one can criticize an alien humanoid for being acted poorly, because for all we know, that's how aliens behave. In such cases, actors are usually pawns to instigate fantastic action sequences with grand explosions. This is precisely why Star Trek Beyond is actually good-- it is a sci-fi action movie with every opportunity to take the low road and go for cheap thrills, but instead uses its established actors and their ownership of their characters to drive a movie that uses the adrenaline and grand explosions to frame a plot point, rather than the other way around. One notable exception to this, involving the Beastie Boys, is conducted with such grandiosity that the result, however absurd, is more smile-inducing (and head-pounding) than it is eye-rolling.

     If I can make any criticisms, they are fairly minor. As mentioned earlier, there is not all that much concern that Spock might really leave the Enterprise to oversee the founding of New Vulcan. If he did, we'd expect a fourth movie to bring him back somehow. Kirk's enticement to accept an Admiralty is moderately more concerning, but only because Shatner's Kirk did, and then regretted it. Still, the lack of tension that these ends might play out did not lessen the movie as a whole for me, so much as set up a few stakes beyond the usual saving humanity. Otherwise, newcomer Jaylah didn't really bring much to the story other than the cliche "you killed my father" grudge, and providing a way off the planet. She does use some rather fascinating technology, but is herself not a very captivating character.

     Star Trek Beyond is perhaps not the highest point in the trilogy, nor for sci-fi in general, but it's still a heck of a lot of fun. By the movie's end, the present conflict has been settled and the story wraps with the sort of ending that doesn't necessitate another movie, but certainly dangles the hope that we can look forward to another story in a few years that will boldly go into further adventures in the final frontier.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

In the Heart of the Sea

     It should be noted that if Moby Dick more resembled the grisly story that inspired it, fewer students would be loath to read it. For reasons that become obvious as the story unfolds, Melville used very few elements of the true story in his nautical epic. Rather, he allowed the true story of the Essex to fade over time, while the fictional tale of the ship Pequod has lived on for generations. As In the Heart of the Sea plays out onscreen, it becomes clear that Melville's choice was one of great propriety and decorum, possibly even compassion, ensuring that the heroes and villains of Moby Dick would always be great literary constructs, never immortalizing the gruesome truth of the Essex.

     Nantucket seems to be a difficult place to make one's way in the world, as Owen Chase realizes when his employers deny him a captaincy, despite his considerable experience as a seaman.Young Thomas Nickerson must take a position aboard a whaling ship at 14 years old to make a man of himself. Captain George Pollard, given command of the Essex ahead of Owen Chase, must live up to his established and respected family name. Mr. Matthew Joy is a recovering alcoholic faced with handling an especially stressful second mate position. No one here is singing about the glorious seas, the fathoms below, or the women back home. Whaling is no pretty picture, and no one is waxing eloquently about the magnificence of it. In the Heart of the Sea is no swashbuckling pirate tale, but a bleak and repulsive account of the harsh reality of being a whaler.

     From the very beginning, the Essex seems doomed to some sort of tragedy. First, Owen Chase, the most able person to captain the ship, is relegated to first mate. Second, George Pollard, the person who is given the captaincy, is an insecure man with relatively minimal experience and plenty to prove. Not only are the tensions high between the two men, but both of them have family pressure to contend with. Early in the trip, the inexperienced and pompous Captain Pollard proves himself willing to make foolish choices against better counsel, just to exert his authority. This choice significantly damages the Essex, which in turn harms their whaling practices. One ill turn deserves another, and the desperation for successful voyage drives the crew of the Essex into dangerous waters to hunt whales in a whale spawning ground. But at least one whale will have none of this.

     In a strange but historically accurate turn of events, a great white whale attacks the Essex, ultimately causing it to capsize. The men who survive this incident are then adrift in a few lifeboats, hundreds of miles from a regular whaling course, followed by the demon whale. Eventually, as the men expire from hunger, thirst, and madness, they must resort to eating the bodies of the deceased. On this particular point, In the Heart of the Sea handles the subject most decorously, referring to the practice by dialogue only, and demonstrating properly the repulsion that all the men feel at taking this measure. Most disturbing is not that the men resort to utilizing the dead for their survival, but that one boat of survivors resorts to drawing straws to determine who should be executed for the purpose.

     For all I know, In the Heart of the Sea may have been an attempt to put Chris Hemsworth in a non-Thor role to test his true acting chops. Whether or not Hemsworth shows any talent here not already seen elsewhere is an easily answered question-- no. Is he bad? No, and it's not even that he portrayed his character with infidelity; it's simply that this movie doesn't really present an opportunity for anyone therein to be anything but angry, distressed, confused, or dying/drunk, which everyone does at some point or another, but never in truly extreme demonstrations. Cillian Murphy, always woefully under-appreciated, masterfully presents all these things at once, and then promptly disappears.

     In the Heart of the Sea never stood much chance at being a popular movie; not when its claim to fame is that the story inspired one of the most tedious reads ever to be forced upon resentful adolescents. The producers seem to have understood this, because the movie doesn't bother itself with A-list actors, stunning visuals, or soaring music. It takes the tone of a Verne narrative, embraces its pace and straightforward story, and presents an interesting and moderately accurate portrayal of the time period and the events therein. It's an entertaining watch, but not much of a standout. As a story however, the facts are thought-provoking. In the Heart of the Sea impresses that Melville not exploiting the sordid details of the account of the Essex was an act of strangely generous decency, allowing the only villain we know in association with a great white whale to be the fictitious Captain Ahab. That decency is something that is lost on modern media-mongering audiences, but strikes a chord of heroism to those who will think through its implications.