Film #260: The Jungle Book (2016)

the-jungle-bookdirector: Jon Favreau
language: English
length: 106 minutes
watched on: 6 Jan 2017 (plane 3/3)

It’s partially by coincidence that I only read the original Jungle Book a few months ago. I bought it a few years ago, actually, and like a lot of books in my room, it’s been sitting there for a while. But I think the release of this movie last year spurred me unconsciously into reading the book. And like the other two movies I watched before this one on the plane, it was one of my anticipated releases of last year that I didn’t get around to seeing in the cinema.

It’s a pseudo-live action adaptation, and it differs quite a lot from the 1960s Disney movie that everyone knows. I last watched that as an adult, but it was quite a few years ago nonetheless, so I can’t remember in great detail what happens. It’s supposed to be closer to the book – my thoughts here are that this sounds accurate, as it’s much clearer that Shere Khan is out to get Mowgli. It’s certainly more brutal than the earlier movie – in fact, this surprised me.

It still contains the two most famous songs from the original Disney movie, though (Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You), so it’s not completely abandoning its roots. I’d say they should perhaps use the songs from the book, but then I remember when Tim Burton tried to do this with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I’m glad they stuck with the Disney songs.

One thing I noticed was that there was observational comedy in the same vein as Finding Dory, with animal married couples squabbling, and so on. Bill Murray as Baloo continues in this vein, being very sarcastic.

Mowgli in this movie is played by the young Neel Sethi, who lends a very expressive face and a dynamism to his character, in an exceptionally physical role. He narrowly avoids overacting at times, but I was very pleased with his performance. Apparently he was even younger than the filmmakers had intended to hire, but I’m glad they went with him.

There are some pretty weird decisions at times – in general, the movie has realistic-looking animals, so (this might be a spoiler, not sure) when we meet King Louie in the scene with the monkeys, he’s the size of King Kong, a true giant, and it’s incongruous with the rest of the film. He’s also played in a typical monotone by Christopher Walken. It’s a star-studded cast indeed (and multi-ethnic to boot).

One of the main things I didn’t like was the episodic nature of the film. Mowgli is sort of propelled from danger to danger. I think this is the fault of the book, at the end of the day, but I didn’t feel like the story was tied together enough, and some characters disappear as soon as they appear. I could have sworn Kaa played a much bigger part in the 1960s film, for instance.

But it was a nice, funny film, and it had a solid message of accepting people’s differences. I think it’s definitely worth it just for the lead actor.

Anyone else seen it? What do you think?


Film #259: Your Name (2016)

kiminonawaaka: 君の名は。(Kimi no na wa)
director: Makoto Shinkai
language: Japanese
length: 106 minutes
watched on: 6 Jan 2017 (plane 2/3)

This movie has now become the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time, I heard. I actually missed it last year when it came out because it was still sold out when we tried to go. It’s still on in cinemas now, even. I heard the English-subtitled version is now on in Shinjuku (finally). I finally watched it on the plane, after Jason Bourne, and while I’d been looking forward to that film too, this was the one I really wanted to watch.

I’m kind of glad I managed to watch it with subtitles. I watched When Marnie Was There without them a couple of years back, and while I was able to understand most of the story, there were a few important details I missed out on. So this time I could understand everything.

The basic story is an unexplained body-swap that happens between two teenagers on opposite sides of the country – one boy in Tokyo (Taki) and a girl in the countryside somewhere (Mitsuha). The beginning of the film shows the two of them working out what’s happening and then rolling with it as if it’s normal. Body-swapping is nothing new, of course. This movie plays it for comedy a bit – initially Taki as a girl grabs her breasts and then acts very aggressively at school, while Mitsuha as a boy can’t work out which pronoun to use (a joke that is very hard to translate).

What people have been quite good at hiding is that there’s a twist about halfway through when we suddenly realize that (spoilers!) there’s also a time-travel element to the story, and the second act is very different from the first as a result. The plot takes on a much more layered and nuanced element from that point. I think to truly appreciate the many strands I’d have to rewatch it.

Recently when I watch movies, I’ve been scribbling notes about them (on a pad or on the notes app on my phone) as they go, kind of like liveblogging. For the last two movies it was mainly because I like to categorize the location, and Snowden and Bourne loved to travel constantly, and for a lot of the others, it’s to make the transition to this review smoother. But when I watched this film, I was so entranced I forgot to do it entirely, and as an afterthought, just wrote “wow” as my single note for the film. I think that fairly sums up my thoughts about the film.

Just to flesh out that opinion, though, I think the main thing I loved was the animation, especially the art design. It’s a lush film, to put it bluntly. The backgrounds are so detailed and colourful, and they’re incredibly realistic, too. The scenes in Tokyo are mostly set around Shinanomachi and Yotsuya, and I kept having that eery familiar feeling when I recognized the locations. I think the only other animation I know that’s been able to do that is Ghibli – I think it’s Only Yesterday (Edit: it’s actually Ocean Waves) that opens on the platform in Kichijoji station, where I lived for three years, which gave me a similar shock.

I’m quite glad I went with the crowd on this one. I was half-expecting some kind of hokey romance, especially when I first heard about it. So often the crowd in Japan just does what it’s told, and so much of the movies produced for the local market here are terrible, so to see something genuinely great is annoyingly rare. I’m trying to think of things I didn’t like about this film, actually, and coming up short. I guess the soundtrack is fairly uninspiring J-Rock… but I still liked the songs and want to try them at karaoke.

But anyway, this film is good and those who haven’t seen it yet should go out and see it. And if you have seen it… what did you think? Anything you’d like to add?

Film #258: Jason Bourne (2016)

jason-bournedirector: Paul Greengrass
language: English, and a bit of Greek and other European languages in the background
length: 123 minutes
watched on: 6 Jan 2017 (plane 1/3)

The Bourne series, with the notable exception of a certain sequel from a couple of years ago, was always one of my favourites growing up. For some reason I could never get into James Bond, but I found this series exciting. Of course, James Bond became more like Jason Bourne later, but I digress. I was looking forward to this movie, as Matt Damon was in it again and it was supposed to be pretty good, but I missed it in the cinema, and decided to watch it on my recent flight back to Japan after New Year.

A lot of themes tie in to Snowden pretty well – indeed, Snowden is name-checked at least once or twice by the film. The makers are trying to keep the series up to date with current affairs, it seems. Perhaps a couple of years out-of-date, though – the other major event is the Athens protests, featured in the opening act, which I think were in 2014 or 2015. Things are moving so fast recently!

Jason Bourne in this movie is trying to work out who his father is and why he died, still trying to work through the fog of amnesia, still gradually gaining his memory back. A lot of the film follows a similar plot to the first movie – he’s also followed from afar by a girl in the CIA, and he’s still seen as a major threat, but also someone they want to reintroduce into the fold. It still ends with that Moby song on the soundtrack. It still has a grumpy old man giving out the orders – this time it was Tommy Lee Jones (who I still have trouble telling apart from Robert DeNiro, for shame!), instead of Brian Cox in the first movie.

But like Snowden, it’s lost something of the spark of the first movie. The motives of the characters aren’t so interesting, for one thing, but I also found that the music was overused to try and ramp up dramatic tension. Even in scenes that should have been a breather between action setpieces (mainly the motorbike chase in Athens and a big car chase in Vegas later), the music is still beating on at machine-gun pace. I watched some characters walking up an escalator in an airport to that kind of music, as if something terrible was about to happen right then (it wasn’t). I found this very literally tiring, and started dozing off later on in the movie. I want to hearken back to Mad Max, actually: while I found that a very intense action movie, I never found it boring, and it also knew when to give its audience a brief breather. It also didn’t rely on trite CGI like Jason Bourne (and Snowden).

It’s a fun movie to an extent, but it’s not the return to form that I’d hoped it would be. I’m tempted to go back to The Bourne Identity to remind myself how these movies should be – with more of an element of surprise or tension throughout the movie because of the setup of Bourne’s amnesia, not desperately trying to cling to what tension they have left with mere musical cues. It’s a much better movie. This is just attempting to be nostalgia and not hitting the mark.

Film #255: Summertime (2015)

labellesaisonaka: La belle saison
director: Catherine Corsini
language: French (and a little bit of Spanish)
length: 105 minutes
watched on: 26 Dec 2016 (plane 6/6)

I mentioned in my review of the short film I watched on the way back to the UK that I’d been sifting through Air France’s selection for anything LGBT-related, and this film was basically the only one I could find (I had a vain hope that I might be able to find Quand on a 17 ans (Being 17), with proper subtitles, but it wasn’t to be). I heard about it last year because it was the opening event at the LGBT film festival in Tokyo (now called Rainbow Reel Tokyo – I wrote some reviews last year starting with this one), and if I’d had a little more time and money, I might have tried to go, but it didn’t make the cut, eventually.

The movie is about a country girl who goes to university in the city, in the 70s. She gets accidentally caught up in a feminist group, by saving one of them from an aggressive man – she then starts a passionate love affair with that woman. And so on. The other woman comes back with her to the countryside and tries to fit in, but finds it difficult.

Just opening with farmland vistas it was already shaping up to be very similar in tone and style to Being 17. That other movie also had farms and landscape almost acting like another character. Seasonality is also important – this time it’s summer in particular. The characters spend large parts of the second act lounging in fields and having picnics. There’s something very French about that, it makes me nostalgic for going on holiday there as a child. There’s also something very French about the frank nudity in the second act, incidentally – what else should we expect?

I’ve mentioned a lot recently the tendency for filmmakers to exaggerate the distinction between now and the periods they’re portraying, to the point that it becomes parody or cartoonish – I’ve noticed this in High-Rise, Toast, and Stranger Things, just to name a few. I was reminded of High-Rise in this movie by the fact that people are constantly smoking, at least in the Paris scenes – but these scenes are actually more evocative of nouvelle-vague due to that and a few other things, reminding me a lot of Jean-Luc Godard’s work.

There is a familiar tension between the city and country in this film, especially between the two leads – the one girl who has to go back to the countryside to take care of her mother and dying father, and the other who kind of follows her reluctantly and never fits in there. And of course with homophobia – attitudes to such things in liberal Paris are at odds with how the mother reacts late in the film when she finds out about the two women sleeping together.

The film touches on a much wider variety of issues than that, though – sometimes it feels like it’s making too much of an effort, in fact. But I really enjoyed it. It was uplifting, despite a lot of heartbreak and emotion. It had a lot of comedy moments, despite often being very sad. It chronicles the entire course of a love affair from beginning to end, over the course of a brief summer (as I mentioned, and as the title proclaims, seasons are very important), and I think that is one of the main things that differentiates it from Being 17, which is all about beginnings.

It can be all too easy when exploring the world of LGBT cinema to stick to your own gender – a lot of gay men don’t watch lesbian films and vice versa – and I don’t think I need to convince any lesbians to watch this. So this goes out to all the guys, and straight people, reading this review – watch this. It’s good.

Film #254: His Wedding Night (1917)

hwndirector: Roscoe Arbuckle (Fatty)
language: silent
length: 19 minutes
watched on: 26 December 2016 (plane 5/6)

Along with Cops, this was also in Air France’s Buster Keaton collection, and was randomly the one I decided to watch next. It’s actually not a Buster Keaton vehicle, and was made by another comedian I hadn’t heard of called Fatty Arbuckle. It’s a hundred years old this year.

Some things haven’t changed, and some things definitely have, in that century. I was going to say we don’t have comedians or characters who are just called Fatty, but then there is Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect. We’re also (sensibly) a bit more sensitive about consent and related issues than this movie, although the related tropes of the Nice Guy and the Friendzone are still around.

Basically this movie is about Fatty (a professional con, and liquor smuggler in prohibition-era America) and his girlfriend who he wants to marry. They’re very cute together. But his girlfriend has to fight off Al, the Rival – the original Nice Guy. He gets very aggressive when she rebuffs his advances (but he gets his just desserts, don’t worry). Buster Keaton shows up about halfway through, immediately falls flat on his face, as he’s wont to do, to deliver the girlfriend’s wedding dress. But he ends up showing it to her by trying it on himself – as a result, Al steals him away instead of the girlfriend. He tries to force the girl to marry him but he marries Buster instead. Gay marriage, how hilarious!!!

The cryptic comment about consent above is actually about a weird, and totally unnecessary, scene in which Fatty uses chloroform to knock out women who come into his drug store, so he can kiss them without their knowledge. He winks at the camera, like hey guys, wouldn’t you all love to do this? But he has to also knock out an old man in the corner who starts to complain. And the second woman he tries it on just drinks the chloroform and is on her merry way – wait, what? I dunno, except for generally adding to Fatty’s established con-man character (we already know that he swindles rich people and pushes liquor), it doesn’t really add to the movie. It’s an interesting look at what used to be acceptable. I’d hope that such scenes wouldn’t make it into a movie these days, but I fear that’s also not the case. But there is a vocal crowd who will call them out on that now. And it’s better that way.

Anyway, I wasn’t as impressed with this one as with Cops (one other issue was that it’s missing a soundtrack – Cops had a nice piano accompaniment, and I think this was supposed to but didn’t), but it was enjoyable, and it might be the earliest movie I’ve watched, except for some ancient shorts that are more akin to modern animated gifs. I was running out of time on the plane, though, and I was getting tired due to imminent jet lag, so I abandoned this series and went for another feature film, before it was time to land in Paris and continue back to Scotland from there.

Film #253: Cops (1922)

copsdirectors: Eddie Cline & Buster Keaton
language: silent
length: 18 minutes
watched on: 26 December 2016 (plane 4/6)

Pursuant to the discovery of the short film collection on Air France in which I found the last movie, I found a collection of remastered Buster Keaton movies in there. I’ve watched very few movies from Keaton’s period – indeed, this movie is me popping my Buster Keaton cherry.

It’s about twenty minutes long, obviously much shorter than I’m used to with modern movies, but it tells an entertaining story, if a bit fast-paced (part of that is the old-style camera work that makes everyone move really quickly). Through a series of increasingly unlikely coincidences, Buster finds himself being chased by a whole town’s worth of cops, having unwittingly stolen a family’s possessions and then ended up riding through the middle of a policemen’s parade. Meanwhile a bad guy throws a bomb into his lap and he’s blamed for it.

The climax is when Buster ends up on a ladder being used like a seesaw by policemen trying to catch him from either side, which is entertaining. He knows how to do physical comedy. I feel like it’s a lost art these days – it’s still around, but very few can do it properly. In contrast, it was positively necessary in the silent era.

Timeless (except for inflation – a horse in those days cost $5, apparently) and funny. I liked it so much I went straight to watch another.

Film #252: Children of History (2016)

cohaka: Les enfants de l’histoire
director: Aurélien Kouby
language: French
length: 5 minutes
watched on: 26 Dec 2016 (plane 3/6)

Air France had a really extensive selection of films this year, and instead of making the mistake of picking a random “comedy” movie from the list of French films (as I did last year to my dismay), I found the “short films” section. That’s basically how I watched six movies this time around: this one is only five minutes long. I picked this one because it seemed like a nice way to see some French talent, and I was searching through the list for anything vaguely LGBT-themed. This certainly has overtones of that, although the two subject matters are twelve years old, and I wouldn’t actually class it as an LGBT movie.

I think I’d class it as comedy, although subtle. The two boys are changing after a swimming class. The teacher tells them to hurry up, followed swiftly by chastising them for running – it’s that kind of humour. The white kid quizzes the other boy about his ethnicity (Jewish), and then proceeds to talk about how he found a photo of his grandparents doing a Hitler salute, which he demonstrates. The Jewish kid is initially dumbfounded and gets angry. But by the end of the five minutes he’s agreed that whatever the grandparents did, he can still be friends with the other boy. History is history, or something. The boy isn’t his grandfather.

It’s less of a film than a slice of life, or a fossilized moment. Interesting in passing, certainly, and it raised a chuckle. But unless you’re also going to catch an intercontinental Air France flight, you’re unlikely to come across it.

Film #251: The Infiltrator (2016)

infiltratordirector: Brad Furman
language: English and Spanish (plus a bit of French)
length: 127 minutes
watched on: 26 Dec 2016 (plane 2/5)

Just for a bit of a contrast to the movie I’d just watched, I decided to watch this thriller-type movie with Bryan Cranston. I heard about it a few months ago, and I guess I’m a fan of the guy. He’s a good actor, after all.

Drug cartels are, of course, no stranger to Bryan Cranston, but he’s on the opposite side of the conflict than he was in Breaking Bad this time, as a undercover CIA agent who pulls a sting on some bad guys, but not before becoming best friends with the guy at the head of the cartel. Apparently it’s based on a true story.

The movie is set in the 80s, and I think it’s partly so the makers had the excuse to homage some outrageous insults to the art of interior design and personal fashion. Cranston starts out the movie with a 70s porn ‘stache and Paul Rudd’s hair. There are also some “chic” design choices and a distinct lack of mobile phones. In that it’s very similar to Stranger Things, but that series was quite in-your-face about its dated style – this movie reminds you of it occasionally, pulling you slightly out of suspension of disbelief as you marvel at the weirdly shaped landline phone.

Drama comes because Cranston’s character can’t quite keep his family life and his alterego separate – he invents a fiancée to get out of sleeping with a hooker, which leads his CIA bosses to get angry but assign him a bombshell blonde as his potential wife, much to the chagrin of his actual wife. Later, he is accosted by one of his cartel buddies in a restaurant, and ends up punching out the waiter, in front of his wife, in order to save face.

I don’t really want to spoil the ending too much – the final scene worked pretty well, I thought. The problem is that the rest of the movie didn’t really make up for it. It dragged a bit in the unmemorable middle sections, but more importantly, the characters’ attitude to women is really atrocious. The amount of misogyny in this movie might be accurate and justified in the sense that this is what people are really like, but I don’t think the movie did a good enough job in denouncing this outright.

Whatever, really, though. The movie is enjoyable and all that, but it’s no classic. It doesn’t live up to Breaking Bad, of course. But I’m happy that Cranston is still getting heavyweight roles like this. I wonder if he’ll ever go back to comedy.

Anyone else seen this? What do you think?

Film #250: Finding Dory (2016)

findingdorydirector: Andrew Stanton
language: English
length: 97 minutes
watched on: 26 Dec 2016 (plane 1/6)

I put off going to see this movie in the cinema last year when it came out, and I regretted that immediately, because after a week or two, only the Japanese dub was on wide release, and I no longer had the chance to see it. So it was actually one of my eagerly anticipated releases of last year, and I finally had the chance to see it on the plane on the way back to the UK in December.

The movie starts off strongly – it jumps in with wry observations on character archetypes with a married couple of fish, and I started laughing from the beginning. So the movie is at least in safe hands, and it was enjoyable to watch, but it had a much less universal appeal than Finding Nemo – a true modern classic. I found this one was much more aimed at children, and the inclusion of some characters, such as the turtles near the beginning of the film, seemed tokenistic, as if to please younger audiences.

Back when I wrote that last review of Finding Nemo, Finding Dory had been announced, and I wasn’t so excited about it. I still don’t really see why Dory has to have an origin story (although this movie explains why she can speak Whale, and read). I’m overall pleased with this result, actually, but the other main problem I had with it was it was trying to recreate the success of the earlier movie by doing the same thing again. Marlon, Nemo’s dad, has a particularly annoying lack of character development – he’s exactly the same ball of anxiety he had been at the beginning of the last movie, not seeming to have learned any lessons. In this movie, Nemo has to condescendingly talk down to him to get him to do anything.

The new characters are great. My favourite was the octopus, who’s actually a septapus (although I heard later that octopuses can regrow limbs), and the sarcastic British sea lions are great. A lot of the fish that Dory meets in the movie have some kind of disability or weirdness about them like that – there’s the dolphin who thinks he can’t echolocate (although he can, actually), and the blind whale shark who keeps bumping into things. I think the message behind this – that one can thrive despite such ailments – is a laudable one, definitely.

I also liked seeing the fish characters interact with the aquarium environment, there were a lot of jokes to be had there.

And despite what I said in my review of Finding Nemo about Ellen Degeneres playing Dory whinily, I’ve always somewhat looked up to Dory as a character. I saw her central happy-go-lucky message from that movie as the little song she sings, “Just keep swimming swimming swimming”, inspiring in a literal and metaphorical sense. My mother still reminds me sometimes that I used it as a mantra when my anxiety was really bad a few years ago. Thanks, Mum, I guess… In this movie, we find out the origin of the song, as well as the other points about Dory that I mentioned above – but again, I think I was happier not knowing for certain where it’s supposed to come from, and just accepting it as it is.

I’m very glad I could finally see this movie, and I’m glad it wasn’t a bad movie, but it definitely doesn’t live up to the absurdly high standards of its predecessor. That’d be very difficult. Rehashing similar plots rarely works, though.

Film #181: The Master Plan (2015)

jonssonliganaka: Jönssonligan: Den perfekta stöten
Director: Alain Darborg
Language: Swedish with a little English, Russian, Finnish
Length: 91 minutes
Watched on: 6 January 2016 (return flight 3/3)

This was my risky wildcard movie on the plane – I think I couldn’t find any more English movies I wanted to watch, and they had a selection of various European countries’ movies. It’s a movie about a group of criminals doing a heist, a bit like Ocean’s Eleven but not as high-budget.

I found out when I looked it up online when I got home that the movie is part of a series, and is intended to be a reboot of that series, which was actually long-running in the 80s or something but pretty much unknown outside of Sweden. Apparently one of the characters changed gender inbetween times, too, so a lot of the comments on IMDB were either “This character is amazing as a woman” or “She sucks”. I thought she was good, personally.

I wouldn’t quite go so far as to say I’d struck gold with this movie, but… let’s say you get an bad wheat-to-chaff ratio when you rummage around the foreign-language section of airplane entertainment systems, and plane movies have been such a mixed bag for me recently, that I was glad that this movie was funny and passed the time well. I think its overall success will be and has been necessarily hampered by being in Swedish and it will not really get an audience outside its home country.

The pacing, especially at the beginning, reminded me a lot of Sarah Manning’s antics in the first two episodes of Orphan Black before all the shit went down, and the movie was well-paced as a result. The characters are easily-caricaturable archetypes, and the movie is stronger as a result: this is not the kind of movie that would take kindly to subtlety.

Compared to the other Swedish movies I’ve watched, it’s a far cry from Ingmar Bergman, and the Millennium trilogy is much darker, so I was glad to see some more diversity in the kinds of movies I see from that country. But since those other kinds of movies make the bulk of Sweden’s exported movies, one shouldn’t expect greatness from this, if one happens to find it available somewhere. It’s entertaining, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch the sequel.