Haiku film review #076 – Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

The Mowgli you love.
Only much darker, less fun.
And largely pointless.

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Film review – Shirkers (Sandi Tan, 2017)

‘Shirkers’ is a quite remarkable documentary film. Written and directed by Sandi Tan, it tells the story of a potentially groundbreaking film created in 1992 by a group of three teenage girls in Singapore, the reels of which went missing shortly after filming wrapped, disappearing along with the enigmatic director.

Tan was one of the three young aspiring filmmakers behind the film. Her interviews with fellow creators Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique, both interviewed here and clearly heartbroken over their loss, reveal a truly enthralling mystery surrounding the film.

The director, Georges Cardona, is a name unfamiliar to most. It is unlikely that he was the man that inspired James Spader’s character in ‘Sex, Lies and Videotapes’, but Cardona wouldn’t let that get in the way of a good story. The picture painted of him here is one of a man full of lies. It’s a man desperate to succeed himself and not let anyone else around him get anywhere without him. There’s also a hint of inappropriate behaviour here – why was a married 40-something-year-old man going on a road trip across the USA with an 18-year-old girl?

As it all unfolds, it’s obvious how frustrating it is for all those involved. This was an exciting passion project that was already picking up a bit of buzz around the industry, which never saw the light of day. Had it been released, it could have had a huge impact on the Singapore film industry and the lives of those behind it.

Sadly, all we can see is the soundless footage and a remorseful memory of three young friends that lost a part of their youth, along with their friendship itself (in a recent interview with Vulture, Tan stated that the Sundance premiere was the first time her, Jasmine and Sophie were all in the same room together in over twenty years).

‘Shirkers’ is a must-see for any young aspiring filmmakers. Actually, it’s a must-see for everyone at all interested in films.

Why Netflix’s new Mowgli film is a waste of time and money

Andy Serkis’s take on ‘The Jungle Book’ is a waste of time and money. There, I’ve said it. It’s not awful. It’s not offensive. It’s just not brilliant. And as such, it’s not necessary.

This is a much darker take than more familiar adaptations, in keeping to the original Rudyard Kipling stories. This leaves it in no-man’s-land, not suitable enough for children but too boring to be enjoyable for adults.

We’re treading familiar ground here. It’s the tale of Mowgli (the impressive Rohan Chand), who is taken on by a pack of wolves after becoming orphaned in a horrific opening scene involving Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch). There’s some character development as he learns how to live in the jungle with his animal friends, including black panther Bagheera (Christian Bale) and sloth bear Baloo (Andy Serkis, sounding like he’s about to offer you the latest Bet 365 betting odds). Cate Blanchett features sporadically and inconsequentially as Kaa, the Indian rock python.

What really doesn’t work is the facial motion capture. It makes the animals look odd and is a distraction from the story. I’m not an expert. All I know is that it doesn’t work.

The interesting part of the film comes when Mowgli arrives in the local village and starts to learn to become more human, which is something explored much less in other adaptations. It’s not amazing, but it does at least do something fresh with the material, and it results in a fresh climax to the story (particularly when Mowgli discovers a distastefully familiar menagerie).

It’s just a film that doesn’t make any sense in terms of why it was released. If the budget was anything like Disney’s live action adaptation, it was $175m. It’s a big loss to take for any studio, even one of the size of Warner Bros.

Watching this on Netflix is watching something designed for a big cinematic experience in a manner that feels like a compromise. If no previous film adaptation existed, it would maybe feel effective. As it stands, it’s just a poor business decision to plough on to complete this project in the knowledge you’ll finish second – both in speed of release and final quality.

The only singing vultures present here will be the critics.

A failure in almost every sense.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs v The Future of Independent Cinema in the UK

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is the latest feature film from the frequently-brilliant Coen Brothers, continuing their display of love towards the American Western genre. It is also their first for streaming platform Netflix, in a move that is becoming more and more common in the modern age of cinema.

The move to streaming platforms may feel progressive, but it isn’t great news for independent cinemas in the UK.

The film – more hit than miss

Watching ‘Buster Scruggs’, it’s easy to feel like you’re watching a Netflix series that has been mashed into a single film, perhaps to allow it to be considered as an Oscar contender. If this is the case, it’s a shame, though it is understandable.

It is, as is often the case with vignette films, a little hit and miss. The opening titular short is a high point, with a hilariously-positive character singing his way through a killing spree. Tim Blake Nelson is a joy to watch and his interactions with the locals is shot to perfection (pun not initially intended). Both ‘Near Algodones’ and ‘The Gal That Got Rattled’ are memorable and very much work in their own right, making me long for more of an expanded narrative.

‘Meal Ticket’ has really stuck with me and I kept thinking about it many days after I saw it, with Harry Melling starring as a limbless performing artist working alongside Liam Neeson. It unravels at a depressingly effective rate, with the final scene leaving me on the edge of my seat for all the wrong reasons. A perfect example of short film-making.

Whilst the ‘All Gold Canyon’ short is largely forgettable, it isn’t bad. It’s really a shame that the final vignette, ‘The Mortal Remains’, is such a disappointing way to finish the feature. It is neither emotionally effective nor steeped in humour, and it doesn’t really have much to say. It’s a missed opportunity to perhaps tie the previous five shorts together, at least with a thematic link. Instead it confirms the suspicions that these were six independently-realised pieces of art that function in their own right.

The Coen Brothers may deny it but it doesn’t run like a movie. The overarching theme is ‘American Western as a genre’ rather than there being a connecting emotional theme or associated character. Thankfully, it is a genre that the film-makers know how to handle and the results are more hit than miss.

The shift from ‘cinema as art’ to ‘cinema as disposable commodity’

Having recently become a father, Netflix is very convenient for me, but I’d never opt to experience a film at home if there’s an option to see it at the cinema. You can’t quite appreciate the magic of the cinema when watching on a small screen at home.

My main criticism, therefore, is that it was released in an exclusive deal with Curzon cinemas in the UK. As it happens, my location means I have close access to three brilliant independent cinemas: QUAD in Derby, Phoenix in Leicester and Broadway in Nottingham. Sadly, not one of these is part of the Curzon group; my nearest Curzon is 64 miles away in Sheffield. This led to Jake Harvey (Phoenix, Leicester), Caroline Hennigan (Broadway Cinema, Nottingham), Adam J Marsh (Quad Cinema, Derby) and the owners of twelve other independent cinemas to write an open letter to Netflix to reconsider their policy.

I sit on a film discussion group panel and I know that a good number of the members do not subscribe to any online streaming service. My mother, who previously attended a Coen Brothers discussion course with me, has no means of watching ‘Buster Scruggs’ unless it’s on at a cinema. By making this exclusive to Curzon, they have excluded a large demographic of their potential audience.

‘Buster Scruggs’ follows excellent Netflix exclusives like Annihilation, Okja and Roma, all critically acclaimed and well-received by cinephiles. They even funded the completion of a posthumous release from director Orson Welles. The quality is undeniable. The problem isn’t in the quality. It’s in the lack of support to  the truly independent cinemas that have supported non-mainstream releases for so long.

As it turns out, ‘Buster Scruggs’ is the first Coen Brothers film in over a decade I haven’t watched at the cinema. For me, this is a great shame and it’s saddening to think this is where some great directors are taking their latest pictures.

Overall, this is a mostly great film that some fans of the Coen Brothers will enjoy on the big screen, depending on a combination of a geographical lottery and your willingness to drive. For the rest of us, we’ll have to settle for the small screen and an increasing temptation to skip the bad segments, facilitating the shift from ‘cinema as art’ to ‘cinema as disposable commodity’.

Film review – Wonder Wheel (Woody Allen, 2017)

I’ve been a fan of Woody Allen since my late teenage years, when I chanced upon a film called ‘Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid To Ask)’, following the release of a similarly-titled compilation album by record label Twisted Nerve. It was a vignette film that made a huge impression on me, utilizing comedy in a way I wasn’t really familiar with at the time.  The final short ‘What Happens During Ejaculation?’, which featured Allen as a sperm ready for deployment but nervous about his chances, was a masterclass in absurdist comedy.

There’s still a lot of his work that I’m yet to see, but his most recent films are always a welcome joy and haven’t failed to impress me in recent years, even when they have been poorly received by critics.

‘Wonder Wheel’, Allen’s latest feature, is a solid entry into his filmography with all the charm you’d expect from a master of his craft. It’s inevitable that a pairing him with Kate Winslet in a lead role is a success. This is only improved by a brilliant supporting cast of Justin Timberlake, Jim Belushi and Juno Temple.

Set in the 1950s on Coney Island in New York, the story revolves around Ginny (Winslet), who works in a cafe on an amusement park. Her husband Humpty (Belushi) is a recovering alcoholic with anger issues. She is secretly having an affair with Mickey (Timberlake), a lifeguard on the Coney Island beach. The film opens with a 4th-wall-breaking monologue from Mickey, and we’re soon after introduced to Carolina (Temple), Humpty’s estranged daughter who has shown up because she is on the run from her mobster husband.

This certainly feels like a play that’s been turned into a film, and with a few tweaks you’d only need three settings to stage this with no compromise to the story. It’s a classic four-person play, with each  getting plenty of character development. Bu in reality this is Winslet’s film and she is on top of her game from start to finish. Her character is desperate for her life to change and sees her affair as her way out. When this is compromised, the film starts to really draw you in and it allows Winslet to yet again prove she is one of the finest actors of her generation.

A recurring effect Allen utilises is in the colour washes used to reflect Ginny’s changing moods, reminiscent of a technique used by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (notably in 2015’s Journey To The Shore). Her emotions towards her husband tend towards a blue wash, whilst her dealings with Mickey are paired with brilliant oranges and blues to signify the hope and warmth she feels around him. It’s a simple technique that isn’t used subtly, but it’s very effective.

My only reservation is that it lets itself down with an ending that fizzles out rather than resolving itself either way, and the final scenes feel compromised somehow, like they rushed the writing and filming to meet a deadline. This doesn’t make it a terrible film, it just means it isn’t an excellent film.

This may prove to be the last regular entry into the Woody Allen filmography, with continued controversy discouraging actors to take part in projects headed up by Allen. His next, ‘A Rainy Day in New York’, is yet to have a release date. It appears unlikely that any more films will see the light of day. He has just celebrated his 83rd birthday.

I’m able to separate the allegations from the art, which is something I am aware sits uncomfortably with a great many people. For me it’s a shame that the final film may never be released and will inevitably serve as a tainted bookend to an illustrious career.

Film review – They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson, 2018)

Peter Jackson’s World War One documentary ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ does a great job in telling the story of some of the front-line soldiers, from the outbreak, through training and joining the war effort and finally returning home. This is achieved partly through archive audio from the BBC, which is interesting in its own light, but not really what this film will be remembered for.

The really mesmerizing and memorable part of this film is the visual footage, which Jackson has sourced from the Imperial War Museum as part of their 14-18 Now initiative. The team working on this film have taken whatever was available and worked wonders. It now looks vibrant and sharp and immediate, with no signs of what was probably very grainy footage used as the source material. The claim that it would look like it was filmed last week rather than 100 years ago is perhaps a little too far-fetched, but it isn’t far off.

In most places, the footage is accompanied by audio dubbing from actors, reading lines as determined by expert lip readers and matched to the visuals. It is, literally, The Great War as you’ve never seen it before.

It only falls short near the end where it feels like they were running out of source material and needed to re-use some video footage – one shot appears four or five times in a short period. It doesn’t spoil anything; indeed it serves in part to underline how precious what little footage that remains is to the project and how lucky we are to see anything so beautifully restored. Whether that effect could have been achieved with fifteen minutes cut out of it is another question.

It’s not the best documentary I’ve seen recently, but it is technically one of the best restoration jobs I’ve ever seen. There will undoubtedly be a debate about whether he went too far – detractors will say he could have simply restored the footage rather than also enhancing it – but the detail and beauty it has revealed is more than worth the risk.

You can do much worse than allowing yourself to be absorbed into this masterpiece of restoration.