Posts by hutchwp

Sole writer at http://cinemaetc.co.uk

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.

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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.

Zavvi Disney Steelbooks – An update

In February 2017, I published an article that criticised Zavvi’s policy on Disney steelbooks. I still stand what I said at the time, because the situation was dire and frustrating. There had been 35 brilliant releases from them, but the new items had started to dry up before dropping off a cliff. To make matters worse, they’d started re-releasing some of the more popular films again with lenticular cases.

Whilst the article was written out of anger, the result was something of a pleasant surprise. Lilo and Stitch was made available immediately after the article went out. Since then, we’ve seen a five further items hit the Zavvi online store:

Atlantis The Lost Empire

Meet The Robinsons

The Rescuers Down Under

Bolt

Basil the Great Mouse Detective

This is all fantastic news, giving the steelbook collectors hope that finally we’ll get a full set of Disney releases that are in the same format and with consistent packaging.

So what’s left? Well, there’s good news and bad. We’ll deal with the former first…

WHAT’S LEFT TO RELEASE AND CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY IN THE UK?

Fun and Fancy Free
Disney Classic #9
Originally released on September 27, 1947
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
Disney Classic #11
Originally released on October 5, 1949
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
Disney Classic #22
Originally released on March 11, 1977
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Oliver & Company
Disney Classic #27
Originally released on November 18, 1988
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Dinosaur
Disney Classic #38 (US numbering)
Originally relased on May 19, 2000
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Home on the Range
Disney Classic #44 (UK numbering)
Originally relased on April 2, 2004
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Chicken Little
Disney Classic #45 (UK numbering)
Originally relased on November 4, 2005
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Wild
Disney Classic #46 (UK numbering)
Originally relased on April 4, 2006
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

WHAT DOESN’T CURRENTLY HAVE A UK BLU-RAY RELEASE?

Saludos Amigos
Disney Classic #6
Originally released on August 24, 1942
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Three Caballeros
Disney Classic #7
Originally released on December 21, 1944
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Make Mine Music
Disney Classic #8
Originally released on April 20, 1946
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Melody Time
Disney Classic #10
Originally released on May 27, 1948
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Black Cauldron
Disney Classic #25
Originally released on July 24, 1985
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Winnie the Pooh
Disney Classic #51
Originally released on July 15, 2011
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK, but is available in the US

WHAT NEXT?

So that leaves eight releases that Zavvi could realistically issue in the future. Given their rate of release recently, this could well happen in the next few months.

Where the issues will arise is with the remaining films that are yet to be issued in the UK on Blu-ray. 2011’s Winnie The Pooh reboot seems fairly attainable since we know there’s an HD Blu-ray transfer that is on sale in North America.

The remainder present a real issue, but what can be said is that it’s completely out of Zavvi’s hands. They can’t issue a special edition case for a release that doesn’t have a standard edition.

Interestingly, a gorgeous 55-disc boxset of all of the films has gone on sale at Zavvi. It lists five films as being unavailable on Bluray.

It also excludes entirely the 2011 Winnie The Pooh film, along with Dinosaur (which Kel Smith kindly pointed out is excluded in listings of Disney Animation Studios films in the UK), though it includes The Wild (Dinosaur’s replacement).

So, it’s a slightly confusing situation, but the current activity gives me hope that we’ll finally get as far as we can with the Zavvi steelbook collection.

Fingers crossed for the coming months.