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 – The Polka King (Maya Forbes, 2018)

Let me get this straight, right from the start. The Polka King is not a good film. It popped up on my Netflix feed as a recommended watch and I thought I’d give it a go. It didn’t look taxing and I’d had a long day. I had low expectations but still managed to be disappointed.

I now find myself in the embarrassing situation where I’ve never seen The Ten Commandments, Gone With The Wind, The Maltese Falcon, Boyhood, Crash, The Last of the Mohicans, The English Patient, Lawrence of Arabia, On The Waterfront, Unforgiven and Dr Zhivago but I have seen The Polka King.

For that, I should be entirely ashamed.

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Jack Black plays Jan Lewan, a real-life polka music band leader from Austria trying to make a living in the USA. He was imprisoned in 2004 for running a Ponzi scheme (or pyramid scheme). That’s pretty much the story. There are some highs and lows.

Importantly, there are very few laughs. In fact, I didn’t laugh once. It is set up like a comedy. Everyone involved is a comedic actor (the supporting cast includes Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman and Jacki Weaver). The pacing of the script felt like it wanted to be a comedy.

Yet, as Black phoned in his performance and went through the motions of delivering on a part he was only vaguely interested in, I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to some of the great comedy releases from Red Hour Productions that include Tropic Thunder, Zoolander, Tenacious D in the Pick Of Destiny and DodgeBall, and wonder whether Ben Stiller simply wasn’t available to oversee this production.

There are some great Netflix Originals out there to be watched and enjoyed. This just isn’t one of them.

Film review – Little Evil (Eli Craig, 2017)

If the thought of a horror-comedy fills you with dread, if not for the scary monsters then more for the fact that they usually fall short of whatever they’re trying to achieve, then fear not. Little Evil may not truly be a great horror film, nor is it a hilarious comedy, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. For those wanting something lighthearted this Halloween there are much worse ways to spend 95 minutes.

Adam Scott stars as Gary, a real estate worker who has married Samantha (Evangeline Lilly), who comes with baggage in the form of her son Lucas (Owen Atlas), who Gary suspects may be the Antichrist. As he unravels the truth behind his new stepson, he is forced to form unlikely bonds in a race against time to save his family and the world.

There are supporting roles from the brilliant Bridgett Everett, Donald Faison, Chris D’Elia, Kyle Bornheimer and a surprising cameo by Sally Field, though this is less surprising when you learn that director Eli Craig is her son. It’s an ensemble cast that are able to provide plenty of humour to keep the wagon rolling without ever feeling like it stutters.

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The film is peppered with nods to horror greats, presumably so that fans of the genre will giddily point at the screen and say “Oh, that’s the clown from Poltergeist!” at their less-versed friends. Of course, the more likely reaction is a roll of the eyes and silence, but the references are done in good faith. Sure, giving the child a 6th birthday on 6th June is fairly obvious, but not all comedy has to be subtle to be successful.

There is a worry that the film lacks any memorable gags and also fails to produce any striking horror set-pieces, though the movement of the buried-alive scene to the start of the film provides an impactful opening.

Adam Scott is a great leading man here, producing a relatable everyman who wants to make things work despite obvious signs that something is awry. There’s an art to his delivery of disbelief that only he seems to notice that Lucas is hiding something. It’s good to see him in a more prominent role than he is usually given.

Eli Craig has produced a fine follow up to his breakthrough film Tucker and Dale vs Evil. It has found a suitable home on the VOD service Netflix, which reduces the risk of it being a flop at cinemas and will undoubtedly increase viewership in the October double-header of Friday 13th and Halloween. It is notable, however, that it has quickly vanished from the front page of the service, making foot-fall traffic a little less likely.

Incidentally, Tucker and Dale vs Evil is also available on Netflix. If you’ve seen neither, Little Evil should be the one you approach second.