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Blu-Ray Review: ‘THE JUNGLE BOOK’

Synopsis: “Raised by a family of wolves since birth, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) must leave the only home he’s ever known when the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) unleashes his mighty roar. Guided by a no-nonsense panther (Ben Kingsley) and a free-spirited bear (Bill Murray), the young boy meets an array of jungle animals, including a slithery python and a smooth-talking ape. Along the way, Mowgli learns valuable life lessons as his epic journey of self-discovery leads to fun and adventure.” Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘THE WALK’

A good 70% of The Walk is garbage. Between the hideous choice to have Phillipe Petit (Joseph Gordon Levitt putting on his best French accent) narrate his life story from the torch of a terribly-rendered CGI Statue of Liberty and the objectively ham-fisted dialogue that socks its themes on the nose as often as possible, The Walk is filled with delinquent script problems and even more face-palming directorial choices (a la endless narration from the f*cking Statue of Liberty). However when Petit mounts his wire, strung between the world’s tallest buildings and begins his walk, the problems fade like morning fog into a harrowing, white-knuckle sequence of sky-high daring that makes Evel Knievel himself look soft. But is that enough to account for the dumbed-down, borderline horribly executed set-up? Of course not. Read More

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Out in Theaters: SELF/LESS

Tarsem Singh is an tough cookie to crack. On the one hand, he’s hailed as a visionary director; a masterful craftsman of colorful aesthetics and esoteric tone. And yet, his catalog of works is filled with laudable, though often graceless, misfires. From 2000’s J Lo-starrer The Cell to sword ‘n’ sandals CGI-fest Immortals (which seemed little more than  300-lite) and onward to his recent Snow White comedy Mirror Mirror, Singh hardly has one entry in his portfolio to unequivocally celebrate. Nor has he really delivered a true stinker. That trend continues in 2015 with a thinking man’s actioner that forgot the thinking man aspect with Self/Less.

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Out in Theaters: EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS

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If there’s one thing Ridley Scott‘s Exodus: Gods and Kings gets right it’s the amount of hairstyles Christian Bale can rock in one movie. I stopped counting after about the eight iteration of mangy hair/trim beard to mangy beard/trim hair transformation. Eventually some gray enters the mix. It’s very life affirming.

That ever changing facial hairiness belongs to Moses, the badass war commander from the Bible. See you may mistakenly remember Moses as a peace loving, water-parting, commandment-carrying lover of all things Hebrew but Scott’s film reminds us of his true roots: slicin’ and dicin’ Barbarian hordes. Because what is a Ridley Scott movie without scene of “civilized” warriors running down rudimentary inferiors? In 3D, it’s all the more punishing.

Moses starts the film as a Prince of Egypt, a devout servant to the Egyptian throne and underling to the one and only Jesus (John Turturro with drawn on eyebrows). Moses is the cousin to hairless heir Rhamses, an antagonist with a serious case of the Charlie Browns and an even worse case of miscasting. Moses advices Rhamses in matters of … uh…  untold things? and tries to quell his overly developed Commodus qualities by being sword twinsies. Plucked right from Gladiator, Jesus (ok fine, Turturro’s real name is Seti) tells Moses he wishes that it could be him who takes the reins after his demise, but alas! that vexing bloodline thing! After a fraudulent Ben Mendelsohn ousts Moses as a Hebrew with a birthright (that being a birthright to drown in a river like all those other pesky Hebrew babies), Rhamses throws a hissy and gives Moses the boot from his kingdom of pyramids and cat statues. Plagues follow.

For what feels like forty days and forty nights, the film is as much of a slog as its title implies. The diaspora of narrative is as thinned out as Moses’ herd of hungry hungry Hebrews. No stone is left unturned as the screenplay by committee (four credited screenwriters) make room for just about every uninteresting element in Moses’ 120 year long life. See Moses struggle with leaving his (Muslim?) family, Moses trekking there and back again and then back again and then back again, Moses’ teach his flock to rise and rise again until lambs turn to lions and, finally, Moses waiting horrified in the wings as God unleashes a lashing of super gnarly pandemics.

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Squatting somewhere on a fence between super-naturalism and realism, Exodus never can make up its mind about how pragmatic it wants its divinity to be. The whole celestial curse comes with a footnote of “How the Plagues Could Have Actually Happened” (narrated by the film’s best Ewen Bremmer lookalike) that mostly involves alligator fights and acne. As things heat into a realm of “don’t mention it” magical realism, a deathly hallow of blackness consumes the lives of first borns a big fat dementor. When Scott gets around to revealing God as a neatly shaved, petulant child with an overdeveloped sense of vengeance, things get laughable.

Bale, as always, is up to the task, even if the film itself is not. He gives his all to Moses. Both the battle-worn soldier and the identity-confused harbinger of commandments are juicy with Bale’s overzealous commitment to character. The rest of the performances are disposable at best. Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, who FEELS NO PAIN!!!!) peeks around corners and catch Moses in the act of talking to God (aka talking to a bush like a madman) not once, not twice but a heaving four times.

Ben Kingsley shows up because it’s a movie about Egypt so Ben Kingsley has to show up. Signourney Weaver is stuffed inside some horrendous Egyptian dress to spout out some vitriol about something or other and then never reappear. But it’s Edgerton who suffers most under the weight of Rhamses’ stupidly whitewashed part. The character is dumb enough before draping itself in pale yellow anacondas.

To watch Exodus is to endure exodus. At 150 mins, it’s easily one of the most taxing films of the year and surely one of its least inspired blockbusters. Darren Aronofsky struggled to find his footing in Noah and misstepped more than once, but at least there was some kind of palpable driving force behind that film. Here, it’s a challenge to make heads or tails of the intent. It seems like a $140 million dollar tax write off starring Christian Bale’s hair-growing abilities.

D+

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Out in Theaters: THE BOXTROLLS

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The Boxtrolls
, Laika Studios‘ third outing, sees more of the fledgling studio’s highly-demanding, signature stop motion animation come to life onscreen, flush with smart, though not game changing, camerawork and charming characters aplenty. Directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi with a script adapted from Alan Snow‘s “Here Be Monsters”, The Boxtrolls follows a orphaned boy growing up with in underground society of steampunk, gadget-friendly trolls, unfairly maligned by society overhead.

Isaac Hempstead Wright (Game of Thrones) is Eggs, so named because the box that clothes his is an old eggs box. This is SOP in Boxtroll world. A squat-faced troll with a high heel on his box is called “Shoe”. Oil Can has an oil can on his box as Fish’s box, you guessed it, has a doodle of a fish skeleton. Blink and you’ll miss the troll named “Fragile.” Adopted by this society of cardboard-wearing, nonsense-talking troglodytes, Eggs joins his brethren trolls on missions to hunt down useful garbage from the city streets above but must be careful to avoid the vigilant net of Archibald Snatcher. For years the city has commissioned Snatcher to hunt down and capture all the Boxtrolls, assuming an incident in which a baby went missing was on their three-fingered hands.

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Those first handful of minutes spent with Eggs, Fish and Shoe are without words and are nonetheless quietly moving. Similar almost to Wall-E, the absence of language doesn’t alienate us from these characters so much as let us get to know them from an emotional perspective. They goobly gook their way through things, like mute children. Without all the chatty chatty, we become fast friends with these ruckus-causing nocturnal hermits through their actions and their innocence.

As Snatcher, Sir Ben Kingsley – in nearly unrecognizable voice work – chews through scenery like it’s bubble gum. He pontificates evilly, obsessed with the one thing in the world that he cannot have: power… or is it cheese? It’s confusing because in the world of The Boxtrolls, they go hand in hand. The city leaders, The Men in White Hats, sit around and consume imported cheeses like they’ve just finished a stint on Survivor. Rather than sign the proposition for a new children’s hospital, they dine on a foreign Gruyere or a odorous bleu. The jabbing political undertones laid throughout are as subtly hysterical as Snatcher’s sole mission to access the revered tasting room, even though he is dangerously allergic to cheese.

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Strange, singular character motivations like that work so well for Boxtrolls that we almost forget to care about how this story has been told a thousand times before. Snatcher is the perfect movie baddie just as his philosophical sidekick Mr. Trout (Nick Frost) is the perfectly muddy moral compass. Frost’s bumbling yet well-meaning character is responsible for an unmatched percentage of the laughs. Even with sparse screen time, he whips the comedy into shape like the folks in Paranorman never could.

Missing though in The Boxtrolls is the dark palette that had defined previous Laika efforts Paranorman and Coraline and with it much of the really next level visual flourishes. In Paranorman, the sky turns to breathtaking streaks of neon purple and afterlife green. In Coraline‘s third act, the claymation world comes to piece in bits and strips and it makes for absolutely stunning work. In Boxtrolls, the environs stagnate and fail to provide a sense of artistic progress. Further, there’s really only three or four settings for the entire film. In their sandbox, they play beautifully. I just wish there was more to the sandbox.

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But that’s because this time around, Laika has moved the focus onto the characters, who look better realized than ever before. They’re much less choppy, almost to the point of appearing to be the work of CGI. Surprisingly in this case, with more precision comes more charm. And though The Boxtrolls is an unequivocal step up from the visually stunning but emotionally lacking Paranorman, it unfortunately doesn’t come close to the crazy heights of Coraline. Perhaps I have an unfair appraisal of Coraline (the first time I saw it, I pulled an unprecedented move and immediately watched it again) but you need a ladder to heaven to achieve such animated perfection. Though still in the shadow of that artistic behemoth, Boxtrolls is one of the finest animated films of the past few years.

B+

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Out in Theaters: ENDER'S GAME

“Ender’s Game”
Directed by Gavin Hood
Starring Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Moises Arias, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
114 Mins
PG-13
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Ender, a natural born strategist, waxes philosophy like he’s Sun Tzu. Taking “The Art of War” to its next logical step, Ender believes it’s not enough to understand his enemy. For him, truly understanding your enemy comes hand-in-hand with loving them. When you know someone well enough to predict their moves militarily, you glimpse into their soul. All at once, this zen of inter-connectivity gives Ender an upper hand in battle but also puts him in a constantly state of moral dread. He knows he can be a mighty conqueror the likes of Caesar but doesn’t know if he should be.  

Based on the popular young adult novels by Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game is built on a foundation of tough philosophical questions like these. Tackling ethical issues that date back to the dawn of fighting with sticks and stone and span to our current climate of piloted drone warfare, moral quandaries are given precedence in the film, but often come across as heavy-handed and poorly thought through.

For a movie entirely about tactics, it’s lacking in tactical approach to philosophy as process. Socrates, famous for breaking down prejudices in order to reach universal truths championed the dissection of established beliefs through reasoning alone. To discover truth, he used critical analysis to better understand the world around him and the many false beliefs that dominated society at large. Here, Ender’s Game is philosophy as a means to an end, an “I told you so” of childish rashness rather than a contemplative, almost meditative, study. Rather than a thought process, here philosophy is a bat. Like Bonzo, you’ll want to be sure to cover your head from the beat downs to come.

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Philosophical dissection of Ender’s Game aside, the film floats by on the freckled charm of Asa Butterfield (Hugo). Unlike his peers, Ender has a preternatural tact for foreseeing the consequences, good and bad, of his physical actions and a pension for using violence to prevent future violence. Butterfield does a fine job at conveying the dueling nature of Ender’s innocence and incessant scheming. At once aggressive and acutely aware of his dangerous aggression, Ender is a morally complex character – a suiting trait for the morally complex world he inhabits.

On Earth, 50 years have passed since a devastating alien attack almost wiped out the planet’s population. Like a post-9/11 America, tapestries hang in offices and homes alike, wallpapering sentiments of “Never Forget.” At the hands of the bug-like Formics, Earthlings faced their demise but managed a narrow victory in a play of much-celebrated battlefield bravado. One man, we are told, single-handedly chased the enemy off and ever since, Earth has awaited the return of their ruthless enemy, all the while training legions of child soldiers.

Picked as the last hope for humanity, children are utilized for their fast processing skills, unfaltering obedience, and gullible code of honor. Ender is chosen to lead not because of his tendency towards violence but because of his thought process within said violence. Never the one to start a fight but always the one to finish it, he’s not a sadist, but a tactician. For these qualities, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) sees Ender as the ideal candidate to lead Earth’s troops into the final battle with the Formic.
   
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Joining Butterfield is a legion of youth actors that act little more than their age. Moises Arias as Bonzo and Hailee Steinfeld as Petra both do caricatures of the seething bully and flirty love interest but Abigail Breslin as Ender’s sister Valentine is really the most reined in of these child performers. Her character is harmony, her performance refined, a nice counterpoint to the violent lifestyle that Ender’s profession has surrounded him by. She and bullying older brother Peter are the fulcrum points around which Ender measures himself. As Colonel Graff says, he needs to fall somewhere between them. He must harness both violence and peace – he must become a cocktail of serenity and rage.

As Ender trains to become a commander, he must undergo physical challenges that hone his motor skills and mental games meant to whet his battlefield acuity. In a turn of revamped Quidditch – except without brooms, magic, or gravity – the “launchies” spent most of their days training in an arena-based game of space dodge-bullet, where they earn points for blasting each other with stunners. Like Quidditch, the game can be won, regardless of points accumulated, if one team member passes through their opponents’ gate unscathed. Unlike Quidditch, this tournament has bearing outside the arena as the victor will go on to lead Earth’s army against the evil bug aliens. Perhaps this convoluted plot point is more an issue with the source material than the movie, but I’ve never heard of a Superbowl winning team captain going on to lead an army.

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Why the young launchies must spend so much time pushing their bodies to the limit when all eventual warfare is exclusively done through drone command is never addressed. Nor is the fact that regardless of the grueling training, none of the launchies – all of whom are on one side or the other of the scrawny-to-chubby spectrum – seem to put on any bulk or shed any pounds. They’re all in the same physical shape as day one. Surely this has to do with the fact that the film employs underage performers, and you can’t quite push a 12-year old to shed pounds like Christian Bale, but oversights like this are noticeable throughout and work to diminish the sense of reality director Gavin Hood is working so hard to create.

As the film pushes towards a close, the inevitable last act twist is somewhat foreseeable but nevertheless cements the relative worth of the film. Barking out commands with the crackly voice of a teen in metamorphosis, Ender leads his troops to video-simulated victory after victory until a crushing reality is revealed: maybe it’s not a game after all.

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In blurring the lines between video game violence and real world violence, Hood explores the hefty moral consequences of drone warfare, even when he’s being too clunky for his own good. While I admit to not having read the book, the ending comes out of left field, begging for a sequel and an impending franchise. There’s a delicate art to franchise building that used to revolve around worth but nowadays is left at the behest of the filmmaker. It’s as if a “what comes next?” cliffhanger is a necessity for any movie that costs over $100 million dollars. The question is: if you build it, will they come?

While the communist undertones, expressed here as the “hive mentality,” may be outdated now, many of the issues seen in Ender’s Game are even more relevant today than they were when it was written (i.e. drone warfare, bullying, surveillance, video game violence, child soldiers, etc.) However, Hood can’t help himself but to let them fly in your face, like the drilling of drones in the film’s finale, never really developing the ever-important why? behind it all.

C

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