Jon Favreau

The Lion King

19/07/19

Much to the dismay – and often outright incredulity – of every millennial I know, I’ve never seen the original Lion King. I mean, I’ve seen the original original (Hamlet), but not the much-loved 1994 animation. Quelle horreur! So it seems tonight’s the night to – sort of – put that right, by reclining in my brand new leather Cineworld seat and checking out Jon Favreau’s new CGI adaptation.

It looks… ravishing. It’s stunningly impressive. The animals are so perfectly rendered I find myself thinking of it as ‘live action’, then have to remind myself that these are computer-generated images, not real wildlife at all. It’s truly awesome; I’m sure that even ardent fans of the cartoon would enjoy this iteration.

Because – apparently, according to Philip – it’s faithful to the original. It feels like a  lovingly recreated version of an old favourite, using new technology to enhance the look.

For those even further out of the loop than me, this is the story of Simba (JD McCrary/Donald Glover), a lion ordained for greatness. When his father, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), is killed by his evil uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Simba has to leave the plains he is destined to rule. He buries his sadness and shame, and forges a carefree life for himself in another region, where he befriends comedy warthog/meerkat duo, Pumbaa (Seth Rogan) and Timon (Billy Eichner). Meanwhile, Scar and the scary hyenas are destroying Simba’s homeland. Eventually, fate comes calling for the young lion, when his childhood friend, Nala (Beyoncé), seeks him out, demanding his return.

Of course, the story is an old one, so there are few surprises in the script. No matter – it’s beautifully told. Sure, it’s a bit schmaltzy at times (that’s Disney for you), but it doesn’t shy away from the difficult stuff either, and is really rather dark at times. The hyenas (particularly Shenzi, voiced by Florence Kasumba) are genuinely terrifying, and the battles violent and visceral. I do have a few issues with the central premise (I’m not so keen on the idea that some are ‘born to rule’), but – honestly –  my main take-home from this is a sense of marvel at the technical accomplishments.

It’s very definitely worth seeing.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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Spider-Man: Far From Home

12/07/19

I’ve never been the biggest fan of superhero movies, but out of the pantheon of comic book contenders, Spidey was always my go-to. I read the comics as a teenager, even sent fan letters to Stan Lee at The Bullpen – and I was delighted when, in 2017, Spider-Man: Homecoming finally gave the world a Peter Parker that looked the right age.

If Far From Home isn’t quite the slice of perfection that its predecessor was, it’s nonetheless hugely enjoyable – and somehow, I feel happier with a spandex-clad character who is actually aimed at a teenage audience, rather than grown-ups attempting to relive their time in the sun.

It’s eight years since the events of Avengers: End Game, and the  survivors are coming to terms with the event that they now refer to simply as ‘The Blip.’ Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is in dire need of a little R & R and is fully expecting to find some on his upcoming school trip to Europe. He also plans to tell MJ (Zendaya) exactly how he feels about her, preferably in the most romantic location possible. But Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has other ideas. Now that Spider-Man is a member of The Avengers, he argues, it’s time to step up to the plate and fulfil the promise that Tony Stark saw in him.

Peter keeps his head down and goes on holiday with his schoolmates but, on the first leg of the tour – in Venice – the city is attacked by a gigantic beast made of water. This is one of The Elementals, weird creatures that have come from an alternative reality. Luckily, another superhero pops up to handle the situation. He is Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), quickly dubbed ‘Mysterio’ by the local press. Beck tells Peter how The Elementals destroyed his family and he and Peter quickly become friends… but as Peter’s school travel from one picture-postcard location to the next, trouble follows them with a vengeance.

For the first third of this movie, I feel that it lacks a credible villain, but then I realise I’ve been sucker-punched and, after that, everything falls satisfyingly into place. Refreshingly, this is, at heart, a teen movie, with all the tropes you’d expect in that genre. There’s funny interplay between Peter and his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon); Zendaya’s MJ is a delight, light years away from the usual suppliant females beloved of this genre; and there’s a delightful subplot featuring a budding romance between Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and Happy (Jon Favreau).  Even the climactic CGI punch-up feels fresher and more innovative than most of the competition, with one sequence bordering on the psychedelic.

In the end, I am thoroughly won over and very entertained.

Of course, we all know by now to stay in our seats for the post-credit scenes. There are two on offer here and both of them contain some pretty startling stuff.

‘Nuff said.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

20/12/18

You have to feel a little bit sorry for Andy Serkis. This film was his brainchild and he worked on it for something like five years, only to find himself pipped at the post by Jon Favreau’s (admittedly, impressive) live action Jungle Book, made for Disney. After that, the projected release dates for Mowgli were repeatedly pushed back by Warner Brothers, who clearly believed the public wasn’t quite ready for yet another version of such a familiar tale – and then, of course, along came Netflix, waving a chequebook and everything changed.

The first thing to say about Serkis’s film is that it’s a much darker and more feral beast than either of the Disney incarnations. This has a 12 certificate, so those parents thinking of sitting their toddlers down in front of it while they get on with the Christmas dinner might want to think twice. Screenwriter Callie Kloves, for the most part, sticks closely to Rudyard Kipling’s original short stories, so within a few minutes of the film’s opening I’ve witnessed the slaughter of Mowgli’s parents by man-eating tiger, Shere Kahn (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), a scene that little children may find too red in tooth and claw for comfort. Kipling’s story was always a brutal one, reflecting the abandonment he felt as a youngster when his parents left him in the care of ruthless guardians while they headed back to India, and this film reflects that wildness.

Baby Mowgli grows up to be young Mowgli (Rohan Chand), who lives with wolves headed by Akela (Peter Mullan), but he never feels as though he’s a full member of the pack. As he grows, he is tutored by good-natured bear, Baloo (Andy Serkis, and by stern black panther, Bagheera (Christian Bale), both of whom try to teach him the basic laws of the jungle. (Happily they achieve this without ever bursting into song, something that Favreau’s version couldn’t quite resist.) Meanwhile, Mowgli can’t help casting an enquiring eye in the direction of the ever-encroaching humans, who day-by-day are venturing closer to the wolves’ hideout.

It’s when Mowgli visits the human’s village that the biggest changes to the original story occur. The presence of big game hunter, Lockwood (Matthew Rhys), is clearly intended to be a comment on white imperialism (though why it was decided to give this character the same name as Kipling’s father remains an enigma). Lockwood gives the impression of being a benevolent saviour, always ready to hand out gifts to the local villagers, but his home is full of grisly hunting trophies, one of which provides the film with its most poignant moment. Ultimately, Mowgli learns that while he isn’t an animal, he isn’t exactly a human either. He must somehow be the bridge that unites the different species and the only way to achieve this aim is for him to take on his greatest foe.

Once again, here’s a Netflix Original that really deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available. There are lush landscapes, stunning aerial shots and dramatic chases. The animal characterisations are particularly interesting, eschewing the photo-realistic approach of Favreau’s effort in favour of more stylised creatures that really do reflect the expressions of the actors that play them. Cate Blanchett as Kaa, the snake? She’s right there and, weirdly, you can tell it’s her.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a remarkable creation in its own right and one that deserves to exist proudly alongside those earlier screen versions of Kipling’s classic tale. But be warned, this has teeth and isn’t afraid to use them.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney   

Spider-Man: Homecoming

09/07/17

Of all of Stan Lee’s famous superheroes, Spider-Man was always my favourite when I was growing up. While I dipped in and out of many of the other comics, this was the one I kept coming back to.

On the big screen, Spidey has had a somewhat chequered career. Sam Raimi managed to knock out a couple of decent films with Tobey McGuire in the red suit, but most people would agree that his third installment didn’t really work. Then of course there was the appropriately named Mark Webb’s attempt at a reboot with Andrew Garfield brooding in the title role. Webb gave us two movies, neither of which really brought anything fresh to the party, so the news that the team at Marvel were finally getting the opportunity to give their most celebrated creation a canter around the paddock didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm. (The rights to the character belonged to Sony for those earlier pictures – here they’ve agreed to a co-production with Marvel.)

Happily I was wrong. This is easily the best Spiderman movie so far and, arguably, one of the best superhero movies ever, made doubly enjoyable largely by virtue of the fact that director Jon Watts has jettisoned the usual grim and grimy approach in favour of something lighter, fresher, and a lot funnier. And thankfully, he’s skipped the ‘Spiderman origin’ aspect completely, because by now we all know it by heart, right?

Fifteen year old Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is working hard on his ‘internship’ with Tony Stark/Ironman (Robert Downey Junior), which pretty much means that he’s left to his own devices, patrolling his local neighbourhood in his spare time, taking care of petty criminals and the like, under the supposedly watchful gaze of Stark’s chauffeur, Happy (Jon Favreau). But when, as Spiderman, Peter comes up against Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) and his gang, things become a lot more complicated. Toomes has made use of salvaged alien technology left over from the last Avengers dust-up and, utilising that, has restyled himself as super villain The Vulture. The trouble is, Peter’s attempts to alert Happy to this new threat largely fall on deaf ears… and meanwhile, he has to negotiate the kind of problems that every teenager goes through – passing his exams, fitting in with his peers and dealing with a powerful crush on a classmate – in this case, Liz (Laura Harrier).

What this new film gives us, finally, is a credible teenage hero. Neither McGuire nor Garfield managed to really convince as high schoolers. Holland, such a powerful presence in The Impossible a few years back, is incredibly appealing here, displaying an almost puppylike eagerness to please his mentor, Stark and also pulling off some expertly-timed slapstick pratfalls. And the credibility extends in other directions. At last, in Toomes, we have a believable villain, a man motivated not by some obscure desire to destroy the world, but simply to better himself and his family after being screwed over by the big corporations. Aunt May is not the white-haired elderly widow we’ve come to expect but, as played by Marisa Tomei, she’s a gutsy, interesting character, doing her very best to bring up her nephew.

Despite the involvement of six screenwriters, the sprightly script keeps us guessing and, at one point, even manages to throw a great big googly ball at us that I really didn’t see coming.

Homecoming has the kind of chutzpah that should keep everybody happy, from devoted comic book fans to parents simply looking to give their kids a fun ride at the cinema. Make sure you stay in your seats until the end credits have rolled – the film has one last, very funny scene, to send you out of the cinema with a great big smile on your face.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney