The Jungle Book

Remember the adventures of Mowgli the man cub raised by wolves in the deep jungles of India who hung out with best friends Baloo, the singing bear, and Bagheera, the silky Black Panther? Well they’re back. And they’re bigger and better than ever in this latest magical retelling to receive Disney’s digital live-action treatment. 

Based on the classic animated feature film, The Jungle Book (1967), which was an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s beloved timeless collection of animal fables, Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book is stunningly beautiful and hugely enjoyable to watch, retaining all its charm while expanding the spectacle of Mowgli’s vast jungle world.

Roaring back onto the big screen, like Disney’s other recent live-action remakes of its classic animated films; Alice in Wonderland (2010), Snow White & the Huntsman (2012) and Maleficent (2014), The Jungle Book does a magnificent job of re-imagining this enduring children’s tale, breathing new life into the time-honored traditional animal fable while staying true to the spirit of its origins.

Hunted by the wounded man-eating tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who wants to kill Mowgli (Neel Sethi) before he grows into a man and becomes a threat to him and the rest of the forest animals, the feral boy decides he must leave his jungle home to protect his wolf pack brothers.

Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), and Bagheera the Black Panther (Ben Kingsley) who has undertaken Mowgli’s training and education in the laws of the jungle, accompany him on his journey that will return him to the human village where he will be safe from harm. 

The original 1967 animated film has a special place in my heart as it was one of the first feature films I saw as a child, and I’m still to this day intrigued by animal fables and jungle stories. What attracted me back then was the visually splendid and shadowy depths of the jungle world, and the array of strange wild creatures that lived there. 

The Jungle Book had a nostalgic feel of a childhood fondly remembered and a mythical coming-of-age tale that marked the end of one idealized freewheeling life of discovery, and the beginning of another more structured world of rules and responsibilities.

Kipling was himself born of English parents in British colonial India, where he grew up with Indians and the many species of exotic Indian animals living in and around the dark tropical forest. He was inspired to create the world of The Jungle Book from memories of his childhood spent in India and the rich tradition of ancient Indian beast fables many Indians grew up with, like the Jataka Tales, The Panchatantra, and The Hitopadesha Tales which gave The Jungle Book its mythical quality.

These allegorical tales are as relevant today as ever and can easily be adapted to suit a modern society which is what Disney and Cowboys & Aliens (2011) director Jon Favreau have done here using new digital technology to create eye popping visuals that immerse us in a majestic three dimensional world of jungle wildlife a la Life of Pi (2012).

In this darker, action-packed version, Mowgli is no vulnerable little child that needs protecting, he is a curious and courageous kid with a knack for using “tricks”; inventing new tools that he uses to help his jungle friends. 

All the iconic characters from the original Disney film are back, voiced by well-known actors including Bill Murray as Baloo, Christopher Walken as King Louie, king of the Apes, and Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the sly python.

The Jungle Book is great entertainment for the whole family and re-energizes the age-old tradition of talking animal fables for a new generation while also re-kindling moviegoer’s childhood memories. 

JP

Taxi

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (2015) also known as Taxi Tehran, winner of the Golden Bear at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, triumphs as a delightfully inventive and brilliant piece of heartfelt humanist cinema by one of Iran’s most outspoken filmmakers. Banned from making films in his own country, Panahi made this bold film after spending six years under house arrest by the Iranian government.

Internationally acclaimed director Jafar Panahi, known for such films as The White Balloon (1995), The Circle (2000), Crimson Gold (2003) and Offside (2006), has made extraordinary  socially relevant films dealing with the plight of women in Iran and is critical of the country’s government policies and male dominated society. 

Taxi’s ingenious storyline takes place entirely inside a cab driven by the director himself through the streets of Tehran using only dash cams inside the car that can be swiveled from a front view of the road to a rear view of the taxi’s passengers. There is no attempt made to conceal the camera from the passengers who are sometimes curiously aware that something is there but not sure what exactly it is.

Even Panahi himself is not concealing his identity as he is recognized by some of his passengers as the venerated national celebrity he has become. As Panahi drives through the streets of Tehran picking up passengers while wearing a newsboy cap, we the audience learn about their lives, dreams and how they feel about society and the world through his interactions with them.

The idea is so simple and original, it’s a joy to watch. Using only a car and a camera, Panahi is able to orchestrate vital and timely stories with vibrancy and humor. We can easily believe and relate to the sometimes bizarre situations that unfold in the cab because it’s done with such honesty and realism. 

The activities surrounding a taxi as it drives through actual locations in a busy city are in themselves engaging to watch. The dashboard camera footage also makes for some fascinating angles and dynamic shots of the city as it passes by in the background. It all feels very candid and spontaneous like a documentary, as if it’s all really happening. 

Using non-professional actors, the performances are especially fresh and convincing in their innocence. Through these candid interactions both playful and profound, we come to realize some universal truths about the human condition and how Iranians of all ages and from all walks of life are fundamentally similar to all who struggle with life in a big city.

Have you ever noticed that people feel more comfortable talking freely about themselves while in a moving vehicle? Well this film certainly proves that theory. At one point Panahi picks up two fares who share the cab for a short time, one a young working class man who gives his opinions about what the government should do with thieves to set a strong example, and the other an older lady who is more liberal minded and argues with him about how we should learn more about what causes crime before condemning people so quickly.

In another lively sequence, our fake taxi driver happens upon a motorcycle accident, and the bleeding victim is rushed into his cab while the bystanders tell the driver to head for the nearest hospital. But not being an actual taxi driver Panahi doesn’t know the way, leading to some hilarious comments throughout the film about his incompetence as a cab driver.

Panahi himself plays his part with a surprisingly modest, good-humored demeanor, never becoming flustered or angry. He’s humble and always has a kind word and thoughtful advice for his passengers. Through his jovial guise, Taxi is able to reveal, like all great art, not only the personality of a city and its culture, but human nature, both good and bad.

JP

Grandma & The Grump

Poking fun at grumpy old people who have lost touch with the ever changing world around them, complaining about how much better life was back in the old days, seems to be striking a chord with the ageing boomer generation if these recent films are anything to go by; Grandma (2015) and The Grump (2014). 

These two films mine the comedy inherent in feisty silver-haired people who find no pleasure in their day-to-day routine, struggling with the challenges of modern society, new technologies, and attitudes of young people. Perhaps after losing a loved one, they are now bitter about having to cope without their partner to help them get through life.

Septuagenarian Lily Tomlin in Grandma is going through a personal crisis when she breaks up with her latest partner and finds herself caught between conflicting personalities of her uptight, career-minded daughter and her rebellious granddaughter who comes to her for help after getting pregnant.

Despite her alienating gruff exterior, Elle (Lily Tomlin) goes on a journey to collect enough money to help her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner), while confronting her past and her failings with her own daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) with sarcasm and acerbic humor.

Paul Weitz’s low-budget Sundance hit Grandma is a sensitive comedic drama illustrating how grandparents can still play an important role in their children’s and grandchildren’s lives. Children in today’s ever trending virtual society often find themselves without traditional role models and in conflict with their parents. Grandparents who are from the free love and flower power generation of the 60s are often the ones they feel more comfortable turning to for guidance. 

There’s an important underlying message of family failings in these two films. As the mother fails her daughter in Grandma, so the father fails his son in the Finnish comedy The Grump. Children are sometimes overshadowed by their overbearing controlling parents and struggle to find their own identity. 

When the grump, Mielensäpahoittaja, travels from his remote country home to the big city of Helsinki to see a specialist after hurting his ankle, he must stay with his son and daughter-in-law who live in the modern bustling city. The grump loves to hate on everything; he doesn’t like the city and he doesn’t approve of his son’s lifestyle and his strange new gadgets. His son never learned to drive and he is driven around by his wife who is a career woman. 

The grump is confused by all the strange new modern ways of city folk and feels like a fish out of water. Feeling bitter and out of place makes it difficult for him to connect with his stay-at-home son who looks after the household while his wife goes out to work, which seems to work just fine for the young couple. 

When the grump tries to help his daughter-in-law close a deal with a tough elderly client, the grump’s old world knowledge proves to be quite useful and he eventually discovers that if he can get over his anger and prejudices, he can still play an important role in his son’s life.

Both Grandma and The Grump have important messages for aging grandparents with extended families and use plenty of heart and humor to make us love these cantankerous characters despite their faults.

JP

The Lady in the Van

The Lady in the Van is the mostly true story of a British playwright and author Alan Bennett who lived for a time around 1974 in the well know literary community of Camden Town, London, where he became acquainted with an eccentric homeless woman living in a van outside his house on Gloucester Crescent.

The peaceful stone-walled, hedged and gated streets of this well-kept cultured community of old converted lodging homes was a popular area to live for many famous British authors, playwrights and artists of the time. Known for its quiet family atmosphere, the residence of Gloucester Crescent were not prepared and quite perturbed by an uninvited guest who took up residence on their front doorsteps one day.

The dubious guest was a smelly ill-natured elderly homeless woman living out of her van and moving from house to house as she pleased once she outstayed her welcome. Teased and bullied by neighborhood children, Miss Mary Shepherd, as she came to be known, eventually sheltered under the watchful gaze of the shy timid writer of plays Alan Bennett.

As Alan sat quietly contemplating in his cozy study writing and looking through his bay window, the foul bag lady in the van rolled into his view one day and became a permanent fixture of his daily life.

Maggie Smith, known for her role as the Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey, plays the humorless acerbic lady in the van with biting realism and subtle vulnerability. No one would ever guess she was once a sensitive musical prodigy who became deeply suspicious of and hurt by a callous uncaring society.

The story is told from the perspective of the writer Alan Bennett, played by Alex Jennings, who is shown in the film as two distinct personalities. One of a person who is withdrawn and immersed in his inner world of books and writing, and the other, a social being who must interact with the chaotic world and people around him.

The Lady in the Van is filmed on location in the actual street and house where Alan and Miss Shepherd lived back in the 70s and 80s. Living apart yet always there in earshot of each of other like roommates who tolerate each other, but always wondering when she will move on to the next house.

Alan never got to know Miss Shepherd’s history while she was alive as she was just a homeless person to him like so many that we encounter on a daily basis, and she was difficult to get along with. Some of us are charitable enough to give them a little change or food but most of us just try to ignore homeless people, afraid to get too close.

It was quite extraordinary that the people of Gloucester Crescent were able to tolerate her and sometimes help Miss Shepherd for as long as they did, even becoming an accepted part of the community, especially considering that the lady in the van was not a particularly kind person. In fact by all accounts she was quite cantankerous.

The Lady in the Van film however is an enjoyable good-natured and touching comedy, thanks to the way that Alan wrote about her and himself in his diaries and the humorous sensitive direction of filmmaker Nicholas Hytner.

JP

My annual review of 2015 film year

2015 was an exceptionally rich and diverse year in film for big Hollywood films, and for smaller budget Indie and foreign films by first time or new directors. 

We saw a new Star Wars film reach box office heights not seen since Avatar (2009). We also saw terrific small budget films by new directors like Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Deniz Gamze Erguven’s Mustang.

Unique foreign dramas were especially exciting this year. If you are a finicky film goer who doesn’t like reading subtitles, you either missed out on some of the best films of the year, or you decided to take the plunge and discover a whole new world of wonder with award winning films like Oscar nominated French/Turkish film Mustang, Cannes Palm D’Or winner Dheepan, Tunisia’s gripping As I Open My Eyes, Argentina’s Silver Lion winner El Clan, Chile’s El Club, Iceland’s official Oscar entry Rams, Brazil’s official Oscar entry The Second Mother, Spain’s Goya award winning Truman, and Hungary’s Oscar winner for best foreign film Son of Saul.

Indie films were also amazingly heartfelt this year especially Sundance award winner Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, - Indie favorite Tangerine, a film that was shot entirely with iPhones about the trans-gender community in L.A., - Ex Machina, a unique low budget Sci-fi thriller about A.I. technology, and award winning Irish/Canadian productions Brooklyn and Room.

Big Hollywood productions that made an impression with their inspiring stories and stunning visuals were; The Martian, multi Oscar winning Mad Max: Fury Road, Sicario, The Revenant, Spotlight, The Big Short, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Documentaries were again a huge force in cinema this year with eye-opening, thought-provoking films like Oscar winner AMY, He Named Me Malala, Hurt, This Changes Everything and Cartel Land to name a few.

Of the 85 films I saw this year, the list below represents the films that stood out for me with links to my reviews highlighted in orange. If you haven’t seen these films yet, put them on your ‘to watch’ list and expand your horizons.

Title                                                                       Director                                   Country

Drama:
Clouds of Sils Maria                                                Olivier Assayas                         France/US
Brooklyn                                                                 John Crowley                            UK/Ireland
Mustang                                                                 Deniz Gamze Ergüven               Turkey/France
Dheepan                                                                 Jacques Audiard                       France
As I Open My Eyes                                                 Leyla Bouzid                             Tunisia/France
El Clan (The Clan)                                                    Pablo Trapero                            Argentina/Spain
Rams                                                                     Grímur Hákonarson                          Iceland
Neon Bull                                                                Gabriel Mascaro                       Brazil
Truman                                                                   Cesc Gay                                 Spain/Argentina
Room                                                                     Lenny Abrahamson                    Ireland/Canada
Spotlight                                                                 Tom McCarthy
The Big Short                                                          Adam McKay
Son of Saul                                                             László Nemes                           Hungary

Comedy/Feel-Good/Romance:
While We’re Young                                                   Noah Baumbach
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl                                  Alfonso Gomez-Rejon  
Tangerine                                                                 Sean Baker
The Second Mother                                                   Anna Muylaert                           Brazil
Northern Soul                                                           Elaine Constantine                     UK
The Grump                                                               Dome Karukoski                       Finland

Action/Suspense:
Mad Max: Fury Road                                                 George Miller                            Australia/US
American Ultra                                                           Nima Nourizadeh
Sicario                                                                      Denis Villeneuve
The Revenant                                                            Alejandro González Iñárritu

Sci-Fi/Fantasy:
Ex Machina                                                                Alex Garland                             UK
The Martian                                                                Ridley Scott
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens                J.J. Abrams

Animation:
When Marnie Was There                                              Hiromasa Yonebayashi              Studio Ghibli
Inside Out                                                                   Pete Docter, Ronaldo del Carmen  Pixar/Disney
Boy & the World                                                          Alê Abreu                                  Brazil

Documentary:
Cartel Land                                                                  Matthew Heineman
He Named Me Malala                                                   Davis Guggenheim
This Changes Everything                                               Avi Lewis
Meet the Patels                                                            Geeta Patel, Ravi Patel
AMY                                                                           Asif Kapadia
The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble       Morgan Neville
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom                    Evgeny Afineevsky                    UK/Ukraine
What Happened, Miss Simone?                                     Liz Garbus