Friday, May 20, 2016

Captain America: Civil War (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo), The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau)

A feeble War

Calling brothers Anthony and Joe Russo's Captain America: Civil War the best superhero movie to date is I feel a bit much. It limps along more nimbly than the rest of Marvel's profit-animated undead, is a huge improvement over such joyless efforts as the Thor or Wolverine movies, is a quantum leap in quality over Snyder's multimilliondollar super-powered cowflop--but saying all that is like saying you didn't feel like flinging your 32 oz. soda at the screen and bashing your head repeatedly on the theater's concrete floor; we're talking extremely low bar here. 

I miss Joss Whedon's way with dialogue and deft character sketches (actually I miss Whedon's way with dialogue and deft character sketches sung and set to music); I miss Sam Raimi's unruly energy and quick-sketch mythmaking; I miss the sense of personal stakes involved in Bryan Singer's productions; I miss the mix of melancholic if self-centered loss and stubbornly self-referential humor in James Gunn's runaway hit; and above all I miss the monumentally perverse pretentiousness of Ang Lee's one genuine masterpiece

(Haven't even mentioned the comicbook movies I really like but while we're not mentioning them I might as provide one or two links anyway)

Some minor gripes: the movie's biggest battle happens halfway through, tossing a lot of largely superfluous superhero cameos in the fray (rare exception: Tom Holland's amusingly clueless webslinger) and my net overall impression was: all that sturm und drang just to catch a plane? Air travel ain't what it used to be. 

As for the finale (skip the paragraph if you plan to see this, which I don't recommend!)--when Tony Stark is beaten down and rendered helpless he responds by pointing out to Steve Rogers that a Stark created his Captain America shield. Really? You lose the fight of your life and your only comeback is "my dad made that!"? Can't help but think Rogers' expression betrayed a trace of contempt before dropping the aforementioned item; can't help but feel that that despite all the opportunistic attempts at timeliness and relevance these movies are basically worldwide circle jerks designed for geeky millennials whose testicles haven't dropped

I do have two major objections: with the title being "Civil War" I expected a reasonable laying out of conflicting issues on equal terms, but that's not what I got; the movie definitely gave off a libertarian vibe that government control (represented by Stark) is no good and only individual effort (represented by Rogers) counts--preferably the super-powered individual's effort. Given the recent developments in Philippine politics that message ("a super man will solve our problems") leaves a really bitter aftertaste--we need more popcorn movies about collective effort not less, is what I think.

That and the fact that this is one ass-ugly visually uninspiring movie. Don't remember exactly when Marvel Studios started adopting concrete and steel as their official production design; can't they get a, y'know, real filmmaker to direct? I for one am looking forward to David Lynch's R-rated Captain America--no really, there's something about the straightshooting hero that reminds me of Jeffrey Beaumont, or FBI Agent Dale Cooper (or Lynch himself in one of his occasional cameos). And if the Captain breaks out the velvet sash and gas mask, why all the better; those who'd rather sit out the ensuing action can always hide in a nearby closet. 
A bungled Book

Disney's 'live-action'* remake of its 1967 animated adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's classic collection of stories does, yes, give us some idea of what state-of-the-art means in the Studio today. Or would if you take the word 'art' out of the term.

*(Term in quotes because while the child protagonist is reasonably solid the rest of India including its vegetation have been unconvincingly rendered for us wholesale in a Los Angeles warehouse)

 Not that we're waxing poetic about the original which had its share of problems, including a number ("I Wanna Be Like You") with unpleasant racist connotations, and the studio's still-standing policy of infantilizing ('Disneyfying') every literary property it touches. But this was Uncle Walt's last feature, and the production betrays traces of his hick showman's flair despite the  racism--the slapstick is fairly funny, the musical numbers meet the bare minimum of being hummable, if not toe-tappable.

Favreau's version does the earlier feature the disservice of blowing everything up to superproduction size, with plenty of CGI to make it all seem flimsy and fake. I suppose the Disney folks--poor Uncle Walt's successors in this new millennium--have condescendingly assumed none of us will have ever visited India, or seen images of the country, or viewed any of their thousands of films and musicals, a generous proportion of which parade more spectacular colors onscreen than this gruel-gray picture. 

One change I did appreciate in the 1967 feature that I felt played nimbly into Kipling's themes: the finale has Mowgli take advantage of his defining difference as a man, his ability to use fire (power, technology, if you like). The act is the picture's most Kiplingesque in that it combined a sense of childlike wonder with an uncomfortable adult reality--a boy confronting a talking tiger, and, yes, not afraid to hurt the animal.

Of course Favreau had to turn the character into some kind of aboriginal McGyver, throwing together elaborate vine-and-branch gadgets that enhance not only his own creature comforts but his animal friends'. By movie's end (skip this and the next paragraph if you plan to watch, which I again don't recommend!) he assumes the more politically correct role of Martha Steward of the Jungle, serving the general jungle public instead of rejoining his own kind and contributing to worldwide climate change. 

Screw that. Kipling's writings reflected the colonialist attitudes of his times; they also happen to celebrate the grace and power of nature (he was a sucker for power in all forms) and--in the book's more bittersweet passages--acknowledge the gulf between species (he ends up returning to his own kind) and the bridging camaraderie possible anyway, despite that gulf (he maintains an uneasy relationship going back and forth between humans and wild life). There's a grandeur to this vision, not to mention a troubling realism--an honesty if you like--that the movie papers over with digitally composited sweetness and light.

Favreau shows some skill in handling actors and light comedy; not a fan of his work on epic action and special effects, and definitely not a fan of his work as obergruppenfuhrer for the Disney Studios. What Hitler did to Poland, to quote a much funnier movie, Favreau does to Kipling here.

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