Hacksaw Ridge

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Mel Gibson is the wrong person to make a movie about a pacifist. The actor-turned-director of Braveheart, Apocalypto, The Passion of the Christ, and now this biographical war-drama, Hacksaw Ridge, has too much bloodlust to properly recount the amazing true-life of Desmond Doss, America’s only conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor. What interests Gibson about Doss is not his peaceful philosophy, but rather that his story offers another opportunity to craft a thinly-veiled Christ allegory oozing with viscera, another passion-play action-movie. Gibson has always used religion as an excuse for violence, though Hacksaw Ridge might be most egregious, because it fetishizes exactly what it purports to denounce.

The film is divided somewhat crudely into episodes. In the first, Doss (Andrew Garfield), a small-town southerner, grows up the religious son of an abusive veteran (Hugo Weaving). He learns to detest violence after inadvertently injuring his brother. After helping a hurt motorist, he stumbles into a hospital one day where he meets his sweetheart, a nurse named Dorothy (Theresa Palmer). In the second part, he enlists to fight in WWII, but refuses to handle a weapon in training, leading to retaliations from comrades as well as superiors (Sam Worthington) and finally to trial by court-martial. In the third and longest section, Doss’s unit assaults a heavily fortified vertical cliff-face on Okinawa, while he follows as an unarmed medic.

Once the bullets start flying, the first section’s mildly charming courtship scenes dissipate from our memories like the smoke from freshly fired cannons. Battle carnage being Gibson’s purview, the movie surprises us with pop-up corpses, zooms in on flayed skin and dismembered limbs, and shows human bodies popping from head-to-toe with gunshot holes. Men fall like bowling pins, though we never know them well enough to care. Plus, we’re too distracted by the grisly sights of intestines hanging from open abdomens and skeletons with maggot-filled eye-sockets. The tasteless grossness of it all suggests an unintentional parody of a war film directed by the Sam Raimi of Evil Dead.

Hacksaw Ridge calls to mind many superior films. Vince Vaughan, who nobody can take seriously anymore, shows up as a drill sergeant whose risible face-to-face hollering and name calling comes off as an amateurish attempt to replicate R. Lee Ermy’s legendary performance in Full Metal Jacket. Doss’s heroics in the field play like an extended reenactment of the search-and-rescue sequence in Forrest Gump. The movie borrows from bad movies, too. When Doss donates blood so he can flirt with Dorothy at work, I thought of the callow meet-cute in the opening scenes of Pearl Harbor.

That movie, however, at least had the decency to portray the Japanese as desperate, dignified people. Characters in Hacksaw Ridge liken them to devils and animals, and the filmmakers seem to agree. They’re portrayed in combat as cowardly sneaks who fake surrender so they can throw grenades. Between firefights, they stalk the field, ruthlessly slitting the throats of the wounded and dying. When Doss mercifully treats one grateful adversary, it’s somewhat redeeming; but for a film about a man so compassionate that he couldn’t bring himself to touch a rifle, you’d expect the filmmaker to demonstrate a smidgen more likeminded humanity. It was Jesus who said, “Love your enemies.” Mel Gibson hates his, with a passion.

The film’s own Biblical allusions are heavy-handed and belabored. At one point, Doss cleans blood from a soldier’s eyes. “I thought I was blind,” the soldier exclaims. Now he can see. Get it? The men carry the exhausted hero from the battlefield as if off the cross and lower him over a cliffside in a stretcher in a reverse Ascension. Though less ridiculous than Gibson crucifying himself on the rack in Braveheart, it’s no subtler. Garfield’s aw-shucks performance is kid stuff compared to his suffering as Father Rodrigues in Silence, a movie Scorsese suffered to make. Gibson only indulges himself. Sanctimonious and unpleasant, Hacksaw Ridge should be a sympathetic work, but instead it’s all about the director getting his bloody fix.

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American Honey

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American Honey adores its lead performer more than any film I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s not too hard to see why. Actress Sasha Lane has a complexion like Nora Jones’, dreadlocks, a full upper lip, and a quizzical, steely gaze that cracks open up with beguiling half-smirks. She has an alluring utopian aspect. Her indiscriminate features might be commonplace in a perfectly post-racial world. The camera seeks her out with delicate passion, like it’s catching a butterfly, juggling her into loose framings, following in handheld tracking shots that she dodges with ease and dexterity.

Lane isn’t the only thing about American Honey that’s captivating and elusive. The movie, from writer-director Andrea Arnold, follows Lane’s waif protagonist, Star, on a strange but arresting odyssey across the American Midwest. Her companions are rambunctious teenaged traveling-salesmen packed into a white van like hip-hop sing-along sardines. Arnold’s film may be long and shapeless, a journey without a destination, yet it’s redeemed, to an amazing extent, by its charm, verisimilitude and sparkling vivacity. It plumbs the depths of America’s young heart(land) with the candor and verve of On The Road meets Kids meets Oliver Twist.

While her background remains mysterious, 18-year-old Star lives in Oklahoma where she looks after two younger children whose father is a sleazy groper. One day, in a K-Mart parking lot, she meets Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a vagabond hipster smoothie who wears a rattail braid and dirty wife-beaters beneath suspenders and pinstripe slacks. Attracted by his offbeat handsomeness and breezy charisma, Star agrees to abandon her current life to join his posse of hard-partying, dub-stepping wayward young adults — from everywhere and nowhere — who drive around the country selling magazine subscriptions.

Of course, the movie knows that nobody buys magazine subscriptions anymore. Yet the kids make money anyway. So what, exactly, are they selling? Star quickly learns that they’re basically hucksters who spin yarns about being the children of dead servicemen, or broke college hopefuls, or Christians building a church, or whomever. Though she develops her own, more honest methods, Star realizes that anything can be pushed so long as it’s packaged correctly. Going off in pairs to fleece suburban neighborhoods, these junior solicitors seem like they’re selling bibles, when they’re really peddling thin air. American Honey suggests that part of coming-of-age in America is figuring what one can sell and how.

The kids, however, are buying something, too. They have a boss named Krystal (Riley Keogh), a Texas “mean girl”, who could be their cult leader (they echo her galvanizing chants with enough creepy enthusiasm) or their pimp. She rides ahead in a convertible, books motels, collects all the money and doles out enough for food (or dope), while she spends the rest on clothes. Everyone submits to her authority. Those who don’t earn enough are ostracized, we’re told. The kids seem happy having purchased an escape from adult responsibilities, when actually they’re moths circling a flame, their freedom not really freedom, but rather blissful arrested development sheathed in groupthink. Jake is Krystal’s most faithful devotee, spreading lotion over her bare legs with the icky piety of a zealot shining a false idol.

Arnold reserves her own reverence for more primal subjects. Star and Jake begin an illicit affair, and when they get down in a field, the long green blades of grass absorb and embrace them. It looks like the most natural act ever committed. Though the van traverses many cities, suburbs, oil fields, trailer parks and strip malls, the camera captures nature most observantly, from Star’s innocuous encounter with a grizzly bear to the bees and wasps she rescues compassionately from pools and windowsills. The kids wrestle like puppies, dance around bonfires like a tribe, and intone rap songs like indigenous prayers. It’s a Levi’s commercial by way of Lord of the Flies, with Jake’s signature howl the summoning conch.

The rebellious Star stands out from the pack. Only to Jake does she share her hopes of modest maternity, of owning a trailer somewhere with children and trees. He harbors similar domestic desires, or, at least, that’s what he tells/sells her. American Honey lives for, and preys on, those dreams. It’s admittedly inscrutable and aimless (the second half practically begs for some momentous incident to up the ante or alter the course), but Arnold’s film is intoxicating and oddly resonant. It has imagery and rhythms with hypnotic power and thought-provoking themes about conformity, Capitalism, nature and the enduring promise of America. Then it leaves us, wading out into the unknown, amidst the fireflies.

Lion

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When the movie begins, the hero of Lion, Saroo (Sunny Pawar), isn’t exactly living large. It’s 1986, and he’s a tiny Indian boy from a rural village. Everyday his mother goes to her job moving rocks, while he and his teenaged brother Guddu steal coal from passing trains and sell it to buy milk. It’s not a posh existence, by any means, though he does have food, family and a place to lay his head; he has a home. One fateful night, however, the brothers venture to an unfamiliar train-station seeking extra work. For what’s supposed to be a moment, Guddu leaves the younger boy sleeping on a bench. But when he wakes up, everyone has vanished, including Guddu. Cold and afraid, he ensconces in an empty car nearby to wait. Then he nods off again. When he comes-to the second time, the train is already moving. He’s trapped onboard for days before he eventually arrives in Calcutta and the locomotive at last opens its doors at an overcrowded platform over fifteen-hundred miles from where it started.

In these opening scenes, director Garth Davis captures the unfathomable amplitude of India. The breadth of its geography and diversity seems at once spectacular and terrifying. Naturally, Saroo starts asking strangers for help, but he quickly realizes that nobody even knows his language. He speaks Hindi, whereas most people in Calcutta speak Bengali. Suddenly, he’s no longer a country kid from a loving family; he’s a homeless orphan in a bustling metropolis that lacks the basic infrastructure to return him to his mother. He’s helpless, and not just because he’s separated and confused, but because he now blends in with millions of other beggars who dig for food in the mud and sleep on cardboard in dingy underground tunnels. With very little dialogue, the film’s outstanding first hour shows us, via imagery as realistic as something from National Geographic, how someone like Saroo could become so hopelessly lost overnight, swallowed up by the unruly and impoverished sprawl of India.

We’re always aware that, in a more developed country, he’d be reclaimed in a matter of days. It’s ironic then that he winds up in Australia. Based on the real-life autobiography of Saroo Brierley, the movie depicts how he wandered alone for months, narrowly escaping danger multiple times, before he was placed in an orphanage and adopted by a middle-class Australian couple. The second half of Lion finds our hero (Dev Patel) now in his twenties and a fervid Aussie. Yet he still yearns, deep down, to reconcile his mysterious past. A memory-jogging encounter with a pungent Indian dessert reminds him – Proust-style – that he still needs to find his way home. So, with nothing to go on but foggy memories and the name of a hometown nobody could ever find, he dedicates himself to locating his birthplace and reuniting with his biological family. In the process, he freezes out his American girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and keeps his adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) in the dark.

Of course, once he finds the place he’s looking for, there’s no guarantee the people will still be there to welcome him. If Lion’s first half is expansive and assured, the second half, for me, is contrarily withdrawn and unwieldy. The filmmakers lose their way when they decide that Saroo’s search should be an almost entirely cerebral one. Focusing too much on his psychological torment neglects the details of his investigation. Plagued by near-breakdowns and quasi hallucinations, Saroo places pins on a wall-sized map like he’s planning the invasion of Normandy. But what do those pins signify, exactly? He fantasizes about his family members looking for him or recriminating one another. He spends so much time wandering along the Tasmanian coastline listlessly recollecting (not to mention rolling around in the sheets with Mara) that we never see how his inquiry was really a painstaking procedural and process-of-elimination. As a result, we’re excluded from the drama of his exploration. We’re inside his mind, but never part of his journey toward rediscovery.

It seems that Davis sought to exaggerate the nexus between Saroo’s physical isolation as a boy and spiritual isolation as a man. But adult Saroo would remain an entirely alienating figure if not for Patel’s emotive performance, complimented by black curls falling handsomely over his face and Sherpa’s beard. Through him, an English-Indian actor, Lion partly explores the identity crisis of being of Eastern ancestry and Western rearing, similar to 2007’s The Namesake. Through Kidman, in a warm performance as a woman who felt destined to mother needy children, it grazes the problem adopted kids often face: that seeking out their birth parents will betray the ones who raised them. For all that, Lion shortchanges the real miracle of the actual events. The truth of Saroo Brierley’s story is indeed stranger than fiction, because he used Google Earth as a vital tool in his search. It allowed him to walk home virtually. Therein lies a profound confluence between an old dilemma and the modern means of resolving it. Now it’s possible to locate a needle in a million haystacks. And that’s what Lion should really have been about — how technology can help us reconnect with ourselves.

September 9th, 2016: The Light Between Oceans

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Writer/director Derek Cianfrance’s third feature film, The Light Between Oceans, based on the 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, has similar problems to his first couple pictures, Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines. A romantic period-piece about an Australian lighthouse keeper and his wife, the film, more prestigious and expensive-looking than the others, suggests a graduation for Cianfrance from Indie humanist to purveyor of “awards-worthy” middlebrow melodrama. But The Light Between Oceans is more disappointing than its predecessors, because the director’s habitual miscalculations are now amplified on the bigger stage, resulting in a film that’s handsomer, sure, yet just as marred by inconsistency.

Cianfrance directs Michael Fassbender as a returning WWI soldier named Tom Sherbourne. He lands a job manning the lighthouse on an uninhabited island off the coast of Australia. When his contract is extended, he marries a local woman named Isabel (Alicia Vikander), who comes along to live with him in a cottage near the beach. Several months of blissful marriage go by, but then Isabel miscarries, twice, which throws her into a state of deep despair. Soon a shipwrecked rowboat washes ashore with some surprising and felicitous contents. The couple makes a questionable decision which restores their happiness, for a time. Back on land, there are consequences awaiting them, via the authorities and a wealthy man’s widowed daughter played by Rachel Weisz.

In the second half, when their misdeeds catch up with them, the film falters; but in its initial sequences, while Tom and Isabel create a home on the island, it settles into a nice rhythm of elliptical storytelling. Because they guard the island for long durations, without seeing any other living souls, Cianfrance uses montage to compress weeks, months, and even years into an impression of marital life, which feels less like time spent than time remembered. The director borrows from superior filmmakers who perfected the approach, like Terrence Malick and Alaine Resnais. Yet it’s well-suited for a narrative in which naturalistic banality, like the quotidian cyclical variance in sun and tide, juxtaposes with temporal signifiers of promise and devastation, like the growing of a belly and the planting of a grave marker.

Of all the performers, Fassbender most understands that essential struggle. Vikander, while always fetching, does a bit too much bereaved wailing for my taste; while Weisz, for the second time this year, after The Lobster, finds herself adrift in the weaker half of a film egregious in its asymmetry. Fassbender, on the other hand, makes Tom quite complicated and fascinating. Tom is a slave to his duty, as a soldier, an employee, and a husband; but at the same time, he’s haunted by what these obligations have forced him to do, by the sins he’s been required to commit, in the war, of course, but now at home. Thanks to Fassbender, that conflict lives in Tom’s every breathe, glance, or marital embrace. One must consider whether his marriage to Isabel is simply an adherence to the expectation that longterm lighthouse keepers take wives. Where does the loyal soldier end and the loving husband begin?

If you’ve seen his previous films, you know Cianfrance is an audacious structuralist, though I would argue not a successful one: Blue Valentine was missing a second act while The Place Beyond The Pines was too long by a third. Toward the end of The Light Between Oceans, Tom and Isabel find themselves the targets of a lengthy legal investigation, and the movie sinks into tedium as the characters reiterate their convictions ad nauseum. Cianfrance belies the rhythmic allure of his first section with a slog of excessive brooding and superfluous dramatics. One long scene involving a missing chid, for instance, should’ve been omitted all together. Then the coda, set thirty years later, feels shoehorned and sentimental and at odds with the tone throughout. Cianfrance, when planning his conclusion, should’ve studied Malick a little closer. Days of Heaven offers a paragon for how to wrap up such a film with swiftness and poetry.

When all is said and done, after the final tear has fallen and the last vista of the Aussie coast fades away, The Light Between Oceans leaves you with little besides a vague sense of romantic optimism. That’s problematic considering that the film obviously has larger ambitions. Its Biblical references to The Garden of Eden, with Tom and Isabel as the original sinners in a private paradise, and The Judgement of Solomon, wherein two women make maternal claims on the same child, come to little. Then again, neither Tom’s battle fatigue nor his Dostoyevsky inspired ordeal of crime and punishment help to clarify the film’s intended accomplishments. Blue Valentine was, at least in theory, about the process of falling into and then out of love, while The Place Beyond The Pines explored the heredity of masculine deportment. The Light Between Oceans, part compelling drama, part boring legal saga, surfaces as a pretentious and confounding work from a gifted but unreliable filmmaker.

September 2, 2016: Hell or High Water

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David Mackenzie’s compelling cops-and-robbers Western, Hell or High Water, recalls the Coen Brothers’ Oscar-winner, No Country For Old Men; but rather than a meditation on mortality and chance, Hell or High Water, also set in West Texas, has a richer, more sympathetic populist humanism. Mackenzie’s compassion for the setting’s rural shop-owners, diner waitresses, ranchers and cattle rustlers, coupled with an appreciation for their historical tribulations engendered by environment, war, poverty and greed, makes his above-average crime drama of fraternal stickup men a work of tense but unassuming gravity. He gives it the moral weight of history repeating itself.

The screenplay, by Taylor Sheridan, chronicles the criminal exploits of the Howard brothers: stoic divorcee Toby (Chris Pine) and loudmouth parolee Tanner (Ben Foster). In the first scene, they knock off the local branch of a prominent Texas bank, but they are smart enough to do so early, before the crowds arrive, and they take only the smaller, untraceable bills from the tellers’ drawers. Instead of laying low afterward, they move on to another branch down the road, and semi-retired Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) recognizes the pattern and attempts, with his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), to predict their next target, where he’ll ambush them. The Howard boys are raising money for mysterious purposes, which puts them on a violent collision course with Hamilton somewhere in the Southwest.

That’s the premise, but the actors whittle distinct characters from these simple archetypes. Bridges’ Hamilton, with gums stuffed with tobacco and sunflower seeds, has one cheek on the rocking chair of retirement, but his loyalty and integrity make it impossible for him to let the past rest. Bridges plays him like Rooster Cogburn from True Grit, with his typical shabby insouciance, which is remarkable in its mixture of awkwardness and grace. Foster seems born to play deep-fried loose-cannons. Tanner may be a murderous career criminal, but thanks to Foster, we understand that he has protected his younger brother his whole life (often from their abusive father) and won’t stop now. Toby, quiet and handsome, with a face weathered and browned by sun and dirt, is the film’s salt-of-the-earth center, and Pine gives him a noble conscience tested by desperation.

It takes a good director to elicit these portrayals, and Mackenzie is equally good with his camera. Not stylized like many Westerns and neo-Westerns, he shoots with a photorealistic daylight crispness that lends the timbre a plainspoken verisimilitude. The director often allows scenes to unfold in long takes or static two-shots. In the opening bank robbery setup, or the closing landscape photography of high grass and oil derricks, we see the precise, classical choreography of his camera moves. The influence of such reserved sagebrush masters as John Ford becomes apparent in homages to iconic images from My Darling Clementine and The Searchers, when Hamilton leans back on his chair on a wooden porch, or when Toby stands outside a homestead’s open doorway. Mackenzie has a solid, unpretentious approach that gives his story some poetry.

As I alluded to before, Hell or High Water has more on its mind than bank robberies. The brothers’ master plan involves stealing money back from banks which they believe have wronged them and other local people. The film draws connections between the perceived misdeeds of callous corporations — who, the film argues, conquer small towns and oppress small town people — and the larger, historical injustices of the American West. At one point, Hamilton’s partner, Alberto, who’s of half-Mexican and half-Native American ancestry, recalls how federal armies once overtook the Comanche’s land and displaced the populace, much in the same way conglomerates, be they banks, oil companies or discount supermarkets, unsettle modern residents. He sees it as a never-ending cycle of oppression. It’s fitting that when the boys need to launder their ill-gotten gains, they wash the money at an Indian casino.

Hell or High Water may sometimes oversimplify the economics, but it creates urgent thematic links between the crime saga of its characters and the bigger contexts of their situation. It’s also scored throughout by the stubbly roots rock of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, whose twang and depth grant the proceedings an authentic outlaw flavor. Songs on the soundtrack like “My Cold Dead Hands” speak to the complicated moral dilemma of Hell or High Water. While a film about powerless people taking back power, the conclusion, when the Howard boys and Hamilton at last come face-to-face, questions how one can live with the sacrifices that such supposed reparations require. And it makes the case that the West, in some places, is still being settled as it always was, by the people who live there.

August, 26 2016: Don’t Breathe

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The horror-thriller Don’t Breathe, directed by Fede Alvarez (of the Evil Dead remake), gets a lot of mileage out its simple premise: amateur burglars rob a blind man’s house and it backfires, horribly. It’s a home-invasion storyline reshuffled, and it goes to show that the strongest horror movies often make the most out of uncomplicated scenarios. The essential ideas for classics like Night of the Living Dead and Halloween can be summed up rather easily: corpses rise to devour the living, and homicidal mental patient escapes, respectively. Don’t Breathe is likewise built on a strong foundational conceit. That’s not to say, as fresh and suspenseful as it may be, that it’s perfectly executed. The characters make some harebrained decisions that I’m still scratching my head about. But I was engrossed from beginning to end, and I admired both the originality of its concept and the ingenuity of its presentation.

Based in and around the vacant, dilapidated areas of Detroit, the story follows Rocky (Jane Levy), a young woman from a rough home with dreams of escaping to sunny California with her younger sister. To earn the necessary cash, she burglarizes homes with her friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) and boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto). These swindlers are smarter than your average breakers-and-enterers, at least in theory, since Alex, whose father works at a security company, has access to equipment that can bypass the alarm systems on safeguarded domiciles. One day Money learns about a major score at a broken-down old house inhabited by a broken-down old army vet (Stephen Lang) who won over 300 grand in a lawsuit. Despite cautious Alex’s initial protests, they drive over there in the dead of night with intentions to break in, subdue the slumbering homeowner with a DIY chloroform bomb, and search for the loot, which they assume, must be hidden somewhere inside.

Like any good horror, or heist movie, for that matter, things don’t quite go according to plan. They soon discover that their victim is visually impaired. That should make things easier, if he weren’t also more resourceful and resilient than they anticipated, turning the tables and trapping them inside. Don’t Breathe could be described as the inverse of the Audrey Hepburn classic Wait Until Dark, wherein heroin smugglers terrorize a blind woman whose home, they believe, stashes valuable narcotics. Here, the blind one does the terrorizing and the intruders become the prey, a clever reversal that allows the director some opportunities for novel staging. The characters can stand literally face-to-face with danger, but remain unharmed, so long as they don’t move, speak or breathe loudly. (Remember Sam Neil standing still while the T-Rex passed by him unawares.) It’s quite unnerving. Shot mostly in grungy, gray interiors, Alvarez captures a mood of decrepit funhouse malevolence that accentuates his tale of desperate youths at the mercy of a lonesome codger with little in the world besides his rundown home and its mysterious contents.

For all its stylistic flair, though, Don’t Breathe makes it somewhat difficult to know who to root for. As menacing as The Blind Man was, I couldn’t help sympathizing with him against three ne’re-do-wells who victimize handicapped veterans and then, when things go wrong, make their situation worse with idiotic decisions. (Why do they always go into the basement?!?) The most likable burglar is Alex, mostly because he’s the only sensible one, relatively speaking, and because he’s motivated by his infatuation with Rocky. Rocky, on the other hand, ostensibly the heroine, is so greedy and chooses the prospect of wealth over safety on so many occasions, that she doesn’t exactly warm herself to us. Are we supposed to care if she finds the money or not? Toward the end some surprise twists make it almost impossible to root for The Blind Man, but I wasn’t exactly cheering on the burglars, either, nor was I excited by my own moral ambivalence. Some might laud the film for provoking such uncertainty, though I wouldn’t, because Alvarez never makes a point out of questioning who the true villains are.

That said, Don’t Breathe is one of the better suspense films I’ve seen in awhile. It explores its unique premise as far as one could hope, maintains the tension throughout and kept me absorbed in the drama. Minus a few too many fake deaths and repetitive captures, escapes and recaptures, it’s lean too — ideal for a thriller. Even more, I found it interesting that here is yet another strong horror film set around condemned urban areas of Detroit, after last year’s It Follows and 2014’s Only Lovers Left Alive. It seems The Motor City, with its air of downtrodden malaise, its necropolis of broken capitalism, has become, to many filmmakers, the Transylvania of post-Recession America, where things don’t just go bump in the night; they go broke overnight. There may be no better place in the lower 48 to lose one’s breath.

April 22, 2016: The Jungle Book

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There’s a point in The Jungle Book when Mowgli, the feral-child hero, happens upon an enormous python named Kaa.  Voiced by Scarlet Johansson in her soothing growl, the serpent approaches the boy like a stranger with candy, promising her protection and hypnotizing him with her protean eyes.  Like all the animals in director Jon Favreau’s visually impressive remake of Disney’s 1967 animated film, which was based on Rudyard Kipling’s classic stories, Kaa is a wonder to behold.  She slithers her lithe body atop and through tree trunks and branches with the malevolent nonchalance of a canopy demoness.  As Mowgli falls prey to her allure, his attention paid fully to the transfixing visions in her shimmery gaze, she subtly wraps herself around him in what could be described as a mother’s embrace, if her intentions weren’t so clearly predatory.  I won’t spoil how (or if) he escapes, but I will say the trap — a ploy other characters pull similarly throughout The Jungle Book — befits a movie that is itself little more than a decent distraction.

The story goes that bony misfit Mowgli (Neel Sethi) must reclaim the jungle from a ferocious autocratic tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba), with help, as always, from bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) as well as the wolf pack that raised him.  The impeccable production design and visual effects make the beasts, especially Shere Khan, with his charred face and rearing fangs, at once tactile and mythological.  However, the filmmakers never balance their darker aspirations with requisite shoutouts to Disney’s good-vibes original.  Renditions of “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” are fun yet incongruous, even if Christopher Walken croons frozen-banana-cool as ape King Louis doing Brando.  Meanwhile, Sethi, the one living being in this so-called “live-action” production, grins like Dopey when what this iteration really demands from its hero is fire.  To be honest, I enjoyed The Jungle Book well enough, but by the final disposable message about respecting law and community (or whatever), I was thinking how much I need to revisit the forgotten swashbuckling 90’s version, with an adult Mowgli.  That one had some real meat on its bones.