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Posts Tagged ‘Jon Favreau’

Recently discovered in the electronic equivalent of down the back of the sofa. I have no memory of writing this back in 2008. Anyway, how times change…

No-one, I think, would be terribly surprised to learn that someone has made another movie based on a Marvel Comics superhero, for this sort of thing has been going on for some years now and many of the movies have been rather impressive – the X-Men trilogy was consistently pretty good, the Blade trilogy had its moments, and while last year’s Spider-Man 3 met with a rather lukewarm reception, the first two films were also rather accomplished. No, if there’s anything unusual about Jon Favreau’s new movie Iron Man, it’s that this is a Marvel Comics movie actually made by Marvel themselves – the venerable company have put their money when their mouth is and launched their own film studio, presumably on the grounds that they know how to handle these characters better than anyone else.

I say ‘these characters’, but if there’s one factor that might lead one to doubt the wisdom of the Marvel Studios project, it’s that all the most marketable and popular characters have already been licensed out to other studios – thus, Sony have the rights to make films about Spider-Man and Ghost Rider, Fox own the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and Universal have Sub-Mariner and the Hulk (though I understand some kind of deal has been struck allowing the production of the Louis Leterrier Hulk movie which is due in a couple of months time). This could be interpreted as meaning that Marvel’s new movie wing is stuck with a load of second-string, uninspiring characters. Iron Man is possibly their best bet to launch this new enterprise.

Playing Iron Man in the movie, or more specifically his human alter ego, is Robert Downey Jr. He is Tony Stark, who as the film opens is a swaggering, self-absorbed hedonist, having become an immensely wealthy man off the back of his genius for designing technology (usually weapons). His sheer irresponsibility is a pain in the collective neck of his PA (Gwyneth Paltrow), military buddy (Terrence Howard), and business partner (Jeff Bridges), but he remains an annoyingly charming rogue, despite his dissolute ways.

All this changes, however, when Stark is captured by terrorists while on a business trip to Afghanistan, getting badly riddled with shrapnel in the process. A friendly fellow-prisoner installs an electromagnet in his chest to keep him alive, while the boss terrorist decrees that henceforth Stark will put his genius for destruction to work in their service, locking him in a cave with a load of power tools and instructing him to get on with it.

Many superhero stories have a magic ‘if’ involved, a moment where you have to really suspend your belief, and Iron Man‘s comes at this point – for Stark is able to make himself an armoured exoskeleton powered by a pioneering new mini-reactor and battle his way to freedom, without any of the terrorists wondering exactly what he’s building until it’s too late. But it’s a cool sequence anyway.

Back in the USA, Stark is a changed man, suddenly terribly aware of the carnage he is responsible for around the world, and determined to make amends for this. His announcement that his corporation will cease manufacturing weapons is met with shock from the media and hostility from his business partners, and news eventually reaches him that unauthorised shipments of ordnance are still being made. So it seems he has no choice but to go back into action, using a rather more sophisticated new suit of armour…

Well, yes, this is yet another superhero origin movie, and while I suppose there is a very real possibility that we will one day grow sick of them, that seems unlikely to happen when they are as smartly put together as Iron Man. The world being what it is, Stan Lee’s original version of this story has been quite neatly updated by the simple expedient of replacing Vietnam with Afghanistan. Iron Man dates from Lee’s imperial phase as a creator of new superheroes, and indeed the veteran scribe (who makes another of his cameos here) announced that with Iron Man his intention was to create a hero who had nothing in common with his young, not especially affluent, somewhat counter-culturally inclined core audience, just to see if he could make it work.

If the film has a significant achievement to its name, it’s that this is a rare example of a comic-book movie which is dominated by the title character’s performance, rather than the villain or (even worse) just the special effects. A few years ago, Tom Cruise was apparently in talks to play Stark, and he would have been a more predictable and conventional choice in many ways. But now, post-Johnny Depp in the Pirates movies, slightly more idiosyncratic performers can get a shot at this kind of film, which is presumably why Downey Jr stars here. He’s always been a brilliant actor, but his problem has been not so much that he couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood, but that this was happening just a bit too frequently. Here, though, he puts his undeniable talent to good use – the initial, roguish Stark is still charming and likeable, while his transformation into a genuinely heroic, dedicated righter of wrongs is convincing, while still maintaining the character’s appeal.

Of course, the focus on Stark, while welcome, does mean that the actual villain of the movie, whose identity I suppose I’d better not spoil, is a little flat in comparison – a fairly unusual flaw for a superhero film, I’m sure you’ll agree. On the other hand, Downey Jr is very well-supported by the rest of the cast, not to mention a sharp and snappy script with some very zippy dialogue. No doubt future movies will feature more spectacular opposition – a not-exactly-subtle hint that Howard will be putting on a set of armour in a potential sequel certainly suggests Marvel are thinking along those lines. If you get that joke, you’ll probably also appreciate an appearance by Clark Gregg in a small role as a member of a government spy agency well-known to Marvel readers.

Iron Man is a very competent, engaging and entertaining movie, and surely bodes well for the future of the Marvel Studios project. That said, it really does have a sense of ultra-cautiousness about it, the company not wanting to take too many risks. As a result it doesn’t feel like it has the scale or scope of, say, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie, or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. But maybe that will come in time; the very least one can say about Iron Man is that it is a solid debut for this new studio, and certainly a movie that suggests Marvel’s in-house film operation could produce some very interesting work over the next few years.

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Regular readers may be a little surprised to find a mainstream Disney family film popping up on a blog which is, more often than not, just a little bit more niche, if not actually obscure. Then again, sometimes you’re just out contemplating what film to see with a person of somewhat gentler tastes. ‘Okay, so there’s a political thriller about the ethical considerations of using drone strikes against terrorists, or a musical about talking animals,’ I said, leaving the choice up to them. So Jon Favreau’s new take on The Jungle Book it inevitably was.

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I suspect that the reason many people are so familiar with The Jungle Book – surely Rudyard Kipling’s best-known work to modern audiences – is the simple fact of the existence of Wolfgang Reitherman’s fully-animated 1967 adaptation. Certainly it has a very special place in my own memory, for all that I didn’t actually see it in its entirety until I was 19 – a fairly sumptuous storybook illustrated with pictures from the film was one of my fondest possessions as a small child, and I recall painstakingly copying out many of the backgrounds, let alone the main characters. So, as you might expect, I was even more dubious about this semi-remake than usual.

You probably know the story: Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a young lad who has been raised by wolves, so to speak… no, hang on, he’s literally been raised by wolves, in a reassuringly non-specific South Asian jungle of some kind (everyone calls it a jungle rather than a rainforest throughout). Mowgli hasn’t quite managed to fit in with the wolves, but soon he has more serious concerns as the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), undisputed apex predator of the area, learns of his existence and makes it very clear that man-cub is on his own personal menu. Mowgli’s mentor, the panther Bagheera (Sir Ben Kingsley), decides that the only thing to do is for him to go back to live amongst other humans – but along the way Mowgli encounters the extremely laid-back bear Baloo, who suggests there may be another, much less energy-intensive option. But Shere Khan is on his trail and has no intention of letting his prey escape…

The first thing I suppose one should say about the new Jungle Book is that, at its heart, it does seem to have a sincere desire to respect Rudyard Kipling and his original stories. These are rather darker and more serious than you might expect if all you know is the Reitherman movie – they read not entirely unlike a rather more erudite and polished precursor to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels (I feel compelled to share with you Kipling’s claim that Burroughs wrote the first Tarzan just to see ‘how bad a book he could write and get away with it’).

The virtually non-stop near-photorealistic CGI of the new Jungle Book allows the film to have moments of gravity and seriousness without simply coming across as weird – these are about as convincing as talking CGI animals get. Shere Khan, the main villain, is genuinely impressive and genuinely scary, on the very limit of what you can reasonably include in a family film without drawing accusations of actively seeking to traumatise small children.

So the film tones it all down a bit, and departs quite considerably from Kipling in the process, by turning the levels of cutesiness and sentimentality in many portions of the script up to tooth-rottingly high levels. Not to mention, of course, that most of the animals speak with American accents and using idiomatic American English. The results are, needless to say, a bit difficult to process at first.

If the new Jungle Book struggles to assimilate the competing demands of being faithful to Kipling while staying viable as a family blockbuster, this is before we even consider its somewhat confused relationship with the 1967 film. It goes without saying that this has obviously been a major influence – Mowgli closely resembles his animated counterpart, and the characterisations of Baloo and Bagheera, for instance, owe much more to the previous film’s script than to Kipling’s writing. The plot follows roughly the same sequence of events and there are numerous moments which I suspect will seem odd and incongruous unless you’re aware of the animated version.

Yes, I’m mostly thinking of the songs, which primarily seem to have been included because everyone knows the songs from The Jungle Book and would, presumably, feel cheated if they weren’t in this version. But the fact remains that it is very obvious that they have literally floated in from a different film entirely – Bill Murray’s crack at ‘The Bare Necessities’ seems rather perfunctory, Scarlett Johansson’s oddly tepid version of ‘Trust in Me’ has been banished to the closing credits, and then there’s…

Well, there’s one moment which defines just how mixed up this version of The Jungle Book is, but it’s also the moment which above all others justifies the price of the ticket. Mowgli gets kidnapped by the monkeys of the canopy and dragged off to their lair in a ruined temple. The script refers to them as ‘the Bandar-Log’, something drawn directly from Kipling, and yet they are still led by King Louie, which is pure Reitherman. This version of King Louie is a hulking, menacing anthropoid of colossal size (he claims to be a gigantopithecus rather than an orangutan, which is supposedly in the name of ‘realism’ – there are no orangs in India – but I suspect is more to help some of the revised lyrics scan better), played, rather in the manner of a mafia don, by Christopher Walken. The whole tone of this sequence is one of threat and jeopardy…

…and then Walken launches into a (it probably goes without saying) very idiosyncratic rendition of ‘I wanna be like you’, rather in the manner of William Shatner doing one of his dramatic recitations of a pop classic. It is just magnetically bizarre – the weird thing is, I know I would have felt it was a complete chiz if Walken hadn’t done the song, but at the same time it just felt horribly wrong to do it in quite this way. A few moments later the same wonderful song is, incomprehensibly, rearranged as a cue to accompany an action sequence. Kipling and the legacy of Reitherman and Jon Favreau’s own tendencies as a director of CGI-intensive action movies are engaged in a peculiar three-way battle for supremacy, and I’m still not sure who actually comes out on top.

Still, at least casting Walken as the ape removes any chance of the film being accused of open racism, by sensible reviewers at least: diversity quotas are also surely satisfied by Bagheera being Asian, Shere Khan being black, and Kaa having had a sex change. Modern sensibilities should also be assuaged by the virtually-obligatory insertion of a subtext about environmentalism and protecting the environment.

This finds its culmination in the climax of the film, which is where it comes a little unravelled: Kipling’s story is about growing up and taking on responsibility, but you get a strong sense that, thematically, this film would much rather be about the importance of family and friendship and not destroying the environment. I’m not saying the film entirely fails to resolve all of these themes, but it has to put itself through some fairly severe contortions to do so. I was also left very unimpressed with how the film ultimately resolves itself – the priority seems to have been keeping the option of doing a sequel well and truly open, rather than, say, concluding the story in a satisfying way.

This isn’t a bad film by any means: it looks sumptuous, the cast do good work with the roles that have been written for them, and when Favreau is allowed to do one of his big action sequences it is usually pretty good. But the various influences of Kipling, Reitherman, and action-movie doctrine never quite cohere. There are probably enough good bits in The Jungle Book to make it a worthwhile and entertaining watch, but I can’t imagine anyone already familiar with the story finding this completely satisfying.

 

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Sometimes making a film is just a job and tells you nothing more than that an actor or director needed a gig and did well enough at the interview to be taken on for a project. Sometimes, if you are of a mind to, you can look a little deeper and perhaps discern a few truths that even the people responsible were not consciously aware of. I am moved to this observation by Jon Favreau’s Chef, which looks like a knockabout, feel-good comedy drama, but on another level is perhaps a bit of a cri du coeur. Or perhaps a cri de l’estomac, I’m not sure.

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Acting, writing, producing, directing, and quite probably doing a lot of the on-set catering as well, Favreau plays Carl Casper, a fairly successful Los Angeles chef: successful professionally, at least, for his relationships with his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and young son (EmJay Anthony) are somewhat strained. This is only exacerbated when a noted internet restaurant critic (Oliver Platt) descends upon the premises. At the urging of his boss (Dustin Hoffman) Carl plays it safe and sticks to his tried-and-true menu, only to have this savaged in the review.

An unwise excursion into the untested realms of social media and a loud row with the boss about the limits of his creative freedom as a chef later, a video of Carl going ballistic at the critic is all over the internet and the chef finds himself looking for a job. Unsure what to do, he accompanies his ex-wife and son back to Miami on a business trip, along the way taking in a meeting with another of her exes (Robert Downey Jr), who has a radical idea to help Carl get his mojo back: a fast food van!

As if you hadn’t noticed, this is a bit of a foodie film: there are lengthy montage sequences of various things being poured, sliced, chopped, grated, fried, boiled, spread, and dusted, usually in close up. The food all looks very nice, but I must confess I find a little of this goes a long way, and – inevitably – the whole pleasure of watching food being prepared surely largely derives from the knowledge that, eventually, you’re going to be able to get it down your neck. Non-spoiler alert: Jon Favreau does not materialise in the cinema and give you sandwiches at any point during the film, so there is inevitably a sense in which this film does not deliver on its promises. Then again, decades of a burger and pizza diet (not to mention six years of summer school catering) have pretty much destroyed my palate, so I’m not really the target audience for this film anyway. Given that much of the food on display is hardly haute cuisine, I’m not sure who is – the credits includes a sequence in which Favreau is shown being tutored by a professional chef, but considering the vast quantities of fried and fatty food prepared and consumed in the course of the story, I half expected the entire cast to be felled by massive coronaries before the credits had finished.

Strictly speaking it is not just about the food, anyway: the heart of the story is about Carl rediscovering his love of cooking, and particularly his reconnecting with his son. The scenes between Favreau and Anthony are the most engaging and amusing in the film, which is one of those comedy dramas which opts for a sort of non-specific feeligoodness rather than jokes, and a you-can-guess-how-this-is-going-to-turn-out-from-the-first-ten-minutes plot rather than actual conflict or surprises.

Still, while the film is arguably ten or fifteen minutes too long, it’s never dull to watch, even if I never quite connected with it in the way in which Favreau obviously wanted (he should’ve turned up with the sandwiches). This is largely down to the seriously impressive cast, many of whom are in quite small roles – Downey Jr is in all of one scene, while Scarlett Johansson has a slightly bigger role (but not by much). John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale play Favreau’s mates, adding a lot to the guys-having-a-good-time vibe the film generates.

Now, I know you: you’re a smart and discerning person (your questionable taste in online film criticism excepted). I know what you’re thinking: Jon Favreau? Scarlett Johansson? Robert Downey Jr? All in one movie? Isn’t this just really an Iron Man reunion? Well, material-wise, obviously not, but it seems pretty obvious that Favreau’s involvement in the world-bestriding Marvel Studios project has given him the heft to make personal projects like this (and the ability to call in favours to get the kind of star cameos I was referring to earlier).

Perhaps it extends further. A key scene in the film comes when Favreau’s character explodes, railing at great length against a critic who has been rather negative about the creatively unambitious work he has been doing. ‘You just sit there and criticise what we do! It hurts! I really care about this stuff!’ cries Favreau, pop-eyed. It’s almost impossible, watching this, not to recall that Favreau’s last directorial project was Cowboys and Aliens, which the critics didn’t exactly go crazy for, and that the one before that was Iron Man 2, which wasn’t as well-received as the first one. Could he possibly be having a go at smarty-pantses who review films on the internet? I wouldn’t blame him; those people are scum.

And if we’re going to speculate wildly, let’s really go for it: Chef is about a man whose early promise has been swamped by mainstream success, to the point where his work has become bland and uninspired – so he cuts loose and goes back to his roots, doing something much more personal and individual, leading to a great personal rebirth and eventual vindication. The question is whether that sentence is still accurate if you replace the word ‘about’ with ‘directed by’. Perhaps there’s a grain of truth there and Chef constitutes Jon Favreau’s attempt to rediscover himself as a film-maker after doing all those corporate SF blockbusters. If so, I don’t think he’s quite as successful in his endeavours as the main character in this movie, but neither does he crash and burn. Chef isn’t hilarious or particularly dramatic or moving, but it’s a hard film to dislike.

 

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…which is to say that the Wild one meets its Final cousin in Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens – a self-consciously silly title which the film, for some reason, does its best to belie.  Nevertheless, this is what it sounds like: a mash-up of the venerable old Western genre with its upstart (and some would say illegitimate) offspring, the sci-fi action movie. (More on this later.)

Clearly working hard to establish the right tone of quintessentially American ruggedness, Favreau has cast a British actor best known for playing someone posh in the lead role. Daniel Craig plays a tough, rootin’-tootin’ kinda guy who wakes up in the desert, bereft of his memory but possessing a jazzy wristband, a photo of a woman and a funny-looking wound. Making his way to the nearest town he learns he is in fact feared outlaw Lonergan.

Lonergan is on the hit list of ruthless cattle baron Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), who pretty much owns the town, and whose son is a public nuisance there. The sheriff slings Lonergan in the town jail, ready to be shipped off to the federal marshal with Dolarhyde’s son.

A showdown threatens when Dolarhyde and his men ride in, demanding both prisoners be handed over to them, but things are disrupted by the arrival of – and it’s not quite as abrupt and bizarre as it sounds on paper – alien ships, also intent on making a nuisance of themselves. The mash-up threatens to become a literal one as the aliens start behaving like cowboys and the cowboys start acting like aliens. The aliens start physically lassoing the townsfolk and dragging them off while Lonergan discovers a death ray about his person and rapidly learns how to use it.

When the dust settles the aliens have been driven off, but not without having taking numerous local worthies with them. Quite properly, Dolarhyde decides to raise a posse and go in pursuit (his son being amongst the abductees), recruiting Lonergan to his cause, along with the local preacher (Clancy Brown), the barkeep (Sam Rockwell), and various others – including one of those tediously enigmatic young women (on this occasion, Olivia Wilde) who you just know will be reporting for exposition duty somewhere in the second act.

Well, to some extent this is a combination of excerpts from the Big Book of Sci-Fi Cliches with a selection from its little-read Western counterpart, but as genre fusions go it’s a curiously unsuccessful affair. This seems odd, as there is a long and fairly distinguished history of splicing Western DNA into SF stories: Westworld itself, the Tatooine section of the first Star Wars, Outland, Battle Beyond the Stars, and more recently Firefly have all partaken of Western themes and imagery (let’s not mention Wild Wild West). Having said that, none of these films have what you’d honestly describe as an American west setting, which to me suggests that what true Westerns are really about is nothing to do with deserts and six-shooters and hats, but personal freedom and morality, and the clash of different values.

Cowboys & Aliens isn’t about anything like that, really. It works hard to establish an authentically nasty and grimy Western atmosphere – the films it reminded me of most were Unforgiven and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, both great movies even if the latter isn’t a very typical Western – but the characters are all very thin and anonymous, the cast resembling people on a Wild West dress-up holiday. The only person who effortlessly convinces is Harrison Ford, who’s an impressively nasty piece of work to begin with, that familiar old growly whisper modulated into a vicious rasp. But as soon as the aliens show up he turns into a bit of a cut-out and really doesn’t get the material that such an icon really deserves.

For this kind of film to work, both the donor genres really need to have a strong identity of their own. You would think this wouldn’t be a problem with the case of the Western and the SF film, but as I’ve already mentioned the Cowboy element is wholly superficial, and the Alien element… well, it’s not really a proper SF movie, but an effects-driven summer blockbuster, a style of film which is fundamentally superficial anyway.

(The Aliens here, by the way, are an anonymous bunch, their glistening appendages and deceptively-weathered technology marking them out as close cousins of the ones in Independence Day and Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds. Why have they come to Earth and started behaving so badly? I will refrain from giving away too much of the plot, but suffice to say that when the expositing eventually occurs, Ford’s character responds by snarling ‘That’s just ridiculous!’ and I was with him all the way.)

So what we end up with is a fairly empty-headed FX blockbuster with some strange tonal and pacing problems: the film-makers seem desperately keen to show this is a Proper Western on some level, resulting in long sequences where everyone’s a bit dour and homespun and not much happens, involving aliens or not. It’s not visually very surprising, nor is the plot particularly involving. It’s all a bit dull, if I’m honest, without much humour or indeed a sense of fun about itself. Occasionally there’s a briefly arresting moment (the one inevitably springing to mind is when Olivia Wilde walks naked out of a bonfire, but that may just be me) but on the whole there’s nothing here you won’t have seen before.

And I suppose on some level you could argue that all this really is, is an attempt to mash a genre up with itself: many people having argued that – in cinematic terms – the rise of the sci-fi blockbuster in the late seventies coincided rather neatly with the demise of the western as a going concern, with the resulting conclusion being that one simply transformed into the other. I’m not completely sold on that, to be perfectly honest, but beyond it simply being a coincidence I’m not quite sure how to explain it.

Anyway. Cowboys & Aliens probably sounded like a great idea for a movie, and there may indeed be a good film to made around the theme of extraterrestrials in the old west. But this isn’t it: the story and characters are too thin for it to engage as a drama, and it just isn’t fun enough to work solely as a blockbuster (needless to say, Favreau’s Iron Man did both). Given the talent involved this is really a disappointment, and one of the weaker movies of the summer.

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