Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Noir Time! #5: Chinatown (1974)

Well here it is. My favorite neo noir ever, and a film that is without question in my top 5 favorite movies of all time. Chinatown is a master piece. I was planning on saving this one once I had a few of the classical era noirs down, in order to highlight the differences between the old and the new, but with Too Late coming out and blowing me away, I kind of already got into what makes a neo noir different from a regular noir. I think it also serves this 'Noir Time!' editorial better to jump around between older and newer noirs rather than front loading all the classics and being stuck with only neo noirs to talk about. But anyways. I don't think I'll be able to satisfy myself with what I write here about Chinatown. I can go on for days and I'll still miss an aspect of this movie that makes it amazing. But I'll try my best to coherently summarize why this is an all time great film.

Chinatown follows private detective Jake Gitties (Jack Nichelson) in 1939 Los Angeles, as he's hired by a mysterious Evelyn Mulwray to tail her husband Hollis because she believes he's cheating on her. Upon tailing Hollis, Jake finds out that he's tied to the major water and aqueduct project that would bring in tons of water to the city of Los Angeles, stealing it from the nearby valley. At a hearing, he finds that Hollis is against this idea, but most of the city is pushing for the measure to pass. As the day goes on Jake does in fact catch Hollis sharing a boat in Echo Park with another woman. When he returns to the office to share his findings, anther woman is there claiming that she's the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunnaway), and that he was hired by an imposter. This causes Jake to poke around even further, and a huge conspiracy unfolds as he uncovers more and more about the Mulwray's and the controversial water project.  The underdog aspect of this movie that really sets it apart from other films that try and do this (cough cough L.A. Confidential) is its atmosphere and tone. This feels like a Noir from the 40s in color. Everything in the movie looks like 1939 Los Angeles as it was, as opposed to a blatant and polished set. I feel like director Roman Polanski took his cast and crew back in time and shot in the streets of 1930s L.A. They filmed on location too, no replicated sets, which is even more of a testament to their achievement. The music is perfect. The overall theme is a beautiful somber jazz ballad which is equated with many noirs. The score can be downright chilling at times, like when Jake is spying on Hollis, or he takes a trip to the reservoir at night. It makes you feel like some real shit is about to go down, but it never does (at least that's what you think). The locations of the film are so damn memorable and vivid too. Echo Park, the Orchard, the retirement home, the reservoir, the dried up river mysterious ethnic boy who's riding a horse and gives Jake 'Obi Wan-like' guidance. They're all so colorful and vivid in my head. It goes with what I said in the Too Late review that the bight and vivid colors contrast with the very dark and depressing tone this film has. I can't really describe what feeling that invokes but its a very prominent and profound one. All of that to me help completely justify the twist at the end.

Let me talk about twists for a sec. A twist in a film isn't something anyone can put into a movie to shock the viewer for the sake of memorability. A twist has to do more than that, it has to be earned. It's why M. Night Shyamalan has not found any critical success since the Sixth Sense. He throws them in for the sake of having them, and for making it a part of his brand , when in fact most of the time it's cheap confusing and groan-worthy. What I just said in the previous paragraph was basically that the aesthetics and tone alone were enough to justify any sort of twist at the end of this movie, which there is. But Chinatown is so amazing, it has multiple aspects for it's justification. [SPOILERS] So let's talk about that twist. Finding out that the girl Evelyn has been hiding her daughter that came from the rape of her father is an absolute mind bender. So first of all, the movie up until this reveal was playing it very straight, like a classic noir of the 40s. It was hitting the same beats of those films: the venerable private eye, the femme fetal, vivid imagery, a conspiracy that's bigger than any case the private eye has had before. So we as the viewer are expecting a similar experience. We think we kind of know along the lines what's going to happen, not necessarily plot details, but how the movie will resolve itself. We think we have it figured out. Because if you've been reading these pieces before, I always reiterate that these movies are not about the destination, they're about the journey. So we as the audience have our guard lowered going into the twist. When it happens, all of a sudden Polanski has flipped the concept of a noir on it's head. The destination of the film becomes just as crucial as the journey. And it's so shockingly out of left field that you feel sick to your stomach when it happens. And just when you think it's all done and your guard is all gone again, bam, the police shoot Evelyn in the head as she tries to escape with her daughter from her evil powerful and corrupted father Noah Cross. Your left gobsmacked (hi I'm from 1956) and you have the same disbelief, the not-knowing-what-to-think-or-feel feeling that Jake has at the end of the film. The famous line "forget it Jake, it's Chinatown" was the movie speaking to the audience in a meta way. So that's one reason why this twist is so good. There's more however

So the twist is very much justified, but it's not hollowly created for the sole reason of shocking the audience. There is some serious subtext behind it. Having an inbreed child really just emphasizes the corrupt personality of Noah Cross. He goes against everything that's considered morally right, and that includes breaking natures law of never molest or rape anyone that's related to you, especially your own daughter. He doesn't care though, he knows he can get away with it. And he does! He isn't arrested or dethroned or stripped of anything other than the life of his true daughter. This is just showing how the top of the top in this world are untouchable. No matter what you do, no matter what evidence you uncover, that 1% will never be affected. A truism that resonates all too familiarly today (see the Big Short). The death of Evelyn to me represents the death of the old, reputable Los Angeles. That's really what this movie is about in a sense. It was written by Robert Towns, but it's no coincidence that Roman Polanski chose to direct it. Polanski's wife was the victim of the Manson family murders back in the 60's, and was brutally killed in their Los Angeles home. Polanski, mortified, moved away from L.A., and almost didn't even direct the picture because of how scarred he was. I think in the end he really wanted to make a piece exposing how this city may seem all that, but it was built on the foundation of corruption. I think Kathrine Cross, daughter of Evelyn and Noah, represents what L.A. has become. It's the inbreed result of corruption, lies, and crime, yet is still somehow still beautiful on the exterior. In my opinion, this is the best twist ending of all time [END SPOILERS]

Let's talk a little more about L.A. because to me, it is a main character in this film. Other than the gorgeous set pieces, there is a lot to be said on behalf of the city. The overarching concern is water, and how the city needs more of it. It's highlighted that they're in a drought (when jake visits that dry river bed) and they're going to be needing to take water from near by areas, unfairly. These areas would be the valley and south of L.A. This was actually a concern for Los Angeles back in the day. If Mullholland (Mulwray hmmm) hadn't built a similar style aqueduct to Los Angeles, it is believed that L.A. would be no bigger of a town than Santa Barbara with a similar wealth distribution. Without the water, there would be no industry, less of an influx of immigrants seeking opportunity, and no upscaling the seemingly empty areas. So it's pretty clear why the movie chose to focus on water. Us Californians are in the middle of a huge drought, we're no strangers to the power of water. I also like the little touches on L.A. the film has. For example, as soon as Jake crashes his car in the orchard, he becomes less confident and more helpless. He needs his friend to give him a ride places, and that affected the outcome of the end of the film. This is the film's subtle way of saying that you need a car in Los Angeles to survive, similarly to Sunset Blvd.

As for the actual characters, our main leads are amongst the most memorable in all of Noir. Jack Nicholson absolutely transforms himself into private eye Jake Gittis. He has this confidence and swagger of any dic of the time, and you feel like you can trust his actions, that he knows what he's doing. As the movie goes on his confidence diminishes, and all of a sudden your safe net that you've placed on Jake begins to become nonexistent. You're at the mercy of the movie. Evelyn Mulwray is one of the most interesting femme fatals out there. She's not trying to cheat Jake, she's not after anything material like most other femmes. She just wants freedom. Freedom from her father, and to break away from her life that she's currently in. Her love for Jake is actually true, and what keeps her from fully realizing it is her insatiable thirst to start a new life. John Huston as Noah Cross is also an amazing cast. Huston is known as a legendary director and actor, and is famous for directing one of the first noirs the Maltese Falcon. It's safe to say his casting was deliberate.  He's cocky, poignant, and just without any sort of moral fiber. He's amongst the best of the worst.

And that's all I really have to say about Chinatown. I know I'll be forgetting some points and facts about the film, and maybe I'll update this post as I remember them. The fact is this is one of the best movies ever made. Period. It does justice to the movement of noir, the old pulp novels from the likes of Raymond Chandler, the city of Los Angeles, and of course us the viewer. If you haven't seen it, I highly highly recommend that you do. If you have seen it, but only once or not in a while, I invite you to revisit it with these points in mind! It's one of those movies that never gets old to me, no matter how many times I watch it. It's a testament to masterful filmmaking. And to me, it's one of the very best Noir has to offer.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Jungle Book Review

Jungle Book 1967 is like top 3 all time best Disney Animated moves for me (shout out to Peter Pan and 101 Dalmatians).  I'm already overly hard on movies that don't ask a lot out of an audience, especially kids movies, but this film really had me lookin out for things that would besmirch the name of the original animated classic. That being said at the end of the day all this is is a very very well made money bag. I really cannot think of a reason why this movie needed to be made in the first place other than cash money. I would get it if another studio was making their own rendition of the tale, perhaps a more adult film (Warner Brothers has a 2018 release of Jungle Book {FKA Jungle Book: Origins} set, directed and starring Andy Serkis, so cool I guess) but Disney is working and building from within. And that to me is the biggest problem with Jon Faverau's Jungle Book. In my opinion the movie does so much original that the fanfare ends up holding it back.

If you need a summary for the Jungle Book,  something something condescending. I'll lead off with the complaints first because I would be lying if I called this a bad movie. But my complaints do stick within me more so than other movies of this quality (I'm an over protective mother). So like I said before, this movie isn't a scene for scene remake of the original, which was not an event for event adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's 1984 classic collection of short stories with the same title. It takes some steps in new directions, it makes certain characters motivations more clear (why Shere Kahn wants to kill Mowgli, why Baloo saves Mogwli initially),  and it outright adds new moments and scraps others (no talking elephants here). I personally appreciated a lot of this, as a complete live action remake would leave me a bit over saturated, however I wouldn't have held it against Disney if they decided to go on this route. But since they went the original route, when you have so many moments in the film basically saying "hey... hey.... remember the old Jungle Book? Aw yeah you remember the old Jungle Book don't you ;).... hey.... HEY..... remember the Lion King? Aw yeah you remember" you get my point. But having moments like that really hold back the film in my opinion. You're taking such an organic route, you want it to be remembered on it's own in that case. Sure comparisons would be drawn between the two no matter what, but having moments harping back to the old and other Disney classics was Faverau's and Disney's way of saying "we don't think this movie can stand on it's own." Which is disappointing because it totally could have, at least with what I saw. When you have this raw-er tone ( I mean it was still light hearted but it was also pretty girtty for a kids film in a way) and all of a sudden Bill Murray is sining "Bear Necessities" when there had been no other musical moments in the film up until this point, and no real need for one at all for that matter, it really just sticks out not in a good way. The same people who appreciate the senseless barrage of fanfare in Marvel movies will appreciate it here, but stuff like that shouldn't be pushed in the audiences face, it should be presented subtly so that if a real fan is paying attention he catches it and appreciates it more. Fanfare should be a part of the story, it should be like an extra, the people who are in the back of the restaurants in scenes pretending to be talking. Daniel Craig as a Storm Trooper in the Force Awakens is a perfect example of this. But anyways. There are no original songs in this film either. So that's something to be said.

 I also have a few problems with characters. First of all Scarlett Johansson was not a good choice as Kaa. All I could think about was the computer from Her. I know the kids won't care or know her voice, but I don't want to be thinking that I'm hearing Scarlett Johansson voice coming out of a snake right now. All (most) of the other actors did a good job of portraying their animal role and giving it a bit of character past the actors own personality, but I don't think Scarlett's sensual voice was the right pick. The original Kaa was voiced by the dude who did Winnie the Pooh, perfect for a snake voice. Whatever, that just kind of irked me. She also is like in one scene the whole movie and is never to be heard again. The other voice I (kinda) had a problem with is Christopher Walken as King Louie. Now when he was talking in the movie, the entire audience was laughing at everything he said and I'm not sure in a good way. They were laughing because they were hearing Christopher Walken's voice come out of a gigantopithecus (big ass extinct orangutang), which at it's core is just absurd. I have less of a problem here than with Scarlett because the original King Louie was played by a jazz icon of the time Louis Prima. His personality and vibe was translated into an iconic jazz number "I Wanna Be Like You." So his personality matched up with what Disney was originally intending for the film to be, but also at the same time he was a super distinct and recognizable icon in the 60's. So I attest that Walken is of that same kin where he is a recognizable icon of our time that also fit into Faverau's vibe for him. That's fine. The problem is Christopher Walken singing "I Wanna Be Like You." Walken cannot sing, the song is totally un-walken-esque, it was just odd and unnecessary. They just should have left out the song. I mean when Baloo and Mowgli were singing "Bear Necessities" it could have been passed off as "oh they were singing the song to pass the time in the river." But here Louie just breaks out in a song out of no where as he's trying to forcibly convince Mowgli to stay with the monkeys. Now I understand that the original Jungle Book may have portrayed in a racist way, and this was Disney's way of portraying it in a more PC fashion, but I think the filmed would have served the audience better if they did away with the song completely. As far as characters themselves go, beyond their actors, I don't think Baloo and Mowgli had enough on screen development together that Baloo would risk his own life to save a kid. They have like one scene of them working together and that's it. In the original (and again I may be a little biased here) I felt like Mowgli and Baloo were the best of friends by the time he risks his life to save him. I also think there wasn't enough Shere Kahn here. Another scene or two show casing his evilness would have really added some depth to the tiger. Also the score wasn't as great as it was intending to be. There are 89 minutes of score here for a 92 minute film. The score is a big and integral part of this one. That being said it fairly average and contrived. Nothing caught me, and I would kind of cringe at some of the lighter hearted bits. And finally, the ending sucked. It sucked hard. A spit in the face to the original in order to make a sequel. That one kind of made me mad. Okay that's it.

What this movie did great: it's visual effects. Now it may not look like it but this whole movie was filmed in a sound stage in Los Angeles. The only thing that isn't animated here is Mowgli. That's seriously impressive. I knew this going into the film, and I could swear to you there were moments that looked like they had to have been filmed. The effects are easily worth the price of admission on their own. Bagheera and Baloo steal the show here. Ben Kingsley and Bill Murray have amazing chemistry and they both do great services to these characters that I hold near and dear to my heart. Baloo an Bagheera from the original both feel like good friends to me, and I can gladly say I feel the exact same here. Idris Elba also does an awesome job at a new (cockney) approach to the character which is equally as intimidating as the original. Maybe not as charming, but still, he does a good job. Mogwli's actor does a good job too, child actors can be annoying and jarring if not casted properly, but I can safely say that I do associate Neel Sethi to Mowgli now. And like I said before, the original moments they had here were a very refreshing and fitting welcome. They did a good job not making any outlandish decisions or events that didn't at all fit with the Jungle Book theme (except that ending).

Now I know I piled it on hard with the negatives, and wrote very little about the positives, but that's because the original is so precious to me. I'm overly scrutinies because I wanted to make sure it did the 1967 version justice. But this movie did do it justice. For the most part it was very respectful of the original, and it was a nice welcoming watch. There's just noting I can really say about it other than its pretty good. The trade off is I don't think this will be amongst the memorable versions of the Jungle Book (maybe it will with that 100 mill opening weekend haul). It had too many moments that relied on the original that kinda made this one not have enough going for it to be considered drastically different and separable from the animated version. That's just my opinion though. I also am not an animator, so I don't have to say anything about the effects other than that they're mind blowing and game changing. If you go and see this movie you will like it, I guarantee it. That maybe due more to Mr. Kipling than Mr. Faverau but oh well. How much you like it is for you to decide, but I know deep deep down at the very least you will like it. It's score to me is indicative of what it did right, and how well it told it's story. Go see it if you haven't. 8/10