Friday, May 13, 2016

Nosh 15: 'The Jungle Book,' 'Taxi' & More

By David Elliott

Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER (reviews of ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘Taxi’)
Nostalgia is a tricky thing. I like Disney’s 1967 The Jungle Book so much that I put off seeing their new version. Walt died before the ’67 release, but surely knew he had something special.

His hippest cartoon film (though the blackbirds in Dumbo are rustic hipsters, and José Carioca was Latin-cool), the movie went on to become one of the studio’s big hits. Animated in a breezy, sketch-pad style, with a delightful, jazzed, tunes-for-’toons score by the Sherman brothers (even better than their Mary Poppins), it has wonderfully funny voice work by Phil Harris, Louis Prima, Sterling Holloway and George Sanders. Fantasia lifts us to great music, but Wolfgang Reitherman’s Jungle is toe-tapping.

Thank my daughter, who nudged me (and her brother) to catch the new Jungle Book. Directed for Disney by Jon Favreau, it is darker, closer to the “red in tooth and claw” Kipling novel, here adapted by Justin Marks. It incorporates some of the best ’67 songs, and some of the wit (Bill Murray’s Ballou the bear, crazy for honey, somehow folds all of the actor’s laid-back ease and gentle eyes into this lumbering, shaggy beast). The best star is the jungle itself, a computer animation glory that rises above theme park charm to voluptuous engulfment, beyond even the beautiful matté paintings for the 1942 Zoltan Korda version (starring Sabu as Mowgli, the orphan “man cub” raised by wolves). Here is the best jungle since Avatar, maybe the best ever in its throbbingly intense variety of effects, with good breathing space for story between the breathless climaxes.

Enchanted by water and fire, rich in tension and violence (in 1942 New York critic Bosley Crowther complained of excess mayhem in the Korda film), this treatment allows Mowgli to be dirtied, scratched, stung and hurled about. But he’s a tropical trouper, splendidly acted by Neel Sethi. The New York boy, son of Indian immigrants, is entirely expressive and enjoyable, at times nearing the level of Mickey Rooney’s Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Supportively enhancings are the voicings by Murray, Ben Kingsley (Bagheera the panther), Idris Elba (Sheer Khan the menacing tiger), Scarlett Johansson (seductively hypnotic as Kaa the snake), Lupita Nyong’o (motherly wolf Raksha). As for Christopher Walken’s huge orang King Louie, ruling a jungle temple with funny, Brooklyn-ized overlaps of Brando in Apocalypse Now and The Godfather, what can you say? He tops the feast abundant of the forest primeval.

By the measure of his masterpieces (Offside, The Mirror, The White Balloon, Crimson Gold), Taxi is a “small work” from Jafar Panahi. Driving a freelance cab around Teheran, the Iranian director – for years banned from filming by the Islamic government – picks up customers, some aware of his artistic stature and legal status. Taxi, like his last covertly made and exported films, is a delicate manifesto of insurgency, free of rhetoric. Using hand-held, digital tactics, it reveals (like his great mentor Abbas Kiarostami’s  A Taste of Cherry) an intimate, vehicular cross-section of the city, a man’s condition, and a society at war with itself and its future.

Riders include elderly sisters who nervously carry a bowl of goldfish, a bootlegger of banned DVDs, a veteran protest organizer and, most enjoyably, Panahi’s smart, motor-mouthed niece, little Hana. She is making, for school, a phone-camera movie. Hana tries to understand the regime’s ban on “sordid realism.” When she films some (a boy thief on the street), she also offers moral chastisement, like a mini-mullah (Shirley Temple couldn’t have done it better). This is the wry Panahi irony, as his gentle smile moves up and down, like a meter flag, inside the cab. The only meter we hear is the slow tick of Iran’s evolution, which in time will cherish him, like movie lovers around the world.

SALAD (A List)
Here are my choices of the Dozen Best Animated Features, in slight order of preference: Dumbo,1941; Spirited Away, 2001; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937; The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993; Pinocchio, 1940; Finding Nemo, 2003; My Neighbor Totoro, 1988; The Jungle Book, 2016; Wall-E, 2008; Fantasia, 1940; The Secret of Kells, 2009, and The Jungle Book, 1967. A special bow (plus wow) to my childhood favorite: The Lady and the Tramp, 1953.

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
“Orson Welles has said, ‘Realism doesn’t interest me. Newsreels are the worst enemies of the cinema as art … It is with actors that one must make art. Realism does not exist.' He has therefore invented a reality, his reality …When Welles sets up the camera next to the floor, behind a chair, on a gargoyle, in an aberrant close-up, he does not do it for pure visual trickery, for mere pyrotechnics. He is attempting to destroy space and create it anew.” (From Guillremo Cabrera Infante’s brilliant A Twentieth Century Job)  

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
After the one shooting in The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman “wasn’t willing to let a bullet define the finish (too pulpy). Returning down the road zoom-flattened like a lush tropical dream, Philip walks past Eileen, arriving by jeep to meet her lover. Without stopping she stares, confounded. He ignores her as Alida Valli did Joseph Cotten, ending The Third Man. As she drives on, Philip pulls out the wee harmonica and, tootling it, swings a village lady into a jig. The topper is ‘Hooray for Hollywood.’ Our hip hooray is for Altman and Gould, more than Hollywood.” (From the Elliott Gould/Long Goodbye chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, just published. Available on Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.

Bette Davis in The Letter (Warner Bros., 1940; director William Wyler; cinematographer Tony Gaudio)

For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.

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