What’s strange is, for the longest time, I had only ever seen the final scenes of Cocoon. A sea covered in mist, a young boy in the water, a boat loaded with elderly people being chased. Then the sky above lights up. The clouds part majestically as James Horner takes over and the ship ascends into a gigantic spacecraft. Wow, I thought. Cool. Have to see that rest of that! It would be a few days later, but, at last, the whole story was mine to experience.
To talk about films like Cocoon, you need to go back to a different age in cinema. Before most of the popular films were adaptations of characters from the funny papers and franchises and cinematic universes were lined up, as far as the eye can see. It was a time of great risk and invention. When a person with a great idea was king, and the power of Hollywood could make such visions sing.
The era of high concept brought us many of the enduring classics which now appear, in many ways, to be timeless. A young Ron Howard would helm the picture, taking control after another icon of the times, Robert Zemeckis, decided to go off and romance a stone, before heading back in time. Howard had already delivered a fascinating modern day fairy-tale with his magical, romantic, comedy-adventure, Splash. In hindsight this was a fortuitous match, one which would propel Howard’s career to new heights, eventually seeing him become the ideal fit for another 80’s fantasy masterpiece, Willow.
This phrase has become a cliché with me, but long have I waited to chat with someone connected with this movie – one of the fantastical cinematic staples of my youth. My guest Tom Benedek was the man tasked with taking an unpublished novel and turning it into a story for us all. A story of how sometimes it takes a stranger to show us what those we share our lives with fail to point out, a story about the wondrous mysteries and possibilities that dance in the sky so full of stars above our heads, and a story about our grandparents and the lessons, indeed the wisdom they try to send us . . . and how when their time comes, how hard it is to let them go.
So, as it has happened so many times for me while writing for PTS, my dreams have come true. I now have a glimpse, and not a mere EPK look behind the scenes. I have my story of the creation of a science fiction and fantasy film-making high water mark, from the man who brought it to life on the humble script page.
If Disney had kept the much more alluring title ‘John Carter Of Mars’ instead of hacking off the last bit and just keeping the dude’s name, I feel like Andrew Stanton’s John Carter would have had a better chance in marketing and taken flight, because it’s not even near as bad a film as people would have you believe. In fact, it’s a gorgeous, beautifully told, elaborate retro science fiction dream and a flat out great film. I suppose it’s kind of like Waterworld, where a film tanks so badly that people start to confuse bad numbers with bad quality and a whole negative stigma is whipped up around it. Speaking of Waterworld, another great film, John Carter bears similarities in production design and visual atmosphere, albeit set on Mars for most of the duration. Based on a series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs believed to be some of the earliest works of literary SciFi, Taylor Kitsch plays John Carter, an ex Civil War badass who finds himself whisked away to Mars through a dimensional cave portal out in the desert, propelled on an adventure with warring clans, giant alien yeti beasts, a princess (Lynn Collins), humanoid extraterrestrials led by a green Willem Dafoe, an adorable little dog/toad/road-runner animal and more. This is one of those old school epics that doesn’t just hire a few leads and a gaggle of supporting players but turns a whole casting agency upside down, shakes it and signs any actors that fall out, and as a result we get a jaw dropping lineup that includes Samantha Morton, Polly Walker, Thomas Haden Church, Ciaran Hinds, Jon Favreau, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Mark Strong, Don Stark, Bryan Cranston as a crusty cavalry general and Dominic West in full Shakespeare mode as an evil Martian prince. Oh, Ross from Friends is apparently in there somewhere too but I’ve never been able to spot him, keep your eyes peeled though. The plot at base level is a fish out of water story as John adjusts to the planet (seeing him mess around with the gravitational field is so much fun), bonds with Dafoe and his tribe of Tharks, takes on giant furry Pokémon things in an intergalactic gladiator arena and casts his gaze starward, wondering if he’ll ever see his blue planet again. A few convoluted subplots get in the way including Mark Strong’s weird metaphysical warlock priest dude, but for the most part this a propulsive, rollicking, operatic space adventure with special effects that won’t quit and a real sense of wonder. Why this flopped so bad is anyone’s guess and it’s a shame because when this happens people tend to focus more on the event of its release and that perceived failure more than the film itself, and the legacy gets clouded. Forget the losses a studio with billions in couch change ‘suffered,’ forget any bad press or skewed marketing and just enjoy the film on its own, because it’s one for the ages.
It’s funny how the fates play their hand. Not long before I hand completed the interviews for this piece, I found I had been gifted the opportunity to interview Phillip Noyce, who happens to have directed BLIND FURY – a film that was both the inspiration behind and the film that came to mind when I first heard about Blindsided: The Game. And what a film! Walter is a seemingly unassuming guy who likes his peace and serenity – and his warm apple pie. His daily life, to the voyeur, would appear idyllic – that is until he decides to visit his local convenience store at the wrong time. A gang of stand-over men are looking for payment on a debt owed by the proprietor, and Walter’s friend. You know something is rotten in Denmark, and Walter looks as though he is the kinda guy to let sleeping dogs lie. No way! Like Josey Wales before him, Walter is the man, the hero who’ll always double back for a friend. That’s when the ACTION begins….
You might find yourself, as I did, waiting for something to happen. When Walter reveals his secret however, you’ll marvel and the grace, fluidity and devastating ability that the film’s hero has been keeping under his hat. The ensuing war which Walter wages with the movie’s antagonists is fierce – with a satisfying resolution.
I think the only thing I wasn’t happy about after watching Blindsided is that it ended – ’cause I, for one, wanted more. So it was an honor and a privilege to sit down with the filmmakers behind this veritable dynamo – this indie action gem waiting in the wings.
Blindsided: The Game pays homage to classic action films like Zatoichi and Blind Fury not only in its protagonist Walter, a blind swordsman, but also in that the film places heavy emphasis on storytelling combined with great action. This is no surprise with Clayton J. Barber in the director’s seat, who comes with over 20 years of experience as a stunt coordinator in Hollywood. Leading man Eric Jacobus plays Walter, a lovable cook who’s an expert gambler and swordsman. The character is the amalgamation of Jacobus’s 18-year career as a comedic action performer in the indie film arena. Director Clayton J. Barber is pushing the boundaries of modern action entertainment by bridging Hollywood with the indie action film world.
Barber notes that, “Eric Jacobus came from the indie action film realm. He was like a punk rocker of the action genre using raw film-making. We’re bridging these worlds together to create a totally new kind of action experience.” Jacobus echoes Barber’s sentiments: “Indie action guys have all the tools they need to showcase their skills, but the element of storytelling still has to be there. Clayton’s that storyteller who knows action. This is our Le Samurai.”
Barber and Jacobus aren’t the only stuntmen involved in Blindsided: The Game. The film features an ensemble of action stars and stunt performers both behind and in front of the camera. Roger Yuan, a veteran action star featured in action films such as Shanghai Noon and this year’s Accident Man, who plays the shopkeeper Gordon, also choreographed one of the film’s major fight scenes. Producer David William No (Altered Carbon from Netflix, and Matrix Reloaded) acts as a knife-wielding card shark and goes toe to toe with Jacobus in the climax. Veteran stunt performer Joe Bucaro (xXx, Iron Man) plays the ruthless gang leader Sal, Nicholas Verdi (Close Range, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) plays Nico and acted as director of photography, and Sal’s enforcer is played by Luke LaFontaine (Savage Dog, Master and Commander) who also served as the sword fight coordinator.
Production company, JB Productions, is dedicated to delivering strong storytelling and first-rate action, created by people who truly understand action. Barber says, “This is a new approach to action film-making. Blindsided: The Game is the perfect collaboration for us, and we hired great stunt performers to play the lead roles and even work behind the camera with us because we wanted to work with folks who knew action. That’s the brand people are buying into, and we’re always looking to build that brand by collaborating with talent both in America and overseas.” Jacobus and Barber previously collaborated on the hit short films Rope A Dope and Rope A Dope 2: Revenge of the Martial Arts Mafia. Blindsided: The Game is an expansion of the 2017 short film Blindsided, which was the first title under the Jacobus / Barber (JB) Productions banner. Blindsided was released to much acclaim, with fans craving a conclusion to the story. Blindsided: The Game replays the entirety of the original Blindsided and carries the story to completion, capping the film off at the length of a TV pilot.
Jacobus and Barber are confident that Blindsided: The Game will fulfil fans’ desires for a complete film. Blindsided: The Game will be free to stream on YouTube NOW!
The films of Paul Kyriazi hold a special place in my cinema-viewing adventures throughout the years. I, naturally, encountered them during the heady days of the era of VHS – I still have my copies in that format of Paul’s work. Then, not unlike Terrence Malick, Paul disappeared, and I lamented his absence having come to admire his film-making style and diversity.
So, rejoice I did, when I learned that he had returned to the director’s chair. Eagerly I sat down to watch Forbidden Power – and I was not disappointed. With his new film, Paul returns with his unique voice, his visual dexterity and his great command of unfolding an exciting thriller that doesn’t release its grip on you till it’s time to fade to black.
Fascinated by his study in the field of personal empowerment, Paul takes us on a journey where the achieving of super-human abilities is contracted via sexual intercourse. The character at the center of the story is a mysterious and provocative woman – who seemingly hypnotizes her partners with a type of mystical persuasion. The character we follow, after his eerie yet passion-fueled encounter with the female antagonist, wakes to find her vanished, but also having left behind for him a gift of sorts.
In this superhero-movie-saturated age we find ourselves, it was refreshing to witness a different spin on the getting of super-powers. Our hero, just like in any superhero origin story, has a delightful time discovering the extent of his new-found abilities. But, as it is with the coming of great power, there comes along with it, great responsibility.
Thus we go along on the adventure, and soon discover that plot is deeper than one might first imagine. I’ve no intention of spoiling it for you here, because I want you to see the movie. What it will say is – this is well crafted film-making that you can definitely become immersed in.
It was a true honor for this fan, not only to talk to Paul, but also to two of the film’s stars – the stunning and talented Nazanin Nuri and the man, the legend, Harry Mok (another exceptional, multi-talented performer whom I too, like Paul, encountered first in the heyday of home video).
I encourage you to seek out Forbidden Power, if you are a fan of Kyriazi cinema or not. I promise you, you will not be disappointed…
At age 8, I see The Making of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on Disneyland TV and decided to become a movie director. Age 16, I start filming 20 minute action stories using my father’s 8mm camera. Age 18, my father bought me a used Bolex camera. I film a 30 min color action movie titled Trapped and it wins the Berkeley Film Festival. I start taking karate to be like James Bond. My Sensei introduces me to samurai movies. Seeing that action with great film techniques of the Japanese directors, moves me into martial arts movies, even before the TV show Kung Fu. I transferred to San Francisco State University making more 20 minute karate stories and placing 3rd in the next Berkeley Film Festival. I graduate with a BA in film. I join the Air Force movie department and film space launches for NASA. I take leave to film my first feature Drawn Swords in 35mm black & white Techniscope. It’s about 3 samurai going to England to enter a fencing tournament. I use all my cash and credit cards, loans, and refinancing my car. I get out of the Air Force and return to San Francisco unable to sell my movie. I promise myself if I get another break I will make a color movie that is so commercial the distributors will have to buy it. I meet karate tournament fighter Ron Marchini who has me re-edit and sell his Philippine produced movie Murder in the Orient. Ron then hired me to write and direct Death Machines. To be commercial, we come up with a story of 3 karate killers (white, black, Asian) to cover all markets. Then we add a cop/gangster plot, big fight scenes in a karate dojo, bar, and police station, and we actually blew up a piper cub airplane. The completed movie is immediately picked up by Crown International Pictures with big advertising. It opened in 50 theaters in LA making it a #14 top grosser. However, I still can’t raise the money to produce my own movie, so I direct a sequence for Sesame Street. I pick up a copy of The Million Dollar Secret Hidden in Your Mind by Anthony Norvel. I take his classes for three months in LA, then return to the San Francisco. In 10 days I raise the money to produce and direct Weapons of Death. The panavision film plays all over the USA breaking a house record in a New York theater. I next produce and direct Ninja Busters. This was followed by the cops and gangsters story One Way Out. Next came writing and directing Omega Cop starring: Adam ‘Batman’ West, Troy Donahue, and Stuart Whitman. An actress from Weapons of Death hires me to produce a travelogue in Phuket, Thailand, Thailand Adventure proving you never know what contact will end up getting you movie work. I write two novels in hopes of getting them produced as movies. When many people ask me “How do you survive as a freelance?” I write How to Live the James Bond Lifestyle. In 2003, I produce In the West – a 90 minute travel production for Japan. Appearance by Pat Morita. In 2005, I produce my novel Rock Star Rising as an audio-book narrated by Rod Taylor, performed by Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, Robert Culp, James Darren, and Kevin McCarthy. It has full effects and music, making it an “audio movie” of sorts. In 2006, I direct the largest production in audio-book history, McKnight’s Memory. Narrated by Frank Sinatra Jr, it stars Robert Culp, Nancy Kwan, Don Stroud, Henry Silva, Alan Young, David Hedison, and Edd Kookie Byrnes. In 2007, I Direct Edd Byrnes’ My Casino Caper audio-book. It’s Edd’s memoir of being stalked for his 3 million dollar Las Vegas win. With Alan Young, Henry Silva, and David Hedison playing themselves, recreating the incident that happened in 1977. Michael Callen plays the part of criminal that stalked Edd. In 2008, I direct Barbara Leigh’s The King, McQueen, and the Love Machine audio-book. Her memoir of being a top model involved with Elvis, Steve McQueen and MGM president Jim Aubrey. Joe Esposito introduces it and plays himself in the dramatizations. In 2012, I update & expand the James Bond Lifestyle on Kindle, Nook, iTunes & Kobo. In 2013, I write & produce – 3 Wild Thrillers – Three fiction stories on Kindle that includes the audio-book. In 2014, I produce The Mexican Swimmer, a 3 hour audio-book performed by Julian Scott Urena. I also write Wicked Players, a story of gambling and survival in wild Las Vegas
I always imagined moving to New York City, before even really knowing what that meant. As a child, I spoke gibberish, pretending to be American, and constantly begged my family to travel to New York. Somehow, without having ever seen any of it in person, I was fascinated by the skyscrapers, Statue of Liberty, and the opportunity New York City had to offer. For as long as I can remember, I had this recurring dream, where I was swimming for so long, exhausted and not sure where I was going, until finally I’d look up and realize I’d swam all the way to New York City. I’d wake up screaming, “I made it! I made it!” I finally left everything in Switzerland behind and made my way to US as an Au Pair. In 2012, with just two suitcases, I moved to San Francisco and lived with a host family. After a year in the states, I began to feel comfortable communicating and expressing myself in English. I extended my job for another year and moved to Long Island, New York. After working for two years as an Au Pair, I was ready to pursue my dream. I moved to New York City and signed up for ESL classes to master my English. As fate would have it, I stumbled upon The William Esper Studio, an acting school that changed my life forever. I was honored to be accepted in Bill Esper’s acting class and enrolled in the two year full-time program. As cheesy as it sounds, acting found me! As I studied the art and spent time learning the craft in my classes, I increasingly realized that my entire journey led me to what I really love. Acting is my calling and all I want to do in my life. At the end of my first year of acting school, I spent the summer of 2016 in Switzerland. I wrote and starred in my first short film entitled “Where Am I”. The film was very well received at the Wellington Film Festival with an honorable mention as it won the “Best Narration” category. I graduated from The William Esper Studio in summer 2017 and was right away cast as the lead – playing Veronica Hawthorn – in Paul Kyriazi’s feature film “Forbidden Power”. After we were done shooting “Forbidden Power” in Seattle I traveled to Utah to film an experimental short film that I wrote, produced and starred in. That untitled short film is in the editing phase and expected to be released in 2018
Harry Mok’s career in the entertainment industry is attributed to his well-known expertise in the martial arts field. His career began as an actor and stuntman, performing and or starring in such films as Rambo II, Uncommon Valor, TC 2000, Talons of the Eagle, Femme Fontaine, For Life or Death, College Kickboxers, The Vineyard, Tiger Claws II, Ninja Busters, and more. In 1987, Harry produced and wrote his first feature film, The Vineyard, which was released by New World Pictures. Shortly after, he began producing, creating, and designing action games for Atari/Time Warner Interactive. During this period, Harry invented a new filming technology, a 180 degree five camera blue/green screen system that would revolutionize digitization of 2D characters. He filed a patent for this technology. In August of 2005 Harry was honored with induction into the prestigious GSKA Black Belt Hall of Fame. In January 2007, he was inducted into the World Martial Arts Masters Hall of Fame. He is currently based in Northern California. He is one of the founders of 10+ Entertainment and is currently involved with producing a new reality show, New Hollywood Stars.
The dreams we have when we are children don’t often materialize into reality. We make-believe we are the heroes of the books, comic books, films that we hold dear. They inspire us to move forward; to go on and build new worlds. We stand on the shoulders of those giants so that we might become gods – the creators of fantastic realms and legendary heroes. That flame we carry within us during those early years, often falls prey to the winds of change. It is ever whipping across the fabric of our dreams, trying to collapse that once impenetrable shield of our imaginations.
Now, there are many who simply let that flame flicker in the wind until it finally sputters out. They put aside childhood wonder and move on. But, then there is the few, the happy few, the small band of us that for whom such a notion is not only unacceptable, but impossible. Our dreams are that which fuels us. Our dreams are our lives. Scott Mitchell Rosenberg is one of these dreamers. His childhood games of cowboys and aliens have become so much more than fun and plastic ray-guns. He told me he ‘stumbled’ into the movie business, and the journey to bring Cowboys & Aliens to the big screen was not unlike pushing a boulder up a hill using only your nose.
Lucky for us his nose held up, otherwise he might not have been there for the gathering of such illustrious talent, both in front and behind the camera, that would merge to bring Scott’s graphic novel creation to life. With the likes of Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Steven Spielberg, Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof and John Favreau, it makes me think of the fabled Dream Team of ’92 that boasted Jordan, Bird and Magic. Combine those ingredients with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and the new Bond (Daniel Craig) – along with an impressive supporting cast which featured Dano, Brown, Carradine, Rockwell and Wilde – the live-action treatment Cowboys & Aliens would receive is something of a marvel.
Steven Spielberg at the World Premiere of COWBOYS & ALIENS, July 23, 2011 at the San Diego Civic Theatre, San Diego, California – part of ComicCon Photo Credit Sue Schneider_MGP Agency
(L to R) HARRISON FORD as the iron-fisted Colonel Dolarhyde, DANIEL CRAIG as a stranger with no memory of his past and director/executive producer JON FAVREAU on the set of an event film for summer 2011 that crosses the classic Western with the alien-invasion movie in a blazingly original way: ?Cowboys & Aliens?.
I told Scott that my initial viewing had been sullied by a bad day, but subsequently I was able to go back and re-watch it with fresh eyes. I admit that I prefer the extended cut to the theatrical release, but really, when you break it down, I just really love Cowboys & Aliens and have done so since I read the comic when it first came out. It was a real thrill to finally sit down and chat with its creator, a great gentleman and I feel in some ways a kindred ‘creative’ spirit. For this movie speaks to those out there that of course (A), love a really cool movie but also (B), those creative few, those happy few, that band of dreamers still reaching for the stars. Let the journey of Scott Rosenberg be an example to you. Don’t quit, toughen up your nose and give that boulder hell!
Jon Favreau has certainly come a long way since his independent film roots with Swingers (1996), the film he wrote and starred in. Over the years, he’s increasing spent more time behind the camera than in front, directing Made in 2001. The modest success of that film saw him transition to studio films with larger budgets like Elf (2003) and Zathura (2005). Then came Iron Man (2008), his most ambitious effort up to that point, and he rolled the dice with the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as his leading man. The gamble paid off and the film was a massive success, paving the way for the inevitable sequel. Rushed into production, the end result was a commercial triumph but a critical failure, which upped the stakes for his next film, Cowboys & Aliens (2011), an adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg.
The premise is an intriguing hybrid of the science fiction and western genres with an alien invasion set in 1873 New Mexico. To hedge his bets, Favreau corralled Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford to headline his film, which caused epic seismic ripples through the fanboy community at the prospects of seeing the actors who played James Bond and Indiana Jones in the same film together. As a result, expectations were understandably high. Could Favreau and company deliver the goods or would this be another Wild Wild West (1999)?
A man wakes up in the middle of nowhere wounded and with a strange, futuristic device strapped to his wrist. He has no idea who he is or how he got there. Three men on horseback show up assuming he’s an escape convict and try to take him in. He quickly and brutally dispatches them, taking their gear and heading towards the nearest town – the former mining colony of Absolution. He eventually learns that his name is Jake Lonergan (Craig), a notorious outlaw wanted by the law for a variety of offences. One of which was robbing local cattle baron Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) of his gold. When he learns that Lonergan is in Absolution, Dolarhyde and him men intend to lynch the outlaw in retribution.
However, a strange light appears in the sky just as Dolarhyde arrives into town. The device on Lonergan’s wrist activates and the light turns out to be several alien spacecraft that proceed to blast the town to smithereens and kidnap several of its townsfolk. Lonergan discovers that his wrist device is a weapon, which he uses to take down one of the alien craft. The film sets up Dolarhyde as a mean son of a bitch while Lonergan is a no-nonsense criminal. They represent two unstoppable forces of nature and one of the pleasures of this film is when they have to put aside their differences, repel the alien invaders and rescue the kidnapped townsfolk.
For years, Harrison Ford has made bad choices in the films he’s decided to be in and phoned in one-note performances, playing the same gruff character, but with Cowboys & Aliens acting against someone like Daniel Craig has inspired him to bring his A-game this time around. Ford actually looks interested and engaged in the material and the role. It’s great to see him go up against Craig and their scenes together crackle with intensity and tension. Best of all, Ford has two scenes that expose his character’s gruff exterior and reveal a more vulnerable side. They are poignant and heartfelt because we’ve become invested in these characters by this point. This is the best Ford has been in years and reminds one of when he used to play characters we cared about.
Craig adds another man of action to his roster. He excels at playing edgy tough guys and is well cast as the enigmatic outlaw. The only drawback is that Lonergan is underwritten and there isn’t much for Craig to work with except for some standard motivation for his character revenging a lost one. As a result, the character comes across as a one-note Man with No Name, at times.
Favreau does a good job of surrounding Craig and Ford with a solid ensemble cast of character actors. You’ve got Clancy Brown as the upstanding town preacher Meachum, Sam Rockwell as Doc, the mild-mannered saloon owner, Keith Carradine as Sheriff John Taggart, the always watchable Adam Beach as Nat Colorado, Dolarhyde’s right-hand man, and Olivia Wilde as a mysterious woman named Ella whose exotic beauty gives her an almost otherworldly aura. Hell, Favreau even throws Walt Goggins in for good measure as a member of Lonergan’s gang.
Favreau has all the traditional western iconography down cold and the fun of Cowboys & Aliens is seeing these motifs clash with the science fiction elements. So, we see cowboys on horseback being chased by fast-moving alien spacecraft. This film doesn’t stray from the conventions of either genre or try to reinvent them but instead merges and fulfills them in a crowd-pleasing way. Cowboys & Aliens has impressive special effects, nasty-looking aliens, several exciting action sequences, and two cool heroes to root for. This may not be the classic that people were hoping for but it is a very entertaining film in its own right and sometimes that’s enough.
Prepare your eyes for maximum bogglement, work out your abs so you don’t bust a gut laughing, and most importantly, dust off that childlike sense of wonder before going to see Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, boldly and lovingly retold by Jon Favreau in what is the most flat out exciting, adventurous film of the year thus far. The director pulls off a balancing act between palpable tension, character interactions that come straight from the heart and land squarely in ours, and some of the most believable, jaw dropping CGI I have ever seen on screen. The animals look so impressive and lifelike that after seeing them I shelved away some of my inherent reservations about computer generated effects as a dominant force in a piece, and simply gave in. The atmosphere is lush, intoxicating and deeply detailed, with a naturalistic feel and tone. Young Neel Sethi is tasked with being the only fully human component, and is perfect. His interactions seem real and rehearsed, immersing the viewer further into the visuals. Mowgli is a young man cub, found on the edge of the jungle by the panther Bagheera (stately, compassionate Ben Kingsley) and given to a wolf pack to be raised by alpha Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). Not all in the animal kingdom are receiving of this man cub, especially a terrifying Bengal tiger called Shere Khan, given the rumbling tones of Idris Elba, inspiring fear in animals and audience alike. He has a rocky relationship with man, and wants Mowgli dead. Bagheera takes him far into the jungle, where they are separated and Mowgli’s adventure truly begins. He wanders into the path of Kaa (a slithery Scarlett Johansson) a monstrous, seductive python, and is taken under the wing of Baloo, an adult Winnie the poo voiced by Bill Murray. Murray is one of the film’s great delights, and as soon as he shows up we forget about all the menace and threat which preceded his arrival, and are swept up into his affable, lounging lifestyle and brightly colored neck of the woods. Murray clearly ad libbed a lot of Baloo’s dialogue, and anything he didn’t he still gives that unmistakable, winking ‘Murray’ twinge that I so love. Mowgli’s adventure continues, as he stays one step ahead of Shere Khan and is visited by the king of the monkeys, a twenty foot tall, lumbering orangutan named Louie, voiced with demented, pithy glee by Christopher Walken. As soon as he showed up the laughs erupted from within me, and reached a manic peak as he belts out the ‘Oobie Doo’ song in priceless Walken fashion, his monkey mannerisms uncannily starting to resemble Walken’s own distinct visage. Many of the animals serve as differing parental figures to Mowgli, representing elemental factions of raising one’s young. Bagheera is cautious, doubting and skeptical. Baloo is the fun loving, lenient one. Even Shere Khan has a curdled paternal feel to him, like the brutal stepfather who is damaging to his offspring. Raksha is the unconditional mother, and that devotion comes out wonderfully in Nyong’o’s souful performance. The vocal performances are aided by the stunning effects; the CGI of facial features allow the actors work to truly extend into the realm of what’s visible, with real emotions displayed by the creatures, and not a single rendering that’s anything short of lifelike. The film evokes true wonder and primal excitement, escapism that takes itself seriously yet knows when and how to play, a dazzling technical marvel, a timeless story well told, all in one cinematic package that is not to be missed. Oh, and stick around for the credits, instead of Walken out of the theatre and missing a final musical treat.
The Big Empty is a quirky, off kilter little flick that packs a backpack full of borrowed elements from the Coen brothers and David Lynch, before embarking on a perplexing outing into the Twilight Zone. That’s not to say it rips any of these artists off, and indeed it’s got a style and cadence all its own. It just loves other oddballs before it and wants to wear it’s influences proudly. Everyone’s favourite lovable schlub Jon Favreau plays John Person, a flailing, out of work actor. He’s presented with a dodgy proposition by his whacko neighbour Neely (eternally bug eyed Bud Cort). Transport a mysterious blue briefcase to a remote town in the Mojave Desert called Baker. There he will meet a much talked about, little seen individual called The Cowboy (Sean Bean), who will take the case off his hands. He agrees, as he must in order for us to have a film to watch, and heads out to the back end of nowhere. In any respectable piece like this, the town our hero visits must be populated by weirdos, eccentrics, dead ends, missed encounters and an abiding, ever present atmosphere of anomalous peculiarity. Right on time, he meets a host of charming characters, including Grace (Joey Lauren Adams), her sensual daughter Ruthie (Rachel Leigh Cook), Indian Bob (Gary Farmer), grouchy FBI Agent Banks (Kelsey Grammar), and a bunch of others including Daryl Hannah, Melora Walters, Jon Gries, Brent Briscoe, Adam Beach and Danny Trejo. He’s led from one head scratching interaction to the other, each step of the way proving to be a step behind the elusive Cowboy, with no form of coherence appearing to ease poor John’s bafflement. I was reminded of Jim Jarmusch, particularly his masterpiece Dead Man, perhaps because Gary Farmer appears in both, but most likely mainly due to the fact that both films follow a hapless Joe on a journey that doesn’t seem to be going much of anyplace, but holds interest simply by being bizarre enough. Favreau is the only one that doesn’t fit, the outsider whose laid back suburban affability creates friction with almost every individual he meets, all who seem to have wandered in from the outer limits of some other dimension. Sean Bean is relaxed, mercurial with just a dash of danger as The Cowboy, quite possibly the strangest person John meets. The film has unexpected jabs of humour too, which occasionally breach the surface of its tongue in cheek veneer of inaccessibility. Upon meeting Indian Bob, John inquires: “Are you Bob The Indian?”. Bob jovially retorts “No, I’m Lawrence the fuckin Arabian.” Gary Farmer brings the same cloudy, sardonic cheek he brought to the role of Nobody the Indian in Jarmusch’s Dead Man, which had much the same type humour as this one: little moments of hilarity buried like treasures amongst the abnormal. Sometimes I muse that films like these which seem to really go nowhere in high style are there simply to give your brain a workout in odd areas that it wouldn’t normally play in. Set up a voyage like this, lead the audience down a yellow brick road and arrive at.. well basically nowhere in particular, just to chuckle at your efforts to figure it all out, jab you in the ribs and say “Don’t take this shit too seriously, man!”. Or maybe not. Maybe there’s deeper meaning behind the meandering, that will reveal some holy significance. This one, though, I doubt it. It’s pure playtime.