Reviews

Movie reviews: The Jungle Book is mesmerising, 10 Cloverfield Lane is solid, Eye In The Sky gets 5 stars

Three movies this week rev up old ideas with powerful updates. An ageing Disney property, a Spielberg-style suspense thriller and another try at a movie about military drones prove that there's no such thing as a stale idea, only stale storytelling.

The jaw-dropping visuals in The Jungle Book (PG, 106 minutes, opens tomorrow, 4.5/5 stars) set a benchmark in realism - it's so good it's hard not to be mesmerised anew each time an animal character appears.

The rippling hair, supple bodies and, most of all, the spot-on facial expressions mark the crossing of a new technological barrier.

Look into the eyes of the snake Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) or that of the bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and a soul can be glimpsed. You might argue that when graphics are noticed, it's because the story has failed to hold your attention. 

But what's happening here is that the art and the story are so intertwined, it would be wrong to sing the virtues of one without praising the other.


The animal characters in The Jungle Book (above) are captivating.

Disney's 1967 version of Rudyard Kipling's stories about a boy raised by wolves featured a wide cast of animal characters, each one wackier and more slapstick than the last.

For adult viewers, it has not aged as well as other Disney classics - the humour feels hackneyed and we prefer our stories to be narratively tighter.

Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, 2008) takes a jungle machete to the older version. The cast is smaller and gone are the variety-show animal skits. The famous tunes, with their witty lyrics, are given less prominence; it's a sad commentary on our short attention spans, but his daring act of creative destruction works.

What's left is the taut, action-centred survival story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi, the only non-animated character in the main cast), a boy who has to learn how not to die in various ghastly ways.

Favreau is particularly brilliant at handling fights and flights, a crucial talent in a film filled with them. Best of all, the segments carry a real sense of danger. Mowgli doesn't bounce around like a rubber ball; he is as frail and vulnerable like any human.

His enemies, with their true- to-life body movements, are particularly menacing.

The snake Kaa, Shere Khan  the tiger (Idris Elba) and the giant ape King Louie (Christopher Walken, in an inspired bit of casting) are truly scary, not fake-scary like in the typical kids' movie. The scars on Mowgli's body are proof that nothing comes easy in the jungle.


Helen Mirren in the thriller Eye In The Sky and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman (both above) in 10 Cloverfield Lane.

The fanboy hype around suspense-thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane(PG13, 103 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars)  has mutated into outrage because of the release of a poster and trailer giving away the finale, presumably because dumb non-nerds want to see what they're getting for their money before buying a ticket.

If spoilers cause you to foam at the mouth, remember this: A movie that falls down just because its final twist is leaked is probably not worth your time. This work, directed by podcaster and first-time feature helmer Dan Trachtenberg (with the blessing of blockbuster hero and producer J.J. Abrams), can be enjoyed on merits other than a M. Night Shyamalan- style twist.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is driving on a lonely road when she is struck by another car. She wakes up a prisoner in a concrete bunker, which her captor Howard (John Goodman) says has saved them both from a global catastrophe. She's caught in a bind: If he is lying, then she is a victim of a psychopath. Even if he is telling the truth, she is still trapped with a man she does not trust.

This variation of the small-room paranoia movie has been described by Abrams as a "blood relative" of alien invasion film Cloverfield (2008). What he should have said is that the project was birthed as a generic suspense title until studio marketing execs smelled a brand tie-in and anointed it with the Cloverfield mark. With its small budget, high-concept premise and breakthrough-director feel, it brings to mind works such as Moon (2009), District 9 (2009) and Saw (2004).

Though light in dialogue, Trachtenberg and co-writer Damien Chapelle (Whiplash, 2014) milk plenty of thrills from Michelle's amateur-detective stabs at checking Howard's statements. Her discoveries lead to only more questions and the storytelling expertly keeps the viewer hooked and guessing until the climax. It's a solid work, let down slightly by an over-reliance on movie tropes.

Movies about drone strikes crash and burn faster than a Hellfire missile fired from a loitering Predator - the public hate fingers wagged in their faces about the rights and wrongs of execution by remote control.


Helen Mirren (above) in the thriller Eye In The Sky and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane. PHOTOS: THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY, SHAW ORGANISATION, UIP

The makers of the taut, emotion- driven Eye In The Sky(PG13, 102 minutes, opens tomorrow, 5/5 stars) didn't get the memo about drone movies being toxic and thank heavens for that.

British intelligence officer Colonel Kathleen Powell (Helen Mirren) has her eye on a terrorist cell in Kenya.

The hawkish Powell is blocked by higher-ups including Lieutenant-General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, in one of his last roles) and even those higher up the political chain when she presses for the liquidation of the cell by a drone missile strike.

This movie does what few other political and military thrillers do: They make you care about the characters, so much so that the burden of caring becomes almost unbearable when the inevitable happens.

Powerful performances from Mirren, Rickman and Aaron Paul as an American drone pilot with a conflicted conscience make this the gold standard for thrillers about what waging war is like when one side has God-like powers of life and death.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2016, with the headline 'New hits from old ideas'. Print Edition | Subscribe