Tag: Idris Elba

TIFF 2020 -  Concrete Cowboy Review 1

TIFF 2020 – Concrete Cowboy Review

Concrete Cowboy is the story of Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), a troubled teenager from Detroit. After getting expelled from another school for getting into another fight, his mother packs his bags and sends all the way to north Philadelphia in order for him to live with his estranged father Hark (Idris Elba). Hark is the leader of a group of urban cowboys and a man who spends more time tending to his horses and drinking with his posse than bonding with his son. He even makes Cole sleep in the living room, right beside a horse. Cole slowly starts acclimating to his father’s lifestyle, even forging a bond with a particularly aggressive horse. However, he also meets back with his old family friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome), now a drug dealer who places Cole in a dangerous conflict between his old ways and his new life.

There are amazing performances across the board in Concrete Cowboy. Both Caleb McLaughlin and Idris Elba work very well together. It’s clear that Cole and Hark have a complicated, terse relationship and the two convey their bond in a way that feels more grounded than most.  The supporting cast delivers just as well. Jharrel Jerome, fresh off his Emmy win for When They See Us, brings an immediate layer of charm to a standard character like Smush. Method Man is also notably solid, albeit underused as the town’s sheriff.

Concrete Cowboy (2020)

The true beating heart of the film resides with its reverence to Black cowboys and culture. The history of Black cowboys is one that’s been very much ignored and downright erased from history, despite (according to the Smithsonian) approximately 1 in 4 cowboys being black in the 1800s. Most of Hark’s crew are played by real-life urban cowboys themselves, and the film’s most interesting segments are when the film stops to hear their stories and perspectives in a way that was natural. There was always a hint of disappointment whenever the plot had to move forward because these stories were just so fascinating.

On the negative side though, The film does run a bit long, and a few subplots feel a bit underdeveloped. There’s also a section about the cowboys’ stable being potentially shut down that would seem like it would be developed further throughout the film, but it’s more-or-less ignored until very late in the third act. The same goes for the subplot with Smush. Despite Jerome’s performance, the film hits all the same tired beats concerning his arc to the point where you know exactly how everything will play out before it even begins. It almost feels like the film’s constrained by having to tell the standard coming-of-age story instead of being a full-fledged modernized western it really wants to be.

Despite those faults, Concrete Cowboy is still an impressive debut from director Ricky Staubs. Despite the cliché story beats, it’s a well-acted drama that works as an introduction to a subculture that hasn’t really been explored cinematically before.

Molly's Game (2017) Review 1

Molly’s Game (2017) Review

It’s taken me a little while to come around to Aaron Sorkin. His fast-paced, sometimes cartoonish characterizations are hit or miss, especially when he doesn’t have existing source material to ground him. But after years of putting in work, he’s finally been given his directorial debut in Molly’s Game, and I don’t think there’s a better man for this particular job.

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The Jungle Book (Movie) Review

The Jungle Book (Movie) Review

Disney’s massive blockbuster reboot of The Jungle Book really shouldn’t have worked. After all, their recent attempts to remake animated classics in live action have been tiresome at best, and they already did a live action Jungle Book reboot in the 90’s that was so disappointing you didn’t even remember it until I mentioned it. Yet somehow, not only is the film the best of their current “in with the old” Disney recycling projects, but it’s currently the best blockbuster on screens right now, period. Somehow, Jon Favreau found a way to mix the goofy charm of the 1967 animated adaptation, the dark adventure of the original source material, and a dash of Spielberg wonderment into a gorgeous package that succeeds on pretty much every level. I’m not sure how he pulled it off, but I am sure that after this, Favreau’s got to be considered one of the best blockbuster directors around, and not just an enjoyably quirky outlier.

The Jungle Book (Movie) Review 10

So, the story is pretty much the same. Youngster Neel Sethi headlines as Mowgli, the young boy who was raised by wolves (yet inexplicably decided that he needed a loin cloth). He’s a happy part of the pack though, with a loving mother (Lupita Nyong’o) to guide him and a mentor panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to look out for him. Unfortunately, there’s this big, jerk of a tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba, cast just as perfectly as it sounds) out there who hates humans. In fact, he demands that the wolf pack give over Mowgli to him for some good old fashioned kiddie eating. Bagheera doesn’t care for that idea, so he sneaks Mowgli out of the wolfpack and into the jungle. The destination is a human village, the journey is an adventure, and it’s all one big episodic parable about growing up. Plus, you’ll get to see the seductive snake, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the goof-off singing bear Baloo (Bill Murray, naturally), and the ambitious orangutan King Louie (here played by Christopher Walken, which might sound like a weird choice, but it’s kind of brilliant). Yep, it’s the Jungle Book alright, only with less songs and more adventure. Holy crap does it ever work well.

The Jungle Book (Movie) Review

First things first. As a technical achievement, The Jungle Book is absolutely remarkable. Despite being animated entirely in a computer, the titular jungle is a vivid creation all too easy to lose yourself in as a viewer. It’s rich and full and coloured with seemingly limitless depth enhanced beautifully by 3D. The talking animals are themselves rather special creations. They’re created with naturalistic accuracy, yet speak and emote like people in a way that feels completely right. It’s not easy to make talking animals feel special again. Somehow these effects wizards pulled it off. It helps immensely that Favreau shot the movie from ground level (well, for the most part) and limited his digital camera moves to shots that would at least theoretically be possible in the real world. The film is shot with a Spielbergian sense of wonder, pulling the audience in and making them feel gobsmacked by digital creations in a way that’s much harder to achieve than it seems.

It helps immensely that Favreau assembled a pitch perfect cast to voice his CG creations. Whether it be Kingsley’s stately and honourable panther or Scarlett Johansson’s hypnotically seductive snake, there are clearly very human performances beneath the effects that bring them so vividly to life. The three major standouts are Idris Elba’s genuinely frightening Shere Khan (don’t be surprised if he’s too much for some children), Bill Murray’s hysterical, slacker-philosopher Baloo, and Christopher Walken’s mafia-don infused King Louie. Each takes a character already iconic in the Disney landscape and imparts them with their own distinct personas in a manner that reinvents them all as something fresh and endearing. At the center, Neel Sethi does admirable work for such an inexperienced young actor and nails all of his biggest and most important scenes. Unfortunately, there are times when the kid seems a bit dwarfed by the effects and lost in the green screen magic box, but never to the extent that it completely spoils the surroundings. It’s just an unfortunate reality that occasionally, the only completely human element on screen is the least lifelike.

Jon Favreau’s blockbuster reboot of The Jungle Book is an quite the impressive achievement. It’s infinitely better than anyone could have expected and may well go down as one of the finest blockbusters of the year even though the season has barely begun. Sure, the episodic film can feel a bit structurally lumpy and the meaning often gets lost in the spectacle. However, by the frequently disappointing standards of this particular brand of blockbuster filmmaking, there’s no denying that The Jungle Book is an unexpected success. Once again, Jon Favreau has proved himself to be the most unassuming of tentpole filmmakers. It’s getting to the point now that the only surprise when he hits one of these things out of the park is the fact that it’s taken for granted. He’s become one of the best filmmakers working on this scale rather quietly, and through established properties that aren’t his own. Hopefully sometime soon he’ll be able to launch his own, personal blockbuster without a “based on” credit. He’s gotten very good at what he does. It would be exciting to see what he’s capable of with his imagination allowed to run wild.

Zootopia (Movie) Review 1

Zootopia (Movie) Review

Here’s something unsurprising: Disney has made a new animated film starring talking animals about the importance of acceptance. Now, here’s something surprising: that movie is actually quite funny, creative, and treats the subject matter with moral complexity. It would have been so easy for Zootopia to fall into variety of formulaic traps and feel like every single Disney movie that’s ever been made before. Yet the filmmakers decided to get creative with their concept. Sure, there are countless sequences that crack jokes about how silly it would be for animals to act like humans. But there are also some rather inspired gags and an intriguingly complex look at the issue of prejudice and how it’s just as big of a social sickness when coming frem the perspective of the oppressed as it is coming from the oppressors. Bet you didn’t see that coming! Oh yeah and it all ends with a horrible Shakira music video…but hey! You can’t have everything.

Zootopia (Movie) Review 2Zootopia takes place in a world with anthropomorphized animals living together in one big glorious city. There are neighbourhoods of rain forests and arctic tundra. Some areas are oversized for elephants and some miniaturized for rodents. Long ago a truce was called between predator and prey that allows everyone to live together despite their natural instincts. Into this world wanders Ginnifer Goodwin’s bunny with dreams of becoming a cop. There’s long been discrimination against the tiniest and cutest of animals joining the police force, but thanks to a new inclusion program (as well as a remarkable amount of talent and hard work) she makes the team. Unfortunately, her big bull boss (Idris Elba) doesn’t trust her to do anything more than traffic duty. Determined to prove herself as a cop, she starts independently tracking a mystery involving a variety of missing mammals throughout Zootopia. In fact, she even puts aside her natural prejudice towards foxes to team up with a particularly sly one (Jason Bateman) who knows the Zootopia underground well enough to be an ideal guide. Together their sleuthing uncovers a strange conspiracy that just might be causing predatory animals to revert to their basest instincts—something that causes the central partnership to fracture in obvious ways.

First up, Zootopia works wonderfully in all of the simple family fun ways that it’s been marketed. The animation is absolutely gorgeous and Zootopia itself is a beautifully realized world filled with opportunities for comedy, action, and insight that co-directors Bryon Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph, The Simpsons) milk for all they’re worth. The comedy is particularly sharp, with excellent voice performances from a variety of unexpected comedians and actors cast perfectly to type. The humour varies from child friendly visual gags and wacky animal behaviour in a civilized context (the sloths/DMV sequences is destined to be remembered and replayed for many moons) as well as more adult friendly innuendo a pop culture references (I’ll bet you never thought there’d be a Breaking Bad joke in a Disney movie, right? Well, you were wrong). As pure pleasure mass entertainment, Zootopia delights just fine. Where it really shines is in its themes.

In the early going Zootopia feels like it will merely be a straightforward tale of a belittled outsider learning to believe in herself and prove the masses wrong. The predator/prey, tiny/large animal dynamic breaks down simply and the filmmakers have plenty of fun playing out their human themes in an animal world (one discussion involving how bunnies can call each other cute, but no other animal should is particularly on point). Then as the story wears on, things get more complicated. Without getting too much into spoiler territory, the filmmakers explore how prejudice isn’t limited to any larger social group oppressing a minority, it’s something that everyone can be guilty of. That’s a pretty complicated exploration of a social issue for a Disney film, but one that the filmmakers cover with surprising depth and sensitivity. It’s great to see a Disney movie suggest that merely believing in yourself isn’t enough and that everyone can be culpable of prejudice if they aren’t self-aware. There’s a surprising even-handedness in the discussion that almost feels like South Park without the satire.

Now all that being said, as fun and smart as Zootopia might be, it’s still a massive Disney product and beset by the usual limitations of that brand of crowd-pleasing family-friendly production. Many dusty jokes land with a thud (hey, did you know you can parody The Godfather?!), some of the CGI spectacle blurs into unnecessary noise, the detective plot gets a little too unnecessarily convoluted, and it all ends with an advertisement for a Shakira song that’s more than a little irritating. Still, you practically have to expect these limitations of a Disney animated blockbuster, almost like genre requirements. The fact that the movie works far more often than not and delivers such a complicated message is worth showering with praise. This is Disney animation at its best, for better or worse. Given that Zootopia is coming out in a time when a US presidential candidate is running with a campaign based on hate and irrational internet outrage over cultural sensitivity makes rational debate nearly impossible, Zootopia feels oddly like a movie of the moment. It’s strange to say that about a Disney family feature and given the loooooong production schedule of any CGI feature, there’s no way the filmmakers intended to make a movie of the moment. Yet, somehow it happened and that’s worth celebrating. Even if you aren’t a child or have access to one to take to the theater, Zootopia is actually worth checking out. In fact, it’s even a rather special achievement.
Zootopia (Movie) Review 3