The Deceptive Photo-Real Magic Of THE JUNGLE BOOK – Behind The Scenes (VIDEO)

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Filmed in Downtown Los Angeles.

That’s the most staggering credit for the new box office juggernaut live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book. The term “live-action” is a bit deceiving, though, given that most of this world is entirely fake. But it’d have to be, since the story is set entirely in a real jungle and not the “urban” one of L.A. The end result, essentially, is a feature length visual effect – and it’s the most photo-real one to date.

“The goal here is for people to not know what’s real and what’s not real.” – director Jon Favreau

Mission accomplished, Jon. But this 2 1/2 minute behind-the-scenes video gives us a much better idea, and the realization is staggering.

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Trailer Debut For SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU, About The Obamas’ First Date (VIDEO)

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The Obama Rom-Com.

That’s what we see – along with some inspiring community organizing – in the first trailer (below) for Southside With You. Having premiered earlier this year at January’s Sundance Film Festival, the film dramatizes the first date between Barack and Michelle Obama back in 1989.

It opened to generally positive reviews at Sundance, and the movie-making on display in the trailer generally looks well done on all counts. Plus, there’s no denying it should be a special moviegoing experience for most African-Americans.

That said, despite the natural, likable charm of the leads (Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter as, respectively, Barack and Michelle) and the general quality of the craft, the very premise still can’t help but come off as obnoxious hero worship and mythologizing. The Obamas are literally being romanticized – and he’s not even out of office yet.

A friend mentioned to me that, according to the Sundance reviews he’d been able to read, the film avoids hagiography. Let’s hope so, because the trailer sure doesn’t.

Southside With You – written & directed by Richard Tanne, and executive produced by singer John Legend – opens this summer on August 19, 2016.

Director Rian Johnson Posts Photos From EPISODE VIII Set (IMAGES)

The more things change…the more they still look like the Star Wars we know and love (aka Episodes 4 – 7, not the Prequels).

Star Wars: Episode VIII director Rian Johnson recently posted a handful of black-and-white photos from the set of the much anticipated next chapter in the saga. They appeared on his Tumblr account.

The first is of Johnson cleaning the windshield of an X-Wing. The second comes from a First Order base, with a costume that looks even more old school than anything in J.J. Abrams movie. The third and fourth pictures are from earlier this year; one of Lupita Nyong’o doing more motion capture for Maz Kanata, and then Director of Photography Steve Yedlin standing next to the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon.

The as-yet titled Episode VIII opens in roughly 18 months – December 15, 2017.

(Click photos for larger images.)

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! (Movie Review)

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***1/2 out of ****
Rated R
for strong language throughout, sexual content, drug use and some nudity
Released: April 15, 2016; April 22 expands.
Runtime: 117 minutes
Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Blake Jenner, Glen Powell, J. Quinton Johnson, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Wyatt Russell, Temple Baker, Juston Street, Zoey Deutch

Leave it to Richard Linklater – the indie Austin filmmaker who’s always pursued his own personal, low-key muse – to follow up the movie that brought him this close to winning an Academy Award with a film that’s about the farthest thing from it. Boyhood was an intimate, in-depth dramatic portrait about growing up. Everybody Wants Some!! is a raunchy comedy about young men who want to put off growing up for as long as humanly possible.

But for as loose, raucous, and carefree as this movie is, it’s not in Linklater’s DNA to make something that’s mindless. He’s too keen an observer of life and its nuances, and too anthropologically fascinated with people (and, possibly, with the person he used to be) to spin his wheels with escalating pranks and scatological humor. Well, not just with those things.

There’s plenty of Animal House in this movie’s spirit, which is comprised almost entirely of testosterone, but rather than trying to fuel his comedy on outrageous contrivances (vis-à-vis crude and violent shock gags popularized by the likes of Seth Rogen and Melissa McCarthy, et al), Linklater keeps it all grounded in things we recognize, even across generations. Most comedies try to provoke gasps of “Oh man, can you believe they just did that?!”, but Everybody Wants Some!! provokes the belly laughs of “Oh man, remember when we did stuff like that?!” (Well, guys anyway.)

Though billed by Linklater as a “spiritual” cousin to Dazed and Confused (his late 70s high school party comedy), Everybody Wants Some!! is predominantly obsessed with the carnal. This college life nostalgia trip immediately establishes its early 80s setting with “My Sharona” blasting away as Jake (Blake Jenner, TV’s Glee), a freshman, arrives at a fictional south Texas campus. He’s there on a baseball scholarship, and we’re quickly introduced to Jake’s teammates one-by-one at the school-sponsored team house. From there, it’s two hours of dorm life/frat life culture that encompasses the entirety of the college experience except for academics.

Parties. Hook-ups. Hazing. Video games. Discos. Local bars with local bands. Pool and cards. Fooseball, ping pong, and Nerf hoops. Weed tokes and bong hits. Talking music and talking crap. Turning every activity into a competition, all while relentlessly giving each other a hard time (but with far more vulgar terms than that). You can virtually smell the cheap beer wafting off the screen.

Full disclosure: as a guy who attended a conservative Christian university, my friends and I did maybe half of what these jocks do here (although our baseball team probably had a much closer batting average). But the specifics are secondary to the spirit, which is universal to the tribal mentality of post-adolescent American males everywhere.

On the surface these teammates fit stock roles, but they’re portrayed with too much specificity – and with boundless charisma across the board of this no-name cast – to be reduced to archetypes (well, except for Juston Street’s crazed pitcher; his gonzo approach is brilliantly scaled). Each and every one is having an absolute blast but, even so, they don’t play the comedy (even when playing it broadly). They all play it absolutely straight. That commitment makes it hilarious, and that conviction makes it resonate.

Their natural free-flowing conversations, while often juvenile, cumulatively cover a lot more territory than you initially realize, particularly those involving Glen Powell’s senior team leader Finnegan. His mix of brash masculinity and smooth womanizing with a complex intellect and philosophical bent is likely Linklater’s “if I knew then what I know now” idealized surrogate.

Frat comedies like Neighbors play off of familiar experiences, but Everybody Wants Some!! actually captures them. It won’t result in more Oscar love for Linklater, but it’s likely to earn a spot on more than a few year-end Top 10 lists (some Gen-X film critics simply won’t be able to resist). This is as audacious as it is character-based, with ruminations that creep up on you.

It’d be a step too far to brand it the Thinking Man’s Animal House (and probably more of a dig than a compliment, besides), but Everybody Wants Some!! is yet another example of why Richard Linklater is cinema’s greatest “slice of life” auteur.

Trailer #2 For INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE Makes Earth Day Debut (VIDEO)

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I’m starting to wonder just how big this movie might go.

If my perception is correct, the vibe of anticipation for Independence Day: Resurgence is generally positive. People are looking forward to it. Looks like it’ll be good solid popcorn-fueled summer movie fun at the multiplex. It may even open over $100 million. But it won’t do Marvel-sized numbers.

That’s exactly what we were saying a year ago about Jurassic World.

Now granted, I’d be very surprised if this explodes past $200 million on opening weekend, or ends up with $1.6 billion globally like Jurassic World did. But still, don’t underestimate the power of nostalgia, sci-fi, or Jeff Goldblum (which JW didn’t even have!) during the summertime – especially when they’re all mixed together.

It may not have its version of the “White House explosion” money shot that wowed audiences back in 1996, but here’s the latest trailer for Independence Day: Resurgence. The movie opens June 24, 2016.

BORN TO BE BLUE (Movie Review)

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*** out of ****
Rated R
for drug use, strong language, some sexual content, and brief violence
Released: March 30, 2016 limited; April 22 expands. Also VOD.
Runtime: 97 minutes
Director: Robert Budreau
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie, Kevin Hanchard, Kedar Brown

A biopic that starts with loads of potential and wraps with an absolute gut punch, Born To Be Blue – a portrait of the iconic yet troubled jazz trumpeter Chet Baker – flirts with greatness, but also can’t resist proverbial genre tropes. The occasional peaks are transcendent, and the rest is handsomely made and worthwhile, but the whole could’ve been so much more.

Director Robert Burdreau (a bit of a Baker specialist, vis-à-vis his 6-minute short film The Deaths of Chet Baker) begins Born To Be Blue with what appears to be an inspired approach to a biopic: the fictional contrivance that Baker has been cast, while at the low point of his career, in a film about his life. Black-and-white footage initially suggests nothing more than a straightforward-if-artful drama, but then color footage reveals the filmmaking conceit, showing Baker on set.

Brilliant. A meta framework in which flashbacks “dramatize” Baker’s rise and fall in a polished black-and-white, then a forward-moving, more naturalistic trajectory that depicts – in color – his possible resurrection, all while the two are intercut from scene-to-scene, contextualizing and informing the other. I would love to have seen that movie. Indeed, someone should try making a biopic sometime that works in a “movie within a movie” construct (it could be really fascinating) because Born To Be Blue sure doesn’t. It cops out from that device almost as quickly as it’s established, with only occasional B&W callbacks thereafter to key memories.

What unfolds, then, is a more traditional approach (though not quite formulaic, thankfully) with scenes and dynamics that, to their credit, don’t feel as cliché as they probably should. Baker has fallen from his early career heights due to an insidious heroin addiction, but strives to go straight and mount a comeback. Complicating the effort: Baker gets his teeth knocked out – literally, not figuratively – by pushers he hasn’t paid.

A bit more of Baker’s post-assault commitment to relearn his trumpeting savvy – while toothless and bloody-mouthed – would’ve been compelling, especially from a psychological angle, but instead Born To Be Blue spends much of its time in all-too-familiar territory: a romance (one that didn’t happen, actually).

The strong woman in his corner is an idealized composite of the numerous women Baker caroused with. The role is more of a catalyst than character, despite the depth Carmen Ejogo brings to the part (she mined similar virtues as Coretta Scott King in Selma). One begins to wonder what Burdreau is more interested in: Baker’s artistic struggle or his love life.

Jazz and trumpet interludes weave throughout, and they make up for for a lot. Superbly played and filmed, they’re the movie’s elevating grace, working together with handsomely shot (and framed) images. So elegantly assembled, even the jump cuts are smooth. Shot in a digital format, use of 16mm film stock would’ve made the whole aesthetic that much better – but ultimately that’s a nitpick. Even in its modern pristine texture (or lack of texture, as the case may be), Steve Cosens’ cinematography is gorgeous.

Burdreau crafts a visual language befitting a jazz motif. From Baker’s breezy and groundbreaking West Coast style to his drift toward the mournful, it’s quietly hypnotic. One almost wishes for hushed Terrence Malick-styled ruminations to go with these moments, exploring Baker’s existential doubts from the inside, rather than the more standard “comeback” beats so common to the genre that stack this narrative. Being more literal ends up being less revealing.

Even so – the scenes that Born To Be Blue needs to land, it nails. If you’re a Baker fan (like me), you’re waiting for that “My Funny Valentine” moment. It comes at a crucial time, as it should, and it conjures Baker’s complex magic as artist and enigma. Even Hawke’s sincerely wrought vocals – while not on par with Chet’s – incarnate Baker’s melancholy. Ditto for the climactic use of “I’ve Never Been In Love Before”, a truly bittersweet coda to this man’s life and trials.

And that ending. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a triumphant moment feel so tragic. It’s a directorial masterstroke in-and-of itself, one in which Burdeau (who also builds to it with a subtle brilliance) even utilizes the heretofore conventional romance to maximize the scene’s heartbreaking subtext. It’s powerful.

Born To Be Blue isn’t always as immersive or intimate as it needs to be (or in the ways it needs to be), nor as daring, but every time it takes a risk – or, conversely, relaxes – it pays off, which is more often than not. It starts strong and ends strong, occasionally losing its way in-between. It always fights back though, endeavoring toward greatness, even as you’re left with a sense of what could’ve been, but wasn’t. Poetically enough, the same could be said of Baker.