As we head into the home stretch of 2016, one might get the feeling that we’ve all done this before. You know the drill: We get a short breather at the start of December in order to prepare for the upcoming onslaught of end-of-the-year festivities. But the month just started, so let’s not think about that unholy hell just yet.
This week, the death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro made worldwide headlines. A controversial figure, his legacy set off a few debates. While there was no shortage of people willing to argue over Castro, there were also plenty of folks fed up with talking politics. Unfortunately, avoiding the topic won’t bring an end to our new national nightmare, which just seems to get worse and worse and worse. And you still have to go to work.
At least the weekend is finally here and you’ve got some time to yourself. Use it wisely and watch these movies. We guarantee none of them will engage you in conversation about Castro, work deadlines, or the looming holidays spent with relatives you can’t stand.
The Jungle Book (2016)
Director: Jon Favreau
Genre: Action, Family
Summary: A tiger wants to eat a man-cub.
This live-action remake of the classic 1967 Disney cartoon (based on the short stories by Rudyard Kipling) is not perfect. Although this version commendably takes on a darker tone than the original, the first half hour is on shaky ground, mostly due to the underdeveloped characterization of Mowgli, who is mainly just a bratty kid who jumps from trees. A few bits of telegraphed action—you can sorta guess when an animal is about to jump out and attack— don’t help either. But once you get to Bill Murray as Baloo the bear and Christopher Walken as King Louie the gargantuan ape things really pick up and it’s an exciting ride to the fiery end.
Murray and Walken, along with Idris Elba as the villainous tiger Shere Khan and Ben Kingsley as a panther named Bagheera, give exceptional performances that really elevate the rest of the film. As for the CGI, it’s impressive for the most part, but really comes alive when our heroes visit the crumbling monkey empire. These scenes alone make The Jungle Book a worthwhile watch.
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014)
Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Bo Derek, Michael Dudikoff, Sybil Danning
Director: Mark Hartley
Genre: Documentary, Action, Sexploitation
Summary: The rise and fall of a B-movie factory run by an irreverent duo.
During the ’80s, ambitious Israeli film producers (and cousins) Menahem Golan (R.I.P.) and Yoram Globus were responsible for flooding the market with tons of movies starring ninjas, berzerk soldiers, break dancers, vigilantes, you name it. For some, the movies the Cannon Group, Inc. cranked out were the bottom of the barrel (even those who worked on them thought so). For the rest, these were trashy, violent, nudity-filled celluloid treasures starring badasses like Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson that were not to be missed.
Say what you will about the quality of these films, Golan and Globus knew the business inside and out. They ran a no-frills, Corman-esque operation that often sold movies before they were even made just by showing buyers a poster (usually with somebody holding a machine gun).
In this fast moving, incredibly informative documentary, audiences are treated to a steady stream of anecdotes and behind-the-scenes dirt from various people who worked for Cannon. Highlights include how the money-making Breakin’ was competing with Orion Pictures’ Beat Street (1984) to be the first breakdancing movie to be released in theaters. Then, in a surreal twist a few years later, Golan and Globus, now rivals, raced to outdo each other with competing lambada films.
Cannon may have had a crappy image, but the cousins were able to hire a wide range of directors, including Tobe Hooper, the late John Cassavetes, and even Godard. Financial troubles ultimately did the company in, but their remarkable ability to make, market, and distribute their films across the globe proved to be tremendously influential.
Starring: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré
Director: Céline Sciamma
Summary: French teens bond while trying to escape poverty.
Netflix recently added the French coming-of-age drama Divines (2016), which stars Oulaya Amamra as a flamboyant teenager determined to better her life at all costs. Amamra gives a strong performance, but a romantic subplot involving a male dancer threatens to push things into Baz Luhrmann territory. Still, it retains enough grit for some high drama.
By contrast, Girlhood, which has a similar storyline, is an understated offering that conveys its message far more subtly. The story centers around Marieme (Touré), a quiet girl looking after her little sister while trying to keep a distance from her abusive brother. Academically, she’s not doing well, but she resists a teacher’s advice to attend vocational school. It’s obvious that she doesn’t want to follow in her mom’s footsteps cleaning hotels.
Marieme befriends a group of girls who spend most of their days shoplifting, beefing with rivals, and just trying to act cool. It’s fun for a while, and Marieme begins to break out of her shell, but soon she’ll have to make a difficult decision on how to make money.
Girlhood is not trying to tell yet another story about juvenile delinquency. It’s concerned with the lives of young females who are trapped in a cycle. By letting us observe their daily rituals, we pick up on their fears of having no real voice, of being faced with a future that limits their choices between menial labor or getting married and having kids. We come to understand how important it is for them to protect their reputations, to give off the illusion of status, and how they find strength through their friendships.
(NOTE: Not to be confused with the 2003 documentary with the same name, which is also streaming on Netflix.)
Starring: Seann William Scott, Jay Baruchel, Alison Pill, Liev Schreiber
Director: Michael Dowse
Genre: Sports, Comedy
Summary: A hockey hooligan makes name for himself bashing heads in.
For good reasons, Slapshot (1977) is considered the classic hockey movie. A brash and funny underdog tale that mixed realism with characters and scenarios straight out of a cartoon, the film dealt with the popularity of fighting in a sport that’s supposed to be about skating and scoring goals. Goon is a worthy successor.
Although fighting has gone down in the NHL in recent years, there was a long period when every hockey team needed an enforcer whose role was to protect the star player. These so-called goons are hired strictly for their fighting skills. Really, it’s a shit job, both dangerous and stressful. But for tough-as-nails Doug Glatt (Scott) it’s a step up from his gig as a bouncer at a local Massachusetts bar. Doug’s a dimwitted but good-hearted dude with not many other options, so when he gets the chance to join a minor league hockey team, he takes it.
Every sports movie follows a formula and Goon is no exception. But it’s all done so effortlessly you almost don’t notice. There’s plenty of crass locker room humor, most notably from the hilariously foul-mouthed Oleg (Karl Graboshas) and Evgeni (George Tchortov), who torment teammates with gross mom jokes. It also manages to balance a tender love story alongside Glatt’s collision course with a grizzled veteran brawler on the verge of retirement (Schreiber).
Like any good sports flick worth its weight, Goon has replay value. It’s good to the last drop of blood. Plus, it’s based on a true story! (Can’t wait for the sequel.)
Sing Street (2016)
Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor
Director: John Carney
Genre: Music, Drama, Comedy
Summary: An Irish teenager starts a band to impress a girl circa 1985.
Fifteen-year-old Conor’s (Walsh-Peelo) world is changing fast. Not only are his quarreling parents about to split up, but their financial troubles have also forced them to send the lad to a new school. Almost immediately, he falls victim to bullying, both from a skinhead punk and an overbearing headmaster with sadistic tendencies. Yet those worries fly out the window when he meets Raphina (Boynton), an older girl with modeling aspirations. In an effort to get next to her, he offers her a spot in his band’s music video—even though he doesn’t have a band. When she agrees, Conor has to scramble to make things happen.
Although Sing Street’s allure will most likely be the ’80s nostalgia, the real appeal is simply watching a bunch of kids having a blast making music. Being creative is its own reward, and the scenes in which the teens seem to gain confidence in themselves as they improve their playing are great. Just as fun is seeing the influence of Conor’s cool older brother (Reynor), who despite looking like Ozzy, turns his sibling on to groups like Duran Duran, the Cure, and Hall & Oates, and, in turn, shapes the band’s sound. (The only slight criticism is that the band’s music starts sounding less ’80s as the film progresses.)
Sing Street does a good job detailing the highs and lows of young love and the importance of following your dreams, but it also reminds us how the power of music can get you through a rough patch in your life by momentarily making everything feel better.