★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a true story survived by Yossi Ghinsberg’s harrowing ordeal in the Amazon rainforest in 1981, “Jungle” is a highly watchable picture, filled to the brim with horror, beauty, and curiosities that come with adventure. Although occasionally hindered by dramatic techniques, such as the utilization of repetitive hallucinations and sudden flashbacks, which lessen the raw power of being stuck in a life-threatening and increasingly impossible situation, the escalating tension and solid acting overcome its limitations.
Greg McLean directs the picture with an understanding of similar films from the 1970s in which the jungle is itself a character but not one that is meant to be conquered or comprehend. It is the correct decision to preserve its mystique. However, the filmmaker ensures that we are confronted by the place by focusing on its beauty, at least initially, and then shoving us suddenly so that are face-to-face with its many threats. The nature of the material forces the viewer to wonder if one could survive in the wilderness for weeks.
The picture is shot beautifully, particularly the wide shots of small villages where residents are shown simply going about their day. I enjoyed how the pacing takes its time so that the viewers can have an appreciation of a place. For example, we spend a good amount of time in the market where tourists frequent. As a result, we get to learn a bit about the relationships with locals and foreigners; what visitors choose to see, or do, or photograph; the wide selections of street foods; the wonderful cacophony of business as usual. It is teeming with life, so colorful that one can almost taste the various spices in the air, so the setting is most inviting. This serves a great contrast against the horrors about to unfold in the Amazon jungle.
Daniel Radcliffe plays the tourist Yossi, a young man whose parents expected him to attend university but instead deciding to take a year off to travel and experience what the world has to offer. Credit goes to casting director Ben Parkinson for selecting a character actor for the role. Because in order for the ordeal to be convincing, the performer must deliver a gamut of thoughts and emotions both during scenes of desolation and desperation as well as in how he connects with those he meets along the way (Alex Russell, Joel Jackson), kindred spirits who yearn for adventure outside of the familiar. A performer who always commits to his roles, I was surprised to have seen another side of Radcliffe’s craft that I have not seen before. It makes me want to see him partake in more physically demanding roles.
The picture might have been stronger had screenwriter Justin Monjo found a way to communicate Yossi’s psychological breakdown outside of the standard moments of delirium. Perhaps a fresher route is to have focused solely on behavior. We do not need to see inside person’s mind when his actions clearly exhibit a level of increasing irrationality. An argument can be made that focusing on behavior is more terrifying because it leaves the remaining factors to the imagination. The heart of most survival pictures, after all, is horror.
★ / ★★★★
Eight people (Adrien Brody, Alice Braga, Topher Grace, Walton Goggins, Oleg Taktarov, Danny Trejo, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) with great ability to kill awoke in free fall toward a strange jungle. Eventually, they learned they were bait for alien creatures who liked to hunt and learn about their prey’s skills in order to adapt to dangerous situations. Nimród Antal’s “Predators” was devoid of fun and creativity. I would like to start off with Adrien Brody’s performance. As an action star, Brody failed to embody a convincing attitude, the confidence required for me to keep interested and want to root for him. In every scene, whenever a discovery was made such as their role in the jungle and survivors revealing themselves from past carnage, Brody remained wooden and completely unconvincing. Perhaps his idea of masculinity was not conveying emotion to any situation, which was completely wrong. I wanted to feel his anger that he was sent to a situation in which he did not agree with and his frustration toward the other survivors as they made one stupid decision after another. For example, when one said not to split up, the next scene showed the characters doing exactly the opposite. If Brody had reflected what the audiences would have felt if they were in his character’s situation, he would have been that much more relatable. Playing a sensitive and charming hero would have been a great antithesis against hard bodies in the 70s and 80s action flicks. The only twist I liked was Laurence Fishburne’s appearance as the unpredictable Noland who had an imaginary friend. As he talked about his experiences about trying to survive in the jungle, I had forgotten that I was watching an actor. The film suffered from many unnecessary twists, especially toward the end when we came to realize that one of the eight had other intentions apart from escaping the jungle. I was left in the dust wondering why the writers felt the need to put in a twist. It felt desperate as if it was aware that the action sequences offered nothing new to the genre. In the end, it was all confusion and chaos lacking in genuine suspense and purpose. As for its visual and special effects, they were not used to the film’s advantage. Instead of hiding the alien creatures in the shadows, astutely done in John McTiernan’s “Predator,” to pique our interest and to heighten the horror, the movie revealed too much too quickly. Either the filmmakers had no control of their project’s tone or it was purposely done that way because they designed the picture for Facebook and Twitter generation. It gave nothing for people who relished subtlety and irony.
★★★ / ★★★★
Arnold Schwarzenegger and his team of commandos (Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, Richard Chaves, Shane Black) take up a mission to rescue fellow members of the army from the Latin American jungle. Schwarzenegger’s old pal (Carl Weathers) who now worked for the CIA also came along with them to put his own agendas into motion. But little did they know that from a distance, an alien creature was observing their every move and mimicking their voices and expressions. Right from the very beginning, it was obvious that this was a “guy movie” because of its great focus on showing the military lifestyle, its weapons and artilleries, and men acting nothing short of masculine. But what makes it better than most typical films targeted for men is that it had a strong ability to build tension while at the same time still delivering the glorious violence and buckets of blood. Directed by John McTiernan, he didn’t let The Predator reveal itself until thirty to forty-five minutes into the picture. It simply observed from afar via the soldiers’ and the surroundings’ heat signatures while trying to practice certain human qualities. As the commandos started dying one by one, each scene became that much more intense because it meant that the final duel between Schwarzenegger and The Predator was that much closer. Acting-wise, this movie didn’t have much to offer because all the actors had to do was either look tough or scared. Nevertheless, I was engaged and curious what would happen next because the soldiers were pretty much fighting a creature who was a master of camouflage. I thought the strongest part of the film was the final twenty minutes. The dialogue was minimal because Schwarzenegger was the last man standing and he had to stay quiet in order to avoid attracting the alien who loves to hunt. The movie then had no choice but to rely on both the movements of the camera and that of the lead actor’s as he tried to find ways to trap and hopefully kill his enemy. Its special and visual effects may seem a bit dated now but with older films, what’s important to me is the concept. I believe “Predator” more than delivers because it was entertaining, sometimes smart, suspenseful and at times downright terrifying. This is a prime example of a sci-fi action flick that learned something from the horror genre.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
This is not as funny as everyone made it to be. I thought it spent too much of its time showing people shooting guns and not enough time telling Hollywood jokes. For a two-hour film, I thought it would reach some sort of balance. Written and directed by Ben Stiller, he has some really funny sketches such as the fake trailers prior to the main feature, Robert Downey Jr. as a method actor, Tom Cruise as the over-the-top movie mogul, and not to mention the Oscar scene. Other than those few elements, I simply chuckled through the rest (if they were at least somewhat funny). Jack Black and Ben Stiller weren’t as funny as they could have been. Compared to Downey Jr. and Cruise, Black and Stiller were trying too hard to get noticed; instead of enhancing the experience, it became distracting. But I appreciated the cameos from Tyra Banks, Jennifer Love-Hewitt, Lance Bass, and Alicia Silverstone. They made me pay attention when nothing was going on on screen. What made this movie slightly above average at times was its self-awareness. It’s unabashed when it comes to making references to war pictures like “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket.” I love the scene where Downey Jr. recalled the films and actors that focus on mental retardation: Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump,” and Sean Penn in “I Am Sam.” If they would have appeared, it would have been that much better. But what really did not work for me was the jungle scenes. When people are shooting guns and running away from the artillery, it becomes chaotic. Those “action” scenes feel like fillers when the jokes are not in the foreground. This is supposed to be a comedy but I didn’t see the comedy behind the violence. Perhaps if this had been a dark comedy film, it would’ve worked… but it wasn’t so it didn’t. The story becomes slow and it feels like the actors are not reaching their full potential because they are left to just run around screaming. If this movie would have been tilted toward the show business instead of the actual war scenes, I think I would’ve enjoyed it that much more.