Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

DF_05153_R_2040.0★★★1/2

 

I remember very little about the 1995 film Jumanji.  What I do remember are primitive special effects and the late Robin Williams chewing up scenery.  For me, it was a one and done film.  The fact that Jumanji barely remained a blip on my radar made be feel quite surprised when I found out that, over 20 years later, there is now a sequel Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.  Then I saw it with my kids.  Even bigger shocker?  The sequel one-ups the predecessor.

The first 20 minutes of Jungle are a tad hackneyed and painful.  Because kids are too distracted to enjoy board games, the magical board game Jumanji magically evolves into a video game cartridge.  Because, whether the movie ever admits it or not, Jumanji appears to be a supernatural force that lures and feeds on children.  Technically, it’s Pennywise.  The victims this time around are a 4-some, millennial version of The Breakfast Club minus a surrogate for the Judd Nelson rebel character.  While in detention (of course), they are wooed by the Jumanji game console, and sucked into the game’s universe.

Now this is where the fun begins.  The nerd’s avatar is Dwayne Johnson.  The jock – Kevin Hart.  The outcast braniac takes on the form of a sexy badass (Karen Gillian)  The narcissist bitch with a selfie stick?  Jack Black!  The gang, each equipped with three lives, must work together to overcome villains on motorcycles, man-eating animals, and perilous environments to beat the game.  If not, they are stuck there forever so that the game can presumably feed on their souls (I’m telling you, it’s Pennywise).

Jungle has a weak start, but director Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard) is clearly aware that this film is reliant on the power of ensemble.  All four of the actors are clearly having a great time with this setup.  Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, as they did in Central Intelligence, use their contrasting physiques for effective physical comedy.  Jack Black is particularly scene-stealing as a stocky professor being puppeted by a whiny teenager.  Gillian, the lesser-known of the comedic troupe, also holds her own as a sexualized, Lara Croftian avatar being controlled by an awkward outcast.

Jumanji does not need a detailed analysis or explanation.  It is just a fun movie with a cast that works well together.  It is the remedy for what happens when Hollywood executives come up with a stupid idea.  Casting, casting, casting!

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Review: The Post

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★★★★1/2

“The FAKE NEWS media (failing , , , , ) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”  

-Donald Trump’s Twitter account- February 17, 2017

Around March 2017, Steven Spielberg had the opportunity to take on a new project, and immediately jumped at the opportunity to direct The Post.  Spielberg was later quoted in USA Today, “When I read the first draft of the script, this wasn’t something that could wait three years or two years — this was a story I felt we needed to tell today.”  He stayed true to his word and did not wait.  The Post was released before the end of 2017 to, not only be eligible for awards, but to serve as a reminder of troubling times to American audiences.

The Post sets out to tell the story of how the Pentagon Papers were released to the public by The Washington Post, and tells this story on a very tight timeline.  While the beginning of the film features an introductory time jump, the film establishes firm roots in 1971.  It then digs those roots deeper into the offices of the Post where editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is trying to figure out how to get a reporter into the wedding of Richard Nixon’s daughter.  Bradlee and his staff then catch wind of a New York Times story which reveals tidbits of the classified Pentagon Papers, documents revealing hard truths about the Vietnam War.

The US Attorney General files an injunction to stop further publication on the subject by the New York Times.  Meanwhile, assistant editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) gets his hands on many many pages of the classified Pentagon Papers.  Bradlee and his writing staff, chomping at the bit to report on the subject, try to sway the paper’s owner Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) to support exposing the documents despite threats from the government.

The Post is an event movie.  There is very little introduction or sweeping backstory.  It is here to focus on the predicament that these journalists faced when they decided that freedom of the press trumped presidential intimidation.  While the film is set in 1971, it avoids overusing nostalgic set pieces.  I think this is a deliberate choice by Spielberg so that contemporary audiences can relate a story that occurred decades ago to the present.

The ensemble cast has great chemistry, but Hanks and Streep are unsurprisingly its anchors.  Hanks’ Bradlee is a gravely-voiced journalist to the core that is married to the story.  Steep’s Graham is the recently-widowed owner of the paper who just took the paper public, and is worried that a risky move, such as defying an injunction, could destroy the paper or her own life.

The Post is a very good film, but it is also very important.  While it reflects on a true story, the film was clearly made to remind Americans of basic, constitutional freedoms.  It was freedom of the press that triumphed in 1971.  This film is here to emphasize that the press is not “the enemy of the American people.”  The Post is a film that should not be missed simply based on its relevant message.

 

“….power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.” 

-President George W. Bush   Today Show interview, February 27, 2017

Review: I, Tonya

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★★★★☆

I remember the news in the first half of the 90s like some sort of bizarre fever dream.  There was the American tourist who was caned in Singapore.  There was the abuse victim that lopped off her husband’s junk in retaliation.  There was the ex-football star that stood trial for killing his wife.  Then, of course, there was the figure skating drama when Nancy Kerrigan had her knees clubbed.  How could I forget this one?  I remember the kids at school mockingly clubbing each other at the knees and saying, “Look, I’m Tonya Harding!”  While most of the direct blame and prosecution was placed on Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and his thugs, Harding’s pouty face became much reviled on the news (and SNL).  Remembering all of this, I take a particular interest in the new film I, Tonya, which focuses on the Tonya Harding’s life and involvement in what the film refers to as “the incident”.

Margot Robbie plays Harding in the film as a young woman that was treated as a punching bag in rural Oregon leading up to the incident.  Her mother (Alison Janney), a person with zero redeeming qualities, uses profane insults, withholding love, and physical abuse as a way of motivating her daughter.  Tonya falls in love with a local guy Jeff Gillooly (a creepily mustached Sebastian Stan), who can’t keep his fists away from Harding.  Skating judges dismissively score her sub-par because they view he as too trashy for the ice, despite Harding’s ability to pull the nearly-impossible triple axle.

Then there is “the incident”.  Like my own memories of the incident, the depiction of it is messy and convoluted.  There really is no straight or accurate answer as to how it happened, or who was directly responsible.  There was a lot of finger-pointing between the men in Harding’s orbit including Gillooly and his loser chum, conspiracy-theorist-wannabe Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser, providing much of the comic relief).

I, Tonya prints a transparent disclosure at the beginning that the accounts, while true, are also contradictory.  This movie cobbles together recreations that represent what every subject recalls.  This movie is timely and familiar with its depiction of the media, and those who consume it.  The world sees stories such as this in a binary fashion.  Who is the good guy and who is the bad guy?  What the world does not want to explore are the spaces that exist in between those polarizations.  Who is Tonya Harding and was she really directly responsible?  The film tries to answer those questions that no one bothered to ask back in the 90s.  Harding is by no means depicted as a hero.  However, it convincingly points out that Harding, like anyone targeted by the American spotlight, was given one of two labels.  It was the label that was chosen for Harding that robbed her of everything.

Performances here are very strong, and the praise for Robbie’s performance is justified.  Harding’s uphill climb to be taken seriously was a struggle, and Robbie owns up to depicting a hot mess of emotions.  Allison Janney injects nothing but venom into the role of Harding’s mother, a character that is not given a single redeeming value.  Janney is sadistic as hell in this movie.  I laughed, but also felt bad for doing so.

I, Tonya is a really good movie that will speak to two different audiences.  There are those who remember the incident who will have the chance to revisit it through a different set of lenses.  Then there is the younger generation that will be told this batshit crazy story for the first time.  The whole story is a farce infused with dark comedy that encourages the audience to laugh, cringe, or cringe at the fact that they just laughed.

 

 

Review Roundup: Brawl in Cell Block 99, Brigsby Bear, and The Florida Project

It has been a jam-packed week of working in movies where I can.  Rather than full reviews, here is a quick round-up.

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Brawl in Cell Block 99

★★★★☆

I may as well start with this interesting and entertaining work that rediscovers grindhouse and prison exploitation flicks.  With a gentle Southern accent and an intimidating glare, Vince Vaughn plays Bradley.  He is a nice-enough guy who makes poor career decisions.  Bradley also has a hot temper as evidenced when he tears apart a motor vehicle with his bare hands within the first five minutes of the film.  Audiences can consider this dramatic foreshadowing as it demonstrates what Bradley is capable of doing to a humans that rub him the wrong way.  Bradley inevitably lands in prison, and it is in the clank where the fun begins.

I think the less that is said about the plot, the better.  Brawl descends into a bloody and violent version of hell that made me cringe and delight at the same time.  There comes a point when this movie transitions from a somber tone to a gleefully gratuitous tone where things are not meant to be taken seriously.  I imagine viewers that can stomach the carnage will be game.  It is a surprisingly good performance from Vince Vaughn, and a satisfying sophomore outing from director S. Craig Zahler (responsible for 2015’s wonderful cannibal western, Bone Tomahawk).

 

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Brigsby Bear

★★★★1/2 (of 5)

The premise of this sleeper indie was enough to lure me in.  SNL player Kyle Mooney (who also co-wrote the screenplay) stars as James, a man raised from birth by his kidnappers (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) in a bomb shelter where he ravenously consumes episodes of a children’s’ show, Brigsby Bear.  When the law finally closes in on his captors, he is released into the real world to his biological parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins) only to find out that there is no Brigsby Bear.  Therefore, he sets out on his own to create his own episodes.

Going in with knowledge of the premises, I expected this movie to be quirky for the sake of being quirky.  What I didn’t expect was how accessible this film is.  It could be one of the best films I have seen this year.  Despite the odd setup, I would recommend it to many people.  Mooney is not well-known on SNL because his awkward and unconventional sketches are typically cut, but Brigsby really showcases his talent as a comedic actor and writer.  His character James is an outlier and an oddball, yet this movie carries a genuine sense of warmth as the characters in his orbit embrace his quirks, and help him recreate something that gives his life purpose.  I am unaware of this currently being available on any streaming services, but everyone should seek out this underrated dramedy.

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The Florida Project

★★★★★

Last, but certainly not least, there is The Florida Project, which easily makes my top film list of the year.  Florida Project does not focus so much on plot as it does the atmosphere and the characters.  Set in tourist mecca Orlando, Florida, the film follows child protagonist Moonee (Brooklyn Prince). Moonee and her friends live in a budget motel that is painted in a bright purple to blend in with its Disney-like surroundings.  However, it is merely a facade to mask the poverty-stricken lives within the walls.  The parents or guardians of the children experience a cyclical version of hell while the kids are simply kids.  We see things through the eyes of Moonee and her friends, and experience this colorful, depressing place with a sense of playful naivety.  The Florida Project made me smile as the kids made the best of their surroundings, and made me cry when harsh reality disrupted their slice of innocence.

Much of the acting is natural, but Brooklyn Prince really gives a heart-wrenching performance as this main child that gives the viewers access to this world.  Willem Dafoe, while in a supporting role, is terrific as sympathetic motel manager who also serves as somewhat of a surrogate father figure and protector of the children.  A scene where Dafoe’s character confronts a sexual predator on the hotel property is intense and priceless.

The Florida Project may be a tough pill for many to swallow.  However, I absorbed every moment of this film’s joy and sadness.

Review: The Shape of Water

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★★★★★

Imagination is a wondrous thing. Not a lot of filmmakers choose to use it because regurgitating ideas is so much simpler. But then directors like Guillermo Del Toro are given free reign to transcend the limits of imagination. Take for example his newest film, The Shape of Water. Other filmmakers would see this as the opportunity to remake or “reimagine” Creature from the Black Lagoon. While inspired by the classic Black Lagoon, The Shape of Water is far from being a remake. Del Toro takes a piece of the sea creature subgenre and makes it his own with unforgettable results.

Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa, a mute woman who works on the custodial crew at a science facility circa the early 1960s. Yes, there are deep shades of McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia. Elisa and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) clean the floors and the bathrooms of a place where supposedly great minds are at work. One day, a mysterious sea creature (renowned contortionist actor Doug Jones) is housed in the facility accompanied by the sadistic security detail of Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). When Stickland is not nearby zapping the vulnerable “asset” with his cattle prod, Elisa forms a bond with the creature. Both Elisa and the bipedal creature cannot speak, so they learn to communicate using sign language and music from Elisa’s record player. Elisa recognizes that, unlike any human, the creature does not see her as something of an outcast. Their connection sets the film in motion which leads to suspenseful chases, self-discovery, supernatural occurrences, and love.

Where to start with this film? The Shape of Water has a lot to say and a lot to show. Set in a Cold War atmosphere, this time of the past undeniably bleeds over into the climate of today. There are two groups of characters- us and them. Shannon’s Strickland is the embodiment of “us”. He is the American male with a wobbly sense of superiority. Of course, it is hard not to see the faults in his rugged exterior. He is easily swayed into buying a Cadillac simply because the salesman tells him it is the symbol of the successful American man. Then there are the characters I would categorize as the “them”. Elisa is not recognized as a functional member of society because she can’t speak. Zelda is marginalized because she is black. Elisa’s friend and neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins, superb as always) stays reclusive in his apartment as a closeted gay man. Of course there is the creature seen as repulsive and animalistic by the humans, but as someone special by Elise.

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Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins

The Shape of Water is quite easy on the eyes, particularly for those who love the color green. Green is used prominently, and in different shades throughout the film. There are murky shades of green that represent the more realistic surroundings that are repressed by society. Examples include the tiles in Elisa’s bathroom/apartment, and the water tank prison where the creature is kept behind fortified doors. Then there are the vibrant and artificial shades of green that society deems acceptable. When Giles is asked to design an ad for Jello, he is told that the world wants to see vibrant green. Strickland obsessively chews on pieces of rock candy that resemble pieces of the Emerald City. The aforementioned, all-American Cadillac that Strickland purchases is a glorious teal.

Of course I can’t end this review without loving on the performances. Hawkins is locked for an Oscar nomination as Elisa. Hawkins brings so much adorable expressiveness to this character that optimistically perseveres a world that does not see her as normal. She embraces what makes her happy whether it be tap dancing in the halls of her apartment, or befriending a being that the rest of the world would shun. Somebody has to play the bad guy, and Michael Shannon is luckily always game. Shannon has become to go-to guy for authoritarian villains, and I am OK with that. He always puts a new spin or variation on these characters. In the case of Strickland, the audience gets to explore his weaknesses inside and out. I really hope that Richard Jenkins is given the proper award recognition in his supporting role as Giles. Jenkins is endearing every moment he is onscreen as a closeted gay man who has to keep his love of Judy Garland musicals confined to his dusty apartment.

There really is more that I could say, but it is time for me to bring things to a close. The Shape of Water is a film that I don’t want to spoil because audiences should really seek it out. It will inevitably receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and it is a commendable nominee for being so wildly different from award-season fare. I loved every aspect of this movie from its sense of wonderment to its genuine focus on romance where you would least expect to find it. Guillermo del Toro is not afraid to go new places, and he has created a fringe genre flick that deserves to be discovered by audiences looking for something new.

Review: Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas

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☆☆☆☆☆ (No stars)

I saw The Shape of Water last night. Great film! In fact I was going to review it tonight. Then it was brought to my attention that it is Christmastime, and I still haven’t seen Saving Christmas. After all, it is one of the few films to hold a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. I figured, worst case scenario, it will be a bad film that I can laugh at. Wrong! There is an even worse case scenario. Saving Christmas is a bad movie that is not fun, interesting, or even campy. In fact, it outright made me angry.

I plan to keep this short because I fear anything that is said about this film counts as free publicity. Everyone had subjective opinions, but this is my very snarky interpretation. Kirk Cameron, as the narrator, establishes in an introduction that he is just saddened by those who don’t appreciate Christmas. We come to find out that his brother-in-law just doesn’t appreciate the way that Kirk Cameron appreciates Christmas. So what does Kirk Cameron do? He sits in an SUV with his brother-in-law for the duration of the film to ensure that said brother-in-law sees and interprets Christmas the way that Kirk Cameron does. SPOILER! At the end, the brother-in-law does indeed see the true meaning of Christmas the way that Kirk Cameron wants him to see it.

What happens after this moment is truly horrifying. A bunch of proper Christians (because Kirk Cameron approves) display their dance moves to a hip-hop rendition of Angels We Have Heard on High. Do you think you get off that easy? No! I am giving you the option to watch it.

This movie is one of the worst films I have ever seen. This is not a bad movie one can take pleasure in watching. It takes itself very seriously in its self-righteousness. Kirk Cameron presides over this film as this sort of authoritarian on Christmas. At a Christmas party at a home that isn’t even his, he sits in an oversized chair at the end of the table. While Cameron didn’t direct the film, it is clear who is running the show. With a smug grin and a cup of cocoa in his hand, it is almost as if he believes he is the God of this world he occupies.

Look, everyone has their own opinion on the holiday season. Some love it, some hate it. Some choose to make it faith-based, some don’t. But, with Saving Christmas, Kirk Cameron is here to tell you that you are a wrong if you don’t embrace Christmas the exact way that he does. The movie is supposed to be uplifting, but it just made me feel terrible. I wish I could say this is the type of film where you can do shots with buddies and laugh hysterically. Unfortunately this isn’t The Room. Saving Christmas is a full hour and 19 minutes that I can’t get back. There are SO many wonderful Christmas films that deserve to be seen over this self-congratulatory pile of dung from Kirk Cameron.

Review: Bright

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★★☆☆☆

Well, we’ve finally reached this moment. Netflix has gone from a disc-by-mail service to a streaming service trying to compete with both movie theaters and cable networks. They are now crossing into blockbuster territory by releasing a high-budget film with star power. And that movie is….Bright. I know. Try to contain your excitement.

Bright is directed by David Ayer, who is better known for gritty cop fare. He wrote Training Day and directed End of Watch to give you a general idea. With Bright, he directs the same subgenre, but he populates it with fantasy characters. Will Smith plays human cop Daryl Ward while an unrecognizable Joel Edgerton plays his orc partner Nick Jakoby. Everyone on the LAPD police force hates Jakoby because he is “one of those”. The orcs in contemporary society are widely-regarded as the scum of society, and the corrupt police force will stop at nothing to marginalize their race. Meanwhile, the elves are the elite 1 percenters with endless power and money. The humans….are just humans hanging out in a world populated by fantasy races.

The plot is driven by a MacGuffin that is a magic wand. Anyone who possesses the wand, you guessed it, has power beyond one’s wildest dreams. Jakoby and Ward attempt to overcome their tension toward one another, and get the wand into the right hands.

I can say that Bright is ambitious, and that is where I give it credit. I sense at one point during a pitch meeting that this movie was proposed, the universe was laid out, the social commentary was explained, and it felt like an awesome idea that couldn’t fail. Being that Netflix bases its content on searching for keywords and genres that their users consume, how can they go wrong by mixing fantasy and folklore with a gritty cop drama? Well, I enjoy chocolate and I enjoy tuna fish. But just because I enjoy these things independently does not mean I mix the two together in a blender, and make a smoothie out of them.

Despite its ambition, Bright just doesn’t work. The fantasy element feels incredibly forced, and the social commentary is far from clever or subtle. You don’t have to pick up on the message that Bright delivers because it hits its viewers over the head with it repeatedly. The concept of these folklore races trying to represent the racial divide in our country is begging its audience to take it so seriously, but it felt like a premises that belonged in a South Park episode rather than under the deadly serious direction of David Ayer.

I imagine the movie’s main appeal will be Will Smith. While likeable, Smith once again just plays Will Smith with his wisecracks and occasional angry tirades. If anything, Edgerton gives the most in-depth performance as the orc trying so hard to coexist with a police force that craps on him everyday. Noomi Rapace plays the main, forgettable villain- an evil elf hellbent on recovering the all-powerful wand.

I really wanted to like Bright , but it is just too much of a genre mish-mash that doesn’t hold up. Netflix apparently started developing a sequel before they even released this movie for consumption. For Netflix, they are all about viewership numbers and subscription hikes. I think viewership will be strong. Heck, I tuned in myself out of curiosity. But I wonder if anyone will want to come back for seconds.