Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

I really liked the original film with Robin Williams. It took a ridiculous premise (a magic board game) and handled it deftly. (And it was somewhat more involving than the similarly themed Zathura.)

This is a sequel, not a reboot, technically. The game reappears, looking just as it did before, but in an age of video games (i.e. the 1990’s), it’s ignored to the point where the game decides to change format, becoming a NES-style cartridge game. It pulls in one kid, then sits on a shelf until the present day.

Instead of a couple of young kids getting pulled into the game, we have a group of four mismatched teenagers: a dweeb, a jock, a pretty girl, and a misfit girl. So, no surprises there, I guess. The actors playing the teens do a nice job of setting up the relationships before they get sucked into Jumanji and they look like movie stars.

That’s the big difference between this film and the original. We heard that Robin Williams’s Alan spent some ridiculous amount of time in the jungles of Jumanji, but we never saw it. Now we get to see it in all it’s glory, through the eyes of Dwayne Johnson (playing the dweeb), Kevin Hart (as the jock), Karen Gillan (as the misfit), and, in truly inspired casting, Jack Black (as the pretty girl).

The substance of their quest isn’t particularly important. They’re trying to take a thing to a place. That’s just the plot’s excuse to put these fish-out-of-water through a series of trials, which includes each of them dying multiple times. (It is a video game, after all.)

There’s a new villain in this film (Bobby Canavale) which is interestingly a very different Van Pelt than in the first film, though he is ultimately forgettable.

This film is uniformly funny, enjoyably exciting, and surprisingly touching. I can recommend it.

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Star Wars Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

Do I like the Star Wars film series? Yes. Do I love it? Sort of. I certainly enjoyed the original trilogy. I found some joy in the prequels. I thought Rogue One was a joyless (yet beautiful) waste of my time. The Force Awakens is my favorite of the bunch.

So I was looking forward to The Last Jedi, but my investment in the universe is still dramatically less than the love I feel for several other universes (Harry Potter, Star Trek, the MCU, heck, even the Jurassic Park universe).

There are things in this new movie I love. I love the interactions between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke (Mark Hamill). Actually, I love grizzled Luke, full stop. I love the deepening of the character of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). I love Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) part of the story. All of this was dramatic and exciting and interesting and satisfying. I also pretty much enjoyed Leia (Carrie Fisher) in this one. She didn’t have a home run of a character arc, but I liked it. I also loved the porgs. I want one!

There are things in this movie that are okay. Poe (Oscar Isaac) is okay. Chewbacca (Joonas Suatamo) is (sadly) only okay. (He was so much more interesting in TFA.) Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) moves up from annoying (in TFA) to okay in this one. I’m hoping he will be more interesting still in Episode IX.

There are things in this movie I find annoying. Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) falls into this category. Her motivations were so muddy as to be nearly inhuman in the service of “drama”. But, you know, good line readings, I guess. Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) feels out of place. DJ (Benicio del Toro) is kind of a waste of space. Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) is really shoehorned in. Why bother?

And there are things I hated. Everything Finn (John Boyega) does in the movie bugs me. His motivations, his actions, his confrontations. What a let down after his excellent arc in TFA. They better get him right in the capper or I will be mad. Everything on the casino planet should have been written out of the film. Everything to do with Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) was a waste of my time. Either make her a central character or leave her out. Having a three-minutes per film arc is stupid.

My biggest complaints about the film are structural. First of all, it’s just too long. It was exhausting. (And this is coming from a guy who loved every minute of every ending in The Return of the King.) I think it’s interesting to have the entire film take place over the course of something like a 24 hour period, but the pacing felt off, somehow. Another structural problem was that the four leads of the film didn’t interact nearly enough. (By this I mean other than Luke and Leia.) Yes, there was a good amount of Rey-Kylo stuff. But Finn and Poe were almost entirely on their own. (And, sadly, doing not very interesting things.)

What’s funny to me is that my problems with the film are entirely distinct from the “fan boy” hate. Everything they have problems with (Rey’s parentage, the handling of Snoke, the introduction of minority characters) I liked. So they’re being dumb. I’m not going to spoil anything, because the reveals are some of the best stuff in the film.

Now that we have a new Star Wars film, it’s time for me to update my order of preference of the films. (I’m not going to bother adding justifications.)

  1. The Force Awakens
  2. A New Hope
  3. Attack of the Clones
  4. Return of the Jedi/The Empire Strikes Back (tie)
  5. The Last Jedi
  6. Rogue One
  7. The Phantom Menace
  8. Revenge of the Sith

Justice League

How long have I been waiting for this movie? Probably since I saw the first Superman film from back in the late 70s. I got a taste of what it might look like in Batman vs Superman. And it did not taste good. (Sheesh, that was an annoying movie. I think Dreamscape might have had fewer dream sequences. Anyway…)

You could tell from the marketing of Justice League that they were looking for a lighter tone. Which I was looking forward to. But would things gel? Would this be the one that makes the DC cinematic universe thing worth it?

Long story short, this is a very mediocre film. Better (by far) than BvS, and better than Suicide Squad. Not as good as Wonder Woman or Man of Steel. Still, that’s a pretty big range of possible quality. Put simply, the story is kind of lazy, the villain is somewhat pointless, and there are a couple of scenes with very annoying special effects (more on that in the spoiler section below). What did I like? Pretty much all the performances and most of the comedy. Ezra Miller as Flash steals the show. Jason Momoa is excellent as Aquaman. Gal Gadot is fine, though not as magical as she was in her solo film. And Ben Affleck is okay, if not quite as punchy as he was in BvS.

The action scenes are pretty good. I particularly liked one that takes place in a park in Gotham City (which I will not describe), and the one in Atlantis. That one makes me hopeful for the Aquaman film they’re working on. I liked how things felt weighted down by the water. Considering how CG stuff usually looks too fast, this was a nice surprise.

I’ll dig into some specifics below, but put simply, if you already like any of the DC films, you’ll probably like at least some of this, but it won’t be going on any of your ten-best lists.

Spoilers next. Be warned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’re going to start your film with a shot of Henry Cavill as Superman, make sure it doesn’t look weird and fake. Yes, I get that you weren’t allowed to shave off his mustache because reasons. But if you can’t make his CG shave look good, maybe don’t include the scene in your movie?

My biggest problem with the film was that I liked it better when it was called The Avengers. A dude with horns arrives via sky beam to steal a cube-shaped thing that people have been experimenting with? And he’s followed by a horde of faceless CG goons? And his goal is domination of Earth? I get that this is a plot line from the actual comics, but I don’t care. Maybe DC even invented Steppenwolf before Marvel invented Thanos. Also don’t care. I live in the movie world. The first film that comes out wins. (Also, if the first film that comes out is demonstrably better written, that’s another thing.)

I give the WB marketing team props for holding back on Superman, but there’s very little suspense for the audience about whether Batman’s plan will actually work. The only real suspense is how he’ll react once he’s been resurrected. I loved the scene where he goes postal on the rest of the League. It felt different and inventive. (Okay, maybe it was a little bit too much like Vision’s birth in Age of Ultron, but that’s a quibble.)

Sadly, this Superman is way too powerful. Once he’s involved in the final battle, the tension is gone. There’s little point for a whole league of super heroes if Superman can do everything they can do and never be hurt. This isn’t a Justice League problem, it’s a Superman character problem. I’m not super sure that there’s a solution. I think we may have to accept the fact that Justice League films will never really work.

Maybe when they reboot the whole thing in a few years.

Mummy v. Mummy

I just saw the Tom Cruise starring The Mummy, the critically panned and financially disappointing tent-pole film from this past summer. I could dig into the way it tries (and pretty much fails) to set up a cinematic “Dark Universe” for the traditional monster properties that Universal is known for. It seems that kind of thing is elusive for anyone but Disney.

What I’m more interested in is how the film functions as a film, and why it’s so underwhelming compared to the much campier and much more beloved The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser from 1999.

The Setting

M99 was set entirely in Egypt, and back in the 1920s. Part of that was, I’m sure, an attempt to catch some of the glow of the Indiana Jones films, which were of course an inspiration. It also put moviegoers in the mindset of this as being an homage to the classic monster pictures from the 30s. It gave the filmmakers license to have arch dialog, stylized action sequences, one-dimensional characters and a few old-school camera tricks. At the time, the film was decried as an example of Hollywood soullessness, but it was exactly what a summer blockbuster should be–fun.

M17, on the other hand, eschews Egypt almost entirely and moves the action to the present day. There’s an (overlong) introductory history lesson, but then it moves to Iraq (an excuse to add some of-the-moment fire fights and a drone strike), and from there to London (an excuse to shoehorn in Dr. Jekyll). Everything seems off point. This could have been enjoyable, if the film had any kind of a sense of fun with the time/place displacement for the action. But it doesn’t. Instead of a face in a cloud of sand, there’s a face in a cloud of shattered glass. Snore.

The Hero

Brendan Fraser was known before M99, but he was far from a household name. This film put him on the map (for a brief time). He was charismatic, roguish, insistent on his own intelligence, which was more often than not effective. Tom Cruise has charisma for days, but his character in M17 is all over the map. He’s kind of a doofus (which I don’t have a problem with) but there needs to be a point in the film where he stops reacting and starts acting. This moment is saved for very nearly the last moment, and it’s overdue.

The Heroine

Both films have a “strong” female character who is more knowledgeable and more considered than their male counterpart. I put strong in quotes because neither Rachel Weisz in M99 nor Annabelle Wallis in M17 have any real impact on the story beyond providing occasional information and then getting saved by the hero. But at least in M99 there’s some real chemistry between the leads. The “romance” between Cruise and Wallis is laughable, for more reasons than just the fact that he’s 22 years older than she is.

The Villain

I can’t really say that Sofia Boutella is better or worse than Arnold Vosloo. Both of them run around in skimpy clothes and kill a bunch of people in a bid to sacrifice someone to bring someone else to life. Vosloo gets points for never speaking English. The endless dream sequences between Cruise and Boutella had me flashing back to Dawn of Justice, and that’s not a good thing.

The Sidekick

In M99, there are two sidekicks: John Hannah as Johnathan and Kevin J. O’Connor as Beni. Both are greedy and underhanded, but one is just a little nicer than the other. And both are pretty funny. In M17 we get a poorly used Jake Johnson who is kind of an amalgam of both, but is way less funny than he should have been. (Honestly, he was the best part of Jurassic World, wasn’t he?)

The Expert

In M99 we get a glimpse into a secret society of people dedicated to protecting the world from evil, personified in Oded Fehr and Erick Avari. They get to be the ones to say to the heroes “You done messed up.” In M17 that role is filled by Russell Crowe as the Nick Fury of this universe, Henry Jekyll. Personally, I loved him. I even loved the weird diversion of Hyde taking over and tossing Tom Cruise around the room for a while. This is the one place I think this version of the film wins out.

The Tone

This is where M17 falls down in a major way. This is a film about an ancient mummified creature causing havoc in the modern world. It’s not supposed to be gritty and dark. They leaned really heavily into the horror aspects. That made for some great imagery. (I loved the version of Ahmanet hobbling around the church early on.) But trying to splice that into a big action movie (with plane crashes and gun play) left the film an unmanageable mess. M99 knew what it was about–fun. There’s a very similar scene in both films, where a character is about to be sacrificed on an altar surrounded by mummies. This leads to a big fight sequence. The M17 version is probably more technically proficient, but it’s not fun. That sequence in M99 is rousing and leaves you happy to have spent your hard-earned money on a movie ticket.

My Conclusion

M17 isn’t a terrible film. It’s just amazingly lackluster. I don’t think it’s going to be remember unfondly. I think it’s going to be forgotten. I don’t know if that’s better or worse than having a Battlefield Earth level disaster, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.

Wonder Woman

It’s kind of expected, when reviewing a film that’s part of a cinematic universe, that you place it in that context, and review it as such. Fine. I’ll bow to convention.

Wonder Woman is the second best film in the DCEU. There. I said it. I like Man of Steel better. But only by a little. WW is excellent film-making. Way better than Batman vs Superman or Suicide Squad. The story of Diana of Themyscira, a princess who dreams of being a warrior, only to become, you know, a warrior, is lots of fun. The World War I setting is enjoyably different. (My experience with Wonder Woman pretty much began and ended with Lynda Carter’s portrayal, which put her in World War II.) I like Gal Gadot as the title character, and Chris Pine is perfect as Steve Trevor, her tour guide to the world outside her “paradise island”. My favorite aspect is how her quest to stop Ares (the god of war, natch) is treated as possibly a fantasy of her own making until the very end of the film.

But it’s not a perfect film. The ending was a little doofy. I don’t want to spoil it, but the way they handle the resolution of Diana and Steve’s romance didn’t feel earned.

However, my biggest problem with the film is that it was better when it was called Captain America: The First Avenger. Think I’m nuts? Let’s take a look… (Spoilers. You are warned.)

A young wannabe warrior is given a chance by a mentor figure (against the advice of their superior). The young warrior exceeds expectations, but still has to watch their mentor die. The warrior develops a flirtatious, but ultimately unrequited romance with another military figure who is much more experienced in war, and in the ways of love. (Our main character is probably a virgin, though the film is vague on that point.) The two central characters put together a ragtag group of mifits to go deep into enemy territory and stop a crazy German (who has been chemically enhanced to be super strong) and his scientist underling. These baddies have a plan that will turn the tide of the war. The only way to stop the madness is for the lead guy to sacrifice himself in a plane. Cut to present day, where the main character still pines for their lost love.

I’m convinced the only reason they set the film in the First World War was that the parallels would have been too obvious otherwise.

Anyway. all that said, I still think it’s a good movie.

Jason Bourne

I apologize for being so behind in the reviews. Perhaps no one will care about this one anymore, but I like to fill in the gaps in my reviews from time to time.

I am an unapologetic fan of the first three Bourne films. The Bourne Identity was a revelation. The hero of an action film didn’t have to look like the hero of an action film. And Matt Damon didn’t. But it worked, largely because he didn’t know who he was. He was as surprised as we were every time he did something cool. It took place entirely in Europe. It felt like cinema verite, with the hand held camera work, and the stoic, quiet lead. And that music. All things told, I feel like The Bourne Identity was the most influential film (at least in the buzzy, blockbuster parts of cinema) of that decade.

Then The Bourne Supremacy one-upped everything. The action was better, the story was better, the acting was better. Everything about that film is pretty much perfect. Is there a car chase in any movie better than that one in Moscow at the end of the movie? No. There is not.

I liked The Bourne Ultimatum too. It didn’t have the whiz-bang originality of the first (of course) or the seamlessness of the second, but it has its own charms, not least of which the delightfully clever way they interweave the story of this film with what was really just a throwaway scene at the end of the previous.

I heard Matt Damon, after the third film, asked if he saw there being a fourth movie. His response: “They’d have to call it The Bourne Redundancy.” Well, you shouldn’t have spoken so soon, buddy. Apparently there is enough money to get Paul Greengrass (the director of Supremacy and Ultimatum) and Damon back onto the set for the simply titled Jason Bourne.

Is this film a step down in quality. Yes. Just a bit. Just the tiniest bit. I still enjoyed it thoroughly. The action is solid. The story is interesting. I liked Tommy Lee Jones taking the role of the government goon who’s just indiscriminately evil. (A position filled by David Strathairn, Brian Cox and Chris Cooper in previous installments.) I appreciated the return of Julia Stiles as Nicky, a constant presence in the films. But the MVP of this film (apart from the always engaging Damon) is Alicia Vikander. I watched the movie, and I still don’t know if she was evil, or if she was really on Bourne’s side. If someone tries to greenlight a fifth film, I will be very disappointed if she doesn’t figure prominently.

I guess this could be considered something like nostalgia porn, but I can’t say I wasn’t on board.

Baby Driver

From Edgar Wright (the guy who directed Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, At World’s End and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) comes a film that’s like the illegitimate child of Pulp Fiction and La La Land. Maybe. I haven’t seen La La Land, but I get impression that it has some of the same sensibilities.

The central character here is Baby (Ansel Elgort), a preternaturally gifted driver who’s in the employ of Doc (Kevin Spacey), a criminal mastermind who delights in a good bank heist. There’s a rotating group of toughs that Doc uses for his jobs, but the ones that figure most prominently in the story are Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonz├ílez) and Bats (Jamie Foxx).

Baby is clearly just working these jobs to clear a debt to Doc, but his desire to be clear of the crime scene is amped up by the appearance in his life of Debora (Lily James), a waitress who seems to get Baby when he doesn’t necessarily get himself. Nearly every feature of his character is designed to remind you that he’s been emotionally stunted by the death of his parents (particularly his mom).

The Pulp Fictionness of the film is the violence, the disregard for law and order, the constant tension between all of the criminal characters. Perhaps the most interesting dynamic is between Bats and Buddy. They have a couple of great scenes. And, of course, everyone is also filtered through Baby. Sometimes these people feel like a kind of dysfunctional family. Sometimes they feel extremely dangerous. These relationships are thrown into relief by the adorable way Baby cares for his ailing foster father Joseph (CJ Jones).

The La La Landness of the film is how it’s driven, beginning to end, by the soundtrack. Borrowing a little from Guardians of the Galaxy, Baby uses a collection of iPods to continuously curate the soundtrack of his life. He uses music to score his walk to get coffee, to romance Debora at the laundromat, and, of course, to drive.

The film never lets us forget that Baby’s gifts are most effective behind the wheel of a car. I don’t know how many cars he drives in this film, but it’s a lot, and he’s adept at controlling every one of them, leading police and others on astonishing chases through the streets of Atlanta.

For the first half of the film, I was liking it. Then, in the second half, when the story started jerking and jiving in directions I didn’t expect, I started loving it. If you don’t mind your crime drama sprinkled with a little bit of “movie magic”, you’ll probably love it, too.