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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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.

Moana

I have a five-year-old daughter. Recently, my wife and I took her to her first in-theater movie experience. (Except for one of those thirty-minute-long IMAX documentary films.)

My daughter is a bit on the sensitive side. She finds the giant squid in Finding Dory too much. But it’s hard for me to argue with her on that one. Watching Moana she had to contend with a lava monster, an oversized crab, and a pirate navy of freaky coconut creatures. She spent a lot of the film in the hallway with her mother. But man, did she have a lot to say about it afterward. Her deconstruction of the character of Maui kind of took my breath away. It was insightful and likely accurate; and I never even thought about it.

Okay, enough about the target demo. How did Moana affect me?

Dang, this is a good film. One opening scene, with the title character Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) as a toddler, was astonishing. Not just gorgeous animation (which it is) but brilliant animation storytelling. You learn what you need to know without a single word of dialogue.

Soon enough Moana grows up to be a girl of indeterminate age, but likely a teenager. She’s being groomed to take over as chief of the island on which her people have lived for many years. (1000, if Maui is to be believed.) Her father (Temura Morrison) is adamant that what has worked this long–staying safe behind the reef–will continue to work. But an impending ecological disaster pushes Moana to take a risk and go out to sea in search of the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson).

The balance of the film is a buddy action comedy with these two (and a couple of enjoyable side characters who don’t actually speak) as they try to accomplish the quest steps needed to get everything back in order on Moana’s island.

Pretty much everything about this film works. The settings are lush and amazing. The performances are spot on. The story is straightforward enough for kids, but not simple and not dumbed down. The music is heartfelt and touching when its supposed to be, and hilarious at other times. (Kudos to Jemaine Clement for his portrayal of the most impressive crab in cinema history.)

This could be my favorite animated film.

Fifty Shades of Grey

50sogI was intrigued by the idea of Fifty Shades of Grey as a movie. Not because I thought it would be good, and it definitely isn’t good. No, I was interested because it was, as far as I can tell, an original thing: a big-budget, tent-pole, major studio adaptation of mommy porn. That’s a weird thing, and I was very interested to see how they managed to thread that needle.

There’s nothing very edgy about mainstream Hollywood films. They save that stuff for “indy” cinema. Fifty Shades is such a publishing phenomenon, and a crossover from erotica to boot, so I guess the studio people thought they couldn’t allow it to be a small picture with a real edge.

For the two people who don’t know the story, Anastasia Steele is a college student who has a meet-cute with a billionaire, Christian Grey. He has a fetish for domination. Ana is not interested in that, but she is interested in his abs, so for a couple of weeks she toys with the idea of becoming his submissive.

I haven’t read the book. I will admit to reading a few chapters, but I didn’t even get to any of the sex. It was really quite boring. And, in this way, the film is a very accurate adaptation. I mean, really. Is there a more absolutely boring film of the year? This is a movie about BDSM, and it’s a snoozefest. There’s a hint early on that Ana’s friends might introduce some complications. That’s true for about fifteen seconds. There’s another hint halfway through that Christian’s family may introduce complications. That amounts to about a minute and a half of screen time. They managed to stuff thirty minutes of plot into a two hour movie.

The rest of the film is, no joke, these two characters. Sometimes they have sex (which is at best mildly titilating). Sometimes they talk about having sex. Sometimes they talk about how screwed up Christian is. The rest of it is that standard I’m-rich-so-I’ll-romance-you-with-helicopters kind of stupidity. At least Thomas Crown stole paintings. Christian doesn’t seem to do anything.

Dakota Johnson does a pretty good job with the somewhat underwritten Ana, particularly when she’s sparring with Christian. She shows an interesting combination of jittery fear and backbone. Jamie Dornan provides nothing like a performance for Christian. He’s just a pretty face. His lack of charm really does a dissersive to the Ana character, because the only way to interpret this is that she is so enamoured of his body that she’ll consider his dom-sub contract.

BTW, the negotiation scene over that contract? Best scene in the movie. It’s both funny and sexy.

Here comes a spoiler…

As for the ending, it’s clear, from the editing and the music and the performances, that I’m supposed to be sad when Ana breaks off her relationship with Christian. Which is insane. As far as I’m concerned, this is a happy ending. She escapes this charmless freak with at least some of her dignity left. I’ll just pretend there are no sequel books or (sigh) movies.

Hercules

hI totally missed out on the Dwayne Johnson Hercules that came out a while back. I don’t have the intense hatred for director Brett Ratner that seems to percolate in the film community. I think his films are generally fine (Rush Hour, Tower Heist) or pretty cool (Red Dragon, X-Men: The Last Stand). So I went into this with no particular expectation.

There is a particular conceit in the film that I think borders on brilliant. It’s kind of a spoiler if all you’ve seen is the trailer, but it’s explained in, like, the first three minutes of the film, so I’m going to put it out there. In this film, Hercules isn’t a demi-god. He didn’t perform the Twelve Labors alone. He’s a jacked warrior with an amazing team of fellow warriors working for him, along with a cousin who embellishes the actual missions into mythology so they can get work for hire.

This is a great way to go for a film. Now we don’t have to worry about gods coming down and deus-ex-machinaing all over the place. (Kind of like Troy.) And we get a reinterpretation of the story that, in this universe, is the “real” version of the myth, not what the storytellers have told us. (Kind of like Beowulf.) I suppose purists don’t like these kinds of films. I’m not a purist. I like the built-in irony of a film like this.

The movie has some fun action sequences, including some battle scenes that do a good job of showing us the tactics of the different sides and not letting it turn into a formless melee. Johnson’s Hercules is just strong enough to make it reasonable that people would assume he’s supernatural, but they never cross that line. He’s also the driving force for strategy, helping to turn an underdog army into a superior fighting force.

There really are a lot of things to like about this film. Rufus Sewell turning in a nice Han Solo performance. Ian McShane as Obi-Wan (sort of). John Hurt as a local king. The only really wobbly thing is everything with the character played by Joseph Fiennes. He telegraphs his evil so obviously, the reveal was somewhat pointless, not to mention shoehorned in as an unnecessary third act complication.

All in all, this is very much an enjoyable but ultimately forgettable film.

San Andreas

saSan Andreas posits a somewhat outside the scientific norm premise, that the entire system of tremors under California are about to start shaking simultaneously. So, the entire planet isn’t cracking up, but, man, this is still going to be crazy big. There are fewer characters to follow than in 2012, though there is a broken marriage that we put back together after killing the interloper new husband/boyfriend, so there’s that.

So, let’s talk about the cast. I can’t say that Dwayne Johnson doesn’t do a good job, but I’m not exactly sure why you need a guy with this kind of brawn when most of the movie is him piloting various vehicles from set piece to set piece. Carla Gugino is always a welcome presence in a movie. Hugo-Johnstone Burt and Art Parkinson turn in a couple of serviceable performances as a pair of brothers caught up in the disaster. Paul Giamatti lends the film a touch of gravitas as a geologist with some insight into the earthquakes. (It’s unfortunate that the filmmakers have him invent earthquake prediction technology literally as this particular disaster commences. One of the most egregious coincidences I’ve seen recently.) Ioan Gruffud is entirely wasted in the “jerk who gets his comeuppance because he is shown to be a coward in a truly frightening situation.” I hate that cliche. You know what, some people are ready for earthquakes, and some aren’t. I also want to give special kudos to Alexandra Daddario. This is not for her performance (which is fine) but for just being good looking on screen. I’ve heard more than one person mention how some of her scenes were just so distracting that you forget about the death and destruction.

Not to spoil the ending too much, I just want to point out that the film wants to make you think something is going to happen…and it just won’t. There is no way that thing they want you worry about so much is really going to happen in this film. It’s a big budget American disaster film. It can only get so dark.

So, all in all, fun and exciting, if not groundbreaking or even super-memorable.

Furious 7

I’m an unapologetic fan of this series. The first film was an exciting hoot. Admittedly, 2 Fast 2 Furious was pretty bad. But I liked Tokyo Drift, Fast and Furious and Fast Five well enough. And Fast and Furious 6 was kind of awesome.

f7Despite the untimely death of Paul Walker, I suspected this seventh installment might be the pinnacle, followed by whatever diminishing returns the studio could wring out of the franchise before it fell apart. Sadly, this is the film where it actually falls apart.

I’ll start with what I think worked. The B-plot of Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty dealing with her amnesia was thoughtful and, at times, touching. The no-holds-barred way that Jason Statham’s Deckard is a one-man wrecking crew throughout the film is pretty awesome (even if it doesn’t always make sense). The way they made Dom’s (Vin Diesel) penchant for popping wheelies in his muscle cars actually a cool plot point made me smile. And, despite some pretty obviously choppy editing and noticeable face-replacement effects, the way they said goodbye to Paul Walker’s Brian was well handled.

But that’s only a little bit of good in a sea of well produced action sequences that I simply didn’t care about, plot twists that made me want to punch the screenwriter in the face, and sexism at a level that bounced me right out of the story.

I know, it’s odd to be a fan of a series that routinely features scantily clad women dancing around dragsters and get annoyed with sexism. But there’s a point where it just stops being escapism and veers into unacceptable territory.

They flirted with that line in the last film, when Elena (Elsa Pataky) gracefully exits Dom’s life after Letty is brought back from the “dead”. But that was just one little moment during the denouement of the film, tying off a loose end that wouldn’t have felt right to leave dangling.

Mia (Jordana Brewster) hasn’t ever had much to do in this series, beyond being an object of desire for Brian or a responsibility for Dom. But, in this film she responds to Brian’s restlessness with selfless worry that she bores him, rather than the more appropriate anger that he needs to stop being a child and be a father to his son.

Worse still, they had the stones to have the characters all weirded out when a mysterious hacker is revealed to be (wait for it) a girl! I saw the screenwriter trying to have his cake and eat it too by giving Roman (Tyrese Gibson) the speech about how it’s not right for someone like that (a woman) to be good at computers, and having Tej (Ludacris) reveal him as a fool. Nice try. You let the stupid sexist cliche out of the bag. Roman and Tej can’t stuff it back in there with a joke.

As for those action sequences, there’s another fine line between over-the-top fun, as in that insane plane scene at the end of Furious 6, and just plain dumb, as in Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) killing an armed drone with an ambulance. (Yeah, that’s right. I didn’t make that up.)

I mentioned how much I enjoyed Statham in the film… but I really didn’t enjoy the fact that there is no explanation for why he shows up half the time. When Kurt Russell shows up and practically turns the film into parody with his XXX-ish recruitment of Dom and his team, the film takes a crazy left turn (from which it never escapes, sending the story spinning for the rest of the movie), you kind of have to wonder what’s the point anyway? But Statham just keeps showing up, logic-be-damned.

Well, it’s a shame. I was really looking forward to this.