Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – The Most Fun You Will Have This Year (Review)

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a reimagining of the 1995 film starring Robin Williams, Kirsten Dunst and Jonathan Hyde. Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape, Bad Teacher), gives us an updated version of the Chris Van Allsburg short story. This time around the film is populated by Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Dwayne Johnson and Nick Jonas. The move to base the whole thing on a video game world results in perhaps the most fun you will have this year.

The movie may not be Shakespeare and its message may just be the most simplistic one offered up in 2017, but, damn it, this is gut bustlingly fun. The audience laughs out loud with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle not at it.

Reworking the 1995 version is not a hit or miss prospect, nor is it rocket science. The opening sequence explains quite neatly how the “evil” game transforms itself from a passé board game into a “state of the art” 1996 video game. In the beginning, the plot may feel a tad like a millennials  “The Breakfast Club” (there is even a red-head female to round out the group) but the sitting, in an old junk room at the local high school takes us right out of that motif immediately.

Taking a note from Stay Alive, the film transports the small quartet of teens into the video world of Jumanji and they must survive the game, save the jungle world and then shout the name in order to go home. Like the first film, there is a character who was sucked into the world 20 years previously (Nick Jonas as Alex Freeke – whose dad is played by the brilliant Tim Matheson).

The cast all knock this one out of the comedic park. Johnson, with his “smoldering” and wishy-washy bravery, Jack Black as the teen girl in a middle aged man’s body,  Hart as the “little big-man” and Gillan as the smart wall-flower in the Lara Croft body each bring more than enough to the table to make this fun-filled action romp seem more believable than it has any right to be.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle does not go out of its way to bludgeon the audience with its video game premise. It is, obviously, aimed at the “gamer” in the theatre. The character’s mention the NPC (video-game speak for “non player character) and in this case there are several. The Brit driver and “guide” a lad in the bazaar and two guards outside the transportation hut. We are given a brief explanation of what these characters do, for those non-gamers in the audience, and then leaves the subject alone.

There is direct referencing to “respawning” and each character taken over by the teens has only three lives. In this telling of Jumanji, the animals never cross over into the real world and we have a somewhat more satisfactory ending with no apparent chance of another sequel.

The film works very well, despite having no less than four writers credit with the screenplay. Some stereotypes are used to “sell” the characters but this does not distract from the obvious enjoyment factor attached to this movie.

Bobby Cannavale is splendid as big boss Van Pelt and fans of Missi Pyle will be delighted with her tiny cameo in the film. Nick Jonas is more than capable as “Alex Freeke” the young man lost in the game since 1996 and sharp-eyed viewers will spot Colin Hanks (son of Tom) in another splendid but short cameo. 

The scenery, CGI and stunts all come together to give us a movie that feels like a video game in its presentation and structure. This all works perfectly and adds to the overall fun factor of the film.

Kasden has given us a film that entertains enormously. Any movie that ends with the viewer immediately wanting to see it again is a “win.” Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a full 5 star piece. It a glorious bit of adventure that tickles the funny bone and engages the viewer throughout. See this one at the cinema now for a full quotient of entertainment. The audience reactions are almost as fun as the film.

Lady Bird (2017): Simply Wonderful (Review)

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It is inconceivable that this splendid little “feel good” film was excluded, nay snubbed, at The Golden Globes. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is, quite simply, wonderful. Starring Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird, along with the delightful and talented Laurie Metcalf as the teen’s passive aggressive mum, the film is a coming of age story set in a Catholic school in Sacramento. 

While Lady Bird never quite lives up to the comedic promise of that opening scene in the car, it does go on to deliver a steady stream of low-key humour,  a little heart-break and some well timed pathos. Metcalf and Ronan make a delightful double-act and Tracy Letts (as the big hearted dad) steps in, as needed, to spread a little love to both combatants. 

Writer and director Gerwig addresses a lot of teen issues in this dramedy. Sexuality, losing one’s virginity, living on the wrong side of the middle-class divide, unemployment and trying desperately to grow “away” from one’s parents. None of these subjects are earth shatteringly original or ground breaking but they are delivered expertly and adorably by Ronan as the girl who wants to soar above her socially placed limits.

There is not doubt that this is Ronan’s film. She rules each and every scene she is in. However major kudos need to be given to Lucas Hedges – Lady Bird’s first love interest, Beanie Feldstein; who plays the best friend and if Metcalf does not snag a little golden fella come award time for her performance as Lady Bird’s mum, there is something definitely rotten going on in the Academy.

Lady Bird allows us into the main character’s world and her determination to head back east for her further education. She submits applications to colleges in New York on the sly, with help from her dad while she rushes to complete her last year of high school and break free of her lower middle class bonds.

We are privy to her foray into love, her first: School play, job and her acceptance into the upper echelons of Sacramento society. She becomes friends with rich girl Jenna Walton (played by Odeya Rush, who looks eerily like a young Mila Kunis) while turning her back on her old bff.

Lady Bird may not be Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical tale, but it gives us a taste of what she finds fascinating. She gives us a character who is, according to a Rolling Stone interview, a combination of underachiever and dreamer who dares to exceed her own wildest expectations.

Christine snacks on unconsecrated communion wafers with her bestie Julie and pranks the nun headmaster by putting a just married sign on her car. She steals a teacher’s grade book and then lies about her math grade to get a better score. She falls in love (twice) and buys all the things she has been forbidden to have when she turns 18.

Rebellion may be the catchword here, but it is pretty tame. This is what makes the character of Lady Bird so endearing and we cheer her brief, somewhat timid, trips into the abyss. The film is a firm 4 star venture that gives us a heroine we can get behind and a protagonist we understand.

Catch this one as quick as you can, the Golden Globes may have snubbed this simply wonderful film but one can be sure that the Academy will not. Movies like this one go a long way toward proving that Hollywood is a long way from being finished.

The Disaster Artist (2017): “The Room” Behind the Scenes Tribute (Review)

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The Disaster Artist is one part homage to a director who has more than a little in common  with Ed Wood, one part celebration of someone whose dream reaches a surprising fruition and one part celebration of “The Room.” This behind the scenes tribute to one of the world’s worst films captures the innate weirdness of Tommy Wiesau as auteur.

The film is based on Greg Sestero’s retelling of everything that went into the making of the 2003 cult favorite; a film so bad that audiences took it to their collective bosom and began to worship the atrocity as a delicious comedy.

Directed by James Franco from a screenplay penned by Scott NeustadterMichael H. Weber, Sestero and Tom Bissell, The Disaster Artist is as funny as it is difficult to watch, in places.  The story of how a complete novice, to whom English is a shaky second language, manages to make a movie and pour enough money into the venture to ensure Oscar qualification is entertaining.

“The Room” (the film made by Wiesau) was so monumentally bad that it became a cult favorite and the start of Franco’s “behind the scenes” film has a few celebs from the business explain their fascination with the movie. Even if one has not seen the original, which Franco manages to match shot for shot – several times, The Disaster Artist is funny.

Seth Rogen plays the only character who appears to have any experience making movies and Dave, brother of James, plays Sestero, Wiesau’s object of devotion and the other star of “The Room.” Zac Efron has a cameo as the gun toting thug and the delicious Alison Brie is Amber, Sestero’s girlfriend.

(Ari Graynor, Megan MullallyJosh Hutcherson, Bob Odenkirk, Randall Park and veteran Aussie actress Jacki Weaver round out the cast in a most satisfactory and fun “spot the face” way. These familiar faces really make the film seem like a labour of love.)

It is Amber’s entrance that clarifies Tommy’s “obsession” with Greg and causes the first of many cracks to show in the two men’s relationship.  There are a number of cameos in the film.  Melanie Griffith plays Jean Shelton and  Sharon Stone plays Hollywood agent Iris Burton. The delightful Lauren Ash plays the florist.

Cameo appearances aside, The Disaster Artist can be seen as much more than a biopic about a Polish mystery figure who wants to make and star in movies. It is about tenacity winning out over lack of experience and, somewhat ironically, seems to prove that any moron with enough money can indeed make a movie.

The one thing that shines through is that Tommy knows nothing about making films. He manages to write a screenplay but has to rely upon his hired “experts” to make the film happen. Rogen’s character and the DP both run the two cameras, one of which is a high definition video camera, and try to instill a little realism into the 2003 film.

The Disaster Artist is more like “The Little Train That Could.” The end of the film shows Wiesau, Sestero and the rest of the cast and crew attending the film’s premiere. At the end of the viewing the audience stand spontaneously and give the auteur a standing ovation. The message being that despite the film being funny for all the wrong reasons, Wiesau has managed to entertain his targeted audience. As a result, his little film makes a new kind of history.

Franco does a brilliant job as director and with his portrayal of the rather odd Tommy Wiesau shows that he can really wear multiple hats successfully. (His character Tommy, the real one,  actually makes an appearance toward the end of the post film credits and interacts with “himself” – Franco’s version of Wiesau.)

The Disaster Artist may not be Oscar material but it is funny and hits those parts that many films fail to reach. A real 4.5 star effort that tickles that funny bone while simultaneously pulling off some brilliant cringeworthy moments. It is in cinemas now and well worth the price of admission.

The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017): Having a Christmas Bawl

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Adopted from the Les Stanford book; the screenplay by Susan Coyne, The Man Who Invented Christmas is Bharat Nalluri’s seasonal offering. This “bio-comedy/drama” elicits chuckles and a lot of tears in this telling of how Charles Dickens creates one of the most popular Christmas tales ever. Only the most cold hearted “Scrooge” of a viewer will not “bawl” his or her eyes out at the film’s story.

Dan Stevens is Dickens, Christoper Plummer is Scrooge, Jonathan Pryce is the feckless father that Charles Dickens loves to hate and newcomer Anna Murphy is Tara; the Irish maid who becomes, to a degree, Dickens’ muse. The cast is full of splendid English character actors who are all familiar faces to those across the pond and each helps to bring this tale to brilliant life.

In The Man Who Invented Christmas the once celebrated author has had three flops in a row and he is suffering writer’s block. A chance incident provides inspiration and while his erstwhile agent and friend  (played by the brilliant John Edwards) supports the increasingly desperate writer.

There are elements of melodrama in this Christmas tale about the miser who changes his ways after being visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve. Nalluri gives us a Dickens with a bootblack background who interacts with the character’s of his books as he works toward a satisfactory ending.

The sets, the costumes and the actors all go toward recreating London in the early 1840s. Dickens is a tortured soul with more than enough “Scrooge” in his soul to upset everyone who loves him. His wife suffers his mood swings and foul temper as best she can and Charles’ father tries too hard to atone for his past sins.

Despite the drama, there are many amusing elements to the film and with the cream of English filmdom applying their trade almost effortlessly, there is no doubt that this new “take” on “A Christmas Carol” will also become a classic. All the performers work seamlessly  making  their characters fit together  perfectly.

Personal favorite Simon Callow  plays Leech, the illustrator with his usual flair and the delightful Miriam Margolyes, as well as Morfydd Clark and Ger Ryan, prove that the ladies in this cast are no shirkers in the acting department either.

The Man Who Invented Christmas contains enough glimpses, and nods and winks, to the tale that has been made into plays, films and television adaptations,  that fans of the story will be moved to tears repeatedly. This drama/comedy with its biographical overtones may be an imaginative and somewhat fanciful look at how Dickens created Scrooge and, indeed, all his characters but it works beautifully.

Having seen the late Albert Newly bring Scrooge to life in 1994 on a London stage and turn in a performance that was, in a word, brilliant, it was just as impressive to see what Plummer does with this famous character. The Canadian octogenarian makes the miser his own and bestows a sly wit upon this curmudgeonly workhouse fan.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a tearful 5 star effort. If watched in the cinema, the viewer should brings copious amounts of tissues and prepare to be embarrassed by all the fluid streaming down their face.

This one is a winner.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017): The Beginning of the End for Comic Book Adaptations?

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Directed by personal favorite Taika Waititi (who directed the brilliant 2016 film Hunt for the Wilderpeople) Thor:Ragnarok can be seen as the beginning of the end for Thor in a number of ways. By the film’s end, Thor resembles Odin and has truly become his father’s son.

The film is a direct lead in to the next “big” thing in the Marvel-verse and, somewhat disturbingly, seems to signal an unwanted change in the comic book adaptations that we have all grown to love.

Thor: Ragnarok is more action comedy than all out action with a touch of humor (a’la Joss Whedon’s first two offerings in the Marvel arena of Avengers and all those who sail her…). Chris Hemsworth proves that underneath all those muscles and good looks there beats the heart of a comedian. 

He is almost hysterically funny and while this speaks volumes of his talent as an actor, it serves to “humanize” the God of Thunder too much. Granted the character is somewhat unnerved when his hammer Mjölnir is smashed to bits by Hella and he has been shaken by the death of Odin.

However…

Thor screaming in terror just before meeting the Grand Master (a star turn by the delightfully eccentric Jeff Goldblum) and then begging for his long tresses to be uncut takes the “God”and makes him puny and human. (But funny.)

There are a number of comic moments in the film. They are well presented- the build up to meeting Goldblum’s character with the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” music playing in the background is simply delicious – but they detract from the verse as presented by Marvel and Disney thus far.

The films have always taken a moment to poke fun at the very premise of superheroes that suffer from an inflated sense of hubris and taking themselves far too seriously. “Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?” These moments come almost invariably from Tony Stark and although Thor does have a sense of comic timing “He’s adopted,” he is not overtly funny.

Thor: Ragnarok feels a little like Universal’s move in the late 1940’s to add comedy to their horror films. (Abbott and Costello Meet: Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman – “I know you’ll think I’m crazy, but… in a half-an-hour the moon will rise and I’ll turn into a wolf.”  “You and 20 million other guys!”) This move (to comedy) resulted in the death of the golden goose that make Universal a mint from horror and ultimately killed the genre.

The moment comedy becomes the main focus of a genre, even a “sub-genre” like comic book adaptations, the original intent is lost and the target audience drifts away. Studios have  learned, to their chagrin, that comedy in the superhero verse is a fragile thing.

Look at Suicide Squad where a clear conscious decision was made to “Marvel-ize” DC characters. The end result was a mess and lacked the darkness that sets the DC verse apart from Marvel. (There are exceptions of course, but overall, the heroes in DC-land are quite dark and tortured.)

Thor: Ragnarok is a great film though despite all the comedic moments. It looks great, there are cameos galore and Karl Urban is brilliant as the “baddie” that we know will redeem himself. (Kudos also go to the beautiful and oh so talented Tessa Thompson, she has, in one role, managed to fill the spot of new female action hero that Michelle Rodriguez first introduced “way back when.”)

Cate Blanchett kills it as the God of Death “Hela” and the only downside to this entire film is the death of almost all of Thor’s Asgardian cronies. Although Lady Sif is spared a grizzly death as she is oddly absent in this latest adventure in the Asgardian verse…

The interactions between Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Thor are brilliantly funny and the director’s playing of the gladiator “rock” creature is nearly sublime. All these moments add up to a film that is fun to watch and one that the audience clearly enjoyed. 

There was, however, too much comedy and it does feel as though this particular brand of franchise may be losing steam. Thor: Ragnarok is, despite the overused comedic element, a full 5 star film. There is enough action to satisfy and the FX are, as usual, spot on.

This is a film that deserves to be seen in the cinema and it is highly recommended that Marvel (and Thor) fans rush to catch it before the DVD and streaming stage. We enjoyed the film immensely although there was that sense of unease at the amount of comic circumstance that seems too much like Universal’s death blow to 1930’s and ’40’s horror. (“You and 20 million other guys!”)