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.

The Post (2017): Eerily Relevant (Review)

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The Post is a biopic that deals with a governmental coverup and a president who bans reporters from the Washington Post from the White House and it seems eerily relevant. Despite being set in the early 1970’s, the film feels all too familiar. With the current climate in America and a POTUS that screams about fake news at the drop of the proverbial hat, the film seems almost prophetic.

Co-written by Liz Hannah  and Josh Singer and directed by repeat Oscar winner Steven Spielberg (owner of no less than three golden statues) The Post covers a time period of American history where scandal erupted within a tight window, encapsulating the Vietnam war as well as Watergate. The country was reeling from student protests and ever increasing numbers of young men were being sent into a war that was unpopular with the public. 

Spielberg’s biopic drama takes a leaf from other films dealing with this time period in America like “All the President’s Men” and has more than a little in common with the 2015 “newspaper film” Spotlight. All these films deal with coverups and a government, or powerful agency, trying to keep the truth from the public.

At its base, The Post is about Kay Graham (played by Meryl Streep), the first female publisher of a huge brand name newspaper. It is also about freedom of the press, the right to protect sources and how the press serve the people and not the government. (Something the current POTUS seems to have either forgotten or never learned.)

Apart from the story itself, the film benefits from two masters interacting seamlessly in their scenes together. Streep and co-star Tom Hanks work brilliantly as examples of just how actors should work with one another. Their characters mesh perfectly and it is not too much to say that one could watch these two read their laundry list and still be enthralled.

There are a number of familiar faces in this film: Bob Odenkirk and Alison Brie from “The Disaster Artist” and Michael Stuhlbarg (from “The Shape of Water“). Pat Healy, Carrie Coon and Sarah Paulson are part of a cast that includes “Hostiles” actor Jesse Plemons. Spielberg has gathered a group of highly capable artists to deliver his take on the 1970’s threat to the American press. 

The Post is trotted out like a thriller, all tense music and heightened emotions, and one does feel the tension behind the “true” storyline. Hanks and Streep prove that “less is more” with their wonderfully restrained performances, as does Odenkirk.

Everyone plays their parts perfectly and the sets, along with the costumes, throws one right back into the late 1960’s and early ’70’s. This is a film that works brilliantly on many different levels.

Spielberg’s direction, the performances of his cast and the story itself literally come together for a perfect Oscar sweep: Best Film, Screenplay and performance can almost be seen as fait accompli. Streep and Hanks for the top award and Odenkirk for best supporting actor seems likely with a few nods to the rest of a more than capable cast.

The Post may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a solid 5 star effort that keeps the audience glued to the screen. At just under two hours the movie cracks on with a pace that may not be adrenaline charged throughout but it definitely does not drag or bore.

The film will hit cinemas with a limited release on 22 December and a broader run 12 January 2018. Check this one out, it is an obvious Oscar contender and it manages to tick all the right boxes.

Hostiles (2017): Slow Downbeat Western With a Message (Review)

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Hostiles is a film that screams out for Sam Elliot, or at the very least a Sam Elliot “type.” Christian Bale attempts to fill Elliot’s boots but loses something in the translation. This is not to say that Bale fails in his interpretation of a bitter and cold “Indian” fighter who must transport a Cheyenne chief (the brilliant Wes Studi) back to his hunting ground to die, but Captain Blocker was tailor made for Sam Elliot and one wishes devoutly that the older actor had been cast instead.

(That said, it turns out that the casting of Bale in this film led to his dropping out of the Travis McGee film “The Deep Blue Goodby” where he had been hideously miscast as the hero…)

Co-written and directed by Scott Cooper (Donald E. Stewart is also credited on the screenplay) Hostiles is Cooper’s fourth time at the helm as director. Like the storyline itself, Cooper does a decent job, although it is a tad convoluted. Overall this message film is slow and not a little downbeat. 

Performances tend to be pretty much spot on although each character is so taciturn and stoic that the sheer lack of dialogue leaves one wishing for more action. It has to be said that the casting of Oklahoma born Wes Studi was a stroke of genius. With his face showing years of strain mixed with a certain tired nobility, the actor does more with his character’s long silences than the rest of the cast put together.

Hostiles relies upon a certain amount of stereotypes while, at the same time, utilizing a “modern” approach to prairie life back at the time of the white man’s  steadfast, and cold blooded, fulfillment of their “manifest destiny.” Brit actress Rosamund Pike, is a wife and mother in the middle of teaching her two daughter’s the finer points of English at the start of the film. 

As Mrs. Quaid, Pike manages to have the most satisfactory character arc out of the entire cast. Bale’s journey ends almost too predictably, with his coming to an almost “Dances With Wolves” inner acceptance of his -previously hated enemy.

The start of the film, with it’s brutal murder of an entire family sans one, tells us the direction that Cooper intends to take from the first shot fired. Mr. Quaid is sawing wood when a small group of Comanche warriors ride into view. He immediately sounds the alarm, tells his small brood to hide and he runs out of his cabin and begins firing his carbine before the band of “hostiles” are within range.

It is the white man who shoots first, which results in the Comanche party retaliating with deadly and over-zealous force. (This short-lived battle, where Pike’s character loses everything she loves, shows the Native American proclivity for using the white man’s weapons, six shooters and rifles, along with their more traditional weapons.)

Hostiles moves at a sluggish pace. It appears that Cooper has used the 2014 Tommy Lee Jones/Hilary Swank western “The Homesman” as a template for the modern westerns. (Although it could be argued that Clint Eastwood started this slow trend with his 1992 award winning western Unforgiven – another film that also offers a bleak but bloody storyline.)

*Cooper does offer up a small homage to the Eastwood western by having one of his characters repeat William Money’s line of “I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another.”)

Filmed in New Mexico and Arizona, the film looks stunning and while there are no real “panoramic” views, the bits of scenery on offer are breathtaking and makes one feel assured that this tale really is taking place in the “old west.”

Bale is satisfactory as the hard Indian wars campaigner, Studi deserves an award for his portrayal of a chief dying of cancer, Pike is spot on, and she is another member of the cast who should get a gong from the academy this year. Honorable mention goes to  Scott Wilson, aka Hershel from the AMC hit TWD, who has a splendid cameo as one nasty land owner. 

(Ben Foster has an excellent cameo as another campaigner who is set to be hanged when he is returned to civilization. Although his storyline is too predictable by far.)

Hostiles is a 4 star film that could have been a full 5 had it trimmed the overall running length from its mind numbing two hour and 13 minute run time. The film offers some surprising non visceral blood letting, a lot of f-bombs and not one bit of nudity. Cooper has even opted to leave out anything remotely resembling sex.

Cooper’s film has finished its festival circuit and will open with a limited release on 22 December this year. This one may be slow and plodding but it is worth a look, check it out on the big screen and see what you think. (In closing: Kudos to the filmmakers here for using what appears to be real Cheyenne language in the exchanges between Studi’s small band and Bale.)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (2017): Trying Too Hard (Review)

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-2-Main-CastDirected and written by James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (which uses a whole slew of characters created by other folks from Marvel) is entertaining but it does seem to be trying a tad too hard to keep up with the first volume in the franchise.  The music from the mix tape is not as catchy as the first film’s and Baby Groot is used far too much when things get slow.

(In the instance of Groot, the character feels like a Marvel version of Lassie, or the kangaroo with a heart from Down Under, Skippy. “I am Groot” is now understood as a language all its own. Sort of like Skippy making kissing noises or Lassie barking. “What’s that Skippy/Lassie? Old Mrs. Wilson has fallen down the well?” Or…in the parlance of this setting, a myriad of meanings is derived from the twig’s single utterances.)

The film does entertain. It was always, however, going to have a hard time living up to the first GotG. In 2014 when the movie about lesser known Marvel  characters opened, one left the cinema in a state of joyous euphoria. In 2017, the film is slower, although somewhat grandiose in plot – Kurt Russell does play a seed implanting planet, after all – but it loses something betwixt the first film’s fun open.

Chris Pratt’s character is less precocious and Zoe Zaldana’s Gamora is less everything. Dave Bautista’s Drax is funnier but less literal and Bradley Cooper’s Rocket comes across much calmer than before. Michael Rooker stays pretty much the same as the blue skinned Yondu and Kurt Russell, as the omnipotent daddy figure has apparently had a lift and a tuck after working on Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight.

The plot, in volume two of Guardians of the Galaxy allows a family reunion between Peter Quill and his daddy; Ego. Rocket annoys the heck out of the Creel (a group of genetically engineered gold skinned people) by stealing some their batteries. This places a death sentence on all the guardians and they must flee/fight their former clients while  dealing with Ego.

While the film does appear to be trying too hard to please, it does still entertain. There were a number of laughs, a few teary moments and a clever bit of plot interweaving going on. Karen Gillan reprises her role as Nebula to fine effect and Elizabeth Debicki is splendid as Ayesha, the leader of the Creel.

Stan Lee appears on a rock talking to some Watchers, Sylvester Stallone has a cameo as does Michelle Yeo and Ving Rhames.  At the start of the film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 utilizes some “Tron-like” CG to rejuvenate Russell into a younger version of himself. This would have been more impressive had Russell not had his wrinkles ironed out to play the immortal Ego.

Essentially, Volume Two of the franchise is a bit of a rehash of the first film.  There is an overwhelming enemy hoard to deal with and a big bad that almost kills everyone. In terms of trying too hard, there are a slew of cameos in this second film.

The first movie had John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz, along with Glenn Close and Benicio Del Toro to fill out the cameos. (Nathan Fillion voiced a character in the prison scenes and this go around Miley Cyrus was the celebrity VO artist.)

Perhaps the only real “sin” committed here was that in terms of originality and freshness, Volume Two was always going to have an uphill struggle after the magical open of “Volume One.” Peter Quill is less funny this time around and Drax laughs far too much.

Still…the film is great fun and while it drags just enough to notice things like how big and beautiful Zaldana’s hands are, compared to Pratt’s, and observing how intricate Gillan’s Nebula make up is, Gunn’s effort is still worthy of the big screen Marvel-verse.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is a cracking ride, despite its overall tone of trying too hard the film earns a full 4.5 stars. It is still playing in a cinema near you and even with a few loud people in the audience, it is well worth the price of a ticket and the two hours and 16 minute length is acceptable.

(Note: Stick around for the end credits to completely play out. There are a number of teasers at the end.)

Don’t Breathe (2016): Scary Disinterest (Review)

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Co-written and directed by Fede Alvarez (Rodo Sayagues was the co-author on the project) Don’t Breathe is an exercise in scary disinterest. No one character is appealing or sympathetic enough for the audience to ever really care about the outcome of this odd home invasion film.

At its core, this is what the marginally scary film is all about. A wounded veteran, played by Stephen Lang, who has been blinded in Iraq and been driven mad by the death of his only child, is targeted by three vapid and unlikeable young people. The trio decide to rob the old man of his settlement money after knocking him out with chloroform.

The vet is apparently immune to the homemade gas bomb and his dog is as well. The first of the three goes down (Daniel Zovatto as “Money” dies in a particularly graphic and impressive way – shot in the face; his lips blow out in what looks like a very realistic display of the gun’s power.)

This leaves Rocky (Jane Levy) and “Good Guy” Alex  (Dylan Minnette) to battle things out with the blind vet. There is no doubt that Lang’s character will end up on top. (The very casting of Lang ensures that the “victim” of this piece will win.)

By the end of the film, Lang’s blind man has almost impregnated Rocky, with a turkey baster, and nearly killed the young home-breaker as well. As scary as some of this film was, it lacked much in the plot department and did not feature one character that the audience could really care about.

The best parts of the film are those that feature Lang’s cold blooded but decent; “I a not a rapist,” he says while filling the baster, homicidal maniac who pulls out all the stops to defend his home and his self impregnated kidnap victim.

Don’t Breathe leaves things wide open for a sequel, where presumably the blind man hunts down the trailer trash survivor who robbed him of his replacement child and money.  He will have to travel to Los Angeles and may be a more grim version of that old blind warrior Zatoichi (which was re-imagined with Rutger Hauer in the 1989 action flick “Blind Fury.”) who uses guns instead of a sword walking stick.

The sequel may be more affected but will still suffer from having shallow and unlikeable characters. Without any one to really cheer for, apart from Lang’s vet who dishes out some well deserved retribution to those who would rob from a “helpless” veteran, this scary film’s second chapter will no doubt disappoint as well.

Lang kills it as the dangerous “cripple” who almost silent dispatches his home invaders. The rest of the young cast are adequate considering the lack of depth given their characters. Minnette, who was quite good in “Goosebumps” does not really shine here as his character is the least offensive of the three protagonists and is not really the good guy at all.

Fans of horror films may like this offering.  It is a 3.5 star effort that has some jumpy moments, no nudity, a lot of violence and a close call with a turkey baster.

Don’t Breathe is on Cinemax at the moment for steaming and can be rented via other platforms.