Casting JonBenet

A gaggle of beauty queens await their call.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Amy Dowd, Laura Lee, Jay Benedict Brown, Blake Curton, Jerry Cortese, Kit Thompson, Hannah Cagwin, Teresa Cocas, Gary Foster, Taylor Hollenbeck, Lynne Jordan, Dixon White, William Tidwell, Gary J. Neuger, Deb Hultgren, Ronda Belser, Tamara Hutchins, Marian Rothschild, Suzanne Yazzie, Dorinda Dercar. Directed by Kitty Green


The murder of JonBenet Ramsey has captured the attention of the American public for more than 20 years now. The six-year-old beauty pageant entrant was found missing on Christmas Eve 1996 with a four-page ransom note found on the staircase; hours later on Christmas Day her body was found in the basement wrapped in a blanket, her head savagely bludgeoned and then strangled by the neck. It is possible that she was sexually assaulted in her last minutes on earth.

The Ramsey family of Boulder, Colorado came under intense media scrutiny; stories didn’t add up and accusations were flung, some fairly ludicrous. Her mother Patsy, her father John and her brother Burke were all at one time or another suspects of the police investigation, which became notorious for its incompetence.

Documentarian Kitty Green took a unique tactic looking at the JonBenet murder. While we have seen plenty of newsmagazine crime show segments and similarly-themed documentaries looking at the murder, Green chose instead to film over 15 months in Boulder, interviewing local actors who were ostensibly auditioning for a movie about the murder.

Boulder being a small college town, it’s unsurprising that some of the actors (some of whom were professional, some not) had personal connections to the Ramsey family; one had a girlfriend at the time of the murder who was John Ramsey’s personal assistant. Another had an aunt who lived in the neighborhood. Another gave vocal lessons to JonBenet herself. All of them who had lived in Boulder in ’96 had opinions of who did it.

We get some of the facts of the case through re-enactments and through anecdotes but if you’re looking for a police procedural or a historical examination of the events that took place, look elsewhere. Green’s aim is not to present an examination of the murder from a typical sense but to see how the murder affected not only the people of Boulder but by extension, the rest of us in America.

As the movie goes on, the camera becomes kind of a confessional and the Ramsey case triggers memories of personal tragedies. One man relates to John Ramsey because he himself was accused of murdering a loved one (he was found innocent and the investigation into him was dropped); another actress remembers the murder of a sibling and how it tore apart her household.

Some of the women empathized with Patsy Ramsey, breaking into tears at the thought of their own child being found alone in a cellar, wrapped in a blanket after being brutally murdered. Those are the moments that the movie works best, giving the viewer an anchor to latch onto. When Green goes the more esoteric route (such as a tracking shot near the end in which the actors act out a variety of the many theories about the murder) the film is less successful.

It has been said about the case that nobody knows the truth but everyone has an opinion. Possibly that’s the message that Green was trying to send but her intentions are a little vague. There aren’t any experts in the facts of the case being interviewed so what we are mostly getting are amateur opinions and you may or may not have any use for those.

Still it makes for compelling viewing into human nature; along with the Lindbergh baby, the assassination of JFK and the OJ Simpson case, the JonBenet Ramsey murder captured the public attention like few other crimes in the 20th century. That it remains unsolved to this day is perhaps part of the attraction; that we’ll likely never know what happened in that basement Christmas Eve adds to the tragedy.

REASONS TO GO: There are some moments that pack a powerful emotional punch. This is an at times fascinating take on a story everyone knows generally but not in detail.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s more of a social experiment than a documentary. I’m not entirely sure what the point was in making this.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual innuendo and disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2017 edition of Sundance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
The Post


Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Going to the market is a little different in Jumanji.

(2017) Adventure (Columbia) Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Rhys Darby, Bobby Cannavale, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Sean Buxton, Mason Guccione, Marin Hinkle, Tracy Bonner, Najah Jackson, Natasha Charles Parker, Kat Altman, Maribeth Monroe, Missi Pyle. Directed by Jake Kasdan


There’s no doubt about it; there are pitfalls involved when making a sequel to a beloved and iconic family film 22 years after the fact. The original 1996 film Jumanji starring the late and equally beloved Robin Williams was based on a Chris van Allsburg-penned children’s book about a board game that had a bit of magic to it, bringing the jungle world of Jumanji into a small town complete with mischievous monkeys, scary spiders, rampaging herds of animals and a sadistic hunter named Van Pelt.

The sequel is a little bit updated. It starts with a young teen in 1996 being sucked into a mysterious console video game much as Alan Parrish was back in the day. Somehow the console with the videogame still in it made its way to a high school audio-video room which a group of disparate teens on detention have been tasked with cleaning up. The game is discovered and videogame nut Spencer (Wolff) is keen on playing it. Fridge (Blain), the football star in trouble because he’d enlisted Spencer to write a term paper for him reluctantly accedes as does Martha (Turner), a shy nerd and Bethany (Iseman), a Queen Bee of the school.

Of course the four teens are sucked inside the game and re-materialize as the avatars they’ve chosen; Spencer becomes the muscular and heroic Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), Fridge the manic but diminutive zoologist Mouse Finbar (Hart), Martha the sultry martial artist Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan) and most amusing of all, Bethany the middle aged and out-of-shape cartographer Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Black). It is the star power of these four that truly makes the film work.

In any case, they are given unique and special powers as well as weaknesses, some of which are amusing – for example, eating cake will make Mouse Finbar explode. Each of the avatars have three lives available; when they use them all up, they are gone from the game permanently and maybe out of real life as well. They are given the mission of retrieving a magic emerald from villainous Van Pelt (Cannavale) – very different than the one in the original – and restoring it into a gigantic panther statue in order to restore balance to the land of Jumanji. Along the way they’ll battle poisonous snakes, voracious hippos, a herd of rampaging rhinos and not-too-bright but vicious henchmen.

One of the big criticisms of the original Jumanji – best articulated by the late, great Roger Ebert – was that the children in the film were often in realistic peril, perhaps much too much for a film aimed at children. Kasdan solves this dilemma by having the young teens morphed into adult avatars which although being in peril throughout can at least say they weren’t children in peril. Parents concerned about this aspect of the original can rest easy.

As I said, the four leads are really the reason to see the movie. Kasdan wisely plays to the strengths of the actors; the rapid-fire delivery of Hart, the easygoing charm of Johnson, Black’s ability to be absolutely uninhibited and Gillan’s lustrous physicality. Fans may recognize her as Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy but Doctor Who fans may not recognize anything of Amy Pond in Ruby Roundhouse.

The present-day sequences with the actors playing the teens (not all of whom are juveniles – Blain is thirty years old at the time of release – are less compelling but then again how would you expect even veteran young actors like Wolff to compete with some of the biggest stars in the business? I suppose it’s not really fair but then again it is noticeable that the charm drops precipitously during the bookending sequences of pre-game and post-game.

I have to admit that despite the star power of the cast that I didn’t hold very high hopes for this one. I knew that inevitably it would be compared to the 1996 original and I was pretty sure that it would come out getting the short end of the stick but actually that wasn’t the case. In some ways, the more recent version is better than the original – certainly in the CGI and while Williams delivered a terrific performance along with Bonnie Hunt, the fab four of Johnson, Hart, Black and Gillan all were just as good if not better. I was pleasantly surprised by this and it might just end up in our permanent video collection when the time comes. The fact that the film did some marvelous box office numbers and has already had a sequel greenlit just confirms that the movie-going public agrees.

REASONS TO GO: The adult actors are smashing. This is much better than I expected it to be.
REASONS TO STAY: The actors playing the juveniles are pretty meh.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action violence, some suggestive content and brief mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnson and Hart previously starred together in Central Intelligence.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100
Casting JonBenet