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
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Casting JonBenet

Pete’s Dragon (2016)


A boy and his dragon.

A boy and his dragon.

(2016) Family (Disney) Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Marcus Henderson, Aaron Jackson, Phil Grieve, Steve Barr, Keagan Carr Fransch, Jade Valour, Augustine Frizzell, Francis Biggs, Jasper Putt, Esmée Myers, Gareth Reeves, Levi Alexander, Jim McLarty, Annabelle Malaika Suess. Directed by David Lowery

 

In old maps, when depicting areas that had yet to be explored it was often noted “Here there be dragons.” It was a means of keeping those who might venture into parts unknown and claiming it for themselves; in this way certain governments were able to explore at their leisure. Of course, there are those who are quite sure that there really were dragons in these unexplored places.

A five year old boy named Pete (Alexander) is riding in the back of the car with his favorite book and his mom (Myers) and Dad (Reeves) up front. They are on a road that goes deep into the woods of the Pacific Northwest but while they’re in the middle of nowhere they get in an accident and suddenly Pete is alone, surrounded by danger. However, as it turns out, he’s not alone.

Some years later an older Pete (Fegley) is discovered in the woods by loggers and a pretty park Ranger named Grace (Howard). Her father (Redford) is a bit of the town eccentric, with his tales of finding dragons out in the woods. Most people look on him as a bit of a tale-teller but essentially harmless. She has a pretty decent life; her boyfriend Jack (Bentley) runs a logging company with his more aggressive brother Gavin (Urban) and she and Jack’s daughter Natalie (Laurence) have a very close relationship.

Now she adds Pete to the mix and soon as they discover the identity of the mystery child the question becomes “How did he survive on his own for so long?”  Pretty soon it becomes clear that he wasn’t exactly on his own and that his friend was in fact the same dragon that Grace’s dad has been telling tales about all these years – it’s just nobody ever believed that they were true. Now that they are, there are those who would exploit the dragon – whom Pete has named Elliott after the dog in his favorite book – and those who would separate Pete from those he has grown to love. Pete and Elliott must be stronger than ever if they are to get through this.

First things first; this isn’t a remake of the 1977 version of the film. This is a complete reimagining. The only real similarities is that there is a boy named Pete, he has a dragon named Elliott who can make himself invisible and that Pete is an orphan – Disney loves orphans if you haven’t noticed. In any case, the ’77 film is a musical set in a coastal town in Maine around the turn of the 20th century, this one has no music except for a collection of folk singers Lowery has gotten together to make up the soundtrack (as opposed to Helen Reddy who was the female lead of the first movie) and is set in modern times. The tone is also very different between both films.

The first film was also definitely a kid’s movie. This one is too ostensibly and your kids will enjoy it, particularly the shaggy green furry dragon Elliott who has a bit of the Great Dane about him. However, there is a lot more going on than just a kid outwitting simple-minded adults – which isn’t really happening here at all. Instead, this is a boy who has been visited by tragedy, who has made his way the best he can and forges the bonds of friendship that can’t be broken. The relationships are believable and the acting pretty natural. I’m thinking someone the stature of Robert Redford wouldn’t have gotten involved otherwise.

While Urban is the ostensible villain, he isn’t really a bad guy, just a weak one and he does come around near the end; Urban has become quite a good actor since his time in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bentley, a fine actor in his own right, is wasted a bit in a nondescript role that gets absolutely no development whatsoever. Howard comes off best as the maternal and compassionate ranger. Fegley and Laurence, around whom most of the film revolve, are at least not annoying even as they in the middle of the movie begin to act like Disney heroes – doing unbelievably dumb and dangerous things that should get them killed but instead makes them heroic. I’ve always thought that teaching a kid to do the right thing shouldn’t necessarily involve teaching a kid to do the dangerous thing. Fortunately, I’ve not heard of a ton of kids getting themselves hurt or killed while trying to save the day in real life.

Like most Disney movies, there’s a tendency to bring on the sentiment and it can be quite cloying from time to time. Despite Lowery’s best efforts, there are a few cliché moments expressed in the film particularly near the end. The price to pay for using a Disney property I imagine. I would also imagine that here at Disney World, you’ll be seeing Elliott making appearances at the Wilderness Lodge in some form.

Hollywood often treats kids like morons, dumbing down their films aimed at kids which are in reality more or less excuses for merchandising rather than being entertaining and even educational films for entire families. When the parents go with them to see those sorts of movies, it can be an excruciating experience for the parents in particular. That won’t happen here; this is the kind of movie that parents can enjoy as much if not more than their kids. It’s the kind of family movie that you’d want to bring your family to more than once. It’s quite possible that the parents may end up liking the movie more than their kids do.

REASONS TO GO: A refreshing movie that doesn’t talk down to kids and is easily palatable for adults.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a tendency to over-sentimentalize.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some peril (of a child) as well as action sequences and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Redford rescued an abandoned horse on the second day of filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dragonheart
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The People Garden

Honeyglue


You meet the happiest people in bars.

You meet the happiest people in bars.

(2016) Drama (Zombot) Adriana Mather, Zach Villa, Christopher Heyerdahl, Jessica Turk, Booboo Stewart, Amanda Plummer, Fernanda Romero, Ezequiel Stremiz, Faran Tahir, Clayton Rohner, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Kristin Minter, Josh Woodle, Fernando Martinez, Jeremy Shelton, Rajan Velu, Pamela Francesca, Cristen Barnes, Cody Provolt, Stephen Farbman, Chelsea Mark. Directed by James Bird

Woman Power

Love doesn’t choose very well. It just chooses. Who we fall in love with may not necessarily be the best person for us but the heart doesn’t care. It loves who it chooses.

Morgan (Mather) is a young woman from a middle class, conservative background who has gotten some bad news. Her metastatic brain tumor has gone past the point of no return and she has just three months to live. This doesn’t sit well with her parents, her stolid dad Dennis (Heyerdahl), her mom Janet (Turk) and her brother Bailey (Stewart).

Jordan (Villa) is a troubled young man from the wrong side of the tracks. His somewhat fluid sexual identity makes him a target for abuse, something he’s not really a stranger to. When he meets Morgan in a club, she is making videos with an old Super-8 camera to try and document what’s left in her life. The two find each other talking, and eventually these polar opposites find common ground.

As Jordan and Morgan fall in love he is made aware of her situation. She invites him over to meet her amazingly tolerant parents and her kid brother who seems to accept Jordan out of hand even though he teases the sensitive artist mercilessly. For Jordan’s part, he is inspired by Morgan to write a children’s story about a Dragonfly boy and a bee princess who fall in love. Soon, life imitates art.

But it isn’t easy for two such different people to co-exist and with the specter of Morgan’s imminent demise and her desire to die somewhere other than a hospital looming over their heads, Jordan is going to have to do a lot more than just break the rules for her. He’s going to have to write some new ones.

The dying teen story tends to be one of the most poignant in all of the world’s tales (although I’m guessing Morgan/Mather is more in her mid to late 20s) and to the filmmakers credit, they don’t exploit it as much as they might. The film concentrates heavily on mortality itself, and the question of quality of life versus quantity of years. With Morgan’s clock ticking down, it seems a ripe opportunity to get her thoughts on the subject.

And we kinda do, but they are expressed so poorly in platitudes that sound profound but comes off as pretentious and smug. The movie tries really hard to be different than the norm, too hard in fact and we end up feeling talked down to rather than engaged in conversation. It’s a shame, because the cast actually manages to put together some fine performances, particularly by Mather, Heyerdahl and Villa, but they are let down because they are given such preposterous dialogue. On the beach, Jordan purrs “You are my realistic fantasy” while Morgan coos “You are my fantastic reality” and the rest of us throw up a little inside our mouths. Real people don’t talk like that. At least, real people you’d want to actually talk to.

I like the idea of making Jordan transgender, but they don’t really do anything with it. It comes off as almost an affectation, like Jordan just happens to like wearing skirts to be different rather than an integral part of who he is. That does actual transgenders a disservice. I thought that giving both Jordan and Morgan (and for that matter, Bailey) unisex names was a bit too cutesy. There’s a feeling that Bird, who also wrote the film, was writing about stereotypes rather than people. While the chemistry between Mather and Villa seemed genuine, the relationship did not.

I was annoyed in a lot of ways by Honeyglue because there really is a good movie to be made here and this is a squandered opportunity to say the least. The performances and subject matter make the movie marginally worth seeing, but the writing and overall tone just lost me. I don’t know if Bird knows any cancer patients or transgenders and maybe he does but if he does, they didn’t make it into the script. The characters didn’t feel real; in fact, none of the characters here did, and that’s a big problem. The movie is gradually expanding to locations around the country and will likely be on VOD at some point, but this is one only for the curious. Serious film lovers will likely find this as frustrating as I did.

REASONS TO GO: Tackles an important subject head-on. Some decent performances in the cast.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is occasionally pretentious and overwrought. Tries too hard to be daring and different.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of foul language, sexuality and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animation, based on the children’s book that Jordan is writing, was done by Kevin Weber.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 17/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2

The Babadook


Not your average bedtime story.

Not your average bedtime story.

(2014) Horror (IFC Midnight) Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Tim Purcell, Hayley McElhinney, Cathy Adamek, Benjamin Winspear, Barbara West, Craig Behenna, Carmel Johnson, Terence Crawford, Chloe Hurn, Jacqy Phillips, Bridget Walters, Tony Mack, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, Peta Shannon. Directed by Jennifer Kent

I like Australians. They are such a genial people, laid-back and with a quick smile and a terrific sense of humor. I love hanging out with them. They drink like fish, love to eat and are the sort of friends that are loyal forever or until you piss ’em off, whichever comes first. Based on what great folks they are, I wouldn’t think of them as makers of great horror movies. Comedies, yes. But horror movies?

Yes. One of the most talked-about horror movies of the year comes from Down Under, and has quietly been sweeping through the Festival circuit bringing audience and critical raves. Now it’s out and about on limited release, not to mention on VOD.

Amelia (Davis) has that look. The kind where you know she’s hanging on by the skin of her teeth. Sure, she can be all smiles and helpful and generous at the nursing home where she works as a nurse (appropriately enough) but when you look closely at her, you can see that smile is frozen in place with duct tape and Elmer’s glue. The look in her eyes tells it all.

You see, Amelia’s life hasn’t turned out the way she planned. She was happily married, expecting their first child. In fact, she was on the way to the hospital to give birth but there was an accident – her husband died. Both she and the child lived. Now a rambunctious seven-year-old, Samuel (Wiseman) isn’t an easy child to raise by any standard. One moment affectionate and loving, the next screaming at the top of his lungs and being violent, Amelia’s sister Claire (McElhinney) no longer wants Samuel around especially after he pushed her out of a treehouse, breaking her nose. Of course, the other side of that is that the bitch told him that his dad wasn’t around because he didn’t want him. Ouch.

Samuel also sees monsters. Nasty, nightmare-inducing ones that terrorize him so much he sleeps in her bed nearly every night and wakes her up in the process. He builds home made weapons to smash the monsters, vowing to protect his mum and begging her to protect him. Just you and me against the world, kid.

She’s beginning to wonder if her kid needs therapy until a pop-up book shows up mysteriously. She didn’t buy it for him and he doesn’t remember where it came from but the book is vaguely menacing, outright creepy and informs them that you can’t get rid of the Babadook and that essentially it’s coming to kill them.

At first she thinks it’s just a prank, albeit one in poor taste but as unexplainable things begin to plague them, she begins to wonder if Samuel has been telling her the truth all this time. But is this monster truly real, or a figment of her imagination – a sign of her own madness? She has to figure it out fast because it’s already getting to be just shy of too late.

One of the things I adore about this movie is that they don’t make things clear-cut until near the end and even then there’s some ambiguity. Amelia literally unravels as we watch and pretty soon you wonder if there is really a monster or if the monster has been Amelia all along. There are signs pointing to the latter. She has problems connecting with her own son, blaming him for the death of her husband and she feels tremendous guilt because of it. She never once during the movie (although I think she might have at the very end) says “I love you” to her son. His issues are at least obvious and easy to read; hers less so but if you know where to look, she’s as deeply wounded as her son is.

Wiseman does a pretty credible job in a difficult role for any child actor. His outbursts seem genuine and when he shrieks at the top of his lungs, any parent with an ADHD kid will wince in sympathy. We’ve all been there when our child loses it, no? He has to play every gamut of the emotional range of kids and while at times he has that wooden quality that most child actors has, he acquits himself very well.

There are other decent performances in smaller roles, including veteran Aussie actor Henshall as a workplace romance for Amelia and West as Amelia’s next door neighbor who is, I think, her mother-in-law. At the very least she’s a concerned friend.

The Babadook itself, played by Tim Purcell, mostly sticks to the shadows and the audience rarely gets a good look at it. Its silhouette, seen on the movie’s poster, is menacing and chilling to say the least and this is one of the most well-realized movie monsters of the past decade.

This is the stuff of nightmares by cracky and while it doesn’t have the gore that some horror fans seem to require, it does have the right nightmarish atmosphere and the terror in the mundane that Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg used to such great effect in Poltergeist. While the low budget horror of The Babadook might not hold up to the big budget terrors in that film, it nonetheless holds its own and will be swimming around your brain months after you see it for the first time. This has all the earmarks of a cult classic and you’ll want to get in on the ground floor for it.

REASONS TO GO: Hits all the right notes. Fine performance from Davis. Keeps audience guessing. Some truly scary moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Watching a kid act out can be unpleasant. Dog lovers may want to skip this one.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, plenty of scenes of terror and suspense, some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Babadook” is an anagram of “A bad book.”
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Red Riding Hood
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Graduate

The Tale of Despereaux


The Tale of Despereaux

Brave Despereaux prepares to leap into the unknown.

(Universal) Starring the voices of Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Robbie Coltrane, Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Ciaran Hinds. Directed by Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen

It is far easier to judge someone on the way they look than on the way they act. It is also not uncommon for people of smaller stature to be overlooked. Still, it’s not the size of the mouse in the fight but the size of the fight in the mouse.

The kingdom of Dor is a wonderful, magical place ruled by a king and queen who are kind and generous. The best thing about Dor, however, is its soup. Chef Andre (Kline) is a genius, concocting new and wondrous creations that are famous far and wide. At the annual spring festival, Andre debuts a new creation that is shared by every citizen. Roscuro (Hoffman) is a shipboard rat with a taste for the good life. Curious about this wonderful soup, he hangs out at the ceremony in which the soup is tasted for the first time by the King and Queen. Unfortunately, Roscuro sets into motion events that cause tragedy for the kingdom and will cause an animosity between humans and rats that is so severe that the very sunshine is taken from Dor, leaving it drab and grey.

Into this world is born Despereaux Tilling (Broderick), a mouse half the size of his peers but with gigantic ears that more than make up for his lack of height. His parents and teachers do their best to teach Despereaux to be timid and fearful, survival instincts for every mouse. He reads stories of brave and noble knights and longs to be like them.

His refusal to adhere to mouse behavior and to actually contact a human – and not just any human, the sad and deluded Princess Pea (Watson) herself – leads to his exile. Once away from the mouse city he makes his way to the rat city where he befriends Roscuro. Despereaux’s quest to save the Princess inspires Roscuro, but her rejection of him leads him on a road of destruction and rage that may ultimately cause further catastrophe.

What is most intriguing about this movie is not so much the story which is pedestrian (although based on four Newberry Award-winning books by Kate DiCamillo) but the animation which is very different than what we are getting. It looks like an illustration come to life but with a life-like quality, particularly to the mice and rats. There is a rich detail in the animation that stacks up nicely to some of the better work of Pixar; indeed, this is some of the most complex, detailed animation ever seen.

There is some very good vocal work. Hoffman channels Ratso Rizzo in his performance and you get the impression that he was having a great time. Ullman also has some great moments as a scullery maid who dreams of being a princess and plays an important role in Roscuro’s revenge. There is also solid work from Broderick, Kline, Hinds as a scheming rat, Tucci as a magical being who assists Chef Andre and Weaver as the film’s narrator.

There is definitely a sense that this is meant for smaller children than larger ones, but there is so much heart in the movie that it’s easy to overlook that focus. There are moments of humor that are offbeat and surprising enough adults may wind up appreciating more than their tykes. However, one of the things I found most enchanting was the worlds of the rats and mice that are created – each with a distinctive look that thoughtfully echoes the philosophy of each race.

Once upon a time, magic and charm was enough for a movie to get by. These days we seem to look for a lot more. Granted, something like Up or Wall-E deserve more critical acclaim because they take chances with their stories that The Tale of Despereaux simply doesn’t take, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a good movie. This is a movie that does the heart good and leaves you with a warm feeling not unlike a batch of cookies fresh from the oven baked by someone who loves you.

WHY RENT THIS: This is a movie that is breezy and full of heart with an offbeat sense of humor that adults may like as well. Some superb vocal acting, particularly from Hoffman, Ullman and Coltrane.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The animation is more like a painting than what animated features are doing right now; this might be off-putting to some less adventurous kids. The movie is a bit heavy on the fluff and light on the substance.

FAMILY VALUES: Some scenes of jeopardy but nothing any child can’t handle.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despereaux was originally to be voiced by Justin Long until the producers settled on Matthew Broderick.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interactive map of the Kingdom of Dor that allows for descriptions of characters and places, an amusing featurette called Ten Uses for Oversized Ears and a pair of interactive games on the DVD. There is also a card creator on the Blu-Ray edition.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu