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

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Kill Bill: Vol. 2


Kill Bill: Vol. 2

Uma Thurman is astonished to find a white-haired Chinese master growing out of the end of her stick.

(2004) Action (Miramax) Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks, Bo Svenson, Samuel L. Jackson, Sid Haig, Perla Haney-Jardine, Caitlin Keats, Jeannie Epper, Vivica A. Fox, Lucy Liu, Stephanie L. Moore, Shana Stein. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

 

The first Kill Bill was an action-heavy revenge flick that sent the Bride (Thurman) after her fellow members of an elite assassination squad who had participated in murdering her groom at the altar, massacring everyone in attendance at the wedding and leaving her for dead. She is working her way up to Bill (Carradine), the leader of the squad and her former lover.

First she’s going after Budd (Madsen), aka Sidewinder, Bill’s brother and a member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad. However, after the demises of the various members in the first film, Budd is waiting for her with a double barreled shotgun packed with rock salt. The force of the blast knocks out the Bride, whom Budd proceeds to bury alive. He offers to sell the Hattori Hanzo sword she had made in the first film to Elle Driver (Hannah) aka California Mountain Snake for a million bucks. However, Elle double crosses him and leads a deadly Black Mamba viper in the satchel with the cash, which bites Budd and finishes him off.

However, the Bride during her training with Pai Mei (G. Liu) – told in flashbacks – learned how to break wooden planks with her bare hands from short distances away (most martial artists use the full extension of their arms to break boards) and she does so, allowing her to break the planks and claw through the dirt to freedom.

More than a little hacked off she returns to the double wide where Budd shot her and finds him dead there with Elle still there gathering up her cash and the sword. The Bride gets in an epic battle with the one-eyed Elle and eventually beats her, plucking out her remaining eye and leaving her for the Mamba which is loose in the trailer.

Now it is time for her to take on her nemesis, her former lover and former employer. When she finally meets up with Bill, things won’t go as expected; she’ll be forced to confront some truths about herself and about her life and make peace with who she is before she can Kill Bill.

If anything, this is even better than the first film which was a non-stop action funfest that paid homage to nearly every genre of modern grindhouse movie imaginable, from samurai films, wu shu epics,  blaxploitation to anime. This one has a few more homages but to be honest, this is where the meat and potatoes of the storytelling lies. It is here where you get the emotional payoff that the first movie was leading up to.

Thurman is less robotic here and while she isn’t the most expressive actress ever, this is one of her better performances. Carradine, the “Kung Fu” veteran who had largely been forgotten in the 90s showing up in cameo appearances in cheesy exploitation films, gives the performance of his career here. Mainly an off-screen presence in the first film, he shows both the tender and murderous sides of his character, and demonstrates the cunning that  a hunter of human beings would have. The conversation between him and his former lover that makes up most of the end of the film is really one of the most compelling confrontations in cinematic history – and there really isn’t a whole lot of action going for it, but what action there is pays off big time.

The two films do stand alone pretty well individually, but really to get the maximum effectiveness from Vol. 2 you have to at least have some knowledge from Vol. 1. Those who haven’t seen the first film at all may be a little bit lost throughout the film and certainly the emotional wallop of the last scenes won’t be as intense.

Although Tarantino has gone on to direct some amazing films both before this and after it, to my way of thinking this remains his magnum opus and maybe the masterpiece that will always define his career. What distinguishes him here is that while he has always been a fan of movies first and foremost, he never loses sight of the power of good storytelling. In other words, he doesn’t just mimic a few genres for film geek cred; he understands what makes those genres work and links them together with a story of epic grandeur, one that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that a woman wronged is nobody you want to mess with.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the most amazing action films of all time. Carradine gives a career-reviving performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You really need to at least be familiar with Vol. 1 in order to appreciate this.

FAMILY VALUES:  As with the first volume, there is a whole lot of violence and a whole lot of bad language; there’s also a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two volumes were always meant to be seen as one film. However, it has only been screened as such just twice – at Cannes and then in 2010

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a performance from the movie’s premiere by Chingon, the band fronted by director Robert Rodriguez (who contributed some music for the film).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $152.2M on a $30M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill Bill: Vol. 1

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

The Cabin in the Woods


The Cabin in the Woods

That's putting the "arm" in armoire.

(2012) Horror (Lionsgate) Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins, Sigourney Weaver, Brian White, Amy Acker, Tim De Zarn, Tom Lenk, Dan Payne, Jodelle Ferland, Dan Shea, Maya Massar, Matt Drake. Directed by Drew Goddard

 

Five friends take off for a weekend at a rustic cabin in a remote, wooded area. Sounds familiar, no? Well, I’ll admit this kind of scenario has been done before, but never quite like this.

Dana (Connolly), her roommate Jules (Hutchison) and Jules’ hunky boyfriend Curt (Hemsworth) are getting ready for a weekend away from school. Dana is suffering from the break-up of a romantic relationship she had with her college professor and Curt’s cousin has just bought a new vacation getaway in the woods a ways out of town. Along for the ride is Holden (Williams), a bookish friend of Curt’s whom Jules is eager to set Dana up with, and Marty (Kranz) the stoner childhood friend of Dana.

Stopping at a gas station on the way there, they meet the obligatory creepy old man (De Zarn) who rather than warn them not to go to the cabin drops some dark hints about the place. Not enough to dissuade them from going but just enough to be intriguing. There must be a central casting agency for creepy old men somewhere in Hollywood.

The cabin, set on a bucolic lake in the mountains, at first seems to be a perfect vacation spot. However, upon further investigation there are some troubling features. Why is there a one-way mirror between bedrooms? And why is there such a collection of arcane things in the basement?

That’s probably because the cabin isn’t what it seems. The five friends are being observed and have been since before they left the city. Two technicians, Sitterson (Jenkins) and Hadley (Whitford) are manipulating events, forcing the five friends into decisions. What is their motivation? What plans do they have for the young people. And who is the mysterious Director (Weaver) and what is her agenda?

Forget everything you know about this sub-genre. Yes, there are elements of the supernatural but also of J-horror, science fiction and spoof as well. Goddard, who helmed the magnificent Cloverfield teams up with Joss Whedon (who co-wrote and produced this and did a little second unit directing as well) to produce what is easily one of the best horror movies ever and certainly the best so far of the 21st century. Not only that, it is one of the best movies of the year period.

It has the right mix of action, viscera, sex and comedy and timed at the right places. It’s hip and old school at the same time. For example, when the creepy old man (a.k.a. Mordecai a.k.a. the Harbinger) calls Hadley to voice his doom and gloom gospel about cleansing the sins of the young people, he breaks off to say “Hey, am I on speaker phone?” which he is. The touches are light when necessary and even goofy in places before they hit you with a big whammy.

I’m being deliberately vague about some of the plot points – I found knowing very little about the movie enhanced my enjoyment of it. Hemsworth filmed this before he became a big star in Thor and shows the kind of easy-going charm that is going to net him more earthly roles in the future. Connolly, a soap opera veteran is pleasing as the plucky virginal heroine and Hutchison is very hot as the bimbo – she has a make-out scene with a wolf’s head…well, let’s just leave it at that.

Most people are going to come off remembering Kranz as the stoner. He is comic relief initially but his role evolves unexpectedly and not only does he get most of the best lines in the movie, he doesn’t flub them either. Fans might recognize him from his previous work with Whedon in the short-lived but much-loved TV series “Doll House.”

Whitford and Jenkins are both seasoned pros who get to let loose a little bit from their normal serious personas. The two have good chemistry together and can switch from light comedy to serious in a heartbeat. For Whitford, this is his best work since “The West Wing.” Weaver gets pretty much a cameo appearance but she makes the most of it.

There are plenty of digital effects, some of which are simply amazing. I’m really glad that the film was released in 2D only because although the break-neck pace of the film lends itself to 3D, the dark nighttime settings really don’t and you would have lost a lot of the subtlety of the action sequences.

I can’t say enough about this film. It is rare to have this much fun at a movie and to not want it to end while it is playing. Those who are timid about horror movies be advised – while there are some nightmarish images, for the most part it is less scary than you might think and much more fun. While young children and those who are more susceptible to having nightmares should probably think twice about seeing it, anyone else will have a great time. This is pure and simple a masterpiece of genre filmmaking and most everyone who sees it, like me, will leave the theater grinning ear-to-ear.

REASONS TO GO: Hands down, the best horror movie of the 21st Century so far. An amazingly inventive roller-coaster ride you never want to end.

REASONS TO STAY: The gore can be excessive and some of the images are disturbing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of gore and violence, bad language and drug use. There’s also some sexuality and a little bit of nudity as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was originally filmed in 2009 and was due to be released by MGM. The studio had wanted to post-convert this into 3D despite the objections of Goddard and Whedon, but those plans were never realized, partially due to the bankruptcy of MGM that year. Lionsgate eventually picked up the property.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are mainly negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Evil Dead

HORROR FILM LOVERS: There are homages all over the place to a variety of horror movies, from The Hills Have Eyes to Hellraiser  to Creature from the Black Lagoon and on and on and on.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Our Florida Film Festival coverage kicks off with a review of the opening night film Renee

MegaMind


MegaMind

If nothing else, MegaMind sure knows how to make an entrance.

(2010) Animated Superhero Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, Brad Pitt, David Cross, J.K. Simmons, Ben Stiller, Stephen Kearin, Justin Theroux, Jessica Schulte, Tom McGrath. Directed by Tom McGrath

It is a bit of an existential quandary that without evil, good cannot exist. In order to be good, there has to be a comparison point; if we don’t know what evil is, how do we know we’re good?

Evil itself can be environmental. MegaMind (Ferrell) comes to Earth as a baby escaping the destruction of his home planet. His escape pod lands in a prison for the criminally gifted where he is raised to believe that the right thing to do is steal and avoid being caught. His nemesis, Metro Man (Pitt) is also from a doomed planet in the same quadrant as MegaMind’s former home; however, whereas MegaMind lands among the scum of the earth, baby Metro Man lands in the lap of luxury.

Curiously, both of them wind up at the same school (which MegaMind pronounces as “shool”; it is a running gag throughout the movie that Mega has difficulty pronouncing certain words correctly) where Metro Man is well on the road to being a hero, admired by all his classmates who are amazed at the superpowers of flight, super strength and heat vision that Metro Man possesses. Mega unfortunately has none of these, only a genuine desire to be liked which is virtually impossible given the shadow he must labor in. He resolves that if he can’t do the right thing properly, he is at least good at doing the wrong thing and maybe that’s his destiny.

He becomes a super villain, an inventor of extraordinary weapons and machines. His modus operandi is very similar; he kidnaps Metro Man’s girlfriend newscaster Roxanne Richi (Fey), Metro Man comes to rescue her, MegaMind springs a trap but his plans ultimately fail and Metro Man sends him back to prison.

However, this one time, Mega and his faithful Minion (Cross), a kind of goldfish in a gorilla robot suit (don’t ask), actually do defeat the good guy – they disintegrate him with their death ray, as a matter of fact. Much to Mega’s surprise, they rule Metro City – which Mega, true to form, pronounces as Metrosity, which rhymes with atrocity.

He has it all now; power, wealth, the ability to do whatever he wants whenever he wants but it is curiously empty. He has discovered that without good to oppose him, evil is meaningless. With Metro Man gone, he needs another nemesis, so he sets out to create one. Using the DNA of Metro Man (taken from the dandruff on his cape), he uses Roxanne’s cameraman Hal (Hill) as the subject (quite accidentally) and, in the guise of space father (a very funny homage to Marlon Brando as Jor-El in Superman: The Movie) trains the former cameraman (who had a huge but unrequited crush on Roxanne) as a hero (look for a very amusing Donkey Kong reference here). However, Titan (or, Tighten as Hal spells it) has other plans, plans that will require Mega to find his inner hero and save Metro City. Holy Role Reversal, Batman!

The movie is very amusing and has some unexpected touches in various locations, some obvious and some not – for example, Roxanne is very plainly based on Lois Lane, whereas the Metro Man museum where much of the action takes place has the Image Comics logo just as plainly a part of the building’s overall design, which should make many a geeky fanboy happy as a clam. Just as an aside, where the heck did that old saw come from? Are clams really happy? Is their life’s ambition to make it into a really nice chowder? Inquiring minds want to know.

Be that as it may, everyone (fanboy or not) will get a kick out of Ferrell’s performance. It is truly unique and quirky and Ferrell at his best. Perhaps I’m a little bit out of line, but I think it’s some of his best work since Anchorman. Yeah, I know it’s a cartoon.

The movie’s plot is a bit simplistic, but the underlying message is quite surprisingly sophisticated, taking a fresh view of the nature of evil and its need for a counterbalance. That one may go over the heads of younger kids who are more interested in the toys and Mega’s pet robots (think mechanical Minions from Despicable Me only without the charm), which are the latest in a long line of obvious merchandising ploys from recent animated features. They are more annoying than cute, however.

While this year’s animated feature derby hasn’t turned up anything on the level of Up or Ponyo, there have still been some solid quality movies out there like the aforementioned Despicable Me, Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon. MegaMind is at least as good as any of those, which is good news for parents weary of recent kidflicks that haven’t measured up.

REASONS TO GO: Plays plenty of homage to the comic book superheroes. Plenty of humor for big kids as well as small fries. Ferrell is fabulous as the malapropism-prone MegaMind.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a bit on the simplistic side and the robot pets are annoying after awhile.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few mildly naughty words but probably not words you haven’t said in front of the kids before, accidentally or otherwise. Yeah, let the whole fam damily go out and see this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to promote the movie, Will Ferrell gathered 1580 of his friends and their acquaintances in superhero costumes to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for most superheroes gathered in one place.

HOME OR THEATER: Oh c’mon; you know the kids won’t give you a moment’s peace until you take them to see this in the theater three or four times.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: I Remember