Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Rock and a Hart Place: “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” Entertains but Wears Thin

1995's “Jumanji,” while not quite the epitome of great art, was an entertaining thrill ride and didn't just depend on your fondness for the great Robin Williams. The new “Jumanji” with it's awkward “Welcome to the Jungle” subtitle, requires a serious tolerance for The Rock and comedian Kevin Hart. They're funny guys sure, but the film relies way too much on their comedic schtick. And then there's Jack Black who spends the entire film acting like a stuck-up 15 year old girl. It's a funny gag that is stretched to its limits. And let's not forget the awkwardness of modernizing the story of a board game, now a retro video game. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is fine for a few laughs and thrills, but it's basically a one-joke movie that relies too much on its somewhat clever premise about kids being stuck in a video game. There are attempts to connect the film to its 90s predecessor, but too much time is spent watching its decently charming cast react to their surrounding and it quickly wears thin.

At the end of “Jumanji” the board game and it's beating drums ends up washed up in beach in Europe. At the beginning of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” it ends up back in the same New England town where the first film took place. The game is gifted to the son of the man who found it, and for no apparent reason, the game transforms itself into a video game which sucks in the curious teenager who begins playing it. Many years later we're introduced to several new teens who all reflect typical teenage personalities. There's the nerdy introvert Spencer (Alex Wolff), his former best friend, the dumb jock Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain), selfie-obessessed mean girl Bethany (Madison Iseman), and outcast Martha (Morgan Turner) who obviously has a thing for the equally outcast Spencer. The four kids find themselves in detention one day, stumble upon the Jumanji video game, begin playing out of sheer boredom, and end up getting sucked in and appear in the bodies of the avatars they chose. Cue a lot of dialogue that basically explains how video games work to those audience members unfamiliar with such things. And lots of “body swap” humor which mostly involves Jack Black coming across like a flamboyant gay man as he portrays the smart-phone obsessed Bethany.

The foursome then set off an adventure to finish the game and hopefully get transported back home. From here a bunch of borderline corny special effects take over. None of which are that much improved from the borderline corny special effects of the original film. There's no real sense of wonder or excitement as the film relies too much on typical body swap humor which mostly involves Bethany reacting to being trapped in a shlubby 40 year-old's body. There are way more penis jokes here then there ever were in the first film. The Rock is fine in the role but one can take so many references to the fact that Spencer how has gigantic muscles. Hart is fine basically playing himself and Karen Gillan gets decent mileage as the beautiful adventurer who's stuck wearing skimpy clothes in the jungle.

The film is directed by Jake Kasdan whose film is bright and colorful but lacks real imagination. The script meanders and struggles to make itself worth existing. It's somewhere between “this could have been a lot worse” and “why do we need this.” “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” certainly doesn't need to exist and I'm still certain that if the film had nothing to do with Jumanji it would find success on its own. The movie is certainly entertaining enough and is harmless fun, I just don't think it's as smart as it thinks it is. Fans of The Rock and Kevin Hart is certainly in for a fun time, others can tread cautiously.  GRADE: C+

Friday, December 22, 2017

Lord of the Rings: “The Greatest Showman” is a Surface-Level, Enjoyable Spectacle

It must be said that if you're expecting to actually learn much about the life of circus man P.T. Barnum than you probably shouldn't see “The Greatest Showman.” If, however, you just want a really entertaining, gorgeous musical with high quality musical production numbers than you should definitely see “The Greatest Showman.” I went for the latter reason and thoroughly enjoyed the ride. With songs by the Oscar-winning song writing duo of “La La Land,” “The Greatest Showman” is a well-oiled musical machine featuring catchy songs, exuberant performances, and a sense of wonder. An in-depth documentary this is not, and whatever your thoughts are about the real Barnum (let's just say he's a controversial historical figure), the movie is undeniably fun. There's no real surprises in the story and it follows the formula set up by any other lavish musical but the film sends you out of the theater on a high and considering what a downer year it's been that's not the worst thing in the world.

Ripping a movie like “The Greatest Showman” apart is just way too easy. So let's focus on the positives. Hugh Jackman gives a charismatic performance as PT Barnum. He grows up constantly wanting to entertainment people. He quickly achieves what musicals are usually about (love) and so the film thankfully doesn't waste too much time on the romance between him and his wife Charity (Michelle Williams). Stuck in a routine job that he ends up losing anyways, the born-to-entertain Barnum opens a museum of curiosity. It isn't a hit and then invites strange and usual people (ie the bearded lady, a little person) which causes quite the sensation. Before he knows it the PT Barnum Circus is born.

While the film is obviously taking place in the 1800s, the film has a very modern look and feel. And that's probably for the film's benefit. The glossy pop songs, simply put, are extremely entertaining. And the visuals orchestrated by director Michael Gracey (in his feature directorial debut) are quite impressive. There's a love ballad with Barnum's eventual business partner Phillip (Zac Efron, in his first musical since 2007's brilliant “Hairspray”) and acrobat Anne (Spider-Man Homecoming's Zendaya) as they fly around on ropes under the big top. There's power pop ballad “This Is Me” sung with prowess by bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) and the film's opening/closing number “The Greatest Show” which brings down the curtain.

Sure the film's entertaining, but it feels like it was made by a corporation to sell tickets. Which it was. General audiences will eat it up. Even the old ladies down my row, who didn't even realize the film was a musical enjoyed it. You won't learn anything about the real PT Barnum, you won't really learn anything about the circus, and the film hits all the generic plot points to the point that it's pretty much all telegraphed. The script from Jenny Bricks and Bill Condon is pretty standard stuff but it gets the job done. And the circus, in general, while historically significant as a form of popular entertainment, is by and large a pretty terrible thing.

But you know what? I'd be lying if I didn't enjoy every minute of "The Greatest Showman." There's a power to the musical performances that are indisputable. The cinematography from Seamus McGarvey (“Atonement”) is really breathtaking. To think that a first time director was capable of creating such a beautiful looking film is pretty astonishing. The singing is great, the music is catchy, and the film looks pretty. If this film was translated to the stage, it would probably be winning a handful of Tony Awards and no one would think twice about it. The film basically functions as a 105 minute trailer for what is probably a more in-depth look at the life of PT Barnum, but what a fun trailer it is!  GRADE: B+

Sunday, December 17, 2017

I Know Who You Did Last Summer: The Understated “Call Me by Your Name” is Gorgeous and Truthful

If “Lady Bird” is a comedic slice of life coming-of-age story of a 17 year-old girl from a lower middle class family, “Call Me By Your Name” is the dramatic version about a 17 year-old boy from an affluent family living abroad in Northern Italy. Both films even share a key ingredient, a new rising star named Timothée Chalamet. This gorgeous film is about desire and heartbreak (they usually go hand-in-hand) and is about that moment in your life where your views on the world open up and anything seems possible. Director Luca Guadagnino has crafted a reserved and quiet film that is almost a bit too literate. It's hard to connect to a family whose patriarch is an archeology professor and whose son refers to novels and musicians no one's really ever heard of. But on the flip-side it is easy to connect to an introspective teenager as he discovers more about himself because we've all been there at some point whether it has to do with sexuality or not. In a lot of ways the film would work well as a double feature with last year's Oscar-winner "Moonlight."

Set during the summer of 1983 in an old school sun-soaked Italian countryside, “Call Me By Your Name” can't possibly get any more beautiful. The film follows 17 year-old Elio (Chalamet) as he's forced to give up his bedroom for his professor father's graduate school research assistant moves in for the summer. This happy-go-lucky man is Oliver (Armie Hammer) and there's a fleeting connection between the introverted Elio and Oliver's more extroverted personality. From here we sort of get a collection of moments between Elio, who, while pursuing a sexual relationship with his girlfriend, find strange attraction to the new guest. Meanwhile, Oliver who also catches the eye of a young Italian woman and is strangely fascinated by Elio as well. Oliver and Elio soon form a bond that begins to go beyond mere friendship. You know the drill. It's like the Italian countryside version of “Brokeback Mountain.” It's also yet another film about gay people, who don't identify as such, who can't simply be happy and content with being who they are. They're secretive about their relationship but because this is a film set over thirty years ago there's no way they can really end up together. Of course, it doesn't help that Oliver is moving back home to the United States at the summer's end.

The film, written by James Ivory (yes from the Merchant & Ivory duo) certainly takes its time exploring the characters are they traverse various Italian locations whether it's a swimming hole or bike path. The film looks exquisite but it's a direct counterbalance of the darkness and confusion going on between the two main protagonists. They long for each other but for half the film neither of them act on it. And in those terms it feels like an extremely long waiting game. But once Oliver and Elio do finally get together it feels worth the wait and the fears and anxiety and anticipation give way to happiness and pleasure and comfort. And then the sobering realization that there's no way this can have a happy ending. Eventually the heartbreak that comes from lovers being forced to part gives way to a scene between father and son that is emotional apex of the entire film and features a truly moving piece of acting from Michael Stuhlbarg.

“Call Me by Your Name” is an ultimately moving film. Its beautifully lyrical and the performances are subtle even if a lot of the overly intellectual dialogue goes over the head once in a while. The chemistry between the leads is palatable. The film is erotic without ever being exploitative. There isn't a lot of flashy over-the-top dramatic scenes it's a very quiet film that likes to take its time. Guadagnino even uses music in a unique way and the soundtrack is filled with classical pieces and nostalgia-enduing pop tunes. Even if the film doesn't leave you on a high note, it's not dark or depressing or tragic the way some gay love stories turn out. The film is naturalistic (if not completely realistic), earns empathy for the main characters, and even though I still find it hard to identify with a family living it up in an Italian paradise (even with Italian in my blood), the film's more obvious themes are things any human being will easily find relatable. If the melancholy film doesn't immediately click with you, there are aspects that will certainly stay with you. GRADE: B+

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Beauty & the Beast: “The Shape of Water” Casts a Fintastic Spell

A tale as old as time. Girl meets sea creature. Sea creature meets girl. They fall in love. End of story. Guillermo del Toro has been telling fairy tales for adults for quite some time and may have finally crossed a bit into the mainstream with “The Shape of Water.” Sure it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. It’s erotic and violent, but those not expecting that will probably come for the exquisite lead performance from Sally Hawkins who shows us her heart without saying anything at all. “The Shape of Water” works so well because deep down it’s a very traditional story told in a really extraordinary way. Del Toro can address a lot about society just by setting his story in a 1960s research facility where scientists have discovered a male sea creature and the lonely mute woman who falls for him. The film has some really special performances, a beautiful color palate, and a really good story that satisfies.

Sally Hawkins is great as a mute janitor named Elisa. She communicates through sign language though her hearing is fine. She’s friends with her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) who both work the late shift at a Baltimore research facility. An “asset” found in South America is brought in one day and it turns out to be an amphibious humanoid. Elisa is curious about the bizarre creature and begins leaving him hard boiled eggs to eat. Michael Shannon is the hard-ass, and horribly mean Col. Strickland who’s in charge of the research team and spends most of his time beating the thing with his electric baton. Both the creature and Elisa are “freaks” for all intends and purposes and they two form a bond, but no before things begin to get a little out of hand.

“The Shape of Water” is about connection and longing. It’s not unlike a similarly themed romance “Call Me by Your Name” that also displays another form of “forbidden” romance in an age where people were way more uptight then they are now. But of course, as much as things have improved, they tend to stay the same. Which means that stories like these are just as relevant today as they would be to when their stories take place. In that way “The Shape of Water” can easily be read as a metaphor for the once taboo subject of interracial relationships. It’s not a coincidence that Elisa’s friend and neighbor played by the always wonderful Richard Jenkins is a gay man looking for love himself.

Guillermo del Toro brings his trademark brand of whimsy and darkness to the film that balances out rather nicely. The film has some pretty disturbing and sensual elements which makes the film back to its roots of fairy tales being adult stories rather than being for kids. Even if the premise seems a little preposterous, like the best storytellers, he makes it believable. There’s a real sense of artistry here from the beautiful production design and Alexandre Desplat’s whimsical score to the film's lower budgeted byt fantastic special effects. The whole thing, even if it’s a decidedly “American” story, has a decidedly European feel. It’s a universal story that can easily be loved by anyone who needs a dose of imagination in their lives.  GRADE: A- 

Friday, December 15, 2017

Rian's Hope: The Thrilling “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” Takes the Series in a Fun, Exciting Direction

By my count, and it’s not that difficult, there are now eight Star Wars films, and technically 10 if you count spin-offs “Rogue One” and the animated “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” By all accounts we’ve “been there and done that.” But not so fast. Those who complained that the highly entertaining reboot “The Force Awakens” followed too closely to plot elements found in “A New Hope” are in for a big surprise because “The Last Jedi,” while overwhelmingly classic Star Wars in every sense, very much takes things into its own arena. It’s glorious. This 8th adventure in the Star Wars saga is just as thrilling as ever and has some really fun and surprising story elements up its sleeve. New-to-the-franchise writer/director Rian Johnson takes some risks and directs with an assured hand; the force is strong with this one.

As the most non fanboy Star Wars “fan” imaginable (aka I’m not really much of a fan, sue me) I have to say that these new films are supremely entertaining in a way that I never felt with the original trilogy. Watching 2015’s “The Force Awakens” something awoke within me. I got that feeling a person gets when they first watch Star Wars for the first time. Something that never happened with the other six films. Though "Revenge of the Sith" came close. But since everyone’s entitled to an opinion and you obviously came here for it I’ll give it any way: “The Last Jedi” could easily be one of my favorite Star Wars films. For a film that takes nearly two and a half hours to tell its tale, I was enthralled the entire time. No need for any nitpicks here. If you can believe that space ships can travel at the speed of light there’s no need to pick apart anything else. These movies were always meant to be fun. And that’s exactly what I had.

Me trying to explain the plot of a Star Wars film is like trying to watch your grandma explain how Twitter works, so I’ll do the best I can. Not too much time has passed since the last film. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is at remote island seeking help from Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). General Leia (Carrie Fisher) is still leading the Resistance but they’re in extremely poor shape since the New Order can now apparently track them through hyperspeed. This sets off one of my favorite storylines which involves Finn (John Boyega) teaming up with mechanic Rose Tico (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) to disable the New Order’s tracking device. And resistance pilot Poe (Oscar Issac) is at odds with a new leader in the Resistance named Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern).

The last film left us so many questions like all great trilogy starters do. Why is Rey so significant? Who is this evil Snoke character? How come Chewbacca hasn’t aged at all? With expectations so high for this entry some people are bound to be either thrilled or disappointed with the many revelations throughout the film. I dug everything. And that’s mostly due to Johnson’s fantastic script and tight direction.  It has humor in all the right places, the porgs are a cute, but not distracting addition in the weird creation department, and Adam Driver still stuns as the constantly conflicted evil Ben Solo aka Kylo Ren.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is just plain fun from beginning to end. The special effects are as convincing as ever, the movie has a nice worn-in look and feel that fits with the original trilogy, and it has a constantly engaging story with characters that are easy to root for. Johnson challenges the norms here in really interesting ways. There’s simply no way to predict how this one is going to turn out even if you’ve spent the last two years wasting time theorizing. Going with one of the film’s main themes, I’m certainly looking forward to the next installment.  GRADE: A


Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Room with a View: “The Disaster Artist” is a Hilarious & Heartfelt Ode to Terrible Filmmaking

It takes a special kind of non-talent to create something as atrocious as the film “The Room.” It’s a film so flat out terrible that it seems to exist on its own plane of being. But how could a film about something so bad be so surprisingly good? Because the passion behind the love of the hatred of “The Room” propels the fantastic docudrama “The Disaster Artist” into legendary status as one of the great films about Hollywood and the film industry. Put it simply, “The Disaster Artist” is the “Ed Wood” for a new generation. It’s both a tribute and satire of such a horribly misguided piece of “art” that it seems to transcend time and space. Director James Franco has collected an impressive Robert Altman level cast to recreate the making of one of the most notorious films in Hollywood history. It’s brilliant, funny, scathing, and has an unexpected amount of depth and heart. It will leave you feeling as much as it will leave you laughing.

“The Disaster Artist” is based on the mysterious, aspiring filmmaker Tommy Wiseau and his attempt to make his own Hollywood movie after being rejected by what seems like everyone in town. He's obviously a foreigner, with a thick Eastern European accent, (though he insists he's from New Orleans) and seems to be obsessed with no one finding out anything about him. He’s played by James Franco in a show-stopping, transformative performance that is half great impersonation and half in-depth character study. Tommy moves to LA with his aspiring actor buddy Greg (Dave Franco). Tommy is such a weirdo you’d never believe he was a real person. After several attempts to get into the film business Tommy writes his own movie script and Greg reluctantly agrees to co-star, despite the fact that his script for “The Room” is utterly atrocious. Tommy finances the entire thing from his own seemingly endless pockets and so sets off an adventure of Hollywood filmmaking that is the stuff of legends.

So let’s discuss. Why exactly is “The Room” such a terrible movie and why are people obsessed with it? The film has terrible dialogue, wooden acting, characters and storylines that come and go from the film for no reason, and such horrible production values you’d think a blind person directed it. It’s one of those movies that has to be seen to be believed. Even the most talented filmmakers could never make a film this inept. The ineptitude really attracts people to “The Room.” People are fascinated by it; drawn to it. Like it holds some kind of cinematic power over them. The movie is more than just “so bad it’s good;” it’s so bad it’s legendary. Enter a group of filmmakers so obsessed with this piece of garbage, they had to make a movie about it.

As someone who loves films about filmmaking, “The Disaster Artist” hits all the right buttons. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who also wrote the brilliant “(500) Days of Summer”) the film is a both a tribute and tease of “The Room” but more importantly it’s about a friendship and how easily that can be tested. The Franco brothers obviously have great chemistry together and easily slip into their roles. Alison Brie shows up as Greg’s eventual girlfriend which begins to drive a wedge between these two guys which actually has significant bearings on the “plot” of “The Room.” 

The film is also a character study of a mysterious eccentric who is unlike any other movie character you’ve ever seen. At times he’s lovable and at times he’s an asshole and Franco plays him with seemingly no effort. But there’s a degree of difficulty here and he pulls it off flawlessly. Wiseau, the character, isn't a complete moron. He just isn't very talented.  The other actors who show up to be part of “The Room” include everyone from “The Hunger Games’” alum Josh Hutcherson, to multiple Oscar-nominee Jacki Weaver who all give great dual performances as struggling actors turning in horrendous performances. Franco’s friend Seth Rogen plays a member of the crew and other Hollywood icons Sharon Stone and Melanie Griffith show up in bit roles.

The story of “The Disaster Artist,” oddly enough, is not unlike another so-bad-it’s-good cult classic, “Showgirls.” Both films are about eccentric people with mysterious pasts who struggle with achieving fame. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence. You really get the sense of love that is coming through the screen in “The Disaster Artist.” It’s fascinating to watch. Your level of enjoyment might be based on how well you know “The Room” but I don’t think it’s a necessity. Like “Ed Wood,” it’s more than just the making of a cult film; it’s about life, friendship, the creative process, and how none of that apparently made it into “The Room.” This movie is so good, it’s great.  GRADE: A 

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Guitar Hero: You’ll Go Cuckoo for Pixar’s “Coco”

It’s rather ironic that with all this horrible controversy about a border wall between the US and Mexico over the past year, we now get a beautifully animated film that’s so rich and respectful of Mexican culture and tradition. Oh Pixar you did it again. It practically erases the critical slump you’ve had with a trifecta of “meh” releases including “The Good Dinosaur” (which I enjoyed for what it was), a fine, but unmemorable sequel “Finding Dory,” and the nearly unwatchable “Cars 3” (a film so misguided I couldn’t even bear to write even a scathing review of it). “Coco” is Pixar’s return to form and features everything you really love about a great Pixar movie: memorable characters, moments that make you cry, jaw dropping animation, and a clever and original story. In fact, “Coco” is so perfect that the only bad thing about it is that you’re forced to watch a subpar 22 minute “Frozen” short that prepares you for the feature film by forcing you to go through the five stages of grief.

“Coco” tells the story of a young Mexican boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) who loves music and aspires to be a famous guitar player like his deceased hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). But his family forbids any form of music since Miguel’s great-great grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband. Her family now makes a living as shoemakers and music is strictly prohibited. But Miguel, like so many Disney heroes and heroines before him is a rebel and has secretly taught himself to play guitar and still longs to be a musician. He then goes on the adventure of a lifetime when he’s accidently transported to the Land of the Dead during the annual Día de los Muertos and learns a lot more about his heritage.

This “Day of the Dead” celebration is where deceased family members are honored and remembered. Well this is a Pixar film so they’ve taken a real life tradition and turned it on its head in a really fun way. Dead relatives can “visit” the world of the living if their family members have displayed their photo in an ofrendo (an alter that honors a deceased relative during the celebration). They visit by going through a customs-like border area between the afterlife and real life. While in the Land of the Dead Miguel attempts to find his deceased hero and teams up with Héctor (Gael García Berna) a down-on-his-luck musician who is trying to crossover to the Land of the Living. Might I add that all the folks over in the Land of the Dead are skeletons that are gorgeous rendered? The world that directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina and their team have created is, in a word, astonishing.

And of course it’s not quite a Pixar masterpiece if you aren’t about to bawl your eyes out by the end. Music is the soul of the film and here the emotional song “Remember Me” (from the “Frozen” songwriting team) plays a crucial role. You’re probably wondering why the film is called “Coco” if the main character is a little boy named Miguel. Coco is Miguel’s extremely elderly great-grandmother and by the time the film enters its final act you are completely and emotionally sucked into this fantastic story. If you’re not fighting back tears by the end then you aren’t human. The film is about family, tradition, and the power of music and it’s another brilliant and funny piece of entertaining art from arguably the greatest animation studio ever. In other words, to miss “Coco” would be a crime against humanity. GRADE: A