Thursday, January 18, 2018

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: 
on JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (2017, 119 minutes, PG-13)

The Quick of It -
Sorry, nothing will ever match the original film thanks to the brilliance of Robin Williams.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t explore more of the delightful ‘game’… as is proven here.

WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE, gratefully in my eyes, is a subtle continuation of the first.  This ‘attention hound’ board game finds a new way to push itself in peoples’ faces, pulling them into the fantastical world.  To be relevant in this day and age, the board game changes itself into a video game to entice its unsuspecting prey.  Of course, that makes it irresistible to our youth. 

Four high schoolers are sent to detention for the ‘typical’ reasons and tasked with pulling staples out of magazines in a grungy, over-filled storage room.  During this tedious punishment, one of the miscreants finds the Jumanji video game and everyone eventually gets talked into playing this retro-styled game. 

Bam.  The Jumanji stampede begins…

The cast stars some of the greatest picks for in-game avatars available in Hollywood – Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan (best known as Nebula in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY).  Without a doubt, Jack steals the show, which says a lot.  Dwayne and Kevin already have a chemistry proven to entertain from there pairing in CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE.  Jack’s ‘I’m a prissy, phone-obsessed teenage girl’ impression is so fantastic, you cannot wait for his next line.  And with Karen playing such a loveable badass, you cannot think of too many flaws in these casting choices.

WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE rounds out the key pieces for such a straight forward production with some strong behind-the-camera selections to make this a movie you would not expect to be so loveable.  Director Jake Kasdan continues to prove he has the comedic streak running.  His previous projects amidst his big screen ventures include ORANGE COUNTY, BAD TEACHER, and SEX TAPE.  The veteran cinematographer eye of Gyula Pados (of MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS and THE DEATH CURE, THE DUCHESS, PREDATORS) paints a visual picture that gives credence to the concept designs for an actual jungle-based video game when brought to life.  You have everything to “Make Jumanji Great Again.”

The only troubles I had come from stretching the tons of potential video game play set-ups into this one film and the slight cheese pushed on you by the leading villain Van Pelt, played by Bobby Cannavale (of THE STATION AGENT, ANT-MAN, and PARKER), and his cronies.  The script was simple, even if written by a handful of people, being more interested in getting the laughs than character development or scene interaction.  Still, you really couldn’t ask for more.

Take the Jumanji over-the-cliff plunge.  It will lighten your day.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - IT

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

Any Stephen King fan will tell you that, while the author has written several books that they consider masterpieces, one stands above them all as the ultimate in his canon of epic terror: the 1986 tome “It”.

It is a book I have read multiple times; I will go through a phase every two years or so in which I feel the need to re-read every King novel that I love.  We’re talking about a man that has published over fifty novels, and hundreds of short stories, so this “task” keeps me busy for a while.  Occasionally, I’ll skip a few; there are a few ardent King fans who will insist on reading his works in a certain order to ensure one has grasped the full scope of how the majority of the books tie in to each other.  We all know I’m a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic, but my devotion to The Master of Terror doesn’t delve that deep.  (Okay, it goes pretty deep, but everyone has their own methods, right?)

The biggest problem with bringing King books to the big screen—and there have been a literal smorgasbord of attempts—is that interpreting his tales of horror and the macabre visually can be a tad difficult.  The director that did it best may be Frank Darabont, who gifted the world with THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE GREEN MILE, and 2007’s moody and terrifying THE MIST.  Now we have Andy Muschietti (MAMA) to add to the list.  Working with a screenplay hashed out by three writers, he offers up a visual representation that not only captures the terrors, dreads, and triumphs of childhood that King so masterfully captured in his epic novel, but raises the bar for anyone else that thinks they can bring his works to life.

For those not familiar with the tale, a group of kids in the town of Derry, Maine, take it upon themselves to rid the town of an evil which has plagued it for generations.  Children are disappearing, and it is up to this mixed bunch of adolescents to save the other youths of the small town from the clutches of this evil—most notably represented by a maleficent doppelganger named Pennywise the Dancing Clown.  The entire cast of kids is great, but most effective are “Stranger Things” alum Finn Wolfhard as wise-cracking Richie Tozier, and Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh.  As the comedic relief and the conscience of the story, this would be an entirely different film if those roles had gone to other actors.  Also notable is the fast-talking Jack Dylan Grazer as the “frail” Eddie Kaspbrak, whose delivery and acting ability solidifies the group in a way the character in the actual book never did.  This is one of the nuances of this interpretation of the source material that marks this film as a marvelously executed compliment to the book.

There are some differences, of course; the film is set in the eighties, whereas the first part of the book takes place in the fifties.  The childhood scares have changed a bit, as well—with the changing of times, so changes the fears of generations.  But the themes (first love, looming adulthood, bullies, and the unbreakable bond of young friendship) remain the same.  Smart and creative moves on the parts of the screenwriters, and vivid visualizations by Muschietti, make this an intelligent and affective tale.  There are new scares here, and some of them are downright chilling.

And then there is Bill Skarsgård (“Hemlock Grove”) as Pennywise. When I first saw this film, I was not totally sold on his performance—and I totally blame myself for that.  I went in swearing to not compare what I was about to see by what I had read so many times before, and I was successful in that endeavor.  But my first thoughts upon seeing him in the makeup?  “He’s no Tim Curry.”  Yep, fell right into the trap I was so consciously trying to avoid.  While the first attempt to capture the book was a decent attempt that fell well short, there was one standout in the TV miniseries from 1990, and that was Curry as the evil shapeshifter.  And while Skarsgård may have felt he had big shoes to fill (apparently that’s what I was thinking, deep down), his is, like the film itself, a different interpretation of the source material.  And he excels at it.  He is just as good in the role as Curry was, and at times, even creepier.

The special features help flesh out just how much he physically encapsulated the character; there is no CGI added to what Skarsgård looks like on screen; from the drooping lower lip to the crazy eyes, he makes Pennywise his own. The special features include interviews with the child actors, and the Master himself, Stephen King, talking about his epic masterpiece and this latest Hollywood attempt to capture the fears and terrors he so effectively puts on paper.

This is a two-part film; the second half will deal with the kids all grown up and having to battle Pennywise once again.  Which is kind of how the book goes.  The movie is slated to be released next year, and Muschietti will helm the second “chapter”.  For once, I find myself looking forward to the second film in a horror series.  And I promise not to read the book again until after I see the next one… 

Film Grade: A
Special Features: A
Blu-ray Necessary: Abso-freakin’-lutely

-- T.S. Kummelman

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

“Misunderstood Orcs: The Non-Traditional Story You Might Miss(understand) on NETFLIX”

“Misunderstood Orcs:  The Non-Traditional Story You Might Miss(understand) on NETFLIX”



Netflix is doing what very few studios have the balls to do.  Netflix takes on projects that would be quickly tossed into the trash because the story is not “trendy” or is questionably “relatable” to the masses.  BRIGHT is clearly one of the riskier selections they’ve made to date, even when including top-billed heavyweights as a justification to proceed.  I would almost say that this is a great watch.  It may not seem so thanks in part to the blowback, but it is something this superhero-sterilized Hollywood and the commercially-driven Netflix viewership (which we will call ‘normys’) need to add to their ‘Let’s Broaden Our Minds List’.  My heart breaks as I know they will never truly appreciate it anyways, as was proven since it was one of their most streamed programs.

BRIGHT is about two cops, one a human who happens to be black, Will Smith, and the other an Orc, Joel Edgerton. The location is set in a universe like ours but there are orcs, elves, fairies, and more mixed in.  A fantasy smorgasbord in modern day.  They happen upon a Bright, someone who can harness the power of a legendary wand, and must protect her from near-about everyone in Los Angeles.  This includes a deadly Noomi Rapace, a total badass.

To BRIGHT’s credit, the central theme surrounds both racial tension and the questionable actions of police officers we have been reading about in the news for the past few decades… plus.  If you watched “Alien Nation”, the tone is very similar.  The message is told on a species level… rather human vs. other, than a black vs. white one.  The thing I find most vital about BRIGHT is that the core conflict reflects these ongoing issues and addresses the struggle in a less confrontational way, something that needs to continually happen to keep the dialogue going about some of our nation’s struggles.  A message that can be easily digested by those more skeptical or somewhat blinded by ignorance.

The foremost problem with BRIGHT is that it falls more into a niche-style setting and ‘normys’ have a hard time getting hooked at the start.  As was proven in the past, ‘normys’ cannot embrace a story that has ‘fantastic’ elements to this degree when set in contemporary times.  It’s an unfortunate truth, movies and TV shows are less likely to get greenlit or fail to impress the masses when the case...  LADY IN THE WATER and REIGN OF FIRE to list a couple.  You can fudge it a little like HELL BOY and the recent THE SHAPE OF WATER being in a past era, but there seems to be a line that gets crossed subconsciously if close to present day. For whatever reason, aliens get a pass.  Oh well.

The acting is solid, even with the magical context weaved in the telling.  The avoidance of explanatory dialogue is also a key part to the success in the storytelling, and only used when absolutely necessary.  Information dumps knock the observer out of the setting quickly, making for a choppy and dull presentation.  Director David Ayer (more of a prolific writer - SUICIDE SQUAD, TRAINING DAY, END OF WATCH, FURY, SABOTAGE, HARSH TIMES) does a fair job keeping a gritty sub-tone while having comedic bits to break up the seriousness of the situation.  The failings are in the overused urban bad guys and the conclusion.  We get our gangbangers and we get our turf wars with crime families.  Ah… okay.  Then the finale ends on a quick, wrapped with a bow, note.  They jump the shark by being too magical and otherworldly.  There could have been many directions that they could have taken to make the ending more impactful.  But as an avid fantasy reader, I found it lackluster and ‘been done before’.

I kinda overstated the wrap-up as they did leave threads for another BRIGHT, and it does seem the case.  So, I wait for the next installment to see if Ayer can raise the bar as he seems to be tasked with the writing of the script, which he is capable of.

-- James S. Austin