Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Review: Jumanji - Welcome To The Jungle





Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle
Cert: 12A / 119 mins / Dir. Jake Kasdan / Trailer



Before I get stuck into Jake Kasdan's latest effort, I should point out that I actually haven't seen 1995's Jumanji. No agenda behind that, I just didn't catch it at the time and it hasn't crossed my path in the intervening years. My increasingly-usual manic schedule for December means I haven't had time to slot the film in for cramming.

So it was partly this 'not knowing exactly what to expect' which subdued my excitement for Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle. I say partly, it was also that the more I saw the trailer, the worse the prospect became. Although I enjoy Dwayne Johnson as a comic actor, his overall record is far from exemplary. And while I actually quite liked his recent double-act with Kevin Hart, the thought of reuniting the two for similar bouts of shrieking did not sit well with me. Elsewhere we have Jack Black, who other than a solid turn in Goosebumps is also on a downward trajectory in my eyes, and Karen Gillan - a great performer who appears to be being held back by an agent who accepts every undemanding job which lands on the desk.

I have already gone on record as saying I was not looking forward to this.
I am now on record to say that I am delighted to have been proved wrong.

So, when four disparate teenagers (Alex Wolff, Ser'Darius Blain, Morgan Turner and Madison Iseman) come across an old mid-90s console (complete with a cartridge of an unknown adventure-title) while cleaning a store-room in detention, they're magically zapped into the game where they inhabit the bodies and in-game skills attributes of the playable characters (Johnson, Hart, Gillan and Black). In order to win their freedom, the gang have to work as a team, learning the structure of the game as well as their own limitations and untapped potential. Plus it's set in the jungle and there's an artefact to recover, necessitating the actual adventure setpieces. So sort of The Breakfast Club meets Tron meets Indiana Jones.

And against all my expectations, it's great.

Don't get me wrong, you're not going to find the meaning of life, the cure for cancer or the basis of an enduring cinematic franchise in Welcome To The Jungle's 119 minutes. But in terms of a fantastically fun, funny family-friendly yet sassy adventure movie for the holiday season, this movie delivers on its own terms. That's all I ask.

Yet at the same time, the new iteration of Jumanji is by no means a perfect nor revolutionary movie, but it's at least aware of its flaws. And while that knowledge doesn't always forgive those flaws, you can be sure that the 1) linear nature of the ongoing story, 2) convenience of the game-to-film mechanics, 3) overtly sermonising themes and 4) ridiculousness of Karen Gillan's outfit are all issues which have been considered thoroughly by the writing team. The movie just then deemed them fit for use anyway. Welcome To The Jungle absolutely should not work, which perhaps ironically is its greatest strength*1.

The central cast have natural chemistry, and since theirs are essentially body-swap roles, they're each doing twice the work they would normally. As this is A Studio Comedy™, my worry was that they'd each be playing themselves (Mr. Black especially) and leaving behind the story's 'real-world' personas for the main drag of the movie, but Jake Kasdan's direction and a careful script don't allow this to happen*2.

But most importantly, I laughed loudly and consistently throughout Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle (as did the rest of the audience). On that front alone, this is already better than most comedies this year. And while the overriding message may be slightly trite, the film still has more dedication to its own characters than most comedies, too. It's just a shame that it'll reach nowhere near the audience it deserves because Sony Pictures' general-release window pits it against Star Wars*3...


So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Well Jumanji obviously, but any lighthearted action-adventure like Indiana Jones, Romancing The Stone, Willow.


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
In between watching The Last Jedi several times, sure.


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
It does.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
As a group-effort, it's certainly one that other writers, directors and producers will try to replicate.


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
Nope.


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Not that I heard.
Ridiculous
.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Missi Pyle is in this, and she was in 2005's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory along with Garrick 'Biggs' Hagon and Sir Christopher 'Dooku' Lee.

And an interesting (…) duo of GFFA trivia for you: the first Jumanji was directed by Joe Johnston, the guy who basically designed Boba Fett. This second movie is directed by Jake Kasdan, son of Empire/Jedi/Force Awakens/Solo screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…


*1 And trust me, as much as I'm defending the film, Karen Gillan's hotpants/crop-top outfit here is not irony. It's just a thing they noticed could be problematic, referenced in the script, then carried on using it as if that absolves them of the exploitation. The same arguably goes for Jack Black's entire performance, although I'd be lying if I said I didn't find it funny all the same. [ BACK ]

*2 There are four screenwriters here, mind, which is never usually a sign of anything coherent. And although I haven't watched the original Jumanji, I can still see the glaring hat-tips in the new movie's script when it's being referenced. But generally speaking, the "standalone sequel" Welcome To The Jungle works well enough on its own terms to not have to rely on these moments. [ BACK ]

*3 It's not even as if this is a cunningly scheduled 'alternative' flick (cf. Sisters, In The Heart Of The Sea and a two hour melodrama about mops) it's basically playing to the same demographic. And given the opportunity, would you rather watch a shrieking Kevin Hart, or Star Wars? [ BACK ]


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Review: Stronger





Stronger
Cert: 15 / 119 mins / Dir. David Gordon Green / Trailer



You'd think I'd be happier about this. Being a curmudgeon of monumental dimensions, I usually berate the December/January-scheduled, über-worthy, awards-bothering, true-story releases for being excessively mawkish and exploitative, for expecting an audience to wistfully grip a tissue in their quivering hands for every minute of the run-time, for wringing the earnest, soul-wrenching drama from every last calculated frame of celluloid.

Stronger doesn't go to those lengths. And I'm not happier about this because Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany and Miranda Richardson are acting their thespic socks off while screenwriter John Pollono and director David Gordon Green apparently don't care. This is the story of Massachusetts production-worker Jeff Bauman, a spectator at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon when an explosive device was detonated next to him*1, resulting in the loss of his legs. The film isn't so much about the event itself as Bauman's struggle to get back into the world, to be the inspiration that people assumed him to be even before he was ready for that mantle.

Well, it should be about that, at least. Instead we get more of a fleeting docu-drama filled with unlikeable characters and a dearth of mechanical detail*2. Given how dramatic the first act is out of necessity, the film we have is oddly bereft of emotion. Not quite clinical, but anaesthetised certainly. A short setup takes us to the day of the marathon*3, breezes over the immediate aftermath, skips out completely on the six weeks of in-hospital rehab, then just drifts along with snapshots of Jeff's recouperation. We get glimpses into the recovery, but never really enough to emotionally invest in the character (a real actual person, don't forget). Dramatic outbursts and flashes of PTSD come as much of a surprise to the audience as they do to the characters surrounding Jeff, almost suggesting that we're not being told the story from his point of view in the first place. Which is odd because the only other main character is his partner Erin, doing her best to help Jeff's rehabilitation*4, but we don't really see the film from her point of view either.

The central performances are, as noted, solid enough, but the writing isn't there to back them up. And while Gyllenhaal is one of the finest actors of his generation, it feels like this part (certainly as it's written) isn't complex enough for Jake to represent good value for money*5. There's the feeling that rather than present Bauman as a challenging/conflicted character, the screenplay just doesn't particularly like him*6, which becomes a waste of a great performer. Mark McMark could play this role. There moments of dark humour in the film, genuinely funny for all the right reasons, but they're too sporadic to be classed as an actual feature of the script. A tale of redemption should be a rollercoaster, this is like being pulled over waste-ground in a cart with wooden wheels for an hour and a half, before…

And then, around twenty minutes from the end of the movie, Jeff resigns himself to meeting a man named Carlos in a bar. It's Carlos who pulled Jeff out of the carnage in Boston, who tourniquet'd his legs to stop him bleeding to death, who reassured the semi-conscious man that help was on its way. Carlos has his own backstory of course, and this could be the one genuine scene in the whole two hours. Everything after this point is absolutely fine, the movie I was expecting it to be throughout (which is to say it's overly-sentimental, but the details of the plot have earned it by that point). But it's too little, too late. You can't just fill the screen with sports-fans waving Stars and Stripes flags and call that a happy ending. No really, you can't.

The usual rules apply for this sort of thing: You want to honour survivors of an ordeal, film-makers? Then take a film crew to their house and get the base-footage for a documentary...



So, watch this if you enjoyed?
This Sort Of Thing™.


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
While Stronger isn't exactly televisual, it's not particularly cinematic either.


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
Nowhere near as much as it would like, I suspect.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
It's not.


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
I shouldn't think so.


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.
Not even when the bomb goes off
.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Savage Opress is in this.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…
And it's only the last twenty minutes which lift it up that far.


*0 If you're at this first footnote because of the asterisk in the 'post description' on social media (and for the sake of HTML coding, let's call this *0), I put "Boston Strongler" in there because even I didn't think I'd get away with "Marathon Man(gled)". Who says I'm not a sensitive guy?

*1 Now you would think they'd have done a shared-cinematic-universe thing and given a cameo to Mark McMark, to tie in with last year's Patriots Day, but apparently not. Normally I'd insert a link to my review of the film there, but since I refused to watch Patriots Day as it looked like 90 minutes of histrionic flag-waving, I can't do that. You're right, maybe I'm not a sensitive guy… [ BACK ]

*2 It's quite a feat that in a movie full of aimless self-centred drifters, that the HR policy of the Costco corporation comes out looking like the good guy. I'm assuming the blink-and-you'll-miss-it reference to a health insurance claim for an underperforming, low-grade 'poultry-technician' is what paid for his robot legs, the likes of which are normally reserved for military veterans. Because the film doesn't explain it otherwise. Jeff comes out of hospital to live in his mum's flat in the housing projects, and the extra financial burden on a woman who's already not working just isn't mentioned. And while I'm on, in one scene he's been out of the hospital for weeks and nobody's thought that a guy with no legs might have trouble reaching the toilet-roll which is kept on the opposite side of the bathroom from the toilet. Jeff's family are dicks in this. [ BACK ]

*3 Really though, Jeff's on/off girlfriend Erin is running a full marathon and leaves getting sponsorship until the day before. Then she does this by going to a pub and sitting down, and has the temerity to call him lacklustre in his commitments... [ BACK ]

*4 By the way, if you're unfamiliar with the phrase "Boston strong" (*raises hand*), I advise you to look it up before watching the this. The second-act is in love with the phrase, but not to the point where it actually explains the etymology of it. Jeff's surname isn't Strong, and at that point in the story he's displayed few actual signs of endurance other than being interviewed repeatedly on TV (or so we're told, that's another thing the film doesn't bother showing us). Anyway, apparently it just means that the people of Boston are strong. Which is fair enough, but here in the UK we got news reports about the bombing itself, but the rest of this awful world quickly filled the follow-up schedules. What I'm saying is, don't @ me for not knowing what the hell 'Boston Strong' meant. I'm a sensitive guy. [ BACK ]

*5 Seriously though, not to demean the actual Jeff Bauman's struggle at all, but Stronger's approach to post-traumatic stress disorder is much like that of American Sniper: 1) Lead character is sad and angry for a bit, 2) Lead character shouts for a bit, 3) Lead character is reflective for a bit, 4) Yay, lead character is better now! That's all he had to do all along!! [ BACK ]

*6 There's a lot of consequence-free alcohol/medication mixing going on in this movie. As well as the drunk-driving scene which has no comeback. And apparently losing your legs means never having to wear a seatbelt, somehow. If anyone is thinking of looking to this movie as a source of inspirational reference, they're going to take away the message that it's okay to be a complete tool for as long as you want. The bizarre thing is that when photos of the real, actual Jeff Bauman appear in the obligatory credits-montage, I was thinking "funny, he doesn't look like the dick that Jake's just made him out to be". Who knew? [ BACK ]


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Review: Olaf's Frozen Adventure





Olaf's Frozen Adventure
Cert: U / 21 mins / Dir. Stevie Wermers-Skelton / Trailer



As much as I rather enjoyed the new Olaf's Frozen Adventure, I can't help but think that after the undue fuss surrounding the Frozen Fever short from 2015, and this similar hubbub two years later, it'd be nice if the powers that be just cracked on and made a proper sequel to one of the most enduring Disney films of recent times. And with another two years to go, I can't help but wonder how much more padding we'll be subjected to in the meanwhile.

But, as I said, that's not to take away from what is a fun little outing for Olaf the ostentatious snowman, in a production which I'm fairly certain was working-titled 'The Josh Gad Show'. As our diminutive hero patiently waits through a brief setup, he's then cast upon a singing, dancing quest to collect Christmas stories and traditions from the townspeople of Arendelle, with asides and sight-gags thrown into every other shot. I've made it sound dreadful of course, but fans of Frozen should find it enjoyable enough.

Olaf's Frozen Adventure recreates the fun spirit of the original, but not the soul (although every single frame of this contains more sincerity and love than the entirety of some other Christmas films I've seen this year). And while it would be tempting to point to the 21-minute runtime as a factor in this, bear in mind that Disney frequently produce 5-6 minute shorts to front-end their movies with every bit as much emotional punch as their feature-length animations.

And speaking of animation, this is a superb-looking piece of work. The texturing is photorealistic in its detail and depth, and although the models themselves remain stylised, the visuals have now pretty much removed the high-contrast 'black cartoon lines' of the artwork.
For this reason alone, it's worth hunting down on a big screen.

+ + + + +

Olaf was the warm-up feature of course, like we used to get in The Old Days. In the UK, Disney's new short is being packaged with a re-release of 2013's Frozen (whereas US markets are getting it in front of Coco, which I'm now desperate to see). But since they were both under the same BBFC card, you only get one review-post I'm afraid ;)

Truth be told, I don't have that much to add to my original thoughts on the film, other than to say that my 5/7 score seems inadequate for a movie this good*1. From the opening sequence, its scope is far greater than the (admittedly sweet) featurette which it follows, borderline operatic in tone and symphonic in its recurring themes and motifs (although the story's classical roots lend themselves to this).

Much like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Frozen is a much better musical than it's given credit for. And sure, the songs annoy a lot of parents*2, but they're annoying because they're catchy and they're catchy because they're crafted by experts. Kristen Anderson and Robert Lopez are award-winning songwriters for Broadway and Hollywood, and if their work doesn't infuriate you on some level you're not paying attention. But I digress.

Frozen is great; you don't need me to tell you that.

And for the record?
Elsa is totally Dr. Manhattan.*3



So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Frozen, pretty much.


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
You'll be lucky if you get the chance, but if you're a fan of the series - yes.


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
…keep the brand ticking over while the mice pound away at a sequel? Pretty much.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
I wouldn't go that far.


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
Not at all.


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
No. Bah.
Although that hawk-screech is in it
.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: The star of the show here is the voice of the Controller from an episode of Star Wars Rebels, while full movie features the guy behind K-2SO.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…


*1 I don't think Frozen is a 7, but it's definitely a 6. Still, I'm not going to rebadge the score now. I've only done that for one movie before. Besides, I'm marking Olaf's Adventure here, not Frozen. No, you're living rigidly by a set of self-imposed, arbitrary rules which no-one else has even noticed… [ BACK ]

*2 And sure, not being a parent I've never had to endure a car journey with youngsters singing along badly from the back seat. If anyone's going to howl out of tune with a movie soundtrack in my vicinity, it'll be me, thank you very much… [ BACK ]

*3 Also, I am completely convinced that the snow-monster's bellow of "Don't come ba-a-a-ack!" is a direct reference to the demon-voice at the start of Slayer's Hell Awaits. Imagine what fun it is to live in my head... [ BACK ]

DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Review: Molly's Game





Molly's Game
Cert: 15 / 140 mins / Dir. Aaron Sorkin / Trailer



Well, this was a nice surprise to end the month*1; an advance screening of Aaron Sorkin's new film, Molly's Game (due for general release on Dec 26th in the UK, by which time you'll have probably forgotten I wrote about it so promptly, but hey). Jessica Chastain plays the eponymous Molly Bloom, an olympic skier with a demanding father and recurring back injury which sees her taking a year out in Los Angeles. While working in a cocktail bar, Molly is offered a low-level (but crucially, better paid) office job which leads on to her organising illegal poker games for her boss and mixing with the rich and famous as a result. Striking out on her own, Molly runs a successful underground gambling den until the seedier side of the business threatens to pull everything apart. After a raid from the FBI, our subject finds herself in need of a sympathetic lawyer, and it's from there that the tale unfolds.

And what can I tell you without spoiling the plot-mechanics? It's good. Really good. Much of the film (although by no means all) revolves around poker, and while I know about as much about this as I do about tennis, Bloom's is a compelling story (although the viewer is always aware that this is a visual-retelling of a sanitised book based entirely on one person's account of things). This isn't a particularly original type of movie, but becomes more than the sum of its parts in Aaron Sorkin's hands, and his trademark-sharp dialogue is done full justice by a fantastic cast.

Chastain doesn't so much steal the show since it's entirely hers to begin with, but with her remarkable screen presence she makes this look effortless and seems to get better with each role*2. Idris Elba puts in a fine supporting performance as Molly's attorney, matching her energy beat-for-beat when it's required (although his accent goes for a right old wander during an emotional monologue in the third act). Elsewhere, Kevin Coster stars as Molly's (deliberately) annoying psychologist, pushy-sports-dad, reliably fleshing out a part which feels slightly underwritten given its significance to the character-aspect.

At just shy of two and a half hours, this is by no means a short ride. As three timelines are set up to tell the story in the first act, it takes a while to get going properly, and the The Properly Dramatic Part™ of the screenplay bides its time in the background. But when that sequence arrives, Molly's Game is lifted to another level entirely. By this point the audience have got to know Molly and are on-side completely, despite the screenplay making absolutely no bones about her flaws and weak spots; but it's a case of liking the character because of those foibles rather than in spite of them that Sorkin sells so well.

Despite landing in the fourth-quarter and being A True Story™, this is unlikely to find its way into many golden envelopes come February/March. Our heroine is admirable, but for few of the right reasons. Yet at the same time, Molly's Game is affecting because of its unpolished emotions. This is the first time Sorkin and Chastain have worked together. I look forward to the next.



So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Miss Sloane, The Big Short, The Wolf of Wall Street.


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
The film itself isn't inherently cinematic, but that setting will immerse you in the story more.


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
It does.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Difficult to say, but 'first page of the CV', certainly.


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
I shouldn't imagine so.


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Jessica Chastain starred in A Most Violent Year with Oscar 'Dameron' Isaac.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…


*1 This showing was the fifth exclusive Cineworld Unlimited screening of November, presented in my local's largest screen and had an outstanding turnout. To the point where I was thinking 'have all these people got Unlimited cards? I'm here all the time and I don't recognise most of them'. Then it occurred to me how few of the amassed crowd had actually given a shit about watching the Cineworld Unlimited screening for The Disaster Artist only two nights previously. Film fans are a fickle bunch. [ BACK ]

*2 Although I'm sure Ms. Chastain has a pre-prepared library of excuses to explain away the gaping exception which is The Huntsman: Winter's War... [ BACK ]

DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.