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A Ghost Story (2017)

24 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What was it I said in my 2017 Review post about David Lowery’s experimental supernatural-based film “A Ghost Story”?*

“I just didn’t get it. I know many critics are praising this film as one of the best of the year, and I admire what director David Lowery attempted to do with this untraditional “ghost story.” But it just didn’t do anything for me, except cause me to wonder, “I hope Rooney Mara truly enjoyed that pie.” But I dunno, maybe I need to see it again…”

Oh, and see it again, I did…about five or six times. No joke—I checked out the DVD from my local library about five or six times, simply because…I wanted to see it again. Maybe “see it again” isn’t the right expression; “experience it again” is more appropriate for this film.

Here’s how it goes. Casey Affleck (“C”) and Rooney Mara (“M”) play a young couple living a comfortable life in rural Texas. Their relationship is rocky, as he’s an aspiring musician who is so wrapped up in his craft that he puts most things aside, including her. Before we even have much of a chance to get to know them, he dies in a car accident. After she identifies the body at the hospital, he rises in the very sheet he’s covered with. (Thus, the ghost spends the rest of the film looking like a child’s Halloween costume, complete with two oval-shaped holes for his eyes to see through.) From that point forward, the silent and unseen C goes on an existential journey, going back to the house where he watches as M grieves and tries to go on with her life and ultimately becomes witness to events that occur in the present, the future, and even the past. (We also get somewhat of an answer as to why ghosts tend to make a mess of things in haunted houses in horror movies.)

The first time I saw “A Ghost Story,” it threw me off. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, and I wasn’t sure writer-director Lowery was even sure of what he wanted his film to be. It’s a nontraditional ghost story that I think had something to say about existence and time, as it simply shows (with as little verbatim as possible) what a deceased person experiences in the afterlife. Even when I was watching it for the first time, I knew there were parts of it that were simply beautiful in effectively disturbing ways…then there were other parts that I thought could have been summed up a lot quicker than the film thinks we could understand. I mentioned in the aforementioned quote that “I hope Rooney Mara truly enjoyed that pie”—that’s in reference to a scene in which Rooney Mara, playing a widow in mourning, sits alone on her kitchen floor and, in one unbroken take, eats a pie in real time. We get it—she’s grieving, expressed through stress-eating. But we’re stuck watching this scene go on and on to the point where instead of feeling the appropriate emotions for the character, all I’m thinking is…”I hope Rooney Mara truly enjoyed that pie.”

(Side-note: She apparently did not. Who could blame her? It was made of vegan chocolate, according to IMDb Trivia.)

But yes, critics did praise “A Ghost Story” as one of the best films of 2017. Having it given it a few more chances, I can definitely say I see why. The film is a unique experience. It’s perhaps a little too full of itself, but I can’t deny it’s still unforgettable. Maybe I was a little too fidgety when I first saw it and wasn’t ready for this small film to enthrall me with its intriguing vision of the mysteries of life and death (and after that). But now, I admit, albeit ambivalently perhaps, that “A Ghost Story” is one of a kind and worth recommending. (I can’t even work up the nerve to give a three-star rating, so three-and-a-half it is.)

Lowery apparently loves to take us on a neat ride, with many twists and turns as he takes us through time, whether it’s forward or backward. It’s to his credit as a filmmaker that breaking traditions in a film’s usual timeline is one of the important things that makes “A Ghost Story” all the more intriguing. More importantly, he’s also not afraid to challenge viewers to think about their own existence as well as existence in general. We don’t get any easy answers, but the questions are worth discussing about. (Though, I could’ve done without the scene in which a would-be philosopher practically spells out the basic theme of the film—that’s the one scene that seemed forced to me.)

Better late than never. I may have misunderstood “A Ghost Story” the first time around. Maybe I didn’t even want to understand it. Either way it goes, here’s my apology for my first viewing…and also my apology to you for never taking Smith’s Verdict seriously again.

*2017 Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/01/09/2017-review/

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Gerald’s Game (2017)

14 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

2017 was undoubtedly a banner year for Stephen King in terms of media adaptations based on some of his works. Within just a couple of months (August 2017 to October 2017), there was a solid TV series based on his novel “Mr. Mercedes” (part of a trilogy, with a second season based on the second novel “Finders Keepers” getting a release), the cinematic version of his “It” became one of the highest grossing horror films of all time, and there were two other gripping King adaptations released exclusively to Netflix: “1922” (based on a King short story) and “Gerald’s Game.” One has to wonder what King did with his residual checks, but it’s good to know he has little reason to be ashamed (for the most part).**

“Gerald’s Game,” the subject of this review, is based on King’s 1992 novel with an interesting hook: a survival-thriller/character-study about a woman who is handcuffed to a bed in an isolated cabin…and is still bound when her husband suddenly dies of a heart attack. The admittedly-thin premise becomes a great conduit for terror and survival, but the novel is more about character than about horror. Who can come in to bring more humanity and depth to what would otherwise be a passable (but not particularly special) thriller? Mike Flanagan, the director of a tragic disintegrating family drama disguised as a supernatural thriller (“Oculus”), the prequel nobody wanted but became a well-crafted horror film with believable characters (“Ouija: Origin of Evil”), and a brilliant home-invasion thriller with unexpected twists (“Hush”).

Mike Flanagan is the best director working in the horror film genre recently, because he knows how to draw in an audience and keep them on-edge while treating them with respect. His films are chilling for all the right reasons. And that includes “Gerald’s Game,” which is faithful to its source material, and more.

As I mentioned, the central character, a woman named Jessie (Carla Gugino), spends most of the story handcuffed to a bed. This was part of a kinky sex game her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) wanted to play with her at their remote vacation house, and it’s quite disturbing when the game consists of imagining rape with a captive. Jessie isn’t too eager to play, but she’s already tied to the bedposts when she calls out her husband on how sick his fantasy is. The married couple has already had problems before, and this role-playing game doesn’t make matters any better. Jessie demands Gerald unlock the cuffs, Gerald refuses…and then Gerald has a heart attack and dies. (Whoops.)

With no way of calling out for help and no one in the area plus a rabid stray dog that comes in the house to take bites out of Gerald’s corpse, Jessie is stuck on the bed, alone with her own thoughts as she tries to figure out how she’s going to get out of this predicament (if she ever does). Much of the novel is told through inner monologue and memory—how does Flanagan handle the delivery of exposition? By having Jessie partake in hallucinatory conversations with imaginary versions of Gerald and herself—these two sort of play as Jessie’s devil (Gerald) and angel (a stronger version of herself) on her shoulders, if you will. It’s an interesting move that’s played very effectively, and it also helps give more insight into Jessie’s thought process.

We get some good chilling moments of t&t (tension & terror) from the idea of the hungry meat-eating dog coming and going as he pleases to the possibility that there may actually be somebody coming into the house at night and not just another hallucination Jessie is imagining. And we also get compelling moments of survival that rival moments from “127 Hours” and “Buried” (two other movies in which a character is stuck in one place for a long period of time), such as how she manages to get drinks from a cup of water left on a shelf above the bed. But more importantly, “Gerald’s Game” works brilliantly as a character study. We get a well-rounded portrait of Jessie, not just with fantasy conversations with manifestations of her fear and her strength but also with flashbacks that reveal the origins of her guilt and her mental bindings. These scenes involve Jessie’s father (played by a surprisingly chilling Henry Thomas), who does something more chilling and disturbing than anything the flesh-eating dog does in this film. With his other films, Flanagan has always shown how important his characters are while also remembering he’s still making horror films, and with “Gerald’s Game,” he knows how important King’s characters are as well.

The acting is top-notch. Carla Gugino is excellent as Jessie. She captures the weight of the situation her character feels throughout the film, and she’s able to play with different emotions she goes through, from fear to sadness to relief, among others. We like Jessie, sympathize with her, and root for her when she attempts the inevitable escape. But I can’t leave out Bruce Greenwood, who has an arguably trickier role—he not only has to play Gerald but he also has to play Jessie’s exaggerated version of Gerald.

There’s a 10-minute epilogue that ties up all loose ends in the film. In the novel, this took about 50 pages to wrap up and is considered to be some of King’s least successful writings. Seeing the film for the first time on Netflix, I thought the final 10 minutes was unnecessary. But seeing it again, I realized it was absolutely necessary. It gave Jessie the redemption she (and to an extent, we) needed after going through her own personal hell, and it made the film overall less of a standard horror film and more of an appreciated character drama.

Mike Flanagan knows what he’s doing. With “Oculus,” “Hush,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” “Before I Wake,” and “Gerald’s Game,” he’s already made five effectively solid horror films. Let’s hope for five more, because he knows what it takes to make us fear and, more importantly, he also knows what it takes to make us care. “Gerald’s Game” is probably his most accomplished work; Stephen King should be proud.

**Yes, there was also the badly publicized “Dark Tower” movie released in cinemas before any of those other projects. Why bring up the negatives when there were many positives

Call Me by your Name (2017)

14 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I could try and analyze the meaning of the flies. There are flies buzzing around visibly on-screen throughout Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by your Name,” and I thought it was just a coincidence…until one came back in the final shot. That’s when I thought there might have been something more to them in this film. Like, maybe Guadagnino is trying to say that a fly’s life is short and not appreciated until it’s too late, or something like that. But if even Guadagnino is declining to explain the meaning behind them, why should I bother trying to figure it out myself?

Thankfully, there is more to “Call Me by your Name” than…flies. (The moment I started typing that, I immediately realized it could be the weirdest sentence I’ve ever written. Hence, the ellipsis.) Nearly every other review of this film brought up the flies. I’m not returning back to this film for the damn flies; I’m returning because it’s a beautifully made, emotionally atmospheric film that works brilliantly as a study in mood and passion.

The film is a lovely equivalent of a lazy, breezy summer day. When it shows our main character alone in his room, with nothing but his thoughts and the diegetic sounds of the world outside, it’s difficult not to feel like I’m there with him or not to feel like I’ve been there before. When he’s swimming with family and friends or going on a nature hike with someone, the atmosphere of the surroundings is felt all throughout. The outside world is a character in itself; Guadagnino and his cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom are inviting us to become part of this powerful atmosphere, and it really works.

Now, this I can analyze! “Call Me by your Name” is a film about finding hidden passions within one’s self, and nature can allow those things we keep deep within ourselves to shine through. Think about it—have you ever gone away somewhere like the woods or the boonies or an isolated country home and felt like you were inspired to pursue something special that you weren’t entirely sure about before? Well, in “Call Me by your Name,” the countryside of summer-1983 Northern Italy and the boredom surrounding it pushes the characters on their journey of self-discovery.

It’s even paced like a slow, worry-free summer day. Guadagnino is patient about showing us what the characters are going through while letting us take in the beautiful scenery & environment. There’s nothing to do in this location anyway (except to discuss philosophy, music, art, and such), so there’s nothing to hurry about either.

Oh, right. I should explain who these people are. They are 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer). Elio is a precocious artistic teen who joins his parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) to the family summer home in Northern Italy (or, as the opening caption states, “*Somewhere* in Northern Italy”). What’s there to do here? “Wait for summer to end,” he bluntly tells Oliver, a hunky American doctoral student staying with the family for a summer internment. (Elio’s father is a professor of Greco-Roman culture who takes in a new student every summer.) Oliver is everything Elio isn’t. Elio is shy and awkward and gangly and unsure of himself, while Oliver is ultra sure of himself and built like Michelangelo’s David sculpture.

These two young men start off trying to one-up each other, but before long, Elio takes notice of Oliver’s bravado and physique. Eventually, it becomes revealed that Oliver has strong feelings for him. When they succumb to the mutual lust they’ve developed, that’s when a complicated relationship begins that will change Elio forever.

There are no worries or any concerns that would be addressed or dealt with if the film was set anywhere else at this time. Setting it in the early ‘80s in a carefree summer surrounding allows a same-sex relationship such as this to properly develop, whereas if it were set someplace else, with it being outside the norm, narrow-mindedness would have gotten in the way.

However, it is a bit disconcerting that this relationship is happening to a teenager and a 20something, especially when Oliver seems to be leading Elio on half of the time. (Though, apparently, the age of consent in Italy is 14. Take from that trivia what you will.) But, for the sake of character development, let’s look past that and see it as a true coming of age for the Elio character. He’s not as smart as he thinks he is, and thanks to this fling with the older, more mature and sophisticated Oliver, he’s able to deal with something as drastic as heartbreak (you know this isn’t going to end well once the summer ends) and possibly learn from it later in life. (By the way, the final shot that shows us an unforgettable development in Elio is so well-done, it will haunt me for years to come.)

And speaking of “later in life,” Guadagnino has confirmed that he is indeed planning a sequel to this film that will catch up on these characters years later. As someone who admires the concept of revisiting people in films (the “Before…” trilogy, the “Up” series), I’d like to see it. If the same mood and atmosphere is brought to that film as it was to this film, I think something special will come of it.

That’s not to say the film is without flaws. As I mentioned, it feels slowly placed, intentionally. And because of that, it includes scenes that could either be trimmed down or cut out entirely. I get what the intentions were, to make us feel more and more what this particular summertime feels like. But at two hours and 10 minutes, I think we already get the point here or there. (That’s why the rating for this review is three-and-a-half stars rather than four stars, despite what seems like over-praise.)

But back to the praising. Timothee Chalamet was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and deservedly so (again, that ending shot…wow), but I’m a bit disappointed by the snubbing of Armie Hammer for his equally impressive work. I’ve seen Hammer do well in films like “The Social Network,” but here, he shows a great deal of complexity and range that could lead to more roles similar to this in the future. And then there’s Michael Stuhlbarg, who doesn’t have much to do in the father role (and as a professor, we hardly even see him do any “professor” duties). He makes up for that in a scene near the end, in which he’s allowed to give a brilliant speech to his son about how he shouldn’t forget the experience he’s had.

That speech lets you know what the film has been about this whole time. Life contains a lot of pain, and it’s important to embrace it rather than try to forget it. Pain is essential to growing in life, because we carry things with us that make us who we are today. It’s how we deal with it that truly matters. What happened between Elio and Oliver did happen, it came and went, and it’s a memory and a secret that Elio will keep forever. And on that level, “Call Me by your Name” works wonders.

I get that more than I ever will get…the flies.

NOTE: Something else I want to praise is the music, particularly two songs by musical artist Sufjan Stevens: “Mystery of Love” (which was nominated for an Oscar) and “Visions of Gideon.” There are many times when song placements in movies just seem desperate to me. And while these songs are certainly used to make us feel what the characters are feeling, even though the acting is already doing that job well, there’s something about the ways they’re used here that makes it all work like magic.

The Disaster Artist (2017)

5 May

 

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room”…what an oddity. Said to be one of the worst movies ever made and since 2003 has formed an ever-growing cult of audiences that delight in seeing it on the big screen every now and then, everything about it just seems “off.” It was clearly made with a budget and a crew, but with the leadership of a strange individual like Tommy Wiseau (who wrote the script, directed the film, and most notably, stars in it too), everything falls apart real fast. There’s hardly a story (just a bunch of random moments that “supposedly” come together by the end), the acting is horrid, and supposed “serious” scenes come off as laughably bad. Many bad movies are bad because they’re boring or unwatchable, and while parts of “The Room” cross that border (can we say “numerous overlong gratuitous sex scenes”?), it’s every other part that makes it so bad that it’s strangely wonderful.

The story behind the making of “The Room,” before it was ever even thought to go on to unexpected success with devoted movielovers, is a fascinating one, told to us originally by Wiseau’s supporting actor/long-time friend Greg Sestero, who co-wrote a biographical novel called “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made.” That novel has since been adapted by director/actor James Franco, who saw something in Wiseau and “The Room” that reminded him of himself and his own works. This inspired him to create a cinematic retelling of the story, called “The Disaster Artist.”

James Franco directs the film and also stars as Tommy Wiseau, the bizarre actor/would-be-filmmaker whose absurdities make him extremely difficult to comprehend. We still do not a thing about what goes on in Tommy’s mind, what’s his reason for his weird mannerisms, when he’s serious, and when he’s putting on a performance to make an effort to stand out. The thing is, he does stand out and he wants to put on a show. The extensions of his show are hard to understand, which is what makes him grating to be around but also strangely fun too. There is something to Franco’s performance that still makes him human, despite other onlookers seeing him as if he’s from another planet. Underneath the ego and the oddities of himself is someone who just wants to be noticed…it’s just that it can be easy to forget that when he pulls another stunt.

The film’s central protagonist is Greg Sestero (played by Dave Franco), a would-be actor who first meets Tommy in an acting class in San Francisco. Because he’s an average guy (which, thankfully, is not to say “boring”; he’s quite likable), seeing Tommy through his eyes is probably the best move to follow, since Franco too doesn’t know a lot about the real Tommy Wiseau. Greg sees him as bizarre and unusual but also fearless and risk-taking. He asks to perform a scene with him, which leads to the two hanging out, becoming friends, and soon enough, moving together to Los Angeles to pursue Hollywood acting careers together. But it turns out to be hard for Greg (who at least gets signed by an agency) and even harder for Tommy. That’s when Tommy gets the idea to write and direct and, more importantly, star in his own movie, with Greg’s help…

Money is apparently no object, as Tommy spends constantly. He buys (not rents) equipment to shoot his film (which would be titled “The Room”) using digital and film, he’s able to pay his cast & crew a great salary (even when his shooting schedule goes overboard), and even when his script supervisor (played with great dry wit by Seth Rogen) goes to cash a huge check at the bank for the first time, he’s shocked to learn Tommy’s account is “a bottomless pit.” But Tommy is not the greatest director, having trouble communicating how he wants his actors to perform the scenes. Nor is he the greatest actor, using uniquely inexplicable inflections that make already-horrible lines of dialogue seem utterly ridiculous. And even worse, he makes life on set miserable for everybody—he’s highly demanding, he has a documentarian spy on crew members who mock him, he shows up late to the shoot frequently, he doesn’t supply his crew with water or air conditioning, and he gives everybody a negative attitude, which puts a real strain on the already-unlikely friendship between him and Greg. The guy has no idea what he’s doing when it comes to filmmaking, and everybody can see the disaster that’s coming. What nobody expects is the art to be found within the disaster…

It’s strange watching this film and having to remind myself that this is no mere piece of fiction; it’s based on true events that actually happened. There really is a person like this, there really is a film like “The Room” out there, and I’m fairly certain viewers of this film who are unaffiliated with “The Room” are going to be scratching their heads. Even with the film beginning with talking heads of celebrities (such as J.J. Abrams, Adam Scott, Kevin Smith, among others) talking about the strange beauty of “The Room” and even side-by-side comparisons at the end showing us real clips from “The Room” and reenacted versions for “The Disaster Artist,” it’s hard to believe it’s not an act. Maybe Tommy Wiseau is an act, but the story is not.

Either way it’s looked upon, “The Disaster Artist” is a highly entertaining film. It’s entertaining for the effective mixture of drama and comedy, with a nicely formed friendship at the center between Tommy and Greg, a great sense of fun in the sequences that recreate scenes from “The Room” (“Oh Hi Mark”), and a truly engaging story about following ambition, even if it leads to unexpected victories. I love “The Disaster Artist” for being exactly what it’s meant to be, whether answers regarding the identity of Tommy Wiseau are revealed or not.

Creep 2

4 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

A few years ago, indie filmmakers Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass went out to the woods to make a movie with their limited resources. What resulted was “Creep,” an effectively creepy (forgive the pun) found-footage movie starring Duplass as an unsettlingly peculiar individual whom Brice isn’t sure whether or not to trust. I would issue a SPOILER WARNING here, but if you’re the slightest bit interested in seeing “Creep 2,” then you probably already know how “Creep” ended. It’s no secret going into “Creep 2” that Duplass’ titular “creep” character is no mere weirdo; he’s a serial killer.

Part of the fun of the original “Creep” was trying to figure out just what was up with this strange man (Duplass) whose company our protagonist (Brice) is stuck with throughout the movie. He’s clearly not well, he has a lot of issues, he says/does things that are unnerving, and it gets worse and worse until it ultimately ends violently, thus finally revealing that it was all a setup for one of the “creep’s” filmography that involves murders. “Creep” is one of the killer’s movies about his individual killings, and now we have “Creep 2.”

(Whew. That one paragraph saved me the trouble of reviewing “Creep.” For the record, I give it the same rating as “Creep 2”: three stars out of four.)

Now that we know Mark Duplass’ character is a psychopathic murderer with creative ambition, where do we get suspense in this sequel? Well…what if our protagonist was an unsuspecting amateur video artist who’s curious to see what this guy is all about? You see, Sara (Desiree Akhavan), creator of an online documentary web series called “Encounters,” films her “encounters” with strangers who place ads for her to answer/investigate. She answers an ad from Aaron (Duplass) to visit/film him for monetary reasons, and she’s curious especially after Aaron reveals he is a serial killer. He assures her that he won’t kill her, and she has little reason to trust him (thankfully, she arms herself with a hidden knife). All he wants is for her to film his expressions of reaching the age of 40 and feeling like he’s run out of inspiration for future works. And this is where we get another strange delight: the serial killer has a midlife crisis.

As with the previous film, “Creep 2” is presented in first-person camera perspective, in documentary format, still keeping the audience on-edge and not knowing what to expect. It’s refreshing to note that for all the times we say we’re tired of the “found-footage”/”faux-documentary” gimmick, there are still times when we can say it can still be done effectively.

The suspense in “Creep 2” comes from the question of whether or not Aaron is serious when he says he’s considering quitting the “art” of killing, seeing it more as a “job” than a “religion” (among many funny lines of dialogue sprinkled throughout the film for Duplass to bring levity to an otherwise tense thriller). He confides in Sara, who keeps filming him in his times of excitement and depression and inconsistent strangeness. That leads to the bigger question, which is whether or not Sara is safe. And if so, then for how long?

I liked “Creep 2” better than the first “Creep,” despite giving them both the same rating (ratings are hardly meaningful anyway—just read what I have to say instead of focusing on the stars). It’s just as refreshing but also funnier, more tense, and, for lack of a better word, creepier. Duplass is clearly having a ton of fun with the role, which is more compelling with each layer that gets peeled throughout these movies, and Akhavan is a refreshing protagonist who is scared of her company but tries to remain calm as she tries to learn more about him carefully. And I confess I didn’t know where this story was going and it delighted me that it continued to surprise me. I’m not sure where Duplass and director Patrick Brice can go from here with a possible “Creep 3,” but I’d sure like to find out.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

12 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s the movie that nobody expected to like and yet totally surprised them! (And seeing as how it was the fifth highest-grossing film of 2017, I’m assuming audiences originally went to see it to hate on it?…And then they got so surprised they told their friends to see it too?) “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a quasi-sequel to the 1995 film “Jumanji,” based on the children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg. In the book and the ’95 movie (starring the late Robin Williams), a mystical board game unleashed an array of ruthless, unearthly jungle animals onto a small town to wreak havoc.

The players of the game had to continue until they finished so that all could return to normal, and in the meantime, they had to run from a stampede of rhinos & elephants and fend off gigantic mosquitoes & spiders, a man-eating flower pod, and even horrific CGI monkeys, among others. The fun of the movie was discovering what could appear next for the characters to defend themselves against (and having a likable Robin Williams guide the audience through the madness added onto the fun).

And now, we have “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” in which the evil game is given an upgrade. Not only does it transform from board to video, but it also sucks players into the game for them to play in the otherworldly jungle. It also might be a little tamer, considering the scarier creatures of the ’95 movie are nowhere to be found here. (But there’s still a ruthless villain and some vicious hippos, rhinos, and other jungle animals to fight off.) That’s because this is more of a lighthearted adventure film whereas the first movie was more like a horror film disguised as a family-adventure. It’s fun, funny, playful, and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” from director Jake Kasdan, has more in common with “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” than “Jumanji” (funnily enough, both “Honey” and “Jumanji” shared the same director, Joe Johnston), with four kids braving a treacherous jungle in order to find their way back home and learning something about themselves in the process. In this case, our trekking young heroes are nerdy Spencer, gigantic jock Fridge, stuck-up popular girl Bethany, and shy Martha. During a day of detention together, they come across the Jumanji game console and decide to play it. Big mistake…

Suddenly, they’re transported into the game and not played by young actors Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, and Morgan Turner anymore. Instead, they’re switched into the bodies of their video-game avatars—Spencer is now dashing, strong Dwayne Johnson; tall Fridge is now short Kevin Hart; Martha is now tall, striking Lara Croft-like Karen Gillan (complete with tiny top & shorts not fit for a jungle trek); and Bethany is now…Jack Black (uh-oh!). This is where the movie really shines, as these popular actors poke fun at their images. It’s a lot of fun watching Johnson play a scrawny teen trapped in a giant muscular body and taking note of his physical appearance, and it’s especially fun watching Jack Black play a self-absorbed mean-girl trapped in the body of “an overweight middle-aged man” to her absolute horror. The gimmick is they get to play opposite their usual personalities, and it doesn’t wear out its welcome.

Our heroes have to go along the game’s journey through a world they didn’t make, while adjusting to new sets of skills and fending off the monstrous jungle obstacles, in order to finish the game and return home. Another fun element of the film is the video-game logic that they often come across, such as non-player characters that repeat programmed responses, cut-scenes that reveal backstory, and ominous music that lets them know trouble is afoot (in this case, it’s the sinister drumming sounds that Jumanji is famous for).

Something I didn’t quite understand, though, is why we often cut back to the game’s villain, Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), in scenes that could have easily been treated like cut-scenes. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if our heroes didn’t know what to do next and then they found themselves observing another cut-scene in which Van Pelt unintentionally reveals an answer to a clue, and then they realize “Oh yeah we should try that”? Cannavale is wasted in the role anyway, without much juicy material to handle, but it would’ve helped fix what I saw as an annoying plot hole.

Before the film’s release, people were worried that this movie would disrespect the memory of Robin Williams by “rebooting” the film. (Those same people also forget that the original movie was based on another source material, so another adaptation isn’t completely hard to understand.) Thankfully, they were relaxed when they realized it wasn’t so much a “reboot” as a “sequel,” which becomes clear as the main characters come across the old dwelling place of the Robin Williams character. The new inhabitant (played by Nick Jonas) states, “It’s his place; I’m just living in it.” It’s the little things that fix bigger things.

Overall, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a lot of fun. And much of the fun comes from watching these four actors play these roles with the greatest of ease. Dwayne Johnson is at his least Dwayne Johnson-est, Kevin Hart has his share of great Kevin Hart freakout moments (such as when he exclaims he doesn’t have the “top two feet of [his] body,” Karen Gillan gets to play kick-ass female action hero perfectly (and also partakes in a very funny scene in which she tries “flirting”), and Jack Black, in a role that easily could’ve terribly wrong, is hilarious and even surprisingly brilliant in a gender-swapping role. The movie is two hours long, but I could easily watch these four for another two hours. Guess that’s all the more reason to see the movie again.

Spielberg (2017)

26 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Steven Spielberg is one of the most influential (and one of my personal favorite) filmmakers of all time. The impact he left on the world (and on me) with over four decades of classic films such as “Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Schindler’s List,” “Jurassic Park,” the “Indiana Jones” movies, and “Saving Private Ryan,” among many more, will never be forgotten. No other mainstream director is as successful as he is, and when he leaves this world, his legacy will be remembered for years to come. That’s why when I heard there was a two-and-a-half-hour HBO documentary about his life & career, I had to check it out, if only to see if there was something about Steven Spielberg that I didn’t know before.

And it turned out there was. For example, that scene in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” where Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) breaks down at the dinner table and his oldest son shouts repeatedly, “Crybaby!”—it turns out that was something young Steven did as a child when his own father cried at the dinner table. It’s no secret that Steven had some father issues (and it shows in his work, with father figures being either absent or distant). His parents’ divorce had an intense effect on him, which then led to a theme in his movies. To hear him talk in an extended interview about what he went through as a child when the divorce happened, how it affected his life since then, and so forth, is something special. Even though I had some idea of how deeply it affected him, it turns out that idea was nothing like I thought.

Throughout the documentary “Spielberg,” created by documentarian Susan Lacy (of PBS’ “American Masters”), Spielberg goes into detail about various things in an extended interview (split up with clips of his films and interviews with critics, film historians, actors, colleagues and family members). He speaks honestly about personal interests, feelings and misfortunes, and opens up in a way that lets us know the man behind the camera like we never have before. The film goes on for two-and-a-half hours; I easily could’ve stayed for another hour. (Actually, I think there could be more material to make another documentary, from what was deleted from interviews of Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Leonardo DiCaprio, among many other major talents.)

Now I’ll take a little detour here to talk about something else. In 2016, there was a terrific documentary about director Brian De Palma’s career (titled “De Palma”). One of the highlights of that film was the old home-movie footage showing evidence of De Palma’s friendship with Spielberg (and De Palma is interviewed in “Spielberg” too); it made me wish I could see more of that. Well, in “Spielberg,” I get my wish, with even more home-movie footage of young 1970s versions of Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola and De Palma hanging out and shooting pool together, as they were members of the “New Hollywood club”—young filmmakers that exploded with big hits at the box-office and often consulted with one another as colleagues and as close friends. (Spielberg and De Palma’s advice/criticisms of Lucas’ “Star Wars” are priceless.) I would love to see a whole documentary about the friendship these guys had back in the day.

But back to “Spielberg.” It’s just wonderful to hear Spielberg talk about what brought him to the movies (“Lawrence of Arabia” was the one that influenced him the most), what themes he continued in his works (personal fear, family deterioration/reunification, fight for freedom & justice), and how they reflect on his own life (he even states at one point that his movies are like his therapy). I doubt I could ever watch a Spielberg film the same way again.

The documentary goes the extra mile by giving us something even more special: interviews with Spielberg’s mother Leah Adler (who died before the film’s release, at age 97) and father Arnold Spielberg. Steven had spent years resenting his father for ending the marriage between him and his mother (Arnold even told Steven and his three sisters that it was he that ended things with Leah) and has used the theme of the absent/distant father again and again in his movies. And it’s here that we find that the healing process has already begun, as we are treated to Arnold’s interview in which he, at age 100, talks about how he himself was affected. This story of the Spielberg family could make for its own Spielberg movie by itself.

There’s plenty more treats in “Spielberg” to admire, such as how Spielberg treated the child actors in “E.T.,” how he got the job at Universal Studios in his early 20s, how he came to grips with his own Judaism (and how the creation of “Schindler’s List” helped him even more), reacted to his failures (“1941”) and embarrassments (omitting certain parts of the source material for “The Color Purple”), the times he traumatized his younger sisters as children, and his marriage/divorce with Amy Irving, which is sad, considering his own experience with divorce (and now having put his firstborn son Max through the same experience he went through as a child). With “Spielberg,” we’re given numerous insights into the director’s life & career, how the artist’s life is reflected onto his work. Getting an understanding of Spielberg’s craft is not merely one of many reasons I give “Spielberg” my highest rating; it’s the most important one.