JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE*** Comedy in Full Swing


It’s exciting, very funny and (to me) the surprise hit of the season. Dare I say it: I had more fun watching this enjoyable movie than I did the bloated Star Wars extravaganza.

It’s a Jumanji for the age. You may remember the original Jumanji (twenty two years ago) with Robin Williams and Kirsten Dunst. Then, the key characters were sucked into a board game. In this new iteration (Welcome to the Jungle) the board game has been replaced by a dated Atari video game. (And Robin Williams has been replaced by Dwane, The Rock, Johnson).

The story, vaguely themed around growing up and learning to accept others, centres around four key stock characters: the nerd (Alex Wolff from Patroits Day), the Black quarterback jock, ( Ser’Darius Blain) the hot party girl (Madison Iseman) and the dowdy, shy one (Morgan Turner). These kids have all been placed in school detention (the American High School is probably the most defining idea of Americana in Hollywood movies) and, upon discovery of the game, all choose an avatar. Better to play a dumb ‘90’s video game than suffer the enforced isolation of detention.

No sooner have they chosen their avatars than they’re zapped into a lush jungle. There, they’re instructed to find and replace a gem stolen from the “Jaguar’s Eye”, or else….

The fun starts with the avatars they become. The nerd morphs into Dwane Johnson, amazed at his pecs and his super-manliness. No more bullying him. The muscular quarter backer turns into the diminutive, loquacious Kevin Hart. He has to learn how to fend for himself as a small guy. Just as well he’s become a famous zoologist. The dowdy, shy one turns into Martha (Karen Gillan), a mid-drift baring, shorts revealing hottie (who has mastered the art of Combat Dancing. When cornered by the bad guys, just turn on the disco and unleash her). The party girl turns into Jack Black – an overweight middle-aged man, who happens to be a genius cartographer and who has, much to her amazement, that thing between his legs, which she must learn to use.

Jack, channeling his inner party girl, also has to instruct Martha (Gillan) into the not so subtle art of flirtation – the hair, the pouts, the walk etc- in what must be one of the funniest movie scenes this year

Director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher and son of Lawrence who wrote Raiders of the Lost Arc, Star Wars VII etc) has managed to find the perfect balance between laugh out loud silliness and action scenes, so thrillingly staged that even Bond would be proud.

His cast is first class. Dwane Johnson is such a behemoth of a man (with a mean raised eyebrow) that he can allow himself the latitude to play the nerd to great comic effect. Add to that funnymen Jack Black as a teenage girl and Kevin Hart being himself and you have a priceless comic trio. Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy) complements this trio of jokers nicely. She’s yet another talented Brit with a flawless American accent. Seems an unwritten rule that every major production must have at least one of them. Chris McKenner (Spider-Man:Homecoming) gave the plot enough twists and turns to keep it lively without ever coiling in on itself.

And here, we’re back to Star Wars. The damn force just won’t leave us be.

 

JUMANJI. WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE. Dir: Lawrence Kasdan. With: Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan. Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Rhys Darby, Bobby Carnavale. Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers (Spider-Man Homecoming), Scott Rosenberg (Zoo), Jeff Pinker (Zoo). Cinematographer: Gyula Pados (Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials). Filmed mainly in Honolulu, Hawaii

 

 

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STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI*** Too many Forces?


I’M SURE MY second (not to mention third and fourth) viewing of this swooningly reviewed eighth episode of the Star Wars franchise will endear me more to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It certainly contains all the requisite elements (or, “winning formula”) of the series: endless aerial battles, brave heroes, swashbuckling light-saber duels, storm troopers (two of whom were the Royal princes, William and Harry), John Williams’ stirring music, stunningly well realized CGI and of course The Force.

Star Wars fans will not be disappointed.

But I’m a fan and I wasn’t as “whelmed” as I thought I would be.
Why?

Director (and writer) Rian Johnson (Looper) clearly decided that the “less is more” philosophy just wasn’t working for him. So he’s given us more of more. For some (my wife), this was a brilliant creative decision as it ensured a multifaceted and unflagging narrative drive. It also ensured that his audience would never get bored with any one story.

The result is that The Last Jedi is a dizzying knit of multiple storylines and themes.

The umbrella idea of the Force, this otherworldly energy, is spelt out in far more detail…and there are several nice touches in the way said Force can act almost like a telepathy Skype between people. There’s a strong father/child theme, seen via the evolving Jedi education of Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the last Jedi, Luke, pain in the arse, Skywalker (Mark Hamill); and (on the dark side) via the evolution of Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) relationship with Snoke (Andy Serkis). Meanwhile the meaning of heroism v leadership is explored via the tension between headstrong top gun, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) with his flashing eyes and gritted teeth and the level headed Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) along with the multiple battles of the bold, heroic, but, staggeringly incompetent rebel forces. These rebel stories are balanced with stories from the First Order as the various officers, led by General Hux (Domhall Gleeson) glower at each other, suck up to Snoke and mow down the rebels. As expected, the mythos of the hero’s quest is continued via Finn (John Boyega) – whose presence (compared with his first outing ) is severely curtailed – in his searches for First Order weak spots as well as his search for Rey. But the story’s arc demands the retention of core characters such as Maz Kanata (Luita Nyong’o) and also for those familiar Star Wars tropes, such as the alien cantina. They’re all shoe-horned into the plot. Add to all this the generous shower of new characters, perhaps seeding further Episode IX story lines, and what you’re left with is two and a half hours of dizzying “stuff”.

Or, put it another way, two and a half pounds of stuff in a one pound bag.

And whilst it’s an entertaining, often frenzied, two and a half pounds of stuff, none of the multiple storylines had those hold-your-breath cliffhangers that keep you on the edge of your seats waiting to see what happens next.

Moreover, the absence of Harrison Ford’s older, but still rakish charm was missed. The presence of Han Solo not only buoyed up Episode VII, but nicely balanced the youthful energies of Rey and Finn. In Episode VIII, the focus falls far more on the two bearers of the Force: Rey and Kylo. As the one wavering between the yearning to be the good son he once was and the malignant pull of the dark force, Adam Driver is outstanding. You believe in his pain. Less so Daisy Ridley whose spunk seems to have gone AWOL.

Mark Hamill never had Harrison Ford’s charisma, but he harrumphs along entertainingly, generally pissed off that his secret retreat has been discovered. Rogue-ish Benicio del Toro is a great new character, D.J. He certainly stands out amidst the running and strutting of the others. But Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo, yet another newbie, seems at a loss. Perhaps it was the terrible costume she was consigned to wear.

And finally…if these big ticket pop cultural phenomena are any indication of the mood of the world, oh how it has darkened. Ten years ago, a few hobbits along with some elves and an ageing magician bumbled along in a place of paradisical beauty as they sought to save the world. Now, we’re witnessing the destruction of whole worlds, literally millions of people are being eviscerated and the gestalt is one of all war all the time. Paradise has been supplanted by a bombed out war zone

Are these new episodes of Star Wars a clear-eyed reflection of our “out of joint” world, or merely a prescient harbinger of the shit that’s yet to come?

And a Merry Christmas to you too

 

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI. Dir/writer: Rian Johnson. With: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhall Gleeson. Cinematographer: Steve Yedlin (San Andreas, Looper), Composer: John Williams, Production Designer: Rick Heinrichs (Big Eyes, Captain America, Pirates of the Caribbean), Special Effects Director: Vince Abbott (Star Wars Episode VII, Spectre)

 

THE FLORIDA PROJECT***** Outstandin


OH WHAT A magnificent movie.

The story follows -in that affectless, naturalistic style of the under-awarded “American Honey”- a giggle of 7-8 year old kids, who are having a thoroughly enjoyable time. Life’s a blast. They roam here and there around Future World, an awful, kitsch, almost alien imitation Disney World, as well as the forbidden rooms in their apartment complex: the Magic Castle Motel (“the most magical place in the world”). They explore places, giggle, hustle money for ice cream and, as no doubt all kids do, burn down abandoned apartment blocks.. The world as seen through their wide-eyed innocence is one of all fun and laughter all the time.

It’s a tremendous piece of directing. Director Sean Baker has managed to wrest performances from his young cast (almost all of whom are first timers) that are absolutely spot on. Their ringleader is Moonie (a scene-stealing, compelling Brooklynn Prince). She loves pigging out at diners and at the hotel just down the road; she still has some baby toys and has been taught to take long and leisurely baths while mom, who seems barely out of her teens, turns tricks in their tiny one-room apartment.

Beneath the bubbling happiness of these undisciplined, feral children, the world we glimpse is a dark (if garishly lit) one. It’s a world well beyond the reach of any social safety net, simply the long arm of an indifferent law; and where only a network of relationships (offering filched food) and a separate law of the (urban) jungle are all that keep destitution and despair at bay.

The director/writer team of Baker and Chris Bergoch keep the mood buoyant by their ostensible focus on the naughty kids. It’s almost a tease to the presence of the darker realities that never quite intrude on the fun and games but are unmistakenly there.

Mom is Halle (an engaging Bria Vinaite in her first movie). She’s a pretty young gal, whose mentality seems barely less immature than her daughter’s. We’re made privy that she’s served time, but nothing more… for the movie does away with any attempt to bother with the back stories of its characters. But you can more or less guess hers: knocked up at a tender age; father long gone; no education to speak of…and with only her wits to get her through life. The brilliance of this character is the sense of innocence and naiveté that still manages to live on, despite the sordid reality of the experience.

She (and Moonie…this is a mom and daughter team) con their way into free hotel meals, hustle guests at the hotel to buy “genuine” perfume, steal and then resell Disney tickets, and mom earns some extra cash from casual prostitution to pay for the rent.

In this nowhere world of nowhere people, Robbie (a surprisingly charming, menace-free Willem Dafoe), the downtrodden manager of the apartment block, is the closest thing to a helping hand. Not that he’s much help: he simply goes about his business with compassion and without judgement.

And that’s about as accurate a description you’ll find for this extraordinary portrait of a slice of the American Dream circa 2017. Here is the world’s richest country whose wealth is no more accessible to these citizens than is the Fantasyland just down the road from their neighbourhood. (The Florida Project incidentally was the original name for Disney World)

In the same way that Chris Bergoch’s clever writing doesn’t need a back-story to give his characters depth, we can be pretty sure where their future’s heading. This is a cycle of poverty, pregnancy and prison from which there’ll never be any escape. And, despite the bouncy sunniness of Moonie’s disposition, there’s no doubt about what awaits her as adulthood unfolds.

Baker and Bergoch’s last project was the (apparently) stunningly successful “Tangerine”, a movie about transgender prostitutes shot entirely in situ on i-phones. That guerilla movie making spirit is only evident at the very end when a scene shot in Disney World was done so “unofficially”. A story that began in the faux Disney of Future World ends in the real Disney with its Magic Kingdom slightly out of focus in the background. So this is Baker’s America: a place lived in a fake world where all ambition tilts forever toward a make believe one.

Or maybe we’re simply describing the White House here

 

THE FLORIDA PROJECT. Dir: Sean Baker. Writer: Baker + Chris Bergoch. With: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones (“Three Billboads Outside Ebbing, Missouri”). Cinematographer: Alexis Zabe

BATTLE OF THE SEXES**** Smashing


AS THEY DID so un-fussily in their earlier movie, “Little Miss Sunshine” directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, along with writer and Oscar winner Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) tackle this heavy topic of misogyny and sexual discrimination with effortless dexterity and a light hand. These guys are masters of tone.

In this marvellously entertaining story of the famous grudge match between Bobby Riggs – a past tennis champion turned Carnival huckster and gambler – and Billy Jean King, then the world number one women’s player, Messrs. Dayton and Faris make their points without ever belabouring them.

Emma Stone is a thoroughly convincing Billy Jean (with, a remarkable physical resemblance). She plays the part against “type”. This “type” as depicted by Riggs, Jack Kramer the President of the US Lawn Tennis Association (Bill Pullman) and pretty much all the men in the movie, is really one of two cartoon archetypes in which all women are slotted. The (preferred) type is that of the woman who accepts her inferiority and knows that her real place is either in the bedroom or the kitchen. Her opposite is the upperty/feminist type: the woman as harridan (“a hairy legged feminist” as Riggs describes her), who somehow refuses to recognise or acknowledge her inferiority.

The BJK we meet is a real person, not a type. We hear about her character long before we really meet her; she’s a single-trick pony: someone so obsessed with her tennis that she’d sacrifice anything. But the (married) Billy-Jean we meet is warm, funny, engaging and, much to her surprise, smitten by another woman (resulting in the third ‘type’, still to this day despised by the venomous, fellow player, Margaret Court: the lesbian type. There is indeed a strong gay subtext in the movie. The battle is never only about recognition and equal pay; “equality” is as much about gender as it is about sexuality)

The writing is clever. Even as we’re warming to this more fragile side of her personality, we’re introduced to the steelier, courageous, “don’t fuck with me” side. The side that refuses to accept her male counterparts being paid eight times more. And the side that takes on the responsibility of defending her gender’s demand for equality by finally rising to Rigg’s misogynist Man v Woman, Strong v Weak, Superior v Inferior challenge.

The eponymous Battle of the Sexes.
So very much hung on this match!

Riggs was coming off a victory over Margaret Court; someone who’d clearly accepted the narrative of female inferiority, and yielded to it. That victory had proven Kramer’s point, and his justification for the unbalanced pay scales: that women simply didn’t have the nerve, the disposition, the emotional toughness to stand up to ‘real’ (i.e. male) tennis players.

BJK frets and worries about losing. And like the warrior she is, she prepares for battle. Riggs, as a man, assumes he’ll win.

But if BJK is a nicely rounded personality, the writers deliberately leave Riggs as a cartoon character; one as buffoonish as his patronizing and contemptuous, if popular, views on women (despite being entirely dependent on one, his long suffering wife). It’s a subtle editorial comment that.

Steve Carrell’s Riggs is as physically compelling as Stone’s BJK. And like Ms. Stone’s portrayal , it’s a nicely subtle and convincing piece of acting: appearing one dimensional…almost the pantomime villain, without it being one dimensional acting. There are only occasional flashes, and especially at the cathartic end, when Carrell allows us to see the sad, hollow man his character really is.

Stone and Carrell dominate the movie. But two other characters manage to edge into frame: Sarah Silverman is Gladys Heldman, the pushy, ballsy, bossy manager of (BJK’s) newly formed Women’s Tennis Association (disparagingly referred to as Ladies’ tennis). And, as the darker, more menacing, more threatened face of male misogynism, Bill Pullman’ is excellent (condescending, sneering, supercilious) as her counterpart as the USLTA.

Billy Jean’s courage, her victorious battle of the sexes, was the first big breakthrough in making some headway in gender pay equality. And, even back then, the WTA’s first big sponsor, Virginia Slims, said it succinctly: “We’ve Come a Long Way, Babe”. But, with the sad reality of 33 women CEO’s in the Top 500 US companies, that slogan, like the reality of equal pay would suggest that there’s a verrrry long way to go yet.

Battle of the Sexes. Dir: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris. With: Emma Stone, Steve Carrell, Bill Pullman, Sarah Silverstein, Alan Cumming, Andrea Riseborough (“The Death of Stalin”)  Writer: Simon Beaufoy. Cinematography: Lindys Sandgren (“American Hustle”)