Jumanji: The Next Chapter

[3.5 stars]

Is it ever really possbile to match the excitement and surprise of first movie with a sequel? Admittedly, rarely, though this manages to come close.

The previous installment in this series was itself a sequel, though so far removed from the original that it’s hard to think of them as part of the same series. This latest installment is a direct follow-on of the previous and is, indeed, a solid, new story, but a lot of the surprise is gone. It’s in the title “The Next Chapter.” While this stands mostly alone, it is very much a continuation. To the movie’s creidt, the characters we knew got older and were affected by their previous experience, as well as having acquired some new aspects to their personalities and lives.

In fact our intrepid foursome, Alex Wolff (A Birder’s Guide to Everything), Madison Iseman (Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween), Morgan Turner (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), and  Ser’Darius Blain (Charmed) have not only grown up, but got better at their craft. Even the core avatars are even better at making it clear they are inhabited by the players in this new story. Kevin Hart (The Upside) in particular does much better this round than he did the first. But Dwayne Johnson (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw), Karen Gillan (Avengers: Endgame), and Jack Black (Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween) also have improved this subtle part of the challenge, helping to sell both the story and the humor.

The additions of Danny Devito (Dumbo), Danny Glover (The Last Black Man in San Francisco ), and Awkwafina (The Farewell) were a good choice for the expansion, and Awkawafina just adds to her growing  cv of fun performances over the past year. And then there is the gift of Rory McCann (xXx: Return of Xander Cage) who does nothing new in this very stock character, but who is always imposing on screen, little or large.

Basically, this is a simple, fun flick that is safe for families while having enough for adults to chew on. It has a lot of humor and, even when it is predictable, it’s executed in a way that makes you smile for the success rather than be disappointed with getting ahead of it all.  A lot of the credit for that goes to returning director Jake Kasdan and his work with returning writing duo Jeff Pinker and Scott Rosenberg. That they couldn’t resist setting up the next film, well, I can’t say I was surprised nor was I disappointed. And it looks like the third, which I’m fairly confident will get made, takes it full circle to the original movie that started it all. For some popcorn and holiday distraction that doesn’t come from the Mouse House, you won’t go wrong seeing this one.

Waves

[3 stars]

Horror auteur Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night) takes a hard left with his latest production. Waves is an often painful, sometimes triumphant look at a Florida family, all to the backbeat of a range of curated music. Structured in two parts, we get to watch the disintegration of one sibling and its effect on the family and remaining sib.

Shults didn’t just work with his actors to set mood and action. His camera work and lighting, from the opening through to the final moment, are designed to elicit emotion and energy. He manages to create the out-of-control energy of being a teenager as well as the contemplative, anchorless sense of being lost as a way to inform the already powerful performances. However, if you suffer any degree of motion sickness or sensitivty to flashing lights you may find it challenging to watch at times.

Part one of the story is focused on Kelvin Harrison Jr.  (It Comes at Night) and Alexa Demie (Euphoria), whose relationship is intensely passionate. At the same time, we see Harrison navigate the expectations of his parents and himself. The combination is, as you’d expect, volatile.

Taylor Russell (Escape Room) and Lucas Hedges (Boy Erased) head up part two of the story, who pick up the thread of the story and tie it back to the opening of the film. The relationship here is the yin to her brother’s yang tale. The combination turns the movie into a visual Taoist structure.

In a bridging story, Sterling K. Brown (Hotel Artemis)  and Renée Elise Goldsberry (Altered Carbon) give us the parent’s perspective that wraps and reflects on the young adults around them. It’s a complicated situation for them and their household, but it is also a little forced as written.

The movie is a bit more of an interesting experiment and piece of art than it is a great film. In part that is due to its length and structure, but it is also due to the self-conscious visuals and editing. That isn’t so much a ding as an acknoweldgement that this story happens more to you than with you. It is sweet and brutal and honest, but it is also somewhat presentational. That said, there are moments that will drop your jaw and, in my theater, had people talking out loud. So there is no doubt it is effective.

The Irishman

[4.5 stars]

Some films are good by themselves and some acquire additional greatness in the context of an entire opus. Martin Scrosese’s Irishman is definitely in the latter group; a masterpiece of epic storytelling that stands alone, but is also a reflection of his entire past. It presents a huge canvas and expansive story that is, at its heart (and to its success), a very simple tale. But as a piece of his entire canon, Irishman resonates both with humor and across time. It takes the harsh and frenetic world of Goodfellas and blends it with with tense normality of Raging Bull to come up with charged banality that occasionally explodes with moments, but is simply a tale of life.

Scorsese’s shaping and moulding of Steven Zaillian’s (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) script is a wonder to watch. The script disappears and the story, though it crosses decades, reamains easy and interesting to follow through its 3.5 hours. There are many clever milemarkers across the years, from fashion to historic events to movie titles. And, through it all, the growth and shift of the characters.

Robert De Niro (Joker) is at the center of it all. It is his story we experience; the world through his eyes. Joe Pesci (Love Ranch) and Al Pacino (Danny Collins) create the additional focal points of the tension in the story as the three men each exert influence. There are dozens of other great smaller roles, some nearly silent such as Anna Paquin’s (Furlough) powerful turn as De Niro’s daughter.

This is definitely in contention for Scorsese’s best so far. His control of the scope, the handling of the performances, and the execution of the final edit are all lessons in brilliance. He manages to infer much more than is ever there, avoiding a lot (though not all) of the extreme violence in his previous movies about organized crime. And that is probably its greatest aspect of success. All of those issues and ideas are there, but they aren’t the focus despite the purile allure it might have exerted on lesser directors.

Irishman is also a showcase for technology, particularly de-aging, in a way that is jaw-dropping. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci evolve through decades, though often in counter to their current realities. But, if you didn’t know that, you’d never spot the fantasy the digital work and make-up have wrought.

The Irishman, despite all the hoopla and arguments over its theatrical release versus streaming, or Scorsese’s narrow minded thinking about modern stories, such as superheroes, and despite its lack of diverstity (in large part due to the realities of the subjects and era), is a new and instant classic. Find a day to carve out the hours needed and tuck in for a great ride.

White Frog

[3 stars]

The challenge with this movie is that director Quentin Lee, along with his writers Fabienne and Ellie Wen, created a very intimate, but not quite realistic tale. Close, but just a hair off. That small distance makes emotionally committing to the story a challenge as you keep getting tossed out of it. I will say that the trio lead the characters and story to a wonderful, if again not quite true-to-life, conclusion.

Booboo Stewart (He Never Died) carries the bulk of the tale, with Harry Shum, Jr. (Glee) very much in his constant thoughts. Gregg Sulkin (Runaways) and Tyler Posey figure into Stewart’s negotiation of the world around him as well. None are 100% believable, but all are in earnest.

BD Wong (Bird Box) and Joan Chen, on the other hand, just didn’t work for me as Stewart’s parents. Perhaps my exposure to parents of Asperger’s children is different, but by the time they’re teenagers, the parents typically have a bit more ability and awareness than these two expressed. But none of the adults are particularly believable. For instance, the prolific Kelly Hu (The Orville) is part serious and part absurdist in her interesting cameo. But that is, again, the tenor of the whole film…or was for me.

The movie isn’t without merit. There are some nice moments. And the journey to the meaning of the title is kinda wonderful, despite any weaknesses. It is a small independent film with something to say and a somewhat unique way to say it. Getting to catch some of the younger actors early in their careers is fun. But, honestly, this isn’t going to make your top 10 (or likely even top 100) screen tales, so investing in it is up to you.

War of the Worlds (2019)

[3.5 stars]

When HG Wells wrote War of the Worlds, he didn’t just see it as a good yarn. It was intentionally an allegory, as were many of his stories. They were warnings to the world of where we were headed if things didn’t change. In other words, it was also what science fiction (then called scientific romance) was in a position to portray like no other form of literature. And this story has clearly stood the test of time. Heck, it is even more relevant today than it has been in a long while as we watch good decisions regress into greed and plays for power around the world.

But a good message doesn’t necessarily make a good story. Fortunately, the BBC have produced a wonderful presentation and story as well. One that cleaves more closely to Wells’s original than has been done in the past.

Sure it’s a great invasion story, but it is also unabashedly a story of empire building where previous opressors are crushed in turn by someone else. It is also about the runaway industrial revolution that was decimating landsides and the health of a population. Director Craig Viveiros (And Then There Were None) and writer Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell) tackled the material with a clear intention to keep the original while updating it subtly to keep it relevant. Primarily, the updates are in the relationships and structure which give the whole story a slight steam-punk feel even though it remains purely Victorian in its presentation and trappings.

There are four main characters of note in this three-part tale. Eleanor Tomlinson (Colette) and Rafe Spall (Men in Black: International) are the core of the story. Their love and struggles provide our way through the challenges. Robert Carlyle  (Yesterday) and Rupert Graves (Sherlock) add additional complications and perspectives. These four raise the story above the message to a very personal struggle that is easy to invest in.

This latest adapataion of Wells’s classic is definitely worth your time, and the most true to the original material of the adaptations out there. But even if you’re not familiar, perhaps especially if you’re not, it is engaging and effective.

Child’s Play (2019)

[3 stars]

The Child’s Play series hit its peak with Bride of Chucky, to my mind. This reboot of the series tries to recapture that self-awareness and humor to keep the horror and mayhem moving along. It is a mixed success.

Tyler Burton Smith’s script, his first, is clever, even if it’s cloaking his very relevant idea in an old franchise to sell it. But director Lars Klevberg (Polaroid) doesn’t quite find the tone or pull the needed performance from his young lead, Gabriel Bateman (Dangerous Book for Boys), despite the kid’s chops. Bateman is generally OK, but often goes shrill, ruining the moments. On the other hand, Beatrice Kitsos (Exorcist) navigated her smaller role with real charm and ability, taking control when necessary, deftly.

But the actual best part of the film is the throw-away humor from Brian Tyree Henry (Hotel Artemis). Henry’s role is more than a little forced into the story, but he lifts the film nicely every time he comes on screen. However, Aubrey Plaza (Ingrid Goes West), who should have been a natural for this material and venue, was a bit lackluster and not always credible as the struggling mom.

One amusing surprise was Mark Hammill’s voice work for our new electronic Chucky. He stayed suitably saccharine, and then deftly flipping to rude, crude, and evil.

Overall, this isn’t a bad distraction. It isn’t a great one either. The core idea didn’t need to be shoe-horned into an existing property, but it was probably the only way to get it made and distributed by a studio. But in shifting the core reason for the bloodlust, it loses something. The whole idea behind the series, that of a trapped, evil soul unwilling to give up on life and his mission carries a bit more terror with it than just having your Alexa going psycho. The end result is some chuckles, some shocks, and a good deal of splattering blood without a lot of real, existential terror. A shame as the truth behind the plot is a bit terrifying and affects just about everyone these days (he wrote, staring at the ominous plusing of the blue ring on his Echo)…

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

[4.5 stars]

Fred Rogers was a unique man, and one that touched a huge swath of hearts over his years in his Neighborhood. The recent and wonderful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor was a great reminder of that. This story, which may be about him, is centered more on his legacy and effect than it is a dramatization of his life. In fact, what director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) managed to accomplish with writing duo Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s script is just short of glorious.

Now, before this becomes overhype, let me be clear. It isn’t so much an in-your-face brilliant piece of cinema. It is simply structured so perfectly for its purpose, and so delightful despite the depth of its material as to transport you back to those days as a child sitting with Rogers and his crew as they helped you navigate the world.

Tom Hanks (The Post) isn’t a perfect visual fit for his role, but he exudes compassion and honesty in a way that makes you forget he isn’t the real thing. We learn about the man, but mostly through his actions and the comments of others.

The story really focuses on Matthew Rhys (Death Comes to Pemberly) and his family. Susan Kelechi Watson (This is Us) as his wife and, in particular, Chris Cooper as his father deliver amazing supporting roles.

The movie is just shy of perfect due to one extended fantasy sequence that, frankly, could have been much shorter or excised. I know why it was there, and it was amusing, but I think it was unnecessary. The rest was handled, performed, designed, and acted wonderfully. Look for this to get a slew of nominations and even, possibly, suprise in a few categories. It is an unassuming film, but it manages to be as magical as the subject it wishes to expose on screen. It is a must see for everyone, especially in these stressful times.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

[3 stars]

OK, I am NOT the audience for this movie, but I was still impressed with the adaptation. Converting an educational children’s cartoon into a live action adventure was never going to be easy. But, with the name cachet and potential, it was inevitable someone would try.

Getting someone like director James Bobin (Alice Through the Looking GlassMuppets Most Wanted) to take it on was a smart choice. He not only found a tone to sell it, he was able to maintain the tone without blinking through to the end.

Bobin also cast it well. Isabela Moner (aka Isabela Merced) (Instant Family) is a perfect Dora. She is positive, open, guileless, fearless, resourceful, and still admits to her emotions and being aware of what others think of her oddities. She is a wonderful proxy for pre-teens about to head out more into the world on their own.

Dora, of course, has to have her posse. Jeff Whalberg (Don’t Come Back from the Moon) as Diego was an interesting choice and good foil for Moner. Madeleine Madden (Tomorrow When the War Began) and Nicholas Coombe fill out the group providing appropriate comic relief and questions.

The adults are all very broad and silly. Eva Longoria, Michael Peña (Extinction), and Eugenio Derbez (How to be a Latin Lover) are consistent, but not really believable. But, then again, the audience is kids, not adults. The adult influence in this story is decidedly in the background and they are there to be saved by the kid’s ingenuity. For that purpose they work, even if it narrows the appeal of the movie overall.

The biggest mistake, to my mind, was the inclusion of the CG characters Boots and Swiper (voiced by Danny Trejo and Benicio Del Toro, respectively). I understand they’re iconic, but it constantly broke the fragile reality of the adventure. Absent them, or had they been dealt with differently, the movie would have moved up a couple notches in my opinon. Honestly, neither character needed to be in the tale, which made their inclusion even more distracting.

To watch with young kids, this would probably been an enjoyable afternoon. As adult fare, it is a bit of a struggle, but the full commit of the entire production made it watchable, if not one I’d recommend generally. Frankly, I was just curious to see what they’d done with it, so I made the trek into the jungle for my own reasons.

The Boy (2015)

[2 stars]

Motels and psychopaths go together like cookies and milk, or so the modern lore would have us believe (and not a few true tales of mayhem). But I didn’t know that was the focus of this movie going in. Based on the description I’d read, the story sounded something more like traditional supernatural horror of some sort. I was incorrect. I also came to this movie for Rainn Wilson (Backstrom) and David Morse (Horns), two actors I enjoy and who often deliver complex, interesting characters. While they both certainly delivered on that aspect, neither was the lead.

The focus of this story is really the young son of Morse’s character, played by Jared Breeze. He is the quintessential dissaffected youth. Though in his case it is due to isolation, maternal abandonment, and well, something not quite right inside. Breeze comes across as suitably creepy and even a little bit sympathetic at the beginning. But he is quickly identifiable as a sadistic sociopath in the making. And, lucky us, we get to watch his blooming.

Whether or not this was the story I wanted to see, it still might have pulled me in. But the pace dragged for me as it is about as subtle and inevitable from the opening moments as you can get. And, frankly, there isn’t a totally likeable character to latch onto in the story. Director/writer Craig William Macneill (Lizzie) delivered us Brightburn without the superpowers and with no handle into the family. Though, unlike Brightburn, this depiction takes us on many more small steps and, to Macneill’s credit, through very uncomfortable moments.

Entertaining is not a term I’d use for this journey, so beware before you check into the Mountain Vista Motel. The slow burn train wreck of a tale may be for you. It really wasn’t for me.

Frozen II

[4 stars]

I will grant Chris Buck (Frozen) and Jennifer Lee (Wrinkle in Time) this: they actually created a sequel to their previous mega-hit. It isn’t quite as good as the first, but then it couldn’t be. Part of the appeal of Frozen was that it was something different. That surprise is gone, but the characters still has journeys to take. And the duo managed it while still maintaining the aspects of the first film that made it such a breakthrough for Disney.

Buck and Lee didn’t make easy choices for their story. The young women are the focus of the story and are still pretty much in control of their own fates (well, mostly). And I also appreciated that the characters were dealing with getting older, much like their audience and acknowledging that years have past since the last story (six, to be exact); sometimes with hilarious results in the dialogue to entertaining the adults in the audience.

However, my favorite aspect of the film is probably a bit less expected, and a bit guilty. There is no breakout song like “Let it Go” that will haunt us a million times a day. The music, generally, isn’t nearly as good as the first film, but it supports the tale well. I was perfectly happy with that. I’m betting a lot of parents out there will be as well.

I don’t need to push this movie on anyone. Pretty much every family that can will be there over the next several weeks. And they won’t be disappointed.

(Note: Though it seems to be pretty well known, based on the number of families that hung about during the 12 minutes of credits, there is an amusing 30-sec tag after the credits that is pretty amusing.)

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…