Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle- Movie Review

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The original Jumanji is a film that is best remembered for its amazing performance by Robin Williams and the novel concept, which worked for 1996. This year’s sequel is the welcome follow up that takes the premise and translates it into a modern context, and makes a lot of great creative decisions in bringing the story to life. Jumani: Welcome to the Jungle takes the original’s “board game come to life” concept and puts it into a video game, and thankfully the rules of the world are kept simple enough to bring out the comedy.

Unlike the first film, the sequel pits four teenagers into a video game world, where they are taken over by their game personas, played by Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan. This allows these actors to have more fun with the roles by playing against type, and by letting the performers become more vulnerable, there’s a lot of comedy to be found. The plot itself is fairly straightforward, with some clever story techniques revolving around the nature of video games, but its the character interaction that really makes the film so enjoyable.

Johnson and Gillan do well playing awkward, nerdy types trapped in the bodies of action stars, and while Hart is mostly doing his traditional schtick, he’s used the perfect amount in order to maximize the comedy. There are some easy jokes, but the dialogue is overall pretty strong and there’s some surprisingly clever running gags. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle works a lot better than it had any right to work, and for something that had the potential to be another retread of a popular title, the film carves its own mythology and elevates the premise into an enjoyable, and very funny experience. Grade: B

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All the Money in the World- Movie Review

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All the Money in the World is an impressively directed film, and just as Ridley Scott is consistently able to create an invigorating, exciting, and good looking film, he’s also stuck with a somewhat weaker script. It’s a technically amazing film, with beautifully composed shots, and while it’s definitely a little too long with some extraneous elements, it’s a great showcase for some amazing performances, particularly Michelle Williams and Christopher Plummer.

Based on a true story, the film follows the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), who’s held for ransom by a mafia group who demand $17 Million from the boy’s mother Gail Williams (Michelle Williams). Despite the immense wealth of Getty’s grandfather John Paul Getty I (Christopher Plummer), the elder Getty is unwilling to pay the ransom, leaving Williams to cooperate with Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), Getty’s chief security officer and negotiator.

While the scenes involving the young Getty held by kidnappers do more to advance the urgency of the story than to add emotion, they are effective in emphasizing the gravity of the situation, and the film has more than enough emotional support from the performance by Michelle Williams, who’s reacts with both fear and anger to the increasingly overwhelming situation. Wahlberg is solid as Chase, and while he’s not completely believable as a seasoned agent of espionage, he brings a raw charisma to the character and gets the film’s most interesting character arc.

Yet, the film’s highlight is by far Christopher Plummer as John Paul Getty III. It’s shocking to think a performance so calculated and nuanced was only shot in a week, but Plummer’s despicable, yet idiosyncratic performance of a man obsessed with the power of wealth is a testament to the fact that he’s one of the best actors ever to grace the silver screen. Plummer brings out Getty’s ego, and his unwillingness to ever be undermined, and while the character is completely unlikeable, he’s also completely convicted in his own problematic philosophy.

All the Money in the World is a bit long at places; the 133 minute runtime has some extraneous scenes that could’ve been cut to intensify the story’s urgency, and despite some weird uses of flashbacks in the first half, the film ends with a riveting set piece, as well as some reflective truisms on Getty’s legacy. It’s a solid thriller, impeccably acted, and a good example of Ridley Scott’s ability to create beautiful, and occasionally thought provoking films. Grade: B+

The Greatest Showman- Movie Review

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The Greatest Showman is a great musical, and while it does seem more suited as a musical than a film, it boasts a great soundtrack that warrants a recommendation alone. The music feels both classical, yet modernized, and the film simultaneously opens with a retro 20th Century Fox logo while featuring heavy CGI in elaborate dance members. The film is deliberately simple, yet each character has motivation, and the corniness of some elements feels in line with what one might see on stage.

Hugh Jackman stars as P.T. Barnum, a down on his luck working class man who’s inspired to channel his inventiveness into the world’s first circus. Jackman is one of those rare screen personas who can elevate a film based on his presence alone, and the film relies on the fact that he’s such a charismatic guy for all of the film. Michelle Williams is also strong as his wife, and while she’s not given a whole lot to do, her vocal work in of itself is incredible.

The film is a tribute to the “weirdos” and “freaks” of the world, and while it’s not explicitly attempting to be topical, it does feel timely, and the film is overall charming and endearing to it’s approach to show business. Barnum’s cast of characters are an entertaining crew, giving fun performances and killing it in the musical numbers. Zac Efron is surprisingly nuanced in his approach to the material, and I was impressed with Zendaya’s blunt approach, as well as how much of an emotional punch she gave to the film.

That being said, I can’t overstate just how good the musical numbers are and how well they work in telling the film’s central narrative; it’s more or less a really long music videos with dialogue transitioning between numbers, as all the character development and important plot points reside in the musical numbers, from Rebecca Ferguson’s incredible opera house scene to a great closing number. Maybe it’s a really strong musical stuck in the body of an occasionally slow film, but I appreciated the straightforward approach that The Greatest Showman took, and it’s one of the best genuine crowd pleasers I’ve seen this year. Grade: B+

Downsizing- Movie Review

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Downsizing is a film best described as an interesting mess, a film with many compelling components, despite lacking a really strong central narrative. The film takes place in the not so distant future where the process of “Downsizing”, or shrinking to three inches and living in a miniature society, has been popularized, and though the film has the potential for some really strong social messages and political commentary, it’s ultimately a mess with no clear overall message and long stretches that feel irrelevant to the overall story. That being said, there’s a wit to the way in which Alexander Payne presents this world and the parallels to today, and Payne is an interesting enough filmmaker that even his weaker films are still interesting.

The central plot follows Matt Damon as a man shrunk down, yet divorced by his wife amidst the process. While the opening scenes between Damon and his wife, played by Kristin Wiig, offer the backstory and motivation for the character, they only tangentially relate to the rest of the film, and may have been best left ambiguous. The film really seems to take off with the introduction of Hong Chau’s character, a Vietnamese activist who opens Damon’s eyes to the greater world.

Damon is irreverent and charming, and Chau is genuinely great as a peculiar activist who’s selfless in her pursuit of helping others. There’s also a fun side character in Damon’s neighbor, played by Christoph Waltz, and while the character doesn’t add much to the narrative, Waltz delivers a hilarious performance and steals every scene he’s in. There political messages often seem to be too ambiguous or too on the nose, and it’s ultimately the film’s dour, yet humorous tone that elevates it. I’m barely recommending Downsizing, not because it’s a great film, but because it’s an interesting enough watch, and while it’s a fairly watchable film, it’s also one that could have used a tighter edit. Grade: B-

Star Wars: The Last Jedi- Movie Review

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi is hands down the most ambitious film in the entire franchise, taking more chances and handling the property in a different way than it has ever been done before. Not all of it works for sure, but when you get to the core of the film’s emotional center, Rian Johnson understands the core themes of Star Wars and why it is such a phenomenon.

It’s safe to say that The Last Jedi is the most spiritual of the Star Wars films, combining familiar imagery with great character motivations. This is almost the Twin Peaks version of Star Wars, where plot is completely secondary to the emotional journey of the characters and the feelings evoked by their journeys. The film’s strongest dynamic is that of Rey (Daisy Ridley) convincing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to hope again, and seeing master and student learn from each other is one of the most compelling stories in Star Wars history.

It also helps that the film has the greatest Star Wars villain of all-time in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver); no villain in the series has been this complex, and Driver sells every emotion and struggle that the character goes through, and the insecurities that define why he is the way he is. He’s just as big of a character in the film as Rey is, and seeing their two relationships with Luke allows the film to delve into some of its most interesting psychological ideas.

John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are phenomenal actors who’ve crafted great characters, but they unfortunately don’t have as much to do as they did in The Force Awakens. While it’s clearly Rey and Kylo Rens’ story, I wish that the secondary plot was more compelling, and while the Po Dameron character in particular has some interesting character development, the plot line as a whole isn’t as interesting as it perhaps should have been. Laura Dern and Benicio del Toro are great actors who craft memorable characters, but they are also underutilized in the grand scheme of things.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi isn’t perfect and I won’t give it a perfect score, but the stuff it does well is some of the best things the franchise has to offer. Despite some slightly off putting political commentary, the film evokes the sense of everyday heroism and believing in the spirit of rebellion that the franchise has always been about. The Last Jedi lives in the world of Star Wars, but Rian Johnson has crafted a unique vision of what the series can be, and as a fan has recognized the core ideas that make Star Wars the greatest franchise of all-time. Grade: A

 

Hostiles- Movie Review

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Hostiles is an incredibly brutal western, and certainly one of the more compelling films that tracks the cycle of violence in the American frontier. Director Scott Cooper paints a intersting portrait of mankind’s nature of hatred, and while he points to the internal nature that everyone possesses, he also makes sure to highlight the unjust treatment of the indigenous people. It’s a film wrestling with a lot of ideas, and while it does get heavy handed at some points, the music and cinematography give the film the feel of an epic and elevate the material to a more beautiful and hypnotic level.

Set in 1892, the film follows legendary Union Army Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), who’s dispatched to return the Cheyenne War Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to his sacred burial ground after seven years imprisonment. Blocker has spent years in conflict with indigenous forces, and is filled with a hatred for Yellow Hawk and his people. Yet, as Blocker’s company embark on their trip and face hostile forces of all kind, Blocker faces his internal hatred, and the hatred the fuels never-ending conflict across the nation.

Bale is remarkable here, giving a performance that suggests so much about about his history without ever spelling it out specifically, and gets to showcase a depth to his character, from a stern conflict with a local law official to a tearful goodbye to a fellow soldier. It’s evident from scene one that the film is intended to shock the viewer, yet the shock is in purpose of both realism and thematic importance. Despite some long stretches in which nothing of importance happens, Hostiles is a well executed western, and ends on a remarkably emotional note that elevates much of the two hours that preceded it. Grade: B+

Darkest Hour- Movie Review

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Filming a biopic of any sorts can be challenging, but it’s even more daunting when handling one of history’s greatest leaders. Darkest Hour possesses the rare gift of both humanizing Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), as well as establishing why his legacy is still celebrated. The film chronicles Churchill’s fight to unite England against the Nazis, facing internal backlash from both parties, as well as King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) himself.

Oldman completely disappears within the role of Churchill, and while that is partly due to the excellent makeup work, he captures all of Churchill’s essential qualities; he’s funny, determined, full of rage, and has no short supply of inspirational speeches. Churchill’s inability to compromise for peace, yet his humility, is fully explored here, with many of the film’s best scenes revolving around the relationship he has with a secretary (Lily James), showing Churchill’s ability to connect with those he serves.

The film had an incredibly daunting task, but works with urgency in every scene to showcase the political intrigue behind the early days of World War II. In today’s political climate, there’s something truly inspiring about Churchill’s story, and seeing such an effective leader operate successfully when he’s needed most is an inspiring sight, and Darkest Hour is an insightful look at Churchill’s prime as a leader. Grade: A

The Disaster Artist- Movie Review

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The Room is an enigma of a film; it’s a completely incompetent film in every way, yet it’s somehow one of the most widely discussed cult movies of all-time. There’s a quality to The Room that many “so bad they’re good” films don’t have, and it’s that the film is a product of genuine commitment and passion, and The Disaster Artist, the story of the film’s production, understands that. The Disaster Artist could have easily been a parody of what transpired, with The Room‘s creator Tommy Wiseau being the butt of the joke, but the film is a surprisingly earnest story of friendship and the pursuit of dreams.

The film follows the true story of Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), an aspiring actor who befriends the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), an unusual, yet committed actor who persuades Greg to move to L.A. with him. As opportunities of starring in Hollywood movies begin to dry up, Tommy begins working on The Room, which he directs, writes, and stars in. Greg is set to co-star, unknowingly committing to one of the wildest and weirdest film productions of all-time.

James Franco doesn’t look or sound exactly like Tommy Wiseau, but he perfectly captures the essence of what Wiseau represents; a headstrong, ridiculous, yet completely genuine person who’s ego is congruent to his heart. Franco captures the essence of Wiseau’s idiosyncratic humor, from his laugh to weird phrases, but he doesn’t make Wiseau a joke. Dave Franco also does a great job as Sestero, combining a reflection of the communal reaction to Wiseau with a genuinely touching look at their friendship.

The film recreates many scenes from The Room, offering intersting insights to fans of the film, yet standing on its own as a heartwarming comedy about the ultimate outsiders. It’s uproariously funny, with Franco’s antics as Wiseau and the overall ridiculous nature of The Room offering a steady supply of laughs, yet the core friendship is still quite sincere, with an ending that surprisingly ranks as one of the year’s more emotional scenes. The Disaster Artist is a story so crazy it’s almost unbelievable, yet for anyone who’s ever made a home movie or made something with their friends, there’s something that rings true. Grade: A

Call Me By Your Name- Movie Review

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Call Me By Your Name is a sublime sensual masterpiece and one of the most beautiful cinematic coming of age stories ever made, matching wonderful performances with a gorgeous view of the Italian landscape. The film tells the story of Elio (Timothee Chalamet), a 17-year-old who begins to fall for a student (Armie Hammer) of his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) over the summer of 1983 in their Italian retreat. Chalamet and Hammer have awkward, poignant, and heartbreaking chemistry, and Stuhlbarg’s final monologue ranks among the greatest movie speeches of all-time.

Everything in the film is subdued, with the shots capturing nothing but emotion, yet not making diverting the plot from the stark reality of 1983. There’s a beautiful score, but other than that the film’s beauty relies entirely on the subtle acting choices made by the actors, and the film’s lack of a central narrative makes it feel all the more natural. Call Me By Your Name isn’t just the best romance film of the year, but an instant classic, and one of the year’s very best films. Grade: A+

The Shape of Water- Movie Review

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The Shape of Water is Guillermo del Toro in his purest form; the film is a rather simple fairy tale inspired story, made beautiful by the beautiful technical elements and strong performances. There’s a beauty to the weirdness of the film, and while it drags at point and occasionally becomes slightly self indulgent, the amazing visual effects and extensive set design, illuminated by Alexander Desplat’s beautiful score guide the story to a series of surprising and wonderful moments.

In the midst of the Cold War, the United States government holds a mysterious creature (Doug Jones) captive to study it. When Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor who cleans a government facility forms a relationship with the creature, she must fight to free it from torture and death at the hands of a ruthless government agent (Michael Shannon). Hawkins brings a rawness and compassion that helps to sell some of the film’s most absurd moments, and Shannon gives a terrifying performance channeled into the year’s most chilling villain.

There’s many great characters in the film, including Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s neighbor, an aging gay artist who seems to have lost any joy, and Michael Stuhlbarg as a Russian spy who’s politics are undermined by his love for the sanctity of life. There are moments of dialogue that feel slightly on the nose, and while the motivation of the central relationship is occasionally lacking, del Toro makes such a beautiful aesthetic with so many moments of pure cinematic magic that the flaws of Shape of Water are easy to forget. Grade: B+