Sunday, April 15, 2018

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle: A Great Laugh for the Whole Family

Movie Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
Version: Library borrow

I haven't enjoyed a movie like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle in a long time -- it was full of laughs! Grab-your-tummy laughs. Laugh-out-loud laughs. Giggle in your guts laughs.

Four misfit teens end up in detention at school. Rather than sitting at desks doing boring homework for detention, they're assigned to pull staples from old magazines as punishment, and unsupervised by the school counselor, they look for other diversions when they become bored to tears. Spencer (initially played by Alex Wolff) finds a dusty old video console with a game cartridge, which he hooks up to a dilapidated old analog TV. One by one Spencer and the other characters come over and pick out game characters to play. Spencer is a quiet nerd. Fridge (initially played by Ser'Darious Blain) is a tall, over confident jock. Bethany (initially played by Madison Iseman) is a self-absorbed blonde bomb. Martha (initially played by Morgan Turner) is a reclusive girl who lacks self confidence. As they pick out different macho sounding game characters and start the game, they are sucked into the console and are brought into the jungle land of Jumanji.

As Spencer, Fridge, Bethany, an Martha arrive, they become the characters they have chosen -- and totally unlike themselves physically. Spencer is this tall, handsome, muscular heroic figure (played by macho man Dwayne Johnson). Fridge is a short, scrawny Black dude (played by fearful comedian Kevin Hart). Bethany the young and beautiful becomes this squat, fat, bearded older dude (played by Jack Black). And Martha the insecure and unsocial becomes the fearless and badass (played by Karen Gilann). Into the story, they are joined by Nick Jonas as Alex, who had been an earlier player lost in the game and unable to escape on his own but learns to team up with the others to battle the game.

As with the original movie Jumanji, the idea is that once you begin playing you can't quit until you finish the game, and you face many ultimate dangers. In this case, the players are set on an island jungle where they must find their way across the land to locate a stolen jewel and return it to its rightful place. Working against them are a plethora of jungle animals and the bad guy who originally removed the jewel from its place of honor. As with many video games, the players are given clues and goals to accomplish before they can reach each step of the game. And each character they play has abilities and weaknesses, which they can use to help them or which provides conflict in reaching their goals. And each character has three lives to spend trying to reach their goals. If they are killed, they come back.

What's so amazingly fun about this movie is watching Johnson, Hart, and Black play reverse roles from their stereotypes. Johnson the testosterone-driven hero becomes a mild and meek guy unsure of the way to proceed. Hart whose character originally is this self-confident jock becomes this insecure little man. Black plays off femininity and girlish charm while oozing fat-old-guy ugliness. And they're hilarious. There's a scene in which Hart and Black have to take a leak and Black, originally a girl, discovers her penis for the first time, and it's handled with sensitivity but it's so funny. Just seeing Jack Black play a light-headed, self-absorbed beauty queen is uproariously funny. And when Nick Jonas's character Alex arrives, Jack Black's character Bethany becomes so giddy. Again, so funny! Karen Gilann's character Martha becomes a badass martial artist, often a scream as she tackles bad buys on motorcycles or in a fight in the jungle.

The situations the writers put these characters and actors into are imaginative and simply fun to watch. And as the story progresses, you watch them grow as persons, so this isn't just a movie about jokes, there's a message there, too.

When the movie was over, we discussed which version of Jumanji we liked best. My daughter and I thought we liked Welcome to the Jungle best. My wife thought she still liked the original best, despite having spent a good portion of Welcome to the Jungle giggling with the two of us. In my humble opinion, you get the adventure, the conflict, the danger, and the great characters of the original in this second film, but you get the added benefit of tons of laughter. And darn it, as much as I loved the late Robin Williams in the original, there was something really original about the casting of Johnson, Hart, and Black in Welcome to the Jungle.

If you want a movie where you can relax over a good laugh -- no, a great laugh -- definitely see Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. You won't regret it. Giggles for the whole family.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Ready Player One: Something Spectacular You Need to See on a Big Screen

Movie Review: Ready Player One (2018)
Version: Theater ticket purchase

Being retired and thrifty, we rarely go to the theater to see a movie. When we go to the theater, it is to purposely see a film that is best seen on the big screen. Something larger than life, something spectacular, or something that can envelope you in its world by filling your vision with the screen. Such a film is Ready Player One.

Now, our daughter is really into video games and my wife and I are really into the sci-fi and fantasy genres, so this was all an added motivation to see this film. We were all well rewarded by the experience.

Ready Player One is the story about teen Wade Watts living in the harsh environs of the year 2045, when just about everyone escapes their ugly reality by playing video games using VR (virtual reality) technology. They become immersed in the gaming environment. You can be anyone going anywhere, playing any game. Watts chooses to escape in OASIS, described in IMDB as "created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday, who left his immense fortune and total control of the Oasis to the winner of a three-part contest he designed to find a worthy heir." The inventor has buried an "easter egg" in the game, and capturing it is goal of the game, giving the winner access to Halliday's fortune and control of the game. To capture the easter egg, one must first find a series of keys, which unlock a variety of abilities. The problem is, everyone in the world is after this easter egg, including a multi-national billion-dollar corporation that has turned its considerable resources -- money and intellectual talent -- to researching and figuring out the mysteries of the game. Along Watt's journey to unlocking the mysteries himself, he meets competitive gaming friends, all disguised as characters that hide their real identities, to help him as they learn to team up to win this game together.

There are portions of the game where you meet the live analogs to the gaming characters, and none of them are what you expect. One of Watt's most bad-ass competitor friends turns out to be an 11 year old boy, who is tired of being dismissed for his young age but is a fearless ninja warrior in the game. Another is a teen girl who is unconfident in her person because of a facial blemish but who is fearsome in competition. Still another is a rad Black woman who poses as a bulky muscular Black dude. The fourth is a skinny Asian nerd whose avatar is a skilled warrior. Watts himself is an orphaned teen who lives in a junkyard community with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend, but his avatar is an awesome smooth talking, easily mobile dude who cannot fail. All are metaphors for kids with self doubts in the real world but find strength and courage and abilities in this amazing world of make believe, and together they are like superheroes whom the world learns to cheer on as they battle the evil corporate empire to win the game.

I'm not listing the actors in this film because they are secondary to the characters. Sure, the actors make the characters, but even more so does the animation. And besides the exceptional scripting that makes for excellent storytelling, here the storytelling really is brought to life by the amazing animation. You are transported to a fantastic universe of the imagination (and here I use the word "fantastic" in its literal meaning) through the animation. Speaking of "easter eggs", this film is full of them. There are tons of visual references to game and animated movie characters and worlds all over the place. The movie makers must have kept the intellectual property lawyers busy big time keeping track of all the references, some pointed and some merely in the background visuals. You may have to see this film a couple of times just to spot them all. Others are intentional, such as the use of the Iron Giant as a prop during the competition. But the sheer imagination used to create and maintain the narrative arc of this film is astounding.

There are also subtle backstory references in this film that fans of this genre of story may appreciate. Jack Rylance, who plays Halliday, has been in another film to which this part may be a vague homage. I won't tell you what it is -- see if you can figure out what it is. I didn't catch it, my wife did. It's another kind of easter egg, if you will. Aren't these the kinds of things, the little bits of extra meanings great film makers put into films that mean something to lovers of film, which tell you as a viewer or audience that they care deeply about what they are doing; as a story teller that you are in this together in revealing the truths told in the film?

To try to sum up how the three of us felt about this film, let me say it was a total hit. The story line, the setting, the characters, the universe in which it occurs, and the full embodiment in which you are wrapped in which to experience it were one wonderful experience in cinema. To me, you really need to see it on the big screen. Save that, see it on as large a screen as you can if you see in when it comes out on DVD -- get the BlueRay version. Immerse yourself in and become part of that universe. You will be glad you did. Oh, and keep your eye open for all the easter eggs.

Ready Player One is a fun romp, a joyous visual journey, and a meaningful trek into a greater truth. See it!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Lady Bird: Coming of Age? Human Interest? Or Just a Great Family Film?

Movie Review: Lady Bird (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Lady Bird is an exceptional film with great acting and a fine script. It has the feel of an independent film in which the characters are finely crafted over a deeply woven story. There are many emotional tugs among the many important characters, although Lady Bird is the main character and her main foil is her mother, Marion. So this is bumpy ride from many perspectives. But don't be fooled, Lady Bird isn't a tragedy, it has a happy ending.

The story is about a high school senior in a lower middle class family who yearns for a better, more glamorous life. Her name is Christine but she demands to be called Lady Bird. She is forced to attend a Catholic school but she deeply resents it. Her mother wants her to apply to in-state colleges but she wants attend East Coast Ivy League schools. She all but abandons her lifelong best friend for a shallow rich girl, even pretending to live in a home she has always dreamed was her home to garner acceptance. When she falls head-over-heels in love with Danny O'Neill, she is shocked to find out he is gay, and abandons him for a heart throb who turns out to be nothing like she expects. And then there's Lady Bird's family. Her mother is constantly on her case about achieving more and making better life choices. Her father is on her side, her only real anchor, but her mother berates their relationship. All comes crashing down around Lady Bird as she is forced to make the most important decisions in her life.

This is really a coming of age story, and it's played with great earnest by Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird McPherson. She shows uncertainty and angst, engaging in mischief with ease. Then there's Marion, the embattled mother who takes on the world and the unruly daughter like a real trooper, played by Laurie Metcalf. Few play the irritable, force-of-nature mother like Metcalf. Bayne Gibby is adorable as best friend Casey and Lucas Hedges is interesting as the misunderstood gay Danny. Tracy Letts warms you over as the protective father, Larry. It's a great ensemble cast.

You might think this is a "girl's night out" movie, but it's really a great human interest movie about people who dream of living beyond their limited circumstances and the battle between generations. It would be easy to recast Lady Bird as a guy, changing the character's name, of course, and see the drama play out similarly. As such, this is a drama that families in general can relate to, and I recommend it for anyone with growing teens.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Ferdinand: A Fun Upgrade of a Classic Cartoon Well Told for a Modern Age

Movie Review: Ferdinand (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Ferdinand, the 2017 animated film about the pacifist bull with a love for flowers, was once a Disney cartoon. In this updated version by 20th Century Fox, the basic story line is the same but the narrative arc is extended and the characters are more robust and far more interesting. Sort of as the saying goes, this isn't your Grandma's Ferdinand -- it's been beefed up for the modern age.

In this version, Ferdinand the bull begins as a young calf surrounded by other calves at a Spanish bull-training camp. Spain's greatest matador, El Primero, picks his bulls for the bull ring from this academy (Casa del Toro), and when it comes to light that the bulls he picks never return after their day of glory, Ferdinand decides this isn't the life for him. He escapes and ends up on the flower farm of young Nana, who raises him as her pet, fortunately in his favorite venue, in fields full of fragrant flowers. But Ferdinand eventually grows into a full-size bull, and one day he disobeys Nana and her father and comes into town for the flower festival, where a bee pokes Ferdinand, sending him into a rage. Ferdinand is captured and wisked back to Casa del Toro, where he is finally picked by El Primero to fight his final battle in the bull ring. But the fight doesn't go as El Primero or Ferdinand or the crowd expect, setting up a battle royale with unexpected consequences.

There is a fun cast of new characters like Lupe the goat (played by Kate McKinnon), who trains Ferdinand (played by John Cena) for the bull ring. Then there's Angus, a Scottish bull (played by David Tennant) and Bones (played by Anthony Anderson) a skinny runt of a bull, totally never going to be picked by a matador but interesting foils for Ferdinand and his antagonist and competitor for selection by El Primero, Valiente (played by Bobby Cannavale). Adorable Nana is played by Lily Day. Together, these characters help Ferdinand navigate his uncertain life as a bull against stereotype and support his final struggle when he is forced to battle his worst nightmare, the battle for his life.

There isn't much amazing about the animation or the artwork here. It's all story and characters. Ferdinand is mostly a story for kids, although parents can enjoy it, too. One scene adults can enjoy is a take off on the cliche "bull in a china shop", in which Ferdinand accidentally finds himself inside an actual china shop. It's handled with a lot of fun. I'm not sure kids will get the "inside joke" as easily as their parents will.

Should you see Ferdinand? By all means! It's a fun upgrade of a classic cartoon, well told and well shown for a modern age.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Coco: An Amazing Animated Film Full of Character and Color

Movie Review: Coco (2017)
Version: Library Borrow

Coco wasn't what we were expecting. First, Coco isn't the main character of the film, that's Miguel. Second, Coco isn't about skeletons, they're incidental to the main focus of the story. Contrary to our expectations, Coco is a wonderfully imaginative exploration of the importance of family and remembering our past, told through the richness of Mexican culture.

As we begin this amazing emotional journey, young Miguel finds himself in conflict with his family in preparation for the Dia de la Muerta (Day of the Dead), the traditional festival for remembering family who have passed away. Their home is decorated with pictures of the dead family members surrounded by flowers and candles and food, as is the town, which is preparing for a festival full of celebration including a musical competition. Only, Miguel's family has banned music. And as Miguel expresses his desire to compete, everyone tries to put a stop to it, quick. After his grandmother splinters his homemade guitar, Miguel seeks to "borrow" the guitar displayed at the town's shrine to the greatest writer and singer of music of all time, Ernesto de la Cruz. As Miguel strums the strings, he is transported to the Land of the Dead, and his adventure begins.

Miguel first encounters his past relatives, ones whose photos he saw displayed at home. He knows them on sight despite their being skeletons, and they know him. He can only return home with their blessing, but they will only give him their blessing if he consents to never engage in music, and there is his conflict, because he has always admired Ernesto de la Cruz and wants to make music like him. So he seeks out de la Cruz for his blessing. On the way, he meets up with Héctor, whom he overhears saying has a personal acquaintance with de la Cruz, and the search is on. But things turn out not to be as they appear. And time isn't on Miguel's side, because he has to return to the Land of the Living before sunrise or he must remain in the Land of the Dead for all time. It's in his search for de la Cruz that he learns that family is far more important than music and that his family learns that music may be far more important than old betrayals.

Usually I will go into a list of the voice actors who play the characters, but they are much less important to this film than is the animation to bringing life to this story. I don't want to downplay the artistry of the actors -- the producers made it clear they wanted to use authentic Mexican actors for these parts. But the point is, what breathes authenticity into the characters and the story are the pictures, the colors, the architecture, and the symbols, all brought to life through the animation. And it is a vivid display, particularly in the Land of the Dead -- with such intricate detail and such amazing clarity. Too, the character art is so articulate. Mamá Coco, wrinkled with age, is incredibly detailed!

My daughter didn't want to see Coco in the theater because of all the skeletons, but seeing it on DVD, she loved the film. Our whole family loved it. The themes, the animation, the colors, and the characters make this a wonderful family film and an exciting adventure everyone can enjoy.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri: Bold, Deep, and Dark. But See It!

Movie Review: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Version: Library borrow

It's bold, it's deep, and it's dark. That's Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, the story of about Mildred Hayes, a mother so obsessed by grief with the unsolved brutal death of her daughter, she will go to any length to resolve it. But it's not the only thing she is obsessed over.

Mildred is driven to avenge any slight, any abuse, anyone who gets in her way, including the local police. Months have passed since the murder and no one has been arrested. Mildred decides it's time to motivate the police to take action, so she buys three billboards near town to shame them to do more. But her action sets into motion a series of actions by others that sets the town afire. What ensues is a set of one-up battles between Mildred and many of the town's most notable figures. Caught in the middle are her son, still grieving the loss of his sister, the owner of the ad agency Mildred hired to put up the billboards, Mildred's boss, and the town's sheriff, who is dying of pancreatic cancer. Few are left unscathed.

This is an amazing film. Amazing for its brutality, for one thing -- this isn't a film for youngsters! Amazing for its language -- this isn't a film for the language sensitive. Amazing for the depth of characters. Amazing for its depth of plot and conflict. With the cast, I doubt I need to tell you, it's also amazing for its acting.

Mildred is played by Oscar winner Frances McDormand, who won the award again in 2018 for this very role. She displays such resilience as an abuse survivor and the grieving mother of a raped-while-dying daughter with whom the night before her death she'd had an ugly fight, yet someone who is steel-strong in a battle to the end to avenge all wrongs. Sheriff Willoughby is played by Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson. He often plays villains or troubled characters, but in Three Billboards he puts in a fine performance as a sympathetic sheriff sorry that he's unable to catch the bad guy yet the target of the billboards. Character actor Sam Rockwell won the 2018 Oscar for his portrayal of deputy Dixon, who is an uneducated bigot and after-work drunk that terrorizes the town but in the end learns to soften his heart. Lucas Hedges plays Mildred's son Robbie, who pays for Mildred's acts of anger by the actions of others in the community and by having to face the billboards, which stand along the road outside their home. Peter Dinklage has a minor part as James, who witnesses a lot of the destructive things Mildred does in retaliation but has a soft spot in his heart for her, protecting her from the consequences. In all, this is an exceptional cast playing out an exceptional script with a well laid out plot with so much conflict and action, there's barely room for resolution. In fact, by the end of the film, you're going to want a sequel to see how the story actually ends. Don't say I didn't warn you!

If it weren't for all the conflict and action, I would tell you this is a deeply character-driven film. But in the end, the conflict and plot win out over characterization, as strong as character development is. And the strongest character by far is Mildred, who won't take no for an answer and won't let any attack go unanswered. There's a restaurant scene in which Mildred's abusive ex-husband walks up to taunt her for dating James, who is a dwarf. He really lays it on heavy. Then Mildred and James have a fight and James tells her off and leaves. Mildred has had it with her husband, who is sitting at a table with his 19 year old girl friend, and she grabs the left over bottle of wine from her own table holding the bottle like a club and you swear she's going to swipe that across her husband's ugly smirking face -- and he looks like he thinks so, too, as she walks up. But Mildred tells her husband to take care of the girl (you can see in her eyes she is thinking, "like you didn't take care of me or our daughter") and sets the bottle on the table as a gift. It's a wonderfully dramatic yet sensitive scene, considering all that we have seen earlier in the film.

For all the violence and conflict in the film, the characters soften and begin to regret their actions. And you are left wondering how this will all resolve itself. In a sense, this is a story about redemption and the two characters most in need of redemption -- Mildred and Dixon -- ride off seeking revenge yet ponder if that will really come in the end. 

In addition to the two acting Oscar awards, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri was nominated for a host or other Oscars: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Harrelson), Best Original Score, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing. It deserved every one of those nominations. I'm not a fan of gratuitous foul language (there's plenty of that here) or gratuitous violence (there was a ton of violence), but I am a fan of films of depth and Three Billboards had plenty of that. If you can take the violence and language, by all means see this film!

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Down and Across: Intriguing Coming of Age Story Is a Fun Read!

Book Review: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi
Version: Library borrow

Do you have "grit"? Saaket "Scott" Ferdowski didn't think he did and he went in search of it one summer break, unbeknownst to his parents while they traveled overseas. So unfolds the intriguing coming of age story in Down and Across.

Scott was a junior in high school and he was supposed to be working on a summer internship his very strict father had set up for him for while they were away. Instead, he quit the internship and left his hometown in Philly for Washington, D.C., to see a psychology professor at Georgetown University who specializes in "grit". It was supposed to be a short trip, just a few days in the big city, long enough to get some help straightening out what Scott saw as a life of failure. It turned into a four-week stint, an adventure he didn't, couldn't, see coming.

This is the unfolding journey of life story in Down and Across, written by first-time novelist Arvin Ahmadi. In it, Scott meets an undisciplined adventuress named Fiora who gets him into all kinds of trouble, a friendly bartender who watches his back, an iron-willed student on a make-it-or-break summer lark of her own, a psychology professor who gives in to help Scott after several attempts to resist his pleas for help, and a host of other strange characters who hang out in his world. Throughout this story written for a teen fiction audience but is also readable and enjoyable for older readers, we can't help but empathize with this youngster lost in the abyss of youth in search of identity. And we can't help but remember our own struggles to figure out who we are, where we are, where we want to go in life and how to get there, and how we rustle up the grit to survive the journey. And if you are a teen fighting through those struggles now, you will surely identify with the challenges and self-doubts and urges Scott faces.

Ahmadi has a wonderful writing style with an easily accessible "voice", creating relatable characters suffering through amazing situations. The title relates to the characters working crossword puzzles, which becomes a metaphor for working through life's challenges, yet its 320 pages are a fun, quick read. Do you have grit? Read Down and Across and find out.