Monthly Archives: December 2017

Game On

New ‘Jumanji’ is full of fun thanks to comedic all-star cast

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black & Karen Gillan
Directed by Jake Kasdan

As a kid, I really thought it would be fun to be game-size.

I wanted to zoom around the Monopoly board in that teeny silver racecar. I wished I could be the diver in Mousetrap—I’ll bet I could hit that dang little bucket a lot more consistently than he ever did. And I longed to get in the ring with the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, just to land a couple of good, clean uppercuts of my own.

And who wouldn’t want to romp for a day around the Gumdrop Mountain, Peppermint Stick Forest and the Lollypop Woods of Candyland?!

But Jumanji showed just how dangerous really getting into a game might be. That 1995 movie, based on a fictional jungle adventure board game, was about a boy who got sucked into it and was trapped there for more than 25 years. And when he finally got free as a grownup (played by Robin Williams) and returned to the real world, wild animals were set loose, too, and time got all wonky.

The new Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle picks up the theme and elements of the first movie and gives them an all-star, big-budget, high-tech Hollywood upgrade as it ensnares a group of new, modern players—and plunges audiences deep into the game they never really got to see in the first film.

When the wayward paths of four teenagers—nerdy germaphobe Spencer (Alex Wolff), beefy jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Bain), shy introvert Martha (Morgan Turner) and narcissistic hottie Bethany (Madison Iseman)—converge in detention, they discover an “ancient” 1990s-style game console in the cluttered supply room of their high school. They fire it up on a handy TV set and choose avatar players just for kicks.

Then it’s Breakfast Club meets Twilight Zone as whoosh!, just like that, they’re whisked to the steamy jungle world of Jumanji, where they’re confused, horrified—and in some cases, intrigued—to find out they’ve been transformed into the players they just picked, randomly, sight unseen.

JumanjiFor maximum comedic effect, nerdy, scrawny Spencer is now brawny expedition leader Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). Fridge, the school’s hunky star football player, has become pipsqueak zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart). Wallflower Martha is sexy Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, from Guardians of the Galaxy and TV’s Dr. Who), a kick-ass martial-arts expert. And self-absorbed Bethany is horrified to discover she’s been turned into a pudgy, middle-aged man, Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).

The only way to get back to their real bodies, and the real world, is to complete the game. To do that, there’s a dangerous bit of Indiana Jones-ish adventure business about a Jaguar Shrine and the stolen Jewel of Jumanji, and Bobby Cannavale hamming it up as the villainous John Hardin Van Pelt, the game’s antagonist, whose all-consuming greed melded him with the jungle—and made his body a host for all kinds of skin-crawling, creepy things.

1193687 - JumanjiBravestone, Moose, Ruby and Professor Oberon have to put together a map and dodge leaping alligators, rampaging rhinos, hungry, hungry hippos, hissing snakes and a gang of ninja bikers. The on-location Hawaii settings are lush and gorgeous. Johnson hangs out of a helicopter zooming though a canyon and leans onto the top to fix its defective rotor, so it won’t crash into a mountain ahead. Whew!

But mostly the movie hinges on the ever-percolating comedic chemistry of Johnson, Hart and Black, playing characters-within-characters as they adjust to their Jumanji bodies. Black gets lots of laughs channeling his inner Brittany as he/she obsesses about not having her iPhone, teaching Martha/Ruby how to flirt as a weapon and discovering a certain, ahem,  accessory that comes with her new male physique.

The motor-mouthed Hart is a fountain of funny, and Johnson—an international box-office powerhouse—can charm the camera with just the tilt of an eyebrow.

Director Jake Kasden, whose resume includes Bad Teacher 2 and several TV shows, including episodes of New Girl, Fresh Off the Boat and Ben and Kate, gets traction with familiar videogame conventions as the characters’ strengths and weaknesses are revealed, and their realization that they only have three “lives” inside the game before it’s “game over” for realz.

There’s a nice, sentimental nod to the late Robin Williams’ character from the original movie when the new players meet another player (Nick Jonas) who’s been marooned in the game for…well, a long time.

The characters learn some lessons about acceptance, sacrifice, cooperation and how you can’t judge by appearances. And they understand what their high school principal (Marc Evan Jackson, from Brooklyn Nine-Nine) meant when he told them, “You get one life; decide how you are going to spend it.”

“This world swallows up kids like you,” Spencer is warned, ominously enough, earlier in the film. Games can be swallow you up, too, if you let yourself get sucked into them, literally or psychologically. This game turns out to be a big-star blast, especially when it all wraps up, to the Guns N’ Roses tune noted in the title. Sometimes silly, often frantic and ultimately surprisingly sweet, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a rollicking reminder that games are for meant for having fun—and there’s more than one kind of winner. Game on!

In theaters Dec. 20, 2017 

Force Field

Who’ll rise to the ‘Star Wars’ challenge of ‘The Last Jedi’? 

TheLastJedi59dd0acaf1d4f (72)Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Starring Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Carrie Fisher & Adam Driver
Directed by Rian Johnson

Luke Skywalker Wants You!

Maybe the Rebel Alliance wouldn’t have a Jedi shortage—down to their Last Jedi, as the title suggests—if they’d launched a snappy, Uncle Sam-ish campaign for recruits, featuring posters of their most famous knight-warrior, oh…a few movies ago.

Now they’re in a bit of a pickle.

And Luke Skywalker doesn’t want anyone.


Mark Hamill

That’s the premise of episode eight in the sprawling Star Wars canon, in which director Rian Johnson (Looper) takes over the franchise for a spectacular, full-throttle joyride of thrills, exhilarating, screen-filling visuals, emotional heft and humor, with familiar characters as well as new faces that we’ll almost certainly be seeing again.

The second film in the latest Star Wars trilogy, Last Jedi picks up where The Force Awakens (2015) left off: The spunky scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), simmering with powers of the Force, has sought out Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), now living as a hermit in self-imposed exile on a remote planet, “the most unfindable place in the galaxy.”

The Rebel Resistance, Rey tells Luke, is in a very bad spot, under serious threat by the evil forces of the First Order under command of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)—who, as we learned (in The Force Awakens), is the son of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the late Han Solo.


Adam Driver as Kylo Ren

Kylo, strong with the dark side of the Force, killed Solo (Harrison Ford) in the last movie, so there’ve obviously been some pretty serious daddy issues going on there for a while.

The Resistance desperately needs a hero—can they count on the legendary Luke? Even when he tells Rey that, no, “it’s time for the Jedi to end”?


Kelly Marie Tran & John Boyega

Meanwhile, cocky X-wing fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) continues to rally the troops on the Rebel’s base ship, along with his indispensable robotic copilot, BB8. Former Strormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), who defected to the Rebels in the previous movie, goes off on a desperate mission with the resourceful Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a Resistance maintenance worker, and a shady, shifty new character (played—deliciously—by Benicio del Toro) who seems to know his way around, into and out of just about anything, anywhere.


Carrie Fisher

Star Wars fans will be giddy with all the detail, interweaving plot lines and “family reunion” feel of whole affair. It’s no spoiler to say that Hamill, who became an pop-culture icon as Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy, plays a major role. Or that the scenes with Fisher, as now-General Leia Organa, have added poignancy with the knowledge that she died just after completing her work on this film. When another (new) character, played by Laura Dern, bids Organa a goodbye and tells her, “May the Force be with you…always,” the pause before that last, lingering word hangs heavy in the air with four decades of sweet Star Wars memories.

No spoilers here, but some other very recognizable characters pop up, too, and they’ll delight SW fans of all ages and stages.

The effects are dazzling—a beautiful, artfully choreographed, light-sabre battle-royal ballet; an operatic combat scene on the white plains of a mineral planet where every scrape of the surface stirs up blood-red streaks and plumes of ash; a visit to the cosmic gambling mecca Canto Bright, where Finn and Rose take a wild romp on horse-like creatures called Fathiers; a hilarious visual “joke” with a landing craft that turns out to be…well, not a landing craft.


A Porg

There’s an especially cheer-worthy kiss, some levitating pebbles that foretell the rise of bigger things, and new creatures, including adorable little puffin-like birds called Porgs and sparkly Crystal Foxes, who inadvertently hold a key to the Rebels’ survival.

There’s also plenty of character depth and complexity, psychological layering and questions begging for answers. Who were Rey’s parents? What made Luke so cranky? Will Finn and Rose succeed in their daring, life-or-death sprint across the galaxy? What’s going on with the long-distance, Force-telepathy Skype sessions between Rey and Kylo?

And, always, what happens next?

Johnson won’t be directing the next—final—leg of the trilogy, the ninth episode of the overarching Star Wars opus, which will conclude in 2019 with J.J. Abrams, the director of The Force Awakens, back at the helm. And before that, there’ll be another “standalone” movie, about the origins of Han Solo, directed by Ron Howard, in December of next year. But Johnson has been given a big vote of confidence to return for a brand new Star Wars trilogy, three more movies with new characters and new storylines spread out over the next decade.

The Rebels, as Leia has always reminded her troops, must be the “spark” to ignite an even greater flame, a fire to keep burning until good triumphs over evil.

The flame of Star Wars is gloriously bright in The Last Jedi, and the franchise that began 40 years ago shows no sign of burning out, going away or slowing down. Who’s the Last Jedi? I’m not telling. But know the Force is still strong.

In theaters Dec. 15, 2017


Fire & Ice

Margot Robbie spins, twists & soars as crushed skating princess Tonya Harding


I, Tonya
Starring Margot Robbie, Allison Janney & Sebastian Stan
Directed by Craig Gillepsie

Truth, like ice, can be a slippery thing.

I, Tonya, the ripping, rollicking tale Tonya Harding—the most colorfully controversial figure in the history of figure skating—begins by explaining that what we’re about to see is based on “wildly contradictory, totally true” interviews with everyone involved.

Actually, it’s based on mock interviews with actors portraying everyone involved, and the fake-doc format weaves feisty, she-said, he-said threads into the deliciously dark, twistedly comedic biopic drama that follows.

And it’s all true—depending on what you hear, and from who.

In an absolute knockout performance, Margot Robbie stars as Harding, who was banned for life from professional skating after pleading guilty for her knowledge of a plot to sideline her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, leading into the 1994 Olympics.


Allison Janney

Robbie, after a long haul of standout supporting roles—in films like Goodbye Christopher Robin, Suicide Squad, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Legend of Tarzan—finally gets the lead in a movie that she completely owns. She plays Harding beginning in her teens in rural Portland, Ore., where she’d been driven since childhood (and played briefly by McKenna Grace) to rule the ice by her mom (an awards-worthy Allison Janey), a smoke-breathing, cigarette-puffing, profanity-spewing beast who abuses her both physically and psychologically.


Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly with Robbie as Tonya Harding, early in their soon-to-become-tumultuous relationship.

Sebastian Stan gives a terrific performance as Jeff Gillooly, the older guy Tonya meets and marries. He’s a local loser, a dim-bulb doofus with a mustache, and he abuses her too. They scream, fight and smash up the place. Tonya leaves him, comes back, kicks him out; they break up, get back together, break up again—a toxic circus of domestic co-dependency built on the crumbs of self-esteem from her crushed childhood.

But she channels his rage, her hurt and her bruises into even more focus—and ferocity—in the rink, where she perfects the triple axel, a midair, spinning wonder of aerodynamics. Considered the most technically difficult of all skating maneuvers, it becomes her signature.

And it takes her all the way to the Olympics.

But Harding had never been anyone’s darling, and she has trouble getting her footing on the world stage. She’s a ballsy, world-class skater, for sure, but the judges won’t give any breaks to someone who wears gaudy homemade costumes and does her routines to ZZ Top. In a competition that likes to think of itself as refined and high-class, Tonya is considered low-rent and white-trash.

It’s not just about the skating, one judge reluctantly levels with her. It’s also about “presentation.”

At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships leading to the 1994 Olympics in Norway, Gillooly, by now her ex-husband, decides something needs to be done. The movie refers to it as “the incident.” It begins as one thing, but becomes something else, and results in Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) getting whacked in the leg by a thug hired by one of Gillooly’s friends (Paul Walter Hauser from TV’s Kingdom).


Harding and Gillooly at first feign ignorance and innocence, but soon enough, the whole crazy house of cards collapses, burying them underneath.

Director Craig Gillepsie, whose previous films include the Disney baseball flick Million Dollar Arm and Lars and the Real Girl, juices and gooses this wild joyride along the ripe, rich underbelly of its fractured, funky, fast-paced underdog tale. With dark humor, ruffian violence and doofus characters planning a caper that goes south, it sometimes feels like the Coen Brothers spinning a Fargo riff with Goodfellas seasoning. The camera, like the story and its players, is constantly on the move; as with the truth about what happened, it’s hard to nail down.

And Robbie, as Tonya, is a marvel. She spins, she twirls, she soars. She serves up a magnificently smudged, grandly sympathetic version of a footnote figure in American sports lore that digs deep into the dirty, damaged roots beneath the tabloid headlines that rocked and shocked the world two decades ago.

“America—they want someone to love, they want someone to hate,” Harding tells us toward the end of the movie.

In her triumphant portrayal of the ice princess now frozen forever out of her castle in I, Tonya, we get both—and the truth, too, whatever it is, somewhere in there.

In theaters Dec. 8, 2017

‘Room’ Mates

Make space for James Franco’s Disaster-piece

DA_121815_00899.dngThe Disaster Artist
Starring James Franco & Dave Franco
Directed by James Franco

The “disaster” of The Disaster Artist refers to a movie called The Room.

A massively misguided, famously incoherent mess-terpiece, The Room has been called “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” and one of the best bad movies ever. An overwrought, completely off-the-rails romantic melodrama that achieved so-awful-it’s-great status soon after its release in 2003, it went on to find an obsessive, Rocky Horror-like cult following and make an unlikely celebrity of its creator, star, writer and director, the eccentric and enigmatic Tommy Wiseau.

Director James Franco plays Wiseau in The Disaster Artist, which is essentially the backstory of how The Room came to be. It’s based on the 2013 memoir of the same name by Greg Sestero, Wiseau’s Room costar, played by Franco’s younger brother, Dave.


Dave (left) and James Franco

But the movie is also a “buddy story” about the peculiar friendship of Wiseau and Sestero, how the two aspiring actors met and the pact they made—a pinky promise at the crash site of James Dean’s Porsche speedster—to pursue their dream of success in Hollywood.

Actually, success in spite of Hollywood.

Wiseau, as depicted in the movie, is a most peculiar cat. He claims to be 19 but clearly looks to be somewhere far south of 40, and professes to be from Louisiana, although his mangled tin-ear English suggests Slavic roots. Wealthy enough—somehow—to own apartments in both San Francisco and Los Angeles and drive a Mercedes, he’s also intensely secretive. “Don’t talk about me, to anyone,” he cautions the younger Sestero.

With long, stringy, dyed-black hair, a droopy eye, pasty skin and an accent that often begs for subtitles, Wiseau has trouble convincing anyone he’s Hollywood leading-man material. It’s no wonder Sestero’s younger, hipper actor friends refer to him—only half joking—as a vampire.

PosterMany celebrities are among The Room’s ardent fans, and a lot of them are sprinkled throughout The Disaster Artist. If you bring a scorecard, you’ll have to work fast to check off Josh Hutcherson, Megan Mullally, Zac Efron, Lizzy Caplan, Seth Rogen, Nathan For You Fielder, Bryan Cranston, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, J.J. Abrams, Ari Graynor, the real Greg Sestero, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Zach Braff, Hannibal Buress, Randall Park, Paul Scheer, Jacki Weaver, Casey Wilson and more.

In a gusto, go-for-it performance, Franco almost disappears into his role. He gets plenty of laughs as the clueless Tommy, but he also brings a sensitivity and poignancy to his tragicomic depiction of the inscrutable, obsessive fanatic who refuses to let Hollywood—or anyone else—define him, or keep him down.

Franco has nearly 150 acting roles to his credit, and he’s directed 13 theatrical features and several documentaries (plus two episodes of the HBO series The Deuce, on which he also stars—as twin brothers). He’s also written for film and TV, and produced more than 65 movie projects. He knows filmmaking inside and out, and he also knows what it’s like to have a passion to do it all, to give his all, his everything.

He gets Tommy Wiseau.

The difference, of course, is that Franco’s got….well, creative gifts that Wiseau did not. Wiseau is fueled by an unstoppable drive and an unquenchable thirst, but he’s low on talent, high on delusion and oblivious to every obstacle in his path. He simply doesn’t understand why the world won’t accept him; that’s why he creates his own.

The Disaster Artist mixes its humor with heart, empathy with sympathy. It’s amusing—but also painful—to watch Wiseau throw himself into the maws of L.A.’s moviemaking machinery, even after being chewed up and rejected time and again.

“Just because you want it doesn’t mean it can happen,” one bigwig producer (Judd Apatow) tells him. “Not in a million years! And not after that, either.”

And so, The Room is born, as Wiseau and Sestero decide to take fate into their own hands and make their own film—a tale of an all-American (!) guy (Wiseau), his cheating girlfriend, his best friend (Sistero) and a web of deceit and betrayal that eventually ends in tragedy.


Franco as Wiseau directing, with Seth Rogen and Paul Scheer (background) as as film crew members on the set of ‘The Room.’

“What do you do if it turns out really bad? Really terrible?” Sestero’s bartender girlfriend (Alison Brie) asks him when he frets about Tommy’s lack of control over The Room’s mounting production woes. “Can you take if off your IMDB?”

No one could have predicted The Room—which originally opened in one theater, on one screen, for two weeks—would go on to find such a thriving second life and inspire legions of ardent fans.

Or that James Franco and a gaggle of Hollywood stars would make one of the year’s most riotously enjoyable films, about how a “disastrous” script, inept actors and an incompetent director somehow stumbled into the creation of such an enduring slice of pop culture.

If you’ve seen The Room, you’ll totally dig The Disaster Artist. And if you haven’t, don’t worry—you’ll still appreciate Franco’s audacious high-wire act, a quirky tribute to outsiders everywhere and a celebration of a particularly bizarre moment in Hollywood-outsider footnote history. This tale of a crazy, against-the-odds transformation of trash into treasure is a really good movie about a really bad one.

In theaters Dec. 1, 2017