Movie Review – Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
Written by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, and Jeff Pinkner
Directed by Jake Kasdan

The children’s literature of Chris Van Allsburg is mysterious. If you’ve ever read The Stranger, his picture book about a mysterious vagrant whose arrival at a farmhouse signals a pause in the seasons, you’ll know how powerfully haunting his illustrations can be. His work exists on a line between photo-realism and surreality. Faces look real, yet the world around these characters feel as if it emerged from a dream. The original 1995 film adaptation of Jumanji does a reasonably good job of telling its story with those visually softened edges of Van Allsburg’s illustrations but is forced to expand significantly upon the source material. The film would be followed by an animated series by Everett Peck and resembled the look of his work, Duck Man and Rugrats. A little-seen film sequel Zathura would be released in the early 2000s, based on a book that is a spiritual companion to Jumanji more than anything else. This brings us to the current state of Jumanji as a media product.

Continue reading “Movie Review – Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”

Movie Review – Lethal Weapon

Lethal Weapon (1986)
Written by Shane Black
Directed by Richard Donner

I was looking over the films that came out in 1989 to find some 30th-anniversary content and saw Lethal Weapon 2 came out this weekend that many years ago. I realized I’d never seen the first Lethal Weapon and decided to sit down and watch this flick finally. I like both gentlemen involved in the making of this picture. Shane Black is a pretty good screenwriter, and I enjoyed both Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys. Richard Donner is the filmmaker behind The Omen, The Goonies, and one of my all-time favorites Superman the Movie. I am a bit more negative on one of the film’s stars, Mel Gibson for obvious reasons if you have kept up with pop culture for the last twenty years. But I decided to give the picture a shot and see if it made sense there’d be three more movies and television series in this franchise.

Continue reading “Movie Review – Lethal Weapon”

Movie Review – Barely Lethal

I hope you are enjoying the content I publish on my blog. If you feel compelled and are financially able to, I would greatly appreciate anything you could contribute to my Patreon. I will take it as your way of saying thanks and put that money towards growing the site in a slight manner.

a24 visions

Barely Lethal (2015)
Written by John D’Arco
Directed by Kyle Newman

barely lethal

Agent 83 is the top student of the Prescott Academy, a black ops facility where orphaned girls are turned into skilled killers for the U.S. government. Agent 83’s class are in their late teens, and she is beginning to yearn for a domestic life that was never provided for her. A chance to escape comes during the capture of arms dealer Victoria Knox when Agent 83 is presumed dead. Using her knowledge of teen movies, she passes herself off as a Canadian exchange student for the Larson family in a small American town. 83 goes through a fish out of water period but seems finally to be integrating herself into daily life. But that’s when her rival Agent 84 shows up with plans to ruin 83’s fun.

Continue reading “Movie Review – Barely Lethal”

Movie Review – Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly, and John Gatins
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

kong skull

It’s 1973, and the United States is withdrawing from the war in Vietnam. Lt. Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) isn’t happy about what he sees as an admission of defeat and a mark of shame for his helicopter squadron. His crew is assigned as escorts for a science expedition to an uncharted island in the Pacific, led by a government contractor, Bill Randa (John Goodman). British tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) round out the crew. They arrive on the island and immediately being dropping explosive to map out the density and structure beneath, but they awaken something ancient and furious, Kong.

Continue reading “Movie Review – Kong: Skull Island”

Movie Review – Power Rangers

Power Rangers (2017)
Written by John Gatins
Directed by Dean Israelite

The-cast-of-The-Power-Rangers-Movie

In the Pacific Northwest town of Angel Grove, five disparate teenagers are brought together when multicolored stones are unearthed. These coins imbue them with superhuman powers and lead the quintet to a subterranean alien craft buried millions of years prior. The inhabitants of this vessel, Alpha 5 and Zordon, inform the youths of an impending attack on their planet. The only way to stop this growing force of evil is to somehow unlock the power within their coins and become the Power Rangers, defenders of life.

Continue reading “Movie Review – Power Rangers”

Movie Review – Free Fire

a24 visions

Free Fire (2017)
Written by Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley
Directed by Ben Wheatley

free fire larson

It was Boston in 1978, two members of the Irish Republican Army, Chris, and Frank (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley, respectively) are making a rendezvous with a South African arms dealer, Vern (Sharlto Copley) in an abandoned factory to purchase weapons for the civil war back home. Their intermediary, Justine (Brie Larson) assures them the deal is right and this is backed up by Vern’s representative, Ord (Armie Hammer). However, as the moment of truth nears closer, money exchanges hands, irregularities about the weapons are addressed, and the various members of each side interact it becomes apparent that something is about to blow.

Continue reading “Movie Review – Free Fire”

The Revisit – Starship Troopers

The Revisit is a place for me to rewatch films I love but haven’t seen in years or films that didn’t click with me the first time. Through The Revisit, I reevaluate these movies and compare my original thoughts on them to how they feel in this more recent viewing.

Starship Troopers (1997, dir. Paul Verhoeven)

STARSHIP-SPTI-20.tif

The late 1990s was a weird time in cinema. On the independent side of things, you had some interesting work produced, while on the studio big budget side there was some awful dreck being churned out. Take for instance 1997; the year Starship Troopers came out. Boogie Nights, L.A. Confidential, The Fifth Element, and Lost Highway were released, All films that I would argue are vital pieces of work from their respective creators. Simultaneously you have Batman and Robin, The Lost World, George of the Jungle, Spawn, and Spiceworld the Movie. All films that I would argue represents studio executives shaping films. In the middle of all this, you have Starship Troopers.

I think the first time I saw Starship Troopers was my first night in the dorm my freshman year of college. It was 1999, and the guy across the hall had the VHS tape so as about six of us were hanging out we decided to watch it. I hated this movie. I hadn’t done my deep dive into films yet, but I remember being very turned off by the cheesy nature of the movie and god awful acting. It was the ending especially that created friction with me. Something felt off and wrong about it. In my naivete, I discounted it as simply a bad film and have never actually revisited it til now. I was making up my list of movies to review for The Revisit and came across Starship Troopers. I had read things since 1999 that hinted at the film not being what it appears to be the surface level. It’s believed now that the audience has grossly misinterpreted the picture. So, I decided to give it a shot.

Paul Verhoeven, despite having a career directing films since the 1960s to the present. He was responsible for Elle, a film that came out last year starring Isabelle Huppert that has garnered significant praise (though I have not yet seen it). But for most of us that came of age in the 1980s and 90s, he feels like a director of that period. That is when he was hitting his peak as a big-budget director. Robocop. Total Recall, Basic Instinct. Showgirls, The Hollow Man. Those are the films his name is commonly associated with, but to understand Starship Troopers, you must understand some other things about Verhoeven.

He was born in the Netherlands in 1938, showing up just as the Third Reich began their march across Europe. War struck incredibly close to Verhoeven’s family. They lived near an installation for V1 and V2 rocket launchers so Allied forces bombed the area. His parents were almost killed. However, Verhoeven says as a child he viewed war as an adventure.Verhoeven states that he remembers the sight of charred corpses vividly and hollowed out buildings, but admits because his parents lived and he was not Jewish he doesn’t hold the trauma that others do. That sense of war as an exciting adventure existing alongside horrific violence and mutilation is a the core of Starship Troopers.

The opening frames of Starship Troopers are unquestioningly satirical. This is the first of many newsreels that will be used as an ingenious exposition device throughout the film. Each time one of these appears an unseen newsreader will click through related links to the videos we see unfolding before us. The important thing this first video establishes is the dichotomy between being a Citizen and a civilian. In the world of Starship Troopers, Citizenship is only obtained after serving in the armed forces. With Citizenship comes the right to vote as well as other rights that Americans and other developed nations currently hold as inalienable. One recruit gives her reason for joining is that one day she would like to have kids and getting a license to do so is much easier when you are a Citizen. We’re in a world where even nature is under the boot heel of the government. But for being such a dictatorial society we never truly see our protagonists question it.

Only one character speaks up against Rico, the protagonist, joining up with the Federal Service. Rico’s father has a brief moment where he chastises his son for choosing that path post-graduation. Later, both of Rico’s parents are killed by the enemy bugs who strike Earth with an asteroid launched from their system. The message of the film’s world is that Rico’s parents were wrong to question him and now he is emboldened to bring the wrath of humanity down on the bugs truly.

It is funny to think back at my reaction and the reactions of critics and audiences to Starship Troopers. From the start of the film, it is glaringly obvious what Verhoeven is saying about this world. Michael Ironside plays first the high school teacher to and commanding officer of Rico. In his Social Studies class at the opening of the film he states the following:

“This year we explored the failure of democracy. How our social scientists brought our world to the brink of chaos. We talked about the veterans, how they took control and established the stability that has lasted for generations since. You know these facts, but have I taught you anything of value this year? […] Why are only citizens allowed to vote? […] Something given has no value. When you vote, you are exercising political authority, you’re using force. And force my friends is violence. The supreme authority from which all other authorities are derived.”

A few moments later the teacher has this exchange:

Dizzy: My mother always told me that violence doesn’t solve anything.
Jean Rasczak: Really? I wonder what the city founders of Hiroshima would have to say about that.
[to Carmen]Jean Rasczak: You.
Carmen: They wouldn’t say anything. Hiroshima was destroyed.
Jean Rasczak: Correct. Naked force has resolved more conflicts throughout history than any other factor. The contrary opinion, that violence doesn’t solve anything, is wishful thinking at its worst. People who forget that always die.

Starship Troopers is not glorifying fascism or even oblivious to its presence in the film. The entire work is a direct commentary on fascism, and even further I believe the film is meant to be a piece of meta-fiction. We are watching a propaganda film made in the universe of Starship Troopers that is aimed at impressionable high school students.

The cast of “high school” students are apparently grown, adults. The acting is stiff and artificial. The music is overly bombastic. The characters exhibit no signs of empathy. Both the male and female lead lose people the film tells us they are romantically linked to, but at the end, they march off triumphantly. The meaningless nature of human death is highlighted even further in the newsreel segments. A cow is devoured by one of the Arachnid bugs and is censored. In the end, the brain bug has a tool inserted into her apparently vaginal mouth, and that is censored. One thing that is never censored throughout the film and the newsreels are human casualties. This is because one purpose of this propaganda is to desensitize the young viewers to the sight of human death. No one is ever truly grieved; the protagonist never appears to suffer any emotional or long-term physical consequences. As the teacher said, violence is the best way to solve every problem.

There is so much more I could write about Starship Troopers and eventually, I may. One big takeaway I did have was thinking about games inspired by material like Troopers and that they completely miss the point. Verhoeven did not intend for people to be inspired to run around and shoot bugs. I personally think this is one of the most transgressive studio films ever produced. He wanted us to be appalled through our laughter at the absurdity of fascist thought. He wants us to see what the characters fail to see, that this way of thinking leaves you blind to understanding the horrible implications of your actions on the world around you.

Movie Review – Dredd

Dredd (2012, dir. Peter Travis)

Judge Dredd Still Image

Mega-City One is an urban sprawl filled with crime and poverty. Enforcing the rule of law in this crumbling post-apocalyptic landscape as the Judges, a natural combination of judge-jury-executioner. The most famous of these brutal lawmen is Judge Dredd, an enigmatic figure who is more of a justice-dispensing machine than a human being. He’s charged with testing rookie Judge Anderson on what ends up being one of his toughest days. The call comes from the large tenement Peach Trees that there has been a triple homicide. The Judges quickly learn these murders are tied to a threat is plaguing all of Mega-City One.

Most movie-savvy people are aware of Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 trash fire of a film, Judge Dredd. His adaptation of the popular UK comic book made a ton of errors that betrayed the spirit of the source material. He rarely wore his Judge’s helmet after the opening action sequence, and the script gave a lot of backstory to the Judge. These story elements are pretty antithetical to the nature of the comic book. The film ended up highlighting the more absurd elements and has become a perennial entry of the Worst Films of All Time lists. So, this reboot had a tremendously bad reputation to overcome.

Dredd manages to stay very faithful to the source material, even the more fantastic parts while delivering a character-centered story. Apparently inspired by The Raid, Dredd focuses its action within the walls of Peach Trees, a housing complex that provides plenty of set pieces and a palpable tension. When you have nowhere to run from the forces out to kill you, it will inevitably bring out more ferocious elements in humans. With a character like Judge Dredd, he is absolutely in his environment with this scenario. To say Dredd is a violent film is an understatement. This is a gory, visceral, kill fest. Yet, it tells a compelling story, particularly through Judge Anderson.

In the same way, Max in the Mad Max films is merely a cipher through which to tell a story, writer Alex Garland fashions Dredd into the same type of protagonist. It is entirely unimportant what Dredd was like as a child or the what the moment was that he forfeited his humanity to become an arbiter of justice. Instead, he is the vessel that helps tell the story of Judge Anderson’s loss of innocence. Actor Karl Urban takes on a role many actors would shirk at, the majority of his face covered with the entire film. But Urban, a fan of the comic, expressed that he understood why keeping Dredd’s identity obscured was essential to the character. Olivia Thirlby as Anderson first appears as your typical by the book, nervous rookie but by the end of the film, she is able to hold onto her humanity while acknowledging the violence that people can be pushed towards. The exact route her character will take within the fiction of the film is left for us to wonder about.

Lena Headey plays the movie’s central antagonist, Mama. I was absolutely thrilled with the choices she made in playing this crime boss villain. The minute she spoke I knew I was going to love her performance because she chose to be quiet in the way she spoke. This wasn’t the godawful Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Rising sort of calm quiet then SHOUTING performance. We learned a lot about Mama through how she communicated. In the environment where she grew up, words carried little currency. For people in places like Peach Trees, a threat is worth nothing if there isn’t a physical punishment behind it. Mama makes sure to inflict brutal horrors on people who cross her. Even in the final showdown between Dredd and Mama we have her maintaining a very calm, quiet hate in her voice.

Dredd succeeds and undoing and helping the audience forget everything about the 90s attempt to adapt the property. It is definitely elevated above your average comic book fare as well. It has tons of social commentary cleverly embedded in amongst the brutal violence. It is definitely one of those futures that, while extreme and different than our modern day, still feels unsettlingly familiar and far too close to our lifetimes.

Movie Review – Hanky Panky

Hanky Panky (1982, dir. Sidney Poitier)

hanky_panky_1982_3h2016

A Chicago architect named….(wait for it) Michael Jordan (Gene Wilder) is headed back to his hotel after brokering a deal in New York City when a woman on the run from a couple menacing fellows stumbles in. He quickly becomes involved in an international game of spies and espionage. He gets help from a reporter (Gilda Radner), and the two go on the run after Jordan is framed for murder.

Much like I felt about Poitier’s previous Gene Wilder venture, Stir Crazy, this movie is an utter failure as a comedy. And it’s not too great of an action/thriller film either. The MacGuffin that drives the whole plot is very confusing and unclear, and even at the end, I was still trying to figure out what the big deal was. Things start out interesting enough. A mysterious man wakes up, disoriented, sees a strange painting of a Southwestern landscape on his bedroom wall and proceeds to hang himself. It’s a pretty intense hook. Then we move to Kathleen Quinlan as the woman whose path crosses Jordan’s. She is playing it straight, which is perfect for an action comedy. The comedy comes from moments in the story but the story itself takes things seriously.

I kept thinking back to how good Silver Streak was, how it balanced genuine situational comedy with a legitimately exciting and interesting conspiracy story. Lots of things happen in Hanky Panky and the two leads go to lots of locations, but it never feels like it amounts to anything. It is a lot tighter in its structure then Stir Crazy but still misses the mark on the actual comedy. There’re some instances of Wilder’s trademark outbursts, but they hit too frequently and don’t feel appropriate for the scenes.

The strangest thing to me throughout the whole production was how underused Gilda Radner was. She was known for being a very high energy comedic talent, and she is a fine actor. They just never give her anything to play off of or do other than eventually become the damsel in distress. I got similar feelings from when I see Kristen Wiig in certain productions that seem to ignore her comedic talents.

As far as Wilder’s career, this was near the point where it was beginning to slow down regarding hits or highly memorable work. From interviews I’ve read, he seemed to be a particular actor, so I assume he was looking more at films that interested him rather than would do well. He also began his relationship with Gilda Radner at this point. We’ll see the pair again in his next film, The Woman in Red as well as Haunted Honeymoon. I’ll be posting about both of them very soon.

The Purge: Anarchy (2014, dir. James DeMonaco)

the-purge-anarchy-default-1920

Whenever I’m playing through a video game and it suddenly forces me to engage in an escort mission, bringing a character I can’t control from point A to point B and keeping them alive, I will groan and slog my way through it. The Purge: Anarchy is a video game escort mission as a feature length film. I have not seen the first Purge film but was told it was unnecessary viewing and that this second film would fill me in. That was true, they deliver a lot of first act exposition to explain what is going on.

The film tells the story of the night of the sixth Purge. The Purge is an annual event instituted by an upstart extreme Libertarian political party as a way to help people release their rage. For twelve hours, all crimes are legal and the use of most weapons in committing these crimes is permitted. In Anarchy, we have an unnamed man (Frank Grillo) embarking on a mission of revenge. On his way, he makes the decision to help out a mother and her daughter and his Purge night takes an extreme divergence from his plans. A couple more characters join up with the group and they make their way across Los Angeles trying to survive the slaughter and mayhem around them.

It was probably not a good idea to make this my very next film after Green Room because the former definitely highlights the huge problems with the latter. Read my review of Green Room here. The Purge: Anarchy has five protagonists and none of them die until the last 15 minutes of the film and then it is only one. If the goal of the film is to make me feel that the event is the most dangerous and insane thing I could go through then it fails big time. Green Room kills off the most well prepared and confident character in a snap of your fingers. Here we have Frank Grillo essentially playing The Punisher and making it to the end and, spoiler, he’s the main protagonist of the third one currently in theaters. The film undercuts any sense of true fatality by keeping its main character alive the entire film.

Then we get to the metaphor of the film, and by god, it’s pretty hard to miss because they have shaped it in the form of a Mack truck. When I was in college, I stumbled across the film Mississippi Burning about the murder of three civil rights activists and directed by Alan Parker. I was astonished at how on the nose and disingenuous the message of the film felt. They kept beating you over the head with “Racism is bad”. Yes, I know that. But what interesting avenues in regards to racism do you plan to explore? Oh, none. Ok. Then why make this movie? But at least Parker’s film had a cogent message. I can’t tell you what Purge: Anarchy was attempting to say about anything. I suspect writer/director James DeMonaco is a little confused himself.

The first guess you might have is a message about Americans and their addiction to guns and the violence in our culture. Well, we have an allegedly anti-Purge group led by Carmelo (the always awesome Anthony K. Williams) telling us that the Purge concentrates its violence on the poor and minorities. Okay, a little on the nose, but let’s go with it. However, in the third act Carmelo and his group show up at a warehouse where One Percenters are hunting people down and state “It’s our time to Purge”. And the film portrays this as good and justified. I don’t think messages can get more mixed than that. They’re moments where we find young black men rounding up people from their own communities and selling them to the rich. We have two battling sisters who end up spilling blood over their shared love, one of the sister’s husbands. There’s a dude in an American flag baseball cap traveling around in a semi-truck with a personal army and mowing people down with a minigun. But the film never manages to compose a semi-cohesive point about any single thing it brings up. They’re bits of fictional media sprinkled throughout that build up the world but I never saw an underlying statement to any of it.

Even without a coherent thesis, the film could have done something stylistically interesting. The cinematography is sloppy and derivative. The pacing is dull and it becomes a movie where you are checking the time to see how much is left. If they had gone the route of Pulp Fiction-esque anthology that could have been interesting, playing with time and narrative order. They could have had the main character in one story as mere cameos in another. There were some points where we could have delved deeper into the racial impacts of the Purge but the film never has the guts to. I think having a late 40s white male director is going to keep the film from exploring those elements in any interesting way. I thought of a very different film, Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon (1990), that wanted to say something about race relations and came off as one the most insultingly dumb movies I’ve ever seen. This is sort of like Grand Canyon but with more guns, and even then I never felt the flinching and queasy sense of danger I got from Green Room.

The only moment in the film that got me truly interested were the final moments between Grillo and his target. There could have been some amazing themes explored there, some really complex and challenging performances. But then it just whimpers out and we cut away. The resolution is implied but I frankly would have rather seen a one room film set on the night of The Purge about Grillo and his target. Explore how people use the Purge to enact revenge and explore the psychological effects on those who do purge. The film just ends up being less than the sum of its parts. It didn’t make me interested in watching the newest film. Even looking at it as an ultra-violent escapist film you have to note it took the whole movie for even one of the five main characters to die! It just feels like a very surface level dip into sociology that other films have explored in more interesting ways.