Jumanji: The Next Level

What can I say, it’s a sequel to an entertaining film. It tries to up the ante and add more characters and change the location a bit, but it basically is a second round of the game and there is not much to add to that.

So here is a brief description of the updates that worked to make this feel a bit more unique. First, the elderly characters that have been added strain the story a bit. Danny DeVito is fine before they get to the game, but his persona as played by Dwayne Johnson is not quite as fun as it should be. The character is passive at first, slowly becoming more aggressive as he discovers his abilities, but that change is a little inconsistent. Danny Glover’s character is a cliche that basically robs Kevin Hart of the ability to be as funny as he is capable of being.

Second, there are some new elements of the game that are fun. The characters encounter a mysterious water body that when they enter, their switch avatars. It is introduced in a side encounter and then completely discarded until later in the movie. When it does come back, we end up with the character assignments that worked so well in the first film and there is suddenly a lot more energy in the film. The concept that a player can take on the avatar of an animal is a fun one, and it does get the script out of a morose side story that was introduced for almost no reason.

Changing the local of the action from a jungle to the desert is not a bad choice. We still get a wild sequence with killer Mandrills and that felt a little out of place, but bouncing between scenarios of a video game probably is pretty standard stuff for players. I also liked that the game avatar moved from a jeep to a plane to deliver the original game plan for the crew. Suddenly it felt like an Indiana Jones rip off even more than it did originally. I enjoyed a couple of the pop song choices for this film. Having seen Chris Isaak just a couple of days ago, when “Wicked Game” started playing, my smile got a little bigger. I also enjoyed the call back of the character “Nora” and the casting choice there. I don’t know if others will notice it, but I did.

I have to say pretty much the same thing for “The Next Level” that I did for “Welcome to the Jungle“,  it’s a perfectly acceptable family film that will entertain you for it’s running time. It is not trying to be anything other than that, so it hits it target. I think I enjoyed it a little less than the previous entry, but like a lot of confections, the second helping is never as great as the first.

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

This is Christmas week, so many of you will be anticipating the holiday and gifts under the tree. When you were young, you probably dreamed of the best toy, the most awesome electronic device or maybe a puppy. Did you ever get a knockoff or a stuffed animal instead?  It was probably a perfectly decent gift but it was not what you wanted and the thought is overwhelmed by disappointment, regardless of how much you ultimately enjoyed the substitute. Get ready for the same kind of feeling. “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” is a Star Wars movie, it’s just not the one you wanted.

Regardless of where you come down on the Star Wars movies, whether you are a prequel hater or you liked what Rian Johnson did with “The Last Jedi“, this one will probably confound you. My main objection to the film is that the plotline is a mess of interrelated incidents that feel like a string of those plastic monkeys that come in a barrel. You have to hook the next one with the last one, and you do that by what is available to you rather than what might be most logical. For instance, a twist involving C3PO comes up as a complication. A big chink of the film id directed at addressing that point and suddenly that point becomes irrelevant and a different issue comes up that the heroes must overcome. The tracks made by each of these developments are so apparent that it might as well be a diagram/flowsheet on the screen. Unfortunately, several times, when you follow the path it is a dead end designed to merely fill the plot with opportunities for more planets, creatures and battles. Say what you will about the awful “Phantom Menace”, at least the plot points were all relevant to the story. The stitches on this amalgam of retcon and repair from the previous film is just to obvious.

Another reason that it feels so paint by the numbers is the introduction of an old character, being plugged into a the story, primarily for the nostalgia factor. This sort of fan service will be rewarding to we long time acolytes but the reappearance of at least four characters that were either dead or absent from the previous two sequels is sometimes just awkward. At least we were spared a return of Hayden Christensen. There is a major plot point which is probably not a spoiler if you have watched the trailer or heard anyone talking about the film before it was released. If you are worried about a spoiler that’s not really a secret, skip to the next paragraph. A major Sith figure returns to the story and it feels incredibly inorganic. It is used to explain some of the events of the previous film, but mostly, we just needed a main figure to turn into the ultimate “big bad” so that the story arc of one on the major characters here can play out and repeat a redirection trope from the original trilogy. Thirty-six years ago, when a second Death Star was introduced into the plot, some fans groused about a lack of creativity, but at least it made sense that the Empire would be relying on it’s existing technology to continue their program for enslaving the Galaxy. The fleet that suddenly appears in this story, complete with enough personnel to manage it, makes no sense whatever.The two sentence explanation is a major irritant. When we discover that each one of these thousand ships is capable of doing what the Death Star did, or what the Planet Killer could, nothing in the story feels right anymore.

For two movies we have been watching the character arc of Rey and Kylo Ren get more involved and more apparent where it it headed. I did like that ultimately this is the A-plot of the movie. There are a couple of revelations and memories that come back to answer the questions we had about the prior film, but those points seem relatively contrived. Why can a memory accomplish what a flesh and body person could not? Does the heritage of Rey really need to go down the plat it did or is this just a way to justify the main plot? The reveal has a momentary injection of adrenaline but it doesn’t take long for it to turn into a WTF development. I was perfectly content with the return of a character in an ethereal form,  but I recognize it for what it is, fan service. This is the conclusion of the nine part “Skywalker” story, so fans are going to want a lot of these things, whether they are necessary or not.

Other characters that were introduced in “The Force Awakens“, continue to be in the story, largely without purpose and squandering what made them worth in that film.  Poe and Finn should have been the kinds of characters that Leia and Han were in the original trilogy. In those first movies, those characters had a story arc and their actions mattered in the long run. No one seems to have figured out what to do with the new secondary characters except plug them in for exposition or as appendixes to the main story arc. Did you think the character of Rose was going to be relevant after being introduced in the last film, well guess again. General Leia Organa has a more developed part and a bigger role in the story and Carrie Fisher is of course entirely in this film through archive footage and some technical wizardry. That was not a problem for me, but obviously J.J. Abrams and his team of writers thought that was more important than doing something with new characters. I liked the fact that Chewbacca and C3PO have story time given to them, but it again feels like this is because this is the last film they will appear in rather than it was necessary for the plot.

I didn’t count but it felt like there were a half dozen separate light saber battles in the film, most of them involving Rey and Kilo Ren. I did not hate this but a little bit goes a long way and the drama of a one on one confrontation gets undermined when it is repeated and all that is being accomplished is an opportunity for some different sword-work. Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone needed one big duel to make the point, and it was a climax of the movie. These light saber battles feel like a version of tantric sex, lots of foreplay and then deferred payoff. The spectacle of the fight on the water was great to look at but it had no point, like many of the plot threads in the rest of the movie.

I wanted real emotions in the movie and I felt like I was simply being run through the process. I understand why the Rey and Leia dynamic was handicapped, but so many other relationships were as well. Finn and Ray needed to be going somewhere and there is a humorous thread about that which gets tugged on but not followed. Finn and Poe have a friendship which should be explored more, but they are rushing through so many plot complications, we don’t feel like they have the connection we expect of them. A love interest for Poe comes out of nowhere and then goes no where. There are two adorable new characters, a mono wheeled droid and a tiny monkey hacker, their presence does nothing for the plot except create a diversion while the next thing is coming along.

Long standing fans of the series will like the movie well enough. It is going to be measured by the other films in the series. But do we really want the legacy to finish on the note that “at least it was better than “The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones”? That seems to me a sad way to finish off the pivotal film franchise of  the last fifty years. That’s like opening your Christmas present and being grateful that it wasn’t underwear and socks.

Richard Jewell

Let’s get the film’s big criticism right up front. The screenwriter and director are accused of slandering the name of the dead journalist who first publicly pointed a finger at Richard Jewell as the Olympic Bomber. Kathy Scruggs as portrayed by Olivia Wilde in the film, was a hard charging, not very bashful crime reporter who was looking for a “scoop” so to speak in the case that took place in the town she worked in. The irony of a journalist being besmirched by innuendo in a piece of  dramatic entertainment, when in a newspaper she did the same thing to an innocent man is not lost on most of us. The inference that she offered sex for a tip to an FBI agent is a fictional speculation of how she obtained this inside information. She never revealed her source, and in fact was nearly jailed for refusing to do so by a judge.  It is reported that she was a somewhat wild figure in the confluence of police and journalists on her beat. The screenwriter put two and two together and came up with a dramatic tool to show us how she might have done it. Miss Scruggs has been dead for 18 years so it is legally not possible to slander her. Richard Jewell was publicly accused by her stories, without anything more than a piece of gossip, and he was alive to be roasted by the ensuing firestorm. Let’s suppose for a moment that the come on from Miss Scruggs was left out of the film, would what happened to Richard Jewell be any less tragic? No, but the character of the reporter would have no way of claiming to have an informant. That is a plot hole that should not exist in a well told story. It is a two minute scene in a film that more than two hours in length. People judging the movie based on this is disproportionate.

Having set that aside for the moment, the film itself is very effective at recalling the time and place of the events depicted. There is a substantial opening act that shows us who Richard Jewell was. He seems to have been overly enthusiastic in his pursuit of doing right. The campus security job he has is lost because he does what is asked of him but it conflicts with what is within his scope. You don’t get the impression that he is motivated by power or the notion that he is in control, in other words he is not the “asshole” that he is warned not to become. He just wants to follow procedure and have people be protected. He continues to believe in what he sees as being right.

Anyone in a position of authority is likely to ruffle some feathers. It is easy to make an inference that a police officer is getting off on their power, especially when you are the one on the other end. I know I have felt that way a couple of times in casual contact with police. It goes the other way as well, people instinctively react to the perceived power of the police. The idea that there is a profile and you are being judged by that is a reality. The accuracy of such a profile still needs to be verified, and this film shows the FBI struggling to fulfill their own prophesy. The trailer lays out the problem here immediately, the two most powerful forces in the world are basically trying to nail Jewell for something he did not do.

Anyone watching the political scene these days will get flashes of deja vu because this stuff goes on constantly today. The FBI seems to have a number of troublesome issues that have been disclosed over the last fifty years, and the political element has been one that continues to be prevalent. The media is a little sensitive about being called out when they are indulging in speculation about the facts. The righteousness of journalists can’t change the truth, sometimes they get it wrong. This was certainly one of those places.

Clint Eastwood continues to be one of the best directors working in Hollywood today. This story builds very effectively and we don’t even get to the bombing until the second act. The section where all of the attack plays out is effectively staged and there is real tension as the bomb is discovered and the authorities, including Jewell try to deal with it. This sequence shows how Richard Jewell’s strong desire to be a law enforcement officer is a good thing. His insistence on following the protocols probably saved dozens of lives, which makes his subsequent vilification all the more unjust. Sure the FBI needs to follow every lead, but to ignore exculpatory information, in pursuit of a profile that is thin to begin with is preposterous.  The fact that the journalist is shown to believe this well before the bureau is an attempt to rehabilitate her character as well.

Sam Rockwell continues to show that he is a leading actor in a character actors clothes. He plays the attorney defending Jewell as the professional skeptic he needed to be. He brings the rage that the deferential suspect seems incapable of displaying. At times that disgust has to be directed at his client who seems programmed to sabotage himself at every turn. Paul Walter Hauser deserves accolades for not only resembling Jewell but for showing us the hopes, and frustrations of the title character. We can see that he is flawed, but Hauser makes him sympathetic at every turn, even when he does the stupid things his attorney advises against. Kathy Bates has one scene that presents some histrionics but she still undersells the moment so her character remains real and completely sympathetic. Jewell’s Mother is collateral damage in this process, another example of how the great forces of the law and press can grind someone down indirectly.

Much is being made about the lack of success for this film at the moment. If you are skipping it because it seems too political, you are making a mistake. It simply points out the real danger that anyone, regardless of their politics could fall into. If the controversy about the presentation of the journalist discourages you, remember that it is a film, and with dramatization some narrative tools work, whether we believe they are fair or not. There are some great performances and a compelling story here, don’t skip it because of misdirected desire for purity. Story telling is what movies are about, and this one tells a hell of a story, and does so well.

 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

It was just over a year ago that we got a documentary about Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood with the title “Won’t You be My Neighbor“, and it was very satisfying. So that begs the question, why are we getting another film on the subject?  The answer is complex. While this film has the trimmings of a biopic, the subject of the biography is less Fred Rogers than investigative reporter Tom Junod who is called Lloyd Vogel in this film. His fictionalized story is really about the impact of meeting Mister Rogers had on his life. When a movie is “inspired by” real events, there is probably a great deal of difference between the story and reality. I am sure this is the case here, except when it comes to the sincerity of how Fred Rogers moves us.

The film is told in a truly original and interesting style. The writers,  Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster and the director,  Marielle Heller, have chosen to make the film as if it is an extended episode of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood”. The main character is introduced by Mister Rogers on his program as a friend. He then tells the story of Lloyd as one of the direct, simple and profound stories that you could find on the show.  Ultimately it gets embellished with elements of the show including songs, puppets and the neighborhood made of miniature houses and buildings. This is a full blown drama about a man’s life, but it is being told by another man who better understands the issues being faced than the protagonist does.

Tom Hanks embodies Fred Rogers in a pitch perfect rendition of his voice and demeanor. When moments come up that suggest from the magazine writer’s point of view that something is off about Fred Rogers, Tom Hanks calm, grounded and moral persona reclaims the ground and makes us a little embarrassed for even thinking as the writer did for a minute. This is a reflection of the original article that Tom Junod wrote for Esquire “Can You Say…”Hero?“.” We writes in Mister Rogers voice and relates incidents that reveal who Mister Rogers is, in the same soft manner as the subject himself. That this is successfully transferred to a film is a admirable achievement and the work of the director, writers and Tom Hanks is responsible for this.

A number of plot points will seem a little conventional to seasoned movie goers. There is estrangement between father and son. A parallel story concerns the relationship a new father is building with his son. Death inevitably creeps into the narrative as a dramatic tool to pull us in to the world the actors are portraying, but it all works very well. Chris Cooper is an actor I am always glad to see in a movie and he shows up here as a cliche, but finishes as a crescendo. Matthew Rhys plays the writer/son/bio-subject and he is also fine in the film. There are many moments of drama that he has to carry, but there are moments of levity that he manages to make real as well.

I really liked this film. I can’t say that it is one of the best of the year, there is a lot about it that is strange and may be a little too abstract. If you can buy in to the premise, it will take you to some emotional points that are worth experiencing. but without the element of Fred Rogers, they would come across as cliches. I felt better as a human being after seeing it, and I’m not sure anyone needs a better recommendation for seeing it than that.

Meet Me in St. Louis(Fathom Events 75th)

Numbers ending in zero or five are ripe for look backs. Since we are about to move to 2020, see how many blogs are posting their best films of the last decade. This film goes back a lot further than a decade, this is the 75th [see there is that 5] anniversary of the release of Meet Me in St. Louis, one of the great MGM musicals of all time and maybe the high-point of Judy Garland’s career in musicals. Maybe you love “A Star is Born” or recognize that “The Wizard of Oz” is a classic but there is no denying that Judy was at her luminous best form in this film. When you see the Technicolor images on a theater screen, you will know why she was a star.

It was just a couple of months ago that I heaped praise on Renee Zellweger for her performance in the biopic about Garland “Judy”. As great as she was, the real thing is still so much better and this was a chance to see an old favorite back up on the big screen. A year ago it was Movie of the Month for Christmas on the Lambcast, and the show was hosted by my daughter Amanda who had been the sponsor of the film in the first place. There was a little controversy over whether it really is a Christmas movie, since only the third act featured Christmas as a subject. The following three minutes settles that issue.

As great as Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien are in the picture, I would like to single out Lew Ayers and Mary Astor who play the parents in the movie. They are the foundation of the family and without the sincere family foundation that they create, the movie might have seemed a little silly. Their most charming scene occurs right after the uproar created when Mr. Smith announces they are moving to New York. Everyone is upset but Mother soothes the nerves with a piano tune that Father sings to and the two of them remind everyone what is most essential in their lives, it is a terrific moment in a film filled with terrific songs and moments, and it is all centered on someone other than Garland for a few minutes. By the way, by the time the scene finishes, you will desperately want a piece of cake.

As we walked out of the theater, Amanda turned to me and said, “Now it’s Christmas Time.”  I 100% agree. I felt uplifted by the experience and nostalgic for the Christmases of my own past. I suspect we may be watching it again before the season is over, but it was a real treat to see it in a theater with dozens of other fans, all glad that there was a 5 at the end of the anniversary this year.

Ford v Ferrari

Let me start by saying, I am not a fan of racing. I have nothing against it but the idea of watching cars travel at high speeds is attractive to me for about five minutes. After the first thrill, it seems like a lot of waiting around. I know I am an exception because NASCAR is incredibly popular and the Indy car circuit has been around for more than a century. The same can be said for formula one racing which enjoys international enthusiasm that I can’t muster. With that out of the way, I can say I am a fan of  racing films. Several years ago, I listed “Rush”  as my second favorite movie of that year. Earlier this year I enjoyed “the Art of Racing in the Rain“. I even liked the Stallone racing film and “Days of Thunder”. So how is it that I ended up liking this film so much?

My appreciation for a film about a subject that I am not well versed in or passionate about comes down to the simple fact that film making is all about controlling the audience perspective. As an illustration, I posted a list a few years ago of my favorite sports films, three of the ten films were hockey movies. I’ve never been to a hockey game, I’ve never watched a whole hockey game on television and the idea of a sport played on ice is appalling to me, I hate the cold. Film makers however, are not worried about the contest, they know the outcome already. They don’t worry about the rules, they can ignore them or alter them to suit their purpose. What screenwriters and directors do care about is the audience, what is it we want out of the experience? That is the thing that makes a movie like this work for us.

In “Ford v Ferrari” we see the races from the best angles. We focus on the key moments and not all the drudge work that gets to those points. Best of all, in a racing film we are in the cockpit and we see the race from the perspective of the driver as well. That creates the drama that keeps us focused on the story of watching someone drive a car. In this film Christian Bale plays driver Ken Miles and his character is one worth following. He is a hothead who also happens to be an excellent driver. His volatile relationship with the car designer and the corporation that is backing the team is emphasized not just in scenes played out in garages and offices, but while he is driving the vehicle they are all counting on. I think he nails the English accent spot on [those of you who don’t get the joke are excused from making a comment on my ignorance]. He has to act opposite a big movie star, a child and a piece of machinery. He makes each of those relationships work in a realistic way.

My friend Doug is a big race fan and he will tell you how there is a better story somewhere else, or how the film is not accurate is some way that matters to race fans. The rest of us don’t have to worry about that because we know what we are seeing is a fictionalized version of the events. Like all story tellers, the three screenwriters and the director, exaggerate to make a joke work or emphasize a dramatic beat with a piece of information that we need just at the right moment. The film does center on racing, but most of Matt Damon’s work is in the garage or board room rather than behind the wheel. The background on the Ford Company attempt to purchase Ferrari may not have happened in the sequential order that the film presents but that presentation makes the rivalry more meaningful and interesting. You could easily be fooled into thinking that Christian Bale also played Henry Ford II, since the portrayal is a mirror image of the Dick Cheny performance he was responsible for last year.

Since the events depicted are based on real historical incidents, you will be aware of the outcome of some of the suspenseful moments, but James Mangold manages to make them suspenseful anyway. Having worked with Christian Bale in “3:10 to Yuma”, Mangold probably felt comfortable in the casting of Bale and Damon in parts that were originally scheduled to go to Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. While I would have enjoyed seeing those two reunited on screen, I think this pairing works really well. The loyalty but pragmatism of Damon as Carrol Shelby is a good counterpoint to the flashier Ken Miles and it is to Damon’s credit that he lets Bale drive not only the vehicle but the film as well.

No Safe Spaces

This is a documentary from what would traditionally be described as the conservative perspective, but the issues are so broad and important to the culture that liberal politicians and commentators are in agreement on many points. When you have Van Jones and Barack Obama suggesting that the problem these right wingers are pointing out are real, I think we can move past the political lines and move to the cultural front that this movie wants to be focused on.

Like most documentaries about ideas, there are a lot of talking heads involved in the discussion. Talk show host Dennis Prager is a well known conservative with a nationally syndicated radio program. Adam Carolla is a comedian/podcaster with the most downloaded podcast in the world. Their friendship is based on the commonality that the world has lost it’s common sense and we are forgetting our values. They may disagree on a large number of issues but the threat to free speech binds them together and they have made multiple appearances to share their views. So it is no surprise that much of the footage is derived from some of these joint appearances. The other thing that you will find in documentaries of this sort is archival footage of current and recent events. The most galvanizing moments in the film have to do with video and film of speech presentations being disrupted and violence being used to silence views that others do not agree with. There is a long segment on Berkeley as a source of some violent outbursts but it is far from the only example that is illustrated.

The thing the film does effectively is catalog the numerous recent campus based illustrations of suppressed speech and give us some perspective on how this has become a standard form of closing down dissenting views. There are a couple of clever cartoon interludes that inject some humor and a decidedly condescending view of those who want to create “safe” space or control “hate speech”. Some of the talking heads that show up are well known public intellectual figures such as Cornel West and Jordan Peterson. Peterson gets a substantial amount of focus as an individual who has been subjected to much of the shouting by the other side. All of the academics who are presented in the film, regardless of their political leanings, agree that the purpose of the first amendment is to allow a market place of ideas to weed out the bad from the good, rather than presupposing the correctness of one position before a debate has even begun.

As a college instructor for 40 years, I can say from experience in my public speaking and argumentation classes that there has been a shift in the way students engage in conflict. There is a hive mentality on some issues but the bigger point is that dissenters are fearful of being socially chastised for making an argument. The issues of Illegal Immigration and Same Sex Marriage are two areas where speaking one point of view, even if addressed as a rational objectively based claims has almost disappeared. I don’t see a shortage of evidence or value conflict on those points, I do see fear. Colleges are so obsessed with progressive goals that they are ignoring the means of achieving them that are progressive and have become reactionaries themselves. The film uses relatively innocuous issues that turned into major kerfuffles at Evergreen State University to illustrate the point. The experience of the two faculty members who ultimately were driven out and had to sue to get treated fairly is told in a very personal way.

Having a fairly solid position to start with the director of the movie, Justin Folk, allows the story to lose momentum in several places. The main reason is the shifting of subject matter.   Instead of a driving focus on the value issue, we get taken to a number of side issues that while interesting, seem to be interjected without figuring out how they are connected to the main point or the previous piece of information. It’s not clear why Jordan Peterson is wandering around Adam Carolla’s garage and car collection. Shooting Dennis Prager as he drives down the freeway must be some kind of commentary on something, but I can’t tell what. As a consequence the story feels like a series of events are being strung together without a strong direction to them and that they are being randomly critiqued without the unifying theme that the movie desperately wants to have.

For true believers, this film with spark up your anger and frustrate the heck out of you. I remember how one of my coaches, John Gossett a PhD. who wrote his dissertation on prior restraint, used to emphasize that the first amendment says congress will make ” NO law …abridging the freedom of speech.” The danger presented by restriction on free speech that come from non-governmental social media is the issue that needs more development, instead we got a panel discussion between five comedians without any memorable moments. This were  lost opportunities to dig deeper. I admire the desire to tackle this issue and I agree that it is significant and potentially dangerous to the country to ignore it. I just wish the skill of the writer and director had stayed more with the issues they see as important rather than throwing everything into the pot and hoping it made a stew.