Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Kasdan; 2017)

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a sort of sequel, but really more of a follow-up story, to the original Jumanji released in 1995.  We start this film one year after the original story of a board game which brought chaos to the town of Brantford, New Hampshire.  The mystical board game adapts to its time and transforms itself into a cartridge for a video game.  Four high school students who are given a chore to clean out some school storage areas as a punishment find this video game in 2017, and decide to give it a play as a distraction from their detention.  Each of the four students suddenly finds themself inside the video game as the character they chose to play, and they also find that they must complete the game in order to escape.

The story of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is its weakest element as it is really nothing more than an excuse for jokes and action scenes.   The villain of the film is so weak and so personality-free that he may as well not exist.  I am not exaggerating when I say that if the villain were edited completely out of the film but nothing else was changed you wouldn’t notice a difference to the story other than it would be tighter and shorter.  As to the actual goal of taking a jewel to a gigantic statue and replacing it, it’s just a reason for the characters to not remain in one place and we never get any real sense of travel in the film, we just get to see that one scene takes place in a village, another in a chasm, and so on.

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As for the movie’s greatest strength, that would be its performances and particularly the one given by Jack Black.  The main conceit of the film allows for each of the four main actors to play characters who are against type, and while all have some fun with the idea, it’s Black that really throws himself into his character of the beautiful but insecure Instagram girl and ends up giving us a performance that is hilarious but also touching, relatable, and believable.  He impresses so much that when I was describing the film to friends afterward I kept using “she” as the pronoun I’d refer to Jack Black with.  The other actors were all funny and obviously had a good time, but none manage to give the honest performance Black did.  The Rock occasionally remembers he’s supposed to be a teenage nerd who is afraid of everything, but most of the time he’s just having a grand time mugging for the camera, which since he’s so good at it is not at all a bad thing.  Karen Gillan also largely just plays herself, but does have one fantastic scene with Jack Black in which she gets to be the shy wallflower.  Finally, Kevin Hart just acts like himself the entire time forgetting he’s actually supposed to be a high school football player.  Skill of performance aside, though, all four are very funny, charming, and have incredible chemistry which do make the movie worth watching.

The video game element of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle also allows for some clever humor and situations.  The fact that the movie is meant to actually be a video game actually makes this a better video game film than any film actually based on an existing video game franchise as it never pretends to be anything else and can, therefore, have fun with video game tropes and cliches.  The downside to this is that once you learn what these tropes are or if you are an avid gamer it makes the film predictable as the rules of the world tend to telegraph how any given situation will be overcome.

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Final Verdict:  Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a fantastic film for kids, and still a relatively good one for the adults who take them.  The story is as predictable as they come, but the charming cast and the comedy at the expense of video games make up for that and make for an entertaining ride.  If the kids want to see this one, take them, but if it’s your adult friends who want to take you to see Jumanji you can wait until the movie comes out for streaming services and rentals.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts; 2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming is called such because it is the first Spider-Man film since Marvel originally sold the rights to the character and those surrounding him to Sony way way back at the turn of the millenium.  Since then Sam Raimi has made three movies featuring the character being played by Toby Maguire, one of them actually really good, and Andrew Garfield took on the role twice, and was meant to play him a third time, but Sony realized they didn’t really know what they were doing.  So, while Sony did not give the rights to Spider-Man back to Marvel, they did turn to Marvel for help, and the result is an agreement in which Sony retains the rights to produce and distribute the Spider-Man solo films, but Marvel gets to include him in their cinematic universe, Sony gets to include the Marvel Universe in their films,  and Marvel oversees the writing on the solo films so that the character and the world he is in are done justice.  Spider-Man has left his bubble created by Sony and has come home to the world he began in.

We got to see a bit more than a glimpse of Marvel’s take on Spider-Man last year in Captain America: Civil War. and regardless of what you thought of the film as a whole, though it was well received, you were looked at really funny if you didn’t agree that Tom Holland was a fantastic choice as the actor to portray the wall-crawler, and that the writing of the character was spot on.  Now we get to see how Tom Holland does when he has to take the spotlight for more than twenty minutes, and when given the chance to anchor an entire story surrounding him, Tom Holland shines even more brightly.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming is more than just a superhero movie, it is also a coming-of-age character piece which uses the superheroic conflict as the means through which our teenage protagonist grows into, if not manhood, then at least his next stage in life.  Tom Holland gives us a spot on Peter Parker and Spider-Man, showing his vulnerability, his awkwardness, horrible luck, and his friendly but nerdy nature as Peter Parker, then changing into the wise-cracking, blustering superhero when the time comes as a means to hide what is really a lack of confidence.  This is a facet of the character that has been missed in all the earlier cinematic incarnations, the fact that his jokes are really just a way of covering up his inferiority complex, and it is fantastic to finally see it realized on the big screen.  Another part of the character that we apparently needed Marvel on board to see is his remarkable intelligence, and that we get here, too.  Only his youth and inexperience keep Peter Parker from being one of the preeminent brains in the universe of Marvel comics, and we see that in Spider-Man: Homecoming, as well, both his genius and the inexperience that holds him back.

A character piece is best when there is more than one strong character, however, and definitely get quite a few here.  I could write quite a bit about the crew of high school friends that surround Peter in his everyday life or about Marisa Tomei’s unique but great take on the now not-so-decrepit Aunt May because they are all very well written and acted, but instead I’ll tell you that Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes a.k.a. Vulture is not only a very well written and well rounded foil, I believe that he is the best villain yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though, not quite the Netflix shows).  While he may not have near the charm of Tom Holland’s Loki, he makes up for that in being a real person. This is the first Marvel villain with real motivations, real ambitions, and isn’t just a stereotyped cartoon that is around solely for the good guys to overcome.  Vulture in the comics is not only a bad villain, he is one of the worst villains ever put to page in 4 colors, however he is a good foil for the very early Spider-Man still learning his powers.  Spider-Man: Homecoming realizes this, modernizes the character, makes him far more threatening than just an old man in a suit that can fly, but not so threatening that The Avengers would take much notice of him. While this would probably be enough to make a good foe for Spider-Man’s first solo outing, they go the extra mile and make him a character with motives we understand and can even see ourselves going along with under the right circumstances as well as a character who challenges the teenage Spider-Man’s intelligence and ethics, allowing Peter Parker to grow as a person as well as as a superhero.

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But, if you go to a comic book movie to see action and characters are just a nice bonus, you still will not be disappointed.  The film spreads out its action set pieces at excellent intervals and all of them show off the agility, strength, intelligence, and big mouth of our favorite costumed arachnid.  Special effects have advanced a bit since Andrew Garfield’s turn in the red and blue suit, and an awful lot since Tobey Maguire’s day, and we can get a real sense of the speed Spider-Man has, as well as the limitations in scenes such as a hilarious bit in which Spider-Man finds himself in the countryside rather than the city and realizes he can’t swing on his webs to the rescue, like never before.  The action bits take on true creativity as Spider-Man and Vulture learn from one another over time and learn to counteract the regular strategies the other uses, making for action that relies on the intelligence of the pro and antagonist as much or more than on their superpowers.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is not content to be just a good action movie and character piece, though, it also is finally a well realized coming of age story.  It’s not a movie about beating the bad guy as much as it’s a movie about Peter Parker growing into the man he needs to be.  This is going to be a journey made over multiple films, so I don’t think this movie is meant to show us the end of his personal growth, but the true catharsis at film’s end is not that Spider-Man beats the bad guy, but how, and what he learns from this in his life as Peter Parker.

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The film does have some flaws.  The fact that it is in the Marvel Universe and the writing was overseen by Kevin Feige added a ton to the film, but the way Iron Man and Happy Hogan were included in the action was awkward.  Happy is given a role of Peter’s watchdog, which seems odd enough on its own, but then he performs these duties by acting as if he doesn’t want them.  Tony Stark himself, also, only seems to be in the movie as less a mentor and more a harsh critic until the end when he suddenly turns 180 degrees without our being shown the change of heart.  This all adds up to a really awkward and unnecessary tie in to the rest of the MCU which probably would have been best left out and merely hinted at.  They also do something odd with an incredibly iconic Spider-Man character, nearly as iconic as Spider-Man himself, that makes for a character who may as well be someone else entirely, just with the same name, and while we will have to wait and see how that plays out in future films, it just seems like a really unusual decision in a film that otherwise manages to nail nearly every major part of the Spider-Man mythos.

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Final verdict:  Spider-Man: Homecoming finally brings us the Spider-Man from the comics to the big screen, and does so in a way that isn’t merely action packed, but also thoughtful and with characters as well rounded and authentic as you could hope for in a comic book movie.   I left the theater knowing that I had just seen the best portrayal of Spider-Man himself ever put on screen, but not sure if the movie itself was better than Spider-Man 2, my favorite of the previous Spider-Man films.  I decided that not only was it better, but that it was a great movie for all the same reasons, just that they took everything Spider-Man 2 did to another level.  Yes, I did say Spider-Man: Homecoming is a great movie, and therefore I wholeheartedly recommend it to all but the most ardent detractors of the modern superhero movie.

Ghostbusters (Feig; 2016)

We love it when Hollywood does a remake.  I’m not being facetious.  While a great many of us will wail and scream every time a classic film is redone in Hollywood asking why can’t Hollywood ever do anything original anymore (the answer is that Hollywood has rarely ever done anything original even from its very earliest days), those are the same films that tend to make the most money for their producers.   We go see them out of curiosity, out of nostalgia, out of being dragged to them by a friend or significant other, but we go see them in droves.  But the outcry that accompanied the announcement of, and even more so after the first trailer for, this version of Ghostbusters nearly made it sound as if Birth of a Nation was being remade and the theme of how wonderful the Ku Klux Klan is was being left in.  Was it due to misogyny, had Hollywood messed with one classic too many, or was the trailer really just that bad?

A remake can take on many forms from a thorough reworking for modern audiences to a shot for shot replica of the original.  In this version of Ghostbusters we have the same logo, same uniforms, same car, same technology, and, of course, lots of ghosts, but the characters and plot are entirely original.  Which makes this version of Ghostbusters not so much a remake as an homage.

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Well, homage with some fan service, but mostly homage.

The original Ghostbusters is a classic primarily due to the charismatic portrayal of its misfit characters by a group of comic geniuses (Dan Akyroyd, Harold Ramis, and Bill Murray, lest you either forgot or have somehow avoided seeing Ghostbusters and are reading this review entirely by mistake) combined with a script with fantastic dialogue, an original concept, and absolutely perfect pacing.  Obviously, we can’t have the original concept anymore, and this cast, while pretty damn good, doesn’t quite have the genius of the original, and the pacing here is far from perfect.  Kristen Wiig (as Erin Gilbert) does admirably with her part, especially given the fact that the most interesting feature of her character is somehow completely forgotten about roughly 20 minutes into the film’s running time, Leslie Jones is really funny as Patty Tolan, even if her role was a little too stereotypical to make me really feel comfortable with laughing at it, and Kate McKinnon absolutely steals the show out from everybody with her turn as the group’s engineer Jillian Holtzman.  The great disappointment here is from Melissa McCarthy as the group’s ringleader Abby Yates.  She seemed off during the entire movie, flipping back and forth from either being too subdued or too over the top and never hitting the tone she needed to make us laugh, but not be so cartoonish as to make us notice.

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And. Chris Hemsworth shows us he can be funny!  Not all the time, but he can be!

The writing very much matches the acting here.  It’s more good than bad, and the new plot may be the best Ghostbusters plot so far, but the pacing is uneven, subplots start then are forgotten about. and the dialogue can go from fantastic to absolutely cheap.  The humor is all over the place,as well, though this isn’t a complaint so much as an observation as the different types of humor are welcome and also are very much hit or miss.  There are some very cerebral jokes that much of the audience may not even recognize as gags without a frame of reference, and there is the most crass of humor to be found, as well.  Whatever style of humor you enjoy most it will be found here, it just won’t always be top quality, though the majority of it merits at least a chuckle and a smile, and a decent chunk merits an awful lot more than that.

The special effects in the movie are, unfortunately, a little more on the miss side than the hit.  Some of the ghost effects are well done, and the technology the Ghostbusters use is interesting for the most part.  The technology the villain uses, however, and otherworldly effects are just so much visual noise.  It’s just having a bunch of blurred colors vomited up at you en masse hoping you won’t notice that there’s nothing coherent to see.  This seems to be a problem with film more and more of late, as directors rely more on CGI rather than on more old fashioned art direction to set the stage, and it shows that the directors and special effects crews really don’t know what to do with their technology, yet, other than just make blobby colors and miscellaneous filters and hope for the best.

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Aim for that blob over there.  It’s probably something important.

The new Ghostbusters certainly does not merit the hate it’s garnered since it was announced.  It’s actually quite a good film, I laughed more often than I grimaced, even though there is no way it can live up to the original.  So, don’t go in expecting that.  Go in expecting a better than average comedy with a good cast and a plot that’s at least better than Ghostbusters II and you will have a good time.

Rating:  6.2 out of 10