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.

Warcraft (Jones; 2016)

The good news for those wanting to see Warcraft is that it is perhaps the best film ever made to be based on an existing video game property.  The bad news for these same people is that that bar is set at an exceptionally low point.

In the worlds of video games there are many rules that exist for very good reason.  It’s important for these rules to keep balance between players so that no one element of the game is out of balance with the others lest all other aspects of that game get ignored or so that those who choose to try something else don’t get frustrated and quit.  Games have to give the illusion that everyone is a hero, but no one is any more of a hero than anyone else, at least as much as is possible.   Movies also have rules, but these rules exist for very different reasons.  They exist to keep an audience in suspense but not be confused, to give them something fantastic that is still grounded in the familiar.  When people try to create a feature film out of a video game, they far too often focus on the rules of the game without realizing that not only do they not need to worry about game rules, those rules are actually detrimental to making a good film.  In short, game balance does not at any time equate to good drama.

Warcraft very nearly, but not quite, manages to avoid this trap.  We have some good set up. We can understand the motivations of the villains, we can see that the magic the villains use have some rules which must be followed, even if they aren’t spelled out in detail, and the video game tropes often have a point and place within the story arc.  However, then we get to the fan service that throws in bits from the video game just to get a smile and a chuckle from the gamers in the audience, the magic used by the heroes has no discernible rules like the villains’ magic does and just seems to be used as a get out of jail free card for the writers, and entire long stretches of film that have nothing whatsoever to do with the movie we are watching, but are  there purely to set up a future film and make the Warcraft players in the audience think , “Hey, I know that character.”

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This scene is really important, but only if you watch the sequel or play the game.  Otherwise you’ll be really lost.

The cast of Warcraft is an absolute who’s who of “I think I recognize that person from something…” and “I know that name from somewhere…” actors, and their performances are for the most part fairly bad to mediocre.  As seems to be a fairly sad trend lately, it’s the CGI characters and actors that seem to be giving the best performances here.  The humans in the film, and the handful of orcs that aren’t created by a computer, give very lackluster, phoned-in performances, while those who did voice acting and motion capture for their CGI alter egos are the ones who really seemed to get into their roles and give their all.

Another fairly common but very recent trend that shows up in Warcraft is visual effects that are very well done when focusing on characters, but are much less interesting and intelligible when showing magic or other fantastic elements of the world.   It does seem like Warcraft had a lower budget than your standard summer blockbuster release, and they did focus on what was important in this department, but it still can get distracting when certain things are so well detailed, but the rest looks like mostly empty backgrounds and blobby light flashes.

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Fear my glowy blobs!

Warcraft came closer to getting it right than any other video game movie before it, but closer in this case is still too far away to get my recommendation.  You will enjoy yourself if you are obsessed with the video game.  If you’ve played the game in passing, then watching it in the future on a streaming service may be worth it to you.  If you’re not a fan of Warcraft, though, and especially if you’re not a fan of video games in general, then there is nothing here for you.  Hopefully Hollywood will translate a video game franchise right someday, because you know they’ll keep trying, but Warcraft isn’t the one.

Rating:  3.6 out of 10

Hardcore Henry (Nalshuller; 2015)

Before I start actually writing about this week’s movie, I’m making an announcement about this blog.  This blog was always meant to be a temporary thing, as I’ve intended since the start of the year to get a YouTube movie review channel up and going.  As of today, I have all the pieces in place to get that channel started except for the practice associated with putting an episode together at least once a week.  I have not yet decided if I’m going to keep writing this blog, or move entirely over to YouTube, but as of now I’m thinking that writing here will be a good method of getting my thoughts together for the video review.  So, if you like what I’ve been saying here, check out Shaun’s Reviews on YouTube very, very soon – like before the end of this week soon – and continue to follow what I have to say.  And, thank you for following me here, there, or just reading or viewing the occasional review here or there, I appreciate it all.

Roger Ebert once famously and controversially said that video games aren’t, and could never be, art.  When he said this, he was thinking of game like Pac Man, I can only guess, and had never experienced modern video games with narratives and images that can put movies to shame, so I have to wonder if he had lived to see Hardcore Henry what he would have made of it.  I’m guessing he would hate it, but he’d probably have to either recant his statement or say that movies are moving to a place where they are no longer art.  Well, this one, at least, though many “live action” movies are also more computer generated images than reality, as well.

Hardcore Henry unashamedly and uncompromisingly inspired by video games.  While the trailers made this clear, on seeing the film you can immediately see just how much the creators of the film knew exactly what it was they were making.  The only part of the protagonist you ever see are his hands and feet, he is unable to speak (they do explain this away early on), and every single second of the film aside from the credits is seen from Henry’s point of view.  There are some minor cuts here and there, but it almost takes place in real time, as well.  That’s just the protagonist.  If you can think of a video game cliche’, Nalshuller and crew probably did, as well, and it made its way into Hardcore Henry at some point or another.

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If the camera panned up just a bit, you’d see the question mark floating over my head.

Obviously, the biggest difference between a video game and Hardcore Henry, though, is that with Hardcore Henry you are merely watching.  You aren’t making any decisions or testing your hand-eye coordination in any way. Most people would have a hard time coming up with something less interesting than watching another person play a video game unless they have some reason to be invested in the game, and there is no reason coming into this film blindly that you would be invested.  Hardcore Henry, however, manages to avoid the pitfalls that makes watching someone else play a game dull.  There are no load times here, no saving and having to go back, no travelling from place to place to speak to bartenders and cops.  Hardcore Henry is from beginning to end action, whether that action be a car chase, parkuor pursuits (say that a few time quickly), or shoot outs barely a second ever goes by without intense pacing.

The performances here are, for the most part, bad to mediocre, particularly the perfomance by Danila Kozlovsky as the villain Akan who is somehow both cartoonish and boring at the same time, and Haley Bennett as Estella, the protagonist’s wife, is also very dull.  Sharito Copley, though, as Jimmy, gives us a quite fantastic character who manages to mix funny, badass, original, and touching into one excellent performance.  The performance that most deserves mention, though, is Henry.  Henry is “you”, the audience member, and so is never seen, never heard from, but the fact that you see out of his eyes the entire time means that whomever did this filming was performing parkour, driving cars, jumping out of planes, and every manner of action film standbys while wearing a camera on their face, and still acting enough that you can see hands and arms doing what they need to and always aimed in the right direction to catch what’s going on around him.  It does make for some very chaotic and choppy viewing at times, but I was surprised at how few those times were all things considered.

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They told me there’d be days like this at bad guy school.

Hardcore Henry is not a film I’d recommend to everyone, but it is quite a bit better than it would seem on the surface it has any right to be.  There is nothing enlightening here, no lessons to ponder, no complex plot to unravel, it’s just straightforward constant balls-to-the-wall action from start to finish.  For this reason, I hope this is an experiment that ends here, because it will only work so many times, but it did work this time I’m happy to say.

Rating:  6.2 out of 10