Thoughts on ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’

Today my family and I finally got out to see Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, this season’s sleeper hit. Having seen it, I absolutely can understand why it’s found the success it has, because, yeah, it’s really very good.

The story has four teenagers – nerd, jock, popular girl, awkward girl – being sucked into a video game version of the Jumanji game (the process by which the original board game became a video game is a deceptively brilliant bit of writing: achieving what needs to be done with minimal fuss while simultaneously establishing certain key elements of the Jumanji entity). Inside they have to play as their respective avatars – played by Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, and Kevin Hart – to complete the game and escape.

The concept of someone being pulled into a video game isn’t new, but it’s done with particular skill here. The movie takes full advantage of the situation, both to have crazy stunts and action (like having a helicopter pursued by a herd of rhinos) and for a ton of very funny jokes. For instance, the characters they meet in the game are NPCs, meaning they only have a few set reactions and lines of dialogue, which they will cheerfully repeat indefinitely if pressed. The characters each have three lives, a fact they make some very creative uses of.

I was very impressed by the writing. I mean, it’s not extremely smart or extremely clever, but they do a really good job of establishing these characters and giving them credible personalities along with their cliche types. For instance, the popular girl is established almost at once to be both very self-conscious and much smarter than she would seem at first glance, all in probably about a minute of screen-time. Their relationships are all entirely believable and human, as are their developments after they enter the game world.

Meanwhile, the four leads do a simply fantastic job of playing teenagers inhabiting video game avatars, especially Dwayne Johnson as the nerdy kid and Jack Black as the popular girl. I admit, I was a little worried about that element at first – it seemed like a chance for fashionable nonsense about gender – but no; it completely works in context, to the point where you simply accept the character as a girl playing a video game. This is another example of the film making full use of its premise: of course people often play avatars of the opposite sex, and if you were forced to ‘live’ the role, this probably would be the result. Plus, it’s just really, really funny; like an extended burlesque routine. It’s an example of taking an element of contemporary life and doing something genuinely creative with it.

And all the while, in all the over-the-top action and goofy humor, they still keep the focus on the characters and story. There’s a scene where Jack Black has to teach Karen Gillan how to be sexy: that’s funny on about three or four levels, but at the same time it’s also a key point of their character development, with the two of them opening up and becoming friends and the nerdy girl learning how to be more confident.

I also like that all the characters have something to teach and something to learn from each other. And that they all were, at the end of the day, what I would call legit heroes: at different points they were each willing to step up, sacrifice, and make hard calls for each other and for the greater good.

So, yeah, this was a really good movie: an example of really solid, well-done entertainment. It knows exactly what it is and wants to do and does it with energy and skill: exactly the kind of film that Hollywood ought to be making all the time.

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Noble Snake Announcement

And the first Noble Snake Reviews video will be…

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This film holds a special place in my heart. It was my favorite movie when I was little, and watching it now it holds up surprisingly well. There are a lot of rich ideas to sink my teeth into buried beneath the awesome animation and great characters, and come Friday I’ll be talking all about them.

See you then!

 

 

Dunkirk Thoughts

I saw ‘Dunkirk’ over the weekend. Briefly put, my reaction is that I thought it was an amazing film; probably one of Christopher Nolan’s best (which is saying something). It was completely unlike any other war film I’ve seen, punishingly intense, and engaging all the way through.

A few things to note:

  1. Though I thought it was a fantastic film, it’s probably not for everyone. It takes a very stripped-down, intimate approach to the story; the characters, with one or two exceptions, are more archetypes than they are people. The soldier we follow for most of the film is never even named: he’s just ‘the Tommy,’ a typical English soldier trying to find a way to survive. Likewise the non-linear approach to the story may turn some people off, as it can be tricky to keep track of what’s happening when.
  2. The film is entirely about this one crisis in the war. We almost never see the Germans, nor are they mentioned by name. It’s just about the events at Dunkirk.
  3. As with previous films, Mr. Nolan demonstrates that graphic violence is unnecessary. He conveys the horror, intensity, and grim cost of war with hardly a drop of blood on screen. All you need is the right camera angles, music, and sound-effects. It reminds me of classic war films like Sink the Bismarck or The Longest Day, which likewise conveyed the terror and intensity of the modern battlefield with little or no gore.
  4. Even in the midst of this intimate, minimalist approach, Mr. Nolan finds space for scenes of the old-school heroism and honor that also typify war, most notably from an RAF pilot played by Tom Hardy and a British Admiral played by Kenneth Branagh.
  5. The scene where the makeshift flotilla finally arrives nearly brought tears to my eyes, because dear Lord, we feel just what it meant to those soldiers.

In summary, I thought it was a great film, further cementing Mr. Nolan as possibly the best director working today. I highly recommend it, though with the caveat that it’s not for everyone and probably isn’t going to be the film you expect it to be.

Why I Love ‘Independence Day’

x538            When Independence Day came out, it was a huge hit, but ever since then it’s kind of become the poster-child for the big, dumb, CGI-fueled blockbusters of the late 90s. And, yes, in a way it is, but…well, that’s kind of beside the point.

The Story: On July 2nd, a massive alien craft appears in orbit around the earth and sends out an armada of city-sized flying saucers that take up position above several of the world’s major cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. We then see the unfolding war of the worlds through the eyes of four American men and their families: underachieving New York cable company technician David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Los Angeles-based Marine pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith), drunken Californian crop duster pilot Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), and the youthful President Whitmore (Bill Pullman).

So, is this movie pretty stupid? Sure. This is light science-fiction pulp, of the kind you might find in Amazing Stories, or in a drive-in theater in the late 1950s, only given a massive budget and an all-star cast. Granted, a lot of those classic films were better than this one (The War of the Worlds in particular does many of the same things while being an overall superior film), but none achieved the same sense of scale and grandeur as this one.

As for me, I’m glad we have it.

This is the movie that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or Invasion of the Saucer Men, or those 1940s serials dreamed of being. It’s cheesy pulp sci-fi done as epic: national and world-spanning in scope, drenched in apocalyptic dread and patriotic defiance, with implacably hostile collectivist aliens pitted against scrappy, courageous, freedom-loving humans. This may or may not sound appealing to you, but to the film’s credit is unambiguously knows what it’s trying to be and doesn’t make any apologies for it.

There are a lot of things to like about this movie. In the first place, it’s huge. Four main characters, each one carrying a small cast of supporting characters, a world-spanning plot involving a large-scale alien invasion targeting the major cities of the globe, huge airborne battles…it’s just a grand, glorious spectacle. Yet, amazingly enough, the film still manages to keep the focus largely on the people involved: we see these events through their eyes, and the real story of the film is how it affects them. It’s not done brilliantly, but it works; we very rarely leave the perspective of one of our leads, and then only briefly to illustrate things that they are talking or thinkings about. For instance, late in the film we have a brief glimpse of various armies around the world receiving and responding to the President’s call for a united counter-attack, but we quickly cut back to where the President and his military aids are receiving the answers.

At the same time, though, the four interconnected storylines make the film seem anything but constrained. On the contrary, the multiple-perspective format gives the story an epic feel that few subsequent blockbusters (Armageddon, Transformers, etc.) have successfully imitated. This is in stark contrast with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which though in some ways a better film was rendered all-but unbearable by the fact that we spent the whole thing welded to three boring and irritating characters.

The leads here, meanwhile, are all charismatic and likable (though some might find Jeff Goldblum’s stammering speaking style annoying), as are most of the supporting characters. They’re not especially original, but they’re pleasant enough company. I particularly like Robert Loggia as the President’s right-hand general and Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s father.

More than that, though, it’s just a really good story and well-done adventure. It’s grand and epic, but also keeps focused. Appropriate for a film about the Fourth of July, the theme is pitting freedom and the American way of life against the encroaching forces of collectivist aliens backed with all-powerful technology. When, after the opening salvos, we see the Statue of Liberty lying broken in New York harbor we understand what the battle is really about.

The film’s theme plays out in the lives of its characters, who all start off having forgotten what’s really important, which they rediscover throughout the film, even as they have to defend the American way of life from the implacable hostility of the alien menace. Levinson and his wife have divorced due to their divergent career paths, with her working on the White House staff while he wastes his talents at a dead-end cable job. Whitmore’s caught up in politics and has lost his authority. Hiller dithers about marrying his girlfriend for fear of how it will affect his career. And Casse is a drunken wreck who can barely take care of his family. All the characters are then forced to reexamine their lives and ‘re-center’ on what really matters: family, faith, and country.

The four leads provide an interesting cross-section of American society about the mid-nineties: blue collar, white collar, military, politics; Black, White, Jewish; married, unmarried, widowed, divorced. The film is thus about as representative of the American way of life of the time as could be asked for. We see that the characters in the opening don’t appreciate what they have in that way of life, being lost amid their petty concerns and self-destructive behavior. It’s only when their world is threatened that they begin to re-orientate their lives around the values they’ve neglected for so long, and it is this that gives them the power to strike back.

On the other hand, the aliens prove to be the reverse of those values; they’re a kind of hive-mind, with little or no individual personality, each subject to the collective. They have no home and no land of their own: they simply move from planet to planet taking whatever they need like locusts and moving on when they’re done. When asked if there’s any possibility of the two species co-existing, they bluntly respond that there can be no peace between them.

In this context, it’s significant that the film explicitly describes the aliens as having bodies ‘just as frail as ours.’ All men, and aliens, are created equal; the aliens just have better technology that allows them to impose their will upon the earth. Once mankind figures out a way around that technology, the fight becomes more even.

The specifics of that method have justly been called out as ridiculous, but, again, that’s not really the point. All they needed was a semi-plausible excuse to bring down the alien shields, and a computer virus works as well as any other (the fact that the aliens were previously established to have been using the Earth’s satellites in their attack lends it just enough pseudo-validity to work in context). The important thing was how the idea was given (amid a heart-to-heart between Levinson and his father about the need to go on hoping) and what it leads to (a last-ditch battle for freedom).

I could go on about it, but suffice to say, I think it’s a really good movie. Yes, it’s kinda stupid, yes it’s cheesy and overblown, but at the end of the day it succeeds in being exactly what it sets out to be, which is a big-budget, large-scale version of a classic sci-fi b-movie. It has pleasant characters, great visuals, and tells a simple, but solid story. All in all, it’s one of my favorites.

So…What Do I Get for my Income Tax?

A scene from the 1938 Frank Capra classic (pardon my repetition) You Can’t Take it With You. 

The sad thing is, the things listed here would actually be worth paying for. I’d kill to have my income tax only go to pay for battleships and government salaries.

The clip is also interesting for featuring a really incredible set of star-power packed into five minutes of film. That the legendary Lionel Barrymore as Grandpa Vanderhof, the all-but-immortal Charles Lane (who was still making films in the 1990s) as the IRS man, James Stewart as young Kirby, and the inimitable Jean Arthur as Alice. Meanwhile, in the background, you can see character actors Ann Miller, Spring Byington, Samuel S. Hinds, and Halliwell Hobbs.

Amazingly enough, that doesn’t even come close to exhausting the familiar faces in this film: Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (most famous for the Jack Benny Program, and probably the premier Black comedian of the time) is on hand as the shiftless boyfriend of the family maid, hamtastic character actor Mischa Auer is a mad Russian ballet teacher, Edward Arnold is Kirby senior (giving the stand-out performance of the film), Donald Meek is another house guest, and H.B. Warner (one day to be Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life) shows up as a ruined businessman. And all directed by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

Of course, the real point of the above scene is that Grandpa doesn’t need anything from the government. In fact, they don’t need anything from anyone. Interestingly, part of the reason they don’t need anything is because they have the right to private property; Grandpa owns the house in New York City that they live in (truly the past is another country) and can basically do what he likes with it. If he wants to invite any interesting stranger to come and stay, and if they happen to stay for decades on end, well, what of it? It’s his house.

This is a frequent theme in Capra’s works; skepticism of the rich is blended with a strong regard for property rights, because, in Capra’s view, the right to own property ensures individual liberty. The Vanderhof family can do as they like and ask nothing from anyone because they own their own house.

Owning their own property also allows them to be charitable and contribute to society. The Vanderhof’s aren’t idle bums; they (in Grandpa’s words) “Toil a little, spin a little, and have a barrel of laughs.” Everyone produces something, and no one asks for charity (well, except for Rochester’s character, who’s a lovable bum…but so is Micha Auer’s character).

This calls to mind Ephesians 4:28 “He that stole, let him now steal no more; but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have something to give to him that suffereth need,” which brings me to the other reason the Vanderhof’s don’t need anything from the government: faith and family. They support each other, and God supports all of them. Grandpa makes this explicit right off the bat when asked who takes care of them; “The same one who takes care of the lilies of the field,” and further emphasized by the scenes of him offering grace that bookend the story.

Personally, I’m very skeptical of Chesterton’s notion of ‘Distributism.’ Brilliant as he was, he had a glaring blind spot as far as economics were concerned (something he shared with many other brilliant men, including Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. It seems the qualities that make for philosophical genius tend to create gaps as far as economics are concerned). However, as an ideal for individuals, a self-sufficient household that asks nothing and produces worthwhile goods to support itself is something worth striving for. It is a very Christian and Biblical notion; each family supporting itself and providing charity to those in need from its own property, bound together by shared faith and love.

Property, faith, and family are the trinity that allows for individual liberty. In our world, we’ve largely lost all three to the extent that we hardly know what we have lost.