Movie Reviews – January 2020

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SO you’re back from your FIFO stint at the mines, and wondering what to watch at the movies? Here are some of the current and recently-released films you might want to catch at the cinemas or on a DVD.

JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL

Dwayne Johnson, DannyDeVito

THIS sequel to the well-received Welcome To The Jungle reunites the cast of young friends Spencer, Martha, Fridge and Bethany, who previously entered the mystical video game world of Jumanji by accident and barely escaped alive.

The meek and mild Spencer is unhappy ever since leaving Jumanji the first time, having moved to a dead end job in New York and missing his friends. To make matters worse, he’s broken up with Bethany.

So he uses the broken Jumanji console from the previous movie and  finds a way to go back in, hoping to resume the life of the hulkish and heroic Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), the avatar he was landed with the last time he entered the fantasy setting.

His friends eventually discover what he’s done and decide to go in after him, but, because the console was damaged, things don’t go quite to plan.

The machine sucks in Spencer’s grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his old partner Milo (Danny Glover) as well, leaving Bethany in the real world.

Of all them, only Martha is in the same avatar as before — the martial arts expert Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). Grandpa Eddie takes over Dr Bravestone’s body, with Johnson producing a devasting impression of DeVito in mannerisms and speech.

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Milo, meanwhile, ends up in Mouse Finbar, the identity Fridge assumed the last time, but who now ends up as Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), Bravestone’s weapon valet whose weaknesses include cake.

The tenor in this movie hits a new level indeed when Bravestone and Mouse interact as two grumpy old men, adding a fresh dimension to what could have been a jaded more-of-the-same adventure.

This time around they once again have to get back a stone from an evil villain, Jurgen the Brutal (played by Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann). Spencer, meanwhile, has turned up as Ming, a burglar who also happens to be an Asian woman (Awkwafina). Eventually Bethany finds her way back to Jumanji as well, though in an unexpected guise.

The action scenes in each game level are particularly ingenious and impressive, interlaced with quips and humour that endear and entertain.

Interestingly, the very first Jumanji instalment, back in 1995, featured Robin Williams’ character entering a board game and then years later escaping, but pursued by various jungle critters and deadly denizens.

The mid-credits scene of The Next Level touches on this aspect,  setting up the possible premise for the fourth chapter.


CATS

Francesca Hayward, Judi Dench

THE movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running musical (based of course on TS Eliot’s poetry) has finally made it to the screen, after much-publicised negative reaction to advance trailers.

Using “digital fur” technology, the film turns its star-studded cast into singing, dancing kitties, a “weirdness” factor that caused most of the early uproar.

But if viewers can somehow overcome this unnatural countenance, they may actually find themselves enjoying the adventures of the tribe of cats called the Jellicles, who gather together for a (fur)ball and celebration.

If you’re not familiar with the story, the felines include the feisty Bombalurina (Taylor Swift), upper-class “fat cat” Bustopher Jones (James Corden), old Gus the theatre cat (Ian McKellen), lazy but agile Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), flashy Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), and formerly glamorous outsider Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson). Idris Elba adds some spice as the villainous Macavity, while Francesca Hayward plays the abandoned small white kitten Victoria, a newly-created character.

Many of the Jellicles are vying to be selected by their matriarch, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), to rise up to the Heaviside Layer, which is essentially what the cats consider heaven. To be considered, they participate in an Idol style competition, an annual ritual which provides the platform for the many song-and-dance routines.

The most well-loved composition of course is the beautiful Memory, which Hudson screams out throughout the alleys as if she’s trying to hack out a hairball, begging to be brought back into the clan and wet-nosing it profusely like a pampered puss in director Tom Hooper’s preferred one-take-only style.

The actors generally don’t disappoint, although they have to make do with what they’re given. It’s hard to keep a serious face when a decorated thespian as McKellen starts to meow and laps at milk. Dame Judi proves she can carry a tune (and indeed had been cast as both Grizabella and Jennyanydots in the initial stage version).

Wilson, meanwhile, does her acting resume no favours as she remains typecast as a plus-size, goofy, happy-go-lucky character. But she does feature in the movie’s most disturbing moments: treating rodents with human faces as her own pets, and choreographing goose-stepping cockroaches, some of whom she actually eats.

Mind you, the dancers’ sensuous movements, throbbing tails and furry cat butts can create curious stirrings in the mind. The male dancers are for all intents and purposes naked, but have been digitally spayed, leaving nothing but flat nether regions. And, in trying too hard to emulate pussy proclivities, the actors gracelessly stick their legs into the air, thankfully not proceeding to rear-end sniffing and worse.

Some observers believe that a Pixar-like animated version of Cats would have done the musical better justice than this experimental anthropomorphic exercise, yet bizarrely, this live-action interpretation is just so bewilderingly out of the ordinary that it has an allurement of its own

Not quite the cat’s meow and far from purr-fect … but five paws out of ten for its sheer outlandishness.


STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley

IT’S almost hard to believe that now, more than 40 years later after the Star Wars saga graced the silver screen, the ninth instalment of the franchise brings closure as the Skywalker arc comes to an end, while new chapters unfold on TV streaming services, Baby Yoda and all.

Even more than the last two entries, this one feels made specifically for the Star Wars diehards, who have long chided the use of complex plot twists to confuse and compound proceedings (as in the poorly-received prequels).

Heeding their requests, director and Lucas protege JJ Abrams directs with tunnel vision, never wishing to experiment beyond what’s expected in a Star Wars story and running the risk of infuriating the fan boys.

The result is a nostalgic and sentimental production that isn’t concerned with breaking new ground as much as it is with bidding farewell. It coasts along without portent nor provocation, keeping its eye on the prize, tying up loose ends and giving followers one last chance to say goodbye.

You know how it begins: a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The galactic rebels, in this case the Resistance, are evading the evil forces of the First Order, marshalled by self-declared Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

Leading our heroes are General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) and commander Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who’s given more screen time this time round than his compatriot Finn (John Boyega), who seems to have been shunted into the background.

Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley) has been secluded and continuing her training in the ways of the Force, on her journey to become a Jedi knight. But she’s pulled back into action by Poe, after a mysterious message of revenge is broadcast by a surprisingly resurrected Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who also threaten’s Ren’s hold on power.

For most of the time, this latest chapter does little to expand the story. Oddly, despite running for two hours and 22 minutes, it still has the feeling of being cramped, with Abrams rushing along to finalise destinies, giving us long foreshadowed showdowns and bringing back some cherished favourites who we know we will never see again.

Many of the plot details are basically updates of old Star Wars elements. Indeed, the opening half-hour is an unapologetic mash-up of previous setpieces, characters and plotlines (the Millennium Falcon at light speed; dogfights around gorges; cute droids; banter over chess; military superiors with hands clasped behind their backs; giant subterranean worms).

The special effects are fittingly stellar, CGI bombardment notwithstanding, including a lightsabre duel between Rey and Ren on the wreckage of a familiar landmark as enormous waves of water loom in the background.

Like many a final sequel, the last act of The Rise of Skywalker is a mad rush to shut up shop, with a climax comprised of yet another gargantuan space battle, but Abrams finds space to include some hints of romance and drama, including a kiss that is the film’s great shocker.

On the whole, the movie delivers spectacular sights and moments that will delight those who dearly love this world according to Lucas. And capping off the trip down memory lane is the return of composer-conductor John Williams, to score yet another Star Wars instalment.

All in all, it’s been a helluva ride, as this chapter concludes on an emotional high. But while it definitely ends with more than a whimper, it also begs the question of whether further episodes are needed.

The book is finished. We really don’t have to visit this odyssey again. Although, cynically, when the box-office count comes in, these nine parts of the roster might well be extended to 12.


THE GOOD LIAR

Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen

WHEN a movie is titled The Good Liar, we already suspect from the start that things are not going to be quite what they seem.

And within the first 10 minutes, it does seem pretty predictable how things might eventually wind up.

Indeed, critics might even point out that the plot suffers from the way developments appear to be telegraphed, but ultimately there is really a more sinister side to the story, which unfolds like a set of Babushka dolls.

The film starts with two strangers of senior years, Betty McLeish (Mirren) and Roy Courtnay (McKellen), out on a dinner date.

Roy is in fact a con artist, and despite his charm, it’s quite clear that even while he claims piously that he “despises dishonesty above all else,” his life is one big lie.

The genial, trusting Betty appears to be besotted by Roy, so much so that within days she’s let him move into the guest room of her suburban home.

Agreeing to go on a holiday with Roy, she strangely expresses a preference for Berlin, and it’s on this trip to Germany that things start to get complicated, and the mood darkens so much it almost becomes another film.

Ultimately, what makes the movie click despite its story shortfalls is the consummate and seemingly effortless performance of the two main leads, who are an enormous pleasure to watch.

Indeed, they’re the best kind of liars: actors playing actors pretending not to be actors, and doing it with panache and professionalism.


KNIVES OUT

Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis

RENOWNED crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead under suspicious circumstances, after a family gathering to celebrate his 85th birthday.

Everyone present, including Harlan’s personal carer and nurse Marta (Arna de Armas), are possible suspects, with local police officers joined on the case by famed sleuth Benoit Blanc (Craig), who, as it turns out, was hired by an anonymous client to solve the crime, just to add more mystery to proceedings.

The incredible ensemble of respectable actors inhabit their characters snugly, who all have a motive for murder and something to hide.

The most interesting personality is immigrant Marta, who has a condition which causes her to throw up whenever she tells a lie, a virtue appreciated by Blanc, who enlists her to help lead the hunt for the evildoer.

In the end, the main enjoyment from the movie is being part of the case and wondering how to solve it. It’s not about the ending, it’s about the journey and soaking up every little detail, every foible, every clue and red herring.

Director Rian Johnson has made no secret of his admiration of Agatha Christie-esque murder mysteries, and his script is almost a tribute to the traditions and elements that make up this genre.

This unpredictable briskly-paced 130 minutes serves as a nicely-constructed modern reinvention of the whodunnit, and is by far the sharpest movie puzzle of the year.

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