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Movie Review

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Stampeding ostriches on a pecking mission are part of the next level in the game of Jumanji. Photo from SONY Pictures

By Heidi Sutton

Riding on the coattails of the 2017 box office hit Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, director Jake Kasdan has reassembled the original cast for an equally exciting sequel, Jumanji: The Next Level. Since opening mid-December, the action-packed film has dominated the box office, raking in over $700 million worldwide. 

Awkwafina joins the cast of Jumanji in The Next Level. Photo courtesy of SONY Pictures

Based on Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 children’s book, “Jumanji,” the story first appeared on the big screen in 1995. Starring Robin Williams, it centered around a creepy board game that summoned forth dangerous jungle creatures each time the dice was thrown.

Kasdan’s successful 2017 reboot featured four high school students — Spencer (Alex Wolff), Bethany (Madison Iseman), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Martha (Morgan Turner) — who come across the video game version of Jumanji while serving detention together. 

When each teenager picks an alias to start the game, they are teleported to the world of Jumanji and become the actual avatars they had chosen. Spencer becomes archaeologist Dr. Xander “Smolder” Bravestone (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), Bethany is cartographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), Fridge turns into zoologist Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart) and Martha is transformed into martial arts expert Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). 

With only three lifelines each, evident as black stripes on their wrist, the gang is tasked with a series of challenges in order to “win” the game. Only after successfully retrieving the Jaguar’s Eye from an evil villain, with a little help from avatar Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough (Nick Jonas), aka Alex Vreeke (Colin Hanks) who had been stuck in the game for 20 years, do they earn safe passage home. 

In The Next Level, the four teenagers, now in college, make plans to meet up at a local cafe for Christmas break. 

Danny Glover and Danny DeVito join the cast of Jumanji in The Next Level.

When Spencer fails to show up for the reunion, his friends go to his house looking for him. To their dismay, they discover the infamous video game, broken but still functional, in the basement and realize their friend has gone back to Jumanji. They decide to go rescue him but things take a funny turn. While Fridge and Martha reenter the digital world, Bethany is bypassed by the game and Spencer’s Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s former best friend Milo (Danny Glover) are unwittingly sucked in as well.

In a hilarious body swapping twist, Danny DeVito’s character initially finds himself in the Rock’s muscular 6-foot 5-inch body while Danny Glover’s character is now a zoologist in Kevin Hart’s body. Martha once again takes the form of Ruby Roundhouse but Fridge is now Jack Black’s map reader. 

Bethany joins the group later on in a nonhuman form and Jonas’ Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough also makes a reappearance. As the story unfolds, the cast switch avatars several times more by swimming in magic water, and we are introduced to a new character, a cat burgler named Ming Fleetfoot (rapper Awkwafina).

From left, Nick Jonas, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Dwayne Johnson, Awkwafina and Kevin Hart star in the third installment of the Jumanji franchise.
Photo courtesy of SONY Pictures

As the game is now at the next level, the stakes have also been elevated. Jumanji is suffering from a massive drought. To leave the game, the group, in addition to finding Spencer, must recover the Falcon’s Heart — a magical necklace stolen by warlord Jurgen the Brutal — which can end the drought if brought before sunlight and uttering Jumanji. Like before, each avatar has three lifelines with the addition of new skills (Ruby Roundhouse is now a nunchuck expert) and weaknesses (Prof. Oberon can now add heat, sun and sand to his growing list). 

The special effects are top notch. In addition to an exciting rope bridge scene in the jungle with vicious mandrills, the game’s map has now expanded to include the desert and dunes where the avatars are chased by prehistoric-looking ostriches and to Jurgen’s castle on an icy mountaintop where they face perilous cliffs and an unfriendly host.

As far as laughs go, The Next Level just might outdo its predecessor. Blain’s character Fridge finds much to complain about being in his new avatar, Prof. Oberon, which he finds even worse than when he was stuck as “Mouse,” whose weaknesses include cake. “At least I was still black,” he groans. 

Hart and Johnson’s characters are even funnier as perennially confused grandpas stuck in younger bodies. Johnson’s Danny DeVito impersonation with a New Jersey accent has hilarious results, especially when attempting to “smolder,” while Hart is tasked with capturing Glover’s slower speech, and his avatar ends up revealing key facts of the game too slowly to be of any use.

The clever script, filled with action, adventure and lots of comedy coupled with an outstanding cast and terrific soundtrack, is a winning formula. The final scene hints at a “Jumanji 4” — can’t wait! Running time is two hours. 

Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language, Jumanji: The Next Level is now playing in local theaters.

Adam Sandler stars in Uncut Gems. Photo courtesy of A24 Films

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a dealer in New York’s Diamond District. A gambling addict and a liar, he is a loser of the first order. He is desperately in search of a big score to get him out of debt, particularly the $100,000 owed to loan shark Arno. Uncut Gems follows his attempt to sell a valuable black opal, embedded in a piece of rock — the titular item. Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie (who cowrote the screenplay with Ronald Bronstein), it is a peripatetic two-and-a-quarter hours of violence and vulgarity that loses its novelty about 20 minutes in. 

The plot complication involves Boston Celtic Kevin Garnett (playing himself but not) who becomes convinced that the opal will bring him good luck. Ratner lends it to Garnett with the possibility of enticing him to purchase it for over one million dollars. 

The rest of the film follows Ratner trying to retrieve the opal and dodging the goons who are trying to recover the money that he owes. In the midst of this, Ratner’s life implodes as he deals with his soon-to-be ex-wife, his mistress and a range of other shady business dealings along with his attempts to bet on Garnett’s upcoming games.  

The action is in constant motion and certainly creates relentless tension. However, relentless friction without variety can soon become its own kind of monotony. At about the hour mark, it is clear that this jerky roller-coaster ride is going to yield very few surprises. Even the constant beatings and humiliations begin to take on a predictability.  

There is one rather engaging scene and the only one that truly catches a breath: a dysfunctional Passover seder with Ratner’s in-laws. It is both humorous and vaguely horrifying to see him sit down to a family dinner with a man who had him roughed-up hours earlier. Toward the end of the film, there is also an intriguing exchange between Ratner and Garnett about the dubious origin of the opal that calls into question the overall morality (think “blood diamonds”); this pause gives voice to something the movie nods to throughout. Written and presented deftly, it never feels preachy.  

The cast is uniformly strong, with Sandler delivering a dimensional and painful performance. He manages to project Ratner’s combination of chutzpah and defeat, often simultaneously. Julia Fox is believable as the conflicted party girl who loves Ratner certainly more than he deserves. Idina Menzel is wryly effective as the long-suffering wife who truly and rightly loathes her husband. 

Eric Bogosian is one of those actors who can convey a great deal with very little effort and is spot-on as Ratner’s brother-in-law, the loan shark who has no use for him; in one of the final scenes, with barely a shift, Bogosian’s face is a study of realizations. Judd Hirsch, as Ratner’s father-in-law, eschews his usual curmudgeon and gives the man a surprisingly light touch. Garnett is particularly good in this skewed take on celebrity that never crosses into self-parody; it is one of the better performances given by someone whose roots are not in acting.

However, all of these excellent performances don’t justify the whole as it is hard to invest in any of these people. It is possible to make terrible people engaging or, at the very least, intriguing. Unfortunately, the frenzied action of the film never allows for this. In the long run, Uncut Gems doesn’t deliver the goods.

From left, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Eliza Scanlen star as the March sisters in the latest adaptation of Little Women. Photo courtesy of SONY Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel Little Women was published in two volumes between 1868 and 1869. It told of the four March daughters: pretty Meg, tomboy Jo, delicate Beth and willful Amy. The book follows them from childhood to womanhood and was both a critical and commercial success. It spawned two sequels: Little Men and Jo’s Boys.

Over the years, there have been multiple screen and television versions and even a Broadway musical. Notable films have included the 1933 George Cukor version starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo; the 1949 one with June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor; and the most popular, the 1994 version featuring Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst and Claire Danes. Best of all is the 2018 Masterpiece/BBC co-production that manages to find the balance between its original source and a contemporary audience.

Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Timothée Chalamet as Laurie in a scene from the film.

The newest incarnation is written and directed by Greta Gerwig, best-known for her breakout with 2017’s Lady Bird. There is a distinctly modern feel to the adaptation, and this is unmistakably intentional. The more progressive pieces in the story are emphasized, and it highlights the daughters’ independence. Certain departures from the original story shift some of the motivations and subsequent reactions, but, overall, the film is very true onto itself. It even manages to provide two endings that are able to live side-by-side so that Jo does not lose her individuality.  

Little Women is not necessarily long on plot. Instead, it is really a series of events that reveal character. At its heart, it is about a family dealing with the world. Even though it is set during the Civil War, this cataclysmic event stays on the periphery. It is the day-to-day world of the March family: financial challenges, separations, illness, marriage, career. It is the detail with which these struggles and triumphs are told that make the tapestry.

Undoubtedly, it requires a gifted cast, and this one does not disappoint. The quartet at the center all fair well. Emma Watson makes for a dimensional Meg, whose mild vanity does not overwhelm her good intentions. Eliza Scanlen as Beth is appropriately winsome without resorting to the usual caricatures of shyness and fragility. 

Timothée Chalamet and Florence Pugh play Laurie and Amy in ‘Little Women.’

At the center of any Little Women is Jo, a wonderfully complicated character, whose dream of being a writer drives much of the narrative. Saoirse Ronan is dynamic in her passions and vulnerable in her confusions. She holds center and keeps the story and the family together. But it is Florence Pugh as selfish Amy who finds a true arc and is the only one of the four to succeed in playing the character’s age range and subsequent growth; it is an unusual and artful performance.

Laura Dern’s Marmee is appropriately kind and matriarchal if the most modern of the players. Timothée Chalamet presents a more human Laurie, who, thwarted in his love for Jo, sinks into visible dissipation; it is a bold choice on Gerwig’s part, but it pays off in the resolution.  

Meryl Streep’s Aunt March lacks a true imperiousness; part of this is that the brittle and icy center has been softened with some odd choices that are so antithetical to Alcott’s vision, it makes her too knowing and less of an antagonist to both overcome and win over.  

Laura Dern, Meryl Streep and Florence Pugh in a scene from the film.

In smaller roles, Bob Odenkirk seems lost as the father while Tracy Letts, as Jo’s first editor, Mr. Dashwood, hits all of the right notes. Chris Cooper, as neighbor and later friend Mr. Laurence, never quite gets to underlying pain. James Norton’s John Brooke, Laurie’s tutor and eventually Meg’s husband, has been reduced to a cipher, which is a shame given his importance. 

The same could be said of Louis Garrel’s Professor Bhaer, Jo’s New York suitor: there just isn’t enough of him to make an impression. Jayne Houdyshell, as the family housekeeper, Hannah, manages to make the most of her scenes and avoids stereotype as best she can.

One element that has always been a challenge in adapting Little Women is the progression of the sisters from pre-/early teens to twenties. Most have not solved this problem, and this manifestation suffers worse than the previous versions. This is because of the film’s one major flaw: Gerwig chose to eschew a linear structure, instead shifting back-and-forth over about a 10-year period. With one very powerful exception, nothing is gained by this lack of chronology. Many of the shifts are clumsy, and the viewers must regroup to figure out where they were left in the previous time line. For those not well-versed with the story, it would probably make for a confusing and occasionally frustrating experience.

However, putting this aside, the final result is still worthwhile. There is an honest emotional core, and it is hard not to invest into this fresh new foray into the March family. While this might not be the definitive Little Women, it is certainly one for our time. Rated PG, Little Women is now playing in local theaters.

Above, from left, Rumpleteazer (Naoimh Morgan), Victoria (Francesca Hayward) and Mungojerrie (Danny Collins) in a scene from Cats. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

In 1939, T.S. Eliot published a slender volume of poetry: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Fast-forward just over 40 years and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s megahit Cats premiered in the West End, where it played for 8,949 performances, becoming the longest-running West End musical, a record it held until 2006. The Broadway production opened in 1982 and ran for 7,845 performances; it is now the fourth longest-running Broadway show. Cats went on to be seen internationally, playing in dozens of countries and languages.  

In 1998, a direct-to-video production was shot at London’s Adelphi Theatre. While significant cuts were made and it was played on a new set, it gives a sense of the stage production. 

Cats has always been a divisive musical, dividing into two distinct camps: It has its champions and its detractors, with few in the middle ground.

Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

The current offering of Cats many lives is the film directed by Tom Hooper with a screenplay by Hooper and Lee Hall. This means that Hooper is doubly responsible for what is on the screen. And while Hooper’s work has included the John Adams miniseries, The King’s Speech and The Danish Girl, Hooper also gave us the clumsy, bloated and wholly unsatisfying 2012 Les Misérables.

The plot of Cats — such as it is — tells of the Jellicle Ball, an annual gathering of cats where one is granted the chance to go the Heavyside Layer and rewarded with a new life. Here, it is told through the eyes of Victoria, an abandoned kitten. All of this is just a structure in which to introduce a range of cats who each pitch their right to be granted this wish, their individuality displayed through a series of musical turns. Throughout, the candidates are thwarted by the mysterious Macavity, whose nefarious plan is made clear fairly early on.

The film opens strongly with one of the best numbers from the show,“Jellicle Cats.” It manages to provide cinematic spectacle without losing its musical theater roots. Ultimately, it was when Hooper allows Broadway to come through, the movie finds its limited success. When the cast dances, there are moments of real celebration. Unfortunately, after the first 10 minutes or so, he decided to not trust the material, and the film becomes choppy, disconnected and feels overlong. There is an unnecessary slapstick, singing rats and dancing cockroaches. These elements are neither whimsical nor clever and enhance neither story nor spectacle.

The film boasts a number of high profile names. Rebel Wilson as Jennnyanydots and James Cordern as Bustopher Jones are ill-served by aggressively abrasive choices — novelty songs that are stripped of their charm and turned grotesque. Idris Elba fairs decently as the ominous Macavity, and Taylor Swift, as his henchperson, Bombalurina, is not given much to do but her one decently executed number. 

Judi Dench, as feline matriarch Old Deuteronomy, and Ian McKellen, as Gus the Theatre Cat, are channeling everything they’ve done for the past five decades and come out best. Jennifer Hudson, as the downtrodden Grizabella, is too overwrought and loses the sympathetic core of “Memory.” Newcomer Francesca Hayward functions nicely as Victoria the catalyst for the action (no pun intended). 

What is most surprising is that the voices in general are pleasant but not strong, which is an odd choice for an almost sung-through film. (The less said about the dialogue that has been shoe-horned in, the better.)

However, the biggest problem — and it is insurmountable — is the overall visual of the film. The characters have been strangely CGI-ed, and they come across neither as humans or cats but as some Island of Dr. Moreau hybrids. There is an unfinished quality to the faces, as if they are poking their heads through a Coney Island cut-out. The bodies are clearly feline but some are clothed and some are not, sending a bizarre and uncomfortable mixed message.

There is no commitment to what the audience is supposed to be seeing and the result is disturbing. Why the creators did not take a page from the stage production is a mystery for at least then they could have found an aesthetically pleasing or least unifying design.

There has been discussion of a Cats film since the musical first became popular. Given the nature of the source, it is a challenging one. And while the play will continue to prowl stages across the world, the film will surely be a strange and unpleasant footnote in the history of movie musicals.

Rated PG, Cats is now playing in local theaters.

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By Jeffrey Sanzel

Security guard Richard Jewell was working the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, at Centennial Olympic Park. On July 27, he spotted a backpack underneath a bench and called in the suspicious package. One of three pipe bombs in the bag went off, causing two deaths and hundreds of injuries. But it was Jewell’s quick thinking that saved thousands of lives. Immediately, Jewell was thrust into the spotlight. These accolades were short-lived as he went from hero to suspect. On July 30, 1996, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution identified Richard Jewell as the FBI’s prime suspect. What ensued was a nightmare for Jewell, an innocent man.

The film Richard Jewell is based on Marie Brenner’s February 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” and the book The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle (2019), by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen. Directed by Clint Eastwood, with a screenplay by Billy Ray, the film is a scathing indictment of the FBI and the media.

Paul Walter Hause in a scene from ‘Richard Jewell’. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

The movie opens with a brief prologue setting up Jewell as a college rent-a-cop. Jewell is a sad-sack of a man with the sole ambition of working in law enforcement, who has a hard time finding the line between spirit and letter. In many ways, this desire adds to his later persecution.

The film then jumps to the day before the bombing and follows Jewell through that horrifying event. What follows is his brief shining moments and then the relentless pursuit by government and media.

Jewell engages a lawyer whom he knew years before, a maverick named Watson Bryant. Bryant takes over the case and attempts to control Jewell’s statements to the FBI but is constantly checking Jewell’s desire to be seen as one of them. There are many statements about Jewell fitting a particular profile. These are revealed to be skewed − ungrounded in select and selected facts. Eventually, the FBI is not able to make its case, and he is exonerated, but the damage is done.

It is a dark story that takes its time. With the exception of the bombing itself, the film focuses on one man’s victimization by a system he doesn’t fully understand. There are multiple scenes of interrogation and violation of his privacy. There is not a great deal of action, but the driving force is the knowledge that he is innocent.

Richard Jewell contains three truly excellent performances. The always strong Sam Rockwell is engaging as the wry lawyer, finding variety and nuance in every look and sigh as he marvels with exasperation at his client’s naivete. Kathy Bates finds dimension as Jewell’s mother, Bobi. In what could play into every stereotype, she mines the role for both love and frustration with her son. 

At the center of the film is Paul Walter Hauser as Richard Jewell. A large, lumbering figure, he exudes a desperation that reflects his own need to be accepted by a world that has very little use for him. It is a heart-breaking performance, and Hauser presents a fully realized man. Rather than a caricature of a gun-owning mama’s boy, Hauser’s Jewell is a man who loves his mother and whose only goal in life is to protect.

Jon Hamm, as the stone-faced FBI agent Tom Shaw, does little but alternate between grimacing and glowering. Olivia Wilde is given the unenviable job of portraying the reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kathy Scruggs, who first wrote about Jewell being a person of interest. The film has garnered controversy over its portrayal of Scruggs, who is shown offering sex to Shaw in exchange for information. This is an entirely fictious creation with no grounding in fact.  The real-life Scruggs was a fascinating person, of great depth, and is given short shrift.  

This is not the only place where the film has taken liberties with swaths of the truth. If the Vanity Fair source is to be trusted, there are perhaps too many pieces that have been fictionalized for narrative purposes. In a film that is calling into question the power of the press, one must then ask if it is not equally as dangerous to present a flawed reflection of an historical event.

Ultimately, Richard Jewell is a film with a trio of great performances and strong, simmering storytelling. And, in its own way, it is a cautionary reminder of the power and responsibility of government and media.  

Photo from Sony Pictures Entertainment

By Jeffrey Sanzel

There is no greater American icon than Fred Rogers — the Mr. Rogers of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Generations of children have grown up under the tutelage of the man whose sole quest was to let children be children. His soft-spoken and often simple wisdom has been explored, dissected and parodied for decades. But, ultimately, his pure and honest humanity has shown through.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is inspired by Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say … Hero?” Director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Micah Fizterman-Blue and Noah Harpster have chosen the source as a jumping-off place to create the fictional story of an emotionally lost and damaged journalist whose life is altered by profiling the beloved television host.

The film is in no way a biopic of Rogers. If one is seeking an account of Fred Rogers, then the heartfelt 2018 Won’t You Be My Neighbor? documentary explores Rogers with a wealth of archival clips and interviews. It is as both straightforward and as complicated as the man himself and an indispensable contribution to his legacy.

Photo from Sony Pictures Entertainment

Instead, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood draws upon Rogers’ ethos and how it affected and continues to influence the world for good.

Matthew Rhys plays journalist Lloyd Vogel, whose closet full of demons has disconnected him from the world. The story focuses on the dysfunctional relationship with his estranged father (a dimensional Chris Cooper) who walked out on him and his sister when their mother was dying. 

Vogel struggles to communicate with his frustrated wife (the always terrific Susan Kelechi Watson), to face his life as a new father, and to deal with the world in general. At first, he is resistant to the ministrations of Rogers, but gradually, he realizes the power of embracing Rogers’ philosophies. The film is Vogel’s arc, with Rogers a catalyst for change.

Rhys manages the transition from depressed and detached to self-aware and almost reborn with a slow, methodical intensity. It is an unsurprising performance but one in which we can invest. While the resolution is inevitable, his pain is palpable and his growing awareness authentic. 

The surrounding actors are strong and Heller has brought out subtle and absorbing work from the entire company, including Christine Lahti (Ellen, Vogel’s Esquire editor), Enrico Colantoni (Bill Isler, the president of Family Communications), Maryann Plunkett (Joanne Rogers, Fred’s wife), Tammy Blanchard (Lorraine, Vogel’s sister), and Jessica Hecht (Lila Vogel, Vogel’s dying mother). The entire ensemble is fully present, bringing nuance to the action.

However, the heart of the film is Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. There is no actor more suited to don the sweater than Hanks, and he does not disappoint. Eschewing imitation, Hanks evokes the soul of the man, making sure that his Rogers is not a hagiography. We see joy, pain, introspection and a man who struggles but never ceases to search for peace and understanding in a difficult world.  

And while his screen time does not rival Rhys’, Hanks dominates each moment with an open presence that makes him unique among even the greatest movie actors. Whether engaging with his public, watching a playback of a scene he has just shot or voicing the Neighborhood puppets, he is riveting. A scene that focuses on a moment of silence in a Chinese restaurant is as wondrous as a subway car breaking out into the show’s theme song. It is all reflected in Hanks’ understated yet overwhelming portrayal.  

The takeaway from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is that we must face life’s trials and that we can grow from these challenges. It is a message — and a film — of which Fred Rogers would approve.

Image from Walt Disney Animation Studios

By Jeffrey Sanzel

In 2013, Disney released Frozen, a computer-animated musical fantasy. Loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, it was the story of two sisters, Elsa and Anna, and a journey of deep discovery. Visually stunning, with a powerful message of “true love” not being connected to marrying a prince, the film was an international sensation. 

The voice talents of Idina Menzel as Elsa, the princess with the power, and Kristen Bell as Anna, the sibling on a quest, were perfectly supported by Santino Fontana as the seemingly ideal prince, Jonathan Groff as a self-deprecating ice harvester, and a hilarious Josh Gad as the slightly manic snowman obsessed with summer. The delightful score, by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, spawned the anthem “Let It Go.”

Joining the latter-day classics such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, Frozen quickly became an international phenomena, grossing over $1.2 billion. The only surprise is that it took six years for a sequel. Frozen II reunites Menzel, Bell, Groff and Gad, along with a host of additional voice artists.  

Image from Walt Disney Animation Studios

The film opens hopefully with King Agnarr of Arendelle (Alfred Molina) relating the story of the Enchanted Forest to his young daughters, Elsa (voiced by Mattea Conforti) and Anna (an adorable Hadley Gannaway). It sets up the plot of Agnarr’s grandfather, King Runeard (Jeremy Sisto), and a treaty-gone-wrong with the tribe of Northuldra, a clan that posses a deep magic of which the Arendelle are suspicious. 

The film then goes forward to pick up three years after the previous film.  Elsa (Menzel) is queen and keeping her wintry powers in check. Anna (Bell) is a free-spirited princess, now courted by the smitten Kristoff (Groff) who spends most of his screen time attempting to propose, egged on by his reliable reindeer friend, Sven (also voiced by Groff).

What ensues is a complicated mythology involving the elemental spirits of earth, fire, water and air — and a fifth, unnamed element that becomes clear about half-way through. It is a convoluted folklore that is resolved a bit too simply. Ultimately, what is lacking in the plot is true conflict. 

Much of Frozen was driven by the friction and misunderstanding of characters in action — all trying desperately to get what they want — building up to several powerful revelations. They were human and flawed and that made them all the more wonderful. The underlying theme was threaded throughout, and the climax was the wholly satisfying result of overcoming challenges and solving problems. Frozen II substitutes genuine tension and depth for a string of incidents and “adventures” that just don’t build to any surprises.

Image from Walt Disney Animation Studios

The sequel is now without its entertaining moments, and the score (by Lopez and Lopez-Anderson), while not approaching the first’s innovation and delight, is more than serviceable. Gad shines as the chatterbox Olaf, and a highlight is the snowman’s recapping of the entire first movie. It’s a delightful bit of madcap in a film that is sorely lacking moments of humor. Unlike the first that found a wryness even in the darkest moments, Frozen II feel relentlessly serious.  

The additional voice artists are not as well-served as they should be, with some very talented performers given what amounts to glorified cameos: Molina, Sisto, Evan Rachel Wood,  Martha Plimpton and Jason Ritter barely register. It is not so much the length of their screen time but the quality. Sterling K. Brown’s lieutenant shows great promise but  is unfortunately not developed nearly enough.  

There are several pieces that are clearly envisioned toward promotional items. The fire element turns out to be a very cute froglike creature that will no doubt be making its debut in Happy Meals across the country. Rock monsters and water horses are ideal of stickers and folders and whatever else the marketing department can dream up. And what is cuter than a reindeer? Lots of reindeers.

Pictorially, it is breathtaking. The images are beautiful, and there is never a false or inconsistent moment in its landscape. The characters are animated with honesty and project genuine emotion. The fantastic elements are gloriously realized in a true rainbow of variety. But it is this triumph of style over substance that makes the movie fall short on its ability to engage. The film feels not just long but stretched. The scenes meander and then seem to be repeated again 10 minutes later. There is a great deal of padding in the 100+ minutes.

Conceptually, Frozen II probably seemed to be a great idea on paper and, certainly, in its artists’ eyes, it is. One could just wish for a little more fire under the snow.

Angelina Jolie returns as the horned antagonist in the Maleficent sequel.

By Heidi Sutton

It’s been five years since Disney brought us the fairy tale Maleficent, a twist on the story of Sleeping Beauty where the focus is not on Aurora who falls into a deep sleep after pricking her finger on a spindle but on the evil fairy who put a curse on the princess in the first place.

Now its darker sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil hits local theaters and does not disappoint. King Stefan is dead and Aurora has been raised by her fairy godmother Maleficent in the Moors, a magical place filled with strange and mythical creatures. Humans and fairies live separate but in peace.

Aurora meets her future mother-in-law in a scene from Maleficent 2.

When Aurora becomes engaged to Prince Phillip, his parents, King John and Queen Ingrith of the Kingdom of Ulstead, invite Aurora and Maleficent to the castle for dinner. It is there that we discover the queen’s true intentions — to frame Maleficent for the murder of the king in order to have cause to declare war on the Moorfolk with devastating consequences.

Fans of the first film will be pleased to know that much of the original cast is back, with the exception of Brenton Thwaites who played Prince Phillip in the first film. Angelina Jolie is back as Maleficent complete with horns, wings and cheek prosthetics; Elle Fanning is the sweet Aurora; Sam Riley returns as Diaval, Maleficent’s loyal servant and pet raven; while Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville reprise their roles as pixies Knotgrass, Thistlewit and Flittle.

Newcomers include the handsome Harris Dickinson as Aurora’s prince, Robert Lindsay as King John, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Conall the Dark Fey and the incredible Michelle Pfeiffer as the villainous Queen Ingrith, aka Aurora’s future mother-in-law from hell.

A scene from Maleficent 2

It’s hard to figure out who director Joachim Ronning’s target audience is. On the one hand, the film is at times very violent, with an intense war scene between the humans and an army of dark fey, an attempted extermination of the Moorfolk in the palace’s church of all places and the sacrifice of one of the film’s most beloved characters. On the flip side, many of the Moors’ inhabitants are borderline silly with big eyes and cute voices and seemed geared toward children.

With a budget of $180 million, the film is visually stunning with special mention to the  scene where an injured Maleficent is rescued by her own kind and given a winged tour of a secret world where the dark fey eek out an existence away from humans. (I predict a new ride at Disney World.) 

In the end, the wedding of Aurora and Phillip serves as a union of the Kingdom of Ulstead and the Moors and a timely lesson against fear, bigotry, racism and intolerance and that makes it worth a view.

Rated PG, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is now playing in local theaters

Photos courtesy of Disney Studios

 

The Addams Family returns to the big screen in time for Halloween. Image courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Charles Addams’ delightfully macabre cartoons of the bizarre Addams band first appeared in The New Yorker in 1938. In the subsequent 50 years, this satirical inversion of the nuclear family was featured in dozens of single-panel drawings. In 1964, the live-action series premiered on ABC and was welcomed into American households for two seasons. This was followed by two animated series as well as several reunion specials. 

The franchise was successfully rebooted in 1991 with The Addams Family and the even better sequel Addams Family Values (1993). In 2008, the family got the full Broadway treatment with a musical that has lived on in regional and high school theaters across the country. The first family of Halloween has been seen in everything from board games to drink coasters.  

Nearly 10 years ago, there was news of a Tim Burton stop-motion Addams family to be produced by Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment. However, in 2013, MGM acquired the rights and it is this version that has now been produced as a 3-D animated comedy. Conrad Vernon directs a predictable screenplay by Matt Lieberman and Pamela Pettler.  

It is a shame that Burton was not able to realize his vision. Given his work — particularly The Nightmare Before Christmas — the result would most likely have been more satisfying.

The plot focuses on the threat of the family being pushed out of its haunted mansion by a devious T.V. home renovation host, Margaux Needler, who is building a model community, Assimilation. In addition, son Pugsley will be having his Mazurka celebration (think bar mitzvah with swords) and the entire clan is expected to descend upon the family. Daughter Wednesday becomes curious about the outside world and befriends Needler’s daughter, whom she leads into rebellion.  

While these elements could add up to a terrific satire, it never quite transcends its literalness. There is a pedestrian feel to the constantly repeated theme of all-people-just-want-to-be-accepted-for-who-they-are. Visually, it looks closer to the Saturday morning cartoons, and some of the more famous lines are wedged into the dialogue. In the end, there is something flat and uninspired in the result: The film is less Addams family than it is Hotel Transylvania. One has the sense that the creators were hedging their bets and played it safe with a child-centric film, leaving little for the adult audience. While there are nods to the Addams canon, it never feels like it enters that weird, wonderful world.  

There is a wealth of voice talent, with some utilized better than others. Charlize Theron captures Morticia Addams’ low notes with a fittingly languid affectation. Oscar Issac is a nice compliment as the excitable Gomez. The children are well-realized by an appropriately affectless Chloë Grace Moretz as Wednesday and Finn Wolfhard as the pugnacious Pugsley. Nick Kroll makes an amusing if one-note Uncle Fester. Sadly, Bette Midler is not given enough to do as Grandmama. Other voices include Snoop Dogg (Cousin Itt), Martin Short (Grandpa Frump), Catherine O’Hara (Grandma Frump), Tituss Burgess (Margaux’s agent) and Jenifer Lewis (Great Auntie Sloom). Allison Janney makes the most of the villainous Margaux Needler but there’s almost no opportunity for variety.

The highlight of the film comes at the end, when the television show’s opening sequence is recreated, Vic Mizzy theme song and all.

In its own way, the movie is child-friendly creepy and methodically kooky but with little mystery and certainly not spooky. Ultimately, what’s lacking is what makes the Addams family unique: One is left asking, “Where’s the ooky?”

Rated PG, The Addams Family is now playing in local theaters.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as the Joker. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Batman’s most infamous nemesis, the Joker, first appeared in the Batman comic book in 1940. Created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, the psychopathic clown with a sadistic streak has endured for eight decades, being reinvented time and again.  

The Joker was first embodied on the small screen in the 1960s with Cesar Romero’s over-the-top but highly enjoyable take in the camp television series (and subsequent film) Batman. First-billed Jack Nicholson played the criminal with gangster shades in the more serious 1989 Batman film. Heath Ledger received a posthumous Oscar for his twitchy, psychotic anarchist that traded on the character’s insanity and ambiguity in The Dark Knight (2008). Jared Leto took a fairly modern approach with a tattooed and outlandish hoodlum in Suicide Squad (2016).

As for the Joker’s origin, it has been recreated throughout his existence, with no true commitment to who he is and how he came to be. Part of his mystique is this swirling mystery. The Joker is the ultimate unreliable narrator: “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another … if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” (The Killing Joke, 1988).

Which brings us to Joker, the new film from director Todd Phillips, who has co-written the screenplay with Scott Silver. This is not just a rethinking of the character and his world; this is another world entirely, and a brutally real one.  

The Gotham City of Joker is a bleak vision of 1980 New York City, a crime- and rat-infested hell; it is a world mired in corruption where the haves actively keep down the have-nots. There are strong political statements that touch on gun control, living conditions of the disenfranchised and the treatment of mental health. (It should be noted that there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the film and its violence.)  

Phillips presents a back-storied Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a clown whose work is limited to sign-tossing in front of stores and entertaining in children’s hospital wards. He suffers from a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times. The marginalized Fleck cares for his mother (Frances Conroy, harboring family secrets) in a rundown apartment. Fleck’s great goal is to become a stand-up comic and an unsuccessful attempt contributes to his downward spiral.  

Rather than the tale of a larger-than-life villain — the insane master criminal and homicidal clown — Joker is about society’s rejection of those who need the support the most. The film opens with him being beaten by a group of teenage thugs. Later, Fleck learns that the social services he relies on for his seven medications have been cut. It is this continuous “bad day” scenario that plagues him.  

The already delicate Fleck is driven to his choices by external circumstances. His murder of three Wall Street brokers who are abusing him on the subway becomes freeing. His actions make him a hero to a city that takes up the cry of “Kill the Rich.” Mobs of clown-masked protesters turn the metropolis into a literal hell.

If one separates the history of the character, it is easier to embrace Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. It is a monument of introspection, of ticks, of pain. His Fleck is a man on the brink and then beyond. The camera rarely leaves him for the two-hour running time. Phoenix is the film.

If anything, the character is based less on the Joker and hearkens more to Travis Bickle, the anti-hero of Taxi Driver (1976), with shades of Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy (1982). This is no surprise as the common denominator is Robert DeNiro, the creator of Bickle in the former and the down-on-his luck comedian Pupkin in the latter. In Joker, DeNiro comfortably assays a callous late-night host who brings Fleck onto his show, after using a clip of Fleck’s disastrous stand-up. So much of this adds up to Joker as a homage to these films and those performances.

Special note should be made of Lawrence Sher’s cinematography. Its evocative harshness contributes to the uncompromising tension. The final moments resonate long after the film is over, a true portrait of senseless, bloody violence. 

Joker certainly feels the least like a comic adaptation of any film, and, as an addition to that cinematic universe, it is a strange one. However, it is apparent that this was a choice by the creators. They have opted for a realm that is a gritty, recognizable world, where the day-to-day angers cause horrors that enflame chaos and mayhem. Ultimately, if one separates the film from its source, Joker is a dark, unique and current reflection of our own times.

Rated R, Joker is now playing in local theaters.