The Movie Snob finally makes it back to the megaplex.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (C). Ugh! I’m on Day 10 of a cold. So I looked for some cinematic comfort food, and I settled on this sleeper hit that’s still hanging on from the Christmas season. According to IMDB, it has grossed about $370 million domestically on a $90 million budget, so not bad. I didn’t see the 1995 Robin Williams version, so I had no expectations (except that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would be likable, which he of course was). It was a mediocre experience—utterly predictable, but with a few amusing scenes here and there. Four high schoolers get sucked into a video game, where they are given new bodies reflecting their in-game avatars. It’s somewhat entertaining that they are cast against type: the nerd becomes beefy Johnson (Moana), the jock becomes diminutive Kevin Hart (The Five-Year Engagement), the awkward loner girl becomes Lara-Croft-esque Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy), and in the oddest twist the beautiful social-media queen becomes . . . Jack Black (Gulliver’s Travels). They have to complete a quest to “win the game” and escape back into the real world. The suspense is less than minimal, but as I mentioned there are a few laughs here and there. And Gillan is very attractive, so there’s that. Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content, and some language (most of the latter two arising, I believe, from the situation of a high-school girl’s consciousness getting stuck inside a middle-aged guy’s body).
Metropolitan (A-). Well, your reviewer was feeling a bit under the weather, so I wanted something light and cheery. I had fond memories of this 1990 indie flick but hadn’t seen it in years, so I pulled down my unwatched Criterion Collection DVD and gave it a spin. Suffice to say, it was as good as I remembered it being. It is about eight young people—four girls and four guys, early college-age, as best I can tell—who gather almost every night in Manhattan over one Christmas break to go to various debutante parties or balls or whatever they are. We don’t see too much of the parties themselves—the focus is on the after-parties, where the youngsters earnestly discuss all sorts of things you might not expect, like Jane Austen, the existence of God, and the relative merits of the bourgeoisie. Hm, I’m not really selling the movie very well. There are plenty of romantic complications too as sweet and inexperienced Audrey gets a crush on group newcomer and professed socialist Tom, who is still hung up on his ex-girlfriend Serena, who was last known to be dating the repellent Rick Von Sloneker. And the dialogue really is very funny, at least if you think it’s funny to hear lines like “Ours is probably the worst generation since the Protestant Reformation” delivered by very young people with drop-dead seriousness.
Writer-director-producer Whit Stillman went on to make two other excellent films in the 1990s, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, (starring Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale). Enough people took notice of his work to result in the 2002 publication of a book called Doomed Bourgeois in Love: Essays on the Films of Whit Stillman. Stillman then went quiet for a long time. Then in 2011 he released Damsels in Distress, which I thought was good but not as good as his prior work, and then in 2016 he released the better Love & Friendship. IMDB.com doesn’t show that he has anything new in the works, but I’m holding out hope. If you are new to his work I recommend you start at the beginning and give Metropolitan a try!
The 39 Steps (B). Well, I intended to see a movie at the theater today, but I got some bad information from the internet and wound up seeing nothing. So I decided to get some use out of my DVD collection and pulled down The Criterion Collection edition of this 1935 Hitchcock thriller. Robert Donat (Goodbye Mr. Chips) stars as Hannay, an ordinary Londoner caught up in a web of intrigue when he takes a beautiful woman back to his flat one evening and she turns out to be a spy—and gets herself murdered that very night! Suddenly, Hanney is on the run—wanted by the police on suspicion of murder and by sinister spies who are trying to steal British military secrets. On a train to Scotland he has a meet-cute with Pamela (Madeleine Carroll, Secret Agent), and they later team up to try to foil the foreign plot. The film is not terribly suspenseful but has some pleasant romantic-comedy aspects to it. And at 86 minutes, it’s quite efficient. I didn’t watch all the extras that Criterion packed onto the disc, but a short feature about Hitchcock’s film career in England before moving to Hollywood was interesting, and a critic’s discussion of The 39 Steps itself was also interesting and entertaining.
That Thing You Do! (A-). Today was way too cold to venture out and do anything, so I decided to revisit this old favorite. I could hardly believe it was released in 1996! Anyway, if you like feel-good movies, you should keep this one within arm’s reach at all times. Tom Hanks (A Hologram for the King) wrote, directed, and starred in this rags-to-riches story about an Erie, PA garage band that hits it big circa 1964, with the help of a mostly benevolent manager (Hanks). Tom Everett Scott (Hallmark TV’s Christmas Connection) plays the band’s drummer, a good-natured jazz-lover; Steve Zahn (Sahara) is the goofy guitarist; and cute little Liv Tyler (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) plays the girlfriend of the band’s moody leader Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech, Flight 7500). The film also features Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde) in a very early role as the drummer’s girlfriend. Bryan Cranston (Argo) also pops up in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role (as astronaut Gus Grissom!). The DVD also contains a short making-of featurette, two trailers, several commercials, and two music videos of songs from the movie. This movie is guaranteed to put a smile on your face, so get yourself a copy!
The Disaster Artist (B+). So, back in 2003, an odd and mysterious fellow named Tommy Wiseau wrote, directed, starred in, and bankrolled a very odd movie called The Room. It was a laughably terrible melodrama and should never have been heard from again. But, somehow, it became a midnight-movie cult classic. I even saw it in a Rifftrax live show back in 2015, although I apparently failed to review it for this site. The Room really is jaw-droppingly bad.
Now James Franco (Oz the Great and Powerful) directs and stars in this new movie about Wiseau and the making of The Room. I thought it was very funny, all the more so because it is (based on) a true story. Franco disappears into the Wiseau role, with his weird European accent, strange awkwardness, and apparently bottomless bank account. We see Wiseau primarily through the eyes of his best friend Greg (Dave Franco, Nerve), a wannabe actor who puts up with Wiseau’s weirdness and accidentally inspires him to create The Room. A remarkable list of people signed on for cameos or roles that were barely more than cameos, including: Alison Brie (TV’s Community), Seth Rogen (Knocked Up), Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games), Zac Efron (High School Musical 3), Sharon Stone (Total Recall), Melanie Griffith (Working Girl), and Judd Apatow (director, The 40-Year-Old Virgin). Is the movie just a cruel joke as Wiseau’s expense? I don’t know. I’ve read that he approves of the movie, and IMDB says he even had a cameo in it that I missed. In any event, The Room has supposedly made him a lot of movie over the last 15 years, so I guess he’s doing all right. I thought the movie was a hoot.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (B). This is a tense, Coen-esque drama/black comedy from Martin McDonagh, who also wrote and directed Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges. Frances McDormand (Fargo) stars as Mildred Hayes, a small-town divorcee who is consumed with grief over the unsolved rape and murder of her teenaged daughter Angela several months earlier. Frustrated with local law enforcement, she rents three billboards just outside of town and posts an inflammatory message aimed at police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, War for the Planet of the Apes). Willoughby is offended but understanding; his violent, racist underling Dixon (Sam Rockwell, Laggies), on the other hand, is infuriated and liable to lash out in any available direction. The ripples spread through the small town of Ebbing as Mildred persists in keeping the billboards up, and secrets are gradually revealed. Great performances from the three main actors, and nice supporting work from some others as well, including Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent), Abbie Cornish (Limitless), and Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom). But a couple of noticeable flaws (such as Willoughby’s weird use of extreme profanity not just around but at his two adorable little girls) keep this movie out of the top tier, in my opinion. Still, worth checking out. Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references.
Lady Bird (B+). Indie actress Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) wrote and directed this indie dramedy about a high-spirited girl’s tumultuous senior year in a Sacramento Catholic school and her rocky relationship with her mother. I enjoyed it, and it moved along with a brisk 94-minute run time. Saoirse Ronan (The Way Back) shines as the title character (she’s named Christine McPherson, but she insists on being called Lady Bird), and we follow the ups and downs of her experience in Drama Club, her crushes, her relationship with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, Neighbor 2: Sorority Rising), her college aspirations, and most of all her relationship with her mother, a hard-working and long-suffering psychiatric nurse (Laurie Metcalf, TV’s Roseanne). Based on Ms. Gerwig’s IMDB biography, I’d say this movie has a strong autobiographical component. It also has a 94 score over on Metacritic.com, so what are you waiting for?