(On Cable TV, July 2018) I frankly wasn’t expecting much from a return to the Jumanji universe: The original is uneven enough (something not helped at all by its copious but primitive CGI effects) that a sequel seemed unnecessary—it felt even less necessary when it became obvious that it was going to focus on videogames, a topic as overexposed as could be. But I’ll be the first to admit that I was unexpectedly charmed by the result: Anchored by the likable Dwayne Johnson, supported by the careful use of often-grating comic actors as Kevin Hart and Jack Black, and further enhanced by a great performance from lesser-known Karen Gillian, the cast is up to the film’s surprisingly witty script. Not only revisiting the Jumanji concept through familiar videogame mechanics, Welcome to the Jungle wrings comedy out of shifting character relationships, body identity questions, and videogame tropes addressed with some wit. While the structure is schematic by design and some plot developments can be seen well in advance, much of the film’s interest is in the moment-by-moment beats. It does deliver a bit more than expected, which is already not too bad considering the tendency of modern reboots, sequels and rip-offs towards mediocrity.
(Crackle Streaming, May 2017) If Hollywood history has proven anything, it’s that nothing is safe from its vulgar lowbrow comic premises. Here, Year One uses prehistory as an excuse to let Jack Black and Michael Cera go wild with their usual comic persona, from cavemen to old-testament riffs. The anachronisms are the point of much of the humour, but the juvenile nature of most jokes doesn’t allow Year One to fly high. Still, what’s maybe most impressive about the film are the number of known actors willing to ham it up for such a vapid film: Whether you’re talking seasoned comedians like Paul Rudd, David Cross, Oliver Platt and Hank Azaria, or it-girls such as Olivia Wilde and Juno Temple, Year One is heavy in small cameo roles. This may give the impression that the film is better than it is, though, which isn’t the case. Depending on your reaction to Cera and Black’s screen persona, Year One either feels like a chore or a slog. (Black’s shtick is more overly offensive than Cera’s, but an entire film built on Cera tics would be unbearably dull.) Year One probably works best as one of those films you let play on background while doing other things. It’s not as if you’re going to miss anything crucial if you don’t happen to pay attention at every time, and it’s not as if you’re going to feel guilty about missing a few moments of the film if you have to leave the room for a while.
(On Cable TV, May 2016) I wasn’t expecting much of this young-adult horror/comedy book series adaptation, and that may explain why Goosebumps feels surprisingly successful. The big creative decision that makes the film better than expected is a surprising willingness to make author R.L. Stine a character—playing up postmodern metafictional elements, the plot has Stine losing control over his manuscripts and his imagined creations escaping into a small town. The result isn’t particularly terrifying, nor overly comic, but it holds enough attention to make the viewing look like less of a chore for those who don’t fit in the original series’ target audience—or latter-generation nostalgic appeal. Jack Black makes a return to comedic form as Stine, while the special effects make up most of the film’s remaining characterization. There is a nice little fillip regarding one of the characters later on, which is as daring as the script allows itself to get. It almost goes without saying that fans of the book series will get a lot more out of the film—but Goosebumps is accessible enough to be interesting even to those who haven’t read the originals. While the tone could have been handled more consistently, it’s a tricky balance between the demands of horror-for kids, comedy and the usual requirements of a Hollywood movie. Given those competing demands, Goosebumps may be as good as it would have been, and the result will surprise more than one casual viewer.
(On TV, February 2015) There is a surprising strain of magical realism in mainstream movie comedies, where a seemingly unexplainable premise in a contemporary context is explored for laughs even though the film itself is never seen as belonging to the fantasy genre. Shallow Hal is a good example of this, as it posits a man hypnotized to perceive the inner beauty of someone rather than their surface appearance. This quickly leads our shallow protagonist to become romantically involved with a grossly obese woman who is perceived as… Gwyneth Paltrow. Various gags revolve around the difference between reality and perception (or, more accurately, how physical reality strains to accommodate the protagonist’s delusion and how more objective observers also react), leading to a third act where reality finally sets in. It’s, as you may expect from a mainstream comedy even in the gross-out late-stage, a relatively sweet film whose more outrageous moments are in the service of an unobjectionably “don’t judge by appearances” morality. It feels serviceable and predictable at one welcome exception, where one ugly character makes it through our protagonist’s distorted perception… and is revealed to be beautiful but evil in reality. It’s a good moment, and Shallow Hal certainly could have used more of those second-order extrapolations over much of the reheated pap it serves throughout the film. Jack Black is OK in the lead role, Gwyneth Paltrow appealing as the object of his affections (less so in a fat suit but that’s the point of the film) and Tony Robbins makes a good cameo appearance. The film’s third act is a bit duller as it goes for emotional significance over jokes, but that’s also something in the nature of comedies. The final result has a few highlights that help it distinguish itself from so many other movies of the time.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) Truth is often stranger than fiction, so it’s no surprise to see Bernie work extra-hard at blurring the line between the two in telling us an unusual story of crime and punishment in small-town East Texas. Blending interviews with real people with fictional re-creation of the events, Bernie is the story of a likable man who ends up shooting a disliked widow. The public reaction in the community is such that in planning the trial, the District Attorney ends up requesting another venue in order to ensure that his client won’t be pre-emptively acquitted by the jury. Of course, the fun of the story is in the details, and the way writer/director Richard Linklater ends up presenting this true story through a blend of testimonials and scripted scenes. Jack Black has a good role as the titular Bernie, earning himself a spot outside the annoyance zone in which his last few roles have landed. Bernie also features two smaller but showy roles for Shirley McClaine (as the hated widow) and Matthew McConaughey (as the ambitious District Attorney, and another link in the rebirth of his career) While Bernie isn’t a laugh-a-minute comedy, it’s an often-affectionate look at a small Texan community and the weirdness of true life crime.
(On DVD, February 2009) Well, what can we say? It’s from Jared Hess, the writer/director of Napoleon Dynamite, so it’s hardly surprising if viewers either think it’s genius or lame. I’m much closer to thinking “lame” myself, although I have to admire the conceptual audacity of the premise: Making a movie about an overweight monastery cook becoming a Mexican wrestling champion ranks pretty highly on the “things I’d never thought would lead to a movie” scale. Alas, that one-note premise isn’t backed up by anything resembling comedy: assortments of odd moments don’t add up to jokes, and whatever laughs there are in the film often look like accidents for a script that seems determined to be more bizarre than funny. Jack Black’s usual shtick is toned-down to the point where it’s both inoffensive and dull; it speaks volumes that he’s considerably funnier on the DVD audio commentary track than in the movie itself. Otherwise, well, it’s obvious that this is one of those films that claims “It didn’t get it; it wasn’t funny” as a badge of success. Think about Napoleon Dynamite and let that film be your guide to how you feel about this one.
(In theaters, June 2008) Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about this film is what’s missing from it: Pop-culture references. As PDI/Dreamworks progresses beyond the Shrek franchise, its animated films are becoming more universal and less rooted in their own place and time. Kung Fu Panda isn’t there yet (the first few moments of Jack Black’s “Awesome!”-heavy dialog are jarring), but it’s an improvement over past PDI films, and the result is generally pleasant. The script includes quite a few nods to fanboy wish-fulfillment (much like the recent The Forbidden Kingdom, this film proves that kung-fu has now reached referential mainstream consciousness) and if Black’s deliberately-irritating shtick as a lovable doofus is starting to wear thin, there are a few good moments in this film. Sadly, the film focuses too much on the titular panda and not enough on the other characters, some of whom are stunt-cast with famous voices… that barely get more than five lines and twice as many grunts. (Seriously: did Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan spend more than half a day in the studio?) The best sequences involve training-by-dumplings, a prison escape, a fabulous-five bridge fight and a final brawl that leave no buildings unscathed. In the background, the quality of the CGI is spectacular enough to pass unnoticed. Not that the film will pause long enough to let anyone appreciate the scenery. Kung Fu Panda may be too blunt and simple to be transcendent like Pixar’s features, but it’s good enough for lazy summer evenings.