Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

Jumanji (1995)

Jumanji (1995)

Directed by: Joe Johnston   Rated: PG   Runtime: 1 hr. 44 mins.

Studio: TriStar Pictures   Based on: Book by Chris Van Allsburg

Screenwriter: Jonathan Hensleigh, Greg Taylor, Jim Strain

Cast: Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, David Alan Grier, Bebe Neuwirth, Jonathan Hyde

Jumanji. “For those who seek to find a way to leave their world behind.” This ominous inscription on a magical wooden board game is the introduction to a wonderfully twisted story concept. This isn’t like accidentally finding ones way into a magical wardrobe with another land on the other side while playing hide-and-seek. No, no. Jumanji calls to you, a potential player. With a sound that is as intense as it is ominous. The beating of drums beckons its would-be player into opening it. A sound only the young can hear. 

Sony Pictures Trailer for ‘Jumanji’ Credit: Sony via YouTube

The movie starts in 1869 with two boys frantically trying to bury “it,” some item in a bag with inexplicable drum beats. Move forward a century to 1969, to a dig site outside a shoe factory, the drumming is heard again by young Alan Parrish, son of the shoe factory owner. He takes his find home with him. After a schoolmate comes over, he convinces her to play with him.

While they play, the dark and twisted magical tones of the game emerge as they play on. The special effects of 1995 make this part of the film look freaky, still, after all these years. While the results didn’t age well for this film with time, it almost helps it, despite that fact. It instills this disturbing quality that is quintessential to “Jumanji’s” lore. Nevertheless, it causes Alan’s friend, Sarah, to turn tail and run, screaming from the house. 

Fast-forward 26-years later. 

Bradley Pierce, Bonnie Hunt, Robin Williams, Kirsten Dunst in ‘Jumanji’
Credit: TriStar Pictures via Common Sense Media

Peter (Pierce) and Judy (Dunst) move into Alan’s old house after their aunt (Neuwirth) buys it, intending to turn it into a bed and breakfast. The drums call to them intensely. After they locate the game, they decide to play. Only it’s not their game. It’s the one that was started decades ago. To be plagued by the things from this game for years, or a lifetime, just because you couldn’t find the other player anymore… that’s messed up! 

Some of the jungle creatures that emerge while they play are creepy. It’s hard to figure if the filmmakers were using what they had available at the time for such film components or if they wanted it all to look evil-like. There’s a lion that looks like a poorly CGI’ed taxidermy head in a few shots. The vines with man-eating flower pods use and appearance makeup for it. It’s pretty cool. 

Then comes a plot twist that introduces ‘the jungle man’ (Williams). With his help, Judy and Peter can stay alive and outwit the hurdles the game is literally throwing out at them. Ideally, to finish the game and be free of it. 

‘Jumanji’ still of Yellow flower attack. Credit: TriStar Pictures via

The performances by the actors are well done for a family film that involves lots of running and screaming. Because of the excellent material, the story’s pace moves flawlessly from one part to the next. The tone of imminent danger and being hunted is counterbalanced wonderfully by the jokes, quips, and Home Alone-like sequences that fit right in. Kids and adults will enjoy it. 

Jumanji is an exciting, well-told adventure story crafted (originally) by someone with a dark sense of humor. It’s an excellent film to add to your watchlist for movie night or on a lazy weekend.

Would you play Jumanji?

—a pen lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

Knives Out (2019)

Knives Out (2019)

Directed by: Rian Johnson  Rated: PG-13  Runtime: 2 hrs 10 mins.

Studio: Lionsgate  Screenwriter: Rian Johnson

Cast:  Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon,  

Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Kathrine Langford, Christopher Plummer

When the patriarch of an eccentric, privileged family’s death triggers an investigation, no one is above suspicion in Knives Out. The film aims to be an ode to classic whodunit stories. 

Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) works with local police to investigate the death of crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). His estate is reminiscent of something from an Agatha Christie novel, with its distinctive and eclectic presence. Its grandeur can only be matched by the robust and self-centered family members. 

‘Knives Out’ trailer from Lionsgate via YouTube

Whether it’s the interviews with suspects to the story moving along in general, there is enough information to establish each character. To flesh out what makes them tick, and perhaps what would give them motive, is this effortless display of character development. The group is dysfunctional, what family isn’t, and yet they all have presence. Each respective role is depicted well, and that’s what a viewer wants from an actor; to do a good job. To be believable. The cast is layered, funny at times, and portrays a level of family tension that absolutely rings true. 

Ringing true is Rian Johnson’s ability to create such a script. Movies are not made like this typically; they just aren’t and that’s a travesty. I’d take a great story with a pinch of violence and a dash of language over the way the majority of films are made in America any day. Really, who needs wanton violence, skin, and language if the story is fantastic and well-acted? 

Kathrine Langford, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Riki Lindhome & Jaden Martell in ‘Knives Out’ Image: Lionsgate

The details that went into ensuring the audience doesn’t figure out what really happened is pure genius. It was jarring to hear Daniel Craig with a Southern accent, and I personally hope to never hear again. Mr. Blanc needed an accent, or he would have come across as a hard investigating cop. Craig’s performance was reminiscent of Hercule Poirot at the end, with his break down of events and clues, with the accent, but Poirot is far superior. 

At the mid-way point of the film, I was like, okay, I have all this information, and there’s an hour left in the movie. It felt like the pace needed to quicken to keep my interest, and I was not disappointed. From there, the story shifts gears, the viewer is equipped with all the details they think they need, yet the plot dives deeper still. The plot twists and creates new perspectives and questions that all weave together to strengthen the suspense of determining how Harlan died. 

Ana de Armas in ‘Knives Out’ Image: Lionsgate

While this all-star cast gives good performances, Ana de Armas and Chris Evans really sell the later part of the story with Daniel Craig. It’s got laughs and begs you to try and solve it before the end. 

Knives Out is a fantastic homage to classic whodunit stories for the modern age. With suspense, family drama, laughs, a compelling story that will leave you engaged from beginning to end, and an ending… Knives Out should unequivocally be on your watchlist! You won’t be disappointed carving out time in your schedule to see it. 

—a pen lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

The Illusionist (2006)

The Illusionist (2006)

Directed by: Neil Burger    Rated: PG-13    Runtime: 1 hr 50 mins

Studio: Bull’s Eye Entertainment, Bob Yari Productions    Screenwriter: Neil Burger

Adapted from: Short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser

Cast: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel

The Illusionist is a film based on a short story in which the screenwriter takes liberties to make the story more robust for the big screen. Meshing the art of illusions with the tired trope of forbidden love and abusive relationships. Those familiar with European history will note a parallel to this story and the events leading to the start of WW1.

Childhood friends Eisenheim (Norton) and Sophie (Biel) are separated by their class differences only to meet again as adults. How serendipitous. He is now an illusionist who pulls in crowds, and she is a Dutches set to marry Crowned Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). The Prince is a limply developed character who is allegedly a woman beater and murderer. His stance and arrogance are a facade that fools no viewer. Sewell does a good job of making the audience want to rip off his absurd mustache, all things what they are. 

Rufus Sewell and Paul Giamatti in ‘The Illusionist’ Image Credit: Bull’s Eye Entertainment via

Inspector Uhl (Giamatti) is in charge of the authorities and works for Prince Leopold on the side. The Prince often has Uhl remove those who speak out against him or challenge his power, as the Prince neurotically believes as Eisenheim’s goal. Giamatti is a supporting actor in this film and is the most passible for a “normal” person. His role is the glue that ultimately ties all of the four main characters together. 

Duchess Sophie Von Teschen (Biel) is the rope in the tug-of-war game that inadvertently ensues between Prince Leopold and Eisenheim. Biel’s performance is like everything else she’s done, nothing to write home about. She’s a static filler to move the plot along. A plot device added by director and screenwriter Neil Burger from the original short story this movie is adapted from. Any other actress could have been thrown in, any, and it wouldn’t have made a difference in this film’s case. It’s the script. It’s dry yet smooth. If the story had been more robust, Biel’s portrayal of Sophie would stick out like a nail in a tire. The notion that she still pines for her lost childhood love is absurd. The actress that portrays her younger self invoked more emotion!

Edward Norton is the type of actor who can be dropped into any role, and he makes something out of it. He proves this again as the renowned illusionist, Eisenheim. The character calls for a calm and reserved manner, and that’s precisely what Norton provides. When I said the story was dry, it is, but with Norton’s style as the titular character ruling most of the scenes, it seems purposeful. Allowing the film to move in a way that it’s not overly distracting. 

‘The Illusionist’ upscaled movie trailer from Movie Predictor via YouTube

Three main things that grate me about this film are the accents of all the characters, the love story, the viewing. 

Actors, by definition, are paid to portray the characters they assume. Why is it such an arduous task to get actors to try for accents of the countries they are set in? Or, cast those with natural ones. Who knew Vinennians sounded so American! 

Norton’s Eisenheim conveys more believable emotion towards Biel’s Sophie, and yet it’s still such a stretch to believe them. Since this is the backbone of Burger’s adaptation, it makes this film such a letdown. A few more vastly better-written scenes for these two could have made a huge difference! With a runtime of just under two hours, there is room to expand without making the film feel too long. 

This film is from 2006, and I’ve watched plenty of movies before that which show better than this film. Literally, show better. Even the trailer is grainy. This film’s cinematography used sepia tones, blurry corner cropping, and visual vestiges of being filmed in the early 1900s. In 2006 this worked, but fifteen years later, it doesn’t up-convert at all. I own this on BluRay and put it into my 4K player that up-converts everything else, even DVDs, with ease. This movie looked liked crap when I tried to watch it! I opted instead to watch it on Amazon Prime for free. That was a much better viewing experience! Though I despise IMDb’s TV scene cutting skills. There is a time and place to cut and add commercials! 

Image from the 2006 film ‘The Illusionist’ Credit: Bull’s Eye Entertainment via

Those three issues aside, watching the story unfold and the illusions that Eisenheim has crafted to astound and beguile his audiences is well prepared and displayed. You will have yourself asking how does he do it? Any of it. For being set in the 1900s and pulling off such visual spectacles, one has to appreciate the genius behind the man that creates them. While Eisenheim the Illusionist entertains others think he’s really in tune with the dark arts. Which is true? What is true, and what is an illusion? This is what you should see this movie for. Not the class-crossed love story but for everything else. See it for what Norton’s character brings to Vienna, and Inspector Uhl tries to solve. 

If you like mysteries and drama with a now you see me, now you don’t flavor, you will not be disappointed with The Illusionist as an option for your watchlist. Just make sure you’re seeing the movie is not distracted by grainy or discolored displays to interrupt your viewing experience. 

—a pen lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

Dead Again (1991)

Dead Again (1991)

Director: Kenneth Branagh Rating: R Runtime: 1 hr 48 min  

Studio: Paramount Screenwriter: Scott Frank 

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Robin Williams, Andy Garcia, Derek Jacobi

What if there isn’t a heaven or hell to go to when we die? What if we come back as something else, someone else? If it was all fate. Would you change how you live your life? In Dead Again, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in karma or not; it happens anyway. 

To appreciate a story like this, you need to be open to reincarnation as a plot vehicle. The story moves back and forth between two events in Los Angeles, CA, one in 1948 and the other forty-years later. It’s easy to follow along with the shifts because the past appears in black and white. While this wasn’t the original intent of the director, it works. Post World War II, the noir look is quite fitting. 

A married couple, Roman and Margaret Strauss, have issues with jealousy, money, and job security—those are attributes relatable to many marriages. The majority don’t end in murder, however. The ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions to be answered in this film are intertwined. It’s the unfolding of the past events and how they relate to the present that provides answers. 

How do you get answers about a past life? You get hypnotized by an opportunistic antique dealer named Franklin, played by the amazing Derek Jacobi. 

Roman Strauss/Mike Church, a musical composer/private detective, is played by Kenneth Branagh. Margaret/Grace, an orchestra player/artist, with amnesia is portrayed by Emma Thompson. Their depictions of their respective characters are well performed, infused with genuine chemistry.  

Robin Williams plays Cozy Carlise, an ex-therapist turned grocery clerk who gives advice from a walk-in cooler. His character provides Mike with insight and advice that allows viewers to follow the theme that karma plays. 

The well-developed characters, plot structure, pace, and tone of this film mesh together with Patrick Doyle’s musical compositions. It helps the entire film’s mood despite the vast differences in cultural tastes between the late 1940s and early 1990s. 

Some may find the premise behind the plot ridiculous. Many will not. It’s refreshing to see a non-Christian based religious-belief system represented. It reaches out to more than just the ideals of the West. I first saw this a few years after it came out, and I wasn’t more than thirteen. Before this film, I had never heard of karma, past-lives, or reincarnation, so it expanded my brain to other notions than what I had been taught. 

That insight is a positive takeaway. The downside is I probably shouldn’t have watched the end of this film, then. I was squeamish. As an adult viewer, the climax scene isn’t a shock, yet it’s not disappointing either. No one predictably says that “karma is a bitch,” but it’s certainly implied. 

If you like mystery or thriller stories and try to figure out the ending before you get there, this movie should make it on your watch list. It’s an under appreciated chestnut of cinema worth your time. 

—a pen lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh Rated: PG-13 Runtime: 1 hr 54 min

Studio: 20th Century Fox Screenwriter: Michael Green

Based on: The novel by Agatha Christie 

Everyone is a suspect in Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit, Murder on the Orient Express, written for film by Michael Green. It’s not the first time this novel has been made for film or television, but it is the most recent. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen those others or read one of her thirty-plus novels; there is a first time experience for everyone! 

Agatha Christie’s works have sold over 2 billion copies worldwide in the century since her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920. Murder on the Orient Express, published in 1934. All these years later, people love her work. The most iconic of all her characters, detective Hercule Poirot, comes alive again through actor/director Kenneth Branagh. 

Branagh is an iconic stage and film actor who ticks off all the mannerisms and peculiarities that make Poirot such an iconic and layered character. Minus the egg head Agatha Christie famously describes him with. 

The film’s opening is at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; it’s a short bit that sets up why he ends up on the train, yes. Most importantly, it shows, not tells, the audience who he is. How he operates as a detective and as a person. Hercule Poirot has been a staple in Christie’s novels for well over a decade by the time this novel is published, so those familiar with her work understand him. If you are not, this scene addition is essential for the viewer. 

As the title and trailer state, there is a murder on a train. With twelve main suspects on this train, stuck on a mountain bridge by an avalanche, casting Poirot was arguably the most critical casting choice. The others could have been filled with newcomers or unknowns, but Branagh filled this train ride with an all-star cast of talent. Their respective character portrayals do not disappoint.

It’s challenging to create atmosphere, character depth, structure, and pace for a story that doesn’t miss something with so many people. The filmmakers can bring to life this ensemble so effortlessly because the original material has already done these things so well. Additionally, the sets, props, costumes (period-appropriate clothing), and camera work capture the close quarters’ train ride. 

If, like me, you enjoy knowing tidbits about the process behind bringing a film to life, make sure to rent or borrow a copy of this film that has the “extras” section. I found the way they shot the landscape scenes outside the train fascinating! 

Near seventy-five years later, certain aspects of humanity and social constructs remain. A single serving mentality of meeting people you will never see again is especially evident on this train. Class hierarchy and discrimination are others. However, it is the aspect of the murder that is especially true. That murder has a ripple effect. That love, guilt, truth, and revenge are all components of the human experience that were true then and today. It’s human nature to want the guilty to suffer. 

Those aspects remain, but the overall intelligence of a reader has increased. Many find Agatha Christie’s work irrelevant because they don’t see her as challenging as newer mystery/crime writers. In a way, that is true, but so what? The story-telling process Christie used then is applicable today and still inspires a new generation every year. The importance of details, motive, character, plot, and story structure never changes. It’s why they are still in print, in libraries, in schools, and for sale in multiple languages. Part of her process is to allow the reader to know what the detective knows, so you feel a part of the story in a way. That process is not lost when adapted to the screen. 

On-screen, it’s almost more immersive. You are like the character, Monsieur Bouc, who follows Hercule Poirot around seeing and hearing what he does. It’s not often to find a movie where you can easily place yourself in a characters’ shoes. 

If you like crime, mysteries, or the game ‘Clue’, this is ideal for a movie night flick to add to your watch list. 

-a pen lady