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Non-Review Review: Jumanji – Welcome to the Jungle

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a weird and interesting experiment, in part because it is a nostalgic and belated sequel that remains caught between its past and the present.

Welcome to the Jungle joins a long (and perhaps undistinguished) line of twenty-first century franchise revivals for beloved nineties properties. The original Jumanji was a hardly a breakout hit, even if it did make an impression on a younger generation who would have grown up on it as part of Robin Williams’ nineties family-friendly oeuvre along with Hook or Ms. Doubtfire. Indeed, Jumanji is arguably the nineties Robin Williams film most perfectly suited to a revival like this, in that it involves a premise that can be divorced from its iconic and beloved star.

Franchises find a way.

At the same time, Jumanji is undoubtedly near the bottom of nineties adventure films in need of a revival, lurking in the shadow of other resurrected blockbusters like Independence Day or Jurassic Park. Perhaps because of this distance, and perhaps because of the lack of a true cult iconography, Jumanji serves as an interesting control case. This is a film with one leg in the present, aimed at what modern families expect from blockbuster entertainment. The other leg it planted firmly in the past, harking back to certain aspects of formula that seem almost quaint.

Welcome to the Jungle is not a particularly good film, but it is an interesting one. It serves as a prism through which certain aspects of nostalgia might be deconstructed and explored.

Players.

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“My World Doesn’t Exist Anymore.” Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, and the Rejection of Nostalgia

Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman are deeply flawed films. However, they are also breathtakingly ambitious films.

There are very few big budget blockbuster films that look and feel like Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. Actor Henry Cavill has diplomatically described Batman vs. Superman as a “niche” film in order to account for the openly hostile fan and critic reaction to the movie. There is a sense that Cavill was trying to offer an apology without an apology, to appease certain vocal segments of fan culture without throwing his work under the bus. However, there is some truth in his words.

It is tempting to wonder how much of the vocal and aggressive online response to Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman comes down to the fact that these movies challenge popular perceptions of these iconic characters. Comic book writer Mark Waid was very vocal in his dislike of Man of Steel, not on the basis of the direction or the choreography or the framing or the craft, but because the film misunderstood “the essential part of Superman.” These complaints were echoed across the the blogosphere.

An unchallenged and unspoken assumption crept into discussions and debates around Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. The primary argument seemed to be that this wasn’t really Superman and this wasn’t really Batman, because these characters were so impossible to reconcile with the popular image of these characters. Many criticisms of Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman measured them against other iterations of the characters, real and imagined. Man of Steel wasn’t colourful enough. Superman doesn’t kill. Lex Luthor is not Mark Zuckerberg.

The idea was that Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman violated some unspoken compact with the audience, that it offered a version of these characters and their world that didn’t line up with audience expectations. Indeed, this is perhaps most notable in the inevitable comparisons between Zack Snyder’s work and the output of Marvel Studios. Marvel Studios had spent the better part of a decade building a reputation as a studio that was faithful and respectful of its source material, to the point of slavishness. Marvel Studios offered uncomplicated, straightforward adaptations.

However, there is a sense that Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman were rather consciously rejecting the culture of nostalgia that has become so dominant and overwhelming in contemporary blockbuster cinema, that the films represented a conscious effort to challenge audience expectations and to push provocative and ambitious interpretations of these characters and their mythos. Indeed, it is hard not to see the audience’s vicious and aggressive response to Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman as a response to that.

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Tinkers, Tailors: The Phantom of the Prestigious Sequel…

If rumours are to be believed, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is such a dramatic success that discussions have begun about a possible sequel, with Gary Oldman even chiming in that a follow-up might do well to adapt both The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People into a single film – reducing leCarré’s trilogy to a duology. Still, even if there’s only one more film produced, the news can’t help but seem a little strange: after all, it’s very intellectual material for a Hollywood franchise, isn’t it?

Every right to be Smiley...

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The Cautiously Conservative Cost of Film-Making In the Recession…

When it first became clear that we were in for a long recession, there was a lot of fear about what that would mean for cinema. With less money to go around, and the ever-present fear of financial disappoint, a lot of people speculated that it would lead to a serious downturn in the production and distribution of “indie” movies by the major studios, a concern validated by the closing of various speciality divisions within major studios. While it has undoubtedly gotten significantly harder to produce and sell independent film, one look at last year’s Best Picture nominees suggest that these little gems are doing relatively okay – with films as provocative as Black Swan, as alternative as The Kids Are All Right and as gritty as Winter’s Bone all making the cut. Still, if the indie apocalypse that was foretold hasn’t come to pass, I do have to wonder what the cinematic cost of the current economic climate might be.

Hollywood's taken the occasional slap on the wrist over the past few years...

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Non-Review Review: Transformers 3 – Dark of the Moon

Here’s the thing: I don’t really expect a lot from Transformers: Dark of the Moon. It’s a movie about two rival factions of robots who engage in civil war on Earth. It’s not the stuff of epic tragedy or cinematic masterpieces. It’s designed to offer knock-down brawls, superb CGI, stunning action and a handful of fist-pumping moments. I’m cool with that. I don’t expect any more than that, and – to a certain extent – the movie meets my basic needs. However, despite a superb supporting cast and some superb special effects, the movie feels a little too self-important and po-faced to ever really engage. The final forty minutes are something to behold, but there’s just too much mundane plotting and pompous pseudo-philosophical rambling in the first two hours to really justify it.

Jump in my car...

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In Defense of Blockbusters: Are We Unduly Harsh on Big Budget Hollywood Movies?

I was just remarking how much I love cinema – how much I am predisposed to like a film – and I got thinking, why are we so harsh on big budget Hollywood films? Don’t get me wrong, the studio system produces its fair share of crap, but it seems to be the target of choice for any person looking to decry the death of modern culture. We’re assured, virtually everywhere, that the blockbuster is meant to be a cheap, disposable form of entertainment – and that it’s simply a “guilty pleasure”, if at all. I’ve noticed this trend quite a bit of late, as this is the time of the year that movie geeks look ahead to the summer season and realise… seemingly to their horror (though it can’t possibly be to their surprise)… that the summer is filled with big-budget mainstream blockbusters from wall-to-wall. Ignoring the fact that Hollywood’s annual cycle is highly predictable these days (save only the emerge of what I like to call “quirky March” in recent years), why is the arrival of the summer fare universally treated as a bad thing?

Swimming with sharks...

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Aaronofsky to Wrestle “The Wolverine”: Are Independent Directors the Best Choices for Superhero Cinema?

I’m going to be honest, I like it when relatively obscure film directors are handed the reigns to huge blockbuster properties. It seems that these “cult” film makers tend to bring something fresh from outside the studio system to their work. I might sound more than a bit pretentious, but it reminds me of the way that many of the blockbuster directors of the seventies – including Lucas and Spielberg – originated from outside the studio system before revolutionising it from inside. As a concept, would I rather watch Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins? No choice there. Any film with the name “Jerry Bruckheimer” attached or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man? Again, no choice. So, despite the fact that Gavin Hood’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a critical failure and an infuriatingly (but, sadly, not unpredictably) disappointing film, am I alone in getting a little excited about Darren Aaronofsky’s The Wolverine.

Against all odds, I might be feeling pretty Jack(man)ed about this...

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