More Ludlum Than le Carre

Former CIA officer Jason Matthews’ first novel, “Red Sparrow,” had its movie rights purchased for a seven-figure amount before it was published. It blended basic tradecraft with steamy sex scenes, and was successful once published, winning both the Edgar and ITW Thriller awards for the best first novel. You could say it was an appetizing read as well, since Matthews mentioned a specific dish in each chapter and included a recipe for it at the end of the chapter. Matthews has since created a trilogy for the characters; the final book, “The Kremlin Candidate,” has them looking for a Russian agent about to be appointed to a high position in the US government. (Hmm)

Now the movie version of Red Sparrow is in theaters, with Jennifer Lawrence in the main role. Although heavily promoted, it couldn’t overcome the massive appeal of Black Panther even in its third week, ending up far below in second-place. That wouldn’t be horrible, but a major film needs to make at least half its budget in the first week to have a hope of breaking even. Red Sparrow made about a quarter of its estimated budget, which doesn’t include the substantial publicity costs. The movie has some strengths, including a first-rate cast and a topical subject. However, the script by Justin Haythe is like a paint-by-numbers picture – it’s got the colors but it doesn’t blend. Haythe’s last two screenplays were the Johnny Depp bomb The Lone Ranger and the terminally sick A Cure for Wellness – not a good track record.

The plot has ballerina Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) pulled into the world of espionage by her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) after a broken leg ends her career on stage. The uncle’s name is Vanya, which I hope was a purposeful nod to Anton Chekov, though I have my doubts. Dominika’s forced to become a Sparrow, an agent trained to use her body to manipulate and compromise men. While Vanya believes in her abilities, the matron of the school (Charlotte Rampling) and a military intelligence general (Jeremy Irons) have their doubts.

Contemporaneously, CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) has a meeting in a Moscow park with a highly-placed mole in the Kremlin, only to have it interrupted by the police patrolling for vice offenses. Nate blows his cover to save the mole and manages to make it to safety at the embassy, but he’s forced to leave the country. Several months later, the mole surfaces and signals he wants to meet Nate. Nate heads to Hungary, as close to Russia as he can get, to re-establish contact. But also coming to Budapest is Dominika, fresh from Sparrow School, assigned to get Nash to give her the name of the mole.

The movie wants to follow in the vein of John le Carre, but instead Haythe can only manage a Robert Ludlum potboiler. Not the Matt Damon Bourne Identity kind of Ludlum, since that movie took the first chapter of the book and then re-wrote everything else. I mean the real Ludlum who was to spy novels what Jacqueline Suzann was to literature. (If you really want to see the difference, watch the 1988 Bourne Identity two-part TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith, but you’d be better off just to trust me on this.)  Haythe is a blunt instrument when it comes to writing. You wonder why spying is so hard because the agents in this film figure out who’s on each side apparently just by looking at each other. Later in the movie, a stakeout is ruined by the most obvious mistake that no actual agent would ever make.

The movie is not helped by Boris and Natasha Russian accents on the part of some of the actors. At one point, Lawrence asks Edgerton how he knew she was Russian, and you expect Edgerton to say, “Well, duh.” For much of the movie, Lawrence the actress seems as confused about what’s going on as her character. The script eliminates one of the more interesting aspects of Dominika from the book: she sees people’s emotions as colors which allows her to discern their characters, a play on a real condition called synesthesia. It could have led to some interesting visuals and given Lawrence more to work with in the role.

Director Francis Lawrence had worked with Jennifer Lawrence (no relation) on the Hunger Games films after Gary Ross did the first. He was a music video director before switching to features with films like Constantine, I Am Legend, and Water for Elephants. Lawrence is strong on visuals and action, but his style is straightforward. The best-directed spy films, like Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American, or the granddaddy of them all, Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, create their tension through nuance and small moments that eventually loom large. Watching those movies is like slowly sipping a glass of exceptional wine that leaves you satisfied at the end. Red Sparrow is more like several shots of vodka that leave your senses dulled by the experience.

A caution: the film has a fair amount of nudity, sex, and violence. It can be justified given the material, but rather than use suggestion Red Sparrow dives in headlong, reveling in it. A torture scene with a skin graft slicer is particularly cringeworthy. Overall, Red Sparrow isn’t as bad as it could have been, but it’s no where near as good as it should have been.


We Have Met the Enemy

Alex Garland made a bold statement with his first direction credit. He’d been writing screenplays for fifteen years, beginning with the adaptation of his novel, “The Beach.” He’d followed that with the original screenplay for Danny Boyle’s revamp of the zombie genre, 28 Days Later, in 2002 – you could call it “The Running Dead.” He did another original screenplay for Boyle, 2007’s Sunshine, then adapted Kazou Ishiguro’s novel  Never Let Me Go and the illustrated series Dredd. But when he directed his original screenplay Ex Machina, he created a science fiction/mystery blend that stunned audiences. It was a three-person chess match where two of the characters didn’t realize that it was them who were being played. The film made Alicia Vikander an international star, while Domhnall Gleason and Oscar Isaacs went on to duel each other in Star Wars.

Now Garland is back with a much more ambitious meditation on humanity in the science fiction genre. Annihilation, an adaptation of the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, flips forward and backward in time as it tells the story of an expedition into a section of the planet that has, in effect, become an alien world. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist and teacher whose special forces husband, Kane (Oscar Isaacs), went off on a mission a year earlier and hasn’t been heard from since. Then he walks into their house, unable to explain what has happened or where he’s been. The reunion is short-lived as he soon collapses, coughing up blood. While racing to the hospital, their ambulance is cut off by the military. Lena and Kane are taken to an undisclosed lab.

There Lena meets psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who explains what has happened. A meteor hit a lighthouse in a state park area, and soon the structure was encircled by what observers termed “the Shimmer.” A park ranger went in to check on the lighthouse and never came back. Other expeditions have been sent into the Shimmer, but no one has come back, except for Kane, who’s now in a coma. As time has passed, the Shimmer has expanded. The government has kept the story quiet, but the Shimmer soon will expand to heavily populated areas and the story will be uncontainable. Ventress is leading a new expedition, made up of physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Cassie Shepherd (Tuva Novotny), and paramedic Anya Thorenson (Gina Rodriguez). Lena decides to join the expedition to discover some way to help her husband.

The story owes a debt to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The DNA of plants and animals within the Shimmer has blended with alien DNA, changing the landscape elementally. But as they travel deeper, the team finds what they’ve brought into the Shimmer inside themselves may be the most dangerous element. As the old Pogo comic put it, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Portman is a wonderfully cerebral actress who makes thinking an engrossing action, but she also began her career with the action flick Leon – The Professional. Here she has to call on her skill in both genres. While primarily an intellectual puzzle, action erupts often without warning. On the other hand, Gina Rodriguez is mostly known for her sympathetic lead role on “Jane the Virgin,” but here she turns into a bad ass who could give Schwarzenegger a run for his money. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is guarded and withdrawn even as she leads the group, though a reason for her behavior is later revealed. After playing Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, Thompson’s Josie is perhaps the most thoughtful of the team. Tuva Novotny has mostly worked in her native Sweden, amassing over 60 credits in twenty years. She’s rarely done Hollywood films – she had a role in the Julia Roberts film Eat, Pray, Love in 2010 – so she’s a fresh face here while also being an experienced and competent actress.

As in the book, the female makeup of the team passes without comment. While principal photography was done almost two years ago, coming out now was perfect timing. The old conventions have been blown apart, the stereotypes stripped away, and now there’s a chance for truly exciting films that eschew the formulae that have existed for decades.

Garland chose a different way of adapting the book. He’d read it when it came out, but rather than returning to the source material, he’s said he adapted it “like a dream of the book,” based on his memory of the story. Since the book is written as journal entries of one of the characters, the loose adaptation not only makes sense but likely improved the story on the screen.

The film is visually arresting as the familiar is twisted into an alien tableau that’s both beautiful and grotesque. In a similar way to what happens to the characters, the movie invades your brain and makes you consider this world from a very different perspective. You’ll be thinking about it long after you exit the theater.


A Role Model for Much of the World

After years of establishing a formula, the superhero genre is flexing its muscles. Arguably, The Dark Knight, with its plot twists and its twisted villains – especially Heath Ledger’s Joker – moved the genre to a higher level. For the Marvel Universe, Captain America: The Winter Soldier took a clear-cut hero and threw him into a world filled with shades of gray. Its sequel, Captain America: Civil War – the best Avengers movie so far – hit an even darker tone. On the other side of the scale, Thor: Raganok managed to find a completely fresh voice by looking at the genre with a decidedly cockeyed view. While the DC films following Nolan’s trilogy have been mostly pedestrian, last spring’s Wonder Woman was transcendent, and a healing tonic after the misogyny of both the genre and the previous year’s presidential campaign. Now, Marvel has rocked the genre again with Black Panther, fittingly released during Black History Month.

T’Challa, the king of Wakanda and protector of his people in his guise as Black Panther, was the first Black superhero, appearing with The Fantastic Four in 1966. Two years later he had his own comic book series. From the outset the character was different from others in the Marvel Universe. Rather than accidentally gaining his powers (from gamma radiation or a radio-active spider bite, for example), his power was inherited along with his kingship. Where most superheroes are lone wolfs, Black Panther is firmly planted in a community. His first appearance on screen, in Civil War, was captivating. Where most superheroes blaze hot, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther was a cool blue flame. He spoke softly, but when action was required he sprang into action like, well, like a black panther. But he was, essentially, on his own, except when aligned with Iron Man and others. Now with the stand-alone Black Panther, we see him in his element. The screenplay by director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) and Jon Robert Cole focuses not just on the hero but on the community that surrounds him, and empowers him.

The movie opens with the story of Wakanda and the Black Panther, related by a father to his son. Five tribes battled over land where a meteorite had deposited vibranium. A warrior ingested a heart-shaped plant that had mutated by exposure to the vibranium. He gained great power, but rather than wiping out the other tribes, he used his strength to unite four of them. One tribe went their own way, but they were allowed to exist peacefully in the land. Powered by the vibranium, the Wakandans developed marvelous technology far beyond the rest of the world. But they hid their advancement from outsiders as European colonizers fought wars against the natives while slavery tore apart the fabric of Africa. Wakanda was an island in a troubled sea. The country became a paradise, guarded from outsiders by an elaborate ruse as well as a far flung network of spies embedded in nations around the world.

Following the death of his father in Civil War, T’Challa is to be formally installed as king, but first he undertakes a mission with Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s his all-female imperial guard. They retrieve one of Wakanda’s spies, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), from her mission against modern-day slavers. They return to Wakanda where T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), wait for them. Shuri is like James Bond’s Q played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After the installation – and an unexpected challenge by the leader of the separatist tribe, M’Baku (Winston Duke) – T’Challa learns that a longtime enemy of Wakanda has surfaced. Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) had stolen a supply of vibranium from Wakanda years earlier and killed several Wakandas while making his escape. Now he’s surfaced after stealing an antiquity that was made from the metal, and is about to sell it in South Korea. T’Challa, Okoye, and Nakia head there to capture Klaue and recover the vibranium, but they’re unaware Klaue is working with an American mercenary. Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is a former US Special Forces warrior, but he also has a special connection both to Wakanda and to T’Challa.

You don’t usually get a superhero story that’s about responsibility, both personal and socially, but that’s what Black Panther revolves around. It also posits what might have happened if Africa had been spared the twin scourges of colonialism and the slave trade. Since Wakanda avoided both, the narrative of slavery or prejudice and injustice that underlies so much of the presentation of blacks on screen, is not the central focus. Think of the recent black stories in the cinema: 12 Years A Slave, The Help, Hidden Figures, Selma, or Chadwick Boseman’s first star turn as Jackie Robinson in 42. Instead of dwelling there, Black Panther asks what is require from the Wakandans who have been so favored. Is it enough to maintain their hidden world, or have they a responsibility to act to help those who’ve been oppressed?

An outstanding aspect of Black Panther is the number of strong female characters in the mix. Gurira is a bad ass of the first order, matched by the dozen warriors she leads. Nyong’o is James Bond cool while Wright is a delight, a wisecracking genius who can hold her own in a battle. Bassett is regal in her role, but you also see the steel spine within her.

The men fare just as well, with Boseman building on his embodiment of the character from Civil War. As with the 007 movies, the quality of the villain often controls the quality of the film, and Jordan’s Killmonger is one of the best ever. His backstory and performance moves Black Panther close to a Shakespearean level; think Henry V on the outside, Richard III inside. A delightful surprise is Duke, a six-foot-six mountain of a man who plays a much more grounded and multi-dimensional character than usually portrayed in the comics. In addition, you have Forest Whittaker, Sterling K. Brown, Martin Freeman, and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), each in important roles. The movie is overflowing with talent, and it uses that talent effectively.

Black Panther has already broken box office records for February and had the fifth biggest opening weekend in movie history. The wonderful aspect of this, though, is the success is more than deserved. The movie not only tells a great story – it gives a large swath of the world a role model for whom to root.

Coming of Age

Coming-of-age stories have been around since before David Copperfield tried to decide who was the hero of his life story. Maneuvering through the minefield of the teenage years has tripped up plenty of people, leaving them lurching wounded into adulthood. It’s inherently dramatic, which is why writers turn to it so often to spur the creative juices.

But there’s also a coming-of-age for artists when they show new capacity in their craft. The ingenuine gains depth and maturity, or a comedian goes past the surface laugh to find a character’s heart. Or It can be when a person becomes a hyphenate and displays talent in multiple aspects of the craft. While Lady Bird is a classic coming-of-age story, making the film was also a coming-of-age for Greta Gerwig.

Gerwig had attended Barnard College in New York, intent on becoming a playwright, but she first made her mark as an actress in independent movies. Within a few years she was working with Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach, and Ben Stiller. In 2008 she’d co-wrote and co-directed Nights and Weekends, then four years later she had a breakout as the title character in Frances Ha, a film she co-wrote with Baumbach. With Lady Bird, though, she’s soloed for the first time as writer and director.

The movie begins with a quote from Joan Didion: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” The opening scene establishes the two main characters, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saorise Ronan) and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), and their relationship. They’re traveling in a car while arguing about Lady Bird’s decision to be known by that moniker. Talking to her mother becomes such a frustration Lady Bird opens the passenger door and bails out. For the first part of the movie, she wears a cast on her arm caused by that stunt.

Lady Bird is strong-willed, artistic, and determined to spread her wings and soar away from Sacramento. Yet she’s also unsure what to do and how to be comfortable being herself. The movie follows her through her senior year of Catholic high school, which she attends not because she’s Catholic but because Marion’s afraid of the Sacramento public schools. Her father, Larry (Tracy Letts), is s genial softie, so it’s Marion who must enforce discipline. Marion plans that after graduation Lady Bird will attend a nearby school in the University of California system, where they can afford the tuition, but Lady Bird wants to apply to schools in the Northeast, even though the nun counseling her points out she doesn’t have any qualifications.

In the course of the year she has two boyfriends (Timothee Chalamet and Lucas Hedges), experiences the theater for the first time, and makes a friend of the top-of-the-food-chain girl in her class at the cost of her long-time best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). But the central conflict remains between Lady Bird and Marion. Can Lady Bird come to understand what she has in her family before it’s lost from her life.

The story mirrors much of Gerwig’s life, including her growing up in Sacramento and the occupations of her parents. Yet it goes beyond simple autobiography as she examines the characters with patience and appreciation. Though Lady Bird chaffs under her mother’s discipline, you also see the love between them. In one scene, they’re having a disagreement while shopping, and they appear so divided. But then Marion pulls out a dress and like a flipped light switch they’re both gushing over it. It’s a moment that neither character catches, but Gerwig lays it out for the audience to appreciate.

Ronan and Metcalf have both received well-deserved Oscar nominations. Though Ronan’s only twenty-three, she already has three Oscar noms to her credit, the other two being for Atonement when she was thirteen and her luminous performance in Brooklyn two years ago. She submerges in the role of Lady Bird, flat American accent and all. It’s doubtful she’ll overcome Frances McDormand’s raw-nerve performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but if she did I’d be pleased.

Laurie Metcalf is locked in a duel with Allison Janey for Best Supporting Actress. Janey won at the Golden Globes, Metcalf at the SAG Awards, and then it was back to Janey at the BAFTAs. I hope it will be Metcalf since her nuanced performance beautifully captures both the frustration and aggravation of motherhood as well as the deep love of a mother that’s hard to express even as it’s impossible to break. It is a tour de force that sneaks up on you with its power.

Gerwig has said that the original draft of the screenplay ran 350 pages, which would have run over six hours on the screen. But she pared it down to a sleek hour-and-a-half where each moment shines with diamond clarity. I look forward to seeing what else she’ll do in what I hope will be a long, illustrious career.

A Not-So-Distant Mirror

Occasionally a film comes out with serendipitous timing. For Steven Spielberg’s new film, The Post, while it looks at events from 47 years ago, it mirrors several current problems: Executive branch lies, the attempt to muzzle the Fourth Estate, and paternalism in business that ignores the strength and quality of women.

Some background: In the 1960s, the Washington Post was one of several newspapers competing in its market. It had been in the family of its publisher, Katharine Graham, since 1933, when her father bought it at a bankruptcy auction. Katharine had married Philip Graham in 1940, and when her father gave up running the Post he gave it to her husband. Phil was a golden boy, Harvard-educated and a former clerk for Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, but he was also an alcoholic, a womanizer, and struggled with mental health. He suffered a mental breakdown in 1962, and a year later committed suicide with a shotgun. Katharine stepped into his role as publisher of the Post.

The Post begins in 1968. Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) is a Rand Corporation analyst working for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). McNamara commissioned a report on Vietnam that examined the earliest US involvement, going back to the Truman administration. Utilizing source documents from the State Department, Defense Department, and the CIA, the report details the lies that led to the US engagement in the war and the deaths of over 50,000 servicemen. Ellsberg had gone to Vietnam and accompanied soldiers on patrol. When he sees McNamara continuing the same pattern of lies, Ellsberg steals a copy of the top-secret report.

Three years later, Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) is planning to raise funds by taking the Post public. It’s a time of anxiety for her and her board, especially since the stock offering could be canceled if any factor affected the price negatively before the sale is finalized. At the same time, the Post’s editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) realizes that the brightest writer at the New York Times hasn’t published anything in months. They discover the Times is planning to run a multi-part exposé based on the Vietnam report, which they’re calling the Pentagon Papers. Through dogged digging, personal contacts, and some blind luck, they get their hands on a good portion of the report’s 7000 pages (including supporting documents), but they can’t publish before the Times begins their series. However, the Nixon administration sues the Times to prevent any further stories, and a judge enjoins them from publishing the Papers. That puts the Post back in the game, but if they defy the government it could trigger the canceling of the stock offering.

With Spielberg’s stature in the film industry, he can pretty much get any actor he wishes, and the cast for The Post is filled with first-rate talent even in smaller roles. Besides those previously named, you have Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Alison Brie, Tracy Lets, Carrie Coon, Jessie Plemons, and Bradley Whitford in the cast. (Having Rhys as Ellsberg causes an interesting echo because of his long-running stint on “The Americans.”) An important role is played by none other than Richard Nixon. He’s only shown at a distance through the White House windows, but Spielberg uses Nixon’s comments recorded on the White House tapes to show what he thought of the press.

The screenplay also benefited from serendipitous timing. The first draft was penned by Liz Hannah, who’d had some minor credits in multiple aspects of the film industry. She wrote it on spec, basing it on Graham’s autobiography, in the hopes that the screenplay might get her an agent. Instead producer Amy Pascal bought it immediately after reading it in 2016. Then Donald Trump was elected after a campaign where he constantly vilified the press. Spielberg took on the project as a response to Trump, and within three months the film was cast and began shooting. Josh Singer was brought in to work with Hannah on polishing the script. Singer had written for “The West Wing” and two years ago won the Oscar for his screenplay for Spotlight.

It’s no surprise that Streep picked up another (well-deserved) Oscar nomination for her performance as Graham. The film divides its time between the newsroom’s push to publish the Papers and Graham’s struggle with the Post’s IPO. She’s the only woman in a sea of suits, with the executives ignoring her voice. Graham was an unlikely hero of the story since she was an elite of Washington, and a close personal friend of Robert McNamara. Streep shows Graham’s struggle in a quiet, composed way that makes it all the more real and compelling.

Too often these days people casually dismiss the news and the journalists who gather it as biased, particularly if what they report doesn’t match a person’s assumptions. The Post is a reminder – at a time when one is desperately needed – that the journalists of the Fourth Estate work incredibly hard to get a story right, having to satisfy editors and others well before anyone reads their work. It also underlines the importance of the press in a free country. The freedom of the press was enshrined in the Constitution, as the Supreme Court said in a ruling on the Pentagon Papers, because “the press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

Can’t We All Get Along?

After beginning his career as an actor, Scott Cooper made the jump to hyphenate by writing, directing, and producing Crazy Heart, which won Jeff Bridges a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar. He followed it up with the hard-edged Out of the Furnace, starring Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson, and then directed and produced the bio-pic of Boston crime lord Whitey Bulger, Black Mass, with the best performance by Johnny Depp in a long time. Now Cooper’s back with all three hyphenates for his new film, Hostiles.

The screenplay is based on a manuscript by journalist and screenwriter, Donald E. Stewart. Stewart began his journalism career in the 1950s, joining the Detroit Free Press while still in his early twenties. He founded a weekly magazine based on his love of cars that eventually grew into Autoweek. In the 1960s he switched to advertising, specializing in car ads, but in his forties, he decided on a complete change and moved to Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting. As with many starting Hollywood careers, he connected with Roger Corman. The first film he wrote, Jackson County Jail, has become a cult classic. A few years later he won the Academy Award for his screenplay for Missing, and in the 1990s he wrote the screenplays for the first trio of Tom Clancy films: Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger. Stewart died of cancer in 1999.

Cooper has created an elegiac movie on the passing of the mythic West. It’s 1892, two years after the Wounded Knee Massacre. Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) has spent decades fighting Indians, and is now assigned to Fort Berringer, New Mexico. Imprisoned at the fort is Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a long-time adversary of Blocker. Yellow Hawk is dying of cancer, and the president has ordered that the chief and his family be taken back to sacred Cheyenne ground in Montana. Blocker’s given the assignment to accompany them, after which he’s to proceed to Butte where he’ll be mustered out of the Army and go into retirement.

Blocker and Yellow Hawk have both fought savagely, and there’s no love lost between them. As soon as they’re out of sight of the fort, Blocker slaps chains on Yellow Hawk and his son, Black Hawk (Adam Beach). A short way on the party comes across a burned-out homestead. In the rubble is Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), the lone survivor of her family following an attack by a Comanche raiding party. It soon becomes clear that to survive the trip, Blocker and his small contingent of soldiers must form an alliance with Yellow Hawk’s family as they move through territory that’s hostile to them all.

The film harkens back to the classic Western that took time to set its characters. One of those characters is the landscape of open spaces, gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi. The location manager found pristine areas of New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado that show the timeless beauty of the country. In a way Hostiles is a spiritual stepchild of John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, focused on the end of a way of life not only for the Native Americans but also for the cavalrymen. (Thankfully, Cooper’s done culturally appropriate casting, rather than using Spanish-American actors like Sal Mineo, Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland, as Ford did.)

Bale is a commanding presence as Blocker. He’s an actor whose stillness can be more elegant and communicative than speeches from lesser actors. The scenes between him and Studi’s Yellow Hawk are taut and spare, filled with the history between the two characters. This is Studi’s best performance since Last of the Mohicans. Pike gives an emotionally raw performance, though within her character we see the chance of redemption.

The supporting cast is strong, including Rory Cochrane as Master Sergeant Metz, a man who’s served as long as Blocker but who’s now been diagnosed with melancholia – what we’d term PTSD today. Along the way they pick up Charles Wills, played by the excellent Ben Foster, a sergeant corrupted by the violence of his service. And they have Timothee Chalamet as a young trooper of French extraction. Chalamet has established himself this year with his performances in Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name, for which he’s in Oscar contention.

It’s been said that sometimes you have to walk through hell in order to appreciate heaven. Hostiles is as harsh as nature can be, and it dances along the line of tragedy. Yet it also offers hope within the harshness, and a chance for reconciliation in the end. Perhaps these days a western can be a tonic for this nation, to remind us that overcoming divisions is a core strength of this country that has helped us survive hostilities throughout our history.

Rumble to the “Jungle”

The original Jumanji made a splash when it landed in 1995. Directed by Joe Johnston (October Sky, Captain America: The First Avenger), the movie made just over $100 million on a budget of $50 million, good enough to take 7th place at the box office that year. The film presaged today’s effects-heavy movies with ILM creating the animals released by the game, and it included the breakthrough of photo-realistic hair for the first time on the lions and the monkeys. But its marketing as a children’s movie ran afoul of Roger Ebert, who said it was too scary for children. Star Robin Williams wouldn’t let his children watch it.

Remakes and sequels seem to account for a good percentage of the films released each year, though whether they are “good” themselves is another question. But Director Jake Kasdan and the creative team behind Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle have gone an unusual way by making a sequel that both honors the original film even as it does a major update to the storyline.

The opening sequence gives a nod to the original movie, with a teenager finding the Jumanji board game on a beach in 1996. He takes it home but ignores it, since he’s into video games and “nobody plays board games anymore.” Later that night, the Jumanji box begins shaking and emitting light, enough to wake the boy. He opens the box and finds a game cartridge that will fit his system, so he plugs it in – and disappears.

Fast-forward 21 years. Four disparate students wind up in detention: Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), “Fridge” Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain), Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner), and Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman). The geeky and germophobic Spencer had been a friend of football star Fridge when they were younger, but now Fridge uses Spencer to do his school papers to keep up his grades. The awkward Martha refuses to participate in gym class, while the self-absorbed Bethany won’t let taking a test interfere with her social media life. For their detention, the four are given the task of cleaning out a storeroom in the school basement.

While there, they find an old game console. Spencer, a game nerd, hooks it up to a pre-digital TV in the basement and the home screen for Jumanji appears, asking them to choose one of five avatars, though they find one’s already been chosen. They casually make their decisions, at which point they are sucked into the game. There they discover that their avatars are the opposite of their personalities. Spencer becomes Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), a muscular archeologist, while Fridge becomes “Moose” Finbar (Kevin Hart), an expert zoologist, though Fridge is more upset by Moose’s ironic small stature. Martha’s transformed into Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), known as the “Killer of Men,” while beautiful Bethany becomes Dr. Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), an expert cartographer, though Bethany’s more freaked out that she’s a bearded, middle-aged guy. They soon meet Nigel (Rhys Darby), a non-player character who gives them their task – lift the curse on Jumanji by recovering and returning a gem to the eye of a stone jaguar. But they’re in competition with the game’s villain, Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), and his crew of henchmen.

Except for the opening sequence, you can get almost all of that plotting from the movie’s trailer, but that’s just the start of a wonderful wild ride. Screenwriter teams Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers and Scott Rosenberg & Jeff Pinkner, working from a screen story by McKenna, have beautifully balanced the absurdist comedy with thrilling action and adventure. Kasdan has mostly directed comedies like Orange County and Bad Teacher, but he handles the action and special effects like an experienced pro.

The four main actors have a blast playing against their inner characters, as well as the conventions of the video game. Interestingly, when the first stills of Welcome to the Jungle were released, there was extensive negativity about Gillan’s costume being so sexualized. In fact, that was the point of the costume, to comment on the sexualized female characters often found in videogames (see Lara Croft, though she’s tame in comparison to some). As Van Pelt, Cannavale comes close to going over the top though he manages to pull back enough to keep his character threatening.

Made for $90 million (a relatively small budget for an effects-driven action-adventure), Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle should cross over the $300 million line domestically this week as well as surpass $700 million in worldwide gross. While having the Rock in the lead always gives a movie a running start, a sequel of a 22-year-old movie is by no means a safe bet – just look at Blade Runner 2049. But the film delivers a thrilling two hours that will also have you laughing out loud throughout, and it knows how to strum your heartstrings along the way. Best of all, it does the original proud. Maybe we’ll get a two-pack with the original Jumanji when Welcome to the Jungle comes out on video. I’ll go for that.