The Films of Joe Johnston
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
Jumanji (January 25/18)
Based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg, Jumanji details the havoc wreaked by the eponymous board game after a couple of kids (Kirsten Dunst's Judy and Bradley Pierce's Peter) uncover it and begin playing - with their game unleashing a raft of outrageous events and freeing a man (Robin Williams' Alan) trapped in its confines for decades. Filmmaker Joe Johnston has infused Jumanji with an appreciatively old-school feel that's reflected in its many attributes, and there's little doubt that the movie benefits substantially from its easy-going vibe and raft of above-average performances - with, in terms of the latter, Williams delivering a typically engaging turn as the fish-out-of-water protagonist. It's clear, too, that the heart at the center of the narrative - Williams' character has, after all, been stuck in the game since childhood - results in a handful of unexpectedly emotional moments, although Jumanji is, by and large, propelled forward by gleefully over-the-top moments of comedy and adventure (eg a stampede of wild animals charges through town, a seemingly sentient vine goes on the attack, etc, etc). The movie admittedly does begin to wear a little thin once it passes the one-hour mark, as Jonathan Hensleigh, Greg Taylor, and Jim Strain deliver an unabashedly episodic screenplay that becomes dominated by a somewhat repetitive execution (ie a character rolls the dice and something crazy happens, another character rolls and something else happens, etc) - with the picture ultimately benefiting from a heartwarming conclusion that cancels out its few missteps.
Inspired by true events, October Sky follows 1950s teenager Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he and some friends set out to build a working rocket - with the movie also detailing Homer's fractured relationship with his coal-mining father (Chris Cooper's John). It's an old-fashioned, feel-good narrative that's employed to consistently watchable effect by filmmaker Joe Johnston, as the director does an effective job of ensuring that the storyline both moves along at a steady clip and contains a number of impressively affecting moments. Gyllenhaal's typically strong work as the central character goes a long way towards confirming the movie's success, while the movie's periphery players provide better-than-average support and background color. (Cooper's performance here is especially quite engrossing, to be sure.) The compulsively watchable vibe does take a hit somewhere around the one-hour mark, however, as the newfound emphasis on Homer's exploits within the mine wreaks havoc on the movie's momentum (and it doesn't help, certainly, that this portion of the proceedings never actually happened to the real Hickam). It's just as clear that October Sky recovers for an admittedly captivating final stretch, with the emotional punch of the film's final few minutes ultimately confirming its place as an above-average period piece.
Jurassic Park III
Jurassic Park III ultimately falls right in line with its immediate predecessor, as the film, though equipped with a handful of effective sequences, simply isn't able to carve out a place for itself as a legitimately necessary followup (ie there's nothing within the narrative that advances the Jurassic Park story as a whole forward). This is despite the welcome return of Sam Neill's Alan Grant, with the affable character convinced to return to the dino-infested island under false pretenses and eventually forced to once again fight for his life. It's worth noting Jurassic Park III strikes a negative chord right from the outset, as the movie reveals that Grant is no longer with Laura Dern's Ellie Sattler - with this almost astonishingly boneheaded development essentially undoing Grant's entire character arc from the first film. Once the viewer gets past that colossally misguided decision, however, Jurassic Park III manages to establish itself as a quick-paced and action-packed thriller that does, for the most part, hold one's interest throughout (even if the whole thing basically vanishes from one's memory before the end credits even finish rolling). The by-the-numbers nature of Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne, and Jim Taylor's screenplay ensures that there's a paucity of sympathetic characters, and it is, as a result, almost easier to root for the dinosaurs than it is to root for the humans. (Neill's expectedly charming Dr. Grant is essentially the sole exception to this.) It's finally clear that Jurassic Park III, sporadically entertaining as it is, never quite establishes a compelling reason for its very existence, with the Grant/Sattler breakup making a very strong argument for the film to be retconned out of existence.
Inspired by real events, Hidalgo follows rough-and-tumble 19th-century cowboy Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) as he agrees to participate in an epic horse race across the Middle East - with the perilous trek made all-the-more-dangerous by a series of sabotages and backstabbings. Director Joe Johnston, perhaps predictably, has infused Hidalgo with a sweeping, old-fashioned sensibility that's reflected in its various attributes, and it's clear that the movie's initial stretch is as watchable as it is (occasionally) thrilling - with Mortensen's typically commanding performance anchoring the proceedings to an impressive degree. It's disappointing to note, then, that the film's hold on the viewer dwindles steadily as it enters its progressively dull midsection, as Johnston, working from John Fusco's bloated screenplay, offers up a series of padded-out and needless sequences detailing the backhanded exploits of Hopkins' competitors - which ensures that one's interest in the actual race begins to evaporate on an increasingly prominent basis. The ensuing lull in the buildup to the climax paves the way for a rather interminable final half hour (and one that isn't even remotely exciting), and it subsequently goes without saying that by the time Hopkins' begins chanting in the Sioux language, Hidalgo has completely worn out its welcome and confirmed its place as a disastrously overlong true-life tale.
Based on the 1941 horror classic, The Wolfman follows turn-of-the-century nobleman Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) as he arrives home to bury his brother alongside his estranged father (Anthony Hopkins' John Talbot) and his brother's fiancee (Emily Blunt's Gwen Conliffe) - with problems ensuing as Lawrence finds himself on the receiving end of a deadly curse after being attacked by a mysterious creature. It's clear right from the get-go that Joe Johnston is looking to emulate the feel of an old-school horror flick, and although the filmmaker does succeed to a certain extent (ie the movie boasts a decidedly atmospheric sense of style), The Wolfman suffers from an egregiously deliberate pace that slowly but surely renders its overtly positive attributes moot - with the pervasively stuffy vibe holding the viewer at arm's length for the majority of the running time. This feeling of lifelessness is also reflected in Del Toro's lamentably less-than-enthralling work as the central character, as the star offers up a surprisingly flat performance that's sorely lacking in the off-kilter quirks with which he's become associated (ie he's just dull here). The only real break from the tedium is an exceptional stand-alone sequence in which Lawrence, much to the alarm of dozens of watching scientists, transforms into the title character and embarks on a rampage of London; it's an exciting interlude that possesses precisely the sort of energy that's sorely missing from the remainder of the proceedings, although, to be fair, it's difficult not to get a kick out of Hugo Weaving's all-too-brief turn as a tenacious Scotland Yard inspector. It's a shame, really, given the potential here for a fun horror-movie ride, with Johnson's ongoing difficulties in sustaining viewer's interest ultimately ensuring that The Wolfman comes off as a sporadically intriguing but mostly underwhelming piece of work.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America: The First Avenger, which unfolds primarily during the Second World War, follows 97-pound weakling Steve Rogers as he's transformed into the title character during an experimental procedure, with the movie subsequently detailing the Captain's ongoing efforts at defeating a villainous figure known as the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). It's ultimately clear that Captain America: The First Avenger improves as it progresses, as the film, directed by Joe Johnston, suffers from an overlong and padded-out first half devoted primarily to Rogers' less-than-engrossing pre-war exploits - with the movie's watchable vibe perpetuated, for the most part, by the efforts of a strong supporting cast. There's little doubt, then, that the film begins to demonstrably improve once Rogers undergoes his metamorphosis, with the effectiveness of that sequence paving the way for a second half that's rife with unexpectedly captivating set pieces - including a finale that's not quite as over-the-top as one might've anticipated (and feared). It doesn't hurt, either, that scripters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely place an ongoing emphasis on the romance between Rogers and a British officer (Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter), with the palpable chemistry between the two ensuring that Captain America: The First Avenger boasts an emotional resonance that's far from the norm with films of this ilk. Johnston's old-fashioned modus operandi proves effective at carrying the proceedings through its few underwhelming stretches, and it's finally clear that Captain America: The First Avenger remains a cut above its lackluster Marvel brethren for most of its running time (if only because it primarily resembles an actual movie more than it does a collection of special effects sequences).
Not Safe for Work
Not Safe for Work casts Max Minghella as Thomas Miller, an ambitious legal assistant who finds himself trapped in his company's offices alongside a brutal assassin (JJ Feild) - with the movie primarily detailing the game of cat and mouse that ensues between the two men. Filmmaker Joe Johnston, working from Adam Mason and Simon Boyes' screenplay, delivers an opening half hour that is, to put it mildly, less-than-engrossing, as the movie is initially concerned with the central character's work-related exploits and his company's efforts to mount a case against a powerful mafia family. There's little doubt that it is, at the outset, difficult to work up much interest in or enthusiasm for Thomas' various endeavors, and it's only as Feild's decidedly malevolent character arrives on the scene that Not Safe for Work begins to show signs of life. The movie's lackluster atmosphere receives a palpable boost past that point, with the inclusion of an unexpectedly tense sequence, detailing the killer's encounter with one of Thomas' panicky coworkers, triggering a midsection that's often far more engrossing than one might've anticipated (ie Thomas and the murderer's cat-and-mouse shenanigans are genuinely exciting and suspenseful). It's disappointing to note, then, that Not Safe for Work fizzles out rather dramatically in its final stretch, as Mason and Boyes transform Feild's menacing figure into a disappointingly typical big-screen villain (ie he begins explaining things when he should be murdering) - which ultimately confirms the movie's place as an erratic yet entertaining little thriller that could (and should) have been better.