‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ Keeps It Faithful, But Why Not Be Weirder?


Plumbing the depths (CREDIT: Nintendo and Universal Studios)

Starring: Chris Pratt, Anya-Taylor Joy, Charlie Day, Jack Black, Keegan Michael-Key, Seth Rogen, Fred Armisen, Sebastian Maniscalco, Charles Martinet, Kevin Michael Richardson

Directors: Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic

Running Time: 92 Minutes

Rating: PG for Scrapes and Scuffles That Don’t Leave a Mark

Release Date: April 5, 2023 (Theaters)

What’s It About?: The Mario brothers are ready to take their plumbing business to the next level! Better watch out for those pipes, though. Based on the long-running series of Nintendo video games, the gang’s all here in the faithfully colorful Super Mario Bros. Movie. Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) find themselves suddenly sucked into a fantastical kingdom where wooden blocks hold the promise of physical transformation. They team up with Princess Peach (Anya-Taylor Joy) to defeat the over-the-top villainous Bowser (Jack Black), while a mushroom creature (Keegan Michael-Key) and a goofy gorilla (Seth Rogen) round out the core crew.

What Made an Impression?: Mario and Luigi have of course made it onto the big screen before, though 1993’s live-action Super Mario Bros. was widely considered an unmitigated disaster. Bizarrely enough, this latest cinematic adventure keeps the same basic skeleton, as the Mario brothers drive around Brooklyn in their plumbing van, only to then find themselves in the middle of an interdimensional conflict. But beyond that shared setup, it’s a vastly different journey this time. The 1993 version isn’t exactly a misunderstood classic, but it is unlike pretty much anything else that came before or after. Meanwhile, this computer-animated update is basically a series of right-down-the-middle cutscenes.

It’s harmless and amusing in spots, but stripped of way too much personality. It all starts with the voice of the stocky fellow at the center. Chris Pratt has some useful tools in his skill set, but bringing to life an iconically cartoonish ball of energy is not one of them. There’s even a joke about how he sounds nothing like the Mario of the video games! Now look, Bob Hoskins didn’t exactly sound like classic Mario either, but he brought something undeniably unique. Pratt’s mandate, meanwhile, appears to be to turn him into Bland Everyman Hero.

At least everyone else is able to stretch and have some fun. Black in particular has a blast, as he transforms Bowser into the dragon-turtle version of Tenacious D, while Fred Armisen’s Cranky Kong sounds just like his impression of Anna Nicole Smith trial judge Larry Seidlin. There are also plenty of reliable needle drops, though I’m not sure some of them have anything to do with Mario. (“Take on Me,” anyone?) Ultimately, my favorite part of The Super Mario Bros. Movie is the Illumination logo at the beginning that features a Minion attempting to drive a go-kart, which led me to realize that it’s high time to incorporate those little yellow fellas into the Nintendo universe.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie is Recommended If You Like: Bright colors and simple plots

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Power Ups

‘Apollo 10½’ Sends a Kid to the Moon But Also Keeps Him Earthbound

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Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood (CREDIT: Netflix)

Starring: Milo Coy, Jack Black, Josh Wiggins, Lee Eddy, Bill Wise, Natalie L’Amoreaux, Jessica Brynn Cohen, Sam Chipman, Danielle Guilbot, Glen Powell, Zachary Levi

Director: Richard Linklater

Running Time: 98 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Mildly Adult Moments

Release Date: April 1, 2022 (Netflix)

Isn’t it cool when kids do something that only adults are supposed to do? Well, maybe not all the time, at least not in the real world. Sure, a toddler dressing up like a doctor is so gosh darn cute, but that same toddler performing surgery is probably not the best idea. But we’re talking about fictional worlds right now! And that means that children can hold down dangerous jobs, and perform them quite admirably to boot. That brings me to the Richard Linklater-directed Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood, a rotoscope-animated adventure in which a boy named Stanley (Milo Coy) is recruited by NASA to participate in the Apollo 11 mission. Now that’s some historical revisionism I can get behind.

In this alterna-vision of the 1960s, finding fresh astronauts is akin to the modern practice of college scouts traversing through middle schools to find the next big football or basketball phenom. A couple of NASA officials (Glen Powell, Zachary Levi) are hanging around a recess kickball game because one of the lunar modules is too small for adults and they’re hoping to find someone here who can fit in it. So they key right in on Stanley, and I’m all ready to go for some astronaut training montages. But not so quick, as that’s not exactly what Linklater has in mind. Instead, this is mostly a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale about growing up in a big family in 1960s Texas, with the Space Race serving mostly as a background event. An important background event that sets the tone, but not the main event no matter how you slice it.

If Apollo 10½ had focused more on the child astronaut conceit, it would’ve been a lot more unique than what we actually ended up with. Instead, it’s a familiar piece of coming-of-age nostalgia from an oft-explored era. A well-made piece of familiar nostalgia, with compelling narration from Linklater vet Jack Black as adult Stanley, but decidedly familiar nonetheless. So just keep your expectations in check about the potential for freshness, and you should be able to find something to enjoy here.

Apollo 10½ is Recommended If You Like: 1960s fashion, 1960s TV shows, 1960 music

Grade: 3 out of 5 Lunar Modules

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 5/15/20

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CREDIT: The CW/YouTube Screenshot

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

-Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020 (May 16 on Various Networks)
DC’s Stargirl Series Premiere (May 18 on DC Universe and May 19 on The CW) – Starring Brec Bassinger as Stargirl; Luke Wilson and Joel McHale also appear.
Community Cast Reunion Table Read and Q+A (May 18 on YouTube)
Celebrity Escape Room (May 21 on NBC) – A Red Nose Day celeb goof-off hosted by Jack Black
Holey Moley II: The Sequel Premiere (May 21 on ABC) – Mini-golf is so hot right now.
To Tell the Truth Season Premiere (May 21 on ABC)

-Charli XCX, How I’m Feeling Now
-Moby, All Visible Objects

‘Jumanji: The Next Level’ is Worth It Mostly for the Actor-Persona Swapping

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CREDIT: Frank Masi/Sony Pictures Entertainment

Starring: Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Alex Wolff, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina, Colin Hanks, Rhys Darby, Rory McCann, Marin Hinkle

Director: Jake Kadan

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Intense CGI Animal Attacks

Release Date: December 13, 2019

Let’s be real: the biggest joy of 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle wasn’t the game itself, but how it was played. I’m talking about the actors who played the video game avatars and how the conceit demanded that they depart so far from their typical personas. Dwayne Johnson had to act like a scrawny kid with allergies, Kevin Hart got to wonder why he wasn’t a foot taller, Karen Gillan was allowed to question the wisdom of midriff-baring in action scenarios, and Jack Black fulfilled his destiny by getting to play a superficial teenage girl. So if The Next Level, the third movie in this series (although let’s be real: this feels like the second movie, since the actual first movie is so far removed from these latter two, though I’ll do my best to call it the third. Also, side note: there’s a cameo of someone from the original film, but I didn’t even remember that she was in the original, so take from that what you will) wants to succeed, it ought to double down on that performance-with-a-performance framework, right? Definitely, although there’s also a hullabaloo about a plot and some frenetic action set pieces.

The Next Level, naturally enough, is about the next level in the video game, so it’s a little harder now for the gamers to successfully complete their mission of saving Jumanji. For us, that means a lot of the film is like watching someone else playing a video game, which can be enjoyable, but it usually doesn’t deliver the transcendence that cinema is designed to achieve. Maybe some viewers will really dig all this flying through the air and slamming into the scenery, but for me, it feels like an exhausting visual onslaught. Although, I must admit that the CGI-rendered ostriches and mandrills do look genuinely scary.

But back to the main attraction, as it behooves me to mention that Dannys DeVito and Glover have joined the Jumanji gang, and they have major parts, even when we don’t get to see their familiar faces. Glover plays Milo, former business partner to DeVito’s Eddie, grandfather to Spencer (Alex Wolff), whose lingering insecurity about life in general has led him to venture back into the game. His friends follow behind to rescue him, but since everything is a little haywire, Milo and Eddie are dragged in as well, and nobody gets to choose their avatars, though they also get some opportunities to switch around who’s playing whom. In Welcome to the Jungle, the young actors were not too well-known, so the actors playing the video game characters were playing types more than they were doing impressions. But now with the presence of some more familiar names, the routine gets to lean more toward impressions, which Hart, Johnson, and newcomer Awkwafina take full advantage of. Honestly, in this day and age of strife and division, the world would be a lot better if we all spent some time pretending to be Danny DeVito. So, in that sense, The Next Level is a net good.

Jumanji: The Next Level is Recommended If You Like: Watching other people play video games, Danny DeVito impressions, Danny Glover impressions

Grade: 3 out of 5 Life Bars

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween’ is Basically an Alternate Dimension’s First ‘Goosebumps’ Movie

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CREDIT: Daniel McFadden/Sony Pictures Entertainment

This review was originally published on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Madison Iseman, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Caleel Harris, Chris Parnell, Ken Jeong, Jack Black

Director: Ari Sandel

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: PG for CGI Spooks, a Slightly Sociopathic Ventriloquist Dummy, and Carnivorous Candy

Release Date: October 12, 2018

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween employs the same sequel strategy as A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, wherein most of the of the original’s characters are elsewhere, but the new characters read about their story as they figure out what they need to do to defeat the same set of scares. This approach could make for a weirdly different follow-up, but in this case, Goosebumps 2 is basically an alternate version of the first Goosebumps. Once again, the monsters from R.L. Stine’s series of books have been unleashed into the real world, with Slappy the Dummy serving as the twisted ringleader. And also once again, a group of youngsters must chase them down and get them sucked back into their pages. That’s not all, as we all get the return of the concept that Stine must complete an unfinished story to subdue his monsters, but that thread doesn’t go very far because Jack Black, as Stine, has much less screen time than he did in the original. It ends up being one big joke that he does not show up soon enough to offer much of any help, while also giving the sense that there was an alternate screenplay that had some remnants show up in the final version.

Haunted Halloween actually does want to distinguish itself, what with it taking place on the titular holiday. The idea of the terrors of Halloween coming to life is a potent one, though it has been explored before in other, better flicks. Director Ari Sandel struggles to make any of his efforts stand out, because so much of the chaos is just a mess of CGI (though one sequence involving ravenous gummy bears is well-realized). And the plot is fairly cliché, with an older sibling annoyed by her dorky younger brother and his goofball friend, while the parents just don’t want to hear nothing about a talking doll. But Goosebumps 2 does have a few moments of delight, mostly thanks to the presence of total comedy pros like Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ken Jeong, and Chris Parnell. And, let’s face it: Slappy can be quite the edgy little stinker.

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween is Recommended If You Like: Sequels That Ignore the Original But Not Completely

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Incantations

This Is a Movie Review: There Are Spurts of Cinematic Magic Within ‘The House with a Clock in Its Walls’

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CREDIT: Quantrell D. Colbert/Copyright: © 2018 Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Renée Elise Goldberry, Sunny Suljic, Lorenza Izzo, Colleen Camp

Director: Eli Roth

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: PG for Children in Danger and Creepy, Occasionally Macabre, Magic

Release Date: September 21, 2018

Despite some spirited performances and thorough production design and effects work, The House with a Clock in Its Walls ultimately feels rather perfunctory. But would I have this way if I saw it for the first time when I was eight years old, or would I have instead been truly excited? And as a PG-rated fantasy flick, perhaps we should primarily be asking what pre-teens will think about it. But maybe we should also be asking if it is good enough for them to continue to cherish it (beyond nostalgia value) as they grow older.

There is definitely plenty in here for kids to identify or empathize with, as recently orphaned 10-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) makes his way to his uncle’s house in New Zebedee, Michigan. Any youngsters who have ever struggled to fit in – whether because of a new school, a weird new home, cruel classmates, or whatever else – will be able to see themselves in Lewis, and that shouldn’t be discounted. But beyond his fashion signature of goggles based on his favorite sci-fi TV show, he doesn’t have the most memorable personality.

Luckily, the adults around Lewis do make more of a lasting impact. Jack Black leans into his bumbling side as Uncle Jonathan, a warlock who constantly downplays his own abilities, perhaps to his detriment. His neighbor Florence (Cate Blanchett) is a much more regal magical presence. Black and Blanchett have decent platonic chemistry, with their insistence that they are nothing more than friends never undercut by their repartee. As Jonathan’s sinister former partner Isaac, Kyle MacLachlan displays plenty of charisma despite working under mounds of makeup. And the house itself, in which the furniture acts like a pack of friendly dogs, is fun enough, with director Eli Roth demonstrating his knack for rendering fully realized, character-rich settings (but obviously more kid-friendly than what we’re used to from him). But at the end, you’re liable to be left thinking, “Welp, that all happened.” The stakes are apocalyptic, but they never feel that dire. Lewis saves the day, and that’s nice and all, but there could have been more zip and zaniness.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls is Recommended If You Like: The Pagemaster, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The NeverEnding Story

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Magic Keys

This Is a Movie Review: In ‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,’ Joaquin Phoenix is a Recovering Alcoholic Quadriplegic, And Jonah Hill is There to Help Him Out

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CREDIT: Scott Patrick Green, Courtesy of Amazon Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2018.

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Mark Webber, Udo Kier, Kim Gordon, Beth Ditto, Carrie Brownstein

Director: Gus van Sant

Running Time: 113 Minutes

Rating: R for General Alcoholic Behavior, And Maintaining a Sexual Appetite Even When Your Body Can’t Move Freely

Release Date: July 13, 2018 (Limited)

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, based on John Callahan’s memoir of the same name, stars Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan, a recently paralyzed recovering alcoholic who discovers a passion for and makes a career out of wry, off-color cartoons. His moment of rock bottom could not be more dramatic, as an all-night session of non-stop partying ends in a terrible car crash that renders him a quadriplegic. There is plenty to Callahan’s story, but for my money, Don’t Worry is really about Jonah Hill’s weirdly transfixing performance as Donnie, John’s AA sponsor.

Hill was on hand for an interview after the screening I went to, where it was noted that Donnie’s homosexuality was probably the least interesting thing about him, and not even all that noticeable. While Donnie is certainly well-rounded enough to not be defined by his sexual orientation, that orientation is in fact clear eno9ugh. Although, the possibility that a straight man could be as fey and as much of an aesthete as Hill plays Donnie is plenty intriguing. He is an inspiration for everyone to be themselves. It is a lesson that John takes to heart. Extreme trauma is a roadblock that is always lurking; if you survive it, you shouldn’t let it stop you from discovering who you are.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is Recommended If You Like: 50/50, ’70s Style and Interior Decorating

Grade: 3 out of 5 Motorized Wheelchairs