Movie Review ~ Jumanji: The Next Level


The Facts
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Synopsis: A team of friends return to Jumanji to rescue one of their own but discover that nothing is as they expect. The players need to brave parts unknown, from arid deserts to snowy mountains, in order to escape the world’s most dangerous game.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Nick Jonas, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover

Director: Jake Kasdan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Seeing movies at advanced screenings is a huge benefit to doing what I do but it often presents a false impression of how a real audience will react to a movie.  Many times, the crowds that gather for these early showings have waited in line for hours and are experienced at snagging seats for every movie no matter the content or genre.  As long as it’s free, it’s worth seeing and that isn’t always the case for families that have to consider the cost to entertainment benefits of packing the kids into the car and taking them to the movies where prices are high and concessions are tempting.  What I could easily write off as trivial piddle because I’m seeing it for free and have another movie to get to tomorrow could be the one film outing of the holiday season for a household.  So trust me when I say I take this seriously.

Though I had my finicky issues with 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, I still was able to recognize the enormous appeal of its stars and setting, a feeling that obviously was shared by the movie-going public who came out to support it en masse.  Opening strong but then showing surprising longevity over the ensuing weeks, the semi-sequel to the 1996 Robin Williams film was a bona fide hit that didn’t rely solely on the cast or an existing franchise to sell it.  It was an entertaining adventure that was a safe choice for the holidays and managed to outlast a Star Wars sequel (The Last Jedi) and a big movie musical (The Greatest Showman).  Two years later, a third movie has arrived a week before the release of another Star Wars film (The Rise of Skywalker) and a highly anticipated adaptation of a Broadway show (CATS)…is lighting going to strike again for Jumanji: The Next Level and its key players?

It’s been a year since four high schoolers serving detention entered a video game version of Jumanji that saw them take on different role playing avatars to humorous results.  Saving the day and exiting the playing ground as friends, they’ve gone their separate ways but have decided to reunite during the holidays.  Staying with his mom for the week and sharing a bedroom with his grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito, Dumbo) recuperating from hip surgery, Spencer (Alex Wolff, Semper Fi)  can’t seem to find the same confidence he felt when he was in Jumanji as Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, Rampage) and takes a late-night opportunity to go back into the game.

Looking for Spencer when he doesn’t show up for their scheduled reunion, the three other friends (Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, and Madison Iseman) figure out where he has likely gone but before they can make a plan to save him they are sucked back into the game, along with Eddie and Eddie’s former business partner Milo (Danny Glover, The Dead Don’t Die).  All is not well when they return though because while the familiar avatars have stayed the same, the game has changed and, as the title indicates, there is another level to play if they want to make it out alive.  Teaming up with fresh characters, re-discovering old alliances, traveling to new worlds, and battling stronger enemies, the group will have to work together in order to retrieve a precious jewel that holds the key to sustaining the life of Jumanji.

The previous film was working with a script from at least four screenwriters and felt bogged down in a mass of ideas and input.  You could tell it had gone through the franchise factory to ensure it was perfected in order to leave room for future installments and, as I predicted at the end of my review of the original this new film allows our adventurers to explore different worlds outside of the jungle setting.  This keeps the movie from becoming too familiar, even if the entire endeavor is a basic rehash of the original, albeit with bigger effects and a few more characters within the game thrown in.  Is it a better movie?  I don’t know.  It feels about on par with what’s come before and it doesn’t stray too much from what everyone loved from the preceding film.  It brings back nearly everyone, including Nick Jonas (Midway) and that helps it achieve some consistency.

Director Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape) gathers the gang together again and largely lets them loose to do their shtick with little restraint.  This works for the most part in the physical scenes but for the passages that rely on comedic timing, some red flags popped up for me.  I’m not so sure how much I loved hearing Johnson (being “played” by DeVito) yammering through a stereotypical Brooklyn vernacular and I definitely didn’t care for Jack Black (The House with a Clock in Its Walls) affecting a problematic ethnic dialect when he was supposedly being played by a black teenager.  Black was already skating on some tepid ice with his wispy valley girl tra-la-la-ing and furthering some dated speech patterns made me squirm a bit.

If Johnson was the winning star of the first film, the bulk of the heavy lifting here is shifted to Kevin Hart (The Upside) and Karen Gillan (Oculus) who get some nice moments in as the zoologist and butt-kicker in the group.  The wealth is evenly distributed among the four but I felt Hart and Gillan were afforded some of the movies best sequences.  Strangely, the previews and marketing materials have failed to mention the presence of a new character played by a star on the rise and if the studio is being cagey about it, I’ll keep their identity a secret as well.  All I’ll say is this actor is making the awards rounds this season and perhaps they want to downplay their participation in a silly movie for fear their more serious work would be seen in a different light – which makes sense because what they’re doing is painting with some fairly broad strokes. Another secret I’ll keep is the name of an actor making an appearance somewhere in the movie that I recognized from the 1996 film.  At first, I wondered why this person would be cast who already had an association with this property, only to find out later they have the same character name in both movies.  A coincidence?  Time will tell.

Clocking in at 129 minutes, this felt longer than it had to be.  I was getting fairly shifty in my seat before this was even half over and I’m not sure if small children would feel the same way.  I would have liked to see a bit more adventure included in this adventure story and not just impressive CGI created worlds and effects.  There’s a nifty (and scary) high-wire pursuit by a horde of mandrills and a sequence near the end featuring a player eluding poison darts was more in line with what I wanted but there isn’t much room for that when so many other stars are mugging for time.  With a foundation already laid for a third installment, even if this doesn’t exactly represent a level up in overall quality at least there’s been some thought put into the design of this new playing field.

Movie Review ~ Venom (2018)


The Facts
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Synopsis: When Eddie Brock acquires the powers of a symbiote, he will have to release his alter-ego “Venom” to save his life.

Stars: Tom Hardy, Riz Ahmed, Michelle Williams, Jenny Slate, Reid Scott, Scott Haze, Ron Cephas Jones

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: If there’s one thing really good about the recent revival and rethinking of the comic book movie, it’s that it’s giving me some new visibility to characters that aren’t necessarily who you would think about when you hear the word “superhero”. From Guardians of the Galaxy to Ant-Man to Doctor Strange, this comic-book novice is getting a taste of multiple crime fighters and super villains that don’t have familiar names like Superman or Batman. The latest deeper dive character to get his own movie is Venom, the alien symbiote that is the alter-ego of journalist Eddie Brock.   Though Venom was introduced back in 2007 for Spider-Man 3, this is a resetting of the character and yet another origin story for audiences to trudge through. Origin stories done right are worth their weight in gold (hello, Black Panther) but if there isn’t any artistry to the endeavor why even tell the story to begin with?

That’s the main problem facing Venom in its release this fall season – there’s almost no creative energy in the re-launching of the anti-hero to a new generation of theater-goers. Not from the writers, not from director Ruben Fleischer (30 Minutes or Less), and surprisingly not from a stable of interesting supporting actors Fleischer has assembled. Good thing, then, that Venom/Eddie Brock is played by Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road), a game actor willing to go the distance in his transformation.  It’s Hardy’s bizarre but bizarrely perfect performance that gives the film it’s best bet to hold up on repeat viewings.

As the film begins, Eddie Brock is an investigative journalist given an assignment to interview Carlton Drake (Rix Ahmed, The Reluctant Fundamentalist), CEO of Life Foundation, a bioengineering corporation that has been experimenting with gene technology, often with deadly results. Though Brock doesn’t know it at the time, Drake has been exploring space in search of other worlds for habitation and located symbiotic lifeforms that he plans to transport back to earth. When the vessel carrying these organisms crashes and one escapes, Drake attempts to cover up the breach at all costs. Thanks to information about test subjects dying during clinical trials within Life Foundation he steals from the laptop of his lawyer girlfriend (Michelle Williams, All the Money in the World) Brock gets too close to the truth and finds himself dumped and fired on the same day.

The film cuts to half a year later when Brock is scrounging for any kind of work and is sought out by Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate, Zootopia), a colleague of Drake’s that has serious concerns over how her boss is conducting business. Skirth sneaks Brock into Life Foundation’s labs where he is infected by one of the alien lifeforms that Drake brought back from space. Thus, Venom is created and uses Brock’s body to roam Earth unnoticed, picking off anyone that interferes along the way. Venom is often just a voice in Brock’s head but makes the rare appearance as an extension of Brock’s appendages or as a full on CGI overlay on Hardy’s body.  Reaching out to his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend (Reid Scott), Brock seeks their assistance in discovering what’s inside him and how to get rid of it before it eats him from within.

There’s a strange disconnect between the first and last hour of the film, with the early material playing like a boring retread of any number of failed early ‘90s comic back creations. It’s only when Venom takes over Brock’s body that the film begins to loosen up and inject some dark humor into the action. Working best when it’s just Hardy on screen talking to himself or tossing himself around the room during his internal struggles with Venom, the movie gets considerably less interesting almost every time another character is brought into the mix. That’s bad news for Ahmed who is regulated to the bland megalomaniac villain role and especially poison for Williams who never fully establishes herself as strong enough female presence…at least not until the film almost subconsciously remembers they have an Oscar-nominated actress that has shown herself willing to cross genres in search of a challenge. Too often Williams just stares wide eyed at what’s happening around her and chirps out her lines with less that full enthusiasm. I wish the writers had given her a better arc and kept her interesting.

With the success of films like Logan, Deadpool, and Deadpool 2, audiences have shown they’ll turn out for a R-rated comic-book film. While Deadpool and it’s sequel were a bit on the extreme side of the restricted rating, I feel like Venom could easily have eschewed it’s PG-13 bloodless existence for a more adult oriented adventure like Logan was bold enough to do. It feels like the film was severely cut to get the more family friendly (?) rating and it suffers from comings off like a watered down version of something with higher ambitions. I fully expect to hear interviews with Hardy, Fleischer, and others involved down the road bemoaning the confines of operating in a PG-13 world.

With two post credit stingers (both worth it and one surprisingly lengthy), Venom is 112 minutes from start to finish and, aside from it’s slow first hour, is a mostly entertaining re-introduction to an darker character I wanted to learn more about. As is often the case with the first outings, it fees like we’re obligated to wait until the sequel to get more of that character development…but will audiences create the type of box-office that will cement this supposed continuation?

The Silver Bullet ~ Venom

Synopsis: Plot is unknown but is said to be based on not one but two comic book storylines: ‘Venom: Lethal Protector’ and ‘Planet of the Symbiotes.’

Release Date: October 5, 2018

Thoughts: Ok…so maybe there’s room for another superhero movie in 2018.  While the upcoming year is packed with its share of Marvel entries (Black Panther, Ant-Man and The Wasp, Avengers: Infinity War), DC Comics yarns (Aquaman), and Fox properties (Deadpool 2, X-Men: Dark Phoenix), Oscar nominee Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) is set to suit up as Venom which looks to continue the trend of studios adapting comics with considerably darker tones.  I’m all for something that feels different and I’m getting good vibes from this teaser trailer.  Co-starring Michelle Williams (All the Money in the World), Riz Ahmed (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).

Movie Review ~ The 5th Wave

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Four waves of increasingly deadly alien attacks have left most of Earth decimated. Cassie is on the run, desperately trying to save her younger brother.

Stars: Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Alex Roe, Maria Bello, Maika Monroe, Liev Schreiber, Ron Livingston, Maggie Siff

Director: J Blakeson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: As is tradition, January is proving to be a rough month at the movies…which is largely why The 5th Wave is only the second movie I’ve seen in the theaters so far in this new year.  While it’s not as pretentiously terrible as the other movie I saw earlier in the month (Anomalisa…oy), the latest big screen first installment of a Young Adult trilogy of novels struggles to set itself apart from the numerous other (and better) page to screen adaptations.

Coming off like a Muppet Babies retelling of Independence Day, The 5th Wave is the first novel in Rick Yancey’s trilogy following the after effects of an alien invasion that leaves the world in ruins. An electromagnetic pulse has destroyed anything with a current or engine, a super strain of the bird flu, and a series of catastrophic earthquakes that yield gigantic, yes, waves, has trimmed the population down by the millions.  The screenplay by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), Akiva Goldsman (Winter’s Tale), and Jeff Pinkner (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) often feels more mature than the characters speaking the lines, but that winds up helping the film overall.

At the center of the mayhem is 16-year-old Cassie and her younger brother Sam (spoiler alert if you miss the first 15 minutes of the movie: the parents don’t make it…), left to fend for themselves against an alien race known as the Others who are taking steps to rid the planet of its inhabitants.  When Cassie and Sam are separated by the kind of “just missed the bus” moments that can only exist in fantasy movies, the siblings find themselves split into two separate plot threads.  One thread follows Cassie’s rocky journey to reunite with her brother and the other tracks Sam as he is recruited into an army of children trained to exterminate the alien species by a grumpy looking Liev Schrieber (Spotlight) and a heavily made up Maria Bello (Prisoners, who, it must be said, gets the biggest laugh of the movie thanks to a sight gag involving her red lipstick).  There are a few twists that aren’t hard to predict, though to its credit the film doesn’t expressly telegraph each and every move.

It’s the end of the world as she knows and she feels…ok?  Though the first 1/3 of the movie is decently paced and mildly involving, its biggest problem is its bored-looking star.  Using flared nostrils and expressive lips as a substitute for deep emotion, Chloë Grace Moretz (Carrie, Dark Shadows) saunters through the majority of the movie killing time and collecting her paycheck. She gets a few good tough chick moments but they are weakened by the film feeling obligated to give her googly eyes for a hunky piece of could-be-alien man meat (Alex Roe, filling the man-meat qualifications nicely).

I actually found myself more interested in the parallel storyline of a squad of teens and pre-teens going through basic training, though overall it’s given unfortunately short shrift in favor of more Moretz moments.  Led by Zombie (Nick Robinson, Jurassic World) alongside interesting but underdeveloped characters (like Tony Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel and especially Maika Monroe, Labor Day), had the film focused solely on the squad, it may have found its footing easier when it rounds the corner into its final act.   A brief side note, I’m growing a bit weary seeing kids killing kids and being put into such deadly harm so parents, even though its based on a book your kids can pick up in their library, this easily earns it PG-13 thanks to several overly violent and disturbing passages.

As to the conclusion of the movie, it’s no secret that this is the first in a planned trilogy so there’s little resolution to offer by the end…making the previous two hours feel like a large set-up to sequels that may not happen should The 5th Wave get deep sixed at the box office.  My advice would be to wait until the second (or third, or fourth if they dare to split it into two movies) is released and catch The 5th Wave from the comfort of your own home.

Movie Review ~ The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Peter Parker runs the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends up a slew of supervillains against him, impacting on his life.

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Colm Feore, Paul Giamatti, Sally Field, B.J. Novak

Director: Marc Webb

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 142 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: With the arrival of this sequel to a 2012 reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, I’m still not at all sold that the world needed a re-imagining of the series so soon after the Sam Raimi trilogy of films released between 2002 and 2007. That being said, with a more forward moving plot and a collection of interesting characters, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 shows a marked improvement over the moody and overly emo blockbuster that arrived two years ago.

I find that the first entries in most superhero series are always tricky because it’s necessary to tell an origin story detailing how the central character (or characters) became the caped crusaders or men of steel we know them to be. Very few films have been successful in that regard, with 1978’s Superman being the gold standard of origin story films in my book.

The Amazing Spider-Man faced an uphill battle because in my mind it had to provide some rationale for why we needed to go back to square one with Peter Parker and his arachnid powers. It couldn’t make the case and though it made a truckload of cash for Sony/Marvel and had some impressive special effects, it was slow and housed an uninteresting villain that provided more yawns of boredom than gasps of excitement.

The sequel sets to out to right some of those wrongs but winds up overcompensating for its lackluster predecessor by stuffing so much into its first hour that audiences should buckle up for tonal whiplash. Returning director Marc Webb and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek, People Like Us), Roberto Orci (Star Trek: Into Darkness), Jeff Pinkner have great difficulty finding their bearings in the further adventures of Peter Parker and it’s not until well into the second act of their film that they get into the groove.

Opening with a whiz-bang flashback prologue that shows what really happened to Peter Parker’s parents (Campbell Scott & Embeth Davidtz) after they mysteriously left him with Aunt May (Sally Field, Lincoln) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) we jump right into a present that finds Peter (Andrew Garfield, less troubled here but still a tad whiny) and Gwen (Emma Stone, bringing valuable sparkle to her role) trying to navigate their relationship. Haunted by a promise he made to her dying father, Peter struggles with honoring his word and the love he feels for Gwen.

At the same time and in true sequel fashion, more time is spent on introducing several new villains to the mix than with our hero. The first foe Spidey has to deal with is Electro (Jamie Foxx, Annie) who starts the film as a dopey nerd desperate for attention that finds himself at the business end of a tub of electric eels. Foxx plays these early scenes as such a simpleton it borders on insulting stereotype though he does manage to find good but hardly electrifying moments when he gains his evil powers.

Also appearing is Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan, Lawless, Chronicle) who, after the death of his father (Chris Cooper, August: Osage County) returns to manage Oscorp, the mega company that employs Gwen and seems to be the breeding ground for villains out to take over the world. Dying due to a genetic disease, Harry needs Spider-Man’s blood to save himself…a problem made more difficult when he discovers that Spidey is really his childhood friend Peter Parker. DeHaan and Garfield are both talented young actors, so it’s guffaw inducing to watch scenes that have them spouting douche-y dialogue with numerous “bro” and “dude” interjections.

There’s something to be said when the most interesting character has no superpowers at all. Showing once again why she’s such a value add to any film, Field makes the most of her limited screen time by creating a character designed to be the voice of reason but delivering her material with an honesty that seems out of place in a film otherwise populated with some fairly generic dialogue and plot developments.

Composer Hans Zimmer replaced James Horner and the resulting score creates an excitement the original was lacking. Aided by super producer Pharrell, Zimmer’s score is just as impressive as the special effects which are deployed in a spectacular fashion whether it’s in Spidey’s high flying opening pursuit of a gang of thugs or a final showdown with Electro at a power plant. T

he final third of the film is pure action, leading to a series of endings (there are at least three) that signal change is ahead for Parker and company. With a third entry on its way in 2016, there’s little doubt Spidey will spin his web for years to come and if this sequel is any indication, the series will continue to improve.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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Synopsis: Peter Parker runs the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends a slew of supervillains up against him.

Release Date:  May 2, 2014

Thoughts: While I wasn’t married to the idea of Tobey Maguire being the one and only Spider-Man forever and ever, I wasn’t convinced in 2012 that Sony needed to reboot our webbed hero with The Amazing Spider-Man.  The film, while impressive visually, was missing that special spark that all lasting superhero films need to stand the test of time.  History has shown that some franchise films need to work out some bugs at first so I’m going to put faith in director Marc Webb and the creative time that this second go ‘round with Spidey hits the bullseye.  Adding rising star Dane DeHaan (Lawless, Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines), Paul Giamatti (Saving Mr. Banks), and Jamie Foxx (White House Down, Django Unchained) to the mix, this special New Year’s Eve preview is shorter and more compact than the longer trailer released a month ago, truly teasing the audience with images of the nasty baddies that await them when the film is released in May.