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 ~ Midway (2019)


The Facts
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Synopsis:  US soldiers and pilots change the course of World War II during the Battle of Midway in June 1942 when US and Imperial Japanese naval forces fought for four days.

Stars: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Darren Criss, Woody Harrelson, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Dennis Quaid,  Tadanobu Asano, Alexander Ludwig

Director: Roland Emmerich

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 138 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: With the rise of the franchise action film, I’d forgotten what going to a Roland Emmerich movie was like.  The one-time master of the big event film made an impressive debut with Universal Solider in 1992 before going bigger with Stargate in 1994 and fully graduating to epic size with Independence Day in 1994.  In the years that followed, Emmerich struggled with maintaining the scale of his films and had trouble balancing the rising budgets with finding a strong narrative.  By 2013 he was directing White House Down which was similar in plot to Olympus Has Fallen and then he proceeded to go back for seconds on the critically reviled Independence Day: Resurgence.

It was a bit of a surprise for me, then, to see Emmerich’s name attached to Midway because I hadn’t thought the director would want to go for a historical film that would require him to stay within the lines a bit more than he was used to.  Turns out this was exactly the project he needed because aside from a handful of iffy performances and a walloping heap of bad dialogue, Midway emerges as the best effort from the director in years.  Yes, it has your standard roster of rousing speeches and that one impassioned pep talk that comes right before a character is unceremoniously killed off, but it also makes good use of its visual effects budget which helps to snare you into each high-flying fight scene that gets bigger with each battle.  I went in expecting a loud and obnoxious war movie along the lines of the loud and obnoxious Pearl Harbor from 2001, but I wasn’t anticipating coming out the other side having been fully engaged for the majority of Midway’s healthy running length.

Following the military action that took place between the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 and the Battle of Midway in June of 1942, first time feature screenwriter Wes Tooke mixes historical figures with composites of the men that participated in these battles on the ground and in the air.  From a history lesson perspective, Tooke’s script is fast moving and filled with the kind of military jargon war junkies will find enticing, yet it isn’t such a deep dive that others will be lost.  Most of the time it’s clear where we are and what’s happening, though when the movie goes into it’s hyper-kinetic final hour it does help to keep mental notes of what is transpiring.  Not being a huge history stickler, I can’t tell you how well-researched Tooke’s script is or if it’s aligns perfectly with the timeline of events but certain accomplishments that seems too coincidental to be true seem to be backed up by historical fact as evidenced in post-credit character wrap-ups.

Where Tooke’s screenplay is lacking is when the characters have to, you know, talk about normal everyday stuff.  It’s here that his newbie-ness shows and it didn’t surprise me to learn he got started writing for a serialized podcast – much of the dialogue is expository that, while directed toward someone on screen, could just as easily be spoken directly into the camera for all the weight it’s given in relation to the combat-zone speak.  Characters that come off as phony baloney talking about their lives outside of the service suddenly take on a tone of authority when discussing the plans for their next air strike.  With only one actress in the main cast, it isn’t surprising the female characters are barely there and what we do see of them are as supportive wives that just want their husbands to come home safely or are standing by ready to cook a late night sandwich.  It’s a bit embarrassing that Tooke couldn’t have given any female something to do in the film other than play a sturdy rock to their more verbose spouse.

It also could be that Emmerich hasn’t cast the strongest actors either, with British Ed Skrein (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) struggling to maintain his East Coast drawl as hotshot pilot Dick Best.  Try as he might, Skrein never can quite convincingly get through one of his anthemic speeches to his fellow brothers in arms, to say nothing of the complete lack of chemistry he has with his wife, played by an equally vacant Mandy Moore (47 Meters Down).  Yet when Skrein is flying his dive bomber and pushing the limits to victory, he totally had me cheering him on.  In similar boats, or planes, are Luke Evans (Ma), Nick Jonas (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), Darren Criss (Girl Most Likely), Aaron Eckhart (Sully), Luke Kleintank (The Goldfinch), and Keean Johnson (Alita: Battle Angel).  While I’d argue that few of these chiseled actors looks like they would have passed basic training (especially Criss…as a fighter pilot? I think not.) as a unit there is something that gels as the movie progresses.

If there’s one bit of non-action sequences work the best in spite of the thin dialogue, it’s the scenes between Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson, Venom) and Lieutenant Commander Edwin T. Layton (Patrick Wilson, Annabelle Comes Home).  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Nimitz was assigned to take over command of the post and turned to Layton to use his expertise to help predict where the Japanese would attack next.  Layton then sought assistance from a codebreaker who had intercepted Japanese communications, helping them plan for the Battle of Midway.  While there are some hokey bits here and there, by and large these are the moments that land the best and it’s thanks to Harrelson and Wilson’s assured screen presence.  Coincidentally, these are also the passages of the film that are easy to get a bit turned around in — so best to stay alert when Wilson is laying out the game plan.

Where the movie really earns its stripes are the well-staged and skillfully rendered battle scenes featuring air strikes between the US and Japanese forces.  While I normally go a bit cross-eyed with excessive amount of green screen and CGI usage, it didn’t bother me as much in Midway as it wound up enhancing the experience, having the effect of putting the audience right into the middle of the action with alarming intensity.  Far from feeling like an overblown cartoon like previous Emmerich efforts, the visuals are nearly all expertly designed and beautifully executed, culminating in a deluxe finale that actually had me biting my nails.  Sure, it may be a bit chintzy at times but it’s the best kind of gobble-down-your-popcorn kind of fare.  Perhaps the editing could be tightened up a tiny smidge to assist in our tracking of the pilots and to avoid a few repetitive bits but there’s not a lot of the action that I’d want to see trimmed down.

Feeling like it was made with a great sense of honor and respect, I appreciated the gestures Tooke’s script made to Japanese customs as well.  Though dealing us a terrible blow and also being responsible for the deaths of thousands of Chinese that assisted American forces, the Japanese had a sense of nobility in their strategy as well.  It would have been easy (especially in the time we currently live in) to make this an All-American Apple Pie movie but taking a brief moment to acknowledge the losses on both sides doesn’t make any excuses, it simply recognizes the fallen.  If anything, Emmerich could have spent a little more time with the Japanese in the first half of the movie and I imagine he did but felt he could sacrifice those scenes when the movie was running long in his original cut.

Releasing just in time for Veterans Day, I’ll be interested to see how Midway plays with audiences during this quieter time before the busy Thanksgiving holiday draws near.  Though the Battle of Midway has been filmed before (check out 1976’s Midway starring Charlton Heston and Peter Fonda for a less visual effects heavy telling) and there’s more to the story than can be told in 138 minutes (again, there’s absolutely no stories involving women which was disappointing) I appreciated that Emmerich was restrained enough to save his big guns for when he needed it most and let the quieter moments play out.  Even if the quieter moments were clumsy, at least they were there.  For that, I give the movie a lot of credit for exceeding my expectations and providing more entertainment than I could have predicted at the outset.  Very much worth seeing on the big screen.

Movie Review ~ Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Four teenagers discover an old video game console and are literally drawn into the game’s jungle setting becoming the adult avatars they chose. What they discover is that you don’t just play Jumanji – Jumanji plays you. They’ll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives, or they’ll be stuck in the game forever

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Nick Jonas, Bobby Cannavale, Rhys Darby, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Alex Wolff

Director: Jake Kasdan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: In doing some prep work for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle the first thing I thought was wow…the original Jumanji came out in 1995?  Man, do I feel old.  22 years is a whole Disney star lifetime ago and though it had a semi-kinda-sorta sequel a decade later in 2005’s Zathura, it took all this time for a true sequel to that big-time blockbuster to materialize.  While the wait was mostly worth it in the same breath I feel compelled to mention that the first movie isn’t all that great to begin with (go ahead, watch it again and tell me it hasn’t aged well in plot, word, and deed) so there wasn’t exactly a high bar the filmmakers had to navigate. The result is a pleasant but largely forgettable holiday family film that is a viable option for those wanting to avoid Jedi’s and Greatest Showmen.

While it has a few connective tissues to its predecessor, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is largely a self-contained story that finds the mischievous board game adapting for the times.  Magically transforming itself into a video game cartridge, a 1996-set prologue sets up a thin backstory involving a teen that disappears after playing the game.  Skip ahead twenty years and four more teens of various stock character origins (nerd, jock, pretty girl, loner girl) find themselves in detention and coming into contact with the game.

Whisked away into Jumanji’s jungle setting, the teens become the grown-up characters they selected on the game screen.  That’s where some true fun emerges, though if you’ve seen the trailer the film’s already spoiled a few laughs for you.  The nerd enters the game and becomes buff explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas), the towering jock is tiny zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart, The Wedding Ringer), meek loner girl appears as commando Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, Oculus), and the superficial pretty girl winds up as chubby (and male!) scientist Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black, Goosebumps).

Watching the four adjust to their new bodies is amusing but aside from Oberon thrilling at being able to pee standing up, it’s not a theme that director Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape) or the four (!) screenwriters linger on for any stretch of time. Instead, the movie kicks into high gear as the four are plunged into a quest to restore a stolen jewel to its rightful place in one of Jumanji’s vine covered monuments.  Stolen by a power-hungry villain (Bobby Cannavale, Blue Jasmine), the jewel gives the owner dominance over Jumanji’s creatures and landscape so it’s up to our heroes to battle the elements and themselves to save the land and get back to the real world.

Kasdan has cast the film with a pleasant group of game players more than, uh, game to play into their types.  I know Johnson has perfected this big softie character before (just last year in Central Intelligence, in fact) but there’s something so winning about the way he leaves himself vulnerable, not just relying on his gigantic muscles to do the literal and figurative heavy lifting.  Hart is a scream as a big man in a small body while Gillan gets laughs as an awkward girl inhabiting the visage of a lithe action star.  It’s really Black’s show, though, and he milks every ‘girl stuck in a man’s body’ joke for all its worth.  Normally a little of Black goes a long way but he’s the clear audience favorite from the start.

The construction of the movie is made of solid stuff but there’s too much jungle and not enough Jumanji type game-playing for my tastes.  For all the problems I had with the original, at least it established some rules and forced the players to continue to roll the dice in order to finish the game.  Here, the characters enter the game and find out they have three lives but aside from a few small twists here and there there’s little in the way of boundaries.  I have major problems with the ending resolution but as I vow not to provide spoilers I gotta leave that one for you to find out on your own.

Before I go, let me get something trivial off my chest that’s been bugging me since they first released the marketing materials for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.  I hate the title.  Hate it.  Like the movie itself, it’s too long and fussy.  Something short and sweet like, oh, Jumanji: Jungle would have would have left the door open for future sequels set in a host of different locales. To top it all off, take one guess what song plays over the closing credits?