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 ~ Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle


The Facts
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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?

Movie Review ~ Pain & Gain

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A trio of bodybuilders in Florida get caught up in an extortion ring and a kidnapping scheme that goes terribly wrong.

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris, Rob Corddry, Tony Shalhoub, Bar Paly, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong, Yolanthe Cabau

Director: Michael Bay

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  If Pain & Gain demonstrates anything, it’s that director Michael Bay can do an awful lot with a tiny budget…if you consider 25 million dollars a tiny budget.  Unfortunately, even with a budget that’s about ¼ of the last Transformers movie, Bay shows himself again as a director that’s full of sound and fury but truly signifying nothing by delivering a rather unpleasant film that’s doesn’t shortchange the audience on flash, flesh, and felons.

Based on a true story, Pain & Gain is told in flashback by multiple narrators who pop in whenever the film deems it necessary to tell the tale of three Miami muscled gym rats that find themselves in a whole mess of trouble thanks to their own buffoonery and poor planning.  Their efforts to swindle a greasy client (Shaloub) out of his money and property is so out of this world crazy that the film has to keep telling us it’s a true story when it takes some fairly incredible turns. 

Directed with the reckless commercial sleaze that Bay is famous for, the film does look great with vibrant colors and slo-mo work that delivers several humorous sight gags.  The movie hums with adrenaline but has a strange hollowness to it, never really making it up the hill of better black comedies that didn’t need to resort to gross out gore/humor to keep the attention of its audience. 

Wahlberg (Ted, Contraband) is more jacked up and cracked out than ever before and it’s plain to see that he put in some extra time in the gym to prepare himself for the trainer turned criminal that’s the ringleader of this strange mix of people.  Wahlberg plays this guy so wound up that when he has some freak outs of rage they’re more funny than threatening – which is, I believe, what he’s going for. 

His two compatriots are Mackie (Man on a Ledge, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and Johnson (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) as fellow bodybuilders that have more going on in their right bicep than they do between their ears.  Mackie has a strange and extraneous side romance with Wilson (Pitch Perfect) who doesn’t have much to do but play on her dependable foul-mouthed shtick. 

It’s clear that Johnson is a box office favorite but he tries to go the extra mile here in the acting department and comes up short, never really getting to the heart of the dim-witted tool that writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were going for.  Plus Johnson is at this point just one big muscle with eyes so it’s hard to take him seriously. 

When Harris (The Abyss, looking like a white raisin) shows up, he adds the kind of laid-back delivery that helps to balance the ADD-addled film and the characters within.  A retired private detectice, Harris gets looped into the mix by a patsy targeted by the men and tries in van to stop the eventually downfall he sees coming.  It’s the most level performance in the film and is a valued contribution.  Not a valued contribution is Jeong, once again turning in an awful “comedic” performance – how is this guy considered funny?

After a engaging but seedy first hour, the film takes on a darker tone and that’s when it transitioned from buzzy black comedy to an unhappy trek through tough territory as murder comes into play.  Blood is spilled, body parts are BBQ’d, and a few other appendages are damaged along the way as Bay steers his film into some unapologetically foul territory. 

Far from Bay’s best work (I’d still say that The Island is the most satisfying film he’s made), Pain & Gain suffers from an excess of style without any real support of substance.  Not a bad film if I’m being really honest, just one that didn’t need to be a brashly bold as it is.  Though it does have two sinewy legs to stand on, it starts to weaken as the time ticks by to the end of a very long 129 minutes.

The Silver Bullet ~ Pain & Gain

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Synopsis: A trio of bodybuilders in Florida get caught up in an extortion ring and a kidnapping scheme that goes terribly wrong

Release Date:  April 26, 2013

Thoughts: First and foremost, this film is notable for being action picture director Michael Bay’s least expensive film since Bad Boys.  Aside from that, I’m not sure if this is going to convince any of his naysayers to jump on board after producing some fairly brain-dead entertainment courtesy of the Transformers franchise.  Also, though I have enjoyed Rebel Wilson in Pitch Perfect and What To Expect When You’re Expecting, I feel like she’s playing the same character time and time again.  Dwayne Johnson isn’t a bad actor…but I continue to question his choice of roles as he seems to go wherever the paycheck is.  While this could be a nice departure film for Bay, I’m not holding my breath he’s seen the error of his obnoxious directorial ways.