Jumanji: The Next Level (2019) Review

2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was possibly one of the most surprisingly great films of all time. A sequel-cum-reboot to the 1995 Robin Williams film could of ended up feeling like a cynical cash grab, but with four great central performances and a wonderful script, it ended up being a fun winter-time treat. The film was also a huge success with audiences, grossing nearly 1 billion worldwide, so obviously, a sequel would be required.

The original centrally starred Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan as four avatars in the video game of Jumanji (adapted from the board game of the original), and saw four teenagers take on these avatars after entering the game. The sequel takes place 3 years later, in which our central characters have all moved on and are now young adults in college. Feeling his life was better when he was in the game, Spencer (Alex Wolff) decides to re-enter the game, and soon enough, his friends, Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) and his girlfriend, Martha (Morgan Turner) decide to also re-enter the game once again to save Spencer. However, this is complicated when instead of Bethany, the game actually sucks in two new players, 70-somethings, Eddie (Danny DeVito), Spencer’s grandfather and Milo (Danny Glover), Eddie’s former friend.

One of the central charms of Welcome to the Jungle was the role reversal of seeing the four teenagers in an avatar that was largely against type – for example, we the wimpish Spencer in the tough and burly Johnson avatar; the macho and tall Fridge in the small and slightly pointless Hart avatar; the shy and reversed Martha in the confident and scantily-clad Gillan avatar and the shallow and look-obsessed Bethany in, as she puts it, the “overweight and middle-aged” Black avatar.

The Next Level continues on this role reversal centrally, but tries to shake up the formula. The absolute highlight is seeing the elderly Milo inside the Hart avatar. Seeing Hart play against his normal acting style of talking in quite a high-pitched, shrieking and fast-paced manner and instead, talking in a slow-paced, and articulate manner is by far, the funniest part of the movie. Hart has appear in a lot of mediocre movies in the past, but from this and also his solid dramatic starring role in The Upside earlier this year, it seems like he is improving as a screen performer. For anyone normally annoyed with his over-the-top shrieking, will be largely impressed by him in this movie. Hart in this movie is not only, the funniest part of the movie, but one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a movie all year.

The other 3 avatars are not as entertaining as Hart, but still have some fun moments. This time, Johnson ends up getting DeVito in the game, and seeing him take on DeVito’s mannerisms is quite entertaining and funny. Also, the comedy stemming from seeing Johnson and Hart play older men (who are suddenly freed from bad hearing and bad hips) could of been written with a little more wit, but still has some fun moments.

Also in this movie, we see Fridge again end up in the complete opposite avatar, this time in the Black avatar. The humour stemming from it is pretty much the same joke repeated from the first movie (this time with the added joke that he’s “now white!”), but it still fairly works. The only cast member really given the short straw this time is Gillan, who was an absolute hilarious highlight in the first movie, and doesn’t really get much to do this time around. This time she ends up being Martha’s avatar for the second time, which is a bit tiresome, but as this happens, she ends up being a good conduit into this world for the second time.

Bonus characters this time around include a new avatar called Ming Fleetfoot, played by rising star, Awkwafina. The former rapper turned actress made a solid debut in last year’s Ocean’s Eight, and earlier this year, gave a terrific, possibly Oscar nominated serious turn in the superb The Farewell, and she is also very funny here as we see her portray various characters.

The only real problem with this sequel is the script isn’t quite as witty as the original. One of the highlights of the original was it’s entertaining satire of video games (for example, seeing Gillan complain about what exactly the point is of her wearing a scantily-clad Lara Croft outfit), but it feels like that is lacking from this one. Also, the script is not as tight or well developed as the original. The original also had a running joke of giving the characters three lives in a video game-like way, and often killed off the characters in a way that felt effortless and creative, and it feels like this one lacks that part of the script. The script just needed just a better put-together narrative.

The end result is slightly uneven, and also lacks the pleasant surprise that Welcome to the Jungle had. Despite this, it is still an entertaining follow-up that will keep parents and kids entertained this winter break. Despite this, it will probably lose it’s charm if they keep making these (which I’m sure they inevitably will).

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) Review

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this film is a biopic focusing centrally on Tom Hanks portraying Fred Rogers – primarily known for the American childrens’ show, Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood (which ran for 33 years between 1968 to 2001) – from the amount of awards buzz from his performance (and having just nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for his performance), and also how, the film’s poster sees him front and centre. However, the film itself, while partly a biopic, is a very different beast.

Based on the article Esquire magazine article “Can You Say… Hero” by journalist, Tom Jurod, the film focuses on Lloyd Vassel (portrayed by Matthew Rhys, which is loosely based off of Jurod), who is given an assignment to interview Rogers. Vassel – who has a new baby with his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and is dealing with a long-standing feud with his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper) – soon has his outlook on life drastically changed by Rogers and his lovely positivity.

Firstly, Hanks’s performance is really terrific. The bit of casting could appear slightly on the nose, as like Rogers, Hanks is often known in real life, for being a really nice guy. However, what is sometimes forgotten about Hanks is that he really is a fantastic actor, and here, Hanks really embodies Rogers. Much in the same way as Renee Zellweger’s terrific performance as Judy Garland in this year’s Judy (which has also just nabbed her a Golden Globe nomination), Hanks also manages to capture the essence of Rogers, including his voice and his mannerisms.

The film often details Rogers’ wonderful acts of kindness (including how he always greeted an fan before filming an episode) and how he always seems genuinely interested in every conversation he has, and Hanks is able to make these moments feel very real and believable. This is particularly significant for this film because when the film descents into sentimentality, it never feels schmaltzy or fake, and you can honestly tell how Vogel ends up opening up to Rogers, and having his life changed.

When Hanks is off-screen, however, the film slightly struggles. The story of Vogel, his family and his relationship with his father is perfectly fine, and Rhys gives a pretty solid performance. However, it all feels slightly too predictable, and a little too safe. Also, as perfectly fine as Watson is, her character of Vogel’s wife is slightly poorly developed. It’s the sort of movie in which the characters consistently complain the lead character, and the film sometimes fails to articulate properly why he is so unlikeable.

The film, directed by Marielle Heller – who over the past decade has directed critically acclaimed films, The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) and Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) (she likes her long titles) – makes some odd directional choices here and there. The film has a peculiar framing device in how Rogers starts telling the story on one episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, which never quite works or clicks into place. There are also some strange scene transitions, here and there, that go from this framing device to the actual story, that never quite work.

The real strength of the film, however, is Hanks’ performance. Heller, who directed Oscar nominated performances by Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, definitely knows how to direct good performances, but still needs to improve on making really investing films. Despite this, however, the film overall is really heart-warming and lovely film that is well worth seeing for Hanks.

Marriage Story (2019) Review

Noah Baumbach has been on a roll recently – coming out with really insightful and interesting comedy-dramas in the form of While We’re Young (2014), The Meyerowitz Stories (2017), and now possible Oscar contender, Marriage Story. The film, influenced by various films, such as multiple Oscar winner, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), takes a detailed and insightful look at marriage and divorce.

The film stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as the young couple, Charlie and Nicole Barber, who have a 8-year-old child, Henry together. Charlie is a theatre director living in New York City, making strange avant-garde plays, while Nicole is a former teen actress who often stars in Charlie’s plays. As Nicole moves to Los Angeles to star in a new television pilot, the divorce proceedings start to begin. As Charlie is torn between his child in Los Angeles and his work in New York City, proceedings between the couple begin to turn ugly.

The film, which has had a early release in various film festivals over the past 3 months, has been making waves, with particular acclaim for it’s two lead performances. Driver and Johansson have both been stated to get a lot of awards love, with some staying they will be competition for original favourites, Joaquin Phoenix and Renee Zellweger for Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively (although, it does seem like the controversy about Joker will more hurt Phoenix’s chances more).

Firstly, Driver’s performance is really terrific. The actor – who has also starred in the summer’s disappointing zombie flick, The Dead Don’t Die; the recent Amazon Prime original, The Report and will star in the forthcoming Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker later this month – is really having his “moment” right now. As one of the most hardest working man in show-business, he has risen up acting in various indie films with some fantastic directors (including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers). He seems to be in the rank of select group of actors like Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Gosling that can seem to mix both small, independent movies with big-budget blockbusters. This, however, might be his best work. He follows Dustin Hoffman’s template in Kramer vs. Kramer by being small and subtle whilst remaining very powerful and impactful.

Johansson is also very good. Like Driver, she also seems to be having a “moment” right now, including this, her acclaimed work in Taika Watiti’s film, Jojo Rabbit (which has yet to come out in the UK), and her small, but pivotal role in Avengers: Endgame earlier in the year. Here, she makes a return to the subtle, engaging lead performances not particularly seen since her work in Lost in Translation over 15 years ago. Her work in the early parts of the film is particularly heart-breaking, particularly a long monologue about how her life has not turned out the way she hoped.

Along with the two fantastic lead performances, the supporting cast are also terrific. Laura Dern is on good form (building on her recent great work on the television series, Big Little Lies and the news she is returning to the Jurassic Park series) as Nicole’s whip-smart, sharp-tongued lawyer. There are some good cameos from various character actors, including Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Merritt Wever and Julie Hagerty.

Aside from the performances, the film has some terrific moments and scenes that very much stick out. The opening, in which Charlie and Nicole discuss what they love about the other was so lovely and self-contained that it could of been released a gorgeous short film. Much like, a lot of Baumbach’s work, the film balances a lot of different genres, from wacky, almost-slapstick comedy to heart-breaking drama, and at some points, bizarrely tips into a musical.

One of best scenes include when Nicole’s sister, Cassie (Wever) is convinced by Nicole to serve Charlie the divorce papers, and because of Cassie’s nerves, the end result is a wacky and hilarious scene. In another scene, Charlie has a visit from a caretaker, which is quite awkward and unsuccessful that culminates on Charlie accidentally cutting himself and passing out on the floor (I’m serious). The scene is so weird and bizarre (and surprisingly gory) that it actually ends up being rather brilliant.

Along with the strange, weird and wacky, the film also has a lot of emotional moments – especially a lengthy segment where Driver sings the entirety of Sondheim’s “Being Alive”, which while being beautifully sang, is very emotional and sweet. Another beautiful scene is when Driver reads out the letter Nicole wrote about him aloud to his son (who is struggling to learn how to read), which had me tearing up. The letters in the opening segment also make their way into the rest of the film that is very smartly written and clever.

These are fantastic moments, but sometimes, that is all the film feels like – a variety of scenes and moments. If I have a complaint about the film, it could have a better, tighter and more polished narrative. I hate to say it, but I think that possibly the performances are better than the overall film. That being said, the overall film is still a beautiful and emotional watch, which are worth watching for it’s fantastic lead performances.

Knives Out Review

Rian Johnson follows up one of the biggest movies of 2017, The Last Jedi from a small franchise called Star Wars, with a new film in the form of Knives Out. The film is said to be a return to the old fashioned “whodunnit” genre, influenced by classic murder mystery films, like Clue (1985), Murder by Death (1976), and Gosford Park (2001), as well as television series, Poirot and the works of Agatha Christie.

The film is centred around the Thrombey family, who are dealing with the death of patriarch, Harlan (who true to the genre, is a famous murder mystery writer), whose throat is mysteriously found slit. Soon comes the arrival of various police, including Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who along with Harlan’s maid and good friend, Marta (Ana de Armos), try to solve the case. All of Harlan’s relatives are suspects, and in more true form to the genre, it follows an ensemble cast, including Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell and Christopher Plummer.

There was a lot riding on this movie as a follow-up to The Last Jedi, as well as the huge buzz coming from it’s release at the Toronto Film Festival back in September. And it was a complete and utter blast from beginning to end. It’s the sort of the film that you won’t want to pee because you’ll be afraid of missing a single line of dialogue. If you venture out to see it, it will most likely be one of the funnest times at the cinema you’ll have all year.

If you are ever think that cinema, particularly recent releases, are ever too safe and predictable, then this film will really please you. It is jam-packed full of twists, and it’s safe to say that you never know where it’s going for one second. There is a particular twist after about 30 minutes that felt so brave and unexpected that it rivalled the decapitation moment from last year’s Hereditary.

There was a criticism (along with many others) about The Last Jedi that it was almost “too subversive”, and the film was the film was trying too hard to play with the audience’s expectations. And, along I do like The Last Jedi, Knives Out feels much more polished and well thought-out with it’s surprises. The film, although influenced by mystery cinema, felt more akin to recent movies like La La Land (2016) and Baby Driver (2017) by addressing an old-fashioned genre, but approaching it in a completely modern and new way.

The film also manages to manage it’s surprises and subversive plot with real comedy, wit and sometimes, even heart. Armas is a terrific leading heroine, who despite being possibly the most un-experienced of the main cast, completely held her own. There’s even some (admittedly, very small) social commentary about how she, a Cuban immigrant, manages to come out on top against the self-centred Thrombey family with just her good, nice-hearted nature.

Craig is also a great lead, and it’s great to see him showing his comedic chops after his great work in Logan Lucky from 2017. His southern drawl accent is a element that doesn’t completely work, but that doesn’t matter in the long run. In terms of the supporting cast, it’s hard to find a favourite in the star-studded supporting cast, but Evans and Collette are particularly very great and really funny, as was Plummer in his very small screen-time. There is a moment and scene for every character in this movie, and none of it’s cast members feel under-utilized.

Although the plot feels like it’s plucked straight from a television show (like Poirot), there are moments in this film that feel properly cinematic. Much like The Last Jedi, the cinematography is really gorgeous, especially the establishing shots of the mansion. The costume and set design is also very meticulous and detailed, particularly in the little details about the mansion.

This is probably the best and most polished work from Johnson as far. Brick, Looper and The Last Jedi were all good to great, but lacked feeling like anything more that just an director playing with a certain genre. This film did what the great Edgar Wright movies do by parodying a genre but still completely feeling like an completely individual piece of work.

Also, make sure you see this film in the biggest crowd as possible. I laughed, smiled and gasped, and we all did this together. Also, don’t look at spoilers and don’t let your friends tell you what happened because this is a movie best experience completely fresh. This, along many others (including Booksmart, The Peanut Butter Falcon, The Farewell and One Cut of the Dead), ranks up there as one of the best movies of the year. Hell, it might even be the best movie of the year.