JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL – CLEVER AND LOADS OF FUN

SHORT TAKE:

Clever latest installment in the Jumanji franchise.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid-teens and up because of unnecessary profanity, including blasphemy, as well as some extreme cartoon gory violence.

LONG TAKE:

Paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin the way my high school teacher did with any recalcitrant students: “Experience is a hard teacher but some will have no other.” This seems to be a thematic motto of the Jumanji franchise (and in that group I would include Zarathustra). Like a harsh fairy godmother teaching in The Wizard of Oz school of learning things, the Jumanji game seeks out unsatisfied people to grant their wishes … but makes them earn it.

The General Studies program at the Jumanji School of Insanely Hard Knocks focuses on maturity, altruism, loyalty and the priorities of friendship and family which can overcome any obstacles no matter how off-the-wall: from eagle size mosquitoes to malicious bands of monkeys, carnivorous hippopotami and lethal semi-sentient poisonous vines, bonding comes from teamwork, accepting others weaknesses, and making the best use of your own strengths to help those you love.

Excellent lessons to learn and, as Mary Poppins might have said, it helps that the sugar to make the medicine go down is wildly funny scenarios, and great actors who are very good sports and don’t mind taking pokes at their own famous reputations.

The original Jumanji and its two sequels excel beautifully in all of the above points. Zarathustra, (the step-child of the group, as it uses a similar scenario and themes but is not strictly part of the Jumanji franchise) follows in those footsteps as well.

For those not up-to-date, Jumanji is a wild game of crazy challenges: stampedes, instant localized monsoons  which fall only where you are, monster crocodiles, a homicidal big game hunter of people, malevolent monkeys — and places you IN the game. Not virtually, but in the real world. In the original Jumanji the creatures came into our reality. In the subsequent Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the players are pulled into the game and manifest as Avatars. Spencer, a slight bookish boy with no appreciable upper body strength becomes Dwayne Johnson. Bethany, a narcissistic “Valley” girl becomes Jack Black. Martha, a girl with no inherent athletic abilities becomes Karen Gillian with preternaturally gymnastic fighting skills. And Fridge, an egotistical football player becomes the much shorter wand weaker Kevin Hart.

This latest Jumanji, Jumanji: The Next Level mixes it up, starting only a few years after the first reboot. All the original team: Fridge, Bethany and Martha have gone to college, done well and look forward to a reunion. Spencer is in a funk, and finds himself longing for the days when he was the size of Dwayne Johnson with extraordinary powers of strength and speed. The temptation gets too much and without consulting his worried friends goes back into the game.

I don’t want to tell you much more and spoil things so I will shy away from specifics. But I will say Next Level has all the humor and inventive scenarios of the original, keeps to the same themes, brings back all the familiar faces but does not just rehash the old. There are lively and justifiable (for that universe) variations which make Next Level as new and intriguing as the very first 1995 incarnation.

The acting is A level and a lot of fun. Not an enormous amount of subtlety but each of the actors do a wonderful job performing multiple characters outside of what you might think is their comfort zone. Returning are: Dwayne Johnson (burly muscle in WWE, and the likes of Scorpion King, GI Joe and Fast and Furious) who truly shines in comedies like Get Smart, The Other Guys, The Tooth Fairy and here in Next Level, where he shamelessly and hilariously makes fun of himself as Dr. Bravehouse/Eddie and Spencer. I was genuinely impressed at the enthusiasm with which he launched into characters way outside of his usual fare. Karen Gillian returns as Martha/Ruby Roundhouse as well as Fridge (you’ll see). She was most notably known before this as Matt Smith’s Dr. Who‘s companion Amy Pond and here does a marvelous job with not only multiple personalities but an authentic American accent. Kevin Hart (The Upside SEE REVIEW HERE) is delicious as Fridge and Milo. Jack Black is delightful as Bethany and Fridge. In addition there are some wonderful small role/cameos by short, growly voiced iconic comedian Danny DeVito (TV classic series Taxi, Throw Mama From the Train, Romancing the Stone, Twins) as Eddie, Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon franchise) as Milo, original Jumanji veteran Bebe Neuwirth as Eddie’s friend Nora, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle reprise Nick Jonas (memorable in Midway SEE MY REVIEW HERE) as Alex, and Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians SEE REVIEW HERE) as Spencer and Eddie (again – go to the movie to see what this means).

Portraying the young versions of the “real” people are Morgan Turner as Martha, Madison Iseman as Bethany,  Ser’Darius Blan as Fridge, and Alex Wolff as Spencer. Colin Hanks (Tom’s oldest son) plays grown up Alex.

The soundtrack by Henry Jackman channels Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars in very clever and appropriate moments, as if unable to resist the retro and multi personality motifs that the actors get to play.

Jake Kasden, writer/director (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) who is of significant lineage (son of the famous writer/director Lawrence Kasden who brought us both Indian Jones, many of the Star Wars reboots, and The Big Chill), with cinematographer Gyula Pados, and the other writers Jeff Pinkner and  Scott Rosenberg, do a terrific job creating multiple extreme scenarios. I was especially impressed with the realism in a ridiculously harrowing one with …let’s just say geometry was important.

I would love to recommend this for all ages. And while there is no sexuality the writers unwisely decided to “enhance” a couple of the characters’ personalities with a smattering of profane and even blasphemous language: (*cough cough* Danny DeVito, Kevin Hart, Jack Black). Therefore I would recommended only to mid-teens and up and then only those who will have the sense not to parrot-repeat things they should not. That is a shame because it is the only limiting proviso to this otherwise charming film.

JUMANJI!!!!

THE MOST RECENT FAST AND FURIOUS – MORE LIKE FARCICAL AND INFURIATING

SHORT TAKE:

Waste of time – see the Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw trailer #2 (linked here and at end of post) for all the best bits.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only for language and extreme (though really cartoonish) levels of carnage. Not a lot of blood but you wouldn’t want the kids to try these stunts at home.

LONG TAKE:

I have nothing against brainless entertainment and I try to judge a movie only within the genre for which it was intended. So when you go see one of the Fast and Furious franchise films (try to say THAT three times quickly) you don’t expect much beyond good old escapist fun. I even applauded Fate of the Furious in a previous post as a welcome entry.

I love buddy movies and have extolled all kinds from The Great Escape to The Hitman’s Bodyguard. And I have no problem with franchises doing semi-parodies of themselves. I am on record many times for complaining that a movie takes itself TOO seriously. And I think the break from tradition Thor: Ragnarok, for example, is one of the best Avenger movies.

But you gotta give the audience SOMETHING of substance. Sadly, in the case of  director David Leitch’s Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, it’s like trying to make an entire meal out of day old cotton candy.

SPOILERS – BUT THE PLOT IS SO THREADBARE IT DOESN’T REALLY MATTER

I’m afraid the writers Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce thought they could punch quality into a movie with just star power. But Spielberg’s 1941 or Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate or Bay’s Pearl Harbor could have warned them otherwise. I understand it is doing well at the box office and good for them. A friend of mine once taught me an expression – No one sets out to make a bad movie. But, unfortunately, despite what the film makers intended, this one is just not very good.

Not that the cast was trying very hard. Johnson and Statham spend most of the movie either posturing like WWW competitors or trading childish barbs with all the finesse of opposing players in a grade school gym locker room. Dwayne Johnson was funnier in Jumanji, Statham more invested in The Expendables, and Vanessa Kirby, a “legit” actress (amazing as Princess Margaret in The Crown and fun as the White Widow in MI: Fallout) is simply wasted. I really liked her Hattie in this, a variation of Atomic Blonde, (also a David Leitch directed movie), but then her scenes had to be spliced back into the fatiguing Hobbs-Shaw bickering man measuring show.

Ryan Reynolds appears in a cameo with dialogue that could have been made of rejected adlibs from Deadpool 2. Helen Mirren walks through her reprised role as Shaw’s mother, Queenie. At one point Queenie assures Shaw that she is happy in prison and could break out any time she wanted – that it was quiet and she could just sit in her room, and spend her time reading – that it was like retirement. I couldn’t help but wonder if Ms. Mirren was talking about Queenie’s stint in the pen or Ms. Mirren’s actual presence on the set of this movie.

Kevin Hart pops up in a couple of random moments as Dinkley, the air marshal, to be used like duct tape on a leaky hose to solve a couple of plot holes. In return, Hart is allowed to ramble  interminably in an improvisational-style soliloquy in lieu of any proper exposition for his character.

Idris Elba as main cybernetically enhanced bad guy Brixton gives it everything he has, carrying the weight of what little gravitas the movie has. By far the most interesting character, it was a sore temptation not to root for him to win.

The premise of the story is that they are trying to prevent Idris Elba’s bad guy, Brixton, from getting ahold of an extinction-level virus for his unseen super villain boss. But it becomes obvious early on this is really just an excuse to create a string of cartoon quality violence fight scenes and car stunts. And while I do not fundamentally MIND that, the film makers have to at least TRY to hide this fact. But like a sloppy magician who yells “Look over there” before every clumsy trick, it just doesn’t work for long.

Instead of providing character and plot earned enthusiasm, the chase scenes strove to outdo all the F&F chases put together and as a result became preposterous. I’m not giving spoilers as the scene where a line of linked trucks are holding down a flying fortress helicopter is in the trailer. The chase scenes from The French Connection, Bullitt, The Great Escape, the beginning of The Rock (“Oh why NOT!”), or even the escape at the start of The Avengers from a collapsing building complex were exciting because the audience was led to believe the characters were potentially in danger.

Well, I can easily imagine Jeremy Scott from Cinema Sins doing a bonus round of “They survived this”. The F&F movies are supposed to take place (more or less) in the real world and the leads, aside from Elba, are not supposed to have unusual supernatural powers – Dwayne Johnson’s mountain-sized physique notwithstanding. But the repeated walk aways from cataclysmic-sized vehicle crashes, which would have killed Bugs Bunny, stretched and eventually broke the suspension bridge of disbelief out from under the viewers. (And, I’m sorry, but it was tough for even my loyal Marvel-fan heart to believe that Cap could hold back the small helicopter Bucky flew duringCaptain America: Civil War. Johnson is just NOT holding down a military grade bird.) It did not take long for there to be zero investment in the outcome of the rides, knowing the main characters would likely to come out the right end of a freight train to the face.

Then there is the storyline.

We’re talking Adam West’s Batman level of contrivances and clunky dialogue, where guest stars appear out of nowhere and backstories are pulled from whole cloth to justify prior franchise installment plot holes.

For example, the fact that Hattie, Shaw’s spy sister, never came up in conversation is explained away by him having been framed for treason in the master plan of a heretofore unknown and currently still unseen megalomaniac bad guy. Hobbs’ extensive Samoan family was previously non-existent because he had alienated everyone by turning in his crime lord father to the authorities.

Hobbs’ brother Jonah (Cliff Curtis), who lives on a remote island in Samoa, with only the technology of a classy chop shop at his disposal, is decided to be the ONLY person and place in the world they can go to fix cutting edge virus extracting bio equipment……? Huh? So I guess I can ask my car mechanic to do some gene splicing on the side. Easy peasy.

I did like the “importance of family” theme, which is one of the more endearing F&F tropes, including Shaw’s mom and sibling and Hobbs’ daughter, mother and brothers into the mix. And it was nice they found a way to include Johnson’s actual Samoan heritage into the story. But it was shoe-horned in, superficial and paint by numbers – Hobbs doesn’t want to go home, brother punches him on sight, mom intimidates all the big boys into cooperating. Shaw’s mother, Queenie, fondly recounts, in flash back, how the previously unknown and unseen sister and Shaw concocted scams and committed felonies as children. What a mom.

I guess it’s cute that they shoot parallel scenarios of these two men who can’t seem to stand each other doing pretty much the same things at the same time with their own styles. It might have even been funny had the repertoire between them sounded better than first day of shooting improvisation, created by two uninspired high school freshmen.

Supporting characters are dispatched or ignored with little fan fare. Professor Andreiko (Eddie Marsan from better movies like The World’s End, Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2) is a heroic scientist who save our intrepid heroes, but then gets left behind without a thought, killed by Brixton with no consideration for how useful he might be in the future, with no attempt by the heroes to save him, and not so much as a “I wonder what happened to that little guy who saved our butts?” This callousness does nothing to shore up the already, by this time, flaccid investment the audience has in these characters.

While there’s no overt sex, the language is unnecessarily crude and contains a good deal of profanity and blasphemy.

If you REALLY think you want to see this latest and weakest F&F you can – LITERALLY – see a Reader’s Digest version of the ENTIRE movie via abridged cuts of all the best scenes in the official Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw trailer #2. It’s free, short and eliminates all the bad language.

But – if you want to see a GOOD car chase, adventure, buddy movie, try out one of the other better ones I’ve mentioned in this post or even go see one of the previous Fast and Furious installments. Sadly, this contender didn’t make it to the finish line.