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!!!!

TOMB RAIDER – HARMLESS BRAINLESS FUN

Daniel Wu

SHORT TAKE:

Discount Indiana Jones style adventure thriller with a female lead that takes advantage of the popularity of the video game of the same name.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid to older teens and up but video game fans should be warned that while the spirit of the game is there, this is a mostly different plot.

LONG TAKE:

In the African fable of The Cow-Tail Switch a father, the leader of the tribe, is lost on a lion hunting trip. The youngest has not yet even been born when the father goes missing. Time goes by and eventually the youngest brother is born, toddles about, grows older and learns to speak. His very first words are, "Where is our father?" The six older brothers then realize their father has been gone a very long time and decide to go on a quest to find out what has happened. Many days travel away they eventually come upon the father’s bones. Each son has a magic gift of life. One puts the bones together. Another replaces the sinews and muscle. Another gives his father organs. Another flesh. Another fills his father’s body with blood. The sixth brother breathes life into him. They all return rejoicing and the father announces he will make the next ruler of the tribe the one who contributed the most to his return. Each of the six older sons makes an argument for the part they played in returning their father to life. But the father chooses the youngest, reasoning that he was the one who thought to ask about him – and as long as someone remembered him he was never really dead.

Such is the case of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider.

SOME SPOILERS

The premise of Tomb Raider is that a young woman, Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina) decides to embark upon a quest to find out what happened to her long lost adventurer father. During this quest she must overcome everything from Chinese muggers to shipwrecks and an evil nemesis Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins, the perennial bad guy) who works for the mysterious Trinity, an organization seeking to control the world, who shoots the weak and offers up the predictable, "You should not have come," line. Based on the video game of the same name, fans of the game need to be aware that the Tomb Raider movie has virtually (pun intended) nothing in common with the video story except that the lead character is a female on an adventure on a mysterious island to find something. No mention of a missing father or a world catastrrophe she is tasked to stop is ever mentioned in the video game.

Missing for seven years, everyone else has given Richard Croft, (Dominic West with a diverse filmography from 300, the musical Chicago and 1999's A Midsummer's Night Dream) her father, up for dead. But so intent is Lara upon the idea that her father is still alive that she will not even lay claim to the inheritance which will get her off the streets and allow her to return to the life of luxury in which she grew up.

It is only when she is prevailed upon to meet with the family attorney that she is introduced to a wooden puzzle box which, according to the will, she is to solve upon her father’s death.

Solve it, of course, she does (or it would have been a very short movie) and off she is sent on an adventure that would have challenged Indiana Jones.

Until Gal Gadot put lie to my assertion that a really good super hero movie could not be made with a female lead, I did not think that a woman was as good a choice as a man for an action adventure……and aside from Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman I still think this is true.

Part of the problem is that the extremely physical stunts required of the character in Tomb Raider would have been a challenge for a circus gymnast with the power of Dwayne Johnson, much less a female bike courier who likes to kickbox for fun, which is what Lara is without her family dough. A video game character gets several lives, but the movie is more grounded in a real life scenario, and to have a female endure the abuse and survive the jumps, falls, hits, fighting and wounds she does and still have the energy to run with weapons into a battle, cartwheel through ancient booby traps and still have the strength to stand is beyond the limits of even my considerable powers of suspension of disbelief.

Another problem with this movie in particular is the plot. The very McGuffin is flimsy. The father spends much of his time away from his supposedly beloved daughter scouring the world in search of something that – well, truthfully he could have found in the nearest church.

It is never made clear exactly why Lara did not continue to live on the family estate even while her father was missing. Did she, at some point, decide – gosh, I think I’ll move away because if I CONTINUE to live here it will be like an admission of his death….? They never even explain why she left the home of her childhood to begin with. They show her there as a child and an older teen just before Richard leaves on his fateful last trip. When did she abandon the family manor so that returning would be an acceptance of his death? You have to LEAVE somewhere before you can RETURN. And if she left – why? And when? There is no logic, pretext, reason or excuse so much as alluded to. Doesn't make any logical sense.

Another McGuffin point is that the family executor, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, tells Lara if she does not sign papers acknowledging her father’s death that everything will be sold at auction. Um….why? It’s not as though they were going bankrupt. This seems like a very arbitrary threat which comes out of nowhere with no background explanation.

Lara is a newbie to the adventure scene. Indiana Jones' father took him to exotic locales since early childhood. Indiana grew up as an artifact hunter with a lot of experience fending for himself. Batman and Iron Man used LOTS of gizmos to get between their relatively fragile human bodies and the hostile punches, bullets, missiles and other assorted threatening challenges being thrown at them. Superman simply had … powers. Lara is a relative hothouse flower who…rides bikes fast and…kickboxes. Whoopie. This in no way demonstrates that she can survive: an ambush by three thugs, a shipwreck, a fall from a cliff, a landing through trees, picking up her own dead weight one handed – and these are only things you see in the trailer.

Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) is a significant and likeable supporting character who figures strongly in the plot yet is never given the clear resolution he deserves but is just kind of left…  hanging.

The main baddie Mathias Vogel  tells Lara he has killed her father but does not explain why he would murder the one man who, by his own admission, is the only way to find and open the tomb of Himika – the goal that will get him off the island. Then, let us say, in a surprise that takes no one unawares, that he is laughably bad at follow up.

Without giving away too much more than is already IN the trailer I find it difficult to determine who the real bad guy is – Mathias Vogel who only wants to "win" so he will be allowed to go home to his family, or Richard Croft, the titular good guy/Dad who, truth be told, abandoned his daughter to set off a search for an item that he should have predicted would get a lot of people killed, and all for some pretty lame reasons.

And I don't think it is much of a spoiler to reveal that this movie is primarily a great big set up for a sequel. But then so was Ron Eli's 1975 Doc Savage, and given you probably have never even HEARD of that movie you can see how well that turned out.

Not that Tomb Raider is a bad movie. It is certainly a mostly satisfying wild ride of a tale. But Lara Croft is no Wonder Woman. Nor is she Indiana Jones, Captain America, Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Superman, Batman or even Zorro. OK Lara Croft is better than Doc Savage …. or Howard the Duck.

There is a surprise and very small role featuring one of my all time favorite actors, Derek Jacobi. Although the character provides almost nothing to the movie, Sir Derek would lend class and grace to a McDonald’s advertisement, so it was a joy to see him.

Movies like Tomb Raider are like the pleasure you get riding roller coasters or eating cotton candy – not harmful in moderation and a hoot if you don't think about it very hard.

In short Tomb Raider is a good old fashioned potboiler of a thrill ride with plenty of hair raising incidents, near misses, goofy but ignorable plot holes, preposterously unlikely survivals and…running. LOTS of running. So get your popcorn and malted milk balls, turn your brain WAY down to simmer and enjoy.

NOTE: There is NO nudity and NO sex as there is no time and virtually zero opportunity for the characters amidst all the chasing and shooting and RUNNING. There are a few profanities including one blasphemy which is spoken by the bad guy. The violence is on par with your average Indiana Jones movie.

But being a firm believer that people should check things out for themselves, especially when it comes to one's kids, who will VERY likely want to see this movie, I recommend you subscribe and check out: Tomb Raider on www.screenit.com http://www.screenitplus.com/members/tomb_raider_Full_Content_Review.cfm#p