MOVIE REVIEW: Jumanji: The Next Level

Finally… The Rock, has come back… to Jumanji!

Two years ago, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” released around Christmastime with relatively little hype and plenty of critical reluctance. It proceeded to shock the world with a nearly $1 billion box office haul. Audiences everywhere fell hard for contemporary changes that the sequel to Robin Williams’ 1995 film made – primarily the fact that its characters were stuck inside of a video game and not a board game, as in the original. The film also surprised by having its four primary characters – Spencer (Alex Wolff), Bethany (Madison Iseman), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Martha (Morgan Turner) inhabit the bodies of four avatars instead of playing the games as themselves. This gender-bending, personality-conflicting experience provided for hilarious comedy and the sequel does the same.

After saving Jumanji and returning to their lives with a new bond between them, the primary foursome has now graduated high school and are dealing with new challenges. Spencer and Martha are no longer dating and he, apart from the group due to attending college away from them in New York City, is experiencing a lack of confidence. In an effort to regain what he once felt while playing as Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Spencer pieces together the old broken console he’d kept hidden from his friends and makes the dangerous and reckless decision to go back inside of the game alone. Eventually, his crew follows him to Jumanji in an attempt to ensure he survives and bring him home, but Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his former restaurant co-owner Milo (Danny Glover) are accidentally sucked in as well.

Unfortunately for the returning players, not all goes as expected and they end up inhabiting different avatars than before. This fresh take allows for new interplay to exist between the foursome of Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, and Alex Wolff. I don’t want to spoil who ends up playing who, but both the chemistry between this group and their comedic talents shine as they portray different personalities than what you’ve seen before. It is simply a joy to watch them interact with one another, making this the kind of film you smile and laugh out loud throughout. 

The dynamic between Eddie and Milo is one of two old friends reconnecting after 15 years apart, trying to reconcile heated emotions around their different view of how their business venture ended, and it was my teenage son’s favorite part of the movie.  Whether it was the veteran comedy duo of DeVito and Glover or the hilarious way in which other actors portrayed their avatars as if they were those two, the age and physicality differences provided for fresh new comic material that was incredibly funny. Also making her first appearance in the series is Awkwafina, who continues to prove that she can do no wrong. Every scene she’s in is a treat, and the multiple characters she acts out are incredibly entertaining and hilarious.

“Jumanji: The Next Level” succeeds by once again reinventing its formula for a modern-day audience to great effect. The twist on who inhabits which avatar not only provides a wealth of humorous possibilities but some quality heartfelt moments of relationship building as well. Again the group is on an exciting adventure that takes them to interesting new locations and throughout the film, it is obvious the writers have looked to incorporate as many elements of current era action-adventure games as possible. In one sequence midway through, characters must retrieve a special item and to do so requires wall-running, jumping, and platforming that is heavily inspired by the Tomb Raider games. Later, during the film’s climax, a brilliant sequence includes characters activating unique player abilities, a full-on cinematic set-piece akin to what you’d see in the Uncharted video game series, and an awesome boss fight complete with multiple stages. There is even one moment toward the end of the film where a major action scene had me expecting giant buttons to pop up on the big screen, indicating a quick-time-event was taking place. Non-gamers may not recognize these elements being in the story, yet the film stands on its own just fine without that knowledge because it’s so much damn fun. And for those who do understand game design and can see the clever ways it is implemented in this sequel, it truly elevates “Jumanji” to “The Next Level”. 

If you go into this sequel expecting more of the same, you won’t be disappointed. This is a family-friendly adventure franchise that understands how to innovate while keeping the same creative tone that made it such a hit in the first place. Light on drama, heavy on action, with boatloads of fun and just enough emotional character development to make us care, “Jumanji: The Next Level” continues to break the Hollywood mold of disappointing reboots, remakes, and delayed sequels by providing an experience perfect for holiday enjoyment!

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Episode 200.3: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Wrapping up our 200th episode celebration, we discuss how this film is an origin story for Indiana Jones, and then generally gush while giving all of the reasons why this is our favorite entry in the series.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Review – 0:01:08

The Connecting Point – 1:07:40

 

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Episode 200.2: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Continuing our journey through the greatest adventurer’s film trilogy, we compare the structure of this prequel to the film that came before it, admire a special relationship Indiana forms, and discuss whether or not this is a racially insensitive story.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Review – 0:01:16

The Connecting Point – 0:58:22

 

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Episode 200.1: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Happy 200th episode to us! In celebration, we are once again covering a favorite trilogy, beginning with this conversation about an adventure movie that would go on to define an entire genre and one that gave us an iconic hero for all-time.

Raiders of the Lost Ark Review – 0:12:50

The Connecting Point – 1:35:20

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Episode 199: The Peanut Butter Falcon

This week we are joined by Don Shanahan from Every Movie Has a Lesson to discuss the sleeper hit of 2019, a movie that has found its way into each of our hearts. There’s a wealth of emotional and thematic elements to explore and we enjoy sharing how this film has moved us and how important we feel it can be for the world.

The Peanut Butter Falcon Review – 0:01:58

The Connecting Point – 1:00:56

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MOVIE REVIEW: Frozen II

“Frozen” grew up.

If there’s one central point to be made about “Frozen 2,” it’s that everything about the film feels more mature in some way. Thematically, it deals with tougher relationship challenges as Queen Elsa and Princess Anna, now happily enjoying life with their friends in Arendelle, risk disruption of their peaceful lives to venture off into the unknown enchanted forest on a quest to discover the origins of Elsa’s powers and potentially learn more about their deceased parents. Change is a constant threat throughout this darker story, and all of the primary characters must wrestle with what that means for them both individually and with regard to the relationships they value. The drama is heavier, the stakes are higher, and Olaf uses self-aware humor to pose some pretty fun questions for viewers to consider. It really seems as if Disney knows their target audience of kids has aged up by 6 years and is now ready to handle a little more emotional weight, while also being sure to allow adults the opportunity to engage a little more this time around. It’s a bold choice, reminiscent of how the House of Mouse handled its “Wreck-it Ralph” sequel “Ralph Breaks the Internet”.

The music also feels slightly more aimed at older kids and adults. The songs are a little more Broadway and a little less pop this time around but are no less singable. One song in particular midway through the film, an 80’s rock ballad solo by Kristoff that is shot like a music video from that era, is sure to leave audience members in stitches and is easily among the film’s most memorable scenes. And then there’s the new “Let it Go”, the anthem-like “Into the Unknown” which your kids will be singing and listening to non-stop for the next few months. While it’s not quite as catchy or memeable as the aforementioned track, it’s still likely to be in heavy radio play rotation just like its predecessor.

Another aspect of the film that has definitely gotten better with age is the animation. As should be expected, everything is more crisp and bright than before, and details on the new costumes really stand out. There are a few different mesmerizing sequences of magic being put to use, as well, that easily rival or improve upon anything in “Frozen”. This is simply a gorgeous film to look at, and even if other faults are found, your eyes can’t help but enjoy themselves.

I’m not quite ready to say “Frozen 2” is better than the original after only one viewing, but the feeling I had while watching it was similar, and I think it comes awfully close. Time will also be needed to tell whether the entire soundtrack becomes as unforgettable as the first film’s. But on the strength of deeper themes, solid character development all-around, some fantastic humor, and a dose of that Disney magic, “Frozen 2” is a triumphant sequel to one of the animation giant’s biggest smash hits.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Terminator: Dark Fate

In an effort to wipe out Judgment Day completely, thus erasing the events of “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” and the extremely mediocre two sequels that came after it, “Terminator: Dark Fate” presents a different future for the inhabitants of Earth to avoid – one in which a cyberwarfare program called Legion has become self-aware, waged war on the world, and is close to wiping out all of humanity. Oh, you’ve heard this one before? Therein lies the primary problem with “Dark Fate.” Instead of using this fresh slate opportunity to tell a new and exciting story, the film’s six collaborating writers instead chose to tell the same one as we’ve been seeing in this series since it began, with some slight variations in which characters play what roles in the fight, of course. I’ll concede that there is commentary to be made here, and it’s even ever so briefly touched on by the film in a few scenes about fate vs. free will; but from an entertainment standpoint, seeing the same old cycle of flashy new Terminator model comes back to kill would-be-savior of the world and is resisted by strong-willed humans is more tired than wired.

This new sequel isn’t without its strengths, though. The choice to have Linda Hamilton reprise her role as the famous Sarah Connor turned out so much better than I’d expected. The super cool 63-year old fits perfectly back into character and gives a phenomenal performance full of pathos, badassery, and snarky comedy. She is a weathered soul who takes no shit from anyone and serves as a great contrast to the equally headstrong but inexperienced augmented human Grace (Mackenzie Davis), who was sent back to protect Dani (Natalia Reyes) for reasons that are entirely predictable. Davis and Reyes certainly seem committed, but the writing does them no favors, leaving the vast majority of the zingers to Hamilton and an eventual appearance by the franchise-making star himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Reprising his role as the famous T-800, Schwarzenegger briefly provides a chance for the film to touch on the idea of Terminators gaining a conscience. It’s not too deep, but Arnold makes you care. Like Hamilton, the character still fits like a glove and his chemistry with her is off the charts, delivering some of the film’s very best dialogue.

It would probably be forgivable that this entry’s story is nothing unique if the action kicked ass on par with the franchise’s best. But alas, though certainly fine to watch at the moment, there is nothing memorable here. The new Terminator’s design is creative, and it’s fun to see the exoskeleton separate itself from the body to become two independently acting wholes, but no logical explanation is given on how this is accomplished and considering the writing that may be for the better. Director Tim Miller also over-uses slow motion, bringing it into nearly every action sequence at some point, and outside of the new Rev 9 Terminator splitting in two the film’s CGI is only serviceable at best while noticeably laughable at its worst.

Fans hoping that James Cameron’s involvement as Producer would lead to “Terminator: Dark Fate” returning the franchise to the greatness of its first two entries are unfortunately bound to be disappointed. Perhaps if he’d directed, this same old song and dance might have been elevated, but Miller is no Cameron, and “Dark Fate” is no “Judgment Day”. It is, however, entertaining. Full of explosively average action, with a predictable spin on a familiar narrative and a genuinely great return to an iconic character by Linda Hamilton, “Terminator: Dark Fate” may not offer anything remotely as emotionally powerful and memorable as the finale of “Rise of the Machines”, but it is easily the second-best Terminator 3 movie in the franchise.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Episode 193: Zombieland: Double Tap

Our traveling companions are back for another trip into Z-Land. Did this long-awaited and much-anticipated sequel hit the same mark that its predecessor did? We explain what did (not much) and didn’t (a lot) work for us.

Zombieland 2 Review – 0:02:06

The Connecting Point – 0:56:01

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MOVIE REVIEW: Zombieland: Double Tap

It’s a sequel too late in the making, but ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP squeezes out enough comedic chemistry from its excellent reunited cast to keep the audience laughing even when the lethargic plot fails to hold our attention. The original foursome of Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) have been living together for 10 years in The United States of Zombieland and are making a home out of the abandoned White House when the sisters once again feel the need to strike out on their own – this time because Wichita fears commitment and the all-grown-up Little Rock wants to experience adulthood on her own. From there the story is mostly a road trip, with the group meeting new survivors, facing off against more dangerously evolved zombies, and contending with a colony of pacifists along the way to restoring their little family.

The film’s primary faults lie in an extreme reuse of/reliance on material from its predecessor, Columbus’ “rules” and old jokes are recycled frequently instead of introducing fresh new ones, and a lack of emotional weight. It’s not that we don’t care whether Wichita and Columbus end up happily ever after or if Little Rock will find love, but the film never reaches the heights of the original’s climactic Pacific Playland sequence when it comes to us caring about the fates of our characters.

The original cast is definitely giving their all even with less than stellar dialogue to deliver, and Zoey Deutch’s inclusion alone will be worth the price of admission for many; her extremely “extra” survivor Madison brings about the best banter in the film and elicited theater-wide laughter numerous times. I couldn’t decide whether I found her character more maddeningly annoying, hilarious, or attractive, and I mean that as praise. Deutch’s performance is definitely the one thing I won’t forget about the film and is worthy of all the memes it is sure to inspire.

Other additions to the cast include a short but hilarious appearance by Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch as Albuquerque and Flagstaff, a pair of eerily similar personalities to Tallahassee and Columbus, and an appropriately badass role for Rosario Dawson. However, though not without their charm, these felt more like cameos than significant additions to the plot.

One place the film definitely shines is in the action department, where the high-octane zombie kills are more creative and realistically bloody than ever before. The easily squeamish might want to sit this one since there is vomit and gore galore, but those who can stomach it will be rewarded with some of the most exciting action of the series during the film’s standout climax.

Sadly, the lack of moving, character deepening moments holds this back from being more than just an occasionally energetic, mostly funny nostalgic trip. ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP will likely satisfy fans of the first film, but the magic isn’t quite there and it feels like a big time missed opportunity to improve upon the original’s formula. The definition of a mixed bag: see it with tempered expectations and just enjoy the ride. Oh, and be sure to stay through the credits for a special treat.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Episode 192: Zombieland

Kicking off a little mini run on zombie flicks for this October, we discuss one of the more unique entries in this sub-genre. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the United States of Zombieland, but there are moments of poignancy that give us the feels too. So go ahead and push play because it’s time to nut up or shut up!

Zombieland Review – 0:01:30

The Connecting Point – 0:52:13

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