It’s Not Just a Jungle Out There (Jumanji: The Next Level, 2019)

Jumanji_Next_Level_PosterAlex, Martha, Fridge and Bethany have all moved forward in life, but college life has been disappointing for Alex and he has become distant from the others.

When everyone returns home for Christmas, Alex decides maybe what he really needs is to recapture the confidence he gained from the last time they went through Jumanji. When he never shows up for a planned breakfast, Fridge, Bethany and Martha find themselves forced to enter the game.  But due to damage to the console, the group find themselves lost in a new part of the game and in the wrong avatars (well, except Martha).  To make matters worse, the game has pulled in Spencer’s grandfather and his old business partner Milo.

The Next Level faced a challenge.  How to convincingly argue the kids would re-enter the game and how not to lose the magic of the interplay of the last film.  The previous film was one of those rare films that did not depend on Johnson basically being himself.  The cast was convincing and fun playing the roles of teens trapped in a video game.

Kasdan ups the ante with this one. Gillan, Black, Hart and Johnson all get to play multiple inhabitants of their avatars (with Hart and Johnson doing fun takes on Glover and Devito for much of the film).

This was a real fun follow up that manages to carry over the character growth of the last film while still capturing what made the previous so much fun. The cast is great and the action is fun.

Family Drama (Hereditary, 2018)

hereditary_posterHereditary opens with a family preparing for a funeral. Annie’s mother has died. Much like Annie, the film feels…distant from this event. we learn that she was, in fact often struggling in their relationship.  And death has not changed that.

But things start to escalate as more tragedy hits and both Annie and her family seem to be coming apart at the seams.

Heredity is a horror movie that is very slow and deliberate. Other than a few “is there a ghost” style moments (odd reflections, flashing lights) it really feels like Hereditary is the exploration of a family that is being torn apart by a family history of unacknowledged mental illness.

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Of course, the story is more than that. There is something darker lurking under the surface. Ari Aster (in his feature length debut as both a writer and director) moves the film at a very (deliberate) slow pace. He rarely relies on jarring us with a gruesome visual or jump scares (but there are a few). But it works so well. Hereditary is at times painful not through gore or shocking violence…but through it’s moments of emotional despair.

There is a scene at the dinner table that is both horrifying and heart wrenching.  And a lot of the emotional weight of the film comes from incredibly strong performances. Gabriel Byrne’s role as a father trying to keep his family imploding is wonderfully understated. He manages to remain sympathetic, even when he seems to be unable to support his belief in his wife’s lost grip on reality. Mary Shapiro is memorable as the young daughter (who was closest to Annie’s mother) who seems to be on the autism spectrum.

Toni Collette and Alex Wolff turn in terrific performances.  Collette’s Annie seems to distance herself from her family and the audience. But at at the same time, you get it. Her grief pours from the screen and washes over the audience.  And Wolff’s Peter is heart breaking to watch as he and his relationship with his mother seems to disintegrate before their eyes.

The horror of Hereditary is “can you trust the people who should care for you the most”? I mentioned that the film moves at a rather slow pace. And this really benefits the film. Pay attention. Listen in. Every little hint means something and rewards in the end.

It’s Still A Jungle Out There (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, 2017)

Jumanji_WTTJ_PosterEvery so often, someone decides it is time to start up a franchise. Rather than a reboot or a remake, when they announced Jumanji (starring that Robin Willims-esque Dwayne the Rock Johnson) it was decided that they would make a sequel. The film clearly establishes itself as set in the same universe as the Robin Williams movie late in the film.

The film opens with a jogger finding the board game on a beach.  He gives it to his teenage son Alex.  The young man sets it aside.  That night he is awoken by beating drums.  He opens up the box to find, instead of a board-game, a video game cartridge. He puts it in and disappears.  The film picks up 22 years later.  Alex is the town legend, his father and house the stuff of scary stories.

Spencer is a nerd who gets in trouble for doing football player classmate Fridge’s homework.  Their teacher recognizes that Spencer has plagiarized themselves.  At the same time, popular and pretty Bethany is in trouble for talking on her cell phone during a test and Martha is in trouble for talking back to her gym teacher.  The four get assigned to detention, which will involve them cleaning up a mess in the school basement.

The kids stumble upon an old video game system and decide to give the game Jumanji a try. They find themselves transported into the game, which they then find out that they must play to the end if they want to get out. This is a reversal of the first film, where the game broke out into the real world. Here not only are they in the video game world, they are video game avatars.  Spencer finds himself as the muscular and heroic Smolder Bravestone.  Fridge is the diminutive zoologist Mouse Finbar.  Martha is shocked to find herself looking a bit like Laura Croft fighter Ruby Roundhouse.   And Bethany gets the huge shock of being the middle aged Dr. Shelly Oberon (which she assumed a woman, only to find she is a man).

The film has a lot of fun with the new video game approach.  Everybody has three bars on their arms representing lives, resulting in some amusing moments when they end up regenerating. There is also the sendups of video game tropes.  Most notably, one people have somehow been missing because they have been reacting to single still photos and ignoring the context.  Karen Gillan’s Ruby Roundhouse is a sendup of the hot female fighter video game characters.  She questions very quickly what is up with such a ridiculous outfit.  Admittedly, they could have had her change, as at least one scene shows her putting a shirt on to cover herself. But the film is on the side of the folks who jumped on how she is dressed.

The plot is thin…they literally are just trying to get a jewel to a statue to lift the curse of Jumanji.  Which puts the focus squarely on the characters.  And thankfully, Johnson, Gillan, Black and Hart are all entertaining in their roles. Fridge is frustrated by the reversal to a character who is not very athletic and has the weakness of cake.

Bethany, of course, is pained both by her appearance and lack of access to a phone.  All four have lessons to learn, but it is mostly the spectacle of events and jokes that makes this film fun.

I admit, I was not expecting a lot out of this one, but I really had a good time. This is a bit more aimed at older audiences with some juvenile humor.  But it still works pretty well to be amusing and exciting.

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