Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

2020 #78
Jake Kasdan | 123 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Jumanji: The Next Level

The previous Jumanji movie, Welcome to the Jungle, was officially a sequel to the 1995 original. In practice, however, that amounted to little more than a brief nod / tribute to original star Robin Williams, and maybe a few Easter eggs scattered about. The Next Level, on the other hand, is much more in the traditional “direct followup” mould.

Despite our quartet of heroes having destroyed the eponymous game at the end of the last movie, one of them rescued and repaired it, and when he goes back in (for old times’ sake or something) the others must follow to rescue him. But he’s not repaired it properly, and so his septuagenarian grandfather and his chum are sucked in too, and everyone’s inhabiting a different character. And so The Next Level plays with a lot of the same comedic ideas as its predecessor — i.e. the mismatch between real-life person and in-game persona — but mixes up who’s imitating who. Primarily, this means The Rock gets to do an impression of Danny DeVito, Kevin Hart is being Danny Glover, and Jack Black is a black American football player. Karen Gillan doesn’t immediately get to join in the fun, but the film has some tricks up its sleeve. Anyway, once in the game, they head off on an Indiana Jones-type adventure — again, much like the first movie.

For many, this repetition of ideas has been a stumbling block. “The same but slightly different” doesn’t really cut it for a sequel nowadays, when you can easily rewatch the thing it’s repeating. However, I don’t think The Next Level is actually such a slavish clone. The “mismatched identities” schtick arguably worked better the first time, when it was a shiny new gag, but the fact most of the cast get to play at being someone else keeps it at least a bit fresh. There are also several new characters in the mix, with an especially entertaining performance from Awkwafina. More importantly, the adventure itself is considerably different. In my review of Welcome to the Jungle I noted that its locales were “jungle, jungle, and jungle”. Here, we get snowy mountains, vast desert, plus towns and castles. To me, it feels like they took what worked in the first movie and polished it. It’s still fundamentally the same kind of comedy action-adventure — if you disliked the first movie, there’s no reason this should appeal to you more — but refined.

Snow wonder it's better

That said, there’s still ideas left on the table. That game malfunctioning only affects who gets zapped in and which characters they play, but what if it kept glitching throughout? It’s arguably a tricky conceit to manage — if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to integrate it; but you can’t really have our heroes winning (or losing) thanks to random mistakes. But this is why Hollywood filmmakers get paid the big bucks, right? To solve these kind of things. Do it right and the glitches could’ve added an extra zing, either to the humour or as an obstacle to winning or, ideally, both. (Also, on a slightly more personal level, I think it’s a shame they didn’t release it on 3D Blu-ray this time. It was released theatrically in 3D, so a conversion exists, but they didn’t bother to put it on disc anywhere in the world. Adventure movies like this can look great in the format, and there’s a sequence with rope bridges that could’ve been really special.)

I was surprised how much I liked Welcome to the Jungle, but I held back somewhat on the sequel because of the reactions I’d seen. As it is, I was surprised again, because I think The Next Level is an even more enjoyable adventure.

There’s now a third (aka fourth, or you could even say fifth, depending what you count) Jumanji in development, which a credit scene here teases might go off in a new direction; plus cast and crew interviews have hinted at some other intriguing additions to the mythology that spin out of this movie. There’s no guarantee it’ll be a success, of course, but, nonetheless, next time I won’t be so reticent.

4 out of 5

Jumanji: The Next Level is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

2018 #89
Jake Kasdan | 119 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

As Avengers: Infinity War breaks almost all opening weekend records, a surprise box office champ from last year makes it to UK DVD and Blu-ray. Well, it’s not all that surprising that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle did well at the box office — it’s the belated sequel to a successful film that has become a childhood favourite for many, and it stars one of the few current actors who’s more-or-less guaranteed to get a film good gross on his appearance alone, The Rock — but how well it did shocked many who commentate on such things. In the US, although it only opened at #2 (behind The Last Jedi in its second weekend), it climbed to #1 for its third weekend, then stayed there for four of the next five weeks. Eventually it overtook every Spider-Man movie to become Sony’s highest-grossing film ever domestically. Worldwide, it’s taken just shy of $957 million to be Sony’s second highest-grossing film of all time (behind Skyfall). That’s more than just some vague nostalgia for an old Robin Williams movie.

Set 20 years later, a group of mismatched high school kids wind up in detention and are assigned to clear out an old classroom. There they find an old games console with a single game: Jumanji. They boot it up, select their characters… and are sucked into the console, finding themselves inhabiting their avatars inside the game’s jungle world. In order to escape they must complete the game, by battling against a gang of mercenaries to return a jewel to its rightful home.

Search for the high school kid inside yourself

It’s a very different setup to the original movie, which is refreshing — it could’ve just been a rehash with modern effects (while the Williams movie still has a lot going for it, the mid-’90s CGI is definitely not one of them). That said, it’s not as innovative or inventive as the first movie. The way that brought the board game’s environment to life in the real world was a unique concept, whereas this sequel merely offers an Indiana Jones-esque jungle adventure, albeit with self-aware characters. It doesn’t even use the fact it’s supposedly a video game that much, aside from a few jokes (our heroes have ridiculous only-in-a-game abilities and weaknesses; non-player characters sometimes have looping dialogue).

Where it does work is the characters and the performances. The headline cast are excellent, playing at once their in-game characters and evoking the real world counterparts who’ve inhabited them. Much of the film’s fun comes from the juxtapositions: the most obvious is Jack Black as a self-obsessed teenage girl in the body of an overweight middle-aged man, but there’s also Dwayne Johnson as a scaredy nerd in the body of, well, The Rock; Kevin Hart as a bulky jock reduced to being a short-ass backpack carrier; and Karen Gillan as an under-confident academic girl now in the body of a sexy Lara Croft type. Well, frankly, I’m not sure how much Hart brings to the table, but Johnson and Gillan are really good (and — minor spoiler! — share what is perhaps one of the best kisses in screen history), and Black is clearly having a whale of a time. The quality of the characters quietly builds to a point where the epilogue back in the real world is surprisingly emotional.

MVPs not NPCs

Unfortunately, not everything works that well. The main thing that suffers is the villain. I suppose there has to be one, if only to provide an obstacle at the climax, but that’s also the only reason he’s there — an antagonist for the sake of it. He either needs more time investment, to make him a proper character, or, actually, less — make him even more of an uninteresting obstacle than he already is. Heck, they could’ve got some gags out of the weak plots of old video games. It’s a similar situation with world building. For example, the city they visit looks fantastic in the establishing shot, but there’s no time invested in it — it’s just a place for an action scene, clearly meant to provide visual variety from the other settings of jungle, jungle, and jungle. Maybe that’s ok, but you feel like there could be more to this world.

These issues with plot construction extend to individual gags, some of which feel like setups in need of pay-offs. For example, Hart’s character has a weakness for cake. We learn that, then he accidentally eats some cake and loses a life, but… that’s it? The scene is mildly amusing thanks to the OTT way it causes him to die, but it feels like that’s a reminder — “weaknesses matter, and cake is his” — before a proper pay-off later. But there isn’t one. I mean, how about this: not only does cake kill him, but he can’t resist it (it’s like, you know, a weakness). So in the rhino scene, instead of just dropping him, they drop a trail of cake to lure him along; then, rather than the rhinos just being distracted by him running away, he eats the cake and explodes, which takes out the rhinos. (Hire me, Hollywood!)

There is running. There is also jumping. Yep, definitely a video game.

In some respects these are all nitpicks. They don’t detract from the main fun of the film, which is the mismatch between real-world kids and their in-game avatars, and putting those characters through an action-adventure. The result is amusing and exciting, and ultimately a lot of fun, even if a bit of polish could’ve made it better. Nonetheless, I probably enjoyed it more than the original.

4 out of 5

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

2016 #176
Jennifer Yuh Nelson & Alessandro Carloni | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English | PG / PG

Kung Fu Panda 3Po and co are back in a movie that bucks the sequel trend by being perhaps the best Kung Fu Panda yet.

The two-pronged plot sees Po (Jack Black) finally meet his birth father (Bryan Cranston), while evil warrior Kai (J.K. Simmons) breaks out of the afterlife to hunt down the Dragon Warrior, putting Po’s new-found community in harm’s way.

After the occasionally muddled second film (which I felt improved a little with repeated viewings, at least), KFP3 sets the legendary adventures of awesomeness back on track with an appealing mix of humour, action, and moral lessons for kiddies and adult viewers alike. It keeps things focused and pacey, running just 83 minutes before credits, as well as maintaining the series’ typically stunning animation, which is just as polished whether creating epic scenery or up-close physical combat.

It’s also particularly satisfying when watched alongside its forerunners: it feels like Po’s story has come full circle, with the film linking in and wrapping up plot points from the first movie (as well as resolving things from the second). Reportedly DreamWorks have three more Kung Fu Panda films planned, but at this point it feels like a completed trilogy.

A downside for UK viewers, though: our localised soundtrack replaces the voices of two palace geese with members of the Vamps, who are a popular music combo, apparently. Wow. Aside from the underwhelmingness of the ‘famous’ guest voices, they’re appalling actors. They only have about three lines between them and they’re still terrible. To rub salt in the wound, some ‘clever’ disc coding means that if you have a Region B Blu-ray player this soundtrack is completely unavoidable, even if you import. Poor region-locked people. Family resemblanceI hope for humanity’s sake the version on Sky Cinema retains the original voices.

There are very few threequels that can lay claim to being a series’ best entry. Whether KFP3 actually tops the original or not is debatable, but it at least feels like a course correction after the somewhat disappointing first sequel.

4 out of 5

Kung Fu Panda 3 is available on Sky Cinema from today, screening on Premiere at 1:40pm and 7:15pm.

Tropic Thunder: Director’s Cut (2008)

2015 #24
Ben Stiller | 116 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Germany / English & Mandarin | 15

Tropic Thunder: Director's CutA bunch of obstreperous actors are too much to handle for the director of a Vietnam war movie, so he dumps them in the jungle to shoot it with hidden cameras. Things go awry; hilarity ensues.

Conceived by co-writer/director Ben Stiller in the ’80s when all his actor friends were in war movies, “struggling” with training boot camps that made them feel like they were “really in the army”, the idea of skewering pretentious actors hasn’t dated in the intervening decades, though the specific targets may have been updated. De facto lead is Ben Stiller as a cheesy action star looking to go legit with a serious movie, but best is Robert Downey Jr.’s Oscar-nominated turn as a Daniel Day-Lewis/Russell Crowe-type actor, who has an operation to dye his skin so he can play a black character. Less well-served among the leads is Jack Black, as the drug-addicted star of a series of ‘comedies’ based around fat suits and fart gags, who feels superfluous more often than not.

Following events from the safety of Hollywood are a pre-McConaissance* Matthew McConaughey as Stiller’s agent, and a Surprise Cameo™ as the film’s other best character, studio head Les Grossman (I imagine you’ve learnt who that is at some point in the last seven years, but in case not…) There’s an element of Hollywood-insider comedy to some parts of this, I suppose, but the characters are broad enough to generate laughs from a wider audience too.

Character buildingThe film may run a little long in the middle, though I don’t think that’s the fault of this extended cut. It adds just over 17 minutes across many little changes and extensions according to movie-censorship.com, but the most notable of these are character-building beats that struck me as fairly worthwhile. Nonetheless, it’s not so padded that it outstays its welcome, generating pretty consistent laughs.

While not all the gags or characters may land, there’s enough that works (mainly thanks to Downey Jr and Mr Surprise Cameo™) to render Tropic Thunder a jocular pillorying of The Movies.

4 out of 5

* I would like to apologise now for using that term. ^

Bernie (2011)

2015 #53
Richard Linklater | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

BernieI seem to vaguely remember dismissing Bernie as just ‘Another Jack Black Comedy’ back whenever it came out (in the UK, that wasn’t until April 2013), and essentially forgot about it until earlier this month when it came up on the A.V. Club’s 100 best films of the decade (so far), at #38, which made it sound a very worthwhile watch for multiple reasons. Having seen it, however, I don’t think I’d rank it as one of the (half-)decade’s best. That’s putting an unfair burden on it, though: it’s a movie I’m glad I’ve seen, and certainly one with a good many points in its favour.

Black plays the eponymous Bernie Tiede, a mortician in the small town of Carthage, Texas, whose dedication to his job and friendly disposition, both far above and beyond the call of duty, soon find him at the centre of the community and beloved by its people. When the town’s renowned miser dies, Bernie forms a bond with his even-miserlier bitch of a wife (Shirley MacLaine), becoming about the only person she gets on with. They go on expensive holidays, dine at fine restaurants, and soon Bernie is managing her affairs. But she becomes increasingly controlling, making demands on his time that he struggles to meet, and treating him as wickedly as she does everyone else. One day, Bernie shoots her dead. When his crime is discovered, the people of his small town initially refuse to believe he did it; when it’s proven he did, they clamour for him to be released anyway.

By-the-by, this is a completely true story.

Bernie brings gifts(If you’re observing similarities to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil there, you’re not the first: the magazine article that inspired Bernie, published around the same time as that book’s film adaptation, is called “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas”.)

Co-writer/director Richard Linklater — who, as we know, often likes to mix up real-life and fiction in the way he produces his movies (cf. Boyhood; the Before trilogy) — tells this story in a docu-drama style, mixing talking head interviews with dramatic recreations. Many (most) of the interviewees are real-life Carthage residents, presumably giving their real recollections and opinions. It fits this narrative to a T, lending veracity to the unbelievable-if-it-weren’t-true story. They’re also amusing — not in a “laugh at the small town folks” kinda way (though there’s an inherent element of that for us as outside observers, let’s be honest), but in an honest-to-goodness “this is what real life’s like” fashion. This irreverence is how many people really react to and discuss momentous events, and in this case that gels with the tone of what happened.

No doubt spurred on by the fact he’s portraying a real person, Black gives a strong performance. It’s a comedy one, undoubtedly, but far more restrained than he normally offers. It doesn’t suggest a Robin Williams-esque versatility — I don’t imagine Black’s suddenly going to be popping up in serious parts all the time — but it is worthy of note. MacLaine does a lot with a little, her character’s vicious nature conveyed at least as much through glances, sneers, and a particular way of chewing food as it is through words and actions.

McConaissanceThe local attorney seeking Bernie’s prosecution is played by man-of-the-moment Matthew McConaughey. I don’t know when we’re meant to deem the start of his “McConaissance”, but I’m not sure this really qualifies as part of it. Not that he’s bad, but it feels like the kind of played-straight comedy Southerner I’ve seen him do a few times now; indeed, it’s how he comes across in real life, from what I’ve seen. It fits the role like a glove, but doesn’t make for a remarkable performance.

Bernie is one of those stories that you’d never buy if it weren’t true, which makes it perfect fodder for the movies. Native Texan Linklater clearly understands the mindset of those involved and is the right kind of quirky-but-mainstream filmmaker to bring it to the screen. One might argue it doesn’t show suitable reverence to the fact a woman is dead, but the involvement of so many real townspeople suggests it’s got the level and tone bang on. It’s no true-crime mystery, nor the funniest comedy, but it is a tale so engrossingly bizarre that it begs to be heard in full. The real-life post-film ending — Bernie was released from prison last year on the condition he lives above Linklater’s garage — only adds to that fascination.

4 out of 5

Be Kind Rewind (2008)

2008 #90
Michel Gondry | 97 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

Be Kind RewindThe work of Michel Gondry and the comedy of Jack Black are both, shall we say, acquired tastes, and not ones you would necessarily expect to overlap. Yet here they do — at least to an extent — but while Black is again doing his usual schtick as the Ker-Azy Best Mate, it’s the writer-director who is perhaps offering some surprises.

Gondry has exactly the sort of fanbase you’d expect for a French director who started out in music videos for Bjork and The Chemical Brothers before progressing to films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep. It’s not inconceivable those fans may’ve been a bit surprised by this effort, about two video store clerks who begin to remake well-known movies when all the store’s tapes are accidentally wiped, because it seems so thoroughly mainstream; or, to put it a nicer way, accessible. That’s not to say it doesn’t have an oddness about it — early plot points hit unreal levels, before the film becomes more grounded — but for the most part it errs on the side of realism. It’s almost hard to believe Gondry wrote and directed it, considering his previous output.

In fact, so conceivable is so much of the story that one could almost believe it was a fictionalised version of real events. The way the films are remade — using elaborate cardboard props and cunning camera tricks — are all pleasantly innovative, but well within the bounds of believability; and when they gain a previously-meaningless nickname (“sweded”) and explode with cult popularity, it’s heavily reminiscent of so many Internet-based crazes, several of which do revolve around retelling popular films. Indeed, placing the concept of ‘sweding’ at the heart of the film taps into the popularity such things tend to garner, and the enjoyability of the idea helps carry the film through some rougher patches.

And Be Kind Rewind is at its best — and, crucially, funniest — during the ‘sweding’ of recognisable films. These sequences are packed with the vicarious joy of recreating iconic moments from beloved films with just a video camera, some mates, and a pile of card. It’s here that the lovability of the concept comes to the fore, and it would perhaps benefit from even more of this. On the other hand, an endless stream of re-made movies is no substitute for a proper plot, so Gondry wisely limits how many films we see being ‘sweded’.

The problem is, the rest of the story doesn’t always do a great deal to make up for it. There’s a surprising number of stock moments and subplots considering Gondry’s roots, and some threads are underplayed to the point of seeming extraneous. In particular, a romantic subplot is so inconclusive — not even ‘resolved’ in an open-ended manner — that one wonders why it was included at all.

Your enjoyment of Be Kind Rewind is likely to ride on how much you like the idea of ‘sweding’. If it sounds like a fun thing to watch or do, the goodwill engendered by the concept may carry you through the film’s weaker moments. If, however, you think it sounds faintly silly, there’s not much else on offer besides a familiar moral message about community, and achieving your goals, and all that jazz.

4 out of 5

The Cable Guy (1996)

2008 #79
Ben Stiller | 88 mins | download | 12 / PG-13

The Cable GuyThe best thing I have to say about The Cable Guy is that the opening titles were very well done.

The second-best thing I have to say is that a subplot featuring director Ben Stiller as a faded-child-star twin-killer is very neatly integrated into the film, seeming utterly pointless until it has a near-vital role in the climax. That’s a pleasing piece of writing/editing right there. Unfortunately, the point this seems to be aiming at — that TV rules our life too much, that we’re too addicted to it, etc etc — is not only old hat, but also rendered meaningless in this instance by the lack of impact: TV goes off for the night, and one guy picks up a book. Oh, wow. And to top it off, thanks to an unnecessary final beat, it seems Jim Carrey’s titular character hasn’t actually learnt the lesson we thought he had.

Incidentally, The Cable Guy is a comedy, though at times it seems to wish you’d forget that so it could be a psychological stalker thriller. Perhaps that’s what it had wanted to be — for one thing, there are surprisingly accurate predictions for the future of telecommunications, although their coming true may simply have killed another joke (“play Mortal Kombat with a friend in Vietnam!”) — until someone realised the idea was too silly to be taken completely seriously. How funny you find the end product will depend on whether you like the style of comedy Carrey employed in the early & mid-’90s, and whether you can stomach pointless asides that don’t do anything for the plot (final act freaky nightmare, step forward). There’s little else to engage interest — Matthew Broderick’s pseudo-protagonist is, perhaps, too nice and too eager to please, and the go-nowhere romantic subplot — his main action aside from being Carrey’s straight man — has all the depth and shape of something from a cookie cutter.

More fun than the jokes, actually, is playing Spot The Pre-Fame Comedy Star. Eyes open for young-looking turns from (in ease-of-identification order) Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Janeane Garofalo, and Kyle Gass. And Eric Roberts randomly shows his face too, not that that’s relevant to anything.

The Cable Guy is rated 12, or PG-13 in the US, which may also be the last ages you’d enjoy it at.

2 out of 5

In case anyone’s wondering what’s happened to #77 & #78… Despite spending 23 months carefully posting reviews in order (well, the first two months are actually a bit of a muddle), it’s now December and I’m a few behind, so I’ve decided to throw numerical sequence to the wind and just post reviews as & when I get round to completing them. The main reason for this is to help drive things forward so that I can actually end 2008’s posting by December 31st, rather than having it drag on into 2009 and overlap with Year 3. I’m sure no one will really mind. Or care.