[Early Review] Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

Director: Jake Kasdan

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina, Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Danny Glover, Danny DeVito

Screenplay: Jack Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg

123 mins. Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content, and some language.

 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle kind of surprised everyone when it came out back in 2017. I was not expecting much, and similar to Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, the trailers left me not knowing what to expect. Was it a true sequel to the original film or an updated remake? Why exactly did it exist at all? Well, upon seeing it, I and many like me were in shock with how much fun it was, and I was looking forward to a sequel. The question, however, still remained: could director Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Sex Tape) do it again?

It’s been some time since Spencer (Alex Wolff, Hereditary, Dude) and his friends had their journey in Jumanji, and now they are out of high school. It seems like everything is going well for them, except that Spencer is depressed, missing the purpose he once had in the game, and he decides to go back, but the game is broken, and it’s starting to glitch. When Martha (Morgan Turner, Invincible, Wonderstruck), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain, Literally Right Before Aaron, TV’s Charmed), and Bethany (Madison Iseman, Annabelle Comes Home, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween) learn that Spencer is in Jumanji, they decide to go in after him, but with the game glitching, they end up not choosing their characters, and the game has pulled in two other unlikely allies to join them on the journey.

The Next Level does not reinvent the franchise in the way that its predecessor did, but it’s still a fine and funny little adventure. Again, our main avatars are a lot of fun. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, San Andreas) is probably the most mixed of the performances here, as his impression of Danny DeVito (Matilda, Dumbo) has its hits and misses, never getting to the groan-worthy level but never being flat-out spot-on either.

This is perhaps my favorite performance by Kevin Hart (Ride Along, The Secret Life of Pets 2) in any film. How he melds Moose Finbar with Milo Walker (Danny Glover, Lethal Weapon, The Dead Don’t Die) is comedy gold.

We also get new to the series Awkwafina (Ocean’s Eight, Between Two Ferns: The Movie) as Ming, a stereotyped video game character that proves that whatever spirits were in charge of creating the Jumanji game were pretty prejudiced. In fact, let’s see that movie next time. Back to Awkwafina though, who proves herself capable of melding the comedy, the action, and the emotion of playing Ming as an avatar.

The adventure this time around is a little zanier, a little more wild, and I personally felt, considerably less difficult. Seriously, the fact that Smolder and Moose are both pretty worthless for a bulk of the film, the actual gameplay of getting through Jumanji goes a lot simpler for the players. I guess I could write it off as a game that adjusts difficulty for its players, but is it really?

Jumanji: The Next Level doesn’t bring anything crazy to the franchise. It’s a lot funnier than the previous film and the action is quite fun to behold, and even though Jake Kasdan aims for the stars, it isn’t altogether a more cohesive and sensible follow-up. There’s a lot in the movie that doesn’t really make sense and some things that stretch belief, even in a film like this. All in all, fans of Welcome to the Jungle will have a lot of fun. I sure did, but I don’t think this is the one to win over critics of the previous installment.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Jake Kasdan’s Sex Tape, click here.

The Farewell (2019)

Director: Lulu Wang

Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo

Screenplay: Lulu Wang

100 mins. Rated PG for thematic material, brief language and some smoking.

 

I’ve been looking forward to The Farewell for half a year, ever since hearing about it from someone who saw it at Sundance. I’m so happy to have been able to seek it out finally, and you need to do the same.

When Billi (Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians, Ocean’s Eight) discovers that her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has terminal lung cancer, she immediately wants to fly back to China to be with her, but her father Haiyan (Tzi Ma, Arrival, Skyscraper) and mother Jian (Diana Lin, Australia Day, TV’s The Family Law) advise her not to. They tell Billi that Nai Nai does not know she is sick and the family does not plan on telling her. Instead, everyone is flying to China for a family wedding, which has been set up as a cover for everyone to get their goodbyes in, but Billi’s parents think she is too emotional and she will not be able to keep up the lie. Billi decides to fly to China anyway in an effort to spend some time with Nai Nai before she passes, but she struggles to come to terms with the lie and the way her family goes about keeping the secret.

The Farewell moves along a little loosely in order to focus on moments of the days leading up to the wedding rather than big plot points. It’s a deeply moving character piece from writer/director Lulu Wang (Posthumous, Touch), and it is indeed based on an actual lie from Wang’s experiences. It’s an incredibly interesting look at culture and familial bonds across generations and traditions. I found it to be a very melancholic and comedic look at these bonds, never sinking into depression but also not forcing comedy. The funny moments in the story come from the interesting multi-dimensional characters and their strained relationships.

Awkwafina gives a career-best performance as Billi. The way she juggles sadness and joy while dealing with her own internal struggle is so powerful. Her chemistry with Nai Nai is so beautifully created through Wang’s writing and executed by the actresses quite well.

I adore Tzi Ma, and he really shines here. I really enjoyed his connection to daughter Billi in that he knows the importance of this lie but also involuntarily struggles with keeping the façade of joy that the wedding should invite. He is amazing in the film and I hope he can get some awards recognition this year.

The rest of the supporting cast is exemplary here, especially Zhao Shuzhen and Jiang Yongbo (Nie Rongzhen, Caught in the Web). Everyone is so well-cast in the film and each of them gets their moment to shine in the movie.

The Farewell is definitely in my Top 10 of the year so far. I cannot wait to see it again and to show it to as many people as I can. This examination of family and culture is so beautifully constructed and so watchable. The movie just cruises by and brought me tears and laughter at several points, sometimes even at the same time. This is a huge recommendation.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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