[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.

Annabelle Comes Home (2019)

Director: Gary Dauberman

Cast: Mckenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga

Screenplay: Gary Dauberman

106 mins. Rated R for horror violence and terror.

 

The Conjuring Universe had a big year with the release of the distantly-related The Curse of La Llorona and the film we’re going to talk about today, the third film in the Annabelle series and the seventh film in the universe, Annabelle Comes Home. How does it fit within the framework and does it successfully continue expanding the franchise mythos? Let’s find out.

Ed (Patrick Wilson, The Phantom of the Opera, Aquaman) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air, Captive State) have taken possession of the haunted doll Annabelle, and now she sits within a glass protective case in a locked room of their home. No one is allowed access. When they depart on an overnight trip for work, their daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace, Gifted, Captain Marvel) is left with babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween). They are both well-aware to stay away from the room and its many dangerous items, but Mary Ellen’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife, Twisted Sisters, TV’s Youth & Consequences) comes over and inadvertently leaves the room unlocked. Now, the spirit attached to Annabelle has awakened everything that resides in the room, and it’s up to Judy and Mary Ellen to survive the night and get Annabelle back in her case.

My biggest criticism of Annabelle Comes Home is that I didn’t find the film scary at all. That’s not a big fault on it because, while not being very scary, this installment is loads of fun. I loved visiting the many different corners of creep within the Warren’s protection room. I really liked the new additions of the Ferryman and the Samurai warrior of the Oni (though I’m not yet convinced that either one could carry its own film), and there are a lot of cool setups and sequences in the film. I kind of wish that the werewolf was saved for The Conjuring 3 because it has a really cool story attached to it and could’ve made a really cool standalone film, but that’s not where The Conjuring 3 is going now.

I think part of the problem with the lack of tension and fear in the film is the director, Gary Dauberman. Dauberman is known for having a hand in a lot of horror in recent years, including several other Conjuring Universe films and It, but he’s never directed, and I don’t think he was as successful in building the tension. He has the ability to create fear on the page, but he needs some more practice on creating it on the screen.

I really liked the dynamic between Judy and Mary Ellen. I think Mckenna Grace and Madison Iseman have great chemistry, which is very good considering so much of the film relies heavily on these two performances. On the other hand, I was less than impressed by Katie Sarife. It’s a mixture of some poor writing for the character, making her a bit too unlikable, and the performance, which just didn’t do anything for me.

I like the addition of Ed and Lorraine Warren to the story. I think, while not starring in the film, they add a layer of validity to the story and really help to bring this whole universe together. It always felt to me that The Conjuring films were seen as higher importance because Ed and Lorraine never appeared in the other films, but I think that the way they are utilized here really helps with the connective tissue that a universe thrives on.

Annabelle Comes Home is in the middle ground of the Annabelle series and the Conjuring Universe as a whole, and this sounds like a criticism, but it really isn’t. I had a lot of fun watching the movie, but it doesn’t capture horror the way both Conjuring films or the superior Annabelle: Creation did. It’s still miles ahead of the first Annabelle film, showing that the filmmakers know how to learn from their mistakes, and it creates a bright new avenue for where this franchise can go next. Check out Annabelle Comes Home for all that creepy Night at the Museum-level fun.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Corin Hardy’s The Nun, click here.

For my review of David F. Sandberg’s Annabelle: Creation, click here.

For my review of James Wan’s The Conjuring, click here.

For my review of Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona, click here.

For my review of James Wan’s The Conjuring 2, click here.

It (2017)

Director: Andy Muschietti

Cast: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard

Screenplay: Chase Palmer, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman

135 mins. Rated R for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language.

 

It seemed like It was never going to get the new adaptation fans have been clamoring for. The project had Cary Joji Fukunaga and Will Poulter originally in place after several unsuccessful attempts, and then Fukunaga left the project and Poulter was replaced. Then, director Andy Muscietti (Mama) surfaced to lead the project, something I was so sure about. I liked Mama, but it was a smaller, more intimate tale, and It is a big booming horror epic. As pics started to drop from the production, I’ll admit that I was unimpressed, and it was only after seeing the film that I realized how wrong I was.

It’s the summer of 1989, and the small town of Derry has been ravaged by a string of disappearances involving children, but Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher, St. Vincent, The Book of Henry) isn’t willing to accept that his younger brother Georgie is gone, and he routinely brings his friends, Richie (Finn Wolfhard, Dog Days, TV’s Stranger Things), Eddie, and Stan, down to the Barrens, a marshy area where the sewers empty out, to look for his body. As the summer goes on, the group adds Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor, 42, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween), Beverly (Sophia Lillis, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, TV’s Sharp Objects), and Mike, and each of them is plagued by a strange manifestation they call It, a creature that regularly takes the shape of a clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, Deadpool 2, Assassination Nation).

The studio envisioned It as a two-part adaptation of the weighty tome that Stephen King wrote in the 1980s, and this film is an adaption of roughly half of the novel, which jumps back and forth in time seeing the Losers Club as children and adults returning to Derry to finish what they started. For the film, this time as children is the entire focus of the film, a move I actually believe helped the organization of the story much better than jamming the whole book in and trying to do it justice. This is a case of a two-part film that actually needs it.

Each of the kids does a tremendous job in the film at developing a character amidst all the goings on with It, with particular emphasis given to Sophia Lillis as Beverly and Finn Wolfhard as Richie. Lillis gives a nuanced and layered performance as the only female member of the Losers Club, and her collaboration with Muscietti creates a well-dimensioned girl who is dealing with a lot. Beverly was always the best character in the book, too, so it’s great to see her given justice here.

In that same way, I was surprised by how good Finn Wolfhard is as Richie. Wolfhard is of course known for Stranger Things, a series that takes a lot of influence from Stephen King and, at times, It, so I was worried that Wolfhard’s character would be too close to what we see in Stranger Things, but he plays Richie so well as such a different character. Richie is the goofball with the nasty speech and a whole lot of fear, and Finn does him justice.

All that aside, the other tough role to fill here is Pennywise. Coming off the miniseries, Tim Curry’s take on Pennywise the Dancing Clown is the best piece of the puzzle, so finding someone who can give a new take on the creepy clown is a tough sell. I was actually all for Will Poulter, and I was pretty irked when he ended up not getting the part, but Skarsgård just knocks it out of the park. He plays Pennywise with the understanding that this is just one form of It, a very old and very powerful entity, and Pennywise comes across as a favorite form but also as a skin worn by a creature. When he shows his endless rows of teeth, Pennywise’s eyes kind of slough away like they were a snakeskin coming undone. It’s a horrible-looking fantastically-performed boogeyman.

For a lengthy film like this, it’s rather forgotten how smoothly the movie runs. Every time I watch it, I don’t realize the two-hour-plus runtime moving along at a juggernaut pace. There’s so much to cover that it never gets boring. In fact, the screenplay does a solid job at adapting the spirit of the source material instead of just being a carbon-copy of the book set to film. There are major differences about the individual fears that each of the Losers Club have, and the changes are made for a variety of different wholly-understandable reasons. Some of them would’ve been very tough to put to film in a workable way, and others were of the specific time period of the novel (the Losers are in the 50s in the book), and some were cut or rearranged for timing. Now, as much as I loved the werewolf sequences of the book, I understand that the film is not the book, and it’s respectable in that way.

There is a significant flaw for me, though, and it’s this: It wasn’t scary. It pains me to say it, but I wasn’t scared at all. I really thought this would be the one to get me, but it didn’t. There’s some spooky individual moments (watch the librarian in the early scene with Ben), but overall it didn’t give me that shiver-myself-to-sleep vibe I was really hoping for. It’s still more than entertaining for its tale of childhood friendships and monsters and grief, but I just wanted it to be scary.

It is a fantastic adaptation of half of Stephen King’s source material. For a film that had some laughable early production stills, Andy Muschietti really pulled it off and I’m all the more excited for It: Chapter Two. This was a well-constructed story of friendship akin to other classics of the genre like Stand by Me, and apart from lacking in the scares for this writer, it is a wonderfully entertaining thrill-ride.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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