Jumanji: The Next Level

Fans of the Jumanji franchise will not be disappointed with this latest gathering of reluctant heroes within the now infamous action/fantasy survival game. We can consider this a sequel to 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which rebooted the 1995 origin story starring the late Robin Williams. Since then, the board game that trapped Alan Parrish in a terrifying jungle world for decades is now a broken down Atari-like vintage gaming console and cartridge that beckons players with a seducing jungle beat and pulsing electronic glow. Touching the device is all that’s required to physically transport players into the world of Jumanji as avatars of their choosing. Or, in the case of Jumanji: The Next Level, this happens without even choosing their character, swept atom by atom into the sinister collection of circuit boards and wires. As one character says upon beginning the transformation, “I hate this part!”
As a result of the game’s semi-awareness, we have a few new cast members for this outing. All of the previous teens and alter egos are here, along with Danny Devito, Danny Glover and Awkwafina. Devito and Glover are Eddie and Milo respectively, two former restaurant owners, partners who need to work through issues of aging and abandonment. Eddie is Spencer’s grandfather, recovering from hip surgery and sharing a room with his grandson, home on Christmas break from NYU. Spencer has returned to his anxiety-ridden, asthma inhaler dependent, unconfident former self, longing for the thrill and self-assuredness that he experienced as Dr. Smoulder Bravestone in the previous film. Eddie’s advice? “Go out there and get it. It’s all downhill from here. This is the best it gets. Getting old sucks.” Inspired, Spencer goes into the basement and enters the game, but emerges as Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina) instead of Bravestone. His friends come to the rescue, and that’s where the game makes a few of its own moves.
If this is confusing, it gets worse. The only consistent transformation is the avatar Ruby Roundhouse, played again by Karen Gillan. Many of the same body-swapping comedic elements get laughs once more, but Jack Black was funnier when channeling a pretty cheerleader in Jumanji 2. Anyone who winds up in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s body spends time touching and admiring his heavily muscled physique, and the gag still works. And although Johnson struggles with DeVito’s gruff, New York persona, it isn’t that much of a distraction. Kevin Hart is extremely funny no matter who he becomes, and there’s a ton of action to keep the audience from thinking about anything for long.
The film regains its previous footing when the characters discover a glowing green pool that allows arbitrary body-swapping within the game. This re-establishes prior roles for a couple of characters just as two more previous players enter the game, one as a horse.
What? Just see the movie. It will make more sense.
There’s a nice cameo appearance by an actor from the original film that brings the story full circle. Producer Dwayne Johnson promised this Easter egg while the film was in production. It also sets up Jumanji 4, despite general agreement by the teens that they’re “never going in there again!” With that, drums begin beating, a herd of ostriches stampedes through town and we capture the feel of the original movie once more.
Like the Jumanji game, box office receipts have a pulsing drumbeat of their own. This franchise is a huge moneymaker. There’s little doubt that there will be a fourth and perhaps fifth film before the concept grows tired. But sometimes when things get older, as Danny DeVito comes to realize by the end of the film, “It’s a gift.”
What’s next? Jumanji: AI?
Jumanji: The Next Level (2019) runs 2 hours 3 minutes and is rated PG-13.
Should I see this movie? 

Frozen II

It has been six years since the Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Snow Queen, was released as Frozen, the highest grossing animated film of all time. The subsequent merchandising juggernaut made a sequel pretty much inevitable. Frozen II will undoubtedly do very well, drawing on fans of the first film during a choice Christmas release. But perhaps Disney animators could have better spent their time working on something new.
This latest entry into the Disney library simply tries too hard to be wonderful. Where the original film was, well, original, this is a rehash with a convoluted script, unnecessary characters and songs that just can’t compete with the award winner belted out by Elsa (Idina Menzel) several years ago.
We have come to expect visually stunning 3D animation from Disney. But the giant blue eyes and tiny turned up noses of the Arendelle-dwelling royal sisters, voiced once again by Kristin Bell and Idina Menzel (Anna and Elsa respectively) seem plastic and two dimensional on this outing. And several scenes appear to tap into Fantasia for color and kaleidoscopic inspiration. In other words, gratuitous bursts of colors, sparkling palettes, textures and patterns.
And then there’s the deliberately adorable fire salamander named Bruni. This creation was probably in production as a plush toy before the ink dried on the storyboards. The character adds nothing to the story and actually makes the film longer than it needs to be. Frozen II is one minute longer than Frozen. They could have shortened the sequel considerably without impacting the somewhat pointless story.
Another creature that was undoubtedly fun for the animators was the Earth Giant. These living rock beasts recall the efforts of much earlier animators to bring to life L. Frank Baum’s Nome King using Claymation in Disney’s 1985 Return to Oz. Large, lumbering and relentlessly frightening, these creatures become integral to the plot once it is revealed that a dam constructed by Anna and Elsa’s grandfather was a trick played on the neighboring nature-loving Northuldra tribe. This is the truth that Elsa has sought, responding to a siren-like melodious call only she can hear. It leads her into the enchanted forest described in a bedtime story told by her late father.
Olaf the snowman, cute and sparingly comedic in the first film is given a large part in Frozen II. This is sure to sell more Olaf plush toys for years to come. If you think you can’t get enough of Olaf, see this film and you’ll agree that you can.
I would have to re-watch Frozen to determine if it contained nearly as many songs as version II. It’s hard to tell which song is expected to be the big hit, but none of them stand up to Let it Go from the original. Kristoff’s turn at the mic is over-produced, with a chorus of harmonizing reindeer backing him up.
The elements water, earth, fire and air are spectacularly illustrated throughout the film. And of course, ice and snow are abundant and constantly being tossed about by Elsa. Not to be accused of creating an entirely white cast of animated characters, Lieutenant Mattias is voiced by Sterling K. Brown, and the Northuldra people are vaguely indigenous.
Kids anxious to see Frozen II will want to see this in the theater. Otherwise, I see no need to rush out. This may quickly become bait to draw new subscribers to the Disney Plus streaming service.
Frozen II (2019) runs 1 hour, 43 minutes and is rated PG.
Should I see this movie? 

Richard Jewell

On July 27, 1996 a pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta during the Summer Olympics. News coverage was heavy, immediate and contributed to the false accusation of Richard Jewell, a security guard who worked at the venue. This story became a regular feature on the evening news, ramping up as the FBI and the news media fed the American public a false narrative in a rush to judgment declaring Jewell guilty without evidence and before being charged. In that respect, we all participated in this gripping true story.
Clint Eastwood, age 89, brings us his most recent directorial effort since 2018’s 15:17 to ParisRichard Jewell is a true story that should have been told much sooner. Eastwood has directed several other films in which people are falsely accused by the media and/or authority figures (Mystic River, Sully). Mr. Jewell died in 2007 at age 44, having been quietly exonerated following the confession of the actual bomber. I don’t remember that news story, do you?
As the film opened in theaters this month, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution threatened to sue over the depiction of the newspaper’s handling of the story, along with the portrayal of reporter Kathy Scruggs (deceased 2001) trading sex for a scoop. Jewell sued the newspaper for defamation after he was cleared of the crime but the case was thrown out. In an ironic twist, the newspaper is now defending its own reputation. They should know better. Meanwhile, nothing sells tickets like a good controversy.
Scruggs is played by Olivia Wilde as an aggressive, brash newsroom sleuth who seems to need help with her writing from a fellow reporter: “You know, that wordy thing you do.” She goes head to head with Jewell’s lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), whose personal history with Jewell leads him to believe in his innocence.
But Jewell himself, wonderfully played by Paul Walter Hauser, creates numerous cringe-worthy moments, talking too much, forgetting key pieces of information and relating so heavily to law enforcement as an overzealous wannabe, trying to “help” them do their job – to his own detriment. His good old boy southern persona, along with his obesity and kindness to a fault all work to undermine his defense. At some point he comes off as just plain stupid.
A turning point occurs in a heated exchange when Bryant challenges Jewell’s failure to get mad. Jewell finally angrily admits to understanding that he is now, and has long been, the brunt of bullying and jokes. The pressure of the hounding media and the railroading FBI scrutiny tears at his otherwise unshakeable optimism and reduces his mother (Kathy Bates) to tears. John Hamm as steely FBI agent Tom Shaw employs trickery on the gullible Jewell at every turn, being more concerned with “solving” the crime than capturing the actual perpetrator.
Among the list of Producers for Richard Jewell we find Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill. DiCaprio considered a role in the film as a southern lawyer, but stayed on as a producer instead. Hill was originally intended to play the title role. He also stayed on as a producer. The film is better cast as a result of both choices.
New and original footage are intermingled throughout the film, some scenes of which were filmed at the actual location. News footage, Olympic highlights and re-enacted action on the ground all contribute to the film’s intensity and believability. In fact, an actual Katie Couric interview with the real Jewell is shown without attempting to mask or cut away from the actor.
This is a quick two-hour movie. The ending falls somewhat flat. There is no big reveal, redemption or comeuppance. And perhaps that reflects the media’s loss of interest as the story became less sensational. But that becomes something of a lesson for us as viewers and consumers of media.

Richard Jewell (2019) runs 2 hours, 9 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie? 

Knives Out

“I suspect…foul play!”
And with that declaration, the death of Harlan Thrombey, family patriarch and uber-famous mystery writer, becomes a mystery unto itself.
Perhaps the best selling author of all time, outsold only by The Bible and Shakespeare might have uttered this line, launching the circuitous murder investigation in Knives Out. Of course, that author would be Agatha Christie, who brought us the sleuthing adventures of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. 
And in a tip of the hat to whodunit murder mysteries, we briefly see Angela Lansbury onscreen in an episode of the highly successful Murder She Wrote, being watched in the home of the least likely suspect in the Harlan Thrombey murder case. Or is she? The personal nurse to the wealthy 85-year old mystery writer is young Marta Cabrera, from Brazil. Or is it Ecuador? Or is it Uruguay? Or is it Paraguay? Family members have no idea, but they embarrassingly call upon her as exhibit A in their heated discussion of the American immigration controversy. This scene is a transparently modern inter-family squabble like those that may erupt around dinner tables this holiday season.
Cabrera, played by Ana de Armas, is a deer-in-the-headlights unwitting participant in a living game of Clue taking place in the Thrombey family mansion on their Massachusetts estate. Cabrera is also something of a human lie detector, being afflicted with a “regurgitory response to the telling of untruths.” Yes, she reliably vomits when she lies, and this trait plays heavily into investigative queries by both investigators and savvy family members.
Inspector Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig, methodically susses out the truth with his powers of deductive logic and disarming southern drawl. Equal parts of Poriot and Columbo, his accent sets him apart from the rest of the characters and allows for the delivery of lines that pierce through a room full of chatter with a razor sharp intellect dripping in sugary syrup. It’s fun to see Craig in anything but his steely James Bond persona. Here he seems a bit more human and is clearly having more fun.
The cast of characters includes the legendary Christopher Plummer as the family patriarch along with scream-queen icon Jamie Lee Curtis as his eldest child Linda. Her husband, Richard is played by Don Johnson, who has either had a ton of work done or has aged nicely. Toni Colette, Michael Shannon and a handful of other children, grandchildren and spouses round out the dysfunctional family. Captain America’s Chris Evans plays black sheep grandson Ransom Drysdale, whose declared altruism seems out of character for his otherwise cynical and self-serving nature. What is he up to? It seems everyone has motive, circumstantial evidence abounds, and by the end of the movie you’ll have difficulty determining whom you like least. But “Greatnana” (K Callan) holds a special, silent place in the family drama. She’s Harlan’s ancient mother, so old “we don’t even know” her age. You just know she’ll eventually have something to say.
The trailer for Knives Out offers plenty to gain our interest, but does little to give away anything but the most basic plot elements. You will not know, going into this film, what’s coming out the other side. As Inpector Blanc says, “This is not a donut, but a donut hole, and within that hole is another hole that circles a point that outlines another donut, within a hole…” He never completes the confusing metaphor, but it serves to reflect the complexity of the overlapping and interwoven plots. A lurking wagon wheel sculpture of sinister cutlery features prominently throughout the inquisition, and holds a key secret of its own. It will eventually step out front and center.
Director Rian Johnson’s use of 35mm film lends a richness and warmth to scenes that are mostly filmed inside a trophy-laden Victorian house complete with a “trick door” that masks a useful window. His use of handwritten notes and characters on the run has become his standard. He directed Looper, several Breaking Bad episodes and was tapped for a Star Wars trilogy. His writing for this script was heavily influenced by the Agatha Christie murder mysteries.
You’ll find yourself guessing at clues, trying to figure out who was responsible for the “donut hole within the inner donut” and will eventually get some things right and others wrong, much like Blanc’s own journey within the film.
This is a film that must be seen before someone tells you “that one thing” that ruins the inevitable surprises, twists and turns. It is a fun and stimulating entry into the Christmas rush of releases, possibly better suited for Halloween.

Knives Out (2019) runs 2 hours 10 minutes and is rated PG-13.
Should I see this movie? 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Marvel fans are pushing this film to huge box office receipts. I’m not sure it’s deserved.  I recommend that you see  Iron Man 3  before see...