‘Jumanji: The Next Level’ is Worth It Mostly for the Actor-Persona Swapping

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CREDIT: Frank Masi/Sony Pictures Entertainment

Starring: Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Alex Wolff, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina, Colin Hanks, Rhys Darby, Rory McCann, Marin Hinkle

Director: Jake Kadan

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Intense CGI Animal Attacks

Release Date: December 13, 2019

Let’s be real: the biggest joy of 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle wasn’t the game itself, but how it was played. I’m talking about the actors who played the video game avatars and how the conceit demanded that they depart so far from their typical personas. Dwayne Johnson had to act like a scrawny kid with allergies, Kevin Hart got to wonder why he wasn’t a foot taller, Karen Gillan was allowed to question the wisdom of midriff-baring in action scenarios, and Jack Black fulfilled his destiny by getting to play a superficial teenage girl. So if The Next Level, the third movie in this series (although let’s be real: this feels like the second movie, since the actual first movie is so far removed from these latter two, though I’ll do my best to call it the third. Also, side note: there’s a cameo of someone from the original film, but I didn’t even remember that she was in the original, so take from that what you will) wants to succeed, it ought to double down on that performance-with-a-performance framework, right? Definitely, although there’s also a hullabaloo about a plot and some frenetic action set pieces.

The Next Level, naturally enough, is about the next level in the video game, so it’s a little harder now for the gamers to successfully complete their mission of saving Jumanji. For us, that means a lot of the film is like watching someone else playing a video game, which can be enjoyable, but it usually doesn’t deliver the transcendence that cinema is designed to achieve. Maybe some viewers will really dig all this flying through the air and slamming into the scenery, but for me, it feels like an exhausting visual onslaught. Although, I must admit that the CGI-rendered ostriches and mandrills do look genuinely scary.

But back to the main attraction, as it behooves me to mention that Dannys DeVito and Glover have joined the Jumanji gang, and they have major parts, even when we don’t get to see their familiar faces. Glover plays Milo, former business partner to DeVito’s Eddie, grandfather to Spencer (Alex Wolff), whose lingering insecurity about life in general has led him to venture back into the game. His friends follow behind to rescue him, but since everything is a little haywire, Milo and Eddie are dragged in as well, and nobody gets to choose their avatars, though they also get some opportunities to switch around who’s playing whom. In Welcome to the Jungle, the young actors were not too well-known, so the actors playing the video game characters were playing types more than they were doing impressions. But now with the presence of some more familiar names, the routine gets to lean more toward impressions, which Hart, Johnson, and newcomer Awkwafina take full advantage of. Honestly, in this day and age of strife and division, the world would be a lot better if we all spent some time pretending to be Danny DeVito. So, in that sense, The Next Level is a net good.

Jumanji: The Next Level is Recommended If You Like: Watching other people play video games, Danny DeVito impressions, Danny Glover impressions

Grade: 3 out of 5 Life Bars

Mini-Movie Review: ‘The Farewell’ Examines the Emotional Truths Behind a Huge Little Lie with Humor, Pathos, and Empathy

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CREDIT: A24/YouTube

Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara

Director: Lulu Wang

Running Time: 98 Minutes

Rating: PG for General Family Reunion Awkwardness

Release Date: July 12, 2019 (Limited)

If my grandmother had cancer and my parents and aunts and uncles decided to hide the diagnosis from her and instead organize a wedding so that all her loved ones could visit her one last time, I imagine my reaction would be a lot like that of The Farewell‘s supremely frustrated Billi (Awkwafina). But of course, I cannot imagine that anyone in my family would actually do that, so it’s a little hard for me to even wrap my head around this scenario as a real thing. But it is a real thing, as writer/director Lulu Wang based it on her own experience. And I suspect she wanted to have quite an impact on people like me who are not part of a culture that would engage in this type of subterfuge. That impact valuably exploits the empathetic power of cinema: by the end of The Farewell, I still do not come anywhere close to agreeing with Billi’s family’s decision, but I understand why they believe it is the right thing. Wang’s film will have you laughing, crying, and hopefully thinking about what works best for your family in sickness and in health.

The Farewell is Recommended If You Like: Weddings and Family Reunions in All Their Messiness

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Little Round Butts

SNL Review October 6, 2018: Awkwafina/Travis Scott

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CREDIT: Will Heath/NBC

This post was originally published on News Cult in October 2018.

Love It

Ted Cruz Rally – This little filmed piece is my pick for best of the episode, primarily by dint of some impressively squishy sound design. The plop of confetti, the thud of a bounceless basketball, the distortion of an unruly microphone: all are delightful auditory punchlines. Beck’s take on Ted Cruz is fairly unique (is the senator’s nose really that pointy?), but his string of bad luck as a live performer definitely captures his noted lack of charisma.

Pete Davidson is here to share some thoughts on Kanye, and he can offer the right sort of wisdom for the moment, what with his experience being crazy.

Keep It

Dance Battle – It is quite the delightful surprise when the crew made up of Awkwafina, Kenan, and Leslie starts breaking it down to the tune of The Price is Right theme. Alas, it takes away any surprise from the rest of the sketch, as we know for sure that their remaining routines will also be set to game show music. But I cannot complain too much when the soundtrack is this charmingly familiar. Plus, the Family Feud wrong answer buzzer is ideal punctuation.

The Brett Kavanaugh Post-Game is an interesting enough concept to tackle the big news of the moment, but why does just about every political cold open need to be part of some news broadcast?…Awkwafina’s Monologue is pretty short and uneventful, save for her shoutout to first female Asian SNL host Lucy Liu (what an opportunity it would have been for Lucy to suddenly make a surprise appearance!)…The Presidential Alert commercial is just as crazy as, well, life in America currently is. Ergo, the jokes about a cheap phone company actually hit harder, in light of their unexpectedness…Michael and Colin are adequate enough, with the most notable Update moment coming in the form of a few audience members audibly booing Brett Kavanaugh…Eric and Donald Trump, Jr. have some more invective and nonsense to spew, particularly their new zinger of “Saturday Night Liberals”…So You’re Willing to Date a Magician gets a decent amount of mileage out of lampooning a certain profession’s stereotypes…The Pumpkin Patch benefits greatly from Beck and Kyle’s commitment to guilelessness…The New York Film Festival Women’s Roundtable (or Actress Roundtable, depending on if you go by the title card or the dialogue) is another chance for Kate to shine as Debette Goldry. You know the drill at this point, although her experience doing yellowface is a new, fairly hard-hitting reveal.

Leave It

Baby Shower – Here’s a sketch that is quite messy in execution that I feel could have been quite uproarious if it were more focused. Is the main joke that Awkwafina’s dog walker is an interloper, or that Cecily’s lonely friend of the expectant mom is shallow and superficial? There’s some fine character work, but also too many joke approaches coming from too many different angles.

The Hidden Tales of Egypt is here to remind us that Cleopatra had interesting hair.

Awkwafina

On a scale of Lucy Liu to Awkwafina, it is clear that there haven’t been too many Asian SNL hosts. But regardless of ethnicity, Awkwafina brings an offbeat comedic presence that is unprecedented in the entire annals of guests at 30 Rock. Unfortunately that doesn’t quite translate in her first SNL hosting gig, though she is plenty dedicated. Weirdly, she also appears to be the victim of multiple directing and sound mixing miscues.

Travis Scott

On a scale of music from artists I have heard of but have never really heard, Travis Scott holds my attention well enough. His stage design is decently mesmerizing, and he has acuity with laying out his words over a groove. Other than that, all I have to say is, did I hear him correctly when he said “just a goose”?

Letter Grades:

Brett Kavanaugh Post-Game – B-

Awkwafina’s Monologue – B-

Dance Battle – B

Presidential Alert – B-

The Hidden Tales of Egypt – C-

Ted Cruz (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – B+

Travis Scott performs “Skeletons”/”Astrothunder”

Weekend Update
The Jokes – B-
Eric and Donald Trump, Jr. – B-
Pete Davidson – B+

So You’re Willing to Date a Magician – B-

Baby Shower – C

The Pumpkin Patch – B

Travis Scott performs “Sicko Mode” – B

New York Film Festival Women’s Roundtable – B

This Is a Movie Review: Crazy Rich Asians

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CREDIT: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and RatPac-Dune Entertainment LLC

I give Crazy Rich Asians 3.5 out of 5 Jade Rings: http://newscult.com/movie-review-wary-spectacle-crazy-rich-asians-stay-characters/

This Is a Movie Review: Ocean’s 8

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CREDIT: Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures

I give Ocean’s 8 3 out of 5 Blind Spots: http://newscult.com/movie-review-meet-oceans-8-heist-old-heist/