‘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

Movie Review: ‘Hobbs & Shaw’ is Surprisingly Goofy, Unsurprisingly Family-Oriented, and Annoyingly Convoluted

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CREDIT: Frank Masi/Universal Pictures

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Idris Elba, Vanessa Kirby, Eddie Marsan, Eiza González, Helen Mirren

Director: David Leitch

Running Time: 136 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Big Vehicles and Big Egos Slamming Into Each Other

Release Date: August 2, 2019

Spin-offs should offer something that the original couldn’t. Hobbs & Shaw immediately feels off in that regard, considering that Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) have already been a couple of the biggest characters in the last few Fast & Furious movies. Although, they aren’t quite members of the core family, so that leaves them enough wiggle room to break out on their own. But it can’t be too different! This franchise has a sterling stunt reputation it needs to maintain, and while director David Leitch and company do not try to be as relentlessly mind-blowing as Fast Five or Furious 7, there is at least one memorable moment when a motorcycle slinks between some truck tires.

The separation, then, mostly comes in Hobbs & Shaw being at its core an odd couple buddy comedy, and in this case, that means a few celebrity cameos who inject their own particular brands of impishness. These moments feel out of place in this world, but they might also be the best parts? Their charms cannot be denied. Honestly, though, I think we would have been better off spending more time with Hobbs’ daughter (Eliana Sua), as her scenes are both delightful AND internally consistent.

As wonderfully corny as Hobbs & Shaw is willing to be, it can’t change the fact that most of the plot is convoluted high-tech, globetrotting nonsense. Idris Elba is the cybernetically enhanced big bad, and we get a few genuinely disturbing shots of how he is becoming a superhuman or something beyond human. There is a hint of a larger conspiracy at play here, but only a hint. Meanwhile Vanessa Kirby plays Deckard’s sister Hattie, an MI6 agent who has been infected with a virus that’s going to kill her and apparently everyone around her also. The explanation for how the virus is supposed to spread is either glossed over or not emphasized enough, which is a problem because the race to cure Hattie is what drives most of the action.

Thankfully, the reward for dithering through all that is a surefire demonstration that we must, in true F&F fashion, celebrate the importance of family. It’s not as flat-out heartwarming as the series proper, but Hobbs takes us all along to Samoa to meet his mom and brothers, and Helen Mirren totally rocks her prison jumpsuit in her return as Mama Shaw. I could do without all the derivative action flick gobbledygook, but I’m grateful for the good vibes.

Hobbs & Shaw is Recommended If You Like: James Bond, but with a goofy postmodern (though not quite parody) sensibility

Grade: 3 out of 5 Friendy Insults

Movie Review: ‘Fighting with My Family’ Shows Us the Heart and Triumph Over Adversity in a Life Devoted to Wrestling

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CREDIT: Robert Viglasky/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson

Director: Stephen Merchant

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for The Bodily Sacrifices of Wrestling, Crude Comments, and Drunken Misbehavior

Release Date: February 14, 2019 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide February 22, 2019

Most inspirational sports flicks follow the same rise-fall-rise structure, down to every little setback and triumph. But it makes sense that audiences have never fully tired of this genre, because while it may be repetitive, it is rarely unrealistic. Athletics is one field of human endeavor in which you can explicitly say whether or not you have emerged the winner. And just about every champion, or at least the ones worth watching, has at some point felt like an underdog. The professional wrestling biopic Fighting with My Family does nothing to mess with that formula. But while wrestling may be staged, there is still plenty uncertain along the way, and there is similarly enough uniquely compelling and surprising about Fighting with My Family to make its allegiance to formula plenty forgivable.

Florence Pugh stars as Saraya “Paige” Bevis, who at the age of 21 in 2014 became the youngest winner ever of WWE’s Divas Championship. (As far as I could tell from the movie and looking up footage of Paige’s actual fight, this is one WWE tournament in which the winner is not predetermined.) Paige comes from a wrestling-obsessed family in working-class England, and she and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) have dreamt their whole lives of rising to the ranks of WWE together, but alas, only Paige is given the opportunity.

You don’t have to be a wrestling fan to know that there will be a happy ending. You just have to watch the commercials and have enough common sense to know that if Paige didn’t become a champion, there probably wouldn’t be a movie about her. But considering that it ends on a note of such undisputed victory, there is a lot of bleakness along the way. Figuring herself a weirdo outcast, Paige struggles to get along with the more traditional hard bodies among her fellow recruits, and the isolation she experiences in sleekly empty, oppressively artificially lit hotel rooms is palpable. Even more intense are Zak’s demons. He put all his chips in the WWE basket, and as he feels that dream slipping away, he quickly transforms from a chipper young buck devotedly in love with his girlfriend and happy to be a new father into the most resentful person in the world. When Paige ultimately triumphs, it is as inspiring as it ought to be, but because of those descents into darkness, Fighting with My Family‘s most heartening moments are the times when the Bevis family make it clear that they have each other’s backs, and that is why this entry lifts itself atop the genre.

Fighting with My Family is Recommended If You Like: Professional wrestling and the stories behind it, Rocky, Warrior, Wacky working-class families

Grade: 4 out of 5 Title Belts

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Skyscraper’ is at Its Best When It Keeps It Simple

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CREDIT: Kimberley French/Universal Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2018.

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Richard Møller, Pablo Schreiber, Noah Taylor, Hannah Quinlivan, Matt O’Leary, Byron Mann, McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Tall Building on Fire, But Mostly the Gunfire

Release Date: July 13, 2018

One of the many revolutionary joys of Die Hard was the motivation of the villains. They presented themselves as terrorists, but they were really just simple thieves. There are several reasons why Skyscraper, which is basically “Die Hard, but in the tallest building in the world,” is not as entertaining as John McClane’s original exploits. The premise is now far from unique, obviously. Plus, any character played by Dwayne Johnson, even an amputee in this case, is already too larger-than-life for any of his heroics to be surprising. But the most fundamental mistake is that the villains’ purpose is never clear. I’m pretty sure they’re not after money, but if they are terrorizing, it is never clear what point they are trying to make, if any. It is possible this was all explained at some point while I was momentarily distracted, but if it was that hard to miss, then that’s a problem.

Thus, then, just about the only reason to check out Skyscraper is to see Johnson pull off some gravity-defying stunts. If you suffer from acrophobia or vertigo, you will definitely want to stay away, whereas if your favorite action scene ever is Ethan Hunt on the Burj Khalifa, then you will find some thrills. Johnson does not quite reach Tom Cruise’s poetic heights, but he is not far off from them. It would just be nice if the whole affair were undergirded by more of a purpose.

But there is one piece of Skyscraper that I can endorse wholeheartedly, and that is its use of the old “turn it off and turn it back on again” trick. Seriously, that is the solution that solves the day, and it is actually quite satisfying. Bringing it back to Die Hard: brilliant in its simplicity.

Skyscraper is Recommended If You Like: Die Hard “on a whatever” (minus the memorable villains), Death-Defying Stunts

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Prosthetic Legs

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Rampage’ is Big, Big, Big, Very Big

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

This review was originally posted on News Cult in April 2018.

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Åkerman, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello

Director: Brad Peyton

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Pummeling and Devouring by Mutated Animals, Frighteningly Evocative Urban Destruction, and Crude Gorilla Hand Gestures

Release Date: April 13, 2018

If you subscribe to the belief that bigger is better in cinema, then you ought to head straight to Rampage. Its entire premise is: what if three already fairly large animals became gigantic? The main focus is on our good buddy George, an albino silverback gorilla who knows sign language. He hooks up with a grey wolf that “weirdos on the Internet” have dubbed “Ralph,” as well as a crocodile who goes by Lizzie. The three of them have been mutated by a mysterious gas that fell from the sky. In addition to blowing them up, it has given them abilities typical of other species. It is a bit like the hybridization in Annihilation, but much less nightmarish and internally disruptive.

There is a lot of time devoted to explaining that the mutations are the result of developments in CRISPR genetic editing technology. Some cursory research on my part reveals that early research into CRISPR was happening in the mid-’80s, coincidentally around the same time that the first entry in the Rampage video game series (on which the film is based) was released. It can sometimes be helpful to ground a creature feature with real science, but in this case it is beside the point. We’re just here to see George, Ralph, and Lizzie let loose, and what is appreciated is that there are only three of them, because if the mutations had gotten even more out of hand, this could have all just been a cacophonous mess.

Tasked with wrangling these huge creatures are some actors both literally and metaphorically big. Who else could be the human star of Rampage besides Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is reliably big when it comes to muscles, charisma, and box office results? Lending him a hand is a government agent played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who, though a tall man himself, is certainly not quite as large as Johnson. But as the “asshole looking out for other assholes,” he knows just how big and vibrant a supporting performance in this type of film needs to be. And rounding out the cast’s bigness are Malin Åkerman and Jake Lacy as a sniveling brother-sister villainous duo. Their experience in comedy has trained them well for just how to calibrate their broadness. Lacy especially, constantly with a sandwich or Pop-Tart in hand, is bound to get you chuckling with his pouty face.

The climax, in which the mutant trio tears apart Chicago, is filled with stunningly big and bold decisions. The onscreen deaths are somewhat alarmingly violent, though not unexpectedly so. But when we get to a skyscraper collapse that evokes the Twin Towers falling on 9/11, the film scrambles through about 100 different tones. These outsize decisions are consistent with Rampage’s entire approach, but they are liable to leave you unable to process quite what is happening. Bigger is not always better. Sometimes you need to take a step back and ask yourself if a certain choice is really a good decision, but Rampage never lets its foot off the gas.

Rampage is Recommended If You Like: Godzilla, King Kong, Godzilla vs. King Kong, Honey, I Blew Up the Kid

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Gorilla Middle Fingers

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Baywatch’ is Gratuitous, Shameless, and in Search of a Purpose

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CREDIT: Frank Masi/Paramount Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in May 2017.

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Priyanka Chopra, Kelly Rohrbach, Jon Bass, Ilfenesh Hadera, Rob Huebel, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

Director: Seth Gordon

Running Time: 119 Minutes

Rating: R for An Obsession with All Body Parts

Release Date: May 25, 2017

Baywatch follows the 21 Jump Street template: take a TV show from a couple decades ago that people remember but nobody is especially attached to, then blow it out to something bigger, brasher, and maybe a little meta. It may not be the most ambitious formula, but Jump Street proved that it could result in a clever commentary on the nature of reboots. Baywatch is less interested in that, or any pretensions. Instead, it mostly wants to just hang out and do its own thing. Which is fine! The film makes a go at capturing the cheeky spirit of the original on a larger, less discreet scale – it might leave you feeling a little naughty, but everyone is indulging. Alas, it ultimately descends into just the latest gross-out comedy crossed with a derivative action spectacular.

The most representative shot of Baywatch of Kelly Rohrbach’s jiggling butt while she administers the Heimlich maneuver. Rohrbach is C.J., the bubbly blond bombshell filling in for Pamela Anderson, and the choking victim is Ronnie (Jon Bass), the chubby trainee who is inexplicably recruited to the lifeguard crew. This odd couple obviously ends up together, even though Ronnie is sure C.J. is out of his league, but she knows what she wants and she does not even need to the dance moves that Ronnie learned at Hebrew school to be won over. The schlubby guy/hot girl pairing might be cliché, but the specific details in this case are actually kind of encouraging. There is something inspiring about how the guy who gets his privates stuck between the slats of a beach chair is more Casanova than laughingstock. Everyone loves Ronnie!

In fact, the great charm about Baywatch is how well everyone on the team gets along. The other major romance, between trainees Brody (Zac Efron) and Summer (Alexandra Daddario), at first appears like it will be distressingly conflict-driven but instead evolves into a much more palatable game of playful one-upmanship. Really the only conflict of any significance is the one between head honcho Mitch (Dwayne Johnson, taking over for the Hoff) and Brody. The latter is a gold-medal winning Olympic swimmer looking to repair his image after a Ryan Lochte-esque scandal, and he is only on the team because Baywatch administration wants to boost its p.r. Naturally, Mitch must teach this lone wolf the importance of teamwork. But even here, the dynamic is sympathetic and silly, with Mitch letting the homeless Brody crash at his place and pranking him with a corpse’s genitals.

The majority of this review sounds rather complimentary, even though only about 25% of the film is worth recommending. But it is that 25% about which I have the most to say. Theoretically, Baywatch could be perfectly enjoyable if it were just a plotless hangout movie, with the lifeguards saving civilians by day and porking each other by night. Instead, there must be a standard-issue action plot about a Bond-type villainess (Priyanka Chopra) with the entire town in her pocket pulling off a drug-smuggling ring. The Baywatch crew takes it upon themselves to investigate the mysterious substances and dead bodies washing up on their shores, but since they are not law enforcement, they have no authority to do so, which the actual police keeps reminding them about

Indeed, they are not law enforcement. Nor are they superheroes, which this film so desperately wants them to be. They are mortal human beings who may be highly skilled at what they do, but there is no compelling reason to believe that they can be ominously superhuman saviors. It takes the absurd stake-raising of multiple sequels to get to that point. Viewers for this style of popcorn fare are like that metaphorical frog sitting in gradually boiling water. If the stakes go up bit by bit, we do not realize until after the fact that we have forever departed any semblance of reality. But if they are jacked up to 11 right from the start, we rightfully scoff.

Baywatch is Recommended If You Like: Tight Bodies and Explosions

Grade: 2 out of 5 Slo-Mo Bouncing Breasts

SNL Review May 20, 2017: Dwayne Johnson/Katy Perry

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My letter grades for each sketch and segment is below. My in-depth review is on NewsCult: http://newscult.com/snl-love-itkeep-itleave-it-dwayne-johnsonkaty-perry/

Hallelujah – B+

Dwayne Johnson’s Monologue – B

Cartier Fidget Spinner – B+

Wrestlemania Promos – B-

One Voice (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – A-

Scorpio – B-

Universal Studios – B-

Xentrex – B

Katy Perry (and Backpack Kid) performs “Swish, Swish” – B+

Weekend Update
The Jokes – B-
Dawn Lazarus – B+
Drunk Uncle – B+

Murder by Numbers – B-

International Mad Scientist Society – B

Katy Perry ft. Migos performs “Bon Appetit” – B

Devon’s Tavern – B-

Senior Awards Night – B

This Is a Movie Review: The Fate of the Furious

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The last three entries in the Fast & Furious series brought me fully on board the “quarter mile at a time” lifestyle, thanks to their brazenly unrealistic stunts leaving me totally breathless. (The cornball repartee and preternaturally earnest family ethos were nice bonuses.) The Fate of the Furious certainly does not hold back on the go-for-broke extremes, but nothing really reaches any gobsmacking heights. There are too many explosions – fire gets in the way of the awe of flying through the air. At least Ludacris and Tyrese are still on point with whatever they’re nattering on about. They’re practically speaking a new dialect at this point.

I give The Fate of the Furious 6.5 Approvals From the Baby out of 10 Redirected Explosions.

This Is a Movie Review: Moana

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moana_ocean_parting

Moana is a rather small-scale story, at least geographically. The title character (Auli’i Cravalho, tenacious as one can be in voice acting), a Polynesian chief’s daughter, must sail across a reef and procure a MacGuffin to save her people. Along the way, she must defy her overprotective father and forge an Unlikely Friendship with the self-interested demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson, because of course). We never doubt that Moana will succeed, because she is too strong-willed to fail, and also, the ocean has her back. Which is my favorite song? Why, “Shiny,” as sung by Jemaine Clement, of course.

I give Moana 7 Pounamus out of 10 Te Fiti’s.

2015 Emmy Nominations Predictions and Wishlist

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For my detailed thoughts on my predictions and wishlists in the major Drama, Comedy, and Variety categories, check out these links:
Comedy
Drama
Variety

Guest Actor, Comedy
John Hawkes, Inside Amy Schumer
Michael Rapaport, Louie
Chris Gethard, Parks and Recreation
Dwayne Johnson, Saturday Night Live

Guest Actress, Comedy
Susie Essman, Broad City

Guest Actor, Drama
Mel Rodriguez, Better Call Saul

Guest Actress, Drama
Allison Janney, Masters of Sex
Linda Lavin, The Good Wife

Directing, Comedy
Rob Schrab, “Modern Espionage,” Community

Directing, Drama
Adam Arkin, “The Promise,” Justified

Writing, Comedy
Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna, “Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television,” Community

Writng, Drama
Thomas Schnauz, “Pimento,” Better Call Saul

Animated Program
Bojack Horseman – “Downer Ending”
American Dad! – “Dreaming of a White Porsche Christmas”
The Simpsons – “Treehouse of Horror XXV”

Commercial
Android – “Friends Furever”

Host – Reality/Reality Competition
RuPaul, “RuPaul’s Drag Race”

Interactive Program
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Main Title Design
Man Seeking Woman

Single-Camera Picture Editing, Comedy
Bojack Horseman – “Downer Ending”

Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Program
Too Many Cooks
Billy On The Street With First Lady Michelle Obama, Big Bird And Elena!!!

Stunt Coordination for a Comedy Series or a Variety Program
Community

Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role
Man Seeking Woman – “Traib”

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