‘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: Ignore the R Rating, ‘Annabelle Comes Home’ is a Sweet Family-Friendly Tale of Kids on Their Own Learning How to Fight Off the Monsters

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CREDIT: Warner Bros./YouTube

Starring: Mckenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Michael Cimino

Director: Gary Dauberman

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: R for PG-13 Level Blood and Terror

Release Date: June 26, 2019

One of the best (if not THE best) qualities of horror movies is that slambang moment of ultimate catharsis. It can come in the form of releasing the death grip on your armrest, or finally breathing a sigh of relief, but it just as often can be a huge burst of laughter. Partly that’s because screaming and laughing are similar reactions, sometimes it’s because the movie is unintentionally hilarious, and other times it’s because the plot takes a break for some comedy. In the case of Annabelle Comes Home, it’s definitely the latter, as a dorky teenage pizza delivery dude assures a not-quite-as-dorky lovestruck teenage fellow that the only effective way to “woo” girls is “rock ‘n’ roll.” These two clearly do not have much romantic experience, and they have no idea about the hell-creatures in their midst, thus raising the stakes of their guilelessness but never making them objects of ridicule.

That whole vibe of kids figuring it out on their own and everything working out okay infuses the entirety of Annabelle Comes Home, the third in the creepy doll series and eighth in the larger Conjuring universe. Top dog demon hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) play their biggest role yet in any non-flagship entry in this franchise, but they still mostly step aside, serving basically as a bookend and framing device. They head out of town, leaving their pre-teen daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) in the care of teenage babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) with Mary Ellen’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) tagging along for the girl time.

With most of its main characters under the age of twenty, this is accordingly the most kid-friendly entry in the series, though it is rated R, like all other Conjuring films and their spin-offs. But that has often been undeserved, and it is especially outrageous here, as there is no profanity, all the romance is remarkably chaste, and all the gore is too stylized to be disturbingly explicit. In fact, the horror franchise that Annabelle most resembles besides its own is the kid-targeted Goosebumps (Iseman was one of the leads of last year’s Goosebumps 2, incidentally enough). Both feature kids accidentally unleashing a bunch of monsters and then managing to subdue them as they discover the guile they had within themselves the whole time. Annabelle is trippier and more twisted than Goosebumps, sure, but like Goosebumps, you’re never truly worried that the kids are going to be ripped apart limb by limb.

In between fighting off the spooks, the girls while away the night the way kids do when they’re on their own: playing board games, baking a cake, listening to the music of the day (in this case, Badfinger’s “Day After Day”). One underappreciated element of how the Conjuring Universe has improved the state of horror is its infusion of sweetness into the genre, especially when the Warrens are around. Defeating the evil ghosts is only worthwhile when you have loving family and friends to share the moment with and to remind you that there are nice ghosts, too.

Annabelle Comes Home is Recommended If You Like: Goosebumps, Earnest Teen Romances, The silent spaces between the scares

Grade: 3 out of 5 Werewolf Demons

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween’ is Basically an Alternate Dimension’s First ‘Goosebumps’ Movie

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CREDIT: Daniel McFadden/Sony Pictures Entertainment

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

Starring: Madison Iseman, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Caleel Harris, Chris Parnell, Ken Jeong, Jack Black

Director: Ari Sandel

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: PG for CGI Spooks, a Slightly Sociopathic Ventriloquist Dummy, and Carnivorous Candy

Release Date: October 12, 2018

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween employs the same sequel strategy as A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, wherein most of the of the original’s characters are elsewhere, but the new characters read about their story as they figure out what they need to do to defeat the same set of scares. This approach could make for a weirdly different follow-up, but in this case, Goosebumps 2 is basically an alternate version of the first Goosebumps. Once again, the monsters from R.L. Stine’s series of books have been unleashed into the real world, with Slappy the Dummy serving as the twisted ringleader. And also once again, a group of youngsters must chase them down and get them sucked back into their pages. That’s not all, as we all get the return of the concept that Stine must complete an unfinished story to subdue his monsters, but that thread doesn’t go very far because Jack Black, as Stine, has much less screen time than he did in the original. It ends up being one big joke that he does not show up soon enough to offer much of any help, while also giving the sense that there was an alternate screenplay that had some remnants show up in the final version.

Haunted Halloween actually does want to distinguish itself, what with it taking place on the titular holiday. The idea of the terrors of Halloween coming to life is a potent one, though it has been explored before in other, better flicks. Director Ari Sandel struggles to make any of his efforts stand out, because so much of the chaos is just a mess of CGI (though one sequence involving ravenous gummy bears is well-realized). And the plot is fairly cliché, with an older sibling annoyed by her dorky younger brother and his goofball friend, while the parents just don’t want to hear nothing about a talking doll. But Goosebumps 2 does have a few moments of delight, mostly thanks to the presence of total comedy pros like Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ken Jeong, and Chris Parnell. And, let’s face it: Slappy can be quite the edgy little stinker.

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween is Recommended If You Like: Sequels That Ignore the Original But Not Completely

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Incantations