Extra Life

Jumanji: The Next Level

by George Wolf

Recent box office totals have sent a pretty clear message: if you want a butts-in-seats reboot, you gotta come with a strong new hook.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle got it right two years ago, and now most of that gang is back for The Next Level, which is smart enough to add a few new wrinkles (plus some trusty old ones) for freshness.

We catch up with our four young heroes a year removed from high school and trying hard to keep in touch. Over Christmas break from college, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Bethany (Madison Iseman) and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) make plans for a meetup, but Spencer doesn’t show.

Hearing those familiar drums, the other three quickly figure out he’s been sucked back into Jumanji, and decide to go after him. I mean, they beat it once, right?

New game, new rules, brand new hook.

Bethany is left behind, but two new players aren’t: Spencer’s grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s ex-best friend Milo (Danny Glover). Know what else? Everyone gets a new avatar.

Well, not Martha, she’s still badass Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). But this time, it’s Eddie who gets the smoldering heroic intensity of Dr. Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), while Fridge is portly Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), Milo is diminutive zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart) and Spencer is newly-added cat burglar Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina).

The next level mission: free Jumanji from the evil clutches of Jurgen the Brutal (GOT‘s Rory McCann), or die trying. Game on!

Watching the four adult stars channel teenagers in the first film was a blast, but the avatar switches here are the smart plays, and the body swaps don’t stop once the game begins. Some of the gags do settle for low hanging fruit (i.e. old people are easily confused) but plenty others are clever and inspired.

The film itself even gets in on the switcheroo spirit, with fewer solid laughs but a markedly better adventure. Welcome to the Jungle’s riffs on The Breakfast Club make way for director Jake Kasdan’s set piece homages to Mission Impossible, Indiana Jones, Kingsman and even Peter Jackson’s King Kong in a thrilling escape from angry mandrills.

Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers do not return, which I’m guessing is a major reason the life lesson feels don’t land as smoothly this time. But Kasdan and his team hit the big shots. They give us a reason to be interested in a return to Jumanji, and plenty of fun once we get there.

Off the Leash Again

The Secret Life of Pets 2

by Hope Madden

Illumination, the animation giant behind all things Minion, returns to their blandly entertaining dog franchise for the blandly entertaining sequel The Secret Life of Pets 2.

In the 2016 original, Louis C.K. voiced a neurotic terrier named Max who needed to loosen up a little once his beloved owner brought home a huge, lovable Newfie mix (in a NYC apartment?!). And while life lessons were the name of the game, the real gimmick was to take the Toy Story approach to house pets, giving us a glimpse into what they’re up to when we’re not around.

Because we really don’t want to associate him with children anymore, C.K.’s been replaced by Patton Oswalt, whose Max has all new reasons for anxiety. There’s a new baby, whose presence suddenly reinforces all those fears about the big, scary world.

In a move that’s as disjointed as it is interesting, returning writer Brian Lynch sends Max, Newfie Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and family on a trip to the country, creating one of three separate episodes that will eventually intersect. Well, crash into each other, anyway.

The  main story deals with trying to alpha Max up a bit with some problematically “masculine” training by way of farm dog Rooster (Harrison Ford), who, among other things, disregards therapy as weakness.

Basically, Lynch and director Chris Renaud think we’re all a little too precious (the clear message of the original) and what they’d like to do with their sequel is beat us about the head and neck with that idea.

Meanwhile, back in NYC, Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) and Chloe the cat (Lake Bell – the film’s deadpan bright spot) train to retrieve a chew toy from a crazy cat lady’s feline-overrun apartment. And separately, Snowball the bunny (Kevin Hart), believing himself to be a super hero, befriends Shih Tzu Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), and together they save a baby tiger from an evil Russian circus.

For real.

That last bit gets seriously weird, I have no idea what they feed this baby tiger the whole time, and on average, the actual lessons learned are troublingly old school (read: conservative).

Teaching boys that pretending they’re not afraid so they can take charge of every situation = literally every single problem on earth right now. So let’s stop doing that.

Otherwise, though, Illumination offers yet another blandly entertaining, cute time waster.

The Heisenberg Sincerity Principle

The Upside

by Matt Weiner

The man who can’t feel a thing meets the man who hasn’t cared for anybody but himself. You will not believe what happens next.

Actually, if you’ve seen any inspirational movie about overcoming adversity in the last half century, you will totally believe what happens next. There is one big surprise in The Upside, though, and it’s how committed the leads are to making it way less cynical than it has every right to be.

I’m not sure it’s enough to redeem a film that’s been done dozens of times, but at least it makes this entry highly watchable. For this version, Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart star as the odd couple from different walks of life who learn valuable lessons from each other in unexpected ways.

After being paralyzed from the neck down and losing his wife to cancer in short succession, billionaire investor Phillip Lacasse (Cranston) has given up on life. A chance encounter with street-smart parolee Dell Scott (Hart) brings a burst of fresh air into Lacasse’s narrow world, and Dell is hired on as a live-in aide.

Lacasse sees potential in Dell and appreciates having someone who treats him as a person, not merely someone to be pitied or ignored. It’s an admirable sentiment, and the chemistry between Cranston and Hart is the most winsome part of the movie. And a good deal more enjoyable than the contrived romantic subplot with Nicole Kidman, who gets to put her real accent to good use but not much else.

Cranston and Hart play off each other so well that it makes you wonder why not put that talent to work with a less hidebound story? The Upside is an adaptation by Neil Burger of the 2011 French film The Intouchables, which was wildly popular despite suffering from the same clichés. The script for the remake by Jon Hartmere manages to make the story a little more subtly endearing than colonial when Lacasse, doing his best platonic Henry Higgins, teaches Dell to appreciate fine art and opera. Just a little.

But banish those nagging doubts from your mind. The Upside pleads to be taken as all text, no subtext. This is, after all, a movie that turns themes, lessons and even symbolism into neatly packaged dialogue. You won’t hear anything new, but a lot of it is genuinely funny and well-delivered.

And who am I to judge the French for shopworn sincerity? They’re not the country that gave an Oscar to Crash.





School of Hart Knocks

Night School

by Hope Madden

The endlessly likeable Kevin Hart and the undeniably talented Tiffany Haddish join forces, which sounds like a solid plan except that Night School is a Kevin Hart movie, and when was the last time one of those was any good?

Sure, Jumanji had some laughs. In fact, Hart’s films almost always boast a few chuckles, mainly because of the actor’s infectious energy and self-deprecating humor. But they’re not good.

Neither is Night School which, even with Haddish and a handful of other proven comic talents, isn’t funny, either.

Hart plays Ted, a good-hearted hustler, talking big and spending bigger, pretending to be more than he is to compensate for his own insecurities. Of course he is, it’s a Kevin Hart movie.

Haddish is Carol, the overworked, underpaid night school teacher here to believe in Ted and the collection of losers in her class. It’s tough love, though, because Haddish is funnier when she’s mean.

What the film does well could have been packaged into an enjoyable 15-minute short. Hart gets off a few laughs working for a Christian fast food chicken joint, and the camaraderie among his late blooming classmates sometimes draws a giggle.

The actors portraying those night school chums work hard to establish memorable, funny characters with limited screen time and an even more limited script. Still, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Rob Riggle, Al Madrigal, Anne Winters and especially Romany Malco work wonders. Taran Killam amuses on occasion as the uptight principal with a grudge.

But there’s only so much they can do. Director Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip) drags every gag out about 8 minutes longer than necessary. The script, penned by Hart and five other writers, does Lee no favors. Even Haddish struggles to be funny with flat dialog and pointless, contrived physical comedy bits.

While you’re not laughing you might notice that Night School does make a few surprising choices. Its comedy is good hearted. This is a film that likes all its characters—the females, the losers, those with success and even the parents whose coddling and/or verbal abuse may or may not be to blame for the whole night school problem.

Those are small successes in a film that squanders a lot of talent and all of our time.





The Screening Room: A Stocking Full of New Movies

Helping you separate naughty from nice with this weekend’s movie options, The Screening Room looks at Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Pitch Perfect 3, Downsizing, Darkest Hour, The Greatest Showman as well as your new options in home entertainment. Join us!

Listen to the full podcast HERE.





The Safari Club

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

by George Wolf

Do you hear a ruckus?

It’s coming from some easily identifiable high schoolers in detention, but this time they’re in an old storage room filled with everything from old magazines to a gaming system from the 1990s.

Turns out, that’s the same decade the soul-sucking Jumanji morphed from board to video cartridge, so the nerd, the jock, the queen bee and the outcast decide to power up this mystery game and kill some time.

In an instant, Welcome to the Jungle puts them all in the heart of one, playing for their lives as the avatars they chose, which just happen to be the polar opposites of their “real” selves.

Whaaat?

Yes, convenient, but director Jake Kasdan and an extremely likable cast squeeze a fine amount of fun from a colorful adventure that follows its own advice for a healthy self-image.

Nerdy Spencer becomes the muscular hero (Dwayne Johnson), athletic “Fridge” is now the diminutive sidekick (Kevin Hart), and introvert Martha becomes a Lara Croft-y babe (Karen Gillan) while the self-absorbed beauty faces life as Jack Black.

Some solid laughs are landed from the foursome discovering their new gaming strengths (“smoldering intensity”), weaknesses (“cake”) and body parts (“don’t forget to aim!”), with the actors’ willingness to poke fun at their own images only adding to the good vibes.

There are some effective set pieces, but the overall heroics required to get back home are fairly standard, and Kasdan (Bad Teacher, Sex Tape, the under-appreciated Walk Hard) wisely doesn’t overreach. He’s not tasked with one-upping Indiana Jones, and keeps things focused more on the breezy fun to be had with his stars. These moments when the tone hits a frisky groove of self-awareness (no doubt aided by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, two writers from the wonderful Spider-Man: Homecoming) are the film’s high points, making it easier to look past some shaky CGI or an overly cartoonish villain (Bobby Cannavale, in yet another over-the-top waste of his talent).

The teens have to learn something today, so Welcome to the Jungle can’t hold that tone throughout, but it displays enough of a commitment to character-based comedy for a ruckus worth exploring.





Kevin Likes a Big Room

Kevin Hart: What Now?

by George Wolf

Maybe you’ve heard the claim that, back in the 80s, pop balladeers Air Supply could in fact “make all the stadiums rock.”

But did they really?

Hard to say, as we never got that live footage which may have provided the elusive evidence of the Supply, a stadium and that aforementioned rocking.

Such unanswered questions will not haunt Kevin Hart. What Now? takes us to Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, where in August of last year Hart sold out his hometown stadium for a standup routine featuring rock concert ambitions. A football stadium sold out for a comedy show. Impressive, and though Hart’s third concert film takes a little time to hit its stride, it eventually delivers steady and sometimes gut-busting laughs.

As with 2011’s Laugh at My Pain and 2013’s Let Me Explain, What Now? buffers the standup with additional footage directed by Hart favorite Tim Story (Think Like a Man, both Ride Along films). The opening checks in with Hart some three hours before showtime and mixes parodies of both 007 and The Equalizer (Denzel version) that rate more clever than funny, earning bonus entertainment points courtesy of cameos from Halle Berry, Don Cheadle and Ed Helms.

Once Hart trades his tux for leather and hits the stage, Leslie Small takes the director’s chair, leaning a bit too heavily on quick cuts and overly manipulative audience reaction shots. I get it, there’s only one performer to frame and you’d like to avoid ninety minutes of Chris Rock-style stage stalking, but letting Hart’s set, adorned as it is with jumbo video screens and changing backgrounds, breath a bit would better feed an in-the-moment atmosphere.

The film, like its star, is always likeable, consistently funny and sometimes hilarious. Now that Kevin Hart has rocked a stadium harder than Air Supply, What Now? answers one question while it’s asking another.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 





Dogs and Cats, Living Together… Mild Hysteria

The Secret Life of Pets

by Matt Weiner

For a madcap family movie, The Secret Life of Pets raises some deeply disturbing questions. How much libido could fuel a romantic subplot when the lovers have been neutered? Why does “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” cue up during a drive into Manhattan? And exactly where is the autonomic system located on a sausage?

Alas, The Secret Life of Pets, directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney (Despicable Me franchise veterans), answers none of these questions. Instead, the movie offers up a diverting animated comedy with plenty of action but little cohesion or earned emotion to back it up.

The plot, as much as it exists other than to fling a Bronx Zoo’s worth of animals across New York City set pieces, hints at a Toy Story-light conflict between earnest terrier Max (Louis C.K.) and the newly adopted Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a gruff Newfoundland with a sad past.

It’s fitting that Duke, a shaggy dog, gets the action going. Once he and Max find themselves captured by the only two animal control officers in a city of 8 million, the sole remaining tension is whether Max and Duke will learn to get along before or after a successful rescue effort, as led by Gidget the tougher-than-she-looks Pomeranian (Jenny Slate) and Chloe, a scene-stealing cat (Lake Bell).

The Secret Life of Pets features inspired physical comedy, in a Buster-Keaton-meets-future-theme-park-ride kind of way that turned the Minions into cash cows. But it’s Pixar without the pathos: the movie never misses a chance to ignore any avenue for genuine emotion, whether it’s Duke learning what happened to his former owner or the streetwise villain Snowball (Kevin Hart, playing to the back row) hinting at the dark desires that animals really harbor toward their fickle owners.

It’s the single-note drone of the movie’s action that makes the glimpses of what might have been all the more remarkable. An extended fantasy sequence in a Brooklyn sausage factory takes place for no reason other than setting up a song-and-dance number that’s a drugged-out tribute to edible body horror, complete with dancing hot dogs made rapturous by their imminent consumption. None of this advances the plot in any way, but it’s a rare delight in a movie mostly content to coast.

In the end, predators and prey make amends, Max and Duke are ready for a sequel and a reliable supporting cast have made their case for a spinoff. Not bad for a day’s work in New York. But the real secret is that our pets are very much like their human counterparts: they share our likes and dislikes, our strengths and our flaws, and — most of all — our willingness to settle for just good enough.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

 





Class Clowns

Central Intelligence

by Rachel Willis

What harm could come from accepting a Facebook friend request from a person you don’t recognize? For Calvin Joyner, that answer is a lot.

Calvin, portrayed by the talented Kevin Hart, is a forensic accountant who has recently been passed up for a promotion and isn’t eager to attend his twenty year high school reunion with his high school sweetheart, now wife, Maggie (Danielle Nicolet). The reunion is just a reminder for Calvin that his life has not turned out the way he thought it would when he was voted Most Likely to Succeed his senior year of high school.

Into Calvin’s mundane existence comes Bob Stone (Dwayne Johnson). Bob is a former classmate of Calvin’s who finds him on Facebook and quickly inserts himself into Calvin’s life. When Calvin meets Bob for a drink to reconnect, he is stunned to see Bob has transformed himself from an overweight, bullied loser into a well-muscled, attractive man who likes guns and unicorns.

Hart and Johnson have a natural chemistry and they play well off each other, with Hart frequently playing the straight man to Johnson’s nerdy, overly eager Bob. Hart plays Calvin as a good-natured guy who recognizes that Bob needs a friend, even if he is frequently confused by Bob’s geeky references to Sixteen Candles and 90’s pop culture.

It’s because of his good nature that Calvin finds out exactly when can happen when you reconnect with an old classmate. Bob asks Calvin for a favor, and that favor leads Calvin into a world of espionage, shootouts with CIA agents, and an adventure he didn’t expect or want.

The supporting cast, particularly Amy Ryan and Danielle Nicolet, are able to play off the odd couple duo of Hart and Johnson with skill. Ryan Hansen provides a number of jokes as Calvin’s inappropriately raunchy co-worker. The only actor who seems slightly out of his league is Aaron Paul. Though Paul is a skilled actor, he can’t quite seem to hold his own against Hart or Johnson.

Even with a runtime of almost two hours, the film never drags and the comedy is strong throughout. Though the ending feels contrived and the film follows a fairly standard formula, on the whole, it works as a mismatched, buddy comedy.

The strength that Johnson and Hart bring to the screen elevates the film to a level above your standard, forgettable comedy fare.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 





Hard to Take

Get Hard

by George Wolf

A lump of coal on Christmas Day. Ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife. The movie Get Hard.

What are huge disappointments, Alex?

Correct.

Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart are two of the funniest people around, and it’s easy to see the potential in an onscreen teamup. The problem is the project that brought them together should have died in the idea phase.

Ferrell is James King, a high-rolling hedge fund manager who lives in luxury but still can’t please his trophy girlfriend (Alison Brie). At their lavish engagement party, right in the middle of jamming on guitar with John Mayer, James is hauled away by the Feds and charged with securities fraud.

Ignoring his lawyers advice to take a plea deal, James is found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin. Given 30 days to report, James turns to Darnell (Hart), the guy who details his car, to teach him how to survive inside.

See, Darnell is black, so James just assumes he’s been in prison, and that’s just one of the stereotypes the film tries, and fails, to have fun with. In the right hands, race, class and sexuality can be fertile ground for sharp comedy. Those hands never touch Get Hard.

Ferrell and creative partner Adam McKay (who gets a story credit) have been on target before, even managing to work some scattered moments of social commentary into their hilarious lunacy. The mistake may have been relying too much on director/co-writer Etan Cohen, who shows no instinct for restraint. The film is overplayed on all fronts, giving it a crass, borderline nasty and often humorless air.

With the “revenge of the common man” storyline you get the feeling the intention here may have been an updated Trading Places. It isn’t long, though, before you wished they’d have just done a straight-up remake, and spared us the buzzkill that is Get Hard.

 

Verdict-2-0-Stars