Tag: alex wolff

Jumanji: The Next Level

Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)
★ / ★★★★

There is nothing next level in this sequel to the surprisingly enjoyable “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” the first direct follow-up of the 1995 classic, unless you count mediocrity as a positive trait. It is try-hard in just about every aspect: its humor, characterizations of already hyperbolic characters, vague references to video games, and utilization of bad CGI in order to create a semblance of thrill and excitement. I was bored by its rotten offerings; halfway through I felt embarrassed for everyone on screen and wondered which projects they refused in order to appear in this misfire of an action-comedy.

It begins with potential because there is some form of human drama. Spencer (Alex Wolff), now a college student in New York City, the nerdy kid who we assumed would thrive in a college setting back when we met him as a high school senior in the preceding picture, appears to be experiencing college blues. He returns home for the holidays and, in order to escape, chooses to go back into the game and recapture that feeling of being strong, unstoppable, special.

But instead of really honing in on this character’s psychology or state of mind, the screenplay by Jake Kasdan (who directs), Jeff Pinkner, and Scott Rosenberg, merely introduces elements why he might be feeling depressed: a recent break-up, a thankless part-time job, feeling deeply insecure from having seen Instagram posts of all the adventures his friends are having, and the like. Once Spencer gets sucked into the game, all humanity goes out the window and never seen again. Naturally, when he is found everything is all right again. The movie is over, right? Unfortunately, no.

Instead, we are introduced to a number of eccentric characters both old and new. Particularly enjoyable are Eddy, Spencer’s grandfather who is recovering from hip surgery played by the inimitable Danny DeVito, and Milo, Eddie’s former restaurant co-owner played by the scene-stealer Danny Glover. Notice that no matter how familiar or connected we are to Spencer and his friends (Morgan Turner, Madison Iseman, Ser’Darius Blain), not one of them is interesting by comparison when in a scene with the highly experienced DeVito and Glover. When the two character actors speak or simply be, our attention goes straight to them. At one point, I wondered why these young folks are required to appear in this next chapter since they are given nothing new to say or do. For easy continuity, I guess. Convenience.

And that’s the problem. This film has grown comfortable taking the easy route one too many times—whether it be the safe jokes (sometimes the exact same jokes we’ve already encountered in the previous movie which makes the expository scenes drag like no tomorrow), how characters tend to yell over one another which is often mistaken for humor, the way in which the action is presented in a chaotic and unappealing way, to the lame, surface-level nudges to video games, especially role-playing games. While understandable that the screenwriters try to strive for accessibility, it is a family picture after all, must the material be so consistently devoid of originality, creativity, and ability to take risks? This movie tastes like it was made in a factory.

You can tell that “Jumanji: The Next Level” is made too soon and too quickly. The central villain named Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann) is bland and the mountaintop castle he resides in is without personality. In the end, of course, our heroes must break into the castle and obtain an artifact. Anybody who has played a video game can tell you that final bosses must be challenging. In this film, it is like a walk in the park. There is no sense of danger or mortality. No one even gets wounded. When our characters’ remaining lives dwindle down to one, there is no tension at all. You know what would have been next level? To discover what happens when a character’s final life gets used up. Because the film is so safe, we never get an answer.


Hereditary (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Have you ever been in a place outside your home, maybe at work when you decide to come in an hour earlier or stay a little later than everyone else, and you know—or thought you knew—you’re alone in that space? Yet somehow you hear—or thought you heard—a noise from a several feet away, the sound subtle enough that it is near impossible to discern where it comes from exactly, that the first thing that comes to mind is perhaps you’re not as alone as you had initially thought. That sneaky and creepy vibe perfectly captures what “Hereditary” has to offer, written and directed by Ari Aster, a horror film that understands the many different definitions of the genre.

It works because it has a deep imagination—one that lasts until a disappointing final act so generic, I wished the writer-director had taken a final close look at the material and realized that his work, as a whole, is so much better than a series of would-be spooky images aimed to satisfy mainstream expectations. Here is a movie in which it is demanded that the conclusion not be explained because everything else that leads to it is detailed enough for viewers to be able to come up with their own conclusions. I argue that this is a rare case in which a project might have gotten away without a third act. It is that strong. To add more, as what happened ultimately, is to take away from that power. It would have been so daring.

The first half unfolds like an intense family drama that just happens to have horror elements in it. Frightening images are shown but they are mostly hidden in shadows. It drenches us with foreshadowing, right from the opening shot of a window with a random fly. We see markings etched on walls and wonder what they mean. The interior of the home offers such a cold and crippling look and feeling about it, during the exposition I had thought that the family were staying at their recently deceased relative’s house. It comes across as though they are not comfortable in a place where, in theory, they should be at peace. Because the characters do not feel at home, neither do we. And so we become alert to every possible turn of the plot. When day turns to night, we anticipate what might happen. Modern horror movies have conditioned us to expect something to occur. It plays with our expectations.

Toni Collette plays Annie, a wife of a patient husband (Gabriel Byrne) and a mother of two teenagers (Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro). It is one of Collette’s best roles and performances in years as she balances being beleaguered and fierce often in the same scene. While certain images are ugly and terrifying, like a corpse infested with ants, equally unpleasant is the manner in which the family interacts. While the unit is undergoing a state of grief, there are things they do or say that communicate to us that they do not like each other very much—even if the act of mourning were taken out completely. Still, they must co-exist under the same roof because they are blood. Collette is a master at playing subtlety but she is throughly capable of creating an explosion at a drop of a hat. There is a dinner scene that perfectly captures her raw power as a consummate performer.

Overt scares are uncommon in the film. It values restraint over utilizing monsters, ghosts, or whatnot to jump out at the audience. While there is nothing wrong with the latter approach, such is a scare tactic designed to generate an evanescent response. It is simply not right for this material. Instead, Aster’s story is more concerned with strengthening its thesis when it comes to the subject of one’s a genetic predisposition to mental illness.

I think the film functions, for the most part, as a metaphor for not knowing with certainty what the future might entail for someone who has a family history of mental illness, specifically schizophrenia. And so, it works better as a horror film that wrestles with private feelings, longings, and fears than as a horror film that attempts to appeal to mass audiences. Thus, the ending is a severe miscalculation. While not quite a horror film for the ages, I admired its intentions and most of its decisions.

A Birder’s Guide to Everything

A Birder’s Guide to Everything (2013)
★ / ★★★★

David (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a young birder whose mother has passed away. He is unhappy that his father (James Le Gros) is about to get married to the nurse who took care of his mom during her last days.

While riding his bike, David comes across a duck that is believed to be extinct. However, he fails to take a clear picture of it since he does not have the proper equipment at the time. He proposes to his birder classmates (Alex Wolff, Michael Chen) that they attempt to find the potential Lazarus species. If what David had seen is, in fact, Camptorhynchus labradorius, it would be the biggest ontological find in recent history.

“A Birder’s Guide to Everything,” written by Luke Matheny and Rob Meyer, is a slow-moving, phony, unfunny, and profoundly unmoving bore. Just about every human relationship comes off either severely underdeveloped or forced and so we never really buy into the images on screen or the emotions being portrayed. And for a movie with a main character who is so into birding, the material never gets specific.

It is crucial that we understand David’s passion in great detail. What is it exactly that draws him into watching birds? Is it because he admires the diversity of these animals in terms of size, color, or the sounds they make? Since his late mother introduced him to birding, does he have the passion for it because of what the activity symbolizes? To him, do the birds serve as a metaphor? These are only a few of the many questions worth asking but the picture does not bother to go beyond expectations.

David’s friends are painfully boring and unlikable. They are played as nerds and that is supposed to be funny, I guess. There is no sweetness in David’s interaction with Timmy (Wolff) and Peter (Chen). As a result, when the would-be emotional arc comes rolling around in the latter half, I felt nothing from the performances. I felt the screenplay trying to reel in my sympathy and it made me angry because it had not been earned.

Perhaps one of the few bright moments in the film is the cutesy potential romance between David and a classmate named Ellen (Katie Chang) who is very much into photography. I enjoyed that it is obvious she likes him and David knows it. However, he is too shy to do anything about it. So, it is easier to assume that she will make the first move. The problem is, both of them are inexperienced when it comes to that department and so nothing much happens most of the time. We root for these two to take a chance.

The father’s upcoming marriage is an important part of the plot and so he should be written with complexity. Donald has as much character as a plank so none of the drama works. The so-called dramatic scenes between father and son are written so badly and executed with such a lack of energy, we do not believe that the characters have lived, let alone known each other for years.

The protagonist’s interests, friends, and life at home are neither written nor executed well. So, what else is there? There is a subplot involving a renowned birder (Ben Kingsley) who was acquainted with David’s late mother. Kingsley is either miscast or the actor made the wrong choice of making the character to be too much of an oddball.