FlixChatter Review – JUMANJI: The Next Level (2019)

When I first reviewed Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle back in 2017, I said that director Jake Kasdan closed the door to the idea of there being another sequel. Yet, here we are; two years and millions of dollars later, Welcome to the Jungle became a critical and commercial success and was just begging for another sequel. So Kasdan, along with his co-writers Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, decided to capitalize of the success they saw from Welcome to the Jungle, with great actors and a compelling story, to make Jumanji: The Next Level. As you can probably guess, the sequel offers many of the same characters from the first movie; the four main characters are back: Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), Anthony “Fridge” Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain), Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman) and Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner).

Also returning are their avatars; Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), a very rugged and muscular explorer who is also an archaeologist, Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), a short in height zoologist, Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), a commando, martial artist, and dance fighter and Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black), cartographer, cryptographer, archaeologist and paleontologist. In Welcome to the Jungle, the game Jumanji let the humans choose who they their avatars to be and see what happens to them when they get to be someone else inside a video game. This isn’t necessarily the case this time around…more on that later. This time around, the movie opens with the friends returning home from college on winter break. We are introduced to Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) who’s staying with family due to his deteriorating health. Also we meet Eddie’s long-lost friend and business partner Milo (Danny Glover).

One night when Spencer goes missing, Martha (Turner), Bethany and Fridge (Blaine) discover that he’s actually gone back inside Jumanji. They decide to go back inside the game and seemingly one by one, they are transported inside. But what they don’t realize is that they’ve accidentally brought Eddie and Milo with them inside the game. This is where it takes a while to realize which avatar belongs to which real human. It turns out that this time Fridge ends up in Jack Black’s avatar, Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon. Also, Eddie and Milo find themselves in the form of the strapping Dr. Bravestone (Johnson) and the tiny zoologist Finbar (Hart), respectively. While Bethany is not taken inside the game, Martha is back as Ruby Roundhouse (with extra humor from Gillan). At first, they start inside a jungle terrain, much like the first sequel. But soon thereafter, they are transported into a desert wilderness where they are being chased by a pack of ostriches.

Dwayne Johnson is hilariously on point with DeVito’s somewhat signature northern New Jersey accent and Kevin Hart also is pretty funny with Glover’s elderly, more serious and statesmanlike accent. The avatars soon learn that they must snatch the jewel called “the Falcon’s Heart” from a ruthless warlord named Jurgen The Brutal (Game of Throne’s Rory McCann), who’s responsible for the deaths of Dr. Bravestone’s parents. Also returning in The Next Level are Nick Jonas as Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough: the real world Alex (Colin Hanks)’s avatar who is a young aircraft pilot we know from the first sequel and Cyclone, a black Pegasus (horse) who is actually SPOILER alert (highlight to read): Bethany’s avatar. The players have to free the Falcon’s Heart jewel to escape the game once and for all, but they must do so in only three given lives (as in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) or forever be lost inside the game.

In The Next Level, director Jake Kasdan doubles down on the audience not knowing which real player is playing which avatar and finds a way (through some magical waters) to be able to switch the avatars (and characters’ voices) midway through the movie. This gives each actor the ability to show off their abilities to embody the different characters; the overly confident jock, a jittery nerd, a prissy cheerleader, and a cantankerous elderly persona. It is not right away that is revealed where Spenser is this whole time. SPOILER ALERT (highlight to read) In Jumanji: The Next Level, Spencer is in the avatar of Ming Fleetfoot, who specializes in burglary, pickpocketing, and lock-picking. This avatar is masterfully played by Awkwafina.

In my opinion, it isn’t Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart or Jack Black that are the standouts of Jumanji: The Next Level, – it is Awkwafina! Kasdan even finds a way for Awkwafina to take on Danny DeVito’s signature accent – and she does so brilliantly. There are many impressive video game-esque CGI scenes, including floating bridges, aggressive and menacing mandrills, and an absolutely amazing ostrich herd vs dune buggy race (it’s worth every penny!)

But if there aren’t the impromptu moments between Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan and Awkwafina, then Jumanji: The Next Level won’t have the same commercial and critical success that the first sequel saw. Luckily for us, these moments are absolutely there with this movie and they are an absolute treat. What Kasdan and his team do next with Jumanji is anyone’s guess, but he does leave the door open for yet another sequel. So don’t rush out the door before you’ve seen the very last ostrich exit stage left!

– Review by Vitali Gueron


Have you seen JUMANJI: The Next Level? Well, what did you think? 

FlixChatter Review: THE FAREWELL (2019)

I knew about this film when it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year. Yet for whatever reason, it sort of fell off my radar until A24 started promoting it vehemently for its theatrical release. I’m so glad they did and this film deserved ALL their backing. It simply deserves to be seen.

The Farewell is writer/director Lulu Wang‘s sophomore directorial work, and it’s one I can readily describe as masterful. The tagline says ‘Based on an actual lie’ which is provocative yet accurate given that it’s Wang’s own personal story. The film opens with a young woman, Billi (Awkwafina) on the streets of NYC chatting on her mobile with her grandma whom se calls Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) in China. The film is mostly in Chinese, though occasionally the characters would be speaking in English as Billi’s family has immigrated to the US. Soon we find out that Nai Nai is dying from lung cancer, but her family decides to hide the grim prognosis from her and plan a fake wedding instead so everyone could gather before she dies.

It’s a deceptively simple premise but one that packs a wallop. It’s a deep, emotional, culturally-resonant film that’s also filled with humor and whimsy. I’m always in awe of filmmakers who can mix pathos, comedy and emotional drama seamlessly and Wang certainly achieved that here. The Farewell feels like an authentic experience of a Chinese family, as well as those of Chinese Americans, especially the second/third generation individuals who have to straddle the two worlds. As someone who wasn’t born in the US but have lived here more than half my life, I totally get the ‘I don’t belong anywhere’ feeling, of being torn by the two cultures.

The film focuses on Billi who has trouble concealing her grief. She’s particularly close to Nai Nai, so despite her parents’ protest, she went ahead and attend the ‘wedding’ in China. I love how the film highlights the family dynamics and how much of the conversations take place in the dining table. My mouth watered seeing all those yummy food on the dining table. It’s so integral in Chinese culture as love and affection is often expressed through food. In this story, ‘the lie’ becomes the one thing that unites the family as they all have to bond together to keep the secret hidden from Nai Nai. There’s several poignant discussion between Billi, her dad and uncle about how it’s practically illegal to do such things in the US. Yet in China, and perhaps another culture, this is not only customary but also a courtesy… ‘a person doesn’t just belong to one self, but to his/her family’ as her uncle points out. It’s the family’s ‘duty’ to carry the burden for the sick one… which is quite a foreign sentiment in the West, but that is the point. This East-West discussion has been done before in other films but it doesn’t feel clichéd nor recycled here.

Apparently this is the first ever PG-rated film out of A24 film, and I can definitely say it’s a film you can bring your whole family to see. I think it’s an accessible film for American audiences, even those who aren’t usually into films with subtitles. The script is punchy, lively and even poetic at times, but remains authentic to the journey/experience of the characters. Though my own grandma is very different from Nai Nai depicted here, I could definitely relate to her relationship with Billi and some of their conversations are downright nostalgic.

I have to devote an entire paragraph just for Awkwafina who’s absolutely perfect here in her first starring role. The first time I saw her was in Crazy Rich Asians in which she was the scene stealer as a gregarious, colorful, sociable BFF. Her performance couldn’t be more different here as Billi is more a recluse who barely smiles and wears practically the same gray/black outfit everyday. She’s truly the heart and soul of the movie as the film is framed from her perspective. It truly displays her range as an actor and I sure hope she continues to gain more leading roles in the future.

The supporting cast are an excellent mix of veteran character actors and newbies. Tzi Ma has been in a plethora of TV and films (I definitely remember him in Arrival and you’ve likely just seen him in the new Mulan trailer). He and Diana Lin are excellent as Billi’s parents, Lin portrays the quintessential strong, no-nonsense Chinese matriarch who actually reminds me of my own grandma. The mother/daughter relationship is one of the major highlights here as well, where things aren’t always rosy but in the end they understand each other. I’m curious about the casting process to find Nai Nai. Shuzhen Zhao‘s quite good in her first ever acting role and she has a believable rapport with Awkwafina which is so key to the story.

I really love Wang’s direction here and I’d even argue she should get nominations as Best Director come award season. Now I’m really curious to check out her directorial debut Posthumous (starring Brit Marling and Jack Huston) that’s available on Amazon Prime. The pacing of this movie is just right, and at 1 hour 38 minutes there’s barely any wasted minute. Her directing style shows some flairs but not overly over-the-top. I like the slo-mo of the family walking towards the camera following a pivotal scene, and the long shots of the umbrella-clad family scurrying in the rain. Kudos to Spanish DP Anna Franquesa Solano for her brilliant cinematography and composer Alex Weston for the absolutely gorgeous music that adds so much to the mood. The music is a perfect mix of heartbreak and that feeling of ‘dissonant’ that also has a vibrant, lively vibe.

I’m thrilled that in the past couple of years there are more and more films that tell the Asian-American story… Crazy Rich Asians might’ve opened a door for such storytelling, and since then I’ve seen Go Back To China, Always Be My Maybe, that are all highly-recommended. Hopefully we see even more diverse voices in cinema as there are SO many tales worth telling from parts of the world that don’t get explored often in Hollywood.

I sure hope the Academy won’t overlook this next year, especially for Wang and Awkwafina. Lastly, I want to implore you to see this film in the cinema. Trust me, all the hype is justified and it still holds a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes with 107 reviews. Be sure to pack tissues when you go see it, it’ll make you laugh and cry in equal measure in this joyful, poignant celebration of family.


Have you seen The Farewell? I’d love to hear what you think!

Advanced Screening Giveaway to Lulu Wang’s THE FAREWELL

One of my most anticipated movies this Summer isn’t a blockbuster, but it’s this indie drama from writer/director Lulu Wang that was a major hit at Sundance. I was tearing up already just watching the trailer, I know I’ll pack tissues when I go to the screening. The film features Awkwafina in her first leading role. Apparently it’s based on Wang’s own poignant story about a family that, upon finding out their beloved matriarch is dying of cancer, gathers for a ‘wedding’ in China so they could all spend time with her before she dies.

Thanks to Allied Global Marketing, you’re invited to see THE FAREWELL early before it opens in Minneapolis next weekend.

The Farewell ADVANCED SCREENING

Monday, July 15 at 7:30pm at
Alamo Drafthouse Woodbury (@alamotwincities)

RSVP using the link below for your chance to attend with a guest.
RSVPs will be granted on a first come, first serve basis.

rsvp here

THE FAREWELL hits select Minneapolis theaters on Friday, July 19.
It’s rated PG.

With THE FAREWELL, writer/director Lulu Wang has created a heartfelt celebration of both the way we perform family and the way we live it, masterfully interweaving a  gently humorous depiction of the good lie in action with a richly moving story of how family can unite and strengthen us, often in spite of ourselves.

Check out the trailer if you haven’t already:


Are you excited to see The Farewell? If you have seen it, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Ok so first, a confession. Even though my bestie had lent me her book of Kevin Kwan‘s Crazy Rich Asians over a month ago, telling me to read it before the movie opened, I didn’t get a chance to do so. I finally started reading it right after I got home from the advanced screening… and suffice to say I’ve become a bit obsessed with anything CRA. In the weeks following to its release, the buzz has been strong, and it keeps building up steadily. Naturally, being that I’m likely the only Southeast Asian film blogger here in town (as well as one of the few SE Asian filmmakers), I can’t help feeling giddy about this movie.

A bunch of reports surrounding this movie has pointed out that it’s been 25 years since Joy Luck Club was released that we have a big studio-backed Hollywood film based on a book by an Asian author, featuring a mostly East-Asian cast, and directed by an Asian director. It’s impossible to dispute the historical importance of this movie in terms of representation, which comes at the perfect time as there’s growing pressure in Hollywood to feature greater diversity on screen. For me personally, it feels incredible to see so many characters who look like me reflected on the big screen!

But setting all of that aside, every film still has to be judged on its merit. Yes, it’s an important film, but is it any good?

Well I’m happy to report that (borrowing from Ken Jeong‘s line in the movie) HELLS YEAH! It’s perhaps the best rom-coms I’ve seen in a good long while. It has the exact mix of romance AND comedy, wrapped in a lavish, colorful and vibrant concoction. It’s extravagant surely, over the top even, but the ‘go big or go home’ sensibility seems appropriate here. Can love actually conquers all? When the economic and social class is SO wide, would true love suffice?

The film’s protagonist is Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a NYU economics professor whose life is about to be turned upside down when her dreamy boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) takes her to Singapore to attend his bestie’s wedding. Somehow Nick’s been able to conceal the fact that his family is not just rich or filthy rich, but crazy rich. But thanks to an astute family acquaintance who eavesdropped when he was at a Manhattan, everyone in his social circle learn that Nick is coming home with his girlfriend in tow. I love the way director Jon M. Chu showcases the way the news goes viral on screen, which serves as a way to display local flavor in its expression, i.e. alamak which is an expression akin to OMG used by Malay and Singaporean people.

As someone who wasn’t born in the US but came here for college, I feel like I’m always in two worlds, never quite belonging anywhere. So Rachel’s fish-out-of-water story strikes a chord with me, and Wu deftly displays a sense of alienation in her performance. Soon she realizes who she’s dealing with. ‘I didn’t know you’re like the Prince William of Asia,’ she tells Nick, to which he quickly replies, ‘Oh don’t be ridiculous, I’m more of a Harry.’ The timing couldn’t be more perfect for this fairy tale, given we just saw Prince Harry married ‘commoner’ Meghan Markle just this past Spring. In many ways, CRA follows the familiar tropes of a rom-com, yet Chu and writers Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim manages to transcend the genre with astute social class commentary. It’s Cinderella meets Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, but yet maintain its own uniqueness in terms of voice and style.

Wu and Golding has a sweet, charming chemistry together that makes you root for them to be together. It’s a crucial ingredient in any rom-com which this movie gets right. As the breakout star of Fresh Off The Boat, Wu seems like the natural choice, but casting Golding, an unknown talent who’s never acted before in a film, is a brave move that pays off amazingly. The British-Malaysian former travel presenter is easy on the eyes with a killer smile, even killer voice, and has that Classic Hollywood look about him. I call him the Asian Gregory Peck. I’m curious to see him in other roles in the future, certainly a fresh new leading man we could use more of in Hollywood.

The movie also benefits from a plethora of memorable supporting characters. Michelle Yeoh is perfectly icy as Nick’s strictly-principled and dutiful mother. Her resentment towards Rachel is more than just cattiness, and even when she’s at her most severe, I can’t help but sympathize with her. I have to say I can’t get enough of Awkwafina as Rachel’s hysterical bestie Peik Lin. I feel like she barely had any screen time as the token Asian character in Ocean’s 8, so I’m glad to see her show her comedic chops to perfection here. She and the notoriously farcical Ken Jeong as Peik Lin’s dad provide some of the funniest bits in the movie. The makeover scene with Nick’s ‘rainbow sheep of the family’ cousin Oliver (Nico Santos) is a hoot! All the ladies playing Nick’s relatives also provide a ton of comic relief. I do have to mention Lisa Lu as Ah Ma, Nick’s powerful grandma, who often reminds me of my own.

I absolutely adore the luminous Gemma Chan as Nick’s fave cousin/confidante Astrid. In houte couture, the jet-setting heiress is the epitome of elegance, grace and sophistication. Her crumbling marriage to her handsome-but-not-so-rich husband (Pierre Png) sends a not-so-subtle message that nobody’s life is perfect and even the ultra rich have problems like the rest of us. Chan’s performance is tinged with the right amount of poignancy and melancholy.

This movie lives up to its title in more ways than one. Obviously the set pieces, costumes, cars, palatial houses, etc. potently gives us a glimpse of how the crazy rich live. Then there’s the obnoxiously-crazy behaviors of Nick’s relatives, especially the imbecile frat-boys led by Bernard (Jimmy O. Yang). Nick practically has to escape the outrageous, hedonistic bachelor party with his groom-to-be BFF Colin (Chris Pang) which leads to a rare quiet moment in the movie.

The sheer absurdity of the crazy rich lifestyle is not lost on the filmmakers, as they unabashedly poke fun at them with zippy one-liners. There’s even a hilarious line poking fun of Donald Trump’s bathroom. The movie does an amazing job in showing the class structures within the rich society, something that Rachel isn’t at all familiar with. It’s as if we, the general audience, is living vicariously through her as she’s trying to navigate her way in this ultra-exclusive club.

What I admire most about this movie is that, amidst the world of high fashion and dizzying parties, the richly-drawn characters remain front and center. Despite the razzle-dazzle glamor, it never feels like the movie is style-over-substance because we’re always reminded of what’s at stake. The filmmakers did a good job to make me feel invested in Rachel & Nick’s story, as well as in their respective families’. The mahjong scene towards the end is an emotional one that packs so much cultural & personal significance, down to that one quick glance between the two mothers. I appreciate that Kwan’s book and the movie portray various multi-dimensional, complex women with formidable inner strength. It’s one of the rare rom-coms that is not about the girl chasing the boy, but a girl finding her self worth.

But you can’t review this movie without mentioning the amazing visuals. It’s really a treat for the senses. The cinematography by Vanja Cernjul is breathtakingly beautiful. I haven’t been in Singapore in years and it looks like a fantasy land in this movie. The music by Brian Tyler is fun, energetic but also romantic. In fact, I was enjoying the soundtrack on youtube as I was writing my review. I love Kina Grannis‘s gorgeous cover of Can’t Help Falling in Love during the wedding scene.

I don’t usually say much about box office numbers in my review. But I am SO rooting for this film to do well. Obviously, all the studio execs see is green, so there’s a lot at stake in terms of its box office performance whether they’d think it’s viable business to have make Hollywood movies with predominantly Asian cast like this one. I honestly believe the success of this movie would have a big impact in diversity and inclusion in storytelling, not just for Asians but for every content creator, talents and moviegoers of color.

On top of its historical significance, Crazy Rich Asians is a great movie, period. I laughed, I cried, sometimes both at the same time. Thanks Jon M. Chu and the phenomenal cast, it’s such a joyful experience that’s both funny AND romantic. I sure hope there’ll be a trilogy just like the books!


Have you seen Crazy Rich Asians yet? I’d love to hear what you think!
……

Trailer Spotlight: Ocean’s 8

It’s the last week before Christmas and the present comes early! I’ve been excited for this all-female Oceans flick for some time. Normally I’d say we don’t need another reboot/sequel/spinoff what-have-you… but y’know what, this year (well, any year really), an extra dose of girl power is extra awesome. 2017 is the year of Wonder Woman, and 2018 will be the year of Wonder Women. I mean this is as close as we’re probably gonna get to an all-female Avengers flick!

This is the one to watch just for the cast. Bullock + Blanchett + Bonham Carter … just those three alone is enough to shell out full price cinema ticket (if I had to pay that is). My hubby and I watched this right after dinner and he’s as pumped as I am to see this [is it any wonder I love my man?]

So Sandra Bullock is playing Danny Ocean’s sister Debbie, I wonder if this all-female Oceans flick idea happened when she and George Clooney were filming Gravity four years ago. In any case, buh-bye Clooney, Pitt, Damon & co. and hell-o ladies!! Fresh out of prison, Debbie Ocean plans a big heist at the Met Gala in NYC. What a team she’s put together: Lou (Cate Blanchett), Nine Ball (Rihanna), Amita (Mindy Kaling), Constance (Awkwafina), Rose (Helena Bonham Carter), Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), and Tammy (Sarah Paulson). Too bad Elizabeth Banks dropped out of the cast, though I don’t mind Jennifer Lawrence isn’t in this (apparently she was offered a part).

Per IMDb, the eight main cast has won four Oscars, two Emmys, eight Grammys, six Golden Globes, five BAFTAs, and 10 SAGs combined. Woo wee! #girlpower

I totally forgot about Richard Armitage in this, he didn’t have a single line in the trailer so I have no idea who he’s playing. I barely noticed James Corden either until I saw it a second time. No matter though, forget the boys, it’s all about the ladies whoopin’ it up!

Not sure how involved Steven Soderbergh is on this spinoff, but given his track record with bad ass female in his movies I’d imagine he’d approve. This time we’ve got Gary Ross (Hunger Games, Seabiscuit) in the director’s chair and he wrote the script with Olivia Milch (one of Variety’s 10 screenwriters to watch in 2016).

I’m always up for a heist flick and this seriously it looks like a riot! The worst thing about this is the wait… June 8 can’t come soon enough. Well now I now what I’ll be anticipating come Summer movie season!


What say you? Thoughts on Oceans 8’s first trailer?