Tag Archives: C

BLACK CHRISTMAS






Producers: Jason Blum, Ben Cosgrove and Adam Hendricks   Director: Sophia Takal   Screenplay: Sophia Takal and April Wolfe   Cast: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Caleb Eberhardt. Cary Elwes, Simon Mead, Ryan McIntyre, Lucy Currey and Madeleine Adams  Distributor: Universal Pictures

Grade:  C-

The second remake of Bob Clark’s 1974 proto-slasher movie (Glen Morgan’s 2006 version is generally dismissed as a complete bomb) resuscitates the plot about a bunch of sorority sisters imperiled by a mad killer at holiday time.  But Sophia Takal and April Wolfe aren’t content to offer up just another exercise in dumb splatter.  They’ve added a spin intended to resonate with today’s Me Too attitudes about female empowerment and toxic masculinity.  The idea of a “Black Christmas” as sharp and socially conscious as “Get Out” is a great one.  Too bad they’ve flubbed it. 

The heroine, though not at all your conventional last girl standing, is Riley Stone (Imogen Poots), who’s among the “orphans” at the Mu Kappa Epsilon sorority at Hawthorne College—the sisters who will be remaining during winter break, others being her pals Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Marty (Lily Donoghue) and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady), along with Riley’s “little sister” Helena (Madeleine Adams).  Riley is still traumatized after being sexually assaulted by Brian (Ryan McIntyre), the former president of the Delta Kappa Omicron fraternity (pronounce it Dick-O—Delta Kappa Sigma would have been even more appropriate), who was forced to leave campus after the accusation though few other than her friends believed Riley’s account. 

Kris, meanwhile, is the activist of the bunch.  She’s already succeeded in getting a statue of the college’s founder Caleb Hawthorne—a slave-owning misogynist—removed from campus, and has now embarked on a campaign to get smarmy Lit Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes) fired, partly because his syllabus proudly includes works by only dead white males.  One senses, of course, that his bigotry includes lots of ethnic groups too.

Things are not well at Hawthorne.  One girl (Lucy Currey) has already been murdered by a robed and hooded figure while walking home—and after receiving threatening text messages from Caleb Hawthorne.  Now, after performing a song-and-dance routine at a Delta Kappa Omicron talent show explicitly accusing the frat of embodying a rape culture, Riley, Kris, Marty and Jesse are threatened at the sorority house by not one but three robed and hooded figures, and after deaths and scuffles the survivors identify the attackers as fraternity pledges.

From this point the plot devolves into nonsense about black magic and brainwashing as Takal and Wolfe try to tie everything up in a screed against men going to any lengths to restore women to a properly subservient role and punish those who refuse to comply with this “natural” order.  The targeted women don’t take it lying down, of course; despite some waffling, they not only stand their ground but take the fight to their oppressors, willing to literally burn down the house of patriarchal oppression. 

While one might admire the ambition of this new “Black Christmas,” the premise is unfortunately let down by the execution.  What’s needed is a darkly comic tone, but except for a few moments, the script lacks the satirical edge that’s needed.  That’s obvious in the depiction of most of the male characters.  With a couple of exceptions—Marty’s boyfriend Nate (Simon Mead) and sweet DJ Landon (Caleb Eberhardt), who are at least half-woke—the guys are just stereotypes of sneering uber-masculinity.  As for women who decide to submit to them, they find out the hard way that they’ve made the wrong choice.

But even worse is the depiction of the non-submissive women.  Simply put, they’re pretty dense, from Riley on down, and spend a good deal of their time simply running helplessly away from their tormentors and, when finally roused to fight back, don’t do very well.  Consider Riley—she’s repeatedly throttled and saved from being strangled to death by the intervention of a third party, and by the time of the big final confrontation she’s so slow to destroy the magical item that’s causing all the trouble that she’s betrayed, conked out and trussed up like a typical damsel-in-distress.  Takal and Wolfe want to depict the sisters as strong, self-confident and powerful, but at the same time defer to the conventions of the older “Black Christmas” movies (and the multitude of others with simpering female victims).  The result feels conflicted, coming across as only half-heartedly revisionist.

And as director Takal doesn’t stage the suspense sequences particularly well.  The best is certainly the opening prologue with Currey, with its incongruous closing image of a snow angel; later scenes of the girls being stalked are mostly limp and confused, despite some atmospheric work from production designer Mark Robins, cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard and editor Jeff Betancourt.  And the final confrontation back at the fraternity house is close to being a complete mess.  The young cast do their best with the material, Poots going beyond the pale in an effort to give Riley some depth.  But Elwes chews the scenery for all it’s worth as the creepy professor. 

One can appreciates what Takal, Wolfe and company were attempting in their new version of “Black Christmas.”  But the result doesn’t follow through on the promise; it’s neither scary nor clever enough to work as either horror movie or social satire.  That makes it doubly disappointing.

By the way, this might not be the greatest date movie.                     

JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL






Producers: Dwayne Johnson, Jake Kasdan, Dany Garcia. Hiram Garcia, Matt Tolmach and William Teitler   Director: Jake Kasdan   Screenplay: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg and Jake Kasdan   Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina, Alex Wolff, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Rory McCann, John Ross Bowie, Rhys Darby, Dania Ramirez, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain and Madison Iseman   Distributor: Sony Pictures Entertainment/Columbia Pictures

Grade:  C-

The subtitle of this sequel to the 2017 reboot of “Jumanji” suggests that, in video-game jargon, it will offer an extra dash of excitement and pizzazz beyond what its predecessor provided.  But the movie doesn’t.  One might argue that the subtitle could refer instead to the level of stupidity in the script, or the level of boredom the movie induces, despite its extravagant action sequences and myriad CGI effects.

Of course, the strange game was destroyed at the end of the last picture, so the first thing the screenwriters have to do is explain how it becomes operative again.  That turns out to require a long, lumpy exposition showing nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff), now a harried college student in NYC, morose over his separation from girlfriend Martha (Morgan Turner), coming home for the holidays but not looking forward to his reunion with her, Bethany (Madison Iseman) and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain).  He’s also nonplussed at having to share his room with his crotchety grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito), who’s recuperating from a hip replacement.  This pre-game prologue is further complicated by the arrival of Milo (Danny Glover), Eddie’s ex-partner at a downtown diner from whom the old man has been estranged for years.

Depressed with his life and anxious for some excitement, Spencer reassembles the Jumanji game (he’s kept the pieces in his basement, for some reason) and reenters it, expecting that his avatar will once again be the virile hero Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson).  But it doesn’t turn out that way.

Arriving in search of Spencer, Martha, Bethany and Fridge, along with Eddie and Milo, go to the basement, only to be sucked into the game too.  But the avatars are jumbled: though Martha again becomes strapping Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), Eddie becomes Bravestone and Milo zoologist Franklin Finbar (Kevin Hart).  Fridge, meanwhile, again suffers indignity, taking the persona of dumpy cartographer Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).  Eventually they’ll find Spencer, who is now a new avatar, a sneaky thief named Ming (Awkwafina).  As for Bethany, for some reason she’s not initially taken into the game, but enters later in the form of an avatar that won’t be revealed here, after conscripting Alex (Colin Hanks) to come along with her in the persona of heroic pilot Jeff McDonough (Nick Jonas).

That’s not all.  Avatar-switching periodically occurs, in one case to particularly good effect—when Eddie leaves Bravestone and becomes Ming.  That’s because Johnson’s attempt to mimic DeVito is so ghastly that one can only hope its awfulness was intentional.  Predictably, Awkwafina does a much better job with both the mannerism and the voice.

The setting of the game is different this time around, too—a realm of desert and mountains rather than a jungle.  And the villain has changed: he’s a cruel warlord called Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann), who’s engaged in the conquest of the place.  Our heroes’ task, as explained by the gamekeeper (Rhys Darby), is to retrieve a mystic stone that Jurgen has purloined and win the game—and escape back to the real world alive—by restoring it to the sunlight.

The group’s adventures involve a lot of special effects, beginning with their pursuit by a herd of angry ostriches and continuing to a frantic escape across a passel of moving suspension-bridge sectors while being chased by a ravenous pack of bloodthirsty mandrills.  At the close there’s also a confrontation between Bravestone and Jurgen aboard an early form of dirigible, and an episode involving a Pegasus-like horse, before things turn into mushy sentiment, complete with a pledge from the young friends never to return to Jumanji again–a promise that will almost certainly be broken should “The Next Level” prove anywhere near as successful as its predecessor.

If—as seems likely—another sequel follows, one would hope that more attention will be given to the script and the effects than appears to have been done here.  The gags and jokes throughout are pretty limp (we even pause at one point for a protracted, unfunny bit about testicles, or lack thereof). Much the best material has to do with the oldsters, not just Awkwafina’s take on DeVito but even more Hart’s droll version of Glover’s slow, carefully articulated delivery.  Otherwise the cast appears to be pretty much just going through the expected motions, and the same can be said of Kasdan, who doesn’t bring much energy to the scenes between the big action sequences. 

As for the CGI, it’s possible that despite the small army of technicians listed in the credits, the visuals are intended to look cheesy as a way of making fun of old video games.  (On the other hand, it might be the result of the speed of production, which amounted to less than a year from beginning of filming to release.)

Whatever the case, there’s a tired, redundant feel to “The Next Level,” but of course playing the same game repeatedly often has that effect.