This week at the movies, we’ve got a video game adventure (Jumanji: The Next Level, starring Dwayne Johnson and Jack Black), a persecuted hero (Richard Jewell, starring Paul Walter Hauser and Sam Rockwell), a man in serious debt (Uncut Gems, starring Adam Sandler and Julia Fox), a real-life scandal (Bombshell, starring Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman), and a horror remake (Black Christmas, starring Imogen Poots and Aleyse Shannon). What are the critics saying?
Let’s be honest: The 2017 reboot-quel Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle had no business turning out as entertaining as it did, but entertaining it was, not to mention profitable. How profitable, you may ask? It made just under $1 billion worldwide off a $90 million budget, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we get a follow-up this week. In Jumanji: The Next Level, the original four teens are off to college and separated from each other, and Spencer (Alex Wolff) is longing for the good old days when he inhabited the body of The Rock (and who wouldn’t?). Having repaired the Jumanji console after it was destroyed at the end of the first film, Spencer heads back into the game solo, and his pals decide to go in after him — except this time, they’ve inadvertently dragged Spencer’s grandfather (Danny DeVito) and his estranged BFF (Danny Glover) into the game, too. Aside from that last wrinkle, though, much of The Next Level plays out the same way as the first, and that seems to be just fine for most critics, who feel that whatever the sequel loses in freshness, it largely makes up for with a willingness to go to some wacky lengths for laughs. It may feel overly familiar to some, but those who enjoyed the first adventure are probably just as likely to enjoy this one, which takes some of those expectations and fiddles with them just enough to keep things interesting.
Back in 1996, smack dab in the middle of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, a pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park, killing one person and injuring dozens more. The man who originally discovered the bomb, a security guard named Richard Jewell, alerted the authorities and helped evacuate spectators to safety, and he became a hero in the process. Well, for a few days, anyway, until reports began to surface that he was a “person of interest” in the FBI’s investigation, at which point Jewell underwent a grueling trial by media that changed his life forever. Clint Eastwood‘s latest directorial effort, Richard Jewell, is a dramatization of these events, with Paul Walter Hauser playing the title character at the center of the whirlwind, Sam Rockwell as his old friend and eventual attorney, and Kathy Bates as Jewell’s mother Bobi — they’re the good guys. On the other end, we have Jon Hamm as an unscrupulous G-man and Olivia Wilde as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer who broke the story of the FBI’s interest in Jewell. It’s an impressive cast, and critics say each performer offers striking work under Eastwood’s steady direction, even if the story itself has been somewhat oversimplified for dramatic effect. Eastwood clearly has a message on his mind in Richard Jewell, and he largely succeeds in communicating it clearly and effectively. He’s in comfortable territory here, and it works to his advantage; fans of his work should find plenty to enjoy.
Josh and Benny Safdie had something of a coming-out party last year with Good Time, a kinetic thriller that showcased some of the best work of star Robert Pattinson‘s post-Twilight career. The Safdies decided to follow that up with another tense drama, this time starring frequent critical whipping boy Adam Sandler, and most critics agree the risk paid off in spades. In Uncut Gems, Sandler plays Howard, a New York City jeweler with a self-destructive gambling addiction who regularly places sporting bets with money that doesn’t belong to him. Howard comes into possession of a rare, uncut Ethiopian opal that captures the attention of NBA star Kevin Garnett, which leads to a series of ill-advised collateral swaps, basketball wagers, and mob-style shakedowns as he attempts to pay off his debts by selling the stone at auction. Critics say the Certified Fresh Uncut Gems is a relentless thrill-ride that amps up the anxiety at every turn and benefits from stellar work by its cast, especially Sandler, who had some folks pegging him for a Best Actor nod at the Oscars. He’s proven in the past that with the right material, he can pull off serious roles like nobody’s business, and this is quite possibly his best effort to date. The film is unnerving and propulsive, and it should lead to even bigger opportunities for the Safdies.
Director Jay Roach is nothing if not experienced in relaying timely stories about hot-button topics to the general moviegoing public, having helmed films like Recount and Game Change, so this week’s Bombshell thus falls squarely within his wheelhouse. He’s also got a ridiculously talented roster of actors at his disposal for the film, from stars Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie to supporting characters played by the likes of John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, and Allison Janney, as well as a script by The Big Short screenwriter Charles Randolph, so it’s slightly disappointing that the film isn’t doing better with critics. The ripped-from-the-headlines story retraces the scandal that brought down Fox News chief Roger Ailes (Lithgow), who was accused by Megyn Kelly (Theron), Gretchen Carlson (Kidman), and other women (represented by Robbie, playing a composite character) of sexual harassment. Reviews have been quick to sing the praises of the three luminous women in the lead roles — all of whom have secured SAG Award nominations — and most critics have been satisfied by the film’s entertaining treatment of the subject matter, though some lament its reluctance to delve deeper into the culture at large surrounding the scandal. It’s not quite a scathing indictment, and those familiar with the story won’t necessarily learn anything new, but it’s presented entertainingly enough to warrant a watch.
Modern horror remakes didn’t use to inspire a whole lot of confidence, but in the last few years, we’ve gotten decent-to-great do-overs of It, Suspiria, and Halloween (OK, that last one was technically a sequel). Enter this week’s Black Christmas, which hopes to put a contemporary spin on the seminal 1974 slasher whose first remake, back in 2006, is itself one of the reasons we generally don’t think too highly of these types of efforts. Writer-director Sophia Takal and co-writer April Wolfe to return to the sorority house and tell a new story. While it still centers on a mysterious figure stalking and killing a group of college coeds, the latter are no longer mere victims; they fight back, and ferociously. Only a handful of critics have weighed in on Black Christmas so far, and the response has been fairly split. Not everyone agrees about whether the film’s underlying feminist themes were handled gracefully, and some feel its bloodless violence robs the film of some of its bite, but a small majority feel that the cast’s committed performances — Imogen Poots in particular — help elevate what might otherwise be another forgettable retread. It may not be the scariest or most subversive horror flick around, in other words, but it’s relatively harmless fun for anyone in the mood for something decidedly more sinister during the holidays.
Also Opening This Week In Limited Release