I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL
Rated PG-13, 123 minutes.
Director: Jake Kasdan
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Awkwafina, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Madison Iseman, Ser’Darius Blain, Rory McCann, Danny DeVito and Danny Glover
Available today on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD.
Coming off the comedic heat of 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle — a movie that I thoroughly enjoy and often revisit — director Jake Kasdan returns for a follow-up that aims not to let its increased scale diminish the continued story.
At his sequel’s start, Kasdan adheres to his promise. Jumanji: The Next Level explores surprising and often tender territories. But it’s not too long before Kasdan loses the reins or becomes stuck in gear, especially comedically. Jokes are driven into the ground, and situations surface without the spice of the franchise’s original ingredients.
In The Next Level, rather than immediately jump into the Jumanji game again — which the characters destroyed at the end of the previous outing — Kasdan takes about 20 minutes to catch us up with the college-age characters (Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain and Madison Iseman) before they start playing the game as their avatars (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black). Most of the friends were inspired to deepen themselves by traveling the world, broadening their education, and getting into physical shape. Spencer, on the other hand, doesn’t feel the magic among them as much anymore and gets sucked back into the game to get a taste of loving feeling again. His besties learn of this and decide to rescue him with the help of some new friends (Danny DeVito and Danny Glover).
It’s during the early scenes that the film is at its strongest. It may not have the immediate adventure that we’re chasing, but it’s like the Avengers dealing with the realities and consequences of their global battles. While they may defeat the villain, there’s still a loss. And it’s moving how the Next Level deals with the aftermath of the Welcome to the Jungle events.
The actor-character combination leads off on a promising note. The concept of DeVito playing the game using Dwayne Johnson’s smoldering and hunky avatar while Glover is allotted Hart’s is a gold mine for humor. Hilariously, Hart captures Glover’s cadence and becomes a walking gag about how older people often take too long to get to the point. Everything is prepared to make you laugh, but then you notice the wheels begin to spin. The same jokes are repackaged in a hundred different ways.
Not only do the laughs lose their power, but the story of the game itself is uninteresting. So many story beats are repeated and aren’t shaken up as well as Kasdan thinks they are. I wasn’t bored by the movie. It’s fine enough for casual moviegoers. As a whole, however, it doesn’t capitalize on its potential to wow. Kudos for a few pleasant emotional touches by the conclusion (one involving franchise newcomer Awkwafina and a horse), but there are too many wrinkles that need ironing out.
Extras: The Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Blu-ray-DVD combo release comes packed with bonus content to entertain appreciators. It includes a gag reel (always a pleasure), a comical jingle with actor Rhys Darby, featurettes on the character swaps and reuniting with the cast, a making-of that takes us behind-the-scenes with the cast and crew, two scene breakdowns (ostrich chase and mandrill bridges), a special with actor Awkwafina on becoming her cat burglar character, visual effects demonstrations, a melodramatic Kevin Hart promo, a featurette with DeVito and Glover (and how they helped their fellow actors portray them), a villain profile, and a collectable map that’s fully interactive for families.
- Theatrical review by Travis Leamons: ‘NEXT LEVEL’ adds DLC to ‘JUMANJI’ as Dwayne Johnson flexes his comedy muscles in entertaining sequel
SPIES IN DISGUISE
Rated PG, 102 minutes.
Director: Nick Bruno and Troy Quane
Voice-cast: Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rachel Brosnahan, Ben Mendelsohn, Rashida Jones, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled, Masi Oka and Reba McEntire
Available today on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD.
With the next James Bond installment being delayed until November, you might be itching for a fun spy movie. While the animated film Spies in Disguise is far from the shaken-and-stirred adventures of 007, it does feature cool gadgets, a villain with a robot arm, and the dynamite vocal pairing of Will Smith and Tom Holland.
Smith virtually slips on a suit and tie to play Lance Sterling, an arrogant secret agent of H.T.U.V. (Honor, Trust, Unity and Valor) who is sent to retrieve an attack drone in Japan. Shortly after he arrives, Sterling defeats a cybernetically enhanced terrorist (Ben Mendelsohn) who’s after the drone and manages to escape with the sought after item. But that’s not the last he will see of the baddie. Thankfully, Sterling becomes better equipped for his inevitable confrontation after meeting a socially inept MIT grad and young scientist Walter Beckett (Holland). The two strike up an entertaining friendship that may leave one of them as a pigeon.
It takes a little bit of time for Spies in Disguise to find its wacky groove. But once it does, all its charm is proudly on display. Although it’s geared more toward kids than adults (go figure), families should all find it pleasantly surprising. For a movie that operates much like an early morning cartoon, it may pull you in more than you think. This is mostly due to its endearing message about how violence isn’t going to solve the world’s problems. As saccharine as that may sound here on paper, the film finds a touching way to communicate it.
Overall, it’s got all the bells and whistles to keep a smile in place.
Extras: The Blu-ray-DVD combo release includes an amusing “super secret spy mode” of watching the film, a special that takes us inside Blue Sky Studios, a guide to the top secret gadgets, an art and photo gallery, music videos and two making the soundtrack featurettes.
- Interview by Courtney Howard: ‘SPIES IN DISGUISE’ aesthetics and appeal is found within the spy genre’s DNA
Directed by Clint Eastwood, Richard Jewell is a film based on the titular American security guard (a knockout Paul Walter Hauser of I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman) who saved many lives from an exploding bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. He also was believed to be the perpetrator. Through this story, we get to see the events unfold from Jewell’s perspective, and how his caring mother (an excellent Kathy Bates) and attorney (Sam Rockwell) helped to prove his innocence.
Eastwood’s latest may sound strikingly similar to his 2018 bio-drama, The 15:17 to Paris, about a trio of Americans who discovered a terrorist plot on a Paris-bound train. Instead of adding unnecessary story padding to introduce the act of terrorism, however, Richard Jewell has lessons to teach and tension to build. It’s as if Eastwood recognized some of his shortcomings as a filmmaker and worked hard to sharpen his tools for this new account. That’s not to say there aren’t any dull blades (because there’s one that cannot be missed involving Olivia Wilde’s character), but for the most part, Eastwood crafts one of his finest achievements in years.
Like Sully, Richard Jewell centers on people doing their jobs, but with a lot more doubt smeared across the narrative. After Jewell — a questionable character by his eccentric nature — saved thousands, he was vilified by the press, who falsely reported that he was also the terrorist. Jewell is the kind of person whose heart is in the right place, but he often trips over his lack of awareness – making it a fascinating character study.
Richard Jewell is a captivating experience. It accentuates the consequences of jumping to conclusions without evidence. Eastwood holds a mirror up to society and may drop it here and there, but the power of the performances and the search for innocence pack a heartwarming punch to make the film worthwhile.
Extras: The Warner Bros. Blu-ray release includes a making-of and a featurette that takes us inside the real story.
- Theatrical review by Courtney Howard: ‘RICHARD JEWELL’ – redemption for both a hero and a filmmaker
A HIDDEN LIFE
Honestly, I’m not the biggest fan of Texas filmmaker Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life and Song to Song). I’m quite sick of his erratic camera style, constant use of whispered narration, and lack of substance. The last film I liked of Malick’s was 2005’s The New World. Fortunately, like that film, his World War II drama A Hidden Life uses his storytelling tricks for good. It’s meant to be an emotionally disorienting experience, and Malick expresses it reasonably well, even if it’s 30 to 45 minutes too long.
Based on a true story, A Hidden Life revolves around Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl of Inglourious Basterds), who refused to fight for Nazi Germany.
Malick includes some moving elements, especially one scene involving Jägerstätter saying goodbye to his wife (a great Valerie Pachner) and kids before letting it be known to the Nazi Party how he truly feels. It’s crushing.
Similar to Martin Scorsese’s underappreciated Silence, A Hidden Life is about the internal and spiritual struggles of fighting for what you believe in. The plight of this man standing his moral ground is inspiring. It’s a visually arresting contemplation of faith and life.
Extras: The Blu-ray release doesn’t include any supplemental material. But it does include a digital code of the film.