Movie Review ~ Jungle Cruise

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A riverboat captain transports a British scientist and her brother on a mission down the Amazon to find the Tree of Life, believed to possess healing powers that could be of great benefit to modern medicine. Thrust on this epic quest together, the unlikely trio encounters innumerable dangers and supernatural forces, all lurking in the deceptive beauty of the lush rainforest.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Edgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Veronica Falcón, Andy Nyman

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10) (11 AM)

Review: While most will instantly conjure thoughts of that ragamuffin Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl when the topic of Disney turning their famously engineered rides into movies comes up, you actually have to go all the way back to 1997 for the very first one.  Based on the leave-your-stomach-in-your-tonsils Tower of Terror, the same-named TV-movie starred Steve Guttenberg and Kirsten Dunst and it’s perfectly fine that you forgot it.  Then came 2002’s The Country Bears, having their jamboree for not quite as many viewers in theaters that had seen them in the parks over the years, and the disappointing Eddie Murphy-led adaptation of The Haunted Mansion shrinking in the shadow of Black Pearl which had come out just four months earlier. 

Numerous Pirates sequels (all subpar) would slow the ride tide of movies coming out of the studio but all it took was one irresistible movie star to kick off another potential franchise starter.  After an extended delay due to the pandemic, audiences will finally get to hop on board this new attraction with Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt for a breathless ride that hits the water at full speed and never looks back. 

It won’t take long to separate the sea captains from the landlubbers in Disney’s newest ride turned movie, Jungle Cruise.  If you don’t get that little tingle of excitement for what’s to come within the film’s opening introduction of both of our effortlessly charming leads, then this may not be the right journey for you to take.  That’s all fine and dandy, but you’ll be missing out on quite the adventure in the studio’s monster attraction for the summer, which was delayed an entire year in order to give audiences the best bang for their buck. It’s a sonic boom for every penny you’re spending in the theater or watching it at home. 

Enchanted since her youth by tales from her father of an ancient Amazonian tree with flowers that have the power to heal, Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt, A Quiet Place) has spent much of her life trying to track down a missing arrowhead while she studied to become a plant scientist and prove herself among her male colleagues.  This arrowhead artifact is the final piece of a puzzle she needs to go along with a map of the Amazon jungle she has been studying that she believes will point her toward the location of the tree.  However, someone else is looking for that arrowhead as well. German aristocrat Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons, Game Night) has paid a handsome sum to the stodgy society of London antiquities that found it. The movie’s snappy prologue shows just how far both Lily and the Prince will go to get what they want…. but never underestimate the determination of a resourceful botanist who is aces at picking a lock and has a map of the antiquities shop drawn on her forearm.  With her prim brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall, The Nutcracker and the Five Realms) in tow and the arrowhead in her possession, Lily is ready to head to the Amazon…and all she needs is a boat captain when she gets there.

Anyone that’s been on the Jungle Cruise ride at any Disney theme park will recognize a number of the pun-ny jokes Johnson’s Frank Wolff is rambling off to his bored shipload of tourists when we first meet him.  Many taken right from the script of the long-running ride (side note…if you ever get a chance to ride it at night, do it!  It’s a totally different experience!), it’s the most assured nod screenwriters Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) and Glenn Ficarra (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) & John Requa give directly to the attraction that inspired the film and it’s completely welcome.  Eagle-eyed viewers and true fans of Disney lore will spot many Easter eggs along the way, all in good fan service without pulling focus away from the actual story.

Yes, there actually is a story that unfolds, even if it at times feels like the three screenwriters take a little longer than necessary to get there and include one too many villains along the way.  Once Lily and MacGregor arrive at their jungle destination there are some shenanigans that stall for time until they team up with Frank, giving time for the extra obnoxious Paul Giamatti (Gunpowder Milkshake) to storm in for a not-brief-enough cameo (could Disney not afford to cast a real Italian person for this Italian character?) and add in more roadblocks for Frank to get Lily on her way.  Then it’s back to the river for meetups with an indigenous tribe led by Trader Sam (Veronica Falcón, The Forever Purge) supernatural Spanish conquistadors (including Edgar Ramírez, Point Break) resurrected with evil intentions, and an unexpected twist that comes halfway in that was a pleasant surprise. 

What I liked best about Jungle Cruise was its commitment to follow-through.  Director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows) allows the film to be 127 minutes of adventure and excitement and isn’t out to rush anything past us.  Sometimes on the ride itself it can be hard to look at both sides at the same time so you end up missing out and that also can happen in film if a director loses the focus of where the action is directed.  Instead of idling in one place and allowing our eyes to catch up, Collet-Serra just keeps things in constant motion and lets us be swept up in the action.  It’s often overwhelming and, thanks to some overdone CGI, can come off looking nearly like a totally animated film, but more often than not it is completely captivating.

Much of this is owed to Johnson (Skyscraper) and especially Blunt’s indefatigable charisma and, if not red-hot chemistry, then kindred spirit-ness.  A push toward romance feels terribly forced and especially considering how forward thinking the movie is by allowing MacGregor to not only have a full man-on-man convo with Frank where he says he’s gay without using the “g-word” and then going further into talking about acceptance and such, it’s odd to thrust romantic entanglement on our leading couple that haven’t completely sparked like that.  Any flames ignited are from their gentle baiting of one another, mostly friendly competitiveness at who is the stronger alpha of the boat. 

Scheduling the way it is and knowing that summer weather can often turn on a dime, I’ve been continuing to opt to watch a number of these movies at home. In hindsight, Jungle Cruise is one I would have loved to see on the big screen – and I could see myself buying a ticket to catch it again in theaters.  Learning afterward it’s being presented in 3D in some cinemas makes sense after noting how many extended shots of various objects coming directly toward the camera. I’d note that if you don’t like snakes, you should opt out of the multi-dimensional experience – lots of snapping jaws to contend with.  The movie will be big and satisfying no matter what size screen you see it on but with July drawing to a close and August signaling the end of a strange season at the movies, this should be the one you fork over some cash to see with the family on the largest screen you can manage.  It’s worth it.

Movie Review ~ The Commuter


The Facts
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Synopsis: A businessman is caught up in a criminal conspiracy during his daily commute home.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Banks, Andy Nyman, Florence Pugh

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review: Bless Liam Neeson, that Irish Energizer Bunny. For the last decade or so he’s perfected starring as the everyman that takes a licking but keeps on ticking. In movies like Taken and its two sequels, Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night, Neeson has been a dependable action hero that manages to make tired premises seem like new ideas, even if they just magically vanish from your memory the moment the lights come up in the theater. Teaming up for the fourth time with director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows), Neeson and his frequent collaborator aren’t navigating to any new destinations  in The Commuter but instead are focused solely on the ride.

Michael MacCauley (Neeson, The Grey) is having a bad day. He’s just been let go from his job in life insurance and isn’t sure how he’s going tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People, in a glorified cameo) that their already hand-to-mouth life is going to get that much more difficult. A former cop that had Patrick Wilson (Insidious) as a partner and Sam Neil (Jurassic Park III) as his boss, MacCauley is pondering his next move when a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring) approaches him on his commute home from NYC to the outer suburbs. She poses an interesting proposition to him, identify the one person on the train that “doesn’t belong” and he will be rewarded with a $100K payday.  Of course, this being a thriller desperate to be called Hitchcock-ian, there’s a deadly twist to taking the money. As soon as MacCauley pockets ¼ of the cash he’s thrust into making good on his promise to locate a material witness or suffer increasingly dangerous consequences.

So begins a game of Neeson trekking back and forth through the train, eliminating suspects with each stop before gathering the remaining passengers in one car in an Agatha Christie-esque wrap-up.  While you may feel the movie is constructing a bit of skilled puzzle, I’d advise you to trust your instincts for the identity of the witness nicknamed Prynne isn’t that hard to decipher.  The movie throws in enough red herrings to nearly make a trip to the dining car a necessity but anyone familiar with these types of films will catch the subtle clues that point to the solution rather quickly.

Like the previous Neeson/Collet-Serra vehice, Non-Stop, the set-up rather amiably carries the film for the first 50 minutes or so but the more the movie shifts from its early mystery intrigue to more action based sequences the less engaging it becomes. While Neeson looks game but gaunt, the most interesting character is Farmigia and (slight spoiler) she’s not on screen for the majority of the film. Shoddy CGI effects and some pretty lousy acting by a bunch of Brits desperately trying to disguise their accents aids in the film running of a steam long before a protracted finale and lame epilogue completely derails it.

No doubt about it, this is slick entertainment but largely a hollow experience. Typical for a January release after the big holiday push of new releases, The Commuter offers no real challenges but is a decent bit of counter-programming to the Oscar-bait entries filling most theaters right now.

Movie Review ~ The Shallows

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A mere 200 yards from shore, surfer Nancy is attacked by a great white shark, with her short journey to safety becoming the ultimate contest of wills.

Stars: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 87 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Summer is in full swing and mere days after the 41st anniversary of Jaws, another big shark movie is making its way to your cinematic shores. Long regulated to schlocky SyFy Channel movies and its own week of programming on the Discovery Channel in late June, sharks just don’t get the kind of love they deserve. Here’s a perfect predator that we can easily stay away from if we didn’t love the ocean waters so much…but again and again we venture underwater with the threat of winding up a tasty snack for a mammoth fish.

As another Sharknado looms large on the horizon and with memories of the fun but ultimately forgettable shark flicks The Reef and Bait 3D on the brain, I had high hopes that The Shallows would deliver. It’s first trailer presented a nice tease while subsequent marketing materials disappointingly spilled some of the secrets that lurked beneath the surface. Feeling like I’d seen the whole movie in its final 2 ½ minute trailer I went into the screening less enthused but still curious.

The good news is that The Shallows is a competent, well-made, suspenseful thriller…as long as no one is talking. Which leads to the bad news. The script from Anthony Jaswinski has a solid set-up but so much awkward exposition that it takes a bigger bite out of our enjoyment than a great white shark ever could. For once, backstories don’t really matter at all to the forward motion of the plot but still Jaswinski feels the need to add extra characters and tangents that, had they been excised, would have left the film 10 minutes shorter and tighter overall.

But let’s party down a bit that the production values are high enough that not only do we get gorgeous underwater photography (for those of us remaining landlocked this summer) but an exceedingly believable gigantic swimming nemesis intent on chomping down on a nubile surfer chick. Said chick is Nancy (Blake Lively, Savages) and she’s come to a secluded beach in Tijuana Mexico as a tribute to her late mother who first visited the same beach while pregnant with her. Alone save for two local guys catching waves, she takes the day to remember her mom, think about her future, and surf the dangerous waters.

As the guys depart for the day, Nancy takes one last ride and that’s where her trouble starts and your nail-biting will commence. Getting too close to a whale carcass floating nearby, Nancy is struck by a Great White shark that doesn’t like anyone messing with his mealtime. Stranded on a rock that eventually will be submerged as the tide comes in, Nancy has to fight to stay afloat and out of the jaws of a very intelligent super predator.

Lively is the entire movie and the actress is engaging and engaged with the material, selling the stilted dialogue as best she can and doing it in bikini bottoms and half a wet-suit. Stuck without any weapons 200 yards from shore, she becomes incredibly resourceful as she plots her way off the rock while avoiding several shark attacks that get bolder with each passing hour. At 87 minutes, the film somehow manages to get more people into the water to become shark bait but sags ever so slightly whenever the shark’s presence isn’t felt.

When the shark is onscreen the suspense is well maintained by director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop) who elicits some genuine surprise jolts when Lively’s fishy co-star swims into frame. A tense final act leads to a finale that, I must admit, was supremely satisfying and well-earned. An epilogue hastily filmed less than two months ago feels unnecessary and doesn’t send you out on the thrilling high note it could have had it called it quits at the true climax of the film.

On the way out of the screening my movie-going companion jokingly asked me if I thought The Shallows was better than Jaws. I didn’t dignify that with a response then, nor will I here…but I can easily recommend The Shallows for the shark-loving film goer.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Shallows (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: When Nancy is attacked by a great white shark while surfing alone, she is stranded just a short distance from shore. Though she is only 200 yards from her survival, getting there proves the ultimate contest of wills.

Release Date:  June 29, 2016

Thoughts: I’m more than a little annoyed with this second trailer for June’s The Shallows.  While the teaser released in March was a nice little morsel designed to lure audiences out of the water and into the theaters this summer, this full trailer makes me want to head back to the beach.  Being the spoiler-free guy I am, I have to say that there are a whole mess of important plot points given away in 2 ½ minutes and it’s just a total bummer because I can already see the tension bleeding out of the thing.  Why show these moments? What mystery is left?  Lately the trend seems to be for trailers to give the entire movie away and that’s unfortunate.  Still…it’s a shark movie and I’ll of course be there to see it.  I’ll just be a little less curious to see what surprises are in store.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Shallows

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Synopsis: When Nancy is attacked by a great white shark while surfing alone, she is stranded just a short distance from shore. Though she is only 200 yards from her survival, getting there proves the ultimate contest of wills

Release Date: June 24, 2016

Thoughts: So Jaws is my favorite movie…if you’ve spent any time with me or read this site often that’s no shocker.  I’ll also tell you that one of my guilty pleasures that I’m more than a little ashamed of is a fondness for cheesy shark flicks with bad special effects and even worse acting. As shown by The Reef and Bait 3D, the good ones are few and far between so The Shallows represents something of a wave of excitement in my shark fanboy heart. It’s got an appealing lead in Blake Lively (Savages) and its helmed by Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop) who knows his way around crafting an audience pleasing vehicle.  For me, it’s all going to come down to the shark and while it’s too much to hope for more practical effects than CGI, I’d hope that it’s prime summer release date by a major Hollywood studio bodes well for its quality.

Movie Review ~ Non-Stop

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An air marshal springs into action during a transatlantic flight after receiving a series of text messages that put his fellow passengers at risk unless the airline transfers $150 million into an off-shore account.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Nate Parker, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Linus Roache, Corey Stoll

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 106 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I’m that weird duck traveler that loves to head off for an adventure but dreads the flight that will take me to my destination.  I don’t know why I have this irrational fear of flying and though I’m not someone that white knuckles it from wheels up to wheels down let’s just say that the sooner I’m back on solid ground the better.   

All that aside, can I just tell you how much I enjoy a thriller that involves any sort of in-flight dilemma?  I’m sure the root of some of my fears has come from seeing various maladies befall passengers in the Airport films and the hostile takeovers of Flightplan, Executive Decision, Passenger 57, Turbulence, et. al.  Though flying is the safest way to travel it can be the most dangerous when you toss in an action star like Liam Neeson looking for a killer on a transatlantic flight.

Let’s get this straight…Non-Stop is exactly the quality of film that you think it is.  It’s all muscle with little logic available to explain away large leaps of faith that it asks the audience to just go with.  And y’know what…for the most part it works well as a short fused thrill ride that gets you cruising along nicely up at 40,000 feet before encountering some midflight turbulence in anticipation of a watery landing.

Neeson (The Grey, The LEGO Movie) doesn’t have to stretch much to play a weary air marshal first class-ing it on a plane bound for London.  The film opens by letting us know there’s more than a few red herrings that will be joining him as each person he passes in the airport somehow manages to turn slllloooowwwlllly around with a grimace on their face.  For all we know, the entire plane is full of psychopaths.

Though he’s seated next to a kinda quirky kinda mysterious female (Julianne Moore, Carrie) and doted on by a lovely trolley dolly (Michelle Dockery, showing she’s capable of more than merely looking glum on Downton Abbey) his attention turns to the mysterious in-flight texts he receives from a passenger threatening to trim the flight manifest every twenty minutes until a payload of 150 million dollars is delivered…to a bank account in Neeson’s name.

So begins an in flight cat and mouse game that gets less interesting the more implausible it gets.  Non-Stop shows early promise with its slow burn first half but winds up flaming out long before the end is near.  And that’s too bad because had it capitalized more on the Hitchcockian mystery it aspired to it may have been a film that would be worth repeat viewings. 

Director Jaume Collet-Serra has been behind the camera for several flawed but interesting thrillers in his short career.  After the guilty pleasure House of Wax he scored nicely with the creep-fest Orphan before scaring us even more by casting the awful January Jones alongside Neeson in the marginal UnknownNon-Stop is more middle of the road work and wind up being best known for wasting 12 Years a Slave star Lupita Nyong’o in a throwaway role – though she does rock some serious Fresh Price of Bel Air meets Grace Jones afro realness. 

If you’re willing to check your logic in the overhead bin and keep your rolled eyes in the upright position, Non-Stop is harmless entertainment.

The Silver Bullet ~ Non-Stop

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Synopsis: An air marshal must spring into action aboard an international flight.

Release Date:  February 28, 2014

Thoughts: Well here we go again.  Another preview for a movie with an interesting (if wholly also-ran) premise that seems to reveal the majority of the plot in an overlong trailer.  I guess I just long for the days when trailers were more teasers than anything else and the bulk of the film was left to paying audiences.  Fingers crossed that some surprises have been left for this February release because it boasts some watchable talent like Liam Neeson (The Grey, Battleship) and Julianne Moore (Being Flynn) and looks like a crisply made affair.  I happen to love thrillers set on planes…probably because they both fascinate and terrify me so while this may end up as a harmless diversion of a B-movie, it’s got some A-list talent behind it that may help it take off.