Malignant

Written by Alexander Reams

73/100

I can see a young James Wan watching a Giallo film, and thinking “Oh I’m gonna make some weird shit” (kudos to James Gunn and Chris Pratt for giving us that line). Throughout his career, Wan has riffed on many genres, and now we can add Giallo to that list. The iconic Italian horror genre was made popular in the 1970s, particularly by Dario Argento. James Wan takes the iconic genre and mixes it with modern themes and messages. Maddy (Annabelle Wallis) is in an abusive marriage with Derek (Jake Abel), she begins to experience visions of a sinister force and fights to protect herself and her family. 

This is not Annabelle Wallis’ first collaboration with James Wan, she was the lead in the spinoff to The Conjuring. Given that previous history, it seemed to reason that they would work together down the line, and here they offer up a beautiful metaphor for abuse and toxic relationships. Wallis not only conveys the past of her character but also (quite literally) embodies this person who is haunted by past memories and trauma. While she does not fully elevate the script to the iconic female horror leads we know and love, she still does more than the previous female characters in Wan’s repertoire, which is a welcome breath of fresh air. 

Something Wallis and Wan both excel in is the brilliant horror sequences. Allowing for the pair, and DP Michael Burgess to present unique and original sequences which are unlike any I have seen. One in the early parts of the film mixes visual and practical effects to transform a house into another environment, and the metamorphasis is transfixing and spine-chilling. 

Wan’s relationship with Michael Burgess is a relatively new one, however, he has worked with Don Burgess, Michael’s father, many times, and with the younger Burgess just coming off another horror film, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, following it up with a James Wan original just makes sense. Michael Burgess takes the potential shown in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It and flies with it, demonstrating his brilliance as a DP, and a master of framing and camera movement. 

Even with all of this greatness, rarely is a film without flaws, and Wan’s latest offering is not without its faults. Akela Cooper, whose credits include Hell Fest, Luke Cage, and 2 other pictures that struggled in their writing serves as screenwriter. Cooper took a brilliant premise by the husband-wife duo of Wan and Ingrid Bisu and unfortunately wrote in watered down dialogue, which should be heartbreaking and is instead laugh-inducing at times. This half-baked screenplay doesn’t take away from what is happening in front of us. Wan doesn’t need dialogue to convey emotion, and this shines in the final act. Transforming the film into someone mind-bending, and full of heart and emotion. In this writer’s opinion, this is Wan’s most emotionally charged film. From the mother-daughter relationship to the sister relationship, all leading to the most unexpected reveal. Which ends the film on a somewhat positive note that also leaves the door open to future stories in this world, which excites this writer to no end.

Malignant Trailer

Malignant is currently playing in wide theatrical release and available to stream on HBO Max.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

New York Asian Film Festival Review: My Missing Valentine

Written by Patrick Hao

75/100

Hollywood studios used to make romantic comedies – romantic comedies that would be delightful and stirring, and borderline problematic. But they’ve largely ceased making those except for the occasional films that go straight to streaming services and independent features. While Hollywood stopped churning out romantic comedies in favor of action blockbusters (supposedly aimed at international audiences), international cinema has been filling the void. My Missing Valentine, directed by Chen Yu-hsun, is exactly the film that Hollywood should be making and is simply not anymore.

My Missing Valentine, the Best Feature winner of Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards (the equivalent of the Oscars) is a whimsical magical realist romance. The film is split into two segments: “The Missing Person” and “The Missing Story.” The first segment is about Yang Hsiao-Chi (Patty Lee), a 30-year-old postal worker who is quite literally one step faster than everyone else. She wakes up right before her alarm rings, arrives to work early, and is always too fast for any rhythmic activity. She is a loner who on the day before Valentine’s Day is beginning to be wooed by a fitness instructor (Duncan Chou). They agree to a date on Valentine’s Day, but Yang Hsiao-Chi wakes up the morning after with a sunburn, her date disappearing, and no memory of the day ever happening. She tries to piece together the mystery from there.

New York Asian Film Festival 2021

Patty Lee imbues Hsiao-Chi with loads of charm. She and the world around her might be off-beat, but she is firmly rooted in humanity – something other “quirky” movies seem to forget to do. Chen directs the movie with tactile-ness that keeps the magical realism grounded as well. Every flight of fancy is seemingly done with in-camera tricks and simple but effective practical effects. Director Chen buoys all that with a gentle humor that mixes wordplay with slapstick.    

The second segment shifts away from Yang Hsiao-Chi’s perspective to another character, A Tai (Liu Kuan-ting), a bus driver who is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Yang Hsiao-Chi. He is always one step too slow. To tell you more about A Tai’s arc is to give away some of the magic that unfolds in the film.

While more serious in tone, this segment does not relent on the whimsy. For many detractors, the second half of My Missing Valentine presents a problematic pedestaling of Hsiao-Chi, with a bit of incel behavior. But the fanciful nature and eastern spirituality at the undercurrent of the film assuages any sense of creepiness. It helps that the internal logic of the film stays so consistent within itself so that it all seams together coherently. This film is a souffle, in which one minor screw-up in the ingredients would deflate the whole thing. However, My Missing Valentine is a skillful blending of fantasy, romance, and comedy which create a delicate romantic comedy. One that Hollywood simply doesn’t make anymore.

My Missing Valentine Trailer

My Missing Valentine was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2021.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

The Gateway

Written by Patrick Hao

28/100

Shea Whigham has the type of face that is able to give the whole backstory of his character. That’s why he has been a stalwart character actor in films like Silver Linings Playbook, Wolf of Wall Street, and Take Shelter. It’s a wonder why it took so long for Whigham to lead an indie crime film – hell, John Hawkes has led several at this point. The Gateway finally gives Whigham a chance to lead a film, although it does not match the sturdiness of Whigham’s performance.

The film, the second feature from commercial and music video director Michele Civetta, is stuck between a gritty sociopolitical character study and a pulp neo-noir destined to be a spontaneous movie choice by “that” uncle during the holidays. The Gateway, unfortunately, does neither especially well. On the character end, Whigham plays Parker Jode, an ex-fighter turn social worker, who takes an interest in helping a young girl, Ashley (Taegen Burns), and her troubled mother Dahlia (Olivia Munn) way beyond his duties as a social bureaucrat. Parker Jode is the classic reserved tough guy – one who feels more than he says. Civetta uses all of Whigham’s weathered wrinkles to his advantage in that regard.

On the crime end, Ashley’s father Mike (Zach Avery) is released from prison. He is a triple whammy of a drunk, cheat, and abuser who continues to commit robberies at the behest of local crime boss Duke (Frank Grillo). When an armed robbery turns violent, Mike decides to stash heroin into his unwitting daughter’s bag, setting the movie into action. Oh yeah, strong supporting characters playing their typecasts appear throughout from Taryn Manning (as a barfly of course), Mark Boone Junior (as a drug-dealing bartender of course), Keith David (as a Keith David type of course), and Bruce Dern (as a doddering cursing Vietnam vet, trying to atone for his sins as the father of Parker Jode of course).

The Gateway is exactly the type of movie you expect from the title, the poster, and the cast. None of it is especially convincing except for Wigham who is trying his darndest to make his world-weary character enough to carry the film. Civetta is not devoid of style. His influences are clear. The film starts out with neon hues like a second-rate Michael Mann and quickly devolves into straight to Redbox over lit tones.

It would have been better if the film decided to lean into its pulpier proclivities. Rather, Civetta and his screenplay written with Alex Felix Bendaña and Andrew Levitas leans into the hard times social message clichés. None of it is particularly convincing or inspiring. It doesn’t help that Olivia Munn and Zach Avery give stilted performances. It’s the chicken or the egg situation – was it the performances or the script that is wooden. The answer is probably a bit of both. Its hard to be too hard on a film like The Gateway. Its aspirations seem minimal, with its only ambitions being a calling card to whomever gets a break from this small film. It does not help the case of Shea Whigham, “Leading Man,” because even as the lead, the film is straining to focus on someone else.

The Gateway Trailer

The Gateway is available in select theaters and on VOD. Available on Blu-ray and DVD on September 7th.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Reminiscence

Written by Alexander Reams

45/100

Most films about the future wish to remember the past as if it was better. Oftentimes the past is the teaching moment for the times ahead, something the future always forgets. Much like Lisa Joy’s directorial debut Reminiscence. In a now flooded Miami, a man (Hugh Jackman) searches for his lost love through an inception-like machine. With these floods came heat, and with that the population became nocturnal to escape the sun. All the while, the rich, colloquially titled “Barons”, live on their own secluded island and leave everyone else to rot. With a film as heavy loaded with CGI, one would assume that they would be great effects, considering who is behind the camera, Joy is one of the co-creators of Westworld, that has some of the best effects on television, and rivals a lot of major studio films. Unfortunately they are mildewed with sets that seep with rushed work. While they elevate some scenes, one standout being a fight in an underwater performance house, they often reminded me I was watching a CG laden film. Especially in action/sci-fi films, I don’t want to remember I am watching something. I love to be swept away in a world of illogical decisions, unrealistic premises that become all too real, and all too personal by the end. 

There are countless films that have taken a piece of this premise and done worlds better in almost every aspect of filmmaking. Lisa Joy clearly has a flair for the science fiction genre, but it felt as if Warner Bros did not want her to take what she learned from creating the massive world in Westworld, instead making a paint-by-numbers picture that clearly was inspired by Inception, but worlds apart in terms of the marrow of filmmaking ie. acting, writing, execution. Hugh Jackman has been slowing down his output, and he was one of the leading reasons I was excited to see this film. He rarely turns in mediocre performances, but unfortunately it does happen here. Always feeling like he is sleepwalking, and never commanding the screen like he has done in the past with such films as Les Miserables, Bad Education, or any of his turns as “Logan/ Wolverine”. The same can be said for most of the cast, except one, who is reduced to a glorified cameo, Daniel Wu. As an Asian-American, cajun, gangster, who could be a typecast and stereotypical role, Wu takes it and has the most fun out of the entire cast.  

Lisa Joy has a way with telling grand stories on an even grander scale, evident by her creativity throughout Westworld. Even with this, Reminiscence fails where films like Inception and Tenet succeed. Playing with time is a difficult task to even play with, let alone succeed and make it work for the audience. Joy wants to, but she is compressed from a 10 hour season to a 2 hour film, and she continually introduces new concepts up until the credits roll. I don’t blame her, I blame Warner Bros. They have a very public reputation of going in and recutting films, screwing over some of the most brilliant filmmakers of our time (i.e. Zack Snyder, I will never forgive what they did to him). Let us remember when the runtime was posted online for the first time, 148 minutes. That sounds about right from what the trailer showed us. Then as the release date became closer, it dropped to 116 minutes. That began to scare me, and when my fears came to pass, those fears turned to frustration. I wish I had more positive things to say about this debut, but I don’t. I still have great things to say about Lisa Joy, this does not undo everything she has created with Westworld. This had the potential to be a great film that would influence other filmmakers for years to come, instead we were given a disappointing, boring film that left me feeling empty, like the story was incomplete. 

#ReleasetheJoycut.

Reminiscence Trailer

Reminiscence is currently in wide theatrical release and streaming on HBO Max.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Space Jam: A New Legacy

Written by Patrick Hao

25/100

Last month AT&T announced that they were unloading Warner Media to Discovery for $43 billion after less than three years of merging with Warner Media. This also comes after a lengthy battle with the U.S. Court of Appeals for antitrust claims and a bungled roll out of HBO Max. With the merger with Warner, Discovery is looking to combine their newly released streaming efforts, Discovery+, with HBO Max. I say all this as a precursor to discuss what Space Jam: A New Legacy is. It is a cynical piece of work emblematic of the larger problem within the media industry, art being constructed as content and pre-existing IP as the only cache.

This is not to say that the original Space Jam was not a cynical piece of art when it was released. The film was constructed from a popular Nike commercial that paired Michael Jordan with Bugs Bunny. The results were an exercise in branding building for both entities – Michael as the most popular athlete on the planet and returning to basketball and the Looney Tunes with their resurgence in popularity with reruns filling up time slots on the newly created Cartoon Network.

It was a surprise then when the online reactions to the trailers of Space Jam: A New Legacy acted as if the film was an affront or a mockery of the legacy of the original. If anything, the new film is the perfect 2021 follow-up: a bloated film that prioritizes corporate synergy and brands over anything of artistic merit. Lebron James, who has been dogged by comparisons to Michael Jordan throughout his NBA career, is also the perfect successor to Jordan, not only because of his basketball prowess. Jordan was the first athlete that truly capitalized on licensing his name and image as a marketing tool. James, taking a cue from Jordan, has become a mogul of far greater magnitude. His empire includes endorsements, sport franchises, production companies, and restaurants.

There really is not much to say about Space Jam: A New Legacy. As a movie it is nothing. It is bad in what it represents and competent but uninteresting in everything else. Lebron James plays a fictionalized version of himself who hopes his son (Cedric Jones) would follow in his footsteps in basketball, despite his son’s proclivity towards video game design. Meanwhile, a sentient Warner Bros. AI named Al-G Rhythm (Get it: Algorithm), played by a game Don Cheadle, wants to use Lebron James’ fame to lure the public into his virtual reality. To do so, Al-G uses Dom’s resentment towards his father and a basketball game in order to trap Lebron. Lebron must team up with Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Merry Melodies gang to beat him.

As one can imagine, the plot is really a serving dish to the antics that could be drummed up from Lebron James interacting with Bugs Bunny. The result is nothing interesting. But it is curious as to the consistent meta-narratives that these giant corporations drum up for these films. As James is being sucked into the virtual reality, he zooms past planets designated as IP worlds – DC, Harry Potter, The Matrix, and inexplicably Casablanca. It is a real testament to how Warner Bros. views the property that they own. And to have the main villain be a sentient soulless algorithm underscores a self-critique that goes unexplored.

Instead, the film tries to root itself in a hollow message about family – whether it is the Looney Tunes or Lebron and his son. The Looney Tunes themselves have never felt so rudderless. In a movie that should’ve been a celebration of them during a period when their cultural influence is at its lowest, they seem like an afterthought for more important IP’s. At one point a character is involved in a parody of The Matrix that seems out of 2001, until I remember that Matrix 4 is due to be released in Q4 of this year.

Is there a good movie to be made here? Possibly, but Warner Bros. was never going to let that happen. Originally, the film was announced to be written and directed by idiosyncratic filmmaker Terence Nance. Maybe he could have produced something interesting and self-critical. However, while he still has writing and producing credit on the film, Nance was replaced by director Malcolm D. Lee, a safe choice whose career is defined by his workmanlike mediocrity. Lee directs the movie as such. There is no personality, no soul.

Ultimately, this is not a Space Jam: A New Legacy problem. This is the corporate world of movie studios. As more studios create their individualized streaming platforms, movies become an advertisement for subscriptions. Space Jam started out as an ad for sneakers. And now A New Legacy is an ad for HBO Max. What a fitting full circle.

Space Jam: A New Legacy Trailer

Space Jam: A New Legacy is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

A Quiet Place Part II

Written by Nick McCann

96/100

One of my biggest regrets in movie-going was not seeing A Quiet Place in theaters when it was new. I was highly impressed when I did finally watch it and subsequently crushed that I didn’t see it in the best way possible. When the sequel was announced, I I wouldn’t make the same mistake. Then suddenly, a viral outbreak! Hope was dwindling for that dream but now here we are, in a state where it’s okay to go back to the theaters.

Story wise, it does a great job feeling like a direct continuation. John Krasinski returns as director and nicely balances the duties of expanding scope while retaining the elements of the first film. Visual storytelling is still prioritized and when there is direct exposition, it’s not forced. This movie is also more plot driven with a clear end goal. Personally I miss the Western-like atmosphere from before but that’s the most minor of complaints. It feels like a logical choice of direction and you’ll still find yourself plenty immersed in this danger-sensitive world.

And man is it ever dangerous! Tension is still well on-the point. There are more set pieces and they still scare even with added moving parts. The cinematography looks well in line with the first movie’s look, evoking moments of beauty and terror in the world on screen. Editing is also still great, letting shots linger enough to drive you to the breaking point. Visual effects are also great, with a key highlight being to see how more ruthless the creatures are in full rampage mode.

As you would expect though, the sound design is the main asset. Every sound effect and the overall use of sound is brilliant. Just like before, it takes most every opportunity to get clever with what’s heard and not. Marco Beltrami also returns on the score, bringing back old music cues while seamlessly integrating new tracks. There were times where the music was creeping me out as much as the visuals! Always a good sign.

Keeping everything held together is the acting, which is excellent as ever. Emily Blunt, Noah Jupe and Millicent Simmonds all return and keep making their characters all the more likable and interesting. Simmonds in particular really shines here, carrying a huge chunk of the story with magnetic screen presence. Cillian Murphy also kills it coming into this series with a damaged and vulnerable protagonist. Djimon Hounsou is reliable as well and even Krasinski does good in the brief time he’s here.

Add this to the list of sequels that stack up to their predecessor. A Quiet Place Part II deftly continues it’s story and ramps up the stakes without forgetting it’s identity. Any nitpicks I have boil down to personal preferences that I can live with not being there. It’s just as scary as it is dramatic, held up by great acting, visuals, and sound design. What a way to come back to the theaters!

A Quiet Place Part II

A Quiet Place Part II is now available to stream on Paramount+.

You can connect with Nick on his social media profiles: Facebook and Letterboxd.

The Green Knight

Written by Alexander Reams

86/100

Honor is what we all search for at some point in our lives. Whether this is honor in your work, family, or hobbies, there is something we all desire honor in. Our first look at this study in honor came over 15 months ago. Then the world seemingly came to a stop and also lost its honor during the pandemic. Trading it for fear, miscommunication, and distrust. Such is the case with Gawain, played masterfully by Dev Patel. After entering into a game with a mysterious character who calls himself “The Green Knight”. He only wants to be indulged in a game. One that Gawain quickly, perhaps too quickly, accepts, and eventually sheds any facade of honor for these traits that the world did as well. David Lowery’s The Green Knight is an indulgence in a genre that once populated cinemas while also feeling modernized and old school at the same time. 

Through most of the runtime the film does not focus on the game between Gawain and the titular Green Knight. Lowery chooses instead to focus on the journey that Gawain undergoes to finish his game with him. The film skips through time, though never haphazardly, always acquainting the viewer with the new period within a few minutes of being in that environment. Something that cannot be praised enough to Writer/Director David Lowery. Always keeping the focus on a film that is not only grand in scale but rich in character. From the various scenes showcasing the superb production design along Gawain’s year-end journey to his mythic opponent. To the fantastical and surreal cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo. Who utilizes the technique “camera obscura” to put the viewer at ease. 

Dev Patel has been on the rise for quite some time now, my favorite performance of his was in the 2016 film Lion. He is delivering at his full potential along the films runtime. His narcissistic, egotistical performance fits the role and brings a new level to his skill as an actor. He took the text that Lowery adapted and met it graduating their vision to another level. This can also be said for the entire cast, filled with a star studded lineup, but from the opening shot it’s easy to forget about them. It is Dev Patel’s film, they are just in it. For a film with grand scale, it is very quiet. With spurts of loud, grandiose moments at times. These larger moments shine brightly, and have stuck with me. This is a picture that reminds me why I not only love films, but why I want to make them. Masterclass independent filmmaking on a grand scale is a genre that is not witnessed often.

The Green Knight Trailer

The Green Knight is currently in theatrical wide release.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Fantasia & New York Asian Film Festival Review: Tiong Bahru Social Club

Written by Patrick Hao

62/100

Over the last 20 years, the Tiong Bahru region of Singapore, one of the oldest urban public housing estates, has gone through massive development and gentrification. The demolition of the Pearl Bank Apartments in March of 2020 in favor of a new sleek high-rise condominium, despite conservation efforts, is emblematic of the gentrification of Tiong Bahru. This tension of the rapid modernization of Singapore is at the heart of Tan Bee Thiam’s absurdist satire, Tiong Bahru Social Club.

The film follows newly turned 30-year-old, Ah Bee (Thomas Pang), a resident of the Pearl Bank Apartments with his mother. He sees an ad for a job as a Happiness Agent at the newly created Tiong Bahru Social Club, a pilot program for an elder community run by an algorithm to ensure ultimate happiness. Every action is assessed and given a happiness rating, as the algorithm dictates both the residents and Happiness Agents’ lives.

Ah Bee as a happiness agent is paired with an AI companion, Bravo60, who is meant to be a motivator and to remind Ah Bee when to eat cake, to help Ms. Wee (Jalyn Hae), one of the elder residents of the community. The algorithm also matches Ah Bee with a data-sanctioned love interest, another happiness agent by the name of Geok (Jo Tan). However, none of the data-driven decisions instills any happiness in Ah Bee, as he struggles to find a position within the community.

Thiam and his Looi Wan Ping shot the whole film with muted pastel colors to highlight the faux cheeriness of the community. Ah Bee keeps a gilded smile on his face but cannot hide the depression that underlies his disposition. The world building is a real strength of the film. In a way the vibe is reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Michel Gondry, directors who use the artificiality of their retro-futurist magical realism to accentuate the sadness beneath the whimsy.

The satire here feels distinctly Singaporean and may require some additional research (like I did) to understand all the themes underlying what Thiam is doing with his film. However, the feelings of dissatisfaction of this late capitalist global economy are very universal. What may be true to the residents of Singapore and Tiong Bahru could easily be transplanted to my hometown of Flushing, New York.

The film’s deconstruction of daily Singaporean life seems authentic but even I, an outsider, get a sense that the critique does not go far enough. There’s not enough venom in its satire and the film gets too reliant on the tweeness of its premise and visual motif. Ah Bee is purposefully a blank slate of a character which renders his decisions to lack agency. While that may be the point, he never gains any meaningful autonomy that really drives home the ending.

But there is a lot to admire in Thiam’s social satire. He is a confident filmmaker with a clear point of view and sense of style. And if anything, Tiong Bahru Social Club serves as tribute to those of Tiong Bahru who have been left behind and dissatisfied by a Singapore that has passed them by.

Tiong Bahru Social Club Trailer

You can purchase a ticket to see Tiong Bahru Social Club in Canada from Fantasia Film Festival and in the United States of America at New York Asian Film Festival.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Stillwater

Written by Maria Athayde

40/100 

Stillwater directed by Tom McCarthy and starring Matt Damon is one of the most uninspired pieces of media I have consumed in a long time. The movie “loosely based” on Amanda Knox’s story has been met with mixed reviews since its premiere at Cannes. As the movie receives its wide release in the United States Amanda Knox is hitting back at this notion in an essay published on Medium about being in the public eye, her relationship with the press, and being able to tell her story in her own words. I’d highly suggest reading Knox’s essay before viewing Stillwater as it helps put things into perspective.    

In Stillwater, Damon plays Bill an oil rig worker from Oklahoma who travels to Marseille, France to visit his estranged daughter Allison, in prison, after she was arrested for the murder of her girlfriend Lina. After exhausting all their legal options Bill takes matters into his own hands to get to the bottom of it and set his daughter free. What ensues from here is cliche and overdone. We “learn” about the differences between the French and Americans. Like the differences in penal code, culture, and social relationships between the two countries and their people. At the end of the day, in trying to dismantle cliches, Damon’s character personifies everything people from other countries hate about Americans so much.

That is really all there is to this movie. Nothing about it is memorable. It is the type of movie you will forget about the second you walk out of the theater. The script, cinematography, score, and performances were all pretty forgettable with the exception of the adorable Lilou Siauvaud who plays Maya. As a side note, my viewing experience was hindered by an audience member who decided to offer commentary throughout the movie. We really do not talk about movie going etiquette enough and I have a sense that I’ll be dealing with a lot more of these characters as theaters start to open back up. In the end, this really feels like the type of movie that should have come out years ago right around when American Sniper (2014) was released. I simply cannot understand how this movie received a standing ovation at Cannes but hey, maybe that’s just me.

Stillwater Trailer

Stillwater is currently in screening theatrically in wide release.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on Letterboxd and Twitter or view more of what she’s up to here.

Jungle Cruise

Written by Taylor Baker

55/100

Disney’s new theme park ride inspired film Jungle Cruise is a tale of two films, something not all that surprising when you factor in that 7 writers worked on the film. 4 writers for the story, 3 more for the screenplay. We start out the film with a run of the mill exposition of the MacGuffin–a magical flower in Brazil–that morphs into an imploring speech by Jack Whitehall’s McGregor. Requesting that he be allowed to inspect a recently unearthed treasure from a learned men’s society. The speech he’s delivering was in fact written by his sister, Lily played by Emily Blunt. Hijinks ensue, leading to a chase sequence in which a maniacally accented Austro-Hungarian Prince played by Jesse Plemons has our modern Mary Poppins dangling precariously from a ladder outside a window, with the now stolen arrowhead she so desired safely tucked away. Rather than hand it over to him in exchange for her safety she opts to drop down onto a double-decker bus parked just beneath her, courtesy of her brother, and we’re off to the races!

This first introduction is reminiscent in multiple ways to the 1999 classic The Mummy. Whether period, the charming brother side character (John Hannah), and the heroine who seemingly knows more about the legend than anyone else Evie (Rachel Weisz) the makings of a good well rounded adventure story all seem to be here. But before we go too far down that bend in the river, there’s another apt comparison and one that had me sold on the premise of the project long before I ever saw a trailer, the idea that it was a modern riff on a storied classic, The African Queen. As similar as Emily Blunt’s Lily feels to Weisz’s Evie from at least that introduction the actual character of Lily that Emily continues to inhabit feels directly informed, if not lifted from Katharine Hepburn’s fantastic turn as Rose Sayer in the 1951 classic. Strong minded and unflappable, Blunt’s character finds a natural evolution to Hepburn’s Sayer in adorning herself with breeches rather than dresses. And dressing down The Rock’s Frank for his behavior and jokes rather than his alcoholism. Which Frank demonstrates plenty of.

Eventually Lily and McGregor make it to Brazil while old Frank is trying to get his engine back from Paul Giamatti’s gold toothed crony Nilo. Hijinks once again ensue and once everyone arrives in place to the character situations we were prepared for in the trailer Plemons’ Prince Joachim erupts from the water and begins shooting. They get away as expected, there’s too much runtime left for a quick offing, for those of us checking our watches, and we get 30-40 minutes more of dad jokes(a personal favorite of mine), character development that isn’t sloppy, and fun asides. Then it begins to slip, the sexless heap of a man that is Dwayne Johnson begins to visually long toward Blunt, the joviality of very flawed crazy human characters is eschewed for CG conquistadors that make one long for the old days of Davy Jones’ lifelike depiction in the Pirates series 15 years ago, and the charm of it all evaporates the further down the river we go.

The legend we’re introduced to in the beginning of the film turns out to be real. And it appears our characters goose is cooked. Character secrets get revealed. We hear the full legend of Aguirre, and it’s pitifull when mentally compared against the Herzog classic. Magic flowers(our MacGuffin from the beginning) that may grant eternal life/heal all ailments/lift curses are now every characters absolute goal. The eyerolling romance between Blunt and Johnson is forced. Disney isn’t backing down though, and rather than let any relationship between the two megastars simmer just out of frame they opt instead to give us a tropey underwater sequence where they *have* to lock lips to exchange oxygen(Really? This took you 7 writers to figure out?). It’s a boorish character choice, and one that stands in stark contrast to the self aware dialogue spewed by both Johnson and Whitehall the first half of the film. I won’t give away the finale, but I will say the cruise does indeed come to an end. For now at least the Jungle Cruise ride has a story. Let’s hope the next time Disney puts a portion of their theme park on the big screen they use half as many writers, and keep things more on the rails.



Jungle Cruise Trailer

Jungle Cruise is currently screening theatrically and on Disney+