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+

Black Widow

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

Over a year since it was first slated to come out, Black Widow has finally arrived on our screens, marking the first Marvel Cinematic Universe property to grace theaters since Spider-Man: Far From Home in July of 2019. Its titular character has been through quite the wringer with Marvel: introduced as little more than kickass eye candy in Iron Man 2, shoved into an inorganic romance with the Hulk in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and then killed—albeit in a poignant and affecting fashion—in Avengers: Endgame, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff finally has her own movie, replete with posed superhero landings galore. Even if it’s not quite worth the wait, Black Widow provides more than enough fun to warrant its existence, helped by a handful of exhilarating fight scenes and a stellar supporting cast.

Black Widow opens in atypical Marvel fashion: a cookie-cutter family in suburban Ohio sitting down to eat, the mother preparing dinner and kissing her daughters’ scrapes and bruises, the father coming home from a long day of work to greet his family. Then, slowly and then all at once, things go awry. 

As S.H.I.E.L.D. comes for them, the family rushes to get to their hidden plan and off the ground; in the ensuing fight, the mother is shot in the side but they all manage to escape and make their way to Cuba. There, things start to get even thornier: these aren’t Americans at all, and they aren’t a family, either. A group of Russians take away the “mother,” Melina (Rachel Weisz), on a stretcher; when they come for the youngest daughter, Yelena (Violet McGraw as a child, Florence Pugh as an adult), the elder Natasha (played by Ever Anderson as a child) refuses to let them take her until “father” Alexei (David Harbour) calms her down, only for the two children immediately to be whisked away. What follows is an opening credit sequence clearly taking cues from the James Bond films and other spy capers, names layered over a montage of young Natasha receiving spy training and overlaid with a cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” that classic anthem of apathetic American youth juxtaposed with the horrors of what Natasha undergoes. 

Read Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

The opening act of the film is arguably its strongest, setting us up for a Marvel film of a different breed, one rooted more in espionage and familial relationships than quips and big fight scenes. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite live up to the promise set by its opening. 21 years later, Black Widow—set between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War so they have a living protagonist and not a corpse left on Vormir—finds Natasha on the run, hunted by Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt, reprising his role from prior movies) after she refused to sign the Sokovia Accords. 

Her “sister,” Yelena, finds a way to contact Natasha, letting her know of a chemical compound that was planted in some other graduates of the Red Room program that Natasha and Yelena went through. This compound allows the nefarious Red Room director, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), to control his various female spies around the globe with what amounts to mind control. Yelena has discovered a way to stop it, and so the gang gets back together again: Natasha, Yelena, Alexei, and Melina.

The plot itself is fairly standard and more than a little bit ludicrous (and Natasha survives countless injuries that should have left her dead, superhero or not); in other words, it’s standard action fare. The movie does best when director Cate Shortland allows it to breathe, such as in a standout dinner table scene between the fractured family, and when she lets her stellar actors bounce off of each other. Florence Pugh in particular stands out, giving a performance that is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, and David Harbour excels as his former superhero gone to seed, providing the best moments of humor in the film. 

Unfortunately, the others do so well that despite this being Natasha’s film, and despite Johansson turning in a strong performance, she gets outshone by her supporting cast, due more so to the writing than any flaw in Johansson. Part of this comes from the fact that Natasha is dead in the present day MCU, having sacrificed herself to retrieve the Soul Stone in Endgame, so there are no stakes for her; furthermore, her character arc has already been completed, and while this can fill in some gaps, Natasha’s arc doesn’t satisfy as it should. 

What could have been an intriguing commentary on agency, the lack of control women often have over their own bodies, how they are used and discarded by men in power, et cetera, is reduced to a joke about Fallopian tubes and a few throwaway lines about making choices. Had the film marinated a bit more in some of its weightier themes and allowed Natasha to truly grapple with her past outside a handful of scenes, it could have been an MCU caper on the level of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As it is, it’s a fun movie to get back to theaters with and serves as a decent swan song, but Natasha deserves something just a little bit better.

Black Widow Trailer

Black Widow is currently playing in wide theatrical release and on Disney+

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The Lobster

Written by Michael Clawson

85/100

Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster is an expertly crafted and biting satire about the absurdity of modern attitudes towards single-hood and marriage. It depicts a dystopian future where single people are brought together and have 45 days to find a partner, or else be transformed into animal of their choosing. David, played by Colin Farrell, is a recent divorcee, and therefore one of the unlucky souls to be forced into the 45 day search for love. Upon arriving at a rural estate, known simply as The Resort, where singles are herded, he’s admitted as if he were a hospital patient, documenting his sexual preference, physical measurements, and, of course, the animal that he wishes to become should his quest for love be unsuccessful. His routine at The Resort involves staff-hosted and chaperoned mixers, “educational” lectures on the value of relationships, and hunts in The Woods for Loners, the band of singles that have shunned society’s romantic mandate. The rules by which the Loners operate are in dramatic opposition to the norm: mere flirtation is forbidden, and those caught canoodling are subject to violent punishment.

David’s experience ranges from hilarious to cringe-inducing and upsetting. Lanthimos exercises directorial precision and control throughout, which allows for a viewing experience that is wholly unique and unforgettable. The cinematography, which often positions characters off from center and brings attention to the cold and harsh interiors and landscapes, makes nearly every frame a sight to behold, and the string-heavy, sharply punctuated musical score eloquently enhances both the humorous and nightmarish turns of the narrative. The Lobster perfectly illustrates the ability of sound and camera-work to elevate a film’s impact.

The extent to which one will enjoy the film, however, depends on whether or not the viewer allows themselves to be enveloped by the world that Lanthimos creates. As is common in satire, many of the ideas and questions put forth by the narrative are often front and center; in other words, Lanthimos is anything but subtle in exploring what’s on his mind. Although it may be instinctive to try, analyzing its conceit while watching the movie would be exhausting because nearly every turn of events is not about audience-character connection, but rather the real-life experience that the moment reflects. The joy of seeing The Lobster results from wholeheartedly stepping into its world and forgetting our own until the credits have rolled, and only then reflecting on Lanthimos’ ideas about love and modern romance.

Michael Clawson originally posted this review on Letterboxd 06/19/16

Available on Netflix and Kanopy