Jungle Cruise

[3 stars]

I don’t think I’ve seen such an obviously Disney movie in a long while. Even Cruella, though steeped in established characters, departed from the expected. But from the outset of this flick it’s clear we’re in the brand that has conquered the world. In part, that made the opening a bit weak and frustrating as it was utterly predictable and far too managed. It didn’t help that the overall sense is that of The Mummy (1999) meets Pirates of the Caribbean, even down to some of the relationships and scenes (intentional or not).

On the up side, Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place: Part II) and Dwayne Johnson (Red Notice) are well paired and know how to get the best out of each other. Basically, you know what will be happening but they do it at a very high caliber. But, in the end, you get another ride made into a movie…if you love Disney and their very defined brand and approach, this is a movie for you. If you have any doubt about what you’re in for, watching Jesse Plemons (Judas and the Black Messiah) and Paul Giamatti (Gunpowder Milkshake) tear up the screen in cartoon-like glee should set you straight.

Which isn’t to say the flick isn’t fun, it is. And, to be honest, there are one or two notable departures from the Disney brand around Jack Whitehall’s (Good Omens) character that were both funny and surprising. (Of course, nothing comes of it all, which is very much on brand.) There are even some clever story choices that director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Commuter) navigates well.

But it is, through and through, a throw-back to the hey day of Disney live-action adventure. But, like watching a good magician perform their best tricks over and over, when it’s done well, you tend to forgive them. I can’t say I’d rewatch this much if at all, but I can appreciate what they achieved and I recognize that some folks will just love it. And it is a solid 4-quadrant swing for the fences.

Jungle Cruise Poster

McDonald & Dodds

[3 stars]

To be honest, this isn’t a great show. But the continued character development and interaction between Jason Watkins and Tala Gouveia is what makes these stories fun. In other words, they’ve built on the first season but there hasn’t been any appreciable improvement in the writing. However, I was happy to see them back off a little with James Murray’s CS Houseman, who is still just an ass and a political animal in ways that make him a lousy cop.

What is interesting in this second go-round is how very unlikeable all the potential suspects are (and even the victims). There is just no room for sympathy for any of them; they’re all awful and selfish people. In some ways this forces your attention back on the titular duo, but it also makes the mysteries a little less satisfying. Sure the bad folks get what’s coming to them, and then some. But the police procedural aspects are weak (at best) and the motivational ambiguities are so obvious as to make each 90 minute episode a little boring. Not that there aren’t surprises and twists, but you never feel sympathy for any of the victims or perpetrators. And that, in my opinion, weakens the results.

But, if you are looking for some light mystery character escapism, this definitely still will do.

McDonald & Dodds Poster

Red Notice

[3.5 stars]

Looking for some empty calories with some action and belly laughs? Red Notice may be predictable and silly but it probably would fit the bill. In fact, it’s about all you could hope for in a soft-R comedy heist film with Ryan Reynolds (6 Underground), Dwayne Johnson (Young Rock), and Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman 1984) in the leads. Somehow, their egos and personalities all balance out perfectly without allowing any one of them to dominate the tale.

That’s quite an achievement given the charisma of each of these stars individually. And writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Skyscraper) actually went one better by crafting a nicely twisting story that moves at a brisk pace for its entire two hours.

He even manages to help Ritu Arya (Umbrella Academy) hold her own  against the lead behemoths, despite her diminutive stature and her besieged and constantly outwitted Interpol detective character. She adds an energy and some nice friction to the proceedings. The rest of the cast are throw away or only brief encounters, but there are some nice bits in there.

Is this the best heist film ever? No, not even close. But to watch the three leads have fun and bounce off one another is a great escape. Not that any one of them is doing anything new, they’re just doing it together. Thurber’s ability to balance their various styles even redeems (somewhat) his earlier efforts and shows potential.

This is clearly a stake in the ground for a franchise, and it’s one I’d be back to watch. Unlike a lot of similar films (like Fast & Furious) there’s a bit more character and plot meat to keep me engaged…and some more thought beyond what is the next biggest stunt they can design. Though don’t get me wrong, there are some huge stunts in this story too.

So pop the corn and sit back and enjoy. This will be exactly what you think and hope, and perhaps just a bit more. Either way, it was a fun ride.

Red Notice Poster

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

[3.5 stars]

Nothing can kill a movie for you like hype. It’s one of the reasons I avoid almost all reporting, trailers, and interviews about anything I know I want to see. But, of course, since I couldn’t go to the theater when it released, the hype swept over me for weeks on this one. Still, I managed to keep much of the secrets at bay and even most of the hyperbole.

And let’s be up front, the representation in this movie is a watershed moment. So was how it brought to life myth and legend from Chinese culture as well as the pervasive use of subtitles throughout the film. I know many who finally felt seen by this story. For that aspect alone, it is important. I’ve had my own moments of that (and await others) so I do understand the value and excitement of that acknowledgement.

And here’s where I’m likely to get yelled at: That doesn’t necessarily make it a good movie. I can only give you my impression of my own experience. That’s what these writeups are for and I try to be honest.

Director and co-writer (with his oft-collaborator Andrew Lanham) Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy) is great at the human side of stories. He can pluck the individual tale from the chaos around his characters and bring it into sharp relief. Marrying that to the MCU was never going to be easy. Adding a third writer to the mix to fill that gap was smart, though the choice of Dave Callaham (Mortal Kombat) was not likely their best. The resulting tale is very personal as Simu Liu (Kim’s Convenience) and Awkwafina (Raya and the Last Dragon) make their way across the globe to reunite family and save/destroy the world. Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love), Meng’er Zhang, and Michelle Yeoh (Gunpowder Milkshake) complete that collection of travelers and fighters. The cast is strong and, generally, very good. However, as much as I like Awkwafina in many of her recent roles, she clunked for me in this one. She is brilliant at being a counterpoint to everyone around her no matter the story, but in this case it often shattered the movie for me, pulling me out of it too often rather than providing a moment of grounding, humorous respite, or insight. 

More importantly, though, the story never really had that epic feel of other MCU origin stories for me. It had nothing to do with familiarity or lack of it; I knew very little about many of the characters and their origins as I went down the rabbit hole when Iron Man came out. And I know plenty of Chinese myth and folklore (not to mention watching lots of movies from the region). It has more to do with the shape of this movie, it’s ebb and flow. Sure there are phenomenal fight scenes. There are even very high stakes. But we never really know the enemy…it’s an impersonal evil that we don’t meet till the last minutes of the film. By focusing so much on the personal journeys (admittedly essential), Cretton never builds up an understanding of the threat or a character to root against on a personal level. That is a key part of how the MCU stays interesting; how any good vs. evil story stays interesting. We want to dislike Thanos, but we also are forced to understand him to a degree. By focusing so much on the family drama, he lost that opportunity, even as he built an interesting path for Leung’s character.

I did love how this story ties back into other MCU tales and the surprise appearances of two wonderful characters. And, while it isn’t all that different in style and execution from the many, many Chinese fantasies that have been coming out for decades, having one come out from Hollywood is a milestone and a mainstreaming that should have happened ages ago. But, again, these aspects don’t make it a great movie on its own.

So, in the end, while I may have a had a reasonably good time and loved so many of the visuals and incredible choreography, as a movie it sort of fell flat a bit. Perhaps over time I’ll revise my assessment, but for now it feels like half the balloon wasn’t inflated for me, and that made the whole trip a little less interesting.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Poster

Another Life (series 2)

[3 stars]

What you first need to know about this series is that it does manage to pull itself together (barely) by the end. There are issues with that ending and getting there, but I’ll come back to that.

The first season of this show was honestly somewhat forgettable and not particularly well written. However, there was enough in there to bring me back for another round. Well, that and getting more of Katee Sackhoff and Samuel Anderson, who were two of the rare stand-outs in the first round. And while I was dubious through most of this second season, they, again, helped make it worthwhile. Not that there aren’t other interesting characters, but those felt more forced and purposely provocative, though they are handled in stride. JayR Tinaco and A.J. Rivera are the main focus of this comment, but are not the only manipulation in the tale.

Basically, the writing is still shaky…often. But to rescue the show from its beginnings, Aaron Martin and crew performed a hard reset on its concept, characters, and story. Over the first several episodes, it brutally and coldly goes about recreating itself in order to take us in new directions, even while hanging on to some of the original stories and expanding on them. For that, I give them a lot of credit.

But even halfway through the season the story was no clearer about what was motivating the aliens and general actions. And the surrounding stories were a hodgepodge of stuff, reflecting previous shows from Lost in Space to Galactica to god knows what else, V I suppose. It does seem a story in search of a purpose for much of its season. It isn’t that you can’t see some bigger arcs and plots, but the show feels like it can’t decide if it wants to be episodic or epic. The result is a very weird rhythm and not a lot of answers provided as it goes along.

As I mentioned, though, it eventually does try to answer the questions raised starting with the first episode. Getting there is rushed because they spent so much time lining up all the pieces and because of all the side-plot’s and shimmed social commentary. Ideas-wise, the show had a lot of fun exploring, but as entertainment it’s more than a little fractured and diffuse. If you were at all intrigued by the first series, you can get some sense of closure with this second go-round…eventually. And that ending feels complete even as it does allow for a continuation if they want. But it felt very much like a series finale…and that is just as well.

Another Life Poster

The Dustwalker

[3 stars]

I will admit this is a weak recommendation, but when you’re looking for a creature-feature that’s the intellectual antithesis of Girl With All the Gifts, it’s not a bad distraction. But while Sandra Sciberras’s walk through rural Aussie horror isn’t perfect, or even entirely fulfilling, it does have a solid female lead in Jolene Anderson (Harrow). Her deputy Richard Davies (2:22) is also reasonable, given his part, but most importantly he and Anderson work nicely together.

The main challenges with this Saturday morning level flick are that it’s loaded with willful-stupid moments for the characters, the logic of the infection is a bit nebulous (though there are some rules I could suss out), and it’s intentionally vague about some aspects.

Those last two criticisms are also back-handed compliments as they respect the audience. Sciberras doesn’t over-explain the situation and is willing to try and tell the story very much from the humans’ point of view. But that does mean that not all questions will get answered. That approach sets this a step above a lot of movies I’d lump into the same category as this one. It still isn’t great, but it had humor, action, and at least some attempt at thought rather than just silly and pointless carnage. And it also makes me curious to see what Sciberras could do with a better script.

The Dustwalker Poster

One Lane Bridge (series 2)

[3 stars]

The first installment of this, apparently, larger epic was pretty much a police procedural (in the BBC and Aussie format) with a brushstroke of the supernatural. That brushstroke added some interesting insights into Dominic Ona-Ariki’s main character and culture, but felt more a distraction and forced aspect to set the show apart.

This second series is still a murder mystery, but things take a strong left turn deeply into the spiritual as well. What was a brushstroke in the previous run is now very much at the center of of the tale. In addition, several of the main characters see ends to their paths begun in series 1 and other new paths are opened up. Understanding? Well not as much, but certainly a bit more of the history behind the titular bridge.

Main character stories that see the most expansion are driven by Joel Tobeck, Alison Bruce, and Michelle Langstone. Tobeck and Bruce follow stories that track straight out of the first round. Langstone’s story is more of new expansion, based on her first introduction but going off in another direction.

Overall, the show is decidedly unique in feel. While the murder mystery is central, it is really more about Ariki’s struggle with his visions and draw to the bridge. The finale does bring us to a pause, but it is far from a resolution to the questions the show raises. As of the finale, series 3 has yet to be announced, so I don’t know if it will ever be fully resolved, but I could live with the ending if I needed to. But I’m curious enough to go back if offered. A word of warning though: It’s definitely a darker show that I could only consume at the rate of one episode at a time. It isn’t grisly, it’s just, well, sad, paced, and depressing. That doesn’t make it bad, but it does mean you should plan your viewing appropriately.

One Lane Bridge Poster

Bingo Hell

[3 stars]

Let’s face it, horror is typically a young person’s game, whether being tortured or watching the carnage. That’s what makes horror films that focus on the, let’s say not so young, stand out. Whether it’s the silly fun of Cockneys vs Zombies or the more intense tales like Hereditary. Horror queen Gigi Saul Guerrero’s Bingo Hell falls more in the CvZ camp, without quite stepping into the slapstick.

But it does step up into the challenges of gentrification and economic disparity. Adriana Barraza (Cake) gives us a neighborhood grandmother with a solid stick to keep everyone in line. She and her fellow residents are in the throws of trying to survive the arrival of a devil-like presence, not to mention hipsters, at the center of their weekly communion. Along with L. Scott Caldwell and a few other friends, they go up against the unexpected arrival of Richard Brake. Creepy mayhem ensues and the friends and community are brought to the brink for the final showdown.

To be honest, the logic of the movie is spare at best. And the leaps in story are rushed, but it is all tongue-in-cheek (or sometimes tongue-pulled-from-mouth). But the overall effect is one of entertaining and black comedy, with just a touch of social messaging. The laughs are many but very much from the watcher’s side, no one plays it for laughs on screen.

Bingo Hell Poster

Occupation: Rainfall

[1 star]

Run away.

Seriously, 90% of this movie is simply chaotic action without focus or even obvious purpose because it is near impossible to follow. There is maybe 10 minutes of important dialogue in the 2+ hours of the film (I’m guessing as I bailed at the 48 minute mark when the story had yet to even really take shape and the f/x and dialogue were so bad as to hurt my brain).

Seriously, just don’t.

Everyone is allowed at least one bad film on their cv, so I won’t even brand those involved with a mention here.

Occupation: Rainfall Poster

Finch

[3 stars]

Let’s face it, there is something about Tom Hanks (News of the World) that makes him magnetic and sympathetic even when he is in morally ambiguous roles. His voice and demeanor can even make the end of the world a sort of soothing experience. Not that this role is very ambiguous, but it did get me thinking about the effect he has on screen.

Along with Caleb Landry Jones (The Florida Project), the two set out on road trip that, in several important ways, can have only one ending. We know this from near the beginning and yet it doesn’t matter. As they say, it’s about the journey, not the destination. And the journey is full of adventure and contemplation.

Finch is an odd little flick in the apocalypse genre. Luck and Powell’s first feature script incorporates the vibe of disparate films from Chappie and Short Circuit to some mash up of The Road, Silent Running, and Mad Max. It is both never quite its own thing and still feels like something new due to the mix of flavors. Though, admittedly, the logic is debatable at times. But Miguel Sapochnik (Repo Men) directs it confidently and with heart such that we never lose interest.

Make time for Finch. It will worm its way into your heart in ways that you can acknowledge are manipulated, but still accept. There’s nothing wrong with that when it’s done well.

Finch Poster

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