Jungle Cruise review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast : Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Édgar Ramírez, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Veronica Falcón
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 127 min
Opens : 29 July 2021 (Sneaks 28 July)
Rating : PG13

“Weird Al” Yankovic has a song called “Skipper Dan,” a melancholic tale of a Juilliard grad who must settle for being a Disney theme park cast member, playing the skipper on the Jungle Cruise ride. It’s a song about how following one’s dreams can often end in soul-crushing tedium, something this critic certainly knows nothing about. Anyway, we’re getting an upgrade from Skipper Dan to Skipper Dwayne in this movie based on said theme park ride.

It is 1916. English botanist Dr Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is in search of the fabled Tears of the Moon, a tree deep in the Amazon jungle which has petals said to cure any ailment. Lily’s brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) would much rather live a luxurious existence but is dragged along on the expedition by his sister. Arriving in Brazil, they come across Skipper Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), who gives river tours on his beat-up steamboat La Quila and is armed with corny one-liners. Frank is not above a bit of grifting and deception to get by, and behind on his payments to harbourmaster Nilo (Paul Giamatti), jumps at the chance to ferry Lily and McGregor when he finds out they are rich. Also hunting for the Tears of the Moon is Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), an obsessive German aristocrat who takes a submarine into the Amazon. The Houghton siblings and Frank must battle all manner of obstacles, including undead Conquistadors led by the ruthless Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez).

Jungle Cruise is a throwback and one that a certain section of moviegoers will find welcome. The poster is deliberately evocative of Drew Struzan’s classic painted movie posters, though it isn’t actually created by him. This movie is a throwback in that it’s a period adventure movie, but also a throwback to a time before Disney owned intellectual property like Marvel and Star Wars and before they were regularly remaking their animated films. Disney’s most successful attempt at turning a theme park attraction into a potential film franchise was with Pirates of the Caribbean, which Jungle Cruise bears many similarities to. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, known for directing Liam Neeson-starring thrillers like Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night and The Commuter, aims to recapture the spirit of those rip-roaring adventures. Flavio Labiano’s cinematography is textured and warm, while James Newton Howard provides a rousing score. There is some haunting horror movie-adjacent imagery, especially the one undead Conquistador who is covered in honeycombs and bees, Candyman-style.

Emily Blunt puts in a wonderful starring turn, as a spirited woman who has been rejected from her chosen field based on being a woman. There are notes of studio-ordered “strong woman protagonist,” but Blunt transcends that with an energetic, committed turn. Jesse Plemons plays against type, channelling Christoph Waltz as a power-mad royal, making for an entertaining villain.

Adventure stories are often intrinsically tied to a fundamentally colonialist worldview: the hero is often a European or American man outrunning the spear-wielding savages. Sometimes, a village is in dire straits, and only the hero can save the primitive folk. One can’t help but cringe at such depictions, with movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom being straight-up racist. Jungle Cruise subverts this with its portrayal of indigenous Amazon tribespeople and seems to be very conscious of the uncomfortable colonial undertones that many movies in this genre possess, intentional or otherwise. We won’t give too much away, but there is a commendable attempt at addressing one of the more controversial elements of the ride.

Jungle Cruise can sometimes feel like a facsimile of a facsimile – it invokes Romancing the Stone and Indiana Jones, which in turn were inspired by movies like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Jungle Cruise can either be taken as refreshing, given how different it is from the standard summer blockbuster one might get in 2021, or somewhat stale, given its old-fashioned sensibilities which have been processed through the Disney studio machine. It’s impossible to ignore how much this movie wants to be The Mummy (1999): Frank is analogous to Rick, Lily to Evelyn, McGregor to Jonathan and Aguirre to Imhotep. Alas, it’s some ways off from that. The midsection sags, and at 127 minutes, this feels a shade too long. The movie is filled with computer-generated animals, and one would think that after 2016’s Jungle Book, Disney would have mastered this art, but sometimes the animals can’t help but feel a little artificial.

Unfortunately, Dwayne Johnson is a major problem with this movie. Sure, he’s charismatic as always and can play a roguish adventure movie hero in his sleep, but he just doesn’t fit with the WWI-era setting and shares little romantic chemistry with Blunt, such that the love story subplot becomes actively uncomfortable. Frank is inspired by Humphrey Bogart’s steamboat captain character from The African Queen – this is Bogey if he ate 14 egg whites for breakfast and if his boat had a gym hidden somewhere. Johnson’s larger-than-life presence, which has served him well in many other roles, is distracting and doesn’t complement the setting or story. Perhaps someone like Pedro Pascal, Rodrigo Santoro or Oscar Isaac might have fit the role better. However, there is an excellent scene in the second act in which Frank’s intriguing backstory is revealed.

Summary: While somewhat derivative, Jungle Cruise will scratch that adventure movie itch for audiences who are starved of movies like Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone and The Mummy (1999). Emily Blunt showcases her strengths in a role that seems tailored for her, while Dwayne Johnson can’t help but feel out of place even as he brings his trademark charisma to bear. Jungle Cruise also reckons with uncomfortable, outmoded adventure movie tropes in a worthwhile way.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Space Jam: A New Legacy review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Cast : LeBron James, Don Cheadle, Khris Davis, Sonequa Martin-Green, Cedric Joe, Ceyair J. Wright, Harper Lee Anderson
And the voices of: Jeff Bergman, Eric Bauza, Zendaya, Bob Bergen, Jim Cummings, Gabriel Iglesias, Candi Milo
Genre: Animation/Comedy/Adventure
Run Time : 116 min
Opens : 15 July 2021
Rating : PG

In the 1990s, there was a spate of basketball players trying their hand at becoming movie stars. There was Dennis Rodman in Double Team and Simon Sez, John Salley and Rick Fox in Eddie, Ray Allen in He Got Game and Shaquille O’Neal in Kazaam and Steel. By far the most memorable of these was Michael Jordan in Space Jam. 25 years later, LeBron James steps into those Nikes to lead Tune Squad.

LeBron James (LeBron James) is having a bit of a rift with his younger son Dom (Cedric Joe). Dom is passionate about computer programming and videogame development, building his own game at just 12 years old, but LeBron is pushing his son to perform on the basketball court. LeBron brings Dom along to a meeting at Warner Bros, where father and son are absorbed into the “Serververse”. This is where Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), a sentient program, holds court. He pits father and son against each other in a basketball game inspired by the game Dom is building. LeBron traverses the various realms of Warner Bros-owned intellectual properties, meeting the Looney Tunes. Bugs Bunny (Jeff Bergman) reunites his friends, including Daffy Duck (Eric Bauza) and Lola Bunny (Zendaya), to form the Tune Squad. LeBron doesn’t have much hope in his team but must get them into shape to face off against the Goon Squad, comprised of augmented digital avatars based on basketball players including Klay Thompson, Anthony Davis, Diana Taurasi and Nneka Ogwumike.

There are parts of the movie that are surprisingly emotional, and the father-son story is a fine backbone for a family film. The animated sequences are excellent, especially the 2D-animated stretch of the movie. There is a sophistication to the visual effects work which is commendable, and some of the design work is fun too. LeBron James is much more natural voicing the animated version of himself than he is on camera, even though he’s far from the worst athlete-turned-actor. It must be slightly strange for LeBron to act opposite actors playing fictionalised versions of his wife and children, but they mostly sell it.

Don Cheadle is a lot of fun in the villain role. Al G. Rhythm is a computer program, but Cheadle plays it completely relaxed and very human.

This reviewer loved the 2D-animated sequences set in the DC Animated Universe. It’s a thrill seeing those designs on the big screen. There’s also a section of the movie involving Wonder Woman that made this reviewer tear up.

This is “Corporate Synergy: The Movie”. Space Jam: A New Legacy is a pop culture nostalgia ouroboros. This is what happens when studios bank too heavily on recognisable IP, it starts to become a snake swallowing its own tail. The Looney Tunes characters have always been self-aware, and media involving them has always been heavy on pop culture references, but this lacks the wit of Looney Tunes: Back in Action, which was a wry showbiz satire. Here, the combination of various Warner Bros-owned properties can often feel clumsy. The LEGO Movie, Wreck-It Ralph 2 and even Ready Player One all executed this much more elegantly. There are six credited writers, four of whom also have a “story by” credit, which is usually an indication of far too many studio-mandated rewrites.

The climactic basketball match, which should be the highlight of the film, just goes on for way too long. It is interrupted by an unbearable sequence in which Porky Pig (Eric Bauza) performs a rap. It’s the moment during which the movie feels the most out of touch.

The audience at this match is comprised of characters from all sorts of Warner Bros. properties, including decidedly non-family-friend titles like Game of Thrones, It, A Clockwork Orange, and most bizarrely, Ken Russell’s The Devils. To be clear: the Droogs are a gang of rapists who are showing up in a family movie. The characters are all played by extras in costume, such that they feel more like cosplayers at a comic convention than the characters they’re meant to be. Compare this to when Disney got every living Disney Princess voice actor back for a sequence in Wreck-It Ralph 2.

Space Jam: A New Legacy is the culmination of 25 years of development hell. The original Space Jam was a massive hit, but Michael Jordan declined to return for a sequel. Options that were explored included the unfortunately titled ‘Race Jam’ with Nascar driver Jeff Gordon and ‘Skate Jam’ with Tony Hawk. Jackie Chan was courted to star in ‘Spy Jam,’ which eventually became Looney Tunes: Back in Action. That film was commercially unsuccessful, but in many ways, it is much better than Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Summary: Space Jam: A New Legacy packs in plenty of spectacle and boasts some impressive animated sequences but there’s just way too much going on. This belated sequel is bogged down by what feels like a corporate mandate to include as many Warner Bros-owned properties as possible, including several that absolutely should not be referenced in a family film. The day is almost saved by a charismatic turn from Don Cheadle.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Black Widow review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Cate Shortland
Cast : Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt, Ray Winstone, Ever Anderson, Violet McGraw
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 134 min
Opens : 8 July 2021 (Sneaks from 7 July)
Rating : PG13

Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies have become an expected feature of the theatrical release calendar, and 2020 was the first year since 2009 in which none were released in cinemas. While the MCU is branching out on Disney+, it’s good to hear the Marvel Studios logo fanfare in a cinema again. After multiple delays, Black Widow finally arrives.

Set right after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is a fugitive from the authorities. While attempting to keep a low profile, she crosses paths with Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), a sister figure who has undergone similar training. The duo eventually reunites with Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) – years ago, the four Russians posed as a family, undercover in rural Ohio. Now, they must work to dismantle the Red Room program run by the ruthless Dreykov (Ray Winstone), and attempt to free the brainwashed women whom Dreykov is conditioning to be the next generation of deadly operatives, known as ‘Widows’. Dreykov’s secret weapon, the enigmatic Taskmaster, is a Terminator-like assassin who can mimic the moves of any combatant he studies. Natasha, who has spent her whole life running from her past, must confront it, finally gaining a degree of closure.

The Black Widow character is long overdue for a solo movie, something that’s been floated since even before the character’s MCU debut in 2010’s Iron Man 2, with a Black Widow movie announced as early as 2004. Scarlett Johansson has never been given a great deal to sink her teeth into with the character, and the preceding MCU films have offered little more than tantalising hints at the character’s dark backstory of being trained and brainwashed from childhood into the perfect killing machine. This is a movie that is interested in its characters, and director Cate Shortland excels at scenes in which people are talking to each other, hashing out unresolved tension. There is a stylishness to the proceedings and a touch of spy movie flair. Several action sequences are entertaining, and the violence seems more brutal, impactful and immediate than in many other MCU films, perhaps pushing the PG13 rating a bit.

By now, we’re used to hearing criticisms of the MCU movies being formulaic. Unfortunately, despite a few stylistic touches, Black Widow still often feels like it’s rolled off the Marvel Studios production line. The pacing of the movie is very much “dialogue scene, action scene, dialogue scene, action scene,” in a way that feels very dutiful. There is an attempt to balance the character stuff with the superhero stuff, and it’s not quite as effortless as it should be.

The big climactic action sequence is stuffed with CGI, and by then it can’t help but feel like the movie is on autopilot. The action sequences in Black Widow and indeed in most other MCU movies are technically proficient, but it seems there are only so many ways a vehicle can flip over. It’s a bit of an open secret that MCU action scenes are mostly handled by a separate team, and some directors are better at making everything fit together than others, so the movie sometimes feels a bit disjointed. The curse of the mediocre villain strikes again – while Taskmaster’s mimicry gimmick is initially interesting, there’s just not a lot to him, and the dynamic of Taskmaster being the heavy and Dreykov as the puppet master is efficient but overly familiar.

The best parts of Black Widow are when the makeshift family of Natasha, Yelena, Alexei and Melina are spending time together. There are bits of the movie that even feel like The Incredibles. The way Natasha views the arrangement as a sham, whereas Yelena still has an emotional attachment to it, is an excellent approach to this setup. The new additions to the cast are all excellent, with rising star Pugh positioning herself in just the right MCU role. Her interactions with Johansson really feel like two sisters bickering, and there’s a believable chemistry between them, conveying the sense of two people making up for lost time.

David Harbour steals the show with a warm, loveable performance as Russia’s very own super soldier. He brings a great deal of dad energy to the proceedings and looks to be having a great time. Weisz is a lower-key, dignified presence, even if Melina is not an especially interesting character as written.

Summary: While not a wholly satisfying swansong for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, this solo outing introduces some enjoyable characters into the MCU and is interested in its characters’ internal lives, even as there is plenty of requisite action spectacle. The movie is at its most enjoyable when it’s about Natasha’s makeshift family unit, with Florence Pugh’s Yelena making for an endearing little sister figure. As is the custom, stick around for a post-credits scene.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong