Friday 30 July 2021

Jungle Cruise (Movie Review)

Disney continues to test the PVOD waters with Jungle Cruise, its fourth overall movie to receive a simultaneous release in theaters and on Disney+ through its Premier Access model. This is coming right after the heavily-touted success it had seen with Black Widow earlier in the month. And much like that other film, this one was originally slated to debut last summer, before being bumped a full year in the wake of lockdowns and COVID concerns. Now that the film is finally out, I'm here to tell you whether or not it manages to stay afloat in uncharted waters.

All sailing puns aside, Jungle Cruise stars Dwayne Johnson as Frank, a skipper who gets hired by a brother and sister (played by Jack Whitehall and Emily Blunt) seeking to explore the Amazon river in search of the fabled Tree of Life. Their adventure is made all the more perilous by the fact that they are being hunted by a German aristocrat (Jesse Plemons) who also seeks to find the Tree. But little do they all know about the dangers that await them in the depths of the jungle.

Jungle Cruise is just the latest Disneyland attraction to be turned into a full-fledged film, following after the very successful Pirates of the Caribbean film series. And similar to those movies featuring an Oscar-worthy performance by Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, this one is also elevated by the star power of its lead, or leads to be specific. Both Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt give great performances, and the ensemble as a whole more than make the movie worth the price of admission.

The movie also has that sense of adventure you'd expect from a film about facing the many dangers of the Amazon. Most of its setpieces were a little too heavy on their use of CGI though, but even that is to be expected from a film of this nature. The main letdown then is in its generic story, and a marked absence of real stakes. Not once in the movie did I fear for the lives of its protagonists, despite the film's attempts to convince me otherwise. But I imagine this was done to keep things lighthearted and more importantly, family-friendly.

Jungle Cruise is a fun-filled adventure film that should appeal to fans of genre classics like those in the Indiana Jones series. But while it might not quite match those films in sheer thrills, it still offers many of its own while serving as a showcase for its star-studded ensemble, all of which come together to make its adventure ultimately worthwhile.

Thursday 22 July 2021

Snake Eyes (Movie Review)

The G.I. Joe movie franchise receives another shot in the arm with Snake Eyes, its third entry and second attempt at a soft reboot. The two previous films had been met with a largely negative reception, despite scoring some measure of success at the box office. So for this new one, the hope was that it would finally get things right and set the franchise up with a solid foundation for future installments.

The movie stars Henry Golding as the titular Snake Eyes, a man that is taken in by an ancient Japanese ninja clan after saving the life of one of its high-ranking members. There he must not only earn their trust, but he must also undergo training and pass through a series of grueling tests in order to prove his loyalty. But after witnessing the death of his father at a young age, he'll be forced to choose between fulfilling his quest for revenge and his ties to his new family.

I'd gone into Snake Eyes with lowered expectations, based mainly on the quality of the two previous G.I. Joe movies. Because let's face it, those movies weren't exactly great, meaning that this latest film had a very low bar to scale to be considered an improvement. And in a way, it was this very fact that had helped to cushion my disappointment at its otherwise bland story and muddled execution. 
The film simply lacks the kind of spark you'd want to see in a movie about ninjas doing ninja stuff. Not that anyone should be going into a movie based on a Hasbro toyline expecting anything particularly groundbreaking, but still. Its one saving grace should have been its action scenes, but even those were marred by an overreliance on fast cuts and shaky cameras. What little could be seen of its fight choreography and wire stunts was awesome though, channeling the kinetic energy of classic ninja films. 
But when otherwise competent martial artists like The Raid's Iko Uwais are made to look uncharacteristically slow, then there is something clearly wrong with the way their actions are being presented. Speaking of which, the film does boast a solid overall ensemble, with Henry Golding bringing much of the same level of charisma he had shown in Crazy Rich Asians. But the true standout was Andrew Koji who plays Thomas Arashikage, the man who would eventually become his archrival, Storm Shadow.

Snake Eyes is easily the best film in the G.I. Joe movie franchise thus far. But considering how poorly put together the last two films were, that's not saying much. The film squanders its great ensemble on a generic plot that barely manages to get the job done. That said, there's certainly some enjoyment to be had with the movie. And while it might not on its own fully revitalize the franchise in the way its filmmakers had no doubt hoped, I am still more than curious to see what comes next.

Friday 16 July 2021

Space Jam: A New Legacy (Movie Review)

Back in 1997, it seemed like one could barely put on the TV without hearing "I Believe I Can Fly" by R. Kelly. The song was so ubiquitous that it pretty much transcended the movie that spawned it. All that is to say that I still consider Space Jam an integral part of that particular slice of my childhood. So as you can imagine, the cynic in me was quite skeptical the moment I learned they were doing a sequel, all these years later. Turns out the cynic had every reason to be.

In Space Jam: A New Legacy, a basketball legend is sucked into a cartoon world where he must lead a team of Looney Toon characters to victory in a high-stakes basketball match. And you'll be forgiven for thinking I'd simply read out the synopsis for the original Space Jam, because the basic premise is the same. The only difference is where once stood Michael Jordan now stands Lebron James in his place.

Following an encounter with a rogue A.I named Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), both Lebron and his son, Dom (Cedric Joe), are trapped in the Server-Verse, a virtual reality world populated by the various Warner Bros. properties. In order to escape, they must each assemble a team to play in a basketball match against one another. And while Dom gets to put together a dream-team of augmented professional basketballers, Lebron gets saddled with the Looney Tunes.

I went into Space Jam: A New Legacy with lowered expectations, hoping to be mildly entertained at best. I mean, it is not as if the original Space Jam was all that great to begin with, even though the 10-year-old version of me had loved it at the time. So I'd channeled my inner 10-year-old as I attempted to enjoy the new movie for what it was. And to a certain degree, there is some enjoyment to be had with it.

The premise of the movie is flimsy at best of course. The whole thing is after all just an excuse to have Lebron James play basketball with some Looney Tunes, much like Michael Jordan had done in the first movie. Which is fine, since once again, no one is going into these movies expecting anything particularly groundbreaking from their stories. But unlike the original film, where I cared about the build-up to and actual game of basketball at its center, this one seemed to lack much of that spark.

I know it is probably the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia speaking, but I'd felt way more invested over the course of the first movie. This time around, I was merely going through the paces and looking forward to seeing more of its updated take on the original's formula. Where the new movie tries to make up for some of those shortcomings though was in the comedy department. Some of the jokes were actually quite funny, poking fun at a lot of Warner Bros. properties. But for every one of those laugh-out-loud gags, there were at least two or three that were eye-roll inducing.

Space Jam: A New Legacy feels like a film that was conceptualized during a board room meeting between Warner Bros. executives. It pays homage to the vast number of Warner Bros properties, but in so doing fails to include much of the sports drama that made the first film memorable. To its credit, it does try to include a story with morals about being your true self. But even that isn't enough to save what is essentially another cash grab at best, and an elaborate ad for Warner Bros. and HBO Max at worst.

Thursday 8 July 2021

Black Widow (Movie Review)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe finally returns to the big screen after being forced to take a more-than-year-long break. Within that time though, we've gotten not one, but three excellent MCU shows, with Loki still ongoing as we speak. All that is to say that fans of the MCU have still been getting their MCU fix these last couple of months. So with Black Widow, what many of us are no doubt hoping for is a reminder of what sets these MCU movies apart from everything else. But does it mark a triumphant return, or is it just a simple case of too little too late?

Set following the events of Captain America: Civil War, the movie finds Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) on the run following her reluctance to sign the Sokovia Accords. It also traces her origins as a former KGB agent, most of which plays out over an opening montage set to a remix version of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit. She is soon forced out of hiding and back into the spy game though when an old acquaintance reaches out to her out of the blue. Now she must confront the demons of her past while being hunted by a deadly assassin that seems to know her every move.

I confess that I was never really that keen on a solo Black Widow movie, especially coming this late into the overall MCU. And my skepticism didn't exactly wane in the intervening time we had to wait following the film's delays. So you can take everything I am about to say with a grain of salt, and believe me when I say that your mileage may very well vary. But I honestly believe that this is one of the weaker movies we've gotten in the MCU thus far. This is not to say that it was a bad movie, just that it doesn't quite reach the same heights as the movies that came before it.

My main issue with the movie then stems from the very nature of its narrative. The fact that the film is a prequel immediately removes any sense of tension or urgency. We already know what happens with Natasha Romanoff in Avengers: Endgame, as well as the role she had to play in Avengers: Infinity War. So any threat she goes up against in this film gets instantly diffused by that knowledge. And the events of the movie itself ultimately adds nothing new to the MCU or any of these characters.

All that said, the film still delivers what the MCU does best, some truly jaw-dropping spectacle. The setpieces are some of the very best I've seen in a while, even though the action was of the leave-your-brain-at-the-door variety. Because we've got to remember that these aren't superheroes in the true sense of the word, at least save for one character. So watching them perform superhuman feats can feel a bit jarring and over-the-top. But if that is precisely what you came for, then rejoice, because that is precisely what you'll get.

Another highlight of the film was its stellar ensemble. Scarlett Johansson throws all her heart and soul into the role, but she is easily outshined by both David Harbor and Florence Pugh, both of whom provide much of the comic relief in the film. It is a shame we can't offer the same praise to the two villains though, both of which felt weak and terribly underdeveloped in comparison. And for anyone wondering, the film does have a post-credits scene, but it didn't feel like much more than an ad for one of their upcoming Disney+ shows.

Black Widow is not the epic swansong fans of Natasha Romanoff might be hoping for. Neither is it that great of an origin story. What it does do well though is remind fans of the MCU why they love this character. The film attempts to marry the spy thriller thrills of Captain America: Winter Soldier with the kind of family drama and hijinx you'd expect to find in a Fantastic Four. And while the two don't always gel well together, the film still manages to do just enough to justify its existence.

Friday 2 July 2021

The Tomorrow War (Movie Review)

It was around this time in 2015 that Chris Pratt became a bona fide action star, after starring in the global box office hit, Jurassic World. This was itself coming in the wake of him playing Star-Lord in the 2014 film, Guardians of the Galaxy, a role he has since reprised across multiple films in the MCU. So it shouldn't really come as a surprise to find him headlining yet another action film. Except this latest one appears to be his most ambitious one to date.

In The Tomorrow War, mankind is faced with the ultimate test when soldiers from the future travel back in time to enlist the help of present-day soldiers in their fight against a devastating alien foe. But when the first batch of soldiers is almost entirely wiped out, the governments of the world are forced to enact a global draft where everyday workers are forced to fight. This would lead to worldwide protests and general unrest as it appeared they were fighting a losing battle.

One of the men recruited to fight in that battle is James Daniel Forester (Chris Pratt), a former Iraq War veteran who has since become a high school teacher. Leaving his family behind with the hope of securing their future, James is sent forward in time 30 years, along with several other recruits. But what they find there is a lot graver than anything their drill instructors had prepared them for. Now they must fight to survive their 7-day tour, while fulfilling their duty and ensuring the survival of the human race.

Despite an overwhelming sense of been there, done that, there were still a few things I liked about The Tomorrow War. First, there is the whole concept of jumping back and forth through time in a bid to gain the upper hand in a future war. The concept itself is not particularly original, I know, but while it might seem like a rip off of older films like The Terminator, it still managed to infuse enough deviations to that formula to help set it apart. I won't give any of the twists away of course, but I was definitely surprised by the direction the film ended up taking, especially towards it latter half.

Then there is the fact that the film fully embraces the campiness of its premise. This point can't be overstated. It has oftentimes spelt the difference between why a film like Battle: Los Angeles gets poorly received for taking itself too seriously, and something like Edge of Tomorrow, which contained a nice mix of lighthearted humor and over-the-top action, doesn't. Thankfully, The Tomorrow War bears more in common with the latter than the former.

But speaking of action, this was the one area of the film where it threatened to lose me completely. Much like you'd expect from a film of this kind, it places a lot of focus on action and spectacle. A little too much for its own good in fact. Not that the effects were low-budget or unconvincing. But I would have simply preferred a more nuanced approach to some of those scenes, especially coming off the heels of the brilliant A Quiet Place Part II. But I recognize that those are two different types of films, engineered to appeal to two different types of movie fans.  

The Tomorrow War is a wholly unoriginal but still somewhat enjoyable sci-fi actioner. It delivers the kind of blockbuster spectacle you'd expect to find in a cinema around the fourth of July. The fact that it is instead debuting on Amazon Prime feels just about right though. Because despite all of its visual flourishes, this is one film that simply doesn't warrant going out to see on the biggest screen possible.