Jungle Cruise

A year ago when this was originally due, I was really looking forward to it. Somehow the extra year weaned me off of anticipation, the exact opposite of “Dune” and “No Time to Die”. So this movie, which has been out for six weeks was almost gone from my radar, but then I noticed that it seemed to be hanging around for a lot more time than most new releases. I had a blank spot in my afternoon and going to a movie is my default action. When I saw this was still playing and it was available as a matinee, I found the requisite enthusiasm to venture out. I am really glad I did, it was a completely enjoyable experience. 


Most of the time, Dwayne Johnson has not let me down. There are not stars that can guarantee a movie opening, not anymore. The closest we have are Tom Cruise and the former “Rock”, so maybe there is still a little hope for Hollywood in the star system. Julia Roberts was once one of those actors who could open even a bad movie, for me, Emily Blunt is the female star most likely to get me into a theater. It is not the combination of the two stars however that make this film a “want to see”, it is the premise. Disney has had varying degrees of success turning theme park attractions into film franchises.  We are still getting “Pirates” movies, but no one is clamoring for another “Country Bears”. “Jungle Cruise” just feels like it out to be a Saturday adventure film. The Disney ride at the park is inspired by “The African Queen” and “King Solomon’s Mine”. It always felt like a live action Tarzan film. Translating it to a theatrical film is mostly successful but you have to keep the context in mind. This is a Saturday Seial brought to life, it should not be looked at as anything else. 


As I was watching it, a dozen other films came to mind. I mentioned “The African Queen”, the boat in the ride and this feature is based on the boat from that film. The search for a lost treasure of course brings up a lot of films, but “Jungle Cruise” feels very much like the Brendan Frasier “Mummy” movies of the 1990s. There are moments cribbed from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” which itself cribbed from a thousand other films. When the cursed conquistadors showed up, I caught Disney stealing from their own theme park movie series and I began to wonder if Johnny Depp was going to show up. He doesn’t, but a half dozen similar ideas crop up. Dwayne Johnson plays Captain Frank Wolff, who is full of scams to keep his business going. The opening section includes a tourist cruise that gives the Rock a chance to do the kinds of puns that fill the tour at Disneyland. If I’d ever wanted to work at the Magic Kingdom, it would have been as one of the boat captains on the Jungle Cruise attraction. The corny quips are not as frequent in the rest of the film but there is a nice call back at the conclusion of the film.

The adventure is mostly light hearted but there are some deaths that occur that might bother the little kids. Nothing is too graphic but some sympathetic characters get sacrificed to elevate a sense of danger. My only film making criticism is that the movie does feel a little long. The story could have been tightened and maybe a couple of the big CGI scenes could be shortened substantially. As a live action cartoon style adventure however, I think it hits the right notes. There are a couple of places where the modern sensibilities wisely sidestep some of the cultural land mines that were present in the old ride, but only one thing seemed to be particularly woke, and it is so subtle that most kids won’t notice it.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra has done several films I have enjoyed, including, the Liam Neeson trifecta of “Unknown“, “Non-Stop“, and “Run All Night“. My favorite of his films however is the Jaws inspired “The Shallows“.  He is currently finishing up another Dwayne Johnson picture “Black Adam”, It’s a DCEU film which is scary, but it does stem from the “Shazam” stories so maybe it will work, we will see. Meanwhile, Jungle Cruise is still sailing, so hop on board, but be sure to bring a big bag of popcorn, because that is the only nutrition you’ll get on the expedition, most of this is the cotton candy that you crave in the summertime. 

The Commuter

Liam Neeson and I have a standing date in the winter months. He shows up to kick some ass and I show up to watch him do it. For the last two years however he has stood me up. Unless I’m willing to give him credit for “A Monster Calls” where he did a vocal performance, he has made me go six months of winter without killing anyone on screen. That’s too long and I don’t like it. So of course I was happy to see that he had a January mind numb-er coming out this year.  He has make some exceptionally good action films but he has also made some that are there to simply divert us for a couple of hours, no complaint, and this is a genre picture with no aspirations except to entertain us.

This is the fourth film he has made with Jaume Collet-Serra as director, and like the other three, it is an action film with a unique premise. Neeson is a guy who has been doing a middle class job, in a mundane corporate life, for a decade now, and suddenly he is immersed in a conspiracy and is forced to call on some old skills. You see he is also a former cop. That at least explains why he is able to think the way he does and handle himself pretty well when the fan makes contact with the feces.

Collet-Serra is a competent action director. I really liked his shark movie from two years ago, it was stylish and beautifully shot. There is one fairly artistic touch to this film and it happens during the opening. Neeson’s character goes through a number of days, minute by minute, almost Groundhog Day like.  We see how similar each day of his life has been. There are minor variations of daily issues but the routine is the same. It is as if the life is mundane and you don’t really need to see everything that happens each day because it changes so little. The montage is the pre-title sequence and it does a nice job creating exposition without ever telling us a plot point. We know his life from the outset. This day however turns out a bit different. His work situation changes, his routine is disrupted and a stranger enters his life with a weird proposition. The next thing we know, he is jumping between train cars, engaging in deadly hand to hand combat and trying to outwit a antagonist who apparently knows everything except the one piece of information she wants Neeson’s character to find out.

There is no real surprise that the reason he is connected to the plot here is that he was a cop. Now just which one of the former co-workers is the bad guy? When you have name actors in parts that seem much to small for them, that is usually a tip-off that more is coming. In this film there are two possibilities, and the story keeps you guessing up to the climax, when it seems it could be either of the two, and then there is the turn and it is revealed. So we had some cat and mouse, some procedural and a couple of action sequences up to this point. Finally, there is a Spartacus moment and you will appreciate characters that maybe you didn’t think much of before. There are two Macguffins, a person and something they are carrying. In the end, neither is very interesting but we do get to see the psychological test that the antagonist has set up for us. Vera Farmiga has about the same number of scenes as her costar from the Conjuring films, Patrick Wilson, has. They never have any scenes together and it does seem odd that the casting went this way given their history together in movies. It’s not important, it’s just a quirk I noticed.

Long time character actor Johnathan Banks has a brief role and he was fine. Sam Neil is another name that is dangled as a suspect for us and you can certainly see why they went that way. Elizabeth McGovern is Neeson’s wife, with very little screen time and no character at all. This is an entertaining couple of hours that will leave no marks and doesn’t require additional viewings once everything has been revealed. I’m just glad there are still mid-level action films being produced for weekend consumption in the deadest part of the year.

The Shallows

Back into the ocean for the second time in a week. This time the animated fish is not the friendly Dory, neurotic Marlin or sweet little Nemo. The costar of this movie is a descendant of Bruce from “Jaws“, a giant aggressive shark that is defending it’s feeding territory in the most violent way imaginable. While it is not a classic film story about character and class with humor and drama, as it’s progenitor was, “The Shallows” is an effective thrill generator with enough personality to keep us engaged and shot with the technological innovations of the last 41 years so that no one will be complaining about a mechanical shark.

Four years ago, Blake Lively was the most irritating thing about the most irritating movie I saw in 2012, “Savages“. She is a beautiful woman who could not act her way out of a paper bag in that film. In this movie, she has to carry the whole story on her shoulders and she was excellent. I doubt that anyone will consider her award worthy because of the nature of the movie, but before the Academy doles out another of it’s obligatory Meryl Streep nominations, they might want to take a look at this largely wordless performance. There are places where dialogue comes up, but 80% of the movie is performed by body movement and facial expressions and she sells the pain, fear and frustration of this situation without having to rely on words . To me, that is an effective performance.

If you see any of the promotional material for the movie, you will know the plot. She is surfing in an isolated spot and gets trapped by a shark. How this is set up in an interesting way and where they find the drama and tension in the story is the success of the screenwriter and the director. Writer Anthony Jaswinski finds effective ways to build a progressive story about a woman trapped on a rock. There are some good complications that make for some excitement, and the character gets to be relateable through some reasonably good set up before the first attack and then cribs a little from “Cast Away” for the character in the last half of the movie. I won’t give anything away but not all the performers are human.

The parts of the film that are most contemporary and therefore a little more likely to be dated soon involve the visualization of the social media world of today. Nancy texts her girlfriend who has traveled with her to Mexico but skipped out on the surfing part. Those messages are projected off her phone and onto the screen briefly. When she skypes with her sister and father back in Dallas, we get picture in picture split screens so that she can interact with the characters who are not really there. The director Jaume Collet-Serra, is probably best known for a trio of Liam Neeson action pictures in the last few years, “Unknown“, “Non-Stop” and “Run All Night“. They were all effective action flicks that required less style and more direct approaches, although each of them did have some key visual moments in them. To me, the best visual moment in the movie occurs before the first shark attack when we see the shadow of the shark in the wave that Nancy is surfing. It is a effectively shocking visual. I was a little less excited about the lingering camera as Nancy uses her earrings to try to close a gash wound in her leg. It felt a bit like that moment in “127 Hours” that everyone knew was coming, but at least it was over somewhat quickly. That was not the case with this film.

There are other people in the film that are attacked by the shark, so all the action does not focus completely on Lively’s character, but those other victims are so anonymous that it is hard to have the reactions we probably should have. We can be horrified but not necessarily empathetic. In “Jaws“, Chrissy, the first victim is someone we can identify with because of the situation and the way she reacts. None of the characters in this film get that opportunity, they are mostly chum for the blood and guts crowd. We will be startled but not necessarily horrified. Nancy’s battle against the shark is a different thing though. Ms.Lively has provided a sympathetic character who is assertive,  clever and resilient. She is the Leonardo character from “The Revenant” without all the mysticism. Replace the bear with a shark and I think, at least when it comes to action, the film works just as well and at nearly half the time. The high definition shots of surfing and the ocean from above the surface and below are reminiscent of the grounds eye view of the trees and the birds eye view of the forest that we got in that survival film set two-hundred years ago. The contemporary photography thoughj can at least get some product placement money from Go-Pro.

 

I wanted this film to work because I love a scary movie with a shark. It’s not epic as the grand daddy of all shark films is, but it does one of the same things that the Spielberg film did in 1975, it holds the audience. There was a surprisingly packed theater tonight and there was a smattering of appaluase  at the end of the film. This is a good summer movie for the kids out there on their breaks, looking for some fun and hoping to be scared along the way. At the end of the summer, I’ll bet it outperforms some of the blockbusters that the studios have lined up. Once again, we will get some proof that people can be entertained without aliens, explosions or super heroes. All it takes is a shark in the water and some smart film makers to make it happen.