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New Escapist Video! “Jungle Cruise – Review”

I’m thrilled to be launching movie reviews on The Escapist. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute film review of Jungle Cruise, which is releasing theatrically and on Disney+ Premiere Access this weekend.

Non-Review Review: Jungle Cruise

Jungle Cruise is a throwback to a throwback to a throwback.

Jungle Cruise is inspired by the eponymous theme park ride, a surprisingly common occurrence in the age of intellectual-property-derived blockbusters, and an approach that has led to films like Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl and The Haunted Mansion. However, because even narrative-driven theme park rides don’t necessarily provide enough story to sustain a feature-length film, Jungle Cruise positions itself as a very deliberate homage to movies like The Mummy, and traces that lineage back to classic eighties adventures like King Solomon’s Mines, Romancing the Stone and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Cruise Control.

There’s an undeniable charm in this. After all, that adventure movie template can trace its roots back to movies like The African Queen and even into classic screwball comedies. It is a narrative framework that lends itself to charismatic movie star performances, and so it makes sense that Jungle Cruise features two genuinely engaging movie stars at its core: Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. Jungle Cruise is at its strongest when it is willing to trust its leads to do what they do best, to be fun and charming while having exotic adventures together.

Unfortunately, Jungle Cruise feels too beholden to the conventions of modern blockbuster storytelling to lean into its stronger elements. Instead, those aspects of the films are constantly at war with the demands and the limitations of a modern spectacle-driven blockbuster. At times, Jungle Cruise feels more like a faded map promising a path to precious treasure. The broad outline is clear, but the richer detail has been lost to time.

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New Escapist Column! On “Fast Five” as the Best (and Most Complete) “Fast and Furious” Movie…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of the trailer for F9, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the best entry in the larger Fast & Furious franchise: Fast Five. Fast Five arrived at an important moment for the larger Fast and Furious franchise, representing a pivot point between the earlier urban western adventures and the superpowered blockbusters that would follow. Fast Five is the moment at which the film series commits to becoming a twenty-first century blockbuster franchise, but also never loses sight of the origin. The result is a movie that is perhaps the most holistic and representative embodiment of the Fast and Furious as a franchise. You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Fast and Furious Presents – Hobbs and Shaw

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw works best when it delivers exactly what audiences expect from that title.

The breakout star of The Fate of the Furious was the chemistry between Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson. Behind the scenes conflicts between Johnson and franchise headliner Vin Diesel had forced the production team to structure the eighth film in the franchise so Johnson and Diesel didn’t have to share the screen. This led to a number of endearingly absurd set pieces, such as a heart-to-heart appeal between the two men conducted across a street over the speaker systems of monster cars. It also meant that Johnson had to find a new screen partner, and Statham was the member of the ensemble who fit the bill.

I have to admit, there were many more explosions and fistfights than I expected for a historical biopic exploring the relationship between Thomas Hobbes and George Bernard Shaw.

It’s easy to over-intellectualise the chemistry between Johnson and Statham. There’s the obvious physical contrast; Johnson has the bulk of a former professional wrestler, while Statham has the lean physique of a diver. There’s Johnson’s wholesome all-American persona set against Statham’s slightly devilish charm. There’s Johnson’s deep authoritative voice playing off Statham’s distinctly hard-edged accent. The duo play very well as a study in contrasts, while both also being able to support otherwise forgettable action films in their own right. They are a perfect fit.

Hobbs and Shaw works best when it understands this. The film’s best scenes are not the ridiculously over-the-top action scenes, which often seem borrowed or lifted from much better movies and which only fleetingly manage to tip themselves over into the delightful surrealist absurdity that makes the modern (Johnson era) Fast and Furious movies such a delight. Instead, the movie comes to life when Johnson and Statham are trading schoolyard insults, posturing and snarking, indulging in the sort of old-fashioned buddy action movie banter that is so rare these days.

Suns out, guns out.

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Non-Review Review: Skyscraper

Hollywood never really gives up on a genre that it loves, even when it might appear that the audience has moved on.

The perpetual reinvention of the western is one example, a genre that is constantly updated in terms of style and substance to reflect the times. The western has been reinvented and reimagined countless times over the past few decades, whether by combining it with other genres or by examining its underlying assumptions. The western survives in movies like The Hateful EightThe RevenantBone Tomahawk; films that are very clearly westerns even if audiences from the genre’s peak would struggle to recognise them.

Hanging on in there.

Disaster films are another example of Hollywood’s perpetual reinvention of a genre that has fallen out of style. While by no means as ubiquitous as they once were, disaster films still pop up from time to time. The attempts to update the disaster film often take the form of hybridisation, of tying the trappings of the genre into a more marketable template. In the nineties, Independence Day cleverly wed the disaster movie to an alien invasion narrative. More recently, Patriots’ Day tied the structure and rhythms of the disaster movie into a counter-terrorism epic.

Skyscraper hits upon what might be the ultimate genre fusion for the disaster movie template. At the very least, it feels like an inevitable hybrid in the modern cinematic climate. At its core, Skyscraper essentially asks… “what if a disaster movie, but also a superhero film?

The bed Rock of a stable marriage.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Tsunkatse (Review)

Tsunkatse is the crossover between Star Trek: Voyager and WWF that you didn’t know you needed. Mostly because you didn’t actually need it.

Tsunkatse is a delightfully bizarre piece of television, and perhaps the most cynical piece of Star Trek ever produced. That is saying something, considering that the franchise also includes Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, an episode that literalises William Shatner’s paranoid delusions about his fellow cast members. Separated from the episode by almost two decades, it is still hard to believe that Tsunkatse actually exists, even allowing for other “out there” premises for Voyager episodes like Threshold or Concerning Flight.

Somehow, the production team couldn’t secure Jean-Claude Van Damme as a guest star.

To be fair, Tsunkatse isn’t awful. It isn’t especially good either, but it never develops into the trainwreck suggested by the premise of making a Star Trek episode designed to cash-in on the popularity of wrestling. That might sound like damning with faint praise, but there is something to be said for the fact that Tsunkatse manages to be a truly memorable episode of Voyager based around a highly dubious premise, without ever collapsing into itself. Tsunkatse is better than it has any right to be, and that might just be enough.

Might.

Rock your world.

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Non-Review Review: Baywatch

The most damning criticism of Baywatch is that it is actually a pretty decent Baywatch movie.

Of course, it is hard to define exactly what Baywatch is. The show ran for eleven seasons, launched a handful of spin-offs, built up an instant recognisable iconography. However, the most striking Baywatch was just how hazily the concept was defined. As imagined by Baywatch, the beach front was a tabula rasa, a canvas as blank as the sand dunes on the shore or the expressions on most of the cast’s faces. The beauty of Baywatch was in its lack of a distinct identity, its capacity to be almost anything that it wanted to be, albeit in the clumsiest and cheapest manner possible.

To Beaches, or Not To Beaches?

Baywatch was nominally a show about lifeguards, about beautiful people running in slow motion. However, it could also be a show about shark attacks, about drug smuggling, about wrestling matches, about illegal immigration, about mermaids, about possession. It could even launch a spin-off Baywatch Nights, about private investigators pursuing beach-themed crimes that evolved into a water-themed X-Files knock-off. Baywatch could be whatever the audience wanted it to be, and even sometimes what they needed it to be.

Baywatch was a mirror unto which anything could be projected, the most popular show in the world about the day-to-day adventures on Malibu Pier. Baywatch became a window into the popular consciousness, an abyss that gazed back. Many tried to decipher its mysteries, to account for its popularity. Was it as simple as the fact that very pretty people were running while wearing very little clothes? Did Baywatch speak to a deeper yearning in those landlocked countries where it proved so popular? Did Baywatch know the audience better than they knew themselves?

A versatile storytelling engine.

All of this is to say that Baywatch comes with a baked-in absurdity. It is so elastic a premise, and so ridiculous a concept, that it is pretty much immune to mockery. It is hard to imagine a joke about Baywatch that the show never embraced in earnest during its two-hundred-and-forty episode run. Baywatch is beyond parody as a pop culture object. It is a möbius strip of ridiculousness and earnestness, taking itself so seriously that it doubles back around into self-aware absurdity.

This is the biggest problem with Baywatch. It is a terrible parody of Baywatch, if only because the source material seems to exist in a realm where parody has been folded in on itself and presented as an entirely sincere beach-bound adventure.

Lost at sea.

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Non-Review Review: San Andreas

San Andreas is a b-movie that desperately wants to be taken seriously.

The film is at its best when it engages with its corniness. The characters make terrible baseball-related puns as the world falls to pieces. Our protagonist has a clever idea inspired by a passer-by’s choice of headware. Paul Giamatti sells his seismological terror. A desperate mother decides to plough a boat through a window into the room where her daughter is already close to death. The disaster relief efforts are interrupted so that the news reporters can thank the team of hard-working seismologists who predicted the disaster whole minutes before it happened.

Pilot error?

Pilot error?

However, the film has no real sense of tone or mood. The script longs for a deeper resonance, and so aims a lot higher than it can actually hit. The main characters spend most of the disaster working through the death of a child several years earlier, with cliché flashbacks striving for heart-breaking but landing on groan-inducing. Plot points are dutifully and awkwardly set up, with characters spending most of the first act spewing obvious foreshadowing more than meaningful dialogue.

The result is a mismatched and uneven piece of work, a disaster movie in more than the way that the production team intended.

"Um, I found a plot hole..."

“Um, I found a plot hole…”

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Non-Review Review: G.I. Joe – Retaliation

I’m actually just a little bit divided on G.I. Joe: Retaliation. It is not, by any measure, a good film. It’s messy, it’s muddled, it’s over-complicated and under-developed at the same time, it’s nonsense, it’s dumb, it’s loud and it’s all over the map. However, some small part of me sort of admired that G.I. Joe: Retaliation had managed to so perfectly evoke the sensation of playing with toys. Had you given my eight-year-old self a box of G.I. Joe toys and told me to play for two hours, my playtime might have been plotted somewhat similarly to this film. I will concede that I admire the way that G.I. Joe: Retaliation feels more like a bunch of kids playing with toys than a carefully constructed action movie.

At the same time, however, I’m not afraid to admit that my eight-year-old self would have directed a pretty terrible action film.

Rock on...

Rock on…

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Watch! Fast & Furious 6 Trailer!

I’ll confess that I actually quite enjoyed Fast Five, the fifth instalment in The Fast & The Furious franchise. Not to the extent that I’m salivating at the release of the next instalment, but enough that I’m cautiously optimistic. The series hasn’t been the most consistent from film to film, but when it is good it is very solid popcorn entertainment. Anyway, check out the Superbowl trailer below.