Pants and Skippy

Jungle Cruise

by George Wolf

Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) wears trousers in 1916 London, so she’s “pants.”

Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) is the skipper Lily hires to guide her and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) into the Amazon jungle, she he’s “skippy.”

As Lily and Frank’s verbal sparring grows more and more flirtatious during the swashbuckling adventures of Jungle Cruise, the sheer charisma of the two leads succeeds in steering the film away from dull waters.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra fills Disney’s latest with plenty of wink-wink spirit from the original theme park ride, right down to the cornball jokes Frank insists on telling to his tour boat clients.

But Lily is no tourist. She’s a botanist in search of the Tears of the Moon, a legendary tree said to contain magical healing powers. The closer Frank gets them to the prize, the more dangers come out of the jungle. Not only does Kaiser Wilhelm’s son Joachim (Jesse Plemons) also want the magic flowers, but a 400-year-old undead conquistador (Edgar Ramirez) is seeking to break the curse that ties him to the jungle.

Yes, there’s much going on, but Collet-Serra keeps the CGI action sequences (some of which will remind you plenty of Pirates of the Caribbean) front and center on a journey that never loses the family adventure vibe.

Not that the five credited writers have forgotten about us grown-ups who took this actual Disney ride as kids. An extended bout of Blunt v Johnson innuendo becomes a frisky delight, while the subtle nods to marriage equality and the savagery of colonialism are fleeting but effective.

The film’s third act delivers a major surprise, which results in extended exposition and the first signs of treading water. But even at its most formulaic, there’s enough humor, heart and genuine movie star appeal here to make Jungle Cruise an excursion full of rollicking good fun.

Walk Softly

A Quiet Place Part II

by George Wolf and Hope Madden

For a few well-placed and important seconds, there it is: the much-discussed nail from A Quiet Place. And like most everything else in writer/director John Krasinki’s thrilling sequel, the nail’s return carries weight, speaking visually and deepening our investment in these characters’ terrifying journey.

But before we see that the Abbotts have learned to avoid that nail, we go back to how it all began on “Day 1.” And Krasinski knows it doesn’t make sense now to tease us with monsters we’ve already seen up close, so beginning right from that pulse-pounding prologue, he keeps ’em coming.

So while there’s no shortage of exhilarating, squirm-inducing and downright scary moments, Krasinski instills it all with an impressive level of humanity.

As Evelyn (Emily Blunt), Regan (Millicent Simmonds), and Marcus (Noah Jupe) continue traveling on foot with baby Abbott in tow, they enter the fortified compound of old friend Emmett (Cillian Murphy), who is not nearly as welcoming as they hoped.

But when Regan heads out alone to find the permanent safe haven she’s sure exists, Evelyn convinces Emmett to follow, and bring her daughter back to the family.

From that point, the film splits into two parallel narratives that Krasinki layers with some nifty intercutting and clever, crowd-pleasing plotting. As the threats keep coming for Regan and Emmett in the wild, and for Evelyn, Marcus and baby back at the compound, the tensions build simultaneously via storytelling that’s primarily visual and wonderfully economical.

The editing gives the enterprise a welcome retro feel and Krasinski’s flair for visual storytelling has only strengthened since the last film.

Jupe is tenderly terrific, and it’s no surprise that Blunt and Murphy—two exquisite actors who never let you down—carry their own, but the one who carries the most weight in Part II is Simmonds. Regan is the film’s believable and capable hero this time, in a narrative choice that underscores the entire film’s optimism for our future and Krasinski’s reminder that there are always “people worth saving.”

AQPII is lean, moves at a quick clip, thrills with impressive outdoor carnage sequences and yet commands that same level of tension in its nerve- janglingly quiet moments. Krasinski had a tough task trying to follow his 2018 blockbuster, one made even tougher now having to prove the sequel was worth saving for a theaters-only release.

On both counts, we’d say he nailed it.

Practically Perfect

Mary Poppins Returns

by Christie Robb

Recreating the magic of a classic film like Mary Poppins seems like it should be impossible. Thankfully, with the sequel Disney proves that truly everything is possible, even the impossible.

Set 20 years after the original, Jane and Michael Banks are grown and eking out a living during the “Great Slump” (the term for the Great Depression in the United Kingdom). Michael (Ben Wishaw) has been recently widowed and is struggling to raise his three children alone when the bank sends some agents to inform him that his family home on Cherry Tree Lane is in foreclosure. He’s got until Friday at midnight to cough up the cash.

Enter Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), who returns to take care of the Banks children. This time the stakes are clearly a bit higher. Instead of the children and nanny dealing with neglectful and boring parents, they have to negotiate grief over their dead mother, probable homelessness, and some light animated kidnapping. It’s a more Lemony Snicket approach that keeps the plot moving at a good pace, but may be intense for the more sensitive kiddos.

The drama is balanced with some exhilarating song and dance numbers that mirror, but update, those in the original film. Remember Uncle Albert? Now we have a song with Cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep). The live action/animated number occurs inside the pattern of a Royal Doulton china bowl instead of a chalk drawing. And instead of chimney sweeps elevating the kids to the London rooftops for a jig, lamplighters led by Mary’s friend Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) wind the kids through the sewers and engage in some stunt biking and parkour.

Throughout, director Rob Marshall is faithful to the tone of the original film. There’s a continuity established from the opening credit sequence that continues through the choices in musical score, sets and costuming. However, Marshall’s experience directing movie musicals (for example, Into the Woods and Chicago) makes for more dynamic camera work and the occasional vaudevillian set piece.

This charming bit of nostalgia makes for an excellent holiday movie that celebrates the joys of childhood, imagination and family.





Shush!

A Quiet Place

by Hope Madden

Damn.

So, John Krasinski. That big, tall guy, kind of doughy faced? Married to Emily Blunt? Dude can direct the shit out of a horror movie.

Krasinski co-writes, directs and stars in the smart, nerve-wracking gut-punch of a monster flick, A Quiet Place.

Krasinski plays the patriarch of a close-knit family trying to survive the post-alien-invasion apocalypse by staying really, really quiet. The beasts use sound to hunt, but the family is prepared. They already know sign language because their oldest, played by Millicent Simmonds (Wondertruck) is deaf.

A blessing and a curse, that, since she can’t tell if she makes noise, nor can she tell if a creature comes calling.

Simmonds is wonderful as the conflicted adolescent, her authenticity matched by the tender, terrified performance given by Noah Jupe (Wonder) playing her younger brother.

As their expecting mother, Emily Blunt is magnificent, as is her way. Simultaneously fierce and vulnerable, she’s the family’s center of gravity and the heart of husband (onscreen and off) Krasinski’s film.

But you expect that from Emily Blunt. She’s amazing.

What you may not expect is Krasinski’s masterful direction: where and when the camera lingers or cuts away, how often and how much he shows the monsters, when he decides the silence will generate the most dread and when he chooses to let Marco Beltrami’s ominous score do that work for him.

The script, penned by Krasinski with horror veterans Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, stays one step ahead of your complaints. Just as you think, “Why haven’t they done this?” a clear explanation floats across the screen, either as translated sign language, a prop on a table or a headline in Dad’s gadget-laden basement bunker.

It’s smart in the way it’s written, sly in its direction and spot-on in its ability to pile on the mayhem in the final reel without feeling gimmicky or silly.

And the monsters are kick ass. That’s a big deal.

At its heart lies a sweet sentiment about family, but sentiment does not get in the way of scares. A Quiet Place works your nerves like few films can.





Train in Vain

The Girl on the Train

by Hope Madden

Not every book makes for a good movie – not even those page turners that seem cinematic as you read them.

Paula Hawkins’s insanely popular novel The Girl on the Train, for instance, had the feel of a pulpy film noir from the get go. Unfortunately, director Tate Taylor (The Help, Get On Up) can’t deliver on that promise.

Emily Blunt does, though. As the titular traveler – a vodka-addled protagonist of the most unreliable sort – her performance is as frustrating, sympathetic and confused as it needs to be to sell the sordid tale.

Rachel (Blunt) lives vicariously through the couple she passes twice daily on her commute. So fortunate they’re always home – on the porch, in the yard, or conveniently screwing just inside the window. How lovely they are. How vibrant.

Of course, some of this could be the overactive imagination of a very lonely woman who’s really diverting her own attention away from the house two doors down. The one that used to be hers, with the husband that used to be hers, along with his new wife and baby.

Yes, her imagination gets her into lots of trouble. That and her blackouts.

Taylor, with the help of screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, takes a stab at shifting the points of view of the three female leads – Rachel, her ex’s new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and that dreamy neighbor Megan (Haley Bennett, who is everywhere right now).

Only Blunt manages to keep your attention, though. Bennett and Ferguson are saddled with one-dimensional props for characters: misty eyed sexpot and brittle housewife, respectively. What should be an intriguing mystery soaked in the criss-crossing perspectives of three damaged women becomes a character study kept in motion by lifeless cogs.

Not that their male counterpoints fare any better. Taylor wastes Luke Evans and Edgar Ramirez with broadly drawn stereotypes, though Justin Theroux gets to chew a little scenery.

It’s impossible to watch this film without longing for David Fincher (Gone Girl, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), whose proven that dark chick lit can create undeniably watchable cinema. Like Rachel’s own window on the world, Taylor’s film is little more than a bleary mess.

Verdict-2-0-Stars





Do You Want to Build a Sequel?

The Huntsman: Winter’s War

by George Wolf

A magical young princess leaves her sister’s side amid some heavy emotional trauma, taking her cold heart to a frozen environment and staking her claim as the Ice Queen. This one, though, has no interest in building a snowman.

Winter’s War is both prequel and sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, the competent fantasy drama from 2012. You might wonder about the need for another film in this franchise, but it’s hard to argue with the cast.

Chris Hemsworth is back as Eric the Hunstman, along with Jessica Chastain as his beloved Sara and Charlize Theron’s evil Queen Ravenna. Theron was easily the best thing about the first film, and adding the great Emily Blunt as Ravenna’s chilly sister Freya seems like a pretty safe play.

Yeah, um, about that…

Blunt’s unbeaten streak of onscreen chemistry with every living human ends here, as she and Theron can’t get their considerable talents to gel. Instead, Blunt’s “love is evil” act and Theron’s power-mad malevolence wander into a curiously campy section of the castle.

How can you put two actors of this caliber side by side, and end up with scenes this dull?

Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyen is a visual effects veteran making his feature debut, and he seems much more confident presenting Eric and Sara’s woodland journey to recover the magical mirror, mirror no longer on the wall.

The film’s first act is nearly insufferable, ploddingly paced and weighted by exposition shared via the buttery (if uncredited) voice of Liam Neeson.

Things pick up midway as the adventure proper begins, but Nicolas-Troyden and cast stumble again as their tale comes to a close. Though it often looks fantastic, Winter’s War is uneven at best, with a mishmash of ideas that barely hold together, and cannot capture attention.

Worse still, it is an unforgivable waste of three of the most talented women working in film today.

If you harbor a mad desire to see the film, you may want to let it go.

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 





Effective Blunt Instrument

Sicario

by Hope Madden

How versatile is Emily Blunt?

Who’d have thought, back when she caught our attention in Devil Wears Prada or The Young Victoria that she’d step so easily into the role of badass? But between her shotgun-wielding protector in Looper and her Sigourney Weaver-esque role in Edge of Tomorrow, she’s proven as compelling a figure in action as she is in comedy and drama. She proves her mettle again in Denis Villeneuve’s take on the drug war, Sicario.

Blunt plays Kate Macer, a determined cop working hostage crises who’s promoted to a vaguely defined drug taskforce. She will find that her desire to make an impact and her hunger for justice do not always gel. It’s a flawed character who struggles against her naiveté while battling to keep her idealism intact in an operation that vividly encapsulates the murky, complex, and unwholesome battle at our Southern border.

As wonderful as Blunt is, she’s matched step for step by Josh Brolin, as a flippant senior officer who finds humor where most of us would not, and a breathtaking Benicio Del Toro.

Del Toro is at his best as a haunted, mysterious consultant on the case, and his relationship with Blunt’s character is equally menacing and tender.

Villeneuve’s films are dark and challenging, which is certainly the case with Sicario – his most satisfying film to date.

By focusing as intimately as he does on three or four characters, the global picture he paints is anchored, becoming more relevant and comprehensible. Roger Deakins’s weirdly beautiful cinematography mimics the rising panic of Kate’s attempt to soak in every piece of information in her new surroundings, generating an awestruck and terrified depiction of the escalating action.

Villeneuve walks a line between thoughtful drama and all out action film, never abandoning character while still creating arresting, unforgettable action sequences. The opening scene will stay with you, while two different visits to the border – one above ground, one below – are pure cinematic genius.

A tourism advertisement it is not, but Sicario offers an insightful, thrilling glimpse into a possibly unsolvable riddle.

Verdict-4-0-Stars





Five More Remakes in Need of an All Female Cast

Rumors of an all-female Ghostbusting team got us A) excited for the reboot, and B) thinking of other movies we’d love to see reimagined with women in the lead. Here are the 5 films we think could benefit from some gender-retooling, along with our dream casts.

Jaws

Steven Spielberg’s 1975 great white classic benefitted from one of the best buddy trios in cinema with Roy Scheider’s reluctant shipmate Sheriff Brody, Richard Dreyfuss’s on-board scientist, and salty sea dog Quint played to perfection by Robert Shaw.

Who has the gravy to run nails down a chalkboard, frighten the locals and bark that she’ll find the shark for $3000, but “catch him, and kill him, for 10”? Nobody but Jessica Lange. We’d flank her with Anne Hathaway as the transplanted cop who wants a bigger boat and Emily Blunt as the oceanographer willing to take the risk when the cage goes in the water.

Easy Rider

How fun would this be? Let’s rework the classic American outlaw motorcycle ride! Who’s the laid back badass looking for an unsoiled America? We’d put the great Viola Davis in Peter Fonda’s role. For the thoughtful square up for an adventure, we swap Amy Adams in for Jack Nicholson. And who could fill legendary wacko Dennis Hopper’s motorcycle boots? We want Melissa McCarthy. (Come to think of it, she’d give Blue Velvet an interesting new take as well.)

Glengarry Glen Ross

Who on this earth could take the place of Alec Baldwin with perhaps the greatest venomous monologue in film history? Jennifer Lawrence – can you see it? We really, really want to see a movie with JLaw chewing up and spitting out this much perfectly penned hatred.

“Put that coffee down!”

And at whom should she spew? The wondrous Meryl Streep should take Jack Lemmon’s spot as loser Shelley Levine. We’d put Kate Winslet in Pacino’s slick winner Ricky Roma role and Kristin Scott Thomas in Ed Harris’s shadowy Dave Moss spot. Then we’d pull it all together with the magnificent Tilda Swinton in the weasely role worn so well by Kevin Spacey.

Predator

We knew we needed an action film, but who could be the new Schwarzenegger? Our vote: Michelle Rodriguez. We then put the ever formidable Helen Mirren in the Carl Weathers boss role. Obviously. The ragtag group of soldiers sent to, one by one, to be skinned alive? Scarlett Johansson, Kerry Washington and Gina Carano. Done.

Reservoir Dogs

Picture it:

Ms. Orange (Tim Roth): Rosamund Pike

Ms. White (Harvey Keitel): Julianne Moore

Ms. Blond (Michael Madsen): Charlize Theron (Cannot wait to see her get her crazy on.)

Ms. Pink (Steve Buscemi): Lupita Nyongo

Ms. Brown (Tarantino): Shailene Woodley

Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn): Cate Blanchett

Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney): Kathy Bates

 

All right, Hollywood. We’ve done the hard part. Now get on it! All we ask is executive producer status and points on the back end.





The Meryl Witch Project

Into the Woods

by George Wolf

 

Don’t let the name Disney at the top of the poster fool you, Into the Woods isn’t little kid stuff. But it is more evidence that Rob Marshall is the guy who should be directing your next musical.

After nearly thirty years, the Tony-award winner from Stephen Sondheim (music) and James Lapine (book/screenplay) makes it to the big screen. It’s more lean, less mean, and still pretty spectacular.

Having Meryl Streep at the top of your cast list is always a wise move, and she’s utterly commanding as a Witch who offers the village Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) a mysterious deal. In exchange for a few magical items (red cape, white cow, yellow hair and golden slipper), the Witch will reverse a curse that is keeping the couple childless.

As the Bakers head into the woods to begin their search, four classic fairy tales begin an enchanting intersection.

With the benefit of a live stage, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Jack and his beanstalk could take turns in the spotlight while still keeping a combined narrative intact. A screen version presents an inherent challenge to recreate that vision, but Marshall doesn’t shrink from it.

His camera is almost always moving, with wide aerial shots showcasing everyone’s place in the woods, and slow pans that glide easily from one fairy tale to the next. While Marshall’s Nine was more a series of dazzling parts, here he’s able to sustain the realization that each storyline in the woods is connected.

Marshall is also smart enough to know the material and adjust. The high-stepping pizazz he utilized so well in the Oscar-winning Chicago was a perfect fit for that show, but this is Sondheim. The songs are graceful, poetic, challenging, and Marshall, with a big assist from Dion Beebe’s pristine cinematography, frames them accordingly.

The fine ensemble cast follows suit with sharp characterizations. Blunt is excellent (when isn’t she?) as the desperate wife, Corden makes a fine unlikely hero and Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella is..apologies in advance…pitch perfect. Chris Pine makes Prince Charming a delightfully amusing cad while Johnny Depp, as Johnny Depp does, leaves a memorable impression with limited screen time as the Big Bad Wolf.

Though several songs have been pruned from the stage musical, along with some of the darker edges, Marshall keeps the metaphor of “the Woods as real life” intact without overplaying the hand. Into the Woods explores what’s on the other side of fairy tales, where handsome Princes “will always love the maiden who ran away.”

The wee ones may not find any bland theme songs to call their own, but this is family entertainment on a grand, sometimes glorious scale.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 





Deja Cruise

 

Edge of Tomorrow

by George Wolf

Remember how badass Sigourney Weaver’s Aliens battle suit was back in ’86?

Edge of Tomorrow remembers it, along with a few other things about that movie and others, weaving all its inspirations into an entertaining slice of summer escapism.

As Lt. Col. Bill Cage, Tom Cruise is also battling aliens, albeit from a safe distance. Earth has been invaded by “mimics,” and Cage never met a TV talk show he didn’t see as a perfect chance to flash a handsome smile and sell the merits of a war that someone else will fight.

Until, that is, he’s suddenly fitted with his own super suit and made part of a doomed mission. After dying, he wakes up back at boot camp, reliving the same events over and over, death after death, until he can figure out how to break the time loop.

Cage’s first step toward an answer is meeting Rita (Emily Blunt), a celebrated war hero who admits she not only knows his story, she’s lived it.

Cruise’s latest is the smart sci-fi adventure that his last so badly wanted to be. Though Oblivion did boast more truly eye popping visuals, Edge of Tomorrow scores with sharp writing, crisp direction, vivid imagination and one damn good co-star.

Truly, Blunt classes up any project, from awful (The Wolfman) to awesome (Looper) to in-between (The Five Year Engagement). Here, she not only gives Cruise the strong female counterpart his movies often lack, she makes Rita the strongest personality, and the film is better for it.

For his part, Cruise shows some welcome range early on as a cowardly chickenhawk, slowly falling back into autopilot mode the more Cage becomes battle-hardened and heroic. Either way, his charm never wavers.

The team of screenwriters gives a sleek adaptation to Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel “All You Need is Kill.” Yes, we’ve seen these elements before, but the film carries a wise self-awareness about the familiarity, and is even able to toe the line between questioning the folly of war and respecting the sacrifice of soldiers in battle.

Director Doug Liman (Go/The Bourne Identity/Fair Game/Mr. and Mrs. Smith) again proves he knows his way around an action scene. Moreover, he handles the “Groundhog Day” transitions skillfully, injecting some humor and varying scene structure so that the repetitive events don’t feel repetitive.

Look past the isn’t-that-the-name-of-an-SNL-soap-opera-parody title, and Edge of Tomorrow delivers.

 Verdict-3-5-Stars