Jungle Cruise – A Movie Review

I struggle with paying the extra $30 for a movie on Disney Plus when I already pay for a Disney Plus subscription. Quite honestly, I feel a little fleeced when it happens. Of course, I can rationalize it by saying, “Well, you know, we’d spend more at the actual theater if it wasn’t available on Disney Plus, so we’re ultimately coming out ahead.” Anyway, we paid the thirty bucks.

And you know what? As my youngest daughter said halfway through Jungle Cruise: “This is totally worth the money!”

Yes, I’m a dad, so my kids get to hear me groan about extra expenditures.

But she was right. Believe it or not, Jungle Cruise absolutely lived up to the purchase price.

I’ve read a few headlines saying Jungle Cruise is nothing more than an advertisement for the theme ride, and I have to disagree. Yes, the movie is obviously inspired by the attraction and so there are going to be similarities, but I honestly believe this film could have stood on its own with a different name and been just fine.

True, it’s borrowing moves from some pretty successful playbooks. It’s a little bit Jumanji: Welcome To the Jungle, a little bit Pirates Of the Caribbean, and a little bit Raiders Of the Lost Ark, but those are not bad movies to emulate, right?

Most of the film, as you would expect, occurs either on or in water, and so you have to appreciate the technical execution of filming this thing. It also looks fabulous in terms of water crafts, costumes, architecture, flora, fauna, animals, and general scenery. The film is set in 1916, so making these items look authentic would not have been easy feats to accomplish. Furthermore, for the most part, the film’s CGI was above average, especially in regards to a certain big cat. CGI can really suffer on the small screen, and Jungle Cruise had a few CGI stumbles, but overall it appeared fairly seamless.

The plot is pretty familiar in terms of generalities. Person A has an object leading to a treasure. Person A needs Person B to guide her to said treasure. Person B is not entirely trustworthy or who he seems. Person A has doubts. Adventure ensues. Person A and B then … Well, that would be a spoiler, wouldn’t it?

Yet, even though the plot is tried and true, the chemistry between the leads is absolutely what makes this movie work. Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, on their own, are about as charismatic as it gets. Put them together, along with Blunt’s onscreen brother played by Jack Whitehall, and you have a terrific trinity perhaps rivaling Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford. (Okay, maybe I took that one too far.) They really do sizzle together, though.

With tons of great humor, lots of terrible dad jokes, ample action, fantastic adventure, and some thrilling but not-too-frightening jump scares, Jungle Cruise managed to entertain both of my kids, my wife, and me. It’s pretty rare that all four of us are equally satisfied.

That being said, if you’re looking to spend theater prices without actually going to the theater, you can’t do much better in terms of a family film than Jungle Cruise. Enjoy!

(P.S. Once everyone has seen it and I don’t have to worry about spoilers, I plan to write a thorough analysis explaining the purpose behind Johnson’s dad jokes. As a former teacher, I totally related. Stay tuned!)

Winter In the Blood by James Welch – A Book Review

Once again, I must give Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages” credit for helping me find yet another substantial read. This time, it is the novella Winter In the Blood by James Welch. At just 138 pages, it is indeed a brief, yet potent, experience.

Though it’s a provocative, expertly executed book, I must admit that I didn’t find it all that engaging. This could be due to the author’s intent. Welch wrote the book in such a way that its slow, simmering plot mirrors the personality of the narrator.

By my estimation, our narrator is in his early thirties living on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana at some point during the 1960s. A woman, possibly a new wife, has stolen his gun and electric razor and he decides to reclaim his two most prized possessions. During his meandering quest, we get a sense of his poverty, the difficulties of life surrounding his area, the aimlessness of his adulthood, but also the joy and camaraderie he experienced during his youth. Those smarter than I could perhaps argue the existence of an extended metaphor throughout the novella, but I’ll attempt no such thing.

Though we never learn the narrator’s name, we learn that alcohol is a prevalent constant amongst his friends, family, and he, and it seems responsible for many hardships he endures throughout the book. (Obviously those hardships are ultimately due to the mistreatment of tribes across the continent throughout the last several centuries, but I’m speaking in a more immediate sense.) At times, those hardships feel almost surreal. I never quite decided if that was a result of the alcohol or the author employing a fluid style. By story’s end, we’ve learned a lot about the narrator, especially due to a major revelation concerning his heritage.

The execution of Winter In the Blood was quite interesting, but, as I said, I never connected with the book. Sometimes this is no fault of a work. Sometimes the demands of life can impair the enjoyment of reading, and sometimes those demands can enhance the joy of reading. Whatever the case may be, while I appreciate a great deal about Winter in the Blood, at this point, I can’t personally say I’d recommend it. Because it’s so short, though, if it sounds remotely interesting to you, you should give it a try. It won’t take up much of your time.

Space Jam: A New Legacy – A Movie Review

I found myself thoroughly entertained by Space Jam: A New Legacy as I watched it with my kids.

Look, you know what you’re getting with this. LeBron James is playing basketball with Looney Tunes characters. What more can you expect from a movie with this premise?

Is LeBron the world’s greatest actor? No, but he’s not bad. He really isn’t. And you can’t deny he’s got real charisma both on the court and on the big screen.

Furthermore, the Looney Tunes gang is hilarious. Who doesn’t love Bugs, Lola, Porky, Daffy, and the rest of the crew?

Of course, I love Warner Bros. Entertainment and all of their properties, so seeing character cameos from Harry Potter, Batman, Justice League, Wonder Woman, Iron Giant, Flintstones, Jetsons, Mad Max, Game of Thrones, Scooby Doo, and Lord Of the Rings, among many, many others, proved a delight. I hit pause several times to see who all stood courtside during the big game. Is it corporate synergy at the maximum level? Yes, absolutely. But, again, I’m not asking for much from Space Jam: A New Legacy other than to be purely entertained.

You know who was great, though? Don Cheadle. Of course, this should come as no surprise. I won’t spoil it, but he plays a major role in the movie and he gives it his all. In the span of a few weeks, I’ve seen him in a Marvel movie, a Soderburgh film, and now this. Talk about multifaceted!

And, okay, yes, LeBron isn’t winning an Oscar anytime soon (though–again–he was not bad), but the film’s plot and actual story held up. I found the tone consistent, the ending logically concluded the events preceding it, and the climax struck me as fairly emotional. For a Space Jam movie, I thought it was pretty tightly written and executed with a positive message.

In the end, I think Space Jam: A New Legacy is a fine family movie. I laughed the whole way through, loved all the character cameos, and remembered why I enjoyed Looney Tunes so much as a kid.

Gunpowder Milkshake – A Movie Review

There’s a lot to like about Gunpowder Milkshake. It’s a star-studded action movie with plenty of style and pop. Karen Gillan has paid her dues since Dr. Who, and it’s wonderful to see her in a big-budget starring role. Let’s not forget about Hollywood stalwarts such as Lena Headey, Carla Gugino, Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, as well as up-and-comer Chloe Coleman. (Seriously, check out this young lady’s IMDB page. She’s 13 years old.) Paul Giamatti is even in this thing!

Karen Gillan plays Sam, a prestige assassin who finds herself stuck in a moral dilemma when she takes responsibility for a young girl’s safety. Though she hasn’t spoken to her assassin mom or her mom’s … eccentric … friends in years, she reluctantly goes to them for help. They help her, there’s a ton of violence, we see huge action scenes, and we get plenty of chuckles along the way.

While I appreciate the film’s verve as well as the above actors giving it their all, the tone of the movie truly confused me. Sometimes it was very heartfelt, sometimes it seemed to be a satire, sometimes it wanted to be a pure action flick, sometimes it tried to prove itself as a hyper stylized piece of art, and sometimes it came off as a comedy. I’m all for bending genre, but Gunpowder Milkshake created a jarring experience that ultimately distracted me to the point I couldn’t settle in.

Honestly, there were moments when I felt as though I was watching a bad imitation of Quentin Tarantino.

It’s such a shame, because I wanted to like Gunpowder Milkshake so much more than I actually did. I was rooting for it to be great. However, there’s plenty of room for a sequel. I will definitely give it another chance if they keep the story going on the basis of the actors alone.

HBO Max’s All That Glitters: Britain’s Next Jewelry Star – A Few Thoughts

HBO Max continues to air shows from BBC, this time with All That Glitters: Britain’s Next Jewelry Star. We picked this show to watch as a family. Like with Full Bloom, The American Barbecue Showdown, Blown Away, and The Great British Baking Show, we are fascinated by makers making things and being very nice to one another while doing so.

All That Glitters: Britain’s Next Jewelry Star isn’t something I initially thought I would enjoy. I honestly brought it up to my daughters because they are crafty and what could be more crafty than making jewelry, right? However, as soon as they started their first task, I was hooked. As I watched, I realized I had no idea how jewelry got made–I always took it for granted. Seeing the process proved fascinating. I couldn’t get enough.

Best of all? Like with the above mentioned shows, all of the contestants are both very talented and very cordial. They support each other, encourage one another, and conduct themselves respectably. I won’t spoil the ending, but my favorite contestant actually won, and I also believe this contestant to be the most pleasant of all the very pleasant people.

Each show is broken into two parts. The first part is a “Best Seller” challenge. The jewelers are given a brief, and then they must craft a piece of jewelry that both fits that brief and would be a bestseller in a jewelry store. This can be a difficult task because while the piece must be skillfully made and original, it also has to be mainstream enough to appeal to the masses.

The second part of each episode is always my favorite, and it’s called “The Bespoke.” In this portion, the jewelers must create a sentimental piece specifically made for a special person. Seeing the joyful reactions of the recipients, as well as the winning jeweler’s emotional response, is always a moment guaranteeing the feels.

I understand that on paper this show may not sound like your thing, but trust me when I tell you that it is well made, the participants are engaging to watch, the pieces are exquisite to behold as they evolve from nothing into heirlooms, and the whole tone of the show is simply a joy.

You can find All That Glitters: Britain’s Next Jewelry Star on HBO Max.

Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls – A Book Review

Like several of my other recent reads, I discovered Mrs. Caliban on Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages.” At just 111 pages, Mrs. Caliban is indeed a swift, potent read full of social commentary but cleverly disguised as pseudo-fantasy.

The story focuses upon a housewife named Dorothy. Dorothy is in an unhappy marriage. She has suffered great tragedy in regards to children. Her friends are equally troubled in their own way, especially one in particular. Her husband has been known to cheat on her. Life is not at all what she hoped for.

And then a giant, muscular frog man enters her home. She quickly gives the frog man refuge and names him Larry. She discovers that Larry is intelligent, sensitive, and willing to kill in order to preserve his own life. He is from the ocean, had been captured and mistreated by a local laboratory, and recently escaped.

Larry remains hidden in their spare room, unknown to her negligent husband, and soon enough a romantic relationship blooms between Larry and Dorothy.

Again, keep in mind this book is only 111 pages long.

As Dorothy enjoys the kind of relationship she once dreamed of, her best friend, Estelle, endures a series of hardships that will eventually impact Dorothy. Her husband, Fred, also makes poor choices that will prove catastrophic for her as well. In the end, everything builds to a crescendo and connects quite tragically.

Even with the complex, concussive plot, Ingalls manages to insert quite a bit of social commentary into the short tale. Larry himself is a striking figure in regards to xenophobia. However, as he settles into his relationship with Dorothy, he begins to take on some of Fred’s attributes. I believe here Ingalls is commenting on the tendency of men to assume and even abuse their preconceived notions regarding both women and wives.

However, Estelle, her best friend, also proves a challenging figure. On the one hand, she is refreshing in that she rejects the traditional constructs men place upon her. However, on the other hand, she ultimately contradicts the conventional expectations we have for her as Dorothy’s “best friend.”

As you can see, Mrs. Caliban is rife with sophisticated concepts. It is the perfect example of an effective novella. Short, fast, yet no less complex than the longest of novels. I’m so glad I came across this book and I look forward to reading more of Ingalls’ work.

Black Widow – A Movie Review

Let me put it simply–it was worth the wait.

We just finished watching Black Widow on Disney+. It’s full of story, full of action, full of humor, and full of heart. I have to be honest–I’m stunned.

I honestly didn’t think we needed a Black Widow movie. Obviously, I was wrong.

I promise not to spoil anything here as I review the film.

Though I won’t reveal when Black Widow takes place, I felt it was perfectly positioned in the MCU timeline. It answered a lot of questions about Natasha’s past, but it also revealed a fresh, captivating look at the character as we knew her. The story, in other words, did everything it needed to do and more. It exceeded my expectations.

The action blew me away. The first half of the film felt more like a spy movie such as Bourne or Bond than a super hero film. Tons of fight scenes, tons of car chases, tons of things blowing up–incredible. Truthfully, there were moments when I said to myself, “She’s got to have a concussion by now,” but I didn’t care. I suspended that disbelief and simply had a great time.

Speaking of having fun–it’s a fun movie full of humor. Yes, you read that right. Somehow, amidst all of the action and serious story concepts, there’s a lot of laugh-out-loud moments. It was nice to see Scarlett Johansson get to let Natasha breathe a little. The stakes were always so high for the character in the Avengers movies, other than a few one-liners, we never got to see her like we do in Black Widow. You’ll understand what I mean.

Think about the fact that, other than Scarlett Johansson, virtually everyone else in Black Widow is new to the MCU. Yet these new names include actors such as Florence Pugh, David Harbour, and Rachel Weisz. These are very, VERY good actors who are, more or less, sharing the screen with Johansson in some capacity for the majority of the film. The chemistry between these four actors is a blast to watch, and without them Black Widow would have virtually none of its heart. I knew Harbour could be funny, but I had no idea Pugh had such comedic timing. Plus, Pugh is keeping up step for step with Johansson in terms of action. And Weisz? She’s been showing us how it’s done since The Mummy over twenty years ago.

Finally, I will NOT reveal anything about Taskmaster other than to say it was so cool to see the mimic aspect of the powerset. I loved this character in the comics and, while you simply can’t translate Taskmaster directly to film, I thought they did a great job with the imitation abilities.

Black Widow absolutely holds its own as an MCU movie. If this is indeed Scarlett Johansson’s last performance as Natasha Romanoff, she’s ending with a peak performance!

The Tomorrow War – A Movie Review

I honestly had no idea what to expect from The Tomorrow War. Chris Pratt is always a little hit or miss with me. I love Sam Richardson, but I’ve only seen him in funny movies. I also love J.K. Simmons. I only knew Betty Gilpin from GLOW, a dramedy. I’d never heard of Yvonne Strahovski. The director, Chris McKay, sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place his name.

Anyway, I figured what the heck. The trailer showed time travel and monsters, so that’s really all it took for me to give it a shot. (In addition to Sam Richardson, of course.)

Though The Tomorrow War is FAR from perfect, I still very much enjoyed it.

The premise is that soldiers from the future come to the present in order to recruit ordinary citizens to fight aliens back in the future. They’ve literally run out of people, so now they are drafting those from our era in order to keep fighting. Chris Pratt, a science teacher and former combat soldier, is one such draftee. He must leave behind his little daughter and loving wife in order to save the future, and none of them believe they’ll ever see each other again.

Once Pratt’s character arrives in the future, things get both visually spectacular and a little hard to accept. On the one hand, the special effects look amazing with horrifyingly beautiful aliens. On the other, I simply could not believe that a platoon of regular men and women from 2021 would be able to fire an automatic weapon, much less operate as a cohesive unit. After all, they had virtually no training and still wore their street clothes.

However, after that initial hiccup, the movie took some very interesting twists and turns. Yes, The Tomorrow War is part comedy, part sci-fi action film, part drama, part horror movie, part war flick, part family saga, and part social commentary, but it’s ALL entertaining. Really, in the end, isn’t that what you want?

By the way–Chris McKay? He directed The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie. Things are making more sense now, right?

Truthfully, The Tomorrow War triggered far more emotions that I anticipated. I don’t care for Chris Pratt as a sex symbol, but I really liked him as a dad just trying to do the right thing. I also found the dynamic between J.K. Simmons and Chris Pratt quite interesting. And, as you know, Sam Richardson owned every scene that featured him. Unfortunately, Betty Gilpin found herself underutilized. If you want to see her full range, check out GLOW.

Furthermore, I mentioned that I didn’t know Yvonne Strahovski. She ends up doing a LOT of emotional work in this film, and she pulled it off well. I still don’t know where she came from, but I think she’s got a solid future in acting ahead of her. (UPDATE: I’ve since realized that she is Serena Joy Waterford from The Handmaid’s Tale. No wonder she’s so good! Obviously, she’s already had a very successful career and will continue to do so.)

The Tomorrow War is literally all over the place. Yet, I have to say that it delivered a fairly tightknit story that, as far as these kinds of stories go, mostly made sense. Obviously, when time travel is involved, nothing makes sense, but you know what I mean.

One more thing–The Tomorrow War looks great. The effects are amazing, the aliens appear grounded in reality, and the cinematography is visually striking. Sometimes these heavy effects movies don’t quite look right on the small screen, but not so with The Tomorrow War. Amazon got it just right for our living rooms.

If you like action movies, Chris Pratt, time travel stories, J.K. Simmons, special effects, or monster movies, I think you’ll get a kick out of The Tomorrow War. If nothing else, just watch it for Sam Richardson.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell – A Book Review

After seeing Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages,” I decided to give So Long, See You Tomorrow a try. After all, it’s only 135 pages.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that the author, William Maxwell, hails from Lincoln, Illinois! Lincoln is just a short way south of me along Interstate 55. As a Central Illinois author, I immediately felt as though he was a kindred spirit. Sure, there are some glaring differences between us. For example, he attended Harvard and died in the year 2000. But still.

So Long, See You Tomorrow primarily takes place in Lincoln during the 1920s. Maxwell states it’s an autobiographical novel, so it’s hard to know exactly how much is truth and how much is fiction. By story’s end, you’ll no longer care because you’ll be so engaged with the tale.

In the beginning, So Long, See You Tomorrow is difficult to get lost in. It has an unusual structure in that it jumps around quite a bit in time and geography, and it never allows the reader to get a steady grasp on who’s who. However, at about the halfway mark, the novel adheres to a more traditional, linear pattern and focuses on the primary event of the story. At that point, So Long, See You Tomorrow blazes along and is very difficult to put down.

Though originally published in 1980, So Long, See You Tomorrow felt modern in terms of execution despite being published forty years ago and taking place nearly one hundred years in the past. Maxwell has a clear, controlled voice yet plays with form enough to give him a certain edge. Of course, the story, which revolves around a relationship souring and a murder occurring between two isolated farmers who were the best of friends, is timeless.

If you’re looking for a quick, engrossing read that is not just a good story but a well-written story, I highly recommend So Long, See You Tomorrow. William Maxwell seems to have had a very successful career, so I plan to read more by this fellow Central Illinoisan.

No Sudden Move – A Movie Review

I watched No Sudden Move on HBO Max last night frankly because I wanted to watch an actual movie and it seemed like the best option available. I also knew Steven Soderbergh is a celebrated director, and that fact, coupled with an impressive cast, made it an easy choice.

Set in the early 1950s, No Sudden Move is about two men hired (along with a third) to hold an accountant’s family hostage as the accountant retrieves a document from his boss’ safe. At that point, things move oddly fast for a movie called No Sudden Move and the story becomes more and more complex with each passing moment.

In the end, I can certainly say that I enjoyed No Sudden Move. However, I enjoyed it primarily due to the cast. Don Cheadle put on quite a mesmerizing performance. He’s understated in No Sudden Move, yet captivating at the same time. Benicio Del Toro was also interesting to watch. Furthermore, you’ll see Brendan Frasier, Julia Fox, Kieran Culkin, Amy Seimetz, Jon Hamm, Ray Liotta, and a surprising performance by David Harbour.

The cars, set pieces, and clothing also gave the movie a sense of reality that helped the audience to engage. Furthermore, Soderbergh, as is his fashion, consistently chose unique angles and perspectives for his shots. At times I thought they were a little overdone, but for the most part it’s a beautifully shot film. You’ll also notice that he seems to play with lenses to some degree.

I can’t claim to have been smitten with the story, though, because half of the time I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on. Soderbergh does not reveal the big picture until the very end, and while it ultimately (mostly) made sense, I felt as though the audience could have been clued in a little sooner. It is only because of Cheadle and Del Toro that I just rolled with it–I simply enjoyed watching them act.

In the end, I recommend No Sudden Move for the performances. Watching all of these gifted actors will move the film along even as the plot is not clearly evident.