Jungle Cruise

If a movie is going to be derivative, it may as well go all out and be outrageous about it, as long as the result is as much fun as Jungle Cruise, Disney’s new shameless, live-action theme park tie-in, starring Dwayne Johnson (formerly The Rock) and Emily Blunt. Yes, Jungle Cruise is based on the Disney theme park ride that everyone remembers loving as a kid, much like another Disney film franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean, was. Similarities between those two films don’t end there, as Jungle Cruise borrows more than a little from those family-friendly pirate blockbusters, as it does a plethora of other films, including The African Queen, The Mummy, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, just to name a few. But, again, this film is definitely not one for the overthinkers out there. It is as Disney as a movie can be, as well as everything you expect and hope it to be. It may not be perfect, but the (not too young) kids will love it and the adults will totally enjoy rolling their eyes.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra has packed a LOT into its 2+ hour running time, but Jungle Cruise moves so quickly through all of it that it only feels too long in the last fifteen minutes. It begins by setting the scene of our two main characters. Lily (Blunt) is a scientist in London, but, with it being London during the Great War, her contributions are not taken seriously, so she has her doofus brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) present her request to the scientific society to go in search of the mythical Tree of Life, which is supposed to exist in the deepest recesses of the Amazonian jungle. True scientists are skeptical about funding a search for something that lives only in ghost stories, so Lily decides to embark on the journey by herself, with MacGregor along for the ride. When in the Amazon, she needs a river guide, and stumbles across Frank (Johnson), a seemingly capable riverboat captain (with the ever-present Captain & Tenille hat to prove it) whom she hires to take her to her elusive treasure.

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Black Widow

Marvel Studios
If ever there was a time when the world needed a Marvel film to bring everyone together, it is now. And Black Widow is very likely the one to do it.

COVID-19 put a bit of a kink in Marvel’s plan for world (cinematic) domination, but, with the studio’s new release, Black Widow, they have picked up right where they left off in 2019, when the last Marvel Avengers film, Avengers: Endgame, helped put Marvel’s parent company, Walt Disney Studios, over the $11 billion mark for the year, commanding an historic third of all domestic box office grosses that year. The Marvel juggernaut is a hulking beast in the industry that will not likely stop swallowing up everything around it now that cinema is starting to creak back to normal, but even the genius brain trust with the golden touch over at Marvel are sure to be amazed at the luck of their timing. The fact that Black Widow was the next film in the hopper when the pandemic hit is perhaps the best thing Marvel could have hoped for. Not only will it satisfy all of those mega-fans who have been longing for another Avengers movie, but it is the perfect film to welcome back all audiences to the theater because it finally is an Avengers movie that is made for everybody, and anybody can enjoy it, whether you are steeped in Marvel mythology or not. Unlike Avengers: Endgame, which may have turned off some casual Marvel viewers due to its need for an intricate knowledge of the Avengers compendium to enjoy it in any way, Black Widow merely sprinkles Avengers references here and there, but is mostly just a fun, action-packed thrill ride that anyone can enjoy, with a perfect feminist bent that just may win over the audiences who were disappointed by Wonder Woman 1984.

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The Tomorrow War

Amazon Studios
There’s no denying the increase in the number of movies that look and feel like video games. Hollywood sees the massive popularity of video games in their primary demographic (young men) and is hoping to appeal to them with movies like Extraction, Nobody, The Old Guard and The Army of the Dead, just to name a few–movies that lean heavily on shooting, fighting, a relentless enemy and bottomless CGI and stunts budgets, and not so much on story or character development. The latest entry into this video game-inspired cinematic shooting gallery, Amazon’s The Tomorrow War, however, is so ridiculous, it not only makes Army of the Dead look like an Oscar-winner, but makes video game storylines seem like Shakespeare.

Starring Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski and J.K. Simmons, The Tomorrow War lays out an ultra-complicated plot about how aliens in the future have landed on Earth and are killing everyone, so people now have to travel to the future to fight them, in order for there to be any hope of humanity’s survival–a not-very-well disguised metaphor for climate change. Governments are forced to impose a draft to send all eligible humans to the future to fight, but the aliens are winning the war in the future, and all hope seems to be lost. Up steps military veteran-turned high school teacher Dan Forester (Pratt), who gets drafted and is stuck with a ragtag group of ordinary joes who are neither prepared nor trained to make the jump to their uncertain fate. Dan instantly bonds with nervous nellie Charlie (Sam Richardson) and cynical, battle-tested Dorian (Edwin Hodge), and they are able to hold their own against the alien enemy, thanks to Dan’s bravery and military skills. Romeo Command, played by Strahovski, the commander in the future, takes notice of Dan’s band of fighters and tasks them with a dangerous mission that, if it works, just might kill the aliens and save all life as we know it. There’s much more, but it would spoil all the non-fun.

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No Sudden Move

Warner Bros.
Despite having delivered some of Hollywood’s most traditionally successful films of the twenty-first century so far, Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh continues to be one of the most enigmatic and unpredictable artists working today. Akin to a cinematic shark, he keeps moving from genre to genre, medium to medium, forcing new challenges on himself, never pandering to expectation. With films as disparate in tone and subject as Sex, Lies and Videotape, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Solaris, Contagion, Magic Mike, Behind the Candelabra, Logan Lucky and Let Them All Talk, Soderbergh continues to break new ground and reinvent himself, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. In 2020, Soderbergh took on perhaps the most challenging project of all, serving as one of the producers for the pandemic Oscars. Although he signed up to co-produce the annual awards extravaganza prior to COVID-19, there possibly was no artist better suited for the flexibility and creativity needed to mold a show out of literally nothing. While the show itself fell flat in the end, Soderbergh’s contributions were hailed as the only part of the production that had any life.

It is because of Soderbergh’s immense talent and ability to shape ordinary rocks into diamonds that every new film by the auteur is met with such high expectations. Which is why his latest film, No Sudden Move, is such a rare disappointment.

The concept of cool criminals wasn’t invented by Steven Soderbergh, but his Ocean’s series of films, beginning with Ocean’s Eleven in 2001, certainly defined it for a generation of moviegoers. No Sudden Move is carved from the Ocean’s mold and borrows more than a little from it, but it isn’t able to find the traction necessary to hold together as a consistent or cohesive enough cousin to the iconic heist franchise.

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In the Heights

(Left Center-Right Center) ANTHONY RAMOS as Usnavi and MELISSA BARRERA as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Representation matters. I am especially aware of that this month, Pride month, which is why the importance of the new film In the Heights can never be diminished. Based on the musical Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote and took to Broadway before Hamilton, In the Heights goes from stage to screen in a big-budget, glossy, cast-of-thousands celebration of the Latinx community like never seen before in a Hollywood studio film. It really is an achievement and big step forward for the industry.

I only wish I had liked it more.

Don’t get me wrong, director John M. Chu is crazy good at mounting gorgeous epics of this scale, as evidenced by his fantastically entertaining Crazy Rich Asians, which I loved, back in 2018. Chu brings a whirling, flash-mob energy to In the Heights, filling the screen with huge dance numbers, mesmerizingly joyful choreography, and dream-like New York cityscapes, rich with color and texture. The opening sequences remind one of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, as that film introduced us to the inhabitants of Brooklyn, so does In the Heights welcome the audience to the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Washington Heights is a working-class, immigrant neighborhood, mostly Latinx. Usnavi, played by Anthony Ramos, is a local bodega owner who dreams of returning to his native Dominican Republic and running his own store there. Usnavi is surrounded by friends and his adopted family in the neighborhood, as it becomes clear that this is more than a block, it is one big, extended family.

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Walt Disney Studios
No matter how much independent film flourished in 2020, which was one of the few positive things that came out of the pandemic, we all knew there was something missing. We craved those expensive, beautiful, cast-of-thousands, mainstream, familiar and fun studio movies, the ones that ignite our imagination and take our breath away. Now that theaters are back open, the studios are starting to release their films that have been sitting and waiting and the first one out of the gate not only doesn’t disappoint, but it reminds us exactly what we’ve been missing.

Cruella is Walt Disney Studio’s most recent exploration of a familiar character and story, bringing it to life in a new and exciting way. The studio’s live-action remakes and reboots of their classic franchises have been hit-or-miss, but, with inventive director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) at the helm of this origin story of the villain from Disney’s classic 1961 animated feature, 101 Dalmatians, Cruella is a knockout and is the best live action Disney film in a very long time.

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A Quiet Place Part II

Paramount Pictures
Wondering what will bring people back to the movie theater? Look no further than A Quiet Place Part II, a pulse-pounding, heart-stopping (yes, it’s both), sweat-inducing monster movie from no other than mild-mannered actor/writer/director John Krasinski. Yes, Jim from The Office is now scaring the living daylights out of you, and boy, is he good at it.

The first A Quiet Place film, released in 2018, was huge, made a ton of money and assured a sequel. The only problem with a sequel to that film is the “hero,” Krasinski’s character, was killed off at the end of the movie. Well, A Quiet Place Part II doesn’t miss a beat, assuredly carrying on, something that’s easy to do when you have Emily Blunt in the cast.

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Master of None, Season 3

Master of None, the Netflix series from co-creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, was a critical darling when it debuted in 2015, its first two seasons earning a rare perfect score from Rotten Tomatoes, and Emmy wins for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series in 2016 and 2017. But just when the show was gaining significant momentum, Ansari was accused of sexual misconduct, which put the show into hibernation. Now, over four years after the last episode aired, there is a new season of Master of None, but it is nearly unrecognizable.

While the first two seasons were an intimate and deeply personal exploration of the life of struggling New York actor Dev, played by Ansari, as he searches for the love of his life, the third season, which is officially titled Master of None presents Moments in Love, focuses instead on Dev’s writer best friend, Denise, played by Lena Waithe. There obviously had to be some sort of tectonic shift in order for the show to come back, and this approach was a stroke of genius, finding a way to switch the focus to an already-familiar character, making Dev’s disappearance more palatable (although Dev does appear, briefly, in two episodes). The transition was made simpler, I’m sure, by the fact that Waithe is not only established as a performer on the show, but as a writer, having won an Emmy for writing the episode “Thanksgiving” in season two.

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The Woman in the Window

Whether or not director Joe Wright was intending to make a camp classic with his new film, The Woman in the Window, is unclear, but the result certainly is. The Netflix film, finally making its debut after three years of delays (and the pandemic), has been highly anticipated since it moved from its original October, 2019 release date. Based on a best-selling novel by A.J. Finn, featuring a top-tier director and a star-studded cast, the film seemed a sure awards season contender, but test screenings apparently caused the producers to bring the film back for new edits, and now we can see why.

The Woman in the Window stars 6-time Academy Award nominee Amy Adams as Anna Fox, an agoraphobic child psychologist who becomes obsessed with the lives of the family who live across the street from her New York City brownstone. When she thinks she witnesses a murder inside the house but has no evidence to support her claim, Anna desperately tries to get the police to believe her, but, with her history of mental illness, alcoholism and hallucinations, she has a hard time convincing anyone of anything. As her own demons and haunted past threaten to consume her, Anna must find a way to prove what she saw was real and save herself from a psychotic killer.

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The Killing of Two Lovers

Nothing comes as expected in The Killing of Two Lovers, the new film from writer/director Robert Machoian (God Bless the Child). That includes the title, which is meant to draw you in right from the beginning, and serves as another whole character–the hidden, unseen cloud that hangs over the entire film. That title, ominous and illustrative, enticing and foreboding, sets the shaky ground that this story lives on, giving unsure footing for the audience.

Machaoian reverse-engineers a story that blasts out of the gate with purpose, establishing violent intents in the opening scene (and, again, that title) that aren’t carried through, but, no matter how calm and ordinary the rest of the movie may be, the underlying tension remains, and the audience’s anxiety is maintained, creating a visceral, organic and ultimately claustrophobic experience that is hypnotic and, ultimately, savagely satisfying.

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