Dive Deep (Aquaman, 2018)

Aquaman_posterSure, you know Aquaman can swim fast, talk to fish and punch hard. But what do you really know?

This holiday season, we have the full story of the savior of the seas.  Born of a lighthouse keeper from the surface world and the Princess of Atlantis, Arthur Curry has long dealt with the heartbreak of the death of his mother, believing it really to be his fault.

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL!!! when his half brother Orm sets his sites on uniting the kingdoms of Atlantis and destroying the surface world, the princess Mera seeks the aid of Arthur, who has avoided his Atlantean heritage.

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL!!! See, there is a magical trident that Aquaman will need to defeat his half brother, so he and Mera go on a big time treasure hunt.

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL!!! There is a guy called Black Manta who wants revenge on Arthur!

BUT THA- Oh, you get the idea.  They have packed a ton of stuff into this film, making it a bit of a mess. It is such a busy film full of story ideas it can make you wonder if any of those stories could have better room to breath in their own film.  However, one gets the sense that they had multiple assignments with this film. They had to fill in the back story not just of Arthur, but of Mera, Orm, Atlantis and a magical trident.

And yet, the film is a lot of fun.  The whole little side story in which Arthur and Mera are trying to find the trident National Treasure style is fun excitement.  And the film sets up a simple but good message for Aquaman to learn.  The effects are really good, which is important, because the entire sense of design depends on it.

The real highlight of the film is Atlantis. It is a lush and colorful undersea kingdom.  The use of undersea life in the designs of their vehicles and architecture is wondrous. This is DC film embraces the whimsy of it’s conceit to give a unique corner of the DCEU. There is also a real attention to small detail in all the underwater sequences that make is easy to forget people don’t breath or talk underwater. We get Aquaman in his traditional outfit and you know what? It looks great.

But it is not just the design and effects that the film has going for it. Now, Mamoa has limited acting range…but the filmmakers have filled the movie with a cast that keeps this from being an issue. He can do his brash and confident guy thing, because he is supported by top notch talent like Temuera Morrison, Nicole Kidman and Patrick Wilson. Wilson really carries a lot in the relationship between Orm and Arthur. He somehow manages to give a heart to a megalomaniacal maniac king. His hatred of Arthur is in a misguided blame for the loss of their mother, and Wilson sells this well.

And then there is James Wan. Wan is without a doubt one of the strongest directors in action films today. Even his giant action scenes are easy to follow. He balances sequences with multiple simultaneous leads exceptionally well (such as when Arthur and Mera become separated and have their own individual fights).

Aquaman manages to overcome a lot of odds, being far more entertaining than the elements ought to allow. So, in spite of a busy storyline, Aquaman is a rollicking fun adventure.

Social Justice Warriors (Justice League, 2017)

Justice_League_PosterWhen it comes to the movies?  DC has been struggling to  keep up with Marvel.  Part of this is really that DC did not lay out a plan from the start. While Marvel Released films with an aim toward the Avengers, DC was trying to figure out where to start.  The Nolan Batman films were a critical success, but also very much their own universe.  When they made Green Lantern, most attempts to build a larger never made it out of the script.

There was talk for several years starting off the DC Movie Universe with a Justice League film to be be directed by George Miller. This never came to pass, and when Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan began their work on Man of Steel it was decided this could be the start.  They did not do a ton, only lightly seeding references to a larger DC Cinematic Universe.

DC decided on following up Man of Steel not with Wonder Woman or Batman, but Batman V Superman.  Like Man of Steel, the reaction was mixed.  I am not a real big fan of either film, primarily because I feel like they are doing a rush job.  The films try and tackle big notions….but they have not earned it. Suicide Squad followed (troubling that we are meeting villains before the connected heroes). I did not mind Suicide Squad, I found it generally entertaining…but not as solid as Deadpool (whose success they were clearly aiming for).

The DC Cinematic Universe was desperate for an outright hit.  Luckily, Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot delivered that with last summer’s Wonder Woman.  And so, for me, I had a little bit of hope they might look at this success and decide to use it as a template to right the ship.  Earlier this year, Zack Snyder announced he was stepping down for family reasons (His family was dealing with a tragic suicide of one of his children). It was announced that former Marvel architect Joss Whedon was brought in.  Whedon punched up the film with new dialog and reshoots.  And what is the end result?

Superman is still dead. The world is in chaos. Bruce Wayne is actively trying to bring a team together to protect the world from the larger threats. The threat here is from Steppenwolf…he came to earth once before in an attempt to destroy the planet, but was fought off by the Amazons, Atlanteans and human kind. His weapon, three items call Mother Boxes were split among the three groups and hidden away.

Batman also has a plan to bring Superman back, which Wonder Woman is uncomfortable with, but finally agrees to. And so, the team unites and takes on Steppenwolf.

So….is this redemption for DC?  Is this the second most awesome DC Cinematic Universe flick?  The answer is “Yes”. Buuuuuut….

Okay, so, the film opens with a nice little video, kids talking to Superman with there cell phone right after he has saved some people. And then we get Batman stopping a petty crook, except that it is a ruse to catch a creature called a para-demon.  The thief asks Batman if things are getting worse because they know Superman is dead.  This is followed by the film showing the world falling into despair, set to a haunted version of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows. This is all quite nice.

We also get a rather fun action sequence with Wonder Woman stopping a terror group.  This really is not a plot enhancing moment.  It is just a lot of fun to watch.   And the film has a lot of these.  There is a lot of fun action moments.  Ezra Miller and Jason Momoa clearly are having more fun than Ben Affleck.  Barry Allen has the same backstory of the the TV show (Dad in prison for murder of mom)…this is fine of course.  But it is not a storyline that really leads anywhere. I like the general characterization here though.  Barry is awkward with people in part because how time feels for him.  Admittedly, this is very similar to the comic book version of Marvel’s Quicksilver in which time moves so slow for him, he describes every minute of every day as being like waiting in line at the DMV.  Except, instead of being a jerk, Barry just struggles to slow down his thinking enough to not sound like he has severe ADD.

Aquaman has always been a sore spot of a character for DC.  He tends to get mocked endlessly for being able to “talk to fish”.  Here the film compensates a bit by making him a tough and jovial guy.  At one point he looks to Batman, smirks and says, “Dressed as a bat, I dig it.”

Cyborg is in kind of a thankless role.  He fills in the technology blanks. Ray Fischer is really likable in the role.  It just is that he feels like things just happen randomly to him.  At one point, his suit takes over and starts shooting at the newly resurrected Superman.  The idea that the mechanics are in control in such a fashion is interesting, but we do not really get an indication earlier that the mechanical part can go rogue, beyond it apparently making regular upgrades.

Gadot is spot on in her Wonder Woman boots.  The character is again a high point.  Digital mustache issues aside, Cavill is finally getting to be a Superman who likes himself. Superman seems to be more earthling than Kryptonian here.  And this is something that corrects the previous two films.  I understand the arguments about Superman and a connection for people who fall into the category of “Other”.  But Superman’s other status in the films were relegated to him acting like a life he never had was more his identity than the planet on which he grew up.  There are ways to portray the identity of “Other” without sacrificing important parts of the Superman mythos.  In this film, he no longer speaks about “on my planet”.  No, Earth is his home.  Lois is his home. Martha Kent is his home.

The action is pretty solid.  And the humor is there.  The film has bright colors! So, why did I add a “buuuuuuuuut”?

At one point, Aquaman says to the Flash, “So you were struck by lightning?”  Flash responds “Yeah, well that is the condensed version.”  And that is how the movie feels.  Apparently there was a mandate to keep the film at about two hours.  And boy is that apparent.

So many scenes feel cut short, so many conversations feel truncated.  At times, the film moves at “fan montage Youtube video” fast. We get brief glimpses of characters we want more of…and admittedly, Commissioner Gordon and Lois Lane will probably be far more prominent in the Batman and Superman follow-ups.

And then there is Steppenwolf.  A rather uninteresting character.  Remember Ronin from the first Guardians of the Galaxy?  Steppenwolf has the same goal…but without the nuance. The film is incredibly unclear about why this is…but it also does not hint at the notion there is someone behind Steppenwolf. He is a remarkably boring villain. And when you compare unfavorable to a weaker Marvel movie villain?  That has to hurt.

So, what we are left with is a film that is better than Man of Steel, Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad…but nowhere near as strong as Wonder Woman.  But that said? I had a lot of fun watching Justice League.

Instability (the Ward, 2010)

the-ward-posterCarpenter’s final film to this point is the Ward.  It was his first feature length film since 2001’s Ghosts of Mars.  Carpenter said he had fallen out of love with film-making.  And so, the Ward was to be his return to his love.  And I wish I could say it is a triumphant return.

The Ward is the story of a young woman, Kristen, in the 60’s locked in a mental ward.  She is locked away with several other young women.  She tries to get along, but feels there is something wrong.  And it is not just the cruel employees who mistreat the girls.  It appears the ward may be haunted.

The film quickly throws away the question of if it is in Kristin’s imagination.

 

It becomes obvious there is a ghost and she is killing off the girls, working her way back to Kristin.  They discover the name of the ghost is Alice a prior patient of Jared Harris’ Dr. Stringer.  Oddly, the hospital seems unconcerned with the disappearing girls.  And then there is the twist…a twist that is pretty easy to see coming early on in the film…and a twist we saw in the 2007 film Identity.  I am not saying you cannot have a reveal similar to a previous film.  But you better find a way to make it a surprise.

The problem is not really the performances…everybody is doing their best with very thin characters.  I suspect that this was partially intentional.  That each girl was some brand of archetype.  But they lack the depth beyond this to sell them as real characters, which again fails to hide the big twist towards the end.

I realize the story and script are not the fault of John Carpenter.  He did not write this film.  Carpenter was strictly in the capacity of director with this one, even the music being composed by someone without input from Carpenter.  Which is regrettable, because he has some terrific musical output the last couple of years.

I truly had high hopes for the Ward, but it feels like a really pedestrian offering from a talented director.

 

 

Starting Over (The Stepfather, 2009)

stepfather_remake_posterThis is a pretty slick and glossy remake.  It begins much like the original, right down to the Stepfather clearing a fogged up mirror and shaving off a bushy beard.  It is a little extended, but the idea is the same.  Admittedly, it was a pretty iconic moment, and I get wanting to use it again.

In his new town he meets Sela Ward’s Susan.  She has three children, one of whom is in military school (Michael, played by Penn Badgley).  He returns six months after his mom and David (the Stepfather) met and they are already engaged.  Michael instantly does not trust David.  David tries to get him to trust him with a private conversation about they will heal the family together (over shots).

The film establishes that his back story is that his wife and daughter were killed in an accident by a drunk driver.  And quickly, he starts to slip up, confusing names of his dead daughter while talking to Michael.

Unlike the first film, David needs to fix his problems very quickly.  A little old lady in the neighborhood told everyone about how this police sketch of the family killer she saw on a TV show looked just like David.  So, of course he has to kill her.  Susan’s ex-husband gets inquisitive.  So, He has to die.  The film tends to take it’s kill count from the third Stepfather films, going for big numbers, rather than a nuanced exploration of the Stepfather’s psychosis.

The Stepfather of this remake is kind of confusing.  The original films he was a very strict traditionalist.  He believed in hardcore moral values.  He did not believe in sex before marriage or living together before marriage.  His rigid morality was a code he lived by and refused to falter on.  When he did falter, that is when he started to crack.  This version sees a guy who is accused of being to old fashioned, but he seems to have pretty modern attitudes.  He lives with Susan and her kids, they are having sex.  In a scene reminiscent of the original, Michael puts on headphones to drown out the sounds of sex.  In the 1987 version, part of what makes the scene work is when we see O’Quinn and Hack together, O’Quinn has an expression of wanting to be anywhere but there having sex.

Anytime Amber Heard is on the screen, it feels like the director forgot he was making a movie…the film lingers on Heard in a bikini a lot…I mean, it is necessary I am sure…because Michael is a swimmer, so they spend a ton of by the pool.  I get it, Heard is attractive…but it is just s obvious that it distracts from the film.  It seems to have been distracting enough that we meet some detectives at the beginning working the case.  And we never see them again.

Sure, this film is far more action picked, with a big fight, but everything that is no really does not add to the story, everything that links back to the original just feels like a pale imitation.  While it is certainly better that Stepfather 3, this remake does nothing to improve on the original.

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