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.

Roid Rage Part 5 (Conan the Barbarian, 2011)

Conan_the_Barbarian_2011_PosterAfter the attempt to (kind of) expand the Conan Universe with Red Sonja in 1985 fell short of expectations, the Conan Franchise went silent on the silver screen. While barbarians and fantasy seemed to have a fanbase on television throughout the 90’s, it was not until Game of Thrones that people seemed to feel like the genre of sword and sorcery could be revived.

Stepping into the loincloth of Conan was Game of Thrones star Jason Momoa.  This film begins a bit more dramatically.  We are treated to a narration by God (an uncredited Morgan Freeman). The film explains Conan was born of Battle and then makes this wholly literal, as his pregnant mother is fighting at her husbands side.  Upon being mortally wounded, she commands her husband to cut the baby out so she can see him before she dies. So, it is a bit…over the top.  Conan is raised by his father, the chieftain of a tribe dedicated to being powerful and wise warriors. But when their village is overrun by Khalar Zym who is hunting for a piece of a mystical artifact that Conan’s father has kept hidden, Conan and his father are tortured.

The movie then jumps ahead to a grown Conan living the lifestyle of adventurer. He finds himself drawn back into the fight to end the dark plans of Zym, who, along with his daughter Marique, seeks revenge on the world for the loss of his wife.  They are seeking a pure blooded virgin for their special sacrifice. This turns out to be Tamara, whom Conan saves, forcing a battle of wills.

This Conan is a bit different from the Schwarzenegger version.  Momoa is a leaner and more verbal Conan.  This is actually more in line with Howard’s writings.  The massive musculature we associate with the character was a development of Fantasy artists and the 1982 and 1984 films.

They are clearly trying to touch on all the versions of Conan.  There are hints of the comics, the TV shows and films.  Here Conan is a more skilled warrior.  His father emphasizes the importance of the mind as a major component of the warrior.

Momoa is certainly entertaining as Conan.  But the story is rather lackluster.  Stephen Lang brings more to his role than seems to have been in the script.  And Rose McGowan is fairly creepy as Marique.

Tamara is a problem for the film though.  There is little for her to be, beyond a damsel in distress.  She spends a good chunk of the final action tied up, and contributes little to the resolution of the film.

Conan the Barbarian is uneven, and this results in a lot of it just not keeping one’s attention. We are left with a rather average film, rather than an epic barbarian 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.

Super Pals In Conflict (Batman V Superman:Dawn of Justice, 2016)

batman_vs_superman_pop_art_postersThis film has been both hotly anticipated and less than interesting depending on who you ask.  In fact, the talk at the beginning of the week was that people had seen the movie and loved it.  It was starting to look like Deadpool all over again.  The early reaction made me wonder if my preconceptions were fair.  Then, as the week progressed and more official reviews started to come out?  It started to suggest my low expectations were warranted.  Of course, I still felt I needed to see the film before declaring it a dud or success.

I am inclined to say it is better than the (at the last time I checked) 30% Rotten Tomato rating.  But it is not truly great either.  Clocking in at two hours and forty minutes, it is reaching for a standard of epic.  Snyder and Nolan have emphasized that their films are different than those of Marvel.  And it is true…the Marvel films, to a large extent, combine humor, adventure and suspense.  Sure, some do it better than others.  But they are lively fun films.  Snyder has describe wanting his DC Cinematic Universe to be more epic Greek Myth.

Affleck actually works well in the role.  There was plenty of online hemming and hawing…but Affleck’s Batman was pretty strong.  Jeremy Iron’s Alfred worked very effectively for me.  I enjoyed the larger screen time to Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White.  He seems to be having a lot of fun as the tough Editor in Chief of the Daily Planet.  I liked Amy Adam’s Lois Lane in Man of Steel, and she is just as good here.  In spite of criticisms of the Man of Steel, I like Henry Cavill and feel he gives us the best Superman we can hope for given the material.  I also liked when they focused on Lois and Clark’s relationship.  I also enjoyed the brief time given to Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and find myself looking to her solo film now.

The weakest link of the characters was Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor.  The character never feels as brilliant or as menacing as he should.  Instead he just comes across as weird and quirky.

I can appreciate that they tried to make the destruction of Man of Steel a real sticking point that Superman has to face.  That his heroics can even see negative results.  This does really give a plausible motivation to Batman.  The Batman we get in the film is cynical and has given up hope, rather than seeing Superman as that hope, he becomes determined to stop Superman.  When Lex Luthor manipulates events, Batman falls over the edge.  This actually works pretty well.  It is an old comic book trope where two heroes meet, not realizing they are on the same side and fight, before realizing they are on the same side.  The first Avengers film did this in very entertaining fashion in about five minutes.  Here, Superman and Batman spend a majority of the film in distrust.

However, the film is just so packed with advance planning for the cinematic universe, they start forcing stuff into the film to prepare us.  This also becomes confusing on telling apart dreams from memories from possible future events…at one point I was trying to determine if Bruce Wayne was having a potential prophetic vision.  The film also lacks a strong central antagonist, and the introduction of Doomsday for the final battle just makes the film feel overloaded.  The film feels bloated and confusing, and could use some streamlining.

It is also obvious that the criticisms of the Man of Steel’s massive destruction really stung Snyder.  At points a general points out that they cleared an area, a newscast points out that the workday is over and everyone had gone home…Batman explains he chose a particular area for a fight because it was abandoned…the filmmakers really want you to know just how many people are not getting killed.

The movie is full of iconic visuals of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, and that is what they feel like.  “Remember this panel from Dark Knight Returns?!”  But they do not enhance the story.  And Snyder’s cynical approach infects even the color grading.  It is almost a dull and faded world.  I am missing vibrant color in the DC Universe.

In the end, like Man of Steel…there are things I really did like.  There are things I really did not care for.  The film just misses the mark in a way that bums me out.  I want to leave a movie starring Superman feeling hopeful and happy.  I cannot say that here.  The film never earns it’s deeper questions of hero worship and power, or the repercussions of Superman’s actions.  I appreciate that they tried to aim for depth…it just is not as deep as they would like us to think it is.

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