Sanity and the Sea (The Lighthouse, 2019)

The_Lighthouse_PosterAs the lights went up, I overheard a guy say to his friend “I really enjoyed it, but I could not tell you what it was f*****g about.”

I honestly feel like this film should not work. It is in black and white. It is in a very uncommon aspect ration. The audio is mono.  It is just two guys being belligerent on screen for almost two hours. And yet? I was hooked in from the first few moments.

I cannot image this film being as visually striking if it had been in color.  The black and white picture creates a feel of something from another time. A story of old maritime myth and superstition.  The light and shadow perform an engaging dance as the storms (both nature and between the men) rage in front of us.

I don’t know if I can tell you what it was f******g about”…but it was quite an experience.

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.

Taking Notes (Death Note, 2017)

Death_Note_PosterMeet Light Turner.  He is in high school and frustrated by bullies.  He is also angry that the drunk driver who killed his mother walked.  One day, a notebook falls from the sky.  It is full of rules, and comes with great power.  Oh…and a demon or a death god or some such thing.  This tall creature with a love for apples is named Ryuk.

Ryuk explains that all Light must do is write the name of a person (while picturing their face) and a method of death…and it will happen.  Light initially believes himself to be dreaming, but when he realizes that a local bully indeed died as he wrote in the book, he starts to get an idea.  With his girlfriend Mia, he begins a campaign against crime causing the death of hundreds of terrorists, murderers and other terrible people.  He attributes it to “Kira”.  But Kira attracts the attention of the authorities, including his own father, Detective James Turner.  Joining Light’s father is Watari and the mysterious L.

The film follows Lights attempts to not get caught, while trying to figure out how to avoid killing good people.  L knows Light is behind Kira…but is not sure how he is doing it.

Death Note is a pretty interesting concept.  However, it is based on an anime series as well as a manga series.  And here they have forced the entire series into under two hours.  Which results in a major rush to tell the story.  So interesting concepts (Light cannot simply write L’s name in the book, because they do not know his real name and almost nobody knows what he looks like.  But everything has to play out so fast that there is no opportunity to fully explore these things.

And it is to bad.  Director Adam Wingard has a good cast at his disposal.  Shea Wigham is quite good as Light’s father.  And Get Out’s Lakeith Stanfield is good in the role of the mysterious L.  Willem Defoe obviously had some fun as the voice of Ryuk.  Had Netflix maybe planned this as a start of a series, the film might have worked better.  While I am sure the goal includes further films, trying to force Lights tale into such a short space simply results in it being hard to connect with the characters.

I Hate Mondays Chapter 1 (John Wick, 2014)

John_Wick_PosterJohn Wick is having a bad day.  A really bad one.  This is the gist of the film.  John Wick is mourning the death of his wife.  He is gassing up his car one day when some punks express interest his car.  That night, they break in, assault John, hurt his dog and steal his car.

One little thing…John Wick is a notorious hitman.  He is the boogeyman hitmen tell each other about.  Wick had retired, but now he has a mission.  That mission is to get his car back…but that means a whole lot of people are going to meet untimely ends.

John Wick is an action film with no aspirations to be anything else.  Wick is a very simple character in a post-Taken world.  He has a very special skill set and connections to a very dangerous community. This works in the film’s favor, as it makes it pretty easy to go along with the outlandish action sequences.

I have long argued that the key to a good Keanu Reeve performance is a character who might be smart, but is generally clueless about the plot.  And admit it…most of his most memorable performances involve kind of clueless characters.

Not John Wick.  Wick knows who he is, what he wants and how to do it.  And it is pretty exciting to see him do it.  The fights are tightly choreographed and eye catching.  Reeves maintains a strong presence considering the fact that there is not much to the character.  This is a lean action film full of characters with no real complexity.  Each character has a specific role and they play it well.  The film does not give you a lot of background to many characters…instead it allows the actors to bring a certain amount of their own presence.  Ian McShane gives the “Overlord” Winston instant gravitas, while Lance Reddick’s Charon carries a real weight of quiet authority.

This is director Chad Stahelski’s directorial debut.  He was primarily a stunt coordinator/choreographer who has done some assistant director work…but for a debut film, Stahelski does a pretty solid job.  Probably the biggest knock against the film is the choice to view the entire film through a blue tint, which can get annoying at times.

John Wick is a strong debut for a first time director and a good start to what has become a franchise.

On a Swing And a Prayer (Spider-Man 2, 2004)

spider-man-2-posterSeriously…not the Amazing Spider-Man?  Not Spectacular Spider-Man?!  Despite the blandly titled Spider-Man 2…I sensed a trend for Marvel Movies.

The nice thing for the creative team was that they were not saddled with telling the origin story.  Instead, they were free to jump right in to start a new story.  And jump in they do-to Peter struggling to make ends meet with a job delivering pizzas by scooter.  Realizing he is running out of time for the delivery, he switches into his spider-duds and swings through the city.  He still fails to make the delivery on time…resulting in a chewing out from his boss.  We find out that while he still pines for MJ, she is engaged to J. Jonah Jameson’s son (an Astronaut).  Aunt May has fallen on hard times.  Peter and Harry’s friendship is strained, as Harry has become a vocal anti-Spider-Man type after seeing Spider-Man deliver his dead father to their penthouse.  His friendship with Mary Jane is stretched because he seems unreliable and unsupportive of her dreams.

On the other hand, Peter is thrilled when he is sent to take pictures at a press event for scientific hero of Parker’s- Dr. Otto Octavious (Alfred Molina).  He is showing his new potential energy source.  He also is showing off his “assistants”-a set of mechanical arms.  The experiment goes awry (as scientific experiments are want to do) and Spider-Man jumps into the fray.  Unfortunately, Otto is hospitalized and his wife killed in the turmoil.

The doctors find the arms fused to the Doctor’s body.  The arms wake up and attack the hospital staff and taking the Doctor with them.  Meanwhile, Peter is starting to have trouble with his powers, and is wanting to be done with Spider-Man.  Understandably, he is tired about how much that aspect of his life interferes with the rest of his life.  The arms apparently are driving Doc Ock a bit…crazy…he becomes obsessed with perfecting his experiment-not understanding that it is actually a destructive force.

The plot takes twists and turns, with Harry Osborne seeking Doctor Octopus’ help in catching Spider-Man, so he can take his revenge for his father’s death.Peter’s attempts at a regular life when his spider powers seem to be failing is handled nicely.

Sam Raimi really hit it out of the park here.  Spider-Man 2 has everything a good comic book movie requires.  It is exciting, funny, dramatic…when they announced the villain was Doctor Octopus, fans worried.  I am unsure why.  Spider-Man has a solid rogues gallery, second to Batman.  And Doctor Octopus is a classic villain.  And Spider-Man 2 beat all complaints into the ground.  The casting of Alfred Molina was perfect.  He manages to capture a wide range of character traits.  In the beginning he is a funny, genial.  Yet He becomes ominous and frightening.

Raimi reaches into his horror routes-especially in the hospital scene where Doc Ock’s arms violently come to life.  It is intense and pretty scary sequence that definitely sets a tone for the film for the danger Spider-Man will face.

Maguire turns in a pretty nice performance as Parker again.  And Kirsten Dunst does okay…but still lacks the real fire and spunk of the MJ in the comics.  MJ is to depressed and beaten down by life to feel like the character comics fans know.  Rosemary Harris’s performance as Aunt May is wonderful.  The costuming department deserves credit for making sure actors looked like they sprung from the pages.  Franco turns in a nice dark performance as Harry.

The writing for this film is much stronger than it’s predecessor.  There is a “New Yorkers Unite” moment that is so very well done.  After Spider-Man narrowly saves a train, the passengers save him.

Clearly, Raimi has a true love of the early Spider-Man books, and he shines with his choices in this installment.  He modernizes the characters without sacrificing why they work.  I was so pleased with this one that I could not wait for the third film.   If you are doing a second installment of a super-hero franchise?  You should watch this and X2.  If you just like super-heroes?  You should watch this and X2.

Of course, the most important aspect of the film is the presence of Community’s Joel McHale as “Bank Guy”.

Look Out! Here Comes… (Spider-Man (2002)

Spider-Man_PosterThe anticipation for a James Cameron Spider-Man went from drool to ridicule after Titanic.  Some were fearful he would use Leonardo DiCaprio (and while he is a pretty guy, I think he would have found a way to be a convincing Peter Parker-the guy can act).  But ultimately, the idea of a Cameron Spider-Film faded away.

There was some surprise when it was announced that Spider-Man was in the hands of Sam Raimi (at the time he was still getting recognition for critical fave a Simple Plan).  Raimi, unlike Singer with the X-Men, was a fan of Spider-Man, especially the early Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era.  Raimi held promise, based on his genre fueled past, and his films, such as the two Evil Dead sequels suggested he would be a good choice for making sure Spidey kept his wise-cracking ways.

The reaction to Tobey Maguire seemed mixed.  Many thought he was an effective choice for nerdy Peter Parker, but I recall some people complaining-ironically enough-that he was too uh…dweebish.  Kirsten Dunst of course caused nerd panic because Mary Jane Watson has red hair.  Because you cannot change hair color with dye or anything.

The film itself is in the same trap as many that came before it-including X-Men.  The first film is all about the beginning.  It is more set up.  Which is a shame, because right out of the gate, they go for Spidey’s most famous nemesis, the Green Goblin.

Spider-Man begins with a visual trick (the same trick we saw in Drew Barrymore’s Never Been Kissed. Yeah, I saw it.  SHUT UP!!!!) where we are on a bus and Peter suggests that you might not notice him…and then you see Maguire chasing the bus.  We get it established pretty quick that Peter is a science nerd, with no real friends outside of Harry Osbourne (James Franco).  Harry is handsome and looks like the kind of guy Peter would like to be.  But Harry’s frustration is that his father, Norman Osbourne (Willem Defoe) seems prouder of Peter Parker than his own son.  He thinks Peter is a gifted young scientist and wishes Harry were more like him.  Peter has a huge crush on Mary Jane Watson, the girl next door.  His parents are dead, so he lives with his Kindly Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris).

On a field trip to the labs of Oscorp (Norman Osbourne’s company) Peter gets bitten by a genetically altered spider.  Meanwhile, Norman is trying to keep his military contracts, which are slipping through his fingers.  The generals are unimpressed at the pace of his program for creating elite soldiers and a combat glider.

That night, he decides to test the enhancement gas on himself-the result is super strength and insanity.  The two most useful powers for a super-villain.  Meanwhile, Peter Parker awakens to find himself with a more muscular body and the ability to shoot webs from his wrists.  The source of great controversy, it never bothered me.  For one thing?  It saved us the ten minute sequence of him building web shooters.

The film is full of montages showing Peter experimenting with his powers and such, which shortcuts plenty of potentially long scenes.  The film stays quite true to the Spider-Man origin from the comics, with Peter feeling guilt when Uncle Ben is killed by a robber Peter allowed to go free.

Peter sets out to create a new identity, one where he can use his powers anonymously and live out Uncle Ben’s advice that with great power, comes great responsibility.  The film rushes the timeline, getting Peter out of high school and into college.  He and Harry are roommate in a pretty large apartment (but Harry is a rich kid, so this is not entirely implausible.

Norman, of course, works out that Peter Parker and Spider-Man are the same person and starts using that against him, endangering those Peter loves.  In a sequence borrowed from the comics, Peter is forced to choose between a trolley car full of kids and MJ.  Unlike the comic, which ends tragically (and with a character other than MJ), Peter successfully saves both. This undermines the lesson of the original story, that Spider-Man cannot save everyone, all the time.   People on the Brooklyn bridge start hurling things at the Goblin, who seems shocked that people are made at him.  But in case you are missing the point, someone yells, “You mess with one New Yorker, you mess with all of us.” (or something like that).  It was that post 9/11 solidarity that just feels…hokey in the film.  It has no context or depth.

In the end, Peter decides he must be alone, to protect those he cares about most.  This is rather tired as a trope, and to make matters worse, it feels like nerd fantasy.  MJ realizes she loves Peter, kisses him passionately and he gets to shoot her down, walking away all self righteous about how he must deny himself the girl.

In a lot of ways, this is a pretty good movie.  They get to the spider bite fairly fast.  It has a terrific cast (J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson looks like he stepped directly out of the comic book-as does Elizabeth Bank’s Betty Brant).  Rosemary Harris makes a great Aunt May, physically frail, yet strong of heart, she is wise, generous and loving.  Willem Defoe is a terrific bad guy, playing a well meaning but flawed science guy who cracks under pressure.  Who loves his kid, but fails to show it, and often impedes it by fawning over Peter.  Mary Jane seems to lack the spark and confidence of the comics.  She is a little to down all the time, and the Mary Jane Watson of the comics is vivacious and full of life.  Mary Jane in the film seems sad and generally miserable.  Maguire is pretty solid as Peter, bringing both heartache and humor to the role (especially his excitement over his new found powers).

The film’s effects range from impressive to really obvious CGI-especially when Spidey is swinging through the city on his webs.  Overall, though, they work well enough to sell the film.

The writing ranges from good…the Uncle Ben sequences are strong…Raimi and the writers really get how important this is to “who Spider-Man is.”  Peter Parker can be a bit of a selfish jerk, and it is that loss that propels him to look beyond himself.  Chris Sims at Comics Alliance addressed this incredibly well in his column on why Spider-Man is the best character ever.

On the other end, the writing can get hokey…see the Brooklyn Bridge scene.

The other thing that just does not work is the Green Goblin costume.  Frankly?  It is terrible.  The character in the comic could look kind of goofy in his purple costume, but he had an expressive face.  You have Willem Defoe-a distinctive face that is full of character…and instead of makeup that would be let us see his eyes and mouth we are given an emotionless, frozen helmet.  Terrible idea.  And speaking of that helmet…this was a military project…why are you offering the military a helmet that says “a super villain might wear this”? That Goblin outfit is just a huge miss, and surprising to boot.  Raimi clearly loves the Ditko era Spider-Man, but his Green Goblin screams 90’s EXTREME COMICS.  The only thing missing is big shoulder pads and 70 pouches.

The story is kind of dull, Green Goblin really has few motives…first revenge and then to hassle Spider-Man…it is not that Spidey is getting in his way…he just wants to hassle Spidey since he is the good guy.  And then, when Spider-Man is gone…he…uh…well…uh…

Like I said, it is decent enough entertainment, with some really strong moments, but overall not terribly great.  It gives us a rough idea of who is who our leads are, but feels more like set up than a story being told for it’s own sake.

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