AQUAMAN (2018)

December 13, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Were the TV series “Entourage” still on the air, they would now need a new recurring punchline. The AQUAMAN movie is real! At the helm, we are surprised to find the master of horror, James Wan, in the director’s seat. Mr. Wan is known for such genre flicks as SAW, INSIDIOUS, and THE CONJURING, and his talent for visuals transfers well to the comic book style. In fact, with a run time of almost 2 ½ hours, the visual effects are both exhilarating and exhausting.

Sure, we’ve seen short bursts of Jason Momoa as Aquaman in a couple of previous DC movies, but this time he owns the pool. Momoa plays Arthur Curry as a hunky beer-chugging rock and roll party dude who just happens to talk to fish and breathe underwater.  Since it’s the first Aquaman movie, writers David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (ORPHAN) and Will Beall (GANGSTER SQUAD) provide us the backstory.

On the coast of Maine in 1985, a lighthouse attendant named Tom Curry (played by Temuera Morrison) discovers Princess Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) washed ashore. What follows is a whirlwind romance, the birth of their son Arthur, Nicole snacking on a goldfish, as well as her first kick-ass action fight scene. To protect her son, she agrees to head back to Atlantis where she faces the consequences of birthing a half-breed with a landlubber.

When we first see a grown Arthur – with a classic hair flip – he is thwarting the hijacking of a Russian submarine by Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his father (Michael Beach, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK). Manta is one of the two main villains – the other being Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur’s war-mongering, power-thirsty half-brother. Sharing a common enemy, Orm enlists Manta and provides a highly-advanced weapon that, for some unfathomable reason, Manta begins (via montage) to ‘Iron-Man’ it to another level – one much less stable. It’s Orm who gets much more screen time as he plots a massive attack on surface dwellers (humans) who have been destroying the sea for years. You didn’t think Hollywood would miss a chance to tell us how despicable we are, did you?

The basic story is that Orm must defeat Aquaman to claim the throne and become Master of the Sea. Of course, Arthur is reluctant to get involved and only does so at the urging of his old mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) and Mera (Amber Heard), both of whom wish to avoid a war with humans. The first battle of the would-be kings takes place in The Ring of Fire, a royal battleground missing only the accompaniment of Johnny Cash. The duel ends prematurely, so that an epic battle can later serve as the film’s epic climax.

Although director Wan may throw a bit too much ‘plot’ and action at the proverbial wall, it is interesting to note the history/mythology associated with Atlantis, the ruling class, and the missing trident. The legends are fascinating and the journey takes us to all ends (and depths) of the globe … from the deepest seas to the middle of the Sahara Desert (itself once a sea) to the incredible core of the Earth. We see the ancient ruins, as well as the high-tech futurama Atlantis … and it’s all stunning to watch.

Don’t tell Marvel, but the film is somewhat a blend of BLACK PANTHER and THOR, and Momoa is every bit the Aquaman that Chris Hemsworth is Thor (quite a compliment). Yes, we find out that Atlantis, like our dry land world, is burdened with politics and power-hungry types, but the underwater world and the visual effects keep us mesmerized. We see terrific dragon-like sea horses, a drumming octopus, and a Kraken-like creature supposedly voiced by Julie Andrews (fact or fiction?). There is an early sequence that takes swimming with dolphins to a level you didn’t experience on your vacation, and the lighting effects at times recall TRON and can be a bit disorienting.

This is probably the largest scale DC movie to date, and director Wan chooses to make a splash with every element – character, mythology, setting, and effects. We also get appearances from Dolph Lundgren as King Nereus and Randall Park as a TV talking head/oceanographer making the case that Atlantis is real and a threat. We even get Roy Orbison singing “She’s a Mystery to Me”, and the IMAX aspect ratio makes the first ever over-the-top underwater spectacle. And what a spectacle it is.

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MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE (2018)

December 6, 2018

 Greetings from the darkness. If your idea of “The Jungle Book” is Phil Harris’ Baloo singing a bouncy and memorable rendition of “The Bare Necessities” in 1967, or Christopher Walken voicing a giant orangutan in 2016, then be forewarned about this latest version of Rudyard Kipling’s classic stories … it’s dark and, at times, terrifying. It’s rated PG-13 to keep young kids away, so please keep your young kids away! One additional warning: this version is spectacular to look at and listen to.

Of course the story is quite familiar to most, but two things really stand out here: the amazing voice acting of the world class cast, and the look of the lush jungle with its vivid colors and textures. Director Andy Serkis is renowned for his stunning motion-capture work in such franchises as PLANET OF THE APES, LORD OF THE RINGS, and Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005) … along with many others … and for this project, he combines his motion-capture Baloo with top notch CGI, and the live performance of young Rohan Chand (THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY) as Mowgli, the man cub.

The voice acting is worth raving about. We first hear Cate Blanchett as Kaa, the ancient python, and within the first two minutes of the opening, we are captivated. Other standouts include an unnerving and intimidating Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan, the always-threatening Tiger, Christian Bale (periodically lapsing into Batman voice) as the growling black panther Bagheera, Naomie Harris as Nisha the mother wolf, and a terrific Peter Mullan as lead wolf Akela. The deep cast also includes the voices of Jack Reynor, Eddie Marsan and Tom Hollander, while Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”) appears as the hired tiger hunter, and Freida Pinto (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) appears as Mowgli’s caretaker in the man village.

Many scenes are particularly captivating – some are exciting, while others quite scary. The “no rules” monkeys are comedic relief … right up until they kick off one of the darkest segments of the film. And there is an ongoing theme of the fine line between being ‘special’, ‘different’, or a ‘freak’, and the lessons learned here would be valuable for kids … if this were a kids’ movie … which it’s NOT! Although it’s difficult to discern the intended audience for this film, it’s quite a visual spectacle and entertaining from beginning to end.

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CREED II (2018)

November 20, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The theatre was packed and I don’t recall having heard a louder outburst of cheering for any movie moment. Was it predictable? Yes. Did it deliver what the fans wanted? Absolutely. Is it (as my son asked) “Was it just ROCKY IV in 4K?” Yes, that’s pretty much exactly what it is. So despite CREED (2015) director Ryan Coogler opting to make BLACK PANTHER instead of this sequel to his own movie, I’ve seen proof that it’s clearly a crowd-pleaser … which is what the “Rocky” franchise has always done best.

Michael B Jordan returns as Adonis Johnson/Creed and Sylvester Stallone is back as Rocky Balboa. And although that would likely be enough, we also have Tessa Thompson as Adonis’ girlfriend Bianca and Phylicia Rashad as Adonis’ mom, both also from CREED. We see an early training/boxing sequence in Russia featuring (professional boxer and chiseled human mountain) Florian Munteanu as Viktor Drago being trained by his father Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). If you are a fan of the franchise at all, you know exactly where this is headed – and so does opportunistic boxing promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby).

Think of it as ‘Revenge vs Redemption’. Adonis fighting the son of the man who killed his father Apollo is the obvious revenge side, and Viktor fighting to redeem his disgraced father Ivan, who lost to Rocky 30 some years ago. This one lacks the real world Cold War element of ROCKY IV (1985), and while it’s missing the political heft of that film, it still packs quite a punch as a revenge flick … even if there was no other possible route this sequel could take. If anything, the filmmakers should be commended for not force-feeding any cheesy political statements on today’s environment.

What are you fighting for?” This must be both a necessary boxing question to answer and a tough one, as it seems to get asked over and over during the film. The combination of writers: story by Cheo Hodari and Sacha Penn, characters by Ryan Coogler, and screenplay by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor, place quite a bit of focus outside the ring. Relationship quandaries are at every turn: young married couples, father-son (double whammy), mother-son (another double whammy), and first time parents.

Director Steve Caple Jr seems more comfortable outside the ring himself, as the boxing match camera work does not hit the level of the first, although audience members’ emotions run even higher. Perhaps to overcompensate for the more basic camera work, some of the sound effects for rib punches may have been pulled right out of battle scenes in war movies – they sound like explosions, and are exaggerated so that we viewers might “feel” the ribs cracking.

Wisely the relationship between Adonis and Bianca is a key element this time. Mr. Jordan and Ms. Thompson have tremendous chemistry, and the filmmakers deserve credit for hitting the hearing-impaired issue head-on. It’s a topic that’s rarely seen in movies, and appears to be very well handled. There are some other ties to the “Rocky” franchise with Wood Harris playing “Little Duke”, son of Duke, played numerous times by Tony Burton throughout the Rocky films, and there are a couple of other (very) familiar faces that pop up from both IV and ROCKY BALBOA (2006). On the music front, Ludwig Goransson is a rising star composer thanks to FRUITVALE STATION, CREED, BLACK PANTHER, VENOM, and now CREED II. He toys with the familiar Rocky numbers, but some will argue not enough.

This sequel is more grand scale than the first (which was identity driven), yet more restrained than IV. Sure we have the mandatory zany training montage (zany may be too mild), and the final bout is held in Moscow (even though it makes no sense that the champion would agree to this), but it’s definitely more low-key when comparing Bianca’s musical intro to James Brown’s “Living in America”.

For fans, it’s great to see Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago back in the ring together – even if only for a moment; however, maybe not as thrilling (dramatically speaking) as when the two first reunite Godfather-style in a table at Adrian’s Café. It’s a surreal moment that both Lundgren and Stallone play perfectly – one with pent-up emotional turmoil and the other quite content with what life has delivered. Of course, Sly can play Rocky in his sleep … and no that wasn’t meant to encourage one-liners followed by rim shots. He’s comfortable with the shuffles and mumbles of an elderly Rocky and it’s a pleasure to watch an old friend. The only real question remaining … is the “Creed” franchise gonna fly now?

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FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDEWALD (2018)

November 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been seven years since the final Harry Potter movie, and this is the second entry in the planned series of 5 prequels entitled FANTASTIC BEASTS, based on a (fictional) Hogwarts’ textbook written by Magizoologist Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne). Of course the characters and stories are from the pen of J.K. Rowling, and who better to bring us the war pitting pure-blood wizards against Muggles?

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM was released in 2016, and it was mostly an introduction to these characters and to some of the cutest and oddest creatures we’d ever encountered on screen. This second entry is much darker and more sinister, and tries to develop quite a few characters … perhaps too many. On top of the roster of players, romantic complications abound, and a search for one’s roots/identity is yet another sub-plot. And then there’s that whole Nazi element – leaving us all a bit bewildered at trying to keep up (although, it is fun trying).

David Yates directed the last four Harry Potter movies, and now the first two Fantastic Beasts films. He kicks this one off with a spectacular action sequence featuring a black carriage being drawn by a team of majestic flying dragons during a driving rain storm … all part of a daring 1927 prison escape by the titular Grindewald (Johnny Depp with a bleach punk do). It’s a breathtaking sequence, and the best of many visual wonders throughout – including my favorite, a very cool statue effect and a fabulous kelp seahorse.

Most of the key players return from the first film, though, as previously mentioned, their stories are more elaborate. Eddie Redmayne returns as Newt, our main guide through this universe. Katherine Waterston is back as auror and fringy love interest Tina, Alison Sudol returns as Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie, and Dan Fogler resumes his comic relief duties as Jacob. Jude Law is Albus Dumbledore (yes, the first name is needed), and he is prevented from fighting Gindewald (Depp) due to some youthful “bonding” that occurred years prior. Zoe Kravitz is Leta Lestrange, Carmen Ejogo is Seraphina Picquery, and Ezra Miller is the lost soul Credence Barebone. Newly introduced characters include Claudia Kim as shapeshifter Nagini, Callum Turner as Newt’s brother Theseus, and Brontis Jodorowsky (son of renowned cult director Alejandro Jadorowsky, EL TOPO) as non-ghost Flamel. If that’s not enough characters to track, you should know the story skips from New York to London to Paris and back around again.

Expect some happy gasps from the audience as Hogwarts is revisited, but the darkness and similarities to Nazi beginnings may surprise those expecting two hours of cutesy creatures springing from Newt’s coat … although, those exist as well. We do learn that ‘salamander eyes’ are not to be used while flirting, and it will be quite interesting to see how these stories close in to the Harry Potter world over the next 3 prequel-sequels (scheduled through 2024). It should be a fun ride – though not as fun as riding that seahorse.

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OUTLAW KING (2018)

November 10, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Much was made of the ‘artistic license’ director Mel Gibson took in creating his own version of historical events and actions of William Wallace for his Oscar-winning BRAVEHEART (1995). Director David Mackenzie (in his follow up to the excellent HELL OR HIGH WATER, 2016) pays a bit more attention to historical details as he picks up the story at the end of Wallace’s rebellion – and the beginning of the uprising led by Robert the Bruce.

Chris Pine plays Robert the Bruce, a man forced to pledge loyalty to Kind Edward I and England prior to leading the rebellion. It’s the year 1304 and director Mackenzie’s opening sequence is a several minute long tracking shot that is simply superb. It features our introduction to Robert the Bruce (Pine), King Edward I (Stephen Dillane) and Prince Edward (Billy Howle, ON CHESIL BEACH), as well as an early swordfight and an eye-popping fireball shot from an enormous catapult into the protective wall of a distant castle.

Not long after, we learn William Wallace has been killed, the King has provided Robert the Bruce a wife in Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh, LADY MACBETH) and Robert  takes the life of fellow Scotsman John Comyn … an act that costs him dearly in the early going. However, it does lead to his being named King of Scots by the Church, and he slowly begins to build his forces. Of course, Scotland’s forces are always dwarfed in numbers by that of the English Empire, but never in spirit.

Pine plays Robert the Bruce as the strong, (mostly) silent leader, while Howle and Aaron Taylor-Johnson cross into camp in their respective portrayals of Prince Edward (yet another wide-eyed son intent on making his father proud) and James Douglas (a manic, crazy-eyed Scotsman bent on revenge). Ms. Pugh brings courage and a headstrong nature to Elizabeth (in far too limited a role), while Mr. Dillane shows us a worn down King Edward I who gets the film’s best line … “I am so sick of Scotland!”

The two words of the title are actually separated by a slash in the opening credits; a device meant to emphasize the dual sides to the man and his actions. In addition to that opening long shot, there is a visually stunning sequence of a nighttime raid on a camp site. Unfortunately after that, we get mostly mud and blood, including the pivotal Battle of Loudon Hill which features the ultimate in home field advantage. There are some terrific costumes and set pieces, but mostly it’s elaborate and detailed moviemaking (with a few downright silly moments) that never fully clicks. Perhaps that’s a factor of having 5 different writers involved. With many familiar faces from “Game of Thrones”, it will be interesting to see how this plays on laptops and TVs via Netflix. Another Robert the Bruce film is scheduled for theatrical release in 2019, and the inevitable comparison will be made at that time.

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VENOM (2018)

October 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. For those movie-goers who believe there is no need for another comic book movie, you now have People’s Exhibit A. This is the 5th Marvel film of 2018 (yep, that’s a new one every other month!), and it’s the first one proving challenging to say much of anything that is positive or complimentary.

It should be noted that this is not a Superhero movie, but rather a film based on the Marvel Comic characters and stories of Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie. Four writers are credited with the screenplay, and it seems they either needed more or fewer. Director Ruben Fleisher (ZOMBIELAND, 2009) apparently worked with what he was given, hoping the stellar cast or the CGI could salvage the project.

The always terrific Tom Hardy (Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES) stars as Eddie Brock, a renowned investigative reporter popular for breaking stories of corruption and fraud. Unfortunately, he has a significant lapse in ethics – an unusually forthright comment from Hollywood on today’s media. This lapse costs Brock his job, his girlfriend (4 time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams), and any semblance of normalcy. While investigating the unimaginable human-alien experiments of megalomaniac Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), Brock takes on the powers of the symbiote (Venom) and spends the rest of the movie either trying to control these powers, sitting back and letting the powers take over, or exchanging frat boy dialogue with the possessive being who picked up all nuances of the English language pretty darn quickly.

Venom was last seen in the lackluster SPIDER-MAN 3 and was played by Topher Grace. This time out, Venom is the focus and Spidey is nowhere to be found or mentioned … at least not until post credits (a terrific animated sequence). The CGI is at times very impressive – reminiscent of something John Carpenter might have ordered. Two sides of the Transamerica Pyramid provide a nice visual, however, the effects are not at all consistent. Far too often … especially the battle between Venom and Riot …it’s just plain messy (like letting a group of toddlers play with black and gray slime).

The film’s saving grace could have been the interactions between Mr. Hardy and Ms. Williams, both stellar actors, but the dialogue and situations are so ridiculous that even those scenes don’t click. The moments that draw laughter from the audience may or may not have been by design, but there are far too many ‘forced comedic moments’ that just fall flat.

Composer Ludwig Goransson (CREED, BLACK PANTHER) delivers some nice moments with the score, but the Eminem song over the closing credits sounds amateurish. The film is very loud, and not so much lacking direction as it is burdened with too many directions and misfires. A comic book movie’s first priority is to be fun, and this one just isn’t much of that. Surprisingly, the film is rated PG-13 rather than R, so the excessive violence (and there is plenty) never actually spills a drop of blood. Perhaps the goal was to make a Marvel movie so uninspiring that BLACK PANTHER’s Oscar chances would be enhanced.  Otherwise, there’s no excuse.

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MILE 22 (2018)

August 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. I like secrets too!  By definition, information is scarce on these teams, so Secret Ops units are perfect fodder for intrigue, espionage, and geopolitical action flicks. A fictional account of an elite paramilitary unit chasing down Russian spies is not only timely, but also timeless. Director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg are back for their 4th testosterone-laced collaboration. Their previous work included PATRIOTS DAY, DEEPWATER HORIZON, and LONE SURVIVOR, each with an element of truth to their story. Not so with their latest … at least we hope not.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Mark Wahlberg, er… James Silva, a child prodigy with anger issues who has grown into a military intelligence prodigy with anger issues and a rubber band. Silva snaps the rubber band on his wrist when his impatience bubbles up as those around him can’t keep up with his rapid-fire thinking. The only thing that works faster than Silva’s brain is his motor-mouth filled with cryptic cuts and curses. Lest you think this is another men’s only club, writers Lea Carpenter and Graham Roland have blessed us with two female action figures. One is played by MMA star Ronda Rousey. She is given little to do here. The other is Lauren Cohan (“The Walking Dead”) who, as team member Alice Kerr, has much to do – even beyond the absentee-mommy guilt burdening her.

Carlo Alban plays another member of the elite squad, while John Malkovich plays “Mother”, the flat-top toupeed control center leader … you knew there had to be an ultra-high-tech lair staffed with computer nerds. Since Wahlberg spends most of the movie yelling, and Cohan battles her estranged husband (Peter Berg cameo) over Skype, the most interesting character is Li Noor, played by Iko Uwais (THE RAID). Uwais brings a Bruce Lee quality to the film with an incredible hospital room fight scene, as well as a few other sequences that will have you marvel at his abilities.

Intensity and tension and violence and gun play and fighting and chase scenes are jam-packed into a relatively short run time, but the opening sequence is the closest thing we get to something that fits into a well-written espionage thriller. The team sets up a raid on a Russian FSB suburban safe house. Things get twisted, and the final kill ends with “you’re making a mistake”. The film then jumps ahead two years to the Overwatch team reassembling in Southeast Asia for a mission to transport Li Noor to an airfield 22 miles away. See, he holds the information regarding dirty bombs that can either save or cost thousands of lives.

The film features a framing device with Silva being debriefed after the mission. He is explaining why they do the important work they do and why they did the important work they did and why it’s important that we understand the work is important. There is government bashing and military cheerleading, but mostly the interview acts as a respite between violent action sequences. The film plays so much like a video game that each ticket should come with a joystick. If after watching this, you need more, you’ll be pleased to know there’s a cheesy line at the end that tees up the sequel … and don’t worry, director Berg and Mr. Wahlberg are already in pre-production for their fifth film.

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