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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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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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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ANOTHER TIME (2018)

September 13, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Dating back to H.G. Wells’ 1895 book and 1960 film THE TIME MACHINE, time travel has long been a favorite and familiar trope for filmmakers and writers. It’s been a central topic for comedies (BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE), science fiction (LOOPER, INTERSTELLAR), oddities (PLANET OF THE APES, DONNIE DARKO), adventures (BACK TO THE FUTURE, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS), and romance (SOMEWHERE IN TIME, ABOUT TIME).

Since time travel has crossed many genres, it only makes sense that a filmmaker looking to tackle the topic would understand something new must be brought to the party, if a new project can hope to have any appeal. Director/writer Thomas Hennessy and co-writer Scott Kennard attempt to blend romance with a dose of science and philosophy, but unfortunately, even as a low budge B-movie, it just comes across as a lackluster effort with a too-simple script. I’m not familiar with director Hennessy’s TV work on “Bugmashers” and “Ten for the Chairman”, but his background as a cinematographer should have at least resulted in a more visually impactful film.

Justin Hartley (“This is Us”) stars as Eric Lazifer, a successful Account Manager who saves his money, watches science shows on TV, and is easily “bored” by the married women who hit on him in bars. So, Eric is a fiscally conservative Brainiac who looks like a male model … clearly a rough way to go through life. Eric’s best bud Kal (James Kyson) serves as the comic relief, and is one of the few who bring some energy to their role. A recent company acquisition has Eric’s boss (Mark Valley) mandating he iron out the details with that firm’s leader Julia, played by Crishell Stause (Mr. Hartley’s real life wife).

It’s pretty easy to see where this is headed. Eric falls hard for Julia. However, she fails to swoon for his ice cream-philosophy-romance recipe since she is already engaged to a great guy. So Eric does what any guy would do … he tracks down disgraced Physics professor  Dr Joseph Goyer (Alan Pietruszewski) so that Eric can travel back in time to meet Julia before she connects with her fiancé. It’s a solid and logical plan with very little chance for something to go wrong (!). If the story was ever on track, it’s here that it really flies off the rails. Watching Eric assist the Physics expert with solving unsolvable equations is just a bit too much.

On the bright side, this segment allows Eric to meet a bartender named Ally, played by Arielle Kebbell. Ms. Kebbell definitely brings a welcome screen presence to this otherwise uninspired project. The soap opera look and feel likely relegate this one to the world of streaming, where, if it’s lucky, it might find some time travel obsessed viewers.

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SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018)

May 24, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The second feature film directed by STAR WARS creator George Lucas was AMERICAN GRAFFITI in 1973. It starred a fresh-faced 19 year-old (mostly) TV actor named Ron Howard. Now 45 years later, Mr. Howard directs a prequel in the STAR WARS universe designed to fill in the gaps on the background of the beloved iconic character Han Solo – a role made famous, of course, by Harrison Ford.

Alden Ehrenreich stars as young Han Solo, and like most everything in this film, he is fine. Some will recognize Mr. Ehrenreich from his two starring roles in 2016 – the Coen Brothers 2016 film HAIL, CAESAR! and Warren Beatty’s RULES DON’T APPLY. He was also fine in both of those. His boyish Han Solo is wide-eyed and already sarcastic, though the familiar grizzled cynicism of Ford’s version has yet to emerge.

Since the film’s purpose is to fill in the gaps, here is what we learn (the questions only, no answers provided here):

What did Han do before the Rebellion?

How exactly did he win the (shiny) Millennium Falcon in a card game?

What is the origin of his name?

How did he first become linked with Chewbacca?

How strong are Wookies?

How exactly did he make the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs?

Each of these questions is answered in the film, and of course will not revealed here

When we first meet Han, he is basically a Juvenile Delinquent plotting an indentured labor escape with his girlfriend Qi’ra (played by Emilia Clarke, who is fine). Qi’ra evolves the most of any character in the film, but it’s still just fine, not surprising or revolutionary. The film starts slowly but there is a minor spark once Han meets rebels Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). What follows is an extravagant and jaw-dropping train heist – the kickoff of many set pieces of which the filmmakers are quite proud and eager to show off.

The supporting cast consists of Joonas Suotamo (taking over for Peter Mayhew who is physically unable to play the role) as Chewbacca, rising star Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3-37, and Paul Bettany as bad guy Dryden Vos. There is also voice work from Jon Favreau and Linda Hunt, and quick but fun scenes with Warwick Davis (STAR WARS regular beginning with 1983 STAR WARS: EPISODE VI: THE RETURN OF THE JEDI) and of course, Ron Howard’s good luck charm, his brother Clint Howard. The real gem of the film is Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian – a less than honorable gambler in the game of Sabacc.

The film is co-written by the father-son team of Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan. Given the pre-production issues – original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were let go over “creative differences” – the film stands just fine on its own. The timelines will likely be debated by STAR WARS aficionados, but the fun action sequences and dazzling special effects make it entertaining enough after that slow start.

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THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

December 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Recent release JUSTICE LEAGUE is filled with superheroes, but filmmaker-extraordinaire Guillermo del Toro finds his league of misfits and outcasts to be much more interesting – as do I. The numerous possible descriptions of this movie are all accurate, yet alone, each falls short: a fairy tale, fable, monster movie, unconventional romance, sci-fi, cold war saga, and commentary on societal misfits. What is also true is that it’s a gorgeous film with terrific performances, and it pays lovely tribute to the classics.

A government research facility in 1962 Baltimore is the setting, and “The Asset” being secured and studied is an amphibian man that was captured in South America by a sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and his electric cattle prod. Now the military, and a 5-star General played by Nick Searcy, is in charge. The lead scientist played by Michael Stuhlbarg certainly has a different agenda than the military, whose focus seems to be more on preventing the Russians (closer than you think) from stealing the asset than in actually seizing the rare scientific opportunity for advancement.

While all the ominous and clandestine government operations are being conducted, a member of the nighttime cleaning crew – a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) – makes a very personal connection with the fish man through nutritious snacks, Big Band music and sign language. This is the enchanting portion of the story and is admittedly (by del Toro) inspired by the 1954 classic CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (a personal favorite of mine). Elisa and the amphibian man experience a romantic courtship not unlike what we have seen in many other love stories … that is, if you overlook the amphibious being that makes up half of this couple. In fact, “going with” the story is crucial to one’s enjoyment. Sit back and let the magic and wonder and fantastical nature of del Toro’s imagination sweep you away – just as it has done for Elisa.

There are many elements of the film worth exploring, and it’s likely to take another viewing to capture many of them. The band of misfits is comprised of the fish man (Doug Jones), Elisa (Ms. Hawkins), Elisa’s wise and wise-cracking co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Elisa’s neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay graphics design artist. These are the nice folks/beings who make up the world that seems to be run by bullies and predators (sound familiar?). There is even a religious debate here as it’s mentioned that the creature was treated by a God in his natural environment, and a brief discussion is had over what might a God look like. All of the actors are superb, and Miss Hawkins delivers her second knockout performance of the year (the other being MAUDIE).

“The future” is a central theme of the story, though Elisa is most focused on now – how to find some happiness in a world that has been so challenging. Elisa realizes she and the creature are more similar than not, and she feels his pain each time the power-hungry Strickland (Shannon) pops him with the electric cattle prod. There is an ethereal beauty (and yes, sensuality) to the scenes with Elisa and the amphibian man, and it even leads to a terrific song (“You’ll Never Know” by Renee Fleming) and dance dream sequence. In addition, you’ll notice many nods and tributes to classics such as Mr. Ed, Dobie Gillis, Betty Grable, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple, and Carmen Miranda singing “Chica Chica Boom Chic”. It’s also no accident that the apartments of Elisa and Giles are located directly above a palatial old movie theatre that is struggling to make ends meet. All of these pieces are tied together as Mr. del Toro honors the art forms he so adores.

For those who enjoy such detail, it should be noted that the color green plays a huge role throughout the film … the water, the creature, the uniforms, the furniture, the walls – even the Jello, the pie and Strickland’s (teal) Cadillac. The use of color ties in the ever-present mythology, and the theme of meanness and power versus kindness and love.

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen adds to the magical feel with his camera work and lighting that perfectly complements the characters and tone. Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat delivers yet another spot on score that not only syncs with story, but also the numerous classic songs included. Guillermo del Toro is one of the most creative and inventive contemporary filmmakers, and though this one may fall a tick below his masterpiece PAN’S LABRYNTH, it is sure to dazzle and mesmerize those who give it a chance … and let’s hope there are many who do!

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BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)

October 4, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ridley Scott’s original film was released in 1982 and based in 2019. The highly anticipated sequel from Denis Villenueve is being released in 2017 and based in 2049. So we have 35 years between films, and 30 years between story settings. Expect that to be the most complicated part of this review since we were mandated by the studio to follow many rules – write this, don’t write that. Such rules would normally be frowned upon (and even ignored by many), but in fact, this film does such a masterful job of paying homage to the first, while enhancing the characters and story, that we are eager for every viewer to experience it with fresh eyes and clear mind … no matter how tempting it is to talk about!

Obviously, the massive fan base that has grown over the years (the original was not an initial box office hit) will be filling the theatres the first weekend – even those who are ambivalent towards, or adamantly against, the idea of a sequel. The big question was whether screenwriters Hampton Fancher (maybe every writer should begin as a flamenco dancer) and Michael Green would be able to create a script that would attract new viewers while honoring the original film and source Philip K Dick novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The answer is not only a resounding yes, but it’s likely even those who usually shy away from science-fiction may find themselves thoroughly enjoying the nearly 2 hours and 43 minute run time (it doesn’t seem too long).

The cast is deep and perfectly matched, and there are even a few surprises (no spoilers here). Ryan Gosling is fun to watch as the reserved K, an expert Blade Runner who tracks and “retires” old model replicants – the Nexus 8’s have been replaced by the more-controllable Nexus 9’s. An early sequence has K in combat mode against a protein farmer named Morton (played by the massive Dave Bautista). With all that is going on in these few scenes, director Villenueve is training us to lock in and pay attention, lest we miss the key to the rest of the movie and K’s motivation for most everything he does from this point on. Robin Wright plays K’s icy Lieutenant Joshi, who administers “baseline” tests to him after every successful mission – just to make certain he is still under her control.

Jared Leto delivers an understated and mesmerizing performance as the God-like Wallace who not only managed to solve global hunger, but also is a genetic engineer creating new beings. Somehow, this is one of Leto’s most normal roles (which makes quite a statement about his career) and yet his character is so intriguing, it could warrant a spin-off standalone film. Wallace’s trusted assistant is the ruthless bulldog mis-named Luv, played by Sylvia Hoeks. Her scene with Robin Wright is one of the best onscreen female duels we’ve seen in awhile. One of the more unusual characters (and that’s saying a lot) is Joi (Ana de Armas), the Artificial Intelligence/hologram companion to K, whose presence is cued by Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf notes. Other support work to notice comes in brief but crucial roles by Hiam Abbas, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Barkhad Abdi and Lennie James.

Who is not listed above? Of course it’s Harrison Ford (as seen in the trailer), who reprises his Deckard role from the original. All these years later, he’s a grizzled recluse who doesn’t take kindly to home visitations. Mr. Ford offers up proof that he still possesses the acting ability that made him a movie star (even if his best piloting days have passed him by). It’s such a thrill to see him flash the screen presence that’s been missing for many years. And yes, fans of the first film will mourn the absence of the great Rutger Hauer, yet there is no need to dwell on one of the few negatives.

The story leans heavily on philosophical and metaphysical questions … just like every great sci-fi film. What makes us human, or better yet, is there a difference between humans and machines that can think and feel? Can memories be trusted, or can they be implanted or influenced over time? These are some of the post-movie discussion points, which are surely to also include the cutting edge cinematography and use of lighting from the always-great Roger Deakins, and the production design from Dennis Gassner that somehow fits the tone, mood and texture of both the first film and this sequel. The set pieces are stunning and sometimes indistinguishable from the visual effects – a rarity these days. My theatre did feature the “shaky seats” that work in conjunction with the sound design … a gimmick I found distracting and more in line with what kids might find appealing.

There was some unwelcome drama a couple of months ago as noted composer Johann Johannsson dropped out and was replaced with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. The resulting score complements the film without mimicking the original. Ridley Scott, who directed the original BLADE RUNNER (and its numerous versions over the years), was involved as Executive Producer, and to put things in perspective, the first film was released the same year as TOOTSIE and TRON. Denis Villenueve was Oscar nominated for directing ARRIVAL, and he has proven himself to be a superb and dependable filmmaker with SICARIO, PRISONERS, and INCENDIES. He deserves recognition and respect for his nods to the original (Pan Am, Atari) and ability to mold a sequel that stands on its own … and in my opinion, is better than the first. Hopefully stating that is not against the Warner Bros rules.

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