REVIEW: “Aquaman”

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You have to wonder if the Aquaman appearances in the earlier DC Universe films partially served as a taste test for Warner Bros. How would audiences respond to this version of the classic DC Comics character? Could they make a solo film in a way that avoided being as cheesy as a stick of Velveeta? Would Jason Momoa’s beefy, burly charm win over comics fanboys and general DCU skeptics?

Here’s the thing, if you’re already dug in against DC’s refusal to mirror Marvel by doing superhero movies their own way, “Aquaman” probably won’t change your mindset. If you’re a fan of the DCU or if you come at this without a particular bend, then “Aquaman” offers up enough offbeat humor, deep-sea action, and overall craziness to keep you locked in and entertained.

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An Aquaman movie has been in various stages of production for nearly 10 years before director James Wan took the helm. Wan’s specialty is horror having made the original “Saw”, two “Insidious” movies, and “The Conjuring” series. But this isn’t the first time he has stepped outside of the genre. In 2015 he directed the seventh “Fast and Furious” installment. “Aquaman” posed a bigger challenge considering the very nature of the character, where’s he’s from, etc. And that’s not counting the $200 million price tag. No pressure.

Wan’s “Aquaman” is incredibly ambitious and he’s juggling a ton of moving parts. Perhaps his best decision was in not making this a traditional superhero origin movie. The backstory of Momoa’s Arthur Curry is told in a few small chunks scattered throughout the film. It’s a sweet and heartfelt tale of a lonely human lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) who rescues and then falls in love with an exiled princess from the underwater city of Atlantis (played by a very good Nicole Kidman). It was a forbidden love resulting in the birth of a child, Arthur, but doomed by Atlantean tradition and intolerance.

Arthur grew up an outcast among the surface people and shunned as a “half-breed” by the Atlanteans. Along the way we learn of other things that has long fueled his disdain for his ocean-dwelling kin. This makes the appearance of Mera (Amber Heard) hard for him swallow. She tells Arthur of his power hungry half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) who works to persuade the seven underwater tribes to wage war against the surface. The only way to stop him? For a reluctant Arthur to return to Atlantis and claim the throne from Orm.

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From there the enormous scope of the film is mind-blowing. Is it too big? Yes, probably so. Should it have been trimmed down with a tighter focus? I honestly don’t know. That’s because part of what I liked about “Aquaman” is the sheer audacity of the whole thing. Wan’s story spans the coasts of Maine, the Sicilian seaside (where we get a thrilling and wonderfully shot action sequence – the film’s best), and even the Sahara desert.

And of course there is Atlantis itself, a pulsating world of the ancient and modern; filled with underwater societies, mythical creatures, saddled sea horses and armored sharks, talking crustaceans, and even Dolph Lundgren as a tribal King. It’s so preposterous yet bizarrely remarkable. Wan goes for it full throttle with an unrestrained imagination and a fantastical point of view. He ends up giving us a trademark of good fantasy – a fresh movie landscape, rich with its own history and filled with locations for (potential) future films to explore.

And of course there is the intensely committed cast starting with Momoa. There couldn’t be a better fit for the surly beefcake Arthur – a pain in the butt yet an infectiously enjoyable one. Momoa shines both in personality and physicality. He’s clearly having a good time whether twirling a trident or winking at his sex appeal. Heard, Wilson, and Kidman all manage their characters well. We even get a fun Willem Dafoe as Arthur’s secret Atlantean mentor. Also Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is intriguing as Black Manta, a character I wanted to see more of.

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“Aquaman” walks the delicate line between poking fun at itself and treating its story seriously. It’s not an easy thing to do, but when done well it makes for a fun and satisfying genre piece. It’s still very much a superhero movie. You’ll see it hitting several familiar story beats and it doesn’t deviate far from the general structure these films use. But it’s Wan’s attention to his characters and imaginative world-building that makes it work. But those who by nature dismiss or rebel against ‘too much’ CGI, I can see them pushing back against “Aquaman” as well.

The publicity tour for “Aquaman” has been a hoot and no one can say Momoa isn’t comfortable in his own skin. His interviews and appearances have all been fun and lively. The same can be said for his movie. “Aquaman” is an oddly satisfying blast. It’s nothing groundbreaking or highly original, but it is a movie that embraces its weirdness in a way I really appreciated. And while it’s stuffed to gills with action (including what may be my favorite action sequence of the year), it has a little more to say than some will give it credit for. Ultimately “Aquaman” is a sea-worthy DCU installment; the most unlikely superhero to pull off, yet James Wan does just that.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Apostle” (2018)

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Exploring the world of Netflix Originals can be a fascinating experience. You never quite know what you’re going to get. That especially holds true for their forays into the horror genre. Their new film “Apostle” definitely lands among the stronger titles in their Originals spectrum. Not only that, but it offers up something the horror genre has been in desperate need of – originality.

“Apostle” is written and directed by Gareth Evans best known for his Indonesian martial arts film “The Raid” and its sequel. “Apostle” is a much different venture, not just in terms of genre but with its setting and narrative style. Evans builds his story slowly while constantly giving us small bites of revelation. When the veil is finally dropped and the dots begin to connect, Evans lets loose his Victorian-era horror which is both gruesome and unpredictable.

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The film opens with one of the most striking shots I’ve seen all year as a train curls around a large body of water. The camera moves across the surface before resting at the edge of the tracks just as the train speeds by. Aboard is Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), a disillusioned and tortured ex-missionary whose opium addiction is all that keeps his sanity intact.

Through a troubling letter Thomas gets word that his sister has been kidnapped by a mysterious cult demanding a ransom. He secretly infiltrates the cult’s ranks to discover his sister’s whereabouts. Even before he sets foot in the isolated island commune led by the charismatic ‘prophet’ Malcolm (Michael Sheen) we get the sense that something is not quite right. This dark and unsettling cloud looms over the entire film.

Stevens’ signature intensity and perpetual razor-sharp focus makes him a good fit for both phases of this story. The first being his arrival on the island and his subsequent investigation. The second which sends things plummeting into the macabre. Stevens gives an uneasy and off-kilter portrayal of a nervously determined man facing darkness both inside and out. It’s a role with a physical and psychological edge to it.

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The film’s visual composition is rich with indelible imagery ranging from beautiful to bleak. Evans and cinematographer Matt Flannery use the camera to accentuate the wickedly tense tone while carefully capturing a good sense of period and place. And rarely has a camera better captured a sense of terror. It is only enhanced when teamed up with Fajar Yusekemal and Aria Prayogi’s nerve-shredding score (perhaps the most evocative I’ve heard this year).

“Apostle” is an enthralling and imaginative slice of folk horror that exchanges cheap jump scares for an unrelenting dread. It should be said that this is not a film for the squeamish. The deeper we get into Evans’ fascinating mythology the more brutal and gory things become. The blood-soaked and metaphorically charged second half is sure to leave some squirming in their seats. But it’s fitting in this examination of oppression under the guise of religion and the costs of misguided faith. It also reveals that it is man who often shows himself to be the cruelest among all creatures.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “A Star is Born” (2018)

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There is nothing glaringly new about Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born” aside from some fresh new faces and a weird affection for F-bombs. It’s a movie that has been done three previous times – in 1937, 1954, and 1976. Collectively those three earlier versions earned a total of 17 Oscar nominations. So Cooper picked a story with a history of Awards attention and by the sounds of it that trend is continuing. Many have already christened Cooper’s directorial debut the greatest thing since sliced bread.

First things first, Cooper shows himself to be a more than capable director. His pacing is good even at 135 minutes. He shows off an undeniably keen eye when shooting the musical numbers. He wastes no time putting together the central relationship and he smartly keeps his focus in the right places. Although you could question the decision to shift that focus in the final third of the movie.

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It takes less than 15 minutes for the two lead characters to meet. Cooper’s Jackson Maine is a bonafide star selling out venues across the country. Packed in with his years of stardom is his unshakable alcohol and drug abuse. After a big show and fresh out of booze, Jackson stumbles into a bar on drag night looking for a drink. Singing that evening is Ally (Lady Gaga), a waitress and aspiring yet insecure singer/songwriter. After one verse of “La Vie en rose” Jackson is hooked and as the title suggests a star is born.

It doesn’t take long to recognize the sharp chemistry between Cooper and Gaga. The movie’s first half is its strongest as their relationship begins to take form and Ally’s star begins its meteoric rise. Cooper and his co-writers Eric Roth and Will Fetters rightly make Gaga the highlight, giving her plenty of chances to show off some surprisingly good acting chops and of course a brilliant singing voice. There is nothing particularly mind-blowing about her handling of dialogue. Her real strength is in her ability to express whether it be specific looks or a pinpoint gesture. Cooper seems to know this. His camera will often sit on her, many times in closeup. It’s a smart move.

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While Gaga is getting most of the attention Cooper’s performance is equally impressive, a bit mannered but more often instinctive. His disheveled look and gravelly voice speak to a character worn down by his personal excesses and painful past. Most of that past is revealed through scenes with his older brother/manager/chaperone Bobby. He’s played by the wonderfully rugged and always good Sam Elliott. And in the final act when Jack takes centerstage (for better or worse), Cooper’s performance maintains a steady authenticity. He’s also no slouch when it comes to singing.

And of course that leads to the musical numbers, a central component sure to sell a ton of soundtracks and dominate its category come awards season. Many are shot with such energy and emotion, none better than the signature song “Shallow”. Not only is it the film’s best sequence, it’s one of the year’s very best scenes. From the exciting buildup to the powerful heart-melting crescendo, it’s impossible to watch without a tear running down your cheek. Even the final song (a bit on the nose but sure to tug at the heartstrings of its target audience) is full of heart and leans on Gaga’s dynamic and soulful voice.

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Ally connects with an agent (Rafi Gavron) who packages her and launches her career. At the same time Jack watches his career crumble under the weight of his personal demons. But their relationship remains front and center. Unfortunately there are a few too many gaps in Jack and Ally’s romance. There is also some unresolved and pretty significant business the end of the movie fails to address. I wouldn’t call it an essential plot piece but it deserved a resolution. Still, it’s hard to deny what Cooper and Gaga bring to the screen. And stellar supporting work from Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, and Dave Chappelle doesn’t hurt.

While the story of “A Star is Born” may be familiar, there are enough good choices from Bradley Cooper to make his version of this ‘oft told tale’ feel fresh. Perhaps the smartest decision is not making this telling about bitter jealousy. One star still launches while the other plummets, but here we see deeper and more personal poisons working against them. It’s the more personal angle which makes this imperfect but rousing crowd-pleaser stand out from its three predecessors.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Annabelle: Creation”

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“Annabelle: Creation” is a prequel to 2014’s “Annabelle” which was a prequel to “The Conjuring” films. Follow me so far? Actually it doesn’t get any more complicated than that, but you get the picture. This little horror series has unexpectedly blossomed into a broad and rather lucrative franchise and all with fairly meager budgets.

I’m a big fan of the two “Conjuring” films but the first “Annabelle” installment left me disappointed. Despite its potential, the film sometimes felt cheap and lacked any hint of originality. But $260 million at the box office against a $6.5 million budget all but guarantees another movie and it comes in the form of “Annabelle: Creation”. And let’s get this out of the way – it’s considerably better that its predecessor.

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The story begins in 1943. A rural dollmaker named Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) enjoy a good quiet life with their 7-year old daughter Annabelle in their beautiful remote farmhouse. But their happiness is shattered when a terrible tragedy strikes and young Annabelle is killed.

Now jump ahead twelve years. Still mourning the loss of their daughter, Samuel and Esther open their home to six girls who have been left homeless after their orphanage was closed. Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and the girls move in with the somber, moody Samuel and a sick, bed-ridden Esther who is mysteriously kept isolated in her bedroom. We quickly learn things aren’t quite the same in this once loving, idyllic home.

There is a lot of familiar material here – a spooky house, slamming doors, unreliable electricity, creepy kids, and some really bad decision-making. Yet despite its truckload of horror movie cliches and gadgetry, director David Sandberg’s craftsmanship makes it work. You can’t help but notice things you’ve seen in countless other films and you’ll find yourself predicting the outcomes of several scary scenes. Sandberg seems aware of all that and instead concentrates on the utilization and presentation of those well known devices. He knows what he is doing and the results are effective.

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Like the other movies in this franchise, “Creation” takes its time getting started. The early emphasis is on the characters but slowly and methodically Sandberg ratchets up the tension. The first “Annabelle” film bogged down it its attempted character building and never had enough depth to get through to the end. “Creation” doesn’t make that mistake. The characters are well presented (not profoundly well but enough to keep us invested) which makes the terror they face a much easier sell.

Personally I found “Annabelle: Creation” to be a nice little surprise. Yes, it’s a bit goofy and requires its audience to simply go with what they are seeing. But let’s be honest, can’t we say the same for practically every horror movie? The difference here is that it is made with plenty of cinematic smarts. Sure, it will still feel very familiar, but I appreciated the practical effects over digital, the keen eye for tension-building, and the patient buildup. And the ending, lets just say it really worked for me. By the way, stick around through the credits. If the movie’s $300 million box office take didn’t convince you of a sequel the end-credits scene just might.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Annihilation”

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Around the midway point of “Annihilation” one character says to another “We’re all damaged goods here.” This seemingly inconsequential line of dialogue is one of several keys to unlocking the secrets of Alex Garland’s trippy science-fiction mindbender. It’s one of several statements or conversations that offer meaning to what we see, yet unraveling the mystery is a bit tougher than it sounds.

Garland’s previous film 2015’s “Ex Machina” was his directorial debut and showed an affection for toying with sci-fi genre norms and conventions. Garland considers himself a writer first and his genre roots actually go back a bit to his time as a novelist and screenwriter. As with “Ex Machina”, “Annihilation” sees him handling both the writing and directing duties.

The film is loosely adapted from the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 Southern Reach Trilogy. Garland has called it an “adaptation of atmosphere” with a “memory of the book”. He takes concepts from the novel and gives each a good twist making his film very much its own thing. I also couldn’t help but see shades of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”, Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and more recently Villeneuve’s “Arrival” just to name a few.

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Giving an introduction to the story seems almost pointless since the meat of it is found in the mystery and metaphors. But here goes: Shortly after a mysterious object from space crashes along the United States coastline, an amorphous anomaly forms. For three years the U.S. government have watched it expand and every military expedition into the anomaly has failed. The soldiers who enter immediately lose communication with the outside and have no sense of time or place. Even worse, none of the teams have returned.

Enter Lena played by Natalie Portman, a biology professor emotionally detached following the disappearance and presumed death of her military husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). After a year away Lena is stunned when Kane suddenly shows up. But something is about him is off. He has no recollection of where he has been or how he got home. He quickly becomes violently ill. On the way to the hospital in sweeps the U.S. government to take Lena and Kane to a top-secret facility near the anomaly.

Lena is briefed by a psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She learns the anomaly is called ‘The Shimmer’ and is slowly engulfing unpopulated swamplands. But concerns are that its growing blob-like borders will eventually swallow cities, states, and so on. Therefore a new team prepares to enter with the mission of reaching ground zero, acquiring data, and making it out alive. Learning of a connection between the Shimmer and her husband, Lena joins the expedition in hopes of finding some answers.

This time the team is made up mostly of scientists instead of soldiers and women instead of men. It’s an interesting assortment of characters. In addition to Lena and Ventress we get Gina Rodriguez as a Chicago paramedic, Tessa Thompson as a timid physicist, and Tuva Novotny as a protective geologist. Each woman fits the above description of “damaged goods” and each come into the Shimmer with their own unique perspective and purpose.

The film’s non-linear structure adds to the overall puzzle. Flashbacks and flash-forwards rich with meaning not only fill in story gaps but reveal some of the key themes. And it toys with time, not to make it needlessly complex, but to feed us narrative and thematic clues. I’m not sure how mainstream audiences will respond to the demand for attention and contemplation. It’s unashamedly cerebral and Garland isn’t interested in playing by genre rules. Sometimes he even breaks his own. For me that was a real strength.

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I found discovery to be a fundamental component both for us and the characters. Take the Shimmer itself – Garland and his crew visualize a truly fascinating off-kilter creation. The exterior emanates both beauty and menace. Think of light being bent through a detergent bubble. The soapy glow offers a stunning effect yet at the same time it’s both ominous and foreboding. The same contrast is seen inside – beautiful albeit unnatural flora mixed with terrifying animal mutations.

I really don’t want to say more because (as cliché as it sounds) this is a movie best experienced. The atmosphere alone was enough to suck me in from the gorgeously discomforting visuals and effects to Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s unsettling score filled with moody tones and occasional strums of a folksy guitar. It’s all quite effective. Garland has said his intent was to make the Shimmer “truly alien”. Mission accomplished.

But it all gets back to the movie’s meaning, something Garland (thankfully) is unwilling to spoon-feed us. Some have pointed out its dealings with depression, grief, guilt, and the meaning of being human. I believe it speaks to all of those things. More than anything else I heard it speaking the loudest about mankind’s penchant for self-destruction. But one of the truly great things about “Annihilation” is the ambiguity, not for the sake of being ambiguous, but to allow us to mediate and consider what it is saying to us. That’s a special trait the movie has in common some of the very best science fiction.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Ant-Man and the Wasp”

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Three years ago Marvel Studios ended ‘Phase 2’ of their cinematic universe with “Ant-Man”. It was a surprising investment considering Ant-Man isn’t what you would consider a top-tier Marvel superhero. What surprised me even more was how well it was received. “Ant-Man” wasn’t a bad movie, but its constant hit-or-miss humor along with its silly, paper-thin villain left me wanting more.

Film #20 in the MCU is “Ant-Man and the Wasp”, a sequel that had me curious and surprisingly optimistic. An entirely new group of screenwriters handle the script, but ringmaster Peyton Reed returns to the director’s chair doling out plenty of humor and unique superhero action. Both work better this time around. The sequel is funnier and the action has a delightfully playful flavor. And the stakes here are more personal. It’s a welcome departure from the normal catastrophic global threat we get in these movies.

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Paul Rudd returns as the immensely likable con-turned-superhero Scott Lang. He’s serving the final days of his house arrest sentence for helping Captain America during the “Civil War” storyline. Not only did he get in trouble with the government, but he also alienated Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily) by sneaking off with Hank’s Ant-Man suit and exposing the tech to the world. With so many bad people hungry for the technology, Hank and Hope sever ties with Scott and are forced into hiding.

During their time in seclusion, Hank and Hope work on a contraption they believe can rescue their long-lost wife/mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the quantum realm. But to do so will require them to mend fences with Scott. Their work also attracts a lot of unwanted attention. Walter Goggins is a hoot playing a black market peddler of quantum energy. He has a $1 billion buyer anxious to get their hands on Pym’s lab. Hannah John-Kamen plays Ghost, a woman whose ability to phase through objects is slowly killing her and Pym’s quantum research may be all that can save her life. Toss in the FBI and Scott’s dogged parol officer (played by a very funny Randall Park) and you have a lot of conflicts and storylines.

Thankfully Reed and company handle these numerous plot-strings nimbly and with smarts. They have no qualms with their movie being light, breezy and smaller scaled – all perfect fits for this kind of story. They know the type of film they are making and they seem to embrace the sillier side of the whole thing. That’s one reason Michael Peña’s character can work. He returns as Luis, Scott’s one-time cell mate and now close friend who basically serves as the never-ending comic relief. He was spotty at best in the first film, even annoying at times. This time he isn’t given as much room for improvisation and his dialogue feels more natural and unforced. He doesn’t land every joke, but he has some very funny moments.

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But the real highlights are Rudd and Lily. The two have a remarkable chemistry and it’s a lot of fun watching them bounce off each other. Both performances and characters nicely balance out – Rudd’s lovable, self-deprecating Scott, Lily’s fiercely determined Hope. Their personalities even carry over into the action. Hope’s Wasp is tough and tenacious. Ant-Man’s irresistible goofiness can’t help but bleed over into his action scenes.

While “Ant-Man and the Wasp” benefits from its lightheartedness, in a weird way it’s also held back by it. With the exception of the expected mid-credits scene at the end, the film does little to raise the stakes in the MCU. It also doesn’t clearly answer a big question I had going in: Where was Ant-Man during Infinity War? But let’s be honest, does it have to do these things to be a good movie? Certainly not. For my money there is plenty of room in Marvel’s every-growing big screen universe for smaller more tightly-knit pictures like this. I would even call them refreshing.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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