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‘Aquaman’ is the Guiltiest of Pleasures

‘Aquaman’ is the guiltiest of pleasures, marked by moments of inspired idiocy and unintentionally hilarious gravitas. What separates it from similarly overwrought visual extravaganzas is an unabashed sense of fun.

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Could it be that the DC Universe has finally found its Iron Man in James Wan’s bat-shit crazy iteration of Aquaman? One divine moment of stupidity follows the next as Jason Momoa flexes his way to aquatic supremacy, while endless spectacle conquers the generic storyline lifted straight from the Legend of King Arthur. The resulting insanity eventually wears down your defenses, drowning you in a sea of shamelessly entertaining cheese. If Momoa is to become the face of the middling DC Universe, may his reign be long and prosperous.

“Life, like the Sea, has a way of bringing people together.”

This line of dialogue, uttered with complete sincerity in Momoa’s monotone voiceover, should prepare you for the overwrought debacle you’re about to endure. But it’s a sweet, sweet debacle that will have you chuckling throughout, despite (and sometimes because of) its glaring flaws.

In this case, the two people brought together by the Sea are lonely lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) and the lifeless body of Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the deposed Queen of Atlantis. Atlantis (at least according to the mythology forwarded by Aquaman) was a technologically advanced society that accidentally destroyed itself and sank to the ocean’s floor. Citizens of Atlantis evolved to handle the deep-sea cold and pressure, as well as see in the dark. They also learned how to ride sharks, which makes them look cool.

After Tom revives Atlanna, they settle into a cozy domestic existence. They have a “half-breed bastard” son named Arthur, who is secretly trained (via gratuitous montage) by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), the special advisor to Atlantis’ head honcho, King Orm (Patrick Wilson). Orm is also Atlanna’s son, and he’s a real piece of work. Angry at humans for polluting his ocean with garbage, Orm decides to unite the great armies of the deep and kick our land-loving butts. Admittedly, those with a Greener agenda might have some sympathy for Orm’s crusade, but the movie needs a villain, and Aquaman’s crazy half-brother will do nicely.

Even if you dozed off midway through 2017’s fitfully entertaining Justice League, you probably understand the inner turmoil that drives Aquaman. He’s a pre-ordained king who wants nothing to do with the throne in Atlantis, but he isn’t yet comfortable playing the role of hero on Earth. Instead, he roams the planet behaving like some weird hybrid between Superman and the Hell’s Angels. He drinks, he grunts, he sneers, and occasionally he rescues the crew of a nuclear submarine.

So when a bodacious redhead from Atlantis named Mera (Amber Heard) brings tidings of Orm’s impending assault, Aquaman is unimpressed… until a literal tidal wave knocks some sense into his greasy head. This starts him on a quest to recover the lost Trident of Atlan, which imbues the power to defeat Orm and his menagerie of sea critters. It’s a glorified re-telling of the King Arthur myth, with the Trident of Atlan standing in for Excalibur and a bunch of dudes riding seahorses replacing the Knights Who Say Ni.

Of course, none of this plot makes any difference. All we want is big stupid fun, and James Wan (The Conjuring 2 (2016), Furious 7 (2015)) delivers splendidly. The action set pieces are outrageous, the characters are suitably dumb, and the visual landscape overwhelms with imagination. This is a film where you might see an octopus playing war drums, or be whisked away to the center of the Earth only to find that dinosaurs still exist. You smile at the sight of Dolph Lundgren looking resplendent upon his seahorse, and giggle at the terrible suit of arch-villain Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who looks like a refugee from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s the kind of dumb fun that works as a nice balance to all of the serious Oscar dramas this time of year.

The Earth locales admittedly lack a bit of pizazz; despite a mildly amusing chase sequence across the rooftops of Sicily, little use is made of the breathtaking scenic beauty. Where Aquaman really dazzles is beneath the Sea. Atlantis’ futuristic architecture undulates in striking blues and greens — think the set design for Blade Runner, only dipped in bioluminescence. Sure, it all looks like a video game and it’s hard to feel a character’s force of movement in an underwater setting, but Wan and his effects team have filled the entire screen with riches.

Lumbering at the center of this garish production is Jason Momoa. Despite his hulking appearance and some regrettable comments from the past, Momoa has an amiable screen presence. The closest comparison might be Dwayne Johnson, though Momoa’s acting chops are trailing The Rock at this point in his career. Still, when Momoa is on the screen, Aquaman works completely. When he disappears or gets lost inside of a computer-generated maelstrom, however, the film struggles to maintain its footing. He is the undeniable star of the show, and this type of operatic chaos desperately needs his charisma to carry it.

It should be obvious from the above descriptions that Aquaman is not for everyone. It is, empirically, a bad movie — the guiltiest of pleasures marked by moments of inspired idiocy and unintentionally hilarious gravitas. Try not to laugh when a despondent character laments, “The Sea carries our tears away.” What separates Aquaman from similarly overwrought visual extravaganzas like Mortal Engines, for instance, is an unabashed sense of fun. It’s probably too early to proclaim that DC has finally stopped taking itself so seriously, but this is a waterlogged step in the right direction.

J.R. Kinnard is a film critic and aspiring screenwriter living in Seattle, Washington. He's also a chemist by trade who works in an environmental laboratory. You can find his film reviews at PopOptiqSound and Motion Magazine, and CutPrintFilm. His personal blog, Apropos of Nothing, features his thoughts on film and music. You can find him on Facebook at jrkinnard, and on Twitter @jrkinnard.

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Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2020: ‘Shirley’ Is Another Triumph for Josephine Decker

Josephine Decker’s film dramatizes a turbulent period in Shirley Jackson’s creative live to startling effect.

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Shirley

Something is amiss from the opening moments of Josephine Decker’s newest feature, Shirley. A young couple, Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerner and Odessa Young), are taking a train to Bennington College, where he’ll be teaching. Rose reads a recent issue of The New Yorker featuring Shirley Jackson’s now-classic short story “The Lottery,” dating the scene to 1948 or ’49. The story, about a (spoiler alert) woman who is stoned to death as part of a community ritual, doesn’t arouse the expected response in Rose. Rather than being horrified, she’s excited, even turned on by the tale, and she initiates a quick tryst with Fred out of sight of the other passengers. Like Rose, Decker seems thrilled by the most sordid and disturbing interpersonal relations — and by the film’s end, much of the audience will be too.

Though the film opens with Rose and Fred, Shirley is most concerned with the eponymous Jackson (Elisabeth Moss). Despite being a critically and commercially successful writer, she’s not considered much more than a faculty wife to her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at Bennington and a respected literary critic. The Nemsers are set to move in with Jackson and Hyman for a short period until they’re able to find a place of their own in town. Stanley will mentor Fred, who will deliver some of his lectures in hopes of getting his own course load and, eventually, tenure. But from the start, Shirley has an unhealthy fascination with the couple, especially Rose. As she begins to plot out what will be her second published novel, Hangsaman, she begins to spy on the young woman, intruding on the most intimate moments of her life. At the same time, she absorbs herself in news articles about Paula Jean Weldon, a Bennington student who disappeared in 1946, and her interests begin to coalesce in a clear nod to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966).

Shirley

Decker’s disorienting style, which animated much of Madeline’s Madeline, makes occasional appearances, but she’s more restrained in how she films her characters. In her earlier films, which she wrote by herself, her eye-catching and disorienting style was a way of making up for long sections with little dialogue, but that’s not necessary with Sarah Gubbins’ more traditional screenplay. Gubbins sensitively portrays Shirley’s life as an underappreciated artist and delves into the ways her work tears away at her personal life and her mental health. Her husband’s dalliances with his students and other faculty wives don’t help.

Moss and Stuhlbarg’s repartee and bouts of sadistic marital games will surely draw comparisons to the couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but they have a more tender relationship than those famous bickerers. Stanley is condescending and even tyrannical at times when it comes to their personal lives, but he’s Shirley’s biggest champion and a believer in her literary greatness. Stuhlbarg makes it clear that the character has great affection for his wife, even if he chooses to have sex with anyone but her. Moss delivers another in a series of great performances that seem to be in dialog with her work for Alex Ross Perry in Queen of Earth (2015) and Her Smell (2018). Decker, Gubbins, and Moss all work together to create a portrait of an artist’s creative process, and we see how Shirley absorbs Rose and Paula Jean’s lives to inspire her fiction. So often, movies about artists merely gloss over the act of creation to focus on the most dramatic elements of their personal lives, which makes the art seem as if it miraculously came into being. In Shirley, we see the heartbreak and conflict required to create great art, or at least required to create Shirley Jackson’s art. Decker may have calmed down her frenetic style this time around, but it was only in service of her most compelling story to date.

The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 23 – Feb. 2, 2020. Visit the official website for more information.

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Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2020: Ai Weiwei’s ‘Vivos’ Is a Somber Requiem for Democracy

Ai Weiwei’s newest documentary concerns the fate of 43 “disappeared” Mexican students, but it’s more concerned with the lives of their families than being a true crime procedural.

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Vivos

Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist who left his home country in 2015, has been making films for close to two decades, though he’s best known for his non-film art projects. That may have changed with his 2017 documentary Human Flow, about the global migrant and refugee crisis, which brought his work into multiplexes and arthouse instead of just museums. His newest feature-length documentary, Vivos, is his most direct and emotionally resonant film to date. It looks unsparingly at a humanitarian crisis that has dogged both Mexico and The United States in recent decades with a sustained fury that stays just below the surface, always present but never overpowering.

Vivos concerns the 2014 mass kidnapping of teaching students in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico. The students, members of a rural teaching college, were first attacked by police officers during a protest. Police killed six people in the hail of gunfire and injured another 25. The fate of those 31 people is well-established, but the other 43 students were “disappeared” in the aftermath of the attack, never to be heard from again. A subsequent government-led investigation determined that local police, who were in cahoots with drug cartels, took the students into custody. The police handed the students over to the cartel membe3rs, who killed them, incinerated the bodies, and dumped the remains in a nearby river to be washed away. At the time, the government referred to this as the “historic truth,” a chillingly Orwellian turn of phrase. It both suggests the supposedly definitive answer was only a temporary explanation, while paradoxically establishing the explanation as a definitive matter of record. Outside investigators would later determine this narrative to be (at least partly) false; the timeline of when the students were believed to have been incinerated didn’t line up, and officials higher up the chain of command were believed to be involved.

Vivos

Vivos tells this story, in great detail and with enormous sensitivity, but it’s not a true-crime documentary. We don’t even get significant details about the kidnapping and the investigation until halfway through the film. Instead, he focuses on the families and loved ones of the abducted men. The bulk of the film examines their daily lives and how they struggle to find normalcy in the wake of a tragedy. Ai constantly finds a sense of stillness in his shots, as when he films his subjects in moments of contemplation, or rest. The slowed-down pace suggests how their lives have come to a halt with the loss of their sons. The film opens and closes with complimentary shots in which the camera moves slowly forward down a mist-shrouded road as it approaches a bend around a mountain. The images suggest the path those buses might have taken before the students were abducted. But the foggy air also can represent the cloud of lies and half-truths that will most likely prevent these families from knowing what really happened to their children.

If there’s one misstep, it’s in the film’s title: Vivos, meaning “alive” in Spanish. After the independent investigators determine that the “historic truth” is incomplete at best and a fabrication at worst, the families, many of which have become activists in the memory of their sons, become convinced that their boys are still alive somewhere. “Alive, they took them! Alive, we want them back!” they chant during their public demonstrations. The families, in their grief, hope against hope that the government had kept the students alive and hidden them away, an outcome that strains credulity and logic. If a final answer is ever delivered, it’s likely to be a heartbreaking rebuke of that hope, but Ai seems to sympathize with those hopes in a way that gives them fuel. It’s understandable to not want to take away the last bit of hope from people who have already lost so much, but that doesn’t excuse the move. Perhaps these families will be successful in reforming Mexico’s government, military, and police, or even the US drug trade and drug war policies that led to this bloodshed. But that final bit of false hope is just one more indignity for them to suffer.

The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 23 – Feb. 2, 2020. Visit the official website for more information.

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Sam Mendes Creates a Rare Cinematic Experience with ‘1917’

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1917 Review

War movies have been a constant trend in cinema since the beginning of film. From black and white propaganda pieces during World War I and II to grand, ultra-realistic, modern dramas like Saving Private Ryan, war films have intrigued filmmakers and audiences alike for over 100 years. There’s a long list of films that have succeeded in recreating the horrors of fighting on the frontlines while telling a captivating story of heroism. Telling an emotionally gripping tale combined with some visually stunning filmmaking, 1917 can now be added to that list, and is nothing short of an incredible achievement.

Directed and co-written by Sam Mendes, and starring Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, 1917 tells the story of two British soldiers during World War I that are given orders to personally deliver a message to a battalion off in the far distance. The message: to call off an attack that will result in the death of thousands, including one of the soldier’s brothers, should they fail to make it in time. Early on the two soldiers walk swiftly through crowded trenches; one of them, dragging behind yells, “Shouldn’t we think about this?” The other doesn’t reply. There’s no time to think about it. He carries on forward without looking back. The two had just been given orders, and time is now their worst enemy.

It’s this sense of urgency and persistence that drives 1917. Every minute is critical, and every moment feels dire. The two soldiers constantly push forward despite the overwhelming odds, as the life of thousands are in the lone hands of these two young men. The threat of failure is real, and 1917 never allows the audience to forget that.

Chapman and MacKay give wonderfully human performances as the main protagonists, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield. The audience gets to know the two men through little bits of conversation amid all the tension of getting closer to enemy lines. Their deepest and darkest secrets are never revealed, yet their actions provide reasons to care about them. The two men have their differences, but it’s clear that they want to help each other see the mission to its end. Their loyalty to one another and to the mission relentlessly drives them forward, and ultimately makes it easy for the audience to hope these characters succeed.

What really sets 1917 apart from other war epics is the masterful directing by Sam Mendes. The film creates the illusion throughout that the audience is watching a single continuous shot. From the first shot until the last, the focus never strays from its protagonists, allowing the audience to experience every step as it’s taken. Aside from the characters moving into a dark trench or behind a tall structure, it can be really tough to tell just how long each take is; where the director says “action” and “cut” is blurred to a point of fascination here, and though audiences have seen prolonged shots of war in past films, this is on another level. Combined with some brilliant pacing and jaw-dropping action sequences, 1917 never loses grip of its audience, as everything is seen without pause.

It’s also worth noting that every shot is elevated by a phenomenal score by Thomas Newman (who has worked with Mendes before on Skyfall). It seems that the goal here was not only to increase the intensity and drama of each scene, but also to allow the audience to feel exactly what the characters are feeling at all times. Whether the soldiers are walking through crowded trenches, cautiously cornering buildings, or taking a brief moment to catch their breath, every bit of what they’re feeling and just how their fast their hearts are pumping is translated. The music always feels natural, even in its most dramatic moments, and it deserves high praise for complimenting Mendes’ story so well.

1917 is one of the most unique movie-going experiences in recent memory. It takes the war movie genre and does something no one has ever seen before, which is extremely difficult with so many memorable war films in cinematic history. With 1917 Sam Mendes has created an unforgettable experience that needs to be seen on the biggest screen, and it deserves to be ranked among the greatest war films of all time.

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