Aquaman review

AQUAMAN

Director : James Wan
Cast : Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman, Temuera Morrison, Randall Park, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Beach
Genre : Comics/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 143 mins
Opens : 13 December 2018
Rating : PG13

The DC Extended Universe goes full fathom five and beyond then some with Aquaman, telling the story of the man who would be king of Atlantis.

Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is a child of two worlds: his mother is Atlantean Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), and his father is human lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison). Taking on the superhero mantle of Aquaman, Arthur was instrumental in defeating Steppenwolf during the events of Justice League. Now, Princess Mera (Amber Heard) of the Xebel Kingdom has come calling, bringing news that Arthur’s Atlantean half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) is threatening war against the surface world.

While Arthur is initially reluctant to travel to Atlantis, circumstances force him to follow Mera to the undersea kingdom. There, he confronts Orm, challenging him for the throne. Arthur is sent by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), the Atlantean vizier who has secretly trained Arthur to eventually take on Orm, on a quest to recover the Trident of King Atlan (Graham McTavish), the legendary first ruler of Atlantis. In addition to Orm, treacherous pirate David Kane/Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) stands in Arthur’s way, employing cutting-edge weaponry against Arthur. Arthur must prove himself the one true king of Atlantis, embarking on an extraordinary adventure.

Let’s talk about the concept of “silliness”. Movies based on comic books sometimes exhibit a fear of coming off as silly. After all, the worst comic book movies, films like Batman and Robin and Catwoman, are often decried as silly. As a result, some comic book movies overcompensate, becoming dour and self-serious in the process. Aquaman is silly, but through sheer willpower, the movie transcends silliness and achieves awesomeness. It’s a superhuman feat, but with director James Wan steering the ship, Aquaman accomplishes this.

This is a rip-roaring, old-fashioned adventure, filled with spectacular visual effects, fluidly-choreographed fight sequences and awe-inspiring locales. The movie draws heavily on myth, and is about a man named Arthur who, in reaching his destiny as king, overcomes insurmountable odds and faces a series of tests. By its nature, there are similarities to Thor and Black Panther, but Aquaman complements its familiar story beats with sheer visual imagination.

From the get-go, this was going to be a mind-boggling logistical challenge. How does one make a movie that takes place largely underwater, and have actors float about delivering dialogue without it looking – there’s that word again – silly? Aquaman works overtime to earn audience’s suspension of disbelief, and from the production design by Bill Brzeski to the visual effects furnished by pretty much every major VFX vendor, there’s a lot to take in. The movie acknowledges that there still might be some audiences who will be unconvinced and greet certain scenes with laughter, so it’s a good thing that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a giant octopus that plays the drums. There’s just the right sprinkle of self-awareness that complements the grandiosity and scale of the adventure. While on the surface, the film doesn’t quite have the emotional gravity of some other comic movies, its world-building and characters inspire investment.

While some viewers might complain about the extent of CGI used, Aquaman somehow avoids the feeling that its set-pieces have been vomited onscreen by a render farm. The design of many of the creatures is very Ray Harryhausen-esque, and even in the most synthetic sequences, Wan retains a sense of tactility and is an expert at drawing the eye.

Jason Momoa delivers a stellar turn, expanding upon the glimpses into Arthur’s character we saw in Justice League. This is a hero who can be a bit of a boorish lout, but for all his life, he’s been fighting an identity crisis, feeling like he belongs neither to the sea or the land. It’s something that children of mixed heritage can readily relate to – everyone’s calling him “half-breed” or epithets of the like, but this perceived weakness is what sets Arthur apart. The character has moments when he’s child-like and joyous, moments when he’s a mighty hero, and moments when he’s a bit of an idiot, and it comes together to form a compelling lead character.

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While Amber Heard has the tendency to come off as stiff in some films, but as Mera, she is a lively presence. Not letting a patently obvious wig stand in her way, Heard’s defiant princess character is integral to the story. There a is a bit of a Romancing the Stone-esque vibe to the bickering romance set against an adventure movie backdrop, but the relationship develops satisfyingly. When the pair gets to stop and smell the roses in Sicily, it’s cheesy as all get-out, but also a delight.

This reviewer was afraid that two major villains would clutter the movie, but Aquaman allocates the villainy appropriately. Orm is by nature a generic tyrant king character, but Patrick Wilson has as much fun as he can with the role.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes for an intense Black Manta – the character was what this reviewer was most looking forward to in this movie, and Abdul-Mateen’s portrayal doesn’t disappoint.

The romance between Atlanna and Tom Curry is cheesy, but like everything else in this movie that’s cheesy, it works. The forbidden romance is given a mythic, poetic quality, with Kidman and Morrison being the ideal casting for the characters. Lundgren and Dafoe both put in satisfying supporting turns. Dolph Lundgren sporting a red beard astride a seahorse monster is not something that should work, but it does. There’s also a vocal cameo from a distinguished English actress, as a Lovecraftian mega-monster.

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave this film a negative review. The comments section for that review are filled with commenters immensely pleased with themselves that they dislike comic book movies and are therefore so very grown up. A fear of appearing childish is, in its own way, a childish thing. Aquaman’s embrace of the inherent silliness in its source material and its irrepressible sense of wonderment and adventure propel it into becoming perhaps the best comic book movie of the year, and one of this reviewer’s favourite films he’s seen all year.

RATING: 5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Venom review

VENOM

Director : Ruben Fleischer
Cast : Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate, Scott Haze
Genre : Comics/Action/Sci-fi
Run Time : 112 mins
Opens : 4 October 2018
Rating : PG13

Tom Hardy is his own worst enemy and maybe also his own best friend in this Marvel Comics adaptation. Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a journalist engaged to successful lawyer Anne Weying (Michelle Williams). Brock has trained his sights on Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), an industrialist and inventor who has privately funded space exploration missions. As the head of the Life Foundation, Drake portrays himself as a benevolent force for good, but Brock suspects that Drake is secretly conducting unethical, illegal activities which have resulted in civilian deaths.

A Life Foundation spacecraft crashes on earth, and its cargo, an alien life form, escapes. This is a symbiote, which needs to bond to a host to survive. When Dr Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), a scientist working for the Life Foundation, approaches Brock as a whistle-blower, Brock investigates and another symbiote bonds to him. This is the entity known as Venom, which manifests as a voice in Brock’s head and takes over his body, giving him enhanced strength and healing and causes him to emanate tendrils. Brock must make sense of this new unwelcome guest while uncovering the extent of Drake’s misdeeds, eventually learning to coexist with Venom and use his newfound abilities to his advantage.

There have been multiple attempts at a Venom movie, including one in the late 90s that was reportedly slated to star Dolph Lundgren, and another attempt that would have taken place within the continuity of the Amazing Spider-Man movies. Then of course there was the iteration played by Topher Grace in Spider-Man 3, which left many fans unsatisfied.

Venom was created by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie, and is arguably Spider-Man’s best-known, most visually striking nemesis. The character’s origin directly involves Spider-Man – in the comics, the symbiote is a discarded alien suit worn by the web-slinging hero. As such, a Venom movie that is completely removed from Spider-Man feels like a tricky prospect. This reviewer had to remind himself that at least the symbiote’s host is still called “Eddie Brock”, unlike the Catwoman movie which starred a character named Patience Phillips, who was nothing like the Catwoman of the comics, Selina Kyle.

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The film’s somewhat tormented production process has led to an odd beast. Venom is tonally weird. One would be forgiven for expecting a dark, disturbing movie – after all, the title character is a slimy alien parasite with pointy teeth and a long, icky tongue. However, what Venom most resembles is a buddy comedy. The symbiote seems characterised as the friend who’s a bad influence, pushing Eddie to do things he would rather not do. The symbiote is an obvious metaphor for the darkness deep within a person being brought to the surface, so it is somewhat baffling that the film does practically nothing with this concept.

The action sequences are moderately entertaining but not especially memorable. There’s a motorcycle chase and a sequence in which Venom takes on an entire SWAT team in a smoke-filled apartment building lobby, but any time the full-on creature takes over the action, things feel distinctly synthetic. The climactic fight is a battle between one thing made of CGI and another thing made of CGI, set against a mostly CGI backdrop.

Then, there is the PG-13 rating. A movie doesn’t have to be R-rated to be good, it doesn’t even have to be R-rated to be effectively disturbing. However, this is a movie in which the title character bites people’s heads off and impales his enemies through the torso. It’s a bit difficult to sell the viciousness when it must happen off-screen or obscured while something else is going on. That said, this movie could’ve been R-rated and still turned out limp.

Hardy is perfectly watchable in the role and tries to make something interesting out of the material. He ends up performing quite a bit of physical comedy, which seems out of place, but which he commits to. There is the sense that Hardy could have brought so much more to the table had the script allowed him to dig into the inherently unsettling nature of the bond between the Venom symbiote and its human host, but it seems the film is more interested in back-and-forth banter.

Michelle Williams is wasted as a character who isn’t too much more than the designated girlfriend, even though there is a nice nod to her character in the comics. Riz Ahmed plays a ruthless Elon Musk-type, who is at once a cartoony villain while also bland and barely menacing. Jenny Slate’s mousey scientist who might just be the one to bring the villain down seems like she might be interesting, but similarly gets little to do. While some comic book movies suffer from far too many characters, there are almost too few interesting characters at all in Venom.

The casual viewer might find Venom a passable diversion, but anyone who is particularly attached to the comics will be sorely dissatisfied. The film attempts to translate the character’s sarcasm to the screen, but lacks the acid-drenched wickedness which must accompany said sarcasm. The result is a relatively safe movie about a character who should always feel at least a little dangerous. Director Ruben Fleischer’s best film remains Zombieland, so perhaps comedy is where he should focus his efforts. There is a goofiness to Venom that is strongly reminiscent of comic book movies made when the filmmakers making them hadn’t fully figured things out yet: a bit of Spawn here, a bit of the 2002 Hulk movie there.

Stick around for a mid-credits tag which hints as sequel – as mediocre as this outing is, we’d be darned if we didn’t want to see a sequel make good on what this scene promises. There’s also a sneak peek at a forthcoming movie at the very end of the credits.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

Ant-Man and the Wasp movie review

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP

Director : Peyton Reed
Cast : Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Judy Greer, David Dastmalchian, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Bobby Cannavale,, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Fortson, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas
Genre : Action/Adventure/Science Fiction/Superhero
Run Time : 118 mins
Opens : 4 July 2018
Rating : PG

Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have had a bit of time to recover from the earth-shattering events of Avengers: Infinity War. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) was noticeably missing from that film, and now we learn what he was up to while everyone else was tangling with Thanos.

After Scott made it back from the Quantum Realm at the end of the first Ant-Man film, Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) believes that there’s a chance his wife Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was lost in the Quantum Realm decades ago, might still be alive. Together with his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), Pym tries to locate Janet and rescue her.

Meanwhile, Scott is under house arrest, after getting into big trouble during the events of Captain America: Civil War. Whilst evading FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and trying to be a good dad to Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), Scott returns to superheroics. He now fights alongside Hope, who’s inherited the mantle of the Wasp from her mother. They must fend off black market tech dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) and the enigmatic Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who can turn invisible and phase through solid objects. Scott can count on his ex-convict buddies Luis (Michael Peña), Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian) for help, though how much they actually help is up for debate.

We’ve all seen “fun” used as a descriptor for innumerable MCU movies. There’s no denying that Ant-Man and the Wasp is fun. It’s an unabashedly silly film packed with jokes and some inspired visual gags, and its tone is consistent with that of the first Ant-Man film. While something less intense is welcome in the wake of Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp is often in danger of feeling a touch inconsequential – especially given what an impact Black Panther made earlier this year.

On paper, there’s nothing too wrong with Ant-Man and the Wasp, and it ticks all the boxes. The mission to rescue Janet from the Quantum Realm is a great premise for the sequel and has considerable emotional drive, yet there are times when the film feels no more than perfunctory. The pacing is good, and the movie feels shorter than its 118 minutes, but it seems like it’s scurrying from Point A to Point B. Plenty of jokes land, but some of the humour is a little forced, and Luis and co. feel like they’ve been shoehorned in.

Where Ant-Man and the Wasp excels is in its set-pieces. The film makes inventive use of the mass-shifting conceit, and director Peyton Reed seems to have gotten bolder in staging said set-pieces. The choreography of how the titular heroes work in tandem is dazzling. There’s a kitchen fight in which Wasp dodges a meat mallet, and a car chase down San Francisco’s Lombard Street involving a shrinking van – this could be an homage to The Dead Pool, in which Dirty Harry is pursued through the streets of San Francisco by a radio-controlled toy car. It’s a great example of a comic book film creatively exploiting its characters’ abilities.

This film leans a little more into retro sci-fi with its Fantastic Voyage-esque micro submersible and more appearances from giant ants. Christophe Beck’s score also employs a bit more of a brassy big band sound, evoking spy-fi of yore.

Rudd’s everyman who’s fallen on the wrong side of the tracks continues to be endearing, and the film tries to give Scott some character growth, though there’s not too much to be had. The scenes that Scott shares with his daughter are on the right side of twee. Scott is the regular dude among geniuses, and Rudd plays off Lilly and Douglas well.

Lilly relishes the chance to partake in the superhero action this time around, and the Wasp’s abilities are impressively realised. Hope clearly knows what she’s doing, and there’s a precision to her fighting style and movements that Scott never quite possessed. Hope has been waiting her whole life for this and is in her element, and it’s gratifying to see her fulfil her destiny as the Wasp.

Douglas gets to be a little more active in this one than in the first Ant-Man film, but he’s still mostly there to be crotchety. The relationship between Pym and Janet is sufficiently established. By necessity, Michelle Pfeiffer doesn’t get to be in this one a lot, though it’s hard not to wish she had more screen time.

There’s half a good idea here with Ghost. The appearance and abilities of the character from the comics is used, but everything else about her is created for the film. Ghost is in a constant state of flux, confused and angry, and is a formidable opponent to our heroes. She’s no Thanos or Killmonger, but she’s an adequate villain for this film.

Walton Goggins plays a standard-issue Walton Goggins character, supremely untrustworthy and grinning as he goes after what he wants. Randall Park is funny as the dogged FBI agent who tries to keep Scott under his thumb, and hopefully he goes on to be a badass secret agent like the Jimmy Woo of the comics. Fishburne is reliable as Professor Bill Foster, who had a falling out with Pym when they were colleagues.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is a trifle, but it’s an entertaining, well-made trifle. Not every MCU movie needs to upend the status quo, and Ant-Man and the Wasp is quite comfortable being the silly thing it is. While the movie has welcome tricks up its sleeve with the further integration of mass-shifting into the action sequences, it can sometimes feel like we’re just watching the first one again.

Stick around for a mid-credits scene and a post-credits stinger.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Thor: Ragnarok movie review

For inSing

THOR: RAGNAROK 

Director : Taika Waititi
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins
Genre : Comics/Action/Fantasy
Run Time : 130 mins
Opens : 26 October 2017
Rating : PG-13

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) were absent from Captain America: Civil War. In this Marvel Cinematic Universe adventure, we learn of the travails these characters faced on the other-side of the universe.

After the events of Thor: The Dark World, Thor’s adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has taken the guise of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), ruling Asgard as a vainglorious charlatan king. Loki’s lack of leadership has left Asgard vulnerable to attack from Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death who has come to claim what she believes is rightfully hers.

In the aftermath of a struggle against Hela, Thor and Loki find themselves stranded on the planet Sakaar. Thor, without his trusty hammer Mjolnir, is forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena for the amusement of Sakaar’s ruler, the eccentric Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Thor realises that his opponent is the Hulk, who has been on Sakaar fighting as the Grandmaster’s champion for the last two years. Thor must convince his fellow Avenger to help him on his quest to defeat Hela and save Asgard. Joining Thor, Loki and the Hulk is Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), formerly a member of an elite Asgardian fighting force who has become a bounty hunter in the Grandmaster’s employ. Back on Asgard, Heimdall (Idris Elba), the guardian of the Bifrost bridge, has disappeared into the woods, trying to save as many Asgardians as he can from Hela’s wrath. In facing off against the goddess of death, our heroes must prevent Ragnarok, the end of days, from coming to pass.

Thor: Ragnarok is directed by New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, continuing the MCU’s penchant for unconventional director choices. This movie looked from the trailers like it was going to be a whole lot of fun, and it is. However, perhaps the end of days shouldn’t be “a whole lot of fun” – or at least, be something more than that. The MCU has sometimes gotten flack for being a little too flippant and quippy in its tone, at the expense of meaningful drama. The two MCU films we’ve gotten earlier this year, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, packed in plenty of humour, but also had genuine heart when it counted the most. Thor: Ragnarok does not fare as well as those films in this regard.

Despite its tonal issues, there is no denying that Thor: Ragnarok is supremely entertaining. There is never a dull moment and the film delivers all the dazzling, meticulously-rendered visual effects spectacle we’ve come to expect from this franchise. This is by far the biggest film Waititi has made, and with the production support built into Marvel Studios, he acquits himself admirably. The central throw down between Thor and Hulk in the Grandmaster’s arena is well choreographed, and the colourful, eye-popping design of Sakaar is a nice homage to artist Jack Kirby.

Thor: Ragnarok might be too funny for its own good, but the central cast displays excellent comic timing. Hemsworth is easily the most likeable he’s ever been in the role, playing a character who is put through the wringer, but doesn’t lose his boyish enthusiasm and charm. He also spends the entire movie showing off his truly impressive biceps, and yes, there’s a requisite shirtless scene.

While Hiddleston is a delight as Loki, it’s easy to lose sight of exactly how much damage he’s done over the course of previous films, even when those events are name-checked. He’s a trickster, but he’s also dangerous, and that latter element seems to get lost in the shuffle.

Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Vulture turned out to be one of the best MCU villains thus far. Unfortunately, Hela emerges as a far more formulaic antagonist. This reviewer was really looking forward to seeing what an actress of Blanchett’s stature would do with the role, but there really isn’t much more to the character than strutting about and smirking seductively. Hela plainly states her motivations in an expository speech, and while there are ample displays of how formidable she is, the threat never truly takes hold – especially since so much of the film is spent away from Asgard.

Hulk’s depiction in this film represents an evolution in the right direction – he’s now slightly more articulate, when previously all he was capable of was roaring and grunting. While the dynamic that develops between Thor and the Hulk is interesting and amusing, there’s the niggling sense that elements of the Planet Hulk story arc from the comics have been shoehorned into this film. A standalone film based on Planet Hulk might have worked better, that is indeed what Ruffalo wanted, but rights issues prevented that from happening.

While Thompson doesn’t physically resemble Valkyrie as the character is often drawn in the comics, she has the swagger to pull off the character as written and looks to be enjoying herself in the role. This is a warrior who’s one of the dudes, but who is suppressing pain from her past. She’s pretty much any given Michelle Rodriguez character.

Goldblum is basically playing himself, but as a hedonistic Elder of the Universe. It’s an entertaining performance, but Goldblum never disappears into the role, and doesn’t register as someone you wouldn’t want to cross.

There is one scene in the film in which a phalanx of Valkyries, astride their winged horses, charge into battle against Hela. It’s a beautiful, awe-inspiring tableau that recalls the paintings of Gustav Doré. Alas, this is but a tiny part of Thor: Ragnarok. This is not a bad film, far from it, but it just doesn’t feel like a Thor film. It feels like a Guardians of the Galaxy movie that Thor happens to be in. Where previous MCU movies have balanced the humour with drama and emotion, the jokes here undercut the desired end-of-the-world stakes. That’s not to say Thor: Ragnarok isn’t an exceedingly enjoyable time, but it could’ve been more than that.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong