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.

Aquaman-Jason-Momoa-Amber-Heard-3-bigAmber 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

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) movie review

For inSing

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

Director : Kenneth Branagh
Cast : Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzari, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin
Genre : Drama/Mystery
Run Time : 116 mins
Opens : 30 November 2017
Rating : PG

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-posterIn western literature, three characters vie for the title of ‘the world’s greatest detective’: Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Batman (yes, comics are literature too). This film sees the return of the middle character to the big screen.

It is winter, 1934. Renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has just solved a case in Israel, and is looking forward to a holiday in Istanbul. His break is abruptly cut short when he’s summoned back to London on assignment, and must board the Orient Express. Poirot is invited on the luxurious train as a guest of the train’s director Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot’s friend.

The train is derailed due to an avalanche, and a passenger, shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is found dead. Poirot gathers the other passengers, who are all suspects in the murder. They include: Ratchett’s butler Masterman (Derek Jacobi), Ratchett’s accountant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), Austrian professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), the Princess’ personal attendant Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), car dealer Binamiano Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his wife, Countess Helena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton). As the passengers are trapped in a snowy mountain range, awaiting their rescue, Poirot faces what just might be his most difficult case yet.

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Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express is one of the great whodunits, and has been adapted for film and TV several times. The best-known adaptation is Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version starring Albert Finney as Poirot. Making another big screen adaptation of the venerated novel seems like a tall order, and most of the negative reviews of this film have deemed it “unnecessary”. While it’s hard to say for certain that the world needed a new Murder on the Orient Express movie, this reviewer was mostly entertained.

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There’s an old-fashioned charm and grandeur to the film, which is sumptuously, handsomely photographed in glorious 65 mm film by cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos – some of the cameras had just been used to shoot Dunkirk, in which Branagh had a supporting role. There’s a painterly quality to the computer-generated backgrounds, and everything looks luxe and inviting.

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Branagh pulls double duty as director and star. This is a vanity project, and while it teeters on self-indulgence, Branagh is a delight as Poirot. Sporting that magnificent moustache, this looks like the most fun the thespian has had since playing Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter movies. He is always the centre of attention, relishing every moment he’s onscreen – of which there are many.

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The supporting cast is exceedingly impressive, stacked with an assortment of talented actors. They characters don’t come off as characters, so much as ornaments that Branagh arranges around himself. However, there is an art to said arrangement, and the casting is uniformly strong.

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Depp is appropriately sleazy and unlikeable, while many of the other actors play on popular perceptions of them based on most of their roles. Pfeiffer’s turn is deliciously witty, while Cruz is almost comically stern as a buttoned-down missionary. While Josh Gad tones down his usual comedic schtick, he still sticks out among the cast.

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Ridley brings English proper-ness and a fresh-faced quality to the Mary role. Dench’s Russian accent is a mite too subtle, but it’s clear that she too is enjoying the affair. Odom, best known for originating the role of Aaron Burr in the hit musical Hamilton, is a serious and taciturn Dr. Arbuthnot, who is a composite of Col. Arbuthnot and Dr. Constantine in the source material. It’s super easy to be suspicious of Dafoe, because he is, well, Dafoe.

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As far as celebrity cameos go, Polunin’s appearance as Count Andrenyi isn’t as out of place as it could’ve been. The renowned ballet dancer cuts a slim, severe figure as the haughty count. Lucy Boynton, breakout star of Sing Street, doesn’t get too much to do as the Countess.

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It’s difficult to put a fresh spin on a story as established as Murder on the Orient Express, and there are times when Branagh’s struggle in assembling the film is evident: there is little genuine suspense to be generated, and some moments, especially during the big reveal, are unintentionally funny. However, there is so much talent involved, with said talent looking to be having great fun, and the film looks so splendid that one can readily overlook some of the bumpiness experienced on this ride.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

John Wick

For F*** Magazine

JOHN WICK

Director : Chad Stahelski, David Leitch
Cast : Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Ian McShane, Willem Dafoe, Lance Reddick, Bridget Moynahan
Genre : Action/Thriller
Opens : 23 October 2014
Rating : NC-16 (Violence and Coarse Language) 
Run time: 96 mins
In The Matrix, when Neo was asked what he needed, he replied “guns. Lots of guns.” As the eponymous former hitman in this film, Keanu Reeves once again gets to wield an array of firearms – oh, and he also “knows kung-fu”. A hired gun who used to work for the Russian mob, John Wick’s now-normal life is falling to pieces after he loses his wife (Moynahan) to illness. Her last gift to him, an adorable little Beagle, is now the thing he holds dearest. Mob heir Iosef Tarasov (Allen), not knowing who Wick is, steals his Mustang and kills his dog. It turns out that Wick used to work for Iosef’s father, the crime boss Viggo (Nyqvist). Viggo puts a price on Wick’s head and Wick is pursued by killers including femme fatale Perkins (Palicki) and his old friend Marcus (Dafoe). All those deadly, well-honed skills come bubbling back to the surface in a big way once Wick is set off.’

            John Wick is the feature film directorial debut of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, veteran stunt performers, coordinators and second unit directors who run the 87eleven Action Design collective. Stahelski’s credits include 300, The Hunger Games, V For Vendetta and Reeves’ own The Man of Tai Chi while Leitch was Brad Pitt’s stunt double in Fight Club, Spy Game, Ocean’s Eleven and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. People like Stahelski and Leitch definitely number among Hollywood’s unsung heroes and hopefully John Wick plays a big part in making them household names. This action thriller is sleek and handsomely directed and, as expected, the stunt sequences are superb. Aficionados of the genre have no doubt seen countless shootouts, throwdowns and car chases in their time and while those in John Wick aren’t earth-shatteringly inventive, the skill with which they’re orchestrated and executed is admirable.

            On paper, John Wick sounds like your typical “one man army” revenge flick – after fighting to escape his former life, our hero has to plunge back into the deep end to violently settle a score. In many ways, John Wick is a conventional genre entry. However, it is several notches above run of the mill and a big part of that is the intriguing mini-mythology presented in the story. Central to the plot is a hotel called “The Continental”, which serves as a safe haven and neutral ground for assassins and hired guns. This subculture has its own currency and there’s a regular crew who helps clean up the bodies. There’s an “understanding” between people like Wick and the police. The New York setting is heightened but not ridiculous and the action sequences have panache but don’t come off as stagey and over-choreographed. Mood-wise, the film also benefits immensely from Stahelski and Leitch’s conscious decision to avoid shaky-cam and quick-cut editing, allowing the action sequences to play out in the semi-balletic yet still brutal glory.

            In Death Wish-esque, “one man army carves a swath of vengeance”-type movies, a whole lot hinges on the lead actor. Keanu Reeves is often dismissed as “wooden” but this reviewer did buy him as the cool, quietly badass John Wick. There’s a haunted quality to his face, particularly his eyes, in this film and he gets to bring some of that “Sad Keanu”-ness to bear without it ever being maudlin. A character who takes on the Russian mob to avenge the death of his dog does have the potential for some major league silliness but in Reeves’ hands, it’s all kept under control. As a Russian kingpin in an action movie, Michael Nyqvist is almost contractually obligated to chew some scenery and while there’s that, there are also moments where he’s effectively understated. Alfie Allen’s Iosef is a sufficiently unlikeable petulant brat. Both Ian McShane and Willem Dafoe lend some dignified gravitas to the proceedings. It’s only Adrianne Palicki who seems rather out of place, not altogether convincing as a cold killer.

            John Wick reminded this reviewer of the recent The Equalizer starring Denzel Washington as a similar “killer comes out of retirement” character. However, in that film, there was the danger of the “cool factor” being overplayed and coming off as forced or unintentionally comedic. Here, Stahelski and Leitch have attained a level of consistency. There’s a bit of a 70s movie-type stylisation with several scenes being neon-lit and the subtitles that appear when characters speak Russian having individual words emphasised with neon colouring. Sure, this is not particularly heavy on substance, but it doesn’t drown in its style either. With the masterfully-crafted action scenes, the stylish mood-setting, just the right level of genre savvy and the brisk pace in John Wick, we do want to see what Leitch and Stahelski tackle next.


Summary: John Wickcontains many staples of the “assassin movie” subgenre but the directors put their stunt-creating experience to marvellous use and Keanu Reeves makes for a convincing hitman in this slick, entertaining genre entry.
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong