movie reviews December 2018

 

mortal engines welcome to marwen aquaman

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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Aquaman
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Any Aquaman vehicle arrives with plenty of negative flotsam to overcome. For decades, DC Comics' pelagic paragon has been ridiculed in popular culture, largely based on the character's neutered portrayal in the old Super Friends cartoon, but also for his corny trident and goofy telepathic communication with ocean life.

The powers that be that preside over the DC Extended Universe further hobbled this intellectual property by previewing him with cameo appearances in Batman v. Superman and Justice League, consequently associating him with two Zack Snyder critical disappointments despite a radical makeover in the form of Jason Momoa (“Game of Thrones”) as a tattooed aquatic biker.

Given this baggage, the makers of Aquaman's stand-alone debut were faced with a decision: Embrace the inherent ridiculousness of their subject (like Marvel's Iron and Ant-Man) or fight the character's cultural stigma by approaching the story and themes with a strong dose of earnestness (like DC's biggest success, Wonder Woman). Based on the resulting mish-mash of characters, story lines, and tones that fill this overlong (at nearly 2 1/2 hours) spectacle, the answer was, "All of the above."

A pre-titles sequence attempts to set a serious tone as Aquaman's human father Thomas Curry, a lighthouse-keeper, spies a body washed up on the shore after a storm. Imagine the audience's surprise at discovering Nicole Kidman lying unconscious on the rocks in a scaly wetsuit with trident in hand. Apparently slumming as Atlanna, Queen of Atlantis, Kidman's “merwoman” takes up residence at the lighthouse and bears little Arthur Curry, the half-human, half-Antlantean who will grow up to be Aquaman.

Abruptly flashing forward a couple of decades or so, grownup Arthur rips open the hatch of a submarine and drops in to save the vessel from pirates. As an electric guitar doodles something reminiscent of the Bill and Ted air-guitar riff, Momoa flips his drenched locks over his tattooed shoulder, smirks at the camera, and quips, "Permission to come aboard?" Arthur, it turns out, doesn't mind the occasional rescue, as long as it doesn't cut into happy hour. And Momoa, for his part, doesn't seem to mind his role as aquatic beefcake. Perhaps, films are beginning to see the rise of a female gaze.

These conflicting tones persist throughout the film as screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (Wrath of the Titans) and Will Beall (Gangster Squad) spin out a multitude of stories, characters, and backgrounds. There's a budding romance between Arthur and Antlantean warrior princess Mera (Amber Heard), who has ventured onto land seeking Arthur's help. His long-lost half-brother (Patrick Wilson), Orm, is intent on waging war on Earth's terrestrial inhabitants for ruining the ocean realms with our pollution. To defeat Orm, however, Arthur must retrieve the Trident of Atlan, which can only be wielded by the true king of Atlantis (get it: Arthur?). Meanwhile, one of those pirates from the sub has made himself an armored and, dubbing himself Black Manta, seeks revenge on Aquaman. Director James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring) is left the thankless task of trying to gather all these loose ends into a unified vision, something he achieves only fitfully.

Arthur's first glimpses of the undersea civilizations are rendered with impressive CG effects, all florescent colors and coral-clad spires, the screen bustling with man-bun-wearing mermen and jellyfish-attired merwomen astride sea horses and armored sharks or aboard spiny, finned vehicles shaped like eels and rays. However, scenes of the main characters moving about the same aquatic environment never successfully escape the impression of actors on wires.

Regardless, any moments of wonder are inevitably interrupted by a never-ending series of battles, expository speeches and flashbacks. The subplot with archenemy Black Manta, feels like an afterthought, its scenes divorced entirely from the main plot and Manta histrionically gesticulating like a cheesy Power Rangers villain. Patrick Wilson feels completely miscast, reaching ludicrous peaks of fury as he routinely bellows to the ocean depths about his desire to become an "Ocean Master," whatever that is.

At half the length and approached with a consistent tone, Aquaman might have managed to rise above its middling DC brethren. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 12/24/18)


Welcome to Marwen
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

In case you didn’t know: Stiletto heels came into fashion in 1954. That tidbit of footwear history comes from Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) in the film Welcome to Marwen. Hogancamp, or Hogie, has 250 pairs of women’s shoes he tells Nicol (Leslie Mann), his new neighbor from across the street, as he shows off a pair of stilettos from his crammed shoe closet. Hogie takes an immediate fancy to Nicol soon making her the newest member of the “girls” who have “his back” in the town of Marwen in his fight against the Nazis.

Hogancamp’s predilection for women’s shoes aroused the wrath of five homophobic men one night in a bar. They beat him merciless, causing Hogancamp to lose his memories and talent for illustration. Inspired by the award-winning 2010 documentary Marwencol, director Robert Zemeckis, of Forrest Gump fame, Welcome to Marwen retains the essential elements of the true story. It’s a worthy effort but one that does not outshine the documentary despite Carell’s splendid performance that seemingly reflects the nuances of the real Hogancamp.

With his personal history gone and his drawing talent taken away, Hogancamp (Carell) creates the 1944 Belgium town of Marwen. There, as a downed World War II fighter pilot, he battles the Nazis, enjoys the company of his courageous squad, Roberta (Merritt Wever), Julie (Janelle Monae), Caralala (Elza Gonzalez), Anna (Gwendoline Christie), Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis) and Nicol, and resists the influence of Deja Thoris, the Belgian Witch (Diane Kruger).

Hogie and the women of Marwen are dolls, delivered to the screen in animation, their faces, though not bodies — all have the looks of a WWII pinup — reflective of the real person. Marwen is Hogancamp’s art installation built next to his mobile home. The town, the women, the Nazis are all part of his healing process. Hogie is the hero, at times captured by the Nazis, tortured and then rescued by the five women. But the Nazis don’t stay dead; Deja Thoris brings them back.

Meanwhile, the real life characters are sympathetic to Hogancamp’s healing process, urging him to attend and speak at the sentencing part of the trial for the men who attacked him — a prospect that terrifies Hogancamp.

Welcome to Marwen contains tenderness and viciousness to its story, likely denoting the real-life terrors of PTSD. The tenderness happens in the real-life scenes and the viciousness played out by the Nazi dolls. And as the film proceeds along those poles, Hogancamp moves toward healing. The problem is that both scenarios detract from the other, particularly since the doll animation plays a bigger part onscreen.

Carrell gives it a worthy effort being both a character of swagger and fearlessness in Hogie the doll, and as Hogancamp, struggling to find himself back in the real world as an artist. It’s good enough to keep one into the story but not good enough to have the film’s culmination stay with one. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 12/21/18)


Mortal Engines
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

With Peter Jackson’s name attached to it, one might assume Mortal Engines might be on par with The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings or even District 9 in storytelling. Not so.

Based on a 2001 young adult novel of the same title by Phillip Reeve, with three sequels, Jackson was of three who wrote the screenplay. He also joined four others as a producer. With all this heavy talent on board, and a $100 million price tag, one would suspect that someone would have noticed that the story is a mob scene of too many characters, too many subplots, a couple of dead-ends, a backstory mainly limited to one character (Hester Shaw played by Hera Hilmar) and little suspense. Maybe everyone was entranced with the visual effects to notice, which is about the only thing that doesn’t make the film a dull year-end entry into the holiday movie-watching season.

Set roughly a thousand years from now after — what else but a total war — humans embrace a steampunk industrial motif, collect all manner of 21st century pop culture items and tech, and do what humans do best — prey on one another. Leading the charge is London, a massive predator city practicing what is called “Municipal Darwinism.” Guiding London’s hunts is Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) who is in search of a piece of tech to let loose his ultimate weapon and take down the wall separating the mobile cites prowling the Great Hunting Ground from the static cities. It seems maintaining a Londoner’s lifestyle is getting tougher outside the wall.

Valentine killed Hester Shaw’s mother after she found a vital component to his deadly weapon. When Hester hears that London and Valentine are close, she breaks a promise to her protector, Shrike (Stephen Lang), a Terminator-type creature who survived the war, and goes to seek out Valentine to kill him.

Her attempt is thwarted by Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a London Museum worker and friend to Valentine’s daughter (Leila George). Hester escapes the city, Tom forced off by Valentine and the big chase begins. The two wander the Hunting Grounds eventually meeting up with Anna Fang (Jihae), rebel leader of the Anti-Traction League. Meanwhile, Valentine unleashes Shrike who wants to kill Hester for breaking her promise to him.

There’s a host of other characters scattered about adding to din of voices and action scenes. Overall, the acting is over-the-top though Weaving does lend a whiff of mystery to Valentine while Jihae as Fang is the coolest character of the bunch. Hilmar as Hester seems to be the only actor really into her part consistently throughout while Sheehan is annoying and would have been better cast as a bumbling count in a 15th century English royal family movie.

Any movement toward exploiting the broader cultural and philosophical themes hinted at in Mortal Engines isn’t attempted.

If you read Reeve’s novel, this film will bring the story alive off the page. Otherwise, the visual effects are the only reason to see it on the big screen. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 12/14/18)

 



Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Mike Ireland can be contacted at mike.e.ireland@gmail.com


 

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