BIRDS OF PREY (2020) – Harley Quinn Stand-alone Film Hardly Soars

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The best part of DC’s flawed SUICIDE SQUAD (2016)  a few years back was Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn.

In short, she stole that movie, which wasn’t hard to do since the film wasn’t all that good, but that’s not to take anything away from her zany sexy performance as the Joker’s deranged girlfriend.

With BIRDS OF PREY (2020) Harley Quinn gets her own movie, and Margot Robbie gets to strut her stuff once again, this time without having to share screen time with those other Suicide Squad members. Now, I love Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn, but sadly, while BIRDS OF PREY might be slightly better than SUICIDE SQUAD, it’s not by much, and that’s because in spite of Robbie’s antics, the story is sparse, and the writing which is driven by Harley Quinn’s unhinged voice-over narration, just isn’t sharp or funny enough to make this one worthy of the Robbie’s performance.

In BIRDS OF PREY, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has broken up with the Joker, or as we find out, he has broken up with her, and she’s not taking it all that well. She also finds out that without the Joker’s protection, her enemies declare open season on trying to kill her. One of these enemies is the powerful Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), who at present seems to be running Gotham’s underworld.

Sionis is also after a young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) who inadvertently swiped a valuable diamond from the pocket of Sionis’ right hand man Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). To save her skin, Harley Quinn promises to catch Cassandra and bring her and the diamond back to Sionis. But Quinn is not alone in her quest to find Cassandra. Also on her trail are Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and singer and newly promoted Sionis’ personal driver Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who’s working with Montoya to try to save Cassandra. Plus Sionis offered a reward for Cassandra’s capture, so there are a plethora of armed and dangerous heavies all competing for the cash prize for bringing Sionis Cassandra’s head on a platter.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s this mysterious crossbow killer Helena Bertinelli aka The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who’s out and about taking down various villains in Gotham.

Eventually, these female warriors all end up together and join forces to protect Cassandra from Sionis’ clutches, calling themselves Birds of Prey.

Which makes BIRDS OF PREY one of those movies that drives me crazy, in that the entire movie seems a set-up for a sequel, which I find frustrating because it wastes the narrative of the present movie. A lot of films do this, and when they do, I always feel cheated.

Of course, I would have minded this less had the script been better. The screenplay by Christina Hodson is admirable for having its badass female characters beat the stuffing out of its badass male characters, although I’m sure this will turn off the same folks who’ve been complaining about other recent Me Too Movement movies featuring strong female leads, films like CHARLIE’S ANGELS (2019) and BLACK CHRISTMAS (2019). I’ve enjoyed these movies, and that’s not the reason I didn’t love BIRDS OF PREY.

The bad girls beat down the bad boys storyline I have no problem with.  It’s the actual plot and the dialogue that I have trouble with. The story is just so-so, and it’s certainly not worthy of the Harley Quinn character. I would have much preferred a plot where she was driving the story, not reacting to Sionis’ threats against her. And the dialogue just isn’t as snappy and edgy as it needs to be.

Margot Robbie is excellent once again as Harley Quinn. That being said, I enjoyed her even more as Sharon Tate in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) and as Tonya Harding in I, TONYA (2017), and her performance here doesn’t quite have the same impact as it did when she first played the role in SUICIDE SQUAD. That’s not to take anything away from her, because she’s a terrific actress, and she’s clearly having fun playing Harley Quinn, but she’s not really given the opportunity to do more with the character here other than get more screen time.

Another notable difference this time around is that director Cathy Yan along with screenwriter Christina Hodson tweaked the character here and made her much less of a sex object. Gone are the scenes from SUICIDE SQUAD where Harley Quinn makes men desire her. In their place are simply scenes where Quinn kicks butt and stands on her own as a person. It’s a noticeable tweak, and not a bad one.

As a fan of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and I’ve been a fan since her role in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010), I was disappointed that as The Huntress she had very limited screen time. Of all the female leads, Huntress has the least impact, which is too bad, because Winstead is an exceptional actress.

I enjoyed Ella Jay Basco as the teen thief Cassandra Cain, as well as Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary. And while Rosie Perez was fine as Detective Renee Montoya, I thought her scenes with her fellow police officers were some of the most poorly written of the film. The dialogue was cliché and stood out like a sore thumb from the rest of the movie.

Ewan McGregor hams it up as villain Roman Sionis, who likes to have the faces of his enemies removed. Yeah, he’s not a nice guy, and his cruelty is somewhat out-of-place n a film that is largely high camp rather than dark superhero drama. I like McCregor as an actor, although he seems to jump back and forth between hits and misses, as seen with last year’s DOCTOR SLEEP (2019) where he was excellent as adult Danny Torrance, and CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018) where he was meh as Christopher Robin. Here as Roman Sionis, he’s all over the place, but he succeeds in making the villain someone you simply can’t stand.

One of my favorite performances in the movie belongs to Chris Messina who played Sionis’ right hand man Victor Zsasz. Messina made Zsasz one creepy dude.

Director Cathy Yan keeps all the action and chase scenes as high-octane as they need to be, but there’s nothing overly memorable about any of them when all is said and done.

BIRDS OF PREY is an okay standalone film for Harley Quinn, and supposedly, it’s the first of three Quinn films in a proposed trilogy, but it’s hardly a game changer. In other words, after watching it, I’m not pining for the next film in the series. The script simply wasn’t sharp enough for that to happen. That being said, I’d still be happy to see Margot Robbiie play Harley Quinn again. I’d just hope she’d be in a better movie.

BIRDS OF PREY easily gets off the ground, but once airborne, hardly soars.

—-END—

 

Movie Lists: The Joker

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The joke’s on you, Joker!

So says Adam West’s Batman to Cesar Romero’s Joker in the 1960s campy TV series BATMAN.

The release of JOKER (2019), a superior standalone film about the origin of the infamous Batman villain the Joker that features an Oscar-worthy performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck aka the Joker, no doubt will re-open the conversation as to who made the best onscreen Joker.

So, with that in mind, welcome back to Movie Lists, that column that looks at lists of odds and ends in the movies. Up today, you got it: the Joker.

 

BATMAN (1966)

The Joker: Cesar Romero

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This movie was based on the ultra successful campy TV series from the 1960s starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. It featured four supervillains: the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, and the Joker. It was originally intended to be released before the TV show aired, but the series was rushed into production and premiered ahead of time. As a result, the movie premiered in theaters the summer after the end of Season 1 of the series.

Like he did in the TV series, Cesar Romero, like his fellow actors in their fellow supervillain roles, played the Joker strictly for laughs. There was no rhyme or reason or any attempt to make the character real or threatening. And since it was in the 1960s, and since Adam West was hysterically funny as Batman, who unlike his counterparts the villains, played it straight, which made it all the more comical, the fact that Batman didn’t realize he was funny, it all worked. Remarkably well. And the humor still holds up today.

For more than twenty years, Cesar Romero, in all his campy hilarity, defined the role.

Until 1989 with the release of Tim Burton’s BATMAN.

 

BATMAN (1989)

The Joker: Jack Nicholson

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The most controversial thing about Tim Burton’s BATMAN was his casting of Michael Keaton, who up until that point was only known for his comedic roles, as Batman. Yet Keaton silenced critics with a very effective performance.

Jack Nicholson did not share this problem. After all, he was Jack Nicholson, one of the most respected actors at the time. For many, the fact that he was playing the Joker was the main reason to see this one.

I’ve always liked Tim Burton’s BATMAN, although truth be told, it hasn’t held up that well to the test of time. When it came out, since the movie world had only known Adam West’s campy Batman, it was considered an extremely dark and serious take on the character. Yet, watched today, it comes off as much campier than it did back in 1989.

The same can be said for Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker. Nicholson blew away any notion that Cesar Romero would remain the definitive Joker. Nicholson’s Joker was a much darker take on the character, although once more, watched today, he seems much more cartoonish and campy.

That being said, I really enjoyed Nicholson as the Joker, and I enjoyed the way director Tim Burton framed the character, adding a lot of references to the Phantom of the Opera, especially the 1925 Lon Chaney silent version. The scenes near the end with the Joker leading Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) up the tower are clearly reminiscent of similar scenes where Lon Chaney’s Phantom led Christine into the depths of his underground lair.

Again, for nearly twenty years, Jack Nicholson was the gold standard for the Joker.

Until Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

 

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

The Joker: Heath Ledger

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The big news with THE DARK KNIGHT was that Heath Ledger died just before the release of the movie, and as a result, because of his amazing performance, he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor posthumously. Ledger’s performance as the Joker truly is phenomenal. THE DARK KNIGHT remains my favorite superhero movie of all time, and Ledger’s performance as the Joker is a major reason why

The film really is about chaos and anarchy, and we see it personified by the Joker who will stop at nothing just to create chaos, and he’s so good at it. The only reason he ultimately fails isn’t because of Batman, but because he misjudges the dark side of human nature. People aren’t as bad as he thought they were.

Hands down, Heath Ledger was and remains the best onscreen Joker. However, here in 2019, he just received his biggest competition.

 

SUICIDE SQUAD (2016)

The Joker: Jared Leto

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Jared Leto’s performance in the flawed DC movie SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) didn’t really work for me. It’s not entirely Leto’s fault, as SUICIDE SQUAD, a DC tale about villains rather than heroes, isn’t all that good. The reason to see it is Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn. She steals the show. Leto as the Joker does not.

 

JOKER (2019)

The Joker: Joaquin Phoenix

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The best part about JOKER is it’s not really a comic book movie. It plays more like a Martin Scorsese film as it tells its story about Arthur Fleck, a man suffering from mental illness, who regardless of the fact that he only wants to make people laugh, is continually beat upon until he can’t take it anymore. And when he rises up he’s less a supervillain than the face of a movement, and since he’s spent his whole life wanting to be noticed, he finds that he likes this new self.

Joaquin Phoenix is superb as Arthur Fleck here, and he gives the most sympathetic onscreen portrayal of the Joker yet. He will make you understand and believe how someone could become the Joker, and how the Joker could in fact be a real person. We’ve come a long way since the days of Cesar Romero.

By a hair, I still prefer Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT, since that film was insanely riveting, thanks mostly to Ledger. Joaquin Phoenix’s work in JOKER is entirely different from Ledger’s. JOKER is not a superhero movie. It’s a tragic violent drama, and as such works on an entirely different level. One day I may find myself preferring Phoenix over Ledger. That day is not today, but that doesn’t take away from Phoenix’s masterful performance.

It’s interesting to note that Cesar Romero almost wasn’t the first Joker. J. Carrol Naish almost played him in the serial BATMAN from 1943, which  was the first time Batman appeared on the big screen. The villain was originally going to be the Joker, but since it was 1943, he was changed to a Japanese villain, Dr. Daka, and was played by J. Carroll Naish. Some traces of the Joker still remain, as Daka’s hideout is located inside a carnival.

That’s it for now. Hope you enjoyed this list of actors who have played the Joker in the movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

JOKER (2019) – The Most Believable Joker Story Yet

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The best part about JOKER (2019) is it’s more than just a movie about a comic book character.

Much more.

With its origin story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), the man who would go on to become Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker, JOKER is less interested in telling the official Joker origin tale than it is in making his story believable. And that really is the strength of this movie. It painstakingly paints a portrait of a man who by the time everything is said and done, is completely believable.  The audience understands and knows exactly where the character is coming from. It’s by far the most sympathetic portrayal of the Joker on the big screen yet.

The film also has some things to say about society as a whole.

Arthur Fleck lives in Gotham City in a crummy apartment with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy). But don’t expect a cartoonish comic book setting. No, Gotham here in the 1980s resembles the gritty cityscape of a Martin Scorsese movie. Fleck works as a clown, and he wants to be a comedian, and his only goal in life seems to be the desire to make people laugh. Trouble is, he’s not terribly good at it.

He also has mental health issues, sees a case worker regularly, and is on seven different medications. Eventually he learns that due to budget cuts these services will be eliminated. When he asks how he will get his meds, the only answer he receives is silence. Now, there have been grumblings, criticisms, about the sympathetic portrayal of the Joker in this movie, but it’s important to remember that the character as depicted here suffers from mental illness. He’s an unhinged individual who needs help, and without that help, he’s not really responsible for his actions. And the film makes clear that even with that help, the system was failing him. Arthur complains to his social worker that she never listens to him and that she doesn’t really know him or his problems, and this seems to be true.

He gets jumped and beat up on the job, and as he says, people and society seem to be getting uglier and uglier. Eventually, as you would imagine, he snaps, and no, he doesn’t suddenly become a criminal mastermind, but he does become violent, doesn’t feel regret or remorse, and because society around him is also feeling left out from the “haves,” the people with wealth, people like Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who of course is Bruce Wayne’s father, Arthur becomes the face of their movement to rebel against society. It’s not something he wants, but it happens.

When you finish watching JOKER, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll say, “Yup, that’s how a guy would become the Joker.” It’s the most realistic and sympathetic portrayal of a character who in the past has mostly been portrayed as an over-the-top comic book villain. JOKER is saying not so fast. This guy exists in the real world, in the here and now. And it completely makes its case.

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a masterful Oscar-worthy performance as the title character. There no doubt will be comparisons to the other famous Joker portrayals, Jack Nicholson in BATMAN (1989) and Heath Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). Before this movie my personal favorite was easily Ledger. THE DARK KNIGHT remains my pick for the best superhero movie ever made, and Ledger’s performance as the Joker is the main reason why.

I still prefer Ledger as the Joker, but Joaquin Phoenix here in JOKER does something that no one before him has ever done. He makes you believe that such a person is real and not someone who only belongs in a comic book. That’s something pretty special to accomplish.

Phoenix has always been a special actor, playing a wide array of characters and generally being convincing in all of them. Here, he lost nearly fifty pounds for the role, and he looks eerily thin and frightening. And that’s the thing. As sympathetic as he is as Arthur Fleck, he’s no less scary and unnerving. I absolutely loved his performance.

And it’s a good thing, because he’s in nearly every scene in the movie. It sinks or swims with Phoenix. He easily carries this movie and dominates throughout.

The supporting cast is serviceable but barely noticeable because of Phoenix’s mesmerizing performance.  But they’re all very good. Only Robert De Niro seems a bit miscast as late night talk show host Murray Franklin, a character that Arthur is obsessed with. He dreams about appearing on Murray’s show, and later, when this becomes a reality, it’s not quite the way he imagined it.

De Niro’s casting is interesting here, since this subplot hearkens back to the Scorsese movie THE KING OF COMEDY (1982) in which De Niro played a deranged man named Rupert Pupkin obsessed with late night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). But here in JOKER, as much as I like De Niro, he just didn’t seem like the late night talk show host type.

JOKER was directed by Todd Phillips, a director mostly known for his comedies, especially the three HANGOVER movies. There’s nothing funny about JOKER. Phillips does a phenomenal job.

He also co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver, a screenwriter with some solid credits under his belt. Silver co-wrote THE FIGHTER (2010), a superior drama starring Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, and Christian Bale, and he co-wrote THE FINEST HOURS (2016), an underrated period piece rescue mission drama starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck.

Another fascinating aspect of JOKER is it puts its own stamp on the Batman origin story. Thomas Wayne is not a likable character here, and his death as shown in this movie looks very different from the way its been shown in previous movies, through the emotional eyes of a young Bruce Wayne. Furthermore, the connection between Arthur and the Wayne family adds further layers to what would later become the feud between the Joker and Batman.

Pretty much everything about JOKER works, from the acting, to the writing, to the music score, everything about this one screams authentic.

The world is an ugly place. There are the haves and the have nots, and the haves really don’t give a care about the have nots. And when the have nots have had enough, they rebel.

Arthur Fleck reaches the point where he’s had enough. And when he strikes back, he finds that he enjoys it, and better yet for him, he not only gets away with it, but becomes the face of a movement from fellow have-nots who are feeling the same way.

That’s not to say that the film is preaching rebellion. It’s not. It’s simply telling a story, a story that is perfectly framed by a quote which Arthur writes in his journal: “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

Arthur Fleck has a mental illness. No one he interacts with acknowledges this. Society’s answer is a disinterested social worker and lots of pills, and eventually, even these are taken away because the haves no longer want to fund them. He’s been pushed around, beaten, fired from his job, suffered abuse as a child, and now he finds himself the face of an underground movement. For the first time in his life he’s being noticed. And it feels good.

It’s a story that could be told in the here and now, in 2019, as society faces the same dilemmas and offers the same useless solutions.

And we wonder why the Arthur Flecks of the world become Jokers.

That’s the true strength of this movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

SHAZAM! (2019) – Comedic Superhero Tale Only Half Works

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Shazam!

And just like that, just by saying that one word, young Billy Batson can transform himself into an electrically charged Herculean superhero! Woo-hoo!

That’s the premise in SHAZAM! (2019), the latest superhero movie from DC, the comic book company whose movies have been struggling to compete with its rival’s, Marvel, over the last decade. SHAZAM! is a light and funny film that gets all the comedy elements right, which is a good thing, because its story of magic and family ties or the lack thereof is nothing to write home about.

Fourteen year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been searching for his mother without success since being separated from her at a young age. As such, he’s been bounced around from foster family to foster family, experiences which all end the same, with Billy running away.

Now in a family led by foster parents Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor (Cooper Andrews) that includes five other children, a home filled with positivity and good humor, Billy still resists being there. But one night he’s summoned by The Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who’s trying to protect the world from the Seven Deadly Sins and whose powers are waning. He needs to give them to someone who’s pure at heart, and up until now his search has been fruitless, but he’s out of time, and so he gives his powers to young Billy.

When Billy says Shazam! he turns into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi). Knowing little about superheroes, Billy turns to his foster-brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) for help, and the two spend much of the film having fun with Billy’s newfound powers. Everything is great until supervillain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) comes looking for Billy, intent on destroying the newfound superhero so he can be the only all-powerful dude on the block, along with those seven deadly sins, of course, who are personified here as statues who come to life at Sivana’s bidding.

As I said, the story here is nothing to write home about. It’s all rather silly and ridiculous, and since the tone of this one is light and humorous, that’s not really a problem. However, I did find it to be a distraction. I mean, couldn’t the writers have made this story just a tad bit more realistic? Magic and wizards and statues that come to life, it’s all pretty childish. I can’t say that liked the story all that much.

What I did like was the humor. When Billy transforms into Shazam, and he’s a fourteen year-old inside an adult body belonging to an all-powerful superhero, the story is fun, and the movie is extremely watchable. Basically, it’s BIG (1988) but with a cape. In fact, when Shazam runs onto a giant piano keyboard inside a toy store, that’s a direct nod to the classic 1988 Tom Hanks comedy.

Zachary Levi is hilarious as Shazam. The scenes he shares with Jack Dylan Grazer are the best in the movie. Grazer’s Freddy helps Shazam learn about his powers as together they find out what he can and cannot do, which provide some uproarious results, like when Freddy suggests he try to “leap a tall building with a single bound” and Shazam doesn’t quite make it, crashing through a skyscraper window.

Other scenes have fun with the “fourteen year-old inside an adult body” theme, like when Shazam tries to buy beer for him and Freddy. Both of them promptly spit it out upon tasting it, disgusted by the taste, and in the next shot they depart the same store with arms full of junk food instead.

Levi, who played Chuck on the well-regarded TV show CHUCK (2007-2012) channels an exuberant Jimmy Fallon-like vibe throughout, and his scenes are clearly the best in the movie.

Jack Dylan Grazer is equally as good as the nerdy superhero geek Freddy who gets picked on at school and so naturally relishes his time with Shazam.  Asher Angel is also enjoyable as Billy Batson, and he has some fine moments as well, although he unfortunately misses out on the films liveliest scenes since they feature his alter ego Shazam.

Young Faithe Herman delivers a scene stealing supporting performance as the younger sister Darla in the foster family, and Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews (who plays the King’s right hand man Jerry on AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD) both do a nice job as amiable foster parents Rosa and Victor.

Mark Strong, an actor I like a lot, is okay as villain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, but it’s not anything I haven’t seen Strong do before. In fact, he was much better as Frank D’Amico, the villain in KICK-ASS (2010).

Director David F. Sandberg handles the comedic scenes with ease, but the rest of the film with its magic subplot, family themes, and generic superhero fanfare is all rather standard. Sandberg previously directed a couple of horror films, LIGHTS OUT (2016), an okay horror movie, and ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017), the second and better of the two Annabelle movies. In fact, the Annabelle doll appears briefly in a store window in this movie.

The screenplay by Henry Grayden is a mixed bag. The comedy works. The rest doesn’t. Its message regarding family is that family is who you are with, not necessarily blood relatives, and it does this in a way that shows some pretty awful families. Billy Batson’s mom abandons him because she feels overwhelmed, and in a weird opening sequence, we meet Dr. Thaddeus as a young boy and witness his dad and older brother treating him horribly and cruelly. This is juxtaposed with the happy foster family run by Rosa and Victor.

There’s nothing wrong with this take on family, except that the examples of bad families are so over the top they’re difficult to take seriously.

The magic storyline along with the Seven Deadly Sins personified is, simply put, pretty ridiculous.

Shazam is only mentioned here by this one name. He’s not referred to at all by his other name in the comics, Captain Marvel, since Marvel Studios owns the rights to the name for their own character who of course just appeared in her own movie a few weeks ago, CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019), even though the DC character appeared in the comics before the Marvel character did.

Where does SHAZAM! rank with other recent DC flms? While it’s quite the different movie from AQUAMAN (2018), I liked it about the same, placing it below WONDER WOMAN (2017) but above BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016).

I loved the comedy here, and really enjoyed watching Zachary Levi as Shazam whenever he was on-screen, but the rest of this film was pretty childish and phony, not the best criteria for a superhero movie.

—END—

 

AQUAMAN (2018) – Jason Momoa Best Part of Underwhelming Underwater Adventure

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It’s no secret that in the battle of big screen superhero movies, Marvel has had the upper hand over DC. The Marvel movies have been nonstop outstanding, while DC has struggled with simple notions like storytelling. As a result, it hasn’t been much of a contest.

With the exception of WONDER WOMAN (2017) the recent crop of DC films has been pretty bad. Before WONDER WOMAN, the last DC superhero movie I really enjoyed was THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).  Been a while.

Now comes AQUAMAN (2018), the origin tale of DC’s underwater superhero, with amiable hunk Jason Momoa playing the lead.

Is AQUAMAN all wet? Or is it as refreshing as a summer shower?

Well, truth be told, it’s somewhere in the middle.  The best part by far is Jason Momoa’s spirited performance as Aquaman.  He’s got all the best lines in the film, and his character is the only guy on-screen who’s all that interesting. At times I thought I was watching two different movies, one written by the folks who wrote all the Aquaman scenes, and another written by someone else.

The result is one very mixed bag of a movie.

After a silly and pointless pre-credit sequence which explains how Aquaman’s parents met, the film jumps into one of its best sequences, showing Aquaman rescuing the crew of a submarine from some pretty nasty pirates. Indeed, this might have been my favorite sequence of the whole film, and that’s because we get to see Aquaman interacting with real people in the here and now, rather than in the underwater fantasy kingdoms, where most of the film takes place.

Not too long after Aquaman saves the day, he’s visited by Mera (Amber Heard) who tells him that he must return to the undersea kingdom of Atlantis because his brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) is about to wage war on the people who live on land. Aquaman isn’t interested, but when his human father is almost killed in an attack, he changes his tune and agrees to accompany Mera back to Atlantis to stop his brother and become the true king of the underwater world.

Blah. Blah. Blah.

I have to admit.  I’m biased. I’m just not a big fan of fantasy tales, and that’s pretty much what AQUAMAN is. It plays like THOR under water, even having Aquaman deal with his brother King Orm, the way Thor had to deal with his brother Loki.

So, all this story involving Atlantis and the great battle to restore peace and harmony under the sea I simply found a colossal bore.

What was not a bore was Jason Momoa as Aquaman.  He’s phenomenal in the role, and I’d be more than happy to see him play it again in a movie that told a better story.  He obviously looks the part with his sculpted ripped body, and he also gives the character a lively personality with plenty of wise-cracks and moments of playful humor.  Momoa is really good.

I also enjoyed Amber Heard as Mera, although as I said before, it seems she and the rest of the cast didn’t have the same screenwriter as Momoa did.  Her lines are often pretty bad, but when she’s in scenes with Momoa, they work well together and she makes the character at least somewhat interesting.

The rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well.  I thought Patrick Wilson was badly miscast as the main villain, King Orm. I just never really bought him in the role, and scenes where he battles Aquaman, where he’s pitted against the massive bulk of Jason Momoa I thought were laughable because looking at the two of them side by side how can one believe that a guy who looks like Momoa wouldn’t wipe the floor with Wilson in about two seconds? I’ve enjoyed Wilson in nearly every movie I’ve seen him in, especially in the INSIDIOUS and CONJURING movies, but not so much here.

Willem Dafoe doesn’t fare any better as Vulko, an official from Atlantis who remains loyal to Aquaman.  Vulko’s lines were so bad I had a hard time keeping a straight face whenever he spoke.

On the other hand, Dolph Lundgren does fare better as King Nereus, mostly because he looks the part. He looks like a king and also like someone fit enough to tangle with Aquaman.

The talents of Nicole Kidman are largely wasted in a throwaway role as Aquaman’s mother Atlanna.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes for the best villain in the movie, Manta. Sadly, he has to play second fiddle to King Orm here, but his scenes going up against Aquaman are some of the better scenes in the movie.

AQUAMAN was directed by acclaimed director James Wan, known mostly for his horror movies, films like SAW (2004), INSIDIOUS (2010), and THE CONJURING (2013). His horror roots are on full display here as there are plenty of giant sea creatures. There are also plenty of sea battles, all of which went on too long for me.

AQUAMAN is visually striking, as the underwater sea kingdom of Atlantis is colorful and dazzling.  There’s a lot to see, and I can’t fault the way this movie looked. But in terms of story, it didn’t do much for me, nor did its battle sequences, which I found long and after a time unexciting.

The screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall hits a home run with its depiction of Aquaman but falls flat just about everywhere else.  The main story is a snooze, and the supporting characters okay but not as sharply written as Aquaman himself. I would have liked this one better had its storyline featured Aquaman dealing with events on land and interacting with people above water.

Even the interesting plot point of the underwater kingdoms  wanting to strike back against humanity because of the way we maltreat the oceans, filling them with endless trash, goes nowhere. It’s mentioned but then is buried underneath the infighting between Aquaman and his brother.

You can do a lot worse than AQUAMAN, but you could also do a lot better.  Jason Momoa’s performance is definitely worth checking out, and on the big screen, the visuals here are highly impressive, but you’ll have to sit through an underwhelming plot that is hardly exciting and never compelling, and with a running time of 143 minutes, that’s a long time to sit and be underwhelmed.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

New in 2019! DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

Dark Corners cover (1)

Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version coming soon!

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, first short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 

Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

Wonder Woman Leads the Way as Superheroes Save JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

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As a kid, I slightly preferred the Marvel superhero comics to DC, but I pretty much enjoyed them both.

But in the past decade, in the movie world, Marvel’s movies have been far superior to what DC has churned out.  The DC films have been largely problematic. That changed a bit earlier this year with the release of WONDER WOMAN (2017),  the best DC film to hit the big screen since THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).

The upward trend continues with the release of JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017), the tale of a group of DC superheroes working together for the first time.  While not as good as Marvel’s AVENGERS movies, JUSTICE LEAGUE is another step forward, helped immensely by the presence of Wonder Woman, played once again by the astonishing Gal Gadot.

When a JUSTICE LEAGUE opens, Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead, but as every superhero fan knows, the Man of Steel is never gone forever.  Movie fans will know as well, as soon as they see Henry Cavill’s name listed prominently in the opening credits.

With Superman gone, the door is open for the powers of darkness to make Earth their own, because frankly, while other superheroes may be tough, it seems only Superman can keep the truly heinous baddies from strutting their stuff.  In this case, it’s Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) who centuries ago was banished by an alliance between the Amazons, the Atlanteans, and the humans.  With Superman dead, Steppenwolf returns to finish the job he set out to do eons before, namely, to destroy the world.

Realizing that Steppenwolf is a superior foe, Batman (Ben Affleck) assembles a team of heroes, including Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher).  But even their combined strength isn’t enough to take Steppenwolf down, leading Batman to suggest the outlandish plan of resurrecting Superman from the dead, even if his newfound superfriends warn him against doing so. The young Flash nervously worries that such a plan could lead to Pet Sematary-like results.

I really enjoyed JUSTICE LEAGUE.  The script by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon works mostly because it keeps things simple.  The story is not overly ambitious and therefore avoids being overdone and complicated, as was the case with the recent BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) which try as it might failed to establish a convincing relationship between Batman and Superman.  You could actually argue that the story here is rather stupid, but in this case, that doesn’t really matter because the strength of JUSTICE LEAGUE is its superhero characters, and the actors playings these roles all acquit themselves rather nicely.

Joss Whedon of course both wrote and directed THE AVENGERS movies, and his influence is apparent in this movie when the superfriends bicker and take jabs at each other.  And while Christ Terrio wrote BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, a movie I didn’t like, he also wrote ARGO (2012), a film I definitely did like.  There is a lot of smart dialogue in this film, which helps lift it above its very standard plot, like when Batman criticizes Wonder Woman for not having ever taking a leadership role.  He correctly points out that Superman has been a beacon for the world, but he had never even heard of Wonder Woman until recently, and he accuses of her hiding in the shadows during the past century.

It’s safe to say that after the success of WONDER WOMAN, one of the biggest draws of JUSTICE LEAGUE is not Batman or Superman, but Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  Gadot does not disappoint.  She was clearly my favorite part of this movie, and when she is on-screen, the film is at its best.  She possesses such a strong screen presence, she’s astonishingly beautiful, and is completely believable as an unstoppable warrior princess.

But Wonder Woman alone wouldn’t be enough to save a movie called JUSTICE LEAGUE, and thankfully, her superhero counterparts are also quite good.

While I didn’t really like the look of Batman’s cowl and costume, Ben Affleck is quite effective as the caped crusader.  It’s a convincing performance, and I liked Affleck even better here as Batman than in BATMAN V SUPERMAN.  There are also plenty of potshots made by his friends at his lack of super powers.  At one point, he’s asked just what his superpowers are, and he answers, “I’m rich.”

Strangely, when Affleck appears as Bruce Wayne, he seemed a bit fleshy in the face which works against the idea that Batman is a fit fighting machine.  There’s also a neat nod to the Michael Keaton BATMAN movies here, as composer Danny Elfman incorporates his original BATMAN theme from that 1989 flick into some of the Batman scenes.

Likewise, Henry Cavill scores high as Superman.  In fact, it’s probably my favorite Cavill performance as the Man of Steel.  He comes off as sincere and is far less troubled than in previous films with concerns over how the world views him.  It seems death has been a good thing for Superman, as while he was gone, the world seemed to have missed him.

Ezra Miller is fun as the Flash, although at times the humor seemed a bit forced.  I also enjoyed Ray Fisher as Cyborg, and really enjoyed Jason Momoa as Aquaman, who gets some of the better lines in the movie.

The film is also helped by a strong supporting cast, led by Amy Adams as Lois Lane.  Adams isn’t in the movie much, but to have Adams in a cast as a supporting player can only add to a movie, and her few scenes are all nicely done.  Jeremy Irons gets a decent amount of screen time as Alfred, and he makes the most of his scenes.

Diane Lane is effective as Clark Kent’s mother Martha Kent, and Connie Nielson reprises her role from WONDER WOMAN as Queen Hippolyta. J.K. Simmons appears briefly as Commissioner Gordon, and Amber Heard is seen all too fleetingly as one of Aquaman’s associates, Mera.

Director Zack Snyder achieved better results here than he did with both BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and MAN OF STEEL (2013). One of the ways that JUSTICE LEAGUE is superior is Snyder controlled himself here and didn’t film action scenes that went on for too long.  They are generally quick, efficient, and well done.

I thought the pacing was especially good.  The film runs for just about two hours, but it flew by for me and felt more like 90 minutes.

Like its Marvel counterparts, there are a couple of after credit scenes.  The first one is well worth the wait, but the second at the very end involves a certain villain played by a certain actor who I really don’t want to see again.  Oh well.

The film also opens with a curious bit featuring Superman, which was enjoyable enough, but I thought at some point in the movie the story would return to this moment, but it never does.

JUSTICE LEAGUE features a straightforward and rather simple if not predictable story, but in this case it seems to be just what these DC films have needed.  The DC films that haven’t worked have been bogged down with plot points that didn’t work and action scenes that went on for far too long.  It truly seemed as if they were struggling to find their identity.

WONDER WOMAN established its identity right away, and while JUSTICE LEAGUE isn’t quite as successful as WONDER WOMAN, it too establishes itself right away.  It sacrifices plot for characterization, using most of the screen time to establish its Justice League personalities, and the film is better for it.

The superheroes here not only save the world, but the movie.

As such, JUSTICE LEAGUE is highly recommended.

—END—

WONDER WOMAN (2017) – Superior Superhero Film Puts DC Back on the Map

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It’s been a while, but at long last, we have a DC superhero movie worthy of our attention, and that movie is WONDER WOMAN (2017).

DC has long been operating in the shadow of their competitor, Marvel Comics, who have been churning out one quality superhero movie after another, often several a year, while DC has struggled to make even one hit, often trying to imitate Marvel’s lighter style with disastrous results.  Perhaps the best part of WONDER WOMAN is that it succeeds without being like a Marvel movie at all.  It stands on its own, and it stands tall.

WONDER WOMAN tells the origin story of Diana (Gal Gadot), a princess of the Amazons, living on a secret island, hidden from the rest of humanity by a protective shield of camouflage. She is a little girl on the island populated by female warriors, the strongest being her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen).  As Diana grows to womanhood, she is trained by Antiope (Robin Wright) and soon becomes the fiercest warrior on the island.

When a British World War I pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) flies through the barrier and crashes into the ocean near the island’s shore, Diana swims to his rescue.  Moments later, German soldiers break through the barrier as well and attack the island.  There is a fierce fight and many are killed.

After questioning Steve and learning about the war, Diana decides to go back with him to stop it.  She believes it’s being waged by the god of war, Ares.  Find and kill Ares, and the war will end.

And thus Wonder Woman is born.

The rest of the movie follows Diana’s and Steve’s efforts to thwart the Germans who are planning to unleash a new deadly gas, and to do this, they have to rely on a small team of Steve’s rogue buddies, since officially, the British want to de-escalate the fighting since they are close to signing an armistice.

By far, the best part of WONDER WOMAN is the performance by Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  She is phenomenal here, just as she was in BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016),  a deeply flawed film that was better whenever Gadot was on-screen.  She pretty much stole that movie.  Here, she has a movie of her own, and she’s terrific.

Gadot does for Wonder Woman what Robert Downey Jr. has done for Iron Man, and Chris Evans for Captain America.  She has put her stamp on the role and made it her own.

Chris Pine is also very good in the supporting role of Steve Trevor.  Pine makes Trevor a genuine war hero, and better yet, helps Diana see the good in humankind.

While Pine has been enjoying success as Captain Kirk in the new STAR TREK movies, he’s also been churning out some truly fine performances of late, in films like HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) and THE FINEST HOURS (2016).

Trevor’s sidekicks also stand out.  Said Taghmaoui as Sameer, Ewen Bremner as Charlie, and Eugene Brave Rock as The Chief are all memorable.  They’re a lot of fun and are developed rather well as supporting characters, more so than Captain America’s war buddies in CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE FIRST AVENGER (2011).  Taghmaoui in particular has some of the better lines in the movie, like when he’s recounting Diana’s story of her island, saying, “You mean it’s an entire island full of women like her?  Let’s go there!

Likewise, Lucy Davis is enjoyable as Steve Trevor’s secretary, Etta.  She has some fine moments in some comical scenes, like when Steve introduces her to Diana as his secretary, and Diana asks what a secretary does.  Etta tells her, and Diana says, “Where I come from that’s called slavery.”  To which Etta smiles and responds, “I like this girl.”

Connie Nielsen adds class as Diana’s warrior mother Hippolyta, and Robin Wright from TV’s HOUSE OF CARDS is up to the task of training Wonder Woman as Antiope.

One way that WONDER WOMAN is similar to the Marvel superhero films is that it stumbles with its villains, and like the Marvel movies, the fact that the villains are weak doesn’t seem to matter.

Danny Huston plays the main baddie, General Ludendorff, a rather cliché military villain, made even less impressive because Huston he played a similar role in X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009).  His performance here offers nothing new.

The far more interesting villain is Dr. Maru, played by Elena Anay.  Dr. Maru wears a mask that covers part of her face, and she’s the main force behind creating the deadly gas.  Anay is very good in the role, but sadly, the character isn’t really developed all that well.

David Thewlis plays another character of note, Sir Patrick, who officially opposes Steve’s mission, but behind the scenes helps him to achieve it.

Patty Jenkins directed WONDER WOMAN and does a nice job.  The film looks awesome, and the action scenes are all done very well.  At times, the pacing is slow, but the story remains interesting throughout.

And that’s because the screenplay by Allan Heinberg is a good one. It does a nice job telling Diana’s origin story, showing how she grew up on the island. The World War I sequences are also well done, but most of all, the strength of this story is its theme of empowering women.  The story presents an all-powerful superhero, who also  happens to be a woman.  And you might be tempted to say, this isn’t news.  Wonder Woman has been around for a long time, but not in the movies she hasn’t.

If you’re not a comic book reader, and you’re basing your superhero experiences on television and the movies, you really don’t know a whole lot about the Wonder Woman character.  As such, it’s a case where audiences don’t really know what they’ve been missing.  They’ll know now.

WONDER WOMAN has a lot to say about women.  Having this latest badass superhero to hit the big screen be a woman is a breath of fresh air, and showing the way women were treated during the World War I years is relevant because similar struggles continue today. Likewise, the way Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor treats Diana and looks out for her, and she for him, sets up a love story that really works.

All in all, WONDER WOMAN is a superior superhero movie, one of the best of its type.

The DC superhero movies are back on the map.  Wonder Woman has saved the day.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.