Aquaman


Under the sea, a princess waits.

(2018) Superhero (Warner BrothersJason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, Ludi Lin, Michael Beach, Randall Park, Graham McTavish, Leigh Whannell, Julie Andrews (voice), Djimon Hounsou, (voice), John Rhys-Davies (voice), Andrew Crawford, Sophia Forrest, Natalia Safran. Directed by James Wan

 

It’s no secret that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has far out-stripped the DC Extended Universe for box office supremacy. There are a lot of reasons for that; regardless, the fact of the matter is that DC has a lot of catching up to do, and here’s where they start.

Arthur Curry (Momoa) a.k.a. Aquaman (although he is rarely referred to by that term) is the son of Polynesian lighthouse keeper (Morrison) and Atlanna (Kidman), a princess of Atlantis. Bullied as a young boy, he learns that due to his half-Atlantean lineage he can communicate with sea animals, control water and swim faster than a dolphin. He can also breathe underwater as well as on land. He is tutored by Vulko (Dafoe), an advisor to the king of Atlantis, Arthur soon becomes a kind of superhero, although he prefers very much to be left alone to drink beer and brood, mainly over the disappearance of his mother and his father’s sad faith that she will return to him someday.

However, the arrival of new princess Mera (Heard) tells Arthur of a power struggle going on in the deep. Orm (Wilson), his half-brother, has claimed the throne, although Arthur apparently has a better claim. Orm means to declare war on the surface dwellers and who could blame him, given all the pollution and damage we have inflicted on the oceans. Arthur and Mera will need to go on a quest to find Neptune’s trident, the most powerful weapon in Atlantis that has been lost for generations, if they are to challenge Orm and save the human race.

Wan is an accomplished director who has launched two major movie franchises – Saw and The Conjuring – and looks to give DC a badly needed infusion of fun. It’s no accident that Jason Momoa’s Aquaman resembles Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in many respects; the roguish demeanor, the royal bloodline, the affection for humans and the wisecracks; Wan’s no fool, and that lighter sort of superhero sells better in today’s market than the brooding, dark heroes of DC’s recent past.

Other than that, this is pretty standard superhero movie stuff; big battles, lavish special effects, the existence of the human race on the line. Aquaman is at its best, oddly enough, when Momoa’s charm is allowed to shine through; the big special effects are almost too busy with too much going on so that the end result is not eye candy but vertigo.

Heard delivers the best performance of her career as the agile Mera, and Kidman lends needed gravitas as Atlanna. There is also a subplot involving regular Aquaman nemesis Black Manta who is played by the underutilized Mateen, who is due a superhero character of his own one of these days. The wow factor is definitely here, but the movie is a little too long, a little too overwhelming. Still, where it shines, it really shines and Momoa is certainly an action star for the new decade.

REASONS TO SEE: Best DC film since Wonder Woman. Momoa was born to play a superhero.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little too artsy for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: The special effects are on the busy side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to director James Wan, the octopus playing drums during the duel between Orm and Arthur is Topo, Aquaman’s sidekick during the 50s and 60s. Wan figured that if Mad Max: Fury Road could have flame-throwing guitars, he could have an octo-drummer.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews, Metacritic: 55/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waterworld
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Capital in the 21st Century

Shadow (Ying)


Here comes the rain again.

(2018) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Chao Deng, Li Sun, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Wang, Jingchun Wang, Jun Hu, Xiaotong Guan, Lei Wu, Bai Feng. Directed by Yimou Zhang

Perhaps the most acclaimed film director to come out of China is Yimou Zhang, whose wuxia classics Hero and The House of Flying Daggers have thrilled art house moviegoers for more than a decade. However more recently, missteps like his anglicized The Great Wall failed to connect with mass audiences. However, his latest is a return to form. Garnering massive critical acclaim from its debut at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the movie is once again familiar territory for the great action director, set during the Three Kingdoms period in China.

Commander Yu (Deng) is the beloved general of the Pei Kingdom’s armies who was gravely wounded in battle with the nearly invulnerable General Yang (Hu). However, he appears to be well on the mend and his somewhat prevaricating King (Zheng) is surprised to discover that his impetuous Commander has picked a fight with the man who recently wounded him with the city of Jing, which had been lost to the invaders of Yang Kingdom, going to the winner.

However, the King doesn’t want these events to lead to war so he instead offers his sister (Guan) as concubine to Yang’s son (Wu). What the King doesn’t know is that the Commander isn’t who he appears to be; he is a commoner named Jing (also Deng) who is serving as the real Yu’s shadow, or impostor. Yu has schemed to use the fake Yu as a diversion while a handpicked army of renegades retakes the city. Knowing that this will not only embarrass the king but also lose him what political capital he might have with the nobles, Yu expects to take the throne for himself. Complicit in the dealings is Madame (Sun), Yu’s devious wife. The machinations are almost Machiavellian – some would say Shakespearean.

Zhang as a director is known for his extravagant use of color but he goes in entirely the opposite direction here. Greys and whites and blacks make up the majority of his palate, giving the film an almost black and white look to the point that at times I wondered if he hadn’t shot the film in black and white. Extraordinarily, he did not – everything here is about production design and costuming. In itself it’s an incredible achievement. However, it does get distracting at times. There is also an awful lot of dialogue which isn’t of itself a bad thing but it forces us to be reading the subtitles rather than taking in the marvelous visuals. I’m not often an advocate for dubbing but here is an example where it might have gone better had they gone in that direction.

There is a good deal of gore here but the martial arts sequences are elegantly staged, often using the ubiquitous rainfall as an ally – Yimou even posits umbrellas being used as a weapon, giving the battles an almost feminine grace and a touch of whimsy – a group of battle-hardened warriors slide down a city street in overturned umbrellas in a kind of martial arts waterslide effect. In all, this is a return to form for Yimou and a must-see for any fan of Asian cinema, particularly of the wuxia variety. While it is for the moment on the Festival circuit, it is expected to be in limited theatrical release in May and through the summer. Start bugging your local art house programmer to book this one now.

REASONS TO SEE: The film is epic in scope. The ending is full of twists and turns and has a fair amount of gore for those who love that. The zither duel is absolutely spellbinding.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie lacks color particularly in the palace scenes, a bit of a switch for Yimou.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of martial arts and war violence and some brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The black and white tones that most of the film is shot in is meant not only to emphasize the relationship between light and shadow but to also follow in the style of Chinese ink wash paintings.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The House of Flying Daggers
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Bring Me an Avocado

The Last Mistress (Une vieille maîtresse)


The Last Mistress

Asia Argento gets her Spanish on.

(2007) Drama (IFC) Asia Argento, Fu’ad Ait Aattou, Roxanne Mesquida, Claude Sarraute, Yolande Moreau, Michael Lonsdale, Anne Parillaud, Jean-Philippe Tesse, Sarah Pratt, Amira Casar, Lio, Isabelle Renauld, Lea Seydoux, Nicholas Hawtrey, Caroline Ducey. Directed by Catherine Breillat

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; the human heart is a tricky thing. Not everything is easy to assess, quantify and analyze when it comes to human emotions. Not everything makes logical sense; we can only follow our feelings and hope they lead us on some sensible course that will arrive at our eventual happiness. It doesn’t always turn out that way though.

Ryno de Marigny (Aattou) is about to get married to the beautiful Hermangarde (Mesquida), granddaughter of the Marquise de Flers (Sarraute). It is 1835, during the reign of the last French King. Ryno has been a bit of a libertine so it turns more than a few heads and gets some tongues to wagging when the Marquise allows the engagement of her beloved granddaughter to such a notorious rake as Ryno, who is a son of a noble house but has fallen on hard times. The marriage to the wealthy Hermangarde is extremely advantageous to him.

The Marquise is fully aware of Ryno’s reputation however and invites him (more of a command actually) over one night to talk. She has heard of his most scandalous affair and wants to know if he has given the relationship up before he marries. She demands he tell her about the relationship in detail and so he does.

Ryno met La Vellini (Argento) at a party. By then she was married to the ineffectual Sir Reginald (Hawtrey) and was already an accomplished courtesan. At first they don’t take to each other; he calls her a mongrel for her Spanish-Italian heritage and she thinks of him as a haughty little boy. Then in fine romantic fashion the two who despise each other so much find themselves attracted as two lovers have never been. This leads to a duel between Ryno and Sir Reginald in which Ryno is gravely wounded. Of course, La Vellini flies to his side and nurses him to health, even sucking the blood from his wound so great is her passion for him.

This leads to a torrid affair that has all of Paris talking, particularly a pair of gossipers (Lonsdale and Moreau) who have a certain French flair for seeing the ridiculousness in their passion. Still Ryno knows that he must end the affair with La Vellini. However, La Vellini is the sort of woman who ends things on her terms – and at the moment her terms are far from having been met.

Based on what was at the time a scandalous novel by the French writer Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly written in 1851, noted French director Breillat has put together what is unusual for her, a period piece. Breillat is noted for her films that ooze sexuality but show sex in a more realistic fashion; there is sweat and not moisture, grunting and not moaning, bodies contorted into awkward shape and little grace. It is more like the act itself without the sentimentality that Hollywood (and yes, French films as well) depict the act with.

She also has a penchant for using non-professional actors and she’s spotted a good one in Aattou. His boyish looks are perfect for the role physically and his performance nicely recalls the actions and sentiments of a down-on-his-heel noble, mid-19th century style. As is not uncommon with European films, there is far more dialogue than in their American cousins and that is true particularly here with much of the action taking place in drawing rooms and Aattou handles the conversations well; they don’t seem forced.

Argento has been criticized for not being a great actress but I have found her to be a solid actress. I have yet to see a great performance from her true, but it is rare to see a truly bad performance from her either and she is quite good here. I honestly can’t fault her performance which is very sexually charged; even in the mannered environment of that time and that place, she comes off as highly sexual which is rare for movies which tend to make the people of that time kind of sexless. La Vellini would be a hot, sexy woman in any era.

The movie, like many European films, is paced at a rather slower pace than American audiences are used to so be aware of that. There are certainly some frenetic moments but for the most part younger audiences might not have the patience to sit through this.

Sarraute, who has been a journalist for some 50 years although was quite an accomplished actress at one time, makes a rare screen appearance of late and makes the most of it. I really enjoyed the warmth and depth she brought to the Marquise; as Roger Ebert so perceptively put it, she’s the kind of movie character whose salon you’d love to hang out in with her, just having conversations about the indignities of life.

Overall I really loved this movie a lot. It’s sexy but not pornographic – a movie about sexual obsession has to have some sex in it after all. But it’s the rich characterization of the main participants in the drama that held my attention; the plot is a bit on the soapy side but no matter. This is wonderful drawing room filmmaking at its very best.

WHY RENT THIS: Very sexy. Nice period piece. Sarraute, Argento and Aattou are mesmerizing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A very leisurely pace.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexuality and some brief nudity as well as a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director discovered Aattou in a Parisian cafe; up until that point he had no professional acting experience.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.8M on a $6M production budget; the movie didn’t make back its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Liaisons

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop