AQUAMAN – FROM LAMEST COMIC STRIP SUPERHERO TO AQUADUDE!!

SHORT TAKE:

Super cool and buff version of Aquaman/Arthur Curry who must challenge his bellicose brother Orm for the underwater Kingdom of Atlantis to prevent a war with the human race.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid-teens and up for some language, a great deal of cartoon violence which might be scary for younger children, the topic of adultery and a LOT of cleavage.

LONG TAKE:

When I was growing up, Aquaman was arguably the lamest superhero on the block. Justice League re-presented Jason Momoa (the ill-fated Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones  as a long haired hard-drinking rockstar/biker-dude Aquaman and it WORKED! This watery super hero has all the battle finesse of the Hulk and the smart aleck attitude of Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy. He was fun to watch and the highlight (with Gal Gadot’s long cameo as Wonder Woman) of the otherwise fairly anemic Justice League movie. This new installment to the struggling D.C. Universe reestablishes Aquaman’s origin as a comic book hero.

The bright vibrant colors, a complex but nonsensical plot, the ooh aah largely unexplained but visually exciting weaponry and pseudo technology, thecharacters with semi-magical abilities, the scene-chewing hammy handed acting from even the likes of  an over-breathy Nicole Kidman, and the posturing dialogue all underscore the comic book source material.

The story begins as Queen Atlanna (Kidman) of Atlantis flees an unwanted arranged marriage with a king we never meet. Wounded but still pretty battle-feisty she washes up on the shore of a lighthouse keeper, Tom Curry, (Temuera Morrison) with whom she falls in love. Several years later, she has born Tom a son, who they name Arthur, purportedly after the hurricane raging about them at the time, (foreboding anyone?) but obviously as a nod to Camelot, one of the many derivative references used to cobble together the script. Atlanna is soon forced, for the sake of her baby and his father, to return to Atlantis. The Once and Future King Arthur, (of the ocean not Camelot), is trained periodically by visits from Vulko (Willem Dafoe).

Fast forward to Arthur’s Biblical 33rd year and a war is set to break out between the about-to-be-blindsided human race and Queen Atlanna’s younger and legitimate son, Prince Orm (Patrick Wilson, mostly known for supernatural scariest like The Conjuring and Insidious series), who blames his mother for having brought shame to their family by bearing a half-breed bastard with a human. Orm strives to bring Unity to the nine Realms of Asgard, I mean the Seven Kingdoms under the ocean. He also wants revenge on the human race for the human waste dumped into the ocean. (Can anyone say Captain Planet?) No mention is made, of course as to: how the Atlantians and their hordes of sea critters handle their bathroom issues any differently, the fact that the dumpage is biodegradable, that the ocean is incredibly vast, Atlantis is pretty darn far from any coastal areas, and the other six realms don’t really seem to have any bone to pick with the human race. Sounds like Orm simply has mommy issues and brother envy to me.

Princess Mera, (Amber Heard, mostly eye-candy in previous films such as The Playboy Club and Magic Mike XXL) the daughter of King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren, as the rough tough guys in Rocky IV, Creed II and The Expendables franchise – keep in mind this man has a chemical engineering degree!), seeks Arthur out to stop the war by encouraging Arthur, the eldest son, to take his place as the rightful King. Arthur is reluctant as he aligns himself with humans and seems sure Atlantis is a nice place to visit but doesn’t want to live there. He is also mad about the fate of his mom … but I won’t give any spoilers here.

Mera and Arthur set out to find a special Excalibur-like Trident whose power is so strong it will not only defeat baby brother Orm, but bring all the realms together in a peaceful coalition. The rest of the movie is taken up with so many quests, including: duels, long treks through wastelands, battles with armies of inhuman monsters, underwater labryinths, and lessons in humiility, that Hercules’ patience would have been put to the test.

The whole thing is a big, bloated, but ultimately fun hoot. I can see why it was a huge hit in China. A lot of time is spent in meaningful stares, posturing in action figure stances, and dramatic appearances. There were times when the stilted language, bright colors and poised settings made it easy to envision the comic strip frames each scene could have been inspired by.

There’s no hanky-panky, although Atlanna lives with Arthur’s father out of wedlock, eschewing her obligations and fiancé. Arthur, in turn, spends most of the movie having “managed to get his shirt off” (thank you Galaxy Quest). There are a handful of minor profanities, which parents of minor children might not want repeated, and topics of war, adultery, and murder which parents might deem inappropriate for younger children. So, honestly, not much worse than your average Grimm’s fairy tale.

The CGI in the early scenes with Nicole Kidman and Temuera Morrison is pretty creepy. While not Tron: Legacy-level disturbing nor Henry Cavil’s Justice League Superman-mustache ridiculous, it’s distractingly noticeable. And CGI Willem Dafoe, in the training scenes, looks cut directly from a high-quality video game.

The music is darker and more ominous than it should be for a kids’ superhero movie, but then the topics of adultery, murder, treachery, betrayal, and incitement of global warfare are all pretty dark topics as well.

The character of Arthur / Aquaman is the highlight of the show, with his genial, protective giant personality, who rarely takes anyting completely seriously. With the size of Drax, the impulsive nature of Peter Quill, the fighting skills of Gamora, and the snarky attitude of Rocket, his D.C. hero is almost the entire Marvel Guardians of the Galaxy crew in one.

The bright vibrant colors in almost every scene clues you, right away, that we are here for a comic-book good time. And, ultimately, what do you want? As I have admonished before in other blogs about similarly themed movies: this is not Hamlet, or Chekov. It’s a superhero movie. Enjoy.

 

Dark Tower – A Wasteland of Missed Opportunity

poster2Popular wisdom says that origin books are almost always better than the movies based on them. While often true the reverse is more prevalent than you might think. Wille WonkaTake Gene Wilder’s Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. The movie, based on the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, did not wander far from the source material. Though since Dahl wrote both the book and the first draft of the screenplay that is not surprising. But the movie had an added fillip which, to me, was the most memorable moment in the story. Charlie had snuck a sip of Fizzy Lifting Drink and Wonka tells Charlie because of that he won’t get any reward. But it’s a test. So shines.pngDespite Wonka’s cruel and angry behavior to him Charlie gives Wonka back the gobstopper souvenir instead of selling it to Wonka’s competitor. Wonka says: "So shines a good deed in a weary world," then tells Charlie he is to inherit the entire factory. It’s a beautiful moment masterfully played out between Wilder and Ostrum. But it wasn’t in the book. To me it was the crown jewel of the adventure.

MP bookMary Poppins was a series of adventures with the title character coming and going into and out of the Banks' children's lives, as the winds changed: trips around the world, tea parties on the ceiling, learning to cook when the Banks’ cook goes on leave, the birth of other children in the Banks' household, etc – some knit into the movie, most not. But no where does it have the central theme of rescuing not the children, but ultimately the Banks’ children’s father, despite the fact, according to the movie Savings MBSaving Mr. Banks, this was the intent of her stories. Apparently she was just too coy with the theme. The movie, however, makes this beautiful theme crystal clear. Mr Banks.jpgThe hair on the back of your neck will stand up and the hardest will get teary watching a defeated Mr. Banks, knowing he is about to be fired, believing he has failed his children, stand, in the dark at the bottom of the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral where the children had wanted to buy feed for the birds. As the instrumental version of Feed the Birds swells in the background and you know there is a change of wind coming for HIM, you know you are experiencing one of the great moments of cinema. This was not nor could have been adequately portrayed in the book.

GWTWGone With the Wind, while a classic book did not capture the imagination the way the movie did with its sweeping panoramas of Tara in her glory and stricken Confederate soldiers at the railroad station or the burning of Atlanta all against Max Steiner’s magnificent soundtrack and the incendiary chemistry between Leigh and Gable as Scarlett and Rhett played out in Technicolor.

On the other hand, there are movies like the HPHarry Potter series, which are based on a sequence of books so packed with rich magical ideas and creativity that even in 8 movies the filmmakers could only make a Reader’s Digest version. Short shrift was given to some characters like NHNNearly Headless Nick and some were left out altogether Peeveslike Peeves; and some brilliant parts of the books were sadly absent from the films: Harry dressing down Lupin for virtually abandoning his wife and child; the previously misjudged Fleur Delacour declaring her continued devotion to the now scarred Bill Weasley saying "I am beautiful enough for the both of us." It was obvious the movies were a labor of love but just couldn’t do the books justice.

c6269487482a083efdda16c756e186c0--dark-tower-gunslinger-dark-tower-tattooThen there’s Dark Tower. *weary sigh* I once was a fan of Stephen King. That was before he went on a diatribe against the pro-life movement, but that’s a story for another blog. During the height of my King fan-reading I tried to slog through the series of Dark Tower books AS they were coming out. I couldn’t get past the third of what would eventually be eight. It was an incomprehensible mess. It seemed as though King would wake up every morning and before his first cup of coffee spill, without filter, whatever thoughts came to him. Then the next day he would do the same thing, making weak efforts to tie what he’d written the previous day into the current days "work". There were lobster monsters and vampires, slow mutants and doomed theme parks, fatal rides on mining cars and homages to his other books. And in the book ROLAND, THE GUNSLINGER THOUGHTLESSLY MURDERS JAKE just to be able to continue his quest towards this Dark Man who, as time goes on, seems to not be quite as bad as the the Gunslinger himself. Then at the end of the 8th book (I read the Wikipedia synopsis recently as I didn’t want to wade through the rest of the books) King pretty much gives a middle finger to his audience, leaving the Gunslinger to start his quest all over again with no real resolution. The series reads like a challenge to see just how devoted his fans really are – like an insecure child constantly misbehaving just to be forgiven, demanding his parents prove they love him.

That’s not to say King hasn’t written anything good since then.green mile Green Mile was a beautifully written modern parable and I’d be hard pressed to say which I liked better – book or movie. They were both well done, the former by King the latter by Frank Darabont.

The FOUR screenwriters (Akiva "A Beautiful Mind and I,Robot" Goldsman, Jeff "Fringe" Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen and Nikolaj Arcel) who were tasked with writing the screenplay from King’s Dark Tower series must have taken a look at the books, thought – "Well, Dark Tower is a King product so we have to do SOMETHING with this because we sure can’t film THIS mess," and actually managed to create a decent narrative script.

Gunslinger and walterSo they took the general idea of the Dark Tower quest, the 3 main characters – Roland, Jake and Walter the Dark Man, SOME of the weirdness rats(animal mutants wearing people faces) and created a STORY. picturesFatherless Jake and his widowed then remarried mother live in a New York beset with signs of coming cataclysm – earthquakes and eerie storms. His visions of the gunslinger’s Wasteland – a world which has "moved on" – and his violent outbursts drive his desperate mother to seek help from psychiatrists who ultimately schedule him for a stay at a retreat for troubled youths. When Jake realizes the social workers who have come to take him are mutants from the Wasteland of his visions he escapes through a portal in an abandoned house possessed by a demon sent by the Dark Man….and THIS is the version of the story that makes SENSE!

Dark Man.jpgThe Dark Man, Walter, is played like a sinister Vegas magician by Matthew "Interstellar" McConaughey. Not his fault – just the way it’s written. McConaughey does his best to tread that fine line between over the top scene chewing bad guy and seductive Hannibal Lector-like serial killer. The result is serviceable but nothing to write home about.

The script doesn’t hang together. Dark towerIf the Dark Tower is the force for good, why is it DARK? The thing looks pretty darned creepy as portrayed – not some bastion of good and cohesive force. Traditionally, especially in a mythos-like fable of good and evil something this DARK would represent evil. And why is something DARK under attack from the DARK Man? The name similarities are either a product of a direct intentional relationship or sloppy writing. If the former there is a glaring inconsistency. As this is a completely invented universe we have no context for making a distinction and are given no explanation. Where did the mutants come from and why does the Dark Man make them wear masks? Why do the "mutants" look like large versions of Ratty from Wind in the Willows? How did the Wasteland come to "move on" and where did that expression come from? Not to be pedantic or facitious but where did it move to? Just an odd phrase for something falling apart. How does the Gunslinger have the power to resist the Dark Man’s magic and if the Dark man has the power to put people under his control just by waving at them why does he play with Roland like a sated cat with a mouse instead of just sending people by the thousands to overwhelm him?

Not that this movie is bad. It is CERTAINLY MUCH better than the books. OK that is because it is completely different from the books. Frankly – aside from the superficial skeleton – it has NOTHING in common with the books. It’s just that it could have been so much more. The writers were so burdened with trying to glue a coherent story from King’s mismash soup of blatherings from the book that they missed several opportunities to make a really great movie. The story felt as though they became so exhausted with stitching an entire suit out of the random pieces they were given that they forgot to sew up the holes created by the mismatching parts.

The only jewel in this story is Idris Elba. He can sell ANYthing. And he makes the Gunslinger a compelling believable character. He’s what Shane would have been in Lord of the Rings – valiant, determined, stalwart and brave in the face of evil. NOT the kind to murder young boys out of convenience as King's character in the books does. Elba’s fighting scenes are worth the price of admission.

roland on ground shooting

I realized when looking for interesting pictures to feature in the blog, about all there WAS were pictures of Idris Elba's Roland shooting – and even then you can't get the grace and class with which he performs these balletic moves. Creative and exciting, the style with which he just loads his gun is fun to watch. However and unfortunately, you get a pretty generous preview of all the good stuff in the trailers. That’s not to say you should not go see it, but don’t be disappointed when you find the movie’s best features are just longer versions of what you’ve already seen.