Friday, December 21, 2018

The Big Merman: "Aquaman" welcomes the goofy but doesn't always gel into fun

Aquaman (2018)
143 min., rated PG-13.

Once a running joke on HBO’s “Entourage” and then abruptly introduced in 2017’s “Justice League,” DC Comics character Aquaman gets his solo origin story. “Aquaman” is a behemoth of Saturday morning cartoon silliness, and in principle, it knows exactly what kind of movie it wants to be and presents a welcome change of pace from the self-serious house style of previous DC Extended Universe entries. Sounding like an unmissable blast, with a long-haired, tattooed Chippendale dancer as our hero; Willem Dafoe riding a hammerhead shark; Amber Heard sporting a jellyfish dress; an octopus playing the drums; and Patrick Wilson emphatically shouting, “I am the ocean master!” as if he were playing it for keeps in a Shakespearean play, “Aquaman” is ultimately not as fun as it should be and without much feeling to go with the fantastical eye candy.

Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) was born half-mortal, half-Atlantean when his mother, Atlantis Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), washed up on shore in the seaside Maine town of Amnesty Bay, only to be rescued and fall in love with his father, lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison). When Atlantean soldiers came to the surface to take Atlanna back home, Arthur was left to be raised by Thomas and to learn of his Atlantean powers and communication with the creatures of the deep. Thirty-three years later, Arthur is Aquaman, using his strength and powers to rescue Navy sailors from pirates, one of whom is Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who’s out to settle a score for letting his father die. Not long after, Atlantean princess Mera (Amber Heard) arrives in Amnesty Bay, asking for Arthur’s help to dethrone Atlantis ruler King Orm (Patrick Wilson), who wants to wage a war with the surface world and also happens to be Arthur’s half-brother. In order to defeat Orm, Arthur must retrieve a mythical trident, but being the bridge between the land and sea, he must also find it in himself to demonstrate the qualities of a king to restore order in Atlantis.

Filled with intermittent pleasures within a bloated 143-minute running time, “Aquaman” is a film that alternately excels and flounders when it leans into its inherent goofiness. There seems to be a singular vision here, and yet it still manages to wobble in tone, from earnest to campy, while giddily throwing everything at the screen. Associated with the horror genre, as well as making arguably the best “The Fast and the Furious” movie (2015’s “Furious 7”), director James Wan luckily scores with the larger-than-life sights of his underwater realms, but it’s the script by screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (2016’s “The Conjuring 2”) and Will Beall (2013’s “Gangster Squad”) that doesn’t always do Wan or his game cast any favors. There really isn’t an elegant way to unload exposition, but it is particularly cumbersome here, and while the film is light and jokey, it never gels into funny, with jokes that are corny at best and juvenile and clunky at worst. To be fair, the film could have been another pesky origin story of a reluctant hero that gets a fresh coat of paint from mostly being set under the sea and it is a self-contained oceanic opera that isn’t beholden to the DC Cinematic Universe, save for one throwaway line about Aquaman defeating Steppenwolf. 

Very much like a Dwayne Johnson or John Cena, Jason Momoa is a physically brawny presence and confident even when he looks silly and refuses to put on a shirt. As the carefree, beer-drinking Arthur/Aquaman, he fills out the role with an endearing likability and poses well, but there is too much of a monotony to his comic delivery. Looking like she’s playing Ariel cosplay as the hydrokinetic Mera, Amber Heard has a lot of fun with the role, chewing a bouquet of flowers at one point in a weird bit of fish-out-of-water comedy, and fiercely holds her own without ever being a damsel in distress. It is a joy to see Nicole Kidman in a superhero movie, and like every role she takes, Kidman commits even in the small part of Atlanna and brings much-needed warmth and gravitas; she even gets the most thrilling fight sequence. Faring less well is Patrick Wilson, camping it up and indulging in the cheesy, one-note villainy of ocean master Orm without selling the bonkers dialogue, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II doesn’t have much to do as pirate Black Manta, an afterthought probably best left to the sequel.

“Aquaman” is, if anything, cool to look at, but not much more than that when the viewer’s involvement with the story and characters leaves something to be desired. Using the “dry for wet” technique for the underwater scenes, director James Wan does deliver a detailed, over-the-top visual extravaganza before garish, bombastic CGI overload sets in. The first sight of Atlantis is a colorful, majestic sight to behold, and there is a memorable, beautifully nightmarish shot of Aquaman and Mera diving down to the Kingdom of the Trench as they’re nearly engulfed by a swarm of hellish sea creatures. And, on land, there is an immersive, excitingly staged rooftop chase with Mera in Sicily. Also, that Wan specializes in horror is evident, as an explosion will suddenly interrupt a quiet moment like a jolt in a horror film and, despite the noticeable pattern, take one off guard every time. Still behind 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman” turns the tide for the DCEU ever so slightly with its leaning toward the tongue-in-cheek and the sheer spectacle of it all, but it’s a lot of movie that doesn’t quite float.

Grade: C +

Career Makeover: Lopez's charisma can't fully carry vanilla "Second Act"

Second Act (2018)
103 min., rated PG-13.

“Second Act” would like to be “Working Girl,” except it’s more pleasantly vanilla than biting, funny, or romantic. As a Jennifer Lopez vehicle, it does play to the strengths of the star’s charismatic presence and includes a solid supporting cast. Director Peter Segal (2013’s “Grudge Match”) and screenwriters Justin Zackham (2013’s “The Big Wedding”) and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas have a main plot contrivance that works more than it should — it’s one where a character puts on a ruse, which could be solved in minutes through a simple conversation but would end the movie rather quickly. Around the, yes, second act, “Second Act” becomes a different kind of film with a saccharine plot development even more contrived than its setup, undermining its imparted message about personal reinvention and risk-tasking with street smarts versus book smarts to redirect its focus on a soapy, emotionally manipulative subplot out of a Lifetime Movie. The film is watchable as fluff goes, but for this viewer, 2002’s “Maid in Manhattan” was much more charming. 

Street-smart 40-year-old Queens native Maya Vargas (Jennifer Lopez) has fifteen years of experience working as an assistant manager at big-box store Value Shop in Ozone Park, but she’s been passed over for a promotion because she only has her GED and not a college degree. On her birthday, Maya’s best friend/co-worker Joan (Leah Remini) and hunky baseball coach boyfriend Trey (Milo Ventimiglia), who wants to marry her and start a family, try to lift her spirits, but it’s not until her Stanford-bound godson, Joan’s son, gives Maya the best present: a résumé makeover with Ivy League credentials and an amped-up Facebook page with copy-and-pasted photos of her climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and posing with the Obamas. This catches the eye of Anderson Clarke (Treat Williams), the CEO of Manhattan’s high-end consumer products firm Franklin & Clarke, who calls her in for an interview. Maya seems to be an ideal candidate for the consultant position, even though she slights the false advertising of the company’s organic skin cream, which has been created by Clarke’s business-savvy daughter Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens). How long can Maya keep up her secret that she’s not a college grad, or does her experience and smarts speak for themselves?

For a while, “Second Act” works as a wise and empowering, if generic, workplace slice-of-life before giving over to the plot mechanics of a Cinderella rags-to-riches story involving deception. Besides Maya’s rise to the top of Franklin & Clarke in creating a genuinely organic skin cream, she also has to contend with the breakup of boyfriend Trey, who wants a baby more than she does due to a giant secret she has kept from him. As for the aforementioned second-act plot “twist” that tries adding weight to an otherwise featherlight story, it deals with Maya and her daughter whom she gave up for adoption when she was a teenager living on the streets. Not only predictably telegraphed and convenient in its scripting, it changes the rest of the film into a much less interesting one, while keeping the emotions as shallow as a kiddie pool and as treacly as a Hallmark greeting card.

Multi-hyphenate Jennifer Lopez (2015's "The Boy Next Door") has always been a magnetic performer on screen as much as she is on stage, and she’s even able to put her superstar baggage aside here to play a relatable, sympathetic character like Maya, who can bust a move in an impromptu number to Salt-N-Peppa’s “Push It” with her gal pals in the kitchen. One could watch Lopez banter back and forth on a loop with Leah Remini (TV's "Kevin Can Wait"), who enlivens the obligatory role of Sassy Best Friend as Joan and brings their real-life chemistry as longtime friends to the screen. Milo Ventimiglia (TV’s “This Is Us”) is a charmer, despite being saddled with the boringly written role of Trey, a baseball coach whose main characteristic is that his ass always looks good in jeans. Vanessa Hudgens (2013’s “Spring Breakers”) gets to play Zoe as both cunning and vulnerable, but the writing is too superficial to fully earn that arc. Annaleigh Ashford and Charlyne Yi also lend quirky support as tightly wound development executive Hildy and acrophobic assistant Ariana.

The comedic moments are on the hammy side, giving its star a slapstick moment where Maya quits her job, proudly struts on her way out, and then falls over the chain of a cashier lane. A moment where she must prove her would-be Mandarin fluency with the help of Joan’s Asian veterinarian in her ear is okay for a few easy laughs, but more amusing is a scene in which Anderson Clarke wants Maya to show her skill as a crew coxswain at his country club. Once it’s time for Maya’s big lie to come out, it’s naturally televised, so all of her loved ones can watch her be honest with herself and everyone she’s duped. “Second Act” is glossy, innocuous holiday fare that shouldn’t let down Jennifer Lopez’s most faithful fans, but it’s too bland to be the crowd-pleaser and the feature-length advertisement for organic skin cream that it seeks to be.


Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Love Bot: Fun, sweet "Bumblebee" is what the previous five "Transformers" movies should have been

Bumblebee (2018)
113 min., rated PG-13.

A prequel-reboot of the Hasbro toy line, “Bumblebee” is what 2007’s “Transformers” and its subsequent four sequels should have been all along: a coming-of-ager that follows in the tradition of those "boy and his dog" pictures, only this time a girl and her robot. “Adorable” wouldn’t be the operative word to describe any of Michael Bay’s numbingly noisy, soulless, pandering movies, which gave big-budget studio moviemaking a bad name, but director Travis Knight (2016’s “Kubo and the Two Strings”) and screenwriter Christina Hodson (2017’s “Unforgettable”) do the series right, turning it around with a lighter touch and a big, marshmallowy heart worn on the hood. If you always wanted to feel something—anything—in a “Transformers” movie with the bonus of a pleasing ‘80s soundtrack, now is your chance.

On planet Cyberton, the Decepticons have waged a civil war with the Autobots, forcing Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) to send B-127 (Dylan O’Brien, in the first scene) to Earth and establish a base for his fellow rebels. Crash-landing near San Francisco in 1987, B-127 is sighted and evades capture by the military, led by Agent Jack Burns (John Cena), but once ambushed by an incoming Decepticon, he has his memory and voice wiped clean before taking cover as a yellow Volkswagen Beetle and going into hibernation mode. Enter 17-year-old Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), still reeling after the fatal heart attack of her mechanic father and not seeing eye to eye with her mother (Pamela Adlon), stepfather (Stephen Schneider), and younger brother (Jason Drucker). All Charlie wants is her own car, and when uncovering the yellow Beetle in the scrap yard of her father’s auto body shop on her 18th birthday, Charlie dusts it off and takes it home. To her surprise, Charlie finds her car to actually be a self-configuring robot, whom she renames "Bumblebee" and discovers to have more humanity than the military that wants to neutralize him. Charlie and Bumblebee form an unlikely friendship that only gets stronger once two Decepticons, Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux), land on Earth and use the military to take out their Autobot target.

Like 1982’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and 1999’s “The Iron Giant” with a touch of 1968's "The Love Bug," “Bumblebee” trusts in the gentle, touching friendship between a mortal young person and an alien lifeform, and in doing so, the story remains stripped-down and focused as it should be without coming off rudimentary. Having a fresh pair of eyes and talent like director Travis Knight, who has background in stop-motion animation at studio Laika, makes a world of difference in why “Bumblebee” shockingly works as well as it does. By making the viewer actually care about and relate to the humans and, yes, even the metallic but quite expressive and endearing Bumblebee, the film then makes way for humor that is playful and actually amusing; rousing action set-pieces that are skillfully and coherently staged; brisk pacing that still takes a breath for a quiet, well-earned emotional moment; and seamlessly integrated effects that are given a chance to be admired without choppy editing. And, not only contributing to the service of nostalgia, the soundtrack is well-chosen, featuring Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” and The Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma,” and germane to how Bumblebee comes to speak again as he channel surfs on the car radio. That the film makes sure Bumblebee gets introduced to “The Breakfast Club” and then ends on that ‘80s mainstay’s iconic Simple Minds musical cue is just the cherry on top. 

Grounding the story with her naturalism, Hailee Steinfeld (2017's "Pitch Perfect 3") is engaging and charismatic—and when isn’t she?—as Charlie Watson, who’s a bit of a social misfit but passionate about music and loses herself in fixing up cars. That the script actually gives Charlie something to do, even when the Decepticons show up to destroy Bumblebee, is refreshing; her diving talent might even come in handy at some point. It might sound like a low bar, but hands down, Steinfeld gives the strongest performance opposite a Transformer. The rest of the cast makes the most of the material, particularly Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (2018’s “Love Simon”), enormously likable as Charlie’s slightly geeky neighbor and amusement park co-worker Memo, who gets shut down every time he tries to introduce himself; John Cena (2018's "Blockers"), providing his comic timing as Agent Jack Burns, who’s initially antagonistic but not without a few shades of gray; and Pamela Adlon (FX's "Better Things"), who brings authenticity to an otherwise stock role as Charlie’s mother. Not just by default but on its actual merits, “Bumblebee” has a leg up on any live-action movie with “Transformers” in the title, to the point that there’s really no comparison. It may still involve sentient, self-configuring robots, but there’s a sense of fun and more undeniable warmth and sweetness than any of the previous movies combined. Who knew it was possible?


Monday, December 10, 2018

Christmas Horror Stories: "All the Creatures Were Stirring" a rare but uneven low-budget Christmas horror anthology

All the Creatures Were Stirring (2018)
80 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Available on DVD, On Demand and Digital Video, the film will also be premiering on Shudder on December 13th. 

Husband-and-wife filmmakers Rebecca and David Ian McKendry make their shared writing-directing debut with “All the Creatures Were Stirring,” a rare low-budget anthology film of horror tales set on Christmas Eve and featuring a smorgasbord of actors recognized in the horror community, as well as the fresh-faced Constance Wu (2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians”). Enticing in conception but not always successful across the board in execution, the film is rough around the edges, even more so than anthologies can often be. There is an inherently mixed-bag quality to the omnibus structure, as not every storyline can possibly be tantamount to a bull’s-eye, and in the case of “All the Creatures Were Stirring,” only two out of the five are solid. 

“All the Creatures Were Stirring” is framed through an awkward first date between Jenna (Ashley Clements) and Max (Graham Skipper), who meet up to attend a play called “All the Creatures Were Stirring” at a Los Angeles community theater. As the director (Maria Olsen) comes out on-stage with a title card for five short tales and the actors put on their amateurish performance in an avant-garde way with few props, each story plays out. First up is “The Stockings Were Hung,” in which a low-key Christmas office party with a gift exchange goes horribly wrong when a Jigsaw-like mastermind rigs the presents with different surprises. It works up suspense, but ends before it really has a chance to get going. “Dash Away All” involves suburbanite Eric (Matt Long), already late to get home to his wife and parents for his birthday/Christmas dinner after doing some shopping, locking himself out of his car with his cell phone inside. In the parking lot, he comes across a van, occupied by Sasha (Catherine Parker) and Frankie (Makeda Declet), and asks to use their burner phone to call for assistance. Little does he know that these good Samaritans need him, too. This thread stands out the most for being deceptively fiendish and unpredictable.

“All Through the House” centers on Christmas scrooge Chet (Jonathan Kite) on December 24th, defacing his neighbor’s lawn decorations and denying a donation for his neighbor’s child before sitting at home alone. Before he knows it, Chet is visited by three ghosts to teach him a lesson about the spirit of Christmas. It’s an off-kilter Dickensian tale—our coke-snorting scrooge doesn’t realize he snorts tinsel—but never as amusing as it thinks it is being. “Arose Such a Clatter” might be the weakest in which private investigator Guy (Mark Kelly) accidentally hits Blitzen, the reindeer, on the road and then finds himself being stalked by a vengeful Rudolph. This one could have been a lot of fun, and though there are knowing noir and giallo touches in terms of color filters, editing, shooting style, and production design, the story itself feels like forgettable filler.

“In a Twinkling” stands as the most refined and confident segment from a production standpoint in which Steve (Morgan Peter Brown) prepares for a full moon, getting ready to chain himself for the night right before his group of friends (led by Constance Wu) knock on his door to party. As lycanthropy shifts into ‘50s-style extraterrestrial mode and black-and-white with splashes of color (not to mention a shot from 1964’s awesomely bad “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians”), this “Twilight Zone” story is amusingly weird, and it’s fun to see the adorably funny Constance Wu. Finally, the last story, “And To All A Good Night,” circles back around to the wraparound segment, and while it has a creepy, David Lynchian vibe, it underwhelms like everything else.

While it might not be the McKendrys’ aim to elicit any major frights, one doesn’t take away much of anything from this spotty collection of darkly tinged holiday stories. Under these low-budgeted prospects, “All the Creatures Were Stirring” seems to have been a labor of love by its makers, but the project is ultimately hurt by its lack of resources. Even though it’s set in Los Angeles, the film displays little specificity when the majority of the stories are shot in dull interiors. In spite of budgetary restraints, it can’t get a pass for feeling like a disappointing missed opportunity.