TV Capsule Reviews: Chernobyl, The Haunting of Hill House, Castlevania, Watchmen

I’ve been watching some kickass TV shows lately. Let’s talk about ‘em. Beware of spoilers.

Chernobyl

HBO

HBO’s Chernobyl is five episodes of utterly gut-wrenching television. I missed it when it aired earlier this year and recently watched it on Blu-Ray, and I was blown away. A show about a devastating historical event that took place in another country doesn’t automatically sound like a surefire hit, but it ended up being yet another hit for HBO, and with good reason.

I’m not remotely qualified to talk about the series’ technical or historical accuracy, but I can say that writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck did an amazing job of turning an incredibly complex series of events into riveting television. Craig Mazin’s previous screenwriting credits are mostly screwball comedies such as The Hangover and its sequels, so he’s not necessarily the writer you might expect to create such a traumatizing series. The third episode shook me so badly I took a week to recover before I watched the last two.

The horrors this show presents are many. People suffering from horrific radiation burns are only the tip of the iceberg. There’s also the now-infamous sequence where a trio of soldiers are tasked with hunting down and killing every animal in Chernobyl. If you have ever had a pet, this sequence is particularly grueling. I forced myself to watch it, but when I watch this series again I’m going to skip that scene.

But on top of the more visceral images, there’s the omnipresent danger of the radiation itself, the knowledge that all of the show’s characters are being slowly poisoned by it. Throughout all of this, the acting in the show is top-notch. Jared Harris is absolutely terrific, between this and The Terror on AMC, he’s been doing amazing work recently. Stellan Skarsgard is also great as a politician who initially butts heads with Harris’ character, and the friendship that slowly develops between the two men is genuinely moving.

There are many other characters and subplots throughout the series, and it is remarkable that the five episodes don’t feel overstuffed despite everything going on. The pacing is excellent and the series is very watchable, despite the harrowing subject matter. I can see myself eventually watching it again (minus the animal-killing scenes), but not for a while. It is often very difficult to watch, but it is made with skill and incredible attention to detail, the acting is excellent and perhaps most importantly it never forgets the incredible human cost of the Chernobyl disaster. It’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking and if you can stomach the more gruesome scenes, it’s a very rewarding viewing experience.

The Haunting of Hill House

Netflix

Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: writer/director Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series of The Haunting of Hill House IS NOT the same as the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. It shares some thematic similarities and character names, but the show is very much its own beast. It’s more inspired by the book than based on it. If you’re a big Shirley Jackson fan who expects the show to be a direct adaptation of the book, you’re going to be disappointed.

In my opinion that’s a good thing, since (and I realize this is a potentially unpopular opinion) I think the book is tremendously overrated. The book is, in a word, BORING. You want to know what happens in the book? Here’s a synopsis: some people spend a few days sitting around a weird old house talking, and then one of them dies in a car crash. The end. The book is often held up as a masterpiece of horror, but I did not find it remotely frightening.

Now if you’re still reading this and don’t hate me for expressing my dislike of a well-regarded novel, let’s move on and talk about the show. The show is great. There were scenes in this series that scared the absolute hell out of me, and the fifth episode shook me so badly I took a week to recover before I watched the rest of the ten episodes (sound familiar? Man, I followed up Chernobyl with something equally as intense, albeit in different ways). And the eighth episode has the most effective jump scare I’ve ever encountered in a movie or show, it damn near gave me a heart attack.

Mike Flanagan is a well-regarded filmmaker who I’ve heard quite a few good things about, although before I watched Hill House I hadn’t seen any of his work. And the hype about the guy is legit: he is a very, very good director. The sixth episode of Hill House is composed almost entirely of very long tracking shots and is one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever watched. If you have the Blu-Ray, I highly recommend watching this episode with Flanagan’s commentary, his eloquent and passionate description of the technical challenges of filming the episode is fascinating, and his appreciation for every member of the cast and crew who worked on it is really touching.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit. Let’s back up and talk about what the show is about. The show is about the Crain family: parents Hugh and Olivia, and their children Steven, Shirley, Theo, Luke, and Nell. This family, to put it mildly, has ISSUES. Many of these issues stem from the summer the family spent in a haunted house –the titular Hill House. You see, Hugh and Olivia were attempting to restore the house over the summer and the entire family ended up having various paranormal encounters, which scarred them all in different ways.

That’s a vast oversimplification, but I don’t want to give too much away because if you’re a horror fan who hasn’t seen this show yet, you should really check it out. I’m going to sound a bit like a broken record when I say that the acting in this show is tremendous across the board. Many of the actors were previously unknown to me, and I was impressed with all of them. The show is structurally similar to Stephen King’s IT, in that the show weaves back and forth in between two time periods: the past, in which we see the family’s fateful summer in Hill House, and the present, where the kids are all grown up and the family is dealing with the many scars left by that traumatic summer.

I found all of their stories very compelling, and the show gives every character time to develop so that the viewer knows and cares about each one of them, which makes the scary scenes even scarier. The scares are psychological rather than gory, and Flanagan knows exactly how to get under the skin of every character, and by extension the viewer. The show is a harrowing tale of lingering trauma, and is a family drama as much as a horror story.

But make no mistake, this is a horror story. Just ask the ghosts hiding in the backgrounds of every episode. Mike Flanagan has confirmed that there are ghosts hiding in the background of every episode except the sixth, since that episode was so technically complex that they didn’t have time for Easter eggs. I missed the hidden ghosts in the first few episodes, but once I read about them online I started to pay closer attention to the backgrounds, and noticed quite a few of the creepy bastards in the later episodes. I LOVE how Flanagan incorporates these hidden ghosts, there’s never any loud noises or sudden music cues to alert the audience that the ghosts are there. But they are. Watching. Waiting.

I always love it when filmmakers put the extra effort into adding details and then letting the audience figure it out for themselves. I don’t even know if internet sleuths have found every ghost yet. The house itself also looks amazing. Somehow Flanagan and his crew managed to design the house in a way that pays homage to the source novel while still feeling like its own original creation.

If I have one problem with the show, it’s the ending. As good as the show is, Flanagan doesn’t quite stick the landing. The last episode isn’t terrible, but it is somewhat unsatisfying given how good the buildup to it had been. The uneven final episode doesn’t tank the entire show, but it is too bad that it doesn’t go out on a higher note. Flanagan is currently in production on a sequel of sorts: The Haunting of Bly Manor, said to be loosely based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I’m looking forward to seeing what Flanagan does with another famous ghost story.

Castlevania

Netflix

Castlevania is an animated Netflix series based on the classic video game series by Konami. It has everything I like: swords, skeletons, castles, vampires, winged creatures of the night, a cranky badass hero, and lots of blood and gore, all wrapped up in a thoroughly gothic atmosphere. What’s not to like?

But the amazing thing about this show is that you actually care about the characters. I was honestly surprised by how much time the series spent with each character in the second season. The first season was only four episodes and while they were four good episodes, the first season couldn’t help but feel like a bit of a tease. But it’s a tease that pays off in the eight-episode second season. Season 2 introduces several new characters, and at times the pacing can be a bit slow. But the show rewards the viewer’s patience with several action-packed episodes in the second half, which include some of the best animated fight scenes it has ever been my pleasure to witness.

The main antagonist is Dracula, the most famous bloodsucker of all time. But the show’s portrayal of him is very different from other portrayals of the famous vamp. This version of Dracula is not bent on ruling the world just for the hell of it.

This Dracula just wants his wife back.

Wait, what?

Yes, this show’s Dracula is primarily motivated by his grief over the cruel death of his wife, Lisa. In the first scene of the first episode, we meet a young woman named Lisa who wants to be a doctor. She seeks out Dracula for his scientific knowledge. He is impressed by her and agrees to teach her, and she in turn helps him regain some of his humanity. Eventually they marry.

Fast forward twenty years, and Lisa is burned at the stake by a power-crazed bishop who falsely accuses her of witchcraft.

This turns out to be a Very Bad Idea.

Dracula unleashes his hordes of nightmare monsters as punishment for his wife’s death, and the results are spectacularly gruesome. This show is animated, but you probably shouldn’t let your kids watch it. The gore is quite copious, as is the profanity. Every episode was written by Warren Ellis, a well-known comic book writer. His scripts are peppered with f-bombs, which do seem a bit unnecessary at times but the story he’s crafted is excellent so I can give him a pass. And it always amuses me when animated characters say bad words, I don’t know why.

The protagonist is Trevor Belmont, whose family has spent generations fighting Dracula and his minions. When we first meet Trevor, all he wants to do is get drunk. He gets pulled into the escalating conflict and turns out to be a badass monster-killer. He is soon joined by Sypha Belnades, a powerful magic user, and Adrian Tepes, also called Alucard, who is the son of Dracula and Lisa (hint: read “Alucard” backwards). Trevor, Sypha and Alucard are a terrific trio, they bicker and argue at first but soon become friends and grow to rely on each other. Trevor is voiced by Richard Armitage, who played Thorin Oakenshield in the Hobbit movies, and his deep baritone is perfect for Trevor, a cranky badass with a heart of gold.

But let’s talk more about Dracula, since I’m such a big fan of villains. Dracula spends most of the second season moping around his castle while his generals conspire behind his back. It’s a totally unexpected way of portraying Dracula. You actually feel sorry for him. Losing Lisa robbed him of his ability to feel any kind of emotion at all. He is ostensibly the villain of the series, but he’s ultimately a deeply sympathetic and even tragic figure. He’s like the reverse of Batman: Bruce Wayne suffered a terrible tragedy, so he fights crime to prevent anyone else from having to suffer the same kind of loss that he experienced when his parents were murdered. Castlevania’s Dracula does the opposite: He suffered a terrible loss, so everyone else is going to have to suffer too.

It’s not until Dracula’s final battle with the heroes that he is able to feel anything again. During a truly epic smackdown, Dracula and Alucard pummel each other viciously and smash each other through walls repeatedly, until Dracula inadvertently tosses Alucard into Alucard’s childhood bedroom. Upon seeing the room, Dracula stops.

“My boy…” he moans. “I’m killing my boy. Lisa…I’m killing our boy!”

He stops fighting and allows his son to stake him in the heart.

It’s a surprisingly poignant moment, a potrayal of a man unable to feel to any emotion until it is far too late, at which point he welcomes death.

Damn. I was not expecting anything like this when I started watching Castlevania. I was expecting to be entertained (and I was) but I was not expecting the characterization to be so good.

I am a big fan of this show. Despite Dracula’s demise at the end of Season 2, Netflix recently gave the green light to a third season and I’m very excited to see where the story goes.

Watchmen

HBO

This show. THIS FREAKING SHOW.

I LOVE IT.

Yet another hit for HBO, Watchmen is a direct sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel. The book was made into a movie by Zack Snyder in 2009, but the show ignores the changes the movie made to the story and is a direct sequel to the book. As such, if you’ve seen the movie but haven’t read the book, you might be confused by certain things, like why everyone is so obsessed with squids and beings from other dimensions.

I had no idea what to expect from the show, but being a fan of the book I decided to check it out and I have been consistently impressed. HBO’s Watchmen is one of the most bizarre, provocative and just plain fearless shows on TV. It’s utterly batshit insane, but in the best possible way. Through the first seven episodes, I’ve lost track of the number of times this show surprised me, shocked me, moved me, and just generally kicked my ass.

That being said, if you try to watch the show without having read the book or seen the movie, you’ll probably have no idea what the bloody hell is going on. The show is packed with references and Easter eggs, and I’ve read a bunch of discussions online where people speculate and theorize and comment on little details they noticed that other people might have missed. I love seeing this kind of reaction, it makes me so happy to see people actually having a dialogue instead of just pissing and moaning. The show seems to have really resonated, and I am absurdly excited to see what surprises the final two episodes have in store.

It’s also a reminder of just how great Moore and Gibbons’ original graphic novel is. The book was published more than thirty years ago, and its story, themes and characters are every bit as relevant today. There are actually two Watchmen sequels currently going on. The other is Doomsday Clock, a DC Comics series that combines Watchmen characters with current DC continuity (Batman, Superman, etc.). As a comics fan, it’s a real kick to see Watchmen characters like Ozymandias and Rorschach on the same page with Batman and the Joker. But just to be clear, Doomsday Clock and HBO’s Watchmen are completely different and not related at all, aside from both being sequels to the original book. It all just goes to show how the book’s influence hasn’t diminished in over three decades.

Another great thing about the show is that it captures the spirit of the book. Alan Moore has long since disowned any adaptations of his work, so who knows if he’s seen the show or not. But if he hasn’t, he should: the show genuinely feels like it’s part of the same universe. It is shockingly bizarre but always compelling. I love the new characters the show adds to the Watchmen universe and it finds fiendishly clever ways to incorporate some of the book’s classic characters. The reveal of one of these characters at the end of the most recent episode left me utterly gobsmacked, but in the best possible way.

Oh, and I have to mention Peteypedia (hbo.com/peteypedia). If you’re as nuts for this show as I am, check out Peteypedia ASAP. It’s a collection of documents assembled by Agent Dale Petey, a minor character on the show, that flesh out the world the show takes place in. New “files” are uploaded after every new episode, and they are full of all kinds of fascinating tidbits for fans of Watchmen lore. This is also a callback to the book, which featured excerpts from fictional books, magazines, newspapers, etc. that added to the backstory.

HBO’s Watchmen is far stranger and more awesome than I ever could have expected. It’s utterly unpredictable and an absolute blast to watch, although it certainly helps to have some familiarity with the story beforehand. I might revisit this series after the first season ends to talk about more specific spoilery stuff, but until then, bring on those last two episodes!! I can hardly wait.

 

Capsule Reviews: Crawl, Zombieland: Double Tap, Terminator: Dark Fate

I saw some movies. Let’s talk about ‘em. Beware of spoilers.

Crawl

Crawl is a movie with a very simple premise: A college student and her dad get stuck in a rapidly-flooding basement during a Category 5 hurricane and must rely on their wits to survive. Also, there are several hungry alligators roaming around that will be more than happy to dine on their tasty human flesh. It’s a movie with a very clear purpose, and it succeeds admirably in achieving that purpose.

Crawl is 87 minutes long, which is just right. The movie doesn’t get bogged down with superfluous exposition or flashbacks, and the brisk running time ensures that there is never a dull moment. There are some flashbacks, but they serve to effectively build the relationship between the two main characters and never go on for too long.

Paramount Pictures

The main characters are Haley Keller (played by Kaya Scodelario) and her dad, Dave (played by Barry Pepper). Haley is a member of the swimming team at the University of Florida, and her swimming skills will come in very handy during her and her father’s harrowing ordeal. A Category 5 hurricane is rapidly approaching and Haley and her sister are concerned about their father since neither of them have been able to reach him on his cell phone. Haley decides to look for him, and eventually finds him in the basement of their old house.

Wouldn’t you know it, Dave’s got a badly broken leg, the water level in the basement is rising quickly, and there are the aforementioned gators that would like nothing more than to make the Kellers their dinner. As the water rises, it gives the ravenous reptiles more room to maneuver and increases the pressure on Haley and Dave.

In addition to being wonderfully simple and effective, the film’s premise is at least somewhat plausible. Something like this could conceivably happen, which isn’t something that is often said about horror movies. Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper are both very good in the lead roles, they have believable chemistry and are smart and resourceful, which makes them easy to root for. This movie wouldn’t work nearly as well if the lead characters weren’t as good as they are.

The movie was directed by Alexandre Aja, a French provocateur known for ultra-violent slasher movies such as High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D. Crawl is much more restrained than many of Aja’s other films, and he does a great job ratcheting up the tension as the film progresses. This is still a horror movie, so there are some grisly moments but the gore feels more impactful than the relentless splatter of some of Aja’s other films (the outrageously gruesome beach party massacre in Piranha comes to mind).

Crawl is made with great technical skill (the gators are CGI but done so well that it’s never distracting), razor-sharp suspense, and two compelling lead performances. It’s a movie that knows exactly what kind of movie it is, and it accomplishes what it sets out to do with flying colors. It never gets bogged down with unnecessary exposition or extraneous subplots. It’s lean, mean, and packs a sharp bite, much like those toothy gators. Fans of horror and suspense movies should eat it up.

Zombieland: Double Tap

It’s amazing that three of the four lead actors in Zombieland: Double Tap look exactly the same now as they did when the original Zombieland movie came out a full decade ago. Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone all look the same in this movie as they did in the original, it is seriously uncanny. The only main cast member to look significantly different in the new movie is Abigail Breslin, which makes perfect sense when you consider that she was 13 years old when the first movie was released and is now 23.

Columbia Pictures

Given the ten-year gap, it’s amazing that this movie exists at all, and even more amazing that it’s as much fun as it is. It’s definitely not as good as the original, which came out of nowhere and surprised everyone by being as good as it was, and is still one of my favorite zombie movies. It was also one of Emma Stone’s breakout roles, she used the ten-year gap in between Zombieland movies to win an Oscar for La La Land in 2016 and star in two Spider-Man movies, among many others. I could go on for a while about what the other actors have been doing in the intervening years but I’m not going to because I have a huge crush on Emma Stone and have no shame admitting it.

Anyway, despite lacking the freshness and originality of the first movie, Double Tap is still a highly entertaining romp through a zombie-filled USA that captures the original’s movie spirit of zombie action, quirky characters and irreverent humor. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but since the first movie’s formula worked so well it’s a classic case of not fixing what ain’t broke.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this movie other than that if you enjoyed the first one you will probably enjoy the follow-up. The returning cast members are great and there are some fun new additions, the most memorable of which is probably Zoey Deutch as Madison, a clueless blonde who has nonetheless managed to survive the zombie-infested world. As Woody Harrelson’s trigger-happy character Tallahassee puts it, “Zombies eat brains, and she ain’t got none.” When he says this he is wondering how Madison has managed to survive, but perhaps he’s also answering his own question.

Zombieland: Double Tap is nothing revolutionary, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had as long as you don’t go into it expecting too much.

Terminator: Dark Fate

Okay, this movie is brand new and I’m gonna talk about some spoilers, so hold off on reading this if you haven’t seen it yet.

Let’s just start off by saying that the timeline of the Terminator movies is (and arguably always has been) a complete mess. This is somewhat inevitable given the time travel elements of the story, but at this point you’d need some kind of a PhD to make sense of it all. This, combined with the lukewarm reception to the previous three Terminator movies, led the makers of this latest installment to ignore the previous three movies entirely and make Dark Fate a direct sequel to 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which is widely and justly regarded as one of the best action movies ever made.

These are big shoes to fill, and while Dark Fate is (again, perhaps inevitably) not as good as the first two classic Terminator films, third-best out of six ain’t too bad. Yes, I am saying that this is the best Terminator movie since Terminator 2. Dark Fate is the second film directed by Tim Miller, who made the first Deadpool movie. He fills Dark Fate to the brim with top-notch action, and because of this I found it to be a very enjoyable movie, despite some controversial plot points.

Paramount Pictures

Okay, it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room, and that elephant’s name is John Connor. Terminator: Dark Fate kills him off, early. Double shotgun blast, dead. No question. Yep, the hero of mankind’s future resistance against the machines is promptly and unequivocally dispatched. This is something that will doubtless piss off a lot of die-hard Terminator fans, but…it didn’t actually bother me very much. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I haven’t seen Terminator 2 in a long time, but my reaction to John’s death was more “Oh, wow! I didn’t see that coming!” and less “HOW DARE THEY?!?!?!” I’m a Terminator fan but for whatever reason I was pretty ambivalent about John’s swift demise.

I guess what I’m saying is that if you can get past the movie’s decision to dispatch John Connor, you’ll probably have fun with Dark Fate. I did. If you just can’t believe that the movie would kill John so quickly, you probably won’t like it much. Which would be a shame in my opinion, because there’s quite a lot to like about the movie.

The first thing to like about it is the cast. Linda Hamilton returns to the franchise after nearly thirty years, playing John’s mother Sarah, who is now a grizzled badass who is worn out after decades of fighting evil robots and is wanted in all 50 states. It’s great to see Hamilton back, she is a reminder of why people got excited about Terminator movies in the first place.

Also very good is Mackenzie Davis as Grace, an enhanced soldier sent back in time from the future to protect someone who is not John Connor. Grace is tormented by her dark past, which is also in the future…look, time travel is really confusing, but Mackenzie Davis is great. I liked her a lot, and not just because she carries on Linda Hamilton’s Terminator 2 legacy of having incredible biceps.

And of course there is the Governator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, playing the Terminator robot who killed John but has since come to learn the error of his ways and has even found a family, who adorably call him Carl. “I’m never gonna fuckin’ call you Carl,” Sarah growls at him, in one of the movie’s funniest lines. And Carl is surprisingly funny. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of subverting the audience’s expectations for what a killer robot from the future would spend its time doing after completing its mission, which is something I admit had never occurred to me (Carl owns a drapery business).

The overall plot is mostly a rehash of previous Terminator movies. You know the drill: evil robot gets sent back in time to kill someone, good robot gets sent back in time to protect said someone. Dark Fate is basically the same thing, with a couple of different wrinkles. The evil robot this time around is called a REV-9, and in addition to being able to mimic people like the T-1000 in Terminator 2, it can also make copies of itself, which is problematic for our heroes, to say the least. Played by Gabriel Luna, the REV-9 is a fearsome foe, and is every bit as tenacious as previous Terminator antagonists.

Look, Dark Fate is not a great movie. I called it the best Terminator movie since Terminator 2, and I stand by that statement, but that does not mean it’s a great movie. The plot is largely a rehash of previous installments and it can feel formulaic. But I liked the characters, the action sequences are terrific, it’s surprisingly funny, and overall I enjoyed myself, so I can’t complain too much.

So there you go, three fun movies I’ve seen this year. I’ve been real lazy about posting lately, and I’ve got some catching up to do. The next movies I want to cover are Spider-Man: Far From Home (which I loved) and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, which stars not two but THREE of my favorite actors. Those were fun movies and I’m looking forward to writing about them.

IT: Chapter Two: Red Balloons Have Never Been More Sinister

I’ve only been reading Stephen King regularly since 2013 or so, and in that time I’ve read almost 50 of his books (and still have around 20 left). I think I’ve read his books in every way that it is currently possible to read a book. I’ve read them as hardbacks. I’ve read them as paperbacks. I’ve read them on two different Kindles. I’ve read them on two different iPhones. I’ve listened to audiobooks of them on CD and from Audible. Short of clay tablets or smoke signals, I think that covers everything.

And IT is still my favorite. I wrote about my love of the book and explained why It is about much more than simply an evil clown terrifying children in my review of that film in September of 2017, so I’m not going to go into that again (I also explained who the characters are). Feel free to read that previous post of mine, though (insert shameless self-promotion here). The new movie is primarily concerned with the characters as adults, and while Chapter Two is bigger and more ambitious than It’s predecessor, It is not necessarily better.

Images: Warner Bros.

That’s not to say that It’s bad, though. I liked Chapter Two quite a bit, although I will readily admit that It is clunky at times, and at nearly three hours It does seem overlong. But let’s take a second to reflect on the miracle of this movie’s existence. It: Chapter Two is the second part of an adaptation of a book that is more than 30 years old and more than 1,000 pages long. It’s an R-rated, three-hour long extravaganza of brutal and unrelenting horror. And much like Its predecessor, It’s looking like another major box-office hit. That kind of thing doesn’t happen very often.

The elephant in the room regarding this movie was the question of who would play the adult versions of the Losers, as they call themselves. And, just like the previous movie, the casting in Chapter Two is excellent. It’s almost uncanny how closely the actors who play the Losers as adults resemble their younger counterparts. The actors who play Eddie in particular bear a striking resemblance, it’s enough to make one wonder if the actors are related in real life (which they’re not, so far as I know). James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader are the biggest names in the new cast, and they’re all terrific, but the rest of the grown-up Losers are great as well.

And they have to be, since the adult Losers don’t get as much characterization as their younger selves did in the first movie. The new movie mostly relies on what we know of these people from their portrayal in the previous movie. This isn’t too surprising, given how much story the new movie needs to get through, but it is a bit disappointing that Chapter Two doesn’t do much to flesh out the characters a bit more. The new movie does imply that Richie is gay, which seemed a bit odd to me since there was no hint of that in the previous movie, or in the book that I remember. It’s not bad, it just feels a bit out of place.

The storytelling in the new movie is cluttered. The Losers employ a ritual called the Ritual of Chud to help defeat It, and the specifics of this ritual and how it works are explained very quickly and somewhat confusingly. Viewers who haven’t read the book might be a bit baffled by the whole ritual thing. Heck, I love the book and still thought that aspect of the story as shown in the movie was hard to understand. There are some changes to the overall plot, such as the absence of Beverly’s husband and Bill’s wife in the climactic events and the massive earthquake that rips apart the town of Derry after It is defeated, but these omissions didn’t bother me, as they would have made an already lengthy film even longer.

There are also frequent flashbacks to the Losers as kids, played by the same terrific young actors who played them in the first movie. I am of two minds about these scenes. On the one hand, they make the movie quite a bit longer and the pacing might have been somewhat better without them. On the other hand, it’s really great to see the young actors again and be reminded of how great they were, and it helps build the camaraderie in the group.

These scenes also add a lot more scares to the movie, and let’s face it, if you see a scary movie there had better be some scares. Intertwining the flashbacks with the present-day Losers is also reminiscent of how Stephen King structured the book in a non-linear fashion, frequently jumping back and forth between past and present. So while the flashbacks do disrupt the pacing a bit, ultimately I think that the pros outweigh the cons.

There is also quite a bit of humor, some of which is pretty funny, but the attempts at humor don’t always mesh with the horror. Army of Darkness this ain’t. But is the movie scary?

You bet it is.

Pennywise the Dancing Clown is still one of Stephen King’s most terrifying creations, and Bill Skarsgard’s portrayal of the demonic bastard is every bit as bone-chilling as it was previously. Pennywise delights in tormenting his victims and is a being of pure, unadulterated malevolence. Pennywise does not possess a shred of pity and neither does returning director Andy Muschietti, who once again puts his actors through a brutal gauntlet of horror. Filming this movie must have been…intense. I can only imagine what it must have been like for Jessica Chastain to film the scene where Beverly almost drowns in a bathroom stall filling with blood.

One minor complaint is that there’s an excessive amount of swearing in this movie. I’m not a prude when it comes to profanity, but sometimes movies have so much swearing that the impact is lost. It Chapter Two does unfortunately cross that line where the swearing starts to seem a little ridiculous. This isn’t a huge issue, but it did get old after a while.

It: Chapter Two is not a perfect movie by any means. The storytelling is clunky, the pacing is uneven, and the tone fluctuates. But the actors are all very good, the production and creature designs are convincing and scary, and the movie delivers the visceral thrills. Stephen King’s IT is a story that I ultimately find very moving, and the fact that these two films are able to capture even a small amount of that magic is something to be celebrated. I like both IT films quite a bit, warts and all. The two movies are probably as good an adaptation of King’s mammoth novel as is possible to make. King’s twisted but timeless story appears poised to scare the bejesus out of readers and viewers for generations to come, which in a weird way makes me very happy.

SAHARA is Hot Summer Fun

Do you want a summer movie that is full of fun characters, great actors, explosive action, an enjoyably ludicrous plot, and a great sense of humor? Then do I have the movie for you!

That movie is Sahara, released in 2005 and starring Matthew McConaughey, Penelope Cruz, Steve Zahn, and William H. Macy.

Images: Paramount Pictures

Now, let’s get the bad news out of the way first. This movie bombed, and it bombed hard. Its total box-office take barely covered half of the money it took to make and distribute. It flopped so hard (it lost around $105 million) that Clive Cussler, the author of the book on which the film was based, sued the film’s producer and production company. It sounds like Cussler basically argued that the movie bombed because he wasn’t consulted on the script, which doesn’t make him sound like an arrogant jerk or anything.

The movie was supposed to start a series, but it flopped so hard that the series never materialized, and likely never will. The movie’s opening credits even proclaim it to be “A Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt Adventure,” implying that it is one of many. Sadly, it isn’t. The movie didn’t get great reviews, it has a 38% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the “Critics Consensus” being “a mindless adventure flick with a preposterous plot,” a condescending dismissal of an extremely enjoyable film. Reason No. 20394 why I don’t like Rotten Tomatoes.

Because this movie is great. I unironically love it. Yes, the plot is ludicrous, but the movie is clearly aware of its own ridiculousness and pokes fun at itself multiple times. The actors have wonderful chemistry, the action sequences are exciting, the soundtrack is great, and the overall vibe is James Bond meets Indiana Jones. It’s a damn shame the intended series never materialized; I would have loved to have spent more time with these characters. Although I could potentially see this property being revived as a Netflix series or something, that could be fun.

Clive Cussler has been writing Dirk Pitt novels since 1976. I’ve read a few of them, and they are indeed ridiculous but also quite a bit of fun. In this sense, the movie is a very accurate approximation of Cussler’s work. His books are airport novels, not particularly “artistic” or “literary” but who cares? They’re lots of fun and I have no problem with them. Sahara is the eleventh book in the series and was published in 1992. Dirk Pitt is an adventurer in the classic mold of pulp adventure heroes, complete with monosyllabic tough-guy name, who has all kinds of ridiculous adventures and is a big hit with the ladies.

He is perfectly embodied in the movie by Matthew McConaughey, whose relaxed surfer-dude charm and effortless charisma make him an extremely likable action hero. But the real scene-stealer for me is Steve Zahn as Dirk’s best friend Al Giordino. I love Al so much, he’s one of my all-time favorite movie sidekicks. Everything he says is so gosh darn funny. He gets all the funniest lines and his wry delivery of them is just perfect. Zahn and McConaughey have flawless chemistry and are entirely believable as two guys who have been best friends for their entire lives and been on all kinds of wacky adventures together. You get the feeling that Dirk and Al know each other so well that they could finish each other’s sentences.

The movie’s fantastically-ludicrous plot involves…well, I’ll let my good buddy Al handle that for me. “Hey,” Al says to Dirk late in the film, “you know how it is when you see someone that you haven’t seen since high school, and they got some dead-end job, and they’re married to some woman that hates them, and they got, like, three kids who thinks he’s a joke? Wasn’t there some point where he stood back and said, Bob! Don’t take that job! Bob! Don’t marry that harpy! You know?”

“Your point?” Dirk asks him.

“Well,” Al continues, “we’re in the desert, looking for the source of a river pollutant, using as our map a cave drawing of a Civil War gunship, which is also in the desert. So I was just wondering when we’re gonna have to sit down and re-evaluate our decision-making paradigm?”

“I don’t know,” Dirk replies. “It seems to be working so far.”

That quote perfectly encapsulates the movie’s self-aware sense of humor, as well as giving you some idea of what the plot is about. Something is polluting the water in Africa with deadly red algae, and if it reaches the Atlantic it’ll spread across the globe and basically everyone will be doomed. Tied into this is a lost Civil War ironclad that, uh, somehow ended up in the Sahara Desert. Yes, it’s utterly ridiculous, but when the movie is this enjoyable, who cares how ridiculous it is? For what it’s worth, if I recall correctly the book’s plot is even more ridiculous, since somehow Abe Lincoln himself was on the Civil War ship. You know, the ship that ended up in the Sahara Desert. The movie, wisely, omits this detail.

The villains behind the water-poisoning are a corrupt French businessman named Yves Massarde and an African dictator named General Kazim. Massarde is played by Lambert Wilson, who you might remember as The Merovingian from the two Matrix sequels, although he has an extensive filmography dating back to 1977. Kazim is played by a wonderful and tremendously underrated English actor named Lennie James, who is perhaps best known for playing Morgan in The Walking Dead. I love James as an actor, he elevates everything he’s in. These two very capable actors make for a dastardly pair of villains.

The rest of the supporting cast is also a lot of fun. Penelope Cruz plays Dr. Eva Rojas, a World Health Organization scientist investigating the cause of the red algae plague. Eva is tough, smart and capable, and although it is inevitable that she and Dirk will eventually hook up, it is very much to the movie’s credit that this doesn’t happen until literally the last scene in the movie, making her more than a disposable love interest or damsel in distress.

Dirk and Al’s boss, crusty Admiral James Sandecker, is played by William H. Macy, another actor who I don’t think is capable of giving a bad performance. There’s also Rudi Gunn, Dirk and Al’s nerdy pal who plays an important role in saving the world. Rudi is played by Dwight Schrute himself, Rainn Wilson, and is another very likable sidekick.

The movie also has a great soundtrack. It uses pop music in a manner similar to the Guardians of the Galaxy. The music serves the movie very well and contributes greatly to its already considerable entertainment value. I also quite liked the musical score done by Clint Mansell, known for his collaborations with Darren Aronofsky, and whose composition “Lux Aeterna” for Aronofsky’s 2000 film Requiem for A Dream is one of the most haunting pieces of cinematic music I’ve ever heard. I haven’t seen Requiem for A Dream (and I don’t intend to given how disturbing it is supposed to be), but Lux Aeterna is an incredible piece of music.

The movie is also action-packed and is full of memorable and creative action sequences, my favorite of which is probably when Dirk fights an-uber henchman on a helicopter landing tower surrounded by solar panels. An uber-henchman is a term I just invented for the guy in every action movie who’s the particularly badass and resilient bad guy, the main villain’s second-in-command who takes a ton of punishment throughout the movie but always comes back for more, before dying in a spectacular fashion. For example, one of my favorite uber-henchmen is Mr. Stamper from the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. In Sahara, Dirk defeats the uber-henchman by drop-kicking him off the helicopter landing tower, where he subsequently crash-lands on a solar panel. It’s a very satisfying villain death. And the film’s action-packed climax involves a helicopter, a vintage car, dynamite, and the aforementioned Civil War ship in the middle of the desert.

Sahara has everything you could want from a summer movie. It’s got great characters who are played by actors who have awesome chemistry with each other. It’s got despicable villains, exciting action, a goofily ridiculous plot, and a groovy soundtrack. It’s a ton of fun and it ends on a perfectly upbeat note that leaves the viewer just feeling good. Good guys win, bad guys lose, and everyone has a good time.

What’s not to like?

Rocketman Soars, Dark Phoenix Stumbles

I saw two movies in the theater this weekend. One of them was really great, the other was just okay. Let’s talk about ‘em.

First up is Rocketman, the critically acclaimed Elton John biopic starring Taron Egerton as the legendary singer. I enjoyed the heck out of this movie, the musical sequences were exhilarating and the songs were so well done that the first thing I did when I got home from the theater was hop on iTunes and buy the soundtrack.

Paramount Pictures

The film charts Elton’s life from his childhood, where he was born as Reginald Dwight, to his rise to the heights of fame and his perhaps inevitable fall to the depths of substance abuse and depression, to his attending rehab and getting the scattered fragments of his life put back together. It’s a familiar arc, and this kind of story has been seen before in other biopics, musical or otherwise.

But it’s told with skill, great acting and awesome music. Like many people, I have a great deal of affection for Elton John’s music, and the film paints a compelling portrait of his life. The movie even finds creative ways of incorporating the songs into the dialogue and the story, making them an integral part of the film. The movie takes a fantastical approach to the music, frequently turning the songs into elaborate musical numbers.

It’s a very effective approach to the material, and I loved how the filmmakers were able to use the songs to help tell the story. It’s not exactly a realistic film in that sense, it’s more of what you might call a musical fantasy. It works like gangbusters and is also thematically appropriate given that Elton’s drug use sometimes turns his life into a blur.

It also doesn’t shy away from the more sordid aspects of Elton’s life. I don’t know how much the movie’s story deviates from the actual details of Elton’s life, I’m assuming it takes some liberties simply because movies based on real events and people often do. Regardless, the movie’s story is very cohesive and easy to follow. Scenes of Elton’s drug abuse and other addictions can be hard to watch, but the movie treats the material with respect and never descends into hopelessness.

Taron Egerton is terrific as Elton, and he does all his own singing. I can’t imagine how intimidating it must have been to take on the role of such a beloved entertainer, and not only to sing well but to sing like Elton John. I thought Egerton did a terrific job, and I sincerely hope he’ll get some Oscar buzz once awards season rolls around.

The sets and costumes are fantastic and the movie ends with a montage showing pictures of the real Elton in some of the over-the-top costumes he wears in the movie. It shows respect and love for Elton while also showing how faithfully the movie reconstructed the details of his life. The movie isn’t always easy to watch but the experience is very enjoyable and the music, of course, is excellent.

Much less enjoyable was Dark Phoenix, the latest (and last, for now) entry in the long-running X-Men series, which has been going for nearly two decades now. Unfortunately, the series goes out on a low note. Dark Phoenix isn’t a completely terrible movie, but it’s certainly not very good.

Basically, a rescue mission to space goes awry and Jean Grey gets blasted with some kind of terrible cosmic power, and she starts to manifest dangerous and unpredictable abilities, leading her friends the X-Men to attempt to save her. If the story seems familiar, it’s probably because the X-Men series has told it before, in thee 2006 movie X-Men: The Last Stand. The Dark Phoenix storyline was one of several subplots in that much-maligned movie, and never got much time to breathe, so here it is again. And while it is nice that one of the most acclaimed storylines in all of superhero comics now gets an entire movie to itself, I just wish that the results had been more satisfying.

20th Century Fox

This movie has some very basic problems. The first is that the Phoenix Force or whatever it is that’s possessing Jean is given very little explanation. There are some shape-shifting aliens who want to capture Jean so they can use the power for themselves, but these aliens are given virtually no background and it is never clear who they are or what they want. They’re a vaguely evil presence that shows up periodically. It’s impossible to give a damn about them. One of the greatest sins of this movie is that it casts Jessica Chastain as a shape-shifting alien and then gives her nothing to do except glower. These villains, if you can even call them that, are a complete bust.

The other problem is that Jean never does anything evil enough. Pretty much all she does is (spoiler alert) accidentally kill Mystique and then flip a few cop cars. I haven’t read the Dark Phoenix comics, but the internet informs me that in the comics the Dark Phoenix destroys a solar system and kills five billion aliens. In the movie, all Jean does is accidentally kill one X-Man, and that’s about it. The movie doesn’t do nearly enough to sell her as a galaxy-destroying threat.

It also doesn’t have any idea what to do with most of the characters. Evan Peters’ scene-stealing Quicksilver, who was so much fun in previous X-movies, has maybe half a dozen lines of dialogue. Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique gets killed off early in the movie, and I can’t help but wonder if she wanted her character to be killed off so she wouldn’t have to make any more X-movies. That’s pure speculation on my part, but her heart doesn’t seem to be in it.

And here’s something that bugs me: the movie takes place in 1992. Characters like Professor Xavier, Magneto, Mystique and Beast were in X-Men: First Class, which took place in the 1960’s. They would now have to be in their fifties at least, yet none of them look like they’ve aged a single day. Heck, X-Men: Days of Future Past took place largely in the 1970’s, and Quicksilver, who was in that movie, looks exactly the same. He should be in his mid-30’s. He looks like he’s about eighteen. The movie didn’t even try to make any of its characters look older. Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill by complaining so much about this, but this lack of respect for basic continuity drives me nuts.

Dark Phoenix is a competently-made and well-acted movie. The climactic train battle was quite a bit of fun and gave all the X-Men creative ways to use their powers. Sophie Turner is also quite good as Jean, and does very good work here. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are actors that I don’t think are capable of giving bad performances, even if Fassbender is underused.

I like the X-Men film series overall, even though it’s had it’s share of ups and downs. Dark Phoenix, sadly, is one of the downs. I prefer to think of 2017’s Logan as the conclusion to the X-Men series, since that movie had the emotional heft and strong sense of closure that Dark Phoenix sorely lacks. This was the directorial debut of longtime X-Men movie producer/writer Simon Kinberg, and his film has its moments but ends up being a disappointment.

Disney now owns the X-Men film rights, so it’s entirely possible that we’ll be seeing different versions of our favorite mutants in future MCU movies. Some of the henchmen in Dark Phoenix wear armbands that say MCU on them, which I’m pretty sure stands for Mutant Containment Unit, but I couldn’t help but think of Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s nothing more than a coincidence, but it’s one that I found amusing.

The next movie I’m excited about is Spider-Man: Far From Home, but that doesn’t come out until July 2nd, so I’ll have to think of something else to write about until then. Maybe I’ll bring back the Roger Moore Bond movies, or ooooooh! Maybe I’ll write about Netflix’s Punisher series, starring the always-excellent Jon Bernthal. Exciting possibilities!

Capsule Reviews: John Wick 3, Aladdin, Godzilla: King of the Monsters

I’ve seen some fun movies over the last couple weeks and haven’t had time to write about them until now, so let’s talk about ‘em. First up is John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. I’m a big fan of the John Wick series, and my expectations going into the third movie were pretty high.

Fortunately, director Chad Stahelski and star Keanu Reeves didn’t let me down. John Wick 3 is every bit as kinetic and badass as the previous films in the series. The John Wick movies continue to be an absolute dream come true for action junkies such as myself, and the action sequences in this movie are nothing less than poetry in motion.

Brutally violent poetry, but hey.

Image: Lionsgate

The third movie does have some pacing issues and is maybe a bit overlong, and the plot can be kinda confusing. I’m still not sure who that guy John meets in the desert was supposed to be. But it doesn’t matter, because the movie delivers where it counts: ACTION. Keanu Reeves is such a badass that you’d never guess he’s 54 years old. The dude puts actors half his age to absolute shame.

I could go into more detail about the extent of this movie’s awesomeness, but it’s been a few weeks since I saw it so I don’t think I could really do it justice. It has some flaws but they are more than overcome by the ferocious intensity of its action. Keanu is one of our best action stars and seems like a genuinely cool guy in real life. How much ass does this movie kick? All of it.

Next up is Aladdin. The original Aladdin is one of my favorite classic Disney movies, and it’s one of the first movies that I clearly remember seeing in a theater (I must have been around five), so it holds a very special place in my heart. I was cautiously optimistic about the new live-action version of the movie, since I genuinely love Aladdin but the new movie was directed by Guy Ritchie, a filmmaker that I have a…complicated relationship with. The movie got mixed reviews and plenty of people didn’t seem to like it, so I was prepared for potential disappointment.

Fortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The new version of Aladdin is an absolute joy and I enjoyed the heck out of it. It delivers everything you want from Aladdin: all the characters, all the songs, the great story, all of it. The production design, sets, special effects and costumes are excellent across the board, the songs are vibrant and catchy, and the movie is, above all, fun.

Image: Disney

Will Smith also deserves a lot of credit for taking over the role of the Genie and making it his own. He did a great job with it, it must have been hard taking over from a performance as iconic as Robin Williams was in the original version, but I was very impressed with Smith’s work in the film. I don’t know what more you could ask for from a live-action version of Aladdin. It has some flaws, sure, but much like John Wick the overall experience is so enjoyable that its flaws are easy to overlook.

Guy Ritchie toned down the aggressive stylization that characterizes much of his work and made a movie that honestly far exceeded my expectations. The critics were very mean to it but don’t listen to them. See the movie and decide for yourself. The movie is “Rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, but I have become increasingly jaded with Rotten Tomatoes ratings and don’t put much stock in them. The popularity of Rotten Tomatoes is something that I think has really hurt the movie industry in a lot of ways, and its ratings hold far too much sway over whether audiences see a movie or not.

This is a discussion for another time, but it boils down to this: if a movie you’re interested in gets a bad Rotten Tomatoes score or whatever, who cares? See the movie for yourself and make up your own mind. Your opinion is every bit as valid as those of so-called “professional critics.” Who needs ‘em?

Speaking of fun movies with mediocre Rotten Tomatoes scores, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is another one. For the last Godzilla movie, which came out in 2014, everyone was like, “there’s not enough Godzilla.” Godzilla appears early and often in the new movie and there’s all the monster-smashing action you could wish for. So what does everyone say? “There’s too much Godzilla.” MAKE UP YOUR DAMN MINDS PEOPLE!!!

I hear people say that the plot of this movie is ridiculous. Of course it is! Have y’all never seen a Godzilla movie before, or any monster movie at all for that matter? They’re all ridiculous, across the board. It’s part of what makes them fun. If you’re complaining about the plausibility of a monster movie, you’re completely missing the point. This is something that should not require explanation.

Image: Warner Bros./Legendary

King of the Monsters was directed by Michael Dougherty, and it’s his first foray into big-budget blockbuster filmmaking. His previous movies included the cult classics Trick ‘r Treat and Krampus, and he’s clearly a guy who loves monster movies. His film brings together some of the most classic monsters from the long-running series of Japanese Godzilla films (there are seriously like 30 Godzilla movies). There’s Mothra (a giant moth, obviously), Rodan (basically a humongous pterodactyl), and King Ghidorah, a massive three-headed dragon who is the movie’s main antagonist.

I don’t know if you knew this, but it’s actually been scientifically-proven that nothing on earth is cooler and more badass than a three-headed dragon, except for maybe John Wick. You can’t argue with this, it’s science.

Again, I’m not saying this movie is perfect by any means. The plot is a bit hard to follow and there are a lot of great actors in this movie who get almost nothing to do. Poor Charles Dance, for example, does almost nothing but glower in the background of a few scenes. So yes, the characters in the movie are not very memorable, despite being played by capable actors such as Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Kyle Chandler, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins (the latter two reprising their roles from the 2014 Godzilla film). But it’s no slight against these very good actors to say that they’re not the real stars of the movie.

The stars of a movie subtitled “King of the Monsters” are the damn monsters, and they are AWESOME. They look great, they sound great, they smash stuff real good. A lot of care and attention clearly went into the design and creation of these mighty beasts, and the action sequences in the movie are thrilling and fun. There were multiple times during the movie where I thought to myself, “now THIS is the stuff I pay to see!” and that’s pretty much the highest compliment I can give. I came for fun monster action, and fun monster action was what I got, so I left the theater happy. Bring on Godzilla Vs. Kong, which is set for release next year.

So there you go, three movies that weren’t perfect but hey, what movie is? Other than Die Hard, anyway. John Wick 3, Aladdin and the new Godzilla film are excellent summer entertainment, critics be damned. If you want to see a movie, go see it. If you pick one of these you’ll have a good time. Next up is X-Men: Dark Phoenix and Elton John biopic Rocketman, which came out this weekend but I haven’t seen yet. Next weekend, hopefully! Go have fun at the movies!

AQUAMAN: Everything’s Better, Down Where It’s Wetter, Under the Sea

We live in divisive times.

It seems like we’re more divided now than we’ve ever been. During these times, it’s important to have something we can all agree on.

Now, thanks to James Wan’s 2018 blockbuster Aquaman, we have that something.

That something, dear friends, is a giant octopus playing the drums.

Images: Warner Bros.

A drum-playing giant octopus is something that is objectively great. No one can deny this. It is a basic fact. After all, what creature could be more adept at drum-playing than one with eight limbs? Are tentacles limbs?

But Aquaman is, after all, a movie that cost a couple hundred million dollars to make, and presumably some of that money was used for things other than creating the magnificent creature that shall henceforth be known as The Octopus of Unification.

So, other than that majestic mollusk, how is the rest of the film? Turns out, it’s surprisingly fun.

If you’ve been anywhere near the internet, you’re probably aware that Aquaman is a character who gets made fun of a lot. He’s a guy who’s from Atlantis, rides on the backs of seahorses and can talk to fish. His sidekick was a kid named Aqualad. He’s pretty easy to make fun of. The memes practically generate themselves.

So, how do you make such a widely-mocked character cool?

Why, by embracing it’s inherent silliness and going all the way over the top.

The movie was directed by James Wan, best known for his horror films which include Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring. He also made Furious 7, which is my personal favorite Fast and Furious movie. Wan is a very talented director, and Aquaman is a very fun movie with him at the helm (See what I did with that nautical metaphor?).

The movie is a visual extravaganza. Seriously, we’re talking Avatar-levels of visual effects prowess. The movie is chock-full of sumptuous eye candy. There’s a ton of CGI in this movie (Wikipedia lists eight companies that worked on the effects), which in the hands of a director like Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich would get tedious after a while, but in Wan’s capable hands I never felt bored or overwhelmed. The sheer creativity and variety of the characters, creatures and locations in this movie consistently impressed me.

Think about it for a second. How do you make a movie where large portions of it take place underwater? You can’t put actors underwater, since, you know, they wouldn’t be able to breathe. Water-based movies are notoriously difficult to make, but how do you make a water-based movie and film underwater sequences without actual water? The logistics involved in the making of this film are mind-blowing.

I watched the behind-the-scenes featurettes on the Blu-ray and it showed that the actors were constantly suspended from harnesses for the underwater scenes, in order to simulate the movement of the water. It takes damn good actors to be able to act convincingly while suspended from a harness in front of a bunch of blue screens, knowing that everything around you will be digitally added later. Heck, even the characters’ hair had to be computer-generated for the underwater scenes, and Industrial Light & Magic had to upgrade their hair-simulation technology in order to get it right.

What I’m saying is the fact that this film works at all is a pretty massive accomplishment. It would have been so easy to screw this up, but the filmmakers put a ton of effort into making this movie a gorgeous visual feast that is truly a wonder to behold. There is nothing else quite like it. Has there ever been a movie before this one that featured armored war sharks, a race of warrior hermit crabs, and of course a drum-playing octopus? I don’t think so.

So we’ve established that the movie is a visual powerhouse, but what about the story? That’s more of a mixed bag, but it still ends up working pretty well. Aquaman’s real name is Arthur Curry, and the movie shows us how he is the son of a human lighthouse-keeper and the Queen of Atlantis. As such, he is only half-Atlantean, and is regarded as a half-breed by his younger half-brother Prince Orm, played by frequent James Wan collaborator Patrick Wilson.

In order to defeat his power-hungry half-brother, Arthur must go on a quest to find the mythical Trident of Atlan, and if that sounds clichéd to you that’s because it is. The trident is the movie’s MacGuffin, but unlike many other MacGuffins this one does have a purpose beyond just driving the plot forward. Accompanying Arthur on his quest is Mera, played by Amber Heard. Mera is a badass who has the ability to psychically control bodies of water…I think. The movie does a good job of establishing her as Arthur’s equal. She never needs rescuing and is anything but a damsel in distress, and Amber Heard has great chemistry with Jason Momoa.

Oh right, Aquaman is played by Jason Momoa, best known as Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones and as Conan the Barbarian, which let’s face it are basically the same character. We previously saw him in 2017’s Justice League, where Momoa showed he has the charisma and even the comedic chops to make Aquaman a fun character. He’s also an intimidating physical presence who is completely believable in the movie’s many action scenes.

There is a lot of action in this movie, and all of it is great fun. James Wan shows once again that he is a talented action director. I love the way he moves the camera during the action scenes. The camera moves a lot but it’s never shaky, it gives the action a very smooth and fluid feel. He also finds cool ways to visually connect multiple characters during an action sequence, which reminds the viewer that multiple things are happening simultaneously and provides a strong sense of spatial awareness. The viewer is always aware of where everyone is and what they are doing, so you don’t get lost trying to follow everything.

My favorite sequence has to be the one set in Sicily, where Arthur and Mera throw down with the villainous Black Manta and his crew of elite Atlantean soldiers. The sequence is a ton of fun, the setting is beautiful, the choreography and camerawork are excellent and Black Manta is extremely cool. There’s also a beautiful single-shot sequence where one of the Atlanteans crashes through the walls of several buildings, with the camera following close behind. It’s just terrific.

Black Manta is the movie’s secondary villain, and he doesn’t get as much to do as Arthur’s half-brother Prince Orm, but he still makes an impression. The movie is clearly setting up Black Manta to be a primary antagonist for future aquatic adventures, which are all but guaranteed given that this movie made more than a billion dollars at the box office. Black Manta is a cool-ass character and I’m looking forward to seeing more of him in the future. I hadn’t seen Aquaman when I wrote about the villains of 2018 (I only just got around to watching it this last weekend) but if I had Orm and Black Manta would have more than earned their inclusion.

This is not a perfect movie by any stretch. It’s overlong, the plot is predictable and not terribly original, some of the supporting characters are underused, and there are some clunkers in the dialogue. But it’s very fun and endlessly creative, you really get the impression that the filmmakers must have had fun designing all of the film’s myriad creatures. There are so many creatures in this movie that it practically qualifies as a Monster Mash movie. The ones I’ve described are but a tiny fraction of the overall population of beasts and critters that inhabit this movie.

While watching it, I found myself in awe of the sheer fact that this movie exists. It blows my mind that this movie was even made. That movie studio executives even signed off on this movie and all of its craziness is surprising to begin with, but even more impressive is the movie’s huge box-office take. This is the highest-grossing movie based on a DC Comics character ever. Who would have thought that Aquaman could beat Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman at the box office? Not me, certainly. This is my second-favorite of DC’s shared-universe movies (Wonder Woman is still my favorite) and shows that DC characters still have some gas left in the tank, despite the superhero-movie market having been largely dominated by Marvel for most of the past decade.

Aquaman is a big, beautiful, cheesy, flawed, ungainly, highly-entertaining beast of a movie. There’s nothing else quite like it. And if you watch it and decide that it’s not your cup of tea that’s fine. At least we’ll always have the Octopus of Unification.