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.

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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.

Avengers: Endgame Is As Good As Endings Get

When the Marvel Cinematic Universe began way back in 2008 with the first Iron Man, I was a nineteen-year-old college freshman. In the years since, I graduated from college, was the best man at a dear friend’s wedding, had four or five jobs, turned thirty, and wrote more than two hundred blog posts (this one is number 204, but who’s counting?)

Throughout my twenties, a third of my life, I’ve gone to the theater a couple times every year to see the newest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, and I’ve enjoyed every single one of them. Sure, many of them are far from perfect, but each movie has many things to enjoy. Throughout all these movies, I’ve come to know and love the characters, and seeing every actor reprise his or her role in each movie is like seeing an old friend again.

My attachment to these movies and their characters partly stems from the fact that I’m a lifelong reader of comics of all kinds and a superhero aficionado. Even then, many of the MCU characters were ones I had only a passing familiarity with, but since the MCU started I’ve read comics featuring many of the MCU characters, because I liked them so much that I wanted to hang out with them more. I’ve also watched a lot of movies featuring various Avengers cast members, because I liked all the actors so much too.

Whoever the casting director was who cast these actors, he/she deserves a lot of credit. In all of the literally dozens of characters that populate the MCU’s 22 movies, not once have I thought that an actor wasn’t well-suited to his or her role. And with very few exceptions, every character has been played by the same actor for the better part of a decade.

I mention all of this to illustrate how emotionally invested I am in this series. Like many people, I left last year’s Avengers movie, Infinity War, feeling like I had just been slapped in the face. The movie was amazing, and its ending left me utterly devastated. I watched Infinity War again the day before I saw Endgame, and that Spider-Man scene (you know the one) still hits me like a ton of bricks. After Infinity War ended, the idea of waiting for a year to find out what would happen next was agonizing.

Fast-forward a year and a few more movies later, and that continuation is finally here. Avengers: Endgame had a hell of a lot of expectations and hype to live up to, and it exceeded them all. From this point on, there will be spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to know what happens, what are you waiting for? Go see it!

Images: Marvel/Disney

That spoiler warning is doubly important when you consider that the movie’s trailers and advertising have spoiled nothing about the plot. There were some plot details that leaked before the movie came out but I stayed as far away from those as I possibly could so I was able to see the movie completely unspoiled. And it was GLORIOUS. I LOVED Endgame. It was everything I hoped it would be. It was tense, exciting, action-packed, emotionally resonant, and most of all, fun.

It’s an amazing storytelling achievement. It resolves Infinity War’s brutal cliffhanger ending, it brings closure to the story arcs for several beloved characters, and never once feels three hours long. Yes, this movie is three hours long, and not once did I feel like it was dragging on for too long. Those three hours flew by. The story is consistently surprising, the acting is excellent, the dialogue is sharp and funny, the chemistry between the actors is strong, the relationships between the characters develop in meaningful and unexpected ways, the action sequences are thrilling, and the final epic battle is pure cinematic bliss.

The movie was directed once again by Joe and Anthony Russo, who previously helmed Avengers: Infinity War, Captain America: Civil War and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Those movies had some of the best, most intense and well-choreographed action sequences of the MCU, and the Russo brothers pulled out all the stops for Endgame. The final battle in this film is epic in every sense of the word, bringing together nearly all of the major characters for a spectacular showdown that I didn’t want to end.

Like the rest of the movie, the final battle is so full of great moments that I can’t even remember them all. Captain America is worthy of the power of Thor! Captain Marvel arrives at a crucial moment to beautifully destroy Thanos’ mothership! Valkyrie rides in on a winged horse! Thor dual-wields Mjolnir and Stormbreaker! Ant-Man rescues the Hulk! The triumphant return of the characters we lost in Infinity War! All of these moments, and so many more, are immensely satisfying and an absolute joy to behold. I don’t have enough superlatives.

The epicness comes to a tragic end, as Tony Stark uses the Infinity Stones to evaporate Thanos and his minions, in a reverse version of the Snap that Thanos unleashed in the conclusion of Infinity War. But the power of the stones was too much for Tony to handle, and he dies, surrounded by his friends and family. It’s a full-circle way to end not just the movie but a decade’s worth of movies. The series began with Tony Stark, and in many ways it ends with him too.

Which is not to say that the MCU will be ending. Endgame has already made a jaw-dropping amount of money and is well on its way to becoming the biggest movie of all time. The MCU will continue, but it will look very different. The movie also ends the story of Steve Rogers as Captain America, bringing his story to a poignant and moving conclusion. It’s hard to imagine an MCU without Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, but they will never be forgotten.

And no, I’m not forgetting about Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, who sacrifices herself so her friends can obtain one of the crucial infinity stones and her friend Hawkeye can get his family back after his wife and three kids are taken from him in the movie’s wrenching opening scene. I was expecting Tony and Steve to reach the end of their journeys, but Natasha’s death came as a complete surprise. There’s still a Black Widow movie in the works so we will probably be seeing Natasha again at least once, but it will have to be in prequel form.

There are other unexpected character beats that are less sad. Hulk, for example, was an absolute joy. It seems that Bruce Banner was able to fuse himself with the Hulk, so he now has the Hulk’s body and Bruce Banner’s personality and intelligence. I thought of him as Professor Hulk, and he was wonderful. I really want a Professor Hulk movie now, which was something I didn’t realize I wanted until I saw Endgame.

Also a joy was Fat Thor. Chris Hemsworth is very underrated as a comedic actor, and he is hilarious, slyly stealing every scene he’s in. In the years since the Snap wiped out half of all life, Thor has let himself go a little bit. He’s fat, plays videogames in his house all day, and is quite possibly a full-blown alcoholic. It’s very funny, but it’s also shocking to see him this way, since it’s the polar opposite of how we’re used to seeing Thor, since let’s face it, Chris Hemsworth is pretty much the epitome of physical perfection.

I’ve read some stupid comments online about how the movie is fat-shaming Thor or making fun of people who play video games as being fat slobs, but like with most things on the internet, such talk is utterly ridiculous. The movie isn’t fat-shaming or making fun of anyone, it’s showing that Thor is a broken man. It’s funny to see him in a way we’ve never seen him before, but it’s also tragic when you think about it because it shows how depressed and broken he is.

Another aspect of the movie I liked was how it made Hawkeye, Nebula and Ant-Man three of the most important characters. Ant-Man and The Wasp was the first MCU movie post-Infinity War, and at the time of its release it was a bit difficult to see why Marvel chose it to be the first movie to come out in the wake of Infinity War’s devastating conclusion. But as it turns out, that movie introduced a key plot element that is very important in Endgame, and it ends up being Ant-Man’s idea that helps the Avengers bring back everyone they lost in Infinity War.

Yes, there is time travel in this movie, and it can get a bit messy. But I find it’s best not to get too bogged down with the logistics of time travel and just enjoy the ride. The time travel shenanigans lead to the Avengers revisiting the events of previous movies, and I thought it was awesome to see things from earlier movies that we didn’t see before, like the aftermath of the battle of New York from the first Avengers movie. I also liked how all of their intricate plans end up going awry in various ways, and there are scenarios like Tony Stark running into his dad or Steve Rogers having a fight with his past self.

Avengers: Endgame is a big, complex beast of a movie, and it can be a little overwhelming at times. There’s a lot to digest, and I’m sure that fans will be debating many aspects of its story for years to come. I can’t wait to see it again and pick up on things I missed the first time. It’s a hugely satisfying movie. It rewards the fans with an epic conclusion that is fun and exciting but also moving, and it doesn’t lose track of its characters amongst all the spectacle. A tip of the hat is due to writers Christopher Markus and Steven McFeely. Telling a coherent story with so many characters and such a complex plot, not to mention huge fan expectations, must have been an incredibly difficult balancing act, but they pulled it off with aplomb.

I will miss the characters we lost, but I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the MCU. The only MCU movie that currently has a release date is Spider-Man: Far From Home, which is due for release on July 2. Marvel hasn’t announced release dates for more movies past that, but I’m sure they will eventually. It’s been a heck of a ride, and Marvel has managed to fulfill the promise of its shared superhero universe with more success than anyone could have predicted.

Until next time, true believers!

James Bond: The Roger Moore Era – Moonraker

If I had to pick one word to use to best describe Moonraker, it would be: incoherent.

For Your Eyes Only was originally intended to be the follow-up to The Spy Who Loved Me, but in 1977 a movie came out that turned everything upside-down. That movie was called Star Wars and in the wake of its massive success, sci-fi was all the rage. The Bond producers took note of this and decided to send Bond to space.

Images: MGM

To achieve this, they very loosely adapted Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name. The book was Fleming’s third Bond novel, and in stark contrast to the movie, had nothing to do with outer space and took place entirely in Britain. Compare this to the film, which jumps from California to Venice to Rio de Janeiro to the Amazon rainforest to SPACE. In the book, the villain Hugo Drax is an ex-Nazi now working for the Soviets. He’s building an experimental missile called Moonraker that purportedly is to be used to defend England, but secretly Drax is planning to launch it at London.

The book draws from a lot of Cold War fears and is a Bond novel that feels very relevant to the era in which it was written. The movie, on the other hand, is a jumbled mishmash that jumps around wildly, never establishing a consistent tone (a recurring problem in Moore’s Bond films) and featuring one of the most outlandish and far-fetched scenarios that the Bond series has ever presented, which is saying something when you consider that an earlier Bond villain had a secret lair hidden inside a volcano.

The movie has a great opening sequence, involving Bond jumping out of a plane without a parachute and fighting a henchman with a parachute on the way down. It’s impressive that such a dangerous sequence was filmed all the way back in 1979 (it took 88 skydives to complete), and still holds up today. It also involves everyone’s favorite Bond henchman, the legendary JAWS, played once again by Richard Kiel, whose character was so popular in The Spy Who Loved Me that he was brought back for another round.

Bond’s mission is to investigate the hijacking of a Moonraker space shuttle. The Moonraker was made Drax Industries, the headquarters of which are located in California. He promptly seduces Corinne, Drax’s sexy helicopter pilot, and she helps Bond steal some of Drax’s blueprints for a mysterious kind of glass vial that is being made in Venice. When Drax learns of Corinne’s betrayal, he, er, sends his hunting dogs after her and they, um, eat her. Corinne’s death is one of the most unpleasant in the entire Bond series, it seems exceptionally cruel. I understand that this kind of thing shows how nasty the villain is, but Corinne’s death comes off as unnecessarily brutal.

Bond then heads to Venice, where he again encounters an astronaut he met at Drax’s California headquarters. This astronaut’s name, sigh, is Holly Goodhead, and she is of course an undercover CIA agent who is also investigating Drax. Has there ever been a person in history who was both a CIA agent and an astronaut? I mean, that’s a pretty impressive resume right there. It turns out that the mysterious glass vials are meant to hold a nerve gas that is deadly to humans but harmless to animals.

The section of the film that takes place in Venice also has one of the dumbest action sequences in the entire Bond franchise, in which Drax’s henchmen chase Bond through the canals and Bond’s gondola turns out to be outfitted with a bunch of gadgets and like grows wheels or something and he drives it around and a pigeon does a double take and it’s just monumentally stupid. I didn’t make up that part about the pigeon by the way, that’s in the movie. They actually edited footage of a pigeon to make it look like it was doing a double take and PUT IT IN THE MOVIE. I shit you not.

Bond ends up in Rio de Janeiro where a bunch of other dumb stuff happens, and eventually finds Drax’s hidden base in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Bond and Goodhead hitch a ride on one of Drax’s Moonraker rockets and are blasted off INTO SPACE, where the rocket docks with Drax’s space station and Bond and Goodhead learn the details of Drax’s evil plan. He intends to use his nerve gas to wipe out all human life on Earth, then repopulate it with a few dozen genetically perfect young men and women he has brought to his space station, and therefore create a new master race.

It’s an audacious evil scheme but it’s also, frankly, kind of generic. It’s just so hard to come up with an original plot for world domination, you know? The movie climaxes with a massive laser gun battle waged both inside and outside Drax’s space station. It’s a pretty fun sequence and the effects are impressive by 70’s standards, even if they are undeniably cheesy. The laser guns literally make a PEW! PEW! sound. It’s goofy as all get out, but undeniably entertaining. As a very special bonus, here’s my photo-realistic artistic interpretation of the climactic laser battle, made with MS Paint. I know, I know, I’m a brilliant artist. You’re welcome.

Moonraker is one of those movies that manages to be entertaining almost in spite of itself. It’s undeniably dumb as shit but at least it’s fun. The plot barely hangs together, but there’s so much going on that you can’t really help but get swept up in the sheer giddy silliness of it all. It succeeds as a piece of entertainment even as it fails to tell a coherent story.

It has plenty of other problems too. The tone veers drastically from deadly seriousness to slapstick buffoonery. The fact that this movie has one of the Bond series’ most brutal deaths (Corinne killed by Drax’s dogs) and one of the dumbest sight gags (a pigeon doing a double take) should serve as ample evidence of the movie’s tonal inconsistency.

The acting is also not great. Holly Goodhead was played by an American actress named Lois Chiles who was plenty easy on the eyes, but had no chemistry at all with Roger Moore. She’s tough and capable, sure, but also kinda boring. She doesn’t have much personality and her relationship with Bond ends up feeling inconsequential. This is particularly disappointing when you remember the nuanced and complex relationship between Bond and Anya in the previous Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me. Holly Goodhead isn’t an offensively bad character, she’s just bland. And she has an awful last name.

Similarly underwhelming is French actor Michael Lonsdale as the villain, Hugo Drax. Lonsdale delivers his lines in a weird monotone that makes Drax sound perpetually bored. For crying out loud, you’re playing a guy who wants to wipe out mankind and you have your own space station! Chew some scenery! Don’t act like you’re always wondering if you left the oven on! Much like the Bond Girl, Moonraker’s Bond Villain is bland and forgettable.

Much as he did in The Spy Who Loved Me, Jaws upstages the movie’s main villain. Richard Kiel remained an imposing physical presence and I continue to enjoy the running gag where he survives various seemingly-deadly incidents and emerges calmly from the wreckage, brushing the debris off his jacket and straightening his tie. But in another example of Moonraker’s wild tonal shifts, for some incomprehensible reason the makers of this movie saw fit to give him a girlfriend and make him a good guy who helps Bond during the battle on Drax’s space station. It’s dumb, and not in a good way. It feels like an attempt to neuter an iconic villain, and as a connoisseur of cinematic villainy I take great umbrage at that.

But you have to give the filmmakers some credit. The sheer scale of the production is impressive and the variety of locations gives the film a lot of visual flair. Moonraker is a movie that totally goes for broke, and even though the story is a mess the ride itself is quite enjoyable. And if the producers wanted to cash in on the success of Star Wars they succeeded, since Moonraker was a huge hit that made $210 million and was the highest-grossing Bond movie until GoldenEye in 1995.

I love this poster for so many reasons. It has not one, but two awesome taglines. Bond is wearing a tux under the spacesuit. There’s a Union Jack on the shoulder of the spacesuit. Above Bond’s left hand, there’s a name tag which reads “J BOND 007.” And the piece de resistance, which is that Bond is not wearing a helmet in outer space, and would therefore be dead in moments. A gloriously cheesy poster for a gloriously cheesy movie.

Moonraker ultimately feels like a movie that was made to capitalize on the success of Star Wars without understanding why people liked Star Wars in the first place. It’s not just the space ships and laser guns, it’s the complex lore and elegant world building and appealing characters. Moonraker doesn’t have any of that, but it does deliver considerable entertainment value. It’s good, pulpy fun that would make for a great night of popcorn-fueled weekend movie watching with friends.

Moonraker was so far over the top that for Bond’s next adventure, the filmmakers brought Bond back down to earth and took a more grounded approach. For Your Eyes Only is one of my favorite Bond films, and easily one of Roger Moore’s best. I can’t wait to talk about it.