Aquaman (2018)

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He is living proof our peoples can co-exist. Once home to the most advanced civilisation on Earth, the city of Atlantis is now an underwater kingdom ruled by the power-hungry King Orm Marius/Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson). With a vast army at his disposal, Orm plans to conquer the remaining oceanic people – and then the surface world. Standing in his way is Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Orm’s half-human, half-Atlantean brother, the son of lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temura Morrison) and Atlanna Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman) and the true heir to the kingdom’s throne. With help from royal counsellor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) who advises caution, and Princess Mera (Amber Heard), who urges him to take on his half-brother, Aquaman must retrieve the legendary Trident of Atlan and embrace his destiny as protector of the deep… I solve my problems with my anger and my fists. I’m a blunt instrument and I’m damn good at it. I’ve done nothing but get my ass kicked this whole trip. I’m no leader. Technically, the dog days of summer ended two weeks ago but it seems right now like they’ll never end. So, to matters nutty and comic book, a film that didn’t need to be made, a mashup of every action/superhero trope with ludicrously good visual effects, a plot contrived from many old and new stories and a big surly but charismatic guy obsessed with his mom. So far, so expected. Except that this works on a level that’s practically operatic while also plundering sympathies of Pisceans such as myself for creatures like seahorses, who have their own army, not to mention an octopus with a fondness for percussion. Got me right there. And then some – with frogman David Kane reinventing himself as supervillain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul Mateen II), pirates, messages in bottles, gladiatorial combat, wormholes, the centre of the earth … For those who care about this kinda stuff, Arthur/Aquaman first showed up in Batman Vs. Superman and then materialised in Justice League but here he’s part of a Freudian under the sea show that’s quite batty and compelling. Obviously Dolph Lundgren shows up, as King Nereus. Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, from a story by Geoff Johns, director James Wann and Beall, adapting the Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris story/character. Directed with no-holds-barred gusto by Wan. A total hoot from start to finish about evolution, equality and what lies beneath. Crazy fish people, mostly.  Jules Verne once wrote: “Put two ships in the open sea, without wind or tide… they will come together”. That’s how my parents met: like two ships destined for each other

Venom (2018)

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You know for a smart guy you really are a dumbass. TV investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is trying to take down Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the notorious and brilliant founder of the Life Foundation who is constantly announcing new supposedly life-enhancing initiatives.  Eddie opens up confidential files belonging to his district attorney fiancée Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) which causes her to lose her job and leave him. He is fired by his TV station for his impropriety. While investigating one of Drake’s experiments in symbiotes (aliens merging with humans), Eddie’s body merges with the alien Venom – leaving him with superhuman strength and power. Twisted, dark and fuelled by rage, Venom tries to control the new and dangerous abilities that Eddie finds so puzzling and yet so intoxicating but Drake sends out his team to ensnare him… Do you ever feel like your life is one monumental screwup? How bad is this? Perhaps it should have been called Contempt if that misnomer wasn’t already the title of a classic of French cinema. Dreadful acting (Hardy is no movie star, just a terrific actor prone to insane levels of idiot savant mugging way too early here, tipping us off about the high comedy to come), terrible writing, stupid plotting and lazy presumptions. It takes about forty minutes or so for this film to finally find its feet as a satirical fantasy by which time I had found myself wondering how many more superhero movies can deal with silly sloppy seconds, bizarre virtue signalling in diversity casting (this year’s Elon Musk avatar is played by a Pakistani) and dumb allusive socio-cultural commentary including a leading lady dressing like Britney circa Baby One More Time. However once Eddie is hilariously taken over by The Host I was moved to think about the magnificently bad Saoirse Ronan movie of that name; the fourth level of jihad (‘feast upon the infidel as would a parasite upon a host’) which of course is all about the Islamic takeover of the white world; and the edicts of mindfulness (proto-neo-liberal zealotry extolled by Google’s Jolly Good Fellow along with all other Big Tech surveillance monsters); and it was then that I realised that this is in fact an expertly crafted warning about all sorts of contemporary ills:  mass immigration, uncontrolled technology, globalisation, narcissism, unsupervised pharmaceutical experiments and endless superhero movies. Obviously it’s set in Northern California, the boomer and millennial nightmare running the world. It’s dark and Blade Runner-y, as if we needed reminding that Philip K. Dick was telling us all about fifty shades of surveillance for at least forty years in the last millennium. This, then, is what happens to the universe when you’re busy buying Starbucks coffee and checking your iPhone and doping yourself with anti-depressants that persuade you that totalitarianism is okay while disinhibiting your urge to protest, and scarfing medical marijuana which is the real cure for your paranoia about the internet, and, you know, there’s nothing wrong with anything, it’s your attitude to it that needs to be corrected because you’re pathological and everything Mark Zuckerberg does may not be ethical but by crikey it’s legal! Be afraid, suckers. Make the new the primary focus of your life. Jeff Pinker & Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel adapted the Marvel characters created by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie and it was directed by Ruben Fleischer, responsible for an outing called Gangster Squad, a production that was so hypnotically awful I forgot what it was about while I was watching it (mission accomplished) to the point that I lost the plot and practically lost the will to live. Is it me? Even Jesus Christ himself would say, Enough. Get it over withCrucify me, guys. Instead we have expertly crafted lines like, God has abandoned us… I won’t. And the voice inside Eddie’s head that tells him, Your world is not so ugly after all.  And Anne finds that power is indeed a bit of a sneaky thrill: Oh  no! I just bit that guy’s head off!  Sheesh. Maybe this works after all, Spider-Man in reverse. Like civilisation, this is poisoned.

Flash Gordon (1980)

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Pathetic earthlings. Hurling your bodies out into the void, without the slightest inkling of who or what is out here. If you had known anything about the true nature of the universe, anything at all, you would’ve hidden from it in terror. NASA scientists are claiming the unexpected eclipse and strange ‘hot hail’ are nothing to worry about, Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) knows better, and takes NY Jets quarterback star Flash Gordon (Sam Jones) and travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) on a flight into space with to rectify things. They land on planet Mongo, where the despotic Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) is attacking Earth out of pure boredom. With the help of a race of Hawkmen, Flash and the gang struggle to save their home planet while Ming fancies Dale as his betrothed and Princess Aura (Ornella Muti)  thinks a footballer is just what she needs despite the attentions of Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton). How can they outwit this psycho’s powers? ... Don’t empty my mind! Please, I beg you! My mind is all I have! I’ve spent my whole life trying to fill it! You might only know this from the Ted movies wherein Sam Jones (largely dubbed here) is something of an obsession for Mark Wahlberg and the eponymous bear but for those of us who grew up in the late 70s/early 80s and watched Buster Crabbe on summer mornings on BBC this was catnip at the cinema. Michael Allin adapted the characters from the original comic strip by Alex Raymond and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (responsible for developing the classic TV Batman) wrote his customarily caustic and amusing screenplay, reuniting with producer Dino De Laurentiis after King Kong. The pulchritude – male and female – is just jaw-dropping and I’m not referring to Prince Vultan’s (Brian Blessed) thighs. Was there ever a more beautiful woman than Muti as the sexpot daughter of Ming? What a saucy minx she is! Watch those orgasmic gyrations when Ming puts Arden under his spell!! Or a handsomer man than Dalton?! Good grief! The production design and costumes by Danilo Donati are simply staggering. And what a witty score provided by Queen, with supplemental orchestrations by Howard Blake. And just to prove it’s not all fun and games, when Zarkov has his mind read it’s a montage that includes Hitler, which draws the comment, Now he showed promise! Whoever cast Von Sydow as Ming the Merciless was truly inspired. Fast-moving, funny and as camp as a caravan site, this is how superhero movies should always be. Believe it or not this was originally meant to be made by Fellini. And George Lucas. And Nic Roeg! In the end it was directed by Mike Hodges who also made Get Carter, Pulp and Croupier. Give that man a BAFTA! With supporting roles played by Peter Wyngarde, John Osborne, Richard O’Brien, Suzanne Danielle and Robbie Coltrane, this veritable rock opera has cult written all over it these days. Shot by the great Gilbert Taylor.  I knew you were up to something, though I’ll confess I hadn’t thought of necrophilia?

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

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If you two are finished comparing sizes… we need to figure a way to track down the lab.  Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is grappling with the consequences of his choices as both a superhero and a father to Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) following his X-Men activities in X-Men:  Civil War, monitored constantly by the police. Approached by Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), he dons the Ant-Man suit again to fight alongside the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) with assistance from Luis (Michael Peña) a former cellmate and member of the X-Con Security crew. The urgent mission leads to secret revelations from the past in the search for Pym’s wife and Hope’s mother Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) who is lost in the quantum realm since 1987, shrinking to sub-atomic levels.  The dynamic duo finds itself in an epic battle against a powerful new enemy Ava Starr/Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) while low-level crim Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) wants Pym’s technology for the black market….I still think about the night your mother and I had to leave youA whip smart, lean and fun outing that is anchored by the charming performance of Rudd, a consistently underrated actor, who contributes to the screenplay by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari. He is matched by Lilly as the other half of his double act and also by Douglas, whose flashback scene with Pfeiffer shows what special effects can achieve (an improvement on the real old thing!). Laurence Fishburne turns up as Pym’s estranged former colleague Bill Foster despite having played Perry White elsewhere in the (now 20-strong) Marvel series. The dual father-daughter stories root the narrative in something close to human emotion, while the Fantastic Voyage element works nicely and the overall tone is light and optimistic – proving that size always matters.  And how nice is it to see a female villain?! Stan Lee shows up when his car is shrunk. Directed by Peyton Reed. I’m gonna call you ANT-onio Banderas!

Deadpool 2 (2018)

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Every good family film starts with a vicious murder. After his beloved wife Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) is killed, wisecracking mercenary Wade Wilson aka Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) meets Russell Collins/Firefist (Julian Dennison) an angry overweight teenage mutant who lives at an orphanage run by nasty Headmaster (Eddie Marsan). When Russell becomes the target of timetravelling Cable (Josh Brolin)- a genetically enhanced soldier from the future – Deadpool figures out that he’ll need some help saving the boy from such a superior enemy. He soon joins forces with Bedlam (Terry Crews), Shatterstar (Lewis Tan), Domino (Zazie Beetz) and other allegedly powerful mutants to protect young Russell from Cable and his advanced weaponry and discovers that he and Cable have more in common than he realised …. Pain teaches us who we are.  I wasn’t convinced by the first film – the postmodern concoction of parody and pastiche, vast self-referentiality and mickey-taking seemed (like all the bimonthly Marvel products nowadays) specifically mixed with added built-in foul-mouthed snark to prevent any criticism whatsoever. This gets it slicker and less obnoxiously together with a particularly funny scene-sequence assembling the superhero family – and exhibiting them getting theirs in the full flow of their delusional (non-)powers. With very funny jabs at Annie, Yentl and Say Anything, among others, this is actually a good lesson in how important it is to laugh at yourself. And everybody else. Offending people is good!! Adapted by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (and star Reynolds) from the comic book, this is the 11th X-Men movie. Sheesh. Directed by David Leitch. You’re so dark – are you sure you’re not from the DC universe?

Justice League (2017)

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I guess this means the band’s not getting back together. Fuelled by his restored faith in humanity, and inspired by Superman’s (Henry Cavill) selfless act, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck and his new face) enlists newfound ally Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to face an even greater threat from Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) who’s wielding his terror on the island of Amazons led by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Together, Batman and Wonder Woman work quickly to recruit a team of metahumans to stand against this newly-awakened enemy. Superman’s mom Martha (Diane Lane) confides in Lois Lane (Amy Adams) that the bank has foreclosed on the family farm. Despite the formation of an unprecedented league of gifted heroes including Aquaman aka Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), Cyborg aka Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) and the Flash aka Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), it may be too late to save the planet from an assault of catastrophic proportions… You don’t want me to live. You don’t want me to die.  If I cared about this, I’d care about this, if you know what I mean. At the heart of it is Superman’s crisis – instead we are diverted full tilt boogie by a truly gobsmackingly dumb story about Steppenwolf and his three Mother Boxes (I ask you) screwing up those ladies who mothered Wonder Woman. The effects are horrible:  this is one visually awful film. The mentoring relationship between Batman and nerdy/autistic Barry/Flash has some moments of humour (especially with Affleck’s cosmetics denying his facial mobility, complementing his line delivery) and echoes the story’s underlying mentoring/parenting theme.  Lacking faith in the original story’s thrust we have to endure some foreign family’s suffering to, you know, pack in the contemporary emotion because the West and North of the planet are full of non-English speakers flooding onto our shores from the South and East, as if we all didn’t know.  Newsflash straight from Gotham! Crime is bad! People are awful! Vengeful gods are killer! A leaner, meaner narrative could have done wonders because – how ironic – it’s the action that lets this down. Oh! The metahumanity! The screenplay is credited to Chris Terrio & Joss Whedon from a story by Terrio & director Zack Snyder.

Incredibles 2 (2018)

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I am using technology to make people lose faith in technology. Helen Parr/Elastigirl (voice of Holly Hunter) is in the spotlight after being hired to re-popularise superheroes for the company DevTech run by Winston Deavor (voice of Bob Odenkirk) with techo savvy provided by his genius sister Evelyn (voice of Catherine Keener).  That leaves Bob (voice of Craig T. Nelson) at home with teenage Violet (voice of Sarah Vowell) who can turn invisible and little brother Dash (voice of Huck Milner) who can move like lightning to navigate the day-to-day heroics of normal life as a house husband. It’s a tough transition for everyone, made tougher by the fact that the family is still unaware of baby Jack-Jack’s (Eli Fucile) emerging superpowers which an unfortunate raccoon discovers first. When an anonymous villain hatches a brilliant and dangerous plot enslaving the planet to the will of the Screenslaver, the family and Lucius/Frozone (voice of Samuel L. Jackson) must find a way to work together again which is easier said than done with Mom being deviated from the original plan to fight crime by the villain whose authoritarian desires are worse than anyone can imagine … They may be retro-future styled (Dementia 13 is playing at the cinema) but the Incredible family are dealing with some twenty-first century issues particularly the use of entertainment devices to divert attention away from what’s really important. They’ve been away for a long time but their return to the summer blockbuster season is welcome even if like most animations it’s probably twenty minutes too long.  It arrives in an arena vastly overpopulated by superhero movies albeit it steers its own way through different issues than those driving the Marvel universe or the dark-hearted DC line. There are some highly amusing sequences especially with Jack-Jack who has such great abilities even designer Edna Mode (voice of writer/director Brad Bird) doesn’t mind doing some babysitting. The warning about technology comes in a package that is itself the product of huge cinematic developments on small screens since the first Pixar film came out 14 years ago – how ironic! The action scenes are a blast. Very entertaining and a lot funnier than the average animated sequel. I hate superheroes and I renounce them!

 

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

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Talk about something cool, like food or clothes or Joan Didion!  Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) goes nuts at her friend’s wedding to which she hasn’t been invited and pepper sprays her.  Thing is, the bride isn’t her friend, she’s someone Ingrid follows on Instagram.  It lands her in a mental hospital. She idolises social media star and Instagram ‘influencer’ Taylor Sloane  (Elizabeth Olsen) to the point that she reckons all those ‘likes’ constitute an invitation to her to ingratiate herself with the LA-based narcissist and moves there with money her late mom has bequeathed and promptly kidnaps the woman’s dog so she can claim the reward and ‘friend’ her in real life. Taylor’s husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) is a technophobic artist whose work Taylor gushes over but he seems nice underneath all the boho-chic So-Cal lifestyle. Ingrid makes his only sale. Ingrid’s neighbour Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a wannabe screenwriter obsessed with Batman whom she seduces in order to smooth her way socially with Taylor’s gang. Everything seems to go swimmingly until Taylor’s druggie brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) turns up and figures out Ingrid’s game.  He blackmails her and she has to come up with a superhero-inspired solution to his threat to reveal her stalking to his sister  …  Co-written by David Branson Smith with director Matt Spicer, which makes me ponder once again why it is that sometimes men are better than women at exploiting the vagaries of female friendship (read:  rivalry) even if it winds up in a rather violent and cataclysmic denouement – with a twist. Well Ingrid is mentally ill, after all and Nicky knows she has Single White Femaled Taylor. This is smart and funny and topical and gets under your skin about what it is to be popular and the nature of contemporary life while retaining a caustic perspective. Performed with gusto by the principals and produced by the unstoppable Plaza who totally gets why reality is being subverted and image is everything. (Maybe that’s why she has 1.6 million followers on Instagram.) This is what happens when your followers actually follow you. Message:  don’t live on your phone, there’s more to life than avocado and, as we are all branding our lives now, society is experiencing an existential crisis. Sheesh …

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

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I need to get off this planet.  Crown Prince of Asgard Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is imprisoned on the planet Sakaar and he has a race against time on his hands to return to Asgard and stop the destruction of the world (Ragnarok) by the evil goddess of death, Hela (Cate Blanchett) – who turns out to be his sister. It means teaming up with his awful brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who is alive after all but can he be trusted?  Dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is on hand to guide him … Written by Eric Pearson and Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost, director Taika Waititi responds to the humour in the material and the cast are given their funniest outing yet, with a great joke cameo at the beginning. Jeff Goldblum turns up as a Grandmaster glorying in gladiatorial contests and Bruce Banner aka The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) arrives to join The Revengers – as they call themselves – to help them take on their vicious sister. Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) joins in on this mission as a whole society is at stake with Heimdall (Idris Elba) trying to lead them to safety. There’s a lot of intentionally odd 80s-style effects, self-deprecating humour (Thor’s masculinity is tested with a haircut) and a lot of nicely set up action sequences. Good-natured comic book fun in the second Thor sequel and the seventeenth episode of the Marvel series.