Aquaman Review: King of the Seven Seas

Hey Everybody! Welcome to another review from Flickmuncher.com where we entertain food for thought. My name is Ben and I’m the Flickmuncher. We’ve got quite the line up these next few weeks and I’m excited to share the next several reviews with you as well as show off the new collaborative reviews that I’ll be doing for episodes of the 2017 Ducktales TV series with our new contributor Mimi the Flickmunchkin, which should be starting in March. However, until then, let’s take a look at the recent DC movie release, Aquaman.

 

So let’s get right into it. What’s the story? Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) was a boy born cursed. The son of a Lighthouse Keeper (Temuera Morrison) and the runaway Queen of the underwater Kingdom of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman), he was blessed with amazing abilities beyond that of normal people. Yet he is constantly split between the surface world that he calls home, and the realm of the sea that calls him to lead it. Uninterested in becoming Atlantis’ king since the death of his mother, Arthur spends his time using his abilities to do good deeds where he can. All this changes however, when his younger half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) starts to gather the kingdoms of the seven seas to attack the surface world. With the help of his mother’s old friend Volka (Willem Defoe) and the sea witch, Mera (Amber Heard), Arthur must become the Aquaman to defeat Orm and bring peace to Atlantis and the Surface.

In a switch on how I usually present my reviews, I’m going to cover the negatives first and get to the positives later.
To start things off, let’s look at the villains. First, our main villain, Prince Orm. As superhero villains go, Orm is actually not that bad. He has a connection to the hero, and a personal reason to hate him thanks to their mother’s death—she was executed for her relationship with Arthur’s father and having Arthur. Such brotherly conflict is often rich with drama and works well enough between these two characters. You might be thinking: well that doesn’t sound like a negative to me. And you’d be right. The negative with Orm is that he tends to fall back on the whole “rule the world” cliché and the brotherly conflict isn’t used as fully is it is like with Thor and Loki. This weakness is made more acute by the fact that Orm’s reasons for wanting to attack the surface are rather general and vague, owing to a generic “polluting the oceans” message. Alternatively, he could have blamed the death of his mother on the Surface and used that as his motivation, which would have served his character far better given his attitude toward Arthur and his mother, Queen Atlanna.


Then we have Black Manta, widely regarded by fans as Aquaman’s greatest enemy, who is given a terrific motivation when Arthur chooses not to save his father (a pirate but still a human being) from drowning. But then he basically gets relegated to the position of “hired thug” and gets one quick action scene before getting taken out and promised a sequel by the producers (depending on the box office, of course). If you’re wondering again why this is a bad thing, there’s a reason you don’t have a main bad guy get beaten in his first confrontation with the hero, let alone the second time. It makes that bad guy seem less of a threat to the hero. If he’s already gotten his head handed to him before, why should we as the audience believe that the next time will turn out any differently? We know he won’t have any lasting victory anyway so there’s less of a doubt in our minds about the hero’s chances.

Besides this are a number of smaller things that bugged me. First, the musical score in the film is appropriately epic and sweeping for the majority of the runtime. Which is why it feels so jarring when they play a piece of pop music or rap like “Ocean to Ocean” by Pitbull. It just sounds out of place.
Second, while the drama is good for the most part, there are several moments that felt rushed in order to move the plot forward to fit the runtime (which is already a colossal two hours and twenty-three minutes). For instance, a moment between Arthur and his Mom gets cut extremely short to make way for exposition that leads to the next major plot point. I feel like other scenes that dragged on a little too long, like Manta tinkering with Atlantean tech, could have been trimmed to make more time for scenes like this. It’s not a huge thing, but emotional scenes should always be given time to breathe against scenes that are window dressing, or just there for the sake of being cool.
Lastly, a lot of the jokes that I think were intended to make the movie feel more “marvel-esque” were either mistimed or just fell flat to me, and there were several points in the movie where the CGI—however stylish it was intended to be—just looks a little too plastic and fake, particularly during some of the action sequences.

 

However, with all of that said, there are a lot of positives about this movie that I did like, starting with the visuals. I’ve made no secret in the past of my dislike for films that needlessly desaturate the color from the picture to make things feel more “dark and edgy”. Color is a wonderful thing when you consider how much richer and more interesting it can make an image that would otherwise seem rather mundane. Other movies from the DC franchise have had an issue with colors in the past to an almost absurd degree. Happily though, Aquaman does not have a problem with color. In fact, it’s one of the most colorful films I’ve seen in awhile particularly during the underwater scenes which take up a lot of the movie. The glowing phosphorescence and wide variety of shades involved helps to make for some truly beautiful images. It also helps the various undersea environments feel like a truly alien environment, which is another strength of this film. It takes advantage of the natural strangeness and mystery of the oceans to make Atlantis feel like an actual underwater city with history. It has different levels with shell based high-rises, a customs and import system, catacombs and ruins beneath it that all combine to feel like an actual underwater city.

This would probably be enough if Atlantis was all we got to see. The filmmakers however, went one step beyond and made several different undersea kingdoms with their own inhabitants and cultures. None of them are as multi-layered or detailed as Atlantis itself, but it shows how much thought the creators put into making this world and that’s something I can appreciate.

Besides this the story is delightfully simple and easy to follow, yet it also has a good familial conflict that makes it a bit more personal. I know this might seem boring and unoriginal to some but there’s a reason that siblings fighting over power, one to preserve, the other to destroy, is such a regularly used trope dating back to ancient times. Because it works and works well. We’ve all had fights with our family. Those fights are often very emotional and very personal and in spite of what Hollywood would like us to believe, our families are not something we can simply choose to ignore. They are a very personal thing for each of us no matter how we feel about them. That’s why stories about them are so powerful for us. Aquaman may not use it as well as some other movies I’ve seen but it’s still done well so I have to applaud the effort if not the result.

Lastly, we have the action which takes advantage of the underwater environment to create some of the more unique looking set pieces that I’ve seen in a movie in quite awhile. Since the characters are buoyant and don’t often walk on the sea floor the battles are very—for lack of a better word—fluid; constantly in motion. Now, if this was lazy motion where the speed was always the same, it would probably get boring. But the movie varies the speed of combat enough to not get stagnant and in the one on one fights Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson are physical enough actors to be convincing. Overall, the battle sequences are a lot of fun to watch.

 

CONCLUSION: By this point most people know that the DC movies (or the DCEU as they’re known by fans have not had the best track record for making quality films. In fact, one of my personal least favorite films of all time was 2016’s Batman v Superman, which was a commercial success but a critical flop. I’ve always supported the idea that blockbusters shouldn’t be critically condemned for being blockbusters but that they should also try to be more than just cash grabs for the studios. Whether that’s being a deeper more critically acceptable film, or one that is just plain fun to watch, it should at least try. Aquaman is a film that tries. It may not always succeed when it tries but at least it tries and tries hard. That is one of the best compliments I can give to a film like this, especially given my history with DC movies of the past. I can’t say whether this is the beginning of a new era of DC films with higher quality. But I know that this was a film I was prepared not to like, yet I enjoyed it anyway and look forward to seeing it again sometime.

What did you think of the review? Did you like this film? What parts of it stuck out to you? Let me know all about it on the Flickmuncher Facebook page or in the comments below. Thanks and as always, May the Flick be with You!

The Kid who would be King Review: “Kidz Rule…at the kids table”

Hi Everybody! Welcome to another review from Flickmuncher.com where we entertain food for thought. I promised I’d start getting these out more regularly and I am still planning on beginning a retrospective review of TV shows starting in March with the pilot episode of Ducktales (2017). Until then, here’s my review for a film that just premiered in the US, The Kid who would be King.

 

So what’s the story? Alexander Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is a twelve-year-old British schoolboy with a love of stories and mythology. And since Hollywood loves badly doing already overdone clichés, Alex and his equally nerdy friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) are constantly bullied at school, primarily by classmates Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kay (Rhianna Doris). However, while being chased home by the two bullies one night Alex wanders into an old construction site and discovers a sword sticking out of a cement block. To his amazement Alex discovers that he is able to draw the sword from the stone and believes that it is the mythical blade Excalibur. This coincides with arrival of a strange student calling himself “Mertin” (Patrick Stewart and Angus Imrie) who reveals that Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson from Mission Impossible), the ancient foe of King Arthur, is returning and while bring destruction and enslavement to all of England. Alexander must gather allies and enemies alike to go on a quest that will bring about the evil witch’s end once and for all. Will he succeed? And yes, that is a rhetorical question.

 

Sssooo, let’s start with the good parts. In show-business it’s a well-known fact that working with child actors is significantly more difficult than dealing with adults. They are much more limited in their understanding of their own expressions and emotions and so have less control over those expressions.

Why am I putting this in with the good bits? Well because, for the most part at least, the young cast does a surprisingly good job with the material they’re given. The actor who plays Alex, Louis Ashbourne Serkis (son of famous mo-cap actor Andy Serkis), in particular has to deal with carrying the lion’s share of emotions on his shoulders. And he does a laudable job of it throughout the film.

Also, the presence of Patrick Stewart as Merlin is wonderful. He lends an authenticity and a gravitas to the film whenever he appears, which isn’t often enough.

Another thing I liked about this movie was the attention to detail when it came to the mythology of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It would have been easy enough for the filmmakers to just reference the basic elements of the mythology and the audience wouldn’t have questioned it. But they go beyond that and discuss locations across Britain that—whether or not they are actually part of the myths—made me feel good that the writers cared enough to add them. I suppose it’s partially due to how British the whole thing feels and it is a little thing next to others I’ll talk about later but details like that only add to a film’s tone and atmosphere. It shows the filmmakers were going the extra mile and I respect them for that.

With all of that said, this movie has some severe problems going on with it.

I credited the movie’s child actors with how good of a job they did. The same sadly, cannot be said for the adults. Patrick Stewart is a shining jewel amidst a pile of burning hammyness and disinterest. This is a shame because Rebecca Ferguson is a genuinely good actor. I’ve enjoyed her work in the Mission Impossible films and in a little known work called the Red Tent so it’s rather disappointing to me to see how bored and phoned-in her performance is here.

The one time she seems genuinely interested is in a scene when Old Merlin (Patrick Stewart) confronts Morgana. The scene itself isn’t that well written but the two actors in it succeeded in drawing me in more than I had been for most of the movie up to that point. It’s a testament to how good acting can take cheesy lines that no one could say and makes us take it seriously.

Unfortunately, that brings me to Angus Imgrie who plays Young Merlin. I cannot sufficiently put into words how much I hated this character. I have nothing against Imgrie. I’m sure he’s a fine person and a perfectly decent actor, and I don’t begrudge him having to play a younger version of a character also being played by Patrick Stewart. But his whole performance in this movie just felt wrong. Wrong in tone, wrong in delivery, wrong in character. Merlin is supposed to be a wise sage who guides the heroes on their quest and teaches them to become better people. But Imgrie plays him like an eccentric, goofy, half-written Harry Potter character. He is hamming it up so badly here that it becomes incredibly annoying.

And this wouldn’t be so bad if that was how the character was intended by the writers, but because Patrick Stewart plays it like the wise-old sage, it makes Imgrie’s version feel like an entirely different character from an entirely different movie.

Which leads me to the last and arguably biggest problem with this movie: its identity. British pop-culture, as far as entertainment goes, has lived in the shadow of two giants: Harry Potter and Doctor Who. What do both those things have in common? Well, they are both, in a word…quirky. They both have characters that do odd things in odd ways for odd reasons, and it feels like everything that British entertainment has produced since then has looked to cash in on those traits whether it makes sense or not.

I think this movie suffers a lot from standing in those shadows. It tries to add elements from those franchises into a story where they don’t fit. The story of King Arthur may be a fairy tail but it’s a very serious one that involved bloodshed, death, adultery, and betrayal. Obviously those things wouldn’t work very well for a movie with a PG rating—though how it managed that I’ll never understand. The Skeleton Knights alone should have bumped it up to PG-13—but the story doesn’t make one think of the word “quirky” or “whimsy” when describing it. So the resulting movie feels very confused and at odds with itself, leaving the audience (the adults anyway) equally uncertain how to feel about it.

 

 

CONCLUSION: Most of us have memories from when we were kids when we’d play dress up and pretend to be fearless knights facing down cardboard dragons or lovely princesses ruling benevolently over a land of Barbie dolls. We’d conjure stories where we the kids were the heroes and grown-ups didn’t exist except to reward us for how amazing we were.

That is this movie in a nutshell. And I’m sure kids will love it. Heck, the theater I went to see this in was packed with kids and they all loved it. So if you just want something to keep your kids attention for a couple hours, this is perfectly serviceable.

However. If you’re looking for something more meaningful either for yourself, or for your child to watch, I cannot really recommend this. When the idea of King Arthur and his Knights is mentioned, I think of epic battles and struggles against great evil that affects everyone in our heroes’ world, in addition to the heroes themselves. So why does this movie feel so small? Why does it feel at the end, like nothing really changed beyond our heroes learning a lesson about honor and friendship? Shouldn’t the change at the end be greater?

Questions like these are what separate films meant to keep kids quiet for two hours from movies that stick with them when they’re adults.

 

What movies do you remember best as a kid? And what did you think of the review? Did you agree or disagree with my analysis? What parts of the movie stuck out to you? Let me know all about it on the Flickmuncher Facebook page or in the comments below. Thanks and as always, May the Flick be with You!

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl: “Yo-ho, Yo-ho. A pirates life for me!”

Hey Everybody! Welcome to another review from Flickmuncher.com. Sorry it’s been so long since my last review. Between work and the madness of the holidays there hasn’t been a whole lot of time for me to get these reviews out. However, I am excited for the next few upcoming months as I will be doing a series of retrospectives on some of my favorite movies and episodes of anime and TV shows so I hope you’ll tune in for those when they come out.

Today we’ll be taking a look back at a movie from the early 2000s in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. It’s rather strange for me to review a movie that I saw as a kid as a “Golden Oldy”. Kind of reminds me how old I am now I guess. But here’s a bit of backstory on this movie: The year is 2003. Hollywood has just started to recover from the dark reign of disaster epics like Independence Day, Deep Impact, and Twister. Movies are starting to feel fun again with the appearance of fantasy epics like the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises, and are starting to see hopeful characters in the form of Spiderman and the X-Men movies.
It is a time when ideas that Hollywood execs would have laughed out of the building on principle five years before are becoming the golden children of the cinema. Yet despite that, the idea that inspired this movie was so corny that even I would have had doubts about allowing it to be made. I mean really, a movie about pirates based off of an amusement park ride? Are you serious? To make matters worse, the pirate genre as a whole had not performed well up to that point. The most recent wide releases of the genre—1999s Treasure Island by Peter Rowe and Disney’s Treasure Planet, also 1999—did not perform well at the box office and the last one that did decently was 1996s Muppet Treasure Island (hardly a serious pirate movie). So it was generally assumed that this Disney movie based on a (rather boring if we’re being honest) amusement park ride, would be a flop just like all the others.

Yet somehow, amid all the naysaying, it managed to become the fourth highest grossing movie of the year in a year that included blockbusters like Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Finding Nemo. And its success wasn’t just commercial but critical as well. Johnny Depp even received an Oscar nomination for his iconic performance as Captain Jack Sparrow.  How was this possible? Had popular culture just lost their collective minds to temporary insanity or was this film truly that good? Well, that’s what we’re here to find out.

So what’s the plot? Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is a drunken wandering buccaneer who winds up in the coastal settlement of Port Royal while looking for his ship. In the process of searching for a vessel to stea- er…commandeer, he ends up saving the lovely daughter of Port Royal’s governor, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly), from drowning. Unfortunately, the locals don’t take kindly to pirates wandering around their town and in spite of his good deed Jack is arrested and sentenced to hang. Fortunately for him, the town is attacked shortly thereafter by a group of much less friendly marauders from the mythical and eponymous Black Pearl. The pirates, led by the savvy Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), kidnap Elizabeth who is in possession of a gold piece that seems to be particularly valuable to them. Jack pursues the seafaring raiders with the aid of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), a childhood friend of Elizabeth’s, leading them across the sea in an adventure with swords, guns, and an undead curse for good measure.

There’s a common misconception in Hollywood and among storytellers in general, that if you make a story more complicated then it magically becomes a better story because they think they’re adding complexity. But the reality is that complicated and complex stories are two different things.  Imagine if you were packing up a box with ping pong balls until you completely covered the bottom of the box. But rather than fill up the entire box, you went to get another box and only filled the bottom of that box as well. That’s making things more complicated.

Curse of the Black Pearl is an example of the opposite case. It takes a relatively simple premise—cursed pirates wish to lift said curse—and takes full advantage of it by giving the different characters personality and conflicting motives. Jack’s desire to reclaim the Black Pearl at any costs butts up against Will’s simple desire to rescue Elizabeth and return home and Barbossa’s desire to be rid of the curse that has plagued him for ten years. Any competent storyteller will tell you that the core of drama is conflict. The more conflict there is between the characters, the more drama is derived. Of course, as is the case with later entries in the Pirates franchise, this principle can be used too much or used poorly. However, Black Pearl succeeds at hitting the right balance of drama between the characters and their personalities that made us all fall in love with the franchise when it first appeared.

And speaking of characters, this movie revels in creating fun characters with great personality. Some of them can be pretty rote—such as Will and an annoyingly stern Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport)—but their dryness is more than made up for by the other pirates. Standouts include Mr. Gibbs (Kevin McNally) the classic yarn-spinning seafarer, and Pintel and Ragetti (Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook respectively) a sort of pirate version of Laurel and Hardy. The other pirates don’t get as much screen-time but are equally memorable if only by virtue of their designs.

The real jewels of this cast though are obviously Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush’s turn as Barbossa. Seriously, these characters are so well written and acted that they own every scene they’re in. Much has been written and said about Jack Sparrow and Johnny Depp’s rather unique take on the typical pirate Captain, and there’s little I think I can add to that conversation so I won’t belabor the point. However, if a hero is only as good as his villain then Jack Sparrow was well served to have Barbossa as his antagonist. I’m personally of the opinion that Geoffrey Rush is one of the most underrated actors of his generation and Barbossa is a major reason why. He helps turn what could have been a rather cartoonish bad-guy (cough Lone Ranger cough) into a menacing, unyielding, yet strangely sympathetic villain who wants to feel the joys of life again. Also, he manages to say the classic pirate “Aaaarrrgghh” line and have neither himself nor the audience crack up at it. That takes some good acting to pull off.

Beyond this though, the movie is possessing of some really fun action, with swashbuckling sword fights that are very well choreographed and a ship to ship battle the scale of which is reminiscent of pirate films of yesteryear like Seahawk and Captain Blood. I especially love the attention to detail during these scenes. For instance, if you’re paying attention, you can see the trails of musket shot and cannon balls rocketing over the characters heads. Details like this help lend the entire film an atmosphere of excitement and thrills that is hard to find in movies today.

That said it’s not a perfect movie. For one thing, the character of Commodore Norrington isn’t interesting in the slightest. Granted it’d be tough for him to measure up against the likes of Jack and Barbossa but as a secondary antagonist he falls prey to severe blandness until the last five minutes and is a pretty stereotypical British (rolling the “r” there) Colonial type that Hollywood loves to portray as having zero emotions because he’s so “civil”. That kind of portrayal being a personal pet peeve of mine I didn’t care for him at all despite the potential he had to be an interesting character in his own right. He would get more interesting as a character in later movies but as far as this one is concerned he just fell flat.

A similar situation could be said for Will Turner, who definitely has a more interesting character arc through the movie but also starts out rather boring, and ultimately makes some really stupid decisions for the sake of advancing the plot, which Jack even points out as being stupid decisions at various points in the film. And just to be clear, when a film admits that something about itself is stupid or incompetent does not make it any less stupid or incompetent. Admitting it means the filmmakers knew it was stupid or incompetent and did it anyway! I don’t hold that against this film but it is an observation of films in general these days that I have no doubt I’ll be discussing again at some point.

Besides that I will admit that while the action sequences are still a ton of fun to watch, the CGI for Black Pearl has not aged well. With the technology we see in movies today, it’s hard not to look at this and see the proverbial strings. Still it was made at a time when the technology we see today was still evolving and to its credit the skeleton pirates in Black Pearl were probably instrumental as a stepping stone to such spectacles as Avatar and the Transformers movies. But it still looks like something you’d see in a PS2 video game cutscene at certain points.

 

Conclusion: I first watched this movie when I was about twelve years old and at the time my two favorite movies were Hook and The Lord of the Rings so I was the perfect audience for this film. When the end credits came on and the amazing theme song (an impossibly underrated score in my opinion) started playing, the first thing I wanted to do was run outside to the playset in the backyard and duel with my brother on the imaginary spars of a Spanish Galleon, I was so excited.

Fast forward fifteen years and watching it again with the cynicism of adulthood, I definitely see more flaws but the movie that gave me that sense of adventure and excitement is still there and in some ways I enjoy it more now that I am older. And that’s what great adventure movies are supposed to do. They carry you away on that adventure to a place and time where, for a little while at least, your own day-to-day problems don’t matter so much. At one point Jack says that what the Black Pearl means to him is freedom. Freedom to see what lies beyond the horizon that always seems to taunt us with our own curiosity.

For that, I’ll happily board the Black Pearl any day.

 

So, what did you think of the review? Did you agree or disagree with my analysis? What parts stuck out to you? Let me know all about it on Facebook or in the comments below. Thanks and as always, May the Flick be with You!

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