Film Review: AQUAMAN (USA 2018) ***

Aquaman Poster
Trailer

Arthur Curry learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and be a hero to the world.

Director:

James Wan

Writers:

David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (screenplay by), Will Beall (screenplay by) |5 more credits »

As much as I have complaints about the new Superhero DC comic AQUAMAN film adaptation, I have the highest regards for the film’s director James Wan.  Born In East Malaysia, (a neighbour of Singapore where I was born), Wan is the only Hollywood successful director from that region.  Wan was a skinny teen like myself, and his early photos reminds me of myself.  He has gained fame and fortune through his talent and horror films like he SAW franchise, INSIDIOUS and the CONJURING films.  He also brings on board Patrick Wilson from the latter two movies to play the villain in AQUAMAN.

Wan is known for his excesses.  Excesses abound in the 2 and a half hour action blockbuster aquarian fantasy AQUAMAN, played with aplomb by Jason Momoa.  There are plenty of images and CGI effects to gawk at.  The film looks amazing.  See it in IMAX and one will feel that one is in a gigantic fish tank as in one of those big aquariums found in big cities.  As far as super-action hero movies go, there is plenty to satisfy the fan base.   Superhero action fans will no doubt leave the theatre cheering, as in the case  of the promo screening I attended.   Surprise guest Patrick Wilson was present .  Who can ask for anything more? 

But one can.  The film lacks any good plot development, character intelligence and spicy dialogue.  When Aquaman is told that he has to save the underwater and land worlds by claiming the throne, all he can say is  ‘duh!’.  The script does not offer him any good one-liners either.  Lazy writing leaves a lot of unexplained and choppy facts in the story.  The effect of the evil that the villains do is brought down several notches by making them misunderstood beings.  One scene shows AQUAMAN as a boy at a city aquarium bullied by other kids, when a shark in the tank comes to the rescue.  Where did the boy, who is supposedly born and bred by the lighthouse keeper father find residence in the city and who where his foster parents?  That one scene appears from nowhere and conveniently disappears.  The key that only unlocks the trident with droplets of water is far-fetched bulls**t.   The climatic fight underwater by the edge of the cliffs makes no sense.  No one can fall off a cliff underwater.

The story begins in the year 1985, though Aquaman existed in comics way before then.   In Maine, lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison ) rescues Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the princess of the underwater nation of Atlantis, during a storm.  They eventually fall in love and have a son, Arthur, who is born with the power to communicate with marine lifeforms.  Atlanna is forced to abandon her family and return to Atlantis, entrusting to her loyal advisor Nuidis Vulko  (Willem Dafoe) the mission of training Arthur.  Under Vulko’s guidance, Arthur becomes a skilled warrior but is rejected by the Atlanteans for being a half-breed and ultimately leaves Atlantis behind.

There is a subplot that really looks out of place with an invasion in which Arthur confronts a group of pirates attempting to hijack a nuclear submarine.  Their leader, Jesse Kane, dies during the confrontation while his son, David (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), vows revenge against Arthur.   David later targets Atlantis at the behest of Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur’s younger half-brother and Atlantis’ king who uses the attack as a pretext to declare war on the surface.  All thistles to Aquaman having to retrieve a trident (like the Sword in the Stone) and battle Orm to ave the world.  Yes, all action here films involve saving the world.  The inter-racial subplot looks too obvious a political correct move.  We have seen all this before time and again.

Still, as far as Warner Bros. DC super hero film adaptations go, (example the awful BATMAN v. SUPERMAN, SUICIDE SQUAD), AQUAMAN, as in WONDER WOMAN is one of the better films.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDkg3h8PCVU

Film Review: THE GREAT BUSTER: A CELEBRATION (USA 2018) ***

The Great Buster Poster
Trailer

Documentary on the life and works of comic genius Buster Keaton, directed by Peter Bogdanovic.

Buster Keaton is not someone as well known Charlie Chaplin.  But this is by no means to say that Buster Keaton is no less a genius.  Myself, I first saw Buster Keaton in a supporting role in Richard Lester’s 1966’s comedy A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.  The doc, THE GREAT BUSTER: A CELEBRATION includes a footage of Keaton in the film.

The film is a celebration of actor/comedian/filmmaker and genius Buster Keaton.  Buster, in those days meant ‘Fall’ and Buster Keaton grew famous in funny falls from the young age touring the country with his travelling show parents.  The film is an examination of the artist from literally a baby to adult, which writer/director Peter Bogdanovich undertakes.

Who better than Peter Bogdanovich whose most famous film WHAT’S UP DOC? starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal was likely influenced by the slapstick antics of Buster Keaton.  Bogdanovich also loves black and white oldies and made the excellent THE LAST PICTUR SHOW and PAPER MOON, all black and white period pics.

Unless one is familiar with Keaton’s films or grew up in those times (i.e. if you are over 70), there is much to enjoy in the old footage assembled by Bogdanovich.  From Keaton’s early pictures like his two reelers to his shorts and feature films, expect plenty of laughs. 

Bogdanovich also ties in the passion of film into the doc.  Not only is Keaton’s talent for comedy shown but his genius in filmmaking.  

The early comedic sequences are the ones with Fatty Arbuckle and Keaton.  Arbuckle was Keaton’s mentor and introduced him to film, which aided Keaton’s fame.  The sequence of the two having dinner is not only funny but a genius in its set up.  Other simple sequences featuring these two are equally priceless.

Every genius has his downfall or at least bad times in life.  Arbuckle got entrapped with a murder charge and scandal.  For Keaton, it was his drinking and contract with MGM.  The film was clear to point out that MGM destroyed a few classic comedians of the time including The Marx Brothers, Stan and Ollie and Abbott and Castello with churning out their worst films.  Keaton’s drinking led to his divorce and firing at MGM, fed up with his drinking.  The height of his depression led him  to be committed to an army hospital taken away in a straight jacket. ‘Straight Jacket required to move Buster Keaton to hospital, ” read the newspaper headlines.   

It becomes apparent half way through the film that material is running out.  Bogdanovich inserts old Keaton film footage as fillers.  At least they are funny and satisfying in filling the time.

The film ends with Keaton’s death in 1966 and with the words of Dick Van Dyke who delivered the eulogy at the funeral service.

THE GREAT BUSTER is a celebration of not only Keaton but the artists of the silent era.  The film’s best segment is the clip from Charles Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT where Chaplin and Keaton performed together for the first and only time.  

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsffUJBYya0

Film Review: BORDER (GRANS) (Sweden/Denmark 2018) ****

Border Poster
Trailer

A customs officer who can smell fear develops an unusual attraction to a strange traveler while aiding a police investigation which will call into question her entire existence.

Director:

Ali Abbasi

Writers:

John Ajvide Lindqvist (based on the short story “Gräns” by), Ali Abbasi (screenplay)| 2 more credits »

The hit at Cannes, BORDER is likely the weirdest film to emerge in cinemas this year.  And it is totally unpredictable even with a feel-good romantic element despite the ugliest looking characters in a film.

BORDER is a film about changelings.  This is not apparent till the last third of the film, so how the film gets there is a good part of the story’s mystery, which will not be revealed in the film.  A changeling is a creature found in folklore and folk religion.  A changeling child is believed to be a fairy child that had been left in place of a human child stolen by the fairies, and is perceived as an ugly creature.

But the film is entitled BORDER, because the film’s protagonist is a border customs officer, and one very good at her job owing to a unique ability. Tina (Eva Melander) has a bestial-looking face, a scar above her tailbone.  Her ability is sensing how people feel though smell.  She is especially adept at detecting fear or unease (sex, hilt and shame), skills that make her an invaluable border guard.  Nobody likes a border guard, especially when they get caught cheating customs by one, and especially more if the officer is as ugly as Tina.  “Ugly bitch,” is what one caught curses under his breath for attempting to sneak though above the limit alcohol.

Yet Tina’s latest customs stops are more troubling than the usual routine arrests. First, there’s the twitchy businessman carrying child pornography, whose crime so enrages Tina that she begins to take foolish risks when she’s brought in to help with the investigation. 

But her life changes when she meets a suspicious Vore (Eero Milonoff), who shares physical traits with Tina (being ugly and sort of a look-alike),  Vore wears a permanent cocksure smirk that suggests he knows things she does not, which the film reveals later on to be true. 

A sample of the weirdness includes consumption of maggots, uncomfortable sex scenes and very odd mannerisms (facial twitching and grunting) of the characters.

The cinematography by Nadim Carlsen is stunning, especially the scenery around where Tina lives.  The dark water of the pool, waterfalls and forest greenery are something right out of a fairy tale.

Excellent performances by both Milonoff and Melander complete the honours in the acting department.

The film contains some acute observations (not not necessarily a life lesson or message) on life.  One is that like Tina, not matter how weird, she thought herself special as a child.  Beautiful things can also happen to someone as unfortunate as Tina.  Tina chooses good over evil.  The film demonstrates that anyone including any human being or monster is capable of both.  There should be no prejudices.

Though extremely weird, the story is based on a short story by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist,  Border conjures up memories of unsettling folk tales that tie humans to the natural world and its odder anomalies, a world that now seems distant yet creepily familiar.  

BORDER won its director Abbashi the Best Director Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at this year’s Cannes.  The film has also been winning awards in festivals around the world.  The film is a must-see.  I have seen it twice, though the film loses its surprise element the second time viewing.

Trailer: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5501104/videoplayer/vi3736910361?ref_=tt_ov_vi

Film Review: THE FAVOURITE (UK/USA 2018) ****

The Favourite Poster
Trailer

In early 18th century England, a frail Queen Anne (Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Weisz) governs the country in her stead. When a new servant Abigail (Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah.

Director:

Yorgos Lanthimos

Lanthimos’s latest film after DOGTOOTH, THE LOBSTER and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER is his most extravagant, with a period setting in a castle with royalty as its subject.

It is the early 18th century when England is at war with the French though the film opens oddly enough with royalty involved with duck racing and pineapple eating.  The poor are taxed and the poor go to war.   A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health, temper and sexual desires .   When a new servant Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah.  Sarah takes Abigail under her wing and Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots.   Abigail schemes to fill in as the Queen’s companion. Their burgeoning friendship gives her a chance to fulfil her ambitions and she will not let woman, man, politics or rabbit stand in her way.

THE FAVOURITE stands as a film that those familiar with Lanthimos will find quite similar to his last movie THE KILLNG OF A SACRED DEER.  As in both films, the status quo of a family is challenged (Farrell’s in DEER and Queen Anne’s in FAVOURITE).  Both sees the arrival of a stranger who is revealed to have closer connections with the family that will shake formalities and turn the family upside down for better or for worse.  Though Lanthimos’s favourite actor Colin Farrell is not in this film, one can see him inhabiting a similar character now taken on by Nicholas Hoult.  THE FAVOURITE also contains Lanthimos’s odd pounding soundtrack and his fade outs to black.  

Lanthimos sees that the audience takes the side of Emma Stone from the very start when she falls flat with her face onto the mud on arrival at the castle.  She can do no wrong, compared to Lady Sarah that the script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara ensures the audience dislikes from start to finish.

Both films contain odd dialogue that are funny because they can occur at the least likely moment.  THE FAVOURITE’s best line is when Queen Anne rebutting Lady Sarah when asked to dismiss Abigail: “I will not, I enjoy having her tongue inside me.”  Those unfamiliar with Lanthimos previous films (and better still if the trailer is not seen beforehand) will likely find THE FAVOURITE more amusing, shocking and refreshing while those who are will find him doing the same tricks in a different setting.  All the main actors  Weisz, Stone and Colman have been in Lanthimos past films.  Surprises  are no more surprises if they are expected to occur.  One can say the same for a Lanthimos film – to expect surprise after surprise.  It would be a surprise if his films did not shock or surprise. Still. Lanthimos’s The FAVOURITE succeeds well in its ambitions.  But the dialogue (in literally the Queen’s English) – except one would imagine the words ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’ were not used in those times – is sped up several notches compared to the slow dialogue in Lanthimos’s other entries.

THE FAVOURITE arrives after the Venice International Film Festival with favourable reviews.

Trailer:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYb-wkehT1g

Film Review: THE OATH (USA 2018) ***

The Oath Poster
Trailer

The Oath is a fictional black comedy about American citizens given the supposedly option of signing a loyalty oath to the President.   As far as black comedies go, they do not often generate many laughs, and neither does this one.  THE OATH can be best considered a comic look at America and something that could but hopefully never happen.  Citizens are required to sign before the next Thanksgiving is up.  The oath is hopefully to isolate terrorists in America.  The incentive given to those who sign is a huge tax cut, but it seems that those opposing are being persecuted.

This controversial White House policy turns family member against family member when Chris (Ike Barinholtz), a high-strung progressive news junkie, and his more level headed wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish) learn bout it.  Their reaction is disbelief, followed by idealistic refusal.  But as the Thanksgiving deadline to sign approaches, the combination of sparring relatives, and the unexpected arrival of two government agents sends an already tense family gathering completely off the rails.  Chris mentions that this is not the America he knows or the one he wants to grow up with.

Director Barinholtz keeps the film’s budget in check.  Instead of showing an actual riot with cars and buildings set on fire, the above is seen on the television screen.  Most of the action takes place at the dining table with a few exteriors.

The film’s best joke also happens on the television when it is announced (heard) that actor Seth Rogen has disappeared because he was opposed to the oath. 

For a man so geared on Thanksgiving, the film allows the man (Chris) to throw away etiquette and allow him to use his cell phone.  This incident is the catalyst for the big break up at the Thanksgiving dinner. This is a scene well done with tempers flaring and foul language running loose.

Performances-wise, every actor seems to be overdoing their parts.  All this looks normal for the fact that the events unfolding are so over the top.

The film reaches great intensity once the CPU (Citizens Protection Unit) agents invade Chris’s home without a warrant.  Someone in the dinner party had complained that Chris is advising others not to sign the oath, and hence the agents’s sudden intrusion.  Agent Mason (Billy Magnussen) taunts Chris to the point that he pushes him resulting in him taking out his gun, and punches Chris.  As a result Chris’s dad hits Agent Peter (John Cho) with the chimney stoker knocking him out cold.  Mason is tasered and is tied up.  Mason is crazy and continue to threaten Chris while Agent Peter appears the rational one.  Director Marinholtz surprisingly keeps the audience at the edge of their seats during all the action combined with verbal shouting.  The children of the family are never seen during all the commotion, having being conveniently locked in another room or whisked off to another location.

One troubling flaw are the mixed messages sent by Barinholtz’s film.  Should one stand up for ones belief despite opposition from family or should one put family first and personal principles second?   The message is blurred more by the words uttered by Chris’s dad: “One has to do whatever it takes to keep ones family safe.”

When one wonders how all the mayhem and violence will end, Barinholtz gears his film towards an unexpected plot twist.  THE OATH ends up disappointing audiences’ expectations despite some solid compelling set-up drama.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LcVhhno-Uo

Full Review: TRANSFORMER (USA 2018) ***

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Transformer Poster
Trailer

In the summer of 2015, former US Marine and world record weightlifter Matt “Kroc” Kroczaleski was publicly outed as being transgender. The reaction was universal: her sponsors abandoned her… See full summary »

Writers:

Michael Del MontePaul Kemp (story editor)

Better a big muscular woman or a small weak man?

TRANSFORMER, the true transgender story of a muscled power lifter undergoing a sex change operation offers an unique perspective on the transgendered community and how each transition is unique to the person transitioning.  Janae (aka Matt) Kroc was as masculine as you can be prior to her transition, a world record powerlifter renowned for her masculinity. When she transitioned, she struggled with remaining true to her passions as a powerlifter while wanting to become more feminine.  The film illustrates a lesson that transitioning doesn’t mean leaving one person behind to become another – so audiences should be prepared to be taking for quite the ride.

Krocs’s personal and family are also on display.  Kroc bears all his secrets.  He admits to the origin of his power weightlifting.  He was bullied as a very young boy and never liked to be in that position.  After getting bigger. no one would mess with him.  That is until he started dressing up as a female.

The film follows not only Kroc through his weight lifting exhibitions and contests, but also through his personal life.  He is shown swimming with his three boys in the house pool.  He informs the audience that his wife would not allow him to dress in front of her or the children.  Unlike his children, she never understood or gave him a chance, which means it best if they separated.  The children speak highly of their cross-dressing father, saying that everyone should be able to do what he or she wants. 

It is indeed sad to see that there are still people in the world who are unacceptable of gays or people who are different in general.  A moving while disturbing segment shows protesters during an LGBT march.  These people carry just awful and nasty signs like LGBT (Let God Burn Them) and HOMO Sex is Sin.  Well, Kroc has admitted earlier in the film that he is still attracted to females and not men.  One really nasty sign reads” Get AIDs yet?”  What is wrong with these people?  Why is there a need to be plain nasty?  After that segment, the camera then focuses on Kroc back in male clothes.  One certainly gains a new respect for this man – one who is able to stand up for what he believes and to challenge all the unacceptable idiots in the world, who are the ones who should burn in hell.  Kroc is also shown boding with other transgender power lifters.  They share their emotions and experiences in a very sensitive moment. 

But one can tell the film is short of material.  Director Del Monte inserts Krocs’ pumping training sessions as filler.

TRANSFORMER turns out to be everything a solid documentary should be – a well. made doc on an intriguing subject based on a  character that inspires and teaches, an one who will persevere despite all odds.  The doc opens the audiences eyes to the good and the bad.  The good being that here are still people that are giving and understanding like Kroc’s children and the bad or very bad, the homophobic who are bullies, idiots and just plain nasty people.  The film premiered at Hot Docs 2018 and it is rewarding to see this well deserving piece get a full wide distribution.  A film that celebrates man’s diversity and one that demands to be seen, if not for just one transgender’s personal fight against all odds – a case of the underdog winning in a sort of feel-food documentary.

Trailer: : https://vimeo.com/233416373

TIFF 2018 Review: CAPERNAUM (Lebanon 2018) *****Top 10

Movie Reviews of films that will be playing at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) in 2018. Go to TIFF 2018 Movie Reviews and read reviews of films showing at the festival.

Capernaum Poster
A politically-charged fable, featuring mostly non-professional actors, about a child who launches a lawsuit against his parents.

Director:

Nadine Labaki

Writers:

Jihad Hojeily (screenwriter), Michelle Keserwany(screenwriter) | 2 more credits »

I did not think too much of Nadine Labaki’s 2011 TIFF People’s Choice Award winner WHERE DO WE GO NOW?,  a female whimsical tale of sorts but in her latest film, she explores the lives of children living on the fringes of Lebanese society.

  This is in contrast, a dead serious film with a male protagonist, though a 12- year old male boy who, when the film begins is suing his parents for bringing him into this unfriendly world.   Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is only 12, but he’s seen enough of this life to resent his very existence.  His parents have sold his sister and he runs away from home, ending up in prison for stabling the man who bought his sister.  Al Rafeea is sensational as the young rebel. 

 Labaki’s camera captures the dirt and poverty of the underbelly of Lebanese life where even hope is a luxury.  That title comes from the name of the town on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus healed the sick in Biblical times.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMTMdgNzIfA