Review of Aquaman (2018)

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This film is from the DC stable of comics, with Aquaman already introduced in the recent Justice League films. Here he has his own movie. This was released November 21, 2018, by Warner Brothers Pictures, and it’s the 6th installment in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) films. It was directed by James Wan, and stars Jason Momoa as Aquaman, with Amber Heard, Willem Defoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Nicole Kidman. This review contains spoilers.

Princess Atlanna of Atlantis washes up during a storm and carries on a romance with lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry that produces a son, Arthur. Atlanna is forced to return to Atlantis, leaving her son behind. However, she sends her advisor Nuidis to see that he is trained in underwater arts. Although Arthur is Atlanna’s firstborn and has a claim on the kingship, he is rejected by Atlantis for being a half-breed and makes a life on the surface instead. Arthur fights off a group of pirates attacking a Russian vessel and makes an enemy of David Kane (Black Manta). Orm, Arthur’s younger brother and current King of Atlantis, contracts with Kane to attack Atlantis as a pretext for war with the surface world. Orm’s bethrothed Mera refuses to accept the idea of war and goes to the surface world to find Arthur. Reluctantly, he sets out with her to find the symbolic Trident of Atlan, which will allow him to depose Orm and claim the throne of Atlantis. Can Arthur find the trident and defeat Orm to prevent the war?

This film has done really well at the box office (currently $1.1 billion worldwide), maybe just because people like to watch Jason Momoa do his thing. It’s CGI heavy, as you could expect from the heavily underwater setting, and it moves right along, without any slow spots where you might fall asleep. There are some thrilling fight scenes. The ending is emotionally satisfying, and the audience at my showing actually applauded at the close.

However, as often happens with high-budget action movies, the special effects here take a toll on what the movie can accomplish. I wasn’t thrilled with the script, or the vision of Atlantis as a high-tech underwater city. If it’s that scientifically advanced, then why are its social and political structures so backward? I got the feeling that the CGI displaced the human storyline here, which ended up being pretty thin. There was something of a whiplash effect at the beginning as the director tried to quickly lay out the background, jumping from Princess Atlanna to the pirates without any transition. Plus, the editing was really poor, where in one shot Arthur is bare-chested and in the next he’s got his shirt on. This budget was actually on the low end for DC, so maybe they didn’t have enough money to reshoot scenes like that. And last, I gather that Mera and Curry are supposed to develop a romantic relationship, but instead we get a sort of annoying-kid-sister vibe from the two of them. Atlannta and Orm are cold fish. There’s just not a whole lot of chemistry anywhere in this movie. And who came up with that hair color for Mera? It’s a sort of hot, hot, hot pink. Ick. This is watchable and maybe satisfying, but actually pretty messy.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of Bumblebee (2018)

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This film is the 6th in the Transformer series and a prequel to Transformers (2007). It was released December 3, 2018, by Paramount. It’s directed by Travis Knight, and stars Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena and Jorge Lendeborg, Jr. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 1987. On Cybertron, the Autobots are losing the war against the Decepticons, and Optimus Prime sends B-127 to Earth to set up a protected base of operations. It crash-lands on Earth, disrupting a military training exercise. The humans attack, followed quickly by Decepticons. Badly damaged, B-127 transforms to a yellow 1967 Volkswagen Beetle and hides out in a junkyard. Meanwhile, Charlie Watson is turning 18. She is having adjustment problems, as her father recently died and her mother has remarried. She wants a car, and her Uncle Hank gives her B-127 from the junkyard. Charlie accidentally activates a signal that alerts the Decepticons that B-127 is active again, and two of them arrive on Earth. They convince the military that Bee is a dangerous criminal on their world, and obtain cooperation to find and destroy it. Charlie repairs the Volkswagen and manages to partially restore Bee’s voice and memory. Can Charlie, her friend Memo and Bumblebee defeat the Decepticons and save Earth?

So, the first Transformers film was pretty decent, but then they got sucky. When you sit through one, you can tell right away that they’re action flicks aimed at 14-year-old boys, pretty much to the exclusion of everybody else. This film dares to do something else, which means it’s pretty good as a stand-alone film. It’s about Bumblebee finding a couple of friends in a hostile world, and about how that friendship helps all of them to adjust and find their way forward. There’s great chemistry between Charlie and B-127, and the animation style makes Bee sweet and endearing, regardless of its hugely destructive capabilities. These show up briefly as the action line rises, but in the end, Bee manages to make peace and get on with its mission for Optimus Prime.

On the negative side, this is a pretty simple plot without a huge amount of depth—mostly about friendship, helping your friends, and how a warm, winning personality can prevail against unreasonable prejudice. The beginning sequence was a re-run of the kind of battle action that makes the other Transformer films sucky and boring, but once that’s done and we’re into Bee’s adventures on Earth, then the film picks up interest.

Recommended. Four stars.

Review of Artemis by Andy Weir

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I’m going to pronounce this novel hard science fiction. It was published by Broadway Books on November 14, 2017 and runs 352 pages. Artemis won the 2018 Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. This review may include spoilers.

Jasmine Bashara is the daughter of a master welder and lives in Artemis, the moon city. Jazz is smart and capable, but because of poor life choices, she has ended up working as a low-paid porter and supplements her income with a sideline of smuggling. She is approached by local businessman Trond Landvik, who offers her a huge sum to sabotage Sanchez Aluminum’s harvesting equipment so he can buy the company. She accepts his offer, and the sabotage effort is nearly successful. She gets caught, but talks her way out of trouble for the time being. However, Lanvik and his bodyguard turn up dead, and Jazz is next on the killer’s list. Can she figure out what’s going on and turn this into a victory somehow?

This novel has a lot of great points. It’s entertaining; it has a fast pace, a great plot, plenty of action and tech-based problem solving. Artemis has a frontier feel and law enforcement and administration are very small-time. The setting and the characters really come alive as Jazz moves through the dingy corridors of the moon city and interacts with her friends, acquaintances and enemies. Weir has turned a few usual expectations upside down, as the moon-city is established by an African businesswoman and the crime syndicate behind Sanchez Aluminum is Brazilian. Bashara is a Saudi Muslim, but clearly not very much in touch with her roots.

On the not so great side, there are some questionable issues in the execution. First, it seems like Weir might be trying to send a message here about teen rebellion and poor life choices, but he doesn’t follow through. Jazz knows she’s made poor life choices, but instead of trying to fix this, she doubles down on fast talking and just gets in deeper with worse decisions. It seems unlikely that local management would overlook all her transgressions, and the deal she offers Ngugi to avoid deportation at the end doesn’t hold water. Until this point, Jazz has come across as a small-time, low-income smuggler, but now she represents herself as being completely in control of Artemis’ smuggling trade? How and when did this happen?

Regardless of these little niggles, you have to hand it to Andy Weir for revitalizing the hard SF genre. It’s a fun read.

Four stars.

Review of “The Island” by Peter Watts

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This work is a novelette, originally published in The New Space Opera 2 by Eos, 2009, and now available on the author’s website. It’s science fiction about space exploration and runs 40 pages. Watts is a multi-award winner and in 2010 received the Hugo Award for Best Novelette for this story. This review may contain spoilers.

Eriophora is a black hole starship, an asteroid form with a singularity in its belly. It’s operated by a limited AI called Chimp, and has a human crew of several thousand people carried in a state of suspended animation. The ship explores the galaxy and builds wormhole gates in suitable locations. The mission is expected to extend until the ship runs out of resources, billions of years into the future. Chimp reanimates human crew units for short periods of time when it needs higher intellectual capability or human judgement. Sunday Ahzmundin wakes to find she has a son Dix, and that her old lover Kai is dead. The problem Chimp has run into is a signal from a red dwarf star they are approaching. Dix and Sunday identify this as a signal from an intelligent alien that directs them to another area of space to build their wormhole gate. Sunday and Chimp are in adversarial positions for this awakening, as she is angry about it raising her son without her knowledge, and because of past dealings. Taken by the idea of an innocent organism in space, she negotiates a change in course. Will this fix the problem, or will it make things worse?

Watts’ strong point is the heart that he puts into his stories. At this point in time, Sunday and Chimp have a lot of history (i.e. grudges) that have turned their relationship into a battle. Dix, as part of a new generation Chimp is planning, suffers from lack of socialization and complete inability to deal with his mother. Meanwhile, the alien organism has an agenda of its own.

On the negative side, Watts doesn’t give much background and is way into the story before he identifies his protagonist as Ahzmundin, so again, I’ve wasted tons of imagination in thinking this might be someone else. Also, there are plot issues this time, maybe from having a work that’s too short. First, how has Sunday produced a son she didn’t know about? Because she and Dix’s father Kai were lovers, I’m assuming the child was conceived the usual way. So how did Chimp get the embryo, fetus or child? Does it make a habit of violating the sleeping crew? Then why wait until someone is pregnant? Why not just inseminate? Or is Dix a hostage just because he’s Sunday’s son? Hm. Also, the ending is unclear. As I read this, there are actually two alien organisms out there at the red dwarf, but given the text, I wouldn’t swear to it.

Four stars.

Review of The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

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This work is a short novel/novella, published by Tachyon Publications on June 12, 2018. It’s science fiction about space exploration and runs 192 pages. Watts is a multi-award winner and in 2010 received the Hugo Award for Best Novelette for “The Island.” This story takes place in the same ship, but apparently at an earlier time. This review may contain spoilers.

Eriophora is a black hole starship. It resembles an asteroid with a singularity in its belly, and it’s operated by an AI called Chimp. It has a human crew of 30K people carried in a state of suspended animation. The ship’s mission is to explore the galaxy, find acceptable locations for wormhole gates and then to build the gates. The mission is expected to extend until the ship runs out of resources, billions of years into the future, so Mission Control has set up safeguards for different eventualities. The AI Chimp has limited capabilities and reanimates human crew units for short periods of time when it needs higher intellectual capability or human judgement. This means the crew does not age except when they are on deck to deal with problems, and drain on life support resources is minimal. Several billion years into the mission, crewmember Lian Wei has a crisis of faith and begins to feel the human crew are only slaves to the AI. She fakes her own death, hides in the oxygen-producing forest, and begins to recruit revolutionaries to break free. One of these recruits is Sunday Ahzmundin. Sunday has a special relationship with Chimp, so she is conflicted about undermining the AI, but she ultimately agrees with Lian that humans need to be in charge of the mission. Over a period of thousands of years, about 30 revolutionaries leave encrypted messages for one another, learn to track Chimp’s movements around the ship and come up with a plan to destroy it. The plan fails, and Sunday realizes that Chimp is not what it seems. Is there a way forward?

So, this is pretty brilliant. I see the book advertised as hard SF, and it does have that feel. In the acknowledgements, Watts notes that anything this far in the future is basically “handwavium,” but that he made serious efforts at research to make it sound like it was real science. He’s made that rare effort, real projection of what humanity might be up to millions of years into the future, and actually managed to produce the traditionalist’s sense of wonder about the vastness of Spacetime. The characters and setting here are well-developed, and the plot has a lot of depth. Item of note, Eri is an Africa group of the Igbo people, and their founder was supposed to come to earth in a spacecraft to teach civilization to the people.

On the negative side, Watts doesn’t describe his narrator until he’s 1/4 of the way through, meaning I’ve squandered a lot of imagination making up the wrong mental picture. Also, this work assumes an affinity for science, and basic understanding of space exploration and singularities. Watts sketches in the basics, but doesn’t explain, which will likely put off a lot of readers. Unfortunately, that’s the risk of writing awesome hard SF.

Five stars.

Wrap up of the Daredevil Reviews

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So, there are a number of reasons why this series would never have happened on other entertainment services than Netflix with a MA (mature audience) rating. The first of course, is the darkness of both the subject matter and the production. This is about evil as represented by organized crime and a cast of people who are trying to do something about it. The production doesn’t hold back on either blood or the representations of evil. Lots of people get hurt and killed in ugly ways, and a few get tortured along the way. Especially in the first season, Daredevil isn’t always a nice person.

This production is tailored to fit well into today’s expectations, as the cast is diverse and there are some liberal additions to the story lines—organized crime forcing poor minority immigrants out of their homes, etc. However, there is a darkness in the heart of the story that current viewers may not recognize. This story is very much about the Irish experience. The Irish weren’t considered white in the US in the 19th century, and Daredevil debuted in 1964 when there was still active discrimination against Irish Catholics in the US. This means that when Marvel released the comic, it was actually a diversity addition to their offerings.

Next, I’m surprised that there’s been no comment on the ideology here. Despite the trimmings, this show presents something you don’t see much these days—that is conservative values including love, family, respect, religion, strict morals, Western culture and the rule of law. The discussion of good and evil is framed in Catholic terms as about the Christian God versus the adversarial Satan, and Matt is working from a strict Christian moral system that defines what is acceptable for a “good” person to do and what’s not. The danger in failing is losing his soul and, as Sister Maggie warns him, becoming the monster himself.

The last issue is something interesting that’s understated here, but built clearly into the concept. It’s considered politically incorrect to discuss racial characteristics these days, but since the Irish and Germans are now both white, then they’re fair game, right? Plus, I’ve got a lot of Irish and German in my family tree, and I can talk about my own roots. So, the Germanic tribes really like order, punctuality and world domination. The Celtic tribes, on the other hand, are known for passion, wit and ferocity. This means you want to put Germans in control of your transportation system and the Irish in as first responders—firefighters and police. If you don’t believe in racial characteristics and you want to do it the other way around, then fine, but the results are your problem. So this story is about Matt Murdock’s Irish fire against Wilson Fisk’s Germanic drive for order and world domination. It’s an old war, going all the way back to the Iron Age in Europe, but still playing out here in the neighborhoods of NYC.

I love complex works. Congratulations to the show’s stars and production team for carrying it off so well.

Review of Netflix’s Daredevil Season 3

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This MCU show premiered on Netflix in October of 2018, produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios, with Erik Oleson as the showrunner. Principal stars include Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin and Wilson Bethel as Poindexter/Bullseye. This review contains spoilers.

Daredevil is thought to have been killed in a building collapse (see The Defenders review), but a badly injured Matt washes out of the city storm sewer and is found by a passer-by. He refuses to be taken to the hospital, and takes sanctuary at Clinton Church, where Father Lantom places him with Sister Maggie, back in the orphanage where Matt grew up. He makes a slow recovery, emotionally, physically and spiritually, and eventually starts going out as a vigilante again. Results are poor at first, but as he gets stronger, he finds that Fisk is gaining power again as an organized crime boss. Convincing the FBI he is a valuable informant, Fisk has moved into a penthouse apartment in Manhattan where he gives out enough information to eliminate other crime bosses, while working to establish a new protection racket. He subverts the agents guarding him, including Nadeem and the psychopathic Poindexter. Meanwhile, Foggy Nelson is still working at his job with a new firm and Karen Page has taken a position as a reporter for The Bulletin. The two of them continue to pay the rent on Matt’s apartment, but they are losing hope that he’s still alive. After Fisk’s release hits the papers, Foggy is surprised by a sudden encounter with Matt, who steals his wallet and uses the IDs to gain entrance to Fisk’s prison. He is identified and manages to escape, but is intercepted by a taxi driven by Fisk’s man and plunged off a dock into the river. He escapes there, too, and when Fisk sends the FBI to get him, they find only wet clothes in a pile on the floor of Matt’s apartment. Foggy and Karen insist that they need to work through the law, and Matt joins them to try to find witnesses to turn on Fisk. The stakes continue to rise, as Fisk gains more power and outfits Poindexter with a fake Daredevil suit to make trouble for the trio. Eventually Matt decides that the law won’t prevail, and that he needs to kill Fisk. He misses once because Fisk has Page cornered at the church, but with Karen safe, he crashes Fisk’s wedding with his love Vanessa in order to try again. Confronted with the dark Daredevil, Matt has to make a final decision about how his life will go.

So, this season is absolutely brilliant. Completely reduced by events, Matt Murdock has to totally rebuild his life from nothing. He lurks around in a parka and a baseball cap, and he’s back to basic black for his vigilante work. He’s got no friends, no ID, no money, and depends on charity at the church to eat. He’s haunted by his father’s ghost, his missing mother, an ephemeral Fisk, and a fake, sneering, evil Daredevil that’s exactly what he could become. However, he’s shed Matt’s disability, too—now he’s just himself. In this season, the black of his mask is relieved by a touch of white lining, though at the end we see a red edge peeking out from under his tee-shirt. On the action side, Matt’s escape from the prison is pretty awesome, and all shot in one take. Plus, in the unrelieved grimness of the series so far, suddenly this season presents some completely hilarious moments.

Check it out on Netflix. Five stars.

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