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 Raph Breaks the Internet (2018)

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This is the second movie of this series, a sequel to Wreck-it Ralph (2012). It was directed by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, and opened on November 21, 2018. It stars the voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Ed O’Neill, Gal Godot, Taraji P. Henson and Alfred Molina. It was nominated for Best Animated Feature for both the Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe Awards. For anyone who is confused by the scenario, Ralph and Vanellope are characters from obsolete arcade video games. This review contains spoilers.

Wreck-it Ralph and Vanellope von Schweetz live in neighboring games at Litwak’s Family Fun Center and Arcade. After the previous film where Ralph tries too hard to become a hero, Ralph and Vanellope become best friends. However, Vanellope is bored with her racing game. Ralph tries to help out with a bonus track and Vanellope is thrilled, but the diversion results in a broken steering wheel on her game’s cabinet. The part only seems to be available on Ebay, so the two of them take advantage of new wi-fi in the arcade to infiltrate the Internet in search of the part. As ingénues, they accidentally bid up the price, but win the auction, then have to raise the money to pay for it. After a couple of false starts, they find Yesss, an algorithm for BuzzTube, who helps Ralph make a lot of money from silly videos. Meanwhile, Vanellope finds friends among the princesses at the Disney site and is attracted by hazards in the game Slaughter Race, where she meets champion driver Shank. Horrified that Vanellope might leave him, Ralph looks for help in damaging Slaughter Race. Spamley introduces Ralph to Double Dan, who gives him an insecurity virus that will replicate flaws. The virus replicates Vanellope’s glitch and forces Slaughter Race to reboot, which will delete Vanellope. Can Ralph save the day? Can he keep Vanellope as his friend? What will happen if he can’t?

This is one of those wonderful kids animations that works on multiple levels. There are the bright, colorful characters for the little kids and important, serious themes for older ones. In addition, this seems to be light satire. The serious themes here are about the importance of friendship, about letting your friends grow and follow their own paths, and how your insecurities and need can sabotage relationships when you double down and don’t let them grow. The animators’ vision of the Internet as a huge, busy city with blue twittery songbirds is clever and entertaining—Disney must have recouped their costs just from the product placements alone. The sequence where Vanellope realizes she’s a real Disney princess that needs her own song is both ironic and priceless. Then Ralph makes the right decision at the end and everybody grows up a little bit.

I really couldn’t find any negatives in this. It was cute and heartwarming, and carries a great message. Awww.

Don’t miss the post-credits scene with the rabbit. 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.

Review of Netflix The Defenders miniseries

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I’m also going to review this miniseries, as there’s a gap in the Daredevil seasons without it. The Defenders superhero group includes Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. This MCU show premiered on Netflix in July 2017, produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios, with Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez acting as showrunners. It stars Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones, Mike Colter as Luke Cage and Finn Jones as Danny Rand/Iron Fist, all reprising their roles from their individual series, plus Sigourney Weaver as the Hand’s Alexandra Reid. This review includes spoilers.

Luke Cage has been released from prison, and during an investigation encounters Iron Fist Danny Rand and his friend Coleen Wing, who have arrived in NYC from Cambodia. PI Jessica Jones takes a case where an architect has gone missing, finds his apartment filled with explosives, and is present when he commits suicide in his office. Jones is taken in by the police and Foggy Nelson sends Matt Murdock to get her out of trouble. Meanwhile, the Hand’s excavations at Midland Circle are causing earth tremors. Cage, Jones and Murdock continue investigating, and Rand tries using his corporate ties to find out what’s going on at Midland Circle. His meeting with the board goes poorly, and the Defenders end up together fighting their way out. They hold a meeting at a Chinese restaurant where Matt’s old martial arts instructor Stick arrives, and Matt and Jones refuse to get involved. The Hand is onto them now, though, and arrive at the restaurant. Cage captures Sowande, one of the Hand’s fingers, and they find that the Hand wants Danny/Iron Fist to open a portal for them at the bottom of their excavation. The Defenders gather their friends and send them to the police precinct station for protection. Stick kills Sowande and means to kill Danny, but Elektra arrives, kills Stick and steals Danny away. The Defenders wake from unconsciousness at the police station, but break out and head uptown to rescue Danny. Meanwhile Cage’s friend Claire Temple and Colleen Wing have stolen the explosives and the architect’s plans out of the police evidence room and set the explosives at Midland Circle to bring down the building. Elektra kills Alexandra Reid and takes over the Hand’s organization. Madam Gao takes control of the reanimation substance the Hand is mining. The Defenders rescue Danny and head out, but Matt goes back for Elektra. The explosive goes off. Is there any way Matt and Elektra can survive?

This story continues the second season of Daredevil. It’s something of a mash-up of stories, but it also includes bits of ironic humor and generally moves along pretty well. There are a couple of big plot holes. For example, if the police find unconscious people at a crime scene, they’ll take them to the hospital, not to the police station, even if they’re identifiable as superheroes. The resulting scenario is fun, but not real likely. Also, even female superheroes have to deal with physics. Even if Jessica Jones is super-strong, she will still need to deal with mass, and even if Alexandra Reid has mystical powers, she will still need correct body mechanics to throw her opponents. This is an obvious problem given the gifts of Élodie Yung as Elektra and the 75-year-old Wai Ching Ho as Madame Gao, who does an awesome job of channeling her mystical powers.

Very entertaining and watchable. Four stars.

Review of Netflix’s Daredevil Season 2

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This MVU show premiered on Netflix in March of 2016, produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios, with Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez serving as showrunners. Principal stars are Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, Élodie Yung as Elektra Natchios, Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle/Punisher, Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin. This review contains spoilers.

The Kingpin’s fall has left a vacuum, and local crime escalates in Hell’s Kitchen as various gangs and new vigilantes fight for turf. Confronting one of the vigilantes, Matt is shot in the head. His Daredevil helmet saves his life, but he is down and out for a while until his hearing recovers. When Matt encounters the vigilante again, the Punisher captures him and ties him up, offers him the chance to either kill an informant or Castle himself. Matt chooses to escape instead. Castle kills his informant, but eventually turns himself in to the police through the firm Nelson and Murdock. Matt starts a budding romance with Karen, but his nighttime activities have attracted the attention of his old martial arts instructor Stick and his old college flame Elektra Natchios. They both turn up and try to draft him into a war against a nebulous Japanese cult called the Hand (Hand of Darkness in Japanese) bent on reanimating corpses and taking over large swaths of Manhattan for unknown purposes. Castle refuses the plea deal Nelson and Murdock negotiate for him and they have to go to trial. Matt has a ragged attendance and Foggy and Karen do most of the work, almost swaying the jury, but Castle admits to his crimes on the witness stand and is sentenced to prison, where he makes a deal with Fisk to get at the man who killed his family and then escape. Foggy uses the exposure he’s gotten at the Castle trial to find a high-paid job at another law firm, leaving Nelson and Murdock. At a final great battle against the Hand, Daredevil and Elektra are faced with overwhelming odds. She dies, but with Frank Castle’s help, Matt and Stick prevail. Unknown to them, the Hand steals her body to resurrect her. Unwilling to lie to Karen any longer, Matt reveals to her that he is Daredevil.

This season has a lot of moving parts, with Castle, Elektra, the Hand and the Iron Fist legion of ninja warriors taking up huge amounts of air time. Matt’s life pretty much falls apart, as he is unable to keep up with his job as an attorney while fighting in the war Elektra and Stick have going on with the Hand. The constant siege on his moral system provides the main theme here, as Castle, Elektra and Stick try to use Daredevil as a weapon, encouraging him to kill, while Foggy still insists on the rule of law. Elektra, especially, is a huge temptation to Matt, as she enjoys killing, and in fact, seems to be the great champion the dark Hand is expecting. In the final episode, Matt tells Elektra that the experience he’s living has freed him, and he’s willing to leave his old life to go with her—effectively giving up on his belief system. When she dies, he is left in a sort of emotional limbo.

I consider this the weakest of the three seasons, although the action crowd will likely prefer it because it launches the Punisher and Iron Fist shows and provides a lot of amazing stunt work in the battles with the Hand. Minor annoyance: all the native English speakers mispronounce yakuza, while all the native Japanese speakers get it right. Couldn’t they have gotten together on this somehow? Events that set up the plot in season 3: Fisk’s deal with Castle in the prison leaves Fisk in control of it. Looking for information, Matt visits Fisk/Kingpin in prison, where Fisk attacks him. Fisk is a really big man who kills people with his bare hands, but once he’s had his hands on Matt, he knows there’s something wrong. This is going to mean trouble down the road.

Three and a half stars.

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