Aquaman

Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman

Director: James Wan

Writers: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall


Aquaman, the latest instalment in the DC canon, is this preposterous miracle of a movie that manages to be fantastically, stupidly ridiculous without ever seeming to laugh at itself the way so many of us used to laugh at the fish-talking hero. That’s not an easy effect to pull off and it takes more than creativity, talent and a blockbuster budget to sustain. You need an unreserved sense of sincerity and a total, wholehearted, unironic love of the material in all its campiness, weirdness and silliness. That is part of the reason why Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice failed where Wonder Woman and Aquaman succeeded; they were produced by a studio that was embarrassed to be making comic book superhero movies. This doesn’t mean that superhero movies can’t be serious and adult, Christopher Nolan proved that they can, but too many filmmakers (Zack Snyder in particular) mistake that gloominess and grittiness for maturity. Aquaman is a mythological opera, a Shakespearian family drama and an Arthurian fable with themes of love, duty and diplomacy and an environmental message. It also happens to have a nation of crab people, a 1,000-foot leviathan voiced by Julie Andrews, and an octopus playing the drums.

Despite having already appeared in two previous films, Aquaman is very much an origin story for Jason Momoa’s scruffy, roguish swashbuckler. We learn about the circumstances of his birth, which was brought about by a forbidden romance between stranded Atlantean queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and her rescuer, lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison). Their union and the life of their son however are both threatened by the Atlantean forces sent out to bring their absconding queen to justice and so Atlanna is left with no choice but to return home where she is sentenced to death for the crime of birthing a half-breed son. Since then Arthur (Momoa) has had to grapple with being the outcast of two separate worlds. He grows up to become the long haired, impossibly buff, ornately tattooed aquatic superman we know from Justice League; a guy who just wants to be left on his own to drink, brood and protect endangered ships and submarines from the perils of the ocean. In his first solo movie Arthur emerges as a reluctant hero who, at the behest of the fiery-haired Atlantean idealist Mera (Amber Heard), embraces his destiny to save the nation that rejected him and killed his mother from the tyranny of his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), who plans to launch an attack against the land dwellers in retaliation for all of their polluting of the sea.

Aquaman adds a bit of an Indiana Jones tweak to the traditional superhero origin formula by sending Arthur and Mera on a quest in search of the legendary lost trident of Atlan, which according to the Atlantean councillor and Arthur’s mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe), will give he who wields it the authority to rule the seven seas as Ocean Master. Thus we’re treated to an adventure story that spans the globe, bringing us to the Sahara and Siciliy, with occasional interruptions, usually by the pirate mercenary David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), so that a fight scene can happen. Personally I could have used a little more of the riddle and puzzle- solving expedition because the movie can get a little tiresome and repetitive as it gets bogged down in the underwater political conflict between the armoured shark-riding and the armoured sea horse-riding (because it’s that kind of movie) tribes. When the action starts, it is awesome and silly in equal measure. There’s a delightfully childish charm to the way Wan is so ready and willing to embrace the absurdity of scuba suited Atlantean troops and their balloon-headed leader emerging on land in broad daylight to engage in some rooftop, hand-to-hand combat. Rather than shrouding them in darkness or using choppy editing to hide the kitschier elements, Wan presents the fight and chase sequence with all the barefaced glee of a Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers kung-fu showdown. The camera view is far-reaching and the movement free-flowing, ensuring that not a single goofy detail gets missed.

It’s interesting to consider how far superhero movies have come since the days of the first X-Men movie where they decided to adorn their characters with plain black leather rather than yellow spandex for fear that they might look too silly. This is something that the earlier DC Extended Universe movies struggled with as well when they opted for a grim, murky colour palette, presumably because they felt it would help sell the audience on a superhero cinematic universe that was altogether grittier, darker and more serious than Marvel’s. Aquaman himself was assigned a steely costume dominated by black and grey. Now he’s in a movie that adorns him with the radiantly orange and green armour he wears in the comic books, where the heroine’s hair shines in lava-red splendour and where the ocean is brought to dazzling life through sparkling shades of pale blue and aqua green and every colour in between. This movie adopts such saturated hues that you’d be forgiven for thinking that you missed a deleted scene where Arthur stumbled his way into the Technicolour world of Oz. By giving the film such a rich and diverse colour scheme, Wan makes it all the easier to appreciate the wealth of detail contained within each frame from the way that Atlantis is so luminously lit by the array of sea creatures that inhabit it to the ostentatiously varied choice of armour that sea-dwellers sport, including those that come with oversized crab and lobster claws.

As outrageous and over the top as Aquaman can get, Jason Momoa grounds it all with the confidence and charm of a star destined to have a lucrative career in the movies. He adopts a persona much like that which Dwayne Johnson has spent the last decade or so perfecting; the tough but loveable doofus who could just as soon join you for a drink and get rip-roaringly plastered as he could beat you into a bloody pulp without breaking a sweat. He can be solemn and thoughtful when he wants to be and he can be badass and funny. Supporting Momoa in his star-making turn is a cast that is devotedly committed to the movie in all of its total campiness. There’s something utterly enjoyable about watching Oscar worthy actors give themselves over to a thoroughly bonkers movie and whether it works (see Alec Guinness in Star Wars) or doesn’t (see Jeremy Irons in Dungeons and Dragons) the result is always magical. Dafoe and Kidman are such actors and watching them wield tridents and ride hammerhead sharks with such sincerity and gravitas is one of the movie’s great pleasures. Another is Wilson playing the kind of whiny, diabolical villain you just love to hate, (imagine Commodus from Gladiator and you’re not far off).

Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all about Aquaman is what a surprisingly progressive movie it is. Despite the numerous fight scenes that occur and the thrillingly invigorating ways in which they’re shot, Aquaman proves itself more willing than your average superhero blockbuster to challenge the notion that all conflict can be resolved through violence alone. Even when modern Hollywood movies preach about the value and necessity of peace, co-existence and empathy, too often that idealism gets undermined when the hero ends up having to take up arms to defeat the baddie. This was one of the issues I had with Wonder Woman, a movie whose hero was a paragon of compassion, and Black Panther, a movie of political daring almost unheard of in Hollywood, which both had their heroes win their victories by punching and blasting their foes into submission. In the moments where it matters most, it isn’t strength and might that win the day in Aquaman but de-escalation, diplomacy and forgiveness. It’s not as subversive in its aversion to violence as, say, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but it is an outstanding break in the precedent set by the nihilism of the Snyder DC movies and could mark a revolutionary step forward in the evolution of the superhero genre.

★★★★

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The Conjuring 2

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Simon McBurney, Franka Potente

Director: James Wan

Writers: James Wan, Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes, David Leslie Johnson


In his sequel to The Conjuring James Wan focuses on another famous paranormal incident from the 1970s: the Enfield Poltergeist. When watching the director at work in this time period, it is immediately apparent how much he has been influenced by the horror films of this era such as The Omen, Poltergeist and, aptly enough, The Amityville Horror. He has drawn from these movies cinematic tricks and techniques that elevates his style of horror above the usual crop of lazy, unimaginative movies that think making a viewer jump is the same thing as scaring them. The Conjuring 2 is essentially a showcase of 70s and 80s horror movie practices put together by a director who understands how and why they work. While the sequel isn’t quite as strong as its predecessor, whose characters resonated a little more strongly and horror was meted out a little more evenly, The Conjuring 2 is still a worthwhile film that shines like a beacon amid the endless stream of tired, mediocre horror movies still being made today.

The film opens in 1976 with Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) investigating the Amityville Horror. During a séance Lorraine receives a haunting vision of a demonic figure and a dark premonition of Ed’s fate. So unsettled is she by this vision that she begs Ed to stop going on investigations for a while. A year later the Hodgson family in London starts encountering strange experiences in their home, most of them involving Janet (Madison Wolfe), the second oldest of the four children. Once it becomes clear that these occurrences are paranormal, the mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) starts looking for help from the church. After it is discovered that Janet might be the victim of a demonic possession, the story becomes a media sensation and eventually reaches the Warrens. Lorraine, still troubled by her vision and fearing for Ed’s life, reluctantly agrees to follow Ed to London but warns him not to get too involved in the case. There they hope to discover the true nature of this demonic threat and save the Hodgsons from the spirit haunting them.

There are some great moments of horror in this film. Using some of the tricks he’s picked up from the horror movies of this era such as the uncomfortably long takes of Kubrick’s The Shining and the eerie lighting of Friedkin’s The Exorcist Wan is able to create some truly creepy scenes. A good example is when Ed Warren first attempts to interview the spirit possessing Janet. Here the camera is fixed squarely on Ed’s face and depicts his reaction while Janet sits out of focus in the background. This staging places an amplified focus on the creepy voice coming out of this 12-year-old girl while also allowing for a strong degree of ambiguity in regards to whether or not the Warrens actually believe that this is an authentic paranormal threat. The scares however are not as consistent or as effective as they were in the first film due to issues of tone and pacing. There are number of scenes that, while not bad, are just unnecessary and could easily have been cut out to allow for a tighter, scarier experience. One such example is a scene where Patrick Wilson does his best Elvis and serenades the family with a rendition of ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’. It’s fun, but distracting.

As in the first film Wilson and Farmiga are utterly devoted to their roles and deliver equally strong performances. Farmiga is particularly compelling as Lorraine undergoing a crisis in confidence and faith. Challenging her faith is the fantastically designed demon nun haunting her visions with sacrilegious images and a premonition of Ed’s death. She struggles throughout the film to keep Ed safe and to keep herself from going insane and Farmiga sells every second of it. The Hodgsons are not quite as strongly defined or relatable as the family in the first film which means that some of the horror loses its weight. Frances O’Connor is fine but doesn’t really leave much of an impact as the distressed mother. Wolfe does a decent job playing the little girl being tortured by this spirit but I cannot help but compare her to Eleanor Worthington-Cox’s terrific turn as the same character in Sky’s The Enfield Haunting.

The Conjuring 2 doesn’t quite hit the mark to the same extent as its predecessor or indeed any of the films it so clearly emulates. However, with the aggravating number of cheap, lazy horrors being made today, any film in this genre made by a director with actual cinematic competence is welcome. Wan is certainly a capable director and his technical skill in producing horror within the vein of movies made in the 70s and 80s is indisputable. He shows a remarkable level of attention to detail in his desire to pay homage to these films as can be seen in his accurate recreation of the time period. His mistake with this film was getting carried away with it and adding in more than was needed. A little more time in the editing room might have allowed this film to be the equal of the first Conjuring movie. Nevertheless The Conjuring 2 still delivers the scares where it counts and is worth a watch, if only because decent horror movies are a rare commodity these days.

★★★