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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Murder on the Orient Express

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Writer: Michael Green


Dame Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Without those two names you don’t get the classic whodunit as we know it today. Christie’s work is now so iconic that you don’t even have to have read a single word of her writing to recognise the formula. There’s been a murder, everyone’s a suspect, a top detective is brought in to solve the crime and the audience sees if they can crack the case before the big reveal. It’s a formula that we’ve seen in movies time and time again from the classic Hollywood film noirs and Clair’s adaptation of Christie’s And Then There Were None to more recent examples like Clue and The Hateful Eight. Murder on the Orient Express is perhaps the most famous single story Christie ever wrote and it has been adapted numerous times, most notably in 1974 with Albert Finney and in 2010 with David Suchet. This time it’s Branagh, sporting a hideous moustache, who steps into the shoes of Christie’s iconic detective in what he hoped would be a dynamic retelling of the classic mystery.

It is 1934 and we are introduced to world-famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh and his ridiculous moustache) as he solves a case in Jerusalem. He must then immediately return to London for another case and is offered passage on the Orient Express by his good friend Bouc (Tom Bateman). Soon after the train departs Poirot receives an offer from the shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) to protect him from harm for the three-day journey after receiving an anonymous threatening letter, an offer which Poirot declines. The next morning Ratchett is discovered dead in his compartment and an avalanche stops the train in its tracks. A note is discovered connecting Ratchett’s murder to the infamous case of a murdered little girl in the USA and Poirot resolves to discover who among the other passengers killed him. His suspects include the governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), the missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Count Rudolph (Segei Polunin) and Countess Helena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton), the butler Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi), the widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), the deceased’s assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.).

For me the biggest reservation I had going into this film was Kenneth Branagh as Poirot. Not because I dislike Branagh as an actor (I don’t) or because of that inhuman abomination to both man and God that he calls a moustache, but because David Suchet embodied the famous detective so perfectly on the ITV series that all other incarnations of the character, including the Oscar-nominated Finney and the Bafta-nominated Ustinov, will forever be fighting for second place. Still Branagh puts on the gross eyesore that occupies his upper lip and he has a go at Christie’s most famous character, playing him as an inflexible control-freak who cannot tolerate imperfections in the world, whether they be the physical imperfections of two uneven boiled eggs or the moral imperfections of human beings. Branagh is a good enough actor that he is able to play the atrociously-moustached Poirot with the sufficient flash and gravitas while also scoring some laughs with his one-liners, but his decision to attribute Poirot’s meticulousness as obsessive-compulsive tendencies made for what I found to be a far less interesting character than the altogether more eloquently-moustached Suchet, whose perfectionism as Poirot came from a steadfast, unyielding belief in the absolute virtue of the law, God, and decency.

Still, Branagh the actor didn’t bother me as much as Branagh the director did. He makes a strong attempt to make the Christie mystery feel cinematic, which is an effort that I do admire but don’t think ultimately worked. When we see Poirot boarding the Orient Express in a single, sweeping tracking shot or when we witness the discovery of Ratchett’s body with a static overhead shot that leaves the corpse just out of frame, the style of these shots called so much attention to themselves that they struck me as self-indulgent flourishes rather than as creative cinematic storytelling techniques. It’s the same kind of self-indulgence that I imagine inspired Branagh to feature Poirot and his ghastly facial fur at centre stage throughout the whole film at the detriment of the all-star ensemble at his disposal. Some actors do manage to give out a great deal with the little they’re dealt, most notably Pfeiffer as the glamorous and wealthy widow in search of her next husband, but other characters, including those played by the enormously talented likes of Olivia Colman and Derek Jacobi, simply do not get enough time to dance in their acting shoes. All are side-lined and are mainly there to sit and look astonished so the film can spend as much time as it can focusing on how incredibly impressive Poirot and his egregious display of horrendous facial hair are.

I saw the film with two friends who did not know the ending and, while the final twist did seem to take them by surprise, they left feeling overall underwhelmed. The movie just doesn’t have that edge-of-your-seat momentum that a great whodunit should have. The private interrogations that Poirot conducts with each of the passengers do not have that captivating sense of intrigue and feeling of inquisitiveness because Branagh is much more interested in showcasing the deductive brilliance of Poirot and his abominable whiskers than in fleshing out all these secretive characters and getting to the heart of the mystery. The movie is so desperate for tension that it resorts to a cheap, generic Hollywood chase scene along the exterior of the train. Even the big reveal fails to impress as it relies too much on style and not enough on substance, even going so far as to arrange all the characters into an impractical pose that evokes The Last Supper (I guess making Poirot Da Vinci because that’s how much of a genius he is). As with the later seasons of Sherlock, this is a case of an artist getting so carried away with showing everyone how brilliantly brilliant his brilliant character and brilliant style are that all else gets swept aside and the story suffers because of it. Murder on the Orient Express is a stylish but empty remake that did not need to be made. Also I didn’t like the moustache.

★★

The Great Wall

Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau

Director: Zhang Yimou

Writers: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy


The critical response to this movie has me quite perplexed. Personally, I didn’t like this movie at all. I thought it was a stupid, ridiculous, misguided mess of a film. While hardly a critical darling, this film was given a more positive reception than I thought it could possibly warrant. When I actually read some of those reviews though, what I found was that they weren’t exactly positive per se, but rather forgiving. Many of these reviews conceded that the film was silly, that it didn’t make any sense, that Damon’s performance is wooden, that a lot of the CGI isn’t at all convincing. They conceded some or all of those things, yet maintained that they enjoyed the movie anyway. A lot of this perhaps stems from the respect many critics have for Zhang Yimou, one of the most revered directors working in China today. Maybe some of them were swept away by the spectacle. Or maybe I’m making too much out of all this and all those critics simply enjoyed a silly, messy movie for what it is. All I can really say is that I didn’t like it.

The movie follows two European mercenaries, William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) who are attacked on their way to China by some unknown creature. The creature massacres their entire troop but then flees after having its arm severed by William. The two survivors reach the Great Wall, where they hope to discover the secret of gunpowder, and are taken prisoner by The Nameless Order, a secretive Chinese army. Their leaders General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) reveal that they have been charged with the defence of China against a horde of alien monsters, the same kind that William and Tovar encountered, which rise every sixty years. When a wave of the beasts arrive and attack the Great Wall, William and Tovan are freed by Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a European prisoner of many years, join the fight, and earn the respect of the General and of Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian). They resolve to aid the Chinese in their resistance against the insurmountable odds facing them.

As a viewer I am far from immune to spectacle, and I must confess that this movie does have some. If there are two things that are never lacking in Yimou’s films, it’s stylish action and a gorgeous colour palette. When the film established its Helm’s Deep setup and gave us our first big action scene, I was carried away for a while by the neat production and costumes, the gymnastic fighting style of the Crane troop, and the baffling insanity of it all. But then it wore off. Then I started getting distracted by the nonsensical plot, the stilted dialogue, Damon’s inability to settle on an accent and the overblown CGI. Then I started finding the movie tedious. Once I got past the oriental setting and the action scenes I found that The Great Wall was just a formulaic monster movie. There’s a roguish hero rising to the occasion, a deus ex machina plot device in the form of a magnet, a generic lesson about trust and honour and dozens upon dozens of expendable CGI monsters getting hacked and slashed along the way. That’s about it.

While Damon is no stranger to action, he looks so uncomfortably out of place in this film. The accent, the clothing, the bow and arrow, the ponytail, he looks and feels about as convincing here as John Wayne did playing Genghis Khan. The only difference is that in this case it isn’t technically whitewashing; it’s just awkward. (On that subject, I think that they could very easily have given this film a Chinese protagonist (Jing Tian’s character maybe) but I doubt it would have made the film much better). Pascal is a little more at home in this setting, possibly because of his excellent turn in Game of Thrones, but doesn’t really fare much better than Damon. The movie tries to establish them as some kind of medieval Butch-Sundance bromance, but the banter between them is hopelessly contrived. Dafoe meanwhile is so wasted in his villainous role that I honestly forgot he was even in the film. The Chinese cast, particularly Tian and Lau, fare far better but are unfortunately still trapped in a tiresome, senseless movie.

The Great Wall is a landmark in that it marks a big-budget, high profile cinematic collaboration between the USA and China, home of the two biggest movie audiences in the world, aimed at a global audience. It also marks Zhang Yimou’s first English-language production. Sadly it simply isn’t a good film. It is confused, illogical and derivative. The action and the visuals will work for some, as long as they’re willing to turn their brains off, and that’s okay I guess. Mindless spectacle is all well and good; this one just didn’t work for me. It wasn’t epic enough, compelling enough, or bonkers enough for me to get into. I’d like to think that this movie might at least bring about further cinematic collaboration between the East and the West and allow Chinese cinema to gain an even stronger foothold in the rest of the world, I just hope that the next movie is better.