"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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Aquaman: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Popcorn Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A real bore of a superhero movie that is as odious as week old chum.

Aquaman, written by David Leslie Johnson and Will Beale and directed by James Wan, is the origin story of DC comic book superhero Aquaman, who is the bastard son of a queen from the underwater empire of Atlantis. The film stars Jason Mamoa as Aquaman with supporting turns from Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Amber Heard and Patrick Wilson.

Having spent the last few months almost exclusively at the art house and reeking of its pretentiousness, I decided to head out to the cineplex in search of some mindless fun. Aquaman is putting up Black Panther-esque numbers at the box office as it has made nearly a billion dollars since its release in late December and has come in first in the money tally for three straight weekends, so I figured it would be a good choice for my descent back into the cinema of the unwashed hoi polloi.

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The problem with Aquaman is not that it is mindless fun, the problem with it is that it is so mindless that it is absolutely no fun. The film is so chock full of nonsense it feels like a parody of a superhero film. This version of Aquaman made me feel as if the dead eyed Vincent Chase from HBO’s faux-Hollywood sexploitation show Entourage really did get to make his Aquaman movie in real life.

A few weeks ago I saw a headline that read “Director James Wan Says to Blame Him if Aquaman Fails”. It is nice to know who to blame. I am sure that Wan was referring to the film’s box office and not its artistic merit when he spoke of failure, but since I judge a movie on its merits and not its finances, I’ll still point the finger at Wan. Although to be fair, Wan is not the sole owner of blame for Aquaman’s stinkiness. The suits at Warner Brothers and their DC point man Goeff Johns are just as guilty if not more so than Wan. I mean, who thought up this monstrosity and more importantly, who thought it would be a good idea?

Aquaman is such a derivative and unoriginal bore it is like a sea serpent that wraps itself around you and slowly suffocates you to death over two and a half long hours. It is so unrelenting in its imbecility that the harder you fight against it the harder it squeezes the life out of you until you simply acquiesce and let it drown you in its inanity.

The film is basically trying to turn Aquaman into King Arthur of the Sea or something but is so convoluted and tone deaf it ends up being less an homage to that myth than a vomiting up of a rancid cliche fish stew of every other super hero movie. The pacing and the tone are all over the place, the narrative structure is distractingly serpentine and the film lacks any and all thematic and dramatic depth.

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On the bright side, Jason Mamoa is a very likable actor and to his credit, at the very least, proves himself worthy of carrying a big budget action film for two and a half hours, which is no small feat. But even his charms wear pretty thin as he has to repeat the same old tired superhero moves over and over again. In the opening fight sequence, I counted at least three times that Momoa’s Aquaman did the standard superhero three point landing along with three superhero “gonna kick some ass” looks with accompanying music cues, and that was just in the first 5 minutes of Mamoa’s screen time. So much posing, so little time…how exhausting that must have been.

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As I said, I like Jason Mamoa, and frankly it is to his credit that I cannot imagine anyone else playing the part anymore. Mamoa has a natural charm and charisma on screen and combined with his surfer dude/biker gang persona, makes his Aquaman palatable. Although to be fair, I probably like Jason Mamoa because we look so much alike. If it weren’t for the fact that he is a little bit shorter and has a slightly higher body fat percentage than me, we could be identical twins.

As for the rest of the cast, they pretty much embarrass themselves by being stuck in this dull and ridiculous farce. Having worked with coaching clients on roles like these, I know how hard they can be. I have clients rolling around on my office floor fighting imaginary monsters all the time, and let me tell you, it is one of the most difficult things for an actor to do. Buying into this sort of nonsense, especially when the script is so hackneyed, takes a Herculean effort and a great deal of self-confidence and commitment. That is why I felt so bad for poor Willem Dafoe, who deserves so much better than this mess, or Nicole Kidman and Patrick Wilson, who had to do all of this foolishness with a straight face. I also felt awful for Amber Heard, who is absolutely dreadful in her role and seems like a puppy lost on a highway.

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To the actor’s and film’s credit, it is not only a tremendous filmmaking accomplishment but a tremendous evolutionary accomplishment just to get this film made at all. I mean, how all of these actors were able to hold their breath underwater for such long takes is literally a miracle. Add to that the fact that they were able to speak all of their dialogue so clearly and engage in very complicated fight choreography despite the lack of oxygen and under the massive pressure of the ocean, is a staggering achievement for humanity. And then to think that it wasn’t just the actors under water for hours on end for days, weeks and months, but the crew as well. I shudder to think of the poor hair and makeup people and how they kept everyone beautiful at such cold, pressure filled depths.

Another group that deserves credit are the animal wranglers on the set. I had no idea that sea creatures, from great white sharks to giant squid to octopus to giant crabs, could be so tamed and controllable. To see Willem Dafoe riding a hammerhead shark with such aplomb is not only a testament to the death-defying skill of Dafoe, but to the professionalism of the shark as well. I know the Academy Awards scuttled the Popular Film category this year, but I hope they consider a Best Non-Human Acting category in order to reward the fish cast of Aquaman, because they sure as hell deserve it!

In conclusion, Aquaman didn’t make me angry because it was so bad, it simply made me tune out very early on because of its repetitive and stultifying dullness. As someone who is one of those rare people who actually liked DC’s Batman v Superman and mildly approved of Justice League, I had no use for the mess that is Aquaman. Even if you love superhero movies, you can skip this one in the theatre and see it on Netflix for free. If you are even remotely less than a superhero uber-fanatic, there is no reason to ever waste your time watching this stinky and decaying fish tale.

©2019

Destroyer: A Review

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***THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!***

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A rather derivative film and a missed opportunity from Nicole Kidman who doesn’t rise to the challenge of playing the archetypal anti-hero.

Destroyer, written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi and directed by Karyn Kusama, is the story of LAPD detective Erin Bell who is haunted by an undercover assignment that went wrong years ago and 17 years later is rearing its ugly head. The film stars Nicole Kidman as Bell with supporting turns from Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell and Bradley Whitford.

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While Destroyer spends its time in the all too familiar crime ridden gutters of Los Angeles, the film has much loftier artistic ambitions. Marketed as a gritty character study that highlights Nicole Kidman’s acting chops, Destroyer is hoping to reinvent the the old anti-hero cop drama with a female lead. While all the pieces are in place for this to take place, they never coalesce, and Destroyer ends up being a painfully derivative, dramatically impotent art house wannabe.

The main reason that Destroyer fails to engage is Nicole Kidman. I like and respect Ms. Kidman as an actress, and greatly admire her more daring choices in the second half of her career. Kidman can act, of that there is no doubt, but sometimes a good actor is just so ill-suited for a role that no matter what they do it doesn’t click. Such is the case with Kidman as world weary detective Erin Bell.

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Kidman is a beautiful women, but that beauty can be a curse at times, and Destroyer is one of those times. Kidman is uglied up for the role, given an atrocious haircut, deep and dark bags under her eyes, dirtied teeth…the works. But in the film’s incessant close ups of Ms. Kidman, and boy are there a multitude of incessant close ups, she doesn’t look ugly, she looks like Nicole Kidman trying to look ugly.

The two biggest issues with Ms. Kidman’s performance are her physicality and her voice. The key to the film is that Kidman must be believable as this grizzled and street smart detective, but she never pulls it off because she lacks the necessary physical gravitas. Kidman doesn’t significantly alter her posture or gait, and with her more delicate physical features like her thin legs and arms and impeccable bone structure, she comes across as very wispy and slight.

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Kidman makes the mistake of walking with her feet too close together and with no slouch from the heavy symbolic cross she must carry. She is erect and elegant even as she is supposed to be drunk and slovenly. Finding the right physicality is crucial for a role like this and should start with becoming more grounded and centering her gravity in her chest. Kidman’s center is her heavily made up face, and this creates the impression of her being airy, flighty, weak and inconsequential. Kidman’s voice is equally poorly positioned as it is centered too high in her head/throat and not in her gut. This takes away all of the power from her voice, her body and thus the character.

With her physicality and voice not in sync with the role, the internal emotional life of the character, no matter how dynamic Kidman tries to make it, comes across as hollow and vacant. Kidman certainly pushes for moments of emotional combustibility but when they arrive they are limp and flaccid due to a lack of a powerful and grounded physical foundation.

I greatly admire Kidman’s tackling a role so out of her comfort zone, but sadly she simply doesn’t pull it off and since she is the core of the film, the entire enterprise is scuttled because of her failure.

As for the rest of the film, director Karyn Kusama doesn’t do much more than try and make a female centered lone wolf cop story. Sort of Dirty Harry meets Bad Lieutentent meets Nicole Kidman, which in theory is interesting, but in practice is mired in its own maze of cliche and illogic. There is even a minor homage (or brazen theft) to Bad Lieutenant, a vastly superior film, that involves following a baseball game on the radio. Baseball is a mini-sub-text that could have blossomed into something interesting or profound, but it ends up being something that just comes and goes and like the rest of the film, doesn’t mean much.

Visually the film lacks a distinct aesthetic and therefore feels decidedly flat. While the settings in Los Angeles were mildly interesting to me because I know them so well, they aren’t photographed particularly well or in an intriguing manner so everything is washed out and cinematically lackluster.

That said, the best part of the film was the end, not in terms of the narrative but in terms of the filmmaking. In the final sequences it seems that director Kusama and cinematographer Julie Kirkwood finally find a style and aesthetic worth watching, sort of a poor man’s ( or as the case may be…woman’s) Malick, but by then it is far, far too late to save the movie.

The movie is not aided by the script, which is an amalgam of every gruff and gritty cop story ever told. The cliched dialogue is cringe worthy at times and feels as though it would be better suited as a parody of anti-hero cop movies or something laughed out of the writer’s room of Baretta.

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The cast is pretty underwhelming across the board as well. Toby Kebbell is an actor I really like, but his pseudo-guru, Manson-esque Silas is not given enough time to develop into anything more than caricature. The same is true of the dirty lawyer played by Bradley Whitford, who is remarkably one-note. Sebastian Stan is an interesting actor but he is decidedly underused and his character undeveloped.

In conclusion, I really wanted to like Destroyer and I really wanted Nicole Kidman to be great in it…but neither of those things happened. I give Destroyer an “A” for artistic ambition and a “D +” for execution. I cannot recommend you see this film in the theatre as I found it to be totally forgettable, but if you stumble on it on Netflix or cable feel free to check it out. Destroyer destroyed my cinematic hopes for it, but maybe it’ll fare better with you than it did with me.

©2019

The Killing of a Sacred Deer: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes 17 seconds

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation : SEE IT. See it in the theatre but be forewarnedTHIS IS AN ART HOUSE FILM THROUGH AND THROUGHif your tastes run toward the more conventional, skip this movie because you will hate it. 

The Killing of a Sacred Deer, written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, is the story of Dr. Steven Murphy and his family as they grapple with a strange young man who has come into their life. The film stars Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman along with Barry Keoghan, Raffy Cassidy and Sunny Suljic in supporting roles. 

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is Yorgos Lanthimos’ follow up to his extraordinary film The Lobster, which was a brilliantly absurdist and dark comedy from 2016. Unlike The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, although it has funny moments, cannot in any way be described as a comedy, it is more a stylized mythological and psychological horror/drama. 

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is, like The Lobster, unquestionably an art house film and to those more inclined toward standard Hollywood fare it will seem impossibly avant-garde. I absolutely loved The Lobster (it garnered 6 nominations and one win in 2016 at the most prestigious cinema awards on the planet…The Mickey©® Awards…and ended up #4 on my top ten list for the year), but I know other people who hated it with a passion. I find Lanthimos' writing and directing style to be very original and tremendously effective, while others I know found it contrived and idiotic. 

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The narrative of the film is very loosely based on a modern day re-telling of the Greek myth of Iphigenia, in order to not give anything away I won't go into detail about the myth of Iphigenia, and if you plan on seeing the film I recommend you skip reading up on it as well until after seeing the movie. The film also contains biblical references and metaphors ranging from the Garden of Eden to Cain and Abel to Abraham to the plagues of Egypt all the way up to the crucifixion. The film is also riddled with intriguingly meaningful symbols including watches (time and things going clockwise or counter-clockwise), pristine hands, dog walking and watering plants and even the Bill Murray movie Groundhog's Day. The film and its symbolism tell both a personal and collective story of karmic justice that contains a very subtle political and cultural message if you care to look for it (for instance, look at the film's poster at the very top of this posting…the curtained window of the room looks an awful lot like the World Trade Center…I have a definite opinion on the subject, but I will let the viewer determine what that may mean for themselves).

Yorgos Lanthimos has a distinct style to his direction of actors where he has them speak in an awkward, stilted and lifeless monotone. This acting style can be off-putting to some people, but Lanthimos deftly uses this approach as a commentary on the modern world and also uses it to encourage the audience to suspend their disbelief and embrace Lanthimos' created universe that is at once both very believable and entirely impossible. 

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Colin Farrell has found a career renaissance working with Lanthimos (he won the incredibly prestigious Best Actor Mickey®© Award last year for The Lobster) and part of the reason for this is that he has mastered Lanthimos' unorthodox, uncommon, and almost inhuman, acting style. Farrell is an actor who was born blessed with a raging furnace of frenetic energy that emanates from his every pore on-screen. Most actors would kill to have what comes naturally to Colin Farrell. But what makes Farrell so good in Lanthimos' films is that he is forced to contain that signature frenetic energy to such a degree that it could dance on the head of a pin. This energetic concentration and containment allows Farrell to never have to contemplate whether he is being charming, good-looking, charismatic or funny, instead it allows him to just mechanically say the words he is supposed to say and mechanically move where he is supposed to move. Some actors, Colin Farrell included, find the blessing of their charisma and magnetism to be an artistic curse and so when those chains are removed, as they are in Lanthimos' unique acting style, the actor is then free to simply BE…and when Colin Farrell is simply "being", he is truly remarkable. 

What makes Farrell's performance in The Killing of a Sacred Deer so effective, is that his Dr. Murphy is dead-eyed and monotone going through the motions of his life…until he isn't. There are rare moments when the fire in Farrell's eyes returns and he is so filled with a palpable life energy that he literally shakes. The unleashing of Colin Farrell's natural power in those few moments are what make his performance, and Lanthimos' direction, so sublime. 

Much to my pleasant surprise, Nicole Kidman takes to Lanthimos' style with ease as well. The reason I was surprised by Ms. Kidman's adaptability to Lanthimos' style is that, similar to Colin Farrell and his natural frenetic energy, Nicole Kidman naturally emanates with a fragile, yet palpable humanity. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Kidman is able to contain her powerful but delicate humanity and embrace the stylized lifelessness of Lanthimos' approach. Kidman's performance is striking for its precision and meticulousness. Again, just like Farrell, there are specific moments when her humanity explodes through her lifeless veneer, and those moments are extremely dramatically satisfying and speak volumes to Kidman's skill and mastery of craft as an actress.

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The supporting cast is stellar as well with Barry Keoghan in particular giving a stand out performance. Keoghan is creepy and compelling as a mysterious young man who starts at the periphery of the story but soon becomes its center. Keoghan's performance is seductive, menacing, magnetic and unnerving. The first time I saw Keoghan was this past summer in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, and after seeing his attention to detail and specificity in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I look forward to seeing what lies ahead for him in his career. 

Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Siljic also do outstanding work in supporting roles as the Murphy children. Cassidy, in particular, does a solid job of creating a specific and multi-dimensional character where other actresses would have embraced the generic.

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer, just like The Lobster, is not a film for everyone. I am someone who reeks of the art house, so it was right up my alley. Others with less adventuresome and more conventional cinematic tastes will probably dislike it a great deal. I believe that Lanthimos is a a true auteur  creating original and important films that are cinematically, if not revolutionary, then at least evolutionary. 

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is an admittedly weird, but fascinating and ultimately satisfying film that I wholly recommend to those daring enough and willing to make the leap into the deep, dark waters of the art house. If you love cinema, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is for you, and it is well worth spending the time and money to go see it in the theatre. 

©2017