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The latest DC effort, Aquaman, is middling fun for about 20 minutes—and then it becomes one of the worst films of 2018.

It’s the typical DC garbage can of a film—proof that Warner Bros. has learned almost nothing about making a good comic-book movie since Christian Bale took off the cowl. (Yes, Wonder Woman was good—but it’s the lone exception.)

Jason Momoa returns as big, tattooed, beefy Arthur, the dreamy son of a Lost City of Atlantis queen (Nicole Kidman) and a lowly lighthouse-keeper (Temuera Morrison). He finds the queen washed up on the rocks and takes her home, where she promptly eats his goldfish. (Baahahaha! What a laugh riot! She ate his pet fish!) She gives birth to Arthur, and the origin story part of the movie is well on the way.

We see a few more moments in the young fish-man’s life, including a moment when Arthur is bullied in an aquarium; he gets a tiger shark riled up to the point that it almost breaks through the glass and kills his entire elementary school class. (That would’ve made for an interesting twist.) Momoa eventually shows up in full party mode, and it looks like we could be on our way to some goofy fun.

Alas, like Zack Snyder before him, director James Wan shows that he doesn’t know how to keep a leash on his epic, and this thing goes bonkers in a bad way. After Arthur teams up with Princess Mera (Amber Heard), she of the Little Mermaid hair, they go on some sort of intercontinental trek to find a lost trident, with haphazard locations constantly being captioned at the base of the screen (Rome, the Sahara Desert, the Valley of the Brine, Atlantis, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., etc.).

The search for the powerful trident that will make Arthur the king of Atlantis is but one of many insipid plotlines. There’s also King Orm (Patrick Wilson, looking like he placed last in a Colorado Rockies mascot-costume contest), Arthur’s half-brother and full-time asshole, who is trying to claim the Atlantis throne while threatening war with the Surface People. (That would be us.)

Orm has some sort of alliance with pirates led by the one who will become Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Black Manta is one of Aquaman’s main adversaries in the comics, but here he is, more or less, a side note, with Wan straining to make the character meaningful among all the chaos. The movie has a formidable-enough villain in Orm, but Wan and the scriptwriters felt the need to make Manta a factor—and the result is a nearly 2 1/2-hour movie with way too much going on for it to make any sense. I thought Steppenwolf was the worst-looking DC villain of all time, but here, Manta looks like a reject from Sigmund and the Sea Monsters rather than something from a big-budget Aquaman movie.

Visually, this is yet another movie that thinks it’s Avatar, and that’s never a good thing. In other words, we get a lot of blue mixing with fluorescent colors. (I did like the great white sharks with saddles on them.) It’s yet another Warner Bros. DC movie with spasmodic, cheap-looking CGI in many of the action scenes. The look of this film is far from awe-inspiring.

An embarrassed-looking Willem Dafoe shows up as Vulko, Arthur’s mentor, and is saddled with the film’s silliest line. (“The king has risen!”) Dolph Lundgren gets another late-2018 role (after Creed II) as another underwater king who just sort of stands around as his special-effects hair waves in the water. Julie Andrews has a “fall asleep and you will miss it” voice cameo.

Aquaman can’t decide if it wants to be Avatar 2, or The Mummy Returns … AGAIN! or I Got Muscles, Attitude and I’m Underwater 5 or Creed III: I’m Old and Wet Now. The undeniable charms (and, admittedly, glorious hair) of Momoa can only go so far.

When it comes to comic book movies, Marvel still reigns supreme—and DC doesn’t have a clue.

Aquaman is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Three years ago, director David F. Sandberg made Lights Out, a great short about a woman, home alone at night, who kept noticing a dark figure when she switched off the light. The payoff was both hilarious and scary as shit.

So, of course, producer James Wan got hold of Sandberg, and now there’s a full-length feature film based on that light-switch premise. Writer Eric Heisserer takes the idea, fleshes it out, and comes up with a pretty good story to go with Sandberg’s strong horror-directing abilities.

Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) is an angry woman with mommy and commitment issues. Her mom, Sophie (Maria Bello), recently lost her husband and has fallen into a depression; she is talking to herself. Rebecca’s younger brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), is seeing a strange dark figure when the lights go out. It all leads up to a finale during which flashlights are very valuable, and potential victims behave like idiots.

Sandberg repeats the same jolt scare over and over again, and makes it all work nicely. The film is genuinely scary in the moments when it’s trying to be scary. The background story is a little on the flaccid side, but Palmer and Bello are good in their roles, and Bateman plays a scared kid with major aplomb. It’s a serviceable horror film that will give genre fans a reasonably good time.

Lights Out is playing at theaters across the valley.

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As he did with The Conjuring, writer-director James Wan uses a supposed real-life poltergeist as the basis for The Conjuring 2: The sequel draws upon the infamous Enfield Poltergeist, which allegedly occurred in England in the late 1970s.

Wan has tapped into something interesting with this franchise. Two films in, it’s showing decent durability and originality.

It’s also pretty scary.

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson return as the Warrens, real-life paranormal investigators known to have visited many legendary haunted spaces, including Amityville and Enfield. Wan, of course, blows up their involvement in each of these cases to offer a platform for fictional circumstances and scares. While not quite as good as The Conjuring, this sequel does its predecessor proud.

Amityville actually gets a little bit of attention in the film’s pre-opening-credits sequence, a creepy one that has Farmiga’s Warren possessing the body of killer Ronald DeFeo Jr. during a séance vision of him murdering his family. Farmiga is seen walking around with an invisible shotgun shooting people, and DeFeo is seen with the actual weapon in mirrors. Many have tried to make the Amityville Horror scary at the movies, but this is the first to actually accomplish the feat.

The film then crosses over to its main focus: an impoverished family in Enfield, England. Peggy (Frances O’Connor) is raising her children while broke—and their flat just happens to become haunted. Not only does it get haunted; daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe) becomes possessed by an old man who supposedly died in a living-room chair years before. He’s now causing problems because it’s his house, and he likes scaring kids.

One of the main reasons The Conjuring 2 works is the performance of Wolfe, who employs a flawless English accent to go with appropriately eerie facial expressions. She has a swing-set scene with Farmiga that makes the skin crawl. She’s great in every moment she spends on screen.

Knowing full well that his movie needed something beyond a little girl croaking like an old man, Wan includes a monstrous ghost that emerges from a toy in the house, and some sort of nun demon that has an uncanny resemblance to Marilyn Manson.

These two spooky entities provided a couple of jump scares that got this particular veteran of many jump-scare attempts a few inches out of his seat. I’ll say this for Wan: He’s the current King of the Jump Scare. He has impressive, impeccable timing at what has become a bit of a lost art among horror-film directors.

Farmiga and Wilson are decent once again as the Warrens, although the film keeps them on the backburner for much of the first half. O’Connor (the mother in Steven Spielberg’s A.I: Artificial Intelligence) is solid as the cranky mom.

Wan will not be pigeonholed as a horror director; he made 2015’s Furious 7 and is slated to enter the DC universe with Aquaman in 2018. When he gets everything working together, including an excellent soundtrack and camerawork, he’s an effective horror maestro. He’s made some stinkers (I still say the original Saw was crap, and Insidious: Chapter 2 was terrible), but he’s pretty consistent within the horror genre, especially with his ghost stories. Due to his busy schedule, a directorial return for the inevitable The Conjuring 3 seems unlikely for Wan.

I attended a packed screening for this movie, and it was met with a lot of screams and laughs—as well as a round of applause when it was over. My feelings weren’t nearly as enthusiastic, but I did enjoy it. It’s a good-enough summer-scare machine that will put a couple of jolts into you.

The Conjuring 2 is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Furious 7 says goodbye to Paul Walker while taking car chases to seriously outlandish and fantastical extremes. In some ways, the film is more of a science-fiction offering than a car-chase movie.

That’s fine by me.

I have to admit: Part of me was uncomfortable watching Paul Walker racing around in cars after he died in a fiery car crash. You can say Walker died doing something he loved, but I’m thinking irresponsible and reckless speeding dropped way down his “favorite things” list during the final moments of his life. That said, Furious 7 does spark some life into a tired franchise by going totally bananas—and it’s pretty remarkable how Walker, who had only filmed half of his scenes before he died, is inserted into the movie posthumously.

Yes, you can spot some of the moments when his face is grafted onto one of his brothers’ bodies, or when archival footage is inserted, but it still looks pretty darned good. It’s not too distracting, like when Ridley Scott sloppily pasted Oliver Reed’s face onto a stunt double in Gladiator.

Director James Wan, primarily known for horror movies like Saw and The Conjuring, has delivered the franchise’s best offering since the first film. He goes balls-out crazy with stunts and scenarios. It’s still a task to watch and listen to Vin Diesel, but the addition of Jason Statham as a seriously bad guy helps balance things out.

This movie gets my blessing for the sequence involving Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and Walker’s Brian O’Conner jumping a car through not one, but two skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi. There’s no way in hell that anything like this could actually happen without people getting creamed, but you won’t care once you see how Wan and friends present this nuttiness. Logic doesn’t matter when the special-effects choreography is this good. While Wan won’t necessarily make you believe that cars can fly, he will put a stupid smile on your face as you watch watch cars fly.

While the skyscraper sequence is far and away the franchise’s high-water mark, the film contains a couple of other sequences that garner second and third place: A car chase in the mountains that ends with Walker’s character trying to escape a truck teetering on a cliff is epic, as is a parking-garage street fight.

The film also features Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson battling a helicopter with a really big gun, Rambo-style, and Toretto avoiding capture by driving his muscle car off a mountain. This is a movie that gets a big rush out of continuously topping itself, and it could care less about things like reality.

On the bad side, there’s a stupid subplot involving Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) having amnesia (Christ, I hate amnesia subplots!) and another stupid one involving the home life of Brian and Mia (Jordana Brewster). Then there are the moments when Diesel is required to emote, which is always a sketchy affair.

In Diesel’s defense, he does look pretty badass during his street fight with Statham. Statham, who I can only take in small doses, is used perfectly in Furious 7. He’s this franchise’s equivalent of the liquid metal Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Throw in Kurt Russell as a craft-beer-loving federal agent named Mr. Nobody, and you really can’t go wrong, even with the dopey and sluggish moments. For the first time in a long time, the good outweighs the bad in a Furious movie.

Will there be an eighth film, even though Walker is no longer with us? Um, given that the movie made nearly $144 million during its opening weekend, I think it’s a foregone conclusion that Universal will find a way to keep the engines running.

The bigger question: How will they ever manage to top that skyscraper-jumping sequence? I think they are going to have to add dinosaurs or rampaging gorillas to keep things interesting.

Furious 7 is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Director James Wan was on a bit of a roll, with Insidious and The Conjuring. Well, with Insidious: Chapter 2, that roll crashes into a concrete, steel-enforced wall that Jesus himself built while reminiscing about his carpentry days.

This latest attempt to make a haunted-house movie with a small budget is a catastrophe. Wan basically uses the same tricks—smoke machines, green lights, practical makeup and crappy music—to try to get scares out of a formula that clearly had a short shelf life.

This one involves Josh (Patrick Wilson), the father from the first film, acting a little strange after his trip into another dimension to retrieve his son. His wife (Rose Byrne) suspects that something must be wrong, because there are still funny things happening with her baby monitor. The movie wants to be a poor man’s The Shining, with Wilson going all Jack Nicholson-wacky, and Byrne doing her best Shelley Duvall impersonation.

It’s terrible—but it’s raking in nice box office, so, as with the Paranormal Activity films, this isn’t going to stop anytime soon.

Insidious: Chapter 2 is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

I got a couple of good jolts out of The Conjuring, the latest from director James Wan.

I have deeply divided feelings about Wan. I sort of hate him for starting the whole Saw thing, and I sort of like him for twisted films like Insidious, Death Sentence and, to some extent, this one. No doubt: Wan is capable of constructing some good scare scenarios, and this haunted-house tale has its share.

This is one of those films that claim to be “based on a true story.” Whatever. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson play Lorraine and Ed Warren, well-known paranormal investigators who try to help out a family that has just moved into a Rhode Island house. They are like ghostbusters, but without proton packs and one-liners.

The family, shortly after moving in, finds their dog dead, birds smashing their heads into the house, and a ghost playing hide-and-seek. The dead dog would’ve been my cue to say “Screw this!” and head for the nearest Motel 6, but these dopes stick around to deal with ghosts, demons and whatnot. Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor), the mom, is getting mysterious bruises all over her body and experiencing strange dreams in which ghosts puke blood into her face. Roger (Ron Livingston), the dad, keeps finding dead animals and spooky parts of the house he didn’t know about. And no matter how many of his kids say that something just pulled at their feet during the night or wrestled with them on the floor, HE KEEPS THE FAMILY IN THE FREAKING HOUSE.

I forgive stupid horror-movie families if the film manages to scare me good at least twice. The Conjuring got to me at least five times, which is a damned good score for a routine haunted-house film. Actually, this is a haunted house film with demon possession and exorcism thrown in for good measure. As Wan showed with Dead Silence and Saw, he likes evil puppets and dolls as well. One particularly malevolent doll contributes to the mayhem, making this film a veritable stew of horror genres.

The Conjuring starts with the cheap sound and sight gags that plague most haunted-house movies. I thought for sure we were getting another low-budget flick in which there are a lot of moving sheets, closing doors and sudden sounds, as in the stupid Paranormal Activity movies. Wan, the evil bastard that he is, knows that many movie-viewers are jaded and will let their guards down. Then some pretty freaky visual stuff starts happening, and The Conjuring is off and running. This film is not afraid to show you who is making all those noises and screwing with those doors.

Wilson and Farmiga are good as the Warrens, the folks who allegedly investigated this ’70s haunting, along with the Amityville Horror. (The characters comment on needing to check out some problems on Long Island at one point.)

Both Wilson and Farmiga are doing good things in the horror genre these days, with Wilson starring in Insidious, and Farmiga making the rounds as Mrs. Bates in the Bates Motel TV series. Heck, Farmiga’s sister is kicking ass in the genre as well, starring in the first and third seasons of American Horror Story.

It’s good to see Taylor get a meaty role. It’s been a long while since she’s really factored in a movie, which is a shame, given her talents. Looking back at her resume, I am reminded that she appeared in The Haunting back in 1999. The Conjuring puts that pathetic remake to shame, and Taylor proves she can scream her ass off during a demonic possession and exorcism.

Wan and company deserve props for doing a lot of the effects the natural way. Wan has figured out that the more “real” something looks, the scarier it is. Actors and actresses in freaky makeup with the lighting just so can often out-creep CGI megabytes. There are a few instances in this movie in which gray and green makeup is the scare tactic of choice. It probably cost the makeup guys less than $50, and it scared me just fine.

Wan is in the midst of a busy movie year. After this, we shall get his Insidious: Chapter 2 in time for Halloween, and he just got the gig to direct one of cinema’s scariest creatures of them all: He’ll be helming Fast and Furious 7 starring the repugnant, naturally frightening Vin Diesel.

I’m scared already.

The Conjuring is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews