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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.

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Something in the neighborhood of $17 bazillion zillion got thrown at this movie thing called The Great Wall, a mash up of American stars and kick-ass Asian directors.

That’s $17 bazillion zillion somebody would’ve been better off spending on masking tape and gummi bears. Matt Damon stars in this mess, and this may very well represent the low point of his career, a career that has included the atrocious Jason Bourne and Hereafter. He probably thought he was in safe hands, because The Great Wall is helmed by director Zhang Yimou, maker of such masterpieces as Hero, House of Flying Daggers and—one of my very favorite movies—The Road Home. Damon was probably all like, “Hey, Yimou is calling the shots. If anything, I’m going to look good in this pic!”

Then … he saw his wardrobe. It begins with big furry wigs and beards, and then declines into a sad man bun as the film progresses. He looks silly from frame one.

He sounds silly, too. He’s attempting some sort of accent here, a cross between Irish and Scottish and dickweed. Every time he talks in this movie, it hurts the ears, and the soul—especially the souls of those who love Matt Damon.

Damon plays Legolas … I mean, William, a mercenary, expert archer roaming China with his best mate, Tovar (Pedro Pascal), in search of the majestic “black powder,” which they hear can blow things up real good. One spooky night, the Green Arrow … sorry, William, slays a mysterious beast. He chops off its arm and stows it—something that will save their lives when they come into contact with The Great Wall.

You see, The Great Wall wasn’t just built for American tourists so they could run around on it and take Facebook selfies. Nope, it was built because the Chinese were trying to hold back attacks on their sovereignty by non-distinctive, shitty CGI creatures that look like a cross between a Gremlin and that ridiculous looking Ripley-alien baby that showed up at the end of Alien Resurrection. (I know that’s an obscure reference, but it’s totally true.)

Once the Chinese army discovers that Katniss … sorry, William was able to kill one of the legendary yet totally unoriginal beasts on his own, they invite him in for food, lodging and stultifying, inane dialogue. While inside, Robin Hood … oh, pardon me, William starts to like them and feel at home. He even shows them how good he is with his arrows, aided by more unimpressive CGI.

Willem Dafoe shows up as Ballard, a wild-eyed guy wearing an Obi-Wan Kenobi robe who hides in the shadows all bug-eyed and knows all about the black powder. He’s been living on the other side of the wall, inexplicably, for years, looking for his chance to escape. (I never did figure out if he was a prisoner, a willing resident or a male prostitute.) When Rambo … I apologize, William shows up, Ballard figures this is his chance to escape. As it turns out, his escape plan would’ve worked just fine on his own, and didn’t necessarily require somebody else, leading to one of the film’s many plot holes.

The wall itself is the product of more god-awful CGI. You would think with this budget (a reported $150 million, which might as well be $17 bazillion zillion), they could’ve made this movie look better. There’s one moment where Daryl Dixon … I beg your pardon, William is swinging with a girl in his arms, and it’s terribly obvious Damon’s face has been computer-glued onto a stuntman’s body. There wasn’t a single moment in this movie where the effects were impressive.

I don’t think Damon will be returning as Hawkeye … Jesus Christ, William in any sequels. The Great Wall is a great disaster of epic proportions, and an unfortunate English debut for the great Yimou.

Matt Damon should stick with movies about being lost in space and solving gargantuan math problems. No … more … wig … movies.

The Great Wall is regrettably showing at theaters across the valley.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman, in what turned out to be his last leading role, is typically brilliant in A Most Wanted Man, a thriller based on the novel by John le Carré.

Directed by Anton Corbijn, the movie’s mystery remains intact until the final minutes of the film—or so was the case with me. I didn’t see the end coming.

Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, an anti-terrorism agent based in Germany who has had a spotty recent record. When a mysterious Chechen Muslim (Grigoriy Dobrygin) comes to Germany, a scenario plays out that involves a well-meaning lawyer (Rachel McAdams), a confused banker (Willem Dafoe) and a mysterious businessman (Homayoun Ershadi).

It’s hard to discern good and evil in this film, and Corbijn keeps things tense until the very end. Hoffman is so good it hurts—especially because we know we won’t see this sort of thing from him ever again. McAdams delivers what may be the best performance of her career as somebody caught in the middle of a major mess. All of the actors sport credible German accents.

By the film’s conclusion, it is clear that nobody can really be trusted in the spy game. Hoffman captures the essence of a once-powerful man getting the shaft, big-time.

Special Features: There are a couple of short behind-the-scenes docs. Get the disc for the movie.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

The latest Keanu Reeves vehicle is a stunner. John Wick boasts a high body count—and offers cinematic proof that you shouldn’t mess with a man’s best friend.

In the film’s opening moments, we learn that the title character (played by Reeves) has lost his wife, and he’s taking it understandably hard. Shortly after her death, a little pet carrier arrives at his door with an adorable beagle inside: His wife has given him a gift of companionship from the beyond, and it’s a very sweet moment. The scenes of Wick and the dog bonding help make him a likable character.

While John Wick is putting some gas in his sweet Mustang, a young Russian man (Alfie Allen) asks if he can buy the car. Wick groans that it is not for sale. His unwillingness to part with the car results in tragedy, as the Russian mob comes to his house, beats him to within inches of death, kills the dog and takes the car.

They’ve messed with the wrong guy. Wick is a former hired assassin with a bunch of weaponry and gold buried in his floor. We learn that Wick is known around town as the Boogeyman, and the asshole who stole his car has a father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), who once employed Wick. Viggo lived in confidence that Wick was retired and out of the game. Now, his son has killed the Boogeyman’s dog, and all involved, voluntarily or not, are going to face his wrath.

That wrath consists of some of the greatest choreographed carnage in recent movie memory. Wick shoots bad guys with a precision that protects the innocent—but anybody around with a criminal background is going to die.

A couple of stunt guys—David Leitch and Chad Stahelski—make their directorial debuts with John Wick. Stahelski has actually been a Reeves stunt double many times, in the Matrix films, Constantine and Point Break. Their familiarity pays off, because the stunt sequences and choreography are flawless. In the pantheon of action-movie directing debuts, this one stands tall.

Reeves is an actor who has taken a lot of shots over the years. True, he can be pretty darned terrible at times, but he has a strong command of himself in front of a camera. There’s a scene in this movie that may contain the best acting of his career. Wick is a character who doesn’t exactly wear his emotions on his sleeve. He’s a simmering sort, but once pushed to a certain level, he shows some mighty powerful rage. Reeves is very much up to the task.

It’s also very clear that Reeves does much of his own stunt work in the film. There’s a lot of rolling around, and numerous gun dances. He’s always been a capable action star, and his physical outing here is as impressive as his work in The Matrix series. (OK, the first one. Screw the sequels.)

The screenplay adds some nice touches, including an exclusive hotel for assassins run by Ian McShane. The place is like an artists’ loft, except the inhabitants paint with blood and brains. When Wick gets his stay violently interrupted, the calm calls from the front desk and visuals of criminals sleepily sticking their heads out their doors to see what’s going on are quite funny.

Willem Dafoe makes a nice mark in a few scenes as a double-crossing hitman. Adrianne Palicki, the actress who was supposed to be TV’s Wonder Woman (until NBC saw the pilot and puked), shows action-movie chops as another gun-for-hire who can’t be trusted.

John Wick is a great-looking movie that mixes in some strong emotions with awesome set pieces. It’s nice to see Keanu Reeves back in the saddle. Now, with the success of this film, perhaps somebody will finally green-light Bill and Ted 3.

John Wick is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

I will not lie: Sometimes, I walk into a movie theater generally uninterested in what a movie might be offering, perhaps due to weak trailers or press that failed to generate excitement. I walked into The Fault in Our Stars feeling that way, fearing I was in for a sap-fest.

Boy, was I wrong.

Shailene Woodley is downright incredible as Hazel, a 16-year-old struggling with thyroid cancer. After being sent to a support group by her mother (Laura Dern … God, I love her), she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort, who is so charming it’s almost disgusting), a basketball player who lost his leg to cancer—but he sure as hell hasn’t lost his lust for life. The two hit it off, and the result is the best teen romance since The Spectacular Now, which also starred Woodley.

The film handles its subject matter with enough grace for a thousand movies. When Gus, Hazel and her mom travel to Amsterdam to meet Hazel’s favorite author (Willem Dafoe, who is on freaking fire), the resulting meeting stands as one of the best scenes of 2014.

Much praise goes to director Josh Boone for making a supremely entertaining film, and to author John Green, who wrote the 2012 novel on which the film is based. You could call this a tearjerker, but that seems a little insulting: There’s nothing manipulative about Boone’s direction, or the performances by Woodley, Elgort, Dern, Nat Wolff and the rest of the cast. They all won me over in a big way.

The Fault in Our Stars is playing at Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 760-323-4466); the Ultrastar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100); and the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 760-770-1615).

Published in Reviews

A couple of weeks ago, I explained how much I hated the latest from Lars von Trier, his awful Nymphomaniac: Vol. I. As much as I hated it, I hoped that Vol. II, released just after the first film, might improve upon the first part and allow the whole mess to make sense.

Nope.

This one picks up where the first film left off—and it’s actually more tedious than the previous chapter. Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) continues telling her story to the man who found her bloody body in an alley (Stellan Skarsgård)—a sordid tale about her crazy sex life and criminal activity.

The whole story basically leads up to the moment when Joe wound up in the gutter. Along the way in Vol. II, we discover that she had a baby, and she become a debt collector for a crime boss (Willem Dafoe) using S&M techniques instead of breaking arms. It is all so … incredibly … lame.

Both films play out like long, unfunny jokes told by a jerk with a lousy sense of humor. The punch line is both crass and uninspired.

Seriously: I want von Trier to retreat from provocation in his next venture, and perhaps make a film about puppies and ice cream.

Nymphomaniac: Vol. II is now playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

Christian Bale is at his simmering best in Out of the Furnace, a dark, often scary and desolate look at two brothers who get dealt numerous bad hands. Directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), this is not a holiday-season film designed to send you home smiling.

Russell Baze (Bale) is a good-spirited, quiet man working at the town mill. He looks out for his military-vet brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck). Rodney is having trouble adjusting after multiple tours in Iraq that have left him physically and emotionally scarred. This makes Russell ultra-patient when it comes to his bro—even paying off Rodney’s gambling debts behind his back to a local bookie (Willem Dafoe, who somehow makes this sleazy character seem like a nice guy).

Russell, after a brutal and costly mistake, goes to jail, while his brother does another tour. When Russell is set free, he has lost his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), and his brother is in bad shape. Rodney’s debts have gotten too big, so he starts bare-knuckle boxing. He eventually finds himself in a situation in which he should be taking a dive for a nasty criminal (Woody Harrelson, playing one of the year’s most memorable and lecherous movie villains).

Rodney disappears, and Russell takes matters into his own hands when a local authority (Forest Whitaker) appears to be dragging his feet. At this point, the movie starts to really heat up, thanks to an added element involving the Whitaker character that I won’t give away.

In some ways, Out of the Furnace is a typical revenge thriller, with semi-predictable plot points. However, what makes the movie so worthy of your time is that it commits to a dark, despairing mode—and all of the performers revel in it. It’s a downbeat movie for sure, but Bale and company give it a steady, dark pulse.

Affleck has had a good year with this and the little-seen Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. His Rodney is the sort of tragic figure who feels all too real. You pull for him, but there’s a sinking feeling he can’t be helped. He has a brief face-to-face showdown with Harrelson that counts as one of his career highlights.

Harrelson is pure, unadulterated evil here. His Harlan DeGroat is established in the very first scene as an entity not to be messed with; he’s terrifying. Harrelson is such a good performer that he never falls into caricature. You ultimately get a sense that a moral code may’ve once existed within DeGroat, but that core was decimated by meth, hatred and violence.

Out of the Furnace features one of the more sublime and understated recent Bale performances. (I was reminded of his subtle, brilliant work in Terrence Malick’s The New World.) After every emotional blow, Russell seemingly remains a good man, convinced things can all work out in the end. He has an optimism that is heartbreaking to behold.

Cooper prominently uses Pearl Jam’s “Release” at the film’s start and finish. It’s a powerful song choice that sets a mood that is both triumphant and somber—a lot like the movie itself. He further adds to the mood by casting Sam Shepard in a small but crucial part. Shepard’s presence adds gravitas.

Out of the Furnace doesn’t try to make any grand statements in its two hours. It tells a sad story of two brothers who love each other, the hardships they face, the bad hits they take, and their somewhat regrettable coping choices. The film is no happy party—but it is a showcase for three actors who nail it.

Out of the Furnace is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews