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Review of AQUAMAN (2018) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes (parental judgment required)
2018, 143 min., Color
Fantasy-Adventure
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action and for some language
Aspect ratio: 2.41:1 and 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: A-/B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Critics at Rotten Tomatoes only gave Aquaman a 65 percent “fresh” rating, but I think maybe they’ve got a trident stuck somewhere. What do they want from a superhero movie? It can’t possibly be the same things my family wants, because this 2018 action-adventure starring Jason Momoa checked all our boxes.

Epic story? Check. At 143 minutes it might be around 10 minutes too long, but we get a wide sweeping origin story that begins when the Queen of Atlantis washes ashore and is taken in by a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison), with whom she eventually falls in love and has a son—a little demigod they name Arthur. The Queen (Nicole Kidman) had been fleeing an arranged marriage with the King of Atlantis, and there’s no running from a guy like that. She sacrifices herself so her son and earthbound husband can live—but not before instructing her trusted advisor, Vulko (Willem Dafoe), to secretly teach her son how to become a powerful warrior well schooled in the ways of the ocean and its people. There are plenty of complications, but not so many that they get tangled up with each other and end up tripping the narrative. At some point this turns into a quest story, with Arthur searching to find the powerful Trident of Atlan that would allow him to triumph over his half-brother and take the throne he’s destined to occupy because as half-man and half-Atlantean he’s in a position to unite the two worlds—or at least stop an Atlantean-led invasion of the “surface” people.

Great characters? Check. There’s an interesting Thor/Loki brother tension between the half-breed Arthur and his full-blooded Atlantean half-sib Orm (Patrick Wilson), and an equally interesting triangle forms when history repeats itself and Mera (Amber Heard) flees her arranged marriage with Orm in order to accompany Arthur on his quest. While I’ll admit that the Atlantean scenes can seem a bit hokey at times, it’s worth noting that they’re evocative of the old Clash of the Titans discussions among the gods on Olympus—more homage than misstep. And Momoa really carries this picture. He’s as charismatic as he is powerful, and he has almost as many one-liners with enemies as that master himself, James Bond.

Just the right tone and blend of comedy and action? Check. The people responsible for bringing DC heroes to the big screen have had a hard time getting the tone right, but they finally figured out that the successful Marvel formula is nothing more than a perfect balance of comedy and action, rather than taking anything too seriously. Director James Wan (Saw) resists the impulse to go overly dark, but indulges his horror side in a scene where Arthur and Mera flee and battle trench monsters that keep coming and coming like the zombies in a George Romero film. Wan said that while they opted to go with a brown-skinned Hawaiian in the lead instead of a blond Caucasian, he still wanted to bring the rest of the iconic imagery of the comic books to life—and in that he did a pretty good job.

Great creatures? Check. The souped-up battle sea horses and sea dragons and the Great White Sharks with riders are fun enough, but when you get to the giant crabs and other crustaceans you start to think that maybe Ray Harryhausen was smiling down from above as the character designers and animators did their thing. That feels like another homage, and the various factions of undersea peoples are so crazily different that it will remind older viewers of the old Flash Gordon serials.

A believable fantastic world? Check—for the most part. Some of the undersea set designs are spectacularly realistic, while others embrace the opulence of an undersea kingdom, and others feel a little more Star Wars space age. It’s the latter that sometimes pull you out of the moment. If I were editing, I probably would have hacked 10 minutes off of some of these Olympian-style Atlantis scenes that can get a little stagey and slow things down. But for them, the film’s pace seldom lets up.

Great action sequences? Check. And the humor really does balance the spectacular fight scenes that occur on a micro (mano y mano) level and also on the macro level with grand undersea battles. Epic battles—but all done with the kind of comic-book tone of fun action.

Our family liked Aquaman a lot, and there are some pretty cool bonus features that will help you appreciate what the actors went through to make the film. As if he couldn’t be any more likable, Momoa comes across even more like a guy you wish all good things for as you learn about him in one short extra that focuses on him. It’s really worth watching, as are all the other short features. This film will get a lot of repeat play. There’s a huge cast involved, with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II bringing Manta to life, but when it all comes down to it this is Jason Momoa’s film. Yes, it could have been more tightly edited, and Heard is engaging, but it’s Momoa and the creatures who carry the movie.

Language: One character flips another off, and there’s just a few “shits”

Sex: Unless you’re offended by a male torso, there’s nothing much here besides a kiss or two

Violence: The violence isn’t as ramped up as Black Panther; though there are a lot of fights and battles and people get skewered, it’s all pretty bloodless except for one scene

Adult situations: One scene takes place in a bar and there’s mild drinking

Takeaway: Jason Momoa is 38, but I hope he has a lot more Aquaman left in him. As long as the writers can keep the material fresh and continue to find the right tone and blend of action and humor, this is a series we’d love to continue

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Review of FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
2018, 134 min., Color
Fantasy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy action
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B+ (includes extended cut)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital (extended cut included)
Trailer
Amazon link

Our whole family loved Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. But we were split on Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

My wife, who had read the screenplay and all the Harry Potter books and has a good memory, thought it was a really good movie, somewhere in the B+ range. The only thing she didn’t like was a plot point that’s already been so widely discussed on the Internet that it’s not much of a spoiler: Voldemort’s snake, Nagini, turns out to be an enchanted woman.

Meanwhile, my son, who didn’t read the screenplay but still has a good memory and grasp of characters in complicated plots, thought it was a B- at best. And my daughter and I, who found ourselves confused throughout much of the movie, gave it a B-/C+. In other words, I agreed with critics who slammed J.K. Rowling for creating an unnecessarily complicated but relatively low-stakes plot.

Naturally, I assumed that the more you know going into the film, the more you’ll like it—until I read how überfans criticized Rowling for confusing even herself by violating her own timeline. I didn’t notice. I was too confused.

For me, it was like watching an action movie with terrific special effects in a foreign language with no subtitles. It was like listening to an opera sung in German where you kind of know what’s going on, but not really.

Though it was fun seeing Johnny Depp as Gellert Grindelwald, I felt that director David Yates could have nudged him to be just a bit more sinister. As it is, he’s still a more interesting character than the purely evil Voldemort from the Potter films. But would it have hurt to have him be just a little more menacing—even Bond-villain menacing?

Holding it all together is Eddie Redmayne, who is wonderful as always as Newt Scamander, the nerdy wizard who collects and studies fantastic beasts. The critters themselves are also fun to watch. But while his partnership with a very young Albus Dumbledore to foil Grindelwald makes sense and drives the plot right into a segue to the Potter series, the character who suffers most from the addition of Dumbledore (Jude Law) is Newt’s Muggle sidekick from the first film, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Kowalski looks and feels as lost as I was at times. He’s simply not integral to the plot—so much so that if this were an office, he’d spend his days sharpening pencils.

Yes, the plot. As near as I could tell, Grindelwald escapes during a prison transfer from New York to London; meanwhile, the Ministry of Magic agrees to let Newt travel again (he had been barred because of mayhem previously caused) if he would help them locate someone in Paris who might be a Potter-like chosen one who could help defeat Grindelwald. And that’s all I’ve got. After that, characters jump into and out of frames with such disturbing regularity that it left me spinning in a revolving door. My son, who just watched it a second time, said it made more sense to him after seeing it again. So plan on watching it multiple times, unless you’re a Potter savant.

But the special effects? How could they get any better? The creatures are believably rendered, the magic looks as real as a natural disaster, and a “blue-light special” scene is particularly impressive. Plus, how much fun is it to see Hogwarts again—the first time on the big screen since 2011! Overall, there’s nothing here that exceeds whatever “adult” material was in the Potter films, so parents can think accordingly.

Rowling told Variety that there were five films currently planned in this series, rather than an initially reported Fantastic Beasts trilogy. In fact, she said there could be more, given that she’s visualized a story arc that spans 19 years.

This Blu-ray combo pack includes not only the film in glorious HD with a rich and resonant Dolby Atmos TrueHD soundtrack, but the option to watch The Crimes of Grindelwald in an extended cut that adds seven minutes. I wish I could tell you that those seven minutes make everything instantly clearer, but that’s not the case. You’re just going to have to watch this multiple times, like everyone else who hasn’t previously read the screenplay.

Language: Extremely mild, with the worst, really, the use of the swearword“hell”

Sex: Nothing graphic, but themes of rape and forced marriage and death in childbirth might be disturbing to viewers old enough to get the crux of it but not old enough to understand completely

Violence: Some blood, some incineration, and a few killing curses, but by and large it’s pretty tame given most superhero movies, even

Adult situations: Apart from a hookah scene, the only thing is mild alcohol use (with one drunk character) and mild smoking of cigarettes

Takeaway: It will be interesting to see if Rowling takes the criticism into account when forging ahead with the other films in this series, now that she’s gone from novelist to screenwriter