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AQUAMAN – Review

Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry in AQUAMAN (Warner Bros. (c), still photo by Mark Rogers)

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Jason Momoa’s effortless charisma and a rich score from Rupert Gregson-Williams are all that prevent the DC universe’s latest voyage from totally capsizing. In all fairness, neither Aquaman or its leading man can be blamed for the reverse-engineered structure of Warner’s attempted rivalry to the MCU – our protagonist has already appeared in two previous instalments before this, his actual origins story. Nor can they be blamed for the simple fact that digital technology – as powerful as it is – simply isn’t able to convincingly deliver the vast underwater world demanded by the premise. In a comic book? Yup. In animated form? Fine. In a 143-minute ‘live action’ film? Give it five years and a breakthrough in swimming simulations, then we’ll talk.

In the meantime, however, this overstuffed adventure will have to tide fans over. Despite saving the surface world in Justice League, Arthur Curry (Momoa) refuses to accept his Atlantean heritage. His mother, Atlanna (a quite literally washed-up Nicole Kidman), fell for lighthouse keeper, Tom (Temuera Morrison, rather shoddily de-aged). But beneath the ocean waves, Arthur’s half brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), rules with an iron fist, planning to wreak havoc on the human world for their crimes against the environment. With the help of sea sorceress, Mera (Amber Heard, in a wig that the cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race might generously deem “a bit much”), Arthur sets out to reclaim the all-powerful trident of Atlan and reclaim his soggy throne.

Director James Wan upturns the tech toybox to play out his kid-in-the-bathtub fantasy, but an enormous visual effects budget is all for naught when spread so unevenly. Giant seahorses, crab monsters and sharks with “frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads” are impressively rendered, but the compositing of human characters leaves much to be desired. There’s a difference between pushing the boundaries and simply pretending they don’t exist: watching the climactic showdown (two armies of pixelated humans astride copy-pasted monsters smashing into one another), I finally understood how audiences of 2002 felt, experiencing George Lucas’ unchecked digital ambition unfold. With the exception of one impressively physical fistfight in the bowels of a submarine, derring-do here is an entirely weightless, witless affair.

But that’s where similarities to the Star Wars prequels end. In 2018, such displays of extravagance are the norm, no longer the stuff of a single visionary auteur fusing Greek tragedy with the cutting edge of filmmaking. Plus, while clunky expositional dialogue wasn’t exactly thin-on-the-ground in Lucas’ trilogy, Aquaman positively drowns in its own storytelling. Besides Arthur’s main quest for the trident, we also have Orm’s uprising, numerous flashbacks to our muscleman’s childhood, and a second – more entertaining – villain in the shape of Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a pirate with a score to settle and the laser-spitting helmet to prove it.

So, let’s take stock: a central hairy hero’s quest to show his worth by reclaiming an ancient weapon, a lush fantastical world, a super-powered royal family, a sibling rivalry that threatens to lay waste to the outside world, and a secondary antagonist with a penchant for face-based plasma. Yep, it’s Kenneth Branagh’s Thor…with drumming octopuses!

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Bohemian Rhapsody – Review

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

There’s a moment approximately two thirds into Bohemian Rhapsody, Bryan Singer’s long-gestating biopic of rock legend Freddie Mercury, when its tawdry by-the-numbers biopic act slips, revealing the dormant hatchet job beneath. Mercury’s (Rami Malek) bandmates confront their unruly figurehead about his recent spate of drug-fuelled abandon, and Brian May (played uncannily by Gwilym Lee) accuses his friend of destroying their “family”.

This particular F word encompasses the central dishonesty of this efficiently constructed but morally dubious film. “Family” here extends beyond the band, to Mercury’s parents and his ex-wife, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). They’re posed as the wholesome, loving opposite to those with whom the lead singer allegedly chose to surround himself on his journey of self-discovery: Freddie’s complex relationship with his sexuality and subsequent carousing are framed as the direct cause of Queen’s fracture.

By Brian May’s own admission (“In a way, all of us were out of control..it screwed us up.”), the blame did not lie purely on Mercury’s shoulders, yet the lead guitarists’ producer credit – and that of drummer Roger Taylor – speaks volumes. Simple queer erasure – something many fans feared from initial marketing – would almost have been preferable to this portrayal of Mercury as an upstart; a self-centred child whose various lovers and friends are depicted as a uniformly leather-clad, opportunistic bunch who urge him to pursue a solo career in the hopes they might reap some reward.

Malek’s performance is as passionate and honest as one can be when adhering to such a compromised script. He achieves the endlessly spry, whiplash physicality of Mercury’s live performances perfectly, but there’s some eye-watering wig work and his prosthetic overbite is one spittle fleck shy of caricature. Plus, the scenes of album recordings and stage shows utilise real recordings of the band, and Freddie’s vocals lie atop the footage of Malek’s noiseless crooning like oil on water.

Though not exactly taking a backstage in terms of screen time (whatever the film’s moral assessment of Mercury, he is certifiably the lead), Malek is poorly served in the recreation of epochal studio moments (all, incidentally, playing out like a chronological karaoke playlist). True, he brazenly blathers at a disparaging manager (Mike Myers) about the operatic inspiration for the titular track, but his main role in the band’s recording time is to hear May, Taylor and John Deacon come up with all the legendary riffs and beats. Bohemian Rhapsody’s Freddie Mercury is far too busy drinking, getting ‘high’ (limited by a 12a/PG-13 certificate, the film alludes to drugs with vague shots of powder on tabletops) or otherwise acting out to contribute anything.

As if this weren’t enough to conjure a version of the artist that he himself would likely detest, Mercury’s struggle with AIDS is also reworked to fit a rise-fall-redemption narrative. His diagnosis with the disease in April 1987 is retconned to take place just before the band’s sensational performance at Live Aid in July 1985, in order to bookend the film.

These twenty minutes of pure aural wildfire are recreated with stunning accuracy, but the joy of experiencing those classic anthems in all their glory is insufficient recompense for character assassination. All the seat-rocking surround sound and copy-pasted CG crowds money can buy will never match the emotion of the original footage, Singer’s paper-thin replication leaving this critic wishing, painfully, for the greatest rock band in history to simply stop playing.

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