Aquaman (21 December 2018)

I had the opportunity to see Aquaman with my father while he was in town, adding to the long list of superhero movies the two of us have seen together. He’s the one who got me into comic books, and has therefore been my favorite superhero-movie-buddy for the majority of my life. Having seen so many superhero movies, I can say that Aquaman falls squarely in the middle in terms of quality. It overtakes the majority of DC films since 2013 (Wonder Woman being the exception, in my opinion) but falls short of some of the recent superhero-based films.

While Aquaman  is the hero’s first standalone film, it benefits from having already established him and his powers in the previous Justice League (2017), both in-universe and to viewers. Therefore, exposition can be cut down to only what furthers the plot of this specific film, and the film is able to reach a little past the “coming to terms with superhero identity” that others feel compelled to include.

When the film opens, one might worry for a moment that it will be too similar to its Zack Snyder-directed predecessors– against a palate of greys, a woman (Atlanna, played by Nicole Kidman) is splayed dramatically on the rocks as waves crash against her. However, it quickly becomes clear that this dramatacism is tongue-in-cheek, and although the film does continue to be melodramatic (“in the ocean, the sea carries our tears away”), it also includes genuinely fun fight scenes– hand-to-hand combat is used, along with weapons such as tridents and spears, and later on, seahorse steeds. The movie can be a bit over the top, but it acknowledges and embraces that. It isn’t worried about making sense– when underwater, the film doesn’t try to include telepathic communication, instead just having the characters speak to one another as if they’re on land. In all honesty,  having a film that allows itself to be silly in this universe is refreshing after some of Snyder’s films.

The premise of the film isn’t groundbreaking– Arthur Curry, dubbed Aquaman by the media, must learn to reconcile is on-land upbringing with his Atlantean heritage and prevent an uprising against land-dwellers, who have been polluting the ocean and killings its creatures for many years. The uprising is to be lead by Aquaman’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), a smug blonde much more interested in power than any real justice against the humans on land. The sea-dwelling Mera (Amber Heard, sporting a painfully bright red wig) goes against her people to assist Aquaman, although it’s obvious that she’s the far more competent individual. Heard’s acting occasionally comes off as stiff, but nonetheless she’s a literal and figurative bright spot in the film, an independent, intelligent and strong person who, very honestly, probably puts too much stock in Aquaman and his ability to unite the worlds of land and sea. Nonetheless, it’s engaging to watch her fight the foot soldiers of Atlantis (wearing suits that are a hybrid of Power Rangers and Bionicles), pilot undersea ships, and experience land for the first time.

Another character that breathes life into the film is Black Manta (a compellingly charismatic Yahya Abdul-Manteen II). Watching this character rise from modern pirate to supervillain, driven by understandable grief and a desire for revenge, is some of the most fun I’ve had watching any comic book character come to life on the screen. Abdul-Manteen II does a fantastic job with this character, and it’s a shame this film doesn’t do more with him. The film’s version of this character alone is enough to hope for a sequel.

The film contains some delightful visuals that become more bright and compelling as the film progresses. CGI is utilized well for some fantastic scenes, especially late in the film– The Trench is the first that comes to mind. Species of humanoid seafolk are well-designed in this film, and through short shots of various royals, the viewer does get a good feel for the varying cultures of different undersea societies. The film’s costume design also helps with this; Atlantean foot soldiers aside, the characters are fitted with a diverse range of clothes and costumes that bring the universe to life.
Aquaman isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a fun one, with a coherent plot and competent cast. It contains several staple elements of superhero films, and although it doesn’t add anything innovative or groundbreaking to the genre, director James Wan has added an enjoyable entry to a the list of superhero films.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (14 December 2018)

Early on in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, main character Miles Morales, aided by his Uncle Aaron (the Oscar-Winning and excellent Mahershala Ali), creates a wall-spanning piece of graffiti art containing the words “No Expectations”, a play on Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, a book being read at Morales’s school. While it sets the tone for Morales’s character, it’s also something the reader should keep in mind– since the web of parallel universes and compelling characters go in so many directions anyway, it is best to go into the film without expectations one way or the other, and to let oneself be carried in the +many directions the film takes. Into the Spider-Verse is electric and dynamic, a wonderful ride of a feature. From the moment the opening credits begin, it is immediately immersive, with intense beats and bright colors that dash across the screen. Movies based on comic books are frequent, but rarely are they able to so artfully give the viewer the feeling of being transported directly onto the pages of the medium. This is just one way that the film benefits from its animated format.

The witty web-slinger has graced the big screen nine times in the past 17 years, so viewers are familiar with Peter Parker’s origin story and personality, a fact the film quickly and humorously references. However, Miles Morales is a generally lesser-known iteration of Spider-Man. Created in 2011 by the comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli, Morales is a Brooklyn teen with an African-American father (voiced in the film by Brian Tyree Henry, who gave a performance that brought me to tears) and Hispanic mother. Morales really feels like the kind of teen one would meet in Brooklyn. He sings along to excellent music in his room, gets embarrassed by his policeman father, tries to impress girls (such as classmate “Gwanda,” voiced by Hailee Steinfeld) and worries about finding an identity and place in the world, especially after being forced by his parents to attend a private school instead of his former public school. Relative newcomer Shameik Moore does a fantastic job at portraying an authentic, kind-hearted, bright and occasionally awkward teenager. The tone of the film changes greatly, often from scene to scene, but Moore makes sure we never feel jerked around. He keeps the film squarely grounded in humanity, even as it swings us through the trials and tribulations of a superhuman universe.

Spider-Man has often been a hero strongly tied to tales of coming of age and finding one’s identity, and this film doesn’t stray from that template. Morales is bitten by a radioactive spider (neon and stunningly psychedelic) while in the subway creating graffiti art with his uncle, one of the few adults in his life with whom he feels safe. After discovering, and struggling with, newfound spider abilities, he returns to the scene, only to find his universe’s original Spider-Man in a struggle with Kingpin, who is attempting to access parallel universes. Morales is tasked by this Spider-Man to find a way to disable Kingpin’s particle accelerator, and therefore save the universe, but this cosmic task seems very grounded with the struggles Morales faces in feeling alone and lost in his task and world. With the help of spider-powered heroes from other universes, Morales must find an identity, confidence, and strength, a struggle taken on by many teenagers (although I would argue that his race and struggles with class, as evidenced by his father’s pressure to “move up,” make these universal struggles even more relevant for a large audience). Although the teen often feels alone, he is, though sometimes begrudgingly, joined in his task by a wide cast of characters.

Each character, and sometimes iterations of the same character, have something to add to the film, and although the film is animated, rarely do they feel two-dimensional. Even Aunt May (voiced by Lily Tomlin) is a different version of the character than previously seen, more independent and resilient than films have given her the opportunity to be in the past. In a world that has seen Spider-Man on screen so many times in the last years, it’s hard to imagine a film with so many versions of the hero to allow them to be unique, but the film even allows us a version of Peter Parker very different than any we’ve seen before, described accurately by Morales as a “jenky old broke hobo Spider-Man.” Even the porkine hero Spider-Ham, voiced by a delightful John Mulaney, features in the film and manages to be at least a little more than a gag. The cast of characters from different genres and dimensions allow the film to flourish, and allow both artists and actors to showcase their skills.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is visually and auditorily stunning in ways I wish I had the knowledge to more accurately describe. It’s obvious that the film was crafted by artists who truly love what they do, and who truly love and respect comic books. Daniel Pemberton has composed one of the most fantastic original scores I have ever heard, and artists like Nicki Minaj, Post Malone and Blackway and Black Caviar do an excellent job adding to the fresh and invigorating feel the soundtrack adds to the film. The art style is also something unique for a feature film– modern 3D computer animation is combined with the traditional 2D “dot” style of comic books. This style allows the film to surpass some of the confines comic book films face in live-action format. The concept of “Spidey Senses” has never entirely worked in live-action, but in animation, is able to simply be drawn on the screen via colors and wavy lines, so that the viewers can experience it without having to rely on tired explanations by characters. Additionally, the film uses traditional comic book techniques such as panels, which are able to provide humor and emotional punches depending on the scene. Onomatopoeias scroll up and down the screen, love notes to the original art form. Scenes such as doors of a subway car opening and closing are gorgeous in ways they perhaps wouldn’t be able to be in any other medium. The film is a beautiful piece of art, an homage to comic books and wholly unique, along with being a love story to Brooklyn, to change, and to evolution.

I would argue that the world already knew from films such as 2018’s Black Panther that comic book movies can be culturally-relevant pieces of art rather than just action-filled “popcorn flicks”, but through the use of classic yet groundbreaking animation, a compelling cast of characters, and an immersive soundtrack, Into the Spider-Verse further elevates the genre and adds a unique and breathtaking work of art to its list.

Announcement

When people find out you’re suicidal, they usually try to figure out a reason why. If there isn’t an obvious one, they try to figure out factors to keep you from going through with it– support systems, sure, but also hobbies. “I like to read, and to write,” I told numerous professionals during my hospitalization this autumn as they stared at me expectantly over their clipboards. “I like… movies. I like to watch movies.”

I was first diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder when I was thirteen years old. Like with being suicidal, people tried to figure out a cause, but there didn’t appear to be one. I had supportive and loving parents who had had an amicable and non-traumatizing divorce over a year ago. My middle school experience was not much more difficult than anyone else’s. I had friends. Nevertheless, I was angry and sad and bogged down for months on end. I hated myself. I was started on Prozac two months after my diagnosis, the medication I remained on for the next six years, before switching to Zoloft and finally Cymbalta. I also remained in therapy.

Getting a shy, sad teenager to talk about their deep feelings and insecurities was not an easy feat, but getting me to do so in therapy was even more difficult. However, my therapist Harriet quickly discovered a way to get me to open up; at the beginning of our sessions, or when we reached a wall, she would ask me if I’d seen any movies lately. Usually I had. I wanted to be a film critic until sophomore year of high school, and even after I decided to go into nursing, movies remained something I was passionate about. So I would spend a few minutes talking to Harriet about movies, and often the topic would fairly naturally shift into more serious subject matter.

Along with being something I love, movies have been a way for me to gauge the severity of my depression. I remember sitting in the theatre watching A Quiet Place early this year and thinking, “I know myself, and this should be making me sob, but I don’t feel anything. I’m just numb.” That was a marker to me that things had gotten bad.

My love of movies has been with my longer than my depression has. As a toddler, I was discussing gender roles and workplace practices in A Bug’s Life with my mom. For most of my childhood, I read Entertainment Weekly religiously. I remember begging my mom to let me stay up long enough to watch all of the Oscars as early as 2005, when I was nine years old. My family has participated in Oscars ballots for over a decade.

I will never be a professional film critic. However, I can still review movies, from a novice perspective. So that’s what I’m going to do. 52 times, in fact, one movie for each week of 2019.

This quest, which I’m calling Cymbalta Cinema, serves a few purposes. One of these is that it gives me something to work on, and strive toward. For most of my life, I’ve been in school, working to graduate high school, and then college. Now that I’ve accomplished those goals, as much as I adore my job, it’s been hard to find things to work toward and to keep myself going day to day. Watching and reviewing one movie a week gives me something to work on, and also ensures that I’ll be out of bed and up and about at least once a week– often with friends, hopefully! The second purpose to bring awareness to mental illness. It’s a struggle a lot of us face, and too often in silence. It’s something I’ve been hesitant to talk about. There are very few people I told about my hospitalization this fall. There are very few people who know the extent of my depression. And I feel that that silence perpetuates a stigma. Far too often I’ve heard co-workers on my floor refer to the psychiatric patients on our unit as “crazies.” If I said anything about my struggles I’m sure they’d say “oh but you’re not like THOSE people” as if there’s something wrong with having a mental illness. I’m not ashamed that I have depression, that I take medication for it (Cymbalta, 90mg a day), and I’m not even ashamed that I had to be hospitalized so that I wouldn’t kill myself. I want to get better, and I’m working on it. Recovery is a process, and it sure isn’t linear.

So, I came up with Cymbalta Cinema. Starting in January, I’ll be seeing a movie a week and posting and sharing film reviews every Saturday. If you could follow along and read a few reviews, that would be incredible. Projects like this are easier to maintain if there are people holding me accountable. I’ll be posting the reviews here, and sharing on social media. At the very least, thank you so much for reading this far. That in itself means a lot to me.