The end of each year brings a tidal wave of movies to the multiplexes, with this year’s crop counting a whopping 10 major films released between Dec. 14 and Christmas Day. As the old saying goes, “They can’t all be gems.” So, here are my brief takes on three of the films I wasn’t able to keep up with earlier — one’s pretty good, one’s so-so and one is an outright disaster.
First up, I’ll take on “Aquaman,” which is the pretty good one. I should throw in the caveat that as a professional critic who has had to see most of the nearly 30 Marvel and DC superhero movies over the past decade, I am pretty much sick and tired of all of them. Aside from the terrific Patty Jenkins-directed “Wonder Woman,” the DC films were joylessly overbearing, like “Man of Steel” which couldn’t hold a candle to Marvel’s zippy, laugh-packed action extravaganzas.
But “Aquaman” actually breaks the dour DC mold and delivers a gonzo, highly inventive piece of entertainment that has a surprisingly fresh vision overseen by director James Wan. The creator of the “Saw” and “The Conjuring” film universes has taken big steps outside of the horror genre, first by taking the wheel on “The Fate of the Furious” and now by presenting the origin story of the underwater superhero who has all manner of undersea life at his command.
Wan’s outsider status in the superhero genre results in extravagant special effects that somehow manage to be pleasurable to watch, rather than simply creating bombastic flash for its own sake. He’s also blessed with a unique cast that has former pro wrestling superstar Jason Mamoa bringing a great deal of wit and, of course, strength to the role of the titular hero in a flashy leading-man debut that shows he could very well rise to the megastar level of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Somehow, Oscar-worthy veterans Nicole Kidman and Willem Dafoe pop in for a paycheck en route to their usual artier fare, and “Conjuring” star Patrick Wilson handles the scenery-chewing task of playing Aquaman’s jealous and extremely pissed-off half-brother villain. The plot is an often anarchic jumble of one-liners, sci-fi jargon and Wilson’s plan to lead an aquatic war against land-dwellers because of all the pollution they unleash into the oceans. But what do you expect from a superhero film? It may not be high art, but “Aquaman” performs swimmingly in delivering undersea fun.
Next up is the so-so movie: the Jennifer Lopez star vehicle romantic comedy “Second Act.”
J. Lo has been leading an eclectic career as an actress, singer and dancer for nearly a quarter-century, and has managed to carve out a distinct brand for her persona as the impossibly pretty, vastly wealthy woman who can still make you believe she knows what it’s like to be an average working-class woman.
“Second Act” thus provides her the perfect role as Maya, a 40-year-old woman who goes for a big promotion to head manager at the Whole Foods-style supermarket she’s been working at for 15 years. When she loses the job because she only has a GED, Maya’s best friend’s son creates an entirely new and wholly false online persona for her so she can compete for better jobs that require higher education.
Suddenly Maya finds herself hired as a consultant by a line of facial creams and thrown in over her head amid a flashy corporate world with tons of perks. Tasked with competing against Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens), the hotshot 24-year-old daughter of the company CEO (Treat Williams), in a race to develop the best new organic skin cream, Maya finds a bigger surprise when it’s revealed that Zoe is the daughter she gave up for adoption during high school.
That plot twist is surprisingly effective, lending an unexpected emotional depth to the film that balances well against a number of quirkily fun supporting characters and screwball comedy moments. Lopez knocks her well-rounded role out of the park, but “Second Act” unfortunately has a number of gaping plot holes and logical lapses that render it a bit second-rate. If you’re a sucker for lightweight comedies that are more pleasant than hilarious, this one’s for you. Otherwise, avoid.
Lastly, the outright disaster “Holmes & Watson” should have been comedy gold as it reunited the amazing comic duo of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly for their first funny foray since 2008’s classic “Step Brothers.” Somehow, the magic is utterly missing here, as the duo plays the classic detective team in a mystery spoof where they try to keep their perennial archenemy Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes, looking embarrassed to be here) from killing the Queen of England.
The most baffling problem is that Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law have already been performing humorously as Holmes and Watson in two hit movies, with a third on the way. Therefore, the need to create this attempt at a comic telling is utterly pointless.
But even beyond wasting the talents of Ferrell and Reilly, writer-director Ethan Coen piles on one stupid anachronistic joke after another throughout the movie and then doesn’t even bother to take them to their logical climaxes. This unfortunately will likely kill off the opportunities for Ferrell and Reilly to team up again, but the good side is that Coen won’t likely be allowed to ever make another movie in this lifetime.
“Second Act”: C
“Holmes & Watson”: F