Archive for March, 2019

Shazam!

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Superhero with tags on March 28, 2019 by Mark Hobin

shazam_ver3STARS3.5I’m officially ready to concede that the DC Extended Universe has me excited.  It’s been a rocky road ever since Man of Steel debuted back in 2013.  For a while, this current DC iteration of films subscribed to the gospel of Christopher Nolan.  Moody and brooding realism equaled a quality flick.  I adore The Dark Knight trilogy so, in theory, it sounded like a good idea.  Then one joyless, poorly written project after another proved that something wasn’t working.  I wasn’t a fan until Wonder Woman came along in 2017 and then Aquaman solidified that love in 2018.  Both were entertaining episodes that stood on their own.  They were individual chapters that didn’t depend on having seen the rest of the series.  Justice League, which was sandwiched between the two, negated that concept, but let’s focus on the positive.  We currently have a new offering based on a DC Comics property previously known as “Captain Marvel” when it was originally published by Fawcett Comics 1940–1953.  Branded as the DC character “Shazam!” In 1972, the superhero has made his first appearance in a theatrical feature since the 1941 movie serial from Republic Pictures. What took so long?  This production is an outright charmer.

Well color me surprised.  I had seen the trailers and thought the whimsical — no make that goofy — mood was a tonal misfire.  We haven’t seen such brightly colored tights on a superhero costume in quite a while.  The whole thing seemed too irreverent to be taken seriously.  Turns out the jokey tone is the screenplay’s greatest asset.  Not since the halcyon days of Christopher Reeve has a buoyant, upbeat tone been employed so effectively.  Superman II (1980) is one of the greatest films ever made (not kidding) so pardon the aforementioned blasphemy.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a foster kid with a mischievous and arrogant demeanor at first, but he has a kind and compassionate heart.  While escaping a couple of schoolyard bullies, he’s magically whisked to a magical realm known as The Rock of Eternity where he meets the Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou).  No stranger to comic book adaptations, Hounsou has played Korath the Pursuer in Marvel productions (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel) and (using CGI) the ruler of the Fisherman Kingdom in DC’s Aquaman.  Here he portrays the sorcerer who chooses to bestow his magical powers on Billy.  By saying the word “shazam”, Billy receives Solomon’s wisdom, Hercules’ strength, Atlas’ stamina, Zeus’ power, Achilles’ courage, and Mercury’s speed.  It’s all in the name.

A big part of the chronicle is the joy of discovery as young Billy becomes acclimated to his new god-like abilities.  Remember, he’s still fundamentally a teen, but when he becomes Shazam, he is an adult.  Incidentally, he never embraces that name here.  An ongoing joke is trying to come up with a suitable moniker.  Zachary Levi is absolutely winning when Billy transforms into the musclebound champion.  He perfectly conveys that naive enthusiasm even as a grown adult.  His “golly gee wilikers” expressions convey pure innocence.  He’s a do-gooder that kids can look up to.  His friendship with Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), one of the foster kids he goes to live with, is a sheer delight.  The two of them have a lot of fun figuring out what superpowers he has.  Grazer is an actor to watch.  He memorably portrayed the youthful hypochondriac, Eddie in 2017’s It.  Here he stands out as well with his wide-eyed charisma.  His curiosity is contagious.  The chemistry he has with both actors Angel and Levi is captivating.

Of course there’s a villain.  He’s Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, ably played by the dependable Mark Strong.  This adventure actually begins with his story.  We learn how the poor treatment he had received at the hands of his older brother and father led to his dark desires.  He too was summoned by the Wizard Shazam as a child but was not chosen.  A bunch of CGI gargoyle monsters that each represent the 7 deadly sins assist him in his sinister ambitions.  They might frighten very young toddlers.  There’s a moment where Dr. Sivana pushes his equally corrupt brother out of a skyscraper.  If you can manage the cartoon level violence of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoons, you can handle this.  Although I completely understood why Dr. Sivana turned evil, I didn’t particularly care.  His saga is less compelling.  It occupies a lot more time in the narrative than I cared to indulge.

Ultimately Shazam! emphasizes the happiness in comic books.  This celebrates the feeling of wish fulfillment.  Billy’s childlike wonder in savoring his newfound abilities is so palpable.  We appreciate his euphoria.  Writer Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) and horror director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) also emphasize the importance of family.  After being separated from his mother, Billy is sent to live with a foster home that includes other children.  Based on this account, I suspect these individuals will become more important in the inevitable sequel.  Besides Freddy, there’s college-bound Mary (Grace Fulton), gamer Eugene (Ian Chen), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), and youngest Darla (Faithe Herman).  The close camaraderie that develops proves that a family isn’t necessarily about blood relations.  It’s surprisingly uplifting.  Even when Shazam! gets bogged down in less interesting plot machinations, it’s the heart that shines through.

03-23-19

Us

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller on March 23, 2019 by Mark Hobin

UsSTARS4I’ve been waiting for this.  Us is director Jordan Peele’s followup to his much-lauded debut, Get Out.  It nabbed the filmmaker an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  My expectations were high simply because it was this reviewer’s 4th favorite picture of 2017.  It’s hard not to make comparisons as Us is another work in the horror genre that incorporates both creepy and funny elements.  For example, the 1986 charity benefit “Hands Across America” is woven into the narrative as an illustration of both.  But Us has such a different agenda.  It’s something else altogether.  I’ll cut the suspense.  This is not as coherent as his first feature.  Yet there’s still so much to recommend.  At worst, it’s proof that Get Out was not a fluke.  Jordan Peele is an imaginative talent with a vision.  The screenplay extracts fear out of our safe space.  Us is a highly entertaining thriller meticulously built upon a foundation of unrelenting tension.

The movie concerns the well-to-do Wilson family.  There’s mom Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) along with their two children, teenaged daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and younger son Jason (Evan Alex).  The clan is on vacation and they’ve gone to Santa Cruz beach.  While the group is hanging out with the Tylers, Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker), young Jason wanders off.  He encounters an incongruous stranger dripping with blood right there on the sand.  At that same moment, Adelaide notices Jason is missing.  She panics running down the beach snapping up her little boy before anything grave has happened.  However, she’s freaked out.  Time for everyone to return back to the house.  That night, they will be visited by a family that looks unnervingly like their own.

Every exceptional horror film is elevated by at least one galvanizing performance and Lupita Nyong’o is the star of this show.  For the first time in her career, a story revolves around the actress.  She is more than up to the task.  The opening vignette is a flashback to 1986 when Adelaide was a little girl (Madison Curry).  Back then, she too had a negative experience at that very same beach.  It was here that she entered an old funhouse with a hall of mirrors and confronted another girl that looked exactly like herself.  Adelaide was reunited with her parents but is so traumatized by the experience she was unable to speak.  This unresolved childhood trauma informs their present-day dread when they are visited by what appears to be duplicates of themselves.  Nyong’o gives two markedly distinctive portrayals.  Her human copy speaks in a deep guttural croak of a voice.  The unnerving low pitch only serves to emphasize how her evil twin has become her own worst enemy.  Director Jordan Peele is a self-proclaimed black nerd, or “blerd” and it’s hard not to see the auteur’s presence in the father.  Winston Duke was the powerful and virile warrior leader M’Baku in Black Panther.  Here he is a doughy, goofy dad with large spectacles proud of his newly purchased dilapidated speedboat. He’s prone to corny dad witticisms too. When out in the wilderness, daughter whines “There’s no Internet!” He happily chirps back, “You have the outernet!”

At its basic essence, Us is a home invasion thriller.  Then, in the final stretch, seemingly descends suddenly into a disorganized hodgepodge of allegorical plot ideas.  Let’s throw race, class, and nationality as topics for consideration.  Without context, I’ll simply add that “We’re Americans” is perhaps the most memorable utterance in the entire picture.  Wait, so is that title Us or is it the abbreviation U.S.? I’m not here to spoil the deeper themes.  Just want to acknowledge the assortment of concepts swirling around this chronicle.  This is sure to inspire a boatload of think piece articles that pontificate about things like existentialism.  I didn’t warm up to all of that.  Us works best if you don’t try to pick it apart too much, although repeat viewings will undoubtedly uncover more clues to bait that desire to delineate a singular point.

Great cinema isn’t just about WHAT you say but HOW you say it.  Horror movies are rarely this evocative.  It’s unbearably stressful but wisely uses unexpected dashes of humor to alleviate anxiety. Michael Abels’ score is frightfully good at extracting tension.  The cinematography by Mike Gioulakis artfully captures the action.  This production looks fantastic.  He appreciates faces, lovingly highlighting the visages of its stars in closeup so we the audience feel emotionally connected in their plight.  What’s interesting is despite the fact that each doppelgänger is portrayed by the same actor, they appear slightly different in some imperceptible way.  Call it makeup, lighting, or perhaps skillful acting.  Whatever the reason, it’s an unsettling effect.  Ok, so I’ll concede that their clothes are a dead giveaway.  They all wear red jumpsuits, sport sandals, and one fingerless driving glove.  Scissors are their weapon of choice.  Curiously, not a single gun is fired in this film.  The heightened visual presentation makes these villains iconic.  Does anyone want to guess what the hot Halloween costume will be this year?

03-21-19

Everybody Knows

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on March 19, 2019 by Mark Hobin

todos_lo_saben_ver6STARS3Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has a genuine talent for depicting moral dilemmas.  He specializes in presenting domestic conflicts within an intricate narrative.  They highlight ethical stakes informed by social class, gender, and religion.  I’ve been a big fan beginning with his fourth movie, About Elly (2009). I’ve seen everything of his since.  A Separation (2011) came after and it was a flawless masterpiece.  The Past (2013) and The Salesman (2016) followed.  Though not as spectacular, they were each impeccable achievements that excelled at extracting raw emotional drama.  I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Twice his pictures have won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (A Separation, The Salesman).  His latest is Everybody Knows and it finds the director functioning within the same milieu of interpersonal relationships.  It’s a solid if unexceptional, addition to his filmography.

Asghar Farhadi continues to test the universality of his themes in various countries.  In The Past, he explored his subjects with a French-language drama.  In Everybody Knows, Farhadi has made a Spanish movie, a language he doesn’t speak.  Yet this production just might be Farhadi’s most accessible creation.  For one thing, it reunites Oscar winners Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) and Penélope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona).  The real-life married couple has now done nine features together.  The two have always had palpable chemistry.  This time, it is the actors, not the screenplay that is the main reason to see the work of Farhadi.

The is a story about a secret that supposedly “everybody knows”.  That confidential information is first discussed by teen wild child Irene (Carla Campra) and her friend Felipe (Sergio Castellanos).  Suddenly Irene goes missing.  Her mother Laura (Penélope Cruz) and husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) are distraught.  A subsequent investigation is carried out entirely by the members of the extended clan who had been attending the wedding of Laura’s sister (Inma Cuesta).  I’m being particularly vague with the details because part of the fascination is uncovering the layers as developments happen.  Farhadi’s cinema is all about the art of human relationships.  What he does is not easy.  For the first time, however, his craft feels overly labored to serve developments that culminate in a less satisfying end.  A lot of things are considered as the past is dredged up which illuminates the history of these people.  The dynamics of Laura’s family are brought to light.  It’s just that the reveals aren’t revelatory.  The dialogue is dense and excessive.  It gets cluttered in a tangled web within a more traditional account.  It ultimately descends into the melodrama of a soap opera.

03-08-19

Captain Marvel

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on March 10, 2019 by Mark Hobin

captain_marvel_ver2STARS3It’s hard to believe, but after 20 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Captain Marvel is the first to star a female lead.  I still don’t understand why we didn’t get a Black Widow movie back in 2010 when that character was introduced in Iron Man 2.  The DC Extended Universe beat Marvel to the punch by two years with Wonder Woman, a critical and box office hit in the summer of 2017.  Much has been made of Captain Marvel‘s trailblazing status.  I mean it was released on International Women’s Day.  The drama is so retro.  Ok so yes, the feature is set in 1995 but it actually feels like it was made back then.

Captain Marvel is a prequel to the entire MCU.  The adventure concerns an officer in the United States Air Force named Carol Danvers.  This is the saga of how she became Captain Marvel through a series of events, Yup it’s another origin story.  The problem is she has amnesia. We know who she is.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t, so she wanders through a large part of the film on an “emotional journey” with her mind in a funky haze.  That makes her personality kind of nil.  She interacts with a youthful looking Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury minus the eyepatch.  For once the de-aging technology looks pretty amazing.  Jackson gets to see out of both eyes and he has a nice repartee with Brie Larson.  He helps her unravel the mystery of her past.  Also of note is Ben Mendelsohn who plays a shapeshifting Skrull villain named Talos.  As of late, he’s been playing underwritten parts that could simply be labeled as “old evil white guy” (Rogue One, Ready Player One).  Here he gets a part with depth worthy of his talents.  He rises to the challenge.  Talos is not all that he seems and he’s a highlight in a movie in desperate need of them.

The best scenes of Captain Marvel take place on Planet C-53.  That’s Earth to you newbies. Before we can get there, the production is saddled with the worst 20-minute intro ever to grace an MCU film.  It all takes place in space.  Carol Danvers, who thinks her name is Vers, reports to commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) who is a Kree.  She believes herself to be one as well.  She ends up on Earth which is the site for a galactic conflict between these two alien populations, the Skrulls and the Krees.  Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are a filmmaking duo known for indies (Half Nelson, It’s Kind of a Funny Story).  It’s the quieter moments where Captain Marvel shines.  Carol meets her longtime friend from the U.S. Air Force, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch).  The two women have a conversation about something other than a man.  Bechtel test, check.

I hate to invoke a cliché like “been there done that” but it’s too fitting to reject.  The overall sensibility of the presentation is conventionality.  As you’d predict for a film set in the 90s, there are nods to the trappings of the era.  Blockbuster Video, Radio Shack, Blackberry cell phones, CD ROMs that take forever to load are all visual gags.  The 90s infused soundtrack means we can listen to tunes like No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” while she engages in combat or hear Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” as she enters Mar-Vell’s (Annette Bening ) quarters.  Brief musical snippets pop up here and there.  However, their presence is far less memorable than the way Guardians utilized songs from the 1960s and 1970s.  The problems go deeper than the timeworn habit of invoking familiar references to elicit laughs.  Captain Marvel is encumbered with a narrative that is surprisingly old hat. Expectations in 2019 demand a plot with more innovation than the formulaic story beats presented here.

Captain Marvel was a highly anticipated production. The ending of 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War teased the introduction of this character.  She is clearly going to be an important part in next month’s Avengers: Endgame. I still believe this is an acceptable amuse-bouche for the upcoming main course.  The world has been waiting with bated breath.  Sadly this is not the significant episode we imagined.  We waited over a decade for this.  Had this film come out back in 2008 when the MCU began, the simple novelty of a female-led superhero movie would have been enough.  A decade later and things have changed.  Now we also need the thrills to be extraordinary too.  Instead, they’re rather ordinary.  For the first time, Marvel is struggling to keep up with the spirit of the times.

03-07-19

Greta

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery with tags on March 4, 2019 by Mark Hobin

greta_ver2STARS3Neil Jordan is one of Ireland’s most celebrated directors.  He’s the auteur known for helming Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire and The End of the Affair.  All the aforementioned received widespread critical acclaim.  He actually won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (The Crying Game).  He’s talented to be sure.  However there’s also the director who has directed High Spirits, We’re No Angels and In Dreams, less enthusiastically received pictures of questionable artistic merit.  That’s the director that showed up to direct Greta.

Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a naive ingenue.  How innocent?  Well, she finds an unattended handbag on a New York subway and proceeds to take the item into her possession.  She means well, she only wants to find its rightful owner.  I don’t know about you, but an abandoned bag in a New York subway screams bomb threat to me in this post 9/11 world, but OK, I’ll accept her lack of judgment.  When she returns the purse she meets one Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert), a lonely widow who teaches the piano.  Now if art-house thrillers like The Piano Teacher and Elle have taught us anything, it’s that you don’t mess with Isabelle Huppert.  Here the French actress trades on that persona by playing a seemingly kind woman.  Greta reminds Frances of her own recently departed mother. They strike up a rapport.  The female bonding that evolves is not unlike any number of Lifetime movies that center on female friendships. Unfortunately, Greta is not all that she seems.

Stalker movies are the genre that won’t go away.  Narratives about an unhealthy obsession include exemplars like Fatal Attraction, One Hour Photo, Notes on a Scandal and The Gift.  We seem to be drawn to these tales.  The 1990s were a halcyon decade for of the genre.  1992, in particular, was a banner year producing Single White Female, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Unlawful Entry and The Bodyguard.  Greta could have been a Hitchcockian thriller.   It’s not.  However, it’s still an entertaining throwback to those trashy, classics of yore.  In fact, the story construction is even simpler.  The plot is ridiculously paper thin.

Frances and Greta form this pseudo mother-daughter bond.  Frances lives in a gorgeous loft with her wealthy roommate Erica (Maika Monroe), a brash party girl.  The much shrewder Erica is suspicious of this relationship right from the get-go.   Sure enough, Frances makes a discovery early on that signals Greta isn’t all that she appears to be.  Rather than gradually enter the realm of speculation, the tale simply flips the crazy switch.  The screenplay co-written by Ray Wright (Case 39, The Crazies) and director Neil Jordan has no time for deep character development or motivation.  “My friends say I’m like chewing gum,” Frances initially informs Greta.  “I tend to stick around.”  The silly dialogue kept me amused, but a scene where Huppert spits an actual piece of gum into Chloë Grace Moretz’s hair made me laugh out loud.  Frances is promptly freaked out and Greta grows instantly clingy.  It’s as if 20-30 minutes of the film is missing.  Rarely have I seen such a stately composition go off the rails so quickly.  From then on, it’s a battle of wills as Greta’s increasingly unhinged behavior escalates.

Greta is a tawdry production.  Neill Jordan isn’t above resorting to nauseating visuals for the sake of cheap gore.  A rolling pin and a cookie cutter are utilized as lethal weapons.  This is followed by the use of a hypodermic syringe in an unsettling image I cannot shake, no matter how hard I try.  Then again, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  There’s an element of exuberant glee to the proceedings.  Huppert’s acting prowess is captivating.  The Oscar-nominated actress is so winking, so obviously aware that the script is beneath her, that she digs in with all fours.  If she played it more serious, the mood wouldn’t have been as fun.  She exhibits a maniacal delight that is equally charismatic and frightening.  A table-flip in a crowded restaurant shows a complete lack of restraint.  The events are beautifully shot by Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, Anna Karenina).  Never underestimate the power of exquisite cinematography.  Meanwhile, Frances appears to be overreacting to such a degree that she doesn’t elicit our sympathy.  After a while, you sort of enjoy her unraveling demeanor.  It’s rare that we should root for the villain in a stalker film.  The campy theatrics are wholeheartedly a plus.  Isabelle Huppert gives life to an otherwise slight drama.

02-28-19