Shazam! Review

For most people, the DC cinematic universe got started on the wrong foot.  The first two Zack Snyder directed films are controversial to say the least and set a tone that is certainly not to everyone’s taste.  But people seem to be unable to let go of his two and half movies and see what DC has been offering for the last couple of years.  Wonder Woman was one of the best just straightforward superhero movies of the last decade.  Aquaman was a bonkers spectacle that is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.  Shazam continues DC’s trend of making individual movies that play the strengths of the characters, with the unifying feature the sincerity with which they approach things.  Shazam is a pure delight.

Shazam manages to find a new niche in the super hero movie genre.  It feels like a throwback, like the 80’s Amblin version of a superhero movie.  What came to my mind while watching it was Gremlins. Gremlins is a weirdo family horror movie.  This movie is combines a sincere, even touching drama about foster kids with strange magic secrets and some moments of terrifying horror.  It is a unique mix, but one that absolutely works.

Shazam starts with the young Thaddeus Sivana, bullied by his father and older brother, being magically transported to the realm of the wizard Shazam.  Shazam is old and his power is fading.  He is tested to see if he is worthy of the wizard’s power, but succumbs to the temptations of the seven deadly sins, who are monstrous spirits trapped in statues.  Shazam returns Sivana to his horrible family; Sivana then spends the next thirty or so years trying to get back there to get the power he feels he was wrongly denied.  Eventually he does, and the wizard is too weak to stop him from freeing the sins.  The story then shifts to Billy Batson, a troublesome foster kid who is searching for his birth parents.  Knocked around by the system, he doesn’t trust anybody and constantly finds himself in trouble.  At the start of the movie, he is assigned to a group home as sort of his last chance.  After sticking up for one of his foster siblings, he is transported to the wizard.  The wizard is unsure of Billy’s worthiness, but he is out of options and grants Billy the power to turn into the superhero Shazam.  The distrustful Billy must learn how to be a hero before Sivana finds him and wrests the power away.

Shazam feels like something from the 80’s because it is ostensibly a kids movie, but it still features some horrific stuff that is sure to scare kids.  The scenes of Billy and Freddie testing Billy’s new powers are delightful and sure to please children.  But mixed in with those are some scenes of the villains committing terrible crimes or one particularly graphic death.  They are these weird atonal elements that mostly get ironed out of kids movies these days.  There is also the a few genuinely heartbreaking scenes with Billy attempting to track down his mom.  It is this idiosyncratic mix of tones that makes the movie feel fully fleshed out. It also doesn’t feel like an accident, the movie wants to vary the tone.  And the mix just works.

It helps that it has some genuinely charming performances.  The combination of Zachary Levi and Asher Angel as Billy Batson/Shazam is perfect.  They manage to echo each other, making it easy to believe that they are the same person just with different outside appearances.  Jack Dylan Grazer has a perfect mischievous air about him as Freddie Freeman.  The two of them carry the movie, really feeling like a pair of teenagers that stumbled upon superpowers and are pushing the boundaries and seeing what they can do and get away with.  Shazam perfectly juggles teenage irony with a touching, childlike naivety with these two damaged kids figuring things out as best they can.

The movie does spend a little too long on the final confrontation.  It is a scene that seems to go on too long, and that time feels like it could have been better spent fleshing out Billy’s interior journey just a little more.  Still, that is a small complaint in a movie that is otherwise a delight.

Shazam treats the genuinely strange magical backstory of the mythos with admirable sincerity.  Shazam is a concept from the 40’s and it feels like it.  Most often backstories like this get sanded down in the adaptation process, Shazam leans into it, to great effect.  It is just a genuinely charming movie.

*****

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Dumbo

Disney’s animated classic Dumbo is a slim movie, with a runtime just over an hour and few wrinkles to its story.  It feels among the least likely of their animated catalog to merit the full live action remake treatment.  But other than Marvel and Star Wars movies, live action remakes of animated movies is what Disney does these days.  The live action Dumbo clocks in at nearly two hours long and gives almost no one what they wanted to see.  However, the movie is just charming enough to make it hard to hate.

The story of Dumbo is of a big eared baby elephant who learns to fly.  This adaptation adds plot elements from what seems like three other movies to pad it out to full feature length.  There is a story about Colin Farrell’s Holt Farrier, a circus equestrian and WW1 veteran freshly returned from the war.  He lost an arm in the war and his wife died while he was away.  He has to pick himself back up and keep things together for his two kids.  His son exists and that’s about it, but his daughter doesn’t want to follow in her parents footsteps as part of the circus but instead wants to be a scientist.  Holt’s struggles are exacerbated by the fact that while he was gone, the ringleader, Max Medici, sold his horses to keep the circus afloat.  Holt is the center around which the movie revolves, but there isn’t enough done with his struggles to make it the center plank of the movie.  Medici, played by the always delightful Danny Devito, takes up another chunk of the movie dealing with him struggling to keep the circus viable and eventually going into business with the transparently shady V.A. Vandervere.  Vandervere, of course, is only interested in the flying elephant.  The movie introduces a dozen or so characters and a half dozen plots, all because it is unwilling, for good reason, to focus on the spectacle of a flying elephant.

The problem is that Dumbo flying doesn’t look that amazing in live action.  It looked really interesting in traditional animation, but this CGI realistic facsimile inspires little awe.  Really, the movie is missing so much of what makes the original version so entertaining.  The most memorable part of the movie was the Pink Elephants on parade sequence, when Dumbo sneaks some of the circus laborers liquor and has drunken hallucinations of pink elephants on parade.  That scene does not happen in live action movie, but it is replaced with a “realistic” copy that has none of the weird charm, it is merely there to remind you the think you liked in the old movie without actually giving you that thing you liked.

Somehow, though , the movie manages to be charming despite feeling like a mismatched grab-bag of other movies.  A lot of that is thanks to uniformly strong performers being generally very charming.  Devito, Farrell, Eva Green and Michael Keaton are all doing something.  It is fairly enjoyable to watch them.  Each of the four movies that its feels have been Frankensteined together could have been good if fully fleshed out, Dumbo merely gives you glimpses of them. It is not a good movie, but it is somehow charming despite being bad.

**1/2

Captain Marvel Review

Captain Marvel hits a lot of familiar notes. Like Captain America: The First Avenger, it is a period piece origin story. Like Iron Man it is a movie that works largely due to the charisma of its star. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, it frequently leans on popular music. Captain Marvel tries to blend all of this together, but the movie ends up a lot like its heroine; searching for an identity. The movie is solidly good. It has the highly polished sheen that all Marvel movies seem to have. But it ends up being less the start of a bold new era, instead settling in as merely the bridge between Infinity War and Endgame.

There is a lot to like about Captain Marvel. Brie Larson stars as Carol Danvers, an Air Force pilot who somehow ended up in space, with amnesia working to the Kree as the superpowered Vers. After a mission goes awry and she ends up stranded on Earth, her attempts to complete her mission are derailed by her discovering her past. Larson makes the movie work, showing both Carol’s natural headstrong exuberance and the more subdued persona she is urged to take on with the Kree. She manages to be both vulnerable and a super strong badass. Likewise, Samuel L Jackson appears to be having an enormous amount of fun playing a digitally de-aged version of Nick Fury. The two of them make a great combo and it is fun to see Jackson’s usual intimidating persona become essentially the comic relief. The action is solid as well, both the more grounded stuff and the superpowered fights closer to the end. Nothing mind-blowing or really anything you haven’t seen in other movies, but it is executed well enough.

It also has some flaws. The ones that stand out are how it uses the 90’s period setting. All of the events in the movie happen in the mid-90s. The movie uses this for window dressing, with Radio Shacks and Blockbusters around, along with some 90’s fashion and music. Some have complained about the soundtrack not being exactly period appropriate, but it is not as if the music is diegetic, so that is a nonsense complaint. My problem is that the 90’s setting doesn’t seem to inform any part of the movie. It is just a ploy for nostalgia. That in itself is not that big of a problem, but it feels like a wasted opportunity. Also, the movie spends a lot of time trying to plaster over cracks, real, imagined or created by this movie, in the Marvel Cinematic backstory. Do you want to know how Fury lost an eye? Why they are called Avengers? Any of another half dozen pointless questions? This movie has answers. Not interesting answers, but answers nonetheless.

Captain Marvel does not reach the heights of Thor: Ragnarok or Black Panther. It never does manage to carve out its own identity, like even movies like Ant-Man or Spider-Man: Homecoming do. Its various ingredients do not blend into a solid of a whole as it could have. It just feels like a Marvel movie. I feel like I’ve been very negative in this review, when my thoughts on the movie are largely positive. I guess I do think Captain Marvel is a bit of a missed opportunity, but only because it is very good and not quite great.

****

Fighting With My Family

I am not the world’s biggest wrestling fan. I’m not much of a fan of wrestling at all, to be honest. I am conversant in the subject, but other than a few months in 2001 or so, I’ve never really watched or cared about wrestling. I get the appeal, but it was never something that stuck with me. While Fighting With My Family is a wrestling movie, and at times takes the viewers knowledge of wrestling a little bit for granted, it is not a movie that requires the viewer to be a wrestling fan. This is a pretty well executed sports biopic, wherein the sport just happens to be wrestling. Where is truly succeeds is not in the fighting from the title, but the family.

Fighting With My Family tells the story of WWE Champion Paige, real name Saraya or just Raya, and how she came to win the title, focusing on her relationship with her family, especially on her relationship with her brother Zac. It opens with the two of them fighting, only for their parents not breaking up the fight, but instructing them on how to fight better. The two of them grow up participating in their parent’s regional wrestling association. They also train neighborhood kids who want to be wrestlers. When they get invited to WWE tryouts, it is Raya who goes on, while Zak is not chosen. So the newly christened Paige goes to Florida to train and join the WWE’s developmental league NXT, while Zak stays home and stews in his perceived failure. The two both struggle with how to move on from this.

The movie is directed by Steven Merchant, who you might know from his work on The Office or Extras or playing Caliban in Logan. You can feel his touch in the films comedic moments. The comedy is what really makes this worth watching. The world of wrestling is a slightly unreal place, even when you go behind the scenes and look at the real people behind it. There is a circus atmosphere to it. Playing it completely straight would be a disaster, but Merchant leans into the ridiculousness, without ever making the wrestling itself seem like the ridiculous part. It helps that the cast is rock solid, which is not an intention reference to The Rock, who has what is essentially an extended cameo in this movie. Florence Pugh plays Paige with equal parts strength and vulnerability. Jack Lowden (Dunkirk) plays Zak and his desperation to succeed is palpable. The parents are Nick Frost, who is delightfully chummy, and Lena Headey who seems to be having fun as well. The last big name is Vince Vaughn, who plays the man heading up NXT and gives his usual glib charm to the tough training coach.

The movie doesn’t shy away from the Knight family’s fairly low class status; they are outsiders even in their hometown. They struggle with money and the law. But it also shows them as a loving family and how they work to help each other and the neighbors. Zak’s training with the local youngsters keeps them out of trouble and their parent’s really seem to want what is best for their kids.

Fighting With My Family is a perfectly enjoyable movie; it isn’t really going to surprise anyone or make any top ten lists, but it is a decent little comic drama that is well worth seeing.

***1/2

Alita Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel is possibly the most successful attempt an American studio has made to turn a classic anime or manga into a live action movie. There have been disasters (Dragon Ball Evolution) and unfortunate misses (Ghost in the Shell, Death Note), along with one arguable classic (Speed Racer). Alita does a lot of things right, without ever managing to really elevate itself out of the morass of other effects heavy would be blockbusters. There is little I can point to that the movie does wrong, but there also isn’t anything that Alita: Battle Angel does that is truly memorable. That leaves us with a competent, often enjoyable movie that I expect to hard pressed to remember I watched in six months.

While the special effects are good, there is one effect that is an initial hurdle for anyone watching this movie. The title character, and only the title character, has big anime eyes. Some people appear to not be bothered by this; maybe the same will be true for you. I found it distracting. Additionally, with all of is close ups of Alita’s face, the movie will not let you forget your distraction. Otherwise, the effects are good. Honestly, the effect of the eyes isn’t badly done, just poorly considered.

If you can clear that hurdle, you are in for a romp not unlike the overstuffed delight Aquaman. Alita is based on a episodic manga, and it shows, as the movie ping pongs from one outlandish idea to the next. The central pillars of the movie are Alita coming to terms with her identity and her relationships with Dr. Ido and her love interest Hugo. It starts with Dr. Ido finding the almost purely robotic Alita in a scrap heap and giving her a new body, She has no memories of her past. Dr. Ido takes a fatherly interest in Alita. Alita also meets Hugo, a cool neighborhood boy who teaches her about Motorball and life in the depressing confines of Iron City. Soon, Dr. Ido’s life moonlighting as a “Hunter-Warrior” comes out, as does Alita’s combat skills. While fighting, she gets glimpses of her past, and tries to join Ido in an attempt to learn more about herself. Her relationship with Hugo grows, but he is hiding a secret.

That quick synopsis leaves out about a dozen smaller threads woven through this movie. While Alita: Battle Angel meanders all over the place, it never takes the focus off Alita. How much a person enjoys the movie likely comes down to how charmed they are by this dystopia. A lot of time is spent on the goofy future sport Motorball, wherein cyborgs play rollerblade basketball to the death. Whether it is a highlight or a waste of time like comes down to personal preference.

Alita: Battle Angel didn’t really work for me. However, I was reminded while watching it of Mortal Engines and Aquaman from late last year. Those movies hit me in the sweet spot; I loved them. Any complaints I can make against Alita are likely shared by those movies. It just comes down to how a movie hit the viewer, whether it engages their imagination. Alita: Battle Angel didn’t really do anything for me, but I can’t fault the people who got a big kick out of it.

***

Serenity

I was excited to see Serenity. It has a good cast, with stars like Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, as well as excellent supporting players like Diane Lane (she is a star, but she is supporting here), Jason Clarke and Djimon Hounsou. The initial concept is appealing as well, a sun-drenched tropical noir, with McConaughey’s Baker Dill being asked to do something bad for a whole lot of money. The twist, which I will endeavor not to spoil other than to acknowledge that a twist exists, sends things off into crazy town. Honestly, though, the movie was off the rails before that, in some ways as groundwork for the twist, in others that just make no sense.

Baker Dill is a fisherman, hiding from his mysterious past on a tropical island. He hires his boat out to fishermen, but doesn’t make a lot of money because he has a habit of snatching the poles away from his customer when he suspects he is about to land his nemesis, a giant tuna Dill has named Justice. When on the shore, he either spends his time sticking it to lonely widow Constance, who pays him for his company to make up for his fishing failures when he returns her persistently lost cat, or drinking at the one local bar. Soon, the answer to his money troubles appears in the form of his ex-wife, played by Anne Hathaway. She tells him that her new husband Frank is abusive to both her and their son and asks Dill to kill him. Dill is understandably hesitant, but soon events go in a direction impossible to foresee.

While it may be part of setting up the twist, the set up in the first half of the movie is laughable. It has terrible dialogue and ridiculous premises. I already mentioned the tuna named Justice, which is actually close to subtle in for this movie. Constance spends her time either with Dill in bed or watching him out her window. People do and say the same things every day. This is only broken up by brief unexplained glimpses of Dill’s son. Then there is the new new husband, Frank, who is perfectly loathsome. He starts bad, with accusations of abuse, and just gets worse and worse. From forcing his wife to call him Daddy to suggesting a night out on the town to find underage prostitutes. In every way a person can be gross, Frank is gross. It is a symptom of the movie not knowing when there is enough. Like Dill’s obsession with a fish called Justice.

The set up is for a cliche noir story, but with the cast on hand that might have been enough for a watchable film. Not something truly memorable, but probably entertaining enough. Serenity is not content with simple competence, so it takes a big swing and strikes out. The twist is bewildering, with the rules making less and less sense the more you think about them.

I will say this for Serenity; it is certainly memorable. It is not often that a movie this perplexingly bad hits theaters. It is a special kind of disaster; one where the filmmakers saw the ruin they were headed to and steered into the mess rather than attempting to salvage things. Serenity is entertainingly terrible.

*1/2

On the Basis of Sex

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is absolutely a person who deserves a biopic made about her. I only wish that a slightly better one had been made. On the Basis of Sex isn’t bad, but it is so predictable. You know the beats the movie is going to hit pretty much as soon as it starts, not as a product of being familiar with history but because On the Basis of Sex’s beats are the same as any inspirational biopic. The initial hurdles, the successes and setbacks that all build up to a triumph where she realizes her ambitions; it has all been done before. Still, On the Basis of Sex is a fine movie about an important and heroic figure that never surprises or surpasses expectations.

On the Basis of Sex follows the future Supreme Court Justice from when she entered Harvard Law School to the early stages of her fight legal equality between women and men. The movie details her struggles in law school, with the inherent sexism of Harvard and its faculty and her husbands bought with cancer. It then follows her difficulty in finding employment as an attorney before settling in as a law professor and then finding the right case to pursue sex discrimination in the courts.

Everything is drawn somewhat broadly, as biopics often do. One encounter is there to stand in for a pattern of behavior, so that one encounter must hit all the points. Or the pattern is pointed out in dialogue. Sometimes these moments are worked smoothly into the course of the film, sometimes they fit in awkwardly. Some of the law school moments establish an effective pattern, Ginsburg explaining all of her bad interviews to an interviewer in what turns out to be another bad interview is a bit much.

Still, the movie hits the highlights of the story quite well. It tells its story just fine. The best part is its portrayal of the Ginsburg’s marriage. They are a fine partnership. A lot of that has to do with the performances of Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer. Jones infuses Ginsburg with this quiet fierceness, letting you see her sharp intellect and occasionally sharp tongue while still seeing how her struggles get to her. Then there is Hammer as her eternally supportive husband. A lot of his support comes merely from his recognizing her talents in a way others in their profession refuse to. The rest of the cast is filled with excellent players do the best with their small parts. The movie has a scene or two for Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Justin Theroux and Stephen Root. They all acquit themselves well in parts that don’t leave a lot of room for them to work.

As a current law student, the moot court practice gave me terrifying flashbacks. From the odd formal beginning to the pointed questions that seem to exist just to throw you off your game. A lot of the details of Ginsburg time in law school rang especially true, even though her time in law school was about fifty years ago.

On the Basis of Sex is fine. It is everything one would expect from a biopic and nothing else. It feels a little disappointing, but this is a year where Bohemian Rhapsody, which is outright bad outside of the music and a performance or two, got nominated for Best Picture. On the Basis of Sex could certainly have been worse.

***1/2

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

This is the first great movie of 2019. I think. After more than a week to think about, that is what I am going with. While there are certainly twists and turns in this thriller, it is a rather simple movie. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a perfect example of the movie just doing the thing. Contrast this with the recently released Serenity, an island noir that refuses to just be a noir, to admittedly hilarious results. Sparrow Creek is just a small, condensed mystery thriller. It just does that, with no special shifts in genre or concept mid-movie. And it all works well.

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is about a militia group. They meet at their warehouse headquarters after hearing police reports of a shooting at a police funeral. The seven men quickly determine, based on some missing gear and a missing assault rifle, that one of the seven of them was the shooter. They decide to find out who did and turn that person in to the police in order to keep them from taking the whole group down. So ex-cop Gannon starts to investigate the other men in the group. He quickly narrows it down to young loner Keating or he standoffish Morris. Meanwhile, militia leader begins to suspect Noah, who has some kind of connection to Gannon and lied to the others upon arriving. Tensions rise as Gannon and Ford struggle over how to find out who is responsible. Meanwhile, reports on the police scanner suggest that other militia’s like theirs have risen up across the nation to fight back against the corrupt police, making the group wonder is they really want to turn in the culprit.

The movie is rather simple in form; it is essentially a kind of locked room mystery. But it is playing a bigger game. Gannon, played by James Badge Dale, is very effective at his job, but he is more worried about finding a scapegoat than actually getting to the truth. He is not exactly a reliable narrator. You can’t really trust him; he joined this militia same as these other disaffected criminals. But he is the center of the film. Each of the other characters, in a cast made up entirely of familiar faces if not familiar names, is broken in a slightly different way. Each one is an outcast. You never really sympathize with them, their goals and beliefs are abhorrent, but you can almost understand how they got there.

Without spoiling any of the narrative twists, things eventually come to a boil as most of the characters secrets are revealed. The conclusion ties everything together in a way that makes sense, but also keeps the viewer guessing right until the end. That ending, if I am interpreting things correctly, may not be as palatable as what came before, but it is still something. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek does not do anything truly new or revolutionary, it merely executes an old fashioned thriller at a very high level.

****