There’s a clever self-depricating TV spot for the new DCEU film Shazam! where the narrator says “Shazam! is the best superhero film since… last month.” The obvious subtext there is that the advertising campaign is admitting upfront that this movie probably isn’t going to dominate public attention like last month’s Captain Marvel or next month’s Avengers: Endgame but they still want you to pay attention to it. I’m not sure that audiences were all that amused by this approach given that the movie is underperforming and at its current pace will probably be the lowest grossing DC movie to date but it is a surprisingly honest assessment of how much of an onslaught of back to back superheroes modern cinema-going feels like. The oversaturation makes it so that movies like Shazam!, which could have seemed at least a bit more novel in their small innovations had it come out even five years ago now just kind of seems like one more of these things. That said I do think that TV ad was a bit overly modest because, while Shazam! has its problems it actually probably is better than Captain Marvel and would be more accurately be called “the best superhero film since… December.”
Shazam! opens in 1974 with a young child sitting in the backseat of a car suddenly getting whisked away via sorcery and finding himself in a cave meeting the wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who summoned him. He’s tested and quickly proves himself unworthy of getting powers from this wizard and is sent back to the car, where his resulting freakout causes a major car accident. Cut to the present, where this young boy has grown to be Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), member of a wealthy family and obsessed with this childhood experience. He eventually finds a way to enter the cave himself and ends up freeing seven monsters that the wizard has been trying to contain. As such the wizard is forced to bring another youth in to pass his powers to and hope the selection works. As fate would have it, the young man he brings in is a rambunctious 14 year old orphan named Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who has just moved into a new foster family. The wizard gives him the powers and sends him away and from that moment on this kid turns into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) every time he says the word “Shazam.”
Shazam is a title that’s a little different from most of the movies that Marvel and DC have been bringing out as he is a much older character than most of the ones that have been populating theaters lately. While most of Marvel’s heroes (with the exception of Captain America) are the product of Stan Lee’s work in the 60s, Shazam is more of the generation of 1930s heroes like Batman and Superman. Unlike those iconic heroes however, Shazam (I won’t muddle things by referring to him by that other name) got caught in some legal shenanigans between his publisher (Fawcett) and DC and as such he didn’t really gradually evolve with the times and actually disappeared from shelves for a while before DC ended up buying him and bringing him back in the 70s as a rather nostalgia driven property. So we’re dealing with a rather old fashioned character still rooted in pulp iconography and undiluted by some of the more cynical ideas that even Superman has had to engage with. I bring all this up because, in some ways, this new film adaptation of the Shazam property seems interested in embracing some of the cheesier aspects of the character. They do nothing to change the costume and they certainly play up the “child in a superhero’s body” aspects of the story.
The odd thing is, the hero himself and some of the related aspects of his powers like the wizard of the cave are in some ways the only aspects of the film that are really trying to embrace that camp value and a lot of the other elements of the film are updated and adapted in more conventional ways. Billy Batson has been aged up a bit and rather than being some kind of “Gee Whiz!” kid out of a Golden Age comic book he’s a somewhat streetwise and wounded from his abandonment by his mother. It’s a pretty good updated actually and I found myself fairly entertained just by his non-hero demeanor and with his integration into the foster family. The problem is that this version of Batson seems kind of removed from the “Big” routine that Zachary Levi is doing, which would seem to line up more with the personality of the traditional Billy Batson (or perhaps the MCU’s Peter Parker) than the moodier version of the character depicted here. On top of that, a lot of the action and filmmaking here is not necessarily adjusted to match the cheery demeanor of the superhero at its center. I was kind of expecting this to be more PG than the average superhero flick but it turned out to be about as violent in some scenes as other DC movies like Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. The guy who directed it is probably most famous for making horror movies and you can see some elements of that here and I think he may have been an odd choice for a movie that would seem to call for more of a Spielbergian childhood whimsy.
So, when it comes to Shazam! I’m left to come back to what I was saying earlier about this being an over-saturated superhero market. I’ve seen a lot of these movies recently and frankly I probably would have skipped this one if I didn’t essentially get into it for free as part of a ticket subscription service. We’ve just reached a point where it’s kind of hard to surprise people with any of these movies. Stuff that could have felt original ten years ago like, say, a teenage superhero immediately trying to show off their powers on Youtube, might have seemed like a unique take ten years ago but now we’ve seen that scene in everything from the movie Chronicle to the show “Heroes.” This one might have a little more than usual going for it and I did mostly enjoy watching it but at the same time I found its tonal messiness to be a bit hard to forgive, and in a world where there are so many different options for super hero cinema it’s hard to really get excited for anything that doesn’t really go above and beyond.
*** out of Five
When I first decided to start doing capsule reviews of movies I saw in theaters I had expected I’d mostly be using it to write short reviews of Hollywood schlock that I was only semi-interested in. But, as it turned out the first month of my use of the practice has been, I don’t want to call it a dumping ground, but it’s been the month that a lot of distributors have chosen to release foreign films from last year’s Cannes Film Festival that ended up not being a player in the Oscar race. Some of these movies probably did deserve longer reviews but I probably wouldn’t have seens as many if I was committed to write full reviews of all of them so it’s probably for the best.
Everybody Knows (3/3/2019)
Since he broke out in a big way with his phenomenal 2011 film A Seperation the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has been something of a titan in international cinema but I must say I’ve been starting to notice some diminishing returns from him. His follow-up to A Seperation, the French set The Past wasn’t as great as the film that made him famous but it was still really great. His next film, The Salesman, was not so great. It was still pretty good, but its rumination on revenge never quite connected. His latest film, a Spanish production called Everybody Knows did not look like it was going to reverse this trend given that it got a respectful but somehwat cool reception when it played on the festival circuit and despite having major European stars like Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz it didn’t make the cut for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. Seeing it now I do kind of get the reception: for whatever its merits it’s not an overly profound film and you do sort of expect something profound from a filmmaker like Farhadi. Still, if you keep your expectations in check Everybody Knows is a quality drama that’s worth a look. It focuses on a kidnapping in a Spanish town and a variety of tensions and family secrets that this turn of events brings to the surface. That sounds promising but Farhadi’s great asset as a filmmaker and screenwriter has always been the depths of the characters he creates and how real the tensions in their lives feel, but this works better when he’s looking at mundane situations like relationships and divorces than when he looks at movie-like crime narratives and the fact that he’s working with glamourous movie stars here kind of exacerbates the problem. I do worry that this movie is a bit of a victim of expectations get rid of them and you’re left with a pretty good drama that’s certainly better than the average Hollywood movie, but people are not wrong to award other better works of world cinema over it.
***1/2 out of five
Birds of Passage (3/11/2019)
Ciro Guerra’s 2016 film Embrace of the Serpent was an incredibly creative piece of work and while it wasn’t its director’s first film it certainly announced him as a filmmaker to watch and while his follow-up, Birds of Passage hasn’t been quite as excitedly received it is nonetheless a very impressive film. Once again Guerra (now working with a co-director named Cristina Gallego) has opted to focus in on the indigenous inhabitants of Columbia, but this time instead of looking at the Amazonian tribes he’s focused on the Wayuu people of the desert-like Northern region of the country. Specifically it looks at one sub-group of the tribe as one of their members increasingly lead them into involvement with drug trafficking in the 60s and 70s. In many ways the film gives its audience the familiar “decade-spanning crime family narrative” film pioneered by The Godfather but made rather unique by the fact that its main characters are indigenous people who are living out inherited customs while still living in a modern world. Visually the film isn’t quite as inventive as Embrace of the Serpent in that it’s in color and generally isn’t as trippy, but it has an interesting location and Guerra does still have an eye for striking images. If anything brings the film down it’s that it’s maybe trying to fit a few too many years into a relatively compact 125 minute runtime and eventually has to leap over a decade of development within this empire in a way that’s a little bit jarring. It’s become a bit of a cliché to suggest that a new movie could have benefited from being expanded to mini-series length, but that might have been true of this. Still, this is a very striking movie that deserves more attention than its gotten during its all too brief run in theaters.
**** out of Five
Christian Petzold is a German filmmaker who has become rather prominent this decade for making movies that look at the difficult recent history of his homeland in unique ways. His latest film, Transit, is no exception and may in fact be his most formally inventive look into the past yet. The film begins with a man in occupied Paris on the run from the Germans who eventually makes his way to Marseille, where he hopes to get the papers he needs to get on a boat to Mexico. So far it sounds like a fairly standard World War II narrative… except it isn’t actually a period piece. Though the conflict at the film’s center is clearly a mirror image of that war the film is set in a world that looks like the present day: the German occupiers, who are never called Nazis but basically are, wear modern riot gear instead of the uniforms you’d expect and modern cars fill the streets. In a sense what Petzold is doing is not like what theatrical toupes have been doing to Shakespeare plays for ages having them play out in modern dress or the dress of some other period of history not called for in the text and kind of just going with it when sword fights break out or when people talk about kings or ducats instead of presidents or dollars.
So why do this? Well I think it’s in part to establish a parallel between this story and the refugee crises happening in Europe and the United States (the use of Mexico as an escape destination is probably not a coincidence). The point is perhaps to say that it wasn’t too long ago that Europeans were also the ones trying to escape to foreign countries from conflicts. In essence it’s trying to say “there but for the grace of God goes I” to those who watching from a place of comfort as they hear about people from Syria or Mexico desperately trying to get asylum or passage to safer places. It’s a cool idea to be sure, but I must say I think there are flaws in the execution here. Once our protagonist makes it to Marseille the Nazis become much less of a presence and the threat that they pose becomes very theoretical. I can maybe see why Petzold might take that approach, it certain fits his restrained style, but I do think this story requires a constant sense of threat and that’s missing. Additionally, the basic machinations of what our protagonist is up to through much of the film could have simply been more compelling. He gets in the middle of something like two different love triangles and becomes kind of unclear who certain characters are. So what we’re left with is an A+ conceptual idea applied to what is otherwise something of a B- story.
***1/2 out of Five
Ash is Purest White (3/31/2019)
I generally view the cinema of mainland China as being rather compromised by political censorship and populist impulses, and yet the continued career of the Chinese arthouse auteur Jia Zhangke would seem to prove that impulse wrong. Zhangke is a filmmaker who acts as something of a social critic looking at the state of modern China with a sort of frustrated resignation. He perhaps manages to get around political censorship because the aspects of modern Chinese society he’s most critical of isn’t the communist party or even the state so much as its westernization and new found capitalistic decadence. He certainly doesn’t come to this through any love of the old Maoist ways but more as a sort of melancholy about how fast things are changing and how it’s chipping away at the culture. Or at least that’s what I tend to gleam from his movies as an outsider, though there is always a sinking suspicion watching them that there are some complex local references and political ideas that are a little hard to grasp coming from the other side of the world
His most recent movie is Ash is Purest White, a film set over the course of more than twenty years about a relationship between a woman named Qiao (Zhao Tao) and her boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan), who live in the city of Datong. Bin is a mid-level local gangster and if anything Qiao is attracted to his “bad boy” status and they have a fairly firey relationship, but this comes crashing down when the two are attacked by some local thugs and Qiao fends them off by firing off some warning shots using Bin’s unregistered handgun. Qiao is arrested on the gun charge and being the ride or die chick that she is she refuses to testify that this was actually Bin’s gun and gets a five year prison sentence. We then more or less cut to five years later and Qiao needs to find Bin and figure out how the rest of her life is going to go.
That summery might give the impression that this is more of a gangster movie than it really is. The crime element is actually largely in the background and mostly serves as a catalyst for the character arcs. It’s also not really as much of a romance as that description might suggest; the complicated relationship between the two characters is at the film’s center but as usual Jia Zhangke has a bit of an icy touch about such matters. Like his last film, Mountains May Depart, this is set over the course of three different time periods (probably an expected structure for someone whose primary thematic interest is rapid societal change) but the shifts here are a bit less extreme and in some ways the film is a bit more mature. That said it does kind of have the same problem as that film: that it’s third act is kind of its weakest even if I kind of get what he was going for. It’s maybe a movie that works better when looked at in the context of the body of work than on its own but of the three Zhangke film’s I’ve seen it’s probably the least flawed and most accessible.
**** out of Five
Warning: Review Contains Spoilers
Two year ago I found myself in the rather unenviable position of being one of the few people in the world who didn’t much care for Jordan Peele’s Oscar winning horror film Get Out. At the time the one and only negative review of that movie on Rotten Tomatoes was written by noted provocateur Armond White and to my general bafflement the movie became a giant box office success despite its rather unconventional appeal. Still, I’m rather proud of that review. I finally had a fairly original take on a movie and I think I expressed it pretty effectively and I haven’t really waivered at all in my take on the movie. That said, with me going against the grain of popular opinion like that I feel like I spent a lot of time focusing on the negatives of the film when there were in fact certainly aspects to it that I found impressive. It was certainly a different approach to the genre and Jordan Peele was certainly a voice I wanted to hear more from, so despite my issues with that debut I was looking forward to his follow-up film, the interestingly titled Us.
Us focuses on the Wilson family, which consists of Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), their daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex). As the story begins the family is headed to Santa Cruz, where they have a vacation home, but Adelaide has come to sort of dread this trip because of a traumatic experience she had as a young child in that area where she wandered off into a house of mirrors and encountered something that scared her to the point that it took her years to recover. She does not, however, have the easiest time explaining this to her husband, who is looking forward to meeting with his friend Josh (Tim Heidecker) and his wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss). Things mostly seem to be going normally for a while until suddenly at night the family notices a group of strange people standing out in their driveway looking rather threatening. Soon they discover that this family is a sort of mirror image of themselves but with different and more violent personalities and ready to menace them over the course of the night.
Unlike Get Out, which was more of a Twilight Zone episode than a true horror film, Us is unquestionably meant to be a full on work of horror. Specifically it’s a home invasion movie, at least in its early stages, which is significant because that is a sub-genre that’s been rather prone to rather loaded political subtext suggesting a sort of invasion of middle America that needs to be fought back, often though gun ownership. Us isn’t specifically meant to be an inversion of that but it is worth noting. The family at the center of the film is African American, and I don’t think this is incidental at all but it is interesting that it’s not something the film’s screenplay seems to draw attention to at all. Had Peele decided to change directions and cast a white family at the film’s center I’m not sure that it would have really had to change any dialogue at all. Instead I think the film very notably draws attention to the fact that this family is distinctly upper middle class. They have a vacation home, the father rather prominently wears a Howard University sweatshirt through much of the film, and there’s an element of “keeping up with the joneses” in how they view their slightly richer friends with an understated but clear degree of jealousy.
This class distinction to me is key to understanding the film. The metaphor at its center seems to be a sort of critique of the way American wealth comes at the expense of others both domestic and abroad. We wear clothing that’s sewn at sweatshops, we communicate on devices that are put together by people known to throw themselves off of buildings, and we eat food picked by horribly mistreated migrants. We do everything in our power to avoid thinking about the people propping up our way of life and engage in bullshit acts of performative charity like Hands Across America in order to tell ourselves we’re on the good side, but ultimately we’re all implicated in a system propped up on the exploitation of others whether we like it or not. And that is where the “tethered” come in. Adelaide’s counterpart rather explicitly lays out that the root of her discontent is that the surface dwellers have been living high on the hog while the people below have been actively miserable. We like to think of these people as being a vague “other” but in reality they’re basically just alternate versions of “us.”
Of course that’s subtext, the really weird thing about Us is that the basic text of the film… kind of doesn’t make sense, or at least the twist doesn’t if you’re looking at it literally. I gather from watching the movie that, prior to Red changing things, these tethers are supposed to be constantly mirroring every last movement of their counterparts above. Which is something that would seem to result in a whole lot of walking into walls. Think about it for just a couple minutes and you come up with questions like “What happens if you fly to the opposite coast? Do the tethers follow? Do immigrants have tethers? How do the tethers end up with the exact same mates as their counterparts above and pass along exactly the right genes to produce children identical to their clones on the surface?” Beyond that there are other questions, like where they get their jumpsuits or why they think they’ll be able to take over a country with 1.2 guns per person using only scissors. At a certain point you kind of need to invoke Argento style “nightmare logic” to excuse this stuff, and how willing you are to do that will probably determine how much you’re going to like the movie.
I’m normally pretty quick to have my attention derailed by plot holes and logical inconsistencies like that but I must say I found myself oddly willing to go along with Us. I think that’s partly because it seems to be deliberately existing in a sort of symbolic place in a way that mainstream horror movies generally don’t. That is the main thing that differentiates it from Get Out, which was also essentially an allegory, but a very clear allegory when that allegory started to stopped lining up as much as it thought it did in the second half it sort of lost me. This one is more open for interpretation and that gives it a certain leeway that I wasn’t inclined to give Get Out. It also frankly just works a lot better as a visceral thriller rife with intense pacing and visceral horror imagery and that alone puts it over Get Out even if I didn’t have other issues with that movie.
**** out of Five