Rocketman(6/1/2019)

It’s always been kind of amazing to me that there was a point in history where Elton John was the biggest rock star in the world.  Not because of the music, I certainly see why that would be big, but it’s amazing that for a period of time in the 1970s the picture of rock superstardom was an overweight bespectacled ginger homosexual dude who played piano ballads while wearing strange outfits.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that at all, in fact it’s sort of a testament to his talents: this was a dude who did not skate by on his looks.  But as far as Elton’s music goes he’s never really been my favorite artist.  When I was a kid he was still sort of around and would show up at strange moments to do stuff like eulogize Princess Diana or perform random duets with Eminem but he was ultimately an oldies act that I didn’t have time for.  I didn’t really get into him when I finally did start exploring classic rock either, and I think that largely has to do with his choice of instrument.  To teenage me rock and roll was defined by one thing: guitars, preferably electric guitars, and the longer the solos were the better.  I could find time for David Bowie, but Elton John was a step too far away from what really seemed like “rock” to me, hell I still haven’t really come around on Billy Joel.  Instead Elton John was someone I only came to like pretty late in life when I really started to expand the music I was into and started putting together just how many of the catchy songs I’d been hearing over the years were by him.  I’m still not a huge fan by any means and some of his songs like “Crocodile Rock” still don’t do it for me, but I am interested enough in him to have been pretty interested in the new biopic Rocketman.

Rocketman begins with a rather surreal scene of Elton John (Taron Egerton) walking into an rehab group therapy session wearing one of his signature wacky costumes and begins to tell his life story to the group.  This acts as something of a framing story throughout and every time we cut back to it he’s stripped off part of his costume.  From there we get a more or less chronological telling of the musician’s life from his childhood struggles with his father (Steven Mackintosh) and mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), to meeting his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), to his becoming a superstar while battling addiction and an emotionally abusive relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden).

This film has the immense benefit of opening less than a year after the worldwide blockbuster success of the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.  This is fortunate firstly because it shows the public is primed for a biographical account of a gay British music icon from the 70s and secondly it’s beneficial because its close proximity to that movie invites comparisons between the two and given how lackluster that movie was these comparisons are rather flattering.  Critics hate Bohemian Rhapsody because it’s a movie that flagrantly ignores several decades of advice critics have been giving filmmakers about musical biopics and just shamelessly leans into each and every biopic cliché in the clumsiest way possible (a problem that may be less apparent to the general public, who hasn’t sat through every damn one of these movies).  Rocketman, by contrast, carefully avoids at least some of the pitfalls which that leaped into.  For one thing, the film doesn’t feel sanitized like Rhapsody did.  It isn’t hesitant to show the extent of Elton John’s drug use and to make him look like kind of an asshole at certain points while also exploring what’s leading him to behave that way.  It also isn’t as squeamish about his homosexuality (even if the film’s one sex scene has a Call Me By Your Name style cutaway), and Taron Egerton also sings his own songs and gives a more well-rounded performance than Rami Malek, whose Oscar winning performance did not really impress me beyond the visual imitation of Freddie Mercury.

Of course the film’s most radical difference from Bohemian Rhapsody and musical biopics in general is that it actually takes the format of a jukebox musical rather than a straight biography with various fantasy sequences in which people (and not necessarily just Elton) “burst into song” and perform Elton John songs with thematic similarities to what’s going on.  I say these are fantasy sequences, but in many ways the film doesn’t actually treat them like that.  Director Dexter Fletcher never “snaps back to reality” so to speak after one of these performances are done, they just kind of “magic realism” their way into the movie and aren’t commented upon.  The film also makes no attempt to present any of these songs in their historical chronology.  For instance the film shows Elton John playing “Crocodile Rock” at his first American performance at the Troubadour even though that song was actually from his sixth album and more than likely wasn’t written at that point.  This kind of messing around with facts got Bohemian Rhapsody into a lot of trouble given that it presented itself as a straightforward biography but it feel more natural here given much of the movie is presented as a sort of fantastical musical and that the more salient facts seem to be accurate.

Of course the decision to make this a musical does have a couple of drawbacks.  For one thing the whole conceit seems to be based in the notion that Elton John music reflected his personal life, which would seem to be a rather dubious notion given that he didn’t write his own lyrics and generally seem rather impersonal.  At times the film does seem to be stretching a little to recontextualize some of these songs, like when “Tiny Dancer” is turned into a song about Elton’s loneliness in L.A. while Taupin is off chasing tail and the movie sort of contorts itself at one point to make “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” fit a conversation.  In addition to that, the musical motif is in some ways a bit of a smokescreen.  The usual musical biopic clichés are still there under the seemingly unique wrapping.  This is after all the story of a bright eyed musician who shocks the record company with his talents and shoots to superstardom before almost losing everything to addiction and hedonism until he enters rehab and emerges victorious.  It’s kind of the same story that damn near every rock star has and to an extent cliché is inevitable, but unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, this movie smooths out those edges and flows more naturally.  It actually feels like it’s put some thought behind what the rockstar life is like and isn’t just presenting the material out of some obligation to formula.

I do think that this movie is the beneficiary of lowered expectations to some extent.  It might try a couple of new things but it’s certainly not going full I’m Not There and really innovating with the form.  In fact I suspect that this kind of biopic by way of jukebox musical format is a bit more common on Broadway in shows like “Jersey Boys.”  However, the fact of the matter is that I’ve never really been as allergic to the musical biopic format as some critics and wouldn’t even have been all that mad at Bohemian Rhapsody if not for the fact that people were giving it goddamn Oscars.  So really, taking that usual format and using it in a way that has some actual thought behind it rather than half-assedly going through the motions probably is enough to sell me on a project.  If this had only been about a band or artist that means more to me this might have even been a slam dunk, but as it stands it’s a solid movie that will serve the fans of the artist well.

***1/2 out of Five

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Godzilla: King of the Monsters(5/30/2019)

Me and Godzilla go way back.  When I was a kid, I’m not sure what age range but probably before I was even ten, I would take every opportunity to watch the original Toho Godzilla movies when what was known at the time as The Sci-Fi Channel.  I didn’t even really watch the 1954 original that much, it was mainly the many sequels from the 60s and 70s that I was watching (what I would later learn was called the Shōwa Era of the series).  However, unlike other childhood obsessions like the Universal Monsters of the James Bond series I never really stuck to the Godzilla movies.  Part of that is that the world was not still supplying me with new ones (it wasn’t until much later that I learned that they were still pretty regularly making these things in Japan without exporting them) and partly because, well… those movies are kind of hard to defend objectively.  I watch old clips from some of them and I can pretty easily see why someone not nostalgically inclined towards them would just laugh at them, hell I do myself even if I still have some warmth for them.  On some level my blinders towards the flaws in these movies even extend towards the questionable American remakes.  As dumb as Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla movie is and as dull as elements of the 2014 reboot was it’s hard to complain about them with too much of a straight face once you’ve established affection for, say, a movie where Godzilla fights a robotic version of himself built by space gorillas alongside another monster brought to life by a lady singing a very long j-pop song.  And it was with all this baggage that I arrived at the opening day of the sequel to that 2014 American Godzilla film: Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

This sequel is set at least five years after the evens of the 2014 Godzilla and eschews most of the cast from that movie.  Here we follow the Russells, a family that was in San Francisco when Godzilla fought the two MUTOs and lost a son during that attack.  Years later they’re split up.  Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) is now focused on his career as an animal behavioral expert while his ex-wife Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) has begun working for an organization called Monarch, which studies other giant creatures called titans which have been discovered in the time since the first movie.  As the film starts Russell is studying a giant larva which has just hatched and is using a device she has invented called the ORCA which is meant to communicate with these titans through subsonic frequencies.  Right as she’s taming mothra her operation is attacked by a group of Eco-terrorists led by a guy named Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) who steal the ORCA and kidnap both Emma and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown).  With the device lose and potentially able to wake up the wrong titans, Mark is brought in to help track the terrorists down and avert disaster.

Let’s get this out right away: this movie has a terrible script.  More specifically it has terrible characters.  The guy Kyle Chandler plays is just the worst kind of Hollywood “hero.”  He has a murky background, his brashness is constantly rewarded by the script, and he seems to continually be allowed to be in the middle of things by authority figures despite not really having any qualifications besides the fact that he’s trying to save his daughter.  His wife isn’t much better.  There’s a shred of a good idea in making the villains environmentalist extremists who believe the titans should reign but the movie doesn’t develop the idea properly at all and their motivations ultimately just seem completely stupid.  The dialogue isn’t much better; it mostly consists of rote exposition and while there aren’t many attempts at humor the ones they do try either fall flat or maybe elicit a small chuckle at best.

So, terrible movie, right?  Well, not exactly.  If there’s anything redeeming about this script it’s that the things that are bad about it are bad in a way that’s kind of generic and unobtrusive.  You look at them, you know they’re bad, but they aren’t so groan-worthy that they completely distract from the rest of the action.   In a way they almost in keeping with the lackluster human stories that were always there in those early Toho films and they also don’t take up nearly as much screen time as the only moderately superior human stuff from the 2014 movie.  And that “rest of the action” in the movie was for the most part very strong.  The main thing being added to the movie are additional kaiju including three of the most famous monsters from the franchise: Mothra, Rodan, and Ghidorah and each time one of them comes into the movie it’s an event to behold.  Mothra is beautiful and has a pretty good theme behind it, while Rodan is ferocious and immediately leads the airforce on a thrilling chase sequence.  Then of course there’s Ghidorah, who is a major fan favorite.  Whenever this dude would show up in one of those old movies you knew you were in for a treat.  He didn’t have much of a personality, but he was a really good design, you always knew when he was on screen that there were three Japanese dudes just off frame holding fishing poles to control the three heads in unison.  Seeing that creature rendered on screen in 2019 with top of the line Hollywood effects is just kind of amazing and the movie makes the character properly intimidating.

So what we have with this movie is some of what I would consider very good action filmmaking that’s propping up a lousy script.  I don’t think that’s an entirely bad thing; cinema isn’t literature, movies don’t entirely live and die by their writing.  Of course that’s true about a lot of bad action movies, so why am I using these old “leave your brain at the door”/“They made it for the fans!” type of excuses for this one?  Well, the joke response is that those other movies don’t have Ghidorah in them, but in some ways that is how I feel.  I don’t think this is pure fanboyism either, I think the majesty of these kaiju and this history behind them does transcend some of the film’s more pedestrian shortcomings.  Beyond that though I’d say part of it is an expectation game brought on by the early reviews.  I get why those other critics were not impressed: the larger ambitions of the 2014 film combined with those trailers set to “Clair de Lune” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” promised something a lot more sophisticated than this and if I hadn’t been primed for lowered expectations by the film’s 39% Rotten Tomatoes score I would probably have been less inclined to focus on the positives as well.  Also, I think critics today really demand silly movies like this kind of signal their intentions by telling a lot of jokes and sort of winking at the audience in ways that this movie doesn’t.  I, however, am not always on board with that approach (see also my against the grain enjoyment of Man of Steel) and at this point generally find it refreshing when stupid movies take themselves very seriously.  So really I get why this thing isn’t getting the strongest of reviews, it kind of deserves it, but if you’re the right kind of person there is plenty of fun to be had with it.

*** out of Five

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum(5/16/2019)

I really want to like these John Wick movies.  John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2 were doing things with the action movie format that I’ve been waiting for Hollywood to do; they’re shot cleanly, their action is hardcore, they aren’t cracking stupid jokes every ten seconds. And yet despite everything they do right I wasn’t really able to fully get behind those first to movies because, at the end of the day there were things in those scripts that were just too stupid to ignore.  I can forgive a lot from the story in certain genre movies.  Comedies can overlook all sorts of logic and get away with it if they’re still funny, martial arts movies and be all kinds of simplistic as long as they’re solid showcases for the skills of their performers, and similarly these action movies like John Wick can get away with a lot simply because they very effectively accomplish the main thing they set out to do: make Keanu Reeves look really cool while killing a whole lot of people.  But there’s a difference between giving a movie a pass for having great action scenes and fulling embracing a movie as a great action movie: for that you need to have the full package and these John Wick movies just don’t.  But just the same I was looking forward to the next fix that the third installment would provide.

The film picks up immediately after John Wick: Chapter 2 with John Wick (Keanu Reeves) having less than an hour before he’s declared excommunicado and a fourteen million dollar hit is put out on him and he’s barred from all assistance from all branches of The Continental and any other organization affiliated with The High Table.  On top of that, The High Table has sent an Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) to clean house and punish anyone who assisted Wick in the last movie including Winston (Ian McShane) and The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne).  She even recruits an assassin named Zero (Mark Dacascos) to carry out her dirty work.  But first Wick needs to find a way out of New York and much of the film’s first half deals with this chase to find some degree of sanctuary.

Let’s start with the positive, which is largely the same positive that was there in the first two movies: the action scenes.  They’re still pretty good, especially in the first half.  As the movie opens Wick is essentially on an elaborate chase through New York and goes through several landmarks like the Public Library (which closes way earlier than that for the record) and the central part carriage ride stables.  Each of these are accompanied by some fairly creative action beats like a fight against a seven foot tall assassin and a fight through a hall of antique weapons and knives.  I will say though that the movie does kind of blow some of its wad early and some of the later scenes feel more generic like a mid-film gun fight which is well staged but seems to go on forever and a finale which in some ways just feels like more of the same of what we’ve seen before.  In some ways the film seems to be emphasizing unarmed combat more than the previous film, which would seem like a good way to mix things up but Keanu Reeves isn’t really a martial arts expert and that does show a bit in the film.

Of course the complaints I’ve had about these movies are also still here.  There are a lot of people who come to find the world building in these movies to be really charming but I’ve never really been a fan.  These movies take place in a rather strange world where there are so many assassins that it’s hard to imagine there being enough “contracts” to keep them all employed.  I also generally get the impression that they’re sort of making the rules of this world up as they go and it often goes back on some of its own premises.  For example, in the beginning Wick’s excommunicado status is set up as something so firmly set in stone that a doctor can’t even finish stitching up a wound once it goes into effect and yet later Wick seems to very cavalierly enter other Continental locations without even bothering to try to disguise himself in any way. Even worse than that though is that I’m not entirely clear on why we’re supposed to root for Wick in his war against The High Table.  Yes, they’re obviously an evil organization but Wick is himself a mass murderer and their various rules don’t necessarily seem that unreasonable when compared to his ethos of killing thousands in retaliation for the death of a damn dog.

So are the action scenes in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum enough to save it from its shortcomings?  Yeah, probably, but I must say I feel like the franchise has been taken about as far as it can be.  That would be fine if this were a final film to cap off a trilogy but, and I don’t really think this is a spoiler, it isn’t.  The basic arc of the story has John Wick more or less ending right back where he started and the film’s ending is clearly a setup for a Chapter 4, and on top of that much of the film’s second act feels like a backdoor pilot for a spinoff series starring Halle Berry.  That’s a problem because this third installment frankly didn’t leave me wanting more and the fact that it was in many ways an exercise in treading water just left me kind of frustrated.

*** out of Five

Long Day’s Journey Into Night(5/4/2019)

The first half of 2019 has proven to be something of a landmark year for Chinese arthouse films.  Earlier this year we got Jia Zhangke’s latest meditation on a modernizing China Ash is Purest White, Hu Bo’s An Elephant Standing Still played in very limited release (missed that one), and soon we’re going to see the release of Zhang Yimou’s latest film Shadow.  We’re also getting the release of the sophomore effort of a promising young filmmaker named Bi Gan called Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  For the record the film has nothing to do with the Eugene O’Neill play of the same name and I’m not exactly sure why Gan opted to jack that title other than the fact that the film is quite literally set over the course of a long day and it eventually journeys into the night.  The film generated a lot of buzz at last year’s Cannes film festival both for its cryptic nature and for the fact that it has a fifty five minute long unbroken shot which is, unlike the rest of the film, in 3D.  That was enough to peak my curiosity even though it was almost too arthouse for the arthouses and instead played at a local modern art museum.

The film is set in a city called Kaili, which is a somewhat remote city located in Southwestern China and follows a guy named Luo (Huang Jue) who has returned to this town after a long absence to attend his father’s funeral.  We get only the vaguest details of what his life was like back in the town.  We know he had a friend named Wildcat (played in flashbacks by Lee Hong-chi) who was killed over some criminal activity involving a gun in a wagon of apples.  We also know that there was a woman in his past named Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei).  And that’s about all we really get in the way of conventional plot as much of the movie simply follows Luo as he goes through the city seemingly searching for Wan Qiwen but doing so in ways that don’t always fit conventional logic.  We see certain things which are ostensibly flashbacks, but don’t necessarily announce themselves as such and weave into the film in ways you don’t suspect.

I don’t know much about Bi Gan but I can say with a reasonable amount of confidence that he’s really into David Lynch because this is definitely a movie trying to channel a similar kind of dream logic.  The film isn’t in exploring some of the darker depths and extreme imagery that Lynch occasionally dips into but he certainly shares his willingness to eschew conventional plot coherence in favor of mood. This certainly came as a surprise to the film’s opening weekend audience in China, who were actually drawn to the movie in large numbers because of an unconventional and wildly misleading marketing campaign that made the film seem like a romantic comedy that couples should see at one of several event screenings on New Year’s Eve.  It was a move that earned the movie $37 million during its opening weekend and also reportedly causing several walkouts and angry posts on Weibo.  I haven’t exactly seen those advtisements, but if they’re anything like as misleading as the stories in the trade publications make them sound I can see why people would be pissed.  It’s kind of like the people who went to see Drive expecting it to be like a Fast and Furious movie, but at least Drive did have some car stunts in it.  This movie, by contrast, is about as oblique and “arty” as a movie can be and isn’t much of a romance at all outside of the way it explores the depths of how much Lou misses Wan.

The part of the film that has gotten the most attention, by far, is the last fifty minutes which are a single continuous shot and unlike the rest of the film are in 3D.  Of course making a movie that’s only half in 3D is pretty strange and means that you find yourself sitting in a theater with a pair of 3D glasses sitting awkwardly on your lap essentially “burning a hole in your pocket” so to speak.  In some ways you can’t help but view the first 78 minutes as something of a prologue for whatever wild tone shift that last shot will presumably involve.  Indeed there is some truth to that as the 2D elements, while oblique and difficult in and off themselves do feel in some ways like they’re meant to give you the context for that final shot, which takes the film from being “dreamlike” to being what is almost certainly a literal dream sequence.  As a technical and logistical accomplishment this shot is certainly impressive and it manages to maintain a tone of melancholy reminiscent of the last episode of “Twin Peaks: The Return,” even when it occasionally stops to show off by indulging in 3D Ping Pong or Billiards.

I will say, however, that the whole promise of a 55 minute single take 3D shot had kind of led me to expect a movie that was a bit more visually adventurous otherwise.  Instead the movie actually has fairly drab digital cinematography that never quite captures the noir vibe that Gan is going for.  There are actually a lot of little things like that which hold me at a bit of a distance from this movie and truth be told I don’t feel ready to make a final judgement on it on a first viewing.  It’s a movie that is attempting to capture a certain state of mind and dream more than it’s trying to tell a story or make any kind of real statement about anything, so as an exercise I suppose it succeeds but as a viewing experience it can be frustrating.  It feels like it’s almost impossible to really “get” the movie after a single viewing, and yet its 3D gimmick almost discourages attempts at repeated viewings outside of theaters.  Maybe this is the Last Year at Marienbad of the 2010s or maybe the Emperor has no clothes.  Honestly I’d probably be more inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt if it had been made by an old master rather than a 29 year old who frankly comes off as being a bit pretentious in interviews.  It’s not a movie I’m terribly comfortable about giving a traditional “verdict” on with a star rating.  I’m not prepared to declare the movie some kind of profound accomplishment today and it’s certainly not a movie I’d casually recommend to the average viewer, but it certainly intrigued me and for the dedicated film enthusiast it deserves a viewing.

***1/2 out of Five

Avengers: Endgame(4/26/2019)

Review contains spoilers

Last year when I sat down and tried to review Avengers: Infinity War I found that going through the usual motions of a mostly spoiler-free review aimed at introducing a film to someone unfamiliar with it just seemed like a bit of a waste.  No one was on the fence about whether they wanted to see that movie but they might want to look back on it and deconstruct what made it work.  And that is what I did in the form of a review of sorts that was more of an informal discussion about the movie than what I usually try to do.  Now it’s a year later and Marvel has put out what is essentially the second half of that movie and I find myself once again having to write about a movie that everyone is already planning to either see or to ignore whatever I have to say about it and I find that once again the best approach is to just write up my own feelings in a relatively unstructured format.

Let’s start by considering what worked so well about Avengers: Infinity War, which is a movie I liked a whole lot and have if anything grown to appreciate even more in the last year.  That was a movie that had two tasks it had to accomplish: first it needed to bring the infinity stones together to enable the film’s bold cliffhanger and secondly it needed to serve as a fun Avengers movie where all our favorite characters came together for one last romp, and it manages to accomplish both of those things beautifully, and I also thought it managed to bring a fairly fascinating villain to the screen and did some clever things in the way it used the actions of its heroes in order to refute his insane philosophy.  That movie’s follow up, by contrast, has to do a lot more.  It needs to reckon with the fallout of Thanos’ snap and the effect it has on the characters, it needs to go through the “time heist” in all its complexity, and it also needs to get through a final battle against Thanos that will set up whatever the MCU will be going forward all while trying to be an entertaining action movie.  Rather than tying these three things together the movie essentially has to divide itself into three acts with each one devoted to one of those three things.

At the center of Avengers: Endgame is something of a catch-22: do you acknowledge the devastation of “the snap” and make a movie tinged in melancholy rather than superhero fun or do you minimize that, which would be something of a cop-out.  To the film’s credit they do mostly go with the former option right through and to some extent including the part where everyone comes back from the dead.  I had mostly expected them to go through a pretty pure undoing of the snap that would leaving society to go on unaffected, but instead they do the five year jump after boldly killing off Thanos like a chump and they stick with that all the way through.  In theory I like this decision a lot and I certainly respect it but it also opens up a lot of questions about how a society would react to a calamity like that and the movie really does not have the time to get into that.  It’s also a move that could really have major implications for whatever the MCU looks like after this as it basically means that these movies will now be taking place in a futuristic world removed from modern culture as we know it.  It also puts the rest of the movie into this very serious place that does remove some of that trademark MCU joy from the proceedings.  Like, the idea of seeing Marvel characters go back into their old movies Back to the Future Part 2 style seems like a blast but it’s maybe less fun than it should be simply because everyone is so shell-shocked.

That’s not to say the film is humorless, it isn’t, though I almost wonder if they should have leaned even harder into the grim tone if they were going to “go there.”  I was particularly unimpressed with the way they handled the Thor character.  Making Thor into someone who’s completely “let himself go” and fallen into a drunken stupor over the course of five years is an interesting idea, but the movie mostly just treats it like a sight gag that outlives its welcome.  You wonder why he’s even invited to participate in the time heist given that he was clearly a liability.  Like a lot of things this was a damned if you do damned if you don’t; just magically making him shed a hundred pounds and overcome alcoholism when convenient would have been lame (and in some ways they do indeed do this at the end when he becomes battle ready out of nowhere) but seeing him stay in this state and not even bother to shave is also kind of a bummer.  Outside of that the film does a pretty decent job of finding interesting ways to have the trauma of the situation manifest in different ways for different characters.  Robert Downy Jr. certainly puts on a pretty good swan song and I like seeing Captain America try to put on a brave face for what is in many ways a hopeless situation.  The Guardians of the Galaxy fare a bit worse; Rocket feels like a pretty one dimensional character when removed from his “family” and while Nebula plays an important role in the plot she’s kind of a monotone presence.  Oddly enough the film seems to have gone out of its way to set that franchise up for a post-Gunn and possibly Taika Waititi helmed future that they’ve already backtracked on.

Another odd thing about the movie is that, up until that final battle scene this really doesn’t function as an action movie.  There are certainly special effects all over the screen thanks to talking raccoons and hulks and we get some sequences like the two New York infinity stone heists, but there really isn’t a full on fight or chase or anything in the first two hours of the movie.  That’s kind of a bold move rooted in confidence that audiences have connected enough to these characters that audiences will follow them with or without the exact spectacle people are used to.  I’m not exactly sure it was the right move though, in part because I’m actually not in love with that final battle, which I found to be a bit too dark, crowded, and chaotic to serve as the cathartic release that it was clearly intended to be.  I found the Battle of Wakanda from Avengers: Infinity War to be much more effective and I also found their choice to bring Thanos back when they did was a bit off.  Thanos derived much of his intimidation factor in the last film from the fact that he was wielding the infinity stones, without them I would think that he would just be a big purple guy with a sword who shouldn’t have posed as much of a threat to the combined efforts of three superheroes.

I feel a little weird criticizing this movie when for so long the big complaint about these MCU films is that they didn’t take enough risks and followed a rigid formula and yet a lot of what seems off about this movie is that it diverges from the usual formula.  Maybe that’s unfair, but in some ways they’ve brought this on themselves by giving audiences every reason to expect one particular thing from them.  Avengers: Infinity War delivered on that beautifully, it was like the bigger and more developed evolution of that first Avengers movie, and to me it was clearly the better half of this story.  Avengers: Endgame by contrast almost feels less like a movie and more like a very expensive series finale for a popular TV show like Lost or Game of Thrones.  One which has to try to give some degree of closure while also serving as a sendoff and sort of a celebration of everything that came before.  It sort of does that, but like a lot of series finales it maybe stumbles a bit under its own self-conscious sentimentality and maybe gets a little too clever for its own good in dreaming up a conceit to make that possible.  All in all I don’t want to complain too much or come off too negative.  The movie certainly kept me interested and entertained for three solid hours, that’s an accomplishment for sure and with how difficult this assignment was it could have gone so much worse.

***1/2 out of Five 

Shazam!(4/13/2019)

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