REVIEW: “Shazam!” (2019)

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I feel the need to start off with a confession. After seeing the first trailer for DC’s “Shazam!” I pounced on the opportunity to voice my skepticism. It wasn’t due to a desire to be some kind of contrarian. I genuinely disliked DC’s decision to make a joke out of a truly iconic character. You could say I was armed and ready to push back hard on this movie.

Funny thing though, despite my prefabricated negativity, it was hard to hate on the trailer too much. It’s star Zachary Levi is a genuinely likable guy and it did sport some humorous ‘reluctant superhero’ moments. I kept thinking of Will Smith’s “Hancock” except actually funny. But enough about the trailer. What about the actual movie itself? Let’s say it lands somewhere in the middle.

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“Shazam!” is the seventh film in the DC Extended Universe and easily the most light-hearted of the bunch. The heads at DC Films seem to have panicked and pivoted to making their movies much more MCU-like instead of carving out a their own unique identity. I actually appreciated their darker and more serious tone as it offered a different flavor to the superhero genre.

David Sandberg, known more for his work in horror, directs from a screenplay written by Henry Gayden. He opens with a prologue featuring Djimon Hounsou as a wizard decked in full Gandalf the Grey garb. He basically serves as a crash course on the Shazam lore you’ll need for the two-plus hours that follow. We get things like the Rock of Eternity, the Eye of Envy, the Seven Deadly Sins each in monster form. You know, the normal stuff.

Now jump ahead to present day Philadelphia where teenaged Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has ran away from one foster family after another. Child services gives him one more chance, putting him in a group home ran by Victor and Rosa Vazquez (sweetly played by Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans). But Billy has no interest in a new family. Instead he’s intent on finding his birth mother who he was separated from as a child.

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The house is made up of a fairly interesting array of characters. None are particularly deep but they serve their purposes. His gabby, superhero enthusiast roommate Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) gets most of the scenes. He’s a little annoying but proves to be a big help after Billy magically encounters the wizard from the prologue who imbues him superhuman powers in the form of a super-buff adult body (played by Zachary Levi). It’s Freddy who helps him sort through his crazy new abilities.

But every hero needs a villain, right? Mark Strong can make the silliest material seem menacing and here he plays Thaddeus Sivana, a power-hungry baddie with serious daddy issues. In the prologue we see him encountering the aforementioned wizard as a child. But he was deemed unworthy of the power Billy now possesses and has been seeking the way back to the wizard’s realm ever since. And once he gets wind of Billy, well he begins doing bad guy things.

While Strong’s performance is fun, as villains go the movie version of Sivana is pretty shallow. Instead of giving him any meaningful depth Sandberg digs his heels into the comedy element of his story. It turns out to be a double-edged sword. Some of the film’s most playful moments are its best. Take when Shazam/Billy and Freddy are going through their checklist of superpowers testing every one. And much of it too the smile-inducing “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen.

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But eventually the whole ‘kid in an adult body’ wears a little thin. And when so much time is put into youthful frolicking, it’s hard to buy into his sudden shift to superhero. Not to mention the tonal clashes particularly as the movie transitions back-and-forth between Billy’s angle and Sivana’s. It’s tough to balance Shazam flossing (that’s a dance for you older folk) with a demon creature chomping someone’s head off.

There is no denying that “Shazam!” has charm and heart. You also can’t help but enjoy the fun and energetic Zachary Levi, padded suit and all. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that the original Captain Marvel (sorry MCU, it’s true) deserved a better movie. A part of me thinks “Shazam!” would work better as an all-out spoof instead of attempting a balancing act. Then again I would probably push back on that even harder. So we are left with a fun but lightweight DC installment that uses a ton of humor to mask its otherwise noticeable flaws.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

 

RETRO REVIEW: “Spaceballs” (1987)

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Some movies are such a product of their time that you can’t help but wonder how they would hold up for modern audiences. Take Mel Brooks’ wacky science-fiction parody “Spaceballs”. It’s a movie that is so distinctly 80s it’s all but certain to push away some people seeing it today for the very first time. It’s one I’ve been anxious to give the Retro Review treatment.

Ever since first seeing it in the summer of 1987, “Spaceballs” was never among my favorite Mel Brooks comedies. And when put up next to his truly great films like “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” (I would also argue for “Silent Movie”), it’s pale in comparison.

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But that doesn’t mean “Spaceballs” is a bad film especially for those with their own nostalgic connections to the movie or the decade itself. It has several genuinely funny gags and it never passes over a chance to riff on all sorts of science-fiction movies. “Alien”, “Planet of the Apes”, “Star Trek”, and it’s most obvious target “Star Wars” all find their way into Brooks’ comedic crosshairs.

From the opening crawl (ala “Star Wars”) it’s crystal clear this is Mel Brooks leaning heavily into some of his more absurdist humor. As the story goes Planet Spaceball is running out of fresh air so its buffoonish President Skroob (Brooks) devises a plan to kidnap Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) of the nearby planet Druidia. He’ll only set her free if her father King Roland (a hilariously cast Dick van Patten) hands over the keys to Druidia’s plentiful air supply.

To carry out his nefarious scheme Skroob calls on the villainous (and utterly preposterous) Dark Helmet. He is hilariously played by the least menacing actor Brooks could have cast – Rick Moranis. But just as everything seems to be going according to plan, in flies renowned space scoundrel-for-hire Lone Star (Bill Pullman) and his furry sidekick/best friend Barf (John Candy). Their mission is to rescue the princess and save Druidia from being destroyed.

As much as I love the 80’s and have a soft spot for so many movies from the decade, I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that “Spaceballs” hasn’t aged particularly well. It goes without saying the effects are well below today’s standard but that’s expected and easy to look past. In fact you could easily argue that the old-fangled visuals are part of its charm. But at times it’s the humor itself that feels terribly out of date (will any younger viewers recognize Michael Winslow and the Doublemint Twins?). And Brooks sometimes gets a little lazy, leaning too much on juvenile humor often filled with cheap double entendres.

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While there is an inconsistency to the comedy, there are also times where you can’t help but enjoy the unbridled goofiness. I still laugh at Pizza the Hutt, the wise and pointy-eared Yogurt, and Dark Helmet’s collection of oversized headgear. We get other really fun jokes that break the fourth wall and poke fun at filmmaking, merchandising, and big franchises.

“Spaceballs” first hit theaters during the 10th anniversary of the original “Star Wars”. Over time it has developed a fairly devout cult following despite hardly being considered as some of Mel Brooks’ best work. For me the nostalgic pull is undeniable even after all these years. At the same time I fully admit that it’s hard to see the movie the same way I did over thirty years ago.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”

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Despite the earth-shattering hype and rabid enthusiasm, I was still hesitant to embrace the idea of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”. As a long-time comic reader I had grown tired of Marvel’s lazy idea of diversity – taking someone from a marginalized group and putting them in the suit of an already established character instead of investing talent and resources into creating new heroes with new origins and new voices.

Without question there is some of that in “Spider-Verse”. I mean one of the film’s main taglines is “Anyone can wear the mask“. But all of that is easy to overlook if the character behind the mask is compelling and he or she has a unique and personal story to tell. Miles Morales is and he does. Unfortunately storytelling isn’t this movie’s strength.

The three-headed directing team of Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman are given a lot to juggle including a bunch of characters making their first appearance on the big screen and a revolutionary new art style. Both manage to be fresh and exciting while also disappointing in ways I wasn’t expecting.

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Starting with the characters and the story, writers Rothman and Phil Lord give themselves creative carte blanche by using the old tried-and-true ‘multiple dimensions’ framework for their story. In their dimension Miles Morales (voiced by a very good Shameik Moore) is a bright teen from the Bronx, popular in his community but struggling to fit in at his new private school. He’s pushed hard by his black police officer father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) and his Puerto Rican mother Rio (Luna Lauren VĂ©lez).

I was instantly grabbed by this family dynamic and it’s what interested me the most. But it also feels shortchanged the most. The filmmakers set up a tension between Miles and his father but barely gives it much attention. The few scenes we do get are the film’s very best. But they are few and far between. And his mother all but vanishes and has no real impact on the story.

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Then you have the relationship between Miles and his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). For Miles his uncle is his confidant despite the fact the Aaron and Jefferson don’t get along. Again, another interesting family thread with a ton of potential (especially considering where the story goes) that ends up feeling half-baked and underserved. Miles and Aaron share a couple of great scenes including one deep in the city’s subway tunnels. It’s there that Miles, while painting graffiti art, is randomly stung by a radioactive spider from……somewhere.

While trying to get a grasp of his new powers, Miles stumbles upon the ‘real’ Spider-Man (Chris Pine) duking it out with Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) who has built a machine to connect parallel dimensions. After a weirdly bland first meeting between Miles and Peter Parker, the fight continues, Kingpin’s device explodes, and a series of otherworldly complications arise. Most notably – the arrival of five other Spider-‘Men’ all pulled from their own dimensions and desperate to get back.

As for the animation, it gets a ton of points for being fresh and often jaw-dropping. It’s an impressive combination of computer animation and hand-drawn techniques with the intent of giving it a classic comic book look. Most of the time it looks absolutely amazing. But sometimes it goes over the top with its style. There is no better example than the big finale – a familiar bombastic ending filled with blaring music and rapid-fire cuts while bathed in splashes of loud pastel backgrounds. Some advice – don’t watch it with a headache.

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“Into the Spider-Verse” is a film loaded start-to-finish with fan service and I was surprised at how well most of it landed. Great bits from nearly every pop culture iteration of Spider-Man are scattered all through it. And whatever you do stay for end credits scene. It’s fabulous and well worth the wait.

So where to land on this highly praised sure-fire award winner? The voice acting is fantastic, the animation (when not drowning in its style) is ground-breaking, and the film’s message offers hope and encouragement. But then you run into the storytelling – a frustrating swirl of highs and lows that shortchanges its most interesting component and emotional core. That’s what would have made this a truly stand-out superhero picture. Instead it feels a little like all the others, only with a fresh and beautifully animated coat of paint on it.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “The Strangers: Prey at Night”

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I liked the 2008 horror-thriller “The Strangers”. It was essentially a slasher film but with an emphasis on atmosphere and tension over the traditional gore galore. And I found something a bit creepy and unsettling about the randomness at the core of the terror. It was a knife-twisting home invasion flick with enough craft to cover its handful of flaws. That certainly isn’t the case for its sequel.

It took ten years to get a sequel but it’s hard to believe they spent more than 10 days conceiving it. “The Strangers: Prey at Night” is a paper-thin follow-up that neither captures what I enjoyed about the first film nor offers anything remotely new. In fact it barely seems to try. It hurriedly thrusts its small and underdeveloped cast into the sites of the killers and expects us to care. I certainly did not.

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The film starts with the all-too-familiar tag ‘Based on True Events’, but it is so in the slightest sense. Series creator and sequel co-writer Bryan Bertino stated that inspiration came from the Manson Family murders mixed with a string of neighborhood robberies from his childhood. You can see shades of that in the first film. “Prey at Night” doesn’t show much inspiration at all.

Story-wise this is all we get: Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and husband Mike (Martin Henderson) set off on a family weekend with their two detached teens. The idea is to spend time together before their angst-filled daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) is shipped off to boarding school. Her older brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) is caught in the middle of the parents/daughter bickering.

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This not-so-happy lot drive to their aunt and uncle’s trailer park campground. Too bad for them the only people they find are Dollface, Pin Up Girl, and the Man in the Mask (yes, they actually have names. I had to look it up to make sure). Your run-of-the-mill terror and mayhem ensues. I think the idea is that the family is pulled closer together throughout the ordeal, but the movie doesn’t seem too interested in all that character stuff. Instead we get scene after scene of various family members in peril, slowly opening doors, slowly walking down hallways, slowly rounding corners, etc. But fear not, they run around a lot too.

While watching “Prey at Night” one word repeatedly came to mind – flat. That describes nearly every facet of this movie. The one remotely impressive scene is a swimming pool sequence. In it we get some clever camera work and a welcomed bit of genuine tension. Otherwise the movie is a wash of reprocessed horror gimmicks which we’ve all seen over and over. I guess ten years wasn’t long enough to put together a good second installment.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

1-5-stars

REVIEW: “Searching” (2018)

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There was a time when I didn’t pay much attention to John Cho the actor. His “Harold & Kumar” comedies never landed with me and I was even less impressed with his “American Pie” work. He’s fine in the rebooted “Star Trek” series but not exactly a standout. That all changed with his stellar performance in last year’s soulful character drama “Columbus”.

In “Searching” Cho is handed an even meatier role and he doesn’t disappoint. He plays David Kim, a widowed father of 16-year-old Margot (Michelle La). To David everything seems right with his daughter. She is a happy girl with lots of friends who enjoys piano lessons and attends study groups with classmates. But David is living in a bubble brought on by his own grief. His image of Margot slowly comes into question after she disappears without a trace.

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David files a missing person’s report and Detective Rosemary Vick is assigned to the case. She handles the ground investigation and tasks David with searching for Margot’s digital footprints. This feeds the film’s big trick – every scene is through some form of digital communication. Skype, Facebook, YouTube, FaceTime, video conferencing, streaming services, security cameras, news feeds, etc. The entire movie is shot within this digital framing.

Director Aneesh Chaganty (who also co-wrote the script with Sev Ohanian) deserves a ton of credit for not only keeping things coherent but also steadily ramping up the tension. It’s a tricky storytelling mechanic that comes across as much more than a gimmick. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it the found footage model for the modern era, but it has the same satisfying effect as the earliest found footage movies.

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If you’ve seen the trailer you get an idea of how the story is pieced together. With the bulk of the action taking place on a laptop or smartphone screen, it takes some crafty direction and snappy editing to pull it off. Equally impressive is how the movie never tips its hand. David trails a smattering of clues throughout Margot’s digital profile leading to several red herrings and a few meaningful revelations. But it isn’t until the finale when things are spelled out for us, perhaps a little too neatly, but still with good effect.

“Searching” is a fantastic debut effort for Chaganty who gives us more than a simple gimmick film. It’s a riveting thriller with interesting things to say about the online lives we live. It’s also another showcase for John Cho who carries the film through his character’s intensifying stages of emotion and desperation. I was wrong to shortchange the guy. Cho is a legitimate leading actor who earns the praise he has been receiving.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Skyscraper”

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Expectations are a funny thing, especially when talking about a movie like “Skyscraper”. After seeing the trailers I could never shake my “The Rock versus a Skyscraper” impression. I fully expected a movie cheesier than a block of Velveeta. But after seeing the film I can honestly say I was wrong…sort of.

Now don’t misunderstand me, there is still cheese. And “Skyscraper” never quite breaks out of its genre mold or shakes free from its conventional and predictable blueprint. Once it gets rolling you pretty much know what you’re in for. But it’s easily an above average popcorn flick that surprised more than expected.

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In the prologue an FBI raid goes terribly wrong and Hostage Rescue Team leader Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) is seriously injured. He loses his leg but meets his future wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) as a result. Ten years later the two are married with two kids and soldier-turned-family man Will manages his life as an amputee while running a small independent security company.

Will and his family travel to Hong Kong after an old FBI buddy (Pablo Schreiber) helps him get a shot at a potentially huge contract. The job is as a security consultant for a 3,500 foot state-of-the-art skyscraper called The Pearl. It’s the brainchild of a Chinese entrepreneur (Chin Han), complete with its own energy source, a massive botanical garden with its own waterfall, and a large residential section. It’s essentially a city in the sky. Will is brought in to give The Pearl a thorough security examination before it can be opened to the public.

But as John McClane can attest, oh those pesky terrorists. While Will is working offsite, the crime syndicates send their extortion handler Kores Botha (Roland Møller) and his band of mercenaries to infiltrate The Pearl. A few double-crosses and one large fire later, and the terrorists have control of the skyscraper with Will’s family trapped inside. I shouldn’t need to tell you where it goes from there.

The glaringly obvious “Die Hard” inspiration goes without saying, but I also couldn’t help but see glimpses of “The Towering Inferno”. Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber uses elements of those movies but shakes them up a bit. He does the same with Johnson (the two previously worked together on the 2016 comedy “Central Intelligence”). Thurber dials back the witty charm and downplays the buff action hero persona. Johnson does good with the more dramatic material he is given.

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Several other things impressed me about “Skyscraper”. The film makes a conscience effort to respectfully represent disability and the reactions from those communities have been heart-warming. Will’s disability is never seen as a weakness. It actually saves his life on multiple occasions. Most importantly it isn’t used as a narrative gimmick. There is also a strong message of family that I responded to. Again, at times cheesy, but still a welcomed ingredient.

So yes, “Skyscraper” was a nice surprise and certainly a step up from Johnson’s last blockbuster effort. It’s still very much light popcorn entertainment with a predictable framework and the type of crowd-pleasing you expect from these things. Also don’t expect a Hans Gruber-like villain. We get nothing close. But I won’t lie, I was with this movie all the way through and it’s a nice addition to the filmography of Hollywood’s hardest working guy.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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