Shazam!

Warner Bros brings some levity to their generally dour DC Extended Universe with Shazam!, a well intentioned but ultimately disappointing superhero entry that strains a bit too hard for likeability. Part family-friendly comedy and part body swap movie, it does offer some new storytelling elements to the most saturated film genre at the moment but the execution of these ideas doesn’t feel as inspired as it should. Director David F. Sandberg is working hard to emulate the tone of kid-centric 1980s Spielberg productions like E.T. and Gremlins and in the process, he reminds us how challenging it is to recreate the magic of those classics.

After a drawn-out prologue starting in the mid-70s, we’re brought up to present day to meet Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a troubled teen who has gone from one foster home to another after being abandoned by his mother at a young age. Traveling on the subway on day, Billy is suddenly transported to a magical realm where a weakened wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) bestows Billy with the ability to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi). Along with his newest foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Billy learns how to harness his newfound powers in order to stop the villainous Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong).

The strongest facet of the film can be found in Levi’s performance as the body-swapped hero, which channels the same wide-eyed giddiness that Tom Hanks utilized for his similar role in Big. He’s certainly the source of the movie’s biggest laughs, especially during a scene in which he strides confidently into a gas station and announces to the teller that he’d “like to purchase some of their finest beer, please.” Levi also has excellent comedic chemistry with Grazer, who gets in a few quality one-liners of his own despite the fact that his character is underdeveloped and sidelined at critical points in the story.

In an ironic twist, Strong represents the weakest aspect of the movie as he glowers through another bland and one-note supervillain role that diminishes any of the storyline’s potential. Shazam is the kind of idiosyncratic character that demands a more compelling foil but Sivana offers the same exact kind of obstacles for our hero that we’ve seen plenty of times before. At one point during the film’s pre-production, Dwayne Johnson was lined up to play Shazam’s nemesis Black Adam, which is a much more compelling scenario than what Warner Bros opted for instead with this rote showdown.

The screenplay by Henry Gayden does have a handful of quality jokes, despite being all over the map in terms of comedic tone, but it’s saddled with the task of also providing a straight-faced superhero narrative. The film’s overextended climax, which contributes heavily to the already bloated runtime, involves the same kind of weightless CGI aerial brawl that sunk the otherwise worthwhile Superman outing Man of Steel in 2013. I applaud Shazam! for attempting to shake things up within the DCEU but the film lacks the kind of clear artistic conviction that would have made the gamble pay off.

Score – 2/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Pet Sematary, starring Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz, is the latest Stephen King adaptation about a family who summons evil forces after meddling with a mysterious burial ground.
The Best of Enemies, starring Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell, tells the true story of a civil rights activist and a Ku Klux Klan leader who debate school segregation in 1970s North Carolina.
Gloria Bell, starring Julianne Moore and John Turturro, reimagines 2013’s Gloria about a free-spirited woman in her 50s who seeks new love amid the Los Angeles dance club scene.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Us

Writer/director Jordan Peele follows up his breakout debut Get Out with Us, another visceral and confident work of horror with plenty of well-executed scares and laughs. While Get Out seemed to exist in a genre that it carefully carved out for itself, Peele’s latest effort is more of a conventional tale of modern horror that isn’t as clear-minded about its social commentary but is directed with such a high level of craft that it almost doesn’t matter. It’s packed with shocks and twists that are meant to keep the audience guessing and even if the answers don’t quite live up to the questions, the ride is well worth taking.

The premise centers around Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), who are vacationing at their Santa Cruz beach house with their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). Upon their first day of the trip, they meet with family friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker) on the beach when Jason has a disturbing encounter with a stranger. Things only get more troubling that evening when the Wilsons are visited by a group of 4 costumed figures who seek to break into their home and turn their idyllic vacation into an unshakable nightmare.

From there, Us takes its lead from home invasion thrillers like Funny Games and You’re Next by constantly ratcheting up the pressure on the characters whose sense of security deteriorates quickly. Before the inevitable break-in, Peele sneaks in eerie signs of chance and coincidence (e.g. a baseball score of 11-11 in the 11th inning is announced on a TV) which point to larger supernatural forces that may be at play. Whether it’s through these instances of foreshadowing or the subsequent moments of sheer terror, he demonstrates a mastery of the horror genre that is markedly assured for someone who worked in comedy for so many years.

What’s especially invigorating about Peele’s first two directorial efforts is how well he is able to build up tension slowly in the more terrifying moments but then release that tension brilliantly with perfectly-placed humor. Not only do the moments of levity feel organic to the situation that the characters find themselves in, they also feel characteristic of Peele’s specific sensibilities as a comedy writer. The scene in which Gabe initially threatens the villainous interlopers could have played out in a more conventionally tense way but instead, Duke’s sense of exaggerated bravado leads to some unexpected laughs.

Assembling the larger thematic puzzle pieces, from an opening prologue that addresses abandoned nationwide tunnels to a recurring Old Testament verse, is unfortunately not as satisfying as the creepy chills on the film’s surface. Even murkier still is the explanation behind the origin of the antagonists and the mythology behind their motives, all of which produces lingering follow-up questions rather provide adequate closure. Still, Us is another crowd-pleasing winner from a burgeoning director who is continuing to establish a brand of horror that is unquestionably bold and refreshing.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Dumbo, starring Colin Farrell and Michael Keaton, retells the 1941 Disney animated classic about an elephant with oversized ears who wows circus-goers with his aerial abilities.
The Beach Bum, starring Matthew McConaughey and Isla Fisher, tells the story of a rebellious vagrant and the colorful cast of characters that surround him as he attempts to write a novel.
Unplanned, starring Ashley Bratcher and Brooks Ryan, is an adaptation of the memoir by anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson from God’s Not Dead writers Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Apollo 11

Though there have been plenty of other movies and TV specials about the first moon mission, we haven’t seen anything quite like the wondrous new documentary Apollo 11. Utilizing previously unseen footage from the 8-day period during which the mission took place in July 1969, director Todd Douglas Miller has crafted a meticulous and often thrilling recreation of mankind’s most daring feat. Unlike last year’s excellent First Man, which tells a more personal story centered around lead astronaut Neil Armstrong, this film is much more straight-forward about the specifics of the spaceflight.

Miller, who is also credited as the sole editor, eschews typical documentary conventions like having the events explained to us by historian talking heads or a narrative voiceover. Instead, he cuts the footage in a way that even people who don’t know the ins and outs of space travel would be able to understand. When the astronauts are discussing upcoming tactical maneuvers with NASA headquarters, we’re shown diagrams that clearly demonstrate what the crew is about to attempt. What’s most impressive about this aspect in particular is that even though these visual depictions mirror what a teacher might draw on a chalkboard, the film never feels like a boring school lecture.

Given that all of the documentary’s footage is taken from 50-year-old film, one may expect that the look of this movie would be quite dated but the images are full of new life with the aid of digital restoration. Thanks to Miller’s direction, the film has a cinematic immediacy to it from the first frame, which begins by highlighting the massive scale of the operation as the camera glides up the 6-million pound rocket ship. There are also gorgeous shots, like one from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet awaiting the trio of astronauts, that feel both incredibly modern and indelibly timeless at the same time.

With the aid of Matt Morton’s majestic musical score, unbroken shots of the crew completing the most challenging portions of the mission are made even more awe-inspiring than they would be otherwise. When the frame is divided into several split-screens that feature various teams working within mission control, the pulsing synth-driven soundtrack gives appropriate urgency to their efforts. The rest of the audio is filled out expertly by sound designer Eric Milano, who poured through thousands of hours of uncatalogued audio recordings to capture the most essential pieces of dialogue from this landmark event.

When we think of the moon landing, typically Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin come to mind first but this documentary is a reminder of the hundreds of talented individuals whose hard work made this dangerous mission a success. One such example is found in an early tracking shot that depicts the seemingly endless rows of computing equipment and scientists dedicated to achieving the impossible. Thanks to the efforts of Miller and everyone behind the production of Apollo 11, their work can now be seen through a new lens of clarity and preserved for future generations looking for inspiration once again.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Us, starring Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, is a new horror film from Get Out director Jordan Peele about a family of four whose vacation is upended by a diabolical group of home invaders.
Hotel Mumbai, starring Dev Patel and Armie Hammer, tells the harrowing true story of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks from the perspective of the staff at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
Back in theaters for its 20th anniversary is Cruel Intentions, the romantic teen drama starring Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon about a pair of wealthy step-siblings who make a lascivious wager.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Captain Marvel

The Marvel Cinematic Universe makes room for yet another superhero in Captain Marvel, an action-packed addition to the gargantuan series which is noteworthy for its female lead but not for much else. It’s a perfectly acceptable product from Marvel Studios, which has produced an average of 2 comic book movies a year for the past 10 years, but it rarely distinguishes itself enough to transcend that dubious designation. For a film that revolves around its superheroine searching for her true identity, it’s painfully ironic that the film itself doesn’t break with the “Marvel formula” long enough to establish an identity of its own.

Set in the mid-1990s, the story centers around Vers (Brie Larson), a member of the alien race known as Kree who trains under the mentorship of the revered warrior Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). During a battle against their shapeshifting foes known as Skrulls, Vers escapes to Earth and is discovered by SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) after she crash lands inside a Los Angeles Blockbuster store. On the run from Skrull soldiers led by the treacherous Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), the two follow clues that point towards a hidden past that Vers had on Earth and advanced technology that may end the intergalactic alien feud once and for all.

The best elements of Captain Marvel revolve around the chemistry between Larson and Jackson in a storyline that feels like it’s ripped straight from a ’90s buddy-cop movie like Die Hard with a Vengeance. Thanks to some utterly convincing digital de-aging in post-production, Jackson even looks like they pulled him right off the set from one of those films and placed him in this fish-out-of-water tale. The banter and comedic timing between the determined Vers and the incredulous Fury lead to the biggest delights of the film and offer respite from the tiresome space conflict that drives the majority of the narrative.

Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, known for crafting intimate character studies like Half Nelson and Sugar, would seem to be a great fit to tell an origin story with an amnesiac at its center. Sadly, the investigation of Vers and her backstory is relatively shallow and lacks the type of nuance that we’ve come to expect based on the directors’ previous work. Their lack of experience in the action genre is apparent from the numerous setpieces that are somewhat enjoyable but lack the visual flair of other entries in the Marvel canon. There’s also no doubt that some of the more rambunctious musical cues are incongruous with the rest of the film’s general tone.

The cast certainly does the best that they can with the material and most of the actors and actresses are given at least one scene in which they really shine. Despite portraying a woefully underwritten central character, Larson is able to balance snark and stoicism to mostly make up for the script’s deficiencies. Newcomer Lashana Lynch is terrific in her limited role and her scenes with Larson are hands-down the most human moments in the entire film. There just aren’t enough of them to give Captain Marvel the kind of emotional heft that it needed to stand out from the increasingly homogeneous superhero landscape.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Wonder Park, starring Kenan Thompson and Ken Jeong, is the latest offering from Nickelodeon Movies about an imaginative young girl who creates an amusement park filled with talking animals and fantastical rides.
Captive State, starring John Goodman and Ashton Sanders, depicts a world in which an uncompromising extraterrestrial force has fractured humanity into two opposing sides.
Five Feet Apart, starring Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse, adapts the young adult novel about pair of teenagers with life-threatening illnesses who fall in love after meeting in the hospital.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Greta

Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz play a dangerous game of cat and mouse in Greta, a campy thriller with a pair of memorable performances that is critically compromised by a cliche-ridden screenplay. Cut from the same cloth as 90s stalker movies like Single White Female and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, the film cycles through conventions of the sub-genre with relative ease but does so without making much of an impression on its own terms. Irish director Neil Jordan, probably still best known for his Oscar-winning The Crying Game, is able to generate some suspenseful scenes in the third act, even if it takes a little too long to get there.

Moretz stars as Frances, a young waitress living in New York with her street-smart friend Erica (Maika Monroe), who finds a deserted purse on the subway one evening after her shift. Wanting to do the right thing, she follows the address on the driver’s license inside and subsequently meets the titular character played by Huppert, a widowed piano teacher who seems plagued by loneliness. The two soon become close but after Frances finds evidence that suggests their initial meeting might not have been as serendipitous as it seemed, Greta becomes obsessed with preserving what she views as their mother-daughter relationship.

It’s vital for a movie like this to have a central character with whom we can empathize as she goes through an increasingly alarming scenario and thankfully, Greta undoubtedly excels in this area. Moretz does a fine job at imbuing Frances with grace and likability right off the bat, while Monroe also continues a nice string of work as a more cynical and savvy counterpart to the naive Frances. But as you may expect, it’s Huppert as the unassuming but deranged Greta who steals the show as she tiptoes and terrorizes her way through a story that isn’t quite deserving of her abundant talents.

The script, co-written by Jordan with Ray Wright, does not feel as fresh as it should for a film of this genre and creates moments that inspire dubious questions in the minds of audience members. For example, if one was alerted to being watched in a crowded public area, why would he or she leave that area to walk alone down a dark alley? Also, if a kidnapper restrained her captive in a bed, why would she place the bed post up against a wall so that visitors could hear the commotion from said bed post? It’s a shame that the plot folds under basic scrutiny from common sense questions like these because a little fine tuning could have eliminated these errors.

Aside from the reckless plotting and glaring issues with many of the decisions made by the characters, there are small delights from a technical aspect that piqued my interest at various points. I appreciated the way Javier Navarrete interpolated the familiar tune of Lizst’s “Liebestraum,” which is played by Greta during her first meeting with Frances, into his tense musical score. Jordan also captures a side of New York that feels more isolated and lonesome than the bustling metropolis we typically see on-screen. Unfortunately, touches like these are simply grace notes to a melody that feels all too familiar and make Greta a fluffy and forgettable thriller.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson, is the latest Marvel movie about an Air Force pilot who gets caught in an intergalactic conflict between two alien worlds.
Arctic, starring Mads Mikkelsen, tells the harrowing story of a man stranded in the Arctic after an airplane crash who must decide whether to remain in his makeshift camp or to embark on a deadly trek through the unknown.
Opening at Cinema Center is Song Of Back And Neck, starring The Office’s Paul Lieberstein and Rosemarie DeWitt, in which a man with chronic muscle pain begins to find relief when new romance enters his life.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

At Eternity’s Gate

Iconic Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh has been the subject of several biopics over the years but none have captured his unique artistry more vividly than the excellent new film At Eternity’s Gate. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly director Julian Schnabel has rendered a portrait of the troubled visionary that is appropriately impressionistic and experimental in ways that Van Gogh himself may well have appreciated. Filled with vibrant landscapes and illuminating dialogue, this is a film that constantly searches for beauty and purity as it investigates the final years of a man who took a similar approach to crafting his own masterworks.

Willem Dafoe lends a committed and impassioned performance as the tormented artist, to whom we’re introduced in 1880s Paris where his impact in the local art community is almost nonexistent. On the suggestion of his pontifical peer Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), Van Gogh relocates to the rural town of Arles in the south of France, thanks to the financial support of his benevolent brother Theo (Rupert Friend). There, Vincent rediscovers the natural landscape and is inspired to create some of his most remarkable paintings but the insurmountable loneliness inevitably takes its toll as his inner demons threaten to get the best of him.

The most bold artistic choices from At Eternity’s Gate come courtesy of cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, who uses unconventional angles and point-of-view shots to share Van Gogh’s perspective with the audience. This unorthodox style may frustrate those looking for a more standard biopic but for me, the use of subjective camera to get inside the headspace of Van Gogh was both engrossing and enlightening. For example, a trip to an art museum, during which Van Gogh confesses in voiceover his reverence for his contemporaries as he gazes upon their works, is shot exclusively from low angles to illustrate how daunted he feels by his peers.

Schnabel, who is credited as a co-writer for the screenplay, also uses thoughtful dialogue to uncover aspects of Van Gogh’s psyche that seem applicable to artists working in any medium. Vincent conveys his compulsion to create to one of his subjects when he remarks “the faster I paint, the better I feel” and while not everyone who makes art does so with as much fervor as Van Gogh, the impulse nonetheless feels universal. In a conversation with a priest played by Mads Mikkelsen, he laments that he feels like a man out of time by suggesting “maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t here yet.”

Portraying such a towering figure in the art history is an unenviable task and despite the age difference between Dafoe and the real-life subject, he crafts a performance that is effortlessly engaging from start to finish. Even though the actor’s portrayals of rage on-screen would seem compatible for an artist prone to fits of madness, Dafoe does an excellent job of sublimating outward anger into a more nuanced form of melancholy that unquestionably inspires empathy from the audience. At Eternity’s Gate is sensitive and exquisite depiction of a troubled master that is made both by artists and for artists.

Score – 4/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
A Madea Family Funeral, starring Tyler Perry and Cassi Davis, is the 11th and reportedly final entry in the popular Madea film series about a Georgia funeral that erupts into chaos as family secrets come to light.
Greta, starring Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz, tells the story of a young woman who becomes intertwined with an eccentric French piano teacher after a chance encounter.
Opening for a limited IMAX engagement is Apollo 11, the documentary that scored rave reviews at Sundance last month which documents the 1969 space mission that landed man on the moon.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Dreamworks closes out an impressively consistent trilogy with How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, another stunningly animated adventure that serves as a fitting conclusion for fans of the series. While the story is a bit more conventional than those of the previous two films, this entry still has all of the elements that made its predecessors successful and adds notes of finality that distinguish it from the rest. Dean DeBlois has returned as the sole writer and director and his commitment to spearheading these projects has resulted in a trio of films that has bypassed the dips in quality that accompany even the most well regarded trilogies.

We return to the Viking village of Berk as the efforts of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his pet dragon Toothless to rescue captured dragons has resulted in their town becoming increasingly overpopulated. As Berk’s head chief, Hiccup makes it his mission to seek out the fabled “Hidden World,” a far away land that could serve as a safe haven for their fire-breathing compatriots. During his journey, Hiccup encounters the treacherous and cunning dragon hunter Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham) as well as a brightly colored dragon nicknamed “Light Fury,” with whom Toothless becomes hopelessly infatuated.

The How To Train Your Dragon series has stood apart from its animated peers mainly due to the quality of its visual sensibility and The Hidden World is no exception to this. The film’s opening, in which Hiccup and his friends ambush a dragon raider’s cove, gets things off to a dazzling start as fire and fog battle in the background while swords clash in the foreground. The growing number of dragons on-screen also allows for creature design that grows richer the more time we spend in this world. But the high point is undoubtedly our first glances of the Hidden World, a bright and vivid landscape that calls back to the groundbreaking CG work of Avatar in the best ways possible.

As stunning as the animation is, the storytelling this time around is not quite up to the standard set by the previous two entries. Despite some deliciously devious voice work from Abraham, it’s difficult to disguise the fact that the villain and his motivations are hardly dissimilar from those of the previous film’s antagonist. Still, the introduction of romantic subplots for both Hiccup and Toothless create opportunities to take the story in both humorous and heartfelt directions. Toothless’ efforts to impress Light Fury with a mating dance result in the film’s biggest laughs while their synchronized movements across the night sky recall the affectionate space dance from Pixar’s WALL-E.

Returning to contribute music to the film, composer John Powell brings back some of the series’ most memorable musical motifs while adding new themes that augment the emotion underneath each of their accompanying scenes. The film also has sonic delights in its accomplished sound design as well, which brings to life the flapping of dozens of dragons’ wings as they maneuver through the air. As a satisfying ending to a family-friendly entertainment that has always had its sights set higher, How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World passes with flying colors.

Score – 3.5/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Fighting with My Family, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Florence Pugh, tells the real life story of professional wrestler Paige as she rises up the ranks of World Wrestling Entertainment.
Run The Race, starring Mykelti Williamson and Frances Fisher, is a faith-based feature co-produced by Tim Tebow about two brothers who overcome hardship both on and off the football field.
Opening at Cinema Center is Academy Award nominee Cold War, a historical period drama from Poland about a musical director who discovers and subsequently falls in love with a young singer.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

My thoughts on the movies