Review – Shazam!

FILM REVIEWSHAZAM! With Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou. Written by Henry Gayden. Directed by David F. Sandberg. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material. 132 minutes.

SHAZAM! is the other Captain Marvel movie out this spring, although the name is not mentioned once. Based on a character created in 1940 but put out of business for infringing on DC’s copyright on Superman, it is a fun entry in the superhero genre that dares touch on the underlying theme of all these films: they’re wish fulfillment for nerdy kids who feel put-upon in real life. (Full disclosure: this reviewer was one of them.)

For those new to the mythology, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a fourteen-year-old kid who keeps running away from foster homes. One day he finds himself meeting a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who transfers his amazing powers to him. When he says “Shazam!” – standing for the powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury – he is transformed into an adult superhero.

Much of the story is how his adult incarnation (Zachary Levi) discovers his powers and figures out what to do with them, getting help from fellow foster child Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) who is obsessed with superheroes. A lot of the things he does are irresponsible and even dangerous, as one might expect from a young teen given limitless power. Slowly, he comes to realize what is important – which is to say, he matures – overcoming his own sad backstory.

The villain here is Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who had the opportunity to take on this role as a kid but proved to be unworthy. Now empowered by embodiments of the “seven deadly sins,” he wants Billy’s powers as well. The tension between them plays out as Sivana is now an actual adult while Billy is only a kid in an adult superhero’s body.

Although arguably too long at 132 minutes (as these superhero movies tend to be), it is an entertaining and action-packed romp that may be one of the best of the DC universe movies. (DC acquired the rights to the character when they prevailed in the Superman copyright suit.) It has genuinely touching character moments, as when Billy reconnects with his mother (Caroline Palmer), as well as a knowing take on the insecurities of adolescence.

There are some winks at comic book lore, from digs at other DC characters to the name of Billy’s high school (Fawcett, the name of the publisher of the original Captain Marvel), but this isn’t a quiz for comic book fans. “Shazam!” is a fun introduction to a new character in the DC cinematic universe, with indications in the closing credits that they’re hoping to launch a new franchise. The success of future films is not guaranteed, but for fans of the superhero genre, this one is worth checking out.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


Review – The Beach Bum

FILM REVIEWTHE BEACH BUM. With Matthew McConaughey, Isla Fisher, Snoop Dogg, Zac Efron, Martin Lawrence. Written and directed by Harmony Korine. Rated R for pervasive drug and alcohol use, language throughout, nudity and some strong sexual content. 95 minutes.

beach_bumWriter-director Harmony Korine’s THE BEACH BUM is the ne plus ultra of “Awlright, awlright, awlright.” The title character – called Moondog by his friends and various law enforcement officials – is a blissed-out manifestation of full-bongo McConaughey-isms. A literary legend married into exorbitant wealth, Moondog now spends his perpetually zonked nights and days crawling the Florida keys as the life of a never-ending party. It’s funny because this is exactly what most us already assume Matthew McConaughey is doing whenever the camera isn’t rolling.

Wearing a raggedy wig, flip-up shades, yellowed teeth and a variety of gaudy swimwear (both men’s and ladies’) that comes in colors with names like “electric volcano,” McConaughey’s Moondog is a gonzo good ol’ boy made up of nothing but sunniness and positive vibes. There are no hangovers, drunken rages nor any ravages of addiction, and nobody even gets angry when he’s late for his daughter’s wedding because he was busy boning the lady at the burger stand. (Playfully spanking her ass with a greasy spatula is the closest the character ever comes to violence.)

Moondog’s many idiosyncrasies and daily infidelities are shrugged off by his ridiculously rich wife (played with a touching wistfulness by Isla Fisher) and the movie’s most romantic interlude finds these two dancing on a dock to Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” The lyrics serve as something like the movie’s mission statement: “If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing/Let’s break out the booze and have a ball/If that’s all there is.”

“The Beach Bum” doesn’t have a plot so much as a series of slight speed bumps that barely slow down our libertine hero’s hedonasistic pursuits. Moondog constantly escapes from any consequences of his actions and accomplishes everything with a comically bare minimum of effort, much to the seething resentment of his long-suffering literary agent (Jonah Hill, doing a cornball Colonel Sanders accent someone really should have talked him out of.)

“Life’s a rodeo,” Moondog explains, “I’m gonna suck the nectar out of it and fuck it rawdog until the wheels come off,” demonstrating a somewhat diminished aptitude for metaphors that nonetheless doesn’t interfere with his poetry winning a Pulitzer Prize. Whether you’ll find this all enormously entertaining or mindlessly monotonous depends on your tolerance for this sort of thing. I had a good time but will admit it makes for a long 95 minutes.

It is a trip to see the Harmony Korine of “Gummo” and “Trash Humpers” working with big movie stars on a broad comedy that plays in shopping malls, while somehow also staying true to his raggedly obnoxious DIY aesthetic. Like its protagonist, “The Beach Bum” exists only in the present tense, with scenes cut on top of each other so that single conversations flow through different setups, locations and time periods like a wastrel’s stream of semi-consciousness.

Yet for as much as the movie has been reverse-engineered from McConaughey’s offscreen persona, I still found myself slightly disappointed in his performance simply because there are no surprises in it. I get that the guy is supposed to just “abide” like Jeff Bridges’ Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” but such a reading willfully overlooks all the pissy little petulant grace notes with which Bridges shaded his now-iconic character. Moondog is missing the undercurrent of malevolence that makes McConaughey so memorable. He’s more appealing when he’s a little dangerous.

The motley supporting cast, however, is superb. “The Beach Bum” boasts shockingly credible turns from both Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Buffett, while Zac Efron is gutbustingly funny as a devout, born-again Christian who runs around committing whatever sins he feels like “because Jesus already died for them.”

Still, the movie’s nearly stolen outright by Martin Lawrence as the aptly named Captain Wack, a dolphin-tour boat proprietor who owns a cocaine-addicted parrot and could stand to brush up a bit on the differences between dorsal fins. Returning from an eight-year hiatus from the big screen, Lawrence isn’t just hilarious here – he seems touchingly invested in the character and his dreams.

Presumably by design, “The Beach Bum” is missing the kamikaze sociopolitical sting of Korine’s last picture, “Spring Breakers.” Hill’s got a terrific line in which he remarks that “the great thing about being rich is that you can be awful to be people and they have to take it.” But the movie is a bit too blissful to venture very far down that road, perhaps out of fear it might cause a hangover in a film that defiantly doesn’t believe in them.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past twenty years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Dumbo

FILM REVIEWDUMBOWith Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin. Written by Ehren Kruger. Directed by Tim Burton. Rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language. 112 minutes.

dumbo_ver2Many movie lovers were skeptical when the Disney studio announced they would start doing live action remakes of their classic animated films. Were they really that desperate for new ideas? What was the point?

And then we started seeing them. “Maleficent” (2014) (telling “Sleeping Beauty” from a decidedly different perspective), “Cinderella” (2015), “The Jungle Book” (2016), and “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) each turned out to be movies that could stand on their own without trashing our memories of the originals. This year, Disney is going all in with live action versions of “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and “Dumbo.” They may not all succeed, but given the studio’s track record with these films, it would be foolish to bet against them.

DUMBO was certainly an odd choice to adapt. The original 1941 cartoon was only 64 minutes long and focused on a mouse mentoring a baby elephant who learns he can fly with his oversized ears. It has a number of elements that wouldn’t pass muster today, from racial stereotyping to a hallucinatory drunk sequence to telling a story of circus animals. It’s been almost two years since the Ringling Bros. circus ended its run, and several states now ban the use of elephants and other wild animals in such performances.

This new version reimagines the story by eliminating the talking animals and instead focusing on the humans with whom Dumbo – a truly impressive bit of CGI – interacts. The story is set just after World War I, with Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returning to the Medici Circus. Things have changed since he went off to fight. His wife died in the flu epidemic, circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) has sold off his horses, and Farrier’s career as a trick rider will have to adapt to his having lost an arm in the war. His two children, Milly (Nico Parker, whose real-life mother is Thandie Newton) and Joe (Finlay Hobbins) are soon taken by the birth of a baby elephant whose oversize ears make subject him to ridicule.

When they discover he can fly, it puts the Medici Circus on the map, attracting the attention of smarmy businessman V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who wants his latest girlfriend, Colette Marchant (Eva Green), to ride Dumbo at Dreamland, his circus/amusement park. How the story plays out very much fits in with modern sensibilities, although it should be noted that this is the second recent Disney release, after “Ralph Wrecks the Internet,” that satirizes part of the Disney empire. Anyone who has been to a Disney theme park will recognize the funhouse mirror elements reflected here.

Director Tim Burton is known for his unique visual style, and he gets to go to town here. He’s also comfortable mixing his real actors with his computer animated star in such a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. The cast hits all the right notes, from Farrell’s sympathetic veteran trying to readjust to DeVito and Keaton offering differing images of sleazy owners, where you’re not quite sure how either is going to turn out. Green’s aerialist also wrestles with ambiguity until she finally takes sides. Parker and Hobbins hold their own among the adult talent and special effects, providing an anchor for the young viewers who will undoubtedly flock to this film.

Over the years this reviewer has noted certain “family films” as ones where the parents ought to flip a coin with the loser having to take their offspring to the movies. Not this time –– “Dumbo” is a movie that everyone can enjoy.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Us

FILM REVIEWUSWith Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex. Written and directed by Jordan Peele. Rated R for violence/terror, and language. 118 minutes.

us_ver3Jordan Peele’s first film, “Get Out” (2017) was one of those rare movies where everyone – audiences and critics alike – realized we were seeing something special. Known primarily as a comic performer (from his work with Keegan-Michael Key), he amazed everyone with a masterfully told horror story that turned out to be more than just a series of shocks. It’s a tough film to top.

US is a very good horror film – there’s no “sophomore slump” in effect here – but it lacks the heft of “Get Out.” It also shows that while Peele’s talent is still impressive, he’s not quite able to put over every plot twist. That’s not a slam. Alfred Hitchcock didn’t score every time either. “Us” shows that Peele is a talented writer/director who will continue to demand attention, and hopefully learned something in the process of making his second film.

The premise is a spin on a familiar horror trope, the discovery that there are doppelgängers (i.e., duplicates) who are ready and eager to replace their originals. As a young girl, Adelaide confronts one such twin at a beachside amused park. The experience so traumatized her that, years later, her husband’s desire (Winston Duke) that they go that very beach while on vacation triggers a bout of anxiety.

One night the Wilson family (including Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex as the kids) notice there’s four people standing in their driveway. In something out of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” they are seeming clones. Each of the duplicates (played by the same actors) is scary in their own way, and for a while each of the Wilsons has to fight back on their own.

Peele ups the ante when we discover that the Wilson’s situation is not unique, as them try to figure out how to survive. As with “Get Out,” the horror is mixed with satiric humor. There are genuine laughs here mixed with equally genuine scares. There are also shots that – after two films – seem to be a Peele signature: a closeup of a frightened face with tears running down it.

While there are some amusing/scary moments with Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker as friends of the family, the focus is on the four Wilsons. Lupita Nyong’o notches another memorable role as the two characters vying for her life, and Duke has his moments as the laid-back father trying to cope with the situation. The children are also effective, with Joseph especially scary as the smiling double of daughter Zora.

Where the film stumbles is in trying to wrap it up. The explanation of how these doubles came to be makes little sense, and the payoff makes no sense at all. Indeed, it seems to undercut what we’ve already seen. There’s several twists, as well as a bizarre take on the 1986 stunt “Hands Across America,” which may not resonate for younger viewers. Peele seems to be stretching to find some way to shock the audience late in the film as opposed to coming up with a coherent conclusion to his story.

“Us” may be flawed, but it’s well worth seeing. Indeed, if this had been Peele’s first film, we’d be proclaiming him a talent to watch. It’s only because he’s already done “Get Out” that some viewers may be left with the feeling that it’s a film that falls short.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Starfish

FILM REVIEWSTARFISHWith Virginia Gardner, Christina Masterson, Eric Beecroft, Natalie Mitchell, Shannon Hollander. Written and directed by A.T. White. Not Rated. 99 minutes.

starfish_ver2If you think it’s difficult to craft a film in hopes that it will be a blockbuster hit, it’s even harder if your goal is to create something that will be an enduring cult favorite. That means it’s okay if the film doesn’t appeal to general audiences, but it has to generate a fervor among its fans that will make them want to watch it again and again. Movies as different as “Casablanca,” “Harold and Maude,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and “Repo! The Genetic Opera,” have their followings, but there are others that either failed to reach a critical mass or sank without a trace.

Whether STARFISH will succeed remains to be seen. It has a showing at midnight, March 16 (i.e., Saturday night) at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline with writer/director A. T. White in attendance. This ought to indicate that even the theater operators understand this will appeal not only to a select audience, but to those young and/or hardy enough to go to a movie that first starts at midnight.

It begins when Aubrey (Virginia Gardner of “Runaways”) is attending the memorial service for her friend Grace (Christina Masterson). She’s distraught for reasons that are never entirely clear beyond the fact that she’s lost a close friend. She ends up breaking into Grace’s apartment and spending the night there, apparently as part of her mourning process. Then it gets strange, and it’s here where the cultists will engage and everyone else will be checking their watches and eying the exits.

Aubrey discovers that a.) much of humanity has disappeared and b.) weird creatures have arrived on Earth. Some sort of signal seems to be opening “gates” between our world and some other dimension, allowing these creatures through. Aubrey discovers that Grace has hidden a series of mix tapes that include these signals, and she now tries to find them all. The bulk of the film consists of Aubrey searching for the tapes, avoiding the monsters, and mourning the loss of her friend. The connection between these three things is tenuous at best and isn’t helped by the film’s jumping around in space and time. At various times Aubrey finds herself falling through midair, sinking underwater, turned into an animated character, and even discovering that she’s on location for the movie “Starfish.”

For those ready to join the nascent cult, these are profound and evocative moments that invite viewers to speculate as to their meaning. For most viewers – including this one – this is utter nonsense, not very interesting, and one pushing you to disengage unless you’re committed to watching until the end. To be fair, there are similar films to which this reviewer is very much part of the fan base, so it’s ultimately a matter of taste whether you can connect with the material or not.

“Starfish” is a film with a very limited audience, but it’s worth noting that Gardner – who spends most of the film utterly alone – manages to keep her character engaging even if the material is less so. The film’s distributors already know what they up against. They’ve announced that the film goes to Video on Demand on May 28.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Alita: Battle Angel

FILM REVIEWALITA: BATTLE ANGELWith Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Jackie Earle Haley. Written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis and Robert Rodriguez. Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language. 122 minutes.

alita_battle_angel_ver3For those who saw “Terminator 2” (1991) on its original release, there was a moment that changed everything. Robert Patrick, as the film’s villainous T-1000 cyborg, is in pursuit of our heroes when he finds his way blocked by bars… and so he oozes through them, re-forming on the other side. It wasn’t the first use of CGI special effects, but it was like nothing we had ever seen on screen, at least in a live action film. It looked so real it was hard to believe it wasn’t.

The film’s director was James Cameron whose subsequent films continued to push the technological limits of what’s possible to do on film. For ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, he’s handed the directorial reins over to Robert Rodriguez, although remaining as one of the film’s producers and sharing screenwriting credit with Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis. This science fiction action film should engage fans of the genre, but all movie lovers will want to take note of the eye-popping breakthrough that is center stage.

Based on the popular Japanese manga (their version of comic books), Alita (Rosa Salazar) awakens in the home of Dr. Dyson Ido (Christopher Waltz). It’s a post-apocalyptic world where the privileged live in a flying city and everyone else – like Ido – tries to survive down below. One of the things he does is pick through the huge trash mounds of things dumped from up above, where he discovers a partial cyborg with its brain intact. He uses this as a basis to revive her only to discover she has no memory of who she is or where she comes from.

The story that ensues is one of self-discovery, with the help of Ido and a new friend Hugo (Keann Johnson). She also comes to the attention of Vector (Mahershala Ali), a shady and powerful figure, and Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), who happens to be Ido’s ex-wife. As the title suggests, Alita soon discovers not only things like chocolate, but that she seems to have been programmed with incredible fighting skills. This leads to action scenes involving increasingly bizarre cyborgs, including the monstrous Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley).

Beyond the world-building, including a sporting event that seems like a cross between “Rollerball” and “Tron,” what’s notable about the film is Alita herself. The first thing you’ll notice is her outsized eyes, a nod to her origins in manga where characters are often drawn that way. The second thing you may not notice at all, and that’s why this film is a special effects landmark. The Alita we see run and fight and even engage in a soulful kiss is a computer construct. Rosa Salazar wore equipment that captured not only her physical movements, but her voice and facial expressions, so that the performance is wholly hers, but the character we see on screen owes as much to computer animation as the characters in “Toy Story.”

What they seem to have conquered is what’s known as “the uncanny valley,” which refers to artificial constructs becoming more disturbing the more realistic they seem to be. A good example of this is “The Polar Express” (2004), an animated film in which the performances were generated through motion capture technology, and which left many people creeped out at the soulless homunculi who appeared on screen. The key seems to be the eyes. When motion capture is used to create imaginary creatures – Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” or the Na’vi in “Avatar” – it doesn’t seem to be a problem.
Perhaps it’s Alita’s large eyes that helps to avoid the problem but watching “Alita” you have no reason to doubt that she’s as real as anyone else on screen.

“Alita” gives us a heroine to cheer on, and a breakthrough in special effects that amazes.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Captain Marvel

FILM REVIEWCAPTAIN MARVELWith Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening. Written by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet. Directed by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language. 124 minutes.

captain_marvel_ver2When we last saw Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) at the end of “Avengers: Infinity War,” he had just sent out an emergency message to Captain Marvel before he joined half of humanity in disintegrating into dust. In CAPTAIN MARVEL, the character is finally introduced in what is the 21st entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) so that she will be able to play a role in the upcoming throwdown, “Avengers: Endgame.” Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the incredible planning that has gone into a series that has been rolling out for more than a decade, with standalone movies still feeding into an overall storyline.

Vers (Brie Larson) is part of a team led by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) on behalf of the Kree, who are in a galactic battle with the Skrll, shapeshifters who are identified as terrorists. In a lengthy prologue, the Kree try to rescue an undercover agent on a remote world only find out it’s a trap with Vers being captured. She escapes – obviously, or there would be no movie – and lands on Earth, awaiting rescue.

Here two things happen, after which no more will be revealed about the plot. First, it’s 1995, which means it takes place long before the events of the last Avengers event movie, “Infinity War.” It’s also allows a running joke about 1995 technology, from her arrival at a Blockbuster video store to trying to use an Alta Vista search engine. Second, her arrival brings out a young Nick Fury and his junior partner Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). Through Hollywood digital magic, both seamlessly appear as much younger versions of themselves.

Soon Vers and Fury are trying to escape the Skrll as well as find out information relating to Vers’ past, as it seems she originated on Earth, not among the Kree. For those who don’t already know the story from the comics, the plot has several twists and turns as Vers becomes increasingly aware of her powers and what she is capable of becoming. For those who want to see this as a metaphor for female empowerment, it is a much more interesting and satisfying film than “Wonder Woman” (2017), not to take anything away from Gal Gadot’s star-making turn in that role.

As Vers, Larson has to play a character who is both reclaiming her past and discovering her future. It’s a surprisingly complex role which may be why some of the fan base has been put off by it, and yet she nails it while keeping with the sometimes snarky sense of humor that is the hallmark of the Marvel movies. Jackson looks like he’s having a great time, as we learn a bit about Fury’s backstory. Watch his scenes with Goose the cat, which play out unexpectedly.

In addition to Jude Law, the film also has strong performance from Ben Mendelsohn as Talos (under a lot of Skrll makeup), and Annette Bening in another complicated role that can’t be explained without giving too much away. There’s also a cameo by Marvel creator Stan Lee, filmed before his death last year, that’s perfectly appropriate for 1995.

“Captain Marvel” not only succeeds in its own right, but – with the two closing tags in the end credits – ought to gin up anticipation for “Endgame.” And in case you were wondering, that film opens April 26.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.