Reel Opinions


Saturday, April 27, 2019

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame is bound to be a pop culture event, much the way the original Star Wars was all the way back in 1977, or the very first Jurassic Park in 1993.  It is not simply a sensational entertainment, although it certainly is that.  It is also not simply a "comic book movie".  It is ambitious beyond belief, emotional, a joy to watch, and the kind of movie that young kids who watch it today will remember where they were when they first saw it years from now. 

That's the kind of movie-going experience that money can't buy, and this movie is more than worthy of delivering it.  This is not just a continuation of last year's Avengers: Infinity War, but it is the climax to the entire first 11 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Yes, that is a tall order, and what directors Anthony and Joe Russo have done is not only tie everything up to now up, but do so in a way that is impressive, surprisingly poignant, and exciting as hell.  There has never been a superhero movie quite like this one, no not even last year's Avengers.  I doubt there can be one like it ever again.  Even though Marvel will continue making movies off of their vast library of characters, I imagine they will never be able to recapture the thrill of creating a Cinematic Universe, something that had never really been attempted or accomplished before.  The way they have handled this whole series, and now this climax to the original cast of characters, they make it look effortless.

I'm sure by now you've heard that the movie is three hours long.  Not only does it earn its length, but it doesn't even feel that long while you're watching it.  There's barely a stumble, and never a dull moment as the movie juggles well over a dozen characters, multiple plotlines, and giving the inhumanly huge cast their chance to shine.  The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is incredibly smart.  It's paced beautifully, offers plenty of opportunities for humor without cheapening the drama of the situation, and constantly seems to be changing tone without ever missing a beat.  The constant change in tone is inevitable, as this brings all of the Marvel Movies up to now into one grand production.  And since each individual movie and series had its own style and tone, the way the movie juggles this constantly is a thing of beauty to watch. 

And then there is the direction by the Russo Brothers, which really cannot be denied.  The way they have pulled off this entire spectacle is something to behold.  They have juggled the varied tones of the wide range of franchises they had to include in one movie with grace, and they have got the best performances possible out of a cast that is daunting when you think about it, and even more so when you read how long the list of names are during the end credits.  This was an extremely delicate balancing act, the likes of which no filmmaker had ever attempted before.  I really do think that everyone involved with this whole Universe up to now deserves some kind of special recognition, as this is something that had never been attempted before, and not only have they succeeded beautifully, they surpass expectations.

But this goes beyond a spectacle.  It is also filled with a lot of small, intimate and human moments that are powerful and effective.  All your favorites like Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) are here, along with a ton of others.  In my personal opinion, it is Dr. Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) who steals a lot of the show here.  All of them are coping with the events of Infinity War in their own way.  Some are holding out hope, some have moved on, and some are wallowing in depression.  I'll leave it to you to find out who is doing what.  We get to see a world after the biggest loss in superhero history, when Thanos (Josh Brolin) ended 50% of all life on Earth with just a snap of his fingers.  And yes, Thanos does still look like the bizarre alien offspring of Bruce Willis.  Regardless, there may still be a way for the heroes to strike back, which again, I will leave you to discover for yourself when you see it. (Not if you see it, mind you.  When.)

But the movie is not just about the continuing war against Thanos.  It is about the various heroes dealing with themselves, coping with loss, and discovering the best way to go about their plan to combat the threat.  That is truly what makes Endgame so engaging.  There are multiple character-building moments here, and scenes that are bound to deeply touch the hearts of just about anyone who has been following these movies from the beginning.  This is not just a blockbuster, but a study of these characters we have grown to love.  And when these characters reach their respective conclusions and endings, it feels earned.  This is the rare superhero movie that can be as moving as just about any drama.  As always, there will be no spoilers here.  I truly hope that you can avoid any and all talk about this movie before you watch it.  Trust me, it is worth the effort.

So yes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will continue.  And yes, Endgame will shatter any and all box office records in the days and weeks to come.  But this time, it's all worth it and then some.  Whatever you think of the Marvel films, or superhero movies in general, set aside all your expectations.  This is an experience to be savored, and one to be viewed multiple times.  For those of you who have loved these movies, this will be one to treasure.  For those of you who love the comics as well as the movies, this will be Nirvana. 

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Sunday, April 21, 2019

Teen Spirit

Teen Spirit, the directing debut of actor Max Minghella, follows a very familiar story path, with absolutely no deviations.  It's yet another one of those movies where you could conceivably walk out of the theater, do something else for a half hour or so, and then walk back in, and probably be able to figure out everything that has happened while you were out.  What the film lacks in creativity, however, it makes up in the fact that we find ourselves genuinely caring about the main characters.  Minghella clearly loves the people in his story, and he makes sure that we do also.

With this film (which Minghella also wrote the screenplay), he basically uses the template for your standard underdog story.  In this case, the person we want to see rise above it all is Violet (Elle Fanning), a sensitive and somewhat shy British teenager living in a small island village with her Polish immigrant mother (Agnieszka Grochowska).  She does chores around the family farm, and sings at the local church choir, but her real dream is to be a pop star one day.  As is often the case in these movies, mom doesn't understand her dreams, so Violet has to frequently sneak out to sing at a local bar when she can.  She begins hearing about how a TV singing competition show called Teen Spirit is going to be holding auditions.  She wants to try out, but she's only 17, and needs an adult guardian to accompany her.  And since her mom would never allow it, she turns to an unlikely friend who supports her dream.

This would be Vlad (Zlatko Buric), an alcoholic old man who used to be a great opera singer in his younger years.  In appearance, he kind of resembles a slovenly and disheveled Albert Einstein.  They meet one night when Vlad hears Violet perform at the bar, and they strike up a friendship.  He agrees to clean up his act, become her manager, and help her with her singing so that she can impress the judges, and make it to the final competition in London.  There are the usual hurdles on the road to victory for our young dreamer, including bullies who will tease her for following her fantasy, the disapproving parent, and other people who probably don't have Violet's best interest in mind, and try to steer her off her path.  But, we kind of know right from the start that it will all be alright.  If you've set foot in a movie theater the past 40 years, you definitely will.

Even so, judged by the standards of your average underdog movie, Teen Spirit is pretty laid back.  There's not really a villain here who is trying to completely stop Violet from getting what she wants.  All of the hurdles I mentioned above are pretty much pit stops in the script, rather than a genuine threat toward the young heroine's dream.  What got me invested in the story is the sweet relationship that is built between Violet and Vlad.  They make up the heart of the film, and it was enough to carry me through.  Fanning and Buric create a likable chemistry together, and are also giving fine individual performances.  Another key feature that the movie gets right is the singing.  Elle Fanning had to perform all of her own music in the film, and while she doesn't have a standout voice, she is still great, and handles the large number of songs the film throws at her quite well.  The important thing is that we believe she could make it as far as she does on the singing competition.

Would it have been nice if this movie had been a bit more ambitious, and not so formulaic?  Absolutely.  Still, I am a firm believer in that a movie doesn't have to be wholly original in order to be good.  All it has to do is make us care about its characters and be invested in them, and that's exactly what Minghella has done.  Even if I knew where it was going every step of the way, I still found myself wanting to see Violet succeed, and caring about her friendship with Vlad whenever it became threatened.  This is one of those films that won't blow anyone away, and I highly doubt anyone will go out of their way to watch it.  But, it does its job well, and it will probably speak loudly to some young girls around the main character's age who have the same dream. 

Teen Spirit probably won't stick out in anyone's mind for long after they've watched it, but I enjoyed it while it was playing out.  It's the kind of movie you might discover on TV one night, and find yourself more hooked in than you initially thought.

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Friday, April 19, 2019

The Curse of La Llorona

Even if it's not being advertised as such in the trailers, The Curse of La Llorona is the latest entry in the expanding Conjuring Cinematic Universe.  The head mind behind the franchise, James Wan, is the lead producer, and the movie shares his love for atmospheric horror based in a 1970s setting.  Even the infamous Annabelle doll makes a brief cameo, and there is a callback to one of the earlier films.  Compared to some of the other entries in the series, this is a passable installment that doesn't do anything wrong, but never truly stands out.  It will provide some quick jolts for jumpy teens, and that's it.

At the very least, the movie has an interesting angle that held my attention.  The story of La Llorona, or "The Weeping Woman", is a Mexican folk tale of a beautiful woman married to a wealthy and powerful man who was driven to madness when she found her husband was unfaithful, and out of despair, she drowned their two children in a nearby river.  When she realized what she had done, she took her own life, and she now haunts the streets, looking for children to snatch away from unsuspecting parents.  It's a good idea to build a horror film around, and it's too bad the movie doesn't rely more on the story than it does.  What's here is good enough, but the creepy story promises so much more.  Here, the evil spirit (played by Marisol Ramirez) mostly pops up a lot and screams at the camera, before disappearing again.  When you consider the tragic and terrifying angle this movie could have gone with, it feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity.

Still, director Michael Chaves does create a very strong foreboding atmosphere, and he throws in a lot of effective period details of the time the story is set in, without being distracting.  His story focuses on a widowed social worker named Anna (Linda Cardellini), who is raising two kids (Jaynee-Lynn Kinchen and Roman Christou) on her own after her police officer husband was killed in the line of duty a year ago.  On her latest case, she investigates two children who seem to be abused and locked away by their mother (Patricia Velasquez), who claims that she is trying to protect them from the spirit of La Llorona.  The children are separated, but both turn up dead from drowning, even with their mother locked away.  As Anna tries to investigate the truth behind the murder and the story behind the spirit, she inadvertently winds up putting the lives of her own kids in danger from the ghost, and must now seek help from the church to battle the evil that is haunting her home.

Much like the last Conjuring spin off we got, The Nun, this is a movie that is rich in colors, detail and period settings, but the story never quite builds to the momentum that we hope for.  I was never bored, but I also felt like the whole thing should have been more successful.  The movie is at its best when it is building tension, but the payoff is never as good as it should be.  Like I said, the movie basically treats the titular spirit as a jump scare machine, rather than the sad, tortured and twisted ghoul that she needs to be in order to truly get under the audience's skin.  But what seems worse to me is how the screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (Five Feet Apart) throws in so many moments where characters have to act clueless in order for a scene to happen or continue.  It gets annoying, as is a major plot hole that occurs near the end of the film, where a major character simply disappears from a scene without any explanation as to why, or even what happened to them.

And yet, I found quite a few things to admire here.  I liked all of the performances, many of whom are giving these characters more life than they probably had on the page.  I especially enjoyed Raymond Cruz as the man the family turns to to combat the evil spirit.  He brings a certain sense of humor to his performance, and it's a shame that the movie waits so long to introduce him into the story, as I wanted to see more of him.  Linda Cardellini, as always, is effective as the mother trying to protect her children, but I'm kind of disappointed seeing her stuck in yet another "mom" role, which seems to be what she's being mostly cast as the past few years.  I wish she would branch out a little.  Regardless, the performances, combined with the film's strong visuals, kept my attention, even if I was conscious about the film's problems.

The Curse of La Llorona could have and should have been a lot creepier, but what's here does work to a certain extent.  Not enough that I can give it a full recommendation, but I also can't say I regret watching it.  If you want an atmospheric horror movie where you don't have to do a lot of thinking, it will probably do the trick.  But James Wan and his team can do a lot better, and likely will soon.

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Sunday, April 14, 2019

Little

In Little, we get the story about a young girl who was bullied back in school, grows up to be a bully herself as an adult, and then is magically transformed back into a kid, so she can learn to be a nicer person.  It's a movie where the poster and the trailer tells you everything you need to know.  There are no surprises here.

The concept for the film was dreamed up by 14-year-old TV star Marsai Martin, who plays the little girl version of the main character.  She even got an Executive Producer credit on the film, making her the youngest ever in history to earn the credit.  This behind the scenes story is probably more interesting than anything that happens in the movie itself, which is often the case.  The movie never offends, but it often feels very basic.  We get another message about how we need to be nicer to other people, thrown in with scenes of over the top comedy where the cast bug out their eyes and wave their arms frantically.  It kind of wants to be a cross between The Devil Wears Prada, and the Tom Hanks comedy fantasy Big.  It lacks the mean streak of the first film it wishes to emulate, and the whimsy and humor of the second.  We have yet another movie that is content simply with being nice, and doesn't want to ruffle any feathers, or give the audience something to chew on.

The movie introduces us to Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall), the 38-year-old head of a massive tech company who is controlling, obsessive compulsive, and frequently domineering to her employees, and basically everyone in her life.  She particularly enjoys browbeating her long-suffering personal assistant, April (Issa Rae).  Both Hall and Rae play their roles to over the top extremes, acting like exasperated cartoon caricatures of a boss and employee relationship.  One day, Jordan crosses path with a little girl who hangs around a donut truck that happens to be adept at magic tricks.  The girl casts a spell on Jordan, saying she wishes she was her age, and when Jordan wakes up the next morning, she's suddenly 13-years-old again, and is played by young Ms. Martin.

For the remainder of the film, April will have to pass herself off as Jordan's adult figure, while taking over the company.  She also will have to track down that magical little girl again somehow, so the spell can be reversed. (A plot point that is stressed early on, but never comes up again until the third act.) As for Jordan, she is forced to go back to school, where she befriends some nice kids who are constantly bullied, and becomes the target of bullies herself.  All of this is told with as little imagination as possible.  It's like the filmmakers knew what kind of notes they wanted to hit, but their hearts just weren't really into it.  We also get a lot of subplots and characters that never really go anywhere, such as the young Jordan being attracted to her new teacher.  It also likes to fall back on crowd-pleasing elements, such as a musical numbers to pad out the running time. 

Nothing really builds in Little.  Each scene is like its own little TV sitcom, and it never quite meshes.  We sure do get a lot of plot, though.  The tech company is in danger of losing one of its biggest clients, and April needs to come up with an app to impress them.  The unpopular kids at Jordan's school want to perform a song and dance number at the talent show, but the mean kids just want to laugh at them.  Jordan has a guy in her life, but she's too busy to commit.  The screenplay can never seem to focus on one story or goal for very long.  It also can't decide if it wants to follow Jordan or April, so it tries to split the difference, and both characters end up suffering.  It never settles on a tone, a lead character, or a purpose, so it just ends up jumping around, not really sure what it's doing.

I don't want to discourage young Marsai Martin from trying to break into Hollywood.  Just maybe next time team up with some adults who know how to craft a decent story and characters.  She actually manages to outdo some of her adult co-stars with her performance, so she should definitely keep trying.  If she can align herself with a better script, she could be a force to be reckoned with.

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Missing Link

The Oregon-based animation studio, Laika, has built a reputation over the years for making outside the box-thinking stop motion animation films.  Their past efforts like Coraline or ParaNorman were spooky kid adventures that packed some genuine thrills, while their last film, Kubo and the Two Strings, was an epic adventure that was just as exciting for adults, if not more so, than it was for kids.  Anyone expecting this kind of filmmaking in their latest effort, Missing Link, might be disappointed.  This is a laid back, sweet-natured and gentle buddy comedy.  It has a lot of heart, some big laughs, and the trademark art and style that Laika always brings to their productions.  It simply doesn't stand out quite as much as their past offerings.

Writer-director Chris Butler (the previously mentioned ParaNorman) seems to be taking inspiration from Britain's Aardman Studio (Wallace & Gromit), as he has brought a very dry and subtle wit here.  There is little to no over the top gags here.  Rather, the humor comes from the witty back-and-forth banter the two main heroes share throughout the adventure.  Our lead hero is Sir Lionel Frost (voice by Hugh Jackman), a Victorian England adventurer who has made it his mission to track down the fabled creatures of the world.  As the film opens, he succeeds in uncovering the Loch Ness Monster, but his camera is destroyed in the process, so he has no evidence, and his assistant walks out on him after the Monster tries to eat him, and Lionel had to save him.  ("Ah!  It's a carnivore!", Lionel says astutely when the creature initially chomps down on his friend.) His goal is to be accepted into the crusty old members-only explorer's club, who frequently ridicule Lionel's missions.  But when he receives a letter leading him to the Pacific Northwest where there appears to be evidence of the elusive Sasquatch, Lionel thinks he's finally found his way into the club.

Turns out the letter was written by the Sasquatch itself.  Yes, the beast can read and write, and knows of Lionel's adventures from newspaper articles.  He wanted Lionel to find him so that he could possibly help him find others of his kind, which are believed to exist in the Himalayas, in the fabled mountain kingdom of Shangri-La.  The Sasquatch can also talk, and has been given a somewhat sweetly naive and big-hearted personality by Zach Galifianakis, who not only provides the voice of the monster, but many of the film's biggest laughs with his innocently deadpan humor and line delivery.  Knowing that the discovery of not just one, but an entire society of fabled creatures, could launch him into the fame he desires, Lionel agrees to lead the Sasquatch to his destination.  Lionel names his new companion "Mr. Link", as he is the missing link between man and beast, but the creature honestly prefers to be called "Susan".

They are eventually joined by another companion, the feisty Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), who is the widow of another adventurer who once possessed a map to Shangri-La.  Adelina and Lionel used to be a couple once long ago, until their differing views on adventure and fame tore them apart.  Also on their trail is the villainous Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), a slimy hit man who has been hired by someone at the explorer's club to make sure that Lionel does not succeed.  The globe-trotting aspect of the story is easily the best aspect of the film, as it allows the artists at Laika the chance to create some truly stunning model sets representing the vast corners of the world.  As with all of their films, make sure you sit through the end credits so you can watch some behind the scenes footage on how some of the more complex scenes were accomplished using just stop motion models and puppets, along with some added CG.  The movie is a wonder to watch, and the effort of the various artists and designers comes through in every frame.

However, at least this time around, the story is not what we have come to expect from the studio.  Usually, they have been able to craft an equally grand plot to go along with the visuals, but Missing Link is not really interested in creating an adventure story.  Oh, there are some action sequences, such as a bar fight, or a particularly impressive escape from a ship in the middle of a raging storm.  But, this movie is not really built around its plot, and rather on the dialogue and relationship between the three main adventurers.  This gives the film an overly calm and kind of talky vibe that may cause the littlest members of the audience to fidget in their seats.  The movie is not really all that long, and it flows well enough, but the plot and the adventure itself never really grabs our attention.  Also unlike past Laika productions, the story never really tugs at our hearts or draws out any emotion.  We like these characters, and there are quite a few genuine laughs, but they never really get to develop and grow like we want them to.

Were this just your average CG animated kids film, Missing Link might have seemed kind of standard.  But, because of the beautiful and detailed stop motion work, as well as the attention to detail in the sets and the tiny costumes, we are enraptured by the experience of watching it.  I don't want you to get the wrong idea and think I was disappointed with the film, as it is very funny and sweet.  I just have a certain amount of expectations when it comes to Laika.  This is a fine film, it just does not equal their past successes. 

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Saturday, April 13, 2019

After

After started out as a romantic fan-fiction story centered around an innocent college girl having a fling with one of the members of the music group, One Direction.  It then found a life of its own, as it was published into a series of books that I have never heard of, but the poster for this movie promises is a "best-selling worldwide phenomenon".  Now we have a movie, which is a dull and lifeless string of teen drama cliches joined together to create a loose narrative, and characters who are so flat, calling them cardboard would be an insult to perfectly good packing material.

I get that this is supposed to be a wish fulfillment fantasy for teen girls, but are they really taken in by stuff this weak?  I'm going to have to give the original novel the benefit of the doubt, because if it's anything like the film adaptation, it must not take much for young girls to swoon.  What we have here is a story as old as the hills, where a nice young girl falls for the mysterious bad boy, and finds out he's much more sensitive and romantic than he first appears.  The "One Direction" angle has been dropped, and instead we have Tessa (Josephine Langford) as the good girl, and the wonderfully-named Hardin (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, nephew of Ralph Fiennes) in the role of the dreamy bad boy who speaks with a British accent, has tattoos, wears black all the time, and likes to quote and wax poetic about classic literature.  In other words, he's the kind of "bad boy" you would see on a Disney Channel drama.  The fact that the movie asks us to take him seriously is the first of its many severe miscalculations. 

The movie opens with Tessa arriving at college, with her overly protective mom (Selma Blair), and her longtime boyfriend, Noah (Dylan Arnold), who is still in high school, so Tessa will not have him to protect her from the horrors of college life.  What horrors do I speak of?  Well, the moment Tessa's mom lays eyes on her daughter's new free-spirited lesbian roommate (Khadijha Red Thunder), she's about ready to turn right around and pull her out of school.  Tessa calms her mom down (Noah doesn't seem to care, or rather, is written as being too oblivious to care.), and she begins her new life.  Not long after, she runs into the mysterious and brooding Hardin.  They're obviously meant to repel from each other almost from the second they meet.  He criticizes Tessa's favorite book, Pride and Prejudice, and says he doesn't believe in love.  He wears Ramones T-shirts, while she dresses like a conservative peasant girl in a Disney animated musical.  They clearly have nothing in common.

But then, almost on a whim, Hardin takes Tess to his "secret spot" - a secluded lake where he likes to go swimming.  She joins him, and before long, they are making longing glances at one another, and she is letting him touch her in ways that her boyfriend, Noah, never did or could.  Is it love, or is it simply lust?  Honestly, the way the characters are written, I can't tell.  Besides, the movie is too busy putting the young lovers in non-stop music montage sequences for us to care.  But, Hardin does have a secret, naturally.  He doesn't have a very good relationship with his father (Peter Gallagher), and holds a grudge when his dad decides to get married again.  Again, the movie doesn't create much dramatic weight about this, but then, it doesn't create much weight at all.  This is one of those movies where nothing really ever seems to be at stake, so the audience wonders why they're supposed to care.

I would say that After goes through the motions, but that would require the movie to actually be going somewhere.  This movie is so desperate to create drama, it has to force it into its own storyline.  At one point, Tessa's mom walks in on Hardin and her daughter being intimate in bed, and she immediately shuns the young man, and threatens to cut her daughter off financially unless she breaks up with him.  Never mind the fact that there has been no build up to this, nor has her mom spoken hardly a word to this young man.  She just knows by looking at him that he is trouble, and will hurt Tessa one day.  Characters act like total idiots at every opportunity, or the situations are written so broadly, they come across as farce.  And yet, I'm afraid the filmmakers think they're making a serious-minded drama about young forbidden love here. 

The movie's main selling point to its young female audience is supposed to be the love scenes where Tessa opens sexually to Hardin's "charms", but since the movie is rated PG-13, we don't get very much here.  And since every bit of love making (usually shot in extreme close ups) or romantic interlude is scored to bland pop music, they become scenes that we want to get over with, rather than anticipate.  The title of the movie is supposed to refer to the fact that everything in Tessa's life changed after she met Hardin, but since the sexual tension is never given a chance to rise, it never gets to create any significant meaning.  As for the young lovers themselves, they are essentially cyphers written so broadly that any young girl watching can fantasize themselves being in Tessa's position. 

After is simply the latest in a long line of failed teen romance adaptations that are meant to kick start a film franchise (apparently, there are five books in this series).  So why did the filmmakers play it so bland and safe here?  Better to make a racy movie that young girls can talk about, rather than one that is so blatantly a lifeless attempt at paying tribute to other movies.  If you're not going to be original, at least be sexy.  This movie does neither.

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Friday, April 12, 2019

Hellboy

So, the behind the scenes story of this reboot of the Hellboy film series goes like this.  Apparently, Academy Award-winning director, Guillermo del Toro, was interested in making a third entry in his original film series, which has been left somewhat open-ended since 2008's Hellboy II: The Golden Army.  However, for whatever reason, an agreement was never reached, and the studio instead decided to go with director Neil Marshall, whose experience behind the camera mostly lies in television.  If this is true, then the studio only has themselves to blame for the movie that we got.

Marshall's take on the character (who started life in the comic books by Mike Mignola) is a spectacle of nothingness.  Its incessantly loud, overlong, frequently confuses blood-soaked action scenes for tension, as well as boring scenes of exposition for character development.  It's a real splitting headache of a movie, as it seems to think cranking up the volume and blasting rock music on the soundtrack is the same thing as building excitement in the audience.  Compared to the earlier two movies that del Toro made (which were steeped in a kind of mythos, and eventually made us care about its odd cast of demons, psychics and fish-men), this seems like a cruel joke being played on the audience that is designed to deaden the imagination.  In this day and age when comic book movies are almost routinely some of the better blockbusters out there, this is like a throwback to when Hollywood didn't know what to do with these weird characters.

Not only has del Toro been cut from the film franchise, but so has the star of the earlier films, Ron Perlman, who gave the character of Hellboy a kind of gruff likability.  In his place is David Harbour (from TV's Stranger Things), and while he definitely is trying, he doesn't come close to making the titular demon as human as Perlman did.  But can you really blame him when he's saddled with Andrew Cosby's chaotic and underwritten script?  The idea behind the character of Hellboy is that he is a creature who doesn't belong in our world, but desperately wants to.  He protects humanity from the paranormal evils that threaten it, and he's good at his job, but he'd really like the chance to just kick back, chill, and be accepted, despite his monstrous appearance.  We don't get that sense here, because the movie treats Hellboy like the hero in a video game.  He zips about from one action scene to another, kills tons of CG monsters, gets knocked around a lot, and never comes close to developing an interesting personality.  He's just another one liner-spewing hero, and the quips he's been given aren't even that good. (When holding the decapitated head of a fallen enemy, he says, "You should have quit while you were ahead".)

Despite the comic book source material, the main inspiration behind this movie seems to be Sam Raimi's Evil Dead franchise.  It throws a lot of ghoulish monsters, gross images, splattered blood, broken and severed limbs, and the like up on the screen, but it wants to do so with a nod to screwball comedy at the same time.  Raimi knew how to work this balance, and created a unique vision as well with his camerawork.  Hellboy feels far too routine.  The blood and splatter shots are so heavily CG that they don't look real, and as I've already mentioned, the jokes just are not that funny.  There is no style here, or a sense that the filmmakers wanted to make a visually interesting movie.  And despite the movie's large cast of demons and monsters, none of the designs are memorable.  Maybe they would be more interesting if these creatures were allowed to do something or show personality during their scenes.  But, most exist to act as targets during action scenes, some of which have little to do with the plot, and seem to exist to pad out the running time.

Speaking of the plot, it too is chaotic and unfocused.  Here is a movie that manages to mix in the legend of King Arthur, a monster uprising, a pig demon seeking vengeance on our hero, the return of the evil Nimue the Blood Queen (played here by Milla Jovovich), and Hellboy himself having to choose between if his allegiance should be with the humans, or if he should take his rightful place as a fearsome Demon King, and make it into the most incoherent mess imaginable.  The movie frequently pauses to explain itself with lengthy flashback and exposition dialogue scenes, which is the closest thing we get to character development.  The rest of the time, it's all action, non stop noise and rock music on the soundtrack, and the overall sense that nobody really cared about making a quality product, and just wanted to throw a lot of special effects up on the screen.  They have succeeded, but in doing so, they have robbed the film of any wonder, character and interest.  The movie gives Hellboy two human sidekicks to fight alongside him on his mission, but they're treated with such disinterest that you wonder why the screenwriter bothered to add them in.

Hellboy is the perfect film for people who don't care what they're watching, just as long as something is always happening.  It holds no lofty ambitions, such as holding your attention or giving you something to think about while you're watching it, or after.  It simply exists to throw some stuff up on the screen, and send you home without actually giving you anything.  When you consider what a truly good or well made movie can do, it just makes its lack of ambition all the more cynical.

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Saturday, April 06, 2019

Shazam!

Much like Captain Marvel from last month, Shazam! is a fairly standard superhero movie that does its job well enough, and while it never really goes above and beyond, it is a lot of fun.  The main reason why it does work is the lead performance by Zachary Levi, who is clearly having a blast as the title character.  He brings an exuberance to the film that is infectious whenever he's on camera.  When he's not, the movie's never quite as fun, so it's a good thing he's in at least 80% of the film.

The movie itself is kind of a cross between your average superhero origin film, and the 1988 body swapping comedy fantasy, Big, starring Tom Hanks.  The movie even throws in an homage to the keyboard dancing scene in that movie, in case we can't figure out its main source of inspiration.  Instead of a young boy wishing to be big, however, we get a 14-year-old orphan named Billy Baston (Asher Angel).  He's a troubled kid whose mom abandoned him years ago, and has found his way in and out of various foster homes over the years.  At his latest home, one of the foster kids he meets is young Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), who loves obsessing about superheroes.  In this movie's world, the characters of the DC Cinematic Universe are real, and Freddy is a diehard fan of all of them.  It's a fun idea, and one that the movie sadly does not exploit that much.  I kept on waiting for Wonder Woman or Aquaman to pop up.  There is a cameo of sorts, but it's clearly a victim of behind the scenes politics.

Billy isn't exactly one for costumed heroes, until he finds himself somewhat forced into the role of one.  As it turns out, there's an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who has been tasked with protecting the world from demons based around the seven deadly sins for countless centuries.  He is the last of his people, and he has been searching for someone pure of heart to carry on his work and be the world's protector.  The demons are freed by the power-hungry madman Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), your typical comic book movie baddie who never quite intimidates, and is not as impressive as he seems to think he is.  With the demons on the rampage, the wizard must find a champion to represent him in a hurry.  Out of desperation, he chooses Billy to take up the mantle, and the young child is instantly transformed into a full-grown superhero in tights and a cape named Shazam (Zachary Levi).

The movie gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that even though Shazam may look like a legitimate crime fighter, he's really still a 14-year-old boy in a man's body.  That's also the key to the success of Levi's performance.  He fully embraces this fact, and perfectly sells the fact that he's not what he appears to be.  He doesn't know what powers he has in his new superhuman form, so Freddy helps him develop a series of tests where he can try out his various abilities.  One aspect of the film that I liked is that no one seems quite sure what to make of Shazam.  He's a superhero, yes, but his outfit makes him look like a cheap knockoff of one.  He sort of looks like the failed mascot design for a toy or candy company.  He does have powers.  He can fly, shoot lightning from his hands, and possesses superhuman strength.  But, he's also quite awkward.  Of course, that's because he's actually a kid behind that body.  He's new not just to his powers, but to being an adult.

Whenever the movie is focused on Billy/Shazam trying to figure things out with Freddy's help, the movie is a lot of fun, and also gets a few good laughs.  Maybe not as many or as big as the best moments of the Deadpool films, though.  This movie doesn't really try to poke fun at the conventions or cliches of the genre like the Ryan Reynolds movies do.  That's too bad, because the biggest laugh in the film is the one scene where it does. (It concerns the villain making a speech while floating in the air above the city.) Speaking of the villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana is easily the weakest element.  He doesn't have any cool abilities or grand evil plan.  He really comes across as your everyday jerk who got pushed around by his family growing up, and is now on a power trip with the help of some evil demons.  The demons themselves are your standard CG beasts who do nothing but growl and hiss, and make no effort to provide a lasting impression.  Like a lot of comic book movies, this one gets the hero completely right, and then forgets to give them someone memorable to fight.

Shazam! is a lot of fun, and is probably the best effort to come out of DC's film division since Wonder Woman.  That being said, it's far from perfect.  The movie does seem dragged out, especially during the big action scenes that are never as thrilling as they should be.  The climax, in particular, seems to go on for far too long.  This movie's strongest aspects lie in Levi's performance, it's sense of humor, and the big heart that it gets to display from time to time.  Whenever it takes on the role of being an actual superhero movie with special effects and action, it feels awfully standard.  Maybe it's because the film's director, David F. Sandberg, has dabbled mostly in horror before this (he made Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation), and he's new to the blockbuster realm.  He nails the humor and human elements of the story, but seems to flounder when it's time for the movie to really wow us with its spectacle.

Even if there's room for improvement, that's what sequels are for, and I truly hope this does well enough to earn one.  They're on the right track here.  They have the funny hero and the right tone, they just need to give us some real world-shattering stakes for the hero to handle.  If they can get an actually decent villain, they'll really be on to something.

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