Wednesday, May 1, 2019

‘NUFF SAID: Go See Avengers: Endgame. [NO SPOILERS]



It’s been eleven years since Marvel Studios released its first entry, Iron Man (2008).  It’s been one year since audiences were hit with a gut-punch of a cliff-hanger with the end of Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Avengers: Endgame, directed by Anthony and Joseph V. Russo, not only concludes the Infinity War storyline, but also an era of filmmaking. It honors what came before while hinting at what’s to come, all the while presenting it epically, if not evenly.

The mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) has succeeded in his plan to wipe half of all life from the universe, including a good chunk of Our Heroes, leaving the survivors Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.); Captain America (Chris Evans); Thor (Chris Hemsworth); Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson); the Hulk (Mark Ruafflo); War Machine (Don Cheadle); Rocket (Bradley Cooper); and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), reeling from their collective and personal losses. A glimmer of hope comes in the form of the once-thought “dusted” Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), which leads the remaining Avengers to embark on a journey through time and space to put things right once and for all, a journey replete with trial, pain, heroism, and triumph, but not without loss.

The source may come from comics, but the Russos don’t treat the material as such. There is an overwhelming gravitas from the beginning, with each character trying to cope with the aftermath of their defeat in their own way. Just as it seems the film will be bogged down by that sense of oppression, the plot kicks into high gear with a narrative that is filled with homages and nods to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s collective history. Yet its to the Russo’s credit that the film never loses sight of the stakes not just from a universal standpoint, but for the characters own journeys whether it be ensuring family safety or suffering from PTSD; the end results of same being highly effective for some characters, egregiously ball-dropping and insulting for others (not just for a character in particular, but ideologies as a whole). What could have been a very dramatic examination of survivor’s guilt is offset with comedy of a, shall we say, derogatory connotations. To say more would be spoiling, but suffice to say that it’s one of the more off-putting, quixotic elements of the film, even if it does come with a very emotional payoff of its own.

With a cast this large, it would be expected that some character arcs would fall by the wayside but, given that the majority of the film focuses on the original line-up as presented in The Avengers, the slights are particularly deplorable. But on the flip side, when the arcs work, they are emotionally resonant. The film’s greatest asset is also its greatest weakness. It cannot stand alone as its own entity (which makes it so difficult to review in some respects) for not only does it rely on the film that came before it, but also on the audience’s emotional investment to these characters for over a decade. Without same, the film would be robbed of its dramatic heft. Yet it makes good use of said investment, creating a story that is epic in scope yet human in presentation. Yet all the goodwill in the world cannot save a film from bad acting, and all the actors, from franchise starter Downey, Jr. to latest additions Tom Holland (Spider-Man) to Brie Larson (Captain Marvel, who doesn’t have all that much to do in this film despite fears of acting as deux ex machina) dial their acting talents to “11” into this film to deliver a solid dramatic piece. It’s a cliché to say “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’ll be a part of you”, but for this film it’s a certainty, and for as much of that credit goes to the directors and actors, a good chunk of it has to go to composer Alan Silvestri who, after mostly repetitive orchestrations in the past couple of years, delivers a score as powerfully evocative as the narrative it supports. It is a varied soundtrack that is by turns ominous, defeatist, light, humorous, rousing, heroic and, dare I say, epic. In truth, all involved in the production have brought their “A” game (pun intended) and it shows on the screen.

Speaking as a life-long comic book fan, however, the film is perhaps the closest representation to a living comic book put to screen. It’s the double-sized annual concluding a multi-issue story arc and presents it with all the grandeur and spectacle that is expected from the source medium. It builds to a rousing climax, even if it the denouement leaves the audience scratching their heads in some instances. Yes, it’s calculatedly manipulative.  But then, aren’t all movies?

Avengers: Endgame serves as a definitive statement of Marvel Studios’ dominance of the superhero film market. It marks the end of an era in some respects, and the beginning of the new in others, and does so with bombastic yet human style. It’s a film that, despite its narrative flaws and hiccups, makes the use of its…assemblage…for an epic, dramatic whole.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

CHARMED: "SHAZAM!" Casts A Mesmerizing Spell (MINOR SPOILERS)



"Big (1988)...but with super powers."

That's what Shazam! has been billed as prior to release. But it's more than that. It's an affirmation as to why these types of characters have endured for almost a century in popular culture. If Justice League was Warner Bros' first step in bringing fun back to their DC Extended Universe brand, Shazam! cements it. While more based on the 2011 comics relaunch material than the original version of the character, the film is sure to win over purists, casual fans, and non-fans. 

The basics of the mythology established by Bill Parker and C.C.Beck's creation remain the same: Young orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is chosen by the ancient wizard known as "Shazam" (Djimon Hounsou, building serious comics cred) to become the champion bearing the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. However, in this case, his choice is predicated by necessity due to the release of the Seven Deadly Sins of Man by Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong, in DC's soapbox again after his turn as "Sinestro" in the abortive Green Lantern (2011)). Billy's life is replete with unwanted conditions, and he must learn to navigate them and his newfound abilities as the grown-up Cap...Shazam (an incredible Zachary Levi, Chuck)...lest Sivana and the Sins take that power for themselves.

While this sounds like yet another dark entry into the DC films staple, it is quite the opposite. While it does deal with heavy themes, in some ways less effective than others, it also offers a light-hearted, fun aspect to being a super-hero. Unlike previous iterations wherein the boy and the man were two distinctly separate personalities, here Billy and Cap...Shazam...are literally of the same mind and, along with his foster brother and self-proclaimed super-hero expert/fanboy Freddy Freeman (It's Jack Dylan Grazer), show a less heroic, yet arguably more realistic portrayal of a scenario wherein one is suddenly gifted with extraordinary abilities. It's Levi's realistic portrayal of a boy in a man's body...and his ability to capture Angel's personality without delving into parody, that sells this film in its entirety. His energy is infectious and the viewer cannot help but be drawn in by it. Director David F. Sandberg, working from a screenplay by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke, endeavor to make magic, both literal and figurative, onto the big screen, even if it borrows concepts from franchises such as Harry Potter and Monsters Inc. to do it. And for the most part, they succeed. The film emphasizes fun with a capital "F" (showing respect to the concepts and history of the character) while at the same time handling weightier affairs such as child disenfranchisement, societal marginalization, and what it means to be "family" with mixed, short-changing results. Certain arcs, such as that of Grazer's Freddy, don't carry quite the heft they should. Its internal logic falters somewhat (Billy's possession yet lack of utilization of his power pantheon gifts in certain circumstances, for example) and the narrative contains pacing issues which undermine the whole. However, humor is at the forefront, from fish-out-of-water scenarios to the deft, tongue-in-cheek references and handling of Cap...Shazam's legal history regarding the character's name (which this purist author still has to reconcile, as if you couldn't tell) which is shared with another recent film by the Marvelous competition. It's that fun factor that overrides the films weaknesses. Despite it all, its the first "happy" film the DCEU has had since its launch.

It's clear that everyone is having a ball, from Angel's Batson, whose performance is eerily reminiscent of a young Tobey Maquire, to Strong's Sivana, who manages to exude super-villain menace without over-the-top "mustache twirling". But watch out for Faithe Herman as "Darla", one of Billy's foster siblings. She's so precocious she steals every scene she's in and melt's the coldest of hearts. There is not one sour note in the entire cast. Benjamin Wallfische's score is the film's acoustical mission statement, even as it borrows melodies from other superheroic franchises (one that is definitely intentional in a good way). The visuals are as bright as they've ever been in a DCEU entry (without going into Technicolor-overload as in the recent Aquaman), and the pop culture references are sure to bring smiles to comics and non-comics fans alike).

Shazam! is filled with stakes, adventure, and heart...so much so, I half expected the late Stan Lee (or even Tom Hanks) to cameo. However, this film is no Marvel Studios rip. It's a film that provides a tonal course correction while at the same time serving as one of the more feel-good film entries of 2019.  Shazam! casts a beguiling charm spell that will engage even the most jaded view. It captures the essence of the mythology (and the hopeful adventure it entailed) that enthralled a certain child to risk parental ire by breaking the antenna off an 70's-era AM/FM radio and, clad in nothing more than a white bath towel cape tied around his neck and his tighty whities, running and hoisting said antenna into the air and hollering "Shazam!" at the top of his lungs in the middle of a lightning storm (needless to say, the hide-tanning received was more painful than the possibly averted lightning strike). 

Shazam! is the closest that the DCEU has come to providing a comic book experience certain to charm both kids and adults alike, and that is certainly a cause for a celebratory dance.



Sunday, March 10, 2019

MARVEL-OUS: Despite The Controversy, "Captain Marvel" Is A Solid, Engaging Film.





'"Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake 
I shake it off, I shake it off." 

- Taylor Swift; "Shake It Off" (2014) 

Incomprehensible. 

Such a lovely, yet weighty word...a "twenty-dollar", haughty, and perhaps pretentious word; however, it's one that completely captures the essence of "DAFUQ[?]". 

What I mean by "DAFUQ" is the sheer level of controversy over a super-hero film about a character few outside of fandom even heard of (well, at least this version of the character with a famous and controversial name, but I digress). That's what I find incomprehensible. Don't get me wrong. I've heard all about Brie Larson's misconstrued comments, Samuel L. Jackson's comebacks to the "haters", fan blasts that the real "Captain Marvel" belongs to the distinguished competition, Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige's attempt to push the character as the greatest thing since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster put pen to paper, Rotten Tomatoes review hacking, etc.... 

And this was all BEFORE the movie was released to the general public.

Incomprehensible.

"Incomprehensible" because the film itself is quite good, even if it arguably exists solely to keep the title character from becoming a deux ex machina in the forthcoming Avengers: Endgame.

Captain Marvel follows the journey of an amnesiac named "Vers" (Brie Larson) an intergalactic police person/warrior for an alien race known as the Kree who are attempting to eradicate their sworn enemy, a shape-shifting race known as the Skrulls. Sent on a mission to extract one of her own, the endeavor goes south and she ends up on Earth circa 1995, where she meets up with Agent Nicholas J. Fury (Jules Winnfield...er, Samuel L. Jackson) and his newly minted-partner Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). Pursued by Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), Vers goes on the run not only to find a human named Lawson (Annette Benning) who holds the key to the race war, but to find out the truth about herself and the power she wields.

Pretty straight forward, yes? Well, not quite. The movie almost follows Marvel Studios' by-the-numbers playbook, but it does manage to turn some aspects on their head, even if they telegraph the results before their revealed. Directorial duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck do a good job of keeping their screenplay (with assist by Geneva Robertson-Dworet) relatively brisk and engaging, even if the beginning plods with obligatory exposition. However, one of the strengths of the script is the willingness to subvert expectation. Some of those attempts work, some not quite as well. But on the whole it makes for a stronger film. Though it is blatant in its attempt to subliminally convince the viewer that Captain Marvel has always been in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, kudos go to the director/screenwriting team to pepper the film with pieces of the decade-plus history; pigeon-holding this film in that pantheon without contradicting or retconning what came before, even as it sets up the pieces and elements for the aforementioned Endgame. If you're a follower of these films, some questions will be answered, some will be raised, but none will be so jarring as to take you out of the narrative.

A word to comic purists, be warned...this film, more than any other Marvel film to date, throws out any and all comic canon regarding ANY of these characters, so expectations should be checked at the door.

Speaking of the narrative...it is a condition of storytelling that narratives reflect the times they are created, whether in agreement or in opposition. And it's this reflection of the cultural zeitgeist that is at the heart of the controversy (so perhaps it's not so incomprehensible in that perspective). Is there a feminist agenda? After all, there are women's issues referenced in the film that resonate even tody, but I would also state that there are strong human (and inhuman) characters in this film who happen to be of different genders and races so, if that's one's basis for the "feminist" critique, then yes it is, but it's nowhere near as heavy-handed as, say, the CW's Supergirl series. On the contrary, it's organic to the proceedings; undertoned but not existing for its own sake. But that argument is so pervasive in the discourse regarding this film, the meta-commentary regarding cultural assimilation and terrorism is practically swept under the proverbial rug. It makes for a subtle yet powerful commentary regarding patriotism and humanity, one that doesn't provide any easy answers, but makes for consideration if one knows where to look for it.

One of the few drawbacks to the film is that the script on its own is a perfunctory affair, where the characters go from point "A" to "B" without much effort. It's economic storytelling; omitting details that some might find necessary or useful. There may be some head scratching here or there, but given the ultimate purpose of this film, it's understandable why the producers chose to go that route. Another uneven element here is the film's special effects. In some aspects, they're above par but lacking in certain others. Luckily, the weaknesses are not so overt as to become distracting. Perhaps the focus was on the film's climax, which was as rousing a visual spectacle as Marvel Studios' has ever presented. Known primarily for his work on Sy-Fy's series Krypton, composer Pinar Toprak does provide a rousing, if generic, score that bolsters the proceedings.

The performances are top notch, with Brie Larson leading the way. Her character is competent, tough, capable, yet surprisingly vulnerable. Her cool demeanor is a result of the character's journey and not the merits of Larson's acting. The fact that she can make such an initially distant character sympathetic with such ease belies that critique. Frankly, it's refreshing to see a superhero enjoy their powers on screen for a change (which, among another scene or two is, to this reviewer, reminiscent of another film circa 1978). Samuel Jackson presents a nascent Nick Fury, one who's not quite the hardened, world-weary spy we first see in Iron Man (2008) (speaking of which, kudos go to the SFX team for their work on both Jackson and Clark Gregg...cinematic de-aging has come a long way since Tron: Legacy (2010)), who enjoys a great chemistry with his co-star as well as allowing himself to show his "softer" side. Speaking of Gregg, while he doesn't have much to do in the film, it serves as a nice compare-and-contrast between his character here and how he's presented in ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. As far as the aliens, the casting of Mendelsohn as Talos was an inspired choice, both in terms of his surprisingly down-to-Earth (excuse the pun) performance but also the subliminal expectation his casting entails.As Kree warrior Yon-Rogg, Jude Law is as reliable as he always is, even if the material doesn't give him that much to work with. However, the MVP in this film supporting wise is Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau, whose friendship with Vers provides the emotional heart of the film, humanizing the main character even further. Also, keep a close eye on the character of Monica Rambeau (played by Azari Akbar and Akira Akbar, respectively), not only is the character precociously engaging, but will probably feature in the films to come. Special kudos go to Annette Benning as multiple characters, seemingly having a ball with her performance.

Captain Marvel is a solid, collaborative superhero film that works even as it tries to be fresh. While not among the best of Marvel Studios' output, it's a good film with strong characters running a spectrum of gender and race without calling undue attention to it. It also features not one, but two tributes to the recently-departed architect of the Marvel Universe, so be sure to bring a tissue or two (and minor spoiler...this is arguably the first cameo as the man himself and not some stock character. See the scene and you'll know what I mean). Whatever your prejudices or (mis)conceptions, Captain Marvel is enjoyable and fun. So ignore the haters, shake off the vitriol, watch this film and judge for yourself. To consider otherwise is...incomprehensible.

...or would you prefer, inconceivable?