Shazam!

DC has finally made a Marvel movie. Almost.

Shazam! is a film that is both silly and self-aware enough to know just how silly it is. This makes for a fun, and frequently funny, film about a 14 year old boy becoming an adult superhero, and behaving exactly as you would expect a 14 year old boy to behave.

The 14 year old in question is Billy Batson who was separated from his mother in an amusement park when very young and never reunited. Young Billy has spent the subsequent years bouncing from foster home to foster home until he ends up being taken in by Rosa and Victor Vasquez where he joins the five other foster children under their care.

Following a run-in with a pair of local bullies, Billy finds himself face to face with the last of the wizards charged with protecting the world from the Seven Deadly Sins, who also happens to be looking for a champion. And 14 year old Billy becomes Shazam — a 14 year old boy in the body of a 30 year old superhero.

Billy immediately turns to Freddy, his superhero enthusiast of a foster-brother and the pair begin, hilariously, to determine what Billy’s new-found powers actually are, as well as explore how much they can get away with when one of them looks like an adult.

Every superhero film needs a villain and, in this case, we have Dr. Thaddeus Sivana who, at the start of the film, was found to be not pure enough of heart to become Shazam and has spent the subsequent 20 years trying to steal the powers for himself. There wouldn’t be much of a film if he didn’t manage to achieve this.

If you have young kids, be warned that there is one scene involving Sivana, the gargoyle-like demonic beings that represent the Seven Deadly Sins and a boardroom invasion that may prove a little bit too intense.

That aside, Shazam! manages to be a light-hearted film about finding a family and one that isn’t afraid to poke fun at both itself and every other superhero film that has preceded it. Billy and Freddy are both well developed characters that carry the film very effectively, along with Zachary Levi’s antics in the role of Shazam.

Obviously, this is a superhero film and inevitably ends with superpowered characters hitting CGI monsters, but the film works best as a cross between a buddy comedy and a coming of age movie that just happens to have a superhero in it.

Any Which Way You Can

I first saw Any Which Way You can way back when I was a boy and, with nothing on at the cinema, this weekend seemed like a good idea to inflict on the boys the story of bare knuckle fighter his Orangutan.

I had forgotten just how funny this film can be.

Clint Eastwood plays Philo Beddoe, a bare knuckle fighter who has decided to retire, until the Mafia makes him an offer too generous to refuse. On discovering just how dangerous this fight is likely to be, beddoe tries to call off the fight, at which point the villains kidnap his recently returned girlfriend to try and force him to turn up.

The plot meanders around this, Beddoe’s repeated run-ins with The Black Widows, the most pathetic biker gang ever to reach celluloid, corrupt cops, and Clyde.

Clyde is an orangutan and the real star of this film and its his antics that lift the film from a forgettable 1980s comedy to something that is consistently laugh out loud funny. Wisely, Eastwood recognises who is the real star of the film and is content to play the straight man to the hairy comedian.

There is nothing particularly clever about Any Which Way You Can, and some of the attitudes do look a bit dated now, but Clyde is a joy to watch and makes for a hugely entertaining evening.

“Right turn, Clyde.”

Captain Marvel

After more than ten years, Marvel still can’t put a foot wrong. And with Captain Marvel, they remain spectacularly on form.

As the film opens, we meet our eponymous hero as Vers, a warrior hero of the Kree civilization, which is locked in a war with the shape-shifting skrulls. Vers, however, also suffers from unexplainable dreams — or possibly, flashes of memory — of another life as a fighter pilot. Inevitably enough, Vers ends up on planet Earth in 1995, where she meets a very young Nick Fury and starts to establish who she is… and who she was.

As the film progresses, loyalties shift and Vers finds herself forced to question everything she thought she knew. This makes for a film with a much more science fiction feel than superhero films often manage.

I am, of course, well aware of the fact that many — if not all — superhero films are packed with plenty of SF tropes, including impossible technologies, alien powers and all the rest. However, these films tend to follow a formula more inspired by heroic fantasy — bad stuff happens until the mighty hero turns up to save the day.

For me, Captain Marvel takes a very creditable stab at doing what science fiction can do, which is encourage you to look again at the world and to see things differently.

None of this feels forced and, as a mid-1990s set origin story, Captain Marvel works very well indeed. In this telling, we see the very early days of SHIELD and a very youthful Nick Fury, played by a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson. And I have to say that the CGI manipulation in this case works very well indeed, giving us a very optimistic version of Fury right at the start of his career.

Of course, much depends on Brie Larson’s performance and she delivers in spades to give us a fully fleshed-out character that is both plagued by self-doubt and believably tenacious.

Captain Marvel is a superb addition to the MCU and one that effortlessly slots into the existing continuity and sets us up for an explosive finale when Avengers Endgame is released.

Ferdinand

This is a film that we missed when it hit the cinemas, so we saw it on DVD instead. I’m quite glad that we didn’t go out to see this because it’s quite a forgettable film.

The film centres on Ferdinand, a calf living at the Casa Del Toro academy where he is learning to become a fearless fighting bull. Ferdinand, however, would prefer to smell the flowers. Things come to a head when Ferdinand’s father is picked to fight in the bullring and, inevitably, doesn’t return. And young Ferdinand escapes…

Here’s the thing about Ferdinand. At some point I dozed off and was prodded awake some time later when my snoring became too much for the rest of the family to tolerate. When I woke up, it took a single glance at the screen to know exactly what had happened so far and what I could expect to happen next.

It really was that predictable.

There’s nothing wrong with the film, but nothing right with it either. Ferdinand is very much a by the numbers kids film about being true to yourself that leaves no lasting impression at all.

I don’t regret having seen it, but I can’t see any of us ever wanting to watch it again.

Continue reading “Ferdinand”

The Greatest Showman

This is another film that we missed when it first came out, but it was strongly recommended to us over the Christmas holiday and onto the watch list it went. And it’s utterly marvelous.

The film is highly fictionalised account of PT Barnum, played by Hugh Jackman. The film follows him from his poor, working class roots as he meets and marries the girl of his dreams and finds himself in a stable middle-class job. It’s when he loses this job that the PT Barnum of the title comes to life — sinking money into what eventually becomes the circus for which he is famous. Along the way, he enjoys tremendous success, loses sight of what is important in his life, and comes to his senses in plenty of time for the happy ending.

It’s fair to say that aren’t any surprises in this film, and when I put the DVD in the player I wasn’t expecting a lot. But as soon as the soundtrack started, I was completely carried away.

Hugh Jackman’s performance is outstanding and the supporting cast are excellent. But the main draw is the music and this is superb. Each song is different and all of them are integrated perfectly with the story, making for an uplifting and genuinely happy film about embracing difference and recognising the things that matter. I loved every minute of The Greatest Showman.

This is how all musicals should be made.

Black Snake – La légende du serpent noir

As I was heading home yesterday, and walking through the station, I noticed that this poster had been put up all over the place.

black-snake

My first thought was: That looks very silly.

My second thought was: I want to see this film.

Of course, one of the first things I did once home was to go and look for the trailer. Based on this, the film looks incredibly silly. And I really want to see it.

The trailer, like the film, is in French but I found a synopsis on YoVideo and ran it through Google Translate:

After years spent in Paris, Clotaire Sangala returns to his native country, Africa. Raised by a Chinese martial arts grandfather, convinced to have been found in a garbage can, Clotaire knows nothing of the glorious past of his parents. Hooked on women and easy life, selfish and unambitious, Clotaire will yet be overtaken by his destiny… He will become “Black Snake”, the super-masked super-hero, liberator of the people against the dictator Hezekiah.

It looks like the film is a parody of many of the superhero tropes we have become familiar with over the past few years, and there is enough slapstick in there to keep everyone entertained.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

First a disclaimer. When kids films are screened in Belgium they tend to be dubbed rather than subtitled. This is perfectly reasonable, of course, but it does mean that I saw this film in Flemish. The voice actors were different, some of the jokes may well have been changed or just not as good and, if things go very badly wrong for me the possibility remains that I will miss some crucial moment. So, with that out of the way, on with the film.

It wasn’t as good as the first one. Then again, the first Lego Movie did set an incredibly high bar.

This time around, the city of Bricksburg is menaced by an alien horde of Duplo monsters that destroy everything faster than it can be rebuilt. Five years later, everything is destroyed and everyone finds themselves living in the Max Max dystopia of Apocalypseburg. Of the two main characters from the previous film, Lucy the former freedom fighter is having a hard time adjusting while the relentlessly cheerful Emmett takes it all in his stride. And he continues to do so when Lucy and the rest of the leaders of Apocalypseburg are kidnapped by aliens.

I think that my expectations were way too high going in to this film. It’s probably impossible to recreate the originality and anarchic creativity of the first Lego Movie, but this does make an incredibly good attempt at doing so.

There is a lot going on in this film and a lot to like, and when it does capture the manic sense of fun of the first film, everything clicks in to place.

The twist at the end of the first film is more worked into the plot this time around and done in a manner that works remarkably well. If the first film was about father/son relationships, then this one is about sibling rivalries.

It’s also a lot of fun and, if it didn’t have such an illustrious predecessor to live up to, I imagine I would be far more enthusiastic about this one.

Alita: Battle Angel

It’s thankfully rare these days that the special effects can distract from a film, and it’s a pity in this case because there is a lot to like about Alita: Battle Angel. The world in which it is set is intriguing, the characters are reasonably well written and director Robert Rodriguez certainly knows his way around an action scene.

Unfortunately, however, we saw this film in 3D. This is something I usually try to avoid but, this time, forgot to check. This meant that I had to try and balance a pair of 3D glasses over my normal glasses which is not comfortable and which, for the first few minutes of the film, put me in the dilemma of either watching the film in slightly blurry 2D or potentially inducing a headache. I eventually managed to get everything lined up well enough to watch the film but it’s a mildly annoying faff as the 3D doesn’t really add anything.

A more serious problem is with the character of Alita herself, played by Rosa Salazar. Alita is a cyborg and, presumably to emphasise this, Salazar’s appearance has been digitally manipulated — most noticeably to enlarge her eyes — to give her a more ‘manga’ look. Unfortunately, this put the film into uncanny valley territory and, on several occasions, left me with the feeling that she had been pasted into the film. Given this, I think it’s a testament to Salazar’s performance that the character didn’t become completely disconnected from the rest of the film.

The film is set in the 26th Century, some 300 years after a devastating war, and society has become pretty dystopian. Dr. Ido (played by Christoph Waltz) finds the remains of a cyborg in a pile of junk ejected from Zalem, the floating utopia that hovers above the much more downbeat Iron City in which he lives. Dr. Ido salvages these remains, fits her with a cyborg body and gives her the name Alita.

Inevitably, Alita has no memory and must, therefore, find out who she is, where she came from and why she is so proficient at a long lost martial art. This could have become quite ponderous, but Alita is such an enthusiastic character that you just can’t help warming to her — especially when she finds herself up against Iron City’s multiply bladed hunter warriors.

And then there’s the Motorball, the sport of Iron City. Think Rollerball re-imagined as a free for all, with cyborgs. Motorball is quite thrilling to watch and becomes an increasingly significant part of the plot as the film progresses and Alita becomes more focussed on what she must do next.

Alita: Battle Angel is an ambitious film and one that pushes the limits of motion capture technology in order to lift the central character directly from her manga origins and onto the screen. Even when it doesn’t quite hit the mark, the film works as a thoroughly entertaining SF action film, packed with spectacular action sequences and some very strong performances that make even the hokiest dialogue sound believable.

The film’s ending clearly sets it up for a sequel. I hope this gets made.

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

I should start this with a disclaimer: I saw How to Train Your Dragon 3 in Dutch (Flemish, if you want to be pedantic). The voices were done by different actors and I may well have missed some of the jokes. If my Dutch completely fails me, it may also be possible that I saw a completely different film to everyone else. But here goes anyway.

The film opens on the isle of Berk, which Hiccup has turned into a utopia in which dragons and humans can live together, but all good things must come to an end. In this case, we have two main developments to turn things around. The first is the arrival of a Light Fury — a female counterpart to Toothless. The second, darker, event is the appearance of Grimmel, a particularly villainous dragon hunter.

So Hiccup must find the fabled Hidden World so that his dragons can finally live in peace.

This is not a particularly dense plot and Grimmel is not a particularly interesting villain. But none of this really matters as the narrative exists primarily to allow us to spend more time with Hiccup, Astrid, Toothless and the Light Fury. And here, the film really comes into its own.

Visually it’s stunning and the courtship between Toorthless and the Light Fury is beautifully handled and a joy to watch. This is reflected in a growing closeness between Hiccup and Astrid, all of which serves to set up a suitably emotional ending.

Of course, there is plenty of humour to enjoy and the scenes involving the dragons are suitably spectacular. Ultimately, though, this is a film about letting go and moving on and it handles this in a way that works well for both adult and younger audiences.

All in all, this makes for a wonderful ending to the trilogy and a satisfying completion to the story of Hiccup and Toothless.

Justice League

As well as Thor: Ragnarok, we also started catching up on some of the DC films that we’d missed over the past few years, specifically with Justice League. I’ve always been a bit wary of the DC Extended Universe as the reviews tend to be lukewarm at best and, since there are so many other films to see, this is a franchise to which we keep not getting around.

That said, I loved the Wonder Woman film and can’t wait for the sequel, so how bad was this film really likely to be?

Well, it can dull and it can be ponderous and it can take itself way too seriously and I just couldn’t bring myself to care about any of it.

Another end of the world approaches and Batman and Wonder Woman bring together a team of superheroes to save humanity and a large part of the problem is that we don’t actually see much of humanity in the film. We see a lot of the Justice League and these are the DC heroes that we all know but, in this instance, none of them felt like they had any real depth to them. This left me with the sense that I was watching a bunch of special effects doing special effectsy stuff to each other.

Maybe this is why I found the CGI to be so noticeable. Or maybe it just wasn’t very good. Either way, I could see the joins and was distracted by them.

The core problem, though, is that Justice League has no sense of fun to it. While there is an occasional joke, these tend to be few and far between and generally fall flat.

Justice League was directed by Zach Snyder and I have to admit that I am not Snyder’s biggest fan. The sense I always get from his films is that he puts a lot of effort into making every surface detail look exactly right, but fails to pay the slightest bit of attention as to why any of this might matter. The result is invariably slick but dull and Justice League is no exception.