★★★ / ★★★★
The more recent DC Comics superhero pictures are not generally known for tickling the funny bone. In fact, most of them are so self-serious that the gravity imposed upon their worlds and the characters who inhabit them renders potentially compelling stories into an exercise of wading through depression. But “Shazam!,” directed by David F. Sandberg, manages to hit the mark. It is most enjoyable perhaps because it exhibits awareness when it comes to genre conventions, particularly the realm of origin stories, and it is willing to take risks by taking on serious subject matters such as abandonment issues of a foster child or an adult man who is angry for never receiving his father’s approval—or respect. By the end of the film, I caught myself smiling from ear to ear. I suspect—and hope—it is only the beginning of Billy’s story.
The star of the film, for me, is a supporting character. His name is Freddy Freeman, a disabled boy who becomes roommates with our central protagonist, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), when the latter is sent to live in a group home following yet another run-in with the authorities for finding rather creative but criminal ways to track his birth mother. Freddy is played by Jack Dylan Grazer whose comportment and facial expressions are perfect for a movie like this.
He embodies the excitement and the curiosity of the audience for being so close to someone who possesses extraordinary abilities. Shazam, after all, is meant to be approachable unlike other brooding caped crusaders. I think children will be able to relate most to how Grazer responds when a friend/sibling reveals astonishing talents. In fact, one of the best sequences of the film involves Freddy and Billy (the superhero Shazam played by Zachary Levi) performing dangerous stunts in order to determine Shazam’s superpowers. They have a checklist and a YouTube account.
As expected, the work is generous in offering special and visual effects. They are not always used appropriately because the subpar CGI may stick out like a sore thumb at times—that awkward sequence of flying inside a mall, for instance—but I also had the impression that these are meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Since the overall feeling recalls superhero movies from the late-1990s and early-2000s, perhaps the occasional terrible effects is meant for laughs. When they are used appropriately, they enhance action sequences quite effectively. The first confrontation between Shazam and Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong, chewing scenery) in downtown Philadelphia comes to mind.
Also expected are messages about the importance of family—family by birth and family by choice. Although touching at times, these are never syrupy, certainly never on the territory of a bad Lifetime movie. I found Billy’s struggle of finding his birth mother to be moving, especially when he entertains the possibility—even for a split-second—that she never wanted him. When he was a boy, he got separated from her at a carnival. A mother who actually wanted her son back would come looking for him. Yet she never did, not even after over ten years. Compare this to his foster parents (Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans) who drop everything to look for him every time he runs away. There are parallels between our hero and the villain. I liked that the screenplay by Henry Gayden never bothers to stop and explain what love means to these characters. We understand by observing how they respond when love comes knocking in unexpected ways.
Even though “Shazam!” is a sci-fi action film with numerous comic moments, it is smart to root it in drama. We all know that heroes must come face-to-face with villains, that good will triumph over evil. Less certain is the ways in which characters would find ways to cope—or fail to do so—when they realize they are looking for answers in all the wrong places. I look forward to its next chapter.
Approaching the Unknown (2016)
★ / ★★★★
Performers like Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” and Tom Hardy in “Locke” make one-man exercises appear easy to pull off, but the reality is contrary to the common belief that one merely has to place the camera in front of the actor and magic automatically happens. While talent is very necessary to the success of the picture, the writing and the direction must equally be on point in order to create a believable, highly watchable situation.
“Approaching the Unknown” is an example of having a strong actor in front of the camera but the writing and direction leave a lot to be desired. While these two ingredients are competent at times, that is exactly the problem: these elements are not strong from beginning right to the very end and so our attention vacillates from curiosity to boredom. For a story involving a one-man, one-way trip to Mars in order for humanity to start a colony there, it is most disappointing the the film fails to compel. Little energy is felt during this history-defining mission.
Mark Strong plays Captain William Stanaforth, a man with a sharp mind and ability to solve problems creatively. It is interesting how Strong chooses to play the character in a non-charismatic way, almost the complete opposite of how Matt Damon chose to play Mark Watney in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.” Here, victories do not result to big celebrations or exclamations. There is only silent satisfaction or a sigh of relief. Failures, on the other hand, are often grim, near hopeless. What results is not a celebratory film but one that makes the viewer wonder about the many elements that can go wrong in a once in lifetime but terrifying journey that Stanaforth partakes in.
The writing lacks a convincing arc that reflects Stanaforth’s slow descent into possible madness. Sure, the crippling power of loneliness is nicely captured during one of the best scenes where our protagonists makes a stop in a space station and the people there (Charles Baker, Anders Danielsen Lie) look drained, hollow, not one hundred percent present. However, Stanaforth’s psychological debilitation lacks timing, rhythm, and identity that is specific to this character undergoing challenges that are specific to the mission. Imagine another man on Earth who is locked inside a room for months. Both men’s symptoms are highly likely to be similar.
It were as if writer-director Mark Elijah Rosenberg had read a psychology textbook for undergraduate students, written down symptoms of people who had undergone some kind of trauma due to extended isolation, and put such manifestations in the film. Sure, it is clinical but it also creates a predictable experience. The film offers not one surprising move in terms of Stanaforth’s survival. This is a grave mistake considering that, in its essence, the story is about a man who must rely on his intellect and personal experiences in order to survive and accomplish the mission no matter the cost.
Rosenberg fails to inject excitement into the film. I don’t mean “excitement” as in big explosions or last-second saves. What I mean is a thoroughly convincing insight into a man’s predicament that we feel excited to be engaged in whatever is happening—and what is yet to transpire in his adventure. Movies set in space must command a sense of wonder. This movie is like a fish flopping about, gasping for air during most of a lean, ninety-minute running time.
The Way Back (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Janusz (Jim Sturgess) was suspected of being a spy against the Russian government during World War II but there was a lack of evidence against him. When his wife was captured and tortured, she felt she had no other choice but to tell lies in order to survive. As a result, Janusz was sent to a Siberian labor camp for twenty years. Inside, he met seven others (Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Mark Strong, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Gustaf Skarsgård) who where willing to escape and traverse thousands of miles through Siberia, the Gobi Desert, and the Himalayas. Based on the book “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” by Slavomir Rawicz, there was no denying that what the POW had been through was unimaginable, but I wasn’t convinced that the film matched the greatness of the material they had a chance to work with. It was expected that Sturgess, Harris, and Farrell’s characters were given a solid amount of screen time. We learned about where they came from and what was important to them. However, I kept wondering about the other men. Since the spotlight was rarely on them, we only knew them through surface characteristics. For instance, the tall one liked to cook and draw, the young one had night blindness, the other was a comedian. It may sound disrespectful but such is a consequence of filmmakers focusing on which celebrities ought to receive more screen time than others instead of focusing on the drive of each man. Given that it was over two hours long, there was no excuse for a lack of character development. Furthermore, as a whole, the entire journey felt depressing instead of inspiring. While not all of them made it to the very end, I believe what should have been highlighted was their bravery by standing up against a government that wrongly accused them of crimes and taking their lives to survive in the wilderness. The only time when I felt the movie had some sort of pulse was when the runaways met the young Irena (Saoirse Ronan). Ronan’s acting was dynamic. The way her body language and facial expressions changed from one emotion to the next, especially while interacting with the veteran Harris, felt effortless and I quickly became enthralled and fascinated by Irena. But the picture, inevitably, had to go back to the long walk to India. I was consistently disappointed due to its lack of attention in truly immersing our senses with each environment. Instead of taking the meditative path and not merely relying on music to nudge us that what we were seeing was visually majestic, it treated the disparate environs as cheap obstacles. I might as well have been playing “Super Mario” on Wii and it would have been far more engaging. Once the obstacle had been surmounted, it was onto the next challenge and the next death. Directed by Peter Weir, the manner in which “The Way Back” unfolded felt like the its characters were walking in circles. Considering its story involved a great journey across the world, it ended up going nowhere.
The Guard (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
When a man was found dead in an apartment, Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), along with McBride (Rory Keenan), a cop from Dublin on his first day of work in the small town, was called in to investigate. Boyle surmised that the murder involved the occult due to the mysterious number painted onto the wall next to the body and a pot placed between the man’s groin. Meanwhile, an FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) was brought in from the United States to stop crooks (Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong, David Wilmot) from intercepting five hundred million dollars worth of cocaine. Inevitably, the two crimes were related so Boycle and Everett were forced to work with each other despite a very offensive and awkward first impression. Written and directed by John Michael McDonah, “The Guard” was uproariously funny mainly because of Boyle’s foul mouth. He was unable to keep his thoughts in his brain as long as he felt he had something to say. His racist remarks were very offensive, like publicly saying that he thought criminals only consisted of black people, but since he lived his entire life in a relatively isolated town in Ireland, he wasn’t even aware of his indiscretions. Yet his ignorance was no excuse. From the way the comedy was executed, we laughed at him because he didn’t know any better, not because his claims necessarily had merit. On the other hand, Everett was the humorless straight man who just wanted to get the job done. He was professional, charming, and patient but such qualities were tested whenever Boyle was around. Imagine being forced to work with someone you don’t like, but you need that person to achieve the same goal. As the Irishman and the American engaged in verbal sparring over drinks, the criminals almost did all the work so that they would eventually get caught. Because of this, the picture adopted an unconventional pace. We knew that the criminals’ and cops’ paths would eventually cross. Interestingly, it was actually the criminals who found Boyle first instead of the other way around. What I liked was the fact that the crooks weren’t just bad. They were bad and very funny. The small surprises made a lasting impact without coming off as forced. The film was also effective when the unlikely duo was apart. While Boyle’s interactions with the little boy (Michael Og Lane) with a pink bike and dog was rather whimsical, the scenes with his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan), who lived in a care home, were funny and at times heartbreaking. The time they spent together showed us where Boyle got his fiery personality from and his overall capacity to do good. Just because he had a proclivity for spitting out racial slurs, it didn’t mean that he was incapable of being good person and a good son. What “The Guard” needed to be truly incendiary were more scenes of uncomfortable tension. When one of the cops accidentally encountered the bad guys, the camera remained a few feet away. The lens should have been up close to the cop’s face because he knew as well as we did that there was no possibility that the crooks would let him walk away alive. They had half a billion dollars to lose. Many men kill for much less.
The Young Victoria (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Future Queen Victoria’s (Emily Blunt) mother (Miranda Richardson) and stepfather (Mark Strong) desperately tried to convince their daughter to sign away her power until she was 25 years old before she turned 18. However, Victoria wanted to run her empire despite her age and inexperience. Meanwhile, she also had to deal with Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) who craved more power and Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) who was sent to court Victoria in order to gain political advantage. I am somewhat torn about this film because while I did admire its consistently strong acting (particularly from Blunt) and it had an unconventional feel in terms of telling a period picture, I felt like it did not have enough gravity to really get me to be interested in its history. Perhaps period movies are just not my cup of tea. However, I really did try to get into the conflicted characters and the difficult circumstances that plagued them. For instance, I empathized with Victoria’s mother but at the same time I wanted to shake her because she chose her current husband over her daughter time and time again. I understood her fears of not being wanted in a society where aging women were dispensable so she clung onto people that could protect her. I related to her because wanting to be valued is a universal feeling. Furthermore, I had a feeling that the film had a hard time balancing Queen Victoria’s political decisions and the repercussions of her actions (and inaction) alongside her romance with Prince Albert. Just when one of the two became interesting, it switched gears and I was left frustrated because I wanted to feel more involved. Since I did not know much about England’s history, a lot of the plot was a surprise to me. The scenes were elegantly shot particularly the scenes during and after Victoria was finally crowned, the dinner scene in King William’s court (Jim Broadbent) when everybody had to try to be polite even though not everybody liked each other, and the extreme close-ups when Victoria and Albert were face-to-face after not seeing each other for extended periods of time. “The Young Victoria,” directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, needed more focus in terms of Queen Victoria’s role in politics. In the end, I did not feel much growth from her in terms of managing her empire; the feeling I got was she needed a man to help her run her empire. If it were not for the title cards in the last two minutes, I would have came to a conclusion that Queen Victoria was not an effective leader of her people.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on Lionel Wigram’s comic books, “Sherlock Holmes,” directed by Guy Ritchie, was an underwhelming experience because it was very confusing at its worst and only somewhat exciting at its best. Unlike most people, I didn’t mind the “upgrade” from the traditional Sherlock Holmes. Holmes in this film was a sleuth who was extremely observant, logical and knew martial arts. In fact, I welcomed such a change because I like watching different interpretations of characters embedded in our pop culture. In “Sherlock Holmes,” the popular detective (Robert Downey Jr.) and his partner Dr. Watson (Jude Law) investigated the strange murders Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) promised would happen right before his death. Was something supernatural going on or was there a logical explanation to all of it? To make things more complicated, Holmes’ former love interest (Rachel McAdams) came into the picture with tricks up her sleeve and loyalties that were even harder to read. I didn’t like the fact that all the explanations were given to the audiences toward the end of the film. It would have been so much more engaging and less confusing if Holmes shared what he was thinking from time to time instead of just trying to be funny or getting under Watson’s nerves. After all, despite the modern interpretation, his core character should have been a detective first and perhaps a comedian second (or fifth). While Downey Jr. and Law did have good chemistry, it wasn’t enough for the movie to feel concrete as we headed toward the climax. I also didn’t feel like they had a really strong bond–like they complemented each other. The picture was too busy shaping the action sequences (which I found entertaining) that it neglected (or didn’t care about) character development. However, in a way, I kind of expected it because Ritchie’s films are usually heavy on style and light on substance (“RocknRolla,” “Snatch”). Still, I hoped that he would strive for something more as a filmmaker instead of resting on what he already knew. The picture also could have used another dimension by standing on the line between logic and magic throughout most of the film. When the answer is too obvious, it’s difficult to feel engaged. “Sherlock Holmes” isn’t a bad movie but it is a generic one. That’s my main problem with it. If you’re going to take a really popular character and change it drastically, you’re going to have to be willing to push the envelope all the way instead of just halfway through. Perhaps the sequel will do a better job with taking risks because the cast and crew will be more comfortable in their respective roles. (Or at least they should be because this installment was a success in the box office.) It needs to stop trying to be so amusing and focus on the detective work at hand without confusing and alienating their viewers.
Body of Lies (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I expected a lot from this film because of three reaons: Ridley Scott’s direction, Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe teaming up, and its storyline regarding spies. Even though Scott’s movies generally do not have riveting ideas, he manages to entertain by playing with the fluidity of his characters’ morals and motivations. In this picture, it’s no different because he constantly manipulates the dynamics between the characters–mainly their loyalties–to the point where at times I wondered about the characters’ true intentions. The side effect of certain twists, however, left me confused. At times I didn’t know why a character is doing whatever he is doing for about ten to fifteen minutes. It wasn’t a good feeling; I felt like I was on the outside instead of feeling involved. I wish DiCaprio and Crowe had more screen time together. The movie actually popped during the (too few) scenes when they were facing each other, measuring each other’s abilities. I got tired of the scenes when the two of them would argue over the phone. Why do all that if they can be on the field together? As for the spy storyline, I’m glad the setting was in the Middle East not that because it’s accurate but because it’s relevant to the war in some way. This film is based on the novel by David Ignatius but I haven’t read the book so I don’t know how often this movie followed that literature. I also have to commend Mark Strong as the head of the Jordanian intelligence. I think he’s one of the most interesting actors to watch because he has his own intentions and he’s not willing to sacrifice his reputation for the sake of giving and receiving favors to and from the CIA. I also liked Golshifteh Farahani as DiCaprio’s romantic interest. Even though that romance angle did not work for me, I liked watching her because she has subtlety. This is far from a perfect film but it could’ve been leaner and meaner with a few more revisions in the script and cutting it down to about an hour and forty minutes. For the sake of entertainment and old-fashioned thrillers, this gets a slight recommendation from me.