Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Yawn of Justice: The Forgettable “Shazam!” is a ‘Big’ Disappointment

With so many great superhero movies out there (some might say too many, which is probably right) it seems like there’s room for a stinker here and there. And that would be “Shazam!” Which is a serious disappointment because “Shazam!” is unlike many of the other popular comic book films that have overcrowded the marketplace. It goes against type. I get it. It does its own thing. I get it. It’s about “the hero in all of us.” I get it. It just didn’t work for me. And here’s why.

The film lost me at wizard. My brain can’t compute the notion of wizards. They’re a bit too… magical. Now other comic book films have had fantastical elements and while my eyes and brain tend to glaze over when it comes to that fantasy stuff my brain couldn’t take any of it in “Shazam!” The film starts in the 1970s when a kid riding in the back of his dad’s car is strangely transported to a magical place where an ancient wizard is looking for a new chosen one who is pure of heart. Apparently this kid isn’t it. The film then jumps to present day Philadelphia where a troubled foster kid named Billy (Asher Angel) is looking for his birth mother. He’s place in a new group home with several other kids of varying age and race. He befriends another boy in the home named Freddy (Jack Dylan Glazer from “It”) who is disabled and a superhero enthusiast.

For some reason Billy gets zapped to the ancient realm where that wizard is still looking for the chose one. It’s this kid, and so now when he shouts “Shazam!” he turns into a jacked Zachery Levi with superpowers. At first the film’s colorful, playful tone suggests the story will be a take on “Big” but the “body switch” fun is quickly dropped in favor of superhero antics and a tedious plot about the grown up boy from the film’s opening (now played by Mark Strong) who has been obsessed with figuring out why he wasn’t the chosen one. A bunch of demons, all representing the seven deadly sins figure into his evilness and doesn’t make a lick of sense but here we are. Is it over yet?

Trying to figure out what’s the problem here is what’s bugging me. There’s nothing all that technically wrong with the film. It has decent effects but you can tell it’s a lower budged affair than the usual Marvel or DC fare. The film is certainly more of a comedy but none of the humor really works. The fact that most of the main characters are children makes the film feel slightly kiddie and yet the film has some extremely dark elements including a sequence in which the staff an entire office boardroom is brutally murdered. It’s easy to appreciate the generally lighter tone compared to DC and Warner Bros’ previous efforts. “Aquaman” lightened things up considerably and worked even if it functioned in a standard way. It was colorful, fun, and humorous. It never got bogged down in a serious tone set by “Man of Steel.” “Shazam!” takes place in the same world of those films but feels oddly out of place. If you’re bored you can even count the endless references to Batman and Superman.

Boring. That’s a good word to describe “Shazam!” I never got invested in Billy’s quest to find his mother. I didn’t care about his foster siblings or his foster parents. Maybe the film was poorly cast? The writing isn’t all that amazing either with a pretty dull script from Henry Gayden. Director David F. Sandberg who comes from the horror world with solid efforts “Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation” under his belt is sort of out of his element. The humor never congeals with the film’s darker elements and the film just doesn’t look glossy and pretty.

There are a few bits here and there that sort of work – there is something fun that happens in the final act – but the film mostly left my dumbfounded. It just doesn’t work. The jokes weren’t funny, the characters were uninteresting, and the effects weren’t all that impressive. Zachary Levi spends most of the movie just mugging for the camera and it’s awkward and silly. There are comedic superhero movies starring young actors that work - “Spider-Man: Homecoming” comes to mind- and there are lower budgeted irreverent superhero movies that work – let’s say “Kick-Ass” - but “Shazam!” breaks the fundamental rule of cinema – it’s forgettable.  GRADE: C-

Saturday, April 06, 2019

The Secret Afterlife of Pets: Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” Still Works 30 Years Later

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Sometimes it makes bad things seem good. Take, for instance, the 1989 horror flick “Pet Sematary.” It was a modest success at the time when the horror genre was in a bit of turmoil. Slashers were slowly on their way out and no one knew what to do with the genre. Why not visit the Stephen King well again for what the author has described as his scariest book? “Pet Sematary” as a film is fine but it’s not very good.

It certainly doesn’t hold up that much today. Even if the two year old playing Gage is pretty decent considering he’s essentially a baby, the daughter is pretty terrible. The film gets bogged down in boring side plots – who the hell cares about Rachel’s sick sister? The only reason the character scared kids is because she’s played onscreen by a man in horrible makeup. The story of “Pet Sematary” is great, but the final product, for all intents and purposes, is sort of a mess. And it’s not scary – disturbing perhaps – you certainly won’t see a studio film made today with a two year old coming back from the dead killing people with a scalpel. The film was essentially a horror film about grief another recent movie to tackle the difficult subject matter was last year’s Hereditary. And now we get another version of “Pet Sematary” that fixes everything that was slightly wonky about the 1989 version and has a few fun twists up its sleeves.

The new iteration of “Pet Sematary” is pretty similar to the original film for a majority of the time. A couple moves from the busy city to the rural comforts of Maine. There’s Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their young daughter Ellie and baby Gage (Hugo & Lucas Lavoie). Ellie also has a cat named Church. They meet a weird but nice neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) who sort of becomes a father figure to the family.

Things seem to be going ok until Louis begins having weird visions of a college student who was recently hit by a car and killed on the campus he works at. Oh and there happens to be a pet “sematary” in the woods behind the Creed’s house where all the kids in the town bury their dead pets. And there seems to be something slightly evil just beyond the pet sematary. In fact its an ancient burial ground that brings dead things back to life! So when Ellie’s cat gets hit by one of the many speeding tractor trailers that whip down their road, Jud recommends that Louis bury the cat in the place beyond the pet sematary. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you zombie Church. The cat in the original film looked evil before he was killed and zombified. The Church in the new film is precious looking and then is all mangey.

At this point we all know where the story is going but the film plays with your expectations to the film’s – and our- benefit. Screenwriters Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler have fun playing with an audience who they know is seeing the film because they know the original movie. Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer know that too. But they also know how to make this story scarier and fix things that didn’t work in the first film. Rachel’s sister Zelda still figures into the story but is handled in a much better way as are the overall themes of death, grief, and the afterlife. Stephen King has essentially given us a zombie story but told through the point of view of a family dealing with tragedy. That’s why this story still resonates today.

The new Pet Sematary is scary, atmospheric, and not at all the cornball of a movie that the original 1989 film is. Of course that movie was certainly a product of its time and I admire its weirdness. This new film is a bit more straightforward but its a tad less campy and overall better paced. I enjoyed the performances – even if no one can replace Fred Gwynne – and the film’s third act was creepy and extremely fun. Sometimes remakes are better.  GRADE: B