Monday, March 20, 2023


There’s something charmingly small about Shazam! Fury of the Gods. It’s not a mindlessly bombastic superhero picture taking place entirely in a multiverse or among incomprehensible sliding scales of cosmic cause and effect in which entire galaxies hang in the balance and there’s nary a normie around. Instead it is about a few teenagers and the fate of…Philadelphia. There’s even a scene where the heroes save innocent bystanders from a collapsing bridge and, later, chase monsters away from fearful crowds of fleeing onlookers. When’s the last time you saw that? Small wonders. The movie itself has the kind of dopey adolescent charm you’d expect from a superhero movie, and its makers load it up with the generic moves and slippery genre play—monsters and Gods and heroes, with mild horror and teen comedy elements jostling around, too—that pass the time for its target audience of 12-year-olds. Director David F. Sandberg knows how to frame a sequence and linger on some earnest character moments, juggling a bright kid-friendly tone with harsher fantasy violence. And when the movie’s somehow both sometimes-convoluted and cut-to-the-bone plot bumbles smoothly along, there’s passable entertainment here.

This belated sequel to a 2019 DC comics adaptation continues the story of a teenage boy who is gifted with superpowers. The scrawny foster kid (Asher Angel) just has to shout “Shazam!” to be instantly transformed into a broad caricature of a Superman (Zachary Levi). All these years later, though, and there’s some fun to be had in watching the disjunction between these two performances, especially as Angel is basically an adult now and a subplot concerns his anxieties about aging out of the foster system. You see, he’s found a nice, welcoming family full of foster siblings who, if you recall the previous film, have also been Shazamed and can zap into muscular superpowered hotties at will. That gives the movie a nice backdrop of family togetherness. (I wish there was even more for the kids to do, but the family’s incorporation into the finale is once again a funny, and heartwarming, touch.) It has stock villains—angry Ancient Greek goddesses (Lucy Liu and Helen Mirren)—swanning in looking to reclaim the Shazam powers. Turns out the kindly wizard (Djimon Hounsou, here doing ace comic relief, a fine respite from his usual villainous typecasting of late) stole their father’s powers to give to these kids. Oops. So it’s a super-powered fight for the right to fly faster than a speeding bullet and leap tall buildings in a single bound. It feels cut tightly and constrained by its smallness at times, but that very smallness makes the aw-shucks charms of its teen-centric story play all the more shaggily appealing. It feels exactly like the sort of amiable matinee effort that I would’ve loved as a kid, back when these sort of movies weren’t out every month.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Jurassic World: 65

It may be a slow slog through a prehistoric jungle, but at least Adam Driver is there. The premise behind 65, named after how many millions of years in the past it’s set, finds a spaceship pilot crashing on Earth on the last day of the dinosaurs. He’s all set to off himself in despair until he realizes there’s one other survivor: a little girl (Ariana Greenblatt). Together they have to trudge across the wilderness, dodge a few dinosaurs, and get to the escape pod before the asteroid hits. Not a bad idea. In practice, the movie is sluggish and sparse, with a meager number of dino-related suspense moments and lots of slow-boil, largely dialogue-free, character interactions as the glum Driver and the girl—who don’t speak the same language—inevitably learn an ad hoc way to communicate and, wouldn’t you know it, care about each other. Driver is one of our finest actors, and though the movie gives him little to work with verbally or contextually, he’s able to use an expressive physicality that allows him to glower and smolder and sink into grief far more believable than what’s on the page. Imagine, say, a Tom Holland in the role, and I don’t know if it works as well. No offense to him.

It’s through Driver's performance—moving in a slow-motion, underwater sadness—that it becomes clear the movie is yet another modern genre effort that’s an extended metaphor for depression. His character is in a state of mourning for his home life—filled in with flashbacks—and in despair over his crashed fate. Only the glimmer of duty in protecting and caring for another person keeps him barely invested in staying alive and moving forward. No coincidence, then, that writer-directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (cashing in on their big hit Quiet Place screenplay) have set the stage at the end of one era in our planet’s history and beginning of the next. By the time the movie arrives at its fiery conclusion, with asteroid pieces raining hellfire down on the prehistoric landscape as our characters make their last-minute attempt at escape, there’s something potent about the idea of a desperate climb out of one’s sadness—it’s either the end, or a new start. I just wished, for a movie about a spaceman trapped in dinosaur times, there were more use of that tension throughout. There are a few fleeting moments of effective creature feature skill—a tyrannosaurus rex ominously illuminated in the night by a lightening strike, a few jump scares with snarling teeth and looming claws—but the movie strangely underplays its own high concept. All the more accurate for its aims to make us feel Driver’s disappointment, I suppose.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Taking Another Stab: SCREAM VI

Scream VI works on two levels, as befits an entry in this series of slasher meta-commentaries. The first is as a bloody mystery, a cast slashed to gory bits one by one as a way of ruling out suspects until a grand splattery finale reveals all. The second is slyer, as a movie about characters who are really tired of being in this series. When Jenna Ortega, a survivor from the last one, turns to her sister (Melissa Barrera), a fellow carryover from 5, to fatalistically ask when, or if, she can simply be a normal person again, I felt that exhausted sadness. She’s over it. Later, a victim bleeding profusely from the abdomen will turn to look practically straight down the camera and mutter, “fuck this franchise.” Oh, not this one, per se. In the world of the Screams, their real slaughters have been regularly turned into the series-within-the-series of Stab movies. Its a neat ouroboros, sometimes too neatly fan-flattering, here turned into something like a lament. The movie’s world is ever more full of costumes and posters, having thoroughly commodified the traumas our characters drag around with them. Talk about intrusive thoughts. Their whole world is intrusive, and this movie is sharp enough to realize, in our modern moment, the internet facilitates that. It hasn’t just made pop culture fandoms louder; it’s made true crime and conspiracy theories part of them, and a form of social currency among the know-nothings who flatter themselves amateur truth-tellers. It’s its own brand of hell those caught in the center of tragedy can’t escape.

Here’s a movie about survivors threatened once again by the Ghostface Killer, this time in New York City, with yet another villain’s elaborate plot to draw blood from the old familiar tropes. They’re menaced by the ghost of sequels present. It’s tense and twisty and violent and funny, and well-paced, balanced, and framed. It stands comfortably with the best of the series, albeit without the late Wes Craven’s human touch balancing mean-spirited cleverness with genuine feelings for its victims. Still, this one’s very best moments—of tender connection, of honest emotion, of sisterly bonding or genuine first-blushes of romance—hook into a similar place. Returning directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick redeem the worst routine dissatisfying notes of their previous attempt at sequalizing the once-dormant franchise by using this effort to turn their newer characters from stock repeats into something closer to understandable individuals. (Even the legacy characters who appear (namely Courtney Cox and Hayden Panettiere) and the fresh faces (Dermot Mulroney, Liana Liberato, and Jack Champion) step into something closer to believable focus akin to the series’ Craven efforts.) The movie runs them back through the machinery of its punishing plot, and wrings enjoyment out of it, even as it sees the whole slasher cycle as a curse its characters are doomed to relive every few years until the box office appetite for these cools off again.

Sunday, March 5, 2023


All hail junk movies! This has been a particularly good couple months for low-expectations genre pictures. If the health of the movie industry, and theatrical distribution, can be measured in the sheer number of simple, passably diverting matinee programmers, then 2023 is already looking up. It has given us, variously, killer robots and missing persons and bad flights and a drugged-up bear. Are these great movies? No. But they deliver on their modest promises, and sometimes that’s exactly enough.

Take M3gan, for instance, a killer robot movie pulled off with some panache. It stars Allison Williams as a workaholic toy designer who gets custody of her orphaned niece. To cheer the child up, she brings home a prototype of her latest device—a life-sized A.I. doll in the form of a tween with dead eyes and blonde bangs. The expensive toy takes its programming to protect her new owner a little too seriously. Soon it’s slipping loose from the bounds of its algorithms and hunting down snarling dogs and sneering bullies. There’s not even an iota of suspense as to where it’s all going—it’s a robot-amuck slasher in form, and a cracked Amblin family story in mode, with a bit of arch genre play in its tone. But the telling is fun, with committed performances, particularly from Williams’ frosty yuppie, her cute, sympathetic ward, and the eerie smooth gestures and seamless contortions of the dancer-like stunts from the eponymous robot. There’s even a soupçon of Silicon Valley cynicism to her tech giant’s willingness to crash through ethical concerns to get M3GAN to market. They’d wish they hadn’t, if they live to tell the tale. You couldn’t claim the movie is a fount of originality, but it does precisely what it sets out to do and does it well enough. That’s a fine matinee.

The latest all-on-a-computer-screen movie is Missing, yet another in what could be on its way to its own neat little sub-genre. The best of them remains 2015’s spooky haunted-Skype-call Unfriended, which is exactly as unsettling as the internet and its effects on our young people can be. This new one comes from the screenwriters who brought you the desktop thriller Searching, a movie with John Cho, in a fine performance, stretching credulity by having an improbable number of tabs open and FaceTimes running while looking for his vanished daughter. Leave it to Missing to get a better balance, partly because its Gen-Z lead (Storm Reid) is the one looking for her MIA mom (Nia Long), and partly because everyone knows this is an overheated mystery. It’s mostly compelling all the way through, as Reid clicks around through Gmail accounts and TaskRabbit prompts, scrolls through TikToks and Snapchats and Venmos, and stumbles onto some pretty lurid twists that are pleasingly shocking. And there’s a moderately clever resolution, too, that uses the logic of its technological screen-based gadgetry for a fine finale.

In Plane, Gerard Butler plays a pilot who’d make nervous fliers in the audience feel a little bit better about their next trip. After all, if the guy flying the plane would go through all this to save his passengers, then surely he can safely get you to Detroit on time. The movie finds Butler’s study blue-collar professionalism well-matched for a simple thriller. His plane gets hit by lightening, and he miraculously lands safely on an obscure island ruled by brutal pirates who’d love to have some hostages. Tough luck. The movie then devotes itself to hoping the passengers can dodge violent dangers while the pilot attempts to call help and repair the vehicle for an emergency escape route. The picture itself is merely functional thriller mechanics in style and pace and script, but the professionalism on screen makes it work. Butler is a believably sturdy man of action, a regular guy who can stumble through a fist-fight with the best of them. He’s weary, but worthy. The others in the cast support well, from the anonymous growling villains (a touch stereotypical, perhaps), to the passenger with a shady past willing to help take up arms (Mike Colter), to the guy in the command center back home (Tony Goldwyn). It’s one of those movies that barely feels like its working, but doesn’t not work either, and then has me thinking “go-go-go!” by the time the thing’s about to attempt take off.

Elizabeth Banks directs Cocaine Bear with a cheerful disregard for the value of human life, and, all things considered, a fairly permissive and blasé attitude toward cocaine. (When one innocent kid admits to having sniffed a little, a motherly nurse says, “ah, you’ll probably be fine.”) It’s loosely—looooosely—based on a true story about a 1985 drug runner who dumped his stash in a state park, and then a mama bear got high on it. This telling makes her into a CG serial killer, which makes the movie a bit of a cartoony goofball slasher picture, with a wide range of buffoonish characters traipsing around until they’re inevitably mauled in a variety of half-suspenseful sequences. On one side you get the likes of Margo Martindale and Jesse Tyler Ferguson hamming it up with big comedy energy. On the other you have Keri Russel and the late Ray Liotta acting more or less like it’s a straight drama. Straddling both approaches are Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. They all are serious-ish, but know where the jokes are, and toss them at unexpected angles. I suppose they need all of the above to pull off such a strange mix, with sloshing sentimentality and pitiless gore and a queasily sliding morality. That it works at all in its base, dumb way is credit to Banks’ willingness to commit to the strange premise, and the workmanlike excellence of a talented cast and crew that you rarely catch condescending to the material.