Shazam! (2019) Review

Director: David F. Sandberg

Genre(s): Action, Comedy, Fantasy

Runtime: 132 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Shazam! is more than just a highly competent action-comedy; it’s one of the better superhero origin story movies out there. The plot follows foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who achieves the power to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) after saying the word “shazam.” As many a critic has pointed out, this film remembers that comic book flicks are all about wish-fulfillment fantasies.

One of the reasons Shazam! works so well is because it focuses on superheroes doing, well, superhero stuff like rescuing endangered civilians. Sure, sure, there’s plenty of punching monsters in the face here, but this feature, with its propulsive pacing, shows off the full range of what comic book good guys are capable of doing. In addition to the plentiful mayhem (the action climax goes on for quite a while), this picture provides lots of laughs, as a high schooler runs amok in an adult’s body. There’s also a durable emotional center to it that keeps the audience constantly engaged.

While Shazam! works remarkably well as a four-quadrant movie, at times I couldn’t help but wonder who the target audience of the film was. It could’ve been a swell family feature, but then there’s the scene with a ghoul (bloodlessly) biting a guy’s head off and the main character goes to a strip joint at one point (although the camera remains outside of said club). It’s sort of a shame this slightly-grown-up content had to be included, because little kids would’ve eaten this flick up. Oh, well, I guess it’s rated PG-13 for a reason.

Shazam! is a great superhero movie because it delivers all the humor, heart, heroics, and hair-raising action that you could ask for. I’m generally not the biggest fan of comic book films (well, at least of ones set outside of Gotham City), but this one really won me over. Shazam! is worth watching for more than just the pyrotechnics.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) Review

Directors: Lotte Reiniger and Carl Koch

Genre(s): Adventure, Fantasy, Kids & Family

Runtime: 66 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

What’s the world’s oldest surviving feature-length animated movie? Something by Disney? Nope, that honor goes to a silent German film by the name of The Adventures of Prince Achmed (originally titled “Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed“) from 1926. The story is about young, fearless Prince Achmed setting out to restore order to the land after a devious magician crashes his father’s birthday bash. This picture uses silhouette animation (think stop-motion shadow puppets) to transport viewers to far away worlds. Home video releases are color-tinted.

This fairly short (only 66 minutes long) classic has visuals that are nothing short of entrancing. It’s certainly nothing like any other movie from…well, any time period. The silhouettes are surprisingly detailed, and almost every character, despite being little more than a shadow puppet, has a distinctive look. In addition to its astounding appearance, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is greatly aided by an energetic musical score by Wolfgang Zeller.

Based on old Arabian fairy tales, this feature has a timeless quality to it that keeps it fresh after all these decades. There is some swashbuckling action and some special effects that made me wonder “how did they do that?” The only time the pacing threatens to lag is when Aladdin shows up (yes, Aladdin and his magic lamp are here) and explains his backstory. It certainly doesn’t kill the film, but these flashbacks slow things down just a tad. Just a tad.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed is definitely no musty museum piece. It’s amazing from its character introductions at the beginning to its hair-raising finale. I’m not sure how much kids will enjoy it, considering it’s silent and all (despite bombastic music), but people who’re accustomed to pictures with no spoken dialogue will be floored. This one comes highly recommended.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Vampyr (1932) Review

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Genre(s): Fantasy, Horror

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Vampyr was Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first sound film as a director, but it often feels closer to being a silent movie than a talkie. The plot is about a man named Allan Grey (Julian West) who checks into a remote inn and finds a nearby mansion where there is some vampire business afoot. However, this not your typical vampire picture, as it places greater emphasis on dream logic and oneiric atmosphere than on the usual thrills.

Like the best of surreal movies, Vampyr makes it feel like you’ve stepped into someone’s dream. The pacing is slower here than in, say, Un Chien Andalou (1929), but, considering its relatively short runtime (85 minutes), this is forgivable. Despite being a horror film, it’s not really scary, just eerie, haunting, and moody.

This dream-like flick has some impressive special effects involving shadows, and some of its imagery, even when not related to said shadows, is very memorable. The film’s characters are reasonably well-defined and its somewhat blurry cinematography adds to the otherwordly feel (supposedly, thin gauze was put over the camera to achieve this). Sound is used fairly sparingly, making it feel semi-silent.

So, will Vampyr appeal to you? It’s not an in-your-face gorefest, like some horror movies, but, instead, it’s a mood piece. That being said, it’s an engaging one, despite its arthouse pedigree. If you like the more surreal side of cinema, you don’t have much to lose (considering its runtime), so I’d recommend giving it a shot. It’s certainly creepy.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Gabriel Over the White House (1933) Review

Director: Gregory La Cava

Genre(s): Drama, Fantasy

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The depths of the Great Depression were desperate times, and many looked to political radicalism for salvation. This sentiment is reflected in the 1933 film Gabriel Over the White House, which tells the tale of a hack politician named Judson Hammond (Walter Huston) who becomes President of the United States. After an automobile accident, he becomes possessed by an angel and transforms into a dictator to solve the country’s problems. The movie is cheering for him every step of the way. Yes, this is a motion picture that actually exists.

This is a flick that celebrates strongman tactics, yet I hesitate to call it “fascist” like many reviewers do. The film’s ideology lacks the violence-for-the-sake-of-violence, Social Darwinistic, xenophobic palingenetic ultra-nationalism that real fascism revolves around. I don’t agree with Gabriel Over the White House‘s politics, but its beliefs seem to be closer to general authoritarianism than the fascistic or communistic strains of totalitarianism that were threatening to take over the planet at the time of its release (not that that makes it okay). It really goes nuts when the United States decides to get foreign governments to repay their debts.

This piece of propaganda is described as a “must-see curio” by the DVD case, and I agree. Released the same month that Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as the President of the United States, American faith in democracy was perhaps at its nadir due to the devastation caused by the Great Depression. Fortunately, Roosevelt would restore the nation’s faith in its institutions without resorting to dictatorial methods, proving that the regime envisioned by Gabriel Over the White House was unnecessary.

This political drama, released during the Pre-Code era in the early 1930s before the enforcement of the Production Code, is a doozie. Sure, its ideas are wrong, but it’s very entertaining, with lofty dialogue and the occasional moment of action. It needs to be seen by more people to show just how close many of the countries of the Free World came to succumbing to dictatorship during the 1930s. This is an important historical document.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) Review

Director: Ron Howard

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 135 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Solo: A Star Wars Story is unnecessary and nobody asked for it. That being said, it’s still quite a lot of fun and, with the exception of a certain cameo, doesn’t do any real damage to Star Wars lore. Set in between Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), this is the backstory of everybody’s favorite smuggler duo, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). It, unfortunately, flopped at the box office, thanks to backlash from Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017), lack of excitement over Han Solo (originally played by Harrison Ford in the original Star Wars trilogy) being recast, and news of behind-the-scenes drama. The original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, were fired and replaced by Ron Howard…so, yes, Opie from The Andy Griffith Show did helm a Star Wars movie.

With the occasional western and gangster film elements, Solo is a delight to watch. The action sequences, including everything from a “car chase” to a train robbery to a slave revolt (slave revolts are always fun), are exemplary, and the musical score by John Powell (with a little help from John Williams) is energetic. The stakes of the picture aren’t save-the-galaxy high, but it works well enough, and Chewbacca is a real scene-stealer.

The film’s cinematography is a bit too dark and murky for such a light-hearted movie. Sometimes, it’s hard to see what’s going on in the background. There’s also the matter a certain cameo from a character that should be dead towards the end of the runtime. It’s not a big deal, but it sort of throws me off. Solo is also perhaps a tad too long for its own good, with some of the scenes near the end not being quite as thrilling as those that preceded them.

So, a lot of Star Wars fans missed out on Solo in theaters thanks to things like the bad taste left in their mouth from The Last Jedi and the fact that nobody really requested it. They really missed out on a glorious, inoffensive treat. Many found the picture somewhat predictable, but, after the derailment caused by The Last Jedi, maybe something nice and safe was just what the franchise needed.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) Review

Director: Rian Johnson

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 152 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi will probably be best remembered as being the film that took the wind out of the sails of the Star Wars series. In this cinematic nut-tap, it feels like writer/director Rian Johnson is telling viewers to not care about Star Wars, to not speculate on its future, and to not emotionally invest yourself in the franchise. I’m getting ahead of myself. Okay, the plot is about the starfleet of the virtuous Resistance finding itself in a high-stakes space chase with the ships of the evil First Order. A movie like Avengers: Endgame (2019) feels like a love letter to the longtime fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while The Last Jedi sometimes feels like a big, ol’ middle finger.

The largest flaw with this flick is, of course, the character assassination against Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), something that actor Hamill was vocally opposed to. I’m not going to go into spoilers, but this is not the Luke of the original trilogy. This is a postmodern deconstruction and demythologization of a beloved series, and the critics disgracefully ate it up. The Last Jedi takes a bulldozer to the mythos of Star Wars, and professional film-viewers applauded every second of it.

Virtually all of the “mystery boxes” set up by Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) are demolished or given intentionally unsatisfying answers. This is a picture that trolls, rather than challenges. “Subverting expectations” is the new “jumping the shark.” It just doesn’t line up with any of the other Star Wars films, not even its immediate predecessor, The Force Awakens. It’s too busy bending and breaking the rules of the universe it’s set in. This movie also feels problematically small in scale. Perhaps “Star Skirmishes” would be a more appropriate title (no, I didn’t come up with that one)? The humor here is often out-of-place and the dead-end ending deflates the trilogy that it’s the middle installment of. The idea of Star Wars going arthouse is exciting for a while, but it leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth.

The Last Jedi isn’t all bad, though. The action scenes are superb, John Williams’ musical score is very, very good, the midnight ride of the Fathiers is moving, and the visuals, while occasionally unStar-Warsian, are interesting. As a standalone movie, with no connection to the rest of the franchise, it’s actually very non-boring, albeit clumsy, incoherent in its messages, and overly long. It’s a Star Wars film for people who hate Star Wars films. I will give it a high score, simply because it’s easily watchable and entertaining if you divorce it from the rest of the saga.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) Review

Director: Gareth Edwards

Genres(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 133 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first Star Wars spinoff film of the Disney era. In a story that takes place moments before Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), the Rebel Alliance discovers that the Galactic Empire is secretly building a space station, known as the Death Star, capable of destroying a planet. Can our intrepid band of freedom fighters find a weakness in the new weapon of mass destruction before it’s too late? Upon its release, many a reviewer said that this movie “put the ‘Wars’ in ‘Star Wars.'” They were certainly right.

Rogue One feels closer to being a war picture than any of the previous flicks in the franchise. The grade-A action sequences are simultaneously spectacular and gritty, with lots of vehicles, weapons, and uniforms from everybody’s favorite galaxy far, far away being on display. Some have decried the amount of “fan service” found in the military hardware found here, but, considering that it takes place minutes before the original trilogy, I don’t think it’s an issue. The highlight of the various engagements shown in the film is the extended action finale, which might actually serve up too much combat for viewers who aren’t action-adventure buffs.

Largely reliant on new characters, the movie succeeds here by offering many compelling ones. The special effects are impressive and the musical score by Michael Giacchino has that classic John Williams-style bombast. My first impression of the music was that it seemed a bit restrained, but I’ve warmed up to it since then. Visually, the motion picture is fairly dour at times, but this is appropriate, given the tone. It’s a vivid portrait of life in the Star Wars galaxy when the Galactic Empire was at its strongest.

Rogue One is a stellar Star Wars picture with high stakes and a ballsy ending. Yes, the opening act or so throws a lot at the audience (perhaps too much for people who aren’t fans of the series already), but it really feels like it was crafted by filmmakers who understand Star Wars. It may be set in a galaxy far, far away, but this story of heroic, war-time sacrifice still has plenty of resonance.

My rating is 10 outta 10.