IR Film Review: SHAZAM [Warner Brothers]

The texture of a movie like “Shazam” is to find the balance of tone that creates an interesting diametric and dynamic. Overall in actuality, the movie is a mixed bag with enough energy and might to make it entertaining but with not enough originality to make it transformative. There is a no awesome “ah-ha” moment and, in many points, it devolves into simple fanboy structure without a necessity for logic. Now granted when these are functioning as montages with 80s songs, it can connect. But in comparison to say “Guardians Of The Galaxy”, there is no heart. The intention at the focus of the story about family should feel more connected and meaningingful. The director and star Zachary Levi are certainly trying but you almost see too much of their effort on screen which means it wasn’t inherently natural. Levi is very earnest…maybe too much so though he does convey the awkwardness of Billy Batson very well. The construct of the conflict itself is basic…and perhaps it needs to be but that doesn’t change the fact that it feels at many points unfulfilling.

The actual introduction to the movie which introduces another character has much more breathe of thought but that too is wasted in that character’s development. Mark Strong’s role as an adversary comes off as hollow. It could have been a deep seated regret and texture of family that really would have given the film more texture. Many aspects in this regard seem unfinished. “Shazam” is not a bad film…it just seems very incomplete. And again the aspect of heart and tone within DC, even the standalone films which worked to a good degree in “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” doesn’t connect here. Sometimes, the film goes very dark in places without that balance…and, as a result, feels empty. Even the final sequences which should reflect a culmination seems almost haphazard. But as a takeback, it is great to see a superhero movie like this made since “Shazam” is the most likable superhero at times but seeing these flaws on screen instead of that perfect role model shows that we are all fallible.

C-

By Tim Wassberg

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IR Film Review: DUMBO [Disney]

The texture of “Dumbo” is an unusual one. The original, one of the first films from the animation studio at Disney, was barely a feature and buried in the lingo and perception of the time. Like “Pinnochio”, the perception was not on reality or magical realism but purely an simple surrealist fantasy. There was an edge of darkness for sure but yet the story seemed very intimate. It was not a story told by humans but by the animals themselves. The texture of a mouse and an elephant becoming friends and overcoming obstacles against those who would make them perform. The aspect of the dark world and the unknown coming towards the innocent while blended in the wonder of flight. These thematic bases are textures that were essential in “Pinnochio” and even “Bambi”. Tim Burton creates a mileau to understand “Dumbo” in the modern context (even though the story again takes place in the early 1900s). The story points are sound and the essence of whimsy is inferred in many points. But as a fable despite the ultimate resolution, the essence of risk seems candylike.

Most of the characters are painted in saccarine colors and disposition. In many ways, there is a reflectivity of 1950s nostalgia in many ways. Unlike the previous “Dumbo”, the parallels are in a pair of children who have lost their mother and a father unable to connect after returning from the war. The reconnection of both Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito as a circus ringleader and a big time promoter in their first pairing in a way since “Batman Returns” seems to not have the crackle their scenes so richly deserve. In many ways this may be the way the characters are drawn which come off muted at times and two dimensional but nonetheless the archetypes even seem stilted. Granted this is meant to work in an almost hazy way.

However when push comes to shove at the end, it is the circus folk who help propogate the progression of the third act that really harken back to true Burton when the mechanics of the ideas fuel the intention and, by extension, the eccentricities of the characters. The character that should have the most empathy is Dumbo, and that is the success of the movie since, by taking away the muse in Timothy the mouse, forces the texture even more so. While certain aspects of surrealism from the cartoon couldn’t cross over sensibly in a narrative based production per se, Burton does find a way to include pink elephants (which undeniably would be a good reason to take on the show from the get go) although the matter of approaching them is quite different.

Both Colin Farrell and Eva Green take on thankless roles per se that progress the story but adhere to the essence of Burton. But what Dumbo essentially is is Burton-lite, using his talents for a broader, more subdued audience. There is nothing wrong with this at all…it tends to make most of the film though very passive…effectively done…but in many way inert both characterwise and in a way creatively. There is the essential world building that Burton is known for but even the Danny Elfman score has lightness to it. Again, no problems but nothing that lifts the heart undeniably.

There is a glimmer in Dumbo’s eyes as he watches the pink elephants but that is fleeting. But there is also nothing quite like the moment in the animated film where Dumbo’s mother cradles her young baby in her arms from her jail and swings him back and forth. “Dumbo” makes its story in the modern era through an essence of nostalgia and human fraility but in doing so loses a little bit of the magic of being separate. There is a mythic structure in the final shots that bears ode to “The Lion King” in an ironic way. Also, listen to the final notes of the closing credits where that aspect of the original lingers…just a tiny bit.

C

By Tim Wassberg

Fest Track On Sirk TV Film Review: SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST FILM FESTIVAL [Austin, Texas]

The trajectory of a film festival depends on the ideals portrayed within it but also what the movie going public adapts to. The great thing about SxSW Film in a continuing fashion is its ability to have a cross section of texture for all kinds of cinemagoers. While interviews for Fest Track consisted of different films like Villains and Tone Deaf, there was also elements of film going as well as a Quick Look segment to engage the possibilities. However for the 3 films viewed at the festival, genre reflected well.

Body At Brighton Rock With the advent of Captain Marvel, the engagement of female directed and acted films, particularly in American film, definitely was on display at this year’s festival. This entry written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin and starring Karina Fontes as Wendy tracks a girl who is a part of the forestry service who sets out to track and update trails but along the way gets lost and discovers a body. The progression is one of perception, both in Wendy’s own mind, the fears that she is facing but also a possible murderer in her mist. The narrative tries to engage the primal with the advent of emotion and logic although many times the diametric it tries to show doesn’t quite gel in the aspect of the structure. The interjection at the beginning of pop music gives the texture a slightly 80s feel while still feeling modern and using the landscape like “Deliverance” to its best possibility.

The Mountain Almost a Kubrick-esque psychological tone poem, this film floats between the essence of a black comedy and a dystopian vision of love lost through indentured psychic warfare. All the actors functioning in it are top rate yet weirdly off-kilter in the form of their required characters, most assuredly in the form of Denis Levant, who stole the show in “Holy Motors” some years ago. His father character breaking down into a sense of the primal and with similarly weird constructs usually in a static shot is bewildering and strangely fascinating to behold though it adds a schizophrenic texture to what the film is about. Tye Sheridan plays Andy, who is a savant of sorts who is basic in his interactions but seemingly wanting to explore more. It is a very different experiment from say “Ready Player One” which premiered at SxSW last year. Jeff Goldblum adds his undeniable charm but morally ambiguous twist to Dr. Fiennes who conducts lobotomies (it seems to be the 1950s) as a form of comfort that might be doing more harm than good. Hannah Gross is distinctive but disconcerting as the daughter of Levant’s character who seemingly is rebelling against her father but nonetheless takes the procedure without breaking form while building a sense of connection with Andy simply almost for spite. The didactic tone continues with an interesting arpeggio that simply breaks down the bounds of what being normal is.

7 Reasons To Run Away (From Society) This black comedy utilizing an anthology method ranging somewhere between Bunuel, Twilight Zone and parts of “Amazon Women On The Moon” definitely has its surrealist structure in true form without having to resort to obvious visual gags. The essence of a family member that must be purged to the selling of an apartment with an obvious dead body inside to the aspects of numbers that go no higher than 6 when there is a 7th floor on a building show the leaps in logic. But the style is beautiful without being indulgent, the acting just aware enough to be reflexive while still creating an essence of consistency throughout. The 7 reasons could have reflections in the 7 deadly sins but instead mirroring on society’s perception of who and what we should be and how we should act. The film distinctly does not place judgment on those portrayed…simply that they are.

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: CAPTAIN MARVEL [Marvel/Disney]

Considered the pinnacle of power in some ways in the Marvel universe, Captain Marvel’s perception reached a fever pitch after the ending of “Infinity War” because of the intention that Carol Danvers is the savior that will save the wiping off on the universe that Thanos did. After watching the progression but especially in the final minutes per se, one sees how the reversal of fortune could possibly work. The only issue is that, in all fairness, it is very hard to follow up the emotional and textural wallop that was “Infinity War” which worked very much on all levels. Captain Marvel seems at times almost cartoonish comparatively. Granted it is an origin story but throughout much of the film’s first half it feels esoteric in many ways and meandering in others. While the two directors (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck), who have made many indie films together, seem to handle the action quite well, it again feels at times too cartoonish and melding aspects of one corner of the Marvel Universe with “Guardians” and the other side with “Avengers” without really existing in most. The de-aging of Sam Jackson makes him almost the sidekick here which is interesting playing back to that mid-90s vibe allowing him for some great comic bits.

Brie Larson is trying her best and her workout regiment obviously shows that she is up for the task but the tone related (also because some of the dialogue is quite stilted) makes the staccato of the acting seem monotone in a way. It be seen very primarily in the scenes between her and Annette Bening which even in her brief elements, makes the acting look flawless and effortless. The tonality also of Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos, without giving anything away, has some balance but the focus is a bit off, which again might be directing. Little technical elements of 1990s Los Angeles also don’t fit but is a small detail in the bigger picture (i.e. the light rails as well as an underground tunnel in Union Station). Finally the aspect of Jude Law’s character although key to the story feels empty and again stilted at times compared to the effortlessness of Dumbledore in “Crimes Of Grindewald” just a few months ago. The resolution pushes the story forward of course and the texture of 90s songs both works and doesn’t because unlike the mix tape of “Guardians” it is not integral to the story as far as meaning. “Captain Marvel” bridges the gap but doesn’t necessarily do it fantastically, only adequately.

C

By Tim Wassberg

Fest Track On Sirk TV Film Review: BELOIT INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL [Beloit, Wisconsin]

Located two hours outside of Chicago right over the border in Wisconsin, Beloit is a small little town with a bustling and cool artisan scene with some local bars but also some great little eateries (Bushel & Pecks and their Bloody Marys deserve mention). In the latter half of February, just as a balance of snow and cold hits the town, the Beloit International Film Festival offers its wares in select venues across town. Other films such as Lake Michigan Monster, Olympia and Ape Girl were selected for interviews but here also is a selection of other films screened.

Eternal Winter Set against the work camps set up by the Soviets for the Germans during the latter half of World War II using men and women to mine for fuel as the war raged on, this film is both lush and harrowing at times. The lead character Iren, as played by Marina Gera, shows a dexterity of will, moral structure but also an essence of survival as her journey through the bleak winter gets more and more bleak. The icy surroundings as well as almost Siberian (if not actual) isolation moves the story as the idea of what is real and what is not plays on her mind. Like “Prayer Before Dawn” and “Papillon”, what might have seemed extraordinary turns normal. Iren’s one essence of redemption is Rajmund, played by Sandor Csanyi, who teaches her the rules of survival and cigarette making among other things. The eventual resolution is expected in certain ways but shows that all notions are fair in love and war.

Deany Bean Is Dead This blend of black and romantic comedy follows Deany Bean who is stuck in a dead end job with a vicious boss. This mild mannered woman takes her anger and rage out once she is fired and she sees that her fiancé returned from vacation with a new fiancée. While the slapstick works well especially with the brother of her former fiancé in a closed space, the comedy strains credibility because the dinner guests are too trusting to seem any more than plot points. Alison Marie Volk brings a likability and an earnestness to Deany but also a desperation of sorts that becomes almost unlikable and yet understandable at same time. The essence of therapy and new age resolution almost seems ironic if it wasn’t played so earnestly.

Family This undeniable story of both repression, revenge and almost at times nihilism is a stylish foray into family dysfunction although one told by a woman within Tel Aviv. That structure alone is unique but Veronica Kedar, who wrote, directed and stars in the film as Lily, brings a macabre spectacle reflected in an non linear structure that shows an unraveling of a mind but also the path that led her to this point. Kedar gives a matter-of-fact normality to Lily even as her tale (related afterwards at her therapist’s home to said doctor’s interested daughter) spins more out of control. Lily’s father is domineering but oblivious, her mother consumed by tradition, her sister by expectation and her brother by all kinds of other demons. It is the interaction with Avi as played by Ishai Golan that is the most unnerving and well played simply because of the odd dynamic that they bring to it. Like “The Killing Of The Sacred Deer” it uses a whirlpool of emotion and irony to spin the story further and further. Avi’s final resolution is both heartbreaking and reprehensible especially a scene where he sings a song on a piano surrounded by the nightmare that has been created.

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON – THE HIDDEN WORLD [Dreamworks Animation/Universal]

The texture of a trilogy is always based in a texture of resolution and giving perspective on how the characters have grown. “How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” starts off a bit as what we have seen before which is the structure of saving the dragons with Toothless, a Night Fury being able to control his fellow reptiles. The transgression of the movie, without giving too much away, involves the essence of change and what method of acceptance allows all the characters to move forward. Hiccup, as the unlikely hero of his community of Vikings, suffers from the aspect that his identity is defined by Toothless and not what he possibly can become. Even though Astrid is by his side he doesn’t trust his instincts and unfortunately, at times, his would-be princess is used in a more conventional way to push forward the story. Like Hiccup, Toothless suffers in a similar way when a Light Fury under the guise of another agenda (not of her own doing) lures Toothless away. All this is done without malice which is a nice structure but leads back to the themes of identity and loyalty eventually as Hiccup and Astrid make their to the Hidden World. Without revealing the spoilers, the films relates this essence of existing and growing up in a sensible, emotional and literal way without creating too much of an overwrought scenario making it both palpable for the younger viewers (through the pratfalls and comedic awkwardness of both Hiccup and Toothless) while still maintaining a mythic story structure and progression to satisfy many adult expectations.

B+

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: ALITA – BATTLE ANGEL [20th Century Fox]

The mixture of James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez definitely has a great angle to it. “Alita: Battle Angel” was a title heard years ago and moved around as myth actually for a time. Harrison Ford was attached per se at one point. This story of stories that Cameron had developed for years actually was something Rodriguez told Inside Reel in a Fest Track interview at SxSW in March 2018. Reading the first 3 volumes before talking with producer Jon Landau as well as leads Rosa Salazar & Keaan Johnson in Austin (see their Fest Track interview here), gave a good perception of the structure but what is one to say between an anime/graphic novel that was written many years ago versus the ideals of the actual script (which having been co-written by James Cameron definitely should retain his story sense). What “Alita: Battle Angel” does very well is keep itself focused. The one true balance that stays pretty crisp and clear throughout the film is Rosa Salazar as Alita. Many may think that it is simply a computer performance but that could not put the sense of innocence, anger and breathe in what is seen here. Granted it is not Andy Serkis but who can compete on that level. What Rosa brings is a soul to this girl who was originally built as a killing machine. Salazar has been missing in part from many of the media rounds per se (in large part) but that might be better so the character simply exists on her own. Rodriguez’s touch is here for sure but it is sometimes lost in the bigger sequences. Oddly enough, this reviewer kept seeing “Speed Racer” in the race sequences per se. They are good but at a certain point are more video game oriented.

The character build even though it takes a while in the beginning does the film correctly but there is no “a-ha” moment. The scene though where Alita first tries her new body with fighting moves shows a path to identity and the sequence inside a bar (a very visceral scene in the graphic novel) definitely comes to life. The reason why is that all the characters in there are so unique. It makes one think of “From Dusk Till Dawn”. What seems to be missing is some of Robert’s camera tricks and stylistic touches although to be fair Rodriguez did mention in that same interview that this was not him doing a Robert Rodriguez film but instead doing a Jim Cameron film. So in that respect it does work, the script is tight, the visuals are fluid and it does its job. It is fun to watch but it is not spectacular. There is never quite a moment where Alita becomes the chosen one or that her love against her own life will ring out. One scene inside the apartment of Hugo (played by Johnson) comes close and really makes the CG of Rosa as a cyborg really key into the story. The climax, like most, has to serve a story point and that is understandable. Christoph Waltz does an admirable job as the Doc and Jennifer Connelly & Mahershala Ali do their part within the structure but Ed Skrein as a competitor is the only one who brings an edge to the proceedings. Here is hoping “Alita” connects to the audience because unlike many recent popcorn films, it understands the concept of a beginning, middle and end within a true story arc. But it is in the silent moments, when you can hear the acting, that make the most impact. One simple act of Alita laying her head on her father’s shoulder has almost more power than a large action sequence. But that said, one does not exist in the large scale, big budget film without the other.

B

By Tim Wassberg