Tuesday, July 2, 2019

review: SPIDER-MAN FAR FROM HOME

To cut to the chase, Spider-Man Far From Home is a notch below Homecoming, both directed by Jon Watts.  The first part of the movie has a very similar tone to a 1990s sit-com that has a "very special" multi-part episode where the cast goes to a scenic locale.  Peter and his classmates' summer vacation has a strong Disney Channel sit-com feel to it, mixed with a big budget travelogue. Ned, Flash, and Michelle (aka "MJ") are all back, and Betty Brant, played by Angourie Rice, who I thought was one of the best characters in Homecoming, gets a lot more screen time in this installment.

Mysterio is introduced as a superhero from an alternate earth in the multiverse, who comes here to destroy the Elementals, who destroyed his earth, before they can do the same to this earth. Mysterio takes Peter under his wing.  As with Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2 and the Lizard in The Amazing Spider-Man, there is an expected and predicable heel turn. Then the movie finally starts to kick in to high gear. Through the Mysterio character, there are some good natured jabs at the whole CGI dominance in movies, and the ever growing outlandishness of the plots.  Jake Gylanhaal, who ironically was considered as a possible replacement for Toby Maguire in the original Spider-Man films when Maguire injured his back and was uncertain if he could continue in the role, plays Mysterio in a kind of likable, yet sort of phoned in way.  Its as if he figures "this is just a comic book movie, so I won't be using all cylinders of my acting talent".

Tom Holland naturally returns as Peter Parker, and keeps the same light comedic tone he established for his take on the character. Marissa Tomei returns with her radically different take on Aunt May, and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is back to keep this version of the Spidey continuity firmly tied to Tony Stark, as well as attempting to get tied to May. Samuel L. Jackson is along for the ride playing Nick Fury.... maybe.

One of the biggest plot flaws in the movie deals with Mysterio gaining control of Tony Stark's EDITH computer program. Once Happy is informed of this by Peter, he should have been able to simply override Mysterio's control of EDITH. But then the movie would be about 45 minutes shorter.  There is a mid-credits scene that changes the status quo of Spidey's life, and re-introduces J. Jonah Jameson to the movies.  Not to mention any names, but the character is played by the same actor who played him in a previous franchise.

Far From Home is above average and very enjoyable, yet also shows signs that Endgame could be pinpointed as the moment the MCU jumped the shark.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Review: Shazam! #6

This issue picks up with Captain Shazam and Sexy Shazam breaking free from King Kid and searching for the others.  There is an interlude with the fight between Sivana and Black Adam, where in between punches, Adam gives the same kind of over-explanatory speech that was mocked in the movie.  The effects of the fight causes Billy and Mary to magically pop back into the Vasquez house, where Billy comes face to face with his dad.  Billy's dad tells him where he was born and how they moved to Philadelphia and reveals he was a criminal and served time in prison.  He wants to take Billy and search for his mother.  Cut to the Gamelands where Latino Shazam and Asian Shazam are playing the video game to try to escape, when Wizard Shazam does a Batman-like entrance, pissed and looking like he's ready to strip the powers away from the kids.  Cut back to King Kid who mentions for the sake of the reader that there will be a war between kids and adults.  And the issue ends with Mary revealing to the Vasquezes she's a superhero.

Once again, Geoff "The Snake" Johns turns in a mediocre script.  It almost reads like a recap issue, which I thought was a weird way to advance the story, for what little advancement there is.  The artwork by Marco Santucci, Dale Eaglesham, and Scott Kolins is OK but kind of generic.  Once again I could say this book needs a new writer and needs to add Mayo "Sen" Naito as artist, but at this point, I wish DC would cancel this series and replace it with a Thunderworld/Earth-5 series of the "real" Captain Marvel.  But what do I know, I'm just a fan, and as this series and the movie prove, fans are very low on the totem pole of DC's priorities. This issue earns a D.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Double Review: Three Stooges Astronuts and Laurel & Hardy #1

The Three Stooges Astronuts features a new lead story that is similar to the boys' later space themed shorts and features, but on a much larger scale that a comic book can illustrate opposed to the low budget of two-reelers or b-movies.  The script by S.A. Check faithfully captures the mayhem of the latter day Stooge space exploits, and the artwork by Brendan and Brian Fraim is, as usual, excellent, with gray tones by Dan Conner (hey, wait... the Roseanne guy?) giving it a vintage look. My one critique would be, since this is a space themed installment, it might have been better to have Joe Besser or Joe DeRita as the third Stooge instead of Curly Howard.  The second story is a reprint, and like the previous issue, it suffers from a crude xerox black & white look.  It would be better if the reprints that were originally in color were reprinted in color.  This issue earns a B.

Laurel & Hardy #1 (it has yet to be seen if this series will have normal numbering or will follow in the Stooges' footsteps by having all #1 one-shots) presents three stories, all in color.  The first one written by S.A Check, is well done, and I might hazard to say his style may be a better fit for Stan and Ollie than the Stooges.  The second story is written by Jordan Gershowitz, and captures the feel and tone of the classic Hal Roach two-reelers.  Both stories are drawn by Jorge Pacheco, who perfectly interprets the classic Larry Harmon character designs with a slightly more modern look.  The third story is a classic Larry Harmon-era reprint and holds its own opposite the new material.  This issue earns a B+.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Review: Shazam! #5

This issue picks up with Black Adam being the adult in the Rock of Eternity as he deduces how the kids have screwed up by going to the Magic Lands, albeit a cruel adult who reasons he must destroy Billy Batson "before it's too late".  We cut to the Funlands, where after some verbal back and forth with King Kid (including a reference the movie plot point of Billy being separated from his parents by getting lost is now canon), Captain Shazam un-gags Mary who turns into Sexy Shazam.  Then it's cut to the Gamelands, where Latino Shazam and Asian Shazam, after a quick recap of Eugene's "origin", try to arrange a game with the Gamemaster so they can escape.  Then it's to the Wildlands where Freddy and Darla are on trial by the talking animals.  They are sentenced to death by tiger.  Then it's back to the Gamelands with a quick recap of Pedro's "origin".  Pedro gets ready to challenge the Gamemaster.  Freddy and Darla are thrown to the tigers (with a quick background on Mr Tawny tossed in). Black Adam approaches the Magiclands, to save (or destroy, depending on your point of view) the kids, but hits a roadblock-- Dr Sivana, who orders Adam to join the Monster Society of Evil... or die.  Next issue, the fight no one (except for maybe Mark Strong) has been waiting for - Sivana vs Black Adam.

The issue, written by Geoff "the Snake" Johns is par for the course.  Despite the illusion that a lot is happening, nothing really does, it's just all setting up the next issue, where again, nothing will happen just setting up the following issue.  A far, far cry from the brilliant Otto Binder, who could write a complete and great story with a beginning, middle, and end in about 10 pages. The art is by, well, four different artists, none of whom is Mayo "Sen" Naito.  It's all rather good but generic, and again I say Sen should be the artist on this series.  And really, the Snake needs to be replaced as writer.  This issues earns a D.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

movie review: AVENGERS ENDGAME

Avengers Endgame is the concluding chapter to what could be considered volume 1 of the MCU.  It's a 3 hour movie, so I am going to keep this review short as possible.  Despite being 3 hours, it flows fairly well.  There are some moments that drag on, like some of the "kitchen sink drama" scenes, but over all it does not feel as clunky or bloated as the Shazam movie was.   Unlike Infinity War, which wasn't so much a true Avengers movie, but rather a giant MCU crossover, Endgame is a true Avengers movie that keeps the spotlight on the core team plus Ant-Man, who was a founding member in the comics, if not the MCU, and Rocket Racoon. Captain America, who was a minor background character in Infinity War, resumes his leadership role in this one. One of the film's low lights is Carol Danvers, who doesn't get much screen time, but when she is on the screen, she sucks all the energy out. She is without personality, a card board cut out, whose purpose in the film is to be the MCU version of Supergirl (the original Danvers). Thor is kind of reduced to a joke with a beer gut and self-pitying, so that Carol can fill the role that should be Thor's. Hulk likewise has become more of a comedy character as he has balanced Banner and the Hulk into a merged being.

The main thrust of the film is time travel, and even though the characters joke about time travel inconsistencies, the film goes head first into the same dilemmas.  Case in point  - SPOILER ALERT: turn away now if you haven't seen the film-

when Thor is in the past on Asgard and takes his Uru Hammer from the past with him, does that mean Thor now doesn't have his hammer in any events after that point? (Not to mention Captain America later essentially claims the Uru Hammer as his own. Unless when Rogers took the hammer with him when he returned the stones, he also returned the hammer to Asgard at the same point in time.)  Or when Steve Rogers goes back in time to live happily ever after with Peggy Carter, does that mean Captain America no longer existed from Marvel's The Avengers onward? Or does that mean we now have untold tales of Captain America in the 1950s and '60s battling Communists and Socialists?  Or when past Thanos was killed in the present by Iron Man, does that mean the events in Infinity War never happened?

Despite these headache inducing questions, the movie powers on to a grand battle finale that resembles a football game-the infinity gauntlet being the football. The MCU was founded on Iron Man, and here it ends with Iron Man.  Some characters meet their final fate, some go off to live happily ever after, and some move on to the next adventure.  This movie is a must see final chapter, but it also brings up the question, is this the point where the MCU jumps the shark... will the next chapters live up to legacy or will it start to unravel?

Friday, April 5, 2019

movie review: SHAZAM!

It's been a long and arduous road of road of 17 years since the Shazam! movie was first announced in 2002.  The time has come.  The movie is here.  But before I get into the review, let me set the stage.

When Michael Uslan first announced he obtained the film rights to Captain Marvel, excitement raced through this life long Captain Marvel fan.  I quickly started envisioning what I hoped the movie would be like: a visually unique art deco world where a kid who says a magic word and turns into the World's Mightiest Mortal co-exists with a humanoid talking tiger who dresses in plaid sports coats, and an evil alien worm.  An Alex Ross painting come to life. I started envisioning Micky Dolenz as Uncle Dudley, who would be a scene stealing highlight. I envisioned the movie having a soundtrack of all Elvis Presley songs. My anticipation grew with every passing month.

There were several false starts along the way. The original script by William Goldman was rejected. And so was a draft by Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow.  Things seemed to pick up when Peter Segal was announced as director, and John August was tapped to write the latest script, and there was heightened buzz when Dwayne Johnson signaled he was interested in playing Black Adam. Yet things still managed to fall apart. I got ahold of the rejected Goldman and August drafts of the scripts, and was somewhat relieved they were both rejected, as the scripts seemed far too grounded and ordinary to be worthy of Captain Marvel's unique world. But also the first red flag went up when I noticed both scripts shared two disturbing aspects: Billy "learns" how to be a superhero by reading comic books, and the over-emphasis on this being a remake of Big with superpowers.

Then David Sandberg was signed to be the new director, and suddenly things started moving fast.  Cautious anticipation started to build again, as viewfinders for the title role landed on Derek Theler or Lou Ferrigno Jr.   But then the role went to Arthur "Dagwood" Lake look-alike Zachary Levi.  And then it became evident the film would be based on the much hated Curse of Shazam new52 reboot instead of the classic Golden Age Fawcett comics.  The anticipation and excitement for this movie died.  It came to the point I questioned whether I even wanted to go see this movie in the theater.  With expectations at a low... Joel Schumacher Batman & Robin low... I watched Shazam!

What I saw was schizophrenic, disjointed, bloated and campy. It switches between comedy, scare, and after-school special genres faster than you can say Shazam.  The humor mostly fell flat. The only bit that made me chuckle was when Eugene attempts to use nunchuks. Likewise the attempts at scaring seem like they were trying way too hard and missed the mark. In many ways, it feels like a parody not unlike Superhero Movie (2008).

The story opens on Sivana as a child, and he gets picked by Shazam to become Captain Marvel. Only he fails a purity of heart test and is rejected. Skip ahead to today and we meet Billy Batson, an orphan abandoned by his teenage mother in a life long search for her.  He gets sent to a foster home where he meets Freddy Freeman. Meanwhile Sivana has acquired powers from the seven deadly sins. The wizard picks Billy to stop Sivana.  We then have the over long "clumsily finding out the powers" sequence. His most used power is shooting lightning out his fingers, a power never seen in the Fawcett comics. By time Sivana finds Captain Marvel to steal his powers (why, since he already has powers, is never made clear), the movie turns into another typical CGI battle fest with very crude and badly done CGI.  It gets worse when the movie goes into full "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" mode for the finale. Contrast this to the recent Joker trailer that has little to no CGI, yet looks very rich and lush.  Joker looks like an epic motion picture.  Shazam! looks like a TV show. 

For years, the talk from those involved said this movie would be its own thing.  It would not be tied to the DC Film Universe. The end result is the opposite.  This movie is so chained to the other DCEU movies that certain scenes feel like an infomercial for the DCEU.  There was enough "Superman worship" to turn my stomach. If there needed to be references to other superheroes, it should have been the classic Fawcett heroes, like Spy Smasher, Ibis, and Bulletman. Sandberg and writer Henry Gayden have no idea what these characters are about, have no context for the source material---the real Fawcett source material.  It appears they are solely going by what Geoff the Snake Johns dictates.  This film could have used a more experienced director with knowledge and love for the Fawcett comics who had the cojones to tell the Snake to buzz off.

Asher Angel as Billy Batson and Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman are the two best things about this movie. Although Sandberg and Gayden get Billy's character all wrong (he's not pure hearted as all the dialogue states, he lies, cheats and steals), Asher gives his all to the material and gives a great performance. But playing his other half, Zachary Levi is far too over the top to be believable as Captain Marvel, and in fact comes off far more immature and spastic than Asher. It's hard to see them as the same character.  I don't care what anyone says, Captain Marvel is not meant to be a Tom Hanks cover-band, and that is all Levi brings to the table. Furthermore while Asher handles the dramatic scenes easily, Levi struggles with them, again over acting and mugging.

Grazer also handles the role of Freddy very well, despite this not being the Fawcett version.  Freddy is essentially robbed of his story arc, as he should not be crippled at this point.  But Grazer also gives his all to the material and is a standout.

Mark Strong would make a great Lex Luthor or a fine Hugo Strange, but is horribly miscast as Sivana. Sandberg said the main reason for cutting Black Adam out of the movie is that he couldn't handle two origins in one movie.  Yet, he and Gayden give a back story to Sivana that is essentially a riff on the Black Adam origin. I'm sure Dwayne Johnson is thrilled to have his character's story diluted. And did they really have to cast Smallville's Lionel Luthor as Sivana's father?  Strong gives a bland phoned-in performance that bears no resemblance to the classic Sivana of the Fawcett comics, the quintessential Napoleon-sized, cackling mad scientist who sees himself as rightful ruler of the universe.  Instead, Strong's weak personality Sivana is just a generic magic-infused bad guy.

The wizard Shazam, played by Djimon Hounsou, is flat. Hounsou's delivery is similar to one reading a teleprompter.  I'm kind of shocked Tom Hanks wasn't cast as the wizard.

Of the other foster kids, Darla played by Faithe Herman, is given the most screen time with her distinct and somewhat annoying Crank Yankers' Special Ed personality.  Mary, played by Grace Fulton, is wasted, with very little to do, and the other two just stand around to react to everyone else, although as I said, Eugene does get the movie's only real laugh.

The bizarre Superman cameo at the end, where his face is cropped out of frame, if it needed to be there (which it didn't), they should have had Dean Cain do it. Or, have Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman instead. The best part of the movie is the mid credits scene with Mr. Mind.  That was the only part of the film that felt like a true Captain Marvel movie.  But as it is, Sandberg did not make this movie for life long Captain Marvel fans.  He made this movie for Geoff The Snake Johns. As a parody of Big and of superheroes in general, using the Captain Marvel characters aimed at the Nickelodeon demographic, Shazam! is average at best. But as a Captain Marvel movie, it is a disappointing failure.

UPDATE: Even though I was disappointed in the movie, I am still filled with a sense of awe and wonder, and a little proud, to see Captain Marvel - or a facsimile thereof - have the number 1 movie in the world.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Ron "The Ghoul" Sweed, R.I.P.

Ron Sweed, whose alter ego was the horror movie host "The Ghoul", passed away on April 1, 2019, after suffering a massive heart attack in November 2018.  He was 70 years old. When I was a kid, I caught the tail end of The Ghoul's reign on TV, and a brief revival a couple years later, yet he had a lasting impression. Thanks, Mr. Sweed, for being a great part of my childhood.


Eternal Rest grant unto him O Lord,
Let perpetual light shine upon him,
May he rest in peace.