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.