SHAFT (2019) – Samuel L. Jackson Dominates, Richard Roundtree Returns, But Film Flounders

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Shaft-2019

Samuel L. Jackson is a hoot as Harlem private investigator John Shaft in the new action comedy SHAFT (2019), but the film as a whole is less so, mostly because it lacks the necessary grittiness a film bearing the name Shaft requires.

And now a brief history lesson on John Shaft. The character of Harlem police detective John Shaft was played by Richard Roundtree and first appeared in the movie SHAFT (1971) which was such a hit it was followed by two sequels and a TV series, all starring Roundtree. The series was rebooted in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson playing New York City detective John Shaft, the nephew of the original Shaft played by Richard Roundtree, in a movie called—SHAFT (2000). How original.

And now comes the latest Shaft movie, called—- you got it!— SHAFT (2019). Gotta love the creativity behind these titles. This one focuses on the son of Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft, named— of course— John Shaft Jr.

And why have two John Shafts in one movie when you can have three? And so before this one is over, Richard Roundtree shows up as the original John Shaft, only now he’s no longer Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft’s uncle, but his father. Everybody still with me?

All kidding aside, Richard Roundtree’s return as John Shaft is one of the highlights of this movie, which, in spite of the fact that its script doesn’t succeed entirely, I enjoyed quite a bit.

In SHAFT (2019), John Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher) works as an FBI data analyst, and when his best friend turns up dead, supposedly from a drug overdose, Shaft Jr. has his doubts. He thinks his friend has been murdered, and he decides to find out the truth behind his friend’s death. When he realizes he’s in over his head, he turns to his estranged father John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) for help, who’s only too happy to help his son, not only because it gives him a chance to finally spend time with a son he hasn’t seen since he was baby, but also because the case connects to a person he’s been trying to put away for a long time.

The plot in SHAFT is secondary. It’s really only an excuse to allow Samuel L. Jackson the chance to chew up the scenery, which he does with great mother f****ing enthusiasm. This is one of the problems with the movie. Not only is its plot secondary, it’s also pretty bad. It tries hard to be contemporary, with a story about terrorism that touches upon racially profiling Muslims, but it’s all very superficial and none of it comes off as real or relevant. Had it taken these subjects more seriously, the film would have been better for it.

The villains are pretty nonexistent. It’s basically Samuel L. Jackson strutting his stuff out talking and out shooting every little bad guy that gets in his way, but there isn’t a main villain to speak of. Sure, there are those at the top who are responsible for pulling the strings here, but we never see them in action.

SHAFT works whenever Samuel L. Jackson is onscreen, and he’s in this one a lot, which is a good thing. The screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow gives Jackson plenty of opportunity to spew expletives at bad guys and comment on his sensitive son’s 2019 ways. And while Jackson is hilarious, the way he talks about women in this movie often referring to them by their sex organs is rather jarring here in 2019. Had this film taken place in the 1970s the language would have worked better. Ditto on his use of the “n” word, which his son asks him to stop using, but he doesn’t.

Jesse T. Usher doesn’t fare as well as John Jr. I never warmed to the character, mostly because Usher seemed to be unable to distance himself from Jackson’s shadow. His best scene is when he displays some dance/fight moves on the dance floor when he takes on a thug at a party, but other than this he plays second fiddle throughout. If this series were to continue, I can’t imagine a film built around Usher and John Jr.

The two women actors fare better. Regina Hall plays John Shaft’s estranged wife Maya, and she enjoys some lively scenes. Better yet is Alexandra Shipp as John Jr.’s friend Sasha. Shipp stood out in all her scenes, and I actually thought she held her own with Samuel L. Jackson better than Usher did. I almost wished this one had been about Shaft’s daughter, and that she had been played by Shipp.

Shipp just appeared as Storm in DARK PHOENIX (2019), a role she reprised from the previous X-MEN movie. And while she’s very good as Storm, she has a larger role here in SHAFT and gets to show off more acting chops.

As I said, one of the highlights of SHAFT is the return of Richard Roundtree as the original Shaft, and he’s on hand for the film’s action-packed finale. He’s not really in this one until the end, but his appearance is well worth the wait. Interestingly enough, even though he’s playing Samuel L. Jackson’s father, in real life he’s only six years older than Jackson.

SHAFT was directed by Tim Story, who a while ago directed the underwhelming FANTASTIC FOUR (2005). SHAFT is not underwhelming, and you can thank Samuel L. Jackson for that. He provides all the energy and oomph in this one. Story, on the other hand, adds very little, as his direction is often punchless.

SHAFT takes place in 2019, and there’s something about seeing Shaft operate in the here and now rather than the 1970s which seems out-of-place. The movie never really owns 2019. It tries, as there are plenty of references to modern-day technology, as Shaft Jr. criticizes his father for ignoring the internet and all its resources when working on his cases, and Shaft Sr. criticizes his son’s generation for texting each other rather than talking. But the film never really captures what it’s like in the here and now. And that’s because Shaft Sr. acts exactly the way he’d act in the past. The film does not really address difficulties the character might face here in 2019.

SHAFT also isn’t much of an action movie. None of the action scenes impress. The film is also a victim of its own trailers, which showed most of the funnier bits in the movie. I really wish trailers would stop doing that.

The screenplay doesn’t help, as a lot of the dialogue is pretty bad. Plus it’s one of those movies where characters make deductions in the blink of an eye. Shaft Jr. and Sasha deduce that their friend has been murdered by looking at one set of lab results, and just like that, it’s murder! Sure, it’s a comedy, but it would have worked better as a realistic comedy, at least where the plot was concerned. I didn’t mind the unrealistic elements of Samuel L. Jackson’s Shaft character one bit.

The main reason to see SHAFT is Samuel L. Jackson’s expletive filled over-the-top performance, and the return of Richard Roundtree to the series. If you can sit through a nonexistent plot, a mediocre Shaft Jr., and some unimaginative direction, you most likely will enjoy this one, because Jackson and Roundtree are the real deal, and at the very least will command your attention and make you laugh.

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DARK PHOENIX (2019) – More Superficial Than Superhero

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There’s more superficial than superhero in DARK PHOENIX (2019), the latest Marvel X-Men movie to hit the theaters.

When 20th Century Fox rebooted its X-MEN franchise with X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011) that film not only instantly became one of my favorite X-MEN movies but also one of my favorite Marvel superhero movies, period. A major reason for this was the casting of James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. These two actors shared some strong chemistry together and lifted FIRST CLASS to its status as a superior superhero movie.

With apologies to Jennifer Lawrence, who has also appeared in these movies as Raven/Mystique, McAvoy and Fassbender have continued to be the best part of these X-Men reboots, and so even though DARK PHOENIX opened to dreadful reviews, knowing that McAvoy and Fassbender were back, I still trekked to the theater to catch this one.

And while I can certainly understand why this one opened to such negative reviews, it wasn’t all bad. It’s just not very good.

DARK PHOENIX tells a story that fans of the X-Men comics know very well, the story of Jean Grey becoming the Phoenix. This story was also told in the previous X-Men series, in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006). Fans didn’t like how the Phoenix story was handled in that movie, and I doubt they’re going to like how it’s handled here.

In DARK PHOENIX, it’s 1992, and the X-Men are enjoying happy times as they are universally perceived as heroes, and a jubilant Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) spends his time giving speeches and has access to a personal phone line to the President of the United States. Life is good.

But during a daunting space rescue, where a crew of X-Men attempt to extract the endangered crew of a space shuttle, a strange space phenomenon, a beastly looking cloud of light, which is threatening the shuttle descends upon the scene, and it’s up to Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) to stop it. She does, but it nearly kills her, and when she returns alive and well, she is given the nickname “Phoenix” as she seemingly has risen from the dead.

But all is not well, as Jean begins to exhibit some weird behaviors and unleash powers she doesn’t seem able to control. She’s suddenly out there doing things that are giving the X-Men a bad name. Further complicating matters, a group of space aliens who we know virtually nothing about led by Vux (Jessica Chastain) want the power which Jean possesses.

With the X-Men reeling, as there is lots of in-fighting over what is perceived as Charles Xavier’s mishandling of Jean Grey, the glory days for these mutant heroes comes to an end. Looking for help, Jean seeks out Magneto (Michael Fassbender) who’s living in the desert with his own band of mutant rebels. And once Magneto learns the truth about Jean and what she has done, he’s not interested in helping her but in killing her.

It’s up to Charles Xavier, who refuses to give up on Jean, to save her, but he’ll have to contend with Magneto, the space aliens, the military, and his own renegade mutants to do it.

This plot actually sounds better than it is, and that’s because the story as told in the movie is kind of all over the place. There were parts that I liked, but taken as a whole this one never becomes a unified story that works.

The screenplay by writer/director Simon Kinberg was far too superficial to be successful. Plot points are glossed over, conversations are banal, the dialogue trite, and the characterizations are without depth.

We learn little about the villainous aliens, and their scenes in this one are sporadic and dull. Speaking of dull, that’s how the X-men come off in this movie. Jean Grey/Phoenix really isn’t all that interesting, and her story isn’t given much depth at all. Jennifer Lawrence does very little as Raven/Mystique. Her role isn’t much more than an extended cameo, and she gets some of the worst lines in the movie.

I like Nicholas Hoult as Beast, but his dialogue here isn’t any better. Michael Fassbender doesn’t show up as Magneto until halfway through the movie, and James McAvoy seems to be stuck saying the same things as Charles Xavier throughout. He sounds like a broken record.

Jessica Chastain is wasted as alien Vuk, a villain with no characterization, back story, or screen presence.

And while Tye Sheridan plays Cyclops, Alexandra Ship plays Storm, Evan Peters plays Quicksilver, and Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Nightcrawler, none of these folks make much of an impact.

Director Simon Kinberg also struggles to make this one cinematic. There’s hardly a memorable scene here, visually or otherwise.

There just didn’t seem to be a whole lot of attention to detail. There’s an entire plot of in-fighting with the X-Men, reminiscent of what the Avengers went through in CAPTAIN AMERICA; CIVIL WAR (2016) but the two films aren’t even on the same page when it comes to quality. CIVIL WAR got down and dirty, got right into its characters’ faces, and as a result the audience knew exactly where each character stood and felt their pain.

Not so here with DARK PHOENIX. We know where the characters stand because they say so, but we never feel it. That’s a big difference. Very little of what happens in DARK PHOENIX resonates.

So, what did I like about DARK PHOENIX? Well, it still stars James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, and so even with the weak dialogue, the two actors are enjoyable to watch, and I did enjoy their performances here, although hands down DARK PHOENIX is the weakest of their X-MEN collaborations.

I also like Nicholas Hoult as Beast, but unfortunately, the women don’t fare as well. I didn’t really enjoy Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, as unlike McAvoy and Fassbender, she was  unable to overcome the bad dialogue. Jennifer Lawrence sleepwalks through her brief stint as Raven/Mystique, and Jessica Chastain is reduced to being robotic as villain Vuk.

While the initial space shuttle rescue was blah, the climactic battle aboard a speeding train at least had some pop.

But nothing in DARK PHOENIX really sticks. Things happen, but moments later they’re forgotten.

This may be the end of this class of X-Men. Disney, which owns the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, has bought 20th Century Fox, and rumor has it they will once more reboot the X-Men series and incorporate it into the MCU.

And while this isn’t the best ending of the James McAvoy/Michael Fassbender led series, I’ve enjoyed the ride. It’s too bad that their final film wasn’t better.

Unless of course, they, like the Phoenix, survive the buyout and rise once again as Professor X and Magneto.

I for one wouldn’t mind that at all.

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PICTURE OF THE DAY: THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974)

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Who is this man with the golden mask?

King Midas?

Nope.

Thanos’ great uncle?

Try again.

It’s the Grand Vizier of Arabia, as played by Douglas Wilmer in the classic adventure/fantasy THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974), featuring the spectacular stop-motion effects of Ray Harryhausen.

I don’t think there’s a movie out there which Ray Harryhausen put his name on that I don’t like. Harryhausen’s special effects are always top-notch, and the films in which they appeared nearly all classics of the genre.

In particular, I especially enjoy Harryhausen’s Sinbad movies. There were three of them: THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974), and SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER (1977). The first two are the best. As to which one is number one in the series, that’s a tough call. I’ve watched both these films a lot, and I have to concede that I find these two equally as good.

Sometimes I slightly prefer THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and other times it’s THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD. They’re both excellent movies and both feature fantastic effects by Ray Harryhausen.

The production design and costumes in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD are also phenomenal, which brings us to today’s photo, the man with the golden mask. But first a shout out to director Gordon Hessler who also directed THE OBLONG BOX (1969), a lurid and underrated horror flick starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. Here, Hessler keeps the pace quick and the action exciting. There’s also a strong sense of mystery and awe throughout.

I saw THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD at the drive-in movies when I was just 10 years-old, and I was instantly a fan. I was drawn into its fantasy world of magic and monsters, and I was particularly intrigued by the man in the golden mask, as pictured above, which I’ve always thought was a really cool look.

In the film, he hires Sinbad to help locate the Fountain of Destiny.

That’s actor Douglas Wilmer behind the mask. Wilmer made a ton of movies and appeared in everything from Hammer Films like THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970), the Peter Sellers PINK PANTHER films, the James Bond flick OCTOPUSSY (1983), the Christopher Lee FU MANCHU movies, Ray Harryhausen’s JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), as well as playing Sherlock Holmes on British TV. Wilmer passed away in 2016 at the age of 96.

John Phillip Law makes for a heroic Sinbad, and the cast also includes Tom Baker as the villain Koura, and the very sexy Caroline Munro.

There’s a lot to like about THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, which is chock full of memorable Ray Harryhausen creations. But for me, the most memorable image from the film is Vizier with his mysterious golden mask.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) – Final Chapter in Current Marvel Saga A Good One

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The best of the AVENGERS movies was the previous one, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018). In that film, the Avengers had their tails handed to them by the cosmic supervillian Thanos, who succeeded in wiping out half the population of the Universe, including many of our favorite Marvel superheroes. INFINITY WAR was the perfect balance of rousing action-adventure, lighthearted comical quips, and gut-wrenching emotional scenes, especially its now infamous ending.

Marvel fans have waited a whole year to find out what happens next, and now we know, as the final chapter of Marvel’s Avengers saga has arrived, AVENGERS: ENDGAME.

And that’s exactly what AVENGERS: ENDGAME is, a final chapter. Sure, there will still be other Marvel superhero movies going forward, but the current saga, which began with IRON MAN (2008) and continued with films for Captain America and Thor and eventually the Avengers comes to a close with AVENGERS: ENDGAME.

So, not only is this movie dealing with the aftermath of Thanos but also the legacy of the Avengers themselves. Yup, it has a lot on its plate. How, then, does it perform?

Well, let’s just say I don’t think there will be too many people who will leave the theater disappointed. That being said, my favorite AVENGERS movie remains the previous one, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME begins with a chilling scene as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), absent from the previous movie, experiences firsthand the horror of Thanos, as his family is wiped out by the infamous cosmic cleansing. The remaining Avengers, still reeling from both their overwhelming defeat and its aftermath, decide they have no choice but to pursue and track down Thanos, but then what? They can’t undo what Thanos has done.

Or can they?

I’m going to stop right there, because the less known about the plot the better.

I liked AVENGERS: ENDGAME well enough. Heck, I’m a huge Marvel fan, and so there was going to be very little chance I wouldn’t like this one.  The cast of characters alone are worth the price of admission, and as always in a Marvel movie, the cast of actors is second to none. We’ll get to that in a minute.

But there were some things I didn’t like. Take that cast of characters. One of the things I thought the previous movie AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR did extraordinarily well was giving all its characters equal screen time. While this may not have translated into equal minutes, it certainly meant nearly every character in the film enjoyed key moments and scenes.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME wasn’t as successful in that department this time around. Some of the Marvel characters get short-changed here. There were also far fewer key moments for the major characters. So, whereas directors Anthony and Joe Russo created a perfectly seamless and well-paced story in the previous entry, they weren’t as successful doing so in this movie. In terms of giving characters their due, things were a bit uneven.

The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely was not as sharp, tight, or as comical as the one they wrote for INFINITY WAR. Things simply didn’t flow as well here.

There’s also a somber tone throughout, understandably, since Thanos has wiped out half the universe, but the film doesn’t shed this tone till its final reel, and even then, it’s not really gone.

I also didn’t completely enjoy the method of the Avengers’ endgame. While it was fun to watch what they were doing, it didn’t always make the most sense, and the film really didn’t go out of its way to try to have it make sense. I wanted more from the story in this department.

The story arcs for Iron Man and Captain America really are the two main ones in this movie, and neither one disappoints.

Robert Downey Jr. has been the face of the franchise as Tony Stark/Iron Man since his first Iron Man movie in 2008, and AVENGERS: ENDGAME provides a fitting conclusion for the character. Once again, Downey Jr. delivers a top-notch performance.

Some of the most satisfying scenes in the film are between Tony Stark and Captain America. They had spent the majority of the past few movies arguing and fighting with each other, and now they have finally put their differences aside.

Captain America also gets a fitting conclusion in the film, and Chris Evans once again does an admirable job as the Captain. While I’ve liked Robert Downey Jr. from the get-go, Chris Evans has only gotten better with each successive film. He has made Captain America one of the best parts of these movies.

Chris Hemsworth returns as Thor, and he’s largely reduced to comic relief here, although he does get one moving scene with his mother back on Asgard.

While I like Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/the Hulk, I was disappointed with the interpretation of the Hulk this time around. We didn’t see much of the Hulk in the previous film either, as strangely, he retreated into the deepest parts of Bruce Banner’s subconscious, refusing to re-emerge after getting his butt kicked by Thanos. That doesn’t sound like the Hulk. This time, he’s a Hulk/Bruce Banner hybrid— “Professor Hulk”— which pretty much means he’s Hulk-lite. I think Hulk fans have been cheated in these past two films.

On the other hand, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow enjoys some of her finest moments in the entire series. The same can be said for Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye. In fact, the two share one of the best scenes in the film, certainly the most emotionally riveting.

But no one else really has any key moments. Even Ant Man (Paul Rudd) who has a lot of screen time doesn’t have his usual comical presence. It’s not for a lack of trying. I just think the screenplay wasn’t as sharp.

When Josh Brolin played Thanos in the previous film, he was easily one of the best Marvel movie villains ever. You can’t say the same thing about him in this film. His screen time is drastically reduced, as is his impact.

The film really relies on the emotions from the previous movie, and it probably does this a little too much. I wanted more out of ENDGAME that was new.

And while I was glad to see the addition of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) here, she doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot either.

But the cast you can’t beat. In addition to the actors already mentioned, the cast of AVENGERS: ENDGAME also includes Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, Karen Gillan, Zoe Saldana, Evangeline Lilly, Rene Russo, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Tom Hiddleston, Danai Gurira, Dave Bautista, John Slattery, Jon Favreau, Hayley Atwell, Natalie Portman, Marisa Tomei, Angela Basset, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, William Hurt, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert Redford, Chris Pratt, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Wow.

As I said, just the cast itself is worth the price of a ticket.

The action scenes are well-done and the build-up to the second confrontation with Thanos is a good one. The conclusion does what it sets out to do, wrapping things up neat and tidy and restoring order to the universe.

Again, I believe fans will be pleased.

That being said, while I enjoyed ENDGAME a lot, I liked INFINITY WAR more. Maybe it’s because I prefer darker stories. Or maybe it’s just the better movie.

And perhaps to reinforce the notion that ENDGAME is a final chapter in this part of the Marvel saga, there is no after credit scene here. Say what? Yup, it’s true. No comical lunch gathering for the Avengers. No teaser for what’s coming next. Nothing.

Fitting for a movie called ENDGAME.

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SHAZAM! (2019) – Comedic Superhero Tale Only Half Works

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Shazam!

And just like that, just by saying that one word, young Billy Batson can transform himself into an electrically charged Herculean superhero! Woo-hoo!

That’s the premise in SHAZAM! (2019), the latest superhero movie from DC, the comic book company whose movies have been struggling to compete with its rival’s, Marvel, over the last decade. SHAZAM! is a light and funny film that gets all the comedy elements right, which is a good thing, because its story of magic and family ties or the lack thereof is nothing to write home about.

Fourteen year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been searching for his mother without success since being separated from her at a young age. As such, he’s been bounced around from foster family to foster family, experiences which all end the same, with Billy running away.

Now in a family led by foster parents Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor (Cooper Andrews) that includes five other children, a home filled with positivity and good humor, Billy still resists being there. But one night he’s summoned by The Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who’s trying to protect the world from the Seven Deadly Sins and whose powers are waning. He needs to give them to someone who’s pure at heart, and up until now his search has been fruitless, but he’s out of time, and so he gives his powers to young Billy.

When Billy says Shazam! he turns into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi). Knowing little about superheroes, Billy turns to his foster-brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) for help, and the two spend much of the film having fun with Billy’s newfound powers. Everything is great until supervillain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) comes looking for Billy, intent on destroying the newfound superhero so he can be the only all-powerful dude on the block, along with those seven deadly sins, of course, who are personified here as statues who come to life at Sivana’s bidding.

As I said, the story here is nothing to write home about. It’s all rather silly and ridiculous, and since the tone of this one is light and humorous, that’s not really a problem. However, I did find it to be a distraction. I mean, couldn’t the writers have made this story just a tad bit more realistic? Magic and wizards and statues that come to life, it’s all pretty childish. I can’t say that liked the story all that much.

What I did like was the humor. When Billy transforms into Shazam, and he’s a fourteen year-old inside an adult body belonging to an all-powerful superhero, the story is fun, and the movie is extremely watchable. Basically, it’s BIG (1988) but with a cape. In fact, when Shazam runs onto a giant piano keyboard inside a toy store, that’s a direct nod to the classic 1988 Tom Hanks comedy.

Zachary Levi is hilarious as Shazam. The scenes he shares with Jack Dylan Grazer are the best in the movie. Grazer’s Freddy helps Shazam learn about his powers as together they find out what he can and cannot do, which provide some uproarious results, like when Freddy suggests he try to “leap a tall building with a single bound” and Shazam doesn’t quite make it, crashing through a skyscraper window.

Other scenes have fun with the “fourteen year-old inside an adult body” theme, like when Shazam tries to buy beer for him and Freddy. Both of them promptly spit it out upon tasting it, disgusted by the taste, and in the next shot they depart the same store with arms full of junk food instead.

Levi, who played Chuck on the well-regarded TV show CHUCK (2007-2012) channels an exuberant Jimmy Fallon-like vibe throughout, and his scenes are clearly the best in the movie.

Jack Dylan Grazer is equally as good as the nerdy superhero geek Freddy who gets picked on at school and so naturally relishes his time with Shazam.  Asher Angel is also enjoyable as Billy Batson, and he has some fine moments as well, although he unfortunately misses out on the films liveliest scenes since they feature his alter ego Shazam.

Young Faithe Herman delivers a scene stealing supporting performance as the younger sister Darla in the foster family, and Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews (who plays the King’s right hand man Jerry on AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD) both do a nice job as amiable foster parents Rosa and Victor.

Mark Strong, an actor I like a lot, is okay as villain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, but it’s not anything I haven’t seen Strong do before. In fact, he was much better as Frank D’Amico, the villain in KICK-ASS (2010).

Director David F. Sandberg handles the comedic scenes with ease, but the rest of the film with its magic subplot, family themes, and generic superhero fanfare is all rather standard. Sandberg previously directed a couple of horror films, LIGHTS OUT (2016), an okay horror movie, and ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017), the second and better of the two Annabelle movies. In fact, the Annabelle doll appears briefly in a store window in this movie.

The screenplay by Henry Grayden is a mixed bag. The comedy works. The rest doesn’t. Its message regarding family is that family is who you are with, not necessarily blood relatives, and it does this in a way that shows some pretty awful families. Billy Batson’s mom abandons him because she feels overwhelmed, and in a weird opening sequence, we meet Dr. Thaddeus as a young boy and witness his dad and older brother treating him horribly and cruelly. This is juxtaposed with the happy foster family run by Rosa and Victor.

There’s nothing wrong with this take on family, except that the examples of bad families are so over the top they’re difficult to take seriously.

The magic storyline along with the Seven Deadly Sins personified is, simply put, pretty ridiculous.

Shazam is only mentioned here by this one name. He’s not referred to at all by his other name in the comics, Captain Marvel, since Marvel Studios owns the rights to the name for their own character who of course just appeared in her own movie a few weeks ago, CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019), even though the DC character appeared in the comics before the Marvel character did.

Where does SHAZAM! rank with other recent DC flms? While it’s quite the different movie from AQUAMAN (2018), I liked it about the same, placing it below WONDER WOMAN (2017) but above BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016).

I loved the comedy here, and really enjoyed watching Zachary Levi as Shazam whenever he was on-screen, but the rest of this film was pretty childish and phony, not the best criteria for a superhero movie.

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HOTEL MUMBAI (2019) – Brutal Re-Telling of Mumbai Terrorist Attack

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In 2008, terrorists stormed the famed Taj Hotel in Mumbai, India, killing and wounding hundreds of people. With only a miniscule police force outside the hotel, and special forces units hours away, it fell upon the hotel staff to protect the hotel’s guests. HOTEL MUMBAI (2019) tells their story.

Unfortunately, it also tells the story of the actual terrorists, as the film attempts to point out that the terrorists were young men who were obviously duped by their unseen leader to carry out these vicious attacks. This part of the movie, although minor, doesn’t work as well as the rest.

The best part of HOTEL MUMBAI is the stories it tells of the victims hiding inside the hotel.

Arjun (Dev Patel) is married, has a young son, and his wife is pregnant with their next child. He works at the hotel, and money is tight, and so he desperately needs this job. When he forgets his shoes, he’s scolded by the head chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and told to go home, but he begs to stay, and Oberoi relents and offers him a spare pair of shoes in his office.

David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) are a multicultural couple. He’s American and she’s Indian. They’re at the hotel with their baby and baby’s nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).

Once the terrorists storm the hotel, head chef Oberoi is the one who pretty much organizes the resistance, helping to move as many guests as possible into the most secure area of the hotel.

As the terrorists move freely about the building, with special forces hours away, the story becomes more harrowing as the guests gradually begin to run out of options. There are only so many places they can hide, and the gunmen, armed with assault rifles and grenades, continue their onslaught with frightening persistence.

The scenes of death and carnage in HOTEL MUMBAI are brutal and difficult to watch. Some have suggested that these scenes border on the exploitative. I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say that watching the gunmen march boldly through the hotel killing innocent people indiscriminately, taking their time about it because law enforcement was nowhere in sight, was wince inducing. But it also bolsters the story. The film makes clear the awful fate that awaits the guests if they’re spotted by the terrorists.

HOTEL MUMBAI works best when following the plight of the survivors, the frightened guests, and the brave hotel staff who did their best to protect them. Writer/director Anthony Maras and screenwriter John Collee flesh out the characters in a relatively brief time. I really cared for all of these folks, which made the movie that more effective.

And the cast also helps. Oscar nominee Dev Patel comes closest to playing a lead character, as the main story is framed around Arjun. Patel, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for LION (2016), and who also starred in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008) and CHAPPIE (2015), is as expected excellent here. Arjun is both a sympathetic and very brave character, putting his life on the line for the hotel guests.

Armie Hammer, who we just saw in ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018) where he played Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband Martin, is very good here as David. The scenes where he makes his way back up to his room to rescue his baby and Sally are extremely compelling.

Nazanin Boniadi is equally as good as David’s wife Zahra. She too has to brave the bloody corridors of the hotel to find her family. And Tilda Cobham-Hervey, who spends most of the movie protecting Zahra’s and David’s baby is excellent as the terrified Sally.

I also enjoyed Jason Isaacs, who recently played Captain Gabriel Lorca on STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18), and who also starred in the impressive horror movie A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016). Here he plays a Russian operative named Vasili who’s a guest at the hotel and befriends Zahra once the terrorists attack. Not only does he get some of the best lines in the film, but he’s the only character in the movie inside the hotel with any kind of military experience.

My favorite performance in the film however probably belongs to Anupam Kher as head chef Oberoi. He makes Oberoi the ultimate professional, and when he’s tasked with protecting the guests, he accepts the challenge and does what he can. What I particularly liked about this character and Kher’s performance is that he doesn’t suddenly become an action hero. He’s a chef, and what he can do to help these people is limited. The help he can offer is based on his knowledge of the hotel, knowing where the safest place is to keep the guests, and also his cool demeanor as head chef serves him well in keeping the people calm.

Kher was also memorable in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012) and THE BIG SICK (2016). He’s a character actor who makes his mark every time I see him in a movie, even if he’s playing a relatively small role.

As I said, HOTEL MUMBAI also portrays the terrorists as young men pretty much brainwashed by their unseen leader who speaks to them on the phone and coldly encourages them to kill as many people as possible, all in the name of Allah. While the film should be commended for taking this approach— it’s always a good idea to present as many sides to a story as possible— it didn’t really win me over. Watching them brutally murder people, I didn’t really want to know anything about them, nor did I feel sympathy for them. In fact, I probably would have enjoyed the movie more had it not featured any background on these killers at all. Intellectually, I understood the approach, but emotionally I rebelled against it.

The film does a better job pointing out that the Muslim terrorists do not represent all Muslims. Zahra is also Muslim, and her confrontation with one of the terrorists, one of the most riveting scenes in the movie, is symbolic of this difference.

The other subplot that also really works is the small security force which realizes that even though they are outmanned and outgunned, they have to do something to fight back, and so they venture back into the hotel in an attempt to commandeer the security cameras so they can at least get a fix on the terrorists’ positions inside the hotel. Theirs is also a harrowing story.

HOTEL MUMBAI is a riveting and oftentimes disturbing re-telling of the deadly terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel. I hesitate to say I enjoyed this film because it’s not a comfortable movie to sit through, but it succeeds in telling its edge-of-your seat story of a small group of hotel guests and staff who banded together to fight for their survival against a merciless group of vicious gunmen.

While I may not have “enjoyed” it, I highly recommend it.

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TRIPLE FRONTIER (2019) – Average Actioner Enjoys Strong Finish

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triple frontier

TRIPLE FRONTIER (2019) is Netflix’ latest foray into the big budget movie business. The film opened theatrically on March 6 and then streamed on Netflix on March 13, meaning it’s available to everyone at home even while it’s playing at theaters.

Netflix did the same thing with the Oscar nominated movie ROMA (2018). It’s a move that is getting plenty of backlash from Hollywood, as heavy hitters like Steven Spielberg have spoken against this kind of release. I guess because they fear it takes away from box office dollars or delegitimizes the industry.

All I know is that as someone who’s living on a strict budget, I liked the fact that this past weekend I didn’t have to pay $13.00 for a movie ticket to see TRIPLE FRONTIER. I watched it in the comfort of my living room. I’m sure we haven’t heard the end of this debate, but for now, I’m on the side of Netflix. Unless they simultaneously provide every theatrical release on their streaming service, I doubt it’s going to influence my movie going habits all that much.

But back to TRIPLE FRONTIER.

TRIPLE FRONTIER is an action thriller about a group of special forces operatives who decide that after years of service they just weren’t compensated properly, and so they agree to rob a drug dealer to give them the financial security they need. Hmm. Doesn’t sound like the wisest idea to you? Me, neither, which is a major problem I had with this movie.

Anyway, Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Oscar Isaac) has been chasing down a drug lord named Lorea for a long time but has yet to catch him. At long last, with the help of one of his contacts on the inside, Yovanna (Adria Arjona) Pope finally locates the whereabouts of Lorea, inside a compound deep in the jungles of South America. Better yet, Lorea keeps all his money there as well, an insane amount that could make several people rich beyond their wildest dreams.

And so Pope rounds up his former war buddies, folks who nowadays are struggling financially even after their years of service, and offers them the chance to remedy all that. If they do this one job, take out the drug lord and steal his money, they’d be set for life.

The group includes William “Ironhead” Miller (Charlie Hunnam), Tom “Redfly” Davis (Ben Affleck), Ironhead’s brother Ben (Garrett Hedlund) and Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pedro Pascal). After some heavy-duty soul-searching, the group agrees to do the job, which of course is no surprise or otherwise we wouldn’t have much of a movie!

That being said, it seems like a pretty dumb idea, and for these guys to be in on it so easily I thought strained credibility.

Anyhow, they set out to the jungles of South America where even with all their professional experience, things, of course, do not go as planned.

The best thing TRIPLE FRONTIER has going for it is its cast. With three very strong leads, the film survives a mediocre first half before its shifts into high gear for its latter stages.

Ben Affleck receives top billing although his character Redfly isn’t really the main character in the film. Redfly is the oldest of the bunch and at first seems the wisest. In fact, the others don’t want to go forward with this mission unless Redfly is in. Redfly is also the character who is suffering the most financially, struggling to support his teenage children.

Affleck is fine in the role, and his character’s plight makes his decision later to jeopardize the mission by taking extra money make sense.

The central character in the film however is Pope, played by Oscar Isaac, as he’s the character who brings the team together and continually pushes them to get the job done, even when the odds stack up against them. Isaac is a talented actor who’s been in a lot of really good movies, films like OPERATION FINALE (2018), ANNIHILATION (2018), and EX MACHINA (2014). Of course, he’s most known nowadays for his portrayal of pilot Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS movies.

Isaac is excellent here in TRIPLE FRONTIER, and for me, his was the best performance in the film. You get the idea that this is something Pope wouldn’t have done ten years ago–actually, none of these guys would have— but now he seems to be driven almost by anger that even after years of putting their lives on the line, they have nothing to show for it. He’s almost obsessed with the mission, and his obsession stems from the need to seek justice for himself and his friends.

None of these guys come off as greedy.

Charlie Hunnam is an actor I have mixed feelings about. For the most part, I like him as an actor, but there are times when I find his performances grating. For example, I enjoyed him a lot as Jax Teller on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2014) but by the show’s final season, I had grown so tired of Jax’ character and Hunnam’s performance that I almost couldn’t watch it any longer.

His performances in the movies THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016) and KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017) were both very good, yet I can’t say that I enjoyed him all that much in either CRIMSON PEAK (2015) or PACIFIC RIM (2013). For the most part, here in TRIPLE FRONTIER, he’s very good. I certainly believed that his Ironhead character was a special forces officer.

Both Pedro Pascal and Garrett Hedlund round out the cast nicely, and it’s a good thing that these five guys deliver the goods because the film is pretty much focused on them and them alone from beginning to end.

One flaw in the film, however, regarding the cast, is that Adria Arjona who plays Pope’s contact Yovanna isn’t given much to do at all. Her character is reduced to not much more of an afterthought, which is a waste of Arjona’s talent. Arjona has starred in the TV series TRUE DETECTIVE (2015) and the hard-hitting horror movie THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2016). She’s excellent in her few scenes here, but had her character been included more, the story would have been even better.

As it stands, the story is a mixed bag. The first half of the movie is rather slow and not all that interesting.

The screenplay by Mark Boal and director J.C. Chandor is stuck in familiar territory with its tale of folks seeing a huge loot of money as the answer to their life’s prayers. Boal, who wrote the screenplays to the superior military movies THE HURT LOCKER (2008) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012) covered the rogue aspect of the military with more nuance in those films than he does here.

Things pick up for the second half of the film when the story jettisons its soul-searching and finally becomes an exciting action thriller. From the moment the robbery begins to afterwards, when things continually prove more difficult than expected, the story remains riveting.

It’s also during the film’s second half where director J.C. Chandor fares better as well, as he crafts some very exciting scenes, including a harrowing helicopter ride over a towering mountain range, a dangerous mountain climb, and a thrilling car chase through the jungle.

TRIPLE FRONTIER  is an okay action thriller. Its second half is much better than its first, and while it’s well-acted by its five main male actors, the absence of a major female character is certainly noticed here.

If you like testosterone-filled action movies and don’t mind a sprinkle of conscience thrown in for good measure, you probably will enjoy TRIPLE FRONTIER, although it’s not quite as hard-hitting as these types of action films need to be, nor is it as thought-provoking as it tries to be. The result is a rather average actioner that benefits from its three male leads and the fact that it certainly finishes stronger than it starts.

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