I’ve finally seen a handful of movies from this year to start doing reviews! I wouldn’t say I’ve seen a great movie from 2019 yet though. Of this batch, my favorite is probably Shazam, so see that one.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD * * * (Dir. Dean DeBlois)
When a series gets to its third entry, there’s an inherent familiarity with the world and its characters that starts to feel akin to family. You start to look at it on that basis, with a return to a place you’ve been before, been comfortable in, enjoyed yourself in the past. When it delivers familiar pleasures, the satisfaction is enhanced by our own familiarity, our knowledge of and love of these people and their motivations and desires. So it is with the final film in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, a conclusion that wraps up the story with a somewhat understated, yet graceful bow. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now chief of his clan and with as many dragons as he and his group of pals have amassed over the years (spent rescuing them from poachers, etc), they need a new place to reside, one with room for the growing habitat. There’s also a notorious dragon hunter, Grimmel, on the make for Toothless, HIccup’s Night Fury and alpha leader of the dragons, so Hiccup decides to seek out the legendary “hidden world” that his dad told him about when he was a kid- a place where dragons roam free somewhere at the edge of the world. Even though there’s some peril involving Grimmell’s hunt for Toothless, there isn’t as much at stake in this one, as it’s mostly about bringing the story to an end, and no one really suspects it’s going to be a tragic finale, do they? There’s a cute mating subplot as Toothless romances a female night fury, and Hiccup and Astrid decide whether they should tie the knot themselves, but this coming of age series stay firmly on that footing, so you know it will all turn out well. The flying scenes are gorgeous as usual, accompanied by John Powell’s lovely, majestic score and assisted once more by cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins. But the biggest accomplishment here comes from writer-director Dean DeBlois, who shepherded all three films in this series to affectionate, moving and familial results- a rare feat indeed for any cinematic trilogy. Well done.
CAPTAIN MARVEL * * (Dir. Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck)
For all of Marvel Studios’s ability to wring big-budget entertainment out of the perfunctory assembly-line moviemaking machine they’ve created, this often comes with the knack for churning out something disguised as serviceable yet rendered utterly forgettable by its lack of creative direction or inspiration. Captain Marvel is definitely one of those, an utterly uninspired, rote, formula movie running on autopilot on just about every level, from the writing to the acting and the action. Brie Larson is miscast here and turns in a flat, dull performance as Carol Danvers, a woman who’s been acting as a Kree warrior for another planet, dogged by fractions of memories of a life lived on Earth at some point in the late 80’s. She was an airforce pilot who went down in a mysterious crash- but the origins of what happened to her are the movie’s “surprises,”, so I won’t spoil that riveting mystery for you. All you need to know is that she crash lands on Earth in 1995 (the better to pump the nostalgic soundtrack with) and must piece together her former life in order to help save the world and battle evil. You know, the usual. She also teams up with Samuel L. Jackson’s digitally altered Nick Fury as a younger SHIELD agent (a pretty good effect), who’s here to provide all the comic relief in a movie relatively devoid of humor, even if it makes him seem a completely different character from the one who showed up in all those Avengers movies later on. I suppose he’s what makes this one watchable though, because the story is dull and uninteresting. The movie dodges issues of sexism and misogyny, subtly implying there “might” have been issues Danvers faced (as a female pilot in the 1980’s? No, really?) but refusing to go into anything that might pack even the slightest topical punch, as per their non-partisan Disney mission statement. Jude Law’s villain isn’t worth talking about and neither are the other familiar faces like Annette Bening and Ben Mendolsohn, just cashing a paycheck in the never-ending Marvel payout line. I’ve mostly forgotten this film after watching it less than two days ago- it’s a shame Marvel put so little effort into their first female superhero movie, but sadly the hunger for female driven action films means many of us will take what we can get. I have higher standards.
US * * 1/2 (Dir. Jordan Peele)
Jordan Peele’s highly anticipated follow-up to Get Out is another horror-comedy (this time more in line with straight horror) that wants to be an allegorical tale in the vein of classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Night of the Living Dead and The Stepford Wives, and you can see the influence of all of those films in this story of a family imperiled by its own doppelgängers. While filled with scares and gore though, it loses its way in the fog of attempted symbolism, which is so elusive that it’s almost impossible to figure out its message (something that was not unclear in any of those previously mentioned films). Lupita Nyong’o stars as Adelaide Thomas, a woman who suffered a traumatic experience as a child and is now vacationing with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and two children on the same beach where this incident took place. Soon enough, the beach town is overrun with evil doppelgängers swarming out of the sewers to kill the innocent versions of themselves and it’s up to Adelaide to save herself and her family from this fate. The movie has enough scares to satisfy people looking for thrills of that kind, but becomes a bit tedious when the family separates and starts doing battle with each of their clones- it takes a while for the movie to move into the underlying meaning of the plot, which is so vague, undefined and downright baffling that it doesn’t accomplish much more than simple confusion. Is this some sort of political allegory? Unclear. Is it about the evil inside each one of us? Certainly possible, but in the aftermath of the film’s biggest surprise revelation, that doesn’t seem to apply to everyone in it. There’s no direct meaning to take from this, which prevents the film from being as effective as it wants to be (or as effective as the earlier films Peele is attempting to emulate). It does work on a basic thrill level, but there’s too much inference and fuzzy symbolism to accept it entirely on that level, which makes it a mixed bag.
SHAZAM! * * * (Dir. David F. Sandberg)
Since the less than stellar reception of the ultra dark Zack Snyder directed Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, WB has tried to steer itself in a different direction with its superhero movies. Gone is the over reliance on the “shared universe,” and more focus has been put into simply trying to make decent, individual, standalone movies. That’s a good first step. Also gone is the brooding darkness, replaced with the lighter comedic tones of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman and now Shazam!, which is the second step in the right direction. Shazam is based on a hero who is actually called Captain Marvel (name changed now for obvious reasons, although he did come first, created in 1939), and who is a ten-year-old boy named Billy Batson, given his superpowers by a wizard- whenever he calls out “Shazam!” he transforms into a grown man with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, and the power of flight. If there’s any concept that deserves a light touch it’s this one, and thankfully the movie knows it, leaning into the Big-esque nature of it all. Asher Angel plays Billy, now 14 and an angry foster kid who wants to find his long lost mother. Placed in a new group home with five other kids his age and younger, he turns away from them, but when given his powers by the wizard (Djimon Hounsou) in a freak incident, he teams up with Freddy (the charming Jack Dylan Grazer) to let loose with his new abilities. Zachary Levi plays the adult Billy and is utterly delightful in the title role, expressing giddiness and awe at his new status and body, much like Tom Hanks did in Big (there’s even a quick nod to a floor piano in an amusement park). He also has such a natural rapport with Grazer that not for one second did I think Freddy wasn’t interacting with the same character, even though there is a frequent shift back and forth between ages. The interplay between all the foster kids is the best part of the movie, and it’s kind of a shame it has to be interrupted by Mark Strong’s lame villain (he plays Dr. Sivana, who was Captain Marvel’s archenemy in the comics, but here is just a guy whose entire motivation is jealousy over not being chosen by the wizard as a kid), but I suppose Billy has to learn how to use his powers responsibly somehow. Still, Levi and the younger actors make the movie shine for the most part, guided by sure handed, earnest direction from David F. Sandberg, who imbues the film with a reverence for superheroes in general (this is a world where Superman and Batman already exist, so one more hero walking around doesn’t faze a lot of people). I enjoyed Shazam for what it was (but I do wonder how they’re going to get many sequels out of it when they chose to start Billy off as 14 instead of 10- the whole point is the wonder of a child turning into an adult, not a teenager).
AVENGERS: ENDGAME * * * (Dir. Anthony & Joe Russo)
You wouldn’t think there would possibly be a way to satisfyingly end a series that ostensibly began withe 2012’s The Avengers, yet really started with the first Iron Man in 2008 and has built into a 19 movie franchise spanning the last 11 years, earning the Marvel (and Disney) studios billions of dollars in the process. A triumph of mass marketing is what this accomplishment really is, and as such you couldn’t imagine it culminating in a creatively satisfying manner. And yet, within the parameters of this polished and now perfected formula, the Russo brothers have actually pulled it off, about as well as could possibly be expected. I wasn’t a big fan of any of the past Avengers movies, but surprisingly enough this is my favorite one. That’s largely because following the dramatic cliffhanger that killed off many of the characters in last year’s Infinity War, coincidentally leaving only the original Avengers behind, this movie actually deals with the gravity of that decision, jumping forward five years in time as half of humanity had to move on without the rest. This actually gives a certain weight to the tragedy on some level, and changes the survivors, and even though our heroes find a time travel solution to fix what occurred, it’s not one that in any way erases what happened (your Back to the Future inspired “erased from existence” time paradox theories will not apply to this time travel movie, as is explained to us). This amounts to a decidedly non-action oriented film (a first in this franchise) as we catch up to our now changed Avengers (Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is a particular highlight in this one) and split them into teams that go hopping through many of the previous films in the franchise, (ala Back to the Future Part II) to retrieve the dastardly infinity stones that caused so much trouble the first time around. Without the standard villain and action plot to worry about, this is the most character driven and comedic of any Avengers movie, thereby earning the emotional beats that come with a couple of new and permanent deaths this time around, even as the day is mostly saved, as you know it has to be. There’s a poignance and an entertainment value to Endgame that was somewhat unexpected for me, especially as someone who never liked the previous Avengers movies and only enjoyed a handful of all the films in general (Black Panther, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok, in case you were curious). I found that this managed to wrap things up in a satisfying fashion and one that felt earned and mostly organic…that is of course, assuming you’re a fan of the franchise and have actually been keeping up with these films for the last decade. If you haven’t, this is barely a movie at all and has nothing to offer you.
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3- PARABELLUM * * 1/2 (Dir. Chad Stahelski)
The John Wick movies are fun, in their unabashed embrace of B-movie existence. The only point of them is to show off nuttier and more outlandish action scenes, most of which are Keanu Reeves’s mythical assassin killing people in increasingly bloody ways. One of the cleverer things about them is the minimal backstory given to any of the characters- the first film in particular was concise in its exposition. It really didn’t exist. Wick was a guy whose dog was killed and car stolen, he then proceeds to take his revenge in methodical, precise, overloaded fashion, showing us (not telling) that he had some kind of means and was some kind of ruthless, legendary killer known to all. This is clever because it allows each successive movie to make up new facts as it goes along without contradicting anything that was said previously, because nothing was said previously. John Wick 2 was a better movie because it expanded on the world, bringing in all kinds of famous faces for bit parts, and the third movie does that again, but this time the new faces and the new pieces of backstory are starting to build up into a much crazier whole when you think about it (not that you’re meant to think about it that much, but one can’t-miss factor is the now stated timeline between all three films being just two weeks. Two. Weeks.). But there are some impressive and immensely entertaining stunts and fight choreography in this, (my favorite being a complicated duel of blades between Wick and three knife wielding hitmen). There’s also two of the coolest and best trained attack dogs in cinema history, a chase through the city on horseback, and Keanu killing someone with a library book. Even so, I had had my fill at about 90 minutes and was restless at realizing there was a good 35 minutes left to absorb. For movies whose point is so pummel you with action, even real, tangible action in the form of stuntwork as opposed to bland CGI, there’s only so much you can take without any kind of a plot. Or characters. I like it, but not that much.