Tag Archives: review

Film Review | The DCEU Gets Fun With The Charming Heartfelt Shazam!

This review was originally published on HeadStuff.org on April 4, 2019. 

One of the most heartfelt statements made by veteran comic book writer Frank Miller is: “I don’t need to see sweat patches under Superman’s arms. I want to see him fly.”

Its meaning is apparent: Superhero fiction operates best when it leans into its inherent absurdity. That doesn’t mean such stories cannot be ‘serious’ or contain deeper reflections. Grant Morrison’s applauded miniseries All-Star Superman, for example, presents some of the more fantastical elements of the genre – super-serums, 50s-inspired monster fights; sublime science-fantasy – while simultaneously acting as a reflection on legacy and mortality.

However, from the late-1980s to the present, we have seen a slew of dreary superhero fables, to varying degrees of success. In order to distinguish itself from the competition (the hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe), the recent cinematic output from DC/Warner Brothers has attempted to emulate the darker aesthetics of books like The Dark Knight Returns, without the thematic gravitas or understanding that such stories were intended to be deconstructionist takes on well-established characters.

Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice were universally panned for being bombastic, heartless, confusing adaptations of the source materials upon which they are based. Consequently, in the case of BvS, negative critical reception led to a historic box office drop of 81.2% in its second weekend. In a bid to not lose money (a genius corporate strategy), Warner Brothers quickly overhauled the entire creative vision for the DC Movie Universe. Shazam! is the culmination of these efforts.

The film strips back the appeal of superhero adventures to its essentials – childhood wish fulfilment – and gives it a glossy millennial sheen. Shazam! centres around 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) as he bounces from foster home to foster home while searching for his biological mother. He is granted magic powers by an ancient wizard known as Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), transforming him from a child into a (seemingly) grown-up, Superman-esque figure when he says the wizard’s name out loud. He shares his secret with his newfound foster brother, the paraplegic, superhero-obsessed Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer).

Shazam! is at its best when it joyfully explores what it would be like to see two kid brothers play around with superpowers: Freddy films Batson, in full Shazam mode, testing out his flight and lightning abilities, and he becomes a viral sensation. The two prevent a burglary in a petrol station (the boys having been in the store attempting to buy beer) and are boyishly delighted to find that Batson’s alter-ego is bulletproof. They pitch ridiculous superhero names to each other (“Captain Sparkle Fingers”) and attempt to get into a gentlemen’s club (but only to grab some chicken wings). Basically, they have fun.

Every superhero origin story has an extended scene where the hero plays around with their powers for the first time. But nowhere before have we seen this concept approached with such abandon, and for such a huge portion of the film. The audience is invited by director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) to share in the children’s joy, and for the most part he is successful.

This is down to the performances of Angel, Grazer and Zachary Levi. The latter, in particular, is perfectly-cast as Batson’s Shazam persona. He balances childlike wonder with traditional super-heroics, gracefully carrying both the comedic and more serious scenes he is featured in.

Shazam! is also a film conscious of its place in the DC Extended Universe, and this is carefully woven into the metatext of the film. The concept of the Shazam legacy, that it is handed down from generation to generation only to those who are worthy to carry the title, is met with scepticism initially by Batson: “Good pure people,” he says to his greying, haggard predecessor, “I am not one of them. I’m not sure anyone is.”

This world is inhabited by a Batman who murders people, and a Superman who levelled his home city without care. If these heroes are supposed to be represent the best of humanity, then it’s unsurprising that everyone’s moral compass is skewed. It’s also a slick reference to our obsession with angst-laden anti-heroes.

We never get the sense that Batson was right in saying he was undeserving of the title: There are no murderous rampages or long-winded monologues on the nature of heroism. He’s just here and he tries to do good. He’s a hero in the most basic sense, and this is honestly a breath of fresh air in a cinematic climate over-saturated with broody men in expensive costumes.

The film falters slightly due to its run-time. Clocking in at 132 minutes, you do feel it overstays its welcome. The second act’s playful superpower montage could be shorter, and the climactic final showdown could also have done with some editing down. Although, every scene with Mark Strong’s gruesomely over-the-top-to-the-point-of-camp villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, is an absolute joy to watch.

There is no world-ending event here, either. The final fight of good-versus-evil is a personal one, and it contains a sweet twist with enough heart to warm over the most cynical of viewers.

By daring to be silly, and by presenting a morally unambiguous hero, Shazam! is a welcome change of pace for DC’s fledgling cinematic output. One can only hope that they inject future installments in this franchise with enough optimism to keep people like me interested.

Shazam! is out in cinemas now.

Featured Image Credit

Film Review | Aquarius Is a Poignant Reflection on Ageing and Intimacy

This article originally appeared on the HeadStuff website on March 16th, 2017.

Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius is a poignant reflection on ageing, a focused character study on the protagonist Clara (Sônia Braga), who tries to live her life in spite of multiple intrusions to its status quo. Although the socio-economic conditions of modern Brazil exist on the peripheries, make no mistake, this is a film about an individual and her quest for inner peace in her increasingly tumultuous personal life.

The film centres on the ageing Clara, called ‘Dona Clara’ by friends, a retired journalist, as she struggles to hold on to an apartment her family has held for generations. She refuses to sell to a construction company looking to own the property, despite being the last person left in the building, even as she faces pressure from her closest family to accept a deal. The construction company’s attempts to persuade Clara turn sinister and they stage orgies and religious gatherings in apartments upstairs, forcing our determined and caustic protagonist to take action.

The film’s opening sets the tone: we are introduced to a young Clara (Bárbara Colen) who attends the 70th birthday party of her aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez). Friends and relatives gather and recount Lucia’s various achievements, and it is discovered Clara has recently survived a battle with cancer. While Lucia’s achievements are listed – she entered Law at a time in Brazil’s history when it was difficult for women to engage with such systems – her mind wanders elsewhere: she recalls moments of intimacy from her youth while her nieces and nephews speak, and reminds them that in their recollections they skipped over the ‘sexual revolution’ of which she was a proponent.

Aquarius - HeadStuff.org

The film then moves to the present and shifts focus to the now older Clara, who appears to be inspired by her vivacious aunt. She reels against the passage of time, refusing to let age be a determining factor in what she can or cannot do: she simultaneously owns records and cassettes alongside digital formats like .mp3 files, and her battle to retain her long-time home, despite outside interference, becomes an extension of this. Clara desperately tries to hold on to her youth, and long, focused shots of a cabinet owned by her aunt Lucia, whose apartment she now occupies, articulates this struggle of sentimentality versus a more exterior, harsher reality. “I am a child and an old lady all together,” she tells her now grown-up children.

This film is to be applauded for its depiction of the ageing female body. A close-up in the film’s first act briefly depicts Clara naked, her right breast removed via mastectomy, and it is not shown for the appeasement of the heterosexual male gaze. Rather, it appears to emphasise her character’s long history, and by not expressing nudity in a sexual, performative or submissive manner – Clara appears naked not to fulfill the needs of a male contemporary, but rather to wash her body – the film asserts her independence and highlights her solitary existence. When Clara experiences sexual intimacy – she is accosted by a widower at a dance club, and later hires a gigolo – she asserts dominance, guiding her male partners in the act. The film is unabashed in its depiction of ageing sexualities and champions the sexual prowess of its middle-aged protagonist.

Aquarius - HeadStuff.org

Of course, in a film that is more focused on impalpable themes of ageing and the passage of time, the plot takes a backseat until the film’s final act, at which point, much to the film’s detriment, it takes centre-stage. The text loses momentum here when it attempts to wrap up things up having spent a concentrated amount of time on subtext. However, without giving too much away, it delivers one of the most satisfying endings in recent memory as Clara stands up to her tormentors in a climax designed to please.

In all, Aquarius is a beautiful-looking film (Mendonça Filho makes ample use of each frame, filling the text with a plethora of visual information that it warrants repeat viewing), with a poignant and nuanced depiction of one woman’s struggle against the passage of time. It is a case study in determination and will power, and a celebration of its middle-aged protagonist.

Aquarius is in cinemas March 24th. View the trailer below.

Featured Image Source

Film Review | The Beatles: Eight Days a Week Offers Valuable Insight into an Influential Band

This review was originally posted online on the HeadStuff Website on September 06th, 2016.

In the years following their break-up, John Lennon would say that the Beatles were in the crow’s nest of the ship that would discover the ‘New World.’ He was referring of course to the 1960s, a decade of discovery and experimentation. At this time support for the Civil Rights movement was proliferating, a nuclear threat would forever change the world’s geopolitical landscape, the Vietnam War was shaking America’s very confidence in itself, and ‘hippie’ counterculture encouraged youths to challenge the established order of their parents’ generation. It was a period of simultaneous excitement and unease, and this is the climate director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon) hopes to capture in The Beatles: Eight Days a Week. It is a film that looks at the band’s touring years of 1963 to 1966 and the ‘Beatlemania’ they inspired.

John Lennon’s quote is not without some merit: although Howard claims the Beatles’ touring years are his focus, it is apparent as the film unfolds that this is not entirely true. Yes, the film features live performances from the band and recounts their various backstage antics, but it also documents the social, political and cultural fallout from the Beatles’ introduction to the music scene. In order to emphasise their wide-ranging influence, Howard asks entertainers from every walk of celebrity life to describe how the band has influenced them: Richard Curtis, known for his work in comedy, describes their wit and charm; actor Sigourney Weaver describes the electric-energy of seeing them live (and even appears at a concert in archive footage); composer Howard Goodall emphasises the genius of their compositions.

The Beatles playing live at the height of 'Beatlemania.' Source

Most spectacularly, Whoopi Goldberg describes how the group transcended racial boundaries, stating “I never saw them as white guys!” This point returns later in the film: upon hearing that the audience at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida was to be racially segregated, the Beatles refused to play unless promoters desegregated the audience. Their wish was ultimately granted and on September 11th 1964, the Beatles performed to a mixed-race crowd of 23,000. The Beatles were also famously critical of the Vietnam War and were huge proponents of the hippie ‘free love’ movement. While watching the film it becomes increasingly apparent that the Beatles were important voices for the time – the 1960s needed the Beatles as much as the Beatles needed the 1960s.

The archival concert footage featured in the film is masterfully remastered, with the group sounding crisp and clear. This makes the Beatles live experience far more tangible than before. The film also does well to emphasise the importance of Brian Epstein and George Martin. The Beatles’ success did not occur in a vacuum: Epstein helped propel them to the top by honing their image, and Martin helped create their musical style in the recording studios of Abbey Road. The film ends just as, arguably, the most interesting period of the Beatles’ story is about to begin: tired of constant touring, social events, photoshoots and fan harassment, in 1966 the group retire to the studio to focus all their energy into making music, resulting in experimental albums like Sgt. Pepper, the White Album, andLet It Be. However, in not covering the band’s entire history, Howard utilises the shorter time span to create a focused, insightful piece into the most influential band in history.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week will be simulcast worldwide on September 15th with an exclusive showing at the Light House on that day. It will then be available to stream from Hulu. View the trailer below.

Featured Image Source

Café Society: Review

This review was originally published in the University Observer’s Freshers’ Magazine in September 2016. It was later published online.

Directed by: Woody Allen

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Parker Posey, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll

Release Date: September 2nd

Café Society is Woody Allen’s forty-sixth film and by now his time spent in the spotlight is showing. The film is full to the brim with the tropes and archetypes of Allen’s cinema, and they are wheeled out and displayed at such momentum that it often plays like a self-defeating parody of itself.  A neurotic protagonist, jazz music, a period setting, Jewish stereotypes, and an awkward romance are all on parade in this nostalgia-fest.

The film is set in the 1930s, during Hollywood’s Golden Era, and begins as Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg, doing his best Woody Allen impression), a Jewish man from the Bronx, moves to Hollywood to start afresh. It is there that he encounters his uncle, Phil (Steve Carell), an overworked but completely adept talent agent, and his secretary Veronica (Kristen Stewart).  The relationship between the two men becomes strained when Veronica falls in love with both of them, dredging another trope of Allen’s cinema – that of an older man forming a relationship with a woman significantly his junior. There is also a subplot involving Bobby’s gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll), and the film jumps back and forth between the two at the cost of consistent tone and pace.

This is yet another period piece by the veteran director and by now he can slip in and out, change and adapt, to the recent past with a relevant ease. The lavish sets and gorgeous cinematography by Vitorrio Storaro combine to idealise a period when glamour and superficiality trumped substance; muted primary colours typify the Hollywood Allen wishes to depict.

Such attractive imagery leaves you with a feeling of wanting, however; Allen spends more time dealing with a plot that is predictable and paper-thin, and less exploring the world he has created. Although names like ‘Irene Dunne,’ and ‘Errol Flynn’ are dispersed throughout the dialogue, the film does not dedicate enough time to immersing itself fully in the period it sets to mimic. The beauty of Midnight in Paris, Allen’s 2012 offering, is that, while advancing the film’s central romance we are treated, often humorously, to caricatures of 1920s Modernist writers.  In Café Society, we are less tourists of history than bored patrons desperately trying to see everything before the museum closes.

In a Nutshell: Café Society is a gorgeous-looking wasted opportunity. Rent Midnight in Paris instead.

Hand Gestures: Review

This piece was originally published in the University Observer in November 2015, both online and in print.

Director: Francesco Clerici

Release Date: 2015, with an exclusive release in the IFI from the 24th November.

History is important, and no one understands that more than director Francesco Clerici. His debut feature Hand Gestures is an ode to the manual labour and history associated with craftwork. He films a group of sculptors in the Fonderia Artistica Battaglia in Milan, Italy, as they work on one of artist Velasco Vitali’s famous ‘Off Leash’ bronze Dog Scultpures. In doing so he captures each stage of the process of lost-wax casting in great detail, from early to final design, eschewing narration and music in the process.

The film begins by telling viewers that the lost-wax casting method was developed in the 4th century BC and that, despite advancements in modern technology, the process of production has remained completely unchanged since this time. The film cuts intermittently to archive footage of people using this method to create statues, and the chosen images from decades past match each stage of production in the Fonderia Artistica Battaglia in 2014. Sound effects from the contemporary footage carry over into archive footage as the craftspeople work, making for an engaging way to emphasise the importance of history and intergenerational teaching. The method of lost-wax casting is handed down by generation, so history is important to these craftspeople.

This feature also acts as an ode to craftsmanship and manual labour. Multiple close-ups of workers’ hands are shown, to highlight the grit and grime of their work, and the stages of production of the bronze statue are depicted in meticulous detail. Without narration or music to break the silence, viewers are made concentrate entirely on the techniques, sounds, and procedures associated with this unique field of work. This never feels like a chore to watch, however, as there is something inherently appealing in watching the project come together. Each stage of production is enjoyable to witness, and when the bronze statue is finally completed there is strange satisfaction in seeing it take its place amongst Vitali’s other pieces.

Without the signifiers of traditional documentary filmmaking (narration et cetera), there is an overbearing sense that we, the audience, are there with the craftspeople as they work. It feels like we have been let in on a secret, like we are bearing witness to a centuries old craft that few know. For this reason, Hand Gestures is an unusually engaging film.

In A Nutshell: Hand Gestures is an ode to manual labour, history, and intergenerational teaching. By eschewing narration, dialogue, and music, Francesco Clerici invites us into this world in a captivating way. This is one not to be missed.