Movie Review – Shazam!

A DC Comics staple gets his time in the spotlight courtesy of David F. Sandberg’s Shazam!

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Pascoe

A troubled teen with a good heart bouncing from foster home to foster home, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) finally lands on his feet when he’s plopped on the doorstep of gentle foster parents Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans). The caring couple and their menagerie of foster children – including Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) ­– open their hearts to Billy, but he’s too busy getting into trouble and looking for his birth mum to pay them any attention.

A good deed leads Billy to a chance encounter with a mystical wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who gifts him with the ability to transform into the muscled lycra-clad adult hero Shazam (Zachary Levi), who is invulnerable to bullets, can leap buildings in a single bound and shoot lightning from his fingers. With Freddy in tow, Billy discovers the benefits of being older and super – but his gift isn’t without danger, which he comes to realise when the villainous Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) arrives on the scene.

After a rocky start, DC’s interconnected series of superhero films has come good recently. Wonder Woman remains the high watermark, and Aquaman proved even the lamest of heroes can be fun when in possession of enough charisma. David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! continues this upward trajectory, courtesy of its playful tone, colourful characters and abundance of heart. To say you’ll be beaming from ear to ear in an understatement.

While the sprawling ensemble cast is packed with great characters, Billy and Freddy’s friendship shines brightest. A second act montage where the duo experiments with Shazam’s myriad of powers (with varying results) is hilarious. It’s a gleeful exploration of how two tearaway teens would act when gifted with a grown-up body and superpowers. They buy beer, visit a strip club and generally cause mischief. Basically it’s Tom Hanks’ Big with ancient wizards and gruesome demons thrown into the mix. What’s not to love?

Levi (best known for the titular role in Chuck) and Grazer (who viewers will recognise from 2017’s It) bounce off one another with aplomb, with the former nailing the mood of a kid who just discovered they can fly at the speed of sound. Fun isn’t something audiences have come to expect from DC films, but Shazam! is making up for lost time.

Of course, every hero needs a villain, and Sivana is a passable one. Strong skulks around behind dark sunglasses, snarls about his evil intentions and has a horde of hulking monsters at his back. He exists solely to create some third act drama, but isn’t what you would call memorable.

At its core, Shazam! is about family. Billy is searching for one but looking in all the wrong places; Sivana is similarly lonely, but chooses to channel this into anger; Victor and Rosa’s home may be unconventional, but there’s no shortage of familial love at their dinner table. Because of this (and in spite of a few scares which reveal Sandberg’s horror roots remain intact), Shazam! is the perfect Saturday matinee film for the family. A simple premise with heart and humour in equal measure, Shazam! doesn’t reinvent the genre or defy expectation, but it does deliver on its promise of unbridled fun. Comes recommended.

Shazam! is available in Australian cinemas from April 4

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films


Movie Review – Captain Marvel

Ten years and 21 films into its sprawling ‘cinematic universe’, the much-loved sausage party that is Marvel Studios finally unveils its first female protagonist in Captain Marvel.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Pascoe

A disjointed first act introduces us to Vers (Brie Larson), an amnesiac commando who fights for the Kree in a vast intergalactic war against the Skrulls, a race of nefarious shape-shifters. Tutored by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Vers remembers very little about her past and refuses to play by the rules as a result. When a tussle with Skrull commander Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) causes Vers to wind up stranded on Earth, the fiery solider must untangle her past to learn the truth about her future.

If you’re not up-to-date on your Marvel lore, the first 30 minutes of Captain Marvel won’t sit and wait for you to catch up. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck aren’t interested in lengthy exposition or explanation in what can only be described as a disorderly opening. Things start to settle into a groove once Vers arrives on Earth and the customary fish-out-of-water shenanigans begin. Set in 1995, a killer soundtrack and lots of humour at the dated technology ensures laughs aplenty.

Crossing paths with SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson, back in all his Jules Winnfield glory courtesy of a computer) and a fresh recruit called Coulson (Clark Gregg, also sans wrinkles), the jigsaw pieces in the Captain Marvel puzzle start to fall into place during a much stronger second act. At its core, Captain Marvel is a film about empathy and embracing your inner strength – it just takes a while for all this to coalesce into a coherent narrative.

The film struggles to make everything fit, offering us glimpses of Vers’ mysterious past while also tying the film into the wider Marvel timeline. It works, but you get the feeling that a lot has been surgically removed to trim down the runtime – most notably in the lacking scenes with McKenna Grace and Annette Bening in their respective roles as young Vers and [redacted].

A powerful finale makes good on the film’s early promise; once Vers gets going, nothing will stand in her way – an apt and resonant message that feels essential in 2019. The only thing really holding Captain Marvel back from reaching that upper echelon in the Marvel pantheon is its presentation; the action is often dark and murky, a far cry from the vivid bursts of colour splashed across the screen in James Gunn’s similarly space-bound Guardians of the Galaxy films. Meanwhile, its villains are run-of-the-mill and rote, with Marvel’s batting average with antagonists continuing to slip further into ‘disappointing’.

When it works, it really works. But this is a clunky and inconsistent opening chapter, akin to 2016’s Doctor Strange or the first Thor. I suspect, as with those characters, Captain Marvel will really come into her own when she gets to bounce off others in upcoming Avengers sequel, Endgame. Until then, we’ll have to make do with ‘good enough’.

Captain Marvel is available in Australian cinemas from March 7

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Movie Review – Alita: Battle Angel

Robert Rodriguez tackles the conventional with Alita: Battle Angel, a dystopian romance that never quite takes off.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Alita: Battle Angel gets one thing right: Alita herself. Just about everything else makes little sense. Alita’s a cyborg who has lost her memory, except when she’s cornered, then she instinctively knows how to somersault from ledges and rip off arms like a raging gymnast crossed with Jason Bourne. She has the face of Rosa Salazar, the actress who portrays her, but her eyes have been enlarged and her jaw narrowed so that she looks like something out of a comic book, which she is. She’s never less than captivating.

The movie starts in the 26th century with Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a renowned cybernetic scientist, discovering Alita’s torso in a scrap pile. He reanimates her body, revives her core and raises her like his own. He warns her to avoid the dreaded sport, Motorball, which is essentially roller derby played at the level of the Super Bowl and is the fuel that runs the city.

We are told that 300 hundred years ago, a terrible war was fought that left the world in ruin. What caused the war? Who knows? Never mind. Alita soon discovers that she may have been built as a weapon long before the war even began, and that some of her answers could lie in Zalem, the legendary metropolis that hovers ominously above her lower-caste city.

The Motorball league is run by Vector (Mahershala Ali), your typical bad guy in the penthouse suite. He is in cahoots with the impossibly silky Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), Ido’s ex-wife whose motives, frankly, are unclear. Together they do the bidding of Nova, a mysterious mastermind who lives up in Zalem and has his finger in every pie. Then there’s Hugo (Keean Johnson), the strapping renegade who does whatever it takes to survive, including – gasp! – betraying the one he loves. And how could I forget the subculture of cyborg bounty hunters?

See, the problem with Alita is that it has a wonderful central character and an intriguing set-up, but overcrowds its margins with too many supporting players, many of whom feel ultimately redundant (Vector is remarkably one-note). The movie comes alive as long as Alita’s on screen, preferably beating someone up. Once the attention moves away, everything seems to grind to a halt.

It is directed by Robert Rodriguez and based on a limited 1990 Japanese manga series called “Gunnm”. However, it only contains pockets of imagination. If you enjoy high-tech movies with awesome fight scenes and big explosions, Alita: Battle Angel is for you. I wanted more, because Alita is designed for something greater. But hey, it looks like I will get more, because there will certainly come a sequel. I just hope it’s not in 3D.

Alita: Battle Angel is available in Australian cinemas from February 14

Images courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Movie Review – Aquaman

Aquaman swims into cinemas this Boxing Day. Will DC’s latest tentpole cause a splash or be all lost at sea? #sorrynotsorry

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Pascoe

What do you get you pour a dash of Jules Verne, a drop of Shakespeare, a dollop of Star Wars, a smidge of Indiana Jones, a pinch of Jupiter Ascending and a whole load of generic superhero cheesiness into a bowl and mix it up? Something that resembles James Wan’s Aquaman, it would seem.

If I had to sum Aquaman up in one word it would be ‘daft’. There are a lot of other words I could choose from – colourful, scattershot, goofy, beautiful and fun rate among them. But it’s ‘daft’ that sums up this overlong, tonally-confused blast more than anything else.

Aquaman, which features an octopus that can play the drums, is so far removed from Zack Snyder‘s doom and gloom vision of Batman and Superman that asking audiences to buy into the idea that these three characters coexist in the same world is a huge stretch, and confirms that DC has performed a complete 180 with its film series. The game plan going forward is all about having fun, even if that means ignoring a little thing called character.

Set after the events of Justice League, Aquaman sees Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) tussling with small-time pirates but refusing to take up the mantle of king of Atlantis. When his half-brother and current Atlantean monarch Orm (Patrick Wilson) threatens war with ‘the surface’ (i.e. humans), Princess Mera (Amber Heard) reaches out to Arthur and urges him to ‘fulfill his destiny’ by retrieving a long-lost magic trident or some such – you know the drill.

It’s in the plotting that the cracks start to appear. Key moments, such as a tidal wave that devastates the east coast of America, are quickly pushed aside for next big action beat. The quest to retrieve a magical MacGuffin that proves Arthur’s royal credentials skips around a fair bit, with the treasure hunt taking Arthur and Mera from Massachusetts to the Sahara, Sicily and a spooky trench in the North Sea. Each chapter in the quest in punctuated with some surprisingly well-staged action, with Wan calling on his background in horror (The Conjuring, Insidious) to open each set piece suddenly and loudly, with pyrotechnics in place of scares.

However, this jolly adventure doesn’t have time to rest and focus on character. Everything about who Arthur is, why Orm is the way he is or what Mera wants is spelled out in the broadest of strokes. Instead, Aquaman would rather move onto the next exciting scrape or scuffle, provided the transition is soundtracked by Pitbull’s woeful cover of Toto’s ‘Africa’ of course.

Undeniably fun but fatally flawed, Aquaman offers an entertaining diversion with wave after wave of action, noise and colour. If only it had time to reflect on its actual characters, rather that simply tossing them from place to place in search of the next punch-up.

Aquaman is available in Australian cinemas from December 26

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – Bumblebee

Travis Knight’s Bumblebee spin-off flies into cinemas later this month. We caught an early preview to see what all the buzz is about.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Rhys Pascoe

After five increasingly bombastic entries from Michael Bay, Paramount’s weary Transformers series was in dire need of reinvention. Said change arrives this December, taking the form of a souped-up, cute-as-a-button VW Beetle and actress, model and songstress Hailee Steinfeld. So long Shia and Marky Mark. You will not be missed.

Set in 1987, 20 years prior to the first Transformers film, Bumbleebee sees the mute robot in disguise on the run and taking refuge in a remote junkyard. Charlie (Steinfeld), a lonely teen on the cusp of adulthood, is gifted a bright yellow bug as an 18th birthday present, unknowingly beginning a beautiful friendship and charming buddy film.

Bear withme here, but this film – yes, the one with the huge hulking robots that smash into one another and can turn into a Subaru or whatever – is one of the most heartfelt blockbusters of the year. At its core, Bumblebee is a coming-of-age tale. There are enemies to defeat and worlds to save, but what it boils down to is a girl, her car and the bond they grow to share.

The screenplay, penned by Christina Hodson(who will soon write DC’s Birds of Prey and Batgirlmovies), pushes all the hallmarks of a Transformers film to the periphery. Gone is the unbearable military jingoism, leery male gaze and explosions full of fireworks and Catherine wheels. The garish filter that drenched everything in oversaturated colours is gone, the Transformers themselves more closely resemble the original designs that fans will remember from the 80’s and the action is more sporadic and less frenetic, with cleaner edits and less unintelligible CGI cluttering the screen.

That said, cynics might sneer at the soundtrack, which is jam-packed with 80’s hits. This is a fair complaint, as Bumblebee definitely panders to the same nostalgia centres of our brain as, say, Stranger Things or Ready Player One, simultaneously catching kids who love Transformers now and adults who loved Transformers in the 80’s in its web.

So, there you have it. 10 years after Michael Bay introduced the world to Megan Fox and splashed his bombastic brand of auteurism across a classic 80’s cartoon and we finally have a half-decent Transformers flick. There have been moments of greatness, but Bumblebee is the first film in the series to possess both the ‘warm and fuzzies’ and the colourful explosions we’ve come to expect.

Bumblebee is available in Australian cinemas from December 20

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Movie Review – Mortal Engines

Mortal Engines is a great concept plagued by a clunky script and an underdeveloped storyline. Thankfully, the intricate attention to detail in the visual and special effects saves the film from being a complete disaster.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

Mortal Engines follows Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a young and mysterious girl living in a post-apocalyptic world where towns operate on wheels and try to protect their precious resources from other, bigger cities. When Hester fails to assassinate the man who killed her mother, she ends up on the run with the naïve Tom (Robert Sheehan), and together they try to figure out how to survive and save what little is left of the world.

The concept for Mortal Engines is daring and interesting. The idea of cities being shrunk down and transportable on wheels is crazy, as is the CGI to make this world possible. First time feature director Christian Rivers has a history of working in visual and special effects, and the impeccable detail that has gone into this film’s fx is a testament to this.

Unfortunately, the same attention wasn’t given to the story or the characterisation of Hester and Tom, and this is where the film falters. The film jumps around quite a lot and characters just keep sweeping in and out without much clarity given as to why they’re important to the story. The film tries its best to show how this new Earth operates, but it feels like too much is crammed in without giving each part the proper time it needs.

Hester Shaw is a mess of a character and her story is told in jumble. At the beginning, she’s an orphan who’s mother is mercilessly killed, then it turns out she was raised by a robot like creature who once was human, but chose to rid itself of feelings. This is all relived very quickly and randomly by Hester and then she goes back to being silent again. A hint of a romance develops between Tom and Hester, but it’s never fully explored, seeming more like a forced side note that tries to keep within fantasy film tropes.

Mortal Engines ultimately suffers from a poor script and an inexperienced storyteller in Rivers. The technical side of the film is brilliant and saves it from being a complete flop.

Mortal Engines is available in Australian cinemas from December 7

Image © Universal Pictures 2018

Movie Review – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Not one, but seven Spider-Men prove that artistic ambition, risk taking, and heart are still alive in blockbuster franchise films. You’re in for an absolute blast.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

Ordinary Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales’ (Shameik Moore) admiration of long-time hero Spider-Man becomes all-consuming when he, too, is bitten by a radioactive spider and begins to develop super powers. When Spider-Man’s attempts to thwart a plot by the villainous Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) ends in tragedy, Miles is thrust into taking up Spider-Man’s mantle and protecting the city. But now he’s not the onl ySpider-Man; Kingpin’s reality-meddling has transported several other alterations of Spider-Man from different dimensions into Miles’ own, opening the ‘Spider-Verse’.

Here’s something you probably didn’t see coming. In a year completely overstuffed with superhero movies, one very late entry blows the whole lot of them away and manages to completely reinvigorate the genre. Here’s something else. It’s the seventh entry in the Spider-Man franchise, the fourth reboot of the character, this time in cartoon form from the same studio responsible for The Emoji Movie. And yet Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse completely shatters all expectations. It’s the best Spider-Man outing since Spider-Man 2 and it’s the best animated movie of the past few years. It’s also the most satisfying bang-for-your buck blockbuster extravaganza this year – yep, more so than Avengers:Infinity War.

Like Infinity War, you’ll need a bit of prior knowledge to appreciate this culmination of a number of beloved characters in one all-out spectacle. The Spider-Man we’ve known and loved for so long, Peter Parker, this time steps aside into a Mr. Miyagi-type mentor role to Miles Morales, a charismatic fan-favourite who cements himself as a black superhero with even more staying power than Black Panther. The relationship between this pair of Spider-Men forms the core story, but the many decades of Spider comics have been mined meaning we’re treated to a whole bunch of others along for the ride – spunky Spider-Woman Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), 30’s black and white crime detective Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), anime girl with a Spider-Bot Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), and wisecracking pig Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). 

Anyone afraid that a shift to animation will limit the wall-crawler’s appeal need not fear. Spider-fans of all ages are bound to be pleased, especially long-time fans, who will gush at the number of references thrown in, including the late Stan Lee’s cameo, which is impeccably timed and bittersweet. The animation itself is absolutely breathtaking, and truly unlike anything we’ve seen on the big screen before. The style blurs the lines between 2D and 3D, and gives a genuine sense of being thrust right into the pages of a comic book. Visually, it could be labelled an inventive masterpiece, exploding with vibrant colour and creative detail .

Sixteen years on and Spider-Man is more unstoppable tha never in 2018, with a huge splash in the Avengers, a hit PS4 game, and now the year’s funniest, most satisfying and enjoyable blockbuster. There’s no sign of the webslinger slowing down. Inevitably, Sony has already announced a number of sequels and spin-offs which are more than welcome, but as a standalone gem, it’s going to be hard to top this.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is available in Australian cinemas from December 13

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Movie Review – Robin Hood 2018

Stylistically confused and narratively dreadful, this new Robin Hood feels dated before even beginning.

Zachary Cruz-Tan

I should have known right from the moment Taron Egerton’s ominous narration warns that what we’re about to witness is not the Robin Hood story as we know it, but a thrilling and uncharted version of the great folktale. It comes from experience that movies that think they’re doing something new and exciting often end up delivering the opposite.

I’m not sure where to begin, really. I could talk about the dialogue, which is boilerplate and often nonsensical. I could discuss the action, which is loud and professional and is of course edited with the patience of a hyperactive puppy. I could ponder the movie’s themes, which work because the themes of Robin Hood work, but they’re washed away when a sequel is teased. The bottom line is Robin Hood made me and, judging from the stillness of the theatre air, everyone else uncomfortable.

But let’s say for a moment that you are entirely new to the legend of Robin Hood, and that this iteration, directed by Otto Bathurst, is your introduction. You’d need to know that Robin (Egerton), once a lord of Nottingham, is whisked off to fight in the Crusades and returns to find his manor in ruins, his paramour Marian (Eve Hewson) in the arms of another man (Jamie Dornan),and the entire town under the pressing thumb of the despotic Sheriff (Ben Mendelsohn). The people are oppressed and so Robin, filled with vengeful spite, ignites their rebellious spirit by robbing the rich to give to the poor.

None of that, though, explains why the filmmakers decided to jumble up history so that customs and fashion are out of place. Or how the villains could be so daft as to outline their master plan in immense detail with Robin in the same room. Robin is a hero who should be cocky and brazen. That’s lacking here, as it did with Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner before. In truth, if you want the last great Robin Hood picture, you’d do well with Mel Brooks’ Men in Tights (1993).

Robin Hood is available in Australian cinemas from November 22

Image courtesy of StudioCanal

Movie Review – Venom

Fan-favourite and Spidey rival Venom gets a solo venture, but despite its best efforts, this lethargic slog lacks the panache of its web-slinging cousin. 

 ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Pascoe 

Okay, let’s get the confusing stuff out of the way. Yes, Venom is a character closely tied to Spider-man comic-books. No, this movie doesn’t feature Spidey, Tom Holland or any other crossover with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s where the issues start (and certainly not where they end), because when all is said and done, even though Venom has its redeeming qualities, this superhero spin-off is in dire need of the heart, humour, and polish that audiences have come to expect from Marvel.

The film centres around investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), who finds himself out of a job and separated from his lawyer fiancée Anne (Michelle Williams) after he leverages sensitive information from her work laptop for a story on shady billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). Down on his luck, Eddie delves a little deeper in Drake’s secretive business and lands himself a gnarly symbiote from outer space (don’t you just hate it when that happens). The gooey entity – which calls itself Venom – speaks to Eddie and bestows him with a number of special abilities, which Eddie puts to good use in combating Drake’s nefarious operation.

So, here’s the bottom line. Venom isn’t up there with cinematic abominations such as Catwoman or Green Lantern. It’s not even bad enough to be oddly entertaining, like 1997’s Batman and Robin. It just washes over you, neither entertaining nor horrifying enough to hold your attention. I found myself strangely bored by the mish-mash of ugly VFX, dark cinematography and uninspired design oozing from every frame.

There’s a lot of talent striving to excel, but the writing puts a swift end to that. Williams’ character is as bland as white bread and shares about as much chemistry with Hardy as two soggy logs. Ahmed’s villain is your standard scheming corporate cardboard cut-out. At least Hardy is having fun with it – his performance is filled with weird idiosyncrasies that range from inspired to downright bizarre.

There are some moments of schlocky horror. There are some moments of side-splitting humour. But in hedging its bets, Venom excels at nothing in particular. One could argue Venom would’ve been better had all involved stuck to their guns and served up something gory and aimed at adults (like Logan or Deadpool), but more violence wouldn’t fix its myriad other issues. At the end of the day, this film is just the latest effort from a studio trying to ape Marvel’s formula – and it doesn’t do a very good job.

Venom is available in Australian cinemas from October 4 2018. 

Also screening as part of  the RoofTop Movies Program 1 on Nov 29.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures 


Movie Review – The Predator

Shane Black’s new Predator movie is entertaining and regularly funny. Other than that it’s quite the mess.

⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan 

Here, once again, is a Predator movie that is loud, bombastic and utterly preposterous. If you thought the plot to the 1987 film was too dumb by half, this one is about half of that. It involves a bunch of loony military veterans, a kid who another character calls retarded, and a hybrid alien that’s basically a metre taller and twice as ugly. It also has such bravado and ingenuity as to name itself THE Predator, even though more than one Predator shows up.

This is a movie built to exhibit aliens, guns and inappropriate jokes, not to solve complex maths equations. The plot, such as it is, concerns a Predator crashing its space pod in Mexico only to be hunted by a larger hybrid Predator for trying to deliver a secret weapon to the humans. Uh-huh. Never mind why or what the secret weapon is. You won’t believe it even when you see it.

The humans, as is customary in monster alien movies like this, are made up of thinly veiled characters who will either defeat the villainous creatures or get slaughtered by them. The hero is Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), a sniper who sees the Predator at the beginning and is immediately sent by the government for psych evaluations. He is joined by a group of former soldiers, and an exobiologist (Olivia Munn) who looks like a Maxim cover girl and is amazingly proficient at physical combat.

That’s not all. The larger hybrid Predator has a pair of predator dogs, which I’m assuming are alien mutts, since they sport the same hairdo as their master, but for some reason they behave entirely like Earth dogs, scratching themselves and playing fetch.

Okay, I know what you’re saying. The Predator is directed by Shane Black, whose movies have always been a little tongue-in-cheek, a little cavalier. Perhaps it’s not wise to look too deeply into them. But shouldn’t this one at least make sense? At times it feels like a whole other movie was cut from it in the editing room.

Backstories are hinted at but never explored. Plot points are established early and then forgotten. Characters do bizarre things, like breaking the space/time continuum by teleporting hundreds of kilometres in the same scene. The larger hybrid Predator is completely underwhelming. And then, before you can blink, the climactic fight is over and something even more underwhelming happens: a sequel is teased.

The Predator is available in Australian cinemas from September 13 

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox