CITY ON A HILL

CITY ON A HILLBy Alan Yudman

 

Showtime’s CITY ON A HILL is a lot. A lot of story, a lot of corruption, a lot of cast and a lot of “chowdah”. Set in Boston in the late 1980’s, the show features a corrupt FBI Agent (Kevin Bacon), and an ambitious and idealistic young prosecutor (Aldis Hodge) who team up with the goal of getting rid of corruption in Boston. Then there is a crew of robbers who are ripping off armored cars lead by Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker) who is trying to keep his family together while “taking care of it”(his signature response when a problem arises).

 

The Matt Damon/Ben Affleck produced show is well acted and has a lot of potential for exploring the DEPARTED/BLACK MASS territory in more depth. But instead of going deep on a couple of storylines, the show casts a wide net. At times it feels a mile wide and an inch deep.  The cast is enormous and talented. In addition to Bacon, Hodge and Tucker there are (deep breath).. Jill Hennessy, Mark O’Brien, Lauren E. Banks, Kevin Dunn, Amanda Clayton, Sarah Shahi, Jere Shea, Cathy Moriarty, James Remar. All have significant roles, so as you can see if you have that many mouths to feed someone will go hungry. In this case it’s the audience.

 

Surrounding the main plot of the heist and investigation are Bacon’s family drama, Hodge’s wife’s career, and Tucker’s family drama. And there are subplots piled on subplots. It never gets confusing because nothing is explored in any depth. For example, Tucker’s oldest daughter has obviously witnessed some type of trauma that is giving her nightmares. We sort of find out what it’s connected to but never explicitly learn what happened. Hennessy is Bacon’s aggrieved and tormented wife who has to deal with his attitude and infidelity. We find out she’s been abused as a child, but so late in the series it’s treated more as a bombshell than a piece of a larger story. Shahi is a state police detective who references her Persian heritage and how she tries to pass as one of Boston’s Aqua Netted natives. She has a wonderfully honest and well-acted scene where she admits she’ll never be one of “them”. But once that threat is pulled, it is cut and disposed of. Plus, that stated goal at the beginning of the series, cleaning up the corrupt Boston and Suffolk County system, is never really explored or fulfilled.

 

Those are just a few examples. What keeps this from being an unwatchable mess are Bacon and Hodge (and in a smaller role, Shahi). Their working tension and scheming behind each other’s backs is the heart of the series. Bacon puts on his tough FBI agent façade but is tormented by his mother-in-law and his reputation. He buries himself in cocaine and drowns his sorrows in booze. He is a bastard and hard to like. Hodge’s ambition is thwarted by Bacon’s hubris and his own idealism. But he plays the calm, calculating prosecutor very well.

 

If Showtime decides on a second season for CITY ON A HILL, here’s hoping they decide to drop some of the B, C and D plots and give more time and depth to whatever the main story will be. Thatwould be bet ter for the actors and the audience.

INGRID GOES WEST

by Alan Yudman

Swipe up. Double tap. Swipe up. Double tap. If you have ever opened Instagram on your phone you recognize those gestures. Browsing through the people you follow looking at food, selfies, vacation venues and booping the noses of dogs. Apparently it can also be quite a dark place. A place where lonely people live through the experiences of others or only know what is cool because an “influencer” tells them so. While that’s not especially healthy, INGRID GOES WEST takes it to the next level.

The damaged psyche of Aubrey Plaza’s Ingrid is apparent from the first scene where we see her sweating and crying in a car while looking at her Instagram friend Cindy’s feed and doing the “swipe, double tap”. And the crazy is confirmed when she barges into Cindy’s wedding to mace her and call her a bitch for not inviting her.

It is both a critique and affirmation of our culture, where social media is great for making connections but all too often replaces human interaction. If your mental state is fragile enough, as Ingrid’s is, you can believe a like is an opening to deeper understanding. Ingrid stares at her phone her thumb swiping, desperate for her new “friend” Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen) to like a comment Ingrid made on a post. When she not only likes it but comments back, Ingrid takes this as an invitation to move to California so they can be friends.

Ingrid appears to crave connections like this because she is alone in the world. Her mother has died and left her enough money to make the move to Venice. She “accidentally” runs into Taylor, she gets her hair done like hers, she buys the same clutch as Taylor because that is the way they can be alike. The crazy keeps ramping up. Stealing Taylor’s dog and returning it to seem like a hero and deepen their connection. Buying a piece of art by Taylor’s husband. Ingrid continues to spiral down a rabbit hole that is filled with killer bunnies.

But, the film also points out how Taylor is a phony. Her husband reveals that books she posts about are really his favorites. Taylor was just a nerdy young woman before she started down her own rabbit hole of phony. So who is sicker? The person living the lie or the person trying to adopt the life of that person. A question you, or your psychotherapist will have to figure out.

The movie works because of Plaza and Olsen. While you recognize Plaza’s crazy, you feel more sorry for her than scared of her. She does things with her eyes and smile that any fan of PARKS AND RECREATION will recognize. Plaza can make crazy seem endearing. Olsen has a chameleon-like ability to fully become the person she portrays whether it’s Taylor or the Red Witch in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The only real “fun” performance is from O’Shea Jackson, Jr. who plays Ingrid’s landlord/love interest.

INGRID GOES WEST hits some very dark themes. But there is a twist at the end which seems to torpedo the whole message the filmmakers (Director and Co-writer Matt Spicer and writer David Branson Smith) had been telegraphing the whole movie. It’s almost like they couldn’t fully commit to a dark ending that the story seems to demand. Even so, INGRID GOES WEST says something that people need to hear and should make you think twice the next time you mindlessly pick up your phone to Tweet or Insta (god I hate that term). Don’t pick up the phone. Go and interact with real people. If you don’t you could be Ingrid.

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT

by Alan Yudman

Bruce Springsteen, throughout his career has been seen as the voice of the working man. But in his one man show SPRINGSTEEN ON BROADWAY he admits it is all based on a lie, saying he’s never worked a day in his life. He admits the characters in his songs are people he grew up with, friends and family. But that doesn’t make his voice less authentic. Springsteen, like many great artists is an observer and chronicler. Maybe that’s why the main character in BLINDED BY THE LIGHT connects so intimately with him once he discovers Springsteen’s music.

Javed Khan is not an observer by choice. It is a role life has saddled him as Pakistani living in Britain in the 1980’s. He is not comfortable. He has reason not to be. He has but one close friend, the aspiring musician Matt. Javed is too shy to even ask a girl out. His strict Pakistani family wouldn’t allow it anyhow. His father takes all the money Javed earns in his summer job for the family. Family and following Pakistani tradition are everything to his father. But Javed sees his peers living a modern life and he observes and chronicles that in the form of journals he has kept for 7 years. He writes songs for Matt’s band but they are political, observing the injustices of Margaret Thatcher’s government and the bigotry of the New Fascist movement. Matt wants love songs, but Javed cannot write them honestly.

When Javed is handed two Springsteen tapes (Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A.) by a Sikh friend he takes them but doesn’t listen to them right away. Later that night, alone in his room Javed begins listening and it awakens something inside of him. It is revelatory. He wonders where this voice has been all his life. Director Gurinder Chadha surrounds Javed with the lyrics from Springsteen’s songs. It is a great visual representation of the moment when you discover a band and fall into the rabbit hole of their music.

That begins a journey of discovery for Javed. Discovery of Springsteen, but also a discovery of what he really wants out of life. He doesn’t want to follow his father’s rules or plans. He becomes the rebel he is hearing about in the music. The movie celebrates that in a couple of set pieces where Javed sings and dances with his friends through the streets of Luton. That theme and style fills about half the movie.

Then,Chadha abandons that in favor a more traditional telling of a family and political drama. Javed rebels and it costs him. Violence erupts when a wedding celebration runs into a march by the British Ne-Nazis. That costs him too when he misses the confrontation that leaves his father bloody because he is off buying tickets to a Springsteen concert.

That shift in tone of the movie feels real and necessary, but it also means the film is inconsistent. The first half feels a little corny and that makes the seriousness of the latter half a bit jarring. There is once sequence where Javed wins a writing contest and flies to Monmouth College in New Jersey for a conference. That is very close to Springsteen’s home town, so he visits a bunch of locations that are iconic in Springsteen lore. It is weird and fells like fan service that is dropped into the movie. Didn’t work at all.

The characters are all thoughtful and well drawn. Javed’s internal conflict is obvious even if it is a bit of a movie trope about rebelliousness. His father isn’t simply an authoritarian figure. He feels like he’s failing his family when he loses his factory job and cannot pay for Javed’s sister’s wedding. Matt is a caricature of ‘80’s Brit-pop, complete with the hair and clothes (think Flock of Seagulls), but he is hurt when his tastes are questioned. Javed’s younger sister seems like the good daughter, but secrets away with friends to cut school and go to a “daytimer” (a party where they literally let down their hair). That is what saves this movie from being ridiculous. You care about the characters, what they want and how they are going to get it.

I am a huge Springsteen fan. I have seen him in concert 10 times, yet that is nothing compared to some of his rabid fans. I would show up for any movie that features his music. The fact that this is based on the real life of Safraz Manzoor made it all the more interesting to me. While it mostly works, there are stylistic choices that take you out of the story. This could have been much better. Bruce sings in The River, “is a dream alive that don’t come true, or is it something worse”. This is a dream that came true, yet it doesn’t feel fully alive. And that is something worse.

YESTERDAY

yesterday

yesterday

By Alan Yudman

YESTERDAY is the definition of suspension of disbelief. The story is about a struggling musician living in Suffolk, England. He’s about ready to give up when he is hit by a bus while riding his bicycle home from a gig one night. When he wakes up, he slowly realizes he’s the only person in the world who has ever heard of The Beatles. He decides to capitalize on this by performing the Lennon/McCartney songs as his own. And when he does, he becomes a wildly successful, overnight sensation.

So, there are two things going on here. A romantic comedy where the struggling Jack (Himesh Patel) and his manager/friend Ellie (Lily James) can’t seem to figure out they are in love… or at least can’t close the deal. The other is how Jack is basically stealing the iconic Beatles songs to make a career for himself. At first, he’s dumbstruck no one knows the songs. Eventually he feels guilty for doing it. I think his motivation is artistic on some level, but that’s not clear in Richard Curtis’ muddled story.

Other things have disappeared with the Beatles. Coca Cola and cigarettes are two examples. But some things still exist that maybe shouldn’t in a world without the Beatles. For example, Coldplay and Ed Sheeran (who is in the movie as himself in a completely forgettable performance). But Curtis has erased Oasis, yet Ellie first falls for Jack when he plays “Wonderwall” when he’s a kid. Huh? How does that work? Like I said, suspension of disbelief.

Both Patel and James are very likeable. Patel does excellent covers of all the songs. He and James are a believable couple, something important in a romantic comedy. Kate McKinnon appears as an agent who signs Jack. I don’t know what movie she was in, but it wasn’t this one. Her performance completely blows everyone off screen when she shows up, and not in a good way. She’s loud, brash. slimy and annoying. I get that’s the agent stereotype, but it’s too over the top. ROCKETMAN did a similar thing in a much subtler and effective way.

YESTERDAY is a nice movie. Nice. Not wonderful. Not amazing. It’s enjoyable and it will renew your love for The Beatles, but it may frustrate you as much as makes you tap your toes to the songs.

 

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

once upon a time in hollywood

by Alan Yudman

If there are two things Quentin Tarantino loves, it’s movies and Hollywood. He wraps his arms around both and gives them a loving squeeze in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

Tarantino’s attention to detail is a thing to behold. Living in Los Angeles, I know many of the locations he features in the film. From Musso & Frank’s Grill to the Spahn Ranch, to simple things like driving down Hollywood Boulevard or through the San Fernando Valley, Tarantino gets the look just right. Even if it isn’t 100% percent period accurate, it FEELS that way. That is very important in this movie. For someone who loves seeing old Hollywood depicted in film, this was full of delightful Easter eggs.

You may have heard this is about the Manson Family and to some extent it is. But it is more than that. It uses that plus the fictional story of Rick Dalton and his stuntman buddy Cliff Booth (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt) to show us the end of an era. The old studio system is gone. The innocence has been stripped away.

Dalton is a former TV star who made his name in the Western, BOUNTY LAW, who now can only find work as the heavy. He sees headlights of reality coming at him and it is freaking him out. Booth can’t get work as a stuntman because he’s either pissed off everyone, or people are afraid of the rumors that he killed his wife (a plot point that is sort of explained, but not in any satisfying fashion). Booth is now Dalton’s “man Friday” running errands, fixing things and driving him around town in Dalton’s yellow Cadillac Coupe Deville. Dalton is panicked by his situation, drowning himself in booze and anxiety. He meets an agent played by Al Pacino who advises him to go to Italy to make movies. Dalton feels that is giving up. Before giving in to that advice, he takes a guest starring role on the TV pilot for the western LANCER, as yet another bad guy.

Meantime lurking on the fringes of all this is the Manson Family. Dalton lives on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. His neighbors are Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Booth crosses paths with a Manson follower and goes out to Spahn ranch where he meets Tex Watson, Squeaky Fromme, Gypsy Share and others. Manson even shows up at the Tate/Polanski house looking for his old acquaintance, music producer Terry Melcher. Tate (Margot Robbie) almost literally flits through the film, an apparent angelic figure who has one incredibly vulnerable scene where she goes to watch herself in the Dean Martin movie, THE WRECKING CREW.

All these different plot threads could have wound up being a mess, but Tarantino expertly weaves them together into a completely enthralling story. The acting is sublime. DiCaprio is fantastic, better than his Oscar winning performance in THE REVENANT. Some say only a great singer can intentionally sing badly. Apply that here. When he Rick Dalton is acting in various TV shows, he’s not terrible, merely average. That takes real ability. Julia Butters plays a young girl who is in the LANCER pilot. She has one extended scene with DiCaprio that is truly special. Pitt is at his shaggy best. Robbie is wonderful even in the limited time she is on screen.

Tarantino pays as much loving attention to the soundtrack as he does to the rest of the film. The music adds to the story. And the drop-ins of actual radio DJ’s from the 1960’s just adds to the mood. If you are going to purchase a sountrack album, buy this one. Get in your car, turn it on and drive down the highway. It has the feel of listening to the radio in 1969.

This is one of Tarantino’s most heartfelt films. It feels like a movie that could have been made in 1969. It mostly doesn’t rely on his usual blend of uber violence and weirdness. The Dalton and Manson plots come together in an over the top, bloody ending that was somehow satisfying. Can’t say more because it would be a huge spoiler. Some may see ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD as Tarantino’s revenge fantasy against Manson and a commentary on the end of an era. That is not a far-flung assessment. But it is also among his best work and the Academy will probably notice that come Oscar time.

ROCKETMAN

rocketman

by Alan Yudman

Elton John’s life is perfect fodder for a movie, and not just because he is famous or an outrageously flamboyant performer. His story is one of soaring highs, monumental lows and redemption. You know, the stuff of good drama. The bold choice made in ROCKETMAN is combining that arc with a catalog of all-time great pop music to tell Elton’s story. So be prepared going in.. this is a musical.

Director Dexter Fletcher, working from a script by Lee Hall, goes for it. There are elaborate choreographed dance routines, bizarre fantasy set pieces and intimate interpretations of the songs of John and Bernie Taupin that are woven in to help tell the story.

The film depicts Reginald Dwight’s loveless childhood. A distant father and a mother who didn’t seem to know how to give love. It’s no wonder Elton John became an addict. It is clear he used pills, cocaine, booze and sex to fill a big hole in his heart. He finally realized what it was to love and be loved after his world came crashing down around him and he got help.

This is Taron Egerton’s movie. He is in just about every scene (except for the young Reggie Dwight). His performance is occasionally over the top, but he is portraying such a flamboyant personality that is mostly works. He also does his own singing and pulls it off. It’s not an impersonation.. more of an interpretation. Whatever it is, it works. It could have been distracting, but after a while you forget that’s not Elton singing. One standout scene is the depiction of “Your Song”. It may be the best moment in the movie.

The other performance worth watching is from Richard Madden as John Reid, the business manager who uses Elton’s neediness as a way to manipulate the star into another loveless relationship. All so Reid can make piles of money. He is loathsome.

Jamie Bell is fine as Bernie Taupin. You get a sense of his relationship with Elton that really seems to be that of two brothers. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Sheila Dwight, Elton’s mother. She gets the point across, but it is a bit uneven. Can’t they find a British actress to play a British woman? Her accent slips on occasion.

Giles Martin was the music producer on the film, an important job in a musical. He does an outstanding job arranging and interpreting the songs to fit the story. My only quibble is they used “Pinball Wizard” to depict one out of control, drug addled, sequence. A more on the nose choice may have been “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, but that’s all about choice. Who am I to tell them how to producer their movie. Another important job in this film is Costume Designer and Julian Day nails Elton’s outrageous costumes. I won’t spoil it but just keep “I’m Still Standing” in the back of your mind. If you watched MTV in the ’80’s you might thank me. Or you might want to slap me. Either way, watch for it.

The one thing this film suffers from is what most movies in this genre suffer from.. it feels rushed. I’ve seen worse examples, and better, but it’s a genre problem they deal with as best they can. I have to believe this is a true depiction of the emotional rollercoaster of Elton’s life since he was an Executive Producer on the film.

There will be inevitable comparisons to BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, RAY or any other biopic about a musician. Those are false equivalencies. ROCKETMAN owes more to a traditional musical like DREAMGIRLS. It should not get lost on anyone how difficult it is to pull off a musical that is also a biopic. Given the degree of difficulty, ROCKETMAN mostly sticks the landing.

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM

by Alan Yudman

John Wick goes interior.. thinks about the consequences of his actions and decides to honor his wife and dog by doing good work and volunteering at an animal shelter.

Allow me to cut that faux plot to ribbons with one of the thousands of knives and samurai swords used in the latest ultra-violent (uber violent.. what’s more violent than violent?), sequel JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM. But there is something of a message here about choices and consequences.

Chapter 3 picks up less than an hour after the Chapter 2 left off. John has been targeted for execution by The High Table after breaking the rules by killing someone inside the safe haven of The Continental. Winston (Ian McShane) give him an hour to prepare. How can he escape thousands of assassins motivated by a $14+ million bounty? If you have to ask you don’t know John Wick.

Other than the great style created and continued by director Chad Stahelski (and David Leitch in Chapter 1), you come to see what new ways they will find to kill people. I won’t spoil them with specifics but think, in no particular order: Horses, knives, guns (“lots of guns”), motorcycles, swords, dogs, and well I kind of lost track at some point. And each method is unique. It’s not just, “ok, let’s fight with swords”. It’s “ok let’s fight with swords in a complete bonkers way.” That is why this franchise continues to build its box office and really keeps getting better with each installment.

Many people will think of the iconic Keanu Reeves role as Thomas “Neo” Anderson or Ted Logan. Nope. For my money, this is it. John Wick requires Reeves to mine his ability to be a very good physical actor without spending a lot of time emoting or talking. He glowers, he kills, he embodies the bad ass assassin with just enough humanity to allow you root for him.

The rest of the cast is awesome. You look at the list and wonder, “how did they get that actor to do this”? Angelica Huston, Jerome Flynn (Bronn from Game of Thrones), McShane, Lance Reddick, Lawrence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos (the Chairman from Iron Chef America) all have prominent and important roles. And they’re all great. Asia Kate Dillon is wonderful as “The Adjudicator”, tasked with making everyone pay for helping John (remember, choices and consequences). The standout though is Halle Berry. She is a total badass in this as the “Winston” of the Casablanca Continental who helps John because of a blood oath. There is honor among assassins.

My only quibble, and it’s a minor one, is that the final big fight set piece may have gone on a bit too long. But that’s a taste thing and didn’t make me like the movie any less.

I’ve read some criticism about the way they set up the inevitable John Wick: Chapter 4. My response would be, what? There is a totally satisfying twist that makes it believable. The John Wick series is the gold standard in this genre. And who wouldn’t want more gold?

BOOKSMART

by Alan Yudman

I have read some reviews that call BOOKSMART a female Version of SUPERBAD. I don’t know how true that is, but let’s allow this wonderful movie stand on its own merits.

There is so much to love in this film, let’s start with the story. Two high achieving high school seniors think they are the best in their school. Hard to argue they aren’t. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) is the class president and is headed for Yale. Her best friend Amy is an out lesbian who is going to Columbia, but not before going to Botswana for a year to help women’s health. They believe they are the best among losers. But, Molly’s chance encounter with three classmates make her realize she and Amy have blown it. The three are going to Yale, Stanford and getting a six-figure coding job with Google. Molly’s plan–make their last night before graduation an epic one.

What transpires is madcap, hysterical and emotional. Molly pushes Amy out of her comfort zone. They’re friendship is pushed to its limits and then break boundaries and at least one law. They realize their classmates are not the losers they thought. In fact, some are pretty cool, and there are regrets about not exploring friendship and love anytime before that one night.

All that would be it ok if not for two things: The outstanding cast and Olivia Wilde’s direction.

Beanie Feldstein is a genius. She plays each comic moment perfectly, she doesn’t overplay or underplay it. Her timing is perfect. But the quiet or more dramatic moments play just as true and real. Feldstein had a small, yet important, role as Saorise Ronan’s best friend in LADY BIRD. That’s where you first saw what is possible. Now that potential is fully realized. Kaitlyn Dever is fantastic as Amy. She shows a vulnerability and insecurity that defines Amy and makes her character’s development all the more satisfying. Billie Lourd is a genius. Her turn as the weirdo Gigi is perfect. The character is one note, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t eat up every scene she is in. The rest of the cast who play the students are fine and serve their purpose of acting as fodder for Molly and Amy. There are also great small performances from Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Mike O’Brien, Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte.

As good as Feldstein is, the real breakout here may be Wilde. After directing music videos and some smaller projects, this is her first big movie. And she is more than up to it. She is not afraid to take chances (see a drug / trip-out scene like none you have seen before]. But delets scenes breathe, she doesn’t try to impose a style. Wilde just point the camera and trusts her cast and a good script from Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins. I cannot wait to see what is next.

Combine all that with a great soundtrack and you dare a really well done) funny summer comedy. In a world where sequels and remakes dominate. Book SMART is a welcome breath of fresh air.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

by Alan Yudman

It has been 11 years since IRON MAN first opened our eyes to what we now know as the MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE. That’s 22 movies, the final episode in this chapter of the MCU being AVENGERS: ENDGAME. So that’s characters from ANT-MAN to VALKYRIE. The potential for a bloated mess is absolutely there as Marvel brings this saga to a close. AVENGERS: ENDGAME is a near perfect example of how to button up a story.

What some fans may miss is the intimate storytelling in the first part of the movie. Well, maybe they won’t miss it but they may forget about it as the intensity grows and it returns to the expectations placed on Marvel movies. These are flawed people. No matter their extraordinary abilities they are dealing with failure, grief and loss. Those are not themes you come to expect in this genre. These heroes are supposed to be able to solve any problem by punching it, blowing it up or “superheroing” it into submission. The Avengers failed at the end of INFINITY WAR. They all feel the loss and guilt. None feels that failure more than Thor. Tony Stark is rescued, but his anger toward everything is overwhelming.

So when they find Thanos and decide to kill him, take back the Infinity Stones and snap the world back into existence it doesn’t seem like one of their normal, well thought out plans. It feels raw and not fully thought out and possibly doomed to failure. A second failure or an extension of the previous one is too much. We jump ahead 5 years and some have tried to move on, but Thor has turned depression into a kind of art form.

They all seem resigned to the existence they are living, until Ant-Man arrives with the greatest title for a plot device in Marvel history… a “Time Heist”. The scenes where they try to recruit Thor and Tony Stark to help out are great, especially when Tony figures out how it can work.

It’s challenging to write how great this all plays out without spoiling large chunks of the film. The “Time Heist” plan brings resolution to several threads, but also gets hijacked by Thanos with the help of Nebula. Again, you are just going to have to trust me here because I don’t want to spoil anything.

The plot takes turns that I didn’t see coming (and some that could be anticipated based on knowledge of projects that are already in the works). Once the Avengers begin their redemption arc it is an incredibly satisfying thrill ride. Every set piece works. The end of the line for certain characters works. It doesn’t feel like fan service and it is most certainly not forced or out of character. Each feels logical and earned.

There were moments in the theater when the entire audience cheered or screamed with joy. There were others where I could hear definite sobs (some may have come from me.. maybe..). You knew instinctively that characters would reappear, but that didn’t make it any less thrilling when they did. Everyone get their moment to shine. Not one character’s appearance felt forced or like the Russo brothers were merely fulfilling fan service. There were some corny bits but it was a kind of sweet cornball and given that they were few and far between in a 3 hour movie, well all is forgiven.

Joe and Anthony Russo should get some kind of award. To take characters from 21 previous movies, at least 21 arcs and expectations of millions of fans around the world and put it all together in a package like this is remarkable. Here’s the thing. This is not just a great genre movie. This is a great movie period. There are some great performances from Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo (you have to see what they did with Hulk.. it’s great!) and Josh Brolin. But Robert Downey, Jr. is unbelievable. I doubt they’ll talk about an Oscar nomination, but maybe they should. He has played Tony Stark now in 3 Iron Man movies, 4 Avengers movies, 1 Captain America movie and a brief appearance in the newest Spider-Man (I think that’s it, hard to keep track at this point). What new could an actor bring to such a familiar character. But Downey does it. There’s parts of Tony we’ve never seen before and Downey, who could have just phoned it in, goes deeper into the character than we’ve ever seen before.

The end of this chapter of the MCU is a turning point. We will go forward with Black Panther, Spider-Man, Captain Marvel, the Guardians of the Galaxy and Dr. Strange. There is nostalgia for what was, but not sadness. A perfect end to a great story is satisfying. And AVENGERS: ENDGAME may be the most satisfying end to a film series I have ever experienced.

SHAZAM!

shazam

by Alan Yudman

When I was kid, late on Saturday mornings there was a live-action series on CBS title SHAZAM! It featured a 17-year-old kid with long, late ’70’s hair and his mentor who would drive around the country in a Winnebago, helping those who had been wronged. Billy Batson was the kid and when the situation called for super powered help he’d yell SHAZAM! and he would transform into the red-suited Captain Marvel. It was corny, but I liked it. Now some 40 years later, he’s back!

This version is decidedly different than that old show I enjoyed so much. Here Billy is a younger kid who has no one to guide him. He is a foster kid who has bounced from home to home since he got lost at a fair when he was very young. The name Captain Marvel is not spoken, for logical conflict of interests reasons with Marvel’s version. Instead the hero, played by Zachary Levi is SHAZAM!. The 1970’s show was played straight.. this one is played for laughs more often than not. It’s a refreshingly light touch for DC.

I had heard great things about the movie so I was looking forward to a 2 hour plus thrill ride. I walked out somewhat satisfied, but mostly disappointed. The tone of the movie is fine and Levi is great as the goofy super who is just learning his way around the hero game. Asher Angel is also more than good as Billy. I guess my problem is Levi’s goofiness overwhelmed Angel’s innocence. I needed more reason to believe Billy was worthy of this responsibility.

There was one plot hole you could drive a city bus through. The main problem is with the bad guy. Mark Strong is a great actor and he plays the “bad” better than just about anyone. He glowers, he has the menacing growl in his voice. I’m a fan. His origin story was fine, I got it. He didn’t get the power he was promised and obsessively pursued it for his entire life. But when he stole those powers we got no explanation about the 7 sins and who they were and why they existed. We’re just left to believe they are bad. And why were they sins? They demonstrated no sinful behavior. They simply destroyed and killed seemingly just because Strong’s Dr. Sivana wanted them to. It was a real head scratcher. Questioning the purpose of the villain leaves the audience wanting.

Also Dijimon Hounsou’s character is a wizard. He was part of the council of Wizards, but he is the only one left. We kind of got a story about what happened to the others. But why are they Wizards? Where did magic or wizardry come in? There is absolutely no evidence of it other than the Wizard telling us it is so.

Billy’s story worked. His realization about family motivated his heroism. The transition of his foster brothers and sisters was awesome. And the ending was satisfying.

Oh and the mid-credits scene was completely baffling. It seemed to set up the next movie but used a character you really had to think about to remember whether he was even in the movie (spoiler, he was).

I’ve made this point over and over. Origin stories are tough. You have to service the back story and the transition. It’s a lot to stuff into a movie. Each filmmaker feels it necessary. It does create an arc for the hero, but maybe there are better ways to execute it. It took nearly an hour before Billy finally got his powers. That was too long and it was very slow until that point.

I hope they iron out these issues before the next time Billy yells SHAZAM! to save the world. Because the bones of a good franchise are there and with some care this could be a great story going forward.