Shazam! Fury of the Gods Review

For about the first hour of Shazam! Fury of the Gods, the stakes feel about as high as ordering a cheesesteak. I guess given the setting of Philly, maybe that’s something to be taken seriously. In the second half, the Phillies Stadium and I assume the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall are in danger of being decimated Independence Day style (or countless comic book action flicks).

With nearly the entire team returning including director David F. Sandberg, part 2 of the DC Comics property is unwieldy in its tone. The happy-go-lucky vibe of Shazam! and Zachary Levi’s enjoyable performance made it worth a view. It was also, to be fair, mostly forgettable and clearly worked better as a one-off.

You may recall (or not) that high schooler Billy Batson (Asher Angel) received the abilities of Shazam from Djimon Hounsou’s wizard in the 2019 original. This gave him the form of Levi’s red caped superhero yet it did not grant him wisdom beyond his teenage mind. Billy/Shazam still managed to outwit Mark Strong’s mad scientist with the help of his foster care siblings who were also soon bestowed with superhuman strengths. That includes brother Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer as younger and Adam Brody in grownup spandex form) and he has a unique love interest

Anne (Rachel Zegler from West Side Story) is the new girl at school who looks amazing for her age. She’s actually Anthea, the centuries old daughter of Greek god Atlas. Her other sisters are Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu) and they are determined to reclaim powers taken from them ages ago. The Daughters of Atlas look far apart in age. Lucy Liu’s middle child is the Jan Brady of this bunch as she’s got the most up her sleeve. Young Anne (she’s only 6000 it’s revealed) is the sweet one who might not be bent on world destruction after all. And despite Mirren’s presence, the trio’s motivations aren’t particularly spellbinding. Once again we have a comic book adaptation where the villains are a weakness. The MCU and this DCEU are frequent offenders.

Four years ago, it was easier to root for Levi’s charming underdog of a title character. Gods just never clicks and average CG and action sequences keep the mediocrity intact. Standard wizardry is ordered in this follow-up. The result is that I could have done witout it (spelling error intended, Philadelphians).

** (out of four)

Evil Dead Rise Review

There’s one shining moment in Evil Dead Rise due to a bloodily gushing elevator and plenty of moments that are indistinguishable from other gory possession tales. That’s somewhat of a letdown for this franchise that is known for its demonically goofy trilogy that began the careers of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell over four decades ago. While some of its boo moments stand out, Rise falls short of its immediate predecessor which “re-imagined” the series a decade ago with Fede Alvarez directing.

The 2013 Dead iteration left a lot of the previous movies humor on the cutting room floor and Rise keeps that up. Lee Cronin takes over the directorial reigns and the mayhem moves from a cabin in the woods to an about to be condemned Los Angeles apartment complex. Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) is a newly single mom to teenagers Danny (Morgan Davies), Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), and youngest child Kassie (Nell Fisher). They’re among the last denizens of their building slated for demolition. Beth (Lily Sullivan) is Ellie’s sister who is a guitar technician (according to her) or a groupie (according to her more responsible sibling). She drops in to visit to share some news (she’s preggers), but an earthquake shakes up and delays the announcement.

This act of nature also leads to the discovery of a Book of the Dead tome locked away in a vault. As with previous volumes, the reading material causes wicked forces to possess those near it. Ellie is the first to fall prey to its devilish influence.

Besides the Shining elevator material that would not be advisable for those with hemophobia, there’s also the grisliest use of a wood chipper since Fargo. The picture’s connection to its own franchise is mostly in name only and the fact that they all feature chainsaws. Its makeup effects and choreographing of red splatter is first-rate. You could say the work of the technicians behind Evil Dead Rise is just fine. I suspect, due to its lack of originality, it’ll have less groupies than the others.

**1/2 (out of four)

Air Review

The corporate intrigue in the muted boardrooms of Ben Affleck’s Air unfolds in Beaverton, Oregon. That’s the headquarters of Nike as a select few proceeded to break the dam of sports marketing and fit it to what it is today. It happened during the loud (fashion and otherwise) decade of the 1980s as a 3rd pick rookie out of North Carolina sought a shoe deal.

Michael Jordan was that draftee in 1984 and his sneaker endorsement selection is assumed to be Adidas (Converse is the other market leader at the time). Nike, while pacing first in the market for running shoes, is third in hoops apparel. Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) is the marketing exec who sees the future in MJ and shoots for a deal that his colleagues have understandable skepticism about. They include CEO Phil Knight (Affleck), who ironically spends many a conversation sans footwear, VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Howard White (Chris Tucker), who’s still with the company today. There’s also the matter of convincing the Jordan family and mom Deloris (Viola Davis) is a fierce yet fair negotiator. Sonny’s deliberations with Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina) are far more profane and a frequent highlight.

Of course we all know how this turns out whether you’ve laced up Air Jordans or not. Yet the story behind the shoe, complete with frequent needle drops from classic music of the era, is worth putting on. Affleck and screenwriter Alex Convery provide a sturdy structure for this goodwill tale of the hunt for Jordan’s contract signature.

The script’s most surprising decision is to sideline #23 himself. There is no actor cast as Jordan and he is seen only from behind or in archival footage. It turns out to be a wise play. For starters, he may simply be too iconic and someone playing him might’ve been a distraction. Most importantly, Air is about the eventual business of MJ and not the man himself. There’s a ten-part ESPN Films documentary, with its subject seemingly in control of that material, that still does an impressive job covering him. Keeping Jordan at arms length and as an enigma makes sense in the confines of the film’s aims.

The actors provide worthy assists. Standouts including Bateman (he’s got a great scene where he explains why he doesn’t want to lose his job if negotiations go south), Messina, and of course Davis. Close buddies Damon and Affleck, as we witnessed a quarter century ago, continue to have a snappy chemistry.

Air rises above being a trivial pursuit of a corporation fattening its bottom line. Yes, one could argue that’s the eventual outcome, but this deal also gave future athletes more skin in the game. It’s all packaged in a winning formula featuring the aura of the ultimate competitor.

***1/2 (out of four)

Renfield Review

When it comes to the quality of humor in Renfield, the ska’s the limit. There are lame jokes about how ska music sucks. The impression I get from this horror comedy is they could’ve let Nicolas Cage vamp as Dracula for an hour and a half and it would’ve been better. It wouldn’t take much as this is a mighty, mighty letdown.

Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) has been the servant to Cage’s Dracula for over 100 years and he’s finally ready to hang it up. The decades old duo now reside in subterranean New Orleans. The famed vampire depends on his employee for victims to gorge on. The more innocent they are (he requests a busload of cheerleaders or group of nuns), the more power he has. Renfield, meanwhile, stays nourished by feasting on bugs. His emotional nourishment comes from a 12-step group focused on co-dependency.

If this concept sounds like a clever angle on this oft told story, it is. Director Chris McKay and screenwriter Ryan Ridley can’t figure out how to make it enjoyable. Much of the runtime takes the light away from Cage, whose performance is easily the strongest. Instead we get a yawn inducing main plot teaming Renfield up with Awkwafina’s determined bayou cop Rebecca. She’s trying to bring down the Lobo crime family led by matriarch Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and hotshot son Teddy (Ben Schwartz). That storyline is filled with wretched overacting (not the glorious kind that Cage brings) with the Lobo’s as the worst offenders. There are shades of Eddie Murphy’s middling (but better) Vampire in Brooklyn in the Mob business. Awkwafina, on the other hand, underplays her part. It’s almost as if she’s not there. The script barely attempts romantic sparks between her and Renfield and there’s a family dynamic involving her FBI agent sister that is completely tacked on. I suspect her sibling might have had a larger role in the original draft and was cut. Hoult is a talented performer in need of a sharper role.

The action sequences are sloppily shot and edited though if it’s spurting blood you want, your thirst might be occasionally quenched. Cage is game and provides some laughs, but he’s trapped in the rubbish. Does this come off as a giant missed opportunity? No doubt.

*1/2 (out of four)

The Pope’s Exorcist Review

There’s a moment in the third act of The Pope’s Exorcist where we hear the internal monologue of a main character in the throws of their demonic experience. It got me thinking that might make for a compelling and fresh angle in a genre made famous 50 years ago with Regan and her backwards turning head. I have accurately described it as a moment. It’s over before we know it and reminded me a little of what Tom Hardy hears in Venom after his symbiotic takeover. With Russell Crowe having a ball in Julius Avery’s horror thriller, Exorcist has a few quirky moments that I appreciated before it reverts to the tropes we’re familiar with.

The screenplay’s peculiar nature is evident in the first scene. We are introduced to Father Gabriele Amorth (Crowe), who served as the Pope’s go-to exorcism guy for decades beginning in the 1970s. That’s in real life, folks! You can look it up on Wiki and and it’s a fascinating read. I’m sure Amorth’s books are as well. He claims to have performed 100k+ of the purification rituals. The opening sequence finds Amorth in 1987 transferring the evil vibes to a pig, who is then violently transferred to breakfast.

Crowe proceeds to ham it up around the nuns and his superiors in Vatican City as he awaits the next assignment. Many of his fellow priests think he needs a demotion. The head pontiff (Franco Nero) believes otherwise and he’s soon riding his Vespa to an abandoned abbey in Spain.

That’s where American widow Julia (Alex Essoe), teenage daughter Amy (Laurel Marsden), and preteen Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) are residing after their departed patriarch willed them the property. The monastery holds centuries old secrets under its rickety structure and a nasty spirit soon overtakes Henry. A local Father (Daniel Zovatto) can’t figure out the invader so Amorth is assigned. The young boy’s demon proves canny at using his would-be exorcist’s previous sins against him.

One could claim that The Pope’s Exorcist offers nothing new to the frequently explored material. I could argue the opposite. After all, I hadn’t seen the pig angle and there’s also papal projectile vomiting. Avery, Crowe, and screenwriters Michael Petroni and Evan Spiliotopoulos are to be commended for its campy B-movie spirit. Amorth has a habit of exclaiming “CUCKOO!” at passersby during unexpected times. The cuckoo bits work often enough that I had little trouble putting up with the expected sections of traditional possession.

*** (out of four)

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania Review

According to lore, there are glorious stories of Bill Murray randomly showing up places and elevating an evening’s festivities to a new level. Heck, there’s even a documentary about it. The legend shows up in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and his small part does nothing to level it up. In fact, it seems needlessly random. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has now entered Phase Five. It launches in troubling fashion. This is the 31st MCU pic and I’d rank it #31.

2015’s Ant-Man is one of the weakest links in the Marvel chain, but there were glimpses of the nifty and humorous little heist pic it wanted to be. It doesn’t hurt that Paul Rudd has an effortless charm as the small time crook turned Avenger. 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp was an improvement (in the MCU, the follow-ups often do exceed the quality of their predecessors). The third time is far from the charm.

The bulk of the action is set in the Quantum Realm – a gaudy setting that is far from low-key. Before we get there, Rudd’s Scott Lang is on a book tour and generally enjoying the fame garnered from being an Avenger. His home life with Hope/Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) and now 18-year-old daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) appears tranquil. Original title heroes and Hope’s parents Hank (Michael Douglas) and Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) join the domestic bliss. However, cracks big and small emerge. Cassie seems frustrated by her dad’s coasting off of his previous laurels. The cracks under the ground are of more concern when her scientific experiments land the extended family in the subatomic Realm.

Janet spent 30 years (as revealed in the previous movies) in that particular universe. It’s revealed here that she engaged in far more activities than earlier thought. One includes a hinted at tryst with Bill Murray’s character and his superfluous cameo. Of more consequence is her relationship with Kang (Jonathan Majors), who was stuck with her underground for many years. Janet found a way out while he remained. That’s a plus since his full name is Kang the Conqueror and he destroys planets across multiverses as he sees fit. The villain Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from the first Ant-Man, now shrunk to a smaller size with a gigantic head, partners with our new main baddie. That results in some horrible CG (I think on purpose) in a sequel that employs other garish effects that are not meant to be funny.

The balance of comic sensibilities that worked well in portions of Ant-Man and especially the sequel collides with the ultra serious introduction of Kang. Hour one is sluggish. Hour two finds our heroes defending characters in the Quantum Realm that we’re never properly introduced to. While Pfeiffer’s role is fattened, sometimes Rudd and definitely Lilly feel like supporting players. Newton, taking over the role from Abby Ryder Fortson, struggles with her one-note character. The strongest performance belongs to Majors, but his menacing and seemingly multi-layered nemesis feels out of place in Ant-Man and Ant-Family’s stomping grounds. Kang might turn out to be a worthy villain to the MCU’s Avengers in future installments. The jury is out for now.

Phase Four and the start of Five have been wobbly. Eternals, Thor: Love and Thunder, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever have been disappointments and Quantumania reaches the lowest level yet. Underwhelming movies in the MCU are starting to feel like groundhog day and audiences might stop randomly showing up if that persists.

** (out of four)

65 Review

The title card for 65 doesn’t emerge onscreen until 16 minutes into the runtime. That’s actually about one-sixth of the way through and (I think) it’s meant to serve as a surprise reveal. The trailer already spoiled it because (umm… spoiler alert?) that number refers to 65 million years ago on Earth when so-so looking CG dinosaurs roamed freely. I suspect a lot more roamed freely, but this movie’s budget might not have supported Jurassic Park or World level sizes.

Mills (Adam Driver) is a pilot on the planet Somaris whose sick daughter (Chloe Coleman) causes him to take on a two-year expedition to pay for her treatment. When an asteroid field causes his ship to crash, he lands on a planet filled the aforementioned creatures. It turns out (as we find either via TV spots, trailers, or after 16 minutes) that this extinction level event is about to make the dinos disappear. Alien Mills has collided into our planet at an inopportune time. He discovers one survivor from the accident – a preteen who speaks a foreign language named Koa (Ariana Greenblatt). The duo must find the other half of the wreckage lying atop a mountain that contains an escape hatch.

It’s a long haul to that locale as their words are lost in translation and future relics hunt them down. They do manage to bond and, yes, there are correlations to his ill offspring. The script from directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (who’ve done much better when they penned A Quiet Place) injects some humor into their interplay for about two or three minutes. A tone of somberness rules this for the remaining hour and a half.

As they make their uphill climb to safety, I was disappointed in how flat 65 feels. The effects are mostly bland. Of course, technicians haven’t really improved dino design since Jurassic Park 30 years ago and this is no exception. There is some occasional striking production design. Driver is a fine actor with a nothing part and there’s little character development with Koa either. At its best, this is serviceable. For the most part, what is happening on Earth is unremarkable.

** (out of four)

Creed III Review

Michael B. Jordan and screenwriters Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin are tasked with mounting a Rocky without Rocky in Creed III. We could feel a slight tectonic shift in the franchise when Donnie (Jordan) had more story on his plate than Sylvester Stallone in part II. This completes the movement and it’s a mostly competent entry that tops its predecessor while certainly not matching the 2015 original. It also proves Jordan, directing for the first time, is capable of admirable stylistic flourishes.

There’s some symmetry in how Creed III starts compared to Rocky III forty years before it. Adonis, like his former trainer, is living large and content. Unlike Mr. Balboa in his third go-round, Creed is retired and a happy hubby to music producer wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and girl dad to Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). We’re left to assume Rocky is also good to go and reunited with his son in Canada.

A prologue from 2002 informs us of Donnie’s childhood friend Damian Anderson. A Golden Gloves phenom with a bright ring future, the ropes close after a run-in the law. 20 years later, he’s out of prison with Jonathan Majors as the grown-up “Diamond Dame”. Reconnecting with Donnie, the true history of their friendship and fallout is shared slowly. We know it will culminate in a squared circle face-off.

Where Creed III shines is the casting of Majors and the continued potent work from Jordan. If Creed II‘s foe (Ivan Drago’s son from Rocky IV) felt gimmicky (and it basically did), the screenplay assists Dame’s character in having more dimension. It’s the intense performance from Majors that sells it. As an aside, Florian Munteanu pops up rather unnecessarily as Viktor Drago once again.

Some of the family drama involving Phylicia Rashad as Donnie’s beloved adoptive mom and her healthy problems and Bianca’s melodic issues are filler. The pace is a little off as it takes about 40 minutes to get warmed up and then feels rushed when we hit the third act.

In that last act, thankfully, Jordan’s skills behind the camera come into focus. The final bout looks and sounds different than what we’ve paid for in the eight previous pics when Rocky, Creed, and his dad (and Uncle Paulie and that robot) were sparring. The hype for Donnie and Dame pays off and that’s where the admission feels earned. So while this eighth round isn’t always smooth, it’s less rocky than some others in the series.

*** (out of four)

Scream VI Review

There’s more than one way to clean a knife after piercing a victim’s skin in the Scream flicks. The filmmakers appear determined to give this series nine lives or more as the sixth installment finds new terrorizers to fill the Ghostface mask. Let’s quickly go through the strange name game as 2022’s Scream was really Scream V. Termed as a requel, Urban Dictionary considers that a “sequel to a movie that functions somewhere between a sequel, a reboot, and a remake”. Unfortunately Scream (’22 version) didn’t function that well at all. With directors Matt Bettinelli and Tyler Gillett taking over directorial duties from the late Wes Craven, they showed lots of appreciation for the original from 1996. Like the other follow-ups, it couldn’t compare to the fresh satiric edge that part 1 had. In fact, despite a well-executed slashing or two, I’d rank it fifth of the lot.

Now I’d rank it sixth because Scream VI is a minor improvement. It picks up a year after the events of the fifth. We’re not in Woodsboro anymore as Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), daughter of the OG Ghostface Billy Loomis, has relocated to the Big Apple. She’s there mostly to keep watch over little sister Tara (Jenna Ortega), now a college freshman along with sister and brother Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding). They call themselves the Core 4 since they managed to survive the havoc wreaked by Sam’s ex-bf Richie in the last go-round.

The dwindling legacy characters returning are Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox), the reporter who’s always looking for a way to make a buck from the mayhem. There’s also Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere), who played an integral role in Scream 4. She was the best friend to the eventual Ghostface in that one. And while part four was one of the better sequels, I would understand if you forgot her character. Now Kirby is an FBI agent who shows up to help (which obviously makes her a quick suspect). I wonder if her appearance might be due to Sidney (Neve Campbell) not being present. Word is they didn’t want to show her the money to appear.

While the predecessor often paid homage to Scream ’96 (released the same month when Mason Gooding’s dad Cuba was screaming “Show me the money!” to Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire), this has its winks to Scream 2 from 1997 by being set in the higher ed world. Some of the brutal sequences are well-constructed. The opening with Samara Weaving as a college professor on a blind date is a clever way to start.

Part of the fun in the Scream pics is figuring out the slayers and it’s usually more than one. There’s a few to consider with Sam’s neighbor and secret lover (Josh Segarra), the detective father (Dermot Mulroney) of her roommate Quinn (Liana Liberato), and Chad’s roommate Ethan (Jack Champion). And who knows? Maybe Papa Billy’s demonic genes are infecting Sam.

As we’ve seen before in this franchise, there’s a scene where a character explains that the “rules have changed!”. And nothing is as it seems. The NYC locale change is welcome (Ghostface brandishing a shotgun in a bodega is fresh new territory). Scream VI gets by for a while in the new setting and with its furious piercings. Sadly it is not faster. The 122 minute runtime is a series record and when we reach the third act, the rules haven’t changed much with the unmasking reveals. That portion is the biggest letdown. There’s only so many ways to inject life into these deaths, but they’ll find ways as long as we continue to show them the money.

**1/2 (out of four)

Fall Review

I wouldn’t say I love Scott Mann’s low budget survival tall tale Fall, but it admirably generates suspense in spurts. This begins in Cliffhanger fashion with a loved one plummeting to their grisly demise. The late great Norm MacDonald had a joke about cliff divers and it applies with climbers. He said there’s two types of participants in such an activity: Grand Champion (because you survived) and “Stuff on a Rock”. Mason Gooding’s Dan is the latter. Wife (Grace Caroline Currey) and best friend Hunter (Virginia Gardner) witness the tragedy during their mountain ascension attempt.

Nearly a year later, mourning Becky has shutoff contact from friends and family (including concerned dad Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Hunter, meanwhile, is a minor Instagram star (60k followers) who goes by Danger D and treats her viewers to various daring exploits. Her solution to help Becky out of her (often drunken) funk is to recruit her on an adventure. The two will scale a decommissioned 2,000 foot TV tower in the desert and document it. At the top, Dan’s unopened ashes will be scattered.

That doesn’t all go as planned. Fall probably sets the record for number of loose bolt shots in a recent motion picture. While Becky and Danger D get to the top, the rickety and rusted ladder gives out and there’s no way down. The rest of this is devoted to figuring out a way to descend.

At least… most of it is. At 107 minutes, there’s some fat that could’ve been trimmed. There’s extraneous relationship dynamics that don’t add much. This might have been more effective at a leaner 85-90 minutes. For a film that incorporates the 80s hair metal hit “Cherry Pie”, it doesn’t always (ahem) warrant the running time.

When there’s vultures to avoid or operating the drone they brought to be their savior or getting their phones to charge, the survival mechanics of the screenplay can be absorbing. The decently convincing cinematography and commitment of the lead actresses are pluses. The occasional padding courtesy of the script prevents this being a big winner. It’s not stuff on a rock either.

**1/2 (out of four)