Review: Amazing Grace (2018)

Amazing Grace is one of those mythical works of cinema that will forever be known as much for its troubled production and release as it is for its quality. Released over 40 years after being recorded in 1972, this is a simple concert film, a look at Aretha Franklin as she records both the best selling album of her own career and the best selling gospel album of all time.

This is an interesting document – it seems most of the truly legendary musical acts of the 20th century have at least one major cinematic work, and we have finally been graced with Aretha’s. It’s clear from looking into the production issues that a lot of time and effort was poured into making this presentable. But I can’t help but feel there’s something lacking – as nice as it is to see Aretha perform, it feels all too basic.

This film falls more on the Stop Making Sense end of concert films, sticking almost entirely on the performances. What makes Stop Making Sense one of the all time great films is how Talking Heads incorporates visual ideas into their performances – the slow addition of band members through the beginning, David Byrne’s massive suit, his frankly bizarre dancing. Amazing Grace lacks that visual spark, largely consisting of Aretha either sitting at a piano or standing at a podium. There are a few fun audience shots here and there, but that’s to be expected.

Standard isn’t too big of a sin – Aretha Franklin is one of the best musicians of the 20th century, and simply having such a recording is important for historical purposes. But I’d say this is far from one of the great concert films – it doesn’t help that, while being her apparent best selling album, Amazing Grace isn’t exactly what I think of when I think about Aretha Franklin. It’s so singular and niche, it really doesn’t capture the scope of her career. As Reverend James Cleveland says near the start of the film, Aretha Franklin could bring her energy to pretty much any song – there is power here, even to a non-religious person, through her phenomenal skill as a vocalist. But everything is so sedate in this setting that I really wish we could have a similar film where she tackles her popular classics.

Because it stays so focused on the music, there isn’t much information to be gained. The Reverend and her father both speak a bit about Aretha’s life, but it’s all rather simple information.

I don’t really have much more to say on this one – if you want to not just hear but see Aretha Franklin perform, this seems like the perfect release. But I’m not sure how much weight I would put on it otherwise. Because it chronicles a rather specific part of her career, I couldn’t imagine using this as an entry point for a new listener, which I could with something like Stop Making Sense. For Aretha, I think it’s best to give I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You and Lady Soul a spin – Amazing Grace is simply a fun extra detail for those who really adore The Queen of Soul.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Avengers: Endgame (2019)

It in many ways feels like a futile effort to review a film such as Avengers: Endgame, a movie so culturally monolithic that everyone who is going to see it probably made up their mind about a year ago. Making this task even more difficult is how focused this work is on resolutions – to talk about any narrative detail feels like a spoiler. I’m more driven to do an analysis, something only for people who have already taken in the film and want to discuss the intricate details – alas, my New Year’s Resolution this year was to write two relevant reviews a week, so I must at least try.

I could break down the more technical elements, but at this point, I think we all know where this franchise’s attention lies. All of their energy is focused on what appears on screen, not really how those objects are shot. This is a series that gets Visual Effect nominations every other film while being entirely standard fare in regards to editing and cinematography. At its best, as in Black Panther, it also backs the visual effects with equally stellar set and costume design – Endgame doesn’t quite reach those heights, but it does an effective job capturing the conflicting designs of these intermingling franchises.

Continuing that comparison to Black Panther, to essentially summarize my thoughts on this film I don’t feel I can discuss as much I would like – Avengers: Endgame is likely my third favorite MCU film and also the third I’d score higher than 3.5 stars, beaten out by just Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy. Where Black Panther is MCU at its visual best and Guardians of the Galaxy perfected the franchise’s signature half-comedic atmosphere, Endgame is the first to fully land the concept of the crossover film – the concept the entire MCU was initially sold on.

On reflection, I feel like the key element holding Infinity War back is that it reduced a lot of characters to action sequences – they were detached from their own element. There is something about Endgame that manages to draw from the style of their films more. The MCU consists of many films that carry a similar feel with slight differences – a space story here, political intrigue there. Endgame goes through a variety of these moods with ease.

Similarly, Endgame simply makes better use of its characters. Infinity War is a string of people reacting – Thanos guided the actions. The problem with that is most characters acted the same – something very serious was happening and they all fought back however they could given where they were. Endgame succeeds by allowing the characters to play in their own element. Again, there’s a sense of variety here, as each character really takes their own unique path. The lead characters all carry their own guiding force – it’s a team film, but a team consisting of strong-minded individuals.

Avengers: Endgame is going to be far from the best movie of this year – again, this franchise pays too little attention to the technical language of cinema to achieve anything truly masterful – but it may just be the most satisfying. Where Infinity War was marked by a sense of impermanence, Endgame is a successful follow-through on so many stories that came before.

I guess my fear going in was, how was this film going to pull off its claim of being the conclusion to much of the MCU up to this point, all while the franchise would clearly chug along until perhaps the total collapse of cinema? But they handle it well, largely by honing in on the individual paths each character has found themselves on during their own films. They’re not merely props for a larger story – Endgame is each of their stories crossing into each other.

With how inescapable these films are now, it’s hard to remember how daring it was for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be a thing in the first place. It’s the great Hollywood experiment of the modern era, to make a truly massive yet interconnected series of blockbusters. Endgame really sells this franchise as a cohesive unit, reaching beyond the simple fanservice of seeing your favorite characters fight together every few years by using the crossover to contrast these familiar faces.

4 Stars Out of 5

Review: The Curse of La Llorona (2019)

Part of The Conjuring Universe, allegedly (there’s a Conjuring Universe!?), The Curse of La Llorona is just a mess. I usually start these off with either a short overview of who worked on the film or even a description of the story, but none of that matters here. This is a cash grab based around an old Mexican legend, but none of the specifics matter here. This is a film processed through a simplifying narrative machine, any measure of uniqueness stemming from the legend quickly syphoned out for a cheap series of basic jump scares.

First of all, La Llorona is a weeping woman; just hearing her wailing should be a dangerous factor. Yet her bitter tears are quickly forgotten; here, she is instead the endlessly screaming woman (La Gritona?) – a screaming woman who also grabs people by the arm. Really, she does little beyond that – screams, grabs an arm, runs away to do it again. She drowns some kids, but that’s off screen. Her on-screen presence is so commonly reduced to this simple cycle. The whole movie is the same scene with slight variations; people are scared La Llorona is near, they eventually stumble across her, she screams, grabs them (again, usually by the arm), then disappears. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

It’s not like we get much before that, either. Linda Cardellini plays a social worker who separates two children from their seemingly insane mother, only for the boys to be drowned by La Llorona a bit later. She goes to where the boys were found, her own children dragged along to a murder scene for some stupid reason, where her son soon encounters La Llorona. There’s no build-up of anything, we almost immediately fall into a family being terrorized, but, like, only once every three minutes or so.

There’s nothing shocking here, never any truly scary set-ups. It’s a film that runs purely off the idea of being startling – which, while being startled starts off as a fear reaction, it almost immediately turns to one of annoyance. To be startled usually means realizing whatever scared you isn’t actually a threat – each jump scare reduces the tension leading into the next. There’s no weight to anything here, no atmosphere being built.

This is a hard movie to talk about in detail because it really is that shallow. The more technical elements aren’t as lackluster as the story, but they’re not exactly good either. The one positive thing I took out of the whole experience is Raymond Cruz as a shaman who assists the family in fighting La Llorona, who fits a few fun one liners in. He is a pleasant relief amid a sea of tediousness.

The Curse of La Llorona is a film that completely misunderstands the appeal of horror. It’s sad that The Conjuring Universe seems convinced it has a room full of haunted knick-knacks that could each have their own sinister origin story. It really doesn’t mean much if it’s going to treat them all as entirely interchangeable. And if you’re going to fall back on an obvious formula, at least come up with a good one first.

1 Star Out of 5

Review: The Mustang (2019)

The debut feature film of director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, The Mustang is the tale of a violent prisoner named Roman (played by Matthis Schoenaearts) who begins working in a horse training program soon after his release from solitary. He ends up forging a bond with a mustang that refuses to be tamed and soon finds himself assigned as its main trainer.

This film carries a certain obvious symbolic quality; two beings confined by a system they will never fit into. Roman recognizes Marcus’s fear and frustrations, the horse constantly kicking the walls of his cage and approaching any presence with hostility. Part of this feels too on-the-nose, though it can also be effective in its simplicity.

I would categorize this in the same way as a film like Fighting With My Family – it’s a familiar sort of story presented in a technically streamlined manner. There works let everything take a backseat to the story and performances. The Mustang feels constrained by its lack of cinematic vision, letting the success of scenes fall largely on the shoulders of Schoenaearts.

This film tries to tackle elements of the contemporary western and prison drama genres, and it doesn’t quite succeed at juggling the two. Compare this to McQueen’s Hunger, another debut film that, while carrying greater stakes, is a similarly small production. McQueen would find a resonant image and linger on it – de Clermont-Tonnerre seems to simply present the necessities and glide along. The most important difference is how McQueen reinforces his actors; that seventeen minute scene highlights Fassbender’s capabilities as an actor. Here, Schoenaearts’ performance is merely captured.

The Mustang rarely seems to consider the power of the camera – there are beautiful shots for sure, but they’re in the most obvious places. We open on a scene of wild horses, and the view is stunning as they laze about and then run in a panic as a helicopter herds them into a fenced pasture. There is this great shot of Roman riding Marcus, the camera at an almost head-on, steady angle. That moment really underlines Roman’s sense of cautious wonder, and it’s a shame so many other scenes have such rudimentary presentation.

Any time we cut back to the prison drama, a lot of the artistry seems to fade. In the first scene, Roman remarks that he doesn’t mix well with people, and the same seems true of the narrative. The tension of these segments don’t add much – there’s an awful cellmate, an estranged daughter, racial tension. Everything here is so familiar. I guess a man and his horse is also a bit familiar, which really proves the idea that how you tell a story is more important than what story you happen to be telling. The Mustang is a much better contemporary western than it is a prison drama.

I feel like I’m being a bit harsh on this film – when a film narrowly misses out on greatness, it’s easy to fixate on what went wrong. This movie is still loaded with stellar sequences – I particularly liked an early scene where Roman gives up on his attempts of training Marcus as the horse simply turns his back. Roman sits down, and the horse casually walks over and rubs his face against the man. It’s this gentle, somewhat funny moment, and I wish the film fell more into these rather quiet observations.

Honestly, the best part here is the chemistry between Roman and his horse. If a film is going to fall back entirely on a single actor, they did a good job picking the right man. This is the type of film I could imagine picking up a few stray Best Actor nominations and absolutely nothing else. While I wish de Clermont-Tonnerre did more to reinforce his performance, Schoenaearts really captures a man who relies on silence, not because he has nothing to say but because social engagement risks frustration that leads to violence – this is a man who lives in terror of his own reactions. His quiet growth as he bonds with this horse really shines through.

There is a lot about The Mustang I find worthy of praise – I just wish certain elements didn’t fall so hard into the familiar. Thankfully, it ties everything up in an unpredictable manner, though it again fumbles with a very obvious closing shot. Either way, it’s strong enough to suggest Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre could become a great director with a bit more consideration for the craft.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Missing Link (2019)

Missing Link is the fifth film out of Studio Laika, that relatively new stop motion company that broke through with 2009’s Coraline. The release of Missing Link seemed to be approached with a certain amount of hesitation, as if the studio was losing its edge after a string of masterpieces – I suspect many have simply forgotten about The Boxtrolls at this point.

What I gather from this hesitation is more a concern over a change in style – their two great works, Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, carry an effectively heavy edge. They belong to a dark group of animation we haven’t seen that often out of American studios; Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks tend to play it safe with the bright and cheery, and any studio that did stray into bleaker subject matters seemed to have died off decades ago. To see Laika put out a film that looks more akin to those major studio productions suggests we could be losing a unique voice.

In the end, however, Missing Link feels distinctly within their style. It may shed the surface darkness, but that’s because it’s simply replacing the gothic horror or spirit-based quest with a more classically European style of adventure – the stakes are as high as the others, the setting has simply changed.

Missing Link generally handles its themes well – Sir Lionel Frost hopelessly seeks the approval of a group of powerful men by attempting to find proof of mythical creatures. This leads him to meet Mr. Link, a Sasquatch that wants to seek out others like him. Lionel agrees to the trip largely for his own image; these two singularly unique individuals are both on a desperate quest for validation.

While the style is fine, what Missing Link really lacks is a proper screenplay. There’s nothing that particularly stood out as wrong, but it leaves little impact. The jokes are fun in their moment but quickly pass. In reflection, I don’t feel like Coraline or Kubo had that strong of writing either, but their unique style granted an extra sense of gravitas to every sequence. Missing Link holds back on the fantastical to its detriment, as it reveals itself to be a bit too straightforward.

Despite this lightness, the individual moments do shine through. This film is consistently fun from the opening at Loch Ness to the climactic moments in the Himalayas. The characters are all charming, suited with a unique sense of motion and visual communication. Certain moments are surprisingly tense – the entire closing sequence had me on the edge of my seat, while also being pointedly hilarious. Missing Link digs its claws into colonialism and elitism throughout, and it really builds into a fantastic ending. There’s something to be said about a movie that manages to keep building interest even within a simple structure.

As expected with Laika, Missing Link is a wonderful film to look at. While its style isn’t their best, the smoothness of the animation is breathtaking. Where the character design is a bit basic, the set design is wonderful – each sequence has a unique location, which really helps build the sense of this being an epic adventure despite its short running time.

Missing Link offers little beyond its pleasantness, but it does so without hitting any notable sour notes. While I’d love to have another Kubo, I’m still happy with what we got. I walked out happy with the experience, fleeting as it will likely be.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Hellboy (2019)

Hellboy starts with a sequence of Arthurian legend, read out by a man who seems in a rush to be anywhere else. We open on a gross-out shot of an eye being plucked out, and the narrator quickly descends into cursing as he speaks. None of this is funny, nor particularly horrific – this is exactly what a thirteen-year-old edgelord would craft if tasked with the lofty goal of trying to impress the goth kids two years his senior.

Can we start with the sound editing? Despite sitting through two hours of bloated narrative, that’s somehow the element that left the biggest impact. Sound editing is a key element that I rarely notice, as most films try to be as seamless as possible in that regard. When discussing my favorite bad movies, I usually lean toward Birdemic as the top of the bottom, usually with the explanation that I never fully understood the difference between sound editing and mixing until witnessing that monstrosity butcher both – so Hellboy is in fine company. Here, it’s so obvious that lines were simply dubbed in – there are these shots from a distance with the characters having their backs to the camera as they deal out pointless quips, as if the creators were terrified at the idea of a brief quiet. These added lines are not mixed in well, never accounting for the distance between the camera and the speaker – they always seem right on top of us, even if the camera is quickly zooming away from them.

Then there’s the choice of what scenes made it into the final cut – this is a movie loaded with violent imagery, yet it’s all so disconnected. We are buffeted with frankly disgusting shots of innocent people being massacred, and none of it has any reason to be in the film whatsoever. These moments all take place far from the central narrative, suggesting they are pure fodder added in so marketers could attempt to sell this as 2019’s Deadpool equivalent. Between the dubbing and these excess moments, it feels like much of this movie was generated in post-production.

When it’s not being sidetracked with attempts at recreating laughable 80s metal album covers, it’s instead sidetracked by flashbacks. I can understand setting up the film by giving Nimue’s origin, but Hellboy’s familiar backstory is unnecessary – dedicating a scene to Nimue’s lead henchman, even if it’s in the source, is an exercise in tedium. Even when we don’t cut to a separate scene, a lot of time is wasted on characters simply discussing their past.

One would hope that all this set-up would go somewhere, yet the central story is a mess – not that it’s hard to understand, but it simply seems to be dealing in several subplots that serve little purpose. The final production comes off as a series of set pieces, a cavalcade of fan service without proper context – Lobster Johnson is inserted into Hellboy’s origin story (which admittedly makes the scene a bit cooler), while the entire Baba Yaga sequence comes off as a non-sequitur. It’s as if someone challenged the team behind this film to fit in as many stray narrative elements as possible.

While Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 take on Hellboy might have been a fair bit lighter than its source material, this reboot completely misses the point. The comic is in no way an endless, juvenile gore fest. They are actually rather deliberately paced, taking the time to set the various mythical elements into motion. The 90s were a dark era for comics, with Hellboy as a bright spot that fit in with the brooding surface style while actually tackling darker themes. Just going back and flipping through a collection, I’m immediately struck by the use of shadows, which the film makes no attempt at capturing. Paging through The Wild Hunt, which serves as a backbone for this film’s narrative, there’s really not much violence at all – the gross-out battle with the giants in the film is quickly cut away from in the comics, then returned to as a gag and again as a horrified reflection.

In the comics, violence has an impact. Contrast this with the scenes of carnage in the film – it’s a celebration of gore. We’re not supposed to be taken aback by the horrors of the end of the world – no, Marshall appears to simply be wallowing in how ‘dark’ he’s being. We’re expected to enjoy the sight of random people being impaled – it was a selling point in the marketing. These sequences exist purely for our apparent pleasure, as it certainly isn’t there to remind Hellboy of the stakes. After all, he’s never there to directly witness it.

This is Hellboy as if it were a lesser creation of Rob Liefeld. Which, yes, Rob Liefeld’s most famous invention has been a repeated box office smash, but that seems largely despite his influence. Deadpool balances the violence with fourth-wall-breaking wit – Hellboy balances it with the title character breaking his phone multiple times. Get it? Because his hand is very large?

Hellboy is a failure on all fronts. It lacks the atmosphere that defined Mignola’s art, while similarly failing at the sense of fun del Toro managed in his take. If it’s trying to fill the niche created by Deadpool, it doesn’t actually understand that niche. It might not quite reach the disastrous level of The Last Airbender, but it certainly hurts just as much to see a good franchise so mishandled.

1 Star Out of 5

Review: Shazam! (2019)

The problem with most DCEU films is they’re all rather joyless; they don’t have to be borderline comedies like the Marvel films, but they have embraced this bleak outlook that is rather repulsive even from a distance. Wonder Woman and Aquaman toned that down quite a bit, but Shazam! feels like a total reversal, a concept goofy enough that it demands a much lighter approach.

Walking out of the theater, I realized Shazam! was the first live action superhero film in years that really left me with a sense of joyous wonder. Though its origin story structure has obviously been done into the ground by this point, it left me with a nostalgia for an older kind of superhero flick.

This feeling in large part lies in the central concept – a desperate wizard gives eternal runaway Billy Batson the power to transform into a man loaded with magical powers. The film proceeds to run almost entirely on Billy’s amusement with his own abilities. There’s a certain potency to an origin story from the perspective of someone young enough to appreciate the pure fun of suddenly having power – where most adult characters seem immediately burdened with a sense of responsibility, Shazam is a rare character allowed to initially run wild.

Being a film focused on a teenager moving into a group home with five other kids, Shazam! is given the burden of being flooded with child actors – thankfully, most put in pretty good performances. Among the younger actors, Jack Dylan Grazer steals the show as Billy’s disabled foster brother, Freddy. He carries this obnoxious and opinionated edge, which plays well against Zachary Levi’s jovial bravado as the adult Shazam.

Shazam! is at its best when it’s not quite being a superhero film – my interest waxed and waned depending on the presence of the villain, Dr. Sivana. Turns out, most superheroes who fly around and punch things kind of look the same in action. There’s nothing wrong with the character of the villain – in fact, I enjoyed his twisted origin story and his lifelong search that opens the movie – but the simple fact is that the film suddenly turns dire and loses the energy that sets it apart whenever he’s on screen. His presence is necessary due to the genre, I just wish they could have trimmed the action sequences down.

The real highlights are those moments of discovery – Billy starts off having no knowledge of what he’s really able to pull off, and he ends up stumbling into everything. The boys make great use of the most obvious new power – Shazam’s adult appearance allows them to get away with various hijinks, from trying booze for the first time to checking out a strip club. This is a childhood wish fulfillment fantasy wrapped in a cape – a Big reference is as on-the-nose as it is hilarious.

Between the comedy and action is some surprisingly effective room for drama. Shazam! plays well into the concept of family – Billy begins the film in constant search for his mother, who very obviously abandoned him as a child. He immediately rejects his new foster family and returns to his search, only to find a mutual understanding between him and this new family. The phrase “I get it” is repeated throughout – they know what it’s like to be searching for a family. This all builds up to a wonderfully poignant moment where Billy learns what happened with his mother – I can think of few superhero movie scenes as effectively gut-punching as this one. Where it might fumble with action, Shazam! really plays into its themes well.

My only real concern with this theme of found families is how little time certain members are given. Billy and Freddy get plenty of time as the leads, Darla and Mary have a few key scenes, but Eugene and Pedro are just kind of there. They are given a few minor things to do, but they almost seem inessential, which makes it a bit harder to buy Billy’s investment into his new family as a whole unit – he simply hasn’t interacted enough with multiple members. The theme still works, but the connections between certain characters feels glossed over.

Within the span of a month, both Marvel and DC released movies based on characters originally known as Captain Marvel – what’s shocking here is that DC won out this time. Both films feel a bit too familiar, but where Captain Marvel comes off as a strict adherent to the MCU formula and little more, Shazam! manages to gather the best elements of the superhero origin story. Nothing here is particularly new or innovative, but Billy’s relative youth allows certain classic tropes to be amped up in fresh ways.

3.5 Stars Out of 5