SIFF Advance: TROOP ZERO

Directing: B-
Acting: B-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B

There’s a pretty strong, old-school “independent movie” vibe to Troop Zero, a light and breezy tale of a young girl in rural late-seventies Georgia getting together a ragtag group of local girls (and one effeminate boy) to form a “Birdie Scouts” troop with the intent of winning a jamboree prize of getting her voice recorded on a record set to be sent to space. The script is both unique and strong, as written by Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild), but the direction, by a female duo called “Bert & Bertie” (which makes me think of avian muppets), much of the time has the feeling of unfinished business. It’s as though there perhaps wasn’t enough time or budget (or both) for a proper amount of rehearsal or number of takes.

To be fair, filming with children is tricky, and Troop Zero features a lot of them, pretty much all of them with the vibe of real kids rather than professional actors. And how easy is it to find that sweet spot between kids who feel genuine onscreen and kids who come across as creepily precocious? Given a choice between the two, I’d take the former; at the very least, there’s nothing odd or unsettling about any of these kids.

Still, I found myself thinking as I watched this movie, what kind of theatrical release this might get. There are far more polished films than this one which these days are better marketed as releases straight to streaming platforms, which seems like perhaps the most appropriate avenue for Troop Zero . Who knows how big an audience it would get there, compared to in movie theatres?

That said, Troop Zero has more than its fair share of genuine charms, not least of which are its opening and closing sequences, with special effects impressively rendered for what was clearly a small budget. The opening credits follow a meteor hurtling towards the Earth, until we zoom in on little Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace), sitting in a chair under the stars, watching a meteor shower, reminiscing about how her late mother encouraged her interest in making contact with alien life. Christmas is immediately established as a girl with an exceeding interest in science, and what’s not to love about that?

The adult actors rounding out the supporting cast include some pretty big names, not least of which is Viola Davis (who gets top billing, actually) as Rayleen, who works as secretary to Christmas’s downtrodden defense laywer dad (Jim Gaffigan, sporting a truly horrible blond wig). Aside from the many local school bullies, Christmas’s pseudo-nemesis turns out to be Principal Massey, played by Allison Janney.

“Troop Zero” is the number given to the Birdie Scout troop formed by Christmas, because all the other numbers are taken — an attempt at a slight joke at the expense of the misfit kids, I suppose, although it makes little logical sense: apparently the numbers can only go up to thirty? Rayleen gets roped into being their “Troop Mother,” and by extension a much needed mother figure to Christmas.

It feels a little like the more famous actors involved are present as a means of lending attention this movie might not otherwise get. And in more experienced directorial hands, the final product might have been delivered with a bit more finesse. Still, I have to admit that by the end of this movie, it had completely won me over, and I was even misty-eyed by its delightful climax at the jamboree talent show. The story strands all get tied together with a neat bow with a nice emotional payoff, and with a movie like this, you can’t ask for much more than that.

A bit of star power is lent to the proceedings.

A bit of star power is lent to the proceedings.

Overall: B

SIFF Advane: ENORMOUS: THE GORGE STORY

Directing: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

This would have been more accurately called “The Gorge Amphitheatre Story,” as it focuses almost exclusively on the history and cultural impact of the famed music venue, which is situated with a memorably stunning view of the Columbia River Gorge. Director Nic Davis does include a minute or two at both the beginning and end of the film with a geologist from Central Washington University, who shares a few geological details about the Gorge that are, frankly, far more interesting than what singers or band played the Gorge at which times between 1988 and now.

For instance, he notes that in contrast to the Grand Canyon, which took millions of years to form as it was carved out by the Colorado River, the Columbia River Gorge was formed mostly by cataclysmic floods occurring at the end of the last ice age, between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago. What! That’s an infinitesimally smaller window of time, and cataclysms are fun! Tell me more!

Alas, Enormous: The Gorge Story tells virtually no more about the formation of the Gorge itself, and is instead the story of the amphitheater built there by a young couple also operating a winery in the area, at the time with a capacity of 3,000. It has been enlarged and improved over time, now has at least two side stages and hosts many music festivals year round, has a currently capacity of 27,500, and is managed by Live Nation.

Nic Davis interviews several people with either notable or unique histories with the venue: a longtime event photographer; a woman who spent twenty years as a regular there with her sister who passed away; a few musicians of varying levels of fame, including a guitarist from Pearl Jam and the guru (or godfather? whatever) of Northwest music festivals, Dave Matthews himself. This guy has been headlining a full weekend of music every Memorial Day Weekend for many years now.

All of this is interesting enough, to be fair. And the musicians all uniformly appreciate the incredibly scenic nature of the venue, now widely considered to be one of the most beautiful in the country. That said, considering the eclectic number of festivals directly connected to the venue that do get mentioned — Sasquatch, Paradiso, Watershed — a curious number of them do not.

I have my own personal, unique history with this venue myself, just as presumably many Washingtonians and Northwesterners do. The first concert I ever attended was The Cranberries in 1996, at The Gorge. The second one I ever attended was one year later, at Lileth Fair. Granted, Lileth Fair is not directly associated with The Gorge generally speaking, but that 1997 concert there was the first stop of the first tour that festival ever did.

Perhaps there were some rights clearance issues. There’s a hint that may be the case in a shot of a newspaper article, with much of the text blurred — including the name Tracy Chapman, beneath a photo of her not blurred. And she was one of the acts at that 1997 Lileth Fair concert. Then there are Lollapalooza, Ozzfest, countless Phish concerts, and more — again, not directly associated with the venue, but worth mentioning as having been hosted by it several times. None of these things are mentioned at all, which gives Enormous a bit of a feeling as though certain details are curiously omitted. The run time of this film is all of 64 minutes, so it’s not like they were pressed for time.

Before seeing this, I imagined Enormous: The Gorge Story might be one of the few documentaries I would say are worth going out of your way to see in a theatre, what with the grand vistas being so much the point. Shots of the Columbia River itself, and the Columbia River Gorge, are both used sparingly and often repeated. You’ll get just as much out of this movie watching it on your TV at home. Being such a very local production and with such a short run time, I’ll b surprised if this gets any kind of general release in theatres anyway.

To be clear, however, what does get included is still compelling. In terms of what narrative this film has, nothing included feels wasted, and it’s over too quickly for you to get bored. It will certainly appeal to fans who love to see concerts at this venue, of which there are a great many. If you have no more than a cursory interest in the Gorge Amphitheater, though, you won’t have cause for any more than a cursory interest in this movie.

The show is spectacular no matter where you look. Well, if you’re actually there, anyway.

The show is spectacular no matter where you look. Well, if you’re actually there, anyway.

Overall: B

JOHN WICK CHAPTER 3: PARABELLUM

Directing: B
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+

“Guns. Lots of guns.” That’s what John Wick (Keanu Reeves) says he needs at one point in John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, a movie with a subtitle that is Latin for prepare for war. In other words, this movie makes it perfectly clear it is one long, 130-minute setup for Chapter 4 (already confirmed for 2021). The ridiculous obsession with guns notwithstanding, I just can’t help myself anymore: I’m looking forward to it.

And that, really, is perhaps the great surprise of Parabellum. I actually found Chapter 2, released two years ago, to be slightly more fun than this franchise’s first installment, released two and a half years before that. Every one of these movies is about elaborately staged, beautifully photographed gunfights and hand to hand combat, all in the name of revenge. It was only the first one, however, that wallowed in John Wick’s grief. That made it less fun, being weighed down by the grief of a super-assassin whose wife, and particularly whose dog, is dead.

Everybody worries about how John’s new dog will fare, never batting an eyelash at the massive human body count. I’m going to half-spoil something (gasp!) for Chapter 3: two new dogs are introduced, who get their own stunts that are pretty awesome in one action sequence in particular, and one of those dogs does get shot. But does it survive?? You’ll have to see the movie to find out!

Although they all average out to pretty solid B-grade movies, the John Wick franchise accomplishes the rare feat of getting slightly better with each installment. It’s the writing in particular that gets better; the action is consistently great. Granted, the dialogue only improves slightly. Even with great new actors added to the supporting cast — in this case, Halle Berry, Anjelica Huston and Asia Kate Dillon — the parts don’t offer any great acting challenge. At least Halle Berry gets to participate in some of the action. She’s the one with her own two dogs. They do a lot of chomping down on guys’ crotches.

I found myself thinking about Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies while watching Parabellum. These movies have a lot in common, right down to the revenge plots. The difference is that the John Wick scripts don’t have a fraction of the wit. Neither do they marinate themselves in self-love in the form of pop culture references. I’d say John Wick is a much more straightforward continuation of a particular action thriller tradition.

The whole revenge figures far less prominently this time. Rather, Parabellum is about, as gets stated more than once by more than one character, “Consequences.” It’s the butterfly effect of rogue super-assassin actions. Director Chad Stahelski (who directed both the other John Wick films and fittingly began his career as a stunt coordinator) drops us into the middle of action from the opening shot, as a $14 million bounty has been placed on John’s head. With every other assassin alive eager to collect, Parabellum opens with a thrilling sequence of John getting chased, fought, and escaping several close calls. In the first fifteen minutes or so alone, we see John running on foot, on a motorcycle across a bridge, and even riding through Manhattan on a horse. (While still in the stable he randomly finds himself inside, he uses a few horses ingeniously as kicking weapons.)

And so it goes, through pretty much this entire movie, with John Wick making deals, getting double crossed, collecting debts, incurring debts, and fighting all along the way — in often ingeniously designed sets. We see the return of Ian McShane as Winston, the manager of the Continental Hotel that serves as a haven for assassins, Lance Reddick as its concierge, and Laurence Fishburne as the “Bowery King,” whatever that is, I haven’t quite figured that out. It’s best not to question logic too much in these movies; that’s not what they’re here for.

How long will Keanu Reeves be here for these movies, I wonder? The guy was 50 years old the year this franchise started, five years ago. It could be said, I suppose, he’s the new Liam Nisson; John Wick is Keanu Reeves’s answer to the Taken movies: senior citizen as action movie star. Reeves is arguably a less talented actor, but he fits the part a lot better. Quiet stoicism might be this guy’s greatest talent. These movies get just-so slightly better each time, and the man at their center is a consistently useful avatar for their admittedly shallow themes. Their cleverness exists in the execution of their action choreography, and that’s what gives them a thrill all their own.

The writing is on the wall. In the form of guns.

The writing is on the wall. In the form of guns.

Overall: B

POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU

Directing: B-
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B
Special Effects: B

Fairt warning right up top: I literally know nothing about Pokémon, aside from its immense global popularity, the fact that it features an array of adorable and ugly creature characters, and it was very much part of a zeitgeist-defining mobile game about four years ago, which I never played. I’ve never watched any show or any other motion picture based on the property. I didn’t even know there had been more than twenty animated feature films released before the current live action one until checking the list on Wikipedia. I do know that Pokémon Detective Pikachu is the first of them to be a live-action release, with American characters speaking English and featuring bona fide movie stars, most notably Ryan Reynolds as the voice of Pikachu.

The point is, I am about as far from an authority on anything Pokémon as I could possibly be, so I have no means of appreciating how well (or how poorly) the film reflects the world of the multimedia franchise, which, until now, I have effectively ignored. But that’s not stopping me from reviewing the movie anyway!

I guess, if you are well versed in this fictional world, and you have any interest in a critical take on it, maybe find a review by someone else who also knows it well. You’ll likely find little to no satisfaction here. That said, as I have always said, any movie should always work on its own merits. So, does Detective Pikachu work on its own merits? Generally speaking, yes it does.

I have heard it said that it doesn’t reflect the true nature of Pikachu as a character to have him voiced with a snarky personality. Well, in the end Detective Pikachu actually has a fairly clever means of simultaneously sidestepping and correcting that problem, if you really want to call it a problem. Based on what little I have seen of Pikachu in his genuinely original self and form, personally I prefer him as voiced by Ryan Reynolds. It’s kind of as though a family-friendly Deadpool found himself trapped inside the body of this little furry creature.

As for how he fits into the overall story, which here presents a planned “Rhyme City” where humans and Pokémon live together harmoniously and are disallowed from any kinds of battles, it should come as no surprise that it offers little in the way of depth. Why would anyone expect depth in a movie based on a video game property, anyway? No fan of Pokémon is going to care. Nor is any casual fan of fantasy-adventure movies.

And to give Detective Pikachu credit, it is fairly imaginative in its world building, with Easter eggs of all sorts peppered throughout the film’s run time, without ever everdoing it or overwhelming those of us who don’t have any familiarity with all these creatures. By and large, they’re all fun, in myriad ways specific to individual ones. There is nothing cutting edge about the special effects, but they are serviceable and do work to further the story, so far as there is one. Director Rob Letterman keeps the spectacle at a manageable level when it could otherwise easily get out of hand in a movie like this.

The human characters are on average pretty bland, starting with our hero, young Tim (Justice Smith), who learns of his estranged father’s mysterious death and heads into Rhyme City to investigate. It continues with Lucy (Kathryn Newton), the aspiring reporter Tim runs into there. One could argue the blandness stops with Ken Watanabe as Tim’s dad’s detective partner, or Bill Nighy as the mogul mastermind behind the very existence of Rhyme City — except those two in particular are phoning it in, playing parts as pat as any ever put into another movie even remotely like this.

The story arc is patently by the numbers, but the joy is in the details, and often with the many cameos of different Pokémon creatures. You don’t have to have any familiarity with this universe to find them entertaining — and, in many cases, cute.

Which brings me to the most salient point about Detective Pikachu: the title character himself, and more specifically, his design. He’s adorable! So much so that when a passing lady on the street said exactly that about him, I thought, Yes. Yes, he is. You would be hard pressed to find another character cuter than Pikachu, and Ryan Reynolds’s fun-loving banter is a natural fit. If any one thing makes this movie worth seeing at all, it’s him. And he’s in most of the scenes, thankfully — because, without him, the movie gets comparatively dull. Reynolds may not be the true essence of this creature who otherwise only squeaks “Pika pika!”, but I could watch that version of him all day. As such, whatever other imperfections Detective Pikachu might have, it does offer a pretty solid 104 minutes of fun.

Tim and Pikachu get to the bottom of their bland missio— OMG HE’S SO CUTE

Tim and Pikachu get to the bottom of their bland missio— OMG HE’S SO CUTE

Overall: B

HER SMELL

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B

I left Her Smell with one lingering, burning question: What does Becky Something smell like? You never find out! No one discusses odor even once in this movie. Maybe you’re just supposed to assume something, I don’t know, pungent, because Becky is so fucked up? Unless this is a collective “her,” some kind of reference to women in general? I don’t know that we have the time to unpack that idea. Okay sure, maybe I have a problem with being too literal about things. But I do think a movie’s title should make sense.

Otherwise, it’s easy to imagie Her Smell being at least somewhat polarizing. There have been comparisons of this story, starring Elizabeth Moss as the frontwoman for an all-female rock band just over the crest of fame, to Courtney Love. I don’t particularly see it, myself. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry reportedly used Axl Rose as more of an inspiration. That makes more sense.

The plot structure is compelling. There aren’t very many scenes in this film, which runs rather long at 134 minutes. Each scene goes on much longer than usual, with each transition usually a pretty big jump forward in time. There was a moment when I actually found myself thinking I rather liked the editing, but that was before no less than three moments that could have worked perfectly well as an ending. One of these is an extended, almost jarringly quiet sequence with Becky in her house, bonding with the young daughter she has had very little time with. She sings her a song at the piano, the scene is beautifully lit, and I found it all very moving. After that moved into yet another scene, even later in time, it wasn’t even the last time I thought, Wait, there’s more?

There’s something weirdly off about the performances, even though Elizabeth Moss brings a crackling, vaguely sinister intensity. It feels, counter-intuitively, like rehearsed improvisation. It’s easy to assume these extended scenes of rambling dialogue are improvised, but according to Moss herself, every line was scripted. There’s something very impressive about that. There’s also something vaguely unnatural about it, though you can’t quite put your finger on it as you watch.

“Becky Something” is the stage name. Backing her up are guitarist Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and drummer Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin). When the film opens, the camera follows tracking shots of Becky backstage after a club performance, these other two women already exasperated from years of her manic behavior. Her ex-boyfriend Danny (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, here very familiar looking but hard to place with an American accent) brings their little daughter by, something I never quite understood. Why not leave the kid with his new girlfriend as long as Becky is messed up?

Becky alienates many people, most notably her mother (Virginia Madsen) and another trio of young women musicians who can’t help but fawn over her. But as unconventional as Her Smell seems in the moment, with nearly all of its scenes set in backstage halls and dressing rooms of theatres (except for that one lovely, quiet scene at Becky’s house), it has a long arc of redemption which, overall, is almost disappointingly conventional. There comes a point at the end where you half-expect the final shot to be a freeze frame of Becky and the band performing onstage.

As such, the writing is competent, but slightly under-cooked. It’s really the cinematography and the performances that make this movie, which command attention. It is a bit of a showcase for Elizabeth Moss’s versatility. It also, in the end, falls slightly short of the feast for the senses it clearly intends to be. Keegan DeWitt’s score is worth noting, with its semi-muted percussive tensions keeping you feeling nervous about what crazy thing Becky might do. Even that feels like approaching a boiling point without ever coming to a full boil.

She’ll keep you interested, even when the movie doesn’t.

She’ll keep you interested, even when the movie doesn’t.

Overall: B

LONG SHOT

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Long Shot is the kind of movie that can easily be criticized on many merits, in ways that I could even probably agree with, but whatever, I enjoyed it!

The greatest defense I can give it, which is perhaps equal parts fair and lame: this movie delivers on its promise, which is simply that it’s a fun, laugh-out-loud romantic comedy. It certainly has a premise that sets it apart, with Charlize Theron as Secretary of State Charlotte Field, who falls for the speech writer she hires who she also happened to babysit as a kid, Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen). Granted, it’s not new to set a romantic comedy in the upper echelons of Washington politics (see The American President (1995)), but I can’t recall any other that revolves around the most powerful woman in the world.

Now, okay, yes, it is a bit of a trope to see the stunningly beautiful woman falling for the shlubby man — hell, Seth Rogen himself already did it twelve years ago with Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up, which was about as good as this movie is. And truly, nothing in Long Shot is even remotely realistic.

But, after some introductory scenes that set all the pieces of the plot into position with pretty clumsy contrivances, Long Shot totally won me over. The movie and its audience both get its sea legs, and the charisma of its lead actors, as well as the surprising chemistry between them, conspire to sell the movie as a good time for a couple of hours.

I’ll still nitpick, of course. I like to assume that’s what you’re here for! I didn’t love the character of Maggie (June Diane Raphael), one of Charlotte Field’s key staffers, playing the part of the resentful bitch, going out of her way to sabotage the relationship. I don’t fault June Diane Raphael for taking the part — we’ve all got to pay the rent, and she does well with what bullshit she has to work with — but truly, what purpose does that serve?

And then there’s Fred Flarsky’s best friend, Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), who seems little more than a pawn in an exercise in pandering “both sides-ism.” A black conservative Republican who exists to teach his white best friend about empathy and “seeing things from other people’s point of view”? Are you kidding? I’m not saying no such black people exist — but the idea that he would be best friends with a character like Fred, whose very purpose as a journalist exists to expose the seedy underbelly of Republican corruption and hypocrisy, is a bit more of a stretch.

Okay, so Long Shot is far from perfect. It works, and works well, when it focuses on the relationship between Charlotte and Fred, and how they handle the special political circumstances surrounding them. This includes Charlotte working for a president (Bob Odenkirk) who got the job with no political experience and used to be a TV star. Sound familiar? The clever twist here is that President Chambers, instead of being a reality show host, was previously the star of a TV drama on which he played . . . the president.

There are some elements of the story which, in a pre-Trump world, would have pushed the limits of believability. But, love it or hate it, we now live in a world in which a movie can show a hacked video leak involving semen on a beard does not ruin political career, and you can still think, Yeah, I can see it. (Side note: thankfully, that’s the only bit of gross-out humor involving bodily fluids in the movie.) Now, such a thing not ruining a woman’s political career? That might just still be a little too unrealistic.

But who watches these movies, particularly romantic comedies, for realism? Nobody! That these are fantasies is in their DNA, literally in the script. Long Shot does want to have things both ways in multiple contexts, from its only-occasional nods to rampant sexism in American politics while presenting an arguably sexist story arc, to its eagerness to be accessible to audiences of all political persuasions. These aren’t things that have to tear a movie down, however. I mean, why shouldn’t we all be able to enjoy this movie?

And really, that’s what makes Long Shot work — unchallenging in spite of being set in the world of American politics, it’s basically the very definition of escapism. Generally speaking, it’s escapism done well. I found my heartstrings getting tugged by it, anyway.

They’ll win you over if you let them.

They’ll win you over if you let them.

Overall: B

HAIL SATAN?

Directing: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

To say I have mixed feelings about the documentary Hail Satan? is a bit of an understatement. I’ve long been an avowed atheist, though not a particularly militant one, but I have a clear enough memory of my conservative, religious, Christian upbringing to know how triggering everything about this might be to plenty of people — including, quite plausibly, multiple people I know personally who might deign to read this very review.

And therein lies the rub. The “Satanic Temple,” as an embodiment of “modern Satanism” stands for objectively reasonable activist goals. Who in their right mind would read their “Seven Tenets,” without associating them with the Satanic Temple, and disagree with any of it? The first one includes the phrase “in accordance with reason”; the second references “the struggle for justice”; the third is about physical autonomy.

Clearly this organization understands how, culturally, they are playing with fire. The bummer of it all is how reasonable their arguments are, yet how lost their arguments are going to get as they provoke the system by exposing institutional hypocrisy.

And make no mistake — the hypocrisy is epidemic. In one of only two mentions of religion in the United States Constitution, it states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In what universe does the erection of a monument to the Biblical Ten Commandments on State government grounds not violate that clause? (Side note: one of the interview subjects in Hail Satan? notes that the prevalence of such monuments on government property across the country can be traced back to a publicity stunt promoting the 1956 motion picture The Ten Commandments. Yes, really.)

So Hail, Satan? not only tracks the beginnings and evolution of the Satanic Temple as an activist organization with rebellious ritualistic leanings toward blasphemy-as-a-statement, but its push to get local municipalities to erect their own statue of Baphomet, basically a goat-headed angel with two adoring children flanking him, next to any Ten Commandments monument on government property. Their arguments, which is objectively a pretty airtight one, is that it aims to celebrate the religious pluralism — as opposed to, in one man’s words, “Christian supremacy” — on which this country was founded.

There is, of course, multiple elements of ridiculousness to all of this. Could anyone as effectively make the same arguments without invoking what a majority of this country regards as the world’s greatest embodiment of evil? How can these people expect to be taken seriously? Well, by using faith-based laws agaist those who passed them, they have managed it — by getting the Oklahoma state legislature to back off on erecting the Ten Commandments on their Capitol grounds; by getting the Phoenix City Council to abandon their sixty-year tradition of doing a religious invocation before sessions when the Satanic Temple requested to be a part of it. You should see the footage of the local citizenry addressing the City Council in opposition of the Satanic Temple being allowed in. Some of them look literally hysterical.

A key question is asked one of the interview subjects: “Do you think most people think you’re kidding, or that you’re evil?” I would expect most of the otherwise reasonable conservatives I know would come down on the latter option. I also know plenty of people on the spectrum between atheism and secularism, though, and probably most of them would expect these people are perpetuating an elaborate hoax, having fun at the expense of the religious community.

If nothing else, this film illustrates how “Satanic” peope’s earnestness should not be underestimated. It’s often said these days that modern Satanists don’t literally believe in a “Satan,” but rather regard him as a symbol of rebellion against tyranny. These are people who organize work to the public good, such as the local Arizona chapter that adopted a highway (although they pick up litter with extended pitchforks, a nice touch). These are people who are very serious, and are by and large very friendly.

That’s not to say they are not without their dark rituals, which, if Hail Satan? is any indication, just offer a more offbeat kind of community to people that they lose by rejecting more conventional religion. Perfectly valid points are made about the perversity of many Christian rituals (wine representing blood, eating of flesh, etc). That said, there’s a somewhat delicious irony to the leader of the local Detroit chapter being rejected from the national organization for falling too far out of line with their organizational principals. A Satanist calling for the execution of the president? That’s a step too far! To be fair to the Satanic Temple, they really are a nonviolent institution, something codified into their ethics. Those Detroit Satanists can pour wine over naked bodies in ritual ceremonies all they want, but advocating actual violence of any kind — let alone against the president — is unacceptable. Think of their reputation!

My flippancy here could easily be presented here as unfair. But, I am also a realist, and the idea of any group openly calling themselves “Satanists” gaining a truly positive reputation in this country is preposterous. The makers of Hail Satan?, such as director Penny Lane, are clearly on their side. The film actually makes a strong case that we all should be. It also falls slightly short of illustrating what good they’re doing by using Satan as a fundamental symbol of their identity. They want their earnestness to be acknowledged, and while they tend to get it from legal scholars, when it comes to the culture at large, they are either laughed at and dismissed, or they are deeply, almost fatally feared. Neither of those responses make any objective sense.

And although Hail Satan? is otherwise very well constructed and presented, I do wish it spent more time acknowledging such questions. It ends on their fight with the Arkansas state legislature over the Ten Commandment on Little Rock government property, and in this case all they manage is the temporary presentation of their Baphomet statue on the bed of a truck during a rally. Evidently, their case against Arkansas is ongoing, but for some reason the credits roll before any clarification on that matter is offered.

Still, for those with an open enough mind to give it a look anyway, Hail Satan? is provocative in all the right ways. Its greatest problem is really the same problem the Satanic Temple has itself: any association with Satan, no matter how “symbolic” it might be, will instill far more fear than actual thought. I’m not sure there has ever been a greater irony than a movie about Satanists being one of the best examples out there of preaching to the choir.

Good luck with that.

Good luck with that.

Overall: B

SHAZAM!

Directing: B-
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-
Special Effects: B

Let’s get real: if you’re the type who is interested in any and all of the countless superhero/comic book movies now in existence, and you have an affinity for the lighter-hearted ones, you’re going to have a great time watching Shazam! You have no reason to read any more of this review. I mean really, why are you even here?

But, for the rest of us? Shazam! is still a pretty great time — for the last three quarters of its run time. Otherwise, it’s tonally inconsistent, has an under cooked plot, and would have benefited from greater depth.

I say all this with the full understanding that most of this movie’s fans won’t give a shit about such things. So what if I’d say I found it a worthy matinee, but feel no need to recommend anyone else rush out and see it? No one’s going to decided not to see it based on my recommendation.

I still have to pick it apart a bit anyway. Isn’t that what we’re all here for?

It could easily be said that Shazam! is one of, say, the two best DC Comics films of the modern era — the other being, of course, Wonder Woman. The two movies are of roughly the same level of quality, but for different reasons. It is, of course, easy to call them the best of recent DC output because, well, that’s a pretty low bar.

Shazam!’s biggest problem is a pretty big one: the first quarter of it unfolds in a strangely inorganic way, never quite achieving the tone of wide-eyed delight that the rest of the movie manages. This is kid of a long way to get to that point, especially when we’re introduced to 14-year-old Billy Batson (16-year-old Asher Angel) as a foster kid who, while he amuses himself with pranks involving the theft of police cars, is perpetually sullen and resentful, consumed with finding the mother who abandoned him as a small child.

So, when Billy suddenly finds himself randomly given the superpowers of an ancient order of wizards (and to say the backstory with the wizards has no meat to it is an understatement), it doesn’t naturally follow through that the grown-man superhero he becomes (played by Zachary Levi) would be more giddy about it than anything else.

That said, it is that giddiness that makes Shazam! so fun to watch, as Billy figures out through trial and error what his superpowers are, with the help of his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, giving the best performance in the movie). Billy has been re-homed into a large host family with a group of kids that are diverse in both age and ethnicity. One of the great running gags is the brain of a child — or teenager — inside the body of an adult. It’s kind of the superhero movie of the old Tom Hanks movie Big, where you find adults behaving like kids, but in funny and charmingly innocent ways.

This being a superhero movie, though, there must always be a supervillain, here in the form of Mark Strong playing Thaddeus, who we meet as a child in the movie’s oddly uncompelling opening sequence. He meets the wizard who is waiting for the person who is “pure of heart” who can take on his powers and guard against the demon monsters who represent the seven deadly sins (why? you got me!). He is deemed not pure enough of heart; the rejection becomes a lifelong obsession; he finds a way to become possessed by said seven “sin demons,” who represent one of the several plot points of the movie that don’t really work.

When Shazam! focuses on Billy, his delight at suddenly being superhuman, and his totally realistic 14-uear-old way of handling it, the movie works quite well, and makes for a lot of witty entertainment. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi both pair well with Jack Dylan Grazer as the foster brother, and the evolution of their familial friendship makes for good storytelling. The same cannot quite be said of the subplot of Billy’s search for his birth mother, or certainly of the ancient wizard with no particularly clear backstory, or smoky sin-demons terrorizing a Philadelphia holiday carnival. Who has a full scale carnival at Christmastime, anyway? That’s weird.

Much of the movie is well shot, though. The superhero and the supervillain can both fly, and there are some battle scenes both far above the city of Philadelphia and following them as they fly past downtown skyscrapers which are pretty cool to look at. Incidentally, this movie exists in the “DC universe,” which means the characters are aware of both Superman and Batman, the latter of who gets a couple nice references and punch lines. Apparently in the DC universe, there is no New York City, only Metropolis for Superman; Gotham City for Batman; and for Shazam . . . Philadelphia.

In short, Shazam! is not as good as it could have been or as I wanted it to be, but enough of it is uniquely entertaining to keep it from being a waste of time.

Also known as “Captain Sparkle Fingers!”

Also known as “Captain Sparkle Fingers!”

Overall: B

CAPTAIN MARVEL

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+
Special Effects: B+

Original comic books are one thing — I can’t speak to those because I never read them. But in cinema, Captain Marvel is clearly Marvel’s answer to DC’s Wonder Womanand, honestly, the two films average out to being roughly equal quality. Where Wonder Woman faltered is in the areas where Captain Marvel excels, and vice versa. For instance: the opening sequence of Wonder Woman actually was wonderful, and made us all wish the entire story could have taken place on that island of Themyscira. Captain Marvel, on the other hand, is quite deliberately incomprehensible in its opening sequences, the puzzle pieces only coming together for the viewer at the same time they do for the title character.

But! Wonder Woman’s fatal flaw — and this is hardly specific to that movie; it’s a flaw of far too many superhero movies — is the so-called “climactic” battle between hero and villain causing untold collateral damage at the end. Humor, used consistently and effectively, is arguably Captain Marvel, and it very nearly turns that particular trope into a punch line.

Maybe it’s not fair to compare this to Wonder Woman so much, except for the unfortunate thing they both have in common that sets it apart from other films: not only is the superhero at its center a woman, but in both cases they were subject to ridiculously overt, sexist backlash. Well, I am happy to report that both movies are laughing all the way to the bank.

That said, Captain Marvel has less to say about so-called “girl power,” the character’s womanhood being comparatively incidental. Now, to be sure, there are feminist nods here and there: a brief scene in which some schmo on a motorcycle suggests our hero “give me a smile”; a supporting character bristling at being called “young lady”; the 90s-rock-heavy soundtrack featuring No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” during a pivotal fight scene. But nods is all they are, and they are seamlessly woven into the narrative.

Captain Marvel does have a bit of magic to it, in that it’s open to meaning whatever audiences want it to mean to them. Maybe I’m just a big softy, but I actually got slightly teary at a montage of Captain Marvel’s alter ego Carol Danvers (a well cast Brie Larson) getting up after being nearly defeated by challenges throughout her childhood and young adulthood. It was a rare moment for a superhero movie, in which it offers something truly inspiring. Few others outside of Wonder Woman or (the admittedly far superior) Black Panther have managed such a thing.

As for the actual story here — it’s . . . fine. There are no particularly huge faults within the context of what this movie is, but neither does it stand out from most vantage points. There is a fun bit of cleverness, with its setting in the mid-nineties, and thereby serving as a sort of prequel to everything we have seen so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We get to find out how Nick Fury got that eye patch, for example.

Speaking of which, that brings us to the special effects, which are actually pretty impressive. Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg are both digitally de-aged for this movie, and that particular effect is uncanny. Some have said too much so — getting into pseudo-creepy “uncanny valley” territory — but I kept paying close attention to Samuel L. Jackson’s face in particular, the texture of his skin and how it shone in different shades of life, and found myself consistently impressed. There are other moments when characters are clearly being animated by CGI, so the overall effects job is not exactly perfect. But it veers between serviceable to amazing at times.

The same goes for Goose the cat, by far my favorite character in this movie — in fact, I would say he’s worth the price of admission alone — given my doubts when I heard some shots of the animal are CGI and in some cases it’s even a “realistic” puppet cat. Well, guess what? I could not readily see when a puppet cat was being used. And when CGI is detectable, it’s understandable, and often in service of well-used humor. And just trust me on this one: that cat has brings some delightful surprises. Especially at the end of the credits.

Getting back to the Wonder Woman parallels, there is even one for the Robin Wright role: in this movie, the “mentor woman” role is filled by Annette Bening. She is always a delight to see, although she is given so little meat to chew on here that it’s clearly just a paycheck job for her. When it comes to true nuance in performance, that pretty much all falls to Larson, although a sliver of it also goes to another character with shifting position in her life, played by a buffed up Jude Law.

Fundamentally, as in all superhero moves, it’s all just completely ridiculous, and Captain Marvel could have gone for, but has only a fraction of the deliberate cultural import of Black Panther. We’re getting to a point where even the movies that five years ago would have truly stood out for their casting and storytelling choices, are now becoming routine and less exceptional. We shan’t forget Goose the cat, however! Captain Marvel would still have been fun without him, but nowhere near as much so.

Goose is  my  Captain Marvel!

Goose is my Captain Marvel!

Overall: B

SHARKWATER EXTINCTION

Directing: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

Spoiler alert! Rob Stewart, the Canadian conservationist, shark activist, writer and director of Sharkwater Extinction died during the making of this film, in Florida during an attempt to get footage of a rare species of shark. This might seem a strange thing to lead with, except that it’s a pretty useful thing to know before going in to see this film — and I did not. As a result, I spent a lot of time unfairly judging the movie, wondering why this guy seemed so self-involved. Is this about the sharks he’s trying to save or is it about him?

Then the point of his untimely death arrives in the narrative of the film and I was like, …Oh. Also, there’s a second thing particularly useful to know about Sharkwater Extinction: Stewart had already made a 2006 documentary called simply Sharkwater, to which this was always intended as a sequel. The footage in this film was shot in 2016 and 2017, early on featuring Stewart talking in Costa Rica about shooting “Sharkwater 2.” I had never heard of the initial documentary, but judging by what’s presented here, watching only this film is likely just as effective whether you’ve seen the first film or not.

Curiously, even though obviously Sharkwater Extinction would have had to be finished up by someone else, Rob Stewart still receives sole credit as director and writer. It seems apropos to mention the editor, Nick Hector, who has a long resume of having edited documentary films and television shows as far back as 1986. At a lean 88 minutes, indeed this film is very well edited; with a team of five different videographers, it also features some fantastic underwater footage of wild sharks.

I just found myself wondering, naively, why there was also so much footage of Stewart himself. This film sure makes it clear how fit and healthy he was, much of his time onscreen spent shirtless, sometimes appropriately (he was a diver, after all), sometimes seemingly unnecessarily. I still find myself somewhat cynically suspecting he had a thing for being the center of attention. That said, were he still alive, perhaps he would not have made the choice himself to feature exclusively footage of himself swimming underwater — no sharks — before the title card came onscreen.

It’s admittedly an interesting experience to discover the narrator of the story was dead all along, when the film is a documentary. Stewart was clearly passionate about the issues at stake here — namely, the near-eradication of the planet’s millennia-old apex predators in a matter of decades. As I watched each chapter unfold with Stewart and his crews traveling from Florida to Central America to Africa to Southern California, working to expose illegal fishing practices the world over, I wondered about the efficacy of combining his methods with film making.

The methods themselves, to be fair, do seem to make a difference — albeit to varying degrees: part of the point here is that his work focused on in the original Sharkwater helped make shark finning for shark fin soup illegal in most countries around the world, and yet the industry continues to boom due to criminals and massive legal loopholes. In one shot, we see a live shark’s fins get cut off before the shark is tossed back into the water to die. This is, of course, heartbreaking — and it’s a relief not a huge amount of such actions are seen live onscreen. Stewart later gets footage of sharks caught in drift nets near Catalina Island in California, which helps get the practice banned in that state.

The utility of Sharkwater Extinction as a film, when it comes to shark activism specifically, is a bit more of a mixed bag. This film will never see a huge audience, and many of those who do see it will fancy themselves making a difference by doing no more than simply seeing it. The film does serve well as a tribute to Rob Stewart’s unarguably important legacy, which no doubt is a comfort to the loved ones he leaves behind. With that in mind, it might have been useful to make it clearer earlier on that this was as much about him as it was about shark conservation.

I mean, sure, both hammerhead sharks and the film’s director were beautiful creatures, we get it!

I mean, sure, both hammerhead sharks and the film’s director were beautiful creatures, we get it!

Overall: B