Film Review: Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

This Easter Sunday, I went to the Rio to see Norman Jewison’s film adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar and it was one of the most memorable movie-going experiences of my life. It’s a movie that, much like Star Wars, has been part of my life for as long as I can remember and viewed countless times, but seeing it for the first time on a big screen with an audience of enthusiastic fans was electrifying.

First and foremost, the music is awesome. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s melodies and Tim Rice’s lyrics are epic, intimate, haunting, joyful, fascinating and forever singable, all of which are in service to a slightly strange movie with very impressive visuals. It seems predicated upon the idea that a bunch of theatrical performers decide to stage the rock opera in the middle of the Israeli desert using a funny mix of props and costumes that range from period-accurate rough cloth robes and sandals to chrome-helmeted, tank-top wearing, Uzi-carrying Roman soldiers, and all of the sets are either ruins, landscapes or caves.

Amazingly ahead of its time in casting

The imagery in the film is really terrific, as shot by Douglas Slocombe who went on to do the first three Indiana Jones films, among others. The composition, the framing and the camera movement are all wonderfully conceived and executed, which is to say nothing of the amazing choreography on display. The performers in this film are incredible athletes when you look at the kinds of moves they are doing in the hot desert conditions. Most impressive of all is the diversity of players on display, with a white Jesus (Ted Neely), black Judas (Carl Anderson) and Hawaiian Mary (Yvonne Elliman) surrounded by a rainbow of supporting cast. For a movie made over 40 years ago, it is amazingly ahead of its time in casting and it’s stunning that it has taken the rest of Hollywood this long to catch up.

My favourite sequence of all is, of course, the title number, which they save for the end. Carl Anderson coming down from heaven dressed in tassled whites on a crane to be joined by a host of dancing angels is something indescribably fun, especially with the accompanying track. I love the joyful playfulness of the lyrics “Buddha, was he where it’s at, is he where you are?/Could Mohammed move a mountain or was that just P.R.?” presented with a huge production number. It may appear to be superficially irreverent, but I think Jesus Christ Superstar is closer to the humanity and the truth of the story than any stuffy Sunday school sermon.

Sympathetic portrayal of Judas

I am not a christian, but I am a humanist, and this particular rendition of the Jesus story is the most humanistic and the only one I can really enjoy. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s the humility of each character, how everyone seems to have flaws in some way or another, even Jesus whose doubts about his fate ironically coming out of a kind of determined fatalism. It’s really the story’s sympathetic portrayal of Judas that has always stood out to me, and I think that’s why I’ve always had a hard time with the traditional image of him as the worst of humanity. I think maybe even at a very young age I could smell how judgemental organized religion tends to be.

In any case, Jesus Christ Superstar is one of my favourite films of all-time and seeing it on a big screen with an audience made seeing it at the Rio one of the best experiences I’ve ever had at the movies. I loved every minute of it.

The Matrix: 20th Anniversary

Still Great Entertainment 20 Years On

I managed to catch a screening at the Rio of this sci-fi masterpiece which has aged very well, in my opinion. It’s a little clunky in places and the dialogue is largely bad, but the story is so well plotted that there is a constant state of anticipation throughout, punctuated by beautifully executed action sequences. It is still a great movie.

What I remember most from seeing it 20 years ago is the sense of how much story is packed into it. I distinctly recall the scene when Neo wakes up from the Matrix into the real world and thinking “Holy crap! That’s just the first act!” What would typically have been saved as the big reveal at the climax of an ordinary movie was merely the first major plot point. And the rest of the movie is structured magnificently, with every scene carrying the story forward at such a speed you don’t really have time to stop and look around and question things. You just want to know what happens next, always against a backdrop of rising tension until you get to the action-packed third act that hardly rests for a second.

The movie does have a very 90s feel to it, but in a good way and without feeling actually dated. Much like ALIEN (1979), there is very little on screen that actually betrays its time of origin, yet The Matrix manages to distill the esthetic and tone of 90s cinema perfectly. The gunfight in the lobby that opens Act 3 is a perfect example. It still manages to be exciting as hell, and the entire movie is put together exceptionally well in every department, from production design to fight choreography to editing and many in between. The Wachowski siblings who conceived, wrote and directed it achieved something unique with this movie.

The film’s only weak point is its dialogue and one or two performances, although Hugo Weaving and Laurence Fishburne deserve special mention for their awesome charisma. There were many lines that got a groan from the audience I saw it with and I can’t blame them, some of the lines the actors have are dreadful. It’s a lot like Star Wars (1977) in that the dialogue is very poor but the plotting is excellent, with characters who are basically just there to advance the story. I like the way the filmmakers sprinkled little tidbits of philosophy throughout the film, but they are mostly the ones that are visualized (the metaphor of the Matrix is brilliant) and not so much the ones that are spoken aloud. It still manages to be a thinking person’s sci-fi/action movie, at any rate, with elements so perfectly balanced that there never feels like an excess of anything.

It’s a hell of a fun ride. Twenty years later and it hasn’t lost any of its appeal. I think The Matrix is a genuine classic of sci-fi cinema with big ideas and big set-pieces to keep you interested and entertained and is still a great film.



Review: Shazam!

Big meets Superman is another step in the right direction for DC movies

I really loved this movie, it is charming as hell and really fun with unexpected darkness and edge as well as a surprising amount of heart. Not all of the jokes work, but I really enjoyed the playful tone and found it brought some new ideas to the overly familiar tropes of super-hero movies. There is some corn and some cheese but I laughed and I even had tears in my eyes at times.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a mildly anarchic 14 year-old foster child who has bounced from home to home since being lost by his mother in a crowd. He is taken in by Rosa and Victor Vasquez, the interracial couple at the head of a wonderfully multi-racial family of five other foster kids. The film has a really beautiful through-line about family and the importance of love transcending blood, as the villain of the piece, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), though the biological son of a privileged family, is unhappy at his father’s lack of love and motivated to evil acts by the demonic embodiment of the seven deadly sins, which are entombed and guarded over by a dying wizard called Shazam (Djimon Honsou) until released by Sivana in his quest for power and revenge. The wizard, too weak to take up the fight, magically finds his champion of good in Billy Batson and transfers his power to him so that he can stop the forces of evil.

I love stories about misfits and outsiders, and the thing I think I liked most about this movie was its emphasis on family and responsibility, which I find a bit lacking in many super-hero films. Asher Angel is quite relatable and likable as the young Billy whose personal quest to find a family is initially all about finding his mother, only to ultimately learn his foster family, though they aren’t blood, represent more of a home. Zachary Levi is very appealing as Billy’s alter-ego Shazam and watching him come to terms with his powers a well as his full-grown adult body is a big part of the fun, but he also manages to give the weightier moments their emotional due. Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman, the foster child closest in age to Billy and thus his friend (and coach when he discovers his super-powers), is very good as the sarcastic but good-natured disabled kid who idolizes super-heroes and would give anything for the kind of power Billy quickly comes to take for granted. Mark Strong is always a welcome presence and I liked watching him make the villain’s scenes work. I thought Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews were wonderful as the Vasquez parents, who are a bit too perfect on paper yet played with charm, but I think my favourite character has to be Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman), an adorable little black girl with glasses and the youngest of the foster kids.

The film is a tad overlong and I think it cold have been a little tighter. The villain’s plot is simple enough, with Sivana seeking to claim Shazam’s power from Billy, so a lot of the film depends on Billy’s story and the supporting cast, most of whose scenes work really well. The film has a handsome design aesthetic with bright colours and bold silhouettes for the hero bits and a kitchen-sink domestic drama look for the more mundane moments. That constant alternation between the super and the down-to-earth reminded me pleasantly of the exceptional Spider-Man 2 (2004). I think some of the attempts at humour are a bit forced and some didn’t land for me, but others work really well and I laughed out loud many times during the film, so it’s a little uneven but still a great time. And the usual super-heroic CGI climax has some surprises, one in particular that I was genuinely tickled by. I don’t want to spoil it but it’s one of those rare moments of fan lore that works as both an easter egg for those in the know as well as a major plot device for those less familiar with the comics. The film is also peppered with homages to other super-hero films and properties ranging from subtle to overt which made it a lot of fun for me to watch.

Shazam! is definitely a step in the right direction for Warner Brothers and the DC universe films, following the examples set by Wonder Woman and Aquaman. It’s playful, colourful and ultimately optimistic with enough novel ideas to give the genre a little more spin. What really matters most to me, though, is the emphasis on family and responsibility which gives the movie a tremendous heart that shines through like the glowing lightning bolt on Zachary Levi’s chest. I loved Shazam! and will certainly be seeing it again.

Film Review: US

Wonderful example of the Horror genre at its best

Jordan Peele’s follow up to 2017’sGet Out is a funny, creepy and very smart high-concept horror/thriller. It’s the kind of horror film that plays fully within the genre yet finds something broader to say, using the idea of symmetry and mimics to talk about underclasses and the secret machinery behind the world that we know and understand. I loved it for its refreshing characters and situation and the aplomb of its execution.

Lupita Nyong’o stars as the mother of a wealthy nuclear family who are on vacation to a cabin in Santa Cruz. One night they come under siege by a group of mimics, each one an identical copy of a family member. They move in creepy, inhuman ways and mean to kill our protagonists and to say anything more would be to ruin some delightful surprises.

The writing is very good, with a nice amount of time spent getting to know the family so that you are invested and care when things begin to go badly. The film plays squarely to its genre boundaries and conventions but in refreshing ways that give new life to old concepts, and I love that kind of genre-exceptionalism. Everything is carefully structured and laid out with a lot of emphasis on symmetry and doubling, and it has the wonderful quality of a good horror film in that it can be read as a parable for societal relations.

The whole cast is great, but special mention goes to Lupita Nyong’o for her acting. Her Oscar for 12 Years A Slave was no fluke. What she does here is pull off two very distinct and yet deeply connected roles and she is amazing to watch. Winston Duke is charming as her husband Gabe and the two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), are a lot of fun to watch interact. I also enjoyed Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker as their neighbours.

Altogether, I loved Us and I think it is a fine example of what the horror genre is capable of. I loved seeing new faces and an intelligent script which finely balances the line between the amusing and the sinister. There are some great twists and surprises as well as creepy moments and real scares. This is great entertainment.

Review: Russian Doll

Twisty, funny, very smart and unexpectedly touching

I’m a little late to the party, but I just discovered this miniseries on Netflix and I really loved it. Eight episodes of 24-30 minutes each makes the complex story manageable and I found it very funny, a little on the dark side, with a lot of intelligence and heart. It obviously takes a lot from Groundhog Day but adds a neat twist which gives it an identity of its own. The writing, the acting, the whole production are all excellent and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys weird stories with interesting and unusual characters.

Natasha Lyonne plays Nadia Vulvokov, a name which is so loaded with metaphors I could spend a whole paragraph on it. The show begins with her in the bathroom at a birthday party thrown for her by her friend Maxine (Greta Lee) where she is not having a good time. Nadia is a deeply unhappy person prone to self-destructive behaviour and is struck by a car and killed while trying to find her cat in the local neighbourhood, only to find herself back in the bathroom at her birthday party where it all began. She goes on with her evening and the next day but when she dies again and finds herself in the bathroom once more, she realizes she is stuck in some kind of time loop. The twist comes when she then she discovers there is another person trapped in the same loop, Alan (Charlie Barnett). Together, they have to find a way out.

This is some really inventive stuff rom the creative minds of Amy Poehler, Leslye Headland and Natasha Lyonne. I don’t want to give away too much because the real joy in the series is discovery; this is the kind of show that rewards you for paying close attention to every detail. Every episode turns in subtle and different ways that balance both the fantasy aspect of the plot and the deep characterization of the leads. I found it very refreshing in terms of casting and how the characters were written and acted, with tragedy and comedy in equal measure. It’s very impressive, the kind of stuff you don’t see very often.

Film Review: Hereditary

A Truly Remarkable Horror Movie

High quality film-making from top to bottom sets this film apart from the rest of the genre. I thought it was extremely effective on a lot of levels, playing with audience expectations right up to the very end. Is it hallucination or are there supernatural forces at work? You are kept guessing until the final moments. I think it is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in years and it would have been on my top ten list for best of 2018 if I’d seen it when it came out. It’s nothing short of brilliant.

Toni Collette stars as Annie, an artist who builds miniature houses and recreations of events. She is married and has two children and the film opens with the funeral of her mother which causes friction in a family we come to realize is already somewhat dysfunctional. A family tragedy follows close on the heels of the funeral and the family is plunged into further disarray with hints of either madness or supernatural powers working on the family to some sinister end.

I thought the film was instantly remarkable for the power of its images. Writer/director Ari Aster uses some very interesting camera moves and angles to draw you in and make you feel unsettled. The story unfolds at a nice, slow-building pace which gets very frantic toward the end. The production design is great, making the film feel totally authentic and rooted in reality but also allowing for this other-worldliness that pervades everything. It also managed to surprise and stun me with some of its imagery and ideas.

The cast was marvelous and really made the film feel real. I especially liked how Gabriel Byrne’s performance as Steve, the beleaguered husband trying to hold the family together through two close tragedies, anchored the film in an authenticity that made the situation believable. Alex Wolff also deserves special mention as Peter, the older child who goes through some incredibly dark stuff. Toni Collette really carries the film and gives one of the most intense performances I’ve ever seen her in. She really is amazing.

Hereditary is a truly remarkable horror movie. It is top-notch film-making in every department with talented people delivering great work and it shows on screen. Not only is the script really sharp, the telling of the story by camera, production design and performance operating at such a high level of quality makes this a great movie, regardless of genre. A must-see.

Film Review: Three Identical Strangers

This is a crazy story, so out-there that it defies belief. Twins, separated at birth, find each other and then a third finds them, making them triplets unaware of each other’s existence for the first 19 years of their lives. How did this happen? The film digs into the mystery and comes up with some very strange, sinister and unsettling answers, many of which only lead to more questions. I found it to be one of the more compelling, fascinating and unexpectedly moving documentaries I’ve seen.

The film opens with one of the triplets relating the story of how he came to discover his brother by being mistaken for him at college. Their reunion became a news story big enough to attract the attention of a third brother, who got in touch as soon as he heard about them. They became something of celebrities in the 80’s as a result of their story getting national newspaper coverage, but as they began to investigate the circumstances of their situation they uncovered a bizarre chain of evidence that adds up to what looks like some kind of cover-up.

To say anything more would spoil the film’s genuinely shocking twists and turns. The filmmakers use archival footage, modern-day interviews and re-enactments to tell the story, all of which are exceptionally well put-together and make a great unified whole that demonstrates the puzzle-like nature of the triplets’ quest for more information. The implications are challenging and a little disturbing, but what I liked most about it is that it presents every side in a very balanced way. Knowing how easy it is to manipulate information for dramatic effect, I appreciate the filmmakers’ even-handedness in allowing the audience to decide for themselves how to feel.

I highly recommend Three Identical Strangers for its compelling subject matter, the excellence of its assembly and just the astoundingly twisted tale it tells. This is the kind of documentary I love. I give it a solid 8 out of 9.

Trailer

Once again, Mark Kermode’s review nails it:

Film Review: The Lego Movie Part 2

Terrific family entertainment

I really enjoyed the first Lego movie and had doubts that they could pull off something as good a second time. I was wrong. This movie is fun, funny, smart and unexpectedly touching. It teeters close to schmaltz a few times, but the endless sight gags and jokes plus the earnestness of the story overcome any such weaknesses.

The story picks up some time after the end of the first film with a satisfying recap of the events and what lead to the current state of dystopia the Lego world has become. Apocalypsburg is now a Mad Max-style world of brooding tough guys and gals where anything pretty gets taken away by the Duplo invaders from the Sistar System. Everyone is committed to being tough and hard-hearted except Emmett (Chris Pratt), who still retains his sunny disposition, and people call him immature for it, urging him to grow up and get tough. When his friends are kidnapped to attend the marriage of the Duplo Queen Whatevra Wan’abe (Tiffany Hadisch) to Batman (Will Arnett) he has to find a way to save them and prevent the Armamageddon (Our-mom-ageddon) with the help of the suspiciously familiar Rex Dangervest, a grizzled tough-guy, macho-hero who flies a spaceship shaped like a fist and crewed by velociraptors.

The film has the same madcap energy and near-improv tone of the first film and I thought it was nonstop fun in that regard. The film breaks into the real world more often than the first film, and while I felt at times they were coming close to spending too much time there, the story makes it work really well because a large part of it is about the estrangement between siblings. Another theme I loved was the exploration of maturity and how superficial a lot of our ideas about maturity tend to be. Fortunately, the film does not fall into the trap of promoting endless childhood even though it looks like it might in places. I think it’s more about how a lot of the positive qualities we tell our children to invest in (such as co-operation and compassion) often become sacrificed in our rush to appear grown up and toughened to the world later on. It’s surprisingly complex and rich for what appears to be a children’s movie, but I love films whose scope goes beyond whatever genre they appear to be and The Lego Movie 2 is a brilliant example.

I really like this movie. I think it is exceptional family entertainment in that it plays to two audiences – the kids who love Lego and the adults who may recognize personal truths in the narrative, with lots of laughs for everyone along the way. The film deals with themes of maturity, disillusionment, community and optimism in ways that were unexpectedly complex and moving. I found myself quite affected at times by the storyline which is basically about how things aren’t always what you’d like, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pull together and make it better, and that’s a sentiment I respond to quite strongly.

Trailer

As usual, Mark Kermode’s review hits the bull’s eye.

Retro-Review – Superman: The Movie (1978)

By luck, I discovered a screening of the first super-hero movie, Superman: The Movie, the one that set the standard four decades ago, at a local major multiplex. A movie I have longed to see on a big screen my entire life, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity and I am glad I went. I love the movie, I think it is the best Superman film, but I am also aware that this movie is of a different time. It’s fun, but flawed.

First of all, seeing the film on a big screen with big sound was a lot of fun, especially the opening titles sequence with the bombastic music, but having a bigger picture also revealed details I had never noticed before, such as Marlon Brando obviously reading his lines off cue cards. Also, a lot of the visual effects do not hold up well, with the miniature effects for the earthquake sequence being particularly dodgy. All of this was cutting edge in 1978, of course, but it also shows the limitations of practical effects, especially where water is concerned.

The film is very slow, it has to be said. The drag was noticeable in places and I definitely found myself thinking more stuff could have been cut – and I was watching the 1978 theatrical cut with no restored scenes. The film also seems to have three beginnings, first on Krypton, then in Smallville and then finally in Metropolis where the tone of the film adopts a much more snappy, comic-book feel. Even then, Lois Lane’s “Can you read my mind?” bit sort of stops the show, seemingly hearkening back to a bygone era of Hollywood in which she would have sung the lyrics instead of speaking them (I’ve heard Margot Kidder was supposed to sing it but couldn’t carry a note).

The movie is undoubtedly one of the most well-cast productions ever. Each actor is superb in their role, no matter who or how big. Gene Hackman is a joy to watch, chewing the scenery with Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine, but the heart and soul of the picture belongs to Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder who are the most perfectly cast couple in super-hero movie history, in my opinion. Only Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are as fun to watch together.

Superman: The Movie on the big screen was everything I hoped it would be. The script is actually very good considering how sprawling the production is and the cast nails it perfectly, every one of them. The best thing about the movie, forty years on, is the music. John Williams was at the peak of his powers in the era that also gave rise to Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T. and many others. This movie may have its creaky special effects and its bad fashions and its clunky, between-eras pacing, but it also set the standard for every super-hero movie to come since and the truth is, a lot of it still works.

Top Ten Fave Films of 2018

#10 – Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – I am not a fan of documentary in general because I know film is a manipulative media. That being said, I think this film about the legacy of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is something special. It doesn’t preach about how to be a better person, it simply shows how one person’s never-ending effort to be a better person can be an inspiration to everyone. Yes, human beings can be despicable, but we can also be generous, kind and helpful to one another. Negativity may get more attention, but I think that’s because it is anomalous to our basic, socially co-operative nature which we take for granted. This is a movie about love, and I love it.

#9 – First Reformed – Paul Schrader delivers one of the most subtle and damning critiques of the intersection of religion, politics and marketing I’ve ever seen. It is slow and quiet but very strong and Ethan Hawke gives one of his best ever performances.

#8 – Paddington 2 – An absolute delight and a rare instance of a sequel being as good as its predecessor, if not better. Both of the Paddington movies are far, far better than they needed to be and it’s that kind of exceeding of expectations that I always hope to see in any art form. Like the aforementioned Won’t You Be My Neighbor? it is a movie about kindness and generosity of spirit which we seem to take for granted so often that we forget how good we can be.

#7 – Widows – A terrific cast and a wonderfully complex story that builds a tale of social stratification around a heist plot. If you like heist movies, it delivers. If you like social commentary, it delivers. If you like strong, charismatic performances, it really delivers. Great entertainment.

#6 – Tully – I really loved this movie for its core concept of the importance of remembering yourself, as well as how it depicts motherhood as an endless series of tests. The script is really sharp and the performances by Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis are really interesting.

#5 – The Death of Stalin – This merciless send-up of power and ego is so apt for our times, but it is also simply hilarious in the way it depicts the insane grab for power by members of the political elite in the wake of a brutal dictator’s death. The cast is absolutely superb, especially Steve Buscemi and Jason Isaacs, who practically steals the show.

#4 – 8th Grade – I loved this movie for a lot of reasons. I thought they did such a great job of capturing the insecurities of being 13 that I totally identified with the main character despite our generational and gender differences. It’s a hysterical and uncomfortable look at how being 13 sucks, no matter what time you live in.

#3 – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – Arguably the best Spider-Man movie ever made, the film captures the soul of the character somewhat ironically by giving us six different Spider-people, only one of whom is Peter Parker. I loved the movie for its fresh animation and its wonderful characterizations, but mostly for how it democratizes the idea of being a super-hero. It wasn’t fate or destiny that Peter Parker was bitten – it could have been anybody. What matters is how you deal with that power. I found it charming, funny and inspirational in a way that no other Spider-Man movie has been since the second Tobey Maguire film (with Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus).

#2 – Sorry to Bother You – A scathing critique of capitalism that is also highly creative and highly hilarious. Its budgetary constraints are noticeable in places but forgivable considering how brilliant the writing and overall concept are. This could well be the most original movie I’ve seen all year and is very nearly my favourite movie of 2018 for its jokes, its intelligence and its scrappy positivity. I cannot recommend it enough.

#1 – A Quiet Place – This won my heart for its intriguing premise and elegant execution. I love high-budget, high-concept genre films when done right and this one is really different. The use of sound in the film is brilliant and it is one of the most suspenseful movies I’ve ever seen, but there is also tremendous heart in the picture too with one scene in particular that actually brought tears to my eyes – virtually unheard-of in a horror film. Bravo to John Krasinski and everyone involved. You win.