Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Ride The Lightning

Before I get into what I thought of Shazam! Fury of the Gods, I have to talk a little bit about the state of the DCU. Ever since it was announced in October of last year that James Gunn and Peter Safran were taking the reigns of the DCU in film, TV and animation as the co-chairs and co-CEOs of DC Studios, it has been an uncertain, transitory time for the DCU. Suddenly, there was a question as to how films like Blue Beetle, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, The Flash and Shazam! Fury of the Gods were going to fit in to the soon to be rebooted DCU. Of those four, The Flash has always felt like the most relevant because it was specifically about the DC multiverse and was rumored to be a reset of DC on film, emulating the "Flashpoint" storyline in the comics that reset the DC timeline. The other three films, however, suddenly felt unmoored from whatever the new status quo was going to be. More so than any of them, arguably, was Fury of the Gods

With the last DC film released prior to the Gunn/Safran announcement being Black Adam, the Shazam corner of the DCU already had a pall of failure hanging over it. Somewhat unfairly, in my opinion, but it is what it is. While I acknowledge that Black Adam is a very flawed film I also maintain that it's good fun, especially once it gets into its action and really hits its stride. When it comes to comic book movies, and DC movies in particular, it's far from being the worst is all I'm saying but for whatever reason, it became a real punching bag. It didn't help that the entire marketing for the film revolved around promoting The Rock's arrival in the DCU as a shift in the "hierarchy of power," both in-universe with Black Adam and in the real world with Dwayne Johnson positioning himself to take the reigns of the DCU. It had the stink of hubris all over it and the fact that the Gunn/Safran announcement instantly kneecapped everything that Black Adam set up I think it left audiences uninterested in whatever vestigial scraps of the old DC were going to be pushed out into theaters with Fury of the Gods set up to suffer the most from those sentiments. Whatever the behind the scenes business decisions were that prompted Warners to want to reboot the DCU, as the last film in theaters before that shake up, Black Adam had the appearance as being the last nail in the coffin for whatever the DCU used to be. I mean, it had a post credit scene that hyped the return of Henry Cavill's Superman and a whole new direction for the DCU and then a month later, audiences were told that all of that was dead. That's not the kind of thing that helps generate buzz for Shazam 2, you know?  

I do think fans are definitely excited for what Gunn has planned (I know I am!) but at this point that's all in the future. In meantime, you've got a handful of movies whose importance to the larger DCU is unknown. In the case of Fury of the Gods, I think that's compounded with a general lack of interest in this sequel to begin with. Even if a new era of DC on film wasn't impending and whatever Black Adam introduced was still part of the plan, I think Fury of the Gods would have still struggled to find an audience. Not every superhero can necessarily support a sustainable franchise and Shazam is an example of that. There are a few problems that come with attempting an ongoing Shazam series, which Fury of the Gods only serves to highlight. 

The number one problem is dealing with the advancing age of Billy Batson. Billy needs to be a kid for Shazam as a concept to work. You could argue that Billy, as played by Asher Angel, was already a little too old to play Billy in 2019's Shazam! but at least he was young enough then where it still worked. But Angel was seventeen in 2019 and playing a fourteen year old. He's now in his twenties and very much not a kid. There's only so much you can fudge his age now. They even acknowledge in the movie that he is about to turn eighteen and that's way too old for Billy. As a result, Angel barely appears in Fury of the Gods. He's grown up so much it's distracting to have him around. We see him as Billy maybe for a total of five minutes in this two hour and ten minute movie. The character is almost wholly absent from the film in favor of just having Zachary Levi as Shazam and it doesn't work. It drains the sequel of the heart that the original had. 

One of the pivotal aspects to Shazam is the wish fulfillment element of a child transforming into a mighty hero. Shazam himself isn't particularly interesting as a character. He can't be the whole show. But in Fury of the Gods, that's what they try to do for the obvious real world reason that Angel can no longer portray Billy as he's meant to be anymore. Seeing Angel on screen as a visibly mature young man instantly makes Levi's portrayal of Shazam as a goofball feel false and strained. In the first film, there wasn't a jarring disconnect between how Angel played Billy and how Levi played Shazam. You could go along with the idea that they were the same person. That's no longer the case. Levi is still playing Shazam in the same awkward, geeky, bumbling, gee whiz manner but that doesn't jibe with how Angel comes across as Billy, even in the short amount of time that he appears on screen. Given his age, there would just be no way for Angel to adjust his performance to make it match up to what Levi is doing without it coming across as weird. He's an adult now, not a kid. That's just the reality of it so having him transform into a superhero who still, for some reason, acts like he's a kid in an adult's body just doesn't work. If they had really wanted to do Shazam as a franchise, to at least get a solid trilogy out of it, they would have had the foresight to cast Billy very young to start with. Billy, ideally, should be an honest to God kid, like eight or nine. By casting Angel as Billy in the first movie, though, they guaranteed that there'd be no real legs to this series and the delays to the sequel caused by Covid sure didn't help them to beat the clock in that regard. 

So from the start there's a major issue with Fury of the Gods that's difficult to work around. But aside from being forced to sideline Billy, there's also the problem of dealing with the larger Shazam family. Having Billy grant his foster siblings powers made for a rousing climax to the original Shazam! but now having five other superheroes with the exact same power set and trying to give them all interesting roles to serve in this storyline is a real challenge. Jack Dylan Grazer as Billy's physically disabled foster brother Freddy Freeman gets the most screentime, with Freddy being drawn into a romantic subplot with the goddess Anthea, played by Rachel Zegler. There's two problems with this, though. One, bumping up Freddy's role only calls attention to the fact that we barely see Billy. Whereas the first film was very much centered on Billy's story, here it feels like Freddy is the main character. He's the only hero that we spend significant time with in their civilian guise, with Freddy being depowered for a long stretch of the film. Two, Grazer just isn't - to my mind, at least - particularly likable as Freddy. Granted, this may strictly be my own personal reaction but, my God, I find Freddy to be truly the most unsympathetic handicapped character on film since Franklin in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I do not find him endearing in any way. I find him abrasive and annoying and that isn't really conducive to getting invested the character's love life. Especially when you find it impossible to believe that anyone would want to voluntarily spend time with this person, much less be enchanted by them. But, you know, whatever. As I said, I concede that my extreme aversion to Grazer's performance may be unique to me and that it might hit others much differently. I felt the same way about Grazer in the first film but he was used sparingly enough that it didn't affect my overall enjoyment of the movie. Here, not so much. But whether you like Freddy or not, it's still a problem that he is prioritized here over Billy. It gives us a sequel where we're no longer following the character that we got invested in originally. 

Another obstacle for Shazam as a series that Fury of the Gods fails to find a satisfying resolution to is the matter of Shazam's name. In the comics, "Shazam" was the name of the wizard who granted Billy his powers. It wasn't Billy's superhero name. He was Captain Marvel and the other superpowered characters - Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. - comprised the Marvel Family. Due to Marvel trademarking the name "Captain Marvel," though, DC has been unable since 1972 to use the Captain Marvel name to promote or market the character. Despite that, for years DC had still continued to use the Captain Marvel name within the comics while using Shazam as the title of the comic itself on those rare occasions when he had a solo book but in 2012 they officially changed the name of the actual character to Shazam. While I get why they did that, it was a dumb move and the movies only emphasize how dumb it was. Sure, they can't use Captain Marvel and they can't use the "Marvel Family" but for God's sake, just come up with a new name for these characters. Still call the comics and the movies Shazam, if you want, but within the stories themselves, you've got to give them a name that isn't the word they use to turn into the character. It is freaking stupid. There's an ongoing thing in Fury of the Gods where Levi keeps wondering what his superhero name is supposed to be and how he wishes that Djimon Hounsou's wizard had told him what his name was. 

Well, that moment finally comes in the last scene of this movie where, as the wizard prepares to set out and travel the world, he comes to say his farewells to the Shazam Family and Levi asks Hounsou what his name is and the wizard smiles and tells him that his name is, wait for it...Shazam. This is treated as a "Duh, of course!" revelation but I wish that they had continued this scene in order to dump on its idiocy. I mean, ok...we're supposed to call Levi's character Shazam. But yet it's also the name of the wizard. And the other five characters with Shazam powers...they're all called Shazam too, right? So we have a wizard called Shazam and six superheroes all called Shazam and, by the way, none of the superheroes can actually say their name to anyone without changing back to their civilian identities. So...can we agree that this is ridiculous? Years ago, when DC realized that they couldn't legally use the Captain Marvel name, they should have created a new code name for the character and for the extended Marvel family. Using "Shazam" is fine for promotional purposes. You can call the comic Shazam, you can call the movies Shazam but you have to give these characters names they can use to refer to themselves that doesn't transform them back and forth whenever they say it. I mean, Captain Marvel isn't such a mindblowing moniker that it's impossible to come up with a suitable replacement. Sticking with Shazam is just so lazy and having that be the big reveal before the end credits brings the movie to a close on a deeply enervating "so what" note.  

That feeling is only compounded by the two post credit scenes. The first brings two characters from the HBO Max Peacemaker series into the Shazam world as Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) and John Economos (Steve Agee) wander out to some, I don't know, abandoned gas station out in the woods where Shazam is practicing shooting lightning bolts at empty soda cans in the hopes that they can interest him in taking a spot in the Justice Society. This scene, even as short as it is, manages to be garbage on a couple of levels. One, what the hell is Shazam doing out in the middle of nowhere? Billy lives in the city, why is out in the freaking woods? Also, why is he practicing zapping cans like he's just learning his powers when he's been doing this for years by now? I mean, just in this movie he literally took down actual Gods so I think we're past the rudimentary target practice stage. But whatever. All that aside, the fact Harcourt and Economos are taking about bringing Shazam into the Justice Society is a problem because you know that's not gonna happen. The Justice Society is dead in the DCU. If it comes back, it isn't going to be with Shazam in it or with any of the characters from Black Adam. So why not just cut this scene altogether? 

Then you have the second and final tease with the return of Sivana and Mister Mind with Mister Mind once again appearing in Sivana's cell to talk to him about his big plans for the two of them to work together only to have Sivana blow up in frustration at the endless wait at continuing to be kept waiting. On the one hand, I give Sandberg credit for not only making a joke out of the fact that the end credit scene of the first movie didn't go anywhere but also promising that it will still continue to go nowhere. The self-awareness is admirable. However, jokes aside, it also serves as a sad comment on how little pay off there's been in the DCU. Not the best thing for audiences to be reminded of at this point. How many post credit scenes in the now ten year history of the DCU have gone anywhere? Very few, right? I mean, Deathstroke broke Luthor out of jail at the end of Justice League and that was the last we saw of either of them. And I'll tell you, I would have bet money that there was no way they'd bring Henry Cavill back as Superman for that Black Adam post credit scene only to permanently scrap his incarnation of the Man of Steel just a few weeks later. I would have said, no, that's too nuts. But that's exactly what they did. So in that light, I'm not sure how smart it is to call attention to the fact that a Mister Mind/Sivana team-up was promised at the end of Shazam! and here we are at the end of the second movie four years later and we're hilariously pointing out that the thing we led you to believe we'd do, we never did it and that we probably never will. Gotcha suckers!  

If Fury of the Gods were a good enough movie, one that took a different route than audiences expected but was so undeniably great that it was worth taking that unexpected detour, that would be a different story, But that's not the case here. Fury of the Gods is, at best, an inoffensively bland superhero outing with forgettable villains (even Helen Mirren can't breath much life into her character of Hespera) and a string of big battles that fail to engage. As a CGI laden superhero adventure, it's greatest sin is being nothing more than average. It fails to stand out and it also lacks the heart of its predecessor. More critically, it's hindered by the one thing that makes Shazam difficult material for a sustainable live action franchise - it can't stop its main actor from aging out of the requirements of the role and the efforts made to try to work around that (like limiting that actor's screen time to what amounts to a cameo appearance) only pushes this into feeling like generic superhero fare. 

It was probably too optimistic to expect lightening to strike twice with a second Shazam! but as a fan of the character and a fan of the first film, I was hoping that returning director David F. Sandberg could pull it off. I do think he did as well as he could but a second Shazam! just came with too many hurdles to overcome. While I'm sure that this will prove to find its own set of fans, I think it's fair to say that overall it doesn't quite work. The first film was one of the most solidly entertaining and charming DCU films but the sequel feels warmed over, like a movie that missed its moment and missed its mark. It's greatest value going forward is likely to be as an archival artifact of the end of the DCU as we knew it. With its big DCU cameo being from Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, whose own future in the DCU is uncertain, Fury of the Gods has the feel of watching a TV show that's been cancelled with no time to plan for a proper finale. 

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Scream And Scream Again

In 1996, Scream arrived as a hip, snarky, ironic reinvention of the slasher genre. In 2023, though, we're now six films in to the Scream franchise and twenty seven years (!) removed from the pop culture landscape of 1996 so Scream isn't the smart aleck upstart anymore, it's now the horror establishment and Scream VI can't help but serve as a referendum on the state of slasher nation. 

With Michael Myers on sabbatical in the wake of Halloween Ends, Jason Voorhees still entangled in frustrating legal troubles, and with no one being able to figure out how to successfully resurrect the Elm St. franchise, Scream has now become the big legacy slasher on the block. Good thing, then, that the latest installment shows how strong the series' long term viability is. Based on the success of Scream VI, it's clear that for the foreseeable future, Ghostface will comfortably rule the slasher scene. 

Last year's comeback for the series, Scream, from the directing team of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, was a solid installment but with its understandable emphasis on the returning legacy characters, the new crew was limited in how much of an impact they were able to make. The question lingered as to what kind of future Scream could have as its fan favorite original players retired from the series. The strength of Scream VI is that it allows the survivors of the last film to really move up and come into their own as the new leads of the series and let the audience develop the same kind of emotional attachment to them that they had for the OG crew of Sidney, Gale and Dewey.

Melissa Barrera as Billy Loomis' illegitimate daughter Sam Carpenter, Jenna Ortega as Sam's half sister Tara Carpenter, Jasmin Savoy Brown as the niece of Randy Meeks, Mindy Meeks-Martin, and Mason Gooding as Mindy's twin, Chad Meeks-Martin, are - as Chad dubs them - the "core four" and Scream VI secures their standing as the future of the franchise. Courtney Cox appears as Gale Weathers but she feels like a guest star in the Scream world now rather than a driving force, with the returning Hayden Panettiere as Scream 4 survivor Kirby Reed (now an FBI agent) having a bigger role than Cox here. The training wheels have come off for the new kids and there's no doubt that the franchise belongs to them now. 

Aside from elevating the "core four," what Scream VI also does well is to lean into the complex mythology of the series. By this point, the series has evolved into a horror version of the Fast and Furious franchise in that its cast of characters and all their back stories have become so vast and intertwined that by now only the die hard fans can easily recall the connections. Rather than try and streamline things and make these sequels more new viewer friendly, the complexity of Scream is now very much a part of its appeal. As with the latest F&F or MCU entries, it's expected that hardcore fans know all these people, that they know all these returning character's connections to each other and that fans appreciate being rewarded for their knowledge. You can still follow Scream VI without knowing the other movies chapter and verse - there's enough exposition given to get casual fans or new viewers up to speed - but it's definitely more satisfying to watch this with prior knowledge of who's who and with an awareness of the recurring motifs of the series. 

As for Scream VI's much hyped NYC setting, despite the tagline of "New City, New Rules," the Big Apple has such an anonymous presence here (this could be taking place in any big metropolis) that it gives the long mocked and maligned Jason Takes Manhattan (given a shout out here via a clip on TV) a surprising bit of redemption. This has everything to do with the fact that none of Scream VI was actually shot in NYC. Like Jason Takes Manhattan, Scream VI substitutes Canada for NYC (Manhattan was shot in Vancouver, Scream VI in Montreal) but unlike Scream VI, Manhattan did at least some location shooting in NYC, enough to have Jason standing smack in the middle of a bustling late '80s Times Square like a boss. 

So while Jason may have taken a ridiculously long time to get to NYC, when he finally did make it, the filmmakers were able to exploit the iconography of the city in a way that Scream VI does not. It's not like you could say that Manhattan gets the last laugh here, per se. It's not like it suddenly turned into a good movie. But it at least it keeps some bragging rights when it comes to being a slasher icon in NYC movie and that ain't nothing I say!    

While 2022's Scream could have served as the last word on the series, a nostalgia fueled comeback that potentially could have also been the last hurrah, Scream VI clearly makes the case for Scream as a series that has no expiration date. The new characters are firmly established and the series' convoluted soap opera tapestry has been embraced as an asset and expanded on. Watching Scream VI, it's easy to imagine that in time another group of characters will inherit the mantle of the "core four" and carry the torch into the next era of Scream and that the series can keep the narrative going indefinitely, in much the same way that Don Mancini has made Chucky into a franchise that has spanned decades and multiple generations and has only become richer and more interesting. 

On the downside, the makers of future Screams will have to deal with a problem that plagued the classic incarnation of the series. Once Randy was killed off in Scream 2, the audience's affection for the surviving members of the original cast was so strong that the Scream stewards were reluctant to put these characters in any real danger and thus they kept improbably surviving. Now it's going to be difficult to eliminate any of the "core four" without risking a backlash. At the same time, if people feel like all four of these characters will survive no matter what, it reduces the suspense. 

But hey, that's a problem for another day and another sequel. For now, the Scream franchise is on secure footing. If the decision makers at Paramount are smart, they'll just let the current creative team of directors Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett and writers Vanderbilt and Busick keep making these movies as long as they're interested in doing so. The current caretakers of Scream have nailed what really drove the classic incarnation of the series. The meta commentary was never the true backbone of Scream. That was always just window dressing, more glib than it was insightful. What kept audiences invested in Scream as a series was the fact that they always had a cast full of likable characters and it always delivered top shelf slasher action with tense, bloody set pieces. While most of the old school slashers are currently facing uncertain futures, Scream stands alone as a series that has figured out how to navigate a long term course for itself. Its continued success is going to be not just what keeps Scream thriving but what lets the slasher genre as a whole stay viable as a big screen commodity. That's a sincere accomplishment for a series known for its irony. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Manhattan Memories

As someone who saw Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan on its opening night of July 28th, 1989, I can tell you from first hand experience that the immediate reaction was not enthusiastic. Yes, it was quite the deflating night at the movies, save for the raucous response when V.C. Dupree as aspiring young boxer Julius got his head punched off his shoulders. Of course, you didn't have to be there to know that Friday Part VIII was a disappointment. Its reputation speaks for itself. But with fellow slasher icon Ghostface now set to take their own stab at the Big Apple, I think it's worth showing a little nostalgic appreciation for the flawed but fun Jason Takes Manhattan.


The major complaint with Manhattan, of course, was that despite the promise of the title and a marketing campaign that primed audiences to expect Jason to be rampaging his way through the streets of New York City, the Sultan of Slaughter spends most of Manhattan's running time on a boat. Had the movie been called something like Death Cruise or Blood Waters and the Manhattan aspect of the film had been a complete surprise to audiences, it might have gotten a better reception because the portion of the film that takes place on the SS Lazarus is satisfying, slickly made late '80s slasher fare. As long as you're able to put aside your (very legitimate) questions about how a cruise ship could get into the waters of Crystal Lake and how Crystal Lake somehow also opens up into the Atlantic Ocean and - most importantly - as long as you're not feeling increasingly impatient waiting for the movie to finally live up to its title, it's an ok movie. Writer/director Rob Hedden does a fine job, showing more flair than the typical Friday director with Manhattan being the most sharply directed Friday of the '80s after 1986's Jason Lives.

So perhaps if Manhattan hadn't been promoted as a Jason in NYC movie it might have been received more favorably. On the other hand, the temptation to use that irresistible commercial hook of Jason in Manhattan was obviously too much to say no to and, you know, it's probably for the best because it would have truly sucked to have been denied the awesome marketing campaign that this movie had. Sure, the movie didn't live up to it, sure Paramount completely misled people but the posters and teasers and trailers for Manhattan are so memorable in their own right it would have been a real loss if all of it had never existed. And hey, it not like Jason never gets to NYC, you know? 

There's no way that a marketing campaign that promoted the concept of Jason on a boat could have possibly compared to Jason slashing his way through the iconic "I Love NY" poster. And in the end, even without being promoted as a New York movie, the reception probably wouldn't have been substantially different. Marginally better, maybe, slightly less aggrieved, but it's not like it would have been greeted as a masterpiece. It just would have gotten a little less grief upon its release. 

I will say that I think had the ending to Manhattan been better, many fans would have been quicker to get over the lack of NYC action. Sure it sucked to have to wait (and wait...and wait...) for Jason to actually get to freaking New York but the real disappointment was having the climax be Jason being hit by a flood of toxic waste and somehow, in death, being transformed back into a child. This ending was so massively misconceived that I think it does far more damage to the movie than the interminable wait to get off the damn boat. 

Rob Hedden has explained his reasoning behind Jason's death scene as wanting it to echo the deaths of classic Universal Monsters like the Wolfman and the Invisible Man in which they reverted to their human forms after they were killed, with their purity and innocence being restored once they died. However it was absolutely idiotic to try that move with Jason. It makes no sense. Jason was never someone that had been transformed into a monster so trying to "change him back" in death doesn't hold up conceptually. It sure doesn't help that this is moment is presented in such a confusing fashion (you have to wonder what the characters witnessing this make of it).  

The failure of Manhattan's ending is especially galling given the fact that the perfect ending was right there. Jason gets hit by a wave of toxic shit - so just fucking have him dissolve into a puddle of goo. No need to overthink this shit. No need to get artsy with it. No need to put a creative spin on it. 

Having toxic waste melt him down would have been a spectacularly disgusting way to take out Jason, a perfect opportunity to have a big practical FX moment in true '80s fashion and it would have been a death that was big enough to seem really final rather than just burying a machete in Jason's head. And if they had wanted to do another Friday, there's always a way to undo any slasher villain's death no matter how permanent it might look. 

I believe that all (or at least most) of Manhattan's sins would have been forgiven had Hedden just resisted the urge to get clever with Jason's death. Over time, I've come to terms with Jason spending so much time on the Lazarus but I've never been able to justify that misfire of an ending. It is truly a self-inflicted wound on Hedden's part. Would have been so easy to avoid but oh well. It is what it is.  

All these years later, I would say the initial disappointment that Manhattan was met with has been replaced with...less disappointment. It'll never turn into a great Friday but it's become easier to appreciate. What Manhattan has going for it now is nostalgia. Nostalgia for old school Jason, nostalgia for the NYC of the '80s, and nostalgia for a more innocent time for the horror genre. In 1989, Jason Takes Manhattan embodied everything that fans hated about where horror was at. It wasn’t gritty, wasn’t gory, and it damn sure wasn’t scary. You look at it now, though, and think "Man, I miss when horror movies were just fun."

In retrospect, Manhattan has a great pop sheen to it that is so late '80s. Even before the film arrives at the bright neon lights of New York, the ship bound action set on the Lazarus boasts a more colorful palette than any of the previous Fridays, complete with a disco dance floor (with a mirror ball!) for Jason to bust his moves on. I also love that Hedden had Jason straight up teleporting in this movie - not just having him get from place to place with no explanation but doing so in ways that are physically impossible, done with the faith that the Friday audience will see the fun in that. I much prefer this playful approach to the tired, literal minded thinking that compelled the makers of 2009's otherwise strong Friday remake to feel the audience needed to be told that it's because he uses a network of underground tunnels that Jason is able to mysteriously get ahead of his victims. Fuck that. Just have him pop up anywhere.  

As limited as Jason's time in New York may be in Manhattan, the one shot that circles around Kane Hodder's Jason as he stands in the middle of Times Square remains one of the highlights of the franchise. Freddy may have surpassed him at the box office by that point but for those brief few seconds, Jason was king of the world. Say what you will about Jason Takes Manhattan but even if Jason never fully got into the New York groove, I appreciate the fact that Crystal Lake's favorite son got to close out the ‘80s with a rock star moment. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Just Like Honey

From its title, to its premise, to all the marketing for Cocaine Bear, it felt safe to assume that even though it was coming from a major studio, this was going to be some fairly wild shit. As it turns out, those expectations of an off the rails movie were wrong. Despite its eponymous beast's penchant for mauling, Cocaine Bear is a too-slick effort that's dangerously close to being cuddly. 

I don't doubt that Cocaine Bear will work just fine for some. It's not a bad movie (although, honestly, it might have helped if it had been) but I suspect the majority reaction to Cocaine Bear, especially from exploitation fans, will be disappointment. Yes, there is a bear that does a conspicuous amount of coke and that's all well and good but for a movie with this title and this premise, Cocaine Bear proves to be curiously square. Director Elizabeth Banks, working from a screenplay by Jimmy Warden, manages to make a movie about a coked out apex predator feel like polished studio product. There is no bite to this movie at all. 

There's one sequence about halfway in, when a pair of ambulance workers get involved in the bear's rampage, that offers the hope that, ok, now things are kicking into that higher gear we've been waiting for, but once that sequence is over, things go right back to being very safe n' straight laced. Before they even started filming Cocaine Bear, someone should have realized that the script and the title didn't match. Yes, there is a cocaine bear so technically the title fits but when you call a movie Cocaine Bear and you know that's what going to compel everyone to buy a ticket, you've got to make damn sure you deliver on that title. 

Here's the thing: going into Cocaine Bear, I did not want to have to follow multiple tedious storylines. First up, you've got single mom Sari (Keri Russell) who discovers that her young daughter DeeDee (Brooklynn Prince) has skipped school in order to venture to a nearby waterfall with a friend so Sari has to go looking for her. You also have a park ranger (Margo Martindale) whose planned day in the outdoors with her crush (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) is interrupted by Sari's need for help. Then you also have Daveed (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), who's been sent to the area by his boss, drug kingpin Syd (Ray Liotta), to recover the lost duffel bags of coke that are laying unattended across the Georgia woods. Accompanying Daveed is Syd's son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), who is still morose over the recent death of his wife due to cancer. 

Once they arrive at the grounds of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, Daveed and Eddie run into a trio of trouble making delinquents who have come across the coke and they rope one of them into taking them to where they've stashed one of the bags. Oh, and there's also another plot thread about a cop named Bob (Isiash Whitlock Jr.) who has trekked out to the area hoping to nail Syd and, by the way, Bob has a newly adopted dog he left behind in the care of one of his fellow officers and that's something that we're supposed to care about. After reading all this, do you see what the problem with Cocaine Bear is? Definitely after writing it, I feel a renewed sense of exasperation at this movie. I mean, come on, where's the fucking Cocaine Bear in all of this? 

Once they settled on the title of Cocaine Bear, the main mission of this movie should have been to put that fucking thing in as much of the movie as they could. The trim 95 minute running time of Cocaine Bear should have made for a lean, fast moving Animal Attack! movie along the lines of 2019's Crawl but instead those 95 minutes are mostly squandered on meandering storylines that serve to make the movie feel about a half hour longer than it actually is. Worst of all, the main storyline of Sari searching for DeeDee doesn't even involve the bear for most of the time. There's an encounter with the bear that Sari survives early on but then it moves on and Sari and DeeDee's buddy Henry (Christian Convery) then proceed to go looking for DeeDee and every time we return to check in on their progress, we know that they're not in any danger whatsoever. In this movie, every character should be in constant danger of being mauled. Otherwise, why the hell am I watching? 

If there's such a thing as a family friendly movie about a coked up bear, this is it. As bloody as it occasionally gets, Cocaine Bear never stops feeling cozy and conventional. This is a movie where even the drug dudes and forest wandering hooligans are basically nice, non-malicious people (save for Syd, who is given a legitimate aura of danger by Ray Liotta). I mean, Banks and co. can't even bring themselves to demonize the Cocaine Bear. Sure, it's not the bear's fault someone dropped a bunch of coke from a plane into its forest so you can't say the bear is bad but at the same time, it's a staple of the man vs. animal subgenre that the animal must be destroyed. You have to root for its ultimate annihilation. The bear in 1975's Grizzly wasn't a bad bear. It wasn't evil. But yet you didn't want to see 18 feet of towering fury just be allowed to peacefully wander back into the woods at the end. That would be unsatisfying. What you want is to see it exploded into chunks of blood and fur by a fucking bazooka. You don't want Jaws to just swim away at the end of the movie, you want Roy Scheider to fire off that shot at the air tank in Jaws' mouth and obliterate it. Bottom line: you want gratification. You want to see an animal go on a killing spree, murder many people, and then be spectacularly destroyed. The makers of Cocaine Bear did not get that memo. 


While there's something to be said for subverting expectations and going against the grain, I don't think that applies here. Cocaine Bear needed to straight up bring the exploitation movies goods and it doesn't quite do that. Yeah, I'll still take a squeaky clean coked up bear movie over no coked up bear movie but at the same time, I feel I must register my disappointment. Even with its PG-13 rating, M3GAN delivered more effectively as an exploitation movie than the R-rated Cocaine Bear does so I think it's worth noting that it falls short. 

Cocaine Bear has got some decent splatter but the go for the throat attitude isn't there. It'll still do well thanks to Universal's killer marketing campaign but my hope is that whatever gonzo movies that might get made in response to its success will be inspired to push the envelope and show some real B-movie gusto. Don't promise people a Cocaine Bear only to hand them a Teddy Bear instead. 

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Roll the Bones: Army of Darkness at 30

Nerd culture has become established as the predominant culture today with what used to be strictly cult stuff now being mainstream fare (when M.O.D.O.K., in all his weirdness, is featured in the #1 movie in the country, you know you're living in a full on nerd world) but in 1993, things were not so groovy and the chances were that unless you were a regular Fangoria reader, you did not know or care that this new movie called Army of Darkness was actually the second sequel to The Evil Dead. To this day I continue to find it wild that the Evil Dead movies were considered so cult and their audience so insignificant that Universal didn't even think it was worth calling attention to Army's sequel status in its marketing and instead chose to promote it as a stand alone movie. In certain circles, though, Army qualified as a massive event. 

Seeing Army on an opening day matinee with a fellow nerd buddy of mine remains one of my favorite movie going memories. Back when I saw Evil Dead II at a midnight show in '87, the then-surprising turn it took towards comedy caught me completely off guard (in a way that delighted me) but now, of course, I felt I was going in prepared. Turns out I was blindsided all over again by the complete avalanche of Bruce Campbell one liners and the transformation of Ash into a caricature of a macho action hero, a portrayal that walked the line between sincerity and send up. After thirty years of being endlessly quoted, the lines in this movie are so familiar now but I remember losing it in the theater hearing all of them for the first time. 

If there's any one movie that made Bruce Campbell into an enduring cult icon it's this. Evil Dead 1 & 2, as great as they are, wouldn't have put Bruce over the top like this one did. It's just a bummer to stop and realize that, wait, this was the last time Bruce was the lead in a movie that had a wide theatrical release. It's fucking wrong is what that is. 

As for the debate about which ending is better, the theatrical S-Mart ending or the original "I slept too long!" ending, I think just about everyone who saw Army theatrically would go for the S-Mart ending. Even though having Ash blow it and wake up in a post apocalyptic wasteland is 100% in character, it feels too much like a retread of II's downer ending and Army needed to bring something fresher to the table. While it might have been insisted on by Universal, I love that rather than begrudgingly comply with this artistic compromise, Sam Raimi choose to go so insanely hard in embracing the studio's mandate for an upbeat ending. "Oh, you want a more commercial ending? HERE YOU GO!" 

Thirty years later, Army of Darkness still rocks. It will never not be cool that in the same year that Steven Spielberg and ILM reinvented the art of movie FX in Jurassic Park, Raimi and co. made a movie whose idea of spectacle was an army of skeleton puppets. Even better, a handful of skeleton puppets that had to be shot to look like an army. At no time is Raimi trying to sell anyone on how convincing any of this is, he's all in on the obvious artifice of it, and that's what makes it great. For me, this movie's defining moment is when in the heat of battle, someone off camera throws a skeleton into the frame at Campbell who grabs it and breaks it over his knee. The Deadites here don't explode in CGI dust when they die, they just get trashed like cheap pieces of junk. Bruce isn't facing some slick adversary like the T-1000 here. Instead, much like the retro aesthetics that Francis Ford Coppola brought to Bram Stoker's Dracula the year before, Raimi crafted Army as a tribute to the naive movie magic of an earlier, less sophisticated age. Even with all the skeletons on display, there's not a jaded bone to be found here. 

Hail to the King, baby! 

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Radar Love: Daredevil at 20

Twenty years ago, seeing a feature film based on a Marvel Comics character was still a novelty. Due to various legal entanglements and creative complications, Marvel's iconic stable of characters were forced to languish for years while their competition at DC dominated superhero cinema with their Superman and Batman franchises. The best Marvel could muster were various TV movies of varying quality and mostly lackluster features like The Punisher (1989) and Captain America (1990) that had to settle for direct-to-video releases in the US while movies like Tim Burton's Batman were busy breaking box office records. It wasn't until Stephen Norrington's Blade in 1998 that the commercial and creative fortunes of Marvel movies finally started to turn around. By the time Daredevil arrived in theaters on February 14th, 2003, it was only the sixth Marvel adaptation to be given a wide theatrical release, with two of the previous five being Blade movies and another being 1986's Howard the Duck. In comparison, this week's Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania is the 31st (!) Marvel movie just in the MCU alone. 

Having so few Marvel movies to be compared against, however, did not help Daredevil endear itself to anyone. Even though the only other big Marvel superhero movies at the time were 2000's X-Men and 2002's Spider-Man, writer and director Mark Steven Johnson's adaptation was largely dismissed as a disappointment. It definitely did not meet with the same acclaim that greeted Bryan Singer's X-Men or Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. The immediate take on Daredevil was that it was, at best, ok with Ben Affleck earning a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor and Affleck himself stating years later "I hate Daredevil so much" in a New York Times interview in 2016, still stung by the movie's reception and then being on the hunt for comic book redemption as the Dark Knight in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Despite all the flack he got for it, I say Affleck should be proud of his turn as Matt Murdock. He does right by Matt in this movie. Now, let me say that I don't think the passage of time has turned Daredevil into a classic. It's still an ok movie in the same way that it was ok back in 2003 but, you know, the vast majority of movies in the history of cinema are merely ok. Being ok is fine. I mean, most people are just ok and that doesn't seem to bother anyone. When Daredevil was released, I was at a lost to understand the over the top animosity towards it. For whatever reason, people decided that it - and Affleck - were going to be punching bags and that's been largely unchanged since. 

On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, I'd like to present to the court of public opinion my own Matt Murdock-esque defense of Daredevil. This is a movie that offers much to appreciate, particularly for comic fans. For starters, they got the costume right. Unlike Daredevil's live action debut in 1989's TV team-up with the Hulk in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, Affleck's DD ditches the ninja look that Rex Smith rocked in that film and instead is very comic accurate, with red leather (rather than spandex but hey, at least the color's right!) and a horned cowl. As recently as Singer's original X-Men, the idea of dressing superheroes like their comic book counterparts had been waved off with a dismissive joke ("...What would you prefer, yellow spandex?") so even though Spidey had been garbed in his iconic red and blues in Raimi's film, there was no guarantee that DD would stick to his classic threads. If you look at the design sketches that were done for Daredevil, you can see that of the different looks that were considered, most of them were similar to Rex Smith's black clad DD. 

The fact that we got a Daredevil so authentic to the comics is a credit to director Mark Steven Johnson. Daredevil could have easily sported a much different look here. I'd even argue that it's a better costume than Charlie Cox's DD outfit. 

Besides faithfully retaining the look of DD's costume, Johnson displays his fanboy credentials throughout Daredevil. Right from the opening shots, Johnson pays homage to the cover of Daredevil Vol. 2 #3 from 1999 with artist Joe Quesada's instantly iconic image of Daredevil draped over a church cross. Several comic book legends connected to Daredevil comics, like John Romita, Gene Colan (referred to as a boxer called Gene "The Machine" Colon), and Brian Michael Bendis are name checked while DD scribes Stan Lee, Frank Miller and Kevin Smith make cameos.

Two specific scenes most pointedly represent the particular comic book sensibility Johnson brings to the movie and whether a viewer perceives these scenes as good or bad seems to determine how they feel about Daredevil overall. The first is the moment where reporter Ben Urich (a perfectly cast Joe Pantoliano) is talking to a detective at a crime scene where a thug has just been creamed by a subway train and Urich is arguing that this was the work of Daredevil. As the impatient detective pushes back with "...there is no proof that your so-called Daredevil was involved, nor that he even exists," Urich tosses a lit cigarette onto an area of the subway platform close by and the initials "DD" ignite in flames. Now, on any logical level, this is ridiculous. I mean, are we supposed to think that Matt keeps lighter fluid on him for the purpose of leaving his calling card? And if he does, how could he possibly know that anyone would be aware that there was a message waiting to be dramatically lit up? Any way you look at it, it's absurd. But yet it's also awesome in a shamelessly comic book way. It's not about logic, it's about whether it's a cool visual, and it is - especially when the scene ends with the fiery initials reflected in Urich's glasses.

The other scene is the playground fight between Matt and Elektra (Jennifer Garner). Many see this as being far too silly but I find it to be ridiculous in all the right ways. It's just so comic book-y to have these two sparring in a playground, testing each other's limits and sizing the other up. Having their romantic relationship begin in this fashion could only happen in a comic book world. Some might say it's a scene that's too light for Daredevil but I disagree. One, the history of Daredevil in the comics is not all grim and gritty. There is a playfulness that has been a part of the book from the start. And certainly, Matt is an irrepressible flirt when it comes to the ladies and he's also as cocky as they come. If there is an opportunity to a) win over a woman he finds attractive and b) a chance to show off, he's going to take it. So this scene is very much in line with the Daredevil of the comics. 

As light as that particular scene may be, there's still plenty of darkness to go around in Daredevil, both visually and thematically. While it may not deliver quite the same level of intensity of the '80s DD run from writer/artist Frank Miller that much of the movie's storyline is inspired by, for the time it was made, it does a respectable job of delivering an edgy Daredevil movie. In 2003, "dark" comic book films were relatively rare - certainly if you're talking about superhero films. It's one thing for R-rated, horror edged fare like The Crow or Blade to be dark but when it comes to PG-13 superheroes, Batman Returns (1992) was about as dark as it got then and that caught a shit ton of flack for its tone. Given that, Daredevil is admirable in how far it pushes the envelope. I mean, they do gut Elektra. 

Director Christopher Nolan would change the game for mature superhero fare with Batman Begins in 2005 but for its time, Daredevil was a noble attempt at portraying a troubled, tormented superhero. I really dig the scenes of Matt coming home after his nights as Daredevil, his body riddled with scars, popping pain pills before immersing himself in an isolation tank. If you're a comic fan and you watch those scenes, it's like, yeah, that's Daredevil (bonus points to Johnson for delivering a perfect illustration of Matt's hyper senses as he has Matt unlock his rooftop entrance by spinning three combination locks at once and stopping each one at just the right moment). 

Action wise, Daredevil really delivers with both Colin Farrell's Bullseye and Michael Clarke Duncan's Kingpin having solid opportunities to spar with DD. The entire end stretch of the movie is devoted to multiple battles, one after the other. There's Elektra vs. Daredevil, Elektra vs. Bullseye, Bullseye vs. Daredevil, and finally the big boss battle of Daredevil vs. Kingpin. Each one of these fights is excitingly choreographed and, whether it's Elektra slicing her sais through sheets hanging from rooftop clotheslines to get at DD or Bullseye catching shards of stained glasses in his hands and then skimming them off at a backflipping DD during their church battle or the Kingpin and DD being showered in strobing droplets of water while bathed in the blue light of Kingpin's office, they all go hard on the comic book flavor. It's especially cool to see Duncan's Kingpin effortlessly hurling DD around in true comic book fashion. If only these two could have had a rematch in a sequel.

In the end, perhaps Daredevil's most lasting legacy is in that in casting Jon Favreau as Foggy Nelson, this is the movie that ushered into the Marvel fold the man who would go on to successfully launch the MCU with Iron Man in 2008. It's wild to watch the behind the scenes, making of material from the set of Daredevil and see Favreau interacting with Johnson knowing that this guy who's playing the second banana here is going to literally change the face of popular culture and birth the MCU. For his part, Johnson went on to direct another underrated Marvel adaptation with 2007's rip roaring Ghost Rider (I really wish he'd come back for another Marvel movie or even an episode of a Disney + series) but Favreau permanently changed Marvel's fortunes. That doesn't happen without Favreau making that initial connection with Avi Arad and Kevin Feige on Daredevil. So if you love the MCU, thank Daredevil for making it possible.

The character of Daredevil may have gone on to be securely owned by Charlie Cox but Daredevil still has the sole bragging rights to being the one and only Daredevil solo movie. I do expect we'll see Cox's DD on the big screen in the next Spider-Man movie but will he ever get his own solo film? I tend to doubt it (although I'd love to be wrong on that) so for the foreseeable future, 2003's Daredevil will stand as ol' Hornhead's one big screen outing. Twenty years later, it remains a solid superhero movie, even if many remain blind to its appeal.