Shazam! 4K UHD

shazam1When I saw the first teaser/trailer for Shazam! some time ago, it certainly looked different- it was either going to be a blast or another Distinguished Calamity (see what I did there? I’ll go get my coat…), it was hard to tell which, but it was clear that this was no typical, formulaic superhero movie. Except of course it was, really.

But, I have to say, and much to my surprise, Shazam! is an absolute blast. Its great. It doesn’t really shake up superhero movies in anything like the same way as Deadpool pretended to (that film’s last third really just falling into standard genre tropes) but it’s genuinely great fun. I thoroughly enjoyed it and its easily the best DC film I’ve yet seen. Indeed, it’s so much better than the lackluster and confused Captain Marvel.

Shaking off the darkness of the Dark Knight films or Man of Steel etc, this nonetheless finds what actually turns out to be a very surprising middle ground – sure, its as light as Spider Man: Homecoming or the Ant Man films, but somehow it also manages to have some genuine darkness in the mix. Its a story of two boys (Billy Baxter and Thaddeus Sivana), one of whom is an orphan, while the other might as well be as he is ridiculed and rejected by his father and elder brother. Both boys are summoned by ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who has spent years searching for someone pure of heart to take his place and protect the world from the Seven Deadly Sins. Thaddeus, tempted by the Deadly Sins, is deemed unworthy, and by the time Billy is tested years later, the Sins are on the loose (freed by a now-adult Thaddeus, played by Mark Strong) and Shazam, nearing death, is so weakened he has no choice but to pass on his powers and hope Billy will measure up. Billy is no boy pure of heart, living a rough life in and out of foster care whilst vainly searching for the mother who he lost (and actually deliberately deserted him, in another dark twist). Will Billy learn to control and use his powers for Good before Thaddeus, equally empowered by the monstrous Deadly Sins, hunts Billy down and claims the power of Shazam in order for the Sins to wreak havoc on the world?

shazam2Well you can guess how it goes, but the beauty of Shazam! is how it gets there. While young Billy is played very well by (Asher Angel) in a sympathetic and warm performance that grounds the character, his Shazam alter-ego, dressed in an oddly charming retro spandex suit complete with a very strange cape, is played brilliantly by Zachary Levi, who I thought was incredibly good in the tv series Chuck. Levi’s performance is like Tom Hanks in Big, here playing a kid in an adult superhero body and getting great comedy out of it, but genuine pathos too. In many ways he is a vulnerable innocent in just the same way as Tom Holland’s Spider-Man in recent Marvel outings, and perhaps to a lesser extent Christopher Reeve’s 1978 Superman. Shazam spends most of his time with his foster home buddy Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) who, thanks to a fascination with superheroes, acts as Shazam’s advisor. Its two outsider kids against the world, sort of, in a rather intimate and personal superhero film with considerable heart.

Sure its not perfect, but it’s really quite close. It doesn’t degenerate into a huge CGI spectacle, there is a sense of reality to it in spite of its daftness, and all the characters are well-written and defined. There is a warmth and sense of fun to the film which is really refreshing, especially for a DC film. It doesn’t take itself at all too seriously, and yet maintains some real tension and drama. Its a great balancing act.

Better still, in 4K UHD, the film looks and sounds phenomenal. Its surprisingly reference material, with absolutely perfect use of HDR giving a sense of detail and depth that can be astonishing at times. The film mostly takes place near Christmas, with lots of seasonal lights outside and inside of homes that really pop, and a finale that takes place at a Winter Carnival that is just jaw-droppingly gorgeous throughout. This is a great Christmas movie (I didn’t see that coming). The CGI is more restrained than recent superhero ‘epics’ and is really photo-realistic in 4K, really benefiting from the HDR and wider colour gamut.

So yeah, thats me quite shocked, to be honest. I really didn’t think I would enjoy this anywhere near as much as I did. It certainly augurs well for the future direction of DC movies- well, I hope so, anyway. There’s plenty of room, surely, for both light and dark approaches to these costumed capers. After the deplorable Justice League I had absolutely zero interest in watching any further DC films, but this one has me turned around. Maybe I’ll have to get to Aquaman afterall.

Venom (2018)

venom1I liked it. I think. Well, it was that old chestnut of ‘reduced expectations’ again- I gather from when the film originally came out at the cinema that the critics were not at all impressed, nor some of the comic book fans, really. Regards the fans, I can’t really comment, as I know nothing of the original comics, so I’m likely not best suited to comment on the film anyway. Although I’m a huge Spider Man fan, having grown up in the 1970s reading the weekly UK reprints of all the 1960s/1970s American comic books (from the Steve Ditko era through John Romita and to the Ross Andru years- I guess that’ll only mean anything to older comics readers, so hey ho) I’m not familiar with anything of the 1980s onwards. Venom, I gather, is a huge fan-favourite Spider Man spin-off but I have no idea how faithful this film is or how many liberties it has taken.

I gather it got some flack from fans for not being an R-rated picture, as the original comic book would apparently lean more towards more of a Deadpool-type adaptation- seriously violent and graphic and foul-mouthed. This is clearly not that kind of movie, and while it’s not a PG Deadpool kind of situation, I think that it strangely disturbs even more. This film is surprisingly violent and even drops at least one F-bomb, but to manage the more kiddie-friendly certificate (it landed with a 15 rating) it seems to show the violent acts but not the results. Venom is seen throwing a SWAT team through walls and in the air etc which likely leaves the guys crippled and dying painful deaths but we don’t see those consequences of Venoms actions- I think he bites heads off at times but without hardly any gore etc. I don’t know why, but that actually makes the film seem worse than Deadpool in some ways, as if its unintentionally showing the action in some kind of painless videogame kind of context which does more harm than good.  Which makes me wonder, are comic book films such as this more of a danger to kids watching them (lets face it, now it’s in the home domain this film will be watched by 8-year olds or younger still) precisely because its showing violence as entertainment and even as something funny but without showing the outcome of that violence?

I’m likely just ignoring/misremembering how violent most comic-book films are in general, but something just feels off about Venom.

Maybe that’s another discussion. I just mention it because I had to look at the certificate of the film as I was watching it. The violence doesn’t feel as intense as, say, it did back in Blade Runner even back in 1982 but I can imagine an extended, rawer cut being released showing all that gore and battered twisted body parts and the film being a different beast entirely, but also maybe that would be more honest? At any rate, the film made a fortune at the box-office in spite of critics panning it so the film-makers succeeded in what they were attempting, financially anyway.

To me, the film was some strange, daft comic book flick possibly leaning more towards the campiness of 1960s Batman than the usual Marvel film does – I suspect that was a way to dilute the darkness of the character but it does make the whole feel odd, really. I did enjoy Tom Hardy, he brought an awful lot to the character he played and is a huge part of the film’s success- I certainly doubt I would have enjoyed the film at all with someone else starring in it. I wonder what the film might have been like with a big brash pop score like Queen’s Flash Gordon, for instance (“Venom! Ahhh-ahhh! He’s come to devour us!”) – that would have been wild.

Oh well. I kind of enjoyed Venom– certainly well worth a £1.99 rental. Which is likely deservedly damning it with faint praise, but there you go…

Deadpool 4K

dead4kA few thoughts regards watching Deadpool on a 4K UHD disc. Long-time/frequent readers may recall my less than ecstatic cinema review of Deadpool from 2016. My reservations have cooled somewhat in the years since- its fine for what it is, but if someone really wants to see an anti-hero rip up genre conventions and subvert superhero films in general, you need to get some brave film-maker (and even braver studio with a hit squad of lawyers) to shoot a movie based on Pat Mills/Kevin O’Neil’s Marshall Law strip instead (I recently re-read my copy of the deluxe edition of Marshall Law and laughed myself silly whilst cringing in horror). But Deadpool is fine- pretty damn fine in fact, now that some of that hype has faded somewhat (I still prefer Watchmen though).

Thanks to the recent Amazon Prime Day sales, I’ve gotten hold of Deadpool on 4K and good grief, it looks pretty gorgeous. Now, here’s the funny thing about 4K- what likely hinders the format isn’t so much the debatable difference between standard HD and 4K- its there, but only on the very largest panels will anyone really notice without standing damn close to the screen (the difference between SD and standard HD, meanwhile, is quite another matter, particularly on larger screens, but as HD is always upscaled anyway by the panel, it just makes the difference between HD and native 4K harder to distinguish, particularly from a distance).

What really shows a big improvement is the WGC (wider colour gamut, i.e. more varied and subtler colours/shades) and, in particular, HDR,which ensures brighter, dynamic contrast range between very bright whites etc against very dark blacks. The trouble with HDR though is that it varies in performance pretty widely depending on the quality of your panel (aha, so there really is a reason why some panels are much more expensive than others), or even the source (are you watching it via streaming, and if so whats the compression like, or via a digital download or (preferably, but not exclusively so) via disc). There’s also some variety of HDR formats- the main two being  HDR10 and Dolby Vision, which can sometimes vary between formats even with the same title (BR2049 on disc is HDR10 but on digital its Dolby Vision) and not all panels or players are compatible with all the formats… really, you’d think the studios/tech boys would sort stuff out prior to launch.

So it may sound strange to read that my own biggest  ‘wow’ about watching Deadpool in 4K wasn’t more grisly detail in the violence and gore but rather the exterior daytime scenes and the gorgeously natural-looking lighting. Through the combination of a wider colour field and the depth afforded by the HDR, the sky suddenly blooms and the lighting feels more natural and authentic. The sky just glows, the clouds more vibrant and shades more varied, and the lighting of the overall scene just seems wholly natural. It just suddenly looks real, as if looking out of a window at a real scene. Its a funny thing and hard to explain, but somehow it looks more convincing- 3D was just a diversion, immersion-wise, the real deal is the wider range of colours and dynamic range.  I have a suspicion that if HDR was compatible with standard HD, then that would be so impressive many punters would delay upgrading to 4K at all… aha, those clever buggers at Sony/LG/Panasonic etc, I see what they did there…

 

 

Watchmen: Ultimate Cut (2009)

watch12016.19: Watchmen-Ultimate Cut (Blu-ray)

I bought the Theatrical Cut on blu-ray. I bought the Directors Cut on blu-ray. I’ve now bought the Ultimate Cut on blu-ray. I don’t feel ripped-off at all by all this double/triple-dipping.

I think I must like this movie.

Well, to be fair, although I’ve always wanted to see the Ultimate Cut I’ve never been compelled enough to pay the crazy amounts charged on ebay over the years, only buying it now due to it being in a sale on Amazon. However, it is clear that I like, even love, this movie; it remains one of my most enjoyable and surprising experiences at the cinema, certainly in the past few decades. This was a film with a huge weight on it, based on a book that was widely accepted as being unfilmable, and directed by Zack Snyder (Man of Steel surely later indicating how bad Watchmen might have been). It should have been a disaster, but instead I came out of the cinema buzzing like I hadn’t in years; my mate Andy who had also read the graphic novel years before loved it too. Yet we’d just seen arguably the weakest version of the film- the Directors Cut that came out on blu-ray several months later was far superior and answered many of the problems of the theatrical cut.
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How much the world needed the Ultimate Cut depends on how much you loved the film, as that Directors Cut is pretty much definitive. The problem that the Ultimate Cut has is two-fold: the sheer length of the thing (three and a half hours of it) and how much the animated Tales of the Black Freighter distracts from the live-action and upsets the pacing. I can’t argue against it- the film is long and yes, some of the cuts to/from animated sequences can be jarring. On the other hand, having the Black Freighter stuff in it makes it feel more complete, and also adds some much-needed coverage of the ‘normal’ characters, the ‘real-world’ two Bernies, that adds some depth and another layer of ‘realty’ to the whole.  As for how long it is- well, better that than to have it cut to ribbons, and time-wary viewers are catered for with the theatrical cut anyway. The Ultimate Cut was clearly made for the films fans and as one of them, I appreciate it; just that it exists is amazing. Its unfortunate that we fans in the UK have to import the damn thing though and, in my case, have had to wait so many years to see it.

In the years since Watchmen (and isn’t it a little terrifying how long ago 2009 feels already?), Marvel’s series of Superhero films have dominated the box office with much better critical success than Watchmen ever had, and it could be argued that Watchmen has surely been forgotten in the wake of Marvel getting so much so right.

Studios have found that if your superhero film has impressive production values, likeable actors, plenty of action and humour and maybe some romance, then mainstream audiences will lap it up as much as the geeks, and if you can keep it rated PG-13, all the better. You don’t gross over a billion dollars without it appealing to everyone, and that includes foreign audiences with non-western cultures, so keep the plot fairly simple and the spectacle high. Even fairly obscure comic-book characters can have great success (who but the geeks had ever heard of Guardians of the Galaxy?).

So Watchmen was a clear example of how not to do it. It was long, it was dense, it was dark, it was more about character and its complex, conflicted world than good guys versus bad guys with big effects sequences. It was all about its subversive source and being faithful to that. Its box office compared to the Marvel films success speaks volumes. For a R rated movie it did okay; the geeks enjoyed it ( well, most of em) but the mainstream stayed away or were confused by it. Compare this to the similarly R-rated Deadpool, violent, simple and very funny- geeks loved it but more importantly the mainstream lapped it up too. Deadpool, despite also being R-rated and its audience (in theory) limited, has earned over $680 million worldwide so far. Personally I much prefer Watchmen, but I can understand why it didn’t have the success of Deadpool or the other PG-13 Marvel offerings. In anycase, to consider Watchmen as a failure is a mistake anyway- it may not have been a Deadpool, but neither was it a Fantastic Four.

I doubt it will ever get a Blade Runner-like reappraisal, but I think it deserves to. I think Watchmen remains a phenomenal piece of work. Indeed, watching it now I am often amazed at all the details, how so much has been squeezed in (particularly in this Ultimate Cut), how faithful to the original graphic novel it is, how beautifully it is shot and acted. Detractors of the film often fail to appreciate the craft and artistry at work in this film; the sets, the lighting, the costume design. They nailed it. It’s brilliant. It isn’t perfect, but it comes so close.

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Some people will argue I’m wrong and that Snyder’s film proves that Watchmen is indeed unfilmable. I think Watchmen is, like Blade Runner, an arthouse movie posing as a mainstream blockbuster. Unfortunately it’s not intimate enough for an arthouse movie or mainstream enough to be a blockbuster. It falls somewhere in between and will always fail to be embraced by critics or public, but I think those who like the film absolutely love it. I will admit it doesn’t get everything right, it’s full of little things that bug me, but I’ll forgive every one of them because of how much the damn thing gets so beautifully, gloriously, brass-balls-I-don’t-believe-they-did-that right. I’m the kind of guy who grew up with comics in the 1970s and enjoyed the critical resurgence in the 1980s and cannot believe they are taken so seriously now and transferred with so much care and attention into these amazing films. I mean, seriously, bad-mouth Watchmen and then see-

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Oddly enough, Watchmen isn’t completely forgotten, even though with the release of the Ultimate Cut a few years ago you’d think it was all done. The one good thing about its perceived ‘failure’ is that we didn’t get any talk of sequels or prequels. Even fans of the film would argue against any continuation of the story, and the prequel books that came out awhile ago don’t seem to have satisfied many (although I quite like some of them). Rumours persist though of HBO working on some kind of Watchmen series, something I would ordinarily be excited about did the film not exist, but it does, so,  what’s the point? I can’t believe, in so few years after the film came out, that anybody is interested in rebooting it already; but that’s Hollywood, nothing is sacred I guess. I’m sure the Comedian would appreciate the joke maybe, but it worries me. Surely there are other properties to turn to? Warren Ellis’ Planetary maybe? Or maybe Marshall Law? Can’t they leave Watchmen alone? Well, maybe Dr Manhattan knows…

nothing-ends

Deadpool (2016)

dead12016.15: Deadpool (Cinema)

A deliberately subversive take on the super-hero genre, Deadpool is on the one hand great fun and on the other rather disturbing. Of course the humour (most of which is predicated on the deliberate breaking of the ‘fourth wall’) and the hyper-violent action constitute most of the fun of the film. There is something delicious in seeing/hearing so many tropes of recent Marvel and DC super-hero films being sent-up and ridiculed (affectionately or not). Its also rather risky, as the ‘traditional’ superhero film series are all destined to continue those tropes in subsequent films, and it’s debatable how casual audiences might react to that having seen them sent-up by Deadpool.

Of course the riskiest aspect of Deadpool is its R-rating in America and all that violence. R-rated movies have historically had a hard time recouping their budgets, something that only gets harder with the higher budgets typical of super-hero films, so most Marvel and DC films veer to the ‘safer’ domain of the PG-13 rating.  Notable exceptions are the R-rated Watchmen (that cost $130 million, box office $185 million) and Dredd (that cost $50 million, box office $35 million). In comparison to those two, Deadpool‘s success has been pretty extraordinary- it cost a relatively conservative $58 million and has so far managed $530 million in just a few weeks. Clearly the audience likes their R-rated superhero flicks lighthearted and irreverent, which neither Watchmen or Dredd were.

For the record, I positively adore both Watchmen and Dredd. Still, there’s no accounting for taste as from those box-office figures it looks like nobody else does.

In all fairness, Deadpool is very good at what it does. It is also very funny. Its also clearly in love with everything it is poking fun at. And it is deliriously violent. But beyond the wit and action, there doesn’t seem to be much wisdom. Think of it as Ted with spandex and guns. Should it be making some commentary on what it is doing, about the nature of the black and white world of superheroes and the credo of might equals right (its a bad world, lets beat the shit out of the bad guys and then everything will be alright)? Because this film was ideally placed to do that. Clearly however this isn’t that kind of movie and to be honest while I was watching it, that didn’t bother me. But afterwards whilst thinking about it, the film left something of a bitter aftertaste. This may be R-rated and it has lots of violence and sex and bad language but it isn’t really at all adult- its wholly adolescent.

Our hero is Wade. He is, from the start, one of ‘us’- he’s witty and he’s a geek, only in a devastatingly charming and handsome, Ryan Reynolds kind-of-way, so in fact the film is lying and he’s nothing like 99% of us. But we don’t care, because he beats up bad guys and cracks great jokes and is fantastic in bed. He’s the kind of guy James Bond would be if he read comics and played videogames.

dead2He is exactly who geeks watching the film would want to be, especially when Wade meets the love of his life, the drop-dead gorgeous Vanessa, played by geek-favourite Morena Baccarin of V, Firefly, and Gotham fame (an actress with her geek credentials clearly sorted). Now Vanessa is the very definition of a teenage geeks wet dream. Not only does she love the same movies we love (she corrects Wade when he mixes up his Star Wars films- “Empire” she corrects him, to the sound of millions of male geeks falling in love if they haven’t already), and she loves our hero for all his geekness and thinks he is cool (and therefore us too), but best of all she’s an absolute slut in bed. Wade tries to propose and she assumes he’s working his way to suggesting they try anal (she might even be disappointed a little when she sees the ring). I mean, I know it’s just a movie, but what does this whole set up have to say about 51% of the films audience (which is a conservative estimate as clearly well-adjusted women are much smarter than this and I doubt they make up 49% of the films audience). Its an adolescent’s fantasy. It doesn’t feel real. Its a teenagers ideal of a woman and what sex is like.

Compare this to Watchmen, in which one of the heroes is impotent and can only get it up if he dons his superhero costume and beats the shit out of some bad guys. There’s all sorts of stuff in Watchmen, a real R-rated superhero film with something to say. Deadpool doesn’t seem interested in having anything to say.  I don’t know. Maybe it’s a big joke: is the joke on us? It just feels a bit disturbing, about what the film-makers think a comic-book reading audience is or what it assumes that audience wants. Its wish-fulfillment on an almost Biblical scale. Its just too nuts for words. But maybe its okay, because there’s an incredible amount of blood and explosions and dick jokes to make it easy to forget/ignore what feels like manipulation. And regards that violence, there’s an awful lot of posturing, isn’t-this-cool kind of glorification of that violence. Bodyparts are flying everywhere. Without the humour, how would that look/feel? I have to wonder. Deadpool seems to be saying Violence Is Cool. Violence Is The Answer. Violence Is Funny. Oh, and here’s another dick joke.

Which is weird, because one of the things I loved about Blade Runner way back in 1982 was that it seemed to be saying violence hurts, as it showed Harrison Ford all bruised and cut and aching after every fight (most of which he seemed to lose, too). Back then I thought that was quite refreshing and sophisticated and I thought maybe genre films were growing up. It didn’t have any dick jokes either.

Maybe I’m taking this all far too seriously. This is clearly a movie to watch whilst drinking beers. And I’m far too sober right now. But if its R-rated movies from now on, then the one I’d really like to see is an R-rated Howard The Duck. Because Howard would at least have something to say.