Triple Scoop Reviews: Shazam!, Joker, and Little Women

Shazam!

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other: HBO Now
Spoilers: Yup
Grade: Vanilla

Imbalanced, but cute. Tonally, Shazam! is wildly different than its DC live-action brethren, which makes it both a breath of fresh air and also a little, like, huh? Shazam! doesn’t always feel like a superhero movie to me; instead, it’s more of a fantasy-action film about magical kids, a film geared towards young children and their long-suffering parents. I’m having trouble describing exactly why those two sub-genres are different, but they have become different, at least in 2020.

There’s a fair bit in Shazam! that doesn’t work for me. Mark Strong’s villainy game, for example, is usually on point–all hail SEPTIMUS!–but he makes for a pretty boring villain here. Dr. Sivana’s origin story has potential, but it goes nowhere interesting, and the film would be better off if the majority of his scenes were cut. Zachary Levi, meanwhile, is generally funny, but it rarely feels like he’s actually playing Billy; mostly, he comes across as any random kid who’s been magically transported into an adult’s body. It creates a real disconnect for me throughout the film, especially when it comes to the conflict between Billy and Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). Which is unfortunate because that relationship is a huge part of the story. This movie falls down hardest, I think, in its second act.

OTOH, I really do love Billy’s foster siblings, especially Freddy and Darla (Faithe Herman), who are charmingly chaotic and adorably sweet, respectively. The script is sometimes (okay, often) very on the nose about the found family stuff, but fuck it, these kids are cute, and their parents are sweet and well-meaning, and I just want them to all be happy, OKAY? And can I tell you just how much I adored these kids becoming superheroes at the end? The cameos are fantastic: I am 100% here for Adam Brody as Superhero Freddy, plus Ross Butler was a nice surprise, and Meagan Good was delightful as Superhero Darla. It’s especially awesome they get to remain superheroes, too, like I just assumed this would be a one-time sidekick deal, not that we’d end the movie sharing a secret lair. (Obviously, other viewers were prepared for this, but the majority of my Shazam knowledge comes from animated movies like Superman/Batman: Public Enemies and TV shows like Young Justice.) I’m kinda so-so on this particular film overall, but I find the ending so charming that I’m genuinely interested in seeing a sequel.

A few quick asides:

A. Poor Djimon Hounsou. He so rarely gets to play anybody interesting, and this movie is no exception to that rule. Hounsou plays the Wizard who gifts Billy with his powers, and the most interesting thing about him–other than his hilariously fake hair–is that he is just such an incredible dick. Like, I just called him Asshole Dumbledore the whole movie. (Yes, Dumbledore himself is also Asshole Dumbledore, but still.) Cause, sure, you can’t hold this guy responsible for everything our villain does, but you can definitely hold him responsible for being needlessly cruel to a small child, traumatizing countless people across the world, and, oh yeah, that whole car accident thing. I’m just saying.  No one’s weeping for you, my dude.

B. It’s a very minor complaint, but when your bad guy unleashes the seven deadly sins as his henchmen, like, I just wish they were a lot more fun and distinct than this.

C. That last scene with Superman? Fucking amazing.

Joker

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other: On Demand, I think? (My friends rented it)
Spoilers: A few, yes
Grade: Strawberry

Well, I watched it. And as suspected, I just wasn’t into Joker. Joaquin Phoenix is undoubtedly creepy with his weird laughter and off-putting grin and seriously disturbing ribs–like, man’s got a freaky AF energy to him, I will absolutely give him that. But his performance also feels pretty static to me, like, once I’d seen roughly 15-20 minutes, I felt like I’d seen the whole thing. Plus, I’m just kinda tired of awarding rich white dudes for being difficult to work with, and continuing to glorify actors who starve themselves for roles? Like, no, this is so unhealthy for everyone involved; please, let’s just stop.

The narrative structure of Joker goes something like this: introduce a mentally ill man and present him with about 80 triggers until he inevitably explodes. Which is . . . fine, but the build feels off to me here. The revolution is weak, primarily off-screen and inspired by murders I never quite bought as a rallying point. The social commentary feels thin, too; like, “eat the rich” is a pretty popular theme these days, but this might be one of the least successful versions of it I’ve seen. There are some ideas I like, if not always their execution: Gotham from the POV of the lower classes, for instance, or reinterpreting Thomas Wayne as a mega Chief Asshat. The eternal, cyclical nightmare that is this city, how Gotham creates villains by failing the people, and how those villains in turn create our heroes, who only ever perpetuate the system . . . but the writing is just such weak sauce, lazy and muddled. If this wins for Best Adapted Screenplay over Little Women, I swear to God . . .

I also can’t say I’m particularly impressed with any of the female roles, either. Zazie Beetz is criminally underused: her character has no real function, except to serve as a Big Twist, one that fails to be meaningful, compelling, or even surprising. It would, at least, take a modicum of effort before one could cut Penny (Frances Conroy) out of the film, but still, the whole backstory about Joker’s mom is just so . . . meh, all of it, meh. Joker is hardly the worst film I’ve ever seen: the acting is generally fine, and I quite like the cinematography. I had a good time hanging out with my friends and eating pizza, at least. But I just didn’t connect to this film at all, and I remain a bit baffled by its multiple Oscar nominations. There are so many better movies than this. My nerdish heart wants more.

Little Women

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other: Actual Goddamn Movie Theater
Spoilers: Yep
Grade: Chocolate

Initially, my interest in Little Women was mild. I’ve never read the book, and I was pretty content with the 1994 adaptation I’d grown up with. I didn’t know I needed another version of this story. But then I became more interested, partially because I’d like to support more female directors, partially because I desperately didn’t want Joker to be the only Best Picture nominee I’d actually seen, and partially because of this video by Be Kind, Rewind, which examines four different film adaptations of Little Women and discusses how each teaches us something about the era it was made in. (Oh, and because I wanted to finally check out the Alamo Drafthouse, and Little Women was the only film playing that I wanted to see. Not gonna lie, folks: if either Parasite or the less cinematically beloved Underwater had been available, you probably would’ve gotten a different review.)

Happily, I thought Little Women was fantastic. I was surprisingly engaged throughout the film, which is partially due to the changes in narrative structure. It’s not that telling a story using flashbacks is some groundbreaking approach never accomplished before; it’s that using flashbacks to tell this story gives these characters so much more dimension (and their respective arcs better shape) that I could’ve possibly imagined. Not to mention, the juxtaposition of certain scenes, like watching Beth’s miraculous recovery right before Beth’s tragic death, is just beautifully heartbreaking. And while I had my doubts, initially (as “ambiguous” and “meta” are not always words I enjoy when applied to endings), I quite like how this movie concludes. I love that Little Women never forgets Jo’s consistent antipathy towards marriage, and the more I learn about Louisa May Alcott, the more this ending really appeals to me.

The acting, too, is all-around spectacular. Amy is a much more interesting character in this version of the story, and I think Florence Pugh does an absolutely fantastic job. Her acting nod feels well-earned, and the same for Saoirse Ronan, who I think makes for a very compelling Jo. I quite like Emma Watson as Meg, too; considering she previously played both Hermione and Belle, Meg is the non-standard choice, and I’m kind of obsessed with it. I also like Eliza Scanlen as Beth, but I’ll admit, she’s probably the character that suffers most by comparison, if only because “Claire Danes,” “90’s,” and “ugly cry” are so inextricably linked in my head. You know who really gets me to ugly cry in this movie, though? Mr. Laurence, as played by a nearly unrecognizable Chris Cooper. Jesus Christ. I was bawling well before Beth even died because of this kindly motherfucker.

TBH, my only real problem with Little Women is that for a film which gives us a much more sympathetic Amy, I’m at least twice as mad about the whole “burning Jo’s book” scene. Partially because I’m slightly more inclined to forgive Kirsten Dunst purely on the basis of age, partially because Pugh’s Amy is much more deliberate, methodical, and smug about what she’s done, partially because Amy’s apology here feels so obviously forced and insincere . . . but mostly, I think, because there’s something about this new version that seems to especially condemn Jo’s fury, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’ll freely admit to carrying some personal baggage with “be the bigger person” arguments, but there are times when that message works for me: Jo not lashing out at Amy about Europe, for example, is one such occasion. But to expect Jo to forgive Amy in less than 24 hours, to show Jo’s righteous fury wholly and immediately redirected at herself after Amy’s near-death experience . . . you know, maybe it’s not that this version is any more cruel than the others. Maybe it’s just that in such a revisionist adaptation, I wish Greta Gerwig had updated this scene as well. Because the idea that you have to forgive your family, no matter what, simply because they’re your family . . . I think it’s an unhealthy message, and it’s my only real disappointment in what I think is otherwise a thoughtful and fantastic film.

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6 Responses to Triple Scoop Reviews: Shazam!, Joker, and Little Women

  1. Teacups says:

    I watched Shazam last week; it’s on Netflix here.

    I mostly liked it; the Big-with-superpowers gimmick really worked for me, as did Billy and Freddy’s friend chemistry. I loved the whole Star Wars: The Last Jedi plot with his mother. I was also impressed that they were empathetic to her circumstances when they didn’t have to be for the story to work, and portrayed the *way* she left Billy as the source of his problems, rather than the mere fact she had to put her kid into foster care ’cause she had no support and wasn’t coping.

    But yeah, the villain was not great. I do think cutting most of Mark Strong’s storyline in favour of giving more characterization to the Seven Sins would’ve helped a lot though, especially because Envy’s characterization is so necessary to the climax.

    Oh, on a side note, Fullmetal Alchemist (the manga and second anime adaptation, anyway – I haven’t seen the first adaptation) also has the seven deadly sins as the big bad’s minions, and they’re much more distinct and developed there.

    That is mildly disappointing to hear about Joaquin Phoenix; I vaguely like the dude, although I haven’t actually seen him in much and am more just pleased by his animal/environmental activism.

    The Little Women ending sounds interesting, primarily because I always kind of hated Jo’s ending in the book. I could’ve accepted her getting married, I guess – just not to a fatherly figure twice her age who lectures her for writing horror, while she moves back home and gives up on her dreams of writing and a career to be a den mother to a bunch of children instead.

    • I forgot to mention it, but I also liked how Billy’s story with his mom turned out. And when Billy is young Billy, I totally agree, I adore his bro chemistry with Freddy. From the very little I saw of The OC, I felt like Billy & Freddy had a fun Ryan & Seth vibe. (Which, heh, is kind of amusing, since Adam Brody played both Seth and “grown up” Freddy.) But IDK, Zachary Levi just didn’t seem like he was playing the same character that Asher Angel was, and since so much of Freddy and Billy’s conflict comes from how Billy acts when ZL plays him . . . it just didn’t land for me.

      Yeah, more characterization for Envy especially would probably have been a good idea. And I didn’t know this about Fullmetal Alchemist. I’ve never seen or read any version of it. I assume you enjoy? I must admit terrible ignorance in regards to most anime. And I know even less manga.

      I genuinely do think Joaquin Phoenix is a very talented actor. But man, any interview I’ve watched of him in the past ten years . . . yeesh, they’re uncomfortable. There’s a point when method acting just feels like it’s an excuse to be an asshole. Although I will say that I didn’t read or see anything about Joaquin Phoenix that came even close to how fucking creepy and completely unprofessional Jared Leto acted when he was playing Joker.

      Well, they’ve definitely made Professor Bhaer hotter in this one. If you end up seeing it, hope you enjoy!

      • Teacups says:

        Yeah, Fullmetal Alchemist is pretty great, although it takes a few episodes to pick up. I think the Seven Deadly Sins are in both versions, as I understand they’re basically identical up until a certain point – the first adaptation (the one I haven’t seen) caught up to the manga and had to start creating their own material, like Game Of Thrones did. Then the second one was made once the manga had finished and they could now adapt the whole story.

        I admittedly haven’t watched a lot of interviews of Phoenix either – I meant it when I said I “vaguely,” liked him. I think I might’ve seen a making of for Her, possibly, and that’d be it. Although yeah, as Joker douchebaggery goes, Leto puts this guy to shame; I even think walking away and taking a break sometimes would’ve been fine if he’d just cleared it with everyone first. Like “Hey guys, I’m really not feeling it. I can keep going, but I know I’ll be able to do better than if I take a break and get in the right headspace. I know it’ll cause a delay; so it depends whether you’re more focused on keeping us on schedule or getting the best performance possible. Either is fine.”

        • Agreed. It’s the storming off without communication that bothers me, not the need for break. Leto’s a whole other creepy ass ballgame.

          Also, I haven’t watched it yet, but I heard Joaquin Phoenix made a good speech criticizing the lack of diversity at the BAFTAs. So, that’s nice!

  2. I agree about SHAZZAM! and your commentary about JOKER hits everything that has kept me from watching it (and honestly, I feel no need or urgency to watch it, it doesn’t even feel like a plane movie to me — and I’ll watch almost anything on a plane).

    We are in a very different place on LITTLE WOMEN though, which makes me think I should see it again (probably on a plane).

    I’m so glad you — and I think everyone else — enjoyed it, but I honestly hated this adaptation, which is so disappointing because I wanted to like it so much. So many of the ideas that were interesting, but I felt they were held back in the execution (the casting in particular — or maybe it’s how the cast was directed, that’s hard for me to parse — didn’t work for me).

    In concept, I really liked: approaching the story non-linerally, giving adult Amy more motivation/ agency/ perspective, doing more to highlight Jo’s flaws, and blending the perception of Jo’s “real” life vs. the life of her character in her novel (the what’s real/fiction at the end was conceptually interesting). Laura Dern’s Marmie was also interesting: the talk about her anger was something I would have loved to have tapped into more (more Dern, less Streep would have been my preference). I do full agree that Chris Cooper was lovely.

    But for me, it didn’t come together. I found Ronan hard to get on board with — her Jo, I thought, was incredibly unsympathetic and even tedious; I really like the idea of bringing out her flaws (her ego and arrogance, her desire to be independent vs. her guilt/major FOMO, her anger, her ignorance of her privilege) but she wasn’t really asked to confront any of these things in a meaningful way, and the general execution just didn’t feel nuanced (whether Ronan’s interpretation or Gerwig’s direction or writing, I’m not sure).

    Chamelet was also dreadfully dull (lifeless, depressing, bored) as Laurie, which is a pity. When she rejected him, there was no regret, sadness, or what-if for me but instead “well obviously, you are both excruciating people, why would either of you want to be with the other.”

    While I really liked Pugh as older Amy (and I did like the idea of giving her a bit more motivation than we’ve had in other adaptations), I found the ask to believe her as childhood Amy to be a distracting and awkward choice (same with Beth — seeing the 20 year old Scanlen feeding her dolly didn’t make Beth seem innocent and sweet but rather developmentally delayed). That may be some of what gave that insincerity and *mean* quality to the childhood sequences, and I wonder if Amy’s arc would have been more believable/compelling if we did see her as a child doing childish things for childish reasons (rather than a full grown woman acting like a mean girl child).

    Also, I found the choice to “old-timey” the dialogue to be very cringey… it felt forced most of the time and left a lot of the actors sounding so stilted — as if they were young kids trying to Shakespeare. Would have been fine on the stage but was so awkward… half of Ronan’s scenes made me feel embarrassed for her 😦

    Sorry. A bit of a rant. I have strong feelings about it. :X

    • Yeah, I thought I remembered you saying on Facebook how much you didn’t like this movie. LOL, I get it; I’ve definitely been the person who hasn’t liked a wildly well-received film. It’s always frustrating because you’re genuinely happy other people are happy, like, you’d never wanna take that away from them, but also like, what? Why? HOW???? (Or perhaps that’s just me. 😀)

      I’d agree that I would liked to have seen another moment with Laura Dern where you really see that anger she speaks of, even if it’s just her visibly shoving it back down. I don’t actually think Meryl Streep overstayed her welcome, but I also wouldn’t have minded sacrificing a scene with her if that meant we got another one with Marmee. I do see what you mean about Amy and Beth, though it mostly didn’t bother me as much. I don’t actually remember the dolly scene, but I suspect if I had noticed, I would’ve cringed pretty hard at that, and not even because of the actress’s age but the character’s. Like, Beth is supposed to be a young teenager, isn’t she? I can give actors some leeway on how old they look, but that’s just a character moment I don’t buy. Amy’s age, meanwhile, only really bothers me in the scene where she burns Jo’s book. I suspect I would’ve held it against her much longer except A) I obviously knew this scene was coming, so it just wasn’t the same shocking betrayal I experienced in the 90’s, and B) Amy had already won me over with her “marriage is an economic proposition” speech, so ultimately, I just shook my fist at this scene, divorced it from the rest of Amy’s characterization, and moved on. (Not, BTW, a suggestion for what you or anyone else should do. Just what I found myself doing while watching the movie.)

      I was basically okay with Chamaelet as Laurie, probably because I had very few expectations of the character. I adored Laurie when I was little, but the older I’ve gotten, the more I remember him as a whiny little bastard, so . . . Chamalet’s performance did not feel off. Mostly, I was just excited that they built up his relationship with Amy because I found their getting together in the 90’s movie almost as confusing and distressing as Jo with Bhaer.

      Where we disagree most, I think, is Saoirse Ronan because I didn’t find her Jo particularly unlikable or unsympathetic at all. Except, I suppose, in the scene where she melts down after Bhaer’s blunt criticism. I definitely wanted to sit her down and be all, “Look, you can’t do that shit. This is how writing goes.” But it also seemed incredibly realistic for a young writer who’s probably never been told a day in her life that her work “needs work.” If Jo had stayed in New York, I would have expected an apology from her; since she pretty much immediately finds out her sister’s dying and takes off, I’m okay it’s not in the movie.

      I actually related much more to Jo here than I remember doing with Winona Ryder. (I might feel differently on a rewatch; it’s been, IDK, maybe 7, 8 years since I last saw the 90’s version? But as much as I really enjoy Winona Ryder in some things, I don’t know if I’ve ever fully bought her in a role that took place before the 1980’s.) Some of Ronan’s scenes, especially when she talks about marriage, really worked for me. I never would have called this Jo an excruciating person, so . . . I think that’s one of those places we’ll probably always be split on.

      If you do ever decide to try Little Women again, I hope you enjoy it more so that your plane ride is pleasant! Alternatively, you can throw the peanuts at their faces and get a very stern look from the flight attendant. 😀

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