SHAZAM! Earns The Exclamation Point

Being a hero is a choice, one that’s never too late to make and that never has to be made alone. That trinity of concepts is the beautiful and emotional throughline that holds together the light, breezy and fun Shazam!, taking this superheroic riff on Big and elevating it to a place that resonates on the same emotional and thematic frequency as Donner’s Superman, a movie as focused on the small humanity of heroism as the big superhumanity of it.

Based on one of the least cool DC characters, a character who was ingested into that universe in a business deal but who has never quite found his place in the pantheon (not for lack of trying or lack of quality comics), Shazam!opts to embrace everything that makes its source material so out of step. It’s a family movie, a funny movie, a loving movie, a hopeful movie, a movie whose hero earnestly says “Holy moly” a couple of times. Most of all it’s a kid’s movie, just as Shazam (or Captain Marvel as he seemingly cannot be legally called in this film) is a kid’s hero. And I don’t mean that in a dismissive or condescending way, but rather that the character represents the positive peak of the wish-fulfillment possibilities of the superhero genre.

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Now On Patreon: FIGHT CLUB Tried To Warn Us

This is a preview of a longer essay available to $10 and above Patrons at the CinemaSangha Patreon.

Fight Club was the “Bin Laden Determined To Strike In US” of this whole MAGA/Proud Boys/GamerGate/MRA/brocialist/dirtbag left moment, a warning cry from the last moments of the 20th century to the 21st, gone unheeded.

More than unheeded it went profoundly misunderstood; the very people it was warning us about took it to heart and saw it less a cautionary tale and more an instruction manual. Like the film’s Space Monkeys they flocked to the cult of Tyler Durden, unaware of his hollowness. It can be no coincidence that two of the most subversive movies of 1999 – Fight Club and The Matrix – spawned memes and trends that appeal to the most toxically masculine, despite neither film coming from the imagination of a cishet man. The Wachowskis, trans women, gave the alt-right and friends the idea of “Red Pilling,” and Chuck Pahlahniuk, gay man, gave the trolls Project Mayhem. We can never actually get to post-irony because we’re so fucking steeped in it.

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JURASSIC PARK Is About Social Media

Jurassic Park used to feel a little retrograde to me. Not in terms of FX, which still dazzle, or story, which remains a classically tight adventure tale, but in terms of the film’s underlying themes. Jurassic Park is a throwback to an older form of movie, the kind that reached peak popularity in the 50s – cautionary tales about science gone amok.

By the time Jurassic Park came out in 1994 we had largely stopped making films like that, and if we were making films like that they were about science in the wrong hands. The nuclear threat that had driven the 50s Atomic Horror films that give us the backbone of the Science Run Amok genre was over, and the environment, which had fueled a resurgence in Nature Run Amok movies, had been relegated to PSAs and polite charitable giving. No, by 1994 we were in the early stages of the home computer revolution and we were in the post-Cold War mood of an unlimited future. History had ended, and technology was going to usher us into a great new world. The dotcom boom waited just around the corner!

Within that mindset, and within the mindset of ‘new is good, tech progress is good’ that permeated our culture for the next 20 or so years, Ian Malcolm’s admonition felt downright old fashioned.

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should,” he said.

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CAPTAIN MARVEL Never Quite Takes Off

At some point in Captain Marvel it dawned on me: this movie is set in the 90s. Maybe it was when Carol Danvers stood in front of a wall plastered with posters for Smashing Pumpkins, Bush and PJ Harvey. Maybe it was when she wore a Nine Inch Nails shirt and Nick Fury told her the grunge look was good on her. Maybe it was when every song that played in the movie was a well-worn 90s track. Maybe it was when everybody sat around comically waiting for a CD-ROM to load. Maybe it was when Carol looked up info on Alta Vista. Maybe it was when the movie had a close-up of a record player playing Nevermind.

The movie’s brutal reliance on 90s references could be just an irritating tic, but I think it actually gets at the fundamental problem that lies under the surface of Captain Marvel – this is a movie more constructed than crafted, and those needle drops feel like part of the construction, a knowing attempt to get in on the ‘90s kid’ generation and their desire to have their own childhood chewed up and spit back into their faces. Big parts of this movie feel inorganic and airdropped in, and those big parts are especially frustrating because Captain Marvel is peppered with small moments of absolutely organic beauty and charm.

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An Era Ends: GAME OF THRONES and The MCU As The Last Giants

Entertainment history is going to look back at this time period as an era defined by longform serialized storytelling, with instalment-based stories conquering just about every narrative medium. Eventually this will end, not because serialized longform storytelling is bad but because all things fade away and change. Charles Dickens was telling stories in an environment like this one, just before the novel conquered all. And yet now the chapter has conquered the novel.

And yet when we look back at this period it’s going to be clear that there were two true standouts, two works that loom over all the others. Entertainment historians will argue about whether or not this period began with The Sopranos or with the interconnected nature of comic books, or with the endless storylines of soap operas, but I believe there will be a moment where it all peaked and that will be obvious. The two longform stories that dominate all others, and that define this very era, are Game of Thrones and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and neither will be replicable. Enjoy this moment while it lasts, because we’re at the summit.

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Global Warming Is Over! (If You Want It)

In 1968 John Lennon and Yoko Ono embarked on a multipronged peace protest, one that included their infamous bed-in and Give Peace A Chance. The centerpiece of the protest was a series of simple, text-only, black and white billboards that they put up in 12 cities around the world. The text read:

War Is Over! (If You Want It)
Merry Christmas From John And Yoko

Every Christmas/New Year Yoko Ono still takes out a full page ad with the “War Is Over! (If You Want It)” slogan. Every year people look at it and roll their eyes, not quite getting the profundity of the simple message:

It has to start with you.

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The Oscars Were The Perfect Summation Of 2018

For the first time in years the Academy Awards felt truly of the moment, from the contentious, ugly and mean campaign season through the whiplash-inducing good news/bad news awards that honored women and people of color AND tone deaf white dudes and Bryan Singer. This was 2018 all wrapped up and dropped onto the stage of the Kodak Theater, forever preserving the past year in the peculiar amber of an awards telecast.

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FaceTime Sucks, or, Beyond STAR TREK’s Controversial Holograms

I’m not writing about Star Trek Discovery week to week because I disapprove of approaching serialized shows that way, but something keeps bugging me. It’s about the hologram communication systems on the ship and whether or not they break canon, and how the show had Captain Pike handwave them away with one line this season. But more than that, it’s about how technology is used in science fiction.

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Zen Mind, Film Critic’s Mind

People say being a movie critic is difficult, but there is a misunderstanding as to why. It is not difficult because it is hard to sit in a dark movie theater and watch a movie, or to go home and write your opinions about that movie. It is difficult because it is hard to keep our mind pure and our criticism pure in its fundamental sense. Film criticism developed in many ways after the advent of the internet, but at the same time, it became more and more impure. But I do not want to talk about Rotten Tomatoes or the blurbing of random Twitter handles. I am interested in helping you keep your criticism from becoming impure.

Okay, I could keep going, rephrasing the first chapter of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, the Buddhist masterpiece by Shunryu Suzuki, to fit into a discussion of film criticism, but I don’t think anybody would get it. I will however keep lifting concepts and ideas from this seminal work, which is mostly about zazen – Zen meditation – but that is also about how to live and create with a beautiful clarity and fluidity by getting back to a beginner’s mind.

Which brings me to the films of John Carpenter.

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Make The Oscars Great Again

This year’s Academy Awards ceremony looks to be especially troubled, and it’s coming as no surprise. We’ve seen the writing on the wall as the Academy first toyed with doing a “Best Popular Film” category, and then through the mishigoss that has led to a year without a host. Then the Academy decided to do away with the tradition of last year’s winner announcing this year’s winner in the gender-opposite category, likely due to a fear of a repeat of the Casey Affleck situation. We also got word that the show would be presenting performances for only a couple of the Best Song nominees, kneecapping one of the more delightful (and often weird) parts of the night.

Now the Academy has come to the ‘insult to injury’ stage of it all, announcing that four categories will be presented during the commercial breaks. And they won’t be minor categories, at least not to film lovers – they include cinematography and editing. Editing, I shouldn’t have to tell you, is literally the foundational discipline of what makes cinema cinema. Without editing you don’t have the art of the movies. And without cinematography you have radio plays.

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