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Opening today at a theater near me:

AMAZING GRACE (Dirs. Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack, 2018) 


This Aretha Franklin concert film, finally released after 46 years of legal wrangling and technical issues, is even more glorious than I expected it to be.

I had more than an inkling of its wonder as I’ve heard the live recordings, released on the 1972 Grammy-winning album, Amazing Grace, many times, but actually seeing the Queen of Soul at the height of her power, performing her vocal gymnastics, backed by Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir is a mind-blowingly emotional experience for which I wasn’t quite prepared.

The audience I saw it with at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival a few weeks back definitely agreed as they acted like they were at a real live Franklin show. They rapturously applauded after every song, and sometimes even during songs when the passion of Franklin’s unbelievable belting was hard not to respond to with loud clapping.

The footage of the original real live Franklin show was shot by Sydney Pollack over two nights in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The shoot well wonderfully, as evidenced by the resulting we have here, but Pollack failed to use clapperboards, which assist in synching visuals with sound, so it took decades before the problem could be solved via digital technology.

Former Atlantic Records A&R man Alan Elliott, who bought the film rights in 2007, had the sound remastered, and, with editor Jeff Buchanan, cut this pleasing 90-minute concert movie out of 20 hours of raw footage.

Meanwhile, Franklin sued to block the film’s release multiple times for reasons that differ in just about everything you would read about the film but seem to all come down to money.

But all that background aside, the film, that was “produced and realized by” (that’s an actual credit) Elliot, is one of the most joyous musical movies I’ve ever seen. Above I’ve called this a concert film rather than a music documentary as it’s a straight-up collection of performances from two nights, with only the context of opening and ending sum-ups. In a documentary there would be interview segments, and explanations to things like how it is that Mick Jagger came to be in the back of the church, but in this live documentation, Jagger’s just there dancing along with the rest of the congregation.

Too many highlights to list here (just basically look at the song listing and see all the highlights listed), but I was particularly moved by the 29-year old Franklin’s take on Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” her leading the choir through the rousing AF gospel standard “Old Landmark” (this is the song that James Brown performs in THE BLUES BROTHERS with the same choir btw), and her sweet sequeing of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” into Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” All show-stopping stuff. 

Rev. Cleveland should be also be noted as he confidently conducts both evening’s programs and adds his baritone vocal throughout.

For me, AMAZING GRACE is already up there with such concert film classics as STOP MAKING SENSE, THE LAST WALTZ , and GIMME SHELTER. It’s a shame Franklin never made peace with the production before she passed last year, and that Pollack was never able to get the film together before he passed in 2007, and that it took almost half a century for it to see the light of day (or darkness of a movie theater), but it’s here now and it’s a glorious must see. Even if you’re not religious (I’m not), or don’t like gospel (I like some), it’s still powerful enough to make an atheist say “Amen.”

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Film Babble Blog by Daniel Cook Johnson - 2w ago

The fourth and final day at this year’s Full Frame may have been my favorite. That’s largely because of the Closing Night film, but I’ll get to that below. Here’s some takes on the films leading up to that. 

Avi Belkins’ MIKE WALLACE IS HERE started off my day. It’s yet another biodoc (not that I’m complaining – I love biodocs) of a famous figure told through the testimonials of family, friends, and admirers, and a large supply of footage, video, and photos. This time, legendary broadcaster Mike Wallace gets the treatment and we are taken through six decades of the man’s work, taking us beyond his best known work as the co-host on 60 Minutes.

I was unaware that Wallace, before he became one of the most feared TV journalists, had been an actor, a game and variety show host, and a commercial spokesman for many products including Parliament Cigarettes, something that came back to haunt him. I also didn’t know about the mid ‘50s late night interview show, Night Beat, which, from the clips shown here, looks like a ginormous influence on every hard-hitting interview shows.

I enjoyed all the bits from the many famous interviews he conducted throughout his career, the most notable being Salvador Dalí, Eleanor Roosevelt, Barbara Streisand, Malcolm X, the Ayatollah Khomeini (!), and the eight U.S. Presidents he interviewed from J.F.K. to Bill Clinton – there’s even a snippet of a piece with a young Donald Trump, who says he’s not going into politics.

I would’ve liked Belkins to have gone deeper into Wallace’s suicidal dark period, touched on THE INSIDER, Michael Mann’s 1999 film about a controversial 60 Minutes segment on a tobacco industry whistleblower (Wallace wasn’t happy with how he was portrayed), and maybe a little something about his son, Fox News Anchor Chris Wallace, who is only mentioned in passing. Nevertheless, it’s a fine primer to the life of a television icon with a lot of choice cuts from his illustrious career. I can’t really say it’s another RBG or WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD, but there should still be an audience out there for it.

Following that was Kenny Dalsheimer’s YOU GAVE ME A SONG: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF ALICE GERRARD, a portrait (yep, another biodoc) of the Durham-based folk singer Alice Gerrard. 


The lovingly crafted film takes us through the multi-instrumentalist’s history and love of traditional music largely through interviews with Gerrard, her family, a score of fellow musicians, and mostly photos as precious little footage exists from her early years.

Gerrard’s marriages to Jeremy Foster and Mike Seeger (both musicians) are explored, but it’s partnership with Hazel Dickens, who performed with her in the Black Creek Buddies, that is focused on the most. The duo battled sexism, and injustice while carrying the folk/country/bluegrass torch forward. In the ‘80s, Gerarrd extolled the values of her musical loves by becoming the editor-in-chief of The Old Time Herald, a magazine devoted to trad tunes. 

YOU GAVE ME A SONG is a touching tribute to an extremely talented lady, whose name, and music I’ve heard often but never knew her background. It’s as insightful as it is a toe-tapper, but more importantly it’s a film festival crowd pleaser. Even if you don’t like this kind of music, it’s must see. 

Finally, the Closing Night Film that I mentioned above was Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack’s AMAZING GRACE, about Aretha Franklin’s legendary performance at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles in January 1972. More a straight-up concert film than a probing doc, the movie is even more glorious than I had expected. 

Since the film will be released in my area next week, I’ll wait until then to post a review, so I’ll just leave you with the trailer right now. Watch it and I bet you’ll want to see it. If you don’t, I’ll just assume you don’t possess two ears and a heart. 

AMAZING GRACE - Official Trailer - Aretha Franklin Concert Film - YouTube

So that’s Full Frame 2019. I had a great time and saw some great docs. Of course, I always do at this Festival – that’s why I have gone every year for over a decade. I’m already looking forward to next year.
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Film Babble Blog by Daniel Cook Johnson - 2w ago

There’s a lot to cover from my third day at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival this year so let’s get right to them. These entries are more blurb-y than usual because it’s a long roster, and I’m exhausted from the onslaught of docs.

First up, David Hambridge’s KIFARU, which concerns James Mwenda & Joseph ‘JoJo’ Wachira, two Kenyan rhino caretakers, and one of their herd, Sudan, the last male northern white rhino in the world. 


At first KIFARU was killing me as it was drawn out and had a skimpy storyline mainly involving watching James and JoJo walk around with rhinos, but a compelling narrative forms, and I really began to feel for the 45-year old Sedan.

James tells us that when Sedan was born, “thousands of northern white rhinos roamed Africa,” but “violent wars and intense poaching drove these rhinos towards extinction.” Later in the film he concludes that “extinction is the definition of human extremes of greed.” But as heartbreaking at Sudan’s death as the caretakers and the audience, there is a silver lining in that the rhino’s DNA can be used by scientists to possibly clone the species. KIFARU may have moments that make it the saddest doc I’ve seen at this year’s festival but it’s also among the most endearing. 

Following that was François Verster and Simon Wood’s SCENES FROM A DRY CITY, a 12 and half minute short about the water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa. Massive drought hit the region in 2015, and continued in the years since forcing residents to pay for very limited quantities or seek elsewhere for water. But this fine film is more about imagery than information as gives us stirring shots of people struggling to find water by even dancing with flags to make it rain, bleak landscapes with dried up lakes, and police trying to enforce water regulations. 

Alexander Glustrom’s MOSSVILLE: WHEN GREAT TREES FALL, which came next, is about the town of Mossville, Louisiana, a community founded by former slaves that is threatened by a high concentration of industrial plants and their toxic emissions. 


One resident, Stacey Ryan, refuses to pack up and move from his house which is in the way of a large factory’s expansion. “Welcome to beautiful downtown Mossville – population: one,” Ryan sarcastically says at one point.

While security from the South African-based chemical company Sasol that’s creeping closer to his property harass him, Ryan also has to deal with sickness, no doubt caused by the chemical exposure from the nearby plant. Many moments in MOSSVILLE are rich with poignancy as residents lament about the history of their area, but overall it’s an angering portrait of how uncaring corporations can cause fence-line communities to crumble. Another devastating doc in a festival full of them. 

Stanley Nelson, who directed the day’s last film, MILES DAVIS: THE BIRTH OF THE COOL, is no stranger to Full Frame, having had several of his docs, including JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLES TEMPLE, THE FREEDOM RIDERS, and THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF A REVOLOUTION, screen at the festival over the years (Nelson also won Full Frame’s Tribute Award in 2012).

Nelson’s latest is a musical biodoc of the jazz legend Miles Davis, which by its title made me think it was specifically about Davis’ work in the ‘50s as there was a compilation covering that period by the same name, Birth of the Cool. But, no, it’s a career overview that traces Davis’ history from his birth in Alton, Illinois in 1926 to his death in Santa Monica in 1991, via scores of engrossing performance footage, little seen photos, and testimonials by folks like Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter,

This material is decorated by narration provided by actor Carl Lumbly reading in a familiar rasp from transcripts of 55 hours of Davis interviews. There are also intriguing bits of studio outtakes from such as the master trumpeter’s iconic work, Kind of Blue. The film doesn’t shy away from Davis’ darkness - his drug use, and spousal abuse * are touched upon as much as his jazz innovations.

From the ‘40s bebop era to his electric period of the ‘70s, which was highlighted by one of his most successful albums, Bitch’s Brew, this doc provides a non flashy straight forward portrait of Davis for the uninitiated. It may be too formulaic a doc for the hardcore, but I bet even they will dig some of the rare treats within.

* Davis’ first wife, Frances Taylor Davis, one of the most touching interview subjects here, sadly passed away late last year.

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Film Babble Blog by Daniel Cook Johnson - 2w ago

The second day at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was really rainy this year. One or more days during the event usually are stormy obviously because of the time of year, and I’m sure that I’ve made this observation before, but I’m not gonna Google myself to see. I’m going to just jump right into the films I saw at the Carolina Theatre and the Durham Convention Center on Day Two.

First up, Mike Attie’s MOMENT TO MOMENT, a 14-minute short about Carl Duzen and Susan Jewett, a long-married couple who first met as teachers – he was a physics teacher; she taught art. 


In 2014, Duzen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and one way he deals with it is to take apart old electronics to get to the copper within. Duzen then delivers it to his wife, who then makes art out of the twisted rolls of the red-brown metal.

The short has its share of sad moments like when Susan says of her husband’s dementia, “It’s pretty awful, and especially for a man I married especially for his mind,” but it has a good bit of happiness in it to as we watch the couple dance, reminisce about their first date, and open an exhibit entitled “Carl Duzen: Copper. Denying Dementia Its Due.” Of course, it has to end on a sad note but it’s also a poetic one that I’m sure will stay with me. 

Next up, Cameron Mullenneaux’s EXIT MUSIC about 28-year old Ethan Rice, who we are told up front was born with cystic fibrosis, an incurable genetic disease that leads to severe lung damage and eventually respiratory failure. Rice, who lives with his family in Upstate New York, is a talented, appropriately cynical artist who composes music on his electric guitar and makes really cool-looking stop motion movies with his toys – excerpts of which are shown throughout the doc. Rice’s dad is a Vietnam vet with PTSD, who speaks about his family’s disease prone history. It’s not as depressing as it sounds, but, yeah, it is pretty depressing.

While EXIT MUSIC often plays like a sloppily stitched together collection of home movies, it builds to its inevitable conclusion with purpose. You probably guessed that Ethan is no longer with us, but from all the work we get glimpses of, it looks like he made the most of his time here. Seriously, those stop motion clips are awesome – the stuff he did with toy soldiers is so much cooler than the likewise toy soldier stuff in last year’s floptacular, WELCOME TO MARZEN.

One of my most anticipated docs of the fest followed, Janice Engel’s RAISE HELL: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS, about the late, great legendary Texan columnist, humorist, and political commentator who certainly had quite the mouth on her.
  

The outspoken liberal scribe, who when working for the Minneapolis Tribune became the first woman police reporter in the city, was a hilarious woman with a very quick wit and there’s lots of it on display here from interviews she did on C-Span (lots of C-Span here), Late Night with David Letterman, The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, and a number of speaking engagements. The woman’s work was often controversial and got her a lot of hate mail, but she appeared not to care or be scared. That also seemed to be her reaction to being diagnosed with cancer in 2000. During this period she wrote or co-wrote a a handful of well received books including two scathing books about her nemesis, George W. (“Dubya”) Bush.

RAISE HELL is a delightfully biting biodoc about a woman whose voice probably resonates now more than it did when she was alive (she passed at age 62 in 2007). My only disappointment with the film is that Ms. Ivins wasn’t there to come out for a Q & A at the end. 

I knew she had to be popular, but I didn’t know how much of a rock star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is to Full Frame’s largely liberal audience before seeing the opening of Rachel Lears’ KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE. We see Ocasio-Cortez putting on makeup before going onstage at an event, and the crowd around went crazy and applauded. She hadn’t even said anything yet. Anyway, the film follows the 2018 congressional campaigns of New York’s Ocasio-Cortez, and three other progressive female candidates – Missouri’s Cori Bush, Nevada’s Amy Vilela and West Virginia’s Paula Jean Swearengin.

This poli-doc is very entertaining and has an undeniably inspirational spirit, but it’s a bit fluffy and can feel like reality TV at times. It’s so packed with the passion of these driven women that I’m going to let those quibbles slide. As expected, Ocasio-Cortez gets the bulk of screen-time, but the shit-kicking Vilela gets to steal the show a few times with such comments as “We’re coming out of the belly of the beast kicking and screaming!”

Finally, I ended Day Two with Penny Lane’s HAIL SATAN?, which is obviously about Satanism – the Satanic Temple particularly and their ongoing fight for separation of church and state. 


The Church’s co-founder Lucien Greaves is the dominant voice here telling us about the religion’s mission – all very informative to me as I was unaware that the Satanic Temple existed (it founded in 2013 so I can be forgiven for not being up to date), and that there was any kind of movement.

One amusing thread (they’re all pretty amusing) in this film involves the Satanic Temple’s attempts to erect a statue of the horned demon Baphomet on Oklahoma and Arkansas state grounds. As you can see from the picture above, they succeeded. While the doc is very funny with a lot of lines that land, director Lane (NUTS, OUR NIXON), obviously gets where these people are coming from and gets us there too. She gives us enough insight into the ideology that when one of her interview subjects says, “As a Satanist, I believe that confronting injustice is an expression of my satanic faith,” it doesn’t come across as ironic at all.

Coming soon: Full Frame 2019 Days Three & Four. Also check out Day One if you haven't already.

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Film Babble Blog by Daniel Cook Johnson - 3w ago

It’s that time of year again. That’s right, once again it’s time for The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, four days of non-fiction fun in Durham, N.C., at the Carolina Theatre and the Durham Convention Center. Now, since I’ve been covering Full Frame for Film Babble Blog for over a decade, I feel like I’ve said it all before in these intros to my mini-reviews of the docs I saw daily. Like, for instance, using phrases like “non-fiction fun,” or mentions of the weather – it was nice today, not that that mattered to the hundreds of people watching films indoors – and, of course, the use of pictures just like that one above.

So let’s get right to the helpings of primo infotainment (yes, I’ve used that phrase before too) that I indulged in on Day One: 

First up, Jethro Waters’ F/11 AND BE THERE, which is one of those docs whose subject, in this case photojournalist Burk Uzzle (a Raleigh native!), is someone I didn’t think I knew anything about, but while watching it I realize that I’m well familiar with the man’s work. You see, Uzzle shot the iconic image of the blanket-clad hippy couple which graced the cover of the soundtrack album for the Woodstock film in 1969, his photo coverage of Martin Luther King’s funeral contains many recognizable photos, and many of his pictures depicting Cambodian war refugees in the late ‘70s that I’ve seen in many a magazine over the years.

Tons of Uzzle’s eye-popping pictures, beautifully augment his life tales, with animations by Cable Hardin filling in the spaces in his stories in which there are no photos or footage of, like a great, gripping anecdote about covering a KKK rally. Almost as gorgeous as Uzzle's photography is Water's cinematography which crisply captures his subject at work, whether in his studio or out on the road. F11 AND BE THERE (a camera setting, and a quote about being at the right place at the right time) is striking biodoc that will likely give folks insights into many famous pictures that they’ve seen before, but never thought about who or what was behind them. 

Next up. Bill Haney’s JIM ALLISON: BREAKTHROUGH, another biodoc of a great guy behind the scenes. That would be Noble prize-winning immunologist Texan Jim Allison, who with his long grey hair and scraggly beard is a Jerry Garcia-ish looking scientist. Since his mother died from lymphoma, and his brother from prostate cancer, Dr. Allison has long been obsessed with curing cancer, and this film shows him getting damn close. But his struggles with getting funding from pharmaceutical companies get in the way.

In this informative film which is narrated by Woody Harrelson, we also see another side of Dr. Allison as a blues-loving harmonica player who makes friends with Willie Nelson, and even plays with him at the Austin City Limits Festival in 2016. But mostly we learn, via dark animation, about the T cell receptor, which fights cancer cells, and other infected cells, in order to help the body to fight these diseases. Dr. Allison is an inspiring figure, and now he’s got an inspiring film portrait to boot. 

The next doc, Heddy Honigmann’s BUDDY, is less heavy than the previous film yet it deals with some emotional material. It concerns the world of service dogs – you know, dogs that are trained to help people with disabilities – and follows six different individuals who have been paired with smart, capable canines that they repeatedly say that they can’t live without.

So the cast is made up of Mister and his human Trevor, an Afghanistan veteran, who Mister helps get through flashbacks; Makker and his human, Edith, whose blindness is aided immensely by Makker; Utah, and his human, the young autistic Zeb, who plays with Utah from behind a comforter; Missy and her also blind human Hans, who loves Missy more than anybody he knows; Kay and her human Annebel, who are inseparable; and Kaiko, and her wheelchair-bound human, Erna, who we watch in awe as Kaiko pulls off her socks by command.

BUDDY may be a bit formless, and disjointed, but it’s such a touching crowd pleaser that folks will look right past that, and into the eyes of these talented and devoted guide dogs. There are too many amusing, and touching scenes to pick a favorite but the one that shows one of the dogs retrieving a piece of paper from a printer, and taking it, by mouth, of course, to their respective human is definitely up there.

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Opening tonight at a multiplex near you:

SHAZAM! (Dir. David F. Sandberg, 2019)


Despite having watched the ‘70s Saturday morning TV series, Shazam!, when I was a kid, I knew very little about the character. I learned when CAPTAIN MARVEL came out last month that DC and Marvel both had characters by that name. But now, I found out that DC’s version was the first, having debuted in 1940 as a competitor to Superman which led to multiple legal battles.

Marvel obtained the copyright to the name and started putting out comics in 1967 featuring a very different incarnation of Captain Marvel than DC’s. DC licensed the character in the early ‘70s, but they couldn’t use the name as it was trade marked by Marvel so the superhero became Shazam! Got it? I think I finally do.

So here’s SHAZAM!, which is the seventh movie in the DC Extended Universe, and one of the better entries in the franchise. That’s because it’s largely a light-hearted, and often hilarious comic book adaptation with a likable cast and a spirit that more resembles Marvel’s SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING or KICK-ASS than any other of the mostly dark (WONDER WOMAN is an exception) DC film fare.

The film concerns a 14-year old runaway named Billy Batson (Asher Angel) who is searching Philadelphia for his long-lost mother. After getting in trouble with the law for stealing a police car, Billy is taken to a foster home where he meets Freddie Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a nerdy, wise-cracking paraplegic, who immediately becomes his best friend. 

Through a freak occurrence when riding the subway, Billy is transported to some dark ancient temple (called the Rock of Eternity) where a mystical wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who asks Billy to put his hands on his staff in order to transfer power to him.

Bill becomes an adult superhero (Zachary Levi, best known as the lead in the 2007-2011 NBC series Chuck) in red tights, a white cape, and a yellow lightning bolt on his chest. Screenwriter Henry Gayden gets a lot of mileage out of the levity of Levi’s talking and acting like a teenager as he learns what powers what powers he has in a farcical sequence set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” (because of course it is) in a one of several sequences that make the move come off like BIG meets The Greatest American Hero.

The villain here is the marvelously sinister Mark Strong (also the villain in KICKASS and SHERLOCK HOLMES) as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, who visited the Rock of Eternity in the film’s ‘70s set epilogue. Sivana, whose baldness can't help but recall Superman's nemesis Lex Luther, wants Shazam’s powers so the second half of the movie involves a power struggle between the two climaxing in an epic, yet overlong, showdown at an amusement park.

There’s a lot of fun to be had with SHAZAM!, but there are a lot of origin story tropes that have become tiresome even with the amusing banter between Levi and Grazer, and what’s with there seemingly always being a convenience store robbery in these movies for our hero to thwart?

But overall I enjoyed Director Sandberg's (the filmmaker behind LIGHTS OUT and ANNABELLE: CREATION funnily enough) SHAZAM! a lot more than CAPTAIN MARVEL, though I doubt it’ll come anywhere near the $1 billion than that movie has made so far. It’s an understatement to say that the output of the DC Extended Universe has been a mixed bag, but with attempts to explore different, more comical tones like this, they might just get their shit together after all.
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Film Babble Blog by Daniel Cook Johnson - 3w ago
Opening tonight at a multiplex near you:

SHAZAM! (Dir. David F. Sandberg, 2019)


Despite having watched the ‘70s Saturday morning TV series, Shazam!, when I was a kid, I knew very little about the character. I learned when CAPTAIN MARVEL came out last month that DC and Marvel both had characters by that name. But now, I found out that DC’s version was the first, having debuted in 1940 as a competitor to Superman which led to multiple legal battles.

Marvel obtained the copyright to the name and started putting out comics in 1967 featuring a very different incarnation of Captain Marvel than DC’s. DC licensed the character in the early ‘70s, but they couldn’t use the name as it was trade marked by Marvel so the superhero became Shazam! Got it? I think I finally do.

So here’s SHAZAM!, which is the seventh movie in the DC Extended Universe, and one of the better entries in the franchise. That’s because it’s largely a light-hearted, and often hilarious comic book adaptation with a likable cast and a spirit that more resembles Marvel’s SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING or KICK-ASS than any other of the mostly dark (WONDER WOMAN is an exception) DC film fare.

The film concerns a 14-year old runaway named Billy Batson (Asher Angel) who is searching Philadelphia for his long-lost mother. After getting in trouble with the law for stealing a police car, Billy is taken to a foster home where he meets Freddie Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a nerdy, wise-cracking paraplegic, who immediately becomes his best friend.

Through a freak occurrence when riding the subway, Billy is transported to some dark ancient temple (called the Rock of Eternity) where a mystical wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who asks Billy to put his hands on his staff in order to transfer power to him.

Bill becomes an adult superhero (Zachary Levi, best known as the lead in the 2007-2011 NBC series Chuck) in red tights, a white cape, and a yellow lightning bolt on his chest. Screenwriter Henry Gayden gets a lot of mileage out of the levity of Levi’s talking and acting like a teenager as he learns what powers what powers he has in a farcical sequence set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” (because of course it is) in a one of several sequences that make the move come off like BIG meets The Greatest American Hero.

The villain here is the marvelously sinister Mark Strong (also the villain in KICKASS and SHERLOCK HOLMES) as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, who visited the Rock of Eternity in the film’s ‘70s set epilogue. Sivana, whose baldness can't help but recall Superman's nemesis Lex Luther, wants Shazam’s powers so the second half of the movie involves a power struggle between the two climaxing in an epic, yet overlong, showdown at an amusement park.

There’s a lot of fun to be had with SHAZAM!, but there are a lot of origin story tropes that have become tiresome even with the amusing banter between Levi and Grazer, and what’s with there seemingly always being a convenience store robbery in these movies for our hero to thwart?

But overall I enjoyed Director Sandberg's (the filmmaker behind LIGHTS OUT and ANNABELLE: CREATION funnily enough) SHAZAM! a lot more than CAPTAIN MARVEL, though I doubt it’ll come anywhere near the $1 billion than that movie has made so far. It’s an understatement to say that the output of the DC Extended Universe has been a mixed bag, but with attempts to explore different, more comical tones like this, they might just get their shit together after all.


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Now playing everywhere:

(Dirs. Anna Boden & Ryan K. Fleck, 2018) 


The 21st movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe introduces a new character, Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. Actually, a new old character as she’s been around for 50 years, so she’s new to the MCU, and new to me. I’ve, of course, heard of Captain Marvel, but didn’t know about her back story, or powers, or, well, anything really.

But I’ve been here before. Whenever they put out a new movie featuring characters I wasn’t previously familiar with, I head to Wikipedia and learn the basics so I at least have an inkling of understanding going in.

In this origin story, we are introduced to the lead character played by Brie Larson as Vers, a member of Starforce (that’s Starforce, not Spaceforce) on the planet, Hala, which is inhabited by the alien race, Kree. We also meet Vers’ mentor, Yon Rogg (Jude Law) who is training her to fight the shape-shifting, green-skinned Skrulls, who have been endlessly warring with the Kree.

Larson’s Vers, who is plagued with visions involving Annette Bening as Supreme Intelligence (that’s her actual character name, well, one of her character names here), gets captured by the Skrulls, and escapes in a pod that crash lands in 1995 Los Angeles (through the roof of Blockbuster Video, mind you). From here on out, the movie’s soundtrack is all ‘90s hits – Nirvana’s “Come as You Are,” Salt-N-Pepa’s “Whatta Man,” Elastica’s “Connection,” Garbage’s “Only Happy When It Rains,” etc. (Larson even wears a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt at one point).

Soon after, S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and Phillip J. Coulson (Clark Gregg), show up on the scene, both digitally de-aged (there’s always gotta be some digital de-aging in these flicks, you know?). Then there is simultaneously a foot chase on the LA Metro, a car chase, and a bunch of furious fist fights. Fury and Vers team up to, you know, save the world from an alien threat, the twist being that the ones we thought were the good guys may not be. Not that that is much of a twist.

Danvers and Fury find one of her old friends, fellow fighter pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), who joins them on the adventure, and Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), who turns out to be not so bad, also comes along for the ride – oh, and to save his fellow Skrulls. Oh, and the McGuffin is once again the Tesseract (it’s been in around half of these Marvel movies), a cosmic, blue-glowing cube that can control matter and energy.

Vers begins to figure out something that most moviegoers will figure out right off that bat – she was an Airforce fighter pilot named Carol Danvers (the “Vers” come from her dogtag getting fractured in a plane crash that gave her her powers (I’m not going to explain anything more than that).

It’s a zippy adventure that fun to watch, even if you can pretty much guess everything right before it happens. The one element I didn’t expect was a cat named Goose who totally steals the show. 


The cat stows away on the military plane that Danvers and Fury commandeered, and even follows them up into space. That’s where we learn that Goose isn’t a cat, he’s a Flerkin, which are alien creatures that resemble ordinary earth cats except when they shoot masses of tentacles out of their mouths, or swallow whole objects or people.

Goose could be seen as an update of Jonesy from ALIEN - think orange cat on a spaceship – but if Jonesy could annihilate hoards of attackers. Now, Jackson is always really funny, but I’m not sure he’s ever been as funny as he is here talking cute and lovey to Goose.

I like Larson quite a bit, and think she won the Oscar for ROOM for good reason. She puts in a solidly stoical performance in the title role here, but sometimes I felt maybe she was taking it all a bit too seriously. No matter, the character still works despite than when I squint she looks like Supergirl. The plot is no great shakes, story beats can be seen way in advance, and some of the MCU tropes seem a little stale, but it’s still a fun superhero movie with enough cleverness to keep most entertained.

The audience I was in for this film were with it big-time because the regular roster of MCU characters that fill in the margins of the studio logo was replaced with a montage of images of Stan Lee’s many cameos throughout the franchise. It got big applause – the first time I’ve seen a logo get that kind of response. Of course, there was also his obligatory cameo later in the film (he had shot a bunch of cameos for upcoming films before he passed last November).

Except for Goose the Flerkin, CAPTAIN MARVEL is, at best, spectacularly adequate. That still means, like most Marvel movies, it’s well worth the price of ticket. Just make sure that, like always, you stay for the end credits stingers. But, of course, you know that; everybody knows that.

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Film Babble Blog by Daniel Cook Johnson - 2M ago
“I mean every time somebody's driving somebody, I lose. But they changed the seating arrangement!” – Spike Lee


I haven't gone back through all my Oscar scores over the years, but I'm pretty sure that this was my worst score ever. I got 13 out of 24, which is pathetic. I underestimated BLACK PANTHER (3 Oscars!), thought GREEN BOOK would only win one Academy Award® - Mahershala Ali. Ali did win, but the film also got Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, and the big one, BEST PICTURE, which shocked me and I bet a lot of folks since just about every list of predictions I saw had ROMA winning.

Anyway, here's the ones I got wrong:

1. BEST PICTURE: GREEN BOOK (I picked ROMA) 

4. BEST ACTRESS: Olivia Colman for THE FAVOURITE (I had gone with Glenn Close for THE WIFE) This was a shocker.

7. PRODUCTION DESIGN: BLACK PANTHER (my prediction was THE FAVOURITE)

9. COSTUME DESIGN: BLACK PANTHER (just like the last category I had THE FAVOURITE down for this - sigh) 

10. DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: FREE SOLO (I really thought RBG had this in the bag) 

11. DOCUMENTARY SHORT: BLACK SHEEP (wrong) PERIOD, END OF SENTENCE

12. FILM EDITING: BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (why did I think VICE would win this? I really can't remember)

15. ORIGINAL SCORE: BLACK PANTHER (IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK really felt like the no brainer for this category, but BLACK PANTHER-mania cancelled it out I guess) 

19. SOUND EDITING: BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (FIRST MAN didn't have a chance one can see in retrospect)

21. ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: GREEN BOOK (another shocker - THE FAVOURITE seemed so much to be a  shoo-in.)

24. BEST FOREIGN FILM: ROMA (I didn't pick ROMA here because I thought it was going to win BEST PICTURE. COLD WAR, which I enjoyed much more than ROMA, looked to me like a surefire winner, but like just about every category this year I was way off.)

Okay, that's enough Oscars '19 for now (or ever). With hope, I'll do a lot better next year.

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Yep, here we area again. The 91st Academy Awards® Ceremony is coming up this Sunday night, so, as I always do on the Friday beforehand, here's my predictions for who and what will win. Now, I have a feeling I'll do worse than last year when I got 17 out of the 24 categories right (my best score was in 2014: 21 out of 24), but we'll see. I just have the feeling that this year may be more full of upsets than any other Oscar race in recent memory.

Anyway, here are my picks/guesses:

1. BEST PICTURE: ROMA

2. BEST DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuarón

3. BEST ACTOR: Rami Malek for BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

4. BEST ACTRESS: Glenn Close for THE WIFE

5. BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mahershala Ali for GREEN BOOK

6. BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Regina King for IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

7. PRODUCTION DESIGN: THE FAVOURITE (Fiona Crombie)

8. CINEMATOGRAPHY: ROMA (Alfonso Cuarón)

9. COSTUME DESIGN: THE FAVOURITE (Sandy Powell)

10. DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: RBG

11. DOCUMENTARY SHORT: BLACK SHEEP

12. FILM EDITING: VICE (Hank Corwin)

13. MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING: VICE (Greg Cannom,  Kate Biscoe,  Patricia Dehaney)

14. VISUAL EFFECTS: FIRST MAN (Paul Lambert, Ian Hunter,  Tristan Myles, J.D. Schwalm)

15. ORIGINAL SCORE: IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (Nicholas Britell)

16. ORIGINAL SONG: “Shallow” from A STAR IS BORN

17. ANIMATED SHORT: BAO

18. LIVE ACTION SHORT: SKIN

19. SOUND EDITING: FIRST MAN (Ai-Ling Lee, Mildred Iatrou)

20. SOUND MIXING: BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (Paul Massey, Tim Cavagin, John Casali)

21. ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: THE FAVOURITE (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara)

22. ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: BLACKKKLANSMAN (Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee)

23. ANIMATED FEATURE FILM: SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

24. BEST FOREIGN FILM: COLD WAR

As I always say, tune in Monday to see how many I got wrong.
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