By Marc S. Sanders

Black Adam has to be the first superhero movie that apologizes for the mind numbingly stupid two hours you just endured, by offering up an enticing ninety second end credits scene.  That’s all that this headache inducing piece of noise has going for it; the end credit scene.  The film is so headache inducing that I’d rather be serenaded with a duet performance of a car alarm and a leaf blower singing a rendition of a song I’ve always despised, like Red, Red Wine.

About twenty minutes into Dwayne Johnson’s debut into the DC Cinematic Universe, as the title character, I reflected on Raiders Of The Lost Ark from 1981.  Remember when the government suits ask Indiana Jones about the significance of the Ark Of The Covenant?  It took three minutes to sum up what was at stake, what the hero was going after and who he was expected to be up against.  That’s it.  After that, the piece was constructed to offer up one kind of stunt or action sequence or visual effect after another.  The difference is that everything you saw served its story and thus carried on the pursuit. How I long for the days of intelligent writing.

Black Adam tries at least three times over the course of two hours to explain brainless conjecture about an ancient city where its inhabitants dig for some powerful element, called Eternium, at the behest of their harsh ruler.  Then there’s something about a crown and a slave boy who comes into play.  Later, I think his father is mentioned, but I was nodding off by then.  I’m only mad at myself for focusing more on inhaling the contents of my popcorn bucket rather than getting invested in a movie.  My mission was no longer to maintain an interest in this big budget comic book tripe.  Now, I was destined to get to the bottom of my overly priced snack food container.  This is not why I go to the movies, people!

When the movie is not talking (which hardly ever happens), it is pounding at my cranium with horrible CGI dust clouds and lightning bolts that offer up blindingly, irritating sights and bombastic sounds.  My eyes hurt.  My ears hurt.  Light a firecracker, drop it in a tuba and blow.  It’s likely more soothing to the senses.  For surround sound, turn on your garbage disposal with your car keys in it.  It’ll all be much more harmonious and pleasant. 

What little I know of Black Adam is limited to a scant few comic book images.  Long before I knew of Dwayne Johnson, it seemed inevitable that only this guy could play the part.  It’s an uncanny resemblance.  No one else can play this role.  The supporting cast is promising, especially a sophisticated and well-aged Pierce Brosnan as the one with sorcerer like powers.  His Dr. Fate is maybe DC’s equivalent to Marvel’s Dr. Strange.  Aldis Hodge is Hawkman, and he looks absolutely confident in the guise with outspread bird wings and a kick ass helmet and spiked ball on a staff for a personal weapon.  A guy named Noah Centineo is the Atom Smasher.  He’s cute enough to fill the void for Ezra Miller when he eventually gets fired from his cushy gig as the Flash.

So, I don’t get it.  Warner Bros and DC assemble a terrifically talented cast who not only look good in the costumes, but can act with timing as well. Yet, they give them nothing to do but be digitized in terrible CGI that makes the Hanna Barbera Superfriends cartoons look like breakthrough technology.  Everything looks terribly animated in Black Adam, and therefore it’s as boring as a church sermon that won’t end because the minister is overindulging in chastising you for cheating on your diet.  Johnson on the big screen flying up to the top of a towering monument looks ridiculous, like an ¾ inch action figure next to a life size kitchen refrigerator.  I’m supposed to believe that’s Dwayne Johnson up there?  Probably because Johnson was not in the image, or if he was there, he had no concept what he was supposed to be looking at.  Captions like this happen multiple times here, but they are all devoid of emotion or depth.  The statue itself looks unfinished by the effects wizards.  There’s hardly any detail to it. What’s it supposed to signify?  I completely bought it when Christopher Reeve flew against the skyscrapers of Metropolis way back when.  In today’s age of films, this movie takes about a hundred steps back in progress.  Everything looks artificial.  Nothing looks convincing.

Black Adam is also unsure of a well contained story.  I’ll take no issue with the movie being episodic if that’s what its intention was meant to be.  First the main character is fighting a military that stems from I don’t know what organization or country.  They fire rockets and machine guns at him.  Does nothing.  So, what do I care?  Then he’s fighting the other super heroes in the picture.  They pound each other into the desert streets and dust clouds heighten into the earth.  What’s to be gained from any of that? Black Adam then fights a gang that looks no more threatening than a lame motorcycle posse.  Eventually, he’s battling some kind of CGI devil monster who needs a cough drop.  This guy mustn’t sit on the throne located at the top peak over the city.  If he does, all hell breaks loose and blah, blah, blah.  This is like watching a lame CW TV series crammed into two long tortuous hours.  How does this movie go from here to there and then over there and end up wherever?  I gave up trying to string it all together.

It’s ridiculous how dumb Black Adam is, especially when you consider how much thought went into a ninety second epilogue teaser before you leave the theatre.  I’m sorry but I expect these filmmakers and studios who harbor these big budgets and hype to work on the same level of imagination and craft as a Steven Spielberg or a Christopher Nolan.  Nolan reinvented the Batman franchise.  He took his time to flesh out character motivation while painting a scenery for his own flavor of Gotham City.  Marvel did this as well when Jon Favreau was wise enough to follow a Spielbergian trajectory with the original Iron Man.  Kevin Feige often has not broken the formula since, because it succeeds.  Black Adam neglects all of these techniques.  Its lack of any quality is traitorous towards its consumers.

I don’t recall a conversation among the characters that lasts longer than four sentences.  By the end of the film, I’m not sure if Black Adam is a bad guy or a good guy.  I don’t know what was resolved to tie up the picture.  I don’t know when the turning point occurred, and Black Adam got an upper hand over anyone he does battle with.  Actually, he’s never challenged or weakened.  So, where’s the suspense?  What stakes are at play?

Black Adam functions as an eight-year-old kid in his room with his toy action figures.  They crash into another and the child makes a “pshoosh!” sound with his duck face lips.  I expect eight-year-olds to just enjoy their play things.  They don’t have to focus on exposition for themselves or anyone else.  Let them escape.  However, I didn’t pay to watch an eight-year-old play on the floor with his toys. 

The failure of this movie is inexcusable.  It angers me that filmmakers with unlimited resources and a wealth of source material are not trying harder like some of their industry peers.  It’s unfair to movie goers to pay for junk primarily assembled on a Dell computer with a wireless mouse.  Coloring books have more texture than this finished product.

Black Adam is a treachery in any context of the word, filmmaking.  It’s not art.  It’s not fun.  It’s nothing more than shit turned white.  It’s not fresh shit.  It’s worse.  It’s rotten shit.


By Marc S. Sanders

I’ve always been a little hot and cold with Tim Burton’s films.  They are beautifully constructed in set and costume design, always well cast with exceptional talent and composer Danny Elfman’s music accompanies perfectly with Burton’s wide collection of social misfits and altogether celebrated weird material.  Still, more often than not, I leave Burton’s movies feeling less fulfilled than I want. Tim Burton’s one sequel film to date, Batman Returns, is one such example. 

To commemorate the annual Batman Day, I opted to watch Burton’s return to the murkiest of comic book locales, Gotham City, where Michael Keaton reprised the role of billionaire Bruce Wayne who dons the costume of The Dark Knight.  This time the villains of the week are the grotesque Penguin (Danny DeVito) and the sexy, dominatrix like Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). 

Penguin resurfaces from the sewers of Gotham 33 years after his parents abandoned him as an infant, depositing him into the city reservoir in a bassinet to be raised by…you guessed it…penguins.  (Schools of penguins reside in the city sewers???? I guess it’s better than rats.)  Nerdy and mousy Selina Kyle is raised from the dead by the gnawing and licking of random alley cats to take on a warrior persona for Catwoman.  How exactly a feline resurrection works in either myth or science is never explored.  I guess I just have to go with it.  The manipulator behind these villains’ actions is a wealthy industrialist named Max Shreck, portrayed by Christopher Walken.  I was never sure of his stake here.  I’m only supposed to understand that he’s unlikable on the surface and he is not good for Gotham. 

I love all these actors.  I love them in these roles.  I do not love the script doled out for them though, which serves none of them well.

Batman Returns is best when the Batmobile or the Bat Glider is on screen.  They are awesome pieces of hardware to see in action as much as any tripped-up James Bond vehicle.  However, these are props.  They don’t speak, or laugh, or cry, or get angry.  Therefore, they don’t drive or develop a story.  When Luke Skywalker pilots an X-Wing Fighter, I care about the pilot.  The pilot speaks for the vehicle.  Batman doesn’t speak for the Batmobile. 

It’s ironic that the title character has only one sentence of dialogue in the first 30 minutes of this two-hour film.  There’s no dynamic to Batman or Bruce Wayne.  Keaton looks great sitting by his fireplace in deep thought or watching his television as the bat signal beams upon him.  He stands, and then when we see him next, he’s sitting in his bat car in full horned head regalia.  Otherwise, the Batman character is a prop to be used for scapegoat tactics by Penguin, Schreck and Catwoman, or he’s present to hurl a bat gadget, or throw a stiff-arm punch.  He doesn’t even do much of that stuff, anyway.  In Batman Returns, I learn nothing new about Batman or Bruce Wayne or his crusade to protect Gotham City.

Keaton shares one good scene in the film with Michelle Pfeiffer. It may be the one scene with a story to it as the two are dressed down from their comic book evening wear to dance slowly at a masquerade Christmas ball where they gradually realize who they are when they are not with one another.  Of course, we know this should be so obvious, yet a rule of thumb for comic book literature is not to realize what’s right under your nose.  A nice touch to this scene is having Keaton and Pfeiffer be the only guests not wearing a mask while everyone else is.  Batman and Catwoman have in fact dressed up as someone else for the costume party.  Very ironic and almost clever.

Too much material is given to Walken as the conniving Max Shreck.  Walken performs well, but just like his Bond bad guy in A View To A Kill, he belongs in a different movie.  The Schreck character lends nothing to this Batman adventure.  Who’s interested in this guy?  McDonalds and the other merchandising companies could even see how unattractive this character is.  So, why couldn’t Tim Burton or his writers and producers?  I’ll pay you a gazillion dollars for your rare, never manufactured Max Schreck action figure.  Yet, the bland script from Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm arguably provides the most dialogue to this guy.  You’ve got Batman, Penguin, Catwoman, even Alfred the butler and Commissioner Gordon, and yet this grey-haired guy with a wolf like pompadour in a bland, black business suit is hijacking a Batman movie.  Makes no sense.  Much of Batman Returns is made with cutting room floor material taped together featuring an unwanted Christopher Walken.

Who else is better to play The Penguin than Danny DeVito?  No one!  So, it is disappointing when the squat actor has nothing to do.  A seemingly inspired storyline from the campy Adam West TV series, and maybe a handful of comics, have him running for Mayor of Gotham.  A good start, but then the script does nothing remotely interesting with it, even though this stuff sells itself.  Where’s the political jokes to parallel the campaign? Where’s the ridiculous podium debates?  Imagine Penguin kissing little old ladies and holding babies while on a campaign trail.  None of that happens here.  You have outstanding talent from DeVito and yet all he’s left to do is ride around in a duck boat, spit out black and green sludge goo, and scream frustrations in a groggy, ear-piercing bellow on more than a couple of occasions. Unlike Jack Nicholson before him, DeVito is abandoned to play scenes with no dialogue while he chomps on raw fish or screams for the sake of screaming. 

An error in judgement was layering the actor in ugly makeup and unattractive costume wear.  Usually, DeVito is seen wearing a stained and damp white footy pajama suit with black dental pieces and very black eyeshadow on a whited out facial texture with a giant hook nose.  This is Danny DeVito.  He already looks like The Penguin.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!  The only charming accessories are his top hat and his collection of umbrellas (shooting fire or bullets or flicking out knives) that serve as exclamation points on dialogue when a jokey punchline could not be considered with even just a smidgen of effort from the writers.  The umbrellas were more expressive than the guy operating them, and yet even they were hardly used in any action scenes.

Batman Returns has some sloppy scene cuts as well.  A scene will appear with Catwoman skipping through a store, then it’ll jump to Batman punching out a few circus clowns, then the two meeting up on a rooftop somehow.  Why, where and how did this all happen?  The math doesn’t add up.  Penguin will somehow appear within this stitchery too.  For what reason?  Three movies are happening here and none of them are communicating with one another.

Films like the original Batman, or Edward Scissorhands or even Pee Wee’s Big Adventure carry the weirdo trademark of Tim Burton.  I know what I’m getting when I turn on almost any one of his films.  (Ed Wood being the surprising, and pleasing biographical exception.)  These are gorgeous, macabre films to look at, whether they are dimly lit or staged in deliberately bright and gaudy rainbow colors.  Yet, there are often scenes or moments that lack that hook that carries you from the exposition to the acclimation I normally get from the universe on screen before my eyes.  Batman Returns especially lacks that transition. 

Because the film looks so good, it is not the worst of the Dark Knight’s many films.  Yet, it is an uninspired and disappointing piece.  Any film with such storied and legendary characters as these is going to be a big letdown if they are given nothing to do.  Why, oh why, did they give almost all of the lines to the boring guy in the business suit?  If I wanted to entertain myself with an accountant, all I needed to do was sit in the lobby of an H & R Block.


By Marc S. Sanders

Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie is one of the best biographical films of a fictional character ever made.  Yes.  It absolutely is a biography.  How can you call it anything but?  The visitor from the planet Krypton is embedded so deeply within the lexicon of worldwide pop culture and historical significance that he rests within all of our subconsciousness.   When we think of ongoing problems in the world from natural disasters to destructive wars or famines and disease, or to even kittens stuck in trees, for a split second we all consider how simple we could go on with our lives if only Superman were here to rescue us. 

By 1978, forty years after Joel Siegel and Joe Shuster created the character, visual effects were at a more than adequate level to convince us that a man could fly. Thus, the man with the red cape was ready to appear on the big screen.  With creative input from writer Mario Puzo, Donner’s film goes through various stages of life from when the extra terrestrial is a new born baby, to a toddler, then a teenager and on to a thirty something adult.  While living on the planet Earth, his powers may make him virtually invincible, but he’s far from godlike.  He cannot prevent the unforgiving nature of death.  He can’t be everywhere all at once.  He can’t even perform on the same level as his colleagues or friends, who are skillfully beneath him.  It would be unfair to have Clark Kent on your football team.

To watch Superman is to see a mini-series over a span of nearly two and a half hours.  We begin on the white crystal planet of Krypton featuring one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century, Marlon Brando, cast as the father of the superhero to be.  Brando is Jor-El.  He serves the planet as a prosecutor and a political leader with an expertise in science.  He’s championed for his knowledge, but he’s also challenged by his peers when he is certain of his planet’s demise. Thus, he must release his newborn son, known as Kal-El, into the far reaches of space to survive.  The script here takes an almost Shakespearian approach in debates of facing inevitability.  Brando’s authoritative screen presence is perfect here. 

Kal-El moves on to Earth, particularly Smallville, Kansas, and the nature of the film changes personality.  1950s Americana becomes our main character’s environment with endless plains of crop fields and farm land as Kal-El becomes identified as Clark Kent, the teenager who develops a crush on the high school cheerleader and gets bullied in the process while he must deliberately withhold all that he’s capable of by influence from his adoptive parents (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter).  Life for any of us is never complete until we experience the death of a loved one and Donner showcases that here to demonstrate that Kal-El/Clark can not prevent what’s meant to happen when biologically our bodies shut down.  Not even a super man can save us. 

Clark reaches age 18, usually perceived by most as a turning point into adulthood and through a means of Krytonian process he’s educated until his thirtieth birthday upon the rules and boundaries he must function within while on Earth.  He learns of his ancestry and then Donner changes the setting of his film once again into the furthest extreme from quaint Smallville. 

We have transitioned to sprawling Metropolis where Clark works as a mild-mannered reporter at The Daily Planet.  Christopher Reeve plays Clark/Superman and there was no one who could have filled the role better.  Physically, Reeve is the example by which all super human character portrayals still look towards.  Yet, the Julliard trained actor performs the dual personality so well.  When he dons Clark’s glasses you feel as if you are looking at another actor from when he’s dressed in the blue and red costume of Superman.  His posture and voice inflections are so distant from each character he’s playing.  Christopher Reeve was a stellar actor of versatility. 

In Metropolis, we are also introduced to an impure villain, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, who never got enough praise for this role) focused on greed and individual power for him to consume at the expense of everyone else on Earth. 

As well, just as life must bring us towards the experience of loss, it also must introduce us to love in the form of Lois Lane. Margot Kidder does a magnificent job of the hustle and bustle career woman with a sense of romance and need for ongoing adventure.  A reporter’s life will only give you that some of the time.  Superman will let you live that every day.  In life, we all start with valuing one person in our lives beyond our immediate family, and Lois serves that purpose to Clark’s perspective. 

Donner takes advantage of comedy and slapstick when Metropolis comes into play.  It’s not as polished as Krypton.  Nor is it as calm and reserved as Smallville.  Again, the personality changes.  Reeve plays Clark as a persona of the inept and gullible newcomer nerd to hide his powerful alter ego.  Hackman’s Lex is accompanied by Ned Beatty as a bumbling sidekick to play off of. (This same actor was a frighteningly powerful and intimidating corporate CEO in Network just a few years prior!) Valerie Perrine holds her own against Hackman as Lex’ alluring dame to have a tete a tete of sarcasm with. Kidder is the leader of Metropolis’ populace always on the go so much that she’s not even aware of her insensitivity to poor Clark.  A great gag is that as a good as a reporter as she is, Lois has terrible skills in spelling.  (There’s only one p in ‘rapist’.)

Maybe you’ve never seen Superman from 1978, or maybe it’s been too long since you last took it in.  It remains a watch that’s worthwhile.  Donner’s film covers so much of this one individual’s life that also includes two separate ancestries.  I get hot and cold on biographical films, sometimes.  It’s a tough scale to measure.  Sometimes filmmakers don’t show you enough.  I thought the film Ray, ended too suddenly on its depiction of Ray Charles.  Sometimes, it’s an overabundance of material.  The Last Emperor and Chariots Of Fire seemed to never end, and became mired in long, drawn-out, sleep-inducing pieces of dialogue.  Superman allows just the right amount of time to live within these different parts of Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman’s life that you get familiar with who the main character encounters and how he responds to those around him. You also witness how these environments respond back to him.  You get a sense of what he stands for and where he feels insufficient and where feels strong and secure, as well as valued by others. 

It might be crazy to believe, but biographical writers and filmmakers should turn towards Richard Donner’s film for an outline that perfectly establishes every scene and moment that’s cut into its mold.  Superman: The Movie?  When I want to tell the life story of Golda Meir, or Barack Obama or Joseph Stalin or Jesus Christ?  Yes, Superman.  If we are crazy enough to follow the exploits of a man who wears a cape and flies through the sky, then why can’t we believe he can provide the answers to the great mysteries of life better than any of us?


By Marc S. Sanders

Another year at the movies, means another trip to see Batman on the big screen.  I think we are close to a dozen iterations, no?  Fortunately, the latest reinvention for March 2022, The Batman, is a refreshing interpretation that focuses on the detective skills of the masked vigilante hero who prowls from the rooftops of Gotham City.  Matt Reeves has written and directed a gripping and engaging film that doesn’t rely on simple paint by numbers.  He’s capitalized on using the mysterious Riddler (Paul Dano) as the main villain here, and Batman’s (Robert Pattinson) brains get more exercise than his brawn.   

It is the second year since Batman has introduced himself to the crime ridden city.  The man behind the mask, Bruce Wayne, keeps a journal of his exploits and observations, and through voiceover he questions if his actions have benefitted since it appears that crime has only increased since his first appearance.  A serial killer is taking responsibility for the grisly deaths of important people within the city and he’s leaving greeting cards for “The Batman” with a common scribble of “No More Lies,” along with a “?,” and a riddle for The Batman to solve.  Thanks to a strong partnership with Police Lt. Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), Batman is given easy access to the crime scenes so he can attempt to reveal the mysterious villain and determine exactly what his endgame is. The Riddler doesn’t make it easy, though.

Mobsters like the Penguin (Colin Farrell) and Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) have a grip on the city, as well.  There’s also a possible lead from a woman (Zoe Kravitz) who’s managed to infiltrate the gangsters’ underground headquarters.  She also has the fighting skills and agility that’s comparable to the caped crusader, and maybe she’s a cat burglar as well.  Still, is she pertinent to Batman’s investigation or not?

It’s better not to spoil anything that occurs in Reeves’ film.  The mysteries that are uncovered are part of the fun, and it does take some time and exposition to get there, but I found it worth it.  Barring a few ingredients within the film that I recognized from the Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton films, the picture is worth seeing for a new formula on a character, that although is a favorite of mine, I feel has also been done to death on the big and small screens.  This is a Batman film where I appreciate the thinking approach of its craft, over the action.  When Batman is playing detective with Jim Gordon, it is much more enticing than just another Batmobile chase or another ham-handed fist fight.  This film is a test of Batman’s mental capacity and ability for analysis.

Reeves direction is also appreciated, though I’m expecting the naysayers.  The Batman is a very dark motion picture.  When it’s not dark, the photography is dim and blurred.  There’s lots of rain and dimly lit streets and garages.  There are strobe lit nightclubs.  Windows are blurred, so sometimes you can’t make out the image in front of you.  He makes the viewer work for the focus and that kept me alert.  I believe Matt Reeves was attempting to give the viewer the literal point of view of the characters.  It will not be a surprise, however, to find some movie watchers lose patience with the technique. 

The Riddler especially is most mysterious with a twisted and inspired Zodiac killer approach.  Often, Matt Reeves’ film feels especially reminiscent of David Fincher’s Seven.  I would not be surprised if Reeves wrote his script as a cop/detective story, and then added the Batman flavor to make his final draft.  This is not a picture of grand special effects or superpowers and gadgets. 

It’s definitely not the Batman film that everyone wants.  I foresee the response being very divisive.  Nonetheless, if you’re a Batman devotee like me who grew up on the character in the macabre storied comics (as well as the hammy tongue in cheek material), you’re going to be thankful for this “at last” interpretation.  I’ll definitely be seeing it again.

NOTE: The Batman is not a film for children under age 13. I truly believe that. There are disturbing images and threats within the story, and the violence depicted or left to the imagination is not for celebratory effect and amusement. This is definitely a film for mature audiences. Do not presume it’s meant for all ages based on its misleading marketing approach with companies like Legos and Little Caesars pizza.


By Marc S. Sanders

Batman: The Animated Series from Warner Bros was a hallmark in telling more mature stories that could still appeal to kids, but adults as well for the superhero genre. Due to the show’s success, following the release of Tim Burton’s successful live action films, the animated series spun off a film of its own for the theatrical medium, and it works.

Subtitled Mask Of The Phantasm, Batman finds himself to be the blame for some vigilante murders of high-ranking mobsters in Gotham City. Turns out there’s another shadowy caped figure causing the mayhem.

At the same time, Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) is reunited with an old flame (Dana Delany) who has returned. Their history is told in flashbacks, and it could pertain to the appearance of this Phantasm. The Joker (Mark Hamill) is causing interference as well.

The animators and writers for Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm take their film completely seriously. From a story perspective, there are plot developments at stake along with the colorful cast of characters. Batman especially looks great as does his cave, Batmobile, Bat Cycle and Bat Plane. The Art Deco settings of Gotham City’s skyscrapers, and broad angles that enhance the vastness of the city are completely immersive. The voices work too.

The movie certainly ranks better than the Joel Schumacher Batman films, and at least just as good as Tim Burton’s second effort with the Caped Crusader, Batman Returns.

Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm is a great adventure steeped in mystery and big surprises. I really liked it.

JOKER (2019)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beets
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 68%

PLOT: In early-‘80s Gotham City, mentally-troubled comedian Arthur Fleck, disregarded and mistreated by society, embarks on a bloody downward spiral of crime and social revolution.

Most comic book movies, by default, require at least a little pre-existing knowledge of the universe inhabited by these characters, in order for the stories to make sense.  There are precious few exceptions.  Batman Begins (2005) is one.  Superman (1978) is another.  And now we have Joker, an origin story like no other, presented to the viewer as if no previous Batman movies existed, as if the Joker was a creature as new and original as Hannibal Lecter was nearly thirty years ago.  (Or, dare I say, Travis Bickle, over FORTY years ago…)

It’s incredible, if not impossible, to believe this film was directed by a man (Todd Phillips) whose most famous movies to date have been the Hangover trilogy and Old School.  There is nothing in this gritty psycho-drama that bears any resemblance to anything Phillips has directed before.

And I haven’t even mentioned Joaquin Phoenix’s performance yet.  More on that later.

The story: Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is an everyman, your average nobody, living in Gotham City in the early ‘80s, a time of garbage strikes, graffiti-riddled subways, and a porno theater on every downtown corner.  He lives with his invalid mother and pays the bills as a clown-for-hire, doing everything from entertaining bedridden children to sandwich-boarding on the street.  His real dream is to be a stand-up comedian and appear on a late-night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), whom he idolizes like a long-lost father.

(The similarities of this plot point to The King of Comedy [1983] have been well-documented and need not be explored here; that would require a whole separate article.)

So far, this is really heavy material, a real downer.  But then the screenplay strikes gold.  It turns out Arthur suffers from an unsettling, but very real, affliction, although it’s never quite named in the film: Pathological Laughter or Crying (PLC). Also known as the pseudobulbar effect, it is a neurological condition defined by episodes of uncontrolled laughter or crying.  People with PLC often laugh out loud or cry for no apparent reason.

In other words, Arthur simply bursts out laughing for no reason, and often, as we’ll see, at the most inopportune or inappropriate moments.

To me, this was genius.  It gives a legitimate grounding for the Joker’s iconic laugh.  What would normally be comic-bookish or hammy in previous incarnations becomes a little sad.  I felt empathy towards this guy whenever his affliction overcame him, especially in the scene on the bus when he’s amusing a little kid by pulling goofy faces, and the kid’s mom tells him to stop bothering her child, and he starts laughing despite his obvious disappointment.  The empathy for me came when I could see through the laughter, could see Arthur’s face contorting with genuine sadness and misery even as he guffawed helplessly.  It was touching.

The real turning point of the movie comes when he is accosted by three drunken yuppies on a subway, and he starts laughing uncontrollably, and the yuppies start beating him up…but they don’t know about the gun he’s carrying for protection.

But that’s enough of the plot.  I think I’ve described only the parts of it that you might have guessed anyway from the trailers.  The sensationally well-told story, not to mention the complexity of the story itself, is only one half of the movie’s greatness.

The other half, it must be said, is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance.  The trailers don’t do it justice.  A lot of the performance has to do with his tortured facial expressions when he has a laughing fit.  There are a couple of extraordinarily long shots where Arthur SHOULD be crying, but is instead laughing, and his agony is evident.  He WANTS to cry properly, but he can’t.  I don’t know how he pulled it off, but you can see both emotions on his face at the same time.  It’s a masterstroke.

Another remarkable factor at work in his performance is his subtle nods to previous Jokers in movies, and even TV.  If you watch really carefully, you’ll notice a quick reference to Mark Hamill’s celebrated voice work as the Joker in the Batman animated series and films; Cesar Romero’s eccentric dance moves from the ‘60s television series; and Heath Ledger’s hair.  (If there’s a reference to Nicholson, I must have missed it.)  I just thought it was a brilliant touch to bring in all of those influences and incorporate them into this newest incarnation, as if to acknowledge the pop-culture roots of this character, while still breaking new ground.

Joker is the comic-book movie for people who don’t like comic-book movies (even Deadpool).  It’s The Dark Knight crossed with Se7en and Taxi Driver.  It’s utterly unlike any comic-book movie I’ve ever seen, and I doubt anyone will ever be able to make another one like it without comparing it to this one.

SHAZAM! (2019)

By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: David F. Sandberg
Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 91% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Fourteen-year-old Billy Batson’s life is changed forever when he is tapped to be the recipient of all the powers of a god by an aging wizard.

What’s that, you say?  The trailers for Shazam! look like something that should have gone straight to video?  Looks kinda stupid?  Like something along the lines of 2011’s abysmal Green Lantern crossed with Sky High?

Well, you’re not wrong in terms of the trailer.  However, like all the best trailers, it only shows you what it WANTS to show you, and keeps the best stuff hidden until you pay your admission fee.  And what the trailers DON’T show you is the heart, appeal, and just plain fun of Shazam!  It’s the DC Extended Universe’s answer to Guardians of the Galaxy.

Plug the director’s name, David F. Sandberg, into IMDb, and you discover that his biggest credits to date are the Lights Out movie (a one-trick horror pony) and Annabelle: Creation, unseen by me, but which intuition tells me was not exactly a superhero movie.  So he would not seem to be the ideal candidate to helm a movie that tries to bring some constantly-requested fun into DC’s dark universe of films.  But whatever Sandberg learned on those other movies was worth learning, because he has created a comic-book movie that’s just about as much fun as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  Like someone remade Big where the little kid turns into Superman instead of Tom Hanks.

The beginning of the film is pretty standard comic-book stuff.  The origins of a key character, background on young Billy Batson (played by Asher Angel, a young actor who is the spitting image of Arya Stark on Game of Thrones, has anyone seen the two of them in the same room together, just saying), and his introduction into a foster home unique in the world of comic-book films, at least to my knowledge.  Billy’s new foster home is a melting pot of cultures, from Asian to (I think) Samoan, with siblings ranging in age from about 9 to 18.  There was something kinda cool about it, but not distracting.  Just…unique.

When Billy miraculously gains his powers (in a scene that is distinctly Potter-esque, what with wizards, lightning bolts, and orphans), one of his foster siblings, Freddy, becomes his manager, owing to the fact that he’s an expert on superheroes, particularly Superman and Batman, although he can also be seen wearing a t-shirt with the Atlantean logo on it…nice touch.   The scenes where Freddy and Billy attempt to determine the extent of Billy’s new powers are worth the price of admission.  And they have a certain logic.  If a bullet shot from a gun bounces off your brand-new super-suit, AND your body has completely transformed, how do you know if your HEAD is bulletproof or not?  Speaking for myself, I’d just use my super-speed and get out of the way, but that’s not really definitive enough for our heroes.

Anyway.  The movie uses a lot of comedy and just enough super-villainy to get us through the story without bogging us down in the deep dark psyche of the villain.  And it builds to one of the most inspired climaxes I’ve seen in a comic book movie in a really long time.  I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say this: just remember that throne room.

Don’t let the kitschy nature of the trailers scare you away.  This is a great, FUN movie.

AQUAMAN (2018)

By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: James Wan
Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 63%

PLOT: Arthur Curry learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and be a hero to the world.

Take the best parts of Tron: Legacy, Tomb Raider, and Disney’s animated Atlantis, and you’ll get an idea of how much fun Aquaman is.  For some people, saying it’s one of the best of the films set in the DC Universe isn’t saying much (peep that mediocre Tomatometer score), but speaking as someone who thoroughly enjoyed Justice League and Man of Steel and Wonder Woman, I had LOADS of fun watching an aquatic Dr. Doolittle kick some serious ass.

Admittedly, some of the underwater scenes are a little tricky.  It’s hard to take some of the weighty dialogue seriously when the people doing the talking are floating instead of standing, with their hair moving around like seaweed.  It’s the kind of thing that works great in animated movies or comic books, but to see it onscreen…it takes a little getting used to.

Once you get past that initial hurdle, though, this movie really cooks.  Jason Momoa was the best possible choice to make the much-maligned Aquaman character relatable to mass audiences.  He may not have the cocky delivery of a Robert Downey Jr. or a Chris Pratt, but he throws a mean glare, and, bro, dude is CHISELED.  When THIS guy emits sonar waves to talk to whales, it’s not a joke.  Hell, I wouldn’t laugh at a guy who looks like that.  “You talkin’ to fish?  Ping away, Muscles!”

The story is as ancient as Atlantis itself.  Arthur Curry returns to the land of his lineage to reclaim his birthright, but first he must overcome several trials before he can emerge triumphant.  Ho hum, been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.  But this movie really dresses it up and dazzles us with phenomenal sights.  Atlantis itself looks like someone mashed up Pandora from Avatar with the digital cityscapes in Tron: Legacy.  The various fight and battle scenes are handled extremely well, balancing clarity with incredibly elaborate CG fireworks.

(It was also nice to see one of Aquaman’s nemeses, Black Manta, rendered in a way that was EXTREMELY faithful to the source material, big head and big eyes included.  Of the actor portraying him, let it be said he was extremely adequate to the task, without really transcending the role he was given.)

Whatever gripes people may have, I would imagine it’s with being tired of overblown superhero movies, or the relatively few story gaps in the movie. (How did they get out of the desert?  How did Black Manta contact the Atlanteans in the first place?  If this is a sequel to Justice League, why are there no appearances or mention of the other members whatsoever?)  I can understand those gripes, but for me, the spectacle and the fun cancelled them out.

It’s not a perfect superhero movie; I wouldn’t quite rank it with the best Marvel films. But I gotta be honest: I had a blast.


By Marc S. Sanders

The next installment in the DC Cinematic Universe takes place in the ocean. Too bad the ocean is just too murky. James Wan’s Aquaman is muddied in long, boring, unsurrendering exposition and CGI. It is a film based on the most famous of all the undersea super heroes who is destined to be King of Atlantis. HE’S HALF MAN! HE’S HALF FISH! HE’S AQUAMAN, AND HE MUST BE KING!!!! That’s about all we should have to know to appreciate the storytelling of this film. However, Wan left me guessing just what the hell everyone was talking about for most of the film. King Orm (boring Patrick Wilson) declares takeover of this kingdom and take over of that kingdom and I’m like what, who, how, why???? Who the hell is he talking about? Why is this a threat? What will this mean for everyone? Shut up! Stop talking! Show me something! In the immortal words of Syndrome (from a better super hero film), “Stop Monolouging!!!!”

The first problem is when we are brought from one ocean floor to another and another and another and they all have location names like Kingdom of the Starfish Curtain or Dwelling of the Stingray Horse or some such thing. So what? These locales are literally shown for no more seven seconds before it moves to another location. This isn’t Krypton or the Batcave. We get to go to “Somewhere In The Atlantic Ocean” or “Somewhere In The Indian Ocean,” but so???? And????? Wan seems too proud to uncover these geographical areas that hold no measure.

Then there is the cast of characters. We got Dolph Lungren with a red beard, Willem Dafoe with a slicked back ponytail, Amber Heard beautiful as the love interest Mera, Nicole Kidman with her alabaster skin looking angelic as a queen and mother to Arthur Curry (the Aquaman title character) and Patrick Wilson, blond, white and curiously looking like the Hanna Barbera Aquaman during the days of Super Friends. Wilson is the big bad here and he’s kind of boring, kind of not intimidating, kind of the guy who looks too innocent to ever be cast as a villain in any film.

Let’s go off subject for a moment, shall we? Jason Momoa is the best thing about Aquaman and he makes a great Aquaman. I knew that when I saw him in the role in last year’s Justice League (a much better film; yes the Joss Whedon cut). Momoa is ripped, muscled and tattooed perfectly with long flowing charcoal hair, a perfect beard and sparkling blue eyes. This guy looks great on land while downing full pints of beer with his dad, or under CGI water. As I became less and less interested as the movie went on, I found it curious that the image of Momoa’s Aquaman is destined to defeat the image of Patrick Wilson’s (supposedly) ruthless King Orm, also known as Ocean Master. It’s as if the gorgeous motorcycle dude is meant to erase the much maligned (see countless GIFs and a couple of Big Bang Theory episodes) Hanna Barbera blond boy image.

The CGI does its best. After all, how else do you film a movie that primarily takes place under the ocean? It’s colorful. The effort is there. What I took issue with was the great battles between all these kingdoms. I couldn’t tell who was fighting who, who was with who, and who lived and who died, not to mention how they fight. Was it with spears? Laser guns? Swords? Hammers? Pies? What?????? I know these are underwater battles, but why can’t any of these great kingdom of kingdoms movies learn from the best like Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films or Ridley Scott’s Gladiator? There is something more literal in those grand battles. You could always recognize who was charging at whom. In Aquaman, it’s mass hysteria, riots in the ocean streets.

The villain Black Manta is next best thing after Momoa. Played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Unfortunately, he’s not given much to do. He’s out for revenge against Aquaman. That’s been done before. What saves the character is the costume and helmet. Now this is a villain!!!!! He looks badass with red sonic blasts shooting out of his eyes and he’s agile; the filmmakers at least got the image and movements of this guy right. The best scene of the film takes place on land in what looks to be the Greek Isles. Lots of rooftop jumping, statue shattering, and wall breaking with good fisticuffs are in play here between Momoa and Abdul-Mateen. It’s a good long scene. Then, oh yeah, we gotta go back to Wilson and Dafoe talking about something somewhere that’s labeled with some “legendary” location amid some coral.

James Wan and the writers of Aquaman try too hard. There’s too much going on here that doesn’t belong. I don’t know how a pre teen kid nor an adult could sit through these boring conversations of fiction that is unfamiliar to many. Again, none of this is the stuff of legend like Lord Of The Rings, or Krypton, or Gotham City, or even Star Wars or Star Trek. If only Wan and crew didn’t elevate the importance of things that even they show are just not that important. Stick with the simplicity guys. At least, you got the Atlanteans riding Sea Horses. Nice touch, there!


By Marc S. Sanders

It’s important to understand first and foremost, Todd Phillips’ film Joker is really not a Batman story, a comic book story or even the derivative of a Batman comic book story.

Consider the Martin Scorsese pictures Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy. Both films focus on two different characters descending into a variation of psychological madness. Yet the the titles of each film are pretty random, generic almost. Joaquin Phoenix plays wannabe comedian Arthur Fleck (to my knowledge never a DC comics character before this film) and this latest release from Warner Bros is billed as the origin of the Joker. Nevertheless, other than calling the setting Gotham City and having a billionaire character named Thomas Wayne with a son named Bruce, there is nary any calling to the mythos that fans are so familiar with. Why not just present this film with a title called “The Comedian” for example and run with it? Calling it Joker feels like a shameless cash grab. This is not a Batman villain tale, folks.

Joaquin Phoenix is astonishing in the lead role. He’s in every scene of the film and the method to own the character of Fleck is shown both physically and mentally. The known method actor must have lost at least 75 pounds to show weird, stretching contortions that easily shown his rib cage and pale complexion. Phillips films Phoenix at times where there is no dialogue either grimacing in a mirror, randomly dancing or simply leaning his head against a cold transit bus window. Surprise moments also come with head slamming against walls or glass doors. This was not all direction by Phillips. Phoenix had to have invented some of these instances.

Robert DeNiro is an obvious nod in casting as a Merv Griffin/Johnny Carson role meant to salute the Scorsese films of his heyday. When he was the man bordering on insanity, DeNiro performed with method material. Think back to when he’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull bashing his head against a wall while in solitary confinement.

While Joker certainly offers probably the best performance of the year in any category, it’s not a pleasant film to watch. It lacks any sense of wryness or humor. It’s a very depressing film about a man’s inevitable descent into madness. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Phoenix in the role, but like other comic book based films it didn’t leave me wanting more. I’m not eager for a continuation of this character.

If they wanted to a popular comic character story then I wish there could have been some more slight nods to the ingredients of this pop culture legacy. Couldn’t Arthur Fleck have been mugged by Oswald Cobblepot or sidled up alongside Mr. Zzazzz? How about a quick encounter with Selina Kyle or Edward Nygma? There’s just not enough evidence here for me to accept this is a Batman tale. Again Warner Bros banked on the title and not much else.

I got my money’s worth from Phoenix and I’m gunning for him to win the Oscar (not just nominated), but I can’t help but feel a little let down as well.