Shazam! is a superhero film which remembers to have fun, while French director Jacques Audiard falls short in western The Sisters Brothers, despite a great cast and source material
Shazam! (12A) ***
Pet Sematary (15) **
The Sisters Brothers (15) **
Wonder Park (PG) *
Big meets Superman in Shazam! – an endearingly silly origins story for one of DC’s less mainstream comic book heroes. The story of an invincible, red-suited, lightening-wielding do-gooder whose alter ego happens to be a 14-year-old foster kid, the film is so attuned to the fundamental appeal that superheroes have for children that it feels like the first film in an age designed specifically with them in mind, not the ageing army of adult fans who long ago won the battle to make the world take comic books seriously.
Arrested development certainly rules here – but in a good way, as the film’s newly fostered protagonist Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has heroic powers bestowed upon him by a wizardly overlord (Djimon Hounsou) who needs a pure-of-heart successor to help prevent the Seven Deadly Sins being unleashed upon the world by an evil doctor (Mark Strong) who failed in his own quest to become a superhero. It’s pure hokum, in other words, but that doesn’t matter. Like a more family-friendly Kick-Ass (a film that also starred Strong), it has a keen sense of how to have fun deconstructing the genre without being annoying.
When Billy, for instance, realises that uttering the word “Shazam” turns him into a superhero with an adult body, god-like powers and the cartoonishly clean-cut face of Zachary Levi, he recruits his nerdy new foster brother Freddy Freeman (the excellent Jack Dylan Grazer), to school him on all things superhero-related. It doesn’t all work (there’s one jarring script gaffe relating to Billy’s backstory that implies something way too dark for the tone of the movie), but this is mostly sly, rye, irreverent fun for the 10-to-14-set – and those still in touch with the uncynical delights of being that age.
Even by classic Stephen King standards, the horror master’s 1983 novel Pet Sematary was dark and disturbing and the King-penned 1989 film adaptation, directed by MTV stalwart Mary Lambert, was efficiently scary for its day, exploiting its upsetting premise for all it was worth and searing into the minds of anyone who saw it the nasty work a scalpel could make of an exposed Achilles tendon. That that film version has been largely forgotten in the 30 years since will undoubtedly work to this new version’s advantage, which exhumes the story and manages to resurrect some of what made it so creepy. And yet, as with the zombified pets that emerge from the titular misspelled graveyard, it comes back slightly altered and not necessarily for the better. In this incarnation, Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz star as the unsuspecting city dwellers who relocate to rural Maine to raise their kids, only to have their lives shattered by tragedy and bad choices emanating from a supernatural curse that feeds on grief. As with the source material, bad things happen to cats and kids and even though directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have the advantage of a great cast (which also includes John Lithgow), the atmosphere is undermined with some ropey CGI and all-too-familiar jump scares. The big twist is effectively staged, but it doesn’t lead the film in any interesting new directions and nor is the shock ending sufficiently foregrounded to give it the gut-punching power it should have.
The Sisters Brothers is also a little lacking in gut-punching power given it’s the much-heralded English language debut of French auteur Jacques Audiard, who made A Prophet and the Palme d’Or-winning Deepan. He’s a filmmaker so adept at making bracingly authentic films in unashamedly cinematic ways that one might have expected a western starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C Riley as sibling guns-for-hire during the gold rush of the 1850s to be right up his alley. But The Sisters Brothers feels oddly muted, despite the presence of some big ideas, some lively performances and some striking imagery.
Like the Patrick deWitt novel it’s adapted from, it begins with a horse on fire galloping across a prairie. Lest this seem like a statement of intent from a French director embarking on this most iconic of American genres, the film largely revels in the muddy, bloody aesthetic that’s been prevalent since Clint Eastwood supplanted John Wayne as its most formidable proponent. Setting the protagonists on the trail of a chemist (Riz Ahmed) who’s developed a formula for maximising the gold that can be extracted from a river bed, the film, which also stars Jake Gyllenhaal, presents a portrait of a country in flux and it’s as if the chaos of this rapidly changing world in the decade before the Civil War is meant to be some
kind of portentous allegorical comment on where present day America might be heading. That’s a fascinating idea, but like the recent Us, this is a film that feels richer in hinted-at subtext than it does in actual story, which makes watching it feel like panning for gold with too little reward.
Finally this week, Wonder Park is the kids’ film to avoid over Easter: a messily conceived animation in which a little girl’s anxiety over her mother’s illness manifests itself in a wild fantasy in which she has to save an imaginary theme park. John Oliver and Strictly Come Dancing runner-up Joe Sugg are among the voice cast adding to the general air of feebleness and desperation. ■