‘Shazam!’ Film Review: DC Comics Gets a Bouncy Burst of Big-Screen Ebullience

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

If the “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” movies represented DC Comics’ first big-screen steps away from the austere color palette of the Zach Snyder movies, “Shazam!” takes us deeply into primary colors in a single bound. There’s still a touch of urban decay and kitchen-table warmth on display — this is by no means Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” or a candy-colored Cartoon Network production — but this new DC entry has a lovely lightness, both in the visuals and in its tone.

Before the 1940s serials and the 1970s Saturday-morning TV show, “Shazam!” was born in a magazine called Whiz Comics, published by Fawcett and later acquired by the company that would be known as DC Comics. (Of course, the character used to be called Captain Marvel, but that’s a long story.) And to use a 1940s expression, there’s a gee-whiz ebullience to the movie that makes it stand out among the last several decades’ worth of caped crusaders.

Young Billy Batson (Asher Angel, “Andi Mack”) has spent most of his childhood escaping foster homes in the hopes of finding his mother (Caroline Palmer); as a 4-year-old, Billy got lost at a carnival and never found her again, although he’s sure she’s still looking for him. So when a new set of foster parents take him in, he’s got one eye on the door, even though everyone seems really nice, particularly Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, “It”), a Superman fan who’s never without a quip or the crutch that helps him walk. (“You look at me and you think, ‘Why so dark? Disabled foster kid, you got it all.’”)

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Everything changes when the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) summons Billy and gives him the power to transform into a superhero who will protect Earth against the Seven Deadly Sins. When Billy says, “Shazam!” he is transformed by a bolt of lightning, magically imbued with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. And while Billy and Freddy try to figure out how these powers work — even when he changes from little kid into strapping Zachary Levi, the new Shazam is still immature Billy inside, wisdom of Solomon or no — Shazam’s appearance stokes the fury of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong).

Sivana, as a young boy, was himself summoned by Shazam to the Rock of Eternity before the wizard rejected him as unworthy, leading Sivana to spend his life trying to return. Over the years, Sivana realizes that Shazam turned away hundreds of candidates, only finally selecting Billy out of desperation. But since Sivana is greedy and venal, and burdened with daddy issues of his own, he’s easy pickings for those Seven Deadly Sins, who possess him and force him to do their bidding.

Confronted by Sivana, who wants the Shazam powers for himself, Billy/Shazam’s first instinct is to hide and run away. But when Sivana comes after his new foster family, will Billy figure out how to be a hero and also how to depend on others for love and support? The answer to these questions won’t shock you, but “Shazam!” does offer some surprises along the way. Critics on Twitter have compared this movie to both “Shoplifters” and “Meet the Robinsons,” and they aren’t wrong. The way that Billy resolves his own issues regarding family as well as the larger crisis of the end of the world makes sense in the context of the script (by Henry Gayden, “Earth to Echo,” from a story by Gayden and Darren Lemke, “Goosebumps”) while also honoring the original comics by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck, who very quickly gave Billy a cadre of co-heroes known as the Marvel Family.

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Fans of those comics might not recognize this Sivana, much taller and more handsome than the creepy mad scientist of the original, and even though “Shazam!” doesn’t give us any talking tigers, there are some hints that one of the series’ most ridiculous yet most beloved villains will be popping up in future installments. (As always for movies like this, it’s a good idea to stay through the credits.) What’s most important is that the movie does capture the original comics’ combination of breezy heroism and nutty plotting, transferred from the 1940s to the modern era with great skill.

An old hand at horror, director David F. Sandberg (“Annabelle: Creation,” “Lights Out”) does throw in a few scenes that are too dark for the otherwise amiable tone of “Shazam!” And when we finally see the Seven Deadly Sins, they look like the kind of bargain-basement CG creatures that you get when a game on your phone shows you an ad for a different game that you would never want to play. But neither of these problems inflicts much damage. The cast is consistently sharp, with Grazer in particular managing great chemistry with both versions of Billy. Levi’s body language is constantly inventive, as he plays a tween who still isn’t used to a grown man’s body, let alone a superhero’s. (And yes, Gayden even throws in a gag to acknowledge the fact that we’re all thinking about “Big.”)

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It’s worth highlighting Leah Butler’s costume design; her Shazam costume is great — on paper, the character had one of the weirdest capes in all the comics, but she’s managed to turn it into something more along the lines of a hoodie — while the family of foster kids all wear outfits that convey distinct personalities but still look appropriately like they’ve been curated with love and care at a Goodwill.

One of the delights of DC Comics over the years is that the unlikeliest characters can bump up against each other; you can stick Batman on the same page with The Phantom Stranger, Amethyst of Gemworld, the Doom Patrol and Rip Hunter, Time Master, and somehow they all fit. As the company’s films move in the same direction, it will be interesting to see how well “Shazam!” will play with his super-peers.



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‘Skid Row Marathon’ Film Review: Documentary Puts Homeless Runners in Soft Focus

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Los Angeles’ Skid Row is rarely a place filmmakers go looking for inspirational stories. It has been home to the city’s homeless population since the 1930s and has only grown in size thanks to the housing crisis. In “Skid Row Marathon,” director Mark Hayes decides to explore not Skid Row in particular, but a judge who has formed a running club with some Skid Row residents to train for marathons, and offers insights into this unique group of people who have struggled in life.

Though some of the stories are inspirational, Hayes takes on a “white savior” view too often, making the documentary feel misguided and detached.

It’s always a little bit strange for me to see how a writer or director who isn’t from L.A. or has only lived here a few years, takes on a subject that is very much an L.A. thing. Over the years, Skid Row has become the homeless capital of America. I can recall being about six years old and driving through Skid Row to get to my mom’s favorite seafood market and seeing sidewalks full of shopping carts, tents and cardboard boxes surrounding the Los Angeles Mission, as people came in and out of the mission, in dirty clothes, looking weary and heading to wherever they would be laying their heads for the night.

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As a child, I was optimistic, thinking eventually everyone would get a home and a happy ending because there is no way we couldn’t help them, right? Instead, Skid Row has become a piece of pop culture: It’s been a location in music videos (like Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”) had a rock band named after it, and even inspiring a song in the New York-based musical “Little Shop of Horrors.” And yet, Skid Row itself remains covered in poverty and despair. That’s a bit what “Skid Row Marathon” feels like — just another addition to pop culture.

The central subject of the film is criminal court Judge Craig Mitchell, a man whose mother used to take him to Watts instead of Disneyland and who, at one point, was about to join the priesthood before deciding on a law career. A former defendant contacted him after his release from prison and asked the judge to meet him at the Midnight Mission homeless shelter, where he was living. Mitchell felt inspired to start a running club for some of its residents, which include a former gang member (Rafael Cabrera), a single mother (Rebecca Hayes), a musician (Ben Shirley), a painter (David Askew), and a former college athlete (Mody Diop).

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The film cuts to and from each runner’s story back to the judge’s, as well as to footage of the group running and their journeys to and from marathons in Ghana and Rome. It details each person’s struggle, largely with addiction, and does touch a bit on a darker moment when one of the runners relapses and returns to living on the streets. The footage, shot internationally by Hayes and cinematographer James Stolz, made those specific scenes feel like a travelogue and enhanced those particular stories, but when it comes to Skid Row, it all feels a bit light.

Wanting to be simply a positive story took away from the realism of what that area is and what it represents in one of the wealthiest cities in the United States, which strips away the elements of what would make this documentary feel more vital.

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The group of runners is diverse, but four out of the six are men of color, and the optics are uneven when deciding who is doing the actual work here: Is it the judge for putting together the club, or is it the group for working to overcome their individual struggles? I understand what the filmmakers were trying to do in returning to the judge, over and over, as he is the one who leads the club, but tonally, it feels as if the film were praising him for his efforts for giving this group a chance of redemption when it’s really the people in the group themselves who deserve that recognition.

“Skid Row Marathon” is a light-hearted attempt to show a softer side of a pressing issue. While the film will no doubt inspire some, it lacks an understanding of the real issues that exist in that environment. It becomes part of the system that proclaims that homelessness is a problem, but it does nothing to say why.



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‘Dragged Across Concrete’ Film Review: Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson Are Dirty Cops in a Thriller That Might Be Trolling Us

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Overlong and indulgent but too often skillful to be dismissed outright, “Dragged Across Concrete” feels like an epic act of trolling for liberal audiences.

And I do mean epic: at two hours and 40 minutes, this Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn-starring story of two cops who decide to rob criminals after being suspended for police brutality exceeds any level of patience or tolerance for the poisonous, MAGA-friendly ideas that writer-director S. Craig Zahler (“Bone Tomahawk,” “Brawl in Cell Block 99”) refuses to acknowledge, much less take responsibility for in his film.

Gibson and Vaughn play Brett Ridgeman and Tony Lurasetti, seasoned detectives who break a fleeing suspect’s nose and belittle his half-naked girlfriend during a drug bust. A neighbor captures the injury on video, leading their superior Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson) to suspend them, just as Lurasetti is completing payments on an engagement ring for his girlfriend Denise (Tattiawna Jones) and Ridgeman’s daughter endures a humiliating assault on her way home from school. Eager to score some quick cash, Ridgeman decides to stake out a local safe house in the hopes that one of its inhabitants will lead to a drug deal he can interrupt, and Lurasetti reluctantly goes along for the ride.

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In the meantime, an ex-convict named Henry Johns (Tory Kittles, “Colony”) arrives home from prison to learn that his mother is not only using drugs but has also turned to prostitution to make ends meet for her and his wheelchair-bound little brother Ethan (Myles Truitt, “Kin”). Determined to lift them out of squalor, Henry teams up with a former associate named Biscuit (Michael Jai White) to drive the getaway vehicle for a group of criminals, led by the cutthroat Lorentz Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann), to rob a bank of its gold bullion. But when Ridgeman and Lurasetti’s stakeout leads them inevitably to Vogelmann’s crime, they are forced to reconsider the oath they swore as police to uphold the law, even as they encounter much more dangerous opposition than they ever expected.

Many great works of art have been made about — and by — reprehensible people, but thus far Zahler has largely declined to discuss the ideas within his films and especially the views they espouse, leaving audiences to figure out for themselves if this and “Brawl in Cell Block 99” are conservative screeds or just uncomfortably specific character studies for a certain white male point of view. Given their naturalistic, unhurried rhythms, the director’s films certainly owe a tremendous debt to a stream of consciousness disinterested in editing itself — for duration, much less content.

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But “Dragged Across Concrete” unfolds like a hard-working, blue-collar white man’s worst nightmare, and it never bothers to try and be anything else, from the talk-radio culture war talking points Ridgeman and Lurasetti regurgitate during meals or the treatment of the arrival of people of color in their onetime safe spaces as generally oppressive, be they the Mexican-American investigator codifying their brutality offense or the black kids that evidence Ridgeman’s notion that his neighborhood is going straight to hell.

The problem with that point of view is that there’s nothing new about it; even “Dirty Harry,” way back in 1971, had enough self-awareness to make Harry’s flinty relationship with his Latino partner a cheeky affectation. These characters are people who simply have not grown with the times, but the movie pulls a Principal Skinner and suggests that it’s really the world that’s gone wrong, not them. At the same time, Zahler’s filmmaking feels like the cinematic equivalent of “I’m not racist — my black friend says so,” filling in supporting roles with black and Latino actors who are either reduced to stereotypes or just plain mistreated. Sometimes both.

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A woman of color plays Lurasetti’s girlfriend, but ironically, theirs is the one relationship that does not get explored in real depth in the film; even Kittles’ Henry Johns, who proves honorable as he outsmarts cop and crook alike, doesn’t feel like a real person but rather a plot device designed to bring all of the film’s elaborately-explored threads together.

At the same time, it’s in those threads where Zahler does some occasionally fascinating, even exceptional work. Taking cues from movies like “Heat” that aspire to explore the interior lives of every character, no matter how insignificant, he allows the film to digress for minutes at a time to explore the masked henchmen acquiring the tools for the heist and, later, a bank teller (Jennifer Carpenter, “Dexter”) returning from maternity leave on the morning of the robbery.

These are more successful because they provide context and humanity for the deadly acts that are about to unfold. The ones that are less effective are the unbroken takes of Ridgeman and Lurasetti bickering during their stakeout, or the even longer shots of various drivers and passengers chugging from one location to the next in what sometimes feels like real time. That Zahler uses only diegetic music — and in particular, supremely terrible music that he himself composed for R&B luminaries The O’Jays to perform — feels like adding insult to injury.

Though much of the dialogue feels like it could have been crafted to comment obliquely on Gibson’s personal travails, Zahler mostly lets him off the hook while coaxing out a suitably unapologetic, grizzled performance from the onetime movie star. As a halfhearted moral compass to Gibson’s righteous certitude, Vaughn tackles the details of his character with enthusiasm and humanity, but even he can’t make lines like “Six people got punctuation” seem believable. Though he’s been working for almost two decades, Kittles feels like the big “discovery” of the film, but again, his purpose in the story feels more impactful than any sort of distinct personality that Zahler gives him.

Zahler’s wry humor as a scenarist and director wrings uncomfortable laughs from some virtually unimaginable scenarios, but given his fire hose-like creativity, it’s hard to know what was deliberate and what was accidental. Which is why ultimately, the director’s growing body of work may well resonate with exploitation fans as much as white nationalists; if you can’t peg down how much of it the filmmaker means, it’s easy to see it as outsider art and overlook the stuff that’s truly offensive. But at a certain point, not clarifying or taking responsibility for any of what’s in your films means you’re responsible for all of it, and Zahler is not unique, creative or talented enough to keep audiences guessing much longer.

“Dragged Across Concrete” is not a terrible movie, but it’s not so good that Zahler shouldn’t get dragged for it.



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‘Out of Blue’ Film Review: Patricia Clarkson Tracks a Killer in Unwieldy Philosophical Whodunit

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Some murder mysteries begin with murders; some begin with Mamie Gummer giving a lecture on a rooftop, arguing that all life springs from death, all death springs from life, and 90% of matter is invisible. “You can tell a lot by looking,” she tells her students. But in the world of “Out of Blue,” it’s the telling that takes up most of the running time, and it’s a little monotonous, if we’re being honest.

Patricia Clarkson stars as Mike Hoolihan, a detective investigating the death of astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Gummer), who was shot in an observatory shortly after that opening lecture. Rockwell’s death is no ordinary murder. It looks suspiciously like the work of the never-captured but long since retired “.38 Caliber Killer.” And all of the suspects are spacey intellectuals who pontificate about highfalutin concepts like Schrödinger’s cat and alternate realities when they should be telling her what the heck their alibis are.

Mike’s investigation leads her from one starry-eyed scientist to another, and into the troubled Rockwell family, ruled by war-hero industrialist politician Col. Tom Rockwell (James Caan) and endured by his unhappy wife Miriam (Jacki Weaver). But more importantly, Mike finds herself noticing strange details that nobody else sees, like phantom bottles of hand cream, and eventually begins to question her sanity now that her head is full of lofty ideas about her place in the universe.

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“Out of Blue” has a lot on its mind, and it’s a shame that the audience isn’t one of them. Every piece of information seems tailor-made for Mike, but there’s very little to entice the viewer. The characters in writer-director Carol Morley’s film, adapted from the novel “Night Train” by Martin Amis, seem to exist solely for Mike’s benefit. They give her the information she needs, and they expand her horizons, but aside from generalized grief and the most existential of crises, their general experiences lack interests, motivation, humor, sensuality, jealousy, or any of the other human qualities that typically get stirred up when dead bodies enter our lives and detectives start poking around.

Clarkson, typically one of the finest actors working, brings a weariness to Mike that makes sense for “Out of Blue.” She’s been living an aggressively unexamined existence and admits that she either can’t remember or chooses never to think about her life before she joined the police department. She’s a smart and experienced person, but apparently she’s never heard of some relatively popular scientific concepts, like the aforementioned Schrödinger’s cat, which strains credulity. “Out of Blue” is a high-minded film full of lofty ideas. If this is anyone’s first exposure to science, they’re already in over their head, and that goes for the audience as well as the protagonist.

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Morley works with cinematographer Conrad W. Hall (“Olympus Has Fallen”), who seems eager to give “Out of Blue” a conventional detective movie aesthetic, only to subvert it with trippy astronomical imagery and absurdist imagery, like a woman in impeccable period attire gliding on a Segway. The cleverness of the film’s editing, by Alex Mackie (“Mary Shelley”), doesn’t reveal itself until later in the film, when the parallels finally close together. But the problem with holding everything back until the finale is that, before then, you’re holding everything back.

It’s hard to tell for much of “Out of Blue” just where this mystery is going, and repeated references to heady sci-fi ideas like doppelgängers might be a little too intriguing for the film’s own good. The mind swirls with all the endless possibilities inherent to the set-up, and instead the film trudges to a dour conclusion that explores the story’s baseline themes — the intimate connection between death and life and the destructive quality of observation — but still feels like a letdown, because we felt so very little getting there.

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“Out of Blue” is a detached motion picture, and it’s hard to get away with that clinical approach and still adhere to a thriller format. Morley’s film hits a lot of the familiar murder-mystery beats and comes close to subverting them, drawing parallels between police work and the scientific method, and in particular the quest for motive and the quest for meaning in a vast, amorphous and unfeeling universe. What an ambitious and fascinating starting point for a movie, but even the film doesn’t seem particularly passionate about it.

At its best, “Out of Blue” captures a slightly intoxicated “eureka” sensation, as the whole detective genre transforms elegantly into a philosophical awakening, and as the greatest threat comes not from a murderer but from our protagonist’s sense of self (or lack thereof). At its worst, which is most of the time, it’s a conventional detective story that resorts to lengthy scientific-namedropping when it probably should be getting on with it instead.



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‘Hotel Mumbai’ Film Review: Nervy Account of Terrorist Attack Keeps Exploitation in Check

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

The worry regarding certain movies that recreate real-life nightmares is that the filmmaker sees the incident as a form of action-adventure tourism, a way to fake an experience so that genuine tragedy is reduced to an adrenaline boost. But the prevailing feeling watching Australian director Anthony Maras’ feature debut “Hotel Mumbai” is of heart-in-the-throat panic as it places us inside the Indian capital’s storied Taj Mahal Palace Hotel when it was besieged by a well-armed militia of Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists on a citywide killing spree in November 2008.

The distinction — the thriller that terrifies, as opposed to the terror that thrills — is an important one when choosing to watch the unfolding of the worst situation imaginable, realizing that only some of the hostages you get to know are going to survive. (Of the 174 people killed throughout Mumbai, 31 died at the Taj over the three days.) In this age of regular mass shootings, when fear of being numbed to the steady drumbeat of such news might be as worrisome to our well-being as assuming that no place is safe anymore, any movie that sweats bullets to vividly portray what real bullets do is in its way a kind of grim act of artistic service to our violence-saturated culture.

The Paul Greengrass method of researched, you-are-there immediacy (“United 93” especially) filmmaking seems to have been an inspiration, since Maras and co-screenwriter John Collee (“Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World”) based their film on extensive interviews and time spent at the Taj. But they’re also not above time-tested disaster movie devices for threading in heart and tension: composite characters of varying nationalities and class representing the hotel’s breadth of clientele and employee; we’re-in-this-together dialogue intended to stir us; and cross-cut suspense set pieces (keep the baby from crying, the last-minute cell phone call, the killer’s around the corner) with the distinctive aroma of screenwriting invention, not reportage.

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These contrivances shouldn’t work, but somehow they do, probably because the general air of hellishness never dissipates in Nick Remy Matthews’ lived-in cinematography and Peter McNulty and Maras’ white-knuckle editing, so whenever old Hollywood intrudes, it’s a mostly welcome distraction.

The movie’s most serene images are arguably its earliest, when a boat coasts into a fishing village under a hazy sun carrying 10 grunge-attired Pakistanis with heavy bags, and a voice in their earpieces calmly assuring them “Paradise awaits.” At the same time, we meet kind-eyed Sikh husband and father Arjun (Dev Patel) as he readies himself for work at the Taj as a waiter in the chic restaurant of star chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher, “New Amsterdam”), a benevolent taskmaster who likes to remind his staff that the hotel’s motto is “Guest is God.”

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Personifying that hand-and-foot treatment are arriving A-list guests David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi, “Counterpart”), wealthy marrieds who bring with them a newborn and a nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey, “52 Tuesdays”). Also checking in that day is a Russian playboy billionaire (Jason Isaacs) whose vibe I’m willing to bet was described in the script as “mysterious.”

Maras sets the stage for his no-frills depiction of violence with the gunmen’s initial attacks at a train station and a restaurant. The way two members of the group slip into the Taj makes for a chilling reveal. When the jihadists soon take over the Taj, driven by the drumbeat of class hatred from “Brother Bull” in their ear and shooting anything or anyone that moves, guests and staff are forced into hiding wherever they are. In a private VIP clubroom, chef Oberoi and Arjun take charge of the utensil-brandishing cooks and waiters who are willing to protect the guests they’ve herded there at all costs, while they wait for special forces to arrive from locations hours away.

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As the situation intensifies, one of the movie’s strengths emerges in the depiction of the homicidal extremists prowling the hotel; they aren’t mere faceless villains or cookie-cutter baddies. Maras’ methodical depiction of their behavior — calm when killing, crying when wounded, crafty one second, feverish the next — adds an unsettling depth to the movie’s portrait of young religious fanaticism. They’re simultaneously real and zombified. There are even strange attempts at humor in their naiveté, like one murderous zealot’s sudden skittishness at searching under a dead woman’s shirt. You may not laugh, but these pinpricks of humanity oddly never seem out of place.

Couple that with Maras’ refusal to turn any of his besieged characters into a standout action hero, preferring a range of survival choices from ill-advised and pointless to risky and brave, and you have what amounts to a resonant dramatization of our terrorist problem at large: one side is shallow and unrelenting, the other is scared and hardly unified about what to do. It grounds “Hotel Mumbai” in the human, even as it fractures our senses with gunfire, bombs, and blood. Maybe the best thing I can say about “Hotel Mumbai” is that I kept waiting for it to become “Die Hard,” and it thankfully never did.



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‘The Dirt’ Review: Netflix’s Mötley Crüe Memoir Pic Flaccid & Bleached Clean

Read on: Deadline.

SPOILER ALERT: This review contains details of the movie version of The Dirt
Having taken decades to make it to the screen, you kind of knew any adaptation of Mötley Crüe’s 2001 memoir The Dirt was going to be problematic, to put it politely.
Inf…

SXSW Film Review: ‘J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius’

Read on: Variety.

Like 8mm films of 1960s “happenings” or videos of 1970s performance art, “J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius” chronicles a cultural footnote that perhaps should be filed under the heading You Had to Be There. The satirical-absurdist…

‘Ain’t Too Proud’ Broadway Review: The Temptations Fight the Grind of Fame

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

The wonderful thing about biographies is that they allow writers to get away with an overload of melodrama and irony that would never work in fiction. Take the story of the Temptations, the most successful rhythm-and-blues group ever: Paul Williams committed suicide, David Ruffin OD’d in a crack house, Eddie Kendricks died of lung cancer, and Melvin Franklin destroyed his immune system through the overuse of cortisone while suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Which leaves it to Temptations founder and survivor Otis Williams to tell the story of these men in the new musical “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” which opened Thursday at the Imperial Theatre.

Besides eschewing the drugs, booze, women and the egomania that brought down so many of the other Temptations, Otis Williams had it relatively easy in comparison. He only got his girlfriend pregnant, endured a shotgun wedding and promptly ignored his wife before she left him for another man. Years later, his only son died in a construction accident at age 22.

In other words, “Ain’t Too Proud” delivers more traumas than “The Jersey Boys,” “The Cher Show,” “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” and “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” combined.

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Dominique Morisseau’s book for “Ain’t Too Proud” is based on Williams’s autobiography, “The Temptations,” and may explain why Williams is the most genial subject of a musical since Carole King, whose show would more aptly be titled “Nice.”

Derrick Baskin’s impersonation of Otis Williams defines the word “innocuous,” even though late in the musical he is accused of being a control freak. Here, control freak is an encomium for a man coping with drug addicts, alcoholics and egomaniacs. During the overly long first act, Baskin/Williams is able to resolve in record time every problem the Temptations encounter: A feisty manager is fired and a demanding mother is appeased within minutes of being introduced. Rather than dramatizing the group’s rise to stardom, Morisseau’s book has Baskin/Williams narrate it.

Real drama doesn’t arrive until singer Al Bryant (Jarvis B. Manning Jr.) is replaced by David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes). There are four more musicals to opens this Broadway season, but it’s difficult to imagine a performer more energized in any of them than Sykes. His superstar-making turn as Ruffin sums up that old adage about the brightest burning out the fastest.

Baskin/Williams keeps telling us that the Temptations are a group, and how it’s not about any one star. Sykes defies that platitude with every song he sings, every jump and split he lands, every mic he tosses and catches in the air. Sykes makes it totally understandable why such a talent would keep the others waiting, miss engagements and then show up uninvited to crash performances after he’d been fired from the Temptations.

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If only Ruffin/Sykes were narrating “Ain’t Too Proud.” For one thing, we’d be spared the cliched build-up to the group’s success and the endless parade of funerals at the end.

It makes dramatic sense that Ruffin’s closest ally in the group is Kendricks, especially as played by Jeremy Pope, hot off his own breakthrough performance in the just-closed Broadway drama “Choir Boy.” Both men exude an aura of suspense and danger on stage, as if each song could be their last. They’ll worry about their aching joints and vocal chords in the morning.

Playing Paul Williams and Melvin Franklin, respectively, James Harkness and Jawan M. Jackson impress with their vocals. Baskin appears to be the weak link, but surprises with a stirring “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” near the end. It’s Sykes and Pope, however, who prove that the parts can sometimes be much greater than the whole.

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Why do audiences love these cautionary showbiz tales? Do we need to see how miserable the rich, the talented and the famous really are under all that money and glitz?

Des McAnuff’s direction of “Ain’t Too Proud” gives us both the alluring razzle-dazzle and the underlying nightly grind of touring. Repeatedly, the Temptations perform to us out front, then turn to deliver the next few bars to the other three walls of the stage. Meanwhile, Robert Brill’s scenic design and Peter Nigrini’s projections give us the towns the men are playing — Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver. After a while, it’s all a blur and we understand how a gifted talent like Ruffin’s just doesn’t fit within that box.

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