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‘Shazam!’ Flashes Like A Wasted Opportunity

Mindless fun carries ‘Shazam!’ through some of its rougher elements, but the experience as a whole unfortunately lacks the magic to come out as electrifying as its premise implies.

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Magic, superheroes, and irreverence would on paper spell intrigue for a modern DC universe film romp, but like the superhero himself, Shazam! masquerades as a comical take on the superhero formula, with every action plagued by some deep-rooted immaturity that pedantically affects every spark or flicker of filmmaking wizardry. Attempts at deconstruction or satire never offer any worthwhile critiques, but instead come across as cheap shots by a comedy superhero movie desperate for cred — like youthful naiveté trying its hardest to pass for full fledged adulthood. Though its errors and missteps are forgivable due to its prospects — primarily, a comedic lean that allows for a fun atmosphere to act as guardian against the film’s shortcomings — Shazam! still feels under-cooked, stumbling like a kid where it should be sashaying like a hero.

Shazam!

In a curveball opener, the story begins with a young Dr. Sivana  — the movie’s villain — and his first encounter with an old wizard called Shazam, who is searching for a “pure of heart” child to take on his powers and continue the battle against evil, as well as keep the Seven Deadly Sins encased in stone in his otherworldly realm. It’s a scenario that instantly creates empathy towards the young doctor (and also his older self, played by Mark Strong), but beyond this point he is relegated to a more steady downward shift into bad guy territory. Things pick up in the modern day, with rebellious foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel) determined to find his lost mother (easily setting up the central conflict for the character); after another failed attempt, he reluctantly joins a large home of friendly caregivers and eccentric orphans, setting things up nicely for forward momentum drama. While a now adult Dr. Sivana closes in on finding the wizard from his youth, the decaying wizard Shazam is desperate to find his champion to pass along his powers.

Embracing the absurdity, Shazam! plows headfirst into a light-hearted journey through comic book film tropes, as well as all the buffoonery a 14 year-old magically turning into an adult superhero would offer. It’s fundamentally a fun movie with likable characters that adheres to classic hero tradition; there’s a dichotomy between protagonist/antagonist, an underlying character flaw that is persistent in generating conflict, and a fun premise that seems like it was inspired by the whimsical notebook scribblings of a middle schooler. Ready and cocked to storm onto the DC movie scene with a “Say my name!” kind of charisma, the film instead buckles under the weight of its own levity, delivering a comical “pow” emblazoned on a white flag dangling from the end of a toy gun that might as well signify surrender.

Shazam!

The film feels like a prime stallion ready to win the race and cross the finish line, but handled with apathy. A lot of the humor is as fleeting as an internet dance craze — energetic and ridiculous, but a bit too self-aware. Audience members may find themselves laughing, but awkward deliveries and boring camera usage makes the whole thing feel a bit stilted and thrown together, lacking the refinement that the film’s comedy focus necessitates. Some good gags struggle to leave their mark with many botched and predictable punch lines; the comedy has a one-and-done “move on with your life” feel to it. The audacious premise begs for a greater triumphant confidence to the hilarity, but only occasionally does it touch the heights of silly teenage power fantasy — to the detriment of its comedy and fizzled out action sequences alike.

The lack of action set pieces will raise some eyebrows, as the new, ultra-powerful Shazam (Zachary Levi – who is perfect for the role) doesn’t have a chance to show off the majesty of ancient dimension warping magic, creating rather tame action moments that run counter to the expectations of a roided-out teenager. His powers are used more for humor than anything else, and at no point does it really feel like Shazam is exerting himself; there are no battle cries or moments where he must dig deep to find that edge to distinguish himself — to show something that makes Billy Batson seem truly unique and heroic amongst the everyman (everyboy). As Shazam comically discovers new powers or confronts Dr. Sivana, the excitement rises in anticipation for the large-scale level of city destruction that DC action movies are known to be capable of, but it all dissolves into anti-climactic exchanges which disappoint time and again.

Shazam!

Contrary to expectation, however, the character of Shazam is handled well both by Zachary Levi’s adult interpretation and Asher Angel’s stand-out portrayal of his 14 year old self. Moments of pathos are earned through careful development and consideration for the film’s themes, and at least for Billy Batson himself, Shazam! creates a perfect origin story for this kid-turned-superhero.

Striking like lightning in moments of brilliance and lighthearted warmth, only to cease without the reception of thunder, Shazam! concludes its just-over-two-hours run with an exuberant complacency. The perfectly serviceable elements of comedy, action, coming-of-age antics, and heroics aren’t hard to find better executed in other superhero films; here, the lackluster execution culminates in a fresh direction for DC movies that wastes its youth on the young.

[penci_review id=”150959″]

While everyone else was busy falling in love with Final Fantasy 7 Jason was off in his corner playing The Legend of Dragoon. A gamer since birth and a bummer to watch movies with, he'll find any excuse to avoid his writing career.

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‘Incident In A Ghostland ‘— Pascal Laugier Revisits the Genre that Made Him Famous

‘Martyrs’ director Pascal Laugier takes another stab at the horror genre.

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Writer-director Pascal Laugier is well-known for his heady 2008 breakout French thriller Martyrs which is regarded by many as one of the most disturbing horror films ever made and took the torture porn genre to untold levels of nastiness. While not his best film (that honor goes to Brotherhood of the Wolf), Martyrs stands as an extreme example of just how twisted French new wave horror films can be.

In 2012 he directed his first English-language feature, The Tall Man, a slow atmospheric thriller about a dying mining town where children begin vanishing without a trace. Despite the star power of Jessica Biel, The Tall Man was both a critical and commercial bomb, and not necessarily what fans of Laugier’s first film were expecting. His latest (and second English-language offering) revisits the grisly torture-porn genre that made him famous but the question going in was, is it any good?

Following in the footsteps of French auteurs Alexandre Aja (High Tension) and Alexandre Bustillo (Inside), Incident In A Ghostland begins as your typical home-invasion thriller and follows single mother Pauline Keller (French Canadian pop star Mylene Farmer) and her two teenage daughters Beth (Emilia Jones) and Vera (Taylor Hickson) who relocate to their new home. En route, the trio is briefly terrorized by a speeding ice cream truck before noticing a local headline about a series of brutal crimes sweeping the area. The Kellers haven’t even had a chance to settle in yet and already things aren’t looking too good. Anyone who’s seen at least one horror movie knows what happens next. What follows is a no-holds-barred assault that will leave the audience emotionally and psychologically scarred.

What makes Incident In A Ghostland different than the countless other home invasion thrillers that came before, is that the raid on their house takes up only the first twenty minutes of the film. After managing to survive the attack, we fast forward some years and discover a grown-up Beth (Crystal Reed) has written a memoir of her family’s traumatic experience that has made her a famous horror novelist. Her sister Vera (Anastasia Phillips) on the other hand, isn’t doing so well; suffering from PTSD and reliving that horrible night over and over. It’s here that my plot summary must end in order to avoid spoiling the film’s many twists and turns— but to sum it up, the remainder of the running time jumps between past and present, dream and reality, nightmares and hallucinations and dreams within dreams all while keeping the audience guessing as to what is real and what is in Beth’s imagination.

Like the director’s gory debut, Incident In A Ghostland is light on plot (and even lighter on character development) but extremely heavy on the torture inflicted on the young women who are subjected to unspeakable acts of physical, sexual and mental abuse, both real and imaginary. Like Martyrs, Ghostland dwells on the terror our protagonists experience with the camera constantly closing in on tight shots of their wounds, bruises, and screams as they are kicked, punched, choked, chained and dragged around the house. Needless to say, it’s rather painful to sit through, with each scene stretched out for maximum discomfort. Incident In A Ghostland is the sort of movie in which roughly half the running time consists of women screaming in pain while the other half will have you scratching your head trying to make sense of it all. It’s especially unsettling as Laugier subjects Beth and Vera to acts of pedophilic sadism, and later learning that the then-19-year-old actress Taylor Hickson reportedly sued the production company for injuries suffered on the set. Meanwhile, fans of Farmer may be appalled to watch the French-Canadian idol beaten to a bloody pulp while stabbed repeatedly— and if you have a fear of dolls, I recommend you stay as far away from Ghostland as it features an abundance of creepy doll imagery.

While Pascal Laugier’s most recent offering isn’t as depraved as Martyrs, it’s still an intentionally unpleasant nightmare to watch unfold and while I admire the craft that went into making it, I can’t say I enjoyed my time spent watching it. But it is a well-made film featuring stunning cinematography from Danny Nowak (who provides the movie with a sheen polish) and great set design by Gordon Wilding and his collaborators who do a marvelous job in bringing the house to life (so to speak) and making it, as creepy as the villains played by Kevin Power and Rob Archer.

I’ve noticed a few critics online comparing Incident In A Ghostland to the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre which in my opinion, is heresy. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains to this day a motion picture of raw, uncompromising intensity, a punishing assault on the senses via some of the most extended scenes of absolute sustained frenzy ever captured on celluloid. Incident In A Ghostland brings nothing new to the genre and is just another example of a movie that relies on plot twists and extreme violence to get a rise out of the audience. Whereas Marilyn Burns’ doomed screams will forever be etched in your memory, the hundreds and hundreds of screams heard in Ghostland will soon be forgotten. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre undoubtedly ranks as the best horror film of all time and also boasts one of the most unforgettable abrupt endings ever. I’ve already forgotten how Ghostland ends.

Incident In A Ghostland is a Shudder exclusive. For more info, visit their website.

  • Ricky D
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A Eulogy for ‘The Fast and The Furious’

Remembering the endlessly quotable film that started it all; perhaps never cool, but at least it sincerely tried.

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I saw The Fast and The Furious with friends at the now long-gone crappier-of-the-two cinemas in my Massachusetts suburb. We mostly did whatever we could to avoid that theater – there was a comparatively smaller chance of running into other friends or girls there, the screens were small, and the popcorn was stale – which is to say, I can’t readily remember why we were seeing The Fast and The Furious instead of something else at the nice theater, except that it was probably a matter of convenience, most likely based on when my buddy’s parents could give us a ride.

I don’t remember my life being affected by the movie, and I wish I could write something poetic about Paul Walker’s golden locks or Vin Diesel’s impossible magnetism. I can’t, though I’m sure the cars were loud and awesome, and the girls in the movie were put there for twelve year-olds like us, so I can imagine they were well received. It wasn’t until the DVD, though, that The Fast and The Furious really infected my group’s lexicon, to the extent that we had one.

It was the first DVD I purchased with my own money – I know that much. Once I (and by proxy, my friends) owned i t, things changed rapidly. The Fast and The Furious became for us the type of movie quoted so compulsively that the actual source material seemed to lose meaning: “Bullshit asshole, no one likes the tuna here,” “You never had me… You never had your car,” “The buster brought me back!”  – we quoted the poor movie to death. In those dark days before IMDB and YouTube, I desperately combed Napster so I could listen to classic gems like Benny Cassette’s subtly titled “Watch Your Back,” or Saliva’s “Superstar” – without a hint of irony. It was, in retrospect, uncool.

None of this is unique, and I apologize for the tedium of recounting a trivial childhood movie infatuation as though it were news. Kids of a certain age latch on, absorb, follow what’s cool until life teaches them that trying too hard to be cool – like say, Paul Walker’s character telling a menacing Vin Diesel “If I win, I take the cash… And the Respect” – is distinctly uncool. So no, not singular. But it is remarkable that in the franchise’s lean years, post-Diesel and pre-Diesel, and then pre-Dwayne Johnson, these would be embarrassing factoids. In 2006, no one was exactly clamoring for the next The Fast and The Furious installment, and this was years before the franchise assumed the winking, self-aware, action-porn form it now parades into theaters biannually.

In those years, you wouldn’t have heard me or my friends tell each other “You can have any beer you want, as long as it’s a Corona,” because you may not have gotten it. Worse, you would have gotten it, but wondered aloud why in the world we were laughing. The Fast and The Furious hadn’t yet been resurrected as a mega-franchise, a type of multicultural Avengers. The film was just a curiosity, a leftover from a time when we couldn’t drive, but Grand Theft Auto, Gone in 60 Seconds, and The Fast and The Furious were all we thought about for one summer.

Mostly, the first film still is a curiosity. Irony has a place, but it can be a cynical and cowardly veil as well, an opportunity for blockbusters like the later Fast films to avoid truly risking anything. The franchise’s self-awareness insulates it from criticism; of course it’s dumb – it’s supposed to be dumb. It’s a post-modern blockbuster construct that allows everyone from the filmmakers to audiences to critics to join the joke, to laugh and commend only the gaudy excess and the conscious overreach of the entire undertaking.

The Fate of the Furious appears to be no different, and in that way is hardly related to its originator. Fate is rife with the hallmarks of what the franchise has become – stunt casting, obscure locales, action sequences that are more side-splitting than seat-gripping. The films are speeding toward a cliff, where irony and awareness meet the end of credulity and the last remnants of attention spans. Very shortly the series will be left looking only to space as the next frontier – they’ve already used cars as every type of weapon, been all over the world, killed and resurrected characters swiftly and as a matter of convenience. Instead of going forward, however, they could go back.

Watching The Fast and The Furious now, knowing what has grown out of it, it is impossible to feel anything but refreshed by how seriously the film takes itself. Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) isn’t a fun-house mirror image of a forgotten action archetype; instead he’s present, really going for it. Paul Walker still hadn’t found acting ability to match his leading man looks, but you can see him trying – hard – on screen. He delivers corny monologues like “So check it out, it’s like this…” with vigor. The climactic scene with Dom and Brian (Walker) speeding toward a train, and Brian ultimately letting Dom escape the police, is meant to evoke not too-cool-for-school laughter, but also investment, sympathy, and some emotion other than self-satisfied distraction.

The Fast and The Furious is not a particularly good film. It’s basically a rip-off of Point Break. But it’s also not that bad, and that would matter if this was meant to be a critical reappraisal of the film’s merit. Instead, it’s meant simply to applaud The Fast and The Furious for having the audacity to be something at all.  It is the type of movie that doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense anymore. Today’s blockbusters – especially the retreads, reboots, re-imaginings, and sequels – bend over backwards to justify their existence, with pandering fan service or a cynical distance that suggests audiences shouldn’t invest any more in the films than the films invest in themselves, which is next to nothing outside of a movie star’s salary and a CGI budget. Even well-received sequels – consider 22 Jump Street, for instance – can hardly help but apologize for their own existence with self-effacing jokes and meta commentary.

The Fast and The Furious, with its softcore-porno shots of cars and asses, unabashed bromantics, and adolescent philosophizing (“It’s not how you stand by your car, it’s how you race your car”, or if you prefer, “I live my life a quarter mile at a time”) tried very hard to be cool. Parts of it worked, if only for a limited period of time to a limited audience, which is more than you can say for the franchise it spawned, a series focused only being smart enough to know that it’s never cool to try, so fuck it, here’s Vin Diesel driving a car through three skyscrapers, do you get it? The Fast franchise is fun, and the films make blockbuster seasons more interesting, but it lives only to sustain itself for the future, one more in a series of franchises with a money faucet no one dares turn off. That model has nothing to do with The Fast and the Furious, and it was never Dom Toretto’s style. The real Dom Toretto lives life a quarter mile at a time.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 13, 2017.

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‘Nekrotronic’ Sells its Soul to Monica Bellucci

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Some movies are just so hard to grasp that trying to do so would be futile. In some instances, that can be used to a film’s advantage, such as Kiah Roache-Turner’s 2014 debut, Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, in which explanations didn’t really matter. Understanding what was happening in that film wasn’t the point; it was just about accepting the ride. That’s the same strategy employed in the director’s 2018 follow-up, Nekrotronic, a supernatural social media haunt that opts for the same deprivation of logic for the sake of a fun B-movie romp.

Co-written with his brother, Tristan, the script takes a kitchen-sink approach to the insane story of demons possessing humans through social media. As the eternal fight between Nekromancers and demons rages on, they’ve become locked in a new type of cyber warfare. An app being designed by a soulless corporation of human husks is overseen by the Queen of the Underworld herself (played by the always incredible Monica Bellucci), and acts a lot like Pokemon Go — but as users find ghosts instead of Pokemon, they unknowingly give their souls to the underworld. And so,  the fate of all mankind now rests on the shoulders of a sanitation worker (Ben O’Toole) and his best friend (Epine Bob Savea).

Nekrotronic is about kicking ass and filling the screen with as much gore and high-tech weaponry as possible.

This Ozploitation film tries really hard to give explanations to virtually everything it introduces, and that’s an admirable effort in a story that very clearly doesn’t care that much. It’s Ghostbusters with a little bit of They Live, and an aesthetic that feels like the video game Doom more than any movie in recent memory. There are 3D-printing demon souls and giant lasers, wraiths, and ghosts that travel through the internet like it’s a series of tubes, and a refusal to stop introducing new conceits. That Nekrotronic has logic presented at all is like if the Alien movies tried to give motivation for the xenomorph attacking its prey — endearing to attempt, but so very unnecessary.

Nekrotronic

That is the major issue that plagues Nekrotronic. The Roache-Turner brothers want to do everything, but by doing everything it’s easy to lose focus on the central conceit — which is hard to pinpoint, because there are so many small emotional beats that are all treated like huge deals at various times. There’s not even really much in the form of a social commentary on our reliance with social media and technology; Nekromancers once put demon souls into the internet as a form of containment, and then didn’t realize that the Queen of Hell would discover a way to use the internet to release the demons. That’s a neat genre explanation that could be mined for more of a critique on apps that data mine and do more harm than we really realize, but unfortunately, the movie only passively mentions this point, then walks away from it immediately.

Instead, Nekrotronic is about kicking ass and filling the screen with as much gore and high-tech weaponry as possible. The cyber-horror aesthetic lends itself really well to the narrative; while it very much looks like a B-movie, it looks like a B-movie with a budget. The visuals are also very vibrant and filled with more colour than Wyrmwood, which is justification for a more riotous feeling — and the really bad jokes support that spirit.

nekrotronic

But the ultimate reason to sit through this very boring, exhaustive assault on the senses is for Monica Bellucci. She chews scenery, whether it’s for the benefit of comedy or horror; no one else comes close. If Nekrotronic did anything really right, it was casting Bellucci as a demon from Hell that says phrases like “No more Mrs. Nice Guy” as she tries to come off motherly, seductive, and terrifying at the same time. If there’s one thing to take away from this film, it’s that the Roache-Turner brothers are hellbent on telling entertaining stories — they just missed the bar with this demonic affair.

Editor’s note: This review was originally published on September 8, 2018 as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. 

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‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ and the Secret Power of Storytelling

‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ sets about exploring the magical past of Hollywood, but it unearths some haunting memories as well.

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Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

*Warning: The following article contains major spoilers

The Manson family murders account for one of the most notorious massacres in the history of the United States. Taking place at 10500 Cielo Drive in the Hollywood hills of Los Angeles, the victims were five adults and one unborn child, that of actress Sharon Tate. The notoriously grim crime scene photos speak for themselves, and the boogie man nature of a twisted mind like Charles Manson remains a haunting memory over 50 years later. It is with this chilling story that we enter the world of Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

It’s about a Hollywood we may have heard of, but that most of us — including Tarantino himself — would never have had the chance to see for ourselves. This is a place where westerns are some of television’s most popular shows, actors smoke and drink on set, and legends like Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen just pop up as if they were regular folks like you or I. It’s a fantasy land in this way, and it’s clear that this is part of the appeal for Tarantino.

With that in mind, it’s not necessarily a huge surprise that Tarantino decided to right the wrongs of a tragedy that still lingers in the memories of old Hollywood like a nasty bedtime story. The Manson murders are infamous in their carnage, and cut down in the prime of her life, actress Sharon Tate remains martyr-like in her tragic fate. Herein lies the power of film, and storytelling in general: the power to create a better world — in this case, one where Tate is allowed to live on and have a happy life as a wife and mother. When conceived this way, the title “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” takes on a different meaning; this film is very literally a fairy tale.


Portrayed by the increasingly impressive Margot Robbie, Sharon Tate appears in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as a starry-eyed optimist and maybe just a bit of a ditz, but a lovable ditz. When people look at her and talk about her at Hollywood parties, it isn’t hard to see why; she has an infectious, magical aura about her, and she seems to be possibility itself in the form of a beautiful, blonde bombshell. Take a scene where she watches the audience of a theater laugh as they enjoy her performance in the film Wrecking Crew: the joy she feels in being a fly on the wall, watching her own movie with the audience, makes her instantly relatable, and simultaneously makes us dread her eventual fate.

This is by design. Tarantino wants us to feel this encroaching sense of dread as he unfolds this tale of old Hollywood, and that’s why scenes of actors and stuntmen waxing nostalgic and hobnobbing with the stars are punctuated with chilling little snippets of the Manson family. Each scene of this kind seems to burn and broil with a pungent malice that, though palpable, never quite boils over into outright violence and bloodshed. It makes us dread the coming murders we are expecting all the more.

However, things take a sudden turn when the Manson family finds themselves accosted by one very drunk Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as they prowl the streets of Hollywood for the Polanski/Tate residence. This chance encounter sparks a creative notion in one of the Manson members: Dalton, a star of many violent TV shows and films, ought to be their first victim. The poetry of it, they decide, will be in enacting the violence of entertainment on those who peddle it. So, their target changes from 10500 Cielo Drive to the house next door. This is where the fun comes in.


For much of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a sort of ‘Chekhov’s acid-soaked cigarette’ floats around the film. We see it time and time again, being bought, stored, and considered by Dalton’s stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). As Dalton and Booth prepare to end their partnership for good, Booth decides to smoke the acid cigarette at last and see where the night takes him. A short time later, the Mansons burst into the home and Booth, fueled by his acid cigarette, positively ruins them. There are vicious dog attacks, genital traumas, egregious face-smashings, and even a fiery finale courtesy of Rick’s flamethrower.

The violence of this sequence cannot be overstated. It’s nasty, brutal stuff. In a juxtaposition that calls to mind the historical revisionism of Inglourious Basterds — where we spend the majority of the movie thinking the assassination attempt on Hitler couldn’t possibly succeed, and when it does we are overjoyed — we actually relish the horror of the Manson family’s fate. Not because we suddenly believe that reality has changed, but because the power of film — and storytelling in general — has allowed us to live in a better world for a few moments.

This is precisely the appeal of the surprise climax of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. We’d love to live in a world where a charismatic psychopath who carved a swastika into his forehead is allowed to dwindle away forgotten, and a rising star is allowed to continue her ascension unhampered. We love seeing the Manson family dispatched with such terrifying ease by the charming Booth and the troubled Dalton, because it’s the opposite of the unseemly fate we had been dreading over the films near three-hour runtime.


Tarantino, of course, expects us to feel this way, which is why he indulges us in the scene for so long. If Booth had just quickly taken out the Mansons with a few swift moves, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy their punishment. If there’s even a shred of doubt of QT’s intent, the appearance of the flamethrower (conveniently stored in Rick’s shed) puts all of that to rest in a fiery finale that’s too funny to be properly grim.

In the end, this is the secret power of storytelling, and it’s one that is rarely used — the power to right the wrongs of history, to indulge the audience in their fantasy of a better reality, and to allow us the brief privilege of residing there. The final moments, as Dalton is being invited into the Tate residence, is when we, the audience, must leave this reality. It’s bittersweet, as we must return to a world where Sharon and her friends were violently murdered 50 years ago, but there is still the beauty of being able to share a world where the horrors of the Manson family were halted in their tracks, before they could descend into their infamous depravity.

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‘The Power of Grayskull‘ Really is the Definitive History of He-Man and The Masters of the Universe

Toys We Love Spotlight

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Anyone who has watched the popular Netflix show, The Toys That Made Us, would know that the history of He-Man: Masters of the Universe is complicated. The toys that Made Us dedicated an entire episode to He-Man and despite watching it numerous times, I walked away still not knowing the entire story behind what is considered one of the most successful toy lines ever produced.

Directors Randall Lobb and Robert McCallum look to remedy this problem with their attempt to go even deeper into the He-Man universe with their new documentary titled, Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man. The documentary which will be available on digital and DVD for the first time this September chronicles the beginnings and blockbuster-success of the toy sensation featuring interviews with Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella, Richard Edlund, J. Michael Straczynski, and Alan Oppenheimer, to name just a few. The Toys That Made Us may have come first, but this 95-minute documentary truly lives up to its title as the definitive history of He-Man — and while it may not be as lively and entertaining as the Netflix series, it does offer an exhausting look at the 40 plus years of development of Mattel’s hottest toy.

He-Man and the accompanying Masters of the Universe franchise would make their debut in 1982 with Mattel’s release of the original 5.5-inch hyper-muscular action figures. Masters of the Universe, often abbreviated as MOTU, was a radical departure from the smaller and lean 3/4-inch heroes of say, G.I. Joe. Here was a thickset swordsman whose story—defending Eternia from the evil Skeletor— began its’ mythos through the minicomics that came packed with the toys throughout the 1980s. Whereas, The Toys That Made Us ripped through the origins of He-Man with humour and speed, The Power of Grayskull gives us a detailed breakdown of just what happened with the brand during those early years when the action figure market was exploding. Designed under the shadow of Star Wars, He-Man’s surprising popularity spawned a multi-billion-dollar empire that included toys, comic books, cartoons, live-action movies, and a sister spinoff show, She-Ra: Princess of Power. There’s a lot of ground to cover and a lot of creatives to interview but somehow Lobb and McCallum manage to cram four decades of He-Man history into an entertaining romp packed with interesting nuggets of information that will have you digging through your childhood toy box.

When He-Man arrived on the scene, it caught the world by storm and made a whopping $38 million for Mattel in its first year alone. Many creative individuals were partly responsible for its success and The Power of Grayskull gathers an impressive roster of artists, creators, and collaborators to explore the mindset behind the unusual toy line. Much like The Toys that Made Us, most of the fun comes from watching these creatives tell stories (and sometimes disagree on the facts) about the surprising success of an unlikely, unparalleled, pop culture phenomenon. He-Man was a huge gamble in 1982 and somehow became a blockbuster sensation, earning well over a billion dollars by 1984. In his prime, He-Man was outselling Mattel’s original superstar, Barbie.

Perhaps the best story told in the doc centers on how Mattel passed on the chance to partner with George Lucas and develop a Star Wars toy line. As Mattel watched Kenner turn Star Wars into a toy giant, the manufacturing giant was desperate for a hit and looked to pick up the pieces by developing their own unique brand. In order to make up for their huge loss and stay competitive in the market, designer Roger Sweet and production artist Mark Taylor (who worked on Barbie) had ideas about a chiseled warrior who wielded a sword much like the heroes seen in the Frank Frazetta’s sci-fi/fantasy comics. In preparing for a meeting with Mattel executives, Sweet applied clay muscles to an existing line of boy’s action figures and created three different He-Man characters in military, fantasy, and space settings. Despite the success of space operas such as Flash Gordon and Star Wars, Mattel opted to go in a different direction and settled for a barbarian look. And thus, He-Man, was born.

The Power of Grayskull doesn’t break new ground but it’s still fascinating to hear the creators reminisce about the early days working for Mattel and how the action figures, the comic and even the Saturday-morning cartoon were invented on the fly. Through a combination of ingenuity, luck and a lot of improvisation, the employees at Mattel created one of the biggest toy success stories of all time. The rest, as they say, is history.

As a documentary, The Power of Grayskull consists mostly of talking-head interviews. It lacks the polish, graphics, and fun animation of The Toys That Made Us but with a longer running time it also spans the entire breadth of the franchise’s history from its initial beginnings through to the development of the 1987 Canon film (Masters of the Universe) and on to the creation of She-Ra and into a breakdown of the recent reboot.

Unfortunately, the last 20 minutes rush through recent iterations of the toy line and its lasting appeal with collectors making me wish the documentary was just a tad bit longer. That aside, The Power of Grayskull offers fans a chance to learn more about the toys they grew up with and how they evolved over the years all while walking a tightrope between fan service and investigative journalism. It’s guaranteed to bring back fond memories for fans of the franchise as they witness He-Man go from a throwaway idea to a toy that was once flying off store shelves. Regardless of how many He-Man documentaries you’ve seen, you’re guaranteed to walk away with a newfound appreciation for what is now a staple in American pop culture.

The Power of Grayskull has the power September 3 on DVD and Digital from High Octane Pictures. Watch the trailer here.

  • Ricky D
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Freelance Film Writers

Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip. We are currently looking for Film, TV, Anime and Comic writers.

Contact us: Editor@GoombaStomp.com

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