Black Adam

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 1/3/23;
Warner;
Action;
Box Office $167.87 million;
$34.98 DVD, $39.98 Blu-ray, $49.98 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sequences of strong violence, intense action, and some language.
Stars Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge, Noah Centineo, Sarah Shahi, Marwan Kenzari, Quintessa Swindell, Bodhi Sabongui, Pierce Brosnan.

Turmoil surrounding the DC Comics film franchise put Black Adam in an unenviable position. On the one hand, it has the baggage of being connected to a cinematic universe many fans aren’t satisfied with. On the other, it was released just before creative changes at the studio fueled speculation that the whole franchise would be rebooted, which isn’t exactly an incentive for the remaining fans of the DC universe to rush out to see it.

The film was a passion project for star Dwayne Johnson, who said Black Adam was his favorite character growing up.

In the comics, Black Adam was the arch-enemy of Shazam — a malevolent force from ancient times whose powers derive from the same magic as Shazam. In more recent times he has been depicted as less of an all-out supervillain and more of an antihero. His existence is alluded to in the 2019 Shazam movie, though he doesn’t make a full-fledged appearance.

Black Adam’s own film thus depicts his origins as the champion of the fictional Middle East nation of Kahndaq, which in ancient times was ruled by a tyrant who enslaved his people to mine for a powerful ore. The Council of Wizards sought a hero of the people to imbue with their powers, but they were instead corrupted by Teth-Adam (Johnson), who used them to seek revenge against those who wronged him. As punishment, Adam was imprisoned by the wizards within the Rock of Eternity.

In the present day, 5,000 years later, Kahndaq is controlled by a criminal conglomerate known as Intergang, which similarly exploits the nation’s resources in search of the legendary Crown of Sabbac, which would give them untold power. A group of resistance fighters led by Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) hopes to find the crown first to keep it from falling into the wrong hands, but in doing so end up freeing Adam from his tomb and unleashing him upon the modern world.

As a safeguard, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) from some of the other DC films enlists members of the Justice Society to neutralize Adam. The team is led by Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), whose cinematic depiction is something of a combination of Marvel’s Falcon, Thor and Iron Man; Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), who is basically DC’s version of Doctor Strange, but also has visions of people’s futures; Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), the Ant-Man equivalent who can grow very large; and Cyclone (Quinessa Swindell), who can manipulate wind not unlike the X-Men’s Storm.

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Adrianna and her son, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), want to help Adam rid their country of Intergang, putting them in conflict with the Justice Society, who claim Adam’s power is too dangerous. Meanwhile, agents of Intergang plot to steal back the crown to unleash the powers of the ancient demons that can defeat Adam.

So, the set-up is a bit similar to 1999’s The Mummy, though Adam’s personality is much more complex. Seeing Adam acclimate to modern technology is amusing, especially as Amon tries to tutor him in how to be a superhero (complete with a coming up with a catch-phrase). On the other hand, Adam’s instinct to kill his enemies first and ask questions later cause quite a bit of friction with the Justice Society.

Stylistically, director Jaume Collet-Serra imbues the film’s confrontations with the sensibilities of a spaghetti western, a conscious choice he discusses in the bonus materials. The film also benefits from the undercurrents of a flashback structure that tells the parallel story of Adam in both ancient and modern times, representing thematically how the meaning and interpretation of historical artifacts can be misconstrued.

The film maintains its distance from the Shazam side of the DC franchise, aside from the fact that their powers derive from the same source (and Djimon Hounsou reprises his role as the wizard who guards over the magic). This also means several characters say the word “Shazam” to activate the powers, which makes it a bit weird that no one would mention that being the name of another superhero (particularly Amon, who has a sizeable collection of superhero merchandise, including a Shazam action figure). But it would probably be a bit less confusing if the hero known as Shazam were still allowed to go by his original moniker from the 1940s, Captain Marvel, before rights issues involving the ownership of different comic book companies made that name the purview of Marvel Comics.

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Still, as its own standalone movie, Black Adam is a slick-looking adventure with a lot of delicious visual effects that stay true to their comic book influences. Most of the supporting characters arrive with exposition-heavy explanations of their powers, hinting at complex backstories that make them seem like they wandered in from other movies that were never made. And that ultimately is what Black Adam feels like — an addendum to the larger DC franchise cobbled together from components of other characters’ stories. It’s entertaining for what it is, making it disappointing to think there won’t be much follow-through on the story points it establishes.

The Blu-ray includes more than 70 minutes of behind-the-scenes materials, in the form of 10 separate featurettes covering everything from the history of the characters, to the development of the film, and the design of the costumes, sets and visual effects. In the 4K combo pack, the extras can be found only on the regular Blu-ray.

 

Aladdin (2019)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 9/10/19;
Disney;
Fantasy;
Box Office $354.53 million;
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG’ for some action/peril.
Stars Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen, Numan Acar.

Disney’s live-action version of Aladdin is essentially a beat-by-beat reconstruction of the animated classic, with a few key differences.

Like before, the story involves a master thief named Aladdin (Mena Massoud) who roams the streets of Agrabah yearning to find a purpose for his life, until he meets Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) when she poses as a commoner to escape the boredom of palace life. Aladdin’s exploits gain the attention of the kingdom’s Grand Vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who forces Aladdin to retrieve a magic lamp from the Cave of Wonders, where touching any of the forbidden treasure inside will cause the cave to collapse (although playing with the magic carpet apparently doesn’t count as part of the treasure). But of course the forbidden treasure gets touched, forcing Aladdin to unleash the Genie (Will Smith) to escape. With his three wishes, Aladdin assumes the guise of a prince to woo Jasmine, further rousing the ire of Jafar, who wanted the power to make himself sultan.

A key difference from the animated version is the film attempts to give Jasmine a bit more agency with a bigger story arc, a handmaiden (Nasim Pedrad) and her own musical number, a song called “Speechless” designed to give her a bit more of an active role in the story than just sitting around waiting for her father to marry her off. And the “One Jump Ahead” number, used in the animated version to establish Aladdin’s character before he meets Jasmine, here is used after he meets her and his framed as his attempts to impress her by escaping the authorities.

Director Guy Ritchie injects a lot of energy into the early goings, but the film loses steam as it builds to its perfunctory conclusion, and just sort of rushes to finish the checklist of key plot points from the original version as it hastily wraps up.

The live-action Jafar comes across more as a shifty schemer than a truly menacing villain, and the film cheats a little in how it dispatches him because of how a few lines of dialogue were altered to make the final confrontation a little less concise.

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Fortunately, the film fares a bit better with the two relationships it needs to work: Aladdin and Jasmine, and Aladdin and the Genie.

Massoud makes for a charming Aladdin and shares a natural chemistry with Naomi Scott, so the love story manages to feel a bit more authentic. And they can do their own singing, which comes in handy for the centerpiece “Whole New World” magic carpet sequence (though the journey ends up weaving through some natural local splendor rather than the globetrotting of the original film).

And Will Smith does a great job as the Genie, which is no easy task considering how iconic Robin Williams made the character’s animated incarnation. Rather than try to compete with Williams’ memory, Smith successfully puts his own hip-hop infused spin on it.

So, while the live-action version isn’t going to supplant the animated version (freshly released on its own new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray edition), it certainly proves entertaining enough in its own right. And how could it not? It already has the advantage of performing what has to be on the shortlist for consideration for the greatest Disney soundtrack of all time (there’s a reason the original film won two Oscars for its music).

Like a tribute band playing the hits, it’s never as good as the original, but you can still dance to it. And the film has the added benefit of original composer Alan Menken on board so that the subtle updates to the film’s sound don’t detract from the nostalgia.

The Blu-ray isn’t heavy on extras, but what is included focuses mostly on the music and how the filmmakers translated the animated version to live-action.

The two key making-of featurettes are a five-and-a-half-minute spotlight on Ritchie and his approach to directing the material (he also co-wrote the screenplay). A second, four-and-a-half-minute featurette focuses on Will Smith bringing the Genie to life.

The lengthiest extra is Massoud’s video journal, which runs nearly 11 minutes and offers an interesting look at filming select scenes from his perspective. It’s always fascinating to see how much of the sets they still bother to make anymore in an age of ubiquitous CGI.

There are also six deleted scenes running a total of 11 minutes that broaden the context of a few scenes in the film.

Separate from this is a two-minute deleted song sequence for a duet between Jasmine and Aladdin to sing while they are separated.

Rounding out the Blu-ray are a two-minute blooper reel and three music videos: the fairly straightforward “Speechless” by Naomi Scott, and a pair of bizarre covers of “Whole New World,” featuring Zayn and either Zhavia Ward or Becky G, depending on whether the female part is in English or Spanish.

As for digital exclusives, there’s a couple of good ones: a two-minute featurette about the staging of the massive “Prince Ali” number, and a four-minute look at creating the “Speechless” song for Jasmine.