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Schultz reviews: "The Best of Enemies," "Pet Sematary" and "Shazam"

Schultz reviews: "The Best of Enemies," "Pet Sematary" and "Shazam"

“The Best of Enemies” Distributed by STX Films, 133 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released April 5:

In 1971, the issue of school integration came to sleepy Durham, North Carolina, more abruptly than many of its residents would’ve liked.

The trailers and some of the advertising for the new movie “The Best of Enemies” seem to suggest it’s a lighthearted look at the beginnings of school integration in the American South during the early 1970s.

It’s not.

An adaptation of Osha Gray Davidson’s 1996 historical account “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South,” the picture tells the true story of how enforced school segregation ultimately ended in Durham.

In “The Best of Enemies,” when a fire destroys the high school serving Durham’s African-American children, the director of the local affirmative action council and the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan are astonished to find themselves appointed co-chairs of a committee exploring ways of implementing a court-ordered desegregation decree.

Given two weeks to devise a solution, the two sworn enemies find that their time together changes both their lives and the course of their town’s future.

Although the picture does contain lighter moments, “The Best of Enemies” is decidedly not a comedy. A lot of the story is ugly, and language is freely used that most of us would rather not hear. And even with a running time of well over two hours, the picture at times seems much longer.

Yet it’s a worthwhile journey — difficult, often painful, but ultimately enlightening, and even inspiring. Character actor Sam Rockwell seems to be establishing a reputation for specializing in performing a very specific sort of unsympathetic character: The actor received an Academy Award in 2017 for his supporting role in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” as an unrepentant small-town racist prone to spontaneous bursts of violence. And his role in “The Best of Enemies” actually seems to use his “Three Billboards” characterization as a starting point.

As C.P. Ellis, the leader of Durham’s Ku Klux Klan, Rockwell refuses to rely on stereotypes, and instead creates a nuanced, three-dimensional character study. Obstinate in his racist doctrine, unshakable in his belief in white supremacy, Rockwell’s Ellis at first refuses to participate in the two-week discussion of desegregation.

But his Klan colleagues ultimately persuade him otherwise: “They’re gonna hand you the keys to integration, C.P.,” one Klansman advises him, “and you’re gonna lock the door.”

The key to Rockwell’s performance is his eyes: Sleepy, bored, confident, arrogant, eyelids at half-mast and lazily immune to the light of reason, Ellis is a man unable to even acknowledge an opponent for a personal kindness performed for his family on behalf of a severely-disabled relative.

But when another Klan member without his knowledge or approval employs terrorist tactics to influence a committee member Ellis has grown to reluctantly admire, the audience sees the first flickers of doubt reflect in his eyes.

As Ann Atwater, the director of the local affirmative action council, the wonderful Taraji P. Henson again finds a role worthy of her enormous talents as a performer. Henson’s Atwater leads with her sense of righteous outrage — even a colleague in the struggle for Civil Rights tells her, “You’re all talking and no listening.”

But after quietly overhearing the real concern in Ellis’ voice as he’s discussing with tenderness the care of a hospitalized child, she begins to sense the beating heart of a human being behind the mask of a monster.

Adapted from Davidson’s 1996 book and directed on a miniscule budget of $10 million by first-time filmmaker Robin Bissell, “The Best of Enemies” has drawn some scolding from certain critical quarters for harboring “the best of intentions but ... a problematic perspective and a disappointing lack of insight.” That’s the price a director pays for his film’s presenting the story more or less as it actually happened.

One of the most heartbreaking moments in the picture occurs when one of the town’s more enlightened and courageous citizens backs down under the threat of terrorist intimidation.

Even Rockwell’s Ellis is compelled to lower his eyes in shame. A less-realistic account might’ve excluded the segment from the finished picture, but guided by director Bissell’s firm hand and balanced vision the scene makes the character’s capitulation even more brutal and tragic.

Alert viewers will also note that when left to their own devices, the town’s young people come together naturally, without regard for racial distinctions.

The victory at Durham in 1971 wasn’t in the integration of the public schools, although that was ultimately the objective and undeniably the visible symbol of the struggle.

Rather, the victory at Durham was in the willingness of people on both sides of the issue to finally look past generations of core beliefs, convictions, opinions, biases, and unfair and even inhuman laws, and to sit down together in a public forum, look each other in the eye, and to begin to listen.

The triumph of “The Best of Enemies” is in showing precisely how difficult that first step was...and still is.

“The Best of Enemies” is rated PG-13 for thematic material, racial epithets, some violence, and suggestive references.

“Pet Sematary” Distributed by Paramount Pictures, 100 Minutes, Rated R, Released April 5:

In “Pet Sematary,” a Boston physician moves with his wife and two young children to a secluded home in rural Maine, and quickly learns that on the periphery of their property is an ancient burial ground which has the power to resurrect the dead.

When his family is struck by tragedy, the doctor in his grief uses the cursed burial ground in an attempt to reverse the damage, with horrific results.

The second film version of Stephen King’s blockbuster 1983 novel is decidedly not an improvement on the original ... which might tell you a lot, because the 1989 version was mostly blasted by the critics, but made a pile of money at the box office.

Both pictures share a distinction of taking author King’s most visceral and unsettling premise and somehow making it even worse.

Directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer from a screenplay by Jeff Buhler, the new “Pet Sematary” looks like it might’ve been cut down from a longer version, with red herrings aplenty, unexplained nuances, and character developments which either lead nowhere or simply fail to pan out.

Fidelity to the novel goes out the window in the opening minutes, leaving intact only the bare bones of the plot ... so to speak. Once or twice the movie departs from the source material entirely, and relies instead on ideas and shots recycled from the 1989 picture.

Jason Clarke is a superb character actor who’s given far too few opportunities to excel in leading roles. But as Dr. Louis Creed, the Boston physician who relocates his family to the wilderness of rural Maine to escape the dangers of city life, Clarke’s work falls short.

As Creed grows more bereft and simultaneously less rational, Clarke performs the part with the self-same measured indifference as before. In a role which requires intricate balance, Clarke instead appears somnambulant.

The sum total of the picture just doesn’t make much sense: Any responsible person would’ve placed a For Sale sign on the property the instant they learned the woods outside their house was filled with such creepy sound effects. And why in the world would a family with two young children not immediately install a fence around their backyard when they learned tractor trailer trucks barrel past with such regularity?

In the end, “Pet Sematary” is little more than a collection of random scenes strung together to either scare the audience or nauseate them, and frequently both simultaneously.

From that perspective, “Pet Sematary” becomes sort of a greatest hits collection of Stephen King-inspired notions and ideas.

The final result isn’t so much clever or scary as gamy and unpleasant. Filmed near Montreal, Quebec, the picture seems set-bound, moving instead from one spooky, fog-bound soundstage to another, using the Canadian locations only for a few establishing shots.

Released to 2,500 theaters across the United States and Canada, distributor Paramount Pictures hoped to earn between $20 million and $30 million from the picture during its opening weekend. The movie closed the weekend with $25 million in revenues, placing second in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten behind the opening “Shazam!” which earned well over $56 million in its first three days of release.

Critically, “Pet Sematary” is faring better than the 1989 original, with an approval rating of 62% from Rotten Tomatoes and 58% from Metacritic. There’s already reportedly a prequel in the works.

“Pet Sematary” is rated R for violence, bloody images, and language concerns.

“Shazam!” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 132 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released April 5:

Abandoned as a toddler and raised in a succession of foster homes, 14-year-old Billy Batson while escaping from school bullies encounters an ancient wizard, who imbues the bewildered and reluctant boy with an array of superpowers that enable him to guard the world’s goodness and purity against an assault from the forces of evil.

In order to access his new powers and instantly become a full-grown, adult-sized superhero, all young Batson needs to do is utter the magic word ”Shazam!”

Unfortunately, the boy’s new superpowers are not equipped with an instruction manual... or a key to instant maturity. The seventh (and reportedly least expensive) of the pictures in the DC Extended Universe — that is, the series of motion pictures based upon characters which appear in magazines published by DC Comics — ”Shazam!” is also one of the best, and certainly the most sweet-spirited.

Directed by David F. Sandberg, this is one picture that seemingly has it all — a compelling story, special effects which enhance rather than overwhelm the narrative, and above all the all-important sense of fun which seems to elude the more ponderous and pretentious of DC’s superhero flicks.

In the title role, Zachary Levi displays the same sort of dazed and confused likability that informed his turn as the reluctant superspy in television’s “Chuck” from 2007 to 2012.

While Henry Gayden’s script never allows Levi’s performance to mature to a level which might be described as a characterization, the actor’s participation is appealing and more than equal to the challenges required by the part. 16-year-old Asher Angel might actually display more range and depth of emotion as Levi’s alter ego, 14-year-old Billy Batson.

As Batson’s foster brother, sounding board, best friend and part-time conscience, Jack Dylan Grazer exhibits an empathetic quality unusual for a sidekick ... and also occasionally functions as a stand-in for the audience.

Annoyed by Batson’s exploiting his new superhero status for the sake of popularity, Grazer at one point shouts in anger and exasperation, “All these powers, and all you are is a showoff and a bully!” It’s a reality check the audience has been longing for, and the line deserves a round of applause.

Among the supporting players, Mark Strong contributes another of his patented arch-villain impersonations, a role he now can practically perform in his sleep. It suffices, but Strong is capable of much, much more.

Djimon Hounsou appears as the ancient wizard who invests young Batson with superpowers. And the picture’s scenes at home with Batson’s foster family contain a special warmth, mostly courtesy of actors Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans, and Grace Fulton. You might find yourself wishing the picture featured more of Batson’s extended adoptive family.

“Shazam!” actually began life in 1939 as “Captain Marvel,” in magazines published by the Fawcett Comics company. Fawcett’s “Captain Marvel” line of comics ceased publication in 1953, largely because of a lawsuit filed against the company by the larger DC Comics, who alleged copyright infringement — specifically that Captain Marvel flew a little too close to the image of the DC Comics-owned Superman character.

DC Comics acquired publication rights to Fawcett’s Captain Marvel character in 1972, by which time DC rival Marvel Comics had introduced an entirely different character bearing the same name.

DC branded and marketed their stories under the trademark slogan “Shazam!” leading many readers to presume it was their character’s name. To offset confusion, DC in 2011 officially renamed their former Captain Marvel character “Shazam!”

“Shazam!” is rated PG-13 for sequences of comic book action, language, and some suggestive material.

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