SHAZAM!

Posted on April 3, 2019 at 5:19 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material
Profanity: Some schoolyard language and a few bad words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teens try to buy beer, character with some substance abuse issues
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action/comic book peril and violence
Date Released to Theaters: April 5, 2019
Copyright Warner Brothers 2019

Here’s a word you don’t hear very often in reviews of superhero movies: “Shazam!” is adorable. Oh, yes, it’s exciting and has great fights and special effects and a good bad guy and all that. But it is also wildly entertaining, downright delightful, and, yes, adorable. This is an especially welcome development from DC Comic and Warner Brothers, which have tended toward the it’s-depressing-so-it-must-be-profound side of superhero stories.
“SHAZAM!” is fun. It is exciting. It is warm-hearted. It is very funny. And it is, no kidding, wise, in its own way much more profound than many portentous comic book movies with angsty heroes.

Screenwriter Henry Gayden draws as much from the classic Penny Marshall/Tom Hanks movie “Big” as he does from the varied history of the comic book character whose name is an acronym for the sources of his power:

S The wisdom of Solomon
H The strength of Hercules
A The stamina of Atlas
Z The power of Zeus
A The courage of Achilles
M The speed of Mercury

But Shazam has one more power that is even more intriguing — when teenager Billy Batson (a terrific Asher Angel) says “SHAZAM!” he doesn’t just turn into a superhero — he turns into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi). So Billy/Shazam is excited about being super-strong and having the power to zap things, but he is just as excited about being able to buy beer.

One thing he is not excited about is being sent to another foster home. Billy became separated from his mother at a fair when he was a child and has been bouncing around in the foster system ever since, trying to track down his mother whenever he gets a chance — and making chances when he does not.

The new foster home is headed by a couple who were foster kids themselves and it includes an assortment of children, most of whom try to reassure Billy, but he has no interest. His roommate is Freddy (an equally terrific Jack Dylan Grazer), who walks with a crutch. But Billy does not want to make friends and getting close to anyone seems to him like an admission that his real family, his mother, will never be found. “Families are for people who can’t take care of themselves,” he says. And yet he cannot stop looking for the mother he lost, or who lost him.

And then Billy meets a wizard (Djimon Hounsou). We’ve already seen a flashback where another kid was given the chance to gain the powers of Shazam but failed the test. We won’t find out whether Billy passes the test because the wizard’s time is running out and Billy is his last chance. So, Billy gets the powers, and we get to watch him try to figure out what they are. So does Freddy, who becomes his sidekick, and then his friend, and then, maybe, his family.

While Billy/Shazam is having a blast — literally — with his new powers, the boy who failed the test in 1974 is now an angry man (all-purpose villain Mark Strong as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana) who has spent his life trying to get another chance at the powers that he was once offered.

The film embraces its “Big” themes, with a callout to its most iconic scene, as Billy/Shazam pauses in a chase scene to play with a giant keyboard in a toy store.

Like Hanks, Levi shows us the boy inside the man, the unguarded expressions of someone who has not yet developed a social mask and the awkward moves of someone still trying on the adult body and not too sure of how it takes up space. Angel and Glazer are both outstanding, with tons of cinematic charisma. The story of Billy and Freddy is a perfect balance to the special effects/superhero storyline, and Billy’s growing understanding of what family really means is heartfelt and genuinely sweet.

To say more would be to spoil the movie’s best surprises, and you deserve to see them un-spoiled. Just go to one of this year’s most entertaining films.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for TWO extra scenes!

ALSO NOTE: This is the first of two “Big”-inspired films this month. Coming up, we have the “Big” triple reversal “Little,” starring Black-ish’s Marsai Martin, who came up with the idea when she was watching the Hanks film. Instead of a white boy wishing to be big, this ons is about a black woman who is wished into becoming a child again. The film co-stars Regina Hall and “Insecure’s” Issa Rae.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/superhero peril and violence, some schoolyard and brief strong language, a teen sneaking into a strip club, and some potty humor. There are issues of parental abandonment.

Family discussion: What did Billy learn from seeing his mother? If you had Shazam’s powers, what would you do first? Was the wizard’s test a good one? How was Thaddeaus affected by his father?

If you like this, try: “Thor: Ragnarock” and “Wonder Woman”

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Alita: Battle Angel

Posted on February 14, 2019 at 5:36 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/fantasy peril and violence, knives, guns, chases, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: February 15, 2019

Copyright 2018 20th Century Fox
The most surprising achievement of “Alita: Battle Angel,” a (mostly) live action version of a story that was originally a cyberpunk manga series of graphic novels and then an anime feature, is that somehow producer James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez managed to make the main characters anime-style eyes a lot less weird than I expected.

The title character (Rosa Salazar Rosa Salazar) is a young female cyborg with Keane-style manga eyes, so the uncanny valley risk of her look being distracting and disorienting. But it turned out to be easy to adjust to it and almost immediately I was immersed in the dazzling world of the film and caught up in the action. Cameron (“Terminator,” “Avatar,” “Titanic”) and Rodriguez (“Sin City,” “Desperado,” “From Dusk til Dawn”) are both visual masters. The world they have created is immersive and wildly imaginative and the action scenes are staged are dynamic and compelling. There’s heart to it as well, with an appealing heroine who brings us along with her as she sorts through the moral quandaries of this brutal environment, showing herself more human than the humans.

It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which the reduced population of Earth lives on what is essentially a planet-sized junk pile. A small group of wealthy elites live on a city suspended above earth like a gigantic Macy’s Thanksgiving parade balloon, as in the Matt Damon film “Elysium.” Everyone else just scrounges, scrambles, or battles for whatever they can.

Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) does what he can to help, replacing damaged body parts with sophisticated mechanical prostheses, many of the parts found through scavenging. Searching through rubble one day he finds a mangled treasure, the head and part of the torso of a cyborg girl. He brings her home and gives her arms and legs that look like they are made of delicately carved antique ivory. Their relationship recalls Geppetto and Pinocchio. He is the fond father of an adopted child that is very much his own creation. And as we will learn, the reason he had those lovingly prostheses ready is that he created them for a child who died before he could help her. Alita may be his second chance.

But Alita is not a little girl. As her memory comes back slowly, she becomes the warrior she was designed to be. She remembers her fighting skills first. Then some of the other details of her past begin to come back. She remembers that she fights and how she fights and something of why she fights though she is not as clear on where she came from or what her place is in the world.

A man named Vector (Mahershala Ali) and his physician colleague Cherin (Jennifer Connelly) run a lethal high-speed roller derby that is a “Hunger Games”-style form of Darwinian survival of the fittest entertainment and commerce — and a cover for some less public but more deadly activities. The other major economic enterprise of this society seems to be bounty hunting (including characters played by Ed Skrein and Jackie Earle Haley) and chop shops for mechanical prostheses. One person involved is Hugo (Keean Johnson), who has to re-think what he has been doing when he finds himself falling for someone he might not have considered human before he looked into those big, big eyes.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended sci-fi/fantasy peril, action, and violence, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images, guns, chases, explosions, some strong language, and kisses.

Family discussion: What does Dr. Ido want for Alita? Why did Chiren respond so differently to the death of her daughter?

If you like this, try: The “Star Wars” movies, “Speed Racer,” and “Jupiter Ascending”

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Miss Bala

Posted on January 31, 2019 at 5:33 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of gun violence, sexual and drug content, thematic material, and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealing, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended crime and law enforcement-related peril and violence, guns and shoot-outs, knives, bombs, rape, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 31, 2019

Copyright 2018 Columbia Pictures
“Miss Bala” is a serviceable action thriller but very much the Hollywood version. In real life, a beauty queen named Laura Zúñiga (her title was “Our Sinaloa Beauty”) was arrested with seven members of a Mexican drug and weapons crime operation. Her story became a Mexican film, also called Miss Bala, which portrayed her as a kidnap victim, forced to work with the La Estrella gang to protect her family.

The American remake is closer to Pam Grier’s “Foxy Brown” or Tarantino’s “Death Proof” than to the real story, where the beauty queen did not fire a gun in stilettos and a red evening gown with a slit up the leg. The woman in the dress is “Jane the Virgin‘s” stars Gina Rodriguez as Gloria, a makeup artist from California, an American citizen who returns to her original home in Tijuana to help her best friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) look her best in the Miss Baja California beauty pageant. Gloria loves Suzu and her little brother Chava (Sebastián Cano), who are the closest she has to a family. And Suzu seems to be missing some red flags about the pageant, unconcerned about rumors that the local sheriff insists on droit de seigneur privileges with each year’s winner. A pre-competition party is interrupted by a shoot-out. Gloria is almost killed, but won’t take her opportunity to get away because she stays to look for Suzu. She tells a man in uniform that she can identify the killers, but he turns out to be working for them. He takes her to the leader of the group, Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), who tells her that if she helps them, he will find Suzu for her.

So Gloria finds herself getting more and more caught up in the terrifying world of warring drug dealers. At first, she is a numb patsy who follows Lino’s directions to park a car by a building, but then it turns out it was packed with a bomb and used to blow up a safe house operated by the US DEA. Desperate to find Suzu and protect Chava, the follows his orders, transporting drugs and cash across the border into California and bringing back guns. The DEA brings her in and threatens her with prison or worse if she does not cooperate. The pressure is intense and the consequences are immeasurably tragic. Lino is suspicious, but also drawn to Gloria, because he, too, has been considered too Mexican to be American and too American to be Mexican. Gloria has to try to navigate between fear and something approaching loyalty while keeping in mind the single driving force of her commitment to rescuing Suzu.

Rodriguez has said in interviews that she insisted on giving Gloria more agency, making her more active, doing whatever a male character in those situations would do, all of which is salutary, but it goes so far it becomes cartoonish.

Almost everyone who worked on this film on screen and off is Latinx, which is also salutary, though the fact that the first major studio film to make that a goal has to be about the most obvious possible stereotype of Latinx characters.

Parents should know that this is a close-to-R PG-13, with themes of sex and drug trafficking, intense peril and violence, guns, knives, bombs, shoot-outs, many characters injured and killed, rape (off-camera), and some strong language.

Family discussion: How did Gloria decide what to do in the parking lot? What do you think she will do next?

If you like this, try: the original Spanish-language version of the story with the same title, and “2 Fast 2 Furious”

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The Kid Who Would Be King

Posted on January 24, 2019 at 5:32 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for fantasy action violence, scary images, thematic elements including some bullying, and language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril and violence with monsters, characters injured and killed, beheading, swords, car crashes, references to mental illness and alcoholism of a parent, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: January 25, 2019
Date Released to DVD: April 15, 2019

Copyright 2018 20th Century Fox
Every once in a while, a kid has to pull a sword from the stone and save the world. And what makes this particular kid the right one is thoughtfully presented in “The Kid Who Would be King,” this present-day retelling of the story of Arthur, the once and in this case literally future king. Louis Ashbourne Serkis plays Alex, a 12-year-old who is very close to his single mother (Denise Gough). His best friend is Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), who is regularly bullied by Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). Alex comes to his defense and gets into a scuffle with the much bigger, tougher, bullies, but refuses to tell the headmistress or his mother who started it.

On the run from Lance and Kaye himself, Alex hides out in a construction site, where he sees a sword stuck in a stone and pulls it out. At home, he finds a book his father had given him about the story of King Arthur, inscribed to him: To Alex, the Once and Future King. At school, a gawky new student named “Merton” is so strange he seems like good news to Bedders, who tells Alex he will deflect attention from them as the formerly most tempting targets at the school. But “Merton” is in fact Merlin (Angus Imbrie), who is actually very old but looks like a teenager because he is living backwards, except when he flickers back into his actual age and looks like Patrick Stewart.

Merlin tells Alex that the sword is King Arthur’s Excalibur, to be used to defeat Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), who has been waiting for the world to achieve a level of turmoil that would make it possible for her to return. If you’ve read the news lately, you will not be surprised to learn that the necessary level of turmoil has been achieved and surpassed.

Alex decides he has to find his father for guidance, and he asks Lance and Kaye to join him, noting that their names recall King Arthur’s closest allies, Sir Lancelot and Sir Kay, as well as Bedders/Sir Bedivere. Lance and Kaye may be bullies, but they are strong and brave, and may be persuaded to follow the Chivalric Code (or pretend to).

Meanwhile, Morgana is getting stronger, and she sends flaming skeleton emissaries on horseback to attack Alex. Merlin introduces the group to the real purpose of Stonehenge and the other prehistoric standing stone structures throughout England (think of them as subway stations) and gives them a sword-fighting tutorial with trees come to life in one of the movie’s best scenes.

Alex is very familiar with “chosen one” stories like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, where the hero is “chosen” in significant part from his biological heritage, and he believes that the gift from the father he never knew is proof of his own heritage as the reason for his fitness to carry Excalibur. The movie makes it clear that this is not the case. Alex will have to think about what it is that made him able to get the sword and how he can use those qualities to defeat Morgana.

Both Serkis and Imrie have some hefty heritages of their own, one the son of motion-capture wizard Andy Serkis and the other the son of “Calendar Girls” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” star Celia Imrie. Like the other young cast members, they have appealing screen presences, and Imrie in particular has loads of lanky charm, wearing a Led Zeppelin 1975 tour t-shirt and snarfing down the 21st century equivalent of his elixir. Director Joe Cornish of the cheeky “Attack the Block” keeps things lively, with plenty of humor to balance the action and a rousing finale with the entire school joining the fight.

Parents should know that this film has extensive fantasy peril and violence, with some scary images and monsters, chases, bullies, car crashes, a beheading, brief comic nudity (non-explicit) and some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Why was Alex the right person to have the sword? Why did he choose Lance and Kaye to help him? Could you follow the movie’s version of the Chivalric Code?

If you like this, try: “A Kid in King Arthur’s Court,” “The Sword in the Stone,” and “Camelot”

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Mortal Engines

Posted on December 13, 2018 at 5:37 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense fantasy/action peril and violence, bombs, explosions, knives, many characters injured and killed including parents, some grisly images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 14, 2018
Date Released to DVD: March 11, 2019

Copyright Universal 2018
Well, it looks amazing. Producer Peter Jackson has brought the same artistic vision to “Mortal Engines” that he did to the “Lord of the Rings” films. But this time the visual splendor is just too sharp a contrast with a story that is a long, long way from the deeply imagined world of Tolkien. It is based on a seven (so far) series of books by Philip Reeve about a post-apocalyptic world in which cities roll around on enormous, ravenous monster steampunk vehicles. The vehicles are pretty cool. The story is not. It’s just another derivative post-apocalyptic story about utter catastrophe and corruption, where the only hope is a small group of hot teenagers, a lesser “Hunger Games/Divergent/Maze Runner/Ender’s Game” knock-off, with a touch of “Battlefield Earth,” “Terminator,” and even a hint of the original “Star Wars” trilogy (now episodes IV and V).

We’re informed at the beginning that it took just an hour to destroy life as we know it, literally, geographically remaking the map of the world, with super-weapons that shattered the surface of the planet. Humanity has reverted to survival of the fittest, which means that there is only a very thin veneer of any kind of social structure beyond “might makes right.” London is might, and in the opening scene we see the London literal ship of state take over a smaller city/vehicle absorbing its resources, including its residents, who are “welcomed” by being turned into slave labor.

That thin veneer includes some superficial trappings of the civilization that preceded it, including “historians” who operate a “museum,” where they try to parse the meaning of the shards of 21st century life, especially the technology as it appears written records did not survive. But we will learn that the real reason for this supposed interest in the past is to get access to the very same weapons that caused the disaster. Santayana said that those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it. In this case, the only history that is studied is by those who intend to repeat it.

The real star of the film is production designer Dan Hennah. The machinery is wonderfully intricate and detailed. The settings are so gorgeously done that they just point up the under-imagined quality of the script, which is basically: A rebel girl with a scar on her face (Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw) and a “historian” from the museum (Robert Sheehan as Tom Natsworthy) are on the run from the evil Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who killed Hester’s mother and tried to kill Tom. He is the one whose interest in the museum’s artifacts was just a cover for tracking down all the missing pieces to reconstruct the big blaster, but he has a nice blonde daughter named Katherine (Leila George) who gets to find out that her father has been lying to her about pretty much everything. Hester and Tom are also on the run from a Terminator-type cyborg/zombie who was once a man but is now a single-minded killing machine (Stephen Lang, warming up for “Avatar” sequels or maybe cooling down from them.

Some books are fine as they are. Some are untranslatable to the screen, and some, like this one, should stay between the covers because bringing them to life only shows how lifeless they are.

Parents should  know that this movie includes intense and sometimes graphic peril and violence, murder, explosions, knives, guns, bombs, characters injured and killed including parents, and some disturbing images.

Family discussion: Why did Valentine pretend to love history? How were knowledge and ignorance of history both used by different characters?

If you like this, try: “The Maze Runner” and “City of Ember”

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