Blue Beetle

Posted on August 17, 2023 at 11:17 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, language, and some suggestive references
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book-style action peril and violence, guns, knives, fire, explosions, torture, characters injured and killed, two very sad deaths of parents
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 18, 2023

Copyright 2023 Warner Brothers
Yes, a cool, bulletproof super-suit that can fly you to space and manifest any weapon you can think of is great, but “Blue Beetle” makes it clear that the real super-powers here are a devoted family and a culture of resilience and make-do. Jaime Reyes, played by the very charismatic Xolo Maridueña (“Cobra Kai”) is the fourth version of this character, originally from Charleton Comics, later DC. And he is the first to be a character of color, in this version, from a financially struggling but devoted and optimistic Mexican-American family. They include his mother, Roicio (Elpidia Carrillo), his father Alberto (Damián Alcázar of “Narcos”), his sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo), his grandmother Nana (Adriana Barraza), and his uncle Rudy (George Lopez).

That whole family is at the airport to meet Jaime when he returns home, the first member of his family to be a college graduate. He is very happy to see them, but dismayed to learn what they have been keeping from him. Alberto is recovering from a heart attack. And the family is about to lose their home because they cannot pay the rent. Jaime is determined to do whatever he can to take care of them. He is fired from his first job as a pool boy because he stood up for Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine) when she was being bullied by her aunt, the formidable Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon), the head of the huge conglomerate, Kord Industries. Jenny was objecting to her aunt’s plan to create an army of cyborg super-soldiers. She did not want to be in the weapons business.

Jenny thanks Jaime and says she will find him a job at Kord Industries. His whole family drives him to the headquarters to cheer him on. But when Jaime sees Jenny, she is again in distress. She hands him a fast food box and tells him to help her hide it, and not to look inside. He brings it home, the box gets opened, and the blue scarab inside attaches itself to Jaime and then enters his body, turning him into a cyborg superhero. The super-suit is fully integrated into his system, but it also operates kind of like Tony Stark’s Iron Man contraption. It has its own consciousness. It talks to him.

So, off to some superhero stuff, including that classic, the villain’s secluded island with the secret lab. But along the way there are some funny and warm-hearted family moments that make this as much about them as it is about the gadgets and stunts. Unlike other comic book heroes like Batman, Superman, Shazam, the X-Men, and Spider-Man, Jaime’s background and motives are not rooted in tragedy, grief, and trauma. This gives the story a buoyancy and humor, even when there is a terrible loss. His uncle Rudy is goofy, but he also demonstrates the ingenuity and persistence that poor and marginalized people need to survive. “We’re invisible to ,” a character says. “It’s our superpower.” Jaime’s family is strong and loving, and have some unexpected skills. They respond to devastating loss by compartmentalizing, as we can see they have done before: do what needs to be done, then grieve, then start to rebuild.

Even by comic book standards, some of the violence is too much. Jaime begins by insisting he will not kill anyone. The shift to cheering when people — even a bad guy’s henchmen — are blown away is abrupt, even at one moment played for comedy. The film’s weakest link is its villain. Susan Sarandon does her best to show Victoria’s ability to switch from cooing manipulation to single-minded, dictatorial EVIL BAD GUY stuff “in a Cruella Kardashian kind of way,” like racist mis-naming a lab worker. Unfortunately, her dialogue (“harness the power of legions!!!” “Finally the power of the scarab will be ours!”) falls more into over-the-top but pronouncements that still manage to be dull.

But that makes the non-Victoria parts of the film even more engaging by contrast, and they more than make up for the thin characterization of the villain with the heartwarming portrayal of the family, initially comic but ultimately exemplars of courage and loyalty that give the film its heart.

Parents should know that this is a superhero movie with extended peril and violence including knives, guns, fire, and explosions. Characters are injured and killed and there are two very sad deaths of parents. Some characters begin the film as anti-weapon and anti-killing but switch into pro-weapon and at least not as anti-killing very quickly. Characters use some schoolyard language (s-word, a-word), there is non-sexual, non-explicit nudity, and there are references to private parts and how they operate.

Family discussion: How did Jaime’s family and culture affect his decisions? Which member of his family was your favorite and why?

If you like this, try: “The Flash” and the Christopher Reeves “Superman” movies and some of the other work from these actors including “Cobra Kai”

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The Flash

Posted on June 15, 2023 at 5:16 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some strong language and partial nudity
Profanity: Some strong language, several s-words, one f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book action peril and violence, injuries and sad deaths
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 15, 2023

Copyright 2023 Warner Brothers
“The Flash” is centered in the sweet spot between action, comedy, and heart because is is grounded in a deep affection for the source material but is not afraid to play with some of its absurdities. I’m going to tread very carefully to avoid spoilers (and alert you to what I hope will be just two of the jokes in this review), but if you want to go into the film knowing nothing, including what is in the trailer, come back and read this after you’ve seen it.

Ezra Miller shows no signs of the instability that has led to troubling behavior and disturbing headlines in his excellent performance as not one but two Barry Allens. The storyline allows for something of an origin story without the too-often superhero film mistake of making it all about the adjustment to the use and purpose of superpowers and attendant vulnerabilities. We first see Barry Allen (Flash’s secret identity) trying to get a high-protein sandwich at a cafe counter. He is, unsurprisingly, in a hurry because first, he is running late, and two, as a result of the energy he burns in his super-fastness requires a lot of food for fuel. It’s not quite like Popeye and spinach, but it’s not not like it, either.

Barry is awkward and shy. He works as a forensic scientist, looking at evidence from crime scenes. And he is hoping to exonerate his father, Henry (Ron Livingston), who is in prison for murdering his wife, Barry’s mother, when Barry was a child. Barry knows his father is innocent, and is hoping that his friend Bruce (Batman) Wayne (Ben Affleck) can help him with a crucial piece of evidence, security camera footage from a grocery store that would substantiate Henry’s alibi. But the enhanced clarity of the tape, shot from above, does not show Henry’s face, only his baseball cap. Barry, devastated, goes for such an intensive run that he passes the speed of light and goes back in time. If he can do that, he reasons, maybe he can go back further and prevent his mother’s murder. Bruce Wayne warns him it is a big mistake. Butterfly effect, etc. He, of course, knows very well what it is like to have your entire live defined by a devastating childhood loss.

Barry cannot resist. And that is when things start to scramble. First, one very small choice somehow had a lot of major repercussions, some strangely random. Somehow, instead of Michael J. Fox coming in to replace him, the original star of “Back to the Future,” Eric Stoltz, stayed in the role. The people he knows from his timeline are either not there or very different. And second, Barry misjudged and instead of returning to the present, he finds himself 10 years ago, which means, yes, that his teen-age self is there, too. The interaction between the two Barrys (both played by Miller), one formed by the murder of his mother and wrongful conviction of his father and one who grew up in a home with intact, loving parents, is at the heart of the film. In fact, the villain (Michael Shannon as Kryptonian bad guy General Zod) is almost an afterthought in this film, relying on our remembering him and his whole deal from previous encounters.

Instead, the movie is more about Barry, both Barrys, their interaction and their growing understanding of their situation and, if it can be put this way, each other. From a small, witty hiccup in the presentation of the movie’s title to the throwaway lines about other anomalies in the pile of spaghetti that is what happens when you splinter linear time, to some funny cameos (Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth provides one of the film’s best moments), the film is more interested in concept and character than mayhem.

That’s a good thing as the mayhem is more serviceable than memorable. This is a movie that is more about the people than the powers, and that is a superpower worth having.

Parents should know that this film includes brief non-sexual male nudity (bare tush), some strong language (s-words and one f-word), and extended comic book-style peril and action violence, with injuries and some sad deaths.

Family discussion: What one small decision have you made that had a surprisingly big impact on your life? If you could go back in time ten years, what advice would you give yourself?

If you like this, try; Other time-warp movies like “Back to the Future” with Michael J. Fox and “Frequency” as well as other DC Comics movies

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Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 3

Posted on May 3, 2023 at 11:56 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language.
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/action/comic book-style peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 5, 2023
Date Released to DVD: July 31, 2023

Copyright Disney 2023
I guess it makes sense. Not the movie. Not even close. But the form = content notion that “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” the third in the series, is, like its characters a mess but a lovable and entertaining mess. By now it feels like it’s our mess. So, even though I couldn’t help imagining what Honest Trailers and Pitch Meeting are going to have so say about the very convoluted to the point of you’ve-got-to-be-kidding last 40 minutes or so and it’s well over two hours run time, I enjoyed it.

We already know something about the history of some of the characters. Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) had an earth mother and an alien father and was taken from earth at age 8 by an intergalactic group of rogues and thieves called The Ravagers. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) were stolen from their families when their planets were annihilated by Thanos and then tortured and mutilated to turn them into assassins. But we don’t know much about Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and the tree-guy voiced by Vin Diesel.

In this chapter, we go back to Rocket’s origin story. Like Thanos’ adopted daughters and Wolverine and I’m sure lots of other fictional characters, he was operated on by a megalomaniacal villain trying to “perfect” the world. He is The High Evolutionary, played by Chukwudi Iwuji. He has already created worlds and destroyed them for not living up to his exacting standards of perfection. One of his worlds we saw briefly in the last GothG movie, with Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha, leader of a world of spectacularly beautiful golden-hued creatures. In this film, he threatens to destroy that world unless Ayesha’s son, Warlock (Will Poulter), brings him Rocket. While the High Evolutionary is obsessed with the “improvements” he inflicts, somehow Rocket has gifts of intellect that the High Evolutionary did not create for him and he wants to understand and either copy that or destroy it.

The High Evolutionary’s experiments on Rocket and other animals were mechanical, replacing body parts with metal, so that they look Like the mutilated toys in Syd’s room in the first “Toy Story.” But it is in the adjoining cages that he finds his first family, led by the warm-hearted otter named Lylla. Rocket, using that exceptional capacity for engineering we have observed in the earlier films, manages to escape (including piloting a ship even though he has never even seen one before, much less been exposed to outer space or really anything outside of his prison).

This time, then, the Guardians are not saving the galaxy. At the beginning of the film they seem happily settled in Knowwhere with Cosmo the Soviet wonder dog, Mantis, the anntena-ed empath (Pom Klementieff), and former Ravager Kraglin (Sean Gunn). They have opened a bar. But the one doing all the drinking is Peter, who is still trying to drown his grief over the loss of Gamora. Nothing can get him to stop until Rocket is attacked. He is gravely injured and in order to save him the Guardians will need to retrieve a code to unlock a mechanism that prevents the necessary surgery and just 48 hours to do it. The Ravagers also get involved, and they now include a different version of Gamora brought back from the past who has no memory of her relationship with Peter.

There’s a hint of “Mission Impossible.” They’re even told that if they are caught, they will not be acknowledged as acting on behalf of the ruling body. And there’s a Zune vintage music player retrieved at the end of Vol 2 to follow the mix-tapes from the first two movies with some new songs for the soundtrack.

As noted, it does get messy. The group of misfit toys go off in different directions and it is hard to keep track of who is doing what where. A increasing problem with the Marvel movies is the way they keep using the stakes The High Evolutionary and Warlock have powers of near god-like magnitude. What can the Guardians do? It gets muddled. The High Evolutionary can do just about anything including creating and destroying worlds, but somehow cannot fight back from an attack with claws. There is a significant element to the story about the essential value of living beings who might not be considered “higher” life forms….until that is undermined later on. I said it was messy. As Peter said in the first one, “Something good, something bad? Bit of both.”

NOTE: Stay through the credits for two extra scenes

Parents should know that this film has extended peril and comic book/action-style violence with sometimes graphic and disturbing images. Characters are injured and killed. The film includes strong language, drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: Why is having a name so important? What does the name High Evolutionary mean and what does he think it means to be “perfect?” Why was the distinction about “higher forms” significant?

If you like this, try: the other “Guardians” movies

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Shazam: Fury of the Gods

Posted on March 16, 2023 at 9:28 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of action, language, violence
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style fantasy/superhero peril and violence, teacher killed, continuous peril
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 17, 2023

Copyright Warner Brothers 2023
I loved the first “Shazam” movie because it was — and this is a term you don’t hear often in connection with comic book movies — endearing. Asher Angel winningly played the young Billy Watson, searching for his lost mother and running away or being kicked out of a series of foster homes until he finds (1) a wizard who selects him as the first one in hundreds of years worthy of the powers of the gods that make up SHAZAM (that’s Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury), and (2) a foster family we will understand before he does that is truly his home. Billy was a bit of a rogue, but that was because he was used to fending for himself. And it was a lot of fun to see a young teenager for whom the adult male persona was as much of an adjustment as the superpowers.

That film ended with Billy granting superpowers to the other five kids in the foster home, ranging in age from kindergarten to about to start college. So this movie loses some of the sweetness of the first in juggling adult and young versions of five of the six characters plus not one but three new supervillains, the goddess daughters of Atlas, played by “West Side Story’s” Rachel Zegler, “Charlies Angels'” Lucy Liu, and classically trained Shakespearean actress Dame Helen Mirren. Plus dragons, unicorns, and monsters. So that’s a lot of clutter and especially a lot of CGI that overwhelms the plot and all-but obliterates the tenderness of the first story.

Still, it is fun to watch (Helen Mirren!), all the way through the two extra scenes, one at the very end of the credits.

Billy (Zachary Levi as the superhero) is glad to be part of a team of superheroes, and insists that all six of them have to be together on all adventures. This is making some of the other five feel smothered, especially Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer as teen, Adam Brody as superhero). He calls his superhero version Captain Everypower, enjoying his freedom from the crutch he needs as his old self, and very tentatively making contact for the first time with a girl named Anne, new to his school. The oldest of the foster siblings, Mary (Grace Caroline Currey as both human and super versions) would like to go to college. But Billy, because of his history of trauma and abandonment, sharpening as he is about to age out of the foster care system, cannot let them go.

Two of the Atlas daughters, Hespera (Mirren) and Calypso (Liu), in a scene reminiscent of the first “Black Panther,” enter a museum in Athens and steal the pieces of the Shazam staff that was broken by Billy at the end of the first film. They use it to restore their powers and search for the golden apple that they will use to replant the Tree of Life from their realm, even though its impact on our world will be total destruction.

So it is back and forth as various characters gain and lose powers and waver in their goals and loyalties. The weaker parts of the film include Billy’s fixation on Wonder Woman, which is weird and a bit creepy, and the murder of a kind teacher, which is jarring in the world of this story. The look of the film is fine, especially the lair (so labeled), with a mysterious room of doors that deserves more exploration, and a fabulous library with a sort of proto-Google and Alexa, a magical pen that writes answers and takes dictation. Freddy and the wizard (Djimon Hounsou) play more of a role in this film. Grazer has an exceptional sense of timing and Freddy is one of the series’ best characters. The creatures are not as well-designed, though the dragon flies well. The mid- and end-of-credits scenes give us a sense of what comes next. I hope chapter 3 will return to more character and story.

Parents should know that this film has extended comic book-style action violence (meaning no blood or graphic images), with scary monsters and constant peril. A teacher is murdered. Characters use some strong language.

Family discussion: Which superpower would you want to have? What made Billy deserve to be granted powers?

If you like this, try: the original “Shazam” and other DC movies including “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman”

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Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

Posted on February 14, 2023 at 5:57 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School

What I’ve always loved about the “Ant-Man” movies, aside from the ever-lovable Paul Rudd in the title role, is the slightly hand-made quality, in contrast to the high-tech, hight-gloss, high-CGI aesthetic of the rest of the MCU. The opening of the second film in the series sets the tone. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), under house arrest following the parole violation of saving the world with the Avengers, has created a cardboard thrill ride for his daughter, Cassie. The Ant-Man series had some goofy humor with Scott’s relationship with his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her new husband (Bobby Cannavale), the cop who can’t decide whether to arrest him or befriend him (Randall Park), and with the discursive stories from his friend and colleague Luis (Michael Peña). The production design truly set the stage with more lived-in spaces than in the other Marvel movies.

Not so much this time. Of course, this is a Marvel movie and there are imaginative and exciting action sequences, especially as Scott develops his use of his powers. It has a nice mix of comedy and action, with characters we are invested in, not just as individuals but in the way they are connected to each other.

As the title tells us, this movie takes place in the least hand-made setting imaginable, the quantum realm. As wonderfully imaginative as it is, suggesting a mash-up of Alice in Wonderland, the Pastoral Symphony section of Disney’s “Fantasia,” the wildest anime creatures of Hayao Miyazaki, and video games like Minecraft and No Man’s Sky, plus last year’s “Strange World,” there is a pristine quality that removes much of the distinctive charm we expect from Ant-Man. Plus, talk about the forest and the trees. There is just so much detail here, with the endless settings and characters so overwhelming that they make it hard to keep track of what is going on. It’s not enough that a character’s head looks like a stalk of broccoli. Someone has to say, “His head looks like broccoli.” And then we don’t have much to do with him again. There’s a lot to see and much of it is enticing, but not enough of it relates to anything that relates to the stakes, the abilities or vulnerabilities of the good guys or characteristics that would help us understand who they are and how they behave. The issue of understanding each others’ language is handled briskly but other properties are not developed or explored.

The title says it all because the story is more about the place than about what happens there. After a brief prologue, with John Sebastian’s theme from “Welcome Back, Kotter” on the soundtrack, we hear from Scott about how lucky he feels. He is an Avenger, universally loved for saving the world, even if that means people always ask him for photos (with their dogs!) and they don’t always remember which insect superhero he is. His daughter is doing well, he and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) are happily in love and she is out saving the world with wonderful programs to help people who need housing or other kinds of support. Scott has written a new book about his life, and enjoys appearing at book-readings.

But it turns out Cassie (Kathryn Newton of “Freaky,” excellent in the role) has been stirring up trouble by appearing at protests and experimenting with a probe into the quantum realm. Before Janet (Michele Pfeiffer), who spent 30 years there and has refused to give any details, can stop her, Scott, Casssie, Hope, Janet, and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) are all sucked into the quantum realm, and that is where they stay for almost all of the rest of the film.

There is a long stretch where we meet an assortment of colorful characters. Some of them are fun, including a goofy return from one of the earlier films. It is always good to see William Jackson Harper (“The Good Place”) as a frustrated telepath who is way over hearing all of the disgusting thoughts of everyone around him and a jell-o-like character very interested in how many “holes” humanoids have in their bodies and what goes into and out of them. A major star appears for a few minutes for no real purpose.

There’s a very “Star Wars”-ish vibe with the diverse good guys wearing rough cloth and carrying spears and the homogenous and faceless bad guys with the high tech weapons that somehow are not very accurate as the armor-less good guys seem to have no problem dodging the bullets.

As I have often said, superhero movies rise and fall on the quality of the bad guy, who has to be evil enough to be a serious threat but not omni-powerful enough to make it impossible to defeat him. With Thanos gone, the Marvel character Kang the Conqueror has been refashioned in his image. Free of the reality-based limits of time and space, Kang’s calculus about wiping out whole universes is for him just straightening the pictures on the wall — except that it turns out there is a strong element of revenge behind his decisions about who and what needs to be wiped out.

Jonathan Majors, who we’ll be seeing as the antagonist in another huge franchise series in a few weeks, “Creed III,” makes Kang intriguing as he shifts from vulnerable and companionable to canny negotiations to imperious orders to white-hot fury. But it also makes him so all over the place that it is hard to invest in the battles. It does not help that the other side is so complicated that we do not attach to most of the new characters, and characters we love, including Woo and Luis and, worst of all, Hope, are pushed to the side.

“There’s always room to grow,” Scott tells his readers, and those reassuring words come back to inspire the good guys later on. But in this case, taking Ant-Man out of the smaller world of the first two films shows that all that room may not be what this story needs.

NOTE: Stay through the end credits for two extra scenes, one tying the next chapter to some favorite Marvel characters.

Parents should know that this movie has extended peril and violence with some disturbing images. Characters use some strong language.

Family discussion: How should Scott have responded to Kang’s threat? Why didn’t Janet tell anyone about her experience?

If you like this, try: the other “Ant-Man” and MCU movies

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