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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Captain Marvel

Posted on March 7, 2019 at 5:55 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language
Profanity: Some brief language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/superhero violence and peril, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 8, 2019

Copyright 2019 Disney
I often say that superhero movies depend on the quality of the villain. A small amendment — sometimes it depends on a cat. And the cat in this movie, named Goose for reasons we will discuss later, is a delight in this very entertaining Marvel film, making way for the upcoming “Avengers: Endgame” and for the first time giving a female superhero a starring role.

Oscar-winner Brie Larson plays the title character, though that is not her title in the film. She does not have a rank or a superhero name. In fact, she is not sure what her actual name is. The Captain Marvel character has appeared in different forms in comic books over the years, mostly male. So even the most deeply committed fanboys and fangirls may not come to this film with a detailed backstory in mind, though fans of the comics will have some quibbles with this adaptation anyway. We meet this character as she meets herself. At first, she is known as Vers, a member of an elite fighting force of a race called the Kree, with a sensei/mentor/commanding officer named Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who trades avuncular quips and punches with her in training sessions.

The Kree are lead by a God-like entity known as the Supreme Intelligence, who is to complex to be comprehended in its true form. So it appears to each person (if I can call the Kree “persons” since they appear human) in whatever form is most meaningful to him or her. To Vers, the Supreme Intelligence appears as Annette Bening in a leather jacket, as it might to any of us, when you come to think of it.

The mortal enemies of the Kree are the Skrull, a lizard-like race with the ability to shape-shift so that they are indistinguishable from any living being, down to the DNA. Their leader is played by Ben Mendelsohn, for once using his real-life Aussie accent, a great choice for a character who is not the usual super-villain. Speaking of which, the usual super-villain, Ronan (Lee Pace) does make an appearance.

When the Kree are ambushed by the Skrull, Vers escapes to another planet, which turns out to be Earth in 1995. Her rocket crashes into a Blockbuster video store, which makes sense because there was one on just about every corner back then.

And you know who was also around back then? A young Nick Fury and Agent Colson played by digitally airbrushed Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg. Fury has a full head of hair and two working eyes. He does not believe that the young woman described by a witness as “dressed for laser tag” is from another planet. What she is wearing is her Kree military jumpsuit, until she lifts a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and some ripped jeans from a mannequin.

Soon Vers and Fury (he says even his mother calls him “Fury”) are on the road, trying to get the whatsit to keep it away from the whosit (avoiding spoilers here), picking up Goose the cat along the way, as Vers begins to remember the life she once had on Earth, a military pilot named Carol Danvers, with a mentor who turns out to be…a scientist/engineer played by Annette Bening. Carol also had a difficult childhood (played as a young girl by the gifted Mckenna Grace) and a devoted friend, a single mother who was also a pilot (Lashana Lynch, both tough and warm-hearted as Maria Rambeau).

Carol’s name-tag broke in the accident that wiped out her memory. The Kree only saw the half that read “Vers,” which they used as her new name, because apparently the Kree can read the English language alphabet, but that’s okay because they can also breathe our air and look like humans, so just go with it. When she begins to literally put the pieces together, she begins to tap into her real power, not just the ability to shoot super-powerful photon beams out of her fists, but her determination, courage, and integrity.

Carol and Maria have a real need for speed “Top Gun” need-for-speed vibe, which explains the cat’s name, a tribute to the Anthony Edwards character in the film. And Carol’s grunge look and riot grrrl outlook fit in well with the 90’s references in the film, the songs on the soundtrack, of course, but also the technology that feels like it is from the era of the Flintstones, like dial-up modems, the Alta Vista search engine, and pagers.

Larson is fine, especially in her easy banter with Jackson, but the character is a bit bland. In one of the movie’s climactic moments, the question of exactly what her powers are and who controls them is fluffed in a way that removes some of the dramatic tension. But the movie has a couple of clever twists that keeps it involving, with some pointed but never pushy references to refugees and how we learn who to trust as we learn who we are. Props to Marvel, though, for not giving us a love story, as it would just be a distraction. Plus, we get to discover why the Fury of our era wears an eye-patch and Jackson gives one of his most natural and charming performances ever, making Goose a close second as the film’s most appealing character.

NOTE: Stay all the way to the end of the credits for two extra scenes.

Translation: Extended comic book/fantasy action, peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, chases, crashes, brief sexual reference, reference to unhappy childhood, betrayal

Family discussion: What would Supreme Intelligence look like to you? How did Carol decide who to trust?

If you like this try: the Avengers movies, including “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Captain America: Winter Soldier”

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The LEGO Movie 2: The Second One

Posted on February 7, 2019 at 5:04 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for mild action and rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/cartoon-style peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 8, 2019

Copyright Warner Brothers 2019
“The LEGO Movie 2: The Second One” is a great big box of happiness in part because of its non-stop cheeky humor but also in part because it deals subtly but frankly with three of the most annoyingly painful and near-universal human experiences: fighting with siblings, adolescent moodiness, and stepping on LEGOs in bare feet.

The first movie ended with a surprisingly meaningful and warm-hearted pivot from animation into live action as it turned out the entire story had been grounded in a conflict between a boy who wanted to play and a dad who wanted his LEGO world to be pristine and orderly. The kicker at the end was that the touching reconciliation between father and son was followed by the arrival of the preschool sister with her toddler-sized Duplos, who had her own destructive powers.

There’s a bit more live action in this sequel, and we see more clearly the relationship between what is going on in the lives of the real-life family and the imaginary play of the two children, now five years older but no more interesting in joining forces.

Once again, Emmet (Chris Pratt) thinks everything is awesome, barely noticing that the bustling metropolis of Bricksburg has turned into a post-apocalyptic wasteland known as Apocalypseburg (“a heckish place to live”). Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), formerly known as Wyldstyle, tries to teach Emmet how to brood properly. “Look out into the distance and say whatever grim thoughts you have in a deep voice.” As we saw at the end of the last film, the Duplos arrive from the Systar System. When they take Lucy, Emmet follows to rescue her.

Adults will catch onto the names of some of the perils our dauntless hero faces along the way, like Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (a perfectly cast Tiffany Haddish), Systar, the dreaded ArMAMAgetin, and that notorious hiding place for LEGO figures, Undah de Dryah. That is, if they are not trying to get the film’s guaranteed new hit song, “The Catchy Song” (“This song’s gonna get stuck inside your head..”), or laughing too hard at the avalanche of pop culture meta-references, especially a song that takes on every iteration of Batman from Adam West to Christian Bale and a new character who not only bears a strong resemblance to Emmet but to his portrayer, Chris Pratt, as well.

It’s fast, fresh, fun, and funny, with a skillful mix of silliness and action and some random call-outs to celebrities from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who’s having quite a moment on screen these days) and Bruce Willis, back where he should be, crawling through heating ducts. But it has something interesting to say about how we decide when to change and when not to, and about its female characters. And watching it just might ease the pain not just of the universal experiences mentioned above, but of that other heartbreak — having your children grow out of childhood.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy/cartoon-style peril and slapstick humor and some potty humor and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Why did Lucy want Emmet to change? What do you do when everything’s not awesome?

If you like this, try: The first LEGO movie, “Trolls” and the “Toy Story” films

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Aquaman

Posted on December 20, 2018 at 5:37 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language
Profanity: A few bad words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Scene in a bar, some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/fantasy peril and violence, chases, explosions, monster, sacrifice/suicide of parent, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 21, 2018
Date Released to DVD: March 26, 2019

Copyright Warner Brothers 2018
On “Entourage” they made fun of the idea of an Aquaman movie as third-tier cheesiness. Even the San Diego Comic-Con fanboys on “The Big Bang Theory” have no respect for Aquaman. He had a very small, unmemorable role in the Justice League movie. So, can a big-budget comic-book movie about a superhero whose powers are — talking to fish? Breathing under water? be any good? Well, throw in some riders on sea-horses, a drum-playing octopus, a majestic, wildly imaginative candy-colored underwater city and a superhero with the grooming aesthetics of a Son of Anarchy, throw out all of the laws of physics and many of the laws of logic, and the answer is oh, sure, why not?

Aquaman is a hoot. In this version of the story, Aquaman is the mixed-race son of a human lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and an undersea princess (Nicole Kidman) who met when the princess, running away from an arranged marriage, got injured and washed up on the shore. Fortunately, she speaks English, which turns out to be the universal language of all of the undersea kingdoms, who can speak under water as easily and be heard as clearly as though they were on land. See above re laws of physics. Anyway, the human and the underwater princess fall in love and have a much-loved baby named Arthur until her people track her down and she has to go back to protect her husband and child. We will later discover that she returned to the forced marriage, had a son who became heir to the throne, and was killed for having committed the sin of having a “mongrel” child.

Arthur (yes, as in Camelot) grows up with some connection to his undersea heritage, including a Merlin-like guide (Willem Dafoe). He serves as guardian to humans at sea, and early on we see him take on some pirates. One is killed, in part because Arthur refuses to save him, and his son (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) vows revenge.

Meanwhile, another underwater princess (Amber Heard as Mera) is trying to persuade Arthur to claim the throne. Arthur’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is working to unite all of the underwater kingdoms so he can declare war on humans. He has a point — they are upset about all of the poison and junk we keep dumping in the oceans. But we won’t dwell on that because Orm is pretty evil. We know that because he looks like Draco Malfoy and has no sense of humor. And besides, what’s more important is that there is SO MUCH to look at. Each underwater city and population is wildly imaginative and spectacularly gorgeous. If the storyline gets overstuffed, more labors of Hercules than the usual superhero saga (thank you for skipping the origin backstory, by the way), it is a lot of fun, an expert mix of action, adventure, humor, family, and a little romance.

NOTE: Stay for a post-credit scene.

Parents should know that this film includes extended comic-book/fantasy peril and violence with weapons, explosions, spears, knives, suicide sacrifice, monster, characters injured and killed and some disturbing images, along with a few bad words.

Family discussion: What did Arthur understand because of his dual heritage? What made him change his mind about what he thought he wanted?

If you like this, try: the comic books and “The Guardians of the Galaxy”

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Ralph Breaks the Internet

Posted on November 20, 2018 at 5:51 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/action/cartoon-style peril and chase scenes, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: A metaphoric theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 21, 2018
Date Released to DVD: February 25, 2019
Copyright 2018 Disney

I’ve got to warn you — you’re going to need to see “Ralph Breaks the Internet” at least twice. And I’ve got good news for you — it is well worth it. The sequel to “Wreck-It Ralph” is “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and just like the Internet itself it is bursting with endless enticing distractions. But in the midst of all that is also a wise and warmhearted story with endearing characters. And it is a rare comedy that understands it is not enough to refer to a specific cultural touchstone; it has to have something to say about it. What it does have to say is so shrewd and funny it may merit a third viewing.

“Wreck-it Ralph” was about characters in old-fashioned video arcade games, the kind they used to have before we had laptops and phones that we could play games on. Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is not exactly the bad guy but the menace in his very old-school game. All he does is break things that are repaired (if the game player is successful) by Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer). He ends up visiting some newer games, including a military first-person shooter game and a racing game called Sugar Rush, with the cars made of candy. There he meets a brash little girl with a pixel-shaking “glitch” named Vanellope. The happy ending resolves various issues and Ralph and Vanellope end up friends.

As this movie begins, everything seems to be going fine. Ralph is very happy meeting up with Vanellope every night after the arcade closes to talk about, well, everything. But the arcade owner (Ed O’Neill) is upgrading. “What is wiffy?” Ralph wants to know. That would be Wifi. And the next thing they know, Ralph and Vanellope are whisked into the big, wild world of the Internet and like Dorothy in Oz and Alice in Wonderland and the Pevensies in Narnia, they will have many thrilling adventures and meet many astonishing characters before they find their way home. The characters’ idea of what home and friendship mean will be changed, shifted, or enlarged by their experience, one of the film’s most thoughtful elements.

But on the way there we have so much fun seeing the most familiar — and some of the most frustrating — elements of the digital world reflected and personified, and writer/directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore take advantage of Disney’s unsurpassed line-up of characters to fill the movie with surprising and hilarious cameos. The highlight is the funniest scene you will see at the movies this year, when Vanellope ends up in a room with the Disney princesses (almost all with the original voice talent). What’s great about this is that Johnston and Moore are the rare filmmakers who know that referring to a cultural icon is not enough; you have to say something about it. And what they have to say about the princesses strikes the perfect balance between affection and irony. No more waiting for a prince to come. These sisters are doing it for themselves. Also stopping to sing by water at some point, though.

The film is not just smart about culture, digital and IRL. It is smart about people, and especially about our fears and insecurities. It’s a rare film for children that goes beyond “friends are great!” and explores the delicate negotiations of relationships between people who may have different ideas about what they want. A wise man taught me a long time ago that everyone has different tolerance levels for ambiguity and that each of us has different tolerances for ambiguity across a wide range of categories. Someone can be comfortable taking big risks in one area, but not another. “Ralph Breaks the Internet” has a deep understanding that even adults will find illuminating. Plus, it is a ton of fun and if you stay ALL the way to the end there is one more sly joke.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy/video game-style peril and violence, chases, crashes, no one seriously hurt, and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: How are Ralph and Vanellope alike and how are they different? Which is your favorite Disney princess and why? What is your favorite thing about the Internet?

If you like this, try: “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Zootopia”

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