Dark Phoenix

Posted on June 6, 2019 at 4:42 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language
Profanity: Some strong language, one f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book action peril and violence with some disturbing graphic images, guns, explosions, superhero fights, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 7, 2019

Copyright Disney 2019
The Marvel Avengers movies showed surprising range for very different characters operating in a single universe, from the outright comedy of “Thor Ragnarok” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” to the “Captain America: Winter Soldier” hark back to the political paranoia films of the 1970’s, the grappling with historical divides and cultural identity in “Black Panther” and the existential issues of “The Hulk.” But this latest entry in the not (yet) integrated X-Men franchise, also based on Marvel comics, veers unwisely into a genre best left out of the superhero category: soap opera.

In this version of the X-Men universe (don’t try to tie it too closely to the original series or we would have to try to understand how Professor X and Magneto could age several decades in seven years, not to mention several other major disconnects), Jean Gray is brought by Professor X (James McAvoy) to his school, a sort of Hogwarts for mutants, when she is a child. Devastated by the loss of her parents in a car accident and terrified by powers she does not understand or control, she at first refuses. Professor X assures her that he can fix whatever she breaks, and that she herself is not broken. Note that just before the car flips over and crashes, which Jean survives without a scratch, the radio plays two significant songs: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Werewolves of London.” The first is a reference to the regenerating mythical bird that will give Jean her new nom de superhero/persona. The second is likely a nod to Jean’s relationship with Wolverine, otherwise not referred to in this film.

By the time Jean grows up (played by “Game of Thrones'” Sophie Turner), she is in a strong romantic relationship with Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and very much a part of the group of young adult X-Men. (Raven/Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence, points out that the women have been saving the men so often they should consider changing the name to X-Women). The team goes on their first mission to outer space, to rescue a crew of American astronauts. Jean is almost killed, but is exposed to and possibly saved by some mysterious cosmic radiation. She says she is fine and nothing shows up in a quick medical examination, but later that day she faints, and when she is tested again, her powers are literally off the charts. As in, so far past anyone else they need to build a new machine to measure.

Whatever she has learned from the trust, guidance, and support of Professor X dissolves as the new powers bring back the same feelings of guilt, shame, defiance, and being out of control that we saw in her just before her parents’ car flipped over. She will try to find answers from her past, including a visit to the secret place where Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and his team are hanging out, a hidden safe zone that is off the grid.

As in all X-Men movies (and in last week’s “Godzilla” except with monsters), the core tension is between those who want to find a way for humans and mutants to live together in peace and mutual support (astronaut rescue!) and those who want to wipe each other out. This war seems to be going on inside of Jean, as she discovers that her real and substitute fathers lied to her and as she fears she will not be able to control her new powers.

Meanwhile, some aliens have landed and taken over human bodies. Their leader (Jessica Chastain) is searching for Jean to help them take over the planet. It is a shame to see this versatile, classically trained actor relegated to one of those roles where all of her lines are recited in the same languid but threatening monotone and her superpowers is primarily striding around in stilettos without mussing her impeccably shaped blonde hair.

The action scenes are capably staged, but the non-action scenes are close to inert and some of the special effects look cheap and insubstantial. Can we just all agree never to ask an alien character to say that emotions make humans weak? This is a disappointing placeholder that suffers by comparison with the vastly more dynamic and imaginative superhero movies we’ve already seen this year.

Parents should know that this film has extended fantasy/comic-book peril and violence with characters injured and killed and some disturbing and graphic images including characters being impaled, shot, and dissolved, and some strong language including one f-word.

Family discussion: Why did Professor X lie to Jean? Did he “fix” her? Would you like to have Jean’s powers and what would you do if you had them?

If you like this, try: the “X-Men” movies and comics and “Captain Marvel”

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Avengers: Endgame

Posted on April 24, 2019 at 10:42 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language
Profanity: A handful of swear words including one said by a child
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/fantasy/comic book action, peril, and violence, battle scenes, characters injured and killed, very sad deaths
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 25, 2019

Copyright 2019 Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios sticks the landing with “Avengers: Endgame,” a completely satisfying conclusion to the nearly two dozen films, bringing together the stories of a wide range of characters with complex, varied mythologies extending back over decades of stories in comics and other media.

We need to all take a moment to pay tribute to Kevin Feige of Marvel Studios, who has produced them all with a deep understanding of the characters and the fans and a truly remarkable ability to find a nuanced balance between canon and innovation. His willingness to let the individual stories of the characters develop in such different genres and still bring them together when it is time for the Avengers to assemble is an essential element of the success of the series. It would be like having separate film series for Harry Potter, Hermione, Ron, Draco, Professor McGonagall, and Dumbledore, one a romantic comedy, one a thriller, one a crime drama, one a political allegory, and then brought them all together every so often to continue the core story.

I am going to do my best to continue this review without spoilers, but there is one I am sure no one will mind. You do NOT need to stay through the very end as there are no extra scenes following the credits. That seems right for a movie that is such a resounding conclusion and I know you will be happy to get those ten minutes of your life back instead of sitting through the names of the personal chefs of the stars. Now, if you want to see it without knowing anything more than whether I liked it, let me just say here that I thought it was great and you can come back and read the rest after you’ve watched it and want to let me know what you think.

To answer the most frequently asked question: no, three hours does not seem long. It’s really three movies in one, and — fair warning — I could feel my objective critical faculties dissolving after about forty minutes when I realized that it was combining three of my very favorite movie genres in one. First is Marvel superhero stories, of course, with great effects and action, both one-on-one (and I really mean ONE) and big, BIG, battles. Then there’s getting the band back together, with a group of people who once worked together very closely but were not always in agreement (the “Civil War” debate comes back) seek each other out and try to form a team again. And then a heist, or rather, several heists, as the Avengers’ favorite McGuffin is very much a part of the story. There’s a fourth major theme as well, but that’s something I will not spoil except to say that even though they make delightful fun of the way that theme has been portrayed in many other movies, I strongly advise you not to think too deeply about whether the way it is portrayed in this one does any better in terms of consistency or logic.

To answer the second most frequently asked question: yes, you have to have seen the previous movie and as many in the series as possible to get the most out of it. This movie was made by fans for fans and there is tremendous depth that shows how thoroughly this world has been studied and imagined (though only one of the very knowledgable group I spoke to following the film could identify a briefly glimpsed teenage boy toward the end). To confirm the most frequent speculations of those anticipating the film, yes, we will be saying goodbye to some characters, every one of them in a supremely satisfying way, but bring a handkerchief. Yes, we will see some we thought were lost back again, sometimes in a flashback. One of the elements I loved most in this film was those flashbacks, which might give us a different look at scenes we thought we knew.

And the answer to a question that maybe fans forgot to ask, after all these movies: Yes, someone does say, “Avengers, assemble!” I admit it, my heart skipped a beat. It also thumped pretty hard several times and I cried more than once. The skill it takes to fight with Thanos is nothing compared to the skill it took to bring this series to such vibrant, thrilling life, and I am grateful to Stan Lee (yes, he gets a great cameo), Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Kevin Feige, Disney, the Russos, and especially to each of these actors, who bring their A game every time, for assembling this joyous finale.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/comic book peril, action, and violence with monsters, battle scenes, explosions, very sad deaths including death of a parent and fatal sacrifices and a handful of bad words, including one said by a child.

Family discussion: Did Cap make the right choice? What did the characters learn from their past experiences? Which Avenger is your favorite?

If you like this try: the other Marvel movies, especially “Black Panther,” “Iron Man,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and “Avengers: Infinity War”

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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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Marvel Movies Deserve Your Respect

Posted on March 12, 2019 at 8:00 am

Copyright Marvel 2018
On Medium, Shelby Fielding makes a strong case that the greatest filmmaker of the 21st Century is Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige.

Feige, 45, and Marvel Studios have taught a moviegoing audience who may have never even thought about picking up and flipping through a comic book before, how to absorb a narrative over the course of differentiating stories, characters, and uniquely made worlds. With movies plotted until 2022, the studio shows no sign of slowing down, despite their reported break over the next year following “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” It is the most widely regarded and well-known story of the 21st century, to the point that a movie like “Avengers: Endgame” has a more than fair chance at breaking the opening weekend box office record that the “Avengers” film before it set almost a year prior — — which was $257.6 million mind you.

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