SHAZAM! (2019)

Review by LL Soares

This might be a confusing time for fans of Captain Marvel.

Back in the 1970s (1974 -1977, to be exact) there was a little Saturday morning show called SHAZAM!  where young Billy Batson (Michael Gray) said the secret word and transformed with a clap of thunder into Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick). But the most recent movie to be called CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019) stars Brie Larson as a superheroine with cosmic powers, who is soon going to be helping the Avengers kick Thanos’s ass in AVENGERS: ENDGAME later this month.

And now we’ve got a new SHAZAM! movie as well, where Billy Batson (Asher Angel, from the Disney TV show “ANDI MACK,” 2017-2019) turns into…er…Shazam? (Zachary Levi, “HEROES REBORN” 2015-2016)…when he says his own name. Holy lightning bolts, Batman! What’s going on here?

For brevity’s sake, here’s a crash course in the history of Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel was originally created by writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck in 1939 and was a very popular comic book hero whose peak was in the 1940s. There was even a live-action serial (short films with a continuing plot, for those who aren’t familiar with them) about the character called Adventures of Captain Marvel, starring Tom Tyler as the titular superhero. But in 1953, Fawcett stopped publishing the comics, due in part to waning sales (the superhero genre wasn’t selling as well) and partly due to a lawsuit from DC Comics, claiming Captain Marvel was a rip-off of Superman. In the 1960s, Marvel Comics got the trademark for the name Captain Marvel, which they used for a new line of characters. In 1972, DC Comics got the rights to the actual characters of Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family (Cappy has a whole family of superheroes, another similarity with Superman at the time), but couldn’t use the name Captain Marvel. So the series was called SHAZAM. This latter property is the basis of the new SHAZAM! movie.

Up to speed?

Anyway, the basic idea is Billy Batson, a normal everyday kid, is given the gift of turning into an adult superhero (who’s a lot of Superman) when he says the word SHAZAM which stands for the great heroes of the past: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. This power is bestowed upon him by a wizard named Mentor (referred to as just “Wizard” in the credits of the new movie, and played now by Djimon Hounsou of “GUARDIAN’S OF THE GALAXY,” 2014, and, ironically, currently in Marvel’s “CAPTAIN MARVEL,” 2019) The gimmick of the new movie is that even though young Billy turns into an adult superhero, he still has the mind of his 15-year-old self. So sometimes thing get goofy.

It’s a more light-hearted plotline than most DC Comics movies these days, although there’s some gritty stuff here, too. When we first meet Billy, he’s at a carnival with his mom. At one point, he gets lost, and can’t find his mother. The police find him, and he ends up in a series of foster families. This, right off the bat, had me scratching my head. A kid gets lost, knows his name and his family must be nearby, and the police can’t track down his mother? This seemed incredibly stupid to me. But hey, we have to keep going…

Billy runs away from every foster family he’s placed in. He runs away because he’s trying to track down his mother. He has a list of names from the phone book of women named Batson, who might be his mother. But he keeps coming up empty. Now he gets placed in a new home, which is run by the couple Victor Vasquez (who you might recognize as “THE WALKING DEAD” character JERRY!) and his wife Rosa (Marta Milans, “NO TOMORROW” 2016 – 2017). The other kids in the group home include teenage Mary (Grace Fulton, “THE GHOST WHISPERER,” 2005-2007, “REVENGE,” 2012-2013, and “ANNABELLE: CREATION,” 2017) who’s trying to get into college; video game enthusiast Eugene (Ian Chen, from the TV shows “FRESH OFF THE BOAT” and “GREY’S ANATOMY”); introverted Pedro (Jovan Armand, from the show “THE MIDDLE”); cute little Darla (Faithe Herman, “THIS IS US”); and disabled Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, also in “IT,” 2017 and the upcoming “IT: CHAPTER TWO”). Billy gets closest to Freddy, since they share a room. But obviously Billy doesn’t have plans to stick around very long.

Meanwhile, that wizard I mentioned (Hounsou) is trying to find someone who is “pure of heart,” so he can transfer his magical powers to them before he dies of old age, and random people find themselves suddenly transported to the wizard’s cave, so he can test them to see if they’re good enough. Of course, no one’s ever good enough. But one of the kids he rejected carries a grudge, and grows up to be the evil Dr. Silvana (Mark Strong, also in “KICK-ASS,” 2010, “JOHN CARTER,” 2012, and “KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE,” 2014, as well as 103 other credits on IMDB.com). He’s intent on finding that cave again and teaming up with the wizard’s enemies – the Seven Deadly Sins – which are imprisoned inside stone statues in the wizard’s cave. They promise to give him powers of evil, so he can defeat the wizard’s hero (if he ever finds one).

A lot of this comes from the comics, but man, is it a slog. I found the first half hour of this movie really tough to sit through. I didn’t care about Billy Batson or his mom, or Sivana and his grudge, or the dopey wizard and his tests. All of it bored me to tears, and I kind of wondered why I spent the money for a movie ticket, and then something happened.

Billy Batson, of course, passes the wizard’s test and is transformed by magic into the mighty hero SHAZAM! whenever he says the word SHAZAM! which is also his name (I believe it’s also supposed to be the wizard’s name here as well, so that’s a tad confusing). At this point, Asher Angel’s Billy turns into Zachary Levi, the actor who plays SHAZAM!, and suddenly, the movie’s worth watching.

JUST LIKE MAGIC!

Like I said, I didn’t find Asher Angel’s Billy all that riveting, but once he’s transformed into Zachary Levi’s SHAZAM, things get interesting. Here’s where it becomes a combination of BIG and SUPERMAN. The best interaction in the movie is between Levi’s Shazam and his buddy Freddy, especially when they do a series of “stunts” to determine what Shazam’s powers are. (Super speed, CHECK!). While he tries to figure out all the cool things he can do (including buying beer), Dr. Sivana has absorbed the Seven Deadly Sins—they look like crazy CGI monsters!—who turn into smoke and go inside his glowing eye to give him evil super powers (doesn’t that sound amazing!). Unfortunately, those CGI monsters don’t have much personality and are kind of generic, and they’re as exciting as flat soda.

I like actor Mark Strong a lot, he’s a terrific actor, but man, the dude gets no respect. He should be a big star at this point, but instead he’s playing second-rate bad guys like Dr. Sivana! When is this guy going to get his big break and become a leading man already!  

Eventually Sivana and Shazam meet, and we get some superpowered fisticuffs, culminating in a big showdown between Sivana and the CGI Sin Monsters vs. Shazam and some unexpected allies (they’re actually pretty cool).

SHAZAM! is directed by David F. Sandberg, who also gave us “LIGHTS OUT “(2016) and “ANNABELLE: CREATION” (2017), and he does an okay job here. The screenplay is by Henry Grayden (“EARTH TO ECHO,” 2014), and frankly, if they hadn’t cast people as talented as Levi and Strong, this would have been a complete waste of time.

Overall, my feeling is that when Levi is onscreen, especially with Grazer, the movie is a lot of fun. When Levi isn’t around, it drags. So I’m really on the fence about this one. Is Levi enough to justify the whole movie? Not really. But I give SHAZAM! a score of 2 ½ knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives SHAZAM! ~~ 2 1/2 knives!

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SOMETIMES AUNT MARTHA DOES DREADFUL THINGS (1971)

Review by LL Soares
(Warning: Contains Spoilers)

When you’ve seen as many movies as I have over the years (including more than my share of “so bad they’re good” flicks), it’s hard to be surprised anymore. But I had more than a few WTF! moments while watching the 1971 movie SOMETIMES AUNT MARTHA DOES DREADFUL THINGS. How did I miss this one? What surprised me most were 1) how awful it is, and 2) how hilarious it is.

We begin with Aunt Martha (Abe Zwick) coming out a travel agency. Right away, you’ll notice something. This isn’t a woman. It’s a guy in a bad wig. Nobody in their right mind would be tricked by this “disguise.” She is looking at some cruise tickets in her hand, then she gets a taxi home.

When she gets there, her odd and very nosy neighbor, Mrs. Adams (Yanka Mann) is outside (across the street) with her daughter Vicki (Robin Hughes). Mrs. Adams waves and calls out “Hello,” several times, but Aunt Martha just ignores her. So the woman crosses the street and even climbs the front steps while Martha searches in her purse for her house keys, saying “Hello” over and over. Martha has no choice but to invite her inside.

Martha lives in the house with her “nephew” Stanley (Wayne Crawford, who also used the name Scott Lawrence), a goofy guy who is always playing pranks. Stanley always wears a vest (no shirt) and snakeskin pants. He never wears anything else. He never changes his clothes. And he’s always getting high. Martha complains about Stanley, but mentions that the next day is his birthday. Mrs. Adams insists on making a cake and coming over the next day with Vicki as a surprise. Willing to do anything to get Mrs. Adams to leave, Martha agrees.

Martha takes off her wig, revealing herself to be Paul, a guy who is wanted by the police. He always puts on a wig and women’s clothes when he leaves the house, but now that he’s home, he kicks off his heels and opens a beer. Despite the fact that he’s not Stanley’s real aunt, he acts like the real thing, constantly nagging and chastising Stanley for his silly behavior and his running off with girls all the time.

Unlike a movie like PSYCHO (1960), AUNT MARTHA makes no attempt at building suspense. It’s no secret that Martha is really Paul. And it’s obvious from the start that a murder that Stanley did in Baltimore, that he can’t remember, was really committed by Paul. But Paul loves Stanley, is obsessed with him, and keeps the lie going so that Stanley is dependent on him. They have moved to the suburbs of Miami, and come up with the ruse that they’re aunt and nephew to stay under the radar of any police who might be looking for them.

Meanwhile, Stanley goes around, getting high with friends and going to the beach with girls. When one girl, Alma (Marty Cordova) demands he bring her back home with him, they end up in a bedroom, and two weird things happen. First, Alma takes off her clothes and starts making out with Stanley, but when she tries to take off his pants, Stanley goes crazy, shouting and demanding that she leave. The other weird thing is that Aunt Martha comes rushing in with a knife. Stanley wrestles with his aunt and Alma gets away (after taking an awful long time to put her clothes on downstairs), but Martha soon after tracks her down in the woods and stabs Alma to death.

This is a pattern we’ll see more of, where Stanley seems attracted to girls but can’t have sex with them. And Martha kills any girls who she sees with Stanley.

At one point, an old bum named Hubert (Don Craig) shows up at the local Pizza Place (that’s the actual name of the place) where Stanley supposedly “works” (though we never see him actually work there) asking for Stanley. Stanley remembers him from the Baltimore days and brings him back to the house. Martha/Paul is convinced that he’s a con-man and is up to something, but Stanley is trusting and innocent (i.e., stupid). Martha agrees to let Hubert stay in the guest room, but later creeps down the stairs and tries to kill their new houseguest with a gun. Hubert is expecting her, though, and has a gun of his own. Hubert reveals that he knows all about what’s going on, but only wants a place to stay, since his landlord back in Baltimore threw him out, and he has nowhere to go. Martha reluctantly agrees to let him stay.

In another scene, Stanley goes to a shack in the woods near his home, and finds a guy named Joe (Mike MIngoia) getting high with two girls, Dolores (Maggie Wood) and Mary Lou (Sandra Lurie), and they ask him to join them. When Dolores (who is a waitress at Pizza Place) tries to make out with Stanley and remove his pants, his goes nutso again, even going to far to try to strangle Dolores and then Mary Lou. Joe wrestles with him and knocks him down, and they flee.

(SPOILER ALERT!)

Stanley spends a day hanging out with Vicki, the young nurse who lives across the street from them with her mother, Mrs. Adams. When they come back, Martha sees them and gets jealous, which, as we know, makes Aunt Martha do those dreadful things. Around the same time, Hubert starts ransacking the house, looking for lot, and finds a little treasure box full of jewelry that Martha has stashed (that obviously once belonged to the woman she killed in Baltimore). When he tries to flee, Martha chases him with a gun. Meanwhile, Mrs. Adams comes over with a birthday cake, and Hubert knocks her over. She starts screaming and Stanley brings her to that shack behind his house to calm her down (why not just bring her home? She lives across the street!). Mrs. Adams start screaming about her baby (shortly before, Vicki told Aunt Martha that her mother is pregnant, even though she looks pretty old), and she also has a bad heart.

She dies, but Stanley is terrified that her baby will die with her, so he grabs a kitchen knife (the same one that was used in the murder back in Baltimore!) and removes the baby himself!! From this point on, the movie is actually a little creepy. When Martha finally finds him (after finishing Hubert off), she finds Stanley rocking a bloody baby in his arms! It looks like a doll, and I guess that’s because it’s dead. Stanley leaves the baby on Vicki’s doorstep and rings the bell, (she screams when she finds it).

(END OF SPOILERS)

Paul and Stanley then go on the lam, convinced the police will be coming after them. Their strange relationship reaches its violent climax inside an abandoned movie studio, where they go to hide out, and where the police hunt them down.

Note: one of the cops is none other than William Kerwin (aka Thomas Wood)—from lots of Herschell Gordon Lewis movies, including his classic, BLOOD FEAST (1963) —in what amounts to a cameo. In the credits it says that Kerwin was also a grip in the movie’s crew (!).

This movie is amazing! The acting is pretty awful throughout but very entertaining, with Abe Zwick and Wayne Crawford, our two leads, playing it especially over-the-top. The script is nonsensical and unintentionally hilarious. Zwick’s Paul has to be the most unconvincing “guy pretending to be a woman” of all time. Mrs. Adams looks way too old to be a mother (and doesn’t look pregnant at all, even though her baby is fully formed). And Vicki and Mrs. Adams are always getting rides or taking long walks to get back to their house, when they live RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET.

AUNT MARTHA is Thomas Casey’s only director credit. I wish he had made other movies. He was also a writer (FLESH FEAST, 1970) and a cinematographer, but his resume is very short. A lot of the cast, including star Abe Zwick, have this movie as their only acting credit (or just have a few). Wayne Crawford (who plays Stanley) had the most successful acting career, going on to act in movies like GOD’S BLOODY ACRE (1975) and VALLEY GIRL (1983) and TV shows like HILL STREET BLUES and CAGNEY & LACEY. Crawford even played the lead in a movie called JAKE SPEED (1986).

This is a one-of-a-kind, weirdo movie, that definitely should be sought out. At times, it reminded me of the early comedies of John Waters, even though it was clearly meant to be serious. Even though it’s billed as a horror movie I think that, with a laugh track, it could easily pass for a sitcom that just happens to have some nudity and murder in it. I loved it.

SOMETIMES AUNT MARTHA DOES DREADFUL THINGS needs to be seen to be believed. So go see it!

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

 

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (2018)

Review by LL Soares

So who is the target audience for a movie about dirty puppets? I guess that would be me. So I went to see the new Melissa McCarthy/foul-mouthed puppets movie THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (2018), directed by Brian Henson (son of the revered Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets).

The thing is, though, puppets who talk dirty and have sex aren’t anything new. There have been several movies and TV shows to take this concept and run with it, including Peter Jackson’s early film MEET THE FEEBLES (1989), which pretty much sent the standard, along with movies like Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (2004) and Seth MacFarlane’s TED (2012), and TV shows like GREG THE BUNNY (2002 – 2004), CRANK YANKERS (2002 – 2007) and the wonderfully subversive WONDER SHOWZEN (2005 – 2006). And we can throw in Robert Smigel’s Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and his many appearances, just for the hell of it.

Since the idea of putting silly puppets in more adult-oriented comedy situations isn’t new, then, if you’re going to attempt it, it’s probably a good idea to bring something new to the table. HAPPYTIME doesn’t really up the ante at all. There are a couple of supposedly “shocking” scenes, involving a puppet ejaculating silly string (which, if you saw the trailer, was spoiled for you before you even saw the movie) and a female puppet re-enacting the leg-crossing scene from BASIC INSTINCT (1992). And that’s about it for surprises. Otherwise, it’s just a lot of puppets swearing, which loses its charm pretty quickly.

This isn’t just a puppet movie, though. It’s also the new Melissa McCarthy comedy, and frankly she’s one of the few things that works. She’s doing a more superficial version of her character from THE HEAT (2013) here, and while her performance isn’t shake-the-rafters-hilarious, she at least remains likeable enough.

In this one, McCarthy plays Detective Connie Edwards, who tries to come off as gruff, but who, beneath the exterior, is a softie. She used to be partnered with Phil Philips (performed by puppeteer Bill Barretta), the first puppet allowed to serve on the human police force, but something went wrong in a hostage situation and Philips was stripped of his badge, bringing dishonor to puppetkind, as well as Edwards.

Nowadays, Philips is a tough-talking private eye. One of his most recent case involves the murders of members of The Happytime Gang, a group of puppets (and one human) who had a hit TV sitcom. One of the stars is Phil’s brother, Larry (Victor Yerrid). Both Phil and Larry look like generic Muppet characters, but Phil is blue and his brother has used his cash to bleach himself white. This isn’t the only reference to race in the movie, as puppets are presented as the new minority to be routinely discriminated against in the world of our film.

Remember I mentioned one human who was in the Happytime Gang? That was Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), who is also Phil’s ex. She’s a stripper in a club that caters mostly to puppets, rabbits especially.

So someone is knocking off the Happytime Gang, just as their show is about to be bought for syndication. The contract everyone signed says that if cast members die, but don’t have heirs, then the money will be split among the survivors, so it’s clear someone is looking for a big payday.

Also part of the Phil storyline are Sandra (Dorien Davies), a sultry puppet who hires Phil early on to help her with a blackmail situation, and Bubbles (a funny Maya Rudolph), his human secretary who secretly has a crush on him.

Connie answers to her human boss, Lieutenant Banning (Leslie David Baker), but also has to contend with a gung-ho FBI guy named Agent Campbell (Joel McHale), who keeps getting in the way of her investigation. Yep, she’s investigating the same murders that claimed Phil’s brother, so the two ex-partners are more or less partnering up again.

There’s also a lot of drug use in the film, except, since these are puppets, the drug of choice is pure sugar. Due to a medical secret of her own, Detective Edwards has taken to swigging maple syrup by the jug-ful and there’s a scene where she snorts high-grade sugar through a licorice straw that is good for a chuckle or two.

But a few chuckles is likely all you’re going to get. In the movie theater where I saw the film, the audience, for the most part, was pretty quiet. If you judge a comedy by the amount of laughs it gets, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is a bit of a dud. However, though I didn’t hurt myself laughing, I have to admit that I didn’t hate the movie. I still find McCarthy likeable enough (and this isn’t the first time she’s been in a comedy that wasn’t all that funny – remember 2014’s TAMMY?), and the plot kept me interested. I liked Phil Phillips, too, even if he was kind of bland (it would have been funnier if they had made him a lot more aggressive, a la Mike Hammer), and Maya Rudolph is maybe the best thing in the movie as loyal secretary Bubbles. The rest of the human cast is okay, but this isn’t going to be at the top of their resumes, and most of the puppets are kind of forgettable.

Since this dirty puppet concept has been done before, you really need to up your game if you’re going to do something new and memorable with the genre, and Brian Henson hasn’t done that. He’s a capable enough director (most of his directing credits are episodes of TV shows like THE SKRUMPS, 2007, and SID THE SCIENCE KID, 2008 -2015, and he was also an executive producer of the Syfy Channel show FARSCAPE, 1999 – 2003, which I liked a lot)  and his heart’s in the right place (the idea of Jim Henson’s son making something subversive like this is funnier as an idea than as the actual film). The real culprit though is screenwriter Todd Berger (his script is based on a “story” by himself and Dee Austin Robertson). Berger’s credits include writing THE SMURFS: THE LEGEND OF SMURFY HOLLOW (2013) and KUNG FU PANDA: SECRETS OF THE MASTERS (2011), so he has a background in kids’ entertainment; he just doesn’t know how to write a script that’s funny for adults, too, I guess. The plot’s okay, but the laughs are rare.

Like the TED movies, I thought that the idea of this one was funnier than what we see onscreen, and I really wish Mr. Henson and his team had REALLY gone all the way with the R-rating. It’s a lot wimpier than I expected, but while it’s a failure as a comedy, I still had an okay time watching it, so I’ll give it one and a half knives. You won’t hurt yourself laughing at this one, but I didn’t think it’s completely horrible, either.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS – one and a half knives

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