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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AQUAMAN (2018)

Review by LL Soares

I was really looking forward to this one. First off, I’m probably one of the few people who actually liked JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017), and I found Jason Momoa’s take on Aquaman to be intriguing (but the number one character from JUSTICE LEAGUE I’d love to see get his own movie is Cyborg!). Also, after the success of WONDER WOMAN (2017), it looked like DC Comics was starting to get their superhero solo movies right. I was also excited because, like Wonder Woman, this was a chance for a major DC hero to star in a movie – one who had never done so before. We’ve had dozens of Batman and Superman movies over the years, but it’s about time some of the other big heroes had a chance to shine. I have no clue what happened to GREEN LANTERN (2011), featuring one of my favorite DC characters, when he was adapted for the screen and…totally bombed, but it seemed like DC was getting back on the right course lately with its mission to imitate the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hell, DC has some pretty great superhero characters of their own, and it was about time they were expanding things to include all of the other kick-ass characters in their armoire. Besides, Aquaman is a favorite of mine from way back in the days when I was a kid and he was in the SUPER FRIENDS (1973 – 2011) cartoon, even if he was the butt of lots of jokes since, as the guy whose main power seemed to be the ability to talk to fishes (move over Luca Brasi!).

But something happened to AQUAMAN on its way to the big screen. Something…confusing…that has resulted in a very lackluster script. I was excited to hear that James Wan was going to direct. He’s the director who made his name with the SAW and CONJURING movies – and while I really didn’t think AQUAMAN would be anything like his horror franchises, I thought he was an interesting choice who would bring a new angle to the superhero genre. Early indications were that he was very ambitious, which was a good sign.

Jason Mamoa (also Khal Drogo in the first season of GAME OF THRONES, Conan in the movie CONAN THE BARBARIAN, 2011, as well as in the shows STARGATE: ATLANTIS, 2005 -2009, and the Netflix series FRONTIER) and in the movies once again plays Arthur Curry, a half-human, half-Atlantean prince whose mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), Queen of Atlantis, washed ashore off the coast of Maine one day, injured in battle. She is taken in by a lighthouse keeper named Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison, of the great movie ONCE WERE WARRIORS, 1993, and he was Jango Fett in STAR WARS: EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES, 2002) and nursed to health, leading to a love story and the birth of Arthur. But his mother is taken away from him early on. His father is a nice enough guy, but it’s visits from his mother’s trusted advisor Vulko (Willem Dafoe, also in Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN, 2002, and Lars von Trier’s ANTICHRIST, 2009) that gives him the training he needs to be a warrior, and to control his powers. These include communicating with sea life, of course (something he finds out early in a scene involving a class trip to “the Boston Aquarium” (last time I checked it was called The New England Aquarium).

A woman warrior from sunken Atlantis named Mera (Amber Heard of ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE, 2006) shows up one day to tell Arthur about his brother Orm (Patrick Wilson, who was Nite Owl in WATCHMEN, 2009, and was also in James Wan’s INSIDIOUS, 2010, and THE CONJURING, 2013), a full-blooded Atalantean who wants to unite the various undersea kingdoms to form an army to attack the surface world. In order to stop this onslaught, Arthur has to return with her to Atlantis and take the throne, something easier said than done. But Arthur does have Mera on his side (she is engaged to Orm, strangely enough) and good old Vulko. But it may not be enough.

Orm is the principal villain, even if he doesn’t believe he is a bad guy (he has a point about the surface world dumping its garbage in the seas). In the comics his character is called OceanMaster, and when he tries to use the moniker in the film, it sounds awfully silly. Much more interesting is a modern-day pirate (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II of the Netflix series THE GET DOWN, 2016-2017, and the movie THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, 2017) who has a score to settle with Aquaman (concerning the death of his pirate father in the very first scene), and who is working with the Atlantians, using some technology they give him to create special battle armor and call himself Black Manta.

Anyway, Black Manta has powerful lasers that shoot out the of the eyes of his helmet and he’s a formidable bad guy (and much more interesting than Orm). He does his best to get revenge. Meanwhile, Arthur has to face off with Orm in a gladiator pit called the Ring of Fire in a “challenge for the crown” fight that reminded me an awful lot of the similar royal battles in BLACK PANTHER (2018). Except BLACK PANTHER did it much better.

The problem with AQUAMAN isn’t the characters per se. Or the actors. They do what they can. But the plot is convoluted, sometimes a bit draggy, and overall way too long. It’s a movie that overstays its welcome, and more than once I found myself feeling pretty bored with it all, despite the spectacle of multi-colored CGI sea creatures. Then again, maybe all the colorful CGI effects were meant to distract us from the lame storyline. It’s not half as exciting as it thinks it is.

Wan does an okay job directing this one, but the script—by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (who previously wrote ORPHAN, 2009, THE CONJURING 2, 2016, and several episodes of THE WALKING DEAD) and Will Beall (who wrote the screenplay for GANGSTER SQUAD, 2013, and episodes of the TV shows CASTLE, 2009 – 2011, and TRAINING DAY, 2018), based on a story idea by Wan, Beall and Geoff Johns—is weak and lacking in anything really fresh. We’ve seen all this before, and there’s nothing here to make AQUAMAN more exciting than any other superhero flick, or much different than the cookie-cutter flicks we’ve seen way too many of.

While it’s great to see Arthur Curry finally get his own movie, I wish it was a better one.

But at least it’s not as bad as GREEN LANTERN.

I give it two and a half knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives AQUAMAN ~ 2 1/2 knives!

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One interesting side note. Aquaman is one of those DC characters who has a very similar doppleganger in the Marvel Universe. Marvel’s Namor, the Sub-Mariner, is also a half-Atlantean prince with a similar origin story. But listen to this—Aquaman first appeared in “More Fun Comics” #73, way back in 1941, created by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris. You’d think with that kind of pedigree he’d be the original underwater superhero. I mean – 1941!! But Marvel’s Sub-Mariner, who first appeared back when the company was called Timely Comics, was created by the great Bill Everett way back in 1939. He was first created for a comic called “Motion Pictures Funnies Weekly” that was never released, before showing

QUICK REVIEWS OF RECENT MOVIES

SHORT TAKES by LL Soares

THE FIRST PURGE (2018) – the most political franchise in recent horror films delivers a prequel this month, and there’s an upcoming television show version as well. The movie tells the story of the arrival of the New Founding Fathers, the ultraconservative party that steps in when the U.S. has suffered massive economic collapse. One of their big ideas is to have one night a year where all crime, including murder, is legal, called the Purge. The first Purge one takes place on Staten Island, where people are paid money to stick around during the Purge, and even more money if they partake in the violence. When it begins, and things don’t get violent quickly enough, mercenaries are pumped in to turn it into a bloodbath. As usual in these films, the low-income citizens are the ones who suffer the most, and are the ones who have to fight back when the mercenaries come in, turning it all into an overnight war zone.

It stars Lex Scott Davis (of the series TRAINING DAY, and the recent remake of SUPERFLY, 2018) as an anti-Purge activist named Nya; Joivan Wade (from the British series EASTENDERS and DR. WHO) as her younger brother Isaiah, a good kid who has fallen off the straight and narrow and uses Purge night as a chance for revenge; Y’lan Noel (of the shows THE HUSTLE, 2013, and HBO’s INSECURE) as Nya’s former boyfriend and local drug kingpin Dmitri; and Marisa Tomei (MY COUSIN VINNY, 1992, and THE WRESTLER, 2008) as psychologist Dr. Updale, who dreams up the Purge and puts the first one togethere together. There’s also a facially scarred psychopath named Skeletor (Rotimi Paul, also in DUTCH KILLS, 2015, and MAPPLETHROPE, 2018) running around. It’s directed by Gerard McMurray, who previously made the college hazing drama BURNING SANDS (2017).

I like the PURGE movies, and this one was okay, if predictable. I give it two and a half knives.

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****

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018) – Paul Rudd is back as Scott Lang, who can shrink to the size of an ant or grow to the size of a giant thanks to a cool costume created by scientist Henry Pym (who was the first Ant-Man, and played here by Michael Douglas). In this sequel, several plots intertwine as Lang tries to stay out of trouble his last two days under house arrest involving the events of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016). He hasn’t seen Pym and his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly of LOST) in months, but they pop up and he suddenly gets involved in an attempt to reach Pym’s lost wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) who shrunk so small she disappeared into the sub-atomic world. Meanwhile, Lang’s sidekicks from the first movie (Michael Pena, Tip “T.I.” Harris, and David Dastmalchian) try to go straight with a security company. There’s a slimy weapons/technology dealer named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins of the shows THE SHIELD, JUSTIFIED, and VICE PRINCIPALS), who has been supplying Pym with equipment and wants in on whatever he’s working on now; and Hannah John-Kamen as the “Ghost,” a villain who has a lot of trouble controlling her atomic structure, constantly alternating between solid and, well, being ghost-like. Judy Greer plays Scott’s ex, Maggie, now married to a guy named Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), and Maggie and Scott’s daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) has a lot of screentime, as Scott tries to prove he’s a good dad, despite all the shenanigans. There’s also Randall Park of TV’s FRESH OFF THE BOAT as an FBI agent who keeps trying to catch Scott doing something illegal so he can send him back to jail. Also along for the ride is Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), an old colleague of Pym’s who was once part of an experiment called Goliath.

It’s all directed by Peyton Reed, who directed the first ANT-MAN movie from 2015.

There are too many plots going on this one (the one about the Ghost seems especially expendable), but it moves fast, has great big/small special effects, and cast is good. It’s far from the best Marvel movie, but it’s entertaining enough. I give ANT-MAN AND THE WASP two knives.

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Also, there’s not much in this movie to tie it into the recent events of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), but if you stick around for the closing credits (which is practically obligatory for all Marvel movies), you’ll find a special scene that ties that up nicely after all, and brings Mr. Lang and Company up to speed.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares