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Shazam!

In Shazam, 14 year old Billy Batson is given magical powers by an old wizard (Djimon Hounsou). Suddenly, by saying “SHAZAM!”, he turns into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) with super strength, super speed, and a whole lot of other powers. Billy is given these powers so that he can prevent the seven deadly sins from destroying the world. Naturally, teenager Billy has slightly different priorities, such as using his new powers and appearance to earn money, make killer YouTube videos, and buy beer.

SHAZAM_feb22_0125.dngAlso on Billy’s to-do list: picking a great superhero name. Billy and his best friend try out a lot of options for Billy’s superhero throughout the film, like Captain Sparklefingers, Power Boy, the Red Cyclone, Mister Philadelphia, Maximum Voltage, and on and on. None stick. Captain Marvel is noticeably absent from the list, and the name problem is a nice nod to the real world legal issues that Shazam has faced since the 1940s, as the character has been enjoined, traded, discarded, renamed and reimagined numerous times since. As a bonus, Billy even says “Holy Moly” a couple of times in the film, which was comic Billy’s go-to but which no one else has said since about 1962.

Billy’s behaviour is schlocky and charming and works wonderfully for a superhero who has also been called The Big Red Cheese. But interspersed with the corny stuff is a really terrifying villain (Mark Strong), who has a glowing rock for an eye, calls upon demons to decapitate, dismember and destroy a whole boardroom of corporate suits, and watches with a smirk as a rival turns to ash. These tonal shifts are not just uneven, they are jarring, and more than that, the dark aspects of this film make me hesitant to recommend this film to my brother even though my seven year old nephew insists on being notified whenever the Shazam trailer comes on TV.

Still, DC has delivered its second good film since trying (and then aborting) its shared universe project (Wonder Woman is still the best by far and will be hard to beat). The problem for DC is that having now said that each movie is its own entity and there’s no bigger narrative, meaning there is no need for regular movie goers to seek them all out. So when a good one comes along, people will go see it, but when the next one’s mediocre, the masses can skip it without worrying that they’ll miss something. In my view, a big part of Marvel’s success is that each chapter might add something important, so I’d better see it even if I’m superheroed out that month. DC has now walked away from that which only increases the pressure for their movies to measure up, and that’s a questionable choice when DC has more misses than hits to this point.

 

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Bumblebee

Let’s get this out there first: Jay would never have a favourite Transformer, because they are all beneath her and far too nerdy. But if, IF, she liked Transformers then Bumblebee would definitely be her favourite, because he’s a yellow Volkswagen Beetle. Jay has owned three Beetles, blue, white and red, and she would have owned more if only Volkswagen hadn’t stopped production. So last time we got her a car we picked a yellow Mustang which probably would have been a yellow Beetle instead if Volkswagen was better at business.

Just like Jay had to start fresh with a Mustang, Bumblebee is a fresh start for the Transformers franchise after a good start turned into a string of horrible sequels. We are taken back to the 1980s as the Autobots flee their home planet of Cybertron, which has been taken over by the evil Decepticons. Bumblebee is one of the fleeing Autobots and he ends up on Earth with instructions to scout out the place and wait for his friends to arrive. But of course, the Decepticons track him down first and the little yellow Transformer needs the help of his new human friends to save the world.

I was expecting Bumblebee to be as terrible as the last Transformers movies, or possibly worse. It’s not. It’s smaller, more focused, and succeeds in getting the franchise back to its roots by telling a story about humans working together with good robots to stop bad robots. I feel certain that in doing so, Bumblebee also sets an unbreakable record for most 80s references crammed into a single film, by including ALL OF THEM except Hands Across America which Jordan Peele must have reserved in advance for Us.

Despite its efforts, Bumblebee is still not actually a good movie, and I’m sure Jay hated every last minute (except possibly the parts where the Beetle was driving along the California coast). But it’s a fun diversion, it’s by far the best Transformers movie since the first one, and maybe there’s hope for the future of this franchise as long as Michael Bay can keep away from the director’s chair.

Second Act

I didn’t expect to like Second Act. I didn’t expect Second Act to be good. But I definitely didn’t expect Second Act to be so monumentally stupid.

It shouldn’t be too much to expect the writers of a big studio release to do some research and get at least up to a basic level of knowledge on the major plot points of their film. But that clearly IS too much to expect, because Second Act, a film about an outsider crashing the 1%’s corporate party, literally gets everything wrong about business when, after taking some creative liberties with her online profiles, Jennifer Lopez’s character, an assistant manager at a grocery store, secures a consultancy at a fake multinational company. A fake multinational company which seems to have its own skyscraper in Manhattan and which has made numerous questionable decisions, including having its R&D located in the same Manhattan skyscraper at its executive offices, categorically banning the use of non disclosure agreements, and making product decisions based on thirty-second presentations from two teams of four pitted against each other in a spontaneous three-month-long competition at the insistence of Lopez’s main rival. None of those things would or could ever happen because they are insane, but they happen in Second Act because that’s what the plot requires.

If that wasn’t infuriating enough, Second Act ALSO gets everything wrong about parenting, teen pregnancy, abortion and adoption, which should probably be tagged with a spoiler alert if I thought anyone would care.

And just in case I hadn’t been turned off by those shortcomings, Second Act throws in some needlessly cheap “comedy” including Jennifer Lopez taking a tumble during what should be a triumphant exit, and an exploding flock of doves released during Team Lopez’s product presentation.

Please don’t reward Second Act’s laziness and idiocy like I accidentally did after failing to find something for us to watch on Netflix earlier this week. I know you are better than that and will continue to say “no” to monumental stupidity. Say “no” to Second Act.

Us

“Why is nice Jordan Peele making such scary movies?”

As is often the case, Jay’s question is one that I can’t answer. But f you thought Get Out was too much, like Jay did, you will want to skip Us altogether. Maybe see Captain Marvel again while you wait for Dumbo, because Peele has clearly decided he’s made us giggle enough and now his goal is to induce heart attacks instead of belly laughs.

And yet, I still have to tell you to see it, even though you will kind of hate every minute. Us is just too good to miss. Like Get Out, there is a lot going on under the surface of Us, and like Get Out, it works as a thriller so if you want, you can ignore all the subtext and just enjoy the ride, or cringe in terror until the ride ends. In Us’ case, the ride is both metaphorically and literally a hall of mirrors, as a vacationing family is forced to face off against their evil twins. It’s like goateed Spock four times over, only in Us it is clear that the family from the mirror universe is out for blood and won’t stop til they get it.

Peele writes, directs and produces here, and in his sophomore outing as director he has already proven to be a monumental talent. He doesn’t appear as an actor but he’s imparted many of his mannerisms to Winston Duke, the family’s easygoing dad who seems more than anything is excited to get out on a rented motorboat that hangs slightly left. Duke provides a welcome dose of comic relief even as he does whatever is necessary to protect his family. He is equal to Lupita Nyong’o, and that’s the best anyone can ever do, because she brings it every time. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, as their kids, are both great as well. It’s awesome seeing them work together to survive as the stakes get raised higher and higher by the minute. Even more impressively, those four, and almost everyone in the movie, play dual roles, and there’s not a weak link to be found.

Us is one of those rare movies that stands above by being better executed, more thoughtful, and shamelessly cleverer than the rest of its genre. And like Get Out before it, Us is not a typical Oscar contender but it better get some attention next February. Because Peele and company deserve to be praised for what they’ve given us with Us: a brilliant film that manages to be brutal and restrained, and one that 24 hours later I still haven’t fully digested or shaken.

Space Jam

It’s fitting that LeBron James is taking the Space Jam reins from Michael Jordan, since last week James passed Jordan in career points scored and the two have always been compared since James was in high school.  Jordan would have scored many more points if only he hadn’t taken two years off in his prime to try his hand at baseball.  Rumour has always held that Jordan went to play baseball in order to avoid a gambling suspension, mainly because it made no sense at all for the notoriously competitive Jordan to have “retired” at age 30 (Jordan would retire twice more before his basketball career was over).

Jordan’s baseball career features prominently in Space Jam’s loose plot, as if he had been playing basketball at the time, the evil aliens from the Moron Mountain amusement park would have taken Jordan’s skills and he never would have been able to help the Looney Tunes gang.  But because Jordan was retired, the aliens had to steal other NBA players’ talent, space-jam-bill-murrayincluding Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues and Shawn Bradley.  Jordan is then recruited by Bugs Bunny to play with a bunch of other cartoon characters, with some help from Bill Murray and no help at all from Wayne Knight, as the cartoons take on the aliens in a basketball game to determine whether the aliens will enslave those loony ‘toons as an amusement park attraction.

This movie was probably never any good but it has been made worse with age.  The animation is dated, the green screen work is horrible, and worst of all, the “stars” involved in this movie, other than the great Charles Barkley, have been forgotten by all but the most attentive New York Knicks fans (who would punch me in the face for saying anything bad about Ewing and who will never forget LJ hitting a clutch four-point play against the Pacers in 1999’s Eastern Conference Finals).  Space Jam also really highlights how much the Looney Tunes feel like variations of one another (cat/duck and man/pig in particular) and pale imitations of their Disney counterparts.

Even with only a 90 minute run-time, a significant part of the movie feels like filler, including an opening scene with a 1- year old Jordan, about 5 minutes of Jordan highlights during the opening credits, and a subplot of sorts that features some really terrible acting by the three kids playing Jordan’s family (like so bad that you figure they have to be Jordan’s real kids, but they’re totally not – I checked).

lebron-vs-mjIf LeBron’s career arc is any indication, the next Space Jam is destined to be technically superior to Jordan’s original but lacking the same emotional core.  That doesn’t bode well for the reboot when there was no substance or emotion to the first Space Jam at all.  Watching it again only makes one wonder why anyone bothered to make it in the first place, as well as why James would want to invite any more comparisons to Jordan’s six for six NBA Finals record against LeBron’s three wins and six losses in his attempts (which I don’t begrudge but I’m in the minority on that point).  On the other hand, since the original Space Jam has nothing to offer, the reboot can’t possibly be worse!

Captain Marvel

Mar-Vell! Shazam! Mar-Vell! Shazam! There is a long and interesting legal saga surrounding the Captain Marvel name (though if you are not a law geek it’s probably much more long than interesting). Basically, the red and white Captain Marvel (a.k.a. Shazam) came first as a blatant Superman rip-off. DC sued, put the creators out of business, bought Shazam for cheap and quickly forgot they owned him. Meanwhile, Marvel captain-marvel-mar-vell-shazam-differences-header-1108262-1280x0Comics decided that if any comic publisher should have a Captain Marvel, it should be them, so Marvel threw together a half-baked story about an alien named Mar-Vell to secure a trademark for the Captain Marvel name, won a lawsuit against DC and others, then gave Mar-Vell cancer and made him the only comic character in history to stay dead.

Given that history, I don’t think it is a coincidence that DC’s Shazam will follow within a month of Captain Marvel’s debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  If there’s a lesson here, and there may not be, it’s that “legal reasons” give birth to a lot of strange things (and don’t even get me started on the 90s Captain America and Fantastic Four films).

Incidentally. Marvel’s Captain Marvel is not a resurrection of the alien who died from cancer. Marvel revamped the character through a whole other convoluted saga, and she’s primed to be the first female hero to get her own MCU movie.

Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) is a space-faring Kree soldier with memory problems, a self-described noble warrior hero fighting a war against the shape-shifting Skrulls. After captain-marvel-international-poster-top-1200x675a Skrull ambush, she crash-lands on mid-90s Earth (smashing through the roof of a Blockbuster Video, as probability would dictate) and realizes that she’s been on this planet before. Teaming up with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Marvel chases after the Skrulls who came to Earth along with her (led by Ben Mendelsohn) while also trying to uncover her forgotten past.

In many ways, Captain Marvel is a standard solo origin story, which at this point they can crank out with no effort at all. But this film still feels like a necessary addition to the MCU. Captain Marvel is a worthy star and the galactic stakes are high enough here to make this film stand on its own. A great deal of those positive feelings are due to Larsen, who does a great job of keeping us invested in the character even before we (and she) know who she really is: the cosmic-powered superstar who is going to undo all the bad stuff that Thanos got away with last time (as you probably can guess, I’m still mad that he turned Spidey into dust). And the icing on the cake is the 90s nostalgia reminding us that no matter how bad your internet is during a snowstorm, things used to be much worse.

Aside from Shazam (which is almost certain to be terrible), Captain Marvel is bound to be compared to Wonder Woman, and for the only time ever, DC’s entry is the better one. Captain Marvel does not have the same crossover appeal as Wonder Woman does, but Captain Marvel is a really fun superhero movie on its own merits, as well as a great lead-in for the new Avengers film next month.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

With two feature films and countless Netflix series under their belts, the creative team behind the How to Train Your Dragon franchise is very comfortable. They are content to spend as much time as they need on their story, resulting in what may be the world’s first dragon-centric rom-com.

Toothless, the black dragon from the first two films, is back and gets his own story thread, as he meets a lovely white dragon and is instantly smitten. She’s not so sure about him at first, and his courtship attempts are more than a little awkward, but we all know he’s going to win her over eventually. The outcome of that romance is also obvious to his best human friend, Hiccup, the leader of the dragon-how-to-train-your-dragon-3-headerriding Vikings that live in the island village of Berk, and that’s where things get interesting.

In addition to figuring out how to deal with his dragon’s dating, Hiccup and his Vikings have their own problems. They’re being pursued by the drsgon hunter Grimmel and his massive fleet. Against some resistance, Hiccup decides that the Vikings’ best chance to survive is to find the hidden dragon world located beyond the edge of the world.

Hiccup and Toothless have both grown up a lot over the course of the trilogy, and they grapple with some fairly complex relationship-related issues in this third instalment. The result is an emotional third act as life pulls Hiccup and Toothless in very different directions and they have some hard choices to make.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World shows that we are still in the midst of a golden age for animation. The Hidden World is full of beautifully animated scenes, with particularly amazing lighting effects, but more importantly, it’s a story that my 40-something self could relate to, engage with, and be moved by. It’s a satisfying conclusion to a very enjoyable series.