Shazam! Movie Review

Mixing the typical comic book movie issues with a little Big and even a touch of the recent Instant Family, the DC Comics adaptation of Shazam! is able to produce crowd pleasing results. As the DCU must turn to their less iconic characters for feature attention, I would say the title hero here is somewhat equivalent to the MCU’s Ant-Man. He’s sarcastic. He’s not as serious. In fact, if the knock on this overall universe is that it’s too dark (think Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice or Justice League), Shazam! is practically translucent.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a foster kid jumping between temporary dwellings after being separated from his mom as a toddler. The young teen seems to find a decent home with five other children and kindly caregivers. Yet he’s still searching from mom.

In a prologue circa 1974, we meet another youngster by way of Thaddeus Sivana. He experiences a mystical meetup with Shazam in the form of Djimon Hounsou in heavy old age makeup. Trying to find a human worthy of inheriting his considerable superpowers, he deems him not properly pure of heart. Sivana grows up to be Mark Strong with a myopic focus on battling the eventual Shazam.

That turns out to be Billy. When he is called for his own encounter with Hounsou, he gets the job. This means when he utters “Shazam!”, he turns into Zachary Levi (who could have been cast as Superman). He’s still a teen embodying a comic book strongman and that takes a lot of learning. One of his foster siblings (Jack Dylan Grazer) is in on the secret.

A lot of exposition must be established here and Shazam! probably doesn’t need to be over two hours long. The mommy and daddy issues explored are quite familiar to genre fans. The film does manage to find slightly different angles. Just as Instant Family showed the true heroism of foster parents, so does this. Levi is a hoot as our crime fighting man child. Strong is fine, but he doesn’t exactly alter the general rule that the villains in many of these pics aren’t as interesting as they should be.

Shazam! works best when it’s focused on Billy/Shazam while he works with his new family and not while grappling with Savani and his monstrous CGI creatures that represent The Seven Deadly Sins. Director David F. Sandberg has crafted an origin story with a lot of heart among the usual action and it fosters enough appreciation to make this rewarding.

*** (out of four)

Murder Mystery Movie Review

Like the whodunnit paperbacks that Jennifer Aniston’s character reads to distract herself, Murder Mystery is a flimsy experience that you’ll quickly forget. It’s not bad while it lasts, but I wouldn’t count on retaining it. Adam Sandler and Aniston team up again after 2011’s middling Just Go with It and that title aptly describes this. Don’t expect much other than a few amusing moments from the cast and it’s probably best viewed in transit somewhere as a minor distraction.

Sandler is New York cop Nick, who yearns to be a detective but can’t pass the exam. Aniston is his hairdresser wife Audrey. They’ve been married 15 years and she’s bitter that Nick hasn’t made good on his long standing promise of a European vacation (Amazon gift card is more his speed). He finally acquiesces and on the ride over, Audrey befriends the dashing Charles (Luke Evans) who invite the couple to join his family on their luxury yacht.

Charles is nephew to Malcolm Quince (Terence Stamp), a mega billionaire who owns the vessel. He stole Charles’s young fiancée and their nuptials are imminent. Others on the boat are financially dependent on Malcolm, including his son (David Walliams), a Hollywood actress (Gemma Arterton), a Formula One driver (Luis Gerardo Mendez), and a hip hop influenced maharajah (Adeel Akhtar). When Malcolm is killed, Nick and Audrey find themselves aboard a plot akin to her throwaway books.

The body count rises as the head couple become the lead suspects. Nick must utilize his detective skills, which are most certainly not considerable. Murder Mystery is often as generic as its name. Sandler is in goofy nice guy mode while Aniston plays exasperated for an hour and a half. They do share a comfortable chemistry that helps as this moves along. Some of the supporting players momentarily rise above the material, including Arterton (her reaction to accusations of being the culprit is genuinely funny).

It’s not exactly high praise to say that this isn’t bad like some of Sandler’s other Netflix excursions. Mildly diverting is more apt. For a watch involving a flight or long train ride somewhere, Murder Mystery could fit the bill for Sandler and Aniston admirers if you decide to just go with it.

**1/2 (out of four)

Us Movie Review

Any fears of a sophomore slide are quickly dispelled by we the audience in Us, Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his blockbuster cultural milestone Get Out from 2017. That Oscar nominated debut defied genre. Yes, it was sort of a horror flick but it brought in a racial subtext that got crowds talking. I believe Get Out gets better with every viewing and I suspect this will too.

Us, in some respects, is more of a traditional fright fest in comparison to the auteur’s first feature. There’s more jump scares, and more overall freak out moments. Yet there’s a whole lot of allegorical treatment on (yes) race, but also class and the concept of nature vs. nurture. Peele’s second pic furthers the notion that he’s an immensely talented filmmaker with lots to say. Us also leaves more up for interpretation than Get Out. It’s messier and that’s not really a criticism.

Lupita Nyong’o is Adelaide, the matriarch of the Wilson family. She’s married to the slightly goofy Gabe (Winston Duke) with two young children Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex). We first meet Adelaide in flashback circa 1986 as a little girl accompanying her parents to the beach in Santa Cruz. She wanders into a funhouse where she encounters a hall of mirrors. Instead of only seeing her reflection, she encounters her scary doppelgänger. The event literally leaves her speechless for an extended period of time.

We flash forward to over three decades later with her brood and they’re vacationing at their lake house in the same area. She’s talking now and has tried her best to repress that childhood event. The family meets up with their wealthy, boozy, and snobby friends (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) at the same beach. Soon enough, Adelaide is unable to bury what happened in 1986.

It turns out that doppelgänger (named Red) is back and she brings along sadistic doubles of the whole family to terrorize them. Red (naturally also played by Nyong’o) speaks in a genuinely hair raising whisper. Referred to as The Tethered, the versions of Gabe and the two children are also creepy and with murder on their minds. This is the section of the film where the gory action kicks into overdrive.

Without spoiling the rest, Us goes about answering the questions of why characters have these bloodthirsty counterparts. It’s horror, it’s government conspiracy, it’s very funny at times. The use of music (from the terrific Mike Gioulakis score to inventive spins of classic hip hop hits “I Got 5 On It” and “F*** The Police”) is expertly placed.

Lupita Nyong’o, in her dual role, is terrific. Switching between a mom in protection mode of her rather normal family to a mom orchestrating that normal family’s demise, it’s quite a role to pull off and she certainly does. Actors in this genre rarely get awards attention and the Supporting Actress winner from 12 Years a Slave deserves it. Duke (and Moss and Heidecker) bring the comic relief.

In some respects, I look at Us as the Unbreakable for Peele if Get Out is his The Sixth Sense. Why the M. Night Shyamalan comparison? Sixth Sense was a massive hit that also nabbed a Best Picture nod. Unbreakable was his breathlessly awaited next movie. It was appreciated by some and confounded others by not being as easily accessible. Those same issues apply to Us. However, just as the reputation for Unbreakable grew with time, I suspect that will hold true for Peele’s second turn. I don’t know if I’d say Us quite matches the potency of Get Out, but I think it could on subsequent screenings. For my first viewing, it definitely provided a whole lot to appreciate as this director continues to show he’s a force behind the camera.

***1/2 (out of four)

Serenity Movie Review

Steven Knight’s Serenity plays like a concept thought up after a long day and night of smoking weed. That concept, at least theoretically, would seem crazy and illogical in the morning. Yet somehow that realization never dawned on the writer and director and now we have Oscar winners starring in it. Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway could have easily spent the weeks filming this relaxing on an island similar to the beautiful one where this is set. They made this instead and it will forever be on their record.

The Lincoln pitchman plays Baker Dill, a hard drinking fishing boat captain. He lives in Plymouth, a tropical locale surrounded by water and an elusive tuna fish that he’s obsessed with catching. One day his ex flame Karen (Hathaway) shows up. They were high school sweethearts whose romance was cut short when he was deployed overseas. They have a teenage son who doesn’t see his dad anymore, but they seem to share an almost (ahem) interstellar connection. Karen is now married to abusive monster Frank (Jason Clarke). She offers Baker $10 million dollars to take him out – on the boat and in the murderous sense. He initially rejects the idea, but a bizarre (and I do mean bizarre) twist complicates matters.

There’s really no more plot left to ponder unless I enter spoiler territory. And if you wish to see Serenity (which you’ll likely regret), I won’t be the one to spill the beans. The film often plays like a hammy noir complete with overacting from its two Academy Award recipients. Djimon Hounsou turns up as the captain’s first mate while Diane Lane is his love interest. Her character solely exists for exposition conversations after they have sex.

Serenity succeeds or fails based on a willingness to buy the whacked out concept. For me, it certainly failed. I am almost in awe that Knight got the money to try. By its conclusion, it attempts to tug your heartstrings with more force than it takes to reel in that giant tuna fish. It succeeded more in tickling my funny bone and in an unintentional way.

*1/2 (out of four)

Happy Death Day 2U Movie Review

Happy Death Day 2U gets some props for going into totally different territories as it follows up on the surprise 2017 hit. The original had a simple concept – mix Groundhog Day with a slasher flick. It worked better than it should have with a stellar performance from Jessica Rothe as the bratty day repeater named Tree. Part 1 developed some layers to her character that are important in the sequel. I didn’t expect part 2 to mostly ditch the slasher concept in favor of science fiction. There’s also slapstick comedy with a supporting player pretending to be a blind French woman.

Horror franchises are usually more than happy to repeat themselves. I expected the same here, especially in a movie about repeating yourself over and over. Happy Death Day 2U doesn’t do that. We are reminded about Tree’s earlier predicament. She woke up on the same Monday in the dorm room of Carter (Israel Broussard), hung over and confused. Things got more baffling when it happened again and again. There was no Sonny and Cher music, but you get the gist. The original eventually revealed her roommate was offing her. She also had time to fall in love with Carter.

The sequel finds Carter’s roommate (Phi Vu) experiencing his own demise and deja vu. He has built a quantum reactor in science class with his nerdy schoolmates and it turns out they get an A+. Unfortunately for Tree, it means she begins to travel back to the manic and murderous Mondays yet again.

The jump scares and other slasher elements are in short supply. Instead we get some scientific jargon (there’s more Back to the Future references than anything with Bill Murray) and multiverse chatter. Tree’s deceased mom could be back in a dimension. Her roommate that terrorized her in the baby face mask on the first day may not be bad after all.

Part 1 and II might be different in tone, but they share certain things. Rothe’s performance is comedic and satisfying and she shines even more this time around. There are moments of well placed humor. There’s a bit involving skydiving that elicited genuine laughter. Not all the similarities are positive. This, too, runs out of gas before the running time has elapsed. The plot gradually becomes a secondary consideration. I found myself not really caring at all about who was behind the mayhem at the end of the long day. That said, writer/director Christopher Landon deserves some credit for making this day we’ve already experienced one of an alternative genre.

**1/2 (out of four)

Bumblebee Movie Review

Steven Spielberg has executive produced all five Transformers movies prior to Bumblebee and he holds that title here. Yet it’s in this prequel/spin-off that his influence feels the most pronounced. In the case of this franchise, that’s a welcome development. Michael Bay’s quintet of loud metal on metal action orgies that began in 2007 are generally nonsensical explosion excuses with occasional jaw dropping moments. Travis Knight, taking over directorial duties, gives Bumblebee a heart and the loudest audio belongs to the terrific 80s soundtrack.

This is a prequel and the happenings occur in 1987, which explains The Smiths, Duran Duran, and Tears for Fears providing the tunes. A prologue on the planet Cybertron shows our title character (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) being sent to Earth by Optimus Prime in order to escape death by The Decepticons. He crash lands, of all places, right in the middle of a military training exercise in California where no nonsense Colonel Jack Burns (John Cena) assumes him to be a hostile creature. Bumblebee manages to transform into that iconic 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, but not after being rendered mute when his voice box is disabled. By the way, this all happens in like ten minutes. Pacing is not an issue in this picture, unlike other bloated Transformers flicks.

That Beetle ends up in a junkyard frequented by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a gear head who’s just turned 18. It’s her storyline that brings the Spielberg vibes front and center. She’s experienced parental loss as her beloved father has passed. She’s an outcast in the suburbs. Charlie has an awkward pending romance with her neighbor (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). There’s also a resistance to diving (even though she’s a terrific diver) that we correctly assume will figure into the plot. She also works at a low rent amusement park that looks straight outta Adventureland. When she commandeers the Volkswagen, she discovers the giant yellow extraterrestrial and befriends him. Their relationship is quite E.T. like, if that alien had tires strapped to his back and communicated through radio waves playing Steve Winwood.

Knight, maker of the acclaimed Kubo and the Two Strings, is making a Transformers experience that could have been made in the 80s. And it mostly works. There’s only so much he can do with the fight scenes after the Decepticons (voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux) track Bumblebee to this planet. The tech team here manages to make them easier to follow than Bay’s mashups. So when Colonel Burns and other dumber than they should be government types get involved in the plot, I found myself actually caring a bit. That’s due to screenwriter Christina Hodson’s establishment of Charlie as a full fledged character and Steinfeld’s work elevating her. Her charming interaction with Bee is enough to warrant something the Transformers epics don’t get and that’s a recommendation.

*** (out of four)

Avengers: Endgame Movie Review

**There’s really no way to write a review of Avengers: Endgame without some minor spoilers. You may wish to read this post viewing…

The word “epic” can be overused by those who review movies like me, but it unquestionably applies to Avengers: Endgame. It’s epic in its running time (none of the other 21 MCU pics run three hours) and epic in the number of well-known thespians reprising their superhero and villain characters. It doesn’t seem feasible that so many characters could manage to coexist in this vast universe without seeming like a gimmick. If you happen to think predecessor Infinity War was overcrowded, you’ll get whiplash here. Truth be told, there are moments when this borders on playing like a greatest hits reel based on what’s preceded it during the last eleven years.

Yet Endgame figures out a rewarding way to stick the landing and honor the dozens of faces that we’ve spent billions of dollars visiting since 2008. At the conclusion of Infinity War, bad guy Thanos (Josh Brolin) had collected his precious Infinity Stones and decimated half the intergalactic population into dramatic looking dust particles. What’s left is mostly the core of the OG Avengers – Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). There’s others as Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) is the sole surviving Guardian of the Galaxy. And we have the two notable characters that were MIA last summer – Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd).

One might think this whole saga might be about the original band and some newer friends taking on Thanos. You would be wrong. Endgame has plenty of time bending tricks up its endless story arch sleeves. The first is an unexpected resolution that comes very early. However, that climax is just a set-up to further complications.

This is indeed a time travel movie in which the screenwriters almost sheepishly concede the contrived nature of such a device. The survivors set upon a course of multiple back in time ways to retrieve the Stones and bring back their loved ones. It doesn’t happen overnight and the lengthy nature of the plan coming together provides funny and poignant moments. Tony is off the grid with his beloved Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a new addition. Bruce is in full Hulk mode, but kindler and gentler. Thor is rounder and drunkenly grappling with his losses. Hawkeye is a full-blown vigilante. When the gang revs up their figurative DeLoreans, it gives us a chance to revisit lots of MCU personnel. And it’s a LOT of former players. Some are genuinely surprising. During this lengthy stretch, the film walks a fine line of not devolving into nostalgic sugar shock amidst the action sequences. By the final act, it rises above it.

We know the battle scenes will be well choreographed and well-directed (with the Russo Brothers handling duties once again). The final one is rather jaw dropping with the mixing of so many known quantities. Thanos is one of the stronger villains in MCU history and he remains so here, though there’s nothing fresh to add about his character. His daughter Nebula (Karen Gillan), on the other hand, continues her evolution as a fine addition to the roster.

The comic relief comes more from Thor as opposed to Ant-Man or Rocket and Hemsworth is up to the task. Captain America and Black Widow are given their emotional moments that we’re invested in from their backstories. To this writer, it’s Tony who’s always been the damaged beating heart of this franchise. The Marvel Cinematic Universe simply wouldn’t exist as it is without Downey Jr.’s brilliant work. That’s never changed. The quality of the movies he’s appeared in has. His performance has always been fantastic. If we’re ranking, I would put Endgame as an overall experience just under the first Avengers in 2012 and Infinity War. I can’t promise that thinking about all the shifting time plot points might raise as many questions as answers. I won’t deny that its emotional payoff is real and we have Downey and an amazing group of technicians bringing these comics to life to thank for it.

***1/2 (out of four)