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SHAZAM! – A SPOILER FREE Movie Review


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With the release of SHAZAM! it is very, very clear the powers that be charting the course of the DC Movie Universe have completely altered their direction. While the early offerings were dark, real-world and gritty, the latest films (Wonder Woman, Aquaman and, now, SHAZAM!) are wildly different in tone from the earlier offerings and from each other. This is not a bad thing at all and, if it accomplishes nothing else, it does set the DC movies apart from their Marvel counterparts.

SHAZAM! is a different creature from all of the mainstream superhero movies that precede it in that it embraces the nature of its story so completely and that nature is family. SHAZAM! is the first, true family superhero movie. And it works. Overtime.

Though it does not share the dark overtones of many of the DC films, it is clearly in the same universe and their are constant reminders of this fact. Telling the story of Billy Batson, a young foster child moved from home-to-home, SHAZAM! is also something of a superpowered homage to Tom Hanks’ classic BIG.

Billy receives magical powers from a wizard which turn him from a 15-year-old boy into a superpowered adult with untested and unknown abilities. Part of the fun of the film is watching Billy (Asher Angel) as Shazam (a terrific Zachary Levi) learn just what it is he can do. Aided by Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) , a foster child Billy meets in his latest home, Shazam learns he can fly, is amazingly strong and has “bullet immunity” among other things. The interplay between Angel and Grazer is almost as fun as the exchanges between Levi and Grazer, the constant being Jack Dylan Grazer. This kid is fun!

And so is the movie. With a plot line that tips its hat to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Monster, INC, Ghostbusters and Big, a wonderful turn by scenery-chewing Mark Strong as the unrepentantly evil Doctor Sivana and a major, last reel reveal that should delight even the most cynical among movie goers, SHAZAM! is a world of fun. Director David O. Sandberg leaned into the craziness that is the story of Shazam and that was absolutely the right decision. He also littered the movie with just enough fan service connecting it both to the DC movie universe and the comic book history of the title character.

Be sure you stick around for both post credit sequences. One is incredibly funny. The other is incredibly bizarre. Both fit SHAZAM! perfectly.

SHAZAM! receives FOUR AND A HALF MAGIC 8 BALLS out of a possible FIVE

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Countdown to ENDGAME | Guardians of the Galaxy


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Captain America: The First Avenger | Iron Man | The Incredible Hulk| Iron Man II Thor | The Avengers | Iron Man 3 | Thor: The Dark World | Captain America: The Winter Soldier | Guardians of the Galaxy | Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 |Avengers: Age of Ultron |Ant-Man |Captain America: Civil War |Doctor Strange | Spider-Man: Homecoming | Thor: Ragnarok | Black Panther | Avengers: Infinity War | Ant-Man and the Wasp 

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

Untitled

Guardians of the Galaxy was a CRAZY risk for Marvel Studios. Not only were the characters that make up the “team” C Listers, they had little to no name recognition, they did not have a place in the cultural lexicon and they had not been set up or name dropped in any other Marvel movie. If this one worked, look out. Marvel would rule the cinematic world.

This just in: Marvel rules the cinematic world.

Oddly, of the 18 movies in this countdown, I think (after – WAY after – last week’s Thor: The Dark World) I was looking forward to re-watching Guardians the least because I have seen it so very many times. That is a measure of how much I love it, of course, but I wondered what surprises it would still hold or if it would keep my interest.

I need not have worried.

This thing holds up, holds interest and holds a audience captive with its humor, action and audacity.

What a terrific movie.

When I reviewed Guardians of the Galaxy when it was released, I gave it FIVE DANCING GROOTS out of a possible FIVE because that is as high as the scale goes, friends.


KEY INTRODUCTIONS:

  • Peter Quill (Star Lord)
  • Gamora
  • Rocket
  • Groot
  • Drax the Destroyer
  • Yondu
  • The Nova Corps
  • The Ravagers
  • The Kree race
  • The Power Stone (this is orb that Thanos seeks in the film)
  • Ronan
  • The Celestial race (the giant head called Knowhere)
  • Nebula

CONNECTION(S) TO INFINITY WAR:

  • The race to find the Infinity Stones is on as Thanos is after the Power Stone in this movie.
  • The Guardians of the Galaxy are set up as a force to be reckoned with in the film.
  • Thanos’ motivations and roles as expanded.
  • The Collector’s importance to the quest for the Infinity Stones is further explained.
  • Obviously, most of the Guardians of the Galaxy play significant roles in Infinity War and Rocket looks to be very key to the events of Endgame.

AVENGERS | ENDGAME IS COMING

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Countdown to ENDGAME | Captain America: The Winter Soldier


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Captain America: The First Avenger | Iron Man | The Incredible Hulk| Iron Man II Thor | The Avengers | Iron Man 3 | Thor: The Dark World | Captain America: The Winter Soldier | Guardians of the Galaxy | Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 |Avengers: Age of Ultron |Ant-Man |Captain America: Civil War |Doctor Strange | Spider-Man: Homecoming | Thor: Ragnarok | Black Panther | Avengers: Infinity War | Ant-Man and the Wasp 

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

Untitled

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a wonderful movie, not simply a great superhero movie. Part political potboiler, part thriller, the movie only suffers form a bit of silliness with a time lock plot in the third act that draws things out a bit unnecessarily.

That, however, is a small complaint and the action and pathos of the film are complex and compelling.

All of this happens while a massive amount of world building is taken care of as well.

And it has Robert Redford in a tremendous role as the morally ambiguous Alexander Pierce.

Any list of the top five Marvel movies must include Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

When I reviewed Captain America: The Winter Soldier when it was released, I may actually have been too harsh only giving it FOUR AND A HALF SMITHSONIAN EXHIBITS out of a possible FIVEUpon further review, it may deserve five.


KEY INTRODUCTIONS:

  • Sam Wilson, The Falcon
  • Bucky Barnes reintroduced as The Winter Soldier
  • Brock Rumlow, Crossbones
  • Sharon Carter, Agent 13

CONNECTION(S) TO INFINITY WAR:

  • The destruction of SHIELD will leave the world all the more vulnerable to invasion by the forces of Thanos.
  • Stephen Strange is mentioned by Hydra agent Jasper Sitwell. He is, of course, Doctor Strange, and he was featured in Avengers Infinity War.
  • The post credit sequence features Baron Strucker (a Hydra operative) and future Avengers Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. The Scarlet Witch, in particular, featured in Captain America: Civil War and was on Avenger on the run in Infinity War.
  • Bucky is a MAJOR player in Captain America: Civil War and has shown up in… other places in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well. He was in the post credit sequence of Black Panther and featured – a bit – in Infinity War.

AVENGERS | ENDGAME IS COMING

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Captain Marvel – A SPOILER FREE Movie Review


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Releasing this film on the International Day of Women was no mistake by the makers of Captain Marvel for one goal of the movie – and this is a goal at which the film absolutely succeeds – is to tell a tale of independence and empowerment for its main character. The title character is powerful, confident and clever. She is funny, independent and empowered. Her story is the story of a superhero and there is barely a moment spent – for humorous purposes or otherwise – where anyone questions the fact that, if she is not the most powerful person in the room, she is well on her way to becoming that.

The movie gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that its title character does not quite remember her entire history. A series of inter-cutting flashbacks (which anyone who has seen the trailers has watched) reveal bits and pieces of conflicting history to Captain Marvel and part of the fun of the movie is walking along with her as she attempts to unravel how these images work together to make her whole.

Brie Larson is wonderfully cast in the title role. She looks perfect in each incarnation of the costume, and that is a critical thing for anyone playing a superhero – sometimes these costumes look silly. Larson has the gravitas to carry it off, even when her hair pokes through her helmet like a mohawk. And, though her character is on a quest to find out exactly who she is during the course of the movie, Larson’s Captain Marvel never doubts herself. She may not be in control of her history, but she is completely in control of herself. As Captain Marvel is set up as one of if not the most powerful characters in the Marvel Movie Universe, the casting had to be spot on. It is.

Set in the 1990s, Captain Marvel takes on a terrifically 1990s movie trope – the buddy comedy – and plays that out to entertaining effect. Samuel L. Jackson is on board as a young, two-eyed Nick Fury and he is having a tremendous amount of fun. The pairing of Larson and Jackson works and the friendship between the characters is the backbone of the movie. That computers seamlessly de-age Jackson about 20 years is pretty cool and pretty scary (and what they do for castmate Clark Gregg as a young Phil Coulson is equally cool and/or creepy).

Ben Mendelshon is, likewise, having a ton of fun as leader of the antagonist alien race – the shapeshifting Skrulls. This is an actor who knows how to chew scenery in the best way and he does so with aplomb here.

Annette Benning continues a noble tradition of the addition of an A-List actor (see Brando, Marlon, Nicholson, Jack, Redford, Robert, Close, Glenn and others) to a comic book film and, much like her compatriots, looks like she’s having a terrific time as well. And Jude Law is the perfect mentor to Larson’s Captain Marvel.

But it’s Captain Marvel who is at the heart of the story and her friendship with Maria Rambeau (delightfully played by Lashana Lynch) and Maria’s daughter Monica (played by Akira Akbar) is the most important to the movie. The relationship between these characters is perfectly pitched and utterly in sync with the overall themes of the movie…

… which are hard to delve into in a spoiler free review. Suffice it to say that Captain Marvel employs more twists and turns than other Marvel movies and all of them land very nicely. The movie keeps the audience on its heels and, hey, we’re talking about the 21st Marvel movie in the last 10 years. That this one continues to surprise is absolutely saying something.

There is world building here. There is world bridging here (yes, the audience gets a sense of a part of the forthcoming Avengers: Endgame) and there are thrills to be had in all of this.

If there is a drawback, and this may well have something to do with the saturation of the genre, some of the scenes seem a bit telegraphed. This is not to say they are not enjoyable. The entire movie is one empowering hoot. Rather, this is to say that even good scenes that are overly familiar can only have so much effect. And, to be fair, it’s not Captain Marvel’s fault that Wonder Woman beat it to some thematic punches.

These are minor quibbles. This is a very fun movie and a fitting installment in the overall Marvel saga. Come for the great characters and the kitty cat, stay for the TWO post credit sequences.

CAPTAIN MARVEL receives FOUR FLERKINS out of a possible FIVE

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On the Basis of Sex – A Movie Review


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It took The Cinnamon Girl and I way too long to get to On the Basis of Sex. Way too long. When we got to see it a few weeks back before the Academy Awards, we looked at each other and said “why did we wait so long?”

Felicity Jones is marvelous cast as Ruth Bader Ginsberg, an absolute, real life hero whose story is being told while she is still with us. That’s a rarity and a blessing to be sure. Jones’ Ginsberg is just what one wants in a hero: determined, uncompromising, compassionate, loyal and incredibly smart. She will likely make a career out of playing such roles and she should. She is self assured in her choices and her work in On the Basis of Sex is terrific.

Jones is clearly the lead here and the movie depends entirely on her performance. Thankfully, it is spectacular.

She is ably supported by a strong cast. Armie Hammer, who I find terrific and just one break away from being a superstar, takes not one ounce of the spotlight away from Jones as Martin Ginsberg, Bader Ginsberg’s husband. Theirs is a well-drawn, devoted relationship and one that forms a terrific backdrop to the themes of the film. It is not a stereotypical marriage that one might expect of the era in which the movie occurs, rather the challenges the Bader Ginsberg faces as she inches ever closer to the glass ceiling are played out delicately and believably within her relationship with Martin and Hammer is perfect in the role.

Also important though, perhaps, a bit more one note, is Cailee Spaeny as Jane Ginsberg, who has come of age watching her mother approach but never quite tap on the above mentioned ceiling. The mother-daughter dynamics are by-the-book, but they work in the overall context of the movie and Spaeny’s Jane is a critical part of keeping the themes moving forward.

Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates and the ever terrific Sam Waterston are excellent in their roles as well and director Mimi Leder keeps the entire movie on pace and builds in enough suspense to keep the audience engaged until the final scene.

Having not yet watched the CNN documentary about RBG, I can only hope On the Basis of Sex is a realistic account of the woman’s early life because it is an inspiring one.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX receives FOUR and a HALF REAL LIFE HEROES out of a possible FIVE

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BlacKkKlansman – A Movie Review


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Did anyone forget that Spike Lee is one of America’s best directors? If so, BlacKkKlansman should remind the world that Lee knows what he’s doing. He always has.

Telling the story of Ron Stallworth, an African American police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department in the 1970s, Lee delivers a movie that is at once entertaining and thought provoking establishing once again (and, perhaps, for all time) that Lee is a powerhouse director. Insightful, involving and, at times, infuriating, BlacKkKlansman is a story that needed to be told. That it is told in our current context is grist for the mill.

John David Washington (who must be fatigued by being identified in review-after-review as Denzel Washington’s son) is a terrific lead here. The actor is on his way to a terrific career, turning his star work on the HBO series Ballers into a shot at a career in the movies. In this, his first leading role, he more than acquits himself which is saying something as he shares much of his screen time with the brilliant (and Oscar nominated) Adam Driver. The two form different sides of the same coin: Ron Stallworth, the first black officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department and Ron Stallworth, a white man who wants to join the Ku Klux Klan.

Wait. What?

That trick (and it is a true story, remember) drives the movie. While Washington’s Stallworth is the brains behind the operation, Driver’s Flip Zimmerman (a Jewish man that tries to resist the notion that a fight against the Klan and what it represents is not as much his battle as Stallworth’s) is the front man, the Stallworth that the Klan will meet and, hopefully, accept.

Both men have much to learn about themselves and about the world they occupy. Rather than beat his audience over the head with broadsides, Lee allows his actors to tell the story. It’s a good choice. Driver and Washington are absolutely perfect. Lee more than deserves the Oscar nomination he received for his work here. BlacKkKlansman is that good.

This is a terrific movie to watch simply from the standpoint of it weaving a wonderful plot. It keeps you on the edge of your seat. But the real power behind it, and Lee knows this long before the audience realizes is, is found in the incredibly uncomfortable juxtaposition between events 40 years ago and events of today. When the final scenes of the film play out over footage from the Charlottesville riots, Lee brings the movie and its themes in a very uncomfortable full circle.

How far have we come as a society? How far do we still have to go? Lee has directed polemics before.

BlacKkKlansman is far more subtle and, perhaps, more moving.

BLACKKKLANSMAN receives FOUR and a HALF UNCOMFORTABLE RESONANCES out of a possible FIVE

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The Upside – A Movie Review


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Though it can be justifiably critiqued as simplistic and predictable, sometimes the measure of a movie can simply be how much a viewer enjoyed it and The Upside is a very enjoyable, indeed. Featuring fine performances from Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, The Upside is a life-affirming and fun way to spend a few hours. Does it challenge the viewer philosophically? No. Does it encourage the audience to value life and the many different ways which it can be lived? Yes. There is room in the marketplace for movies like The Upside.

Remade from the popular French film Les Intouchables, The Upside tells the story of Hart’s Dell Scott, a down on his luck, ex-con who stumbles into a position as a Life Assistant for Bryan Cranston’s Phillip Lacasse, a quadriplegic billionaire. Both Dell and Phillip are at crossroads: Dell is attempting to figure out how to live his life, Phillip is trying to decide whether he wants to live at all. The Hart/Cranston pairing works and the two stars have significant chemistry.

Hart downplays his trademark broad expressions and tendency to mug for the camera. His Dell is subdued and tightly wound. In only a scene or two does Hart feel he can open Dell up and that he has played things straight during the other parts of the film lends those moments more power and efficacy.

One can see the draw Cranston must have felt when taking the role. The challenge to play role like this must have been enticing and Cranston, surely one of our best actors, is excellent. His portrayal of a man trapped in a broken body approaches great but, through no fault of his own, it does not quite get there.

The Upside is not going to be confused with a masterpiece. It is not trying to be. In a more philosophical and layered film, Cranston would have a broader range to play as would Hart, but that is not what The Upside wants to be. And that is just fine. We need movies like The Upside. They are not hurting anyone.

While The Upside hits all the right notes, it is clearly constrained. It seems to follow its source like a paint-by-number canvas, afraid to color out of those established lines. Pieces that may have worked in the original movie, most notably the inclusion of Nicole Kidman who is given far too little to do as Yvonne, Lacasse’s assistant, do not add much and are too thinly drawn. There is a formula to be followed. Les Intouchables  was a big hit. Director Neil Burger knows that and knows what side the bread is buttered on. It’s The Upside.

THE UPSIDE receives THREE and a HALF PLEASANT TROPES out of a possible FIVE


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