SHAZAM – ADORABLE SUPER HERO FROM THE POV OF A KID

SHORT TAKE:

Adorable view of the super hero world from the POV of its most ardent demographic – the barely pubescent teenaged boy.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid teens and up because of “boy” language with a large helping of the English word for “merde” and a couple of crass throwaway lines. All totaled this movie is only 30 seconds of cuts away from a G rating.

LONG TAKE:

In age swapping movies like Big or 13 Going on 30 or the most recent Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, wherein you briefly meet the characters then spend the bulk of the movie with the doppleganger(s), by the denouement, when the original versions re-emerge, it’s a let down because you miss the avatar with whom you have explored the character arc.

Not with Shazam.

Director David F Sandberg wisely chose a different structure and the writer, Henry Gayden did a very good job of neatly bouncing back and forth between the two, so you never lose attachment to either. Shazam feels like a buddy movie wherein the buddies are the same person.

I have often maintained that men have an easy time accessing their inner child and Shazam makes my point in spades.

Zachary Levi (voiced Finn for Tangled and a cross between Peter Pan and Robin Hood as Fandral in the last two Thor movies) brilliantly channels his inner pubescent in Shazam, endowing his Shazam with all the sheer joy and wonder of a youth just discovering powers he didn’t know were possible (apt and clever analogy for maturation anyone?), but recognizing that this super hero is still just an inexperienced kid.

A lot of movies featuring kids have really cringy moments, either from bad acting or bad writing from people who, apparently, have no kids and don’t remember what it is like to be a kid. Star War: Phantom Menace, A Wrinkle in Time, and After Earth all come to mind.

Not in Shazam.

Asher Angel is great as the foster kid who is the surprised recipient of these gifts. I have two sons past this age now as well as a brother, husband and a torrent of boys who have graced our house as friends of all six of our kids, and Angel is, on the screen, as Billy Batson.…… a kid. No posturing, no trying to play older than he is, just a young teen who plays a young teen. And he does it beautifully: funny, intelligent, wide-eyed one minute and pretending to be worldly-wise the next.

Jack Dylan Grazer is his best friend Freddie Freeman and, while echoing his obnoxious character from It, does a splendid job of being … an obnoxious kid.

Together Grazer and Angel…and Levi and Grazer are kids who do thoughtless, selfless, stupid, heroic, sly, blunt, brave and courageous things – often within minutes of each other.

The three of them have great chemistry together and are a lot of fun to watch.

Billy’s foster siblings: Faithe Herman as Darla, Grace Fulton as Mary, Ian Chen as Eugene, Jovan Armand as Pedro, do great jobs as well in the supporting cast of kids, and each are given their moment to shine.

The adults like Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews’ foster couple who care for the kids are treated with respect and shown as good role models and caring people.

Then, of course, there is Dr. Sivana, the bad guy, played by Mark Strong (both Kingsmen movies and Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes), who hams up his super villain with a horde of evil minion gargoyles,  creating a sense of menace but with just enough camp to take the edge off and prevent the movie, despite some cartoon-horrifying scenes, from going down the Dark Knight path. Solid actor that he is, Strong confidently takes Dr. Sivana to the edge of that envelope without ever ruining the good time for the audience during his haunted house-like scenes. This is, after all, a mostly teen-intentioned super hero movie.

From the Superman theme, to Rocky‘s “Eye of the Tiger” and Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” the songs interlaced with the soundtrack work to create an upbeat mood and place.

The style is a combination of realistic with comic book colorful and no holds are pulled in recognizing how ridiculous his costume at first appears (can’t resist this quote – the first night Batson transforms, talking to Freddie: “Super powers!? Dude, I can’t even figure out how to pee in this thing!”)

As I alluded to above, Shazam can easily be seen as an allegory for a youth, who is just coming to terms with the demands of adulthood, newly encountering “powers” for which he must assume responsibility, and battling – wait for it – the Seven Deadly Sins represented by one of each of the gargoyles!

It is hard to believe that Wonder Woman and Shazam! are in the same universe, so vastly different are their tones. Be that as it may, along with Wonder Woman, D.C. FINALLY now has another big success in the super hero genre. So, as Gomer Pyle might have exclaimed: SHAZAM! (couldn’t resist that either).

 

CAPTAIN MARVEL – GOOD IN SPITE OF ITSELF

SHORT TAKE: Latest and fun addition to the Marvel Universe of super heroes and the bridge between Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, Captain Marvel is a super hero who just happens to be a female, re-discovering her real identity while meeting Young Nick Fury and Young Phil Coulson.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Family friendly: Young teens and up should be fine, perhaps even middle schoolers with parental discretion. A handful of mild profanities but otherwise pretty clean. The violence, albeit mostly cartoonish, one alien autopsy, and threats to a family with small children might upset the littler members of the family depending on disposition.

LONG TAKE:

Mark Twain is incorrectly thought to have said: “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” But much like Rick’s famous misquote from Casablanca: “Play It Again, Sam” or Jimmy Cagney’s “Top of the world, Ma!” or Oliver Hardy’s “Another fine mess you’ve gotten me into,” while close, are famously – not… quite… accurate. It just goes to show how persistent mistakes can be carried on into posterity if quoted often enough.

And just so, I had read in a number of early pre-opening screening reviews that Captain Marvel was rife with promotions of feminist propaganda and an anti-male manifesto. After watching the movie I discovered all this hype to be wrong. On the contrary I found Captain Marvel quite charming, a fitting addition to the Marvel superhero universe, and most importantly – FUN. Not at all the feminist manifesto it was touted to be.

However, I understand how the misunderstanding arose.  For example, what some people, women in particular, perceived as examples of women being treated with negative bias in the military, I saw as the quite natural hazing common to ALL military newbies.

If you remember back to Captain America, Steve Rogers pre-superhero serum, was the butt of a lot of disrespect in both civilian life as well as boot camp. No one at the time complained that it was an example of discrimination against slightly built men, but appropriately just defined his backstory and provided a dramatic comparison for Steve Rogers’ transformation, as well as defining his character traits of courage, persistence and dignity in the face of adversity.

Similarly, Carol Danvers, aka Vers aka Captain Marvel, like any other human, faces obstacles specific to her background and physique before she can become the hero that is needed. Everyone has limitations as well as challenges they must overcome to achieve their goals and dreams. For reviewers to see logical challenges in the very competitive field of Air Force pilot training as discrimination is to have a ridiculous prejudice against men and a foolish bias in favor of women, which assumes that no woman should fail just because she’s a woman. That is inherently stupid. And it’s all just throwaway McGuffin background anyway.

Where did the feminist rumor come from? Like most rumors – from half truths. It is true that Brie Larson made some rather blunt and rude comments about white male reviewers. Personally I wouldn’t take offense were the playing field equal and white men were allowed to make similar comments about women. Her dismissive comment that she is not interested in hearing what a white male has to say about a movie with a female lead does not bother me half so much as the thought that if a white male said something in reverse he would be eviscerated. Can you imagine someone getting away with saying they are not interested in hearing what a minority woman has to say about Justice League since there were no minority women in the lead roles? The liberals would have lost they’re narrow little minds. Yet Brie Larson is lauded for her equally offensive remark. The inequity truly rankles the reasonable mind. How about: I’m not interested in what a woman has to say about 12 Strong because there were no women in the lead roles? Or I’m not interested in what an Eskimo has to say about West Side Story? Or ANYONE other than a white middle class male has to say about Castaway because Tom Hanks was just about the only one IN the movie? You see how ridiculous this liberal, politically correct, so-called “mentality” quickly becomes?

Larson simply expressed herself boorishly in voicing a reasonable desire to include a more interesting combination of reporters, like: the disabled, women, and minorities. I only wish she’d included homeschoolers, and faith-based reporters. But, of course, good luck with that one.

Regardless of all that CAPTAIN MARVEL IS A GOOD MOVIE.

BEYOND HERE BE SPOILERS – BE WARNED

Captain Marvel is about a military pilot, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson who knocked it out of the ball park in The Glass Castle – see my post here) who mysteriously ends up believing she is a member of an alien race’s warrior class, fighting the Skrulls, a race of extremely dangerous shape shifters who threaten the Universe in general and Earth in particular. On an investigative mission she winds up on Earth, meets a young, two-eyed Nick Fury and starts unraveling the mystery of her past.

Captain Marvel was co-directed by the established team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who, up to now, have done Sundance award winning shorts and indies. They were chosen because of their insightful enthusiasm for the character of Carol Danvers. The duo have created a very solid and entertaining bridge between the two Avengers movies.

The CGI was interesting but, possibly deliberately, of checkerboard quality. Danvers in full bore Captain Marvel mode looked a bit like a highly rendered cartoon – a nice homage, I thought, to her comic book origins.

As to the youthened Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, either Jackson has a picture of Dorian Gray tucked somewhere in his attic or they did a masterful job with the special effects. Jackson looks legitimately 20 years younger in the movie. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Clark Gregg, whose younger Phil Coulson looked like a creepy, unnaturally smooth-faced caricature. Even were this choice purposeful due to the nature of the Skrulls and the part they play, other Skrull “imitations” looked far more natural and, assuredly, Fury would have picked up on it far before he did.

Ben Mendelsohn plays Talos, a Skrull adversary. Mendelsohn usually plays flat, two-dimensional bad guys, like the evil mad scientist Orson Krenic, in Star Wars: Rogue One or the diabolical businessman Sorento in Ready Player One. Mendelsohn’s Talos has a bit more to him, even a sense of humor, and it is nice to see Mendelsohn tackle a character with a bit more complexity.

Jude Law, the third man up to bat as Dumbledore, plays Yon Rogg, Captain Marvel’s mentor.

Annette Benning plays both Dr. Wendy Lawson, as well as a manifestation of the Kree Supreme Artificial Intelligence, which serves as teacher to the Kree.

As a side note, I thought the choice of Annette Benning in an important supporting role in a superhero movie was odd, familiar as we are with her in emotion-driven interpersonal dramas, like her shrewish unfaithful wife in American Beauty. Casting Benning in a major sci-fi is a peculiar fit which I am not completely sure works. She is a decent actress. She did manage a very serviceable Queen Elizabeth in a modern rendition of Shakespeare’s Richard the Third some years ago, after all. Science fiction is just not the genre I normally associate her with. However, her screen time is fairly small, so this casting choice is not a big drawback.

And then – MOST importantly – there’s Goose the cat played, depending upon the demands of the scene, by: Reggie, Gonzo, Archie and Rizzo – all of whom got along famously with both Samuel L. and Ms. Larson despite the fact Jackson is self described as not a cat person and Larson is actually allergic to them. Obviously all six of them are consummate professionals. LOL

Pinar Toprak (who, with Danny Elfman, also did the soundtrack for Justice League, and has composed for other films, TV shows and video games) wrote the soundtrack, which stays in the vein of the triumphant and inspirational themes in other Avengers movies. Toprak also intersperses songs like Crazy on You by Heart, Man on the Moon by R.E.M. and Only When it Rains by Garbage, which, similar to the casting of Annette Benning, is another unusual creative choice by this film team, requiring some getting used to, but is not off putting.

In conclusion:

Is Captain Marvel a good movie and a worthy inclusion to the Marvel Universe in general and the Avengers franchise in particular? Yes.

Do I wish they had left the gender politics drivel out of the equation? Most certainly.

But when it comes to marketing, as my Dad used to say: “Say something good about me, say something bad about me, but don’t say nothing about me.” Still, someone should inform Ms. Larson that perhaps it would be sensible, if not just courteous, to avoid deliberately alienating the fundamental demographic which has, frankly, built the financial empire of the comic book industry: THE WHITE MALE – especially since Captain Marvel was created AS a male, so the incarnation as a female is really borrowing off the male pioneered territory. She should be saying an appreciative: “Thank you,” instead of starting a snide spitting contest.

Most comic book hero authors were men: Stan Lee, Bob Kane, William Marston, Jerry Siegel, Bill Parker to name only a meager few.

And without the WHITE TEENAGED MALES there would be no comic book industry such as it is. Up until recently the vast majority of the comic book reading/buying demographic WAS male.

Am I the only one who can see that if the odds were so terribly stacked against woman, as the gender-victim baiters and pseudo politician-community agitators would have you believe, that this movie would never have been made?

Larson should consider that she has made it to the top of what is currently considered the Hollywood Mountain. Her movie is going to make a bazillion dollars. She should learn a little etiquette and be gracious in her win.

That being said, I DO think, thematically,  it WAS a wise decision to make Captain Marvel a female, if for no other reason than there is already a VERY well established MALE super hero with a “Captain” nomenclature against which she would NOT want to compete in a popularity contest. (To paraphrase a wise Black Widow – “That’s a question she just  does not need to get answered.”)

Meanwhile – I think we would all have a much better time if everyone, Miss Larson included, and perhaps especially, should just chill out.

Thankfully and ultimately, Captain Marvel is about the creation of a super hero who just happens to be a woman, NOT about the creation of an expressly female super hero.

I must admit that a surprising homage to Stan Lee in the opening credits had me a bit choked up. Without him none of these creations: Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Nick Fury, Black Widow, Ant Man, Yondu, Peggy Carter, Dr. Strange, Magneto, Loki, Ronan, Professor X, T’Chala, Groot and the plethora of others that populate most of the Marvel Universe (See the list of Stan Lee’s creations on Wikipedia here)  would exists and for that we all owe Mr. Lee a tremendous debt of gratitude. I pray he finds the joy and inspiration he brought to millions while he was alive awaiting him in eternity. The film makers gave him a lovely appropriate epitaph send-off just before the opening credits to Captain Marvel, as well as a delightful posthumous cameo, almost breaking the fourth wall, in the middle of the movie. Thank you Stan, you will indeed be missed.

AQUAMAN – FROM LAMEST COMIC STRIP SUPERHERO TO AQUADUDE!!

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF AQUAMAN REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Super cool and buff version of Aquaman/Arthur Curry who must challenge his bellicose brother Orm for the underwater Kingdom of Atlantis to prevent a war with the human race.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid-teens and up for some language, a great deal of cartoon violence which might be scary for younger children, the topic of adultery and a LOT of cleavage.

LONG TAKE:

When I was growing up, Aquaman was arguably the lamest superhero on the block. Justice League re-presented Jason Momoa (the ill-fated Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones  as a long haired hard-drinking rockstar/biker-dude Aquaman and it WORKED! This watery super hero has all the battle finesse of the Hulk and the smart aleck attitude of Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy. He was fun to watch and the highlight (with Gal Gadot’s long cameo as Wonder Woman) of the otherwise fairly anemic Justice League movie. This new installment to the struggling D.C. Universe reestablishes Aquaman’s origin as a comic book hero.

The bright vibrant colors, a complex but nonsensical plot, the ooh aah largely unexplained but visually exciting weaponry and pseudo technology, thecharacters with semi-magical abilities, the scene-chewing hammy handed acting from even the likes of  an over-breathy Nicole Kidman, and the posturing dialogue all underscore the comic book source material.

The story begins as Queen Atlanna (Kidman) of Atlantis flees an unwanted arranged marriage with a king we never meet. Wounded but still pretty battle-feisty she washes up on the shore of a lighthouse keeper, Tom Curry, (Temuera Morrison) with whom she falls in love. Several years later, she has born Tom a son, who they name Arthur, purportedly after the hurricane raging about them at the time, (foreboding anyone?) but obviously as a nod to Camelot, one of the many derivative references used to cobble together the script. Atlanna is soon forced, for the sake of her baby and his father, to return to Atlantis. The Once and Future King Arthur, (of the ocean not Camelot), is trained periodically by visits from Vulko (Willem Dafoe).

Fast forward to Arthur’s Biblical 33rd year and a war is set to break out between the about-to-be-blindsided human race and Queen Atlanna’s younger and legitimate son, Prince Orm (Patrick Wilson, mostly known for supernatural scariest like The Conjuring and Insidious series), who blames his mother for having brought shame to their family by bearing a half-breed bastard with a human. Orm strives to bring Unity to the nine Realms of Asgard, I mean the Seven Kingdoms under the ocean. He also wants revenge on the human race for the human waste dumped into the ocean. (Can anyone say Captain Planet?) No mention is made, of course as to: how the Atlantians and their hordes of sea critters handle their bathroom issues any differently, the fact that the dumpage is biodegradable, that the ocean is incredibly vast, Atlantis is pretty darn far from any coastal areas, and the other six realms don’t really seem to have any bone to pick with the human race. Sounds like Orm simply has mommy issues and brother envy to me.

Princess Mera, (Amber Heard, mostly eye-candy in previous films such as The Playboy Club and Magic Mike XXL) the daughter of King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren, as the rough tough guys in Rocky IV, Creed II and The Expendables franchise – keep in mind this man has a chemical engineering degree!), seeks Arthur out to stop the war by encouraging Arthur, the eldest son, to take his place as the rightful King. Arthur is reluctant as he aligns himself with humans and seems sure Atlantis is a nice place to visit but doesn’t want to live there. He is also mad about the fate of his mom … but I won’t give any spoilers here.

Mera and Arthur set out to find a special Excalibur-like Trident whose power is so strong it will not only defeat baby brother Orm, but bring all the realms together in a peaceful coalition. The rest of the movie is taken up with so many quests, including: duels, long treks through wastelands, battles with armies of inhuman monsters, underwater labryinths, and lessons in humiility, that Hercules’ patience would have been put to the test.

The whole thing is a big, bloated, but ultimately fun hoot. I can see why it was a huge hit in China. A lot of time is spent in meaningful stares, posturing in action figure stances, and dramatic appearances. There were times when the stilted language, bright colors and poised settings made it easy to envision the comic strip frames each scene could have been inspired by.

There’s no hanky-panky, although Atlanna lives with Arthur’s father out of wedlock, eschewing her obligations and fiancé. Arthur, in turn, spends most of the movie having “managed to get his shirt off” (thank you Galaxy Quest). There are a handful of minor profanities, which parents of minor children might not want repeated, and topics of war, adultery, and murder which parents might deem inappropriate for younger children. So, honestly, not much worse than your average Grimm’s fairy tale.

The CGI in the early scenes with Nicole Kidman and Temuera Morrison is pretty creepy. While not Tron: Legacy-level disturbing nor Henry Cavil’s Justice League Superman-mustache ridiculous, it’s distractingly noticeable. And CGI Willem Dafoe, in the training scenes, looks cut directly from a high-quality video game.

The music is darker and more ominous than it should be for a kids’ superhero movie, but then the topics of adultery, murder, treachery, betrayal, and incitement of global warfare are all pretty dark topics as well.

The character of Arthur / Aquaman is the highlight of the show, with his genial, protective giant personality, who rarely takes anyting completely seriously. With the size of Drax, the impulsive nature of Peter Quill, the fighting skills of Gamora, and the snarky attitude of Rocket, his D.C. hero is almost the entire Marvel Guardians of the Galaxy crew in one.

The bright vibrant colors in almost every scene clues you, right away, that we are here for a comic-book good time. And, ultimately, what do you want? As I have admonished before in other blogs about similarly themed movies: this is not Hamlet, or Chekov. It’s a superhero movie. Enjoy.

 

DEADPOOL – A MOVIE I WISH I COULD RECOMMEND

SHORT TAKE:

Airplane  meets Marvel.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

Unfortunately, in all good conscience, I can not recommend this movie to anyone.

LONG TAKE:

I once heard that the definition of mixed emotions was seeing your mother-in-law go over a cliff in your new car. As I happen to be a mother-in-law I’m not especially fond of that definition though I can understand the intent of demonstrating intense conflicting emotions. I think a better one for me, as an avid fan of superhero movies, is watching Deadpool and its sequel back to back.

First off, Deadpool is not for children. Do NOT take children to see Deadpool. Fritz the Cat was an obscene animated short shown at "art" houses back in the ‘70s. Deadpool is no more for children than Fritz the Cat was. Do not take children to see Deadpool. Do not take teenagers to see Deadpool. Do I make myself clear?

Airplane, which came out in 1980 took every cliche of the disasters happening in a man made construction genre (yes, that was a thing in the ‘70's and ‘80's – Poseidon Adventure, Airport, Airport ‘75, Airport-Concorde, Towering Inferno), and played them for all they were worth – singing nuns, relationship conflicts which were resolved by the disaster, sick children being transported to a hospital, bad weather, hero with traumatic backstory. It was hilarious because it was true – all the movies capitalized on these themes and variations with predictable continuity. (FYI – The ‘90's and 2000's went after natural phenomena – Twister, Dante’s Inferno, Volcano, The Core, Armaggedon).

By the same token, Deadpool does the same thing with the superhero genre: reluctant hero, tragic love story, kids in danger, time travelers, opponents joining up to fight a common enemy, strange super powers and fighting – lots and lots of fighting. Only instead of the sanitized variety, it is quite graphic. So is the language. And the sexuality. And the nudity. And the blasphemy..

Deadpool started in the comics about a mercenary who gets cancer and is given a kind of Captain America super serum which makes him unkillable. Deadpool was never meant to take itself seriously but is the Monty Python of superhero movies. Ryan Reynolds plays the title character to the hilt.

This super… person who by his own admission is no one's idea of a hero… and by his own description is a bad guy who gets paid to kill worst guys than he is, is also very funny. He’s snarky and opinionated and comments constantly TO the audience breaking the fourth wall more than Groucho Marx did. Deadpool has much to commend it. It is well-acted, cleverly written, and has many admirable themes.

On the other hand – and here I’m beginning to feel like the conflicted Jewish patriarch, Tevye, from Fiddler on the Roof – it is gratuitously gory with humans "splating" onto billboards and heads being chopped off. It is extremely sexual with but a paper thin line between some of the scenes and what used to be considered an "X" rating. It is profane in the worst way, sporting every way to insult God and the human body that the imagination can provide.

BUT…… while I was genuinely shocked at the level of sexual activity, profanity, and graphic violence in both the first Deadpool origin story and this sequel it is hard to hate a movie which is so very self-aware that even the credits include such titles as Moody Teenager, CGI Character, and Overpaid Tool. Ergo my dilemma.

Deadpool makes fun of everything, including itself, from Basic Instinct to the most recent Avengers movie of which it is almost in the same universe, both franchises being Marvel.

I always try to judge movies based upon their genre and intent so want to be fair to Deadpool, especially keeping in mind that Deadpool has never advertised itself as anything except an adult parody of superhero movies.

I cannot help but think of the Biblical parable of the two sons, one of whom is disobedient despite his initial verbal assurances and the other who says he will not do his father's will but then goes and does it anyway. Deadpool is the latter.

For example, although the sexuality in the Deadpool origin story is fairly graphic, it is between two people who are monogamous and fully intend to be married, have children, and start a family. This, frankly, is far healthier then your average James Bond movie where the sexual relationships are less visually intense but extremely casual, polygamous, and intended to be very short-term. 

I was genuinely offended by the blasphemous language, yet the actions of those same characters were often Christian – self-sacrificing, demonstrating mercy, seeking to help others to redemption, and aimed at protecting children from those who would take advantage of them, even when those children posed a danger to the heroes trying to save them, which is a whole lot more than I can say for more "acclaimed" movies like Blockers and Call Me By Your Name which tried to push pedophilia into the mainstream.

While I was offended by implications insulting to the Church – such as the headmaster at an abusive school using Bible quotes to justify his actions, or Deadpool, the character, casually comparing himself to Jesus – Deadpool, the movie, never seriously calls the existence of God or Jesus into question as movies like the Dan Brown series do. As a matter of fact, there is a moment when Deadpool is asked if there had ever been someone who was 100% altruistic and he replies "Jesus Christ". It goes by very fast and I had to have it pointed out to me, but that’s a lot more respect than movies like Dogma or Angels and Demons has for the Church.

While it is faint praise to say a movie is not terrible because of what it does not do, Deadpool also has the positive attributes of actively exercising the virtues of self-sacrifice, mercy, family, and marriage.

I can stand the violence as it's mostly cartoonish, I can even wince past most of the sexuality as it's between two consenting adults who intend not only to get married but to have children. However, what I found most offensive was the frequent verbal and referential blasphemies throughout. Sadly, this was the point at which Tevye would have had to have said, "No, there is no other hand."

So for all of its virtues, there is too much, if you’ll excuse the pun, DEAD weight on the other side of the scale for me to me give it a recommendation, even for the older crowd.

TOMB RAIDER – HARMLESS BRAINLESS FUN

Daniel Wu

SHORT TAKE:

Discount Indiana Jones style adventure thriller with a female lead that takes advantage of the popularity of the video game of the same name.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid to older teens and up but video game fans should be warned that while the spirit of the game is there, this is a mostly different plot.

LONG TAKE:

In the African fable of The Cow-Tail Switch a father, the leader of the tribe, is lost on a lion hunting trip. The youngest has not yet even been born when the father goes missing. Time goes by and eventually the youngest brother is born, toddles about, grows older and learns to speak. His very first words are, "Where is our father?" The six older brothers then realize their father has been gone a very long time and decide to go on a quest to find out what has happened. Many days travel away they eventually come upon the father’s bones. Each son has a magic gift of life. One puts the bones together. Another replaces the sinews and muscle. Another gives his father organs. Another flesh. Another fills his father’s body with blood. The sixth brother breathes life into him. They all return rejoicing and the father announces he will make the next ruler of the tribe the one who contributed the most to his return. Each of the six older sons makes an argument for the part they played in returning their father to life. But the father chooses the youngest, reasoning that he was the one who thought to ask about him – and as long as someone remembered him he was never really dead.

Such is the case of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider.

SOME SPOILERS

The premise of Tomb Raider is that a young woman, Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina) decides to embark upon a quest to find out what happened to her long lost adventurer father. During this quest she must overcome everything from Chinese muggers to shipwrecks and an evil nemesis Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins, the perennial bad guy) who works for the mysterious Trinity, an organization seeking to control the world, who shoots the weak and offers up the predictable, "You should not have come," line. Based on the video game of the same name, fans of the game need to be aware that the Tomb Raider movie has virtually (pun intended) nothing in common with the video story except that the lead character is a female on an adventure on a mysterious island to find something. No mention of a missing father or a world catastrrophe she is tasked to stop is ever mentioned in the video game.

Missing for seven years, everyone else has given Richard Croft, (Dominic West with a diverse filmography from 300, the musical Chicago and 1999's A Midsummer's Night Dream) her father, up for dead. But so intent is Lara upon the idea that her father is still alive that she will not even lay claim to the inheritance which will get her off the streets and allow her to return to the life of luxury in which she grew up.

It is only when she is prevailed upon to meet with the family attorney that she is introduced to a wooden puzzle box which, according to the will, she is to solve upon her father’s death.

Solve it, of course, she does (or it would have been a very short movie) and off she is sent on an adventure that would have challenged Indiana Jones.

Until Gal Gadot put lie to my assertion that a really good super hero movie could not be made with a female lead, I did not think that a woman was as good a choice as a man for an action adventure……and aside from Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman I still think this is true.

Part of the problem is that the extremely physical stunts required of the character in Tomb Raider would have been a challenge for a circus gymnast with the power of Dwayne Johnson, much less a female bike courier who likes to kickbox for fun, which is what Lara is without her family dough. A video game character gets several lives, but the movie is more grounded in a real life scenario, and to have a female endure the abuse and survive the jumps, falls, hits, fighting and wounds she does and still have the energy to run with weapons into a battle, cartwheel through ancient booby traps and still have the strength to stand is beyond the limits of even my considerable powers of suspension of disbelief.

Another problem with this movie in particular is the plot. The very McGuffin is flimsy. The father spends much of his time away from his supposedly beloved daughter scouring the world in search of something that – well, truthfully he could have found in the nearest church.

It is never made clear exactly why Lara did not continue to live on the family estate even while her father was missing. Did she, at some point, decide – gosh, I think I’ll move away because if I CONTINUE to live here it will be like an admission of his death….? They never even explain why she left the home of her childhood to begin with. They show her there as a child and an older teen just before Richard leaves on his fateful last trip. When did she abandon the family manor so that returning would be an acceptance of his death? You have to LEAVE somewhere before you can RETURN. And if she left – why? And when? There is no logic, pretext, reason or excuse so much as alluded to. Doesn't make any logical sense.

Another McGuffin point is that the family executor, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, tells Lara if she does not sign papers acknowledging her father’s death that everything will be sold at auction. Um….why? It’s not as though they were going bankrupt. This seems like a very arbitrary threat which comes out of nowhere with no background explanation.

Lara is a newbie to the adventure scene. Indiana Jones' father took him to exotic locales since early childhood. Indiana grew up as an artifact hunter with a lot of experience fending for himself. Batman and Iron Man used LOTS of gizmos to get between their relatively fragile human bodies and the hostile punches, bullets, missiles and other assorted threatening challenges being thrown at them. Superman simply had … powers. Lara is a relative hothouse flower who…rides bikes fast and…kickboxes. Whoopie. This in no way demonstrates that she can survive: an ambush by three thugs, a shipwreck, a fall from a cliff, a landing through trees, picking up her own dead weight one handed – and these are only things you see in the trailer.

Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) is a significant and likeable supporting character who figures strongly in the plot yet is never given the clear resolution he deserves but is just kind of left…  hanging.

The main baddie Mathias Vogel  tells Lara he has killed her father but does not explain why he would murder the one man who, by his own admission, is the only way to find and open the tomb of Himika – the goal that will get him off the island. Then, let us say, in a surprise that takes no one unawares, that he is laughably bad at follow up.

Without giving away too much more than is already IN the trailer I find it difficult to determine who the real bad guy is – Mathias Vogel who only wants to "win" so he will be allowed to go home to his family, or Richard Croft, the titular good guy/Dad who, truth be told, abandoned his daughter to set off a search for an item that he should have predicted would get a lot of people killed, and all for some pretty lame reasons.

And I don't think it is much of a spoiler to reveal that this movie is primarily a great big set up for a sequel. But then so was Ron Eli's 1975 Doc Savage, and given you probably have never even HEARD of that movie you can see how well that turned out.

Not that Tomb Raider is a bad movie. It is certainly a mostly satisfying wild ride of a tale. But Lara Croft is no Wonder Woman. Nor is she Indiana Jones, Captain America, Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Superman, Batman or even Zorro. OK Lara Croft is better than Doc Savage …. or Howard the Duck.

There is a surprise and very small role featuring one of my all time favorite actors, Derek Jacobi. Although the character provides almost nothing to the movie, Sir Derek would lend class and grace to a McDonald’s advertisement, so it was a joy to see him.

Movies like Tomb Raider are like the pleasure you get riding roller coasters or eating cotton candy – not harmful in moderation and a hoot if you don't think about it very hard.

In short Tomb Raider is a good old fashioned potboiler of a thrill ride with plenty of hair raising incidents, near misses, goofy but ignorable plot holes, preposterously unlikely survivals and…running. LOTS of running. So get your popcorn and malted milk balls, turn your brain WAY down to simmer and enjoy.

NOTE: There is NO nudity and NO sex as there is no time and virtually zero opportunity for the characters amidst all the chasing and shooting and RUNNING. There are a few profanities including one blasphemy which is spoken by the bad guy. The violence is on par with your average Indiana Jones movie.

But being a firm believer that people should check things out for themselves, especially when it comes to one's kids, who will VERY likely want to see this movie, I recommend you subscribe and check out: Tomb Raider on www.screenit.com http://www.screenitplus.com/members/tomb_raider_Full_Content_Review.cfm#p

BLACK PANTHER – GOOD BUT FLAWED

 

SHORT TAKE

A solid entry to the Avengers universe and enhanced by the sterling performance of Chad Boseman as Black Panther, though handicapped by mistakes made by other sci-fi franchises.

WHO SHOULD GO: Family friendly with cartoon violence, no sexual activity, a few minor profanities, but has very loud music and special effects sounds.

CHECK OUT DETAILED AND SPECIFIC CONTENT STATISTICS AT SCREENIT.COM.

LONG TAKE

It is unfortunate that there has been SO much hype leading up to the release of Black Panther. For one thing there is no way any movie could possibly live up to everyone's world wide expectations. For another it leaves no room for analysis. Before anyone gets their panties in a wad, let me go on record as saying I liked Black Panther. I have been a big fan and advocate of Chad Boseman since I saw him in Marshall and I think the Black Panther character will be an excellent addition to the Avengers franchise.

That being said let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a British  actress comedian named Jennifer Saunders. She and Dawn French were staple comedians in the 1980's and by 1992 Saunders and the replacement co-star for French, Joanna Lumley, were able to parley a 14 minute1990 skit into a 6 year BBC show called Absolutely Fabulous. However, as my son has pointed out about the Roman Empire, in her victory was her downfall. By the early 2000's she had become so popular no one wanted to criticize her and her comedy had become so strident, bitter and redundant she lost  the audience she had worked so hard to gain. But during this fall she had so much clout no one had the nerve to tell her she was making mistakes. So the Emperor – or the Empress in this case – continued to wear "invisible" clothes and no one dared say she was naked.

Raise your hand if anyone reading this has even heard of Jennifer Saunders. Point made. Saunders became so successful that everyone thought it prudent to keep what should have been helpful and constructive criticism to themselves.

And so, I fear, it could go with Black Panther if reviewers are not honest and thoughtful. There has been so much wildly anticipated excitement about the “first” black super hero – everyone seeming to forget collectively the awesome Idris Elba’s Heimdall from the Thor franchise – that no one wants to take an objective look at it.

Don’t get me wrong – it is a welcome addition into the superhero universe, but it isn’t perfect. While there is much to commend it, it suffers from weaknesses other similar movies have had.

SPOILER WARNING

I want to lead this review by saying that the plot was very good. When contemplating the premise – that Wakanda is a secret kingdom flourishing in impoverished Africa – one might reasonably wonder why the beneficent leaders did not work to improve the plight of their desperately poor and suffering countrymen over the last several hundred years. The compelling theme of Black Panther examines why clandestine African Wakanda withholds aid from other Africans while the rest of the world donates billions in food and medical supplies? FYI the pictures of suffering Africa are not from the movie but real photos.

Does one keep such high tech secrets from the rest of the world or risk exposure and possible plunder in an effort to bring aid to others? And if one DOES decide to reveal the Wakandan advancements to the outside world should it be under the flag of conquest or compassion? Do the Wakandans emerge into the rest of the universe as prideful aggressors or humble aid workers?

This is the struggle which is personified  between T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) the rightful king successor to his father, murdered during Captain America: Civil War, who longs for peace, and his opponent/cousin Eric Killmonger (Michael Jordan) who hungers, like the Biblical Ishmael, to use these wonders to make war against the entire world.

And it would make an interesting sequel to explore the fall out from the Wakandan neighbors when it is discovered that much of the death, disease and starvation of their fellow Africans could have been ameliorated by a watching but silent Wakanda.

I think Chad Boseman is great. He is a joy to watch and can effortlessly generate chemistry with any actor he works with whether he is King of a futuristic African nation or a cortexaphan subject with powers to control energy in Fringe or Thurgood Marshall. Not bad for a fellow southerner. (Boseman is from South Carolina.) Like Michael Caine, Meryl Streep or Bruce Willis he brings a natural ease to his characters which makes him likeable and three dimensional. And yes, I know – Willis is not in the same league as Caine or Streep. Willis is a one note actor who plays the same person in every movie he is in with variations. But it’s easy to enjoy that one character and Willis does it extremely well. In addition, Willis creates that wonderfully comfortable ebb and flow with his fellow performers which Caine and Streep also manage that make it fun to watch them in whatever they are in. You don’t have to be a brilliant actor to be one who can create good chemistry with their fellow actors. And by the other side of the same coin, even some brilliant actors can not manage it – like Lawrence Olivier who was gifted but stiff…….but I digress.

 I want Black Panther with Boseman to be a successful franchise. And when the dust has settled down from the novelty of this movie there needs to be some close examination of its flaws if it is to do better than the first stabs at Spiderman or Hulk.

First  – if you have to do five minutes of blunt exposition just to bring your audience up to speed before the first scene of the movie, then you’re not being very clever with your story telling. This is the same weakness in Thor: The Dark World. Lengthy exposition marred the beginning of Dark World and helped relegate it to the weakest of the Thor outings and Black Panther makes the same mistake.

Second –  it is about 45 minutes too long. Some of that is due to the excessive emphasis on showcasing Wakanda and the tribal costumes, dances, accessories and artifacts. One is reminded of the first Star Trek movie where there were nerdgasms over the extensively long and loving fly over of the Enterprise  as well as extremely long sequences of the planet-sized V’ger. In an effort to overwhelm the audience with the splendor of both the flagshp and the opposing mechanical nemesis, the result, in 1979's Star Trek,  was ultimately the opposite and did not age well, weighing that first Star Trek movie down to one of the lesser ranked installments. There is only so much build up and pay off of the same material you can sit through until, like surfing a wave which eventually crests, after a while you wonder when the ride will be over.

Similarly, there is too much dependence on the “wow” effect of Wakanda and repeated recurrences of the character-citizens commenting about how beautiful it is, how much they longed for another view of it, how much they missed it – all followed up by multiple extended views of it.

    The presentation of the African color and lore and costumes, tatoos and plates in distended lips, ancient impractical traditional garb and spirit walks get to be so much that after a while it becomes at risk of being a parody of itself. It is understandable that the film makers wanted to take full effect of their first opportunity to demonstrate and showcase this new universe, but, as Donald O’Conner once said – you should always leave the audience wanting more. Instead the writers of Black Panther went at the movie like an excited child who tries to tell of an adventure in one breath as though afraid people will stop paying attention before he gets to the end.

Another problem with the length is the same flaw found in the Man of Steel – too much fighting. There are two lengthy hand to hand combat scenes, one very exciting car chase, as well as battles royale (literally) between the two princes, along with various and sundry skirmishes, an aerial combat and the final confrontation between the two opponents on a magnetic monorail. There are high tech spaceships shooting tasers and cables, power staffs, Bullet/ French Connection quality car chases, Spiderman quality leaping and jumping during the car chases, photon firing artificial arms, and – I kid you not – vibranium armoured rhinoceroses. While all super cool it was just…too…much for one movie. 

The writer and director should have had the confidence in their story to not bury it under so much of what Bishop Barron refers to as “whiz bang”.

Third – there were unnecessary incongruities in the Wakandan kingdom. While their labs, travel modes and medical facilities would rival those at Star Bases, their exchange of goods took place routinely in outdoor marketplaces wound through with dusty dirty streets. This didn’t make sense.

And the uniforms of the Amazonian guardswomen were too culturally reflective of Africa to be practical. All this high tech and the best they could do was sticks with a sonic boom effect? Now to be fair the island from which Wonder Woman emerged was similar in its cultural armament impracticalities and Asgard of the Thor franchise also had an odd juxtaposition of high tech and ancient (in that case medieval) trappings. But both Wonder Woman and Asgard were alien cultures, and both based in familiar Earth mythologies, so can be given a wider range in suspension of belief and peculiar behaviors and traditions. But Africa in general and Wakanda in particular are right here on Earth so can’t get that much leeway.

Fourth – Thor, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, for example are based respectively on established: Norse myth, the Greek Amazons and the Roman god of the sea Poseidon, all of which date back thousands of years and are part of the shared cultural background noise. So when origin stories are concocted using them as foundations it is an easy bridge into that world. There is no corresponding panther myth that I could find in Africa outside of the Black Panther comics which came upon the scene only about 50 years ago in 1966. The only established mythology I could find in Africa revolved around reptiles. So unless you are a serious comic book afficiando you wouldn't have known what they were talking about in Black Panther without exposition. But the writer, instead of weaving the background into the warp and woof of the story inelegantly chose to dump the entire story on the audience's head like — well — Thor's Hammer.

All that being said Black Panther is a fun though flawed adventure. I look forward to future installments and hope the film makers will gain confidence from the warm open armed reception they have received from the wider movie going audience and do a better job with the next one. Otherwise Black Panther will not age well or inspire longevity for the franchise – and that would be a shame.