Shazam! (2019): A Beautiful Tale on What it Means to Have Family

New Shazam Poster Reminds You the Movie Is Fun | Collider

    “Shazam!” is easily the best film so far in the DC Cinematic Universe. I’m speaking as someone who thought “Wonder Woman” was great and enjoyed “Aquaman” and “Man of Steel.” This film is better than all of those and is the most fun I’ve had in a DC film since “The Dark Knight Rises.” I’m glad they got this win. “Shazam!” captures what makes super heroes and comics books so enjoyable and fun in the first place. This is a film that never stops being fun. For non-spoiler thoughts, it is worth seeing for that reason alone. This film is comedic, dark, adventurous and explores the concept of a family better than so many films that say that is their theme. Not only that, the film looks great and has a fantastic soundtrack.

The film was directed by David F. Sandberg with screenplay by Henry Gayden and produced by Peter Safran.

The story follows foster boy Billy Batson as he is given to the last foster family who will give him a chance, as he has ran away from all those prior. Left with the choice as he searches for his missing mother other threats are plot and act as Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) is empowered by an evil and only the wizard Shazam can empower someone pure of heart who can stop him in his quest of destruction.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – Finally the DCCU works. This film calls upon classic “Shazam!” villains who were part of his universe before Faucet Comics were bought out by DC and when he was Captain Marvel. The villain is Dr. Sivana who is a classic foe who DC brought into their universe. As someone who loves the rich lore of comics this was a movie that hit me on so many levels. There is more related to the lore that I’ll get into later in the review, but this is a world that doesn’t need the rest of the DC universe to be good but enriches it by existing.

The Action and Cinematography – The action is visceral, colorful and feels like it has been pulled from the pages of a comic. It isn’t the same beautiful the way “Spider-Verse” did it with it’s animation (blending anime, modern, noir, etc.) but it does it using the dark and light in the character’s abilities and where they choose to shoot the fights. For example, the final fight takes place in a carnival. This use of the dark and light contrast makes the fight sequences stand out and when they happen (because when they happen they matter) it adds to the narrative and is a brilliant use of storytelling.

The Characters – The characters and their relationships are what makes this movie work in this end. I would have rated this movie as at least very good if all I had to go on where performances and the character relationships, and this film delivers on those in spades. The relationships are a big reason I want to go back as I think I’ll notice more in the rewatch as far as how the characters see one another and what that means in the finale.

Billy Batson – Billy Batson / Shazam / Captain Marvel is the main character, who as the foster kid is seeking his mother. He is a kid who only looks out for himself and tells his foster family as much. He does grow more attached to them over the course of the film, which is part of his essential arc. When he becomes the Champion empowered by Wizard we see Billy’s arc go from selfish kid seeking his mother to hero who has found his true family. Both Zachary Levi as Shazam and Asher Angel as Billy give so much depth to the role.

Freddy – Freddy is one of Billy’s foster siblings and the closest thing he has to a friend. He’s also a huge comic book nerd and becomes Billy’s mentor on how to become a hero when he becomes the Champion / Shazam. At first they are both really selfish but Freddy figures out the bigger picture first and calls out Billy for how he has become a selfish bully with his abilities. Freddy does have his arc payoff though, but I’m not revealing what that is, since it is one of the best parts of the film.

Shazam Family – Billy’s adopted family becomes the Shazam Family at the end to fight the Seven Deadly Sins and it is awesome! Each of them is a hero as strong as Billy and together they face off against the Sins. How it happens is fascinating too as it Billy realizing that he needs to open his heart to find his true power and it is in sharing power, not taking it (like Dr. Sivana) where true power lies. Each of the family members has distinct personalities contrasted by their grown up identity and I can’t wait to see them further. I won’t describe more as the seeing their story payoff is one of the best parts of the film.

Dr. Sivana – Dr. Sivana was one of the people chosen by the wizard a long time ago to be the hero but failed because of the temptations from the Demons who are the Seven Deadly Sins. From that point on he seeks out the Sins and frees them before seeking out the hero who he envies for having the great power that is only capable of defeating him. We see why he is this way too as he comes from an abusive family and power was the only thing his dad and brother ever respected. What innocence and pure of heart that he needed to be the Champion was stamped out a long time ago.

Mr. Mind – This is a classic villain for the Fawcett comics who DC brought back when they revamped the character. He is this caterpillar looking worm who is a genius. He meets up with Dr. Sivana in prison and tells him there are more ways to power than simply magic. It is a great set-up for future films as Mr. Mind is a villain unlike anything we’ve seen so far in Marvel or DC.

Okay:

The Foster Parents – The Foster Parents are kind but kind of generic. We get glimpses of their past but never in relation to their kids, only in relation to one another. They both grew up in the Foster system so I’m not saying it is a negative but them opening up to any of their foster kids about their past would have added a layer of depth the story wasn’t able to do. Not entirely a con but definitely the weakest part of the film.

This is a great film. Shazam is such a fun hero and I can’t wait to see how Mr. Mind and Shazam and his foster family are used in later films. In both there is so much potential there to be explored. This was also a film that doesn’t need an expanded universe to work. Billy’s relationship to his foster family and his biological mother give this film more than enough heart to make this film wholly great on it’s own merits. If you are looking for a film that has a deeper point while still managing to be a hilarious comedy, you will probably love this film as much as I did. It is definitely one of my favorite films.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

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Kubo and the Two Strings (2016): A Masterpiece of Animation With an Unforgettable Story

Kubo and the Two Strings

  “Kubo and the Two Strings” is my favorite movie of the year. Whether it was hold that place remains to be seen but thus far, it is the most perfect film I have watched this year. Not only is the stop-motion animation and soundtrack amazing but the story and characters kept me involved through the entire story, and the story starts out slow to let know become familiar with the world. You should see this film, I want more films like this to be made and it needs all the support it can get, given it is only Laika studios that is keeping this form of art alive.

   The film was directed by Travis Knight, who was also one of the producers, written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler with the other producer being Marc Haimes.

    The story involves Kubo (Art Parkinson), whose eye was stolen by his grandfather the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and must not go out at night unless his grandfather finds him and takes his other eye. During the village’s festival he stays out too late and finds himself hunted by his two Aunts (Rooney Mara) who have come to take his other eye at his Grandfather’s behest. He must collect his father’s armor, sword and helmet in order to stop the Moon King and is helped by Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a former samurai turned into Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) along the way.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is wonderful and full of amazing monsters! From a Garden of Eyes, Witches and Gods to a Ten Foot Skeleton…this is a world that is lived in and all the powerful for it as it embraces Japanese mythology while creating a mythology all it’s own.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is beautiful, Dario Marianelli manages to create a soundtrack infused with magic that is full of power in depth, where you feel each loss and the power behind each action or fight.

The Writing – Marc Haimes and Chris Butler did a fantastic job on the writing! There is powerful drama and humor that gives it a balance that doesn’t really exist in “Deadpool”(which is a favorite film). It is their mixture of humor and drama mixed with a powerful message and characters are what made it my favorite film this year thus far.

 The Animation – “Kubo and the Two Strings” is my first Laika film. Suffice to say after this I plan on watching the rest of the films they’ve made. Stop-motion animation is a lost art that they keep alive and continue to improve upon.

The Characters – The characters are extremely memorable! Each of them is an archetype to some degree, but also manage to get beyond those archetypes in how they are written. They have humanity and flaws and it makes them worth rooting for or makes them feel threatening.

Hosato – George Takei plays one of the people in the village who takes care of his daughter who is Kubo’s biggest fan. He’s a nice solid presence in the film and in a way reminds Kubo of the fact that he believes his father to be dead at the beginning of the story and his mom is only lucidly present of him…

Kameyo – Kameyo is the older woman who is a beggar in town and the soul of the town. She is a mother figure to Kubo a bit as she is one who looks out for him and helps him with his storytelling. Brenda Vaccaro is fantastic.

The Sisters – The Sisters, who are Kubo’s Aunts are amazing! Rooney Mara gives a haunting performance as these two mask wearing witches who are so powerful that they kill both Kubo’s mother and father. They are one of the best animated threats I’ve ever seen.

Beetle/Hanzo – McConaughey is wonderful in the role of Beetle, who we learn was turned into a Beetle by the Sisters and the Moon King to punish him for leading their sister out of immortality. He has a lot of humor to him and isn’t very bright but his heart is in the right spot and he has great humor. His death is powerful too as he risks his life to protect Monkey/his wife Sariatu.

Monkey/Sariatu – Theron plays my favorite character in the film. Monkey and her Sisters are the best parts of the film. In Monkey we get the strength of her personality and her love for her son and husband while as Sariatu she is a traumatized shell destroyed by her family being cared for by her son. The dichotomy is powerful and gives her humanity and depth. She was a God and gave it up to protect Hanzo from her family…She is the best part of this film.

Kubo – Kubo is a great protagonist who feels very much like Link a Zelda game but has so much more depth and layers to him as we see him finally allowed to be a kid after he leaves the village and is collecting his father’s sword and armor. Before that he is forced to be an adult caring for his mother and making money for food. He had no childhood until his life was at risk and seeing how they explore it is something you have to see for yourself.

Facing Loss – He loses both his mother and father twice, both times as they protect him and in the story we see him face that loss and remember the memories as well as honoring them with the lantern ceremony the village does as who they both are live on in him. The missing of another never goes away, but those we lose become a part of us like the strings on Kubo’s instrument.

The Power of Story – Story is a major theme as the Grandfather is trying to force his story upon his Grandson and make him like him, the village story of his Father’s past is never finished until he becomes a literal part of it when myth (his grandfather the Moon and his Aunts) hunt him and the stories of the dead are interwoven through the film. The self and it’s connection to story is powerful…how a story can change or be erased is captured in the story of his family as at different points they lose their story.

The Hero’s Journey – Kubo’s Hero’s journey is powerful as he discovers connections only to lose them and has to adapt to change all around him. From his mother becoming Monkey, his father being a live and Beetle…to losing them both and in the end having to care for his Grandfather who loses his memory as well. Even as he discovers joy and childhood circumstances force him to lose it and from it find himself.

Okay/Pro: Raiden the Moon King – Raiden has great minions in his daughters and I liked the fact that he is like a sympathetic old man until he turns into a monster…in the story it is left open too if he ascended to Godhood and was once human or was forced into humanity by Kubo…there is so much possibility in this character that I can’t just put him as okay as he is interesting in what they do with him.

    Minus the fact that Raiden is a bit underdeveloped (though still interesting)…this is  a film that I can’t really find any faults with. Kubo doesn’t really get his happy ending, his parents are dead and he has to face it. This is a film that is well worth your time and you should really see it if you have the chance. Give strength to these stories that don’t exist as franchises and are timeless and powerful. This is the best film of the year I have seen thus far and is well worth your time, it is in the timeless stories that we are reminded of our own and this story does it with unforgettable power and beauty.

Final Score: 10 / 10. First perfect film of the year.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977): A Hero’s Journey and a Classic

Star Wars A New Hope Poster

         It was really difficult finding the original unaltered “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,” but it was worth it. The bad CGI in the Special Editions completely took me out of it when I tried watching one of them first and the old organic feel to the Original gave the series life and made the world feel lived in. The only thing that really needed to be changed was just polishing up the picture as some shots didn’t look as great as they could have due to the film at the time…but it was worth it. “A New Hope” is easily one of my all time favorite films after watching it again after not seeing it for years, and I’ll get into the reasons why.

      The film was directed and written by George Lucas and produced by Gary Kurtz.

       The story involves the Rebel Alliance stealing the Death Star plans from the Empire leading to the ship’s capture as Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) hides the plans in R2-D2 who escapes with C-3PO to Tatooine. It is there Luke (Mark Hamill) buys them and finds himself pulled away from his life on the farm when the Empire kills his Aunt and Uncle and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) and he must escape and get the plans to Alderaan.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – John Williams’s score is part of what truly makes this film a classic. Tension is always rising throughout the film and it happens from his use of sound to add mystery and shock when we are Tatooine to the threat of the Empire whenever Vader or the Death Star arrive on the scene. If there had been no dialogue and only this score it would be a favorite film.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful! Whether it is the opening shot of the Star Destroyer chasing down the Rebels or the final Death Star run the scenes are filmed in such a way that tension is created and our villains and heroes are clearly illustrated.

The Special Effects – The practical effects are what make this film work. From models of space ships and actual explosions that in the process gave us actual stakes, which sadly has been forgetten in so many films that are overdependent on CGI (Hello Prequels).

The World – The World is ,awesome! There are clear sides (The Rebels and Empire) but outside of those sides there are threats all around. If you are droid you could be captured and sold by Jawas and if you are a farmer killed by Sand People and the Imperial Influence is everywhere. Even if you are in the outskirts of Tatooine (like the Lars were) they will find you and kill you.

The Galactic Empire – The Empire is an awesome threat! We have the Emperor dissolve the Imperial Senate firmly establishing that the Governors like Tarkin now control their sectors of Space and the Death Star to enforce terror on any revolting populace. Darth Vader is the hand of the Empire too and we see him deal with threats easily, only being stopped by a surprise ally to the Rebels in the last battle.

The Rebel Alliance – These guys are small and use planets like Alderaan as safe havens since they can’t take the Empire on militarily. We see this when they are quickly dispatched in the opening and at the end when Vader kills most of the X-Wing Pilots who are attempting to destroy the Death Star. They are flexible though and driven as we see Leia sacrifice her home of Alderaan when she lies to the Empire about where the Rebel base is.

The Characters – The characters are amazing and feel fully fleshed out. They have wants, needs, desires and trials. Honestly after watching the Prequels it’s hard to imagine that George Lucas actually wrote this script. It’s quick, understands people and has heart to even the small characters like droids.

R2-D2 and C-3PO – These two are the odd couple with R2-D2 being fully in with the Rebellion while for 3PO is just doing his job as an interpreter. They care for each other though and any time they get separated you see the joy they feel at being reunited again. These  two go through a lot…from discrimination in Mos Eisley, near capture by the Empire at the beginning, captured by Jawas and in R2’s case nearly destroyed by Vader.

Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru – Knowing what happens in the future I get why they were so protective of Luke. They knew if he left he could face the same trials as his father and end up corrupted and lost. Sadly what they didn’t realize is that no one is safe from the Empire as a Stormtrooper group kills them. I liked their dynamic with Owen as the disapproving father figure and Beru as the supportive mother.

Chewbacca – Chewie is a small role but he is wonderful as Han’s support. We see him willing to risk himself as a prisoner to infiltrate the Death Star and see how deadly he is on countless occasions. He is the only one who tends to accurately hit Stormtroopers most of the time. Our other heroes are as accurate as the Stormtroopers themselves.

Grand Moff Tarkin – Peter Cushing is great as Vader’s boss in this as we see him kill an entire planet (Alderaan) just to make a point to Leia that the Empire doesn’t have compassion and that the only way to rule is through fear. He doubts the power of the force (due the Jedi being hunted to near extinction no surprise there) and even his arrogance isn’t misplaced. He only dies because Luke destroys the Death Star at the final moment when they are about to destroy the Rebel Base on Yavin. What an awesome villain.

Han Solo – Han Solo is the rogue who has an arc from being a very selfish guy (only being in it for the money and doing the good thing to survive and not out of any kindness). He changes over the course of the film as Luke’s idealism rubs off on him and when he realizes that he can’t leave the Rebellion to die (after experiencing how deadly the Empire was first hand there was so much selfishness there too). Harrison Ford owns this role and this is one of his most memorable characters. He is funny, witty, sarcastic and the only one who able to match wits with him is Princess Leia who he starts out having an antagonistic relationship with (like Luke) but who in the end he becomes friends with. Han is ruthless and smart as we see him kill the Bounty Hunter Greedo before Greedo can collect the bounty on Han’s head.

Princess Leia – Leia is a tough character who I wish we could have got to know more. Her homeworld of Alderaan gets destroyed, she is tortured by Vader and the Empire…but she never gives up the Rebels. She is also a quick thinker and helps Han, Luke and Chewie escape when the Imperials have them pinned. Carrie Fisher is fantastic in this role.

Obi-Wan Kenobi – Alec Guiness plays the wise, old mentor role really well in this and was my favorite character in the film besides Darth Vader. In him we see a tired old man broken from time, the Empire’s rise and the loss of his friend Anakin Skywalker. It is in Luke he finds hope for the future though so he teaches him the ways of the force and in the end sacrifices himself so that our heroes can escape. We see his goodness and nobility throughout and that he does have an awareness of the bigger picture, as he doesn’t even leave a body behind when he faces his old pupil Vader showing that he has become more powerful than Vader can imagine.

Luke Skwalker – Mark Hamill plays the winy farm boy who grows up over the course of the film. He is the idealist who just wants to do right by his Aunt and Uncle (he rejects being trained by Obi-Wan at first because of his obligation to them) but when circumstances force him on his quest he embraces it. This is Luke’s heroes journey as we see him use the force that Obi-Wan had taught him to destroy the Death Star, and it is his reminding Han of the good in people and in Han himself that leads to Han Solo saving him from Darth Vader and giving him the chance to destroy the Death Star. Luke goes from selfish to selfless, just like Han and changes this world for the better.

Darth Vader – James Earl Jones was perfect for the voice of Vader and Darth Vader is one of my all time favorite villains. We see that he is a man from the past (a former Jedi who goes into combat himself to fight unlike Tarkin safe behind the Death Star) and that he is a force to be reckoned with. When he sets the Empire on someone (the droids) they cause a path of destruction in their wake. Vader is that destruction and force and even the higher ups in the Empire (all the Admirals) fear him, and for good reason as we see him strangle a man who dares to question the power of the force. It is his courage and drive that make him a survivor to as when the Death Star is destroyed he is the only one who escapes as he was killing the X-Wings who had made the run to destroy the Death Star in the first place and as he escapes it’s hard for the victory celebration at the end not to feel empty. The Death Star was deadly but Vader was more-so…wherever he went, death followed.

The Force – The Force is what binds all beings together and allows those in touch with it to manipulate things around them, be they objects or minds. We see it in how Obi-Wan gets Stormtroopers off their back and when Luke forces the Torpedos down the shoot leading to a victory for the Rebellion. We also see Vader use it on countless occasions to destroy.

Okay: Leia’s Development – Leia loses her planet but we never see what that means to her. She has lost her parents as far as we know and that is never dealt with beyond her pleading for the life of Alderaan. Adding at least one scene could have fixed this.

Too Long with the Droids – The time with the Droids on Tatooine could have been cut in half. All it establishes is their odd couple relationship and that Tatooine is deadly, which we learn later anyway when the Sand People attack Luke. Adding Luke into the story earlier or giving Leia more development is what should have been done instead.

   This is a classic and one of my all time favorite films. Watch the Original version if you can. It is beautiful and there isn’t distracting CGI like in the Special Editions. It is fully focused on the characters and organizations being filmed which lends power and focus as we witness Luke’s Hero’s Journey as he helps the Rebellion win their greatest victory against the Galactic Empire. This film is part of what make “Star Wars” as a universe unforgettable.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

Star Wars A New Hope

Fist of the North Star (1986): Heads will Explode and a Hero’s Journey

Fist of the North Star (1986)

“Fist of the North Star,” is a film based off the manga series by Buronson and drawn by Tetsuo Hara. It was made into two anime series (from 1984-1988) in the middle of which this movie came out in 1986. There is also an American live action film of the same title too. This film was directed by Toyoo Ashida.

The story takes place on Apocalyptic Earth after nuclear weapons have destroyed everything and only the strongest survive. The main drama revolves around Ken known as the Fist of the North Star. The action takes off after the introduction of the world when his fiancee Yuria is taken by his former friend Shin. Ken is left for dead and cast off a mountain by his brother Raoh who wished to take his place in being the Fist of the North Star. From here the story unfolds from there.

Here is the assessment of the film:

Pros: The idea – Post apocalyptic or apocalyptic worlds have given rise to some of the greatest stories, especially in animation…from “Evangelion,” to “Akira,” and to many others I have yet to see. This is a world of mutants and magic fist attacks with some characters larger than life. It is an excellent idea that we are given to kick things off.

The Animation – The animation is fantastic! The characters are drawn with elongated style making their bodies and faces able to express a lot. Most have large muscles too, which fits the desert landscape of where it all takes place.

The Action – The movie is amazing with it’s action. It uses animation to push the boundaries as Ken’s attacks cause people’s heads to literally explode and body parts and blood are flying in most scenes…not to mention it kicks off a person melting in an atomic blast. It keeps that level of action through the movie.

Rei – Rei is a more feminine looking Hero and one of the more interesting characters in the movie. He teams up with Ken after Ken had saved some children and a village before as he was searching for the him…it turns out the man who had kidnapped his sister was Jagi who had taken Ken’s identity. His attack is cool is he creates chi energy that allows him to cut through limbs. He takes care of the kids that Ken saves. He also stands up to Raoh to save Yuria. He sees the big picture too and begs Ken not to fight Raoh so that the children and Julia can live.

Ragi – He’s insane and you can see that Ken letting him live in the past made him worse. His head is boiling and he breathes like Darth Vader. He fights to the end against Ken which is more than be said for Shin.

Raoh – Raoh the Conqueror is great, he shows that Shin is a nobody and manages to best Rei. His goal is stability through fear and his capture of Yuria is only to bring about Ken to defeat him. He is the brother with ambition and I wish the movie had given us more time with him and his conquest. We see him take out a nameless clan easily, but he is largely out of the picture until the last 30 minutes. He also killed his, Ragi’s and Ken’s father.

The Ending – It turns out that the children, specifically Lin becomes the hope for the future. Raoh ends the fight in order for her to be protected by Ken resolving the struggle between the brothers.  I liked that Raoh realized his pride and arrogance were destroying any chance of a future. It ends with the seeds growing and life returning to the dead world. Ken also find an Oasis where he finally can be with Yuria.

Okay: Ken – He is generic hero out to save his fiance. Nothing unique here…at least his design is a little interesting. He looks like Bruce Lee and he screams when he does his super fast multi-punch. Rei is much more interesting than him though, even though he doesn’t have the personal connection to the antagonists.

Shin – He has more depth than Ken in that he tries to win Yuria’s heart after he takes her from Ken, but he doesn’t do anything. He is there purely as a personal connection and motivation for the hero. Jagi was more interesting.

The Kids – Lin and Bat are pretty one dimensional. They play their role as the soul of humanity and human ingenuity though as Bat’s car saves Rei and Ken on a few occasions and Lin is the one who stops Raoh.

Cons: The Presentation of Women – There are a few good examples of them being given agency (the little girl Lin fighting back and helping Rei’s sister Airi find a reason to live) but more often than not they are victims or damsels. Isn’t the world ending supposed to give everyone a reason to fight? This was the most annoying thing about the film.

The Intro. Music – Is way too happy and idyllic given the world that this takes place and the actions that unfold…I don’t think it was meant ironically since this film doesn’t do irony.

The Final Fight – Raoh vs. Ken went on way too long. They destroy the city in the process and just doesn’t feel rewarding at all.

This was a pretty good anime film. I wouldn’t call it great because the protagonist just isn’t that interesting and it doesn’t do anything new with the tropes it uses. Also the overuse of damsels in distress doesn’t help…though Lin stopping Raoh is perfect to at least partially counter this. If you like classic anime or Kung Fu type films you will enjoy this. It has a pretty solid Heroes Journey and some great antagonists.

My final score for this film is 8.4 / 10. Pretty good, but not great.