Vic Flix Movie Review: Shazam!

We enter the latest DC Comics origin story with young Thaddeus Sivana in the back seat of a car, speeding through a dark and stormy night in the year 1974. His abusive older brother and father are in the front seat, proving how abusive they can be, when Thad’s Magic 8-Ball (remember those?) starts flashing mysterious symbols and messages, ultimately causing Thad to experience a hallucination. Emerging from a mental trip to a wizard’s lair, he freaks out, startling his father, who freaks out even more and crashes the car. Thrown from the car and face down in a pool of blood, is the elder Sivana dead?  Signs point to yes.
Flash forward to adult Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who has spent his entire life searching for instances of similar, let’s call them abductions, and occurrences of the seven mysterious symbols throughout the world. We quickly come to understand that he has become evil. Much like wealthy Bruce Wayne, he runs a shadow organization that covers for his secret identity.
There are two responses to abuse. One is to pay it forward, becoming an abuser oneself. The other is to learn from the experience and make sure no one ever suffers the same treatment, at least at one’s own hands. Would Dr. Sivana have become evil if he embodied kindness? Don’t count on it.
Meanwhile, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is on a quest to find the mother who lost him in a crowd at an amusement park when he was a toddler. He has bounced around the foster system, too much to handle for all placements to date. He winds up at a group home that is incredibly diverse and loving, and also the home to Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), the lightly handicapped superhero fan who has some of the best lines in the film. Upon first meeting Billy he warns, “Don’t believe everything you hear, it gets really Game of Thrones around here.” He then admits he’s messing with Billy and then brags, “I’m a handicapped foster kid – I have everything in the world going for me!”
A lunchtime conversation focuses on Freddie’s obsession with all things superhero. He asks Billy which superpower he’d prefer – flying or invisibility, and then proceeds to dismantle the traditional answers and shine the light of truth on them. He shows Billy his guaranteed authentic bullet that bounced off of Superman, a prelude to a later scene, and our first hint that we are in the DC Universe, where superheroes are real. Ultimately Freddie becomes Billy’s advocate and sidekick following Billy’s transformation.
What transformation, you ask? Well, concentrate and ask again. Billy experiences a similar visit to the Wizard’s lair, this time by subway train, flashing symbols similar to the 8-Ball earlier in the film. This is where Billy, a young Scott Baio lookalike, first demonstrates his sense of humor and extreme confidence. The Wizard is so overly dramatic, with his loud commands and hyperbolic pronouncements, Billy chuckles and says, “Seriously?” It’s an endearing moment that ends when the wizard scares him into taking the whole wizard thing seriously. By grasping the Wizard’s staff (yeah, weird) and saying “Shazam!” he instantly becomes a huge, muscle-bound superhero version of himself at about age 30-something (Zachary Levi, from the series Chuck.)
The Wizard’s lair is also home to seven demon statues, representing the seven deadly sins, frozen solid and under the wizard’s control, until…
…Dr. Sivana enters, snags a glowing orb that enters his bald skull as a glowing blue eye, and empowers him with the spirits of the statues. Of course, they come to life and do his bidding, all with the greatly overused particle smoke effect that video effects designers have mastered in the past year or so. Yay computing power!
There’s a lot of fun along the way as Freddie and Billy/Shazam set out to discover what powers Billy has become endowed with. This is honestly the best part of the movie, reminiscent of Tom Hanks, in Big, trying out his new body with the silly humor and innocence of a fourteen year old.
Meanwhile, old blue eye, who come to think of it rather resembles a glowing Magic 8-Ball, sets out upon a new quest – to capture Shazam and absorb his power into his own. And that quest takes up the remainder of the movie, which at over two hours seems much too long.
Will there be a sequel to ShazamSigns point to yes. Drawing on the success of Aquaman and Wonder Woman, DC is on a roll, albeit pale by comparison to Marvel. Mixed results from their portfolio that includes Man of SteelBatman v SupermanJustice League and Suicide Squad, and with a timeline of sequels planned, the DC Extended Universe has become the 8thhighest grossing franchise to date. Still, can Shazam ever be taken seriously now that the fun is gone? Cannot predict now.
A note to parents: some scenes featuring the animated statues are intense. Being eaten or thrown out a skyscraper window is definitely not for the kiddies.
Shazam! (2019) runs 2 hours,12 minutes and is rated PG-13

Should I see this movie?
   Your choice.

Vic’s Flix Movie Review: Us

A good science fiction movie asks us to suspend disbelief by cleverly walking the line between plot elements based on science facts, and the manipulation of those facts into a realm where we can imagine a world in which the improbable becomes possible.
For instance, in Jordan Peele’s Oscar winning directorial debut, Get Out (2017), the science of brain transplantation (fiction) through neurosurgery (fact) is combined with hypnosis (fact) to trap and victimize visitors at a wealthy family’s estate. From there, unsuspecting youthful marks are lured and their bodies stolen for use by aging conspirators.
Both Get Out and Us are being promoted within the Horror and Thriller genres, but as detailed above, I consider Get Out to be a Science Fiction film, and believe that Us belongs there as well. That said, they are both thrilling and horrifying.
In an opening flashback we visit a seaside carnival in Santa Cruz, California during 1986, where a couple and their young daughter Adelaide are playing carnival games. Adelaide wanders off and gets lost in a funhouse filled with mirrors. The power goes out (a device repeated later), leaving Adelaide panicky and eventually face to face with her actual double, not a mirror image. One therapist and years later, Adelaide and her own family return to her parents’ home for a vacation in, of all places, Santa Cruz. There are lots of fun memories there.
During a trip to the beach, a stranger with a cardboard sign that reads “Jeremiah 11:11” attracts the interest of their son Jason, who begins to wander off at about the same age as Adelaide when she vanished. I guess it runs in the family. Oh, the sign-carrying dude was also there in 1986. I guess he’s been hanging out for several decades. He’s older now. And according to Jordan Peele, this bible passage expresses the underlying theme of duality in Us. (see below)
And this may be where Peele is trying to create too many connections. At first, coincidences begin to surface. A clock reads 11:11, the score of a ball game is 11 to 11. But this goes nowhere. The t-shirt Adelaide wore early in the film was emblazoned with a Hands Across America logo. This becomes important later.
The biggest problem with Us is that the underlying science is sort of pointless and poorly explained. Before the movie begins, on-screen text informs us that there are thousands of miles of abandoned and unused tunnels, subways, mine shafts and other subterranean passageways, many with no known purpose. It is later revealed that an entire race of soul-less cloned humans has been living underground. It is mentioned that “they” were able to create bodies but not souls. It is not explained who did this, why everyone was duplicated or what they hoped to accomplish.
Eventually a family of zombie-like doppelgangers shows up in the driveway of the vacation home. There is a double for each member of the family, one creepier than the next. Momma zombie tells a story in a barely perceptible guttural sequence that holds the captive human family spellbound and terrified. It is the tale of “shadow people” that have suffered long enough, darn it. The time has come to get their due. In a scene reminiscent of War of the Worlds, the evening news reveals that cities across America are being taken over by mysterious red-suited strangers. But wait, how is it that Momma zombie can talk, while all of the others are voiceless?
In their subterranean hideaway, it appears that the shadow people lived on a diet of uncooked rabbits and were able to dress themselves in uniform red jumpsuits. Where they got the material or skills to fabricate these is not explained, nor is the requisite large golden scissors they each carry. Perhaps Amazon made deliveries to the underground.
Of course, as with Get Out, there is a plot twist at the end. It turns out that Adelaide and her double switched places the night she ran away. Good became evil and evil became good I guess. And thus, good Adelaide became the leader of the shadow people, equipping them with her child-like understanding of the image on her own t-shirt, to link themselves hand in hand like paper dolls. If Adelaide’s husband ever figures out whom he’s been living with he’ll need some therapy of his own. Date nights through the years could have gone in an entirely different direction.
The genuinely silly concept is one in which Hands Across America, a 1986 benefit event to link 6.5 million people by holding hands from coast to coast for 15 minutes becomes integral to the under-grounders in staging their emergence. In theory, enough people participated in the real event to have spanned the required distance, but there were many significant gaps. All it achieves in Us is a confusing gap in logic, with red-clad doubles drawing attention to themselves as if to say, here we are, come and get us. Two hovering helicopters are perhaps precursors to their easy annihilation.
The good news is, shadow people can be killed. In a disturbing but darkly humorous subplot, it’s fascinating to see how readily the vacationers descend into madness in a killing spree they shrug off as gratifying and necessary. It’s a bloody mess featuring a baseball bat, golf club, car, boat and paperweight.
Lupita Nyong'o plays the adult Adelaide. We recognize her from 12 Years a Slave. Her husband Gabe provides a bit of much needed comic relief in the capable hands of Winston Duke, from Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity Wars. Neighbor Kitty is played by the now very familiar Elisabeth Moss, whose role in The Handmaid's Tale has made her a natural for the horror/thriller space.
Jordan Peele decided to get serious after his departure from Key and Peele, the award winning Comedy Central series that ran for about three years beginning in 2012. His surprising success with Get Out may have convinced him to pursue a directorial path as a master of modern horror, much like M. Night Shyamalan’s quest. It remains to be seen if he can continue to score hits reminiscent of his first outing. For now, Us appears to be a second feather in his cap, but like others before him, as the bar rises, there will be greater scrutiny on his ability to clear the next hurdle and avoid become predictable and formulaic.
At the end of the day, Us works as a thriller. You’ll cheer when shadow people are killed and sit on the edge of your seat for most of the movie. When we exited the theater, a number of people were dressed in red. And there were two teenagers who wore huge rabbit heads before the film started. THAT was creepy!
For your reference, Jeremiah 11:11
"Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them."

Us (2019) runs 1 hour, 56 minutes and is rated R.

Should I see this movie?

Vic’s Flix Movie Review: Dumbo

Perhaps Disney needs to think harder about making live-action movies from its library of animated classics. In the case of Dumbo the wait was since 1941. The more recent Aladdin (1993) takes flight later this year and looks promising. Several generations of fans have given birth to several more generations since a cute flying elephant captured our hearts. But maybe they should have left this one on the library shelf.
I initially questioned the choice of Tim Burton as director, given his dark, other-worldly style, but he has a long relationship with Disney, with hits that include Alice in WonderlandFrankenweenieThe Nightmare Before Christmas and of course, Beetlejuice. Burton actually began his career by illustrating animals for Disney films. But the Dumbo story may have lacked sufficient leeway to allow Burton’s typically twisted creative approach. That, and there was the need to sanitize the original production of its World War II era racist elements. We’re talking about more than blackface here. Jive-talking black crows and faceless black roustabouts are only part of the baggage.
At the end of the day, Dumbo is really just a one trick pony, er, elephant. Still cute, with adorable big blue eyes, the amazing computer graphics have you believing he’s real, right down to his giant, flapping ears. But the 1941 Dumbo was somehow cuter in his flattened, colorized incarnation. And he was new then - a new idea, a new film. Once he takes flight in 2019 it requires some effort to wrap a story around him more compelling than his mother being taken away.
Have you noticed how Disney likes to mess with parent/child relationships? Poor Bambi. Poor Dumbo. It seems Disney writers are working through therapeutic issues by proxy, pulling at the heartstrings of their audience. Lo and behold, I researched this, and found that Walt Disney bought his parents a home in the early 1940s. Shortly after they moved in, the furnace leaked and his mother died. Yikes! Motherless children abound in Disney features, and that’s just terribly sad.
Appearing with baby Dumbo are Burton favorites Michael Keaton as V.A. Vendevere, a duplicitous Ringling-like showman; Danny DeVito as Max Medici, owner and ringmaster of the Medici Brothers traveling circus, and Alan Arkin as J. Griffin Remington, a heartless robber baron style investor. Colin Farrell stars as Holt Farrier, a trick horse rider returning from the war minus one arm. His two kids have been cared for in his absence by fellow circus performers following the death of his wife from the 1918 influenza epidemic (another mother lost). The kids are the first to recognize Dumbo’s secret talent. Eva Green plays Collette Marchant, arriving on the arm of Vandevere as a Cruella DeVille character who is in fact an aerial artist with a heart of gold. Who knew?
Set in 1919, the traveling circus has come upon hard times. Deaths from the flu, poor attendance and the war have forced Medici to sell off assets and reassign personnel. That’s when Dumbo becomes a hot property, attracting the attention of Vandevere, who signs Medici on as a partner and builds the Dreamland circus and amusement park. “Let the people come to you,” he tells Medici.
Accents abound in this and other recent movies. Joseph Gatt plays Neils Skellig, Vandevere’s sinister, bald minion who fades in and out of an accent from the omnipresent Disney country of Evilburg, where  I suppose they speak Evil-ese. Irish Colin Ferrell does his best to sound like a western cowboy. Eva Green, who is actually French, is spending her career suppressing or affecting accents as she does here, or as Penny Dreadful’s Vanessa Ives. Her ashen, haunted look makes it difficult to take her seriously as a kind-hearted child and baby elephant advocate. She’s much more believable as a witch or reincarnated Egyptian goddess.
Colin Ferrell admitted his desire to work on a Burton project for children so his kids could see one of his films. Why the others signed on is a mystery. Keaton delivers barely believable lines, seeming to have shown up the day of filming, wondering why his hair was being dyed blonde and parted to the side. Alan Arkin should have retired after Little Miss Sunshine. At age 85 he still has value as an actor but should be more particular about the roles he plays. Danny Devito is a delight, whether playing an M&M or a ringmaster. His is the most genuine performance in the film, but even he seems bored.
Your kids may enjoy Dumbo. For goodness sake, don’t show them the original. But in 2019, kids are more sophisticated than this movie gives them credit for as audience members. They may lose interest. Wait for this one to show up for free on TV.

Dumbo (2019) runs 1 hour, 52 minutes and is rated PG.

Should I see this movie?

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