For the spring of 2019, the movies offer three highly-recommended films—a wonderfully funny, goofy, endearing—and exciting, action-packed and entertaining—superhero comic book science fiction fantasy movie with DC’s “Shazam!,” a simply astounding, breathtaking, journalistically-powerful, incredibly-researched and documented and captivating documentary about the 1969 Moon mission, landing and return to Earth by the Apollo 11 mission with “Apollo 11,” and a haunting, well-acted, stirring World War II period drama and romance about the confusing times in post-war Germany and how three people handle those times with “The Aftermath”—and one failed film that disappoints on many levels and is yet another reminder that a film without any likeable characters that the audience can root for will indeed likely fail, with “The Hummingbird Project.”
Starring Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Faithe Herman, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans, Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Djimon Hounsou
Written by Henry Gayden
Story by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke
Based on characters by DC Comics
Directed by David F. Sandberg
Produced by Peter Safran
Cinematography by Maxime Alexandre
Edited by Michel Aller
Music by Benjamin Wallfisch
DC Comics’ movie division scores a big, welcome, fun, funny and crazily goofy, off-the-wall, comedic comic book superhero sci-fi fantasy action-adventure success with “Shazam!”—which is also notably cute (in a good way), endearing and just plain lovable, thanks mostly to an equally cute and endearing set of teen and pre-teen lead actors who shine with unbridled youthful enthusiasm, humor, charm, talent and good acting. “Shazam!,” despite what some folks with horrendously poor memories and equally poor skills with film history are saying or will say, is not the first DC Comics movie success, of course, and it’s not even the company’s first big success with comic book superhero movies in recent years—again, despite what some cynics will say. So put aside all the oddball talk about DC’s fortunes as a company, and just sit back and enjoy “Shazam!” for what it is—a fun and entertaining movie.
Before getting into just how and why “Shazam!” succeeds on all levels—production, director, writing and acting—let’s just take a good look at DC’s history of superhero movies—just to set the record straight. First, despite whatever some naysayers said about 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”—including, full disclosure, a decidedly negative review in this little corner of the world, a stance that still stands—this much-maligned movie promptly made—are you ready?—a whopping $873,634,919 in box office grosses worldwide, and the film does indeed have its defenders. It was a huge hit for DC. Second, 2016’s “Suicide Squad”—which was actually well-liked and recommended in this corner, a stance that still proudly stands—made a whopping $746,846,894 worldwide, and that movie does indeed have its defenders. That was a huge hit for DC. Third, 2017’s “Justice League” made a whopping $657,924,295 worldwide, and the movie does indeed have its defenders—including this corner of the world, a stance that still proudly stands. That was a huge hit for DC. Fourth, 2017’s “Wonder Woman” made a whopping $821,847,012 worldwide—and that movie did indeed receive worldwide critical and popular acclaim—including in this corner, a stance that still stands. Fifth, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy—with three films released from 2005 to 2012, with “Batman Begins” in 2005, “The Dark Knight” in 2008 and “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012—were, of course, huge critical and popular successes worldwide. Sixth, “Joker,” an origin story about the backstory of DC’s Joker character, is scheduled to be released in October, 2019, with Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker, and the film is already generating huge advance buzz—and will most likely be yet another huge hit. Seventh, DC’s 1978 “Superman” and 1980 “Superman II” remain—simply—two of the greatest comic book superhero sci-fi fantasy films in film history, and, forty-one and thirty-nine years later, still remain the gold standard for films in this genre—still. Finally, DC scored a bizarro, off-center, off-kilter, wildy tacky and campy and flat-out crazy 1960s hit with 1966’s “Batman,” which, to this day, still stands alone as an accurate depiction of comic books in film in a very true sense, with the comics’ bright color schemes, goofy villains, generally upbeat tones, clear-cut good guys and bad guys, and a Batman played by Adam West who audiences could love, support and cheer without worrying about whether Bruce Wayne was going to miss any of his latest psychologist sessions. (Box office figures courtesy of Box Office Mojo, a movie industry website that tracks film box office results).
All of that said and noted, it’s been a pretty damn good recent 53-year run at the movies for DC Comics. No, they’re not suffering; no, they don’t lack hits; no, they’re not in a rut; no, they have not had hard times at the box office; no, they have not had critical or popular failures; and, no, “Shazam!” isn’t really some savior for DC. It’s simply yet another good, strong, fun and funny comic book superhero movie!
The best filmic aspect going for “Shazam!” is its cheerily wonderful main cast of kids who act their hearts out and promptly steal this movie straight out from every adult actor in the film—and that’s not criticizing the adult actors, who are pretty good, too. It’s simply noting that the movie’s real center is this great group of lovable kids, and they carry the movie with their strong acting, obvious energy and chemistry, humor and strong presence. And that’s what more of these movies should be—centered around kids, for these movies should really be first and foremost for kids, or kids at heart. There’s simply been too many movies in this genre that got hopelessly lost in their attempts to be deep, dour, sour, dark, depressing, morose, moody, cynical, sarcastic, downer—and ultimately something many kids, even teens, can’t relate to on some levels. That’s not what these movies should be. The better superhero comic book movies actually relate to kids, teens, twentysomethings—and people of all ages by being more positive, entertaining, fun and funny. Those words keep popping up, but, again, those main characteristics are what should sustain a successful film in his genre—pure fun, actually being funny, actually being consistently entertaining, maintain a youthful sense of fun, and keeping a consistent sense of humor. These are, after all, supposed to be comic book movies—not Ingmar Berman movies, not Bernardo Bertolucci movies, and certaninly not post-funny-period Woody Allen moody psycho-babble neurotic movies—yet that’s exactly what some films in this genre have nearly ended up being, with disastrous results.
“Shazam!” knows this, and, as noted several times, yes, keeps things light—the story, script, dialogue, characters, characterizations, scenes, situations and plot do indeed have all of the bells and whistles of a modern-day comic book superhero movie, but all of the above is kept light-hearted, breezy, not-too-serious (even at its most dire, the humor remains), not too violent (there’s a scene or two of some scary violence, fright, terror and suspense, yes), not too horrid, and always humorous.
Thus, the film is entertaining throughout.
“Shazam!” even succeeds despite bringing back to the screen one of the more tired and clichés plot devices and gimmicks—the body switch. Yes, that over-worked cliché of a gimmick needs to be put to sleep for a few centuries in general. But, again, “Shazam!”’s clever writers– Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke—are smart enough to know that they’re dealing with a cliché, so they aptly and continually parody their gimmick to great comic effect, with a series of jokes and gags (most of which work, but with a few duds that could have been cut out of the script entirely, including one or two needlessly crude sexual references, which don’t work in this context) that play off of this central gimmick. There’s even a clever homage to one of the more graceful, heartfelt and inventive body-switch films, Penny Marshall’s classic “Big,” in “Shazam!” and that is just a nice, kind, beautiful touch—made even more touching and heartfelt considering that Penny Marshall just died on Dec. 17, 2018, at 75. Marshall became the first woman to direct a movie that made more than $100 million at the box office in the United States. It’s not a spoiler to note the “Big” homage—the tribute to Marshall will still resonate with viewers in “Shazam!”
Those aforementioned kids—played by adorable kid actors Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Faithe Herman—find themselves grouped together by fate and chance at a group home run by equally-likeable and wonderfully-caring adults played by the genteel and gentle Cooper Andrews and the beautiful Marta Milans. One of those kids, Billy Batson, played with down-to-earth, steady, easygoing and never overdone natural charm by Asher Angel, is somehow determined by the wizard Shazam to be a type of chosen one (yet another cliché—yes, everyone is aware of this, too, and this is parodied sufficiently too, to downplay the obvious existence of the cliché) and is entrusted to be the keeper of a set of superhuman powers that will fight villains, fight the main evil bad guy, Thaddeus Sivana, protect the innocent, protect the world from a set of truly scary demons kept inside Sivana’s mind and body, and, of course, save the world. That’s a lot for your average, every-day, school-going, group-home-living foster kid in downtown Philadelphia, and Angel adequately portrays a regular teenager faced with a bizarro set of otherworldly, other-dimensional situations, characteristics and traits that he doesn’t really want. However, Billy’s also a smart kid, and he soon realizes that he has to take his new traits seriously, and work hard to fight Sivana and his literal demons.
Oh, and there’s one thing more. When Billy utters the word “shazam”—he turns into an adult version of himself, played earnestly and courageously, but somewhat predictably, too, by a struggling Zachary Levi. Levi does well playing a 14-year-old in a twentysomething’s body, but filmgoers will constantly be reminded of Tom Hanks’ wonderfully original and inventive portrayal of the same thing in “Big”—just an amazing performance by Hanks. In that movie, Hanks beautifully made you see the 12-year-old inside him, but with just pure emotion, presence and physicality. When you watch Hanks in “Big,” you believe that that’s a 12-year-old in a young man’s body. With Levi, though, he plays Billy broadly, for constant laughs, and he seems to lose some of that interior emotion and empathy and sympathy that Hanks embodied in “Big.” Levis does well, and he’s funny, but the director, David Sandberg, and the writers, should have toned down Levi’s theatrics just a few notches and tones—that would have made “Shazam!” even better. They didn’t need to steal directly from “Big,” but just perhaps the adult Billy could have been just a bit less frantic and physical, and bit more, well, human.
Nevertheless, Billy eventually comes to see the real peril and dangers of his situation, he comes to realize what he has to do—nothing less than save the world, of course (yes, another cliché—it’s noted)—and he evolves, matures, gets his superhero act together, gets help from his support network of group home kids, and fights Sivana in a series of too-long, over-done, over-extended battles. Those extended, seemingly endless battles with Sivana mark the one major downfall of the script and the movie—yet another problem of too many of these type of movies. The movies substitute extended physical battles and special effects in place of dialogue, story, plot and character development at times. Nevertheless, again, despite this flaw, the over-riding humor and fun of “Shazam!” as a whole works to defeat this flaw, too. Soon, the battles end, the kids group together, they save the day—and, well, the heroes save the day. The characters, the plot, the dialogue—and the movie—all band together to overcome its clichés and pitfalls and succeeds.
One major bright spot among the great kid cast needs to be noted—Jack Dylan Grazer’s excellent portrayal of Billy’s right-hand-man, number-two—but not sidekick by any means—and, really, main partner Freddy Freeman often steals scenes and the movie. Freddy is a very human, multi-dimensional, emotional and lovable human character—and audiences will fall in like and love with Freddy in this movie. Grazer is so human, endearing—and cute—that he simply helps carry this movie throughout. Yes, Freddy Freeman is disabled—he walks with a cane and limps—and he is stupidly bullied—and he doesn’t have many close friends outside of his group home buddies—all clichés, yes, the writers are aware of this, too—but Freddy Freeman is also strong, tough, smart—intellectual, even, funny, nice, kind, caring—and as much of a regular kid as anyone else, of course. Grazer’s performance is a scene-stealer and a movie-stealer, and it would be great to see him—along with the other kids, too, of course—gain some major roles after the release of this movie.
In this sense, by the way, “Shazam!” recalls two other similarly excellent and similarly fun movies from this year, 2019, with some great kids leading the cast—the very similar “The Kid Who Would Be King”–featuring another chosen one destined to save the world with a group of other kids helping out–and “Alita: Battle Angel”—featuring, yes, another chosen one destined to save the world with a group of other kids helping out.
It’s indeed a testament to filmmaking talent and savvy that all of these movies end up succeeding—despite their clichés and flaws.
Thus, “Shazam!,” too, overcomes a movie history’s load of clichés and nitpicks and heartily, cheerily, happily and smartly succeeds. And the movie is yet another big hit for DC Comics. This weekend of April 5-7, 2019, head out to the theaters, see “Shazam!” and simply have a great time.
Directed by Todd Douglas Miller
Produced by Todd Douglas Miller, Thomas Petersen, Evan Krauss
Edited by Todd Douglas Miller
Music by Matt Morton
The new documentary “Apollo 11,” featuring new, never-before-seen footage (yes, even after fifty years), is amazing and highly-recommended.
“Apollo 11” beautifully, amazingly–and journalistically and academically–tells the familiar story of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) years-long mission to land a man on Earth’s sole Moon, entirely using documentary footage, and a few graphics when footage wasn’t available. The documentary takes the viewer from the pre-flight work and preparation to the build-up to the launch, the launch, the mission to the Moon, the Moon landing–which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, 2019–the voyage back to Earth, the successful Earth landing, and a bit of the post-flight celebration.
Viewers will be astounded, amazed, educated–still–and entertained.
It’s never old or too late or too familiar to celebrate this golden-moment achievement of space exploration, science, technology, physics, math, engineering, computer technology, hard work and teamwork that occurred with NASA’s successfulApollo program and missions.
And–no one needs to pay any additional money for rip-off add-ons such as Imax, enhanced sound, 3D or other rip-off frills, bells and whistles to enjoy “Apollo 11”–the movie is good enough to stand, work and be enjoyed on its own in a traditional movie showing. But definitely see “Apollo 11” where it should be seen–up on the big screen, in movie theaters.
“Apollo 11” is already, in March, 2019, an early instant-classic documentary and the film presents an early-year high standard for forthcoming documentaries in 2019 to meet and match.
This spring, seek out the documentary “Apollo 11”–and celebrate the 50th anniversary of NASA successfully landing the first man on the Moon. And while you’re at it, be sure to rent or buy the equally-excellent feature film “First Man,” about astronaut and hero Neil Armstrong, which was released in 2018 and which should have been nominated for Best Picture, in place of some other ridiculous nominations!
“Apollo 11” and “First Man” together present an excellent film celebration of the Apollo program, NASA, and the first man on the Moon.
Starring Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgard, Jason Clarke
Written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse
Based on “The Aftermath” by Rhidian Brook
Directed by James Kent
Produced by Jack Arbuthnott, Malte Grunert and Ridley Scott
Cinematography by Franz Lustig
Edited by Beverley Mills
Music by Martin Phipps
Seventy-two years after the end of World War II, there remains a bevy of strong, interesting stories still to be told about the war, and fortunately, the array of World War II films in recent years have all been high-quality, must-see movies. All have been critically praised, several have done well at the box office, and several have included some bravura, stand-out accomplishments by film artists at all levels—producers, directors, writers, actors, production design and art design artists, props and period design artists, stuntmen and fight choreographers, special effects artists, musical composers, and all of the extremely talented hair, make-up, costume and wardrobe artists tasked with supplying historically accurate, period accurate production details. It’s not easy to produce an historical period film from any era, of course, but World War II films bring their own distinctive set of challenges, due to the inherent immensity and gravitas that the war and its impact had on the world of the last seventy-two years.
Now, at the start of 2019, it’s great to report that another high-quality World War II film has arrived, “The Aftermath.” Of course, things weren’t settled, easy or safe in post-war Germany, and “The Aftermath” does a great job of presenting the very real dangers that lurked throughout Germany in 1946, just after the war ended, with snipers, protestors, distrust, suspicions, tension and just plain continual fighting, much of it life-threatening.
In that scenario, a group of uppity, somewhat overly confident and macho British soldiers brazenly and brashly, even for a post-war occupation of a country, Germany, that was just defeated after murdering millions of people and trying to literally take over the world, commandeers a beautiful mansion that escaped wartime bombing. The problem is, the house is already occupied by a quiet, shy middle-aged man and his frightened, war-savaged teen daughter. The father and daughter, who were not intense Nazi supporters, have lost their mother—and now they’re losing their own home to foreign soldiers. One of the occupying officers decides to let the father and daughter stay in their own house—but only if they stay in the upstairs, dank, cold rooms and keep to themselves. The scenario rightfully seems a bit outrageous and cold, pun intended—again, even for victorious, still-celebrating post-war Allied victors. The officer’s wife, a beautiful, ravishing, sexy Keira Knightley, looking absolutely riveting and acting at a consistently high level, is aghast at letting the father and daughter stay in the house—until, of course, she falls crazily in love with the father and has a stormy, steamy, sexy affair with him.
One can guess where all of this is going, with tensions rising between Knightley’s repressed wife—she and her husband lost a child in the war—and her husband, and tensions rising between she and the German father. The daughter can’t stand Knightley’s wife or the husband and that adds an interesting dimension to the story, plot and characterizations.
All of this prompts some extended tension as post-wartime reconstruction and occupation problems in that postwar Germany also increase. As the affairs, secrets, marital problems, family problems, house and domestic situation problems and post-war problems all increase, the movie has a build-up of natural suspense, tension that enhances the drama, the story and the characters.
Knightley, again, turns in a stellar performance. Additionally, Alexander Skarsgard simmers and fumes as the German father, and Jason Clarke defiantly turns in a conflicted, layered, complex performance as the British officer dealing with his unhappy wife, the strange domestic situation, and that still-dangerous post-war Germany. All three actors turn in great performances in “The Aftermath.”
Thus, the film is a strong period, historical drama about war and peace, or the ever-elusive and conflicting, problematic nature of war and peace, and the movies is a strong drama and romance set against that backdrop of war and peace. “The Aftermath” will have audiences thinking about an array of themes, lessons and morals, and the movie is yet another reminder that all of these years later, there’s still plenty of interesting, watchable and interesting World War II stories and movies to be made and enjoyed.
THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgard, Salma Hayek
Written by Kim Nguyen
Produced by Pierre Even
Cinematography by Nicolas Bolduc
Edited by Arthur Tarnowski and Nicolas Chaudeurge
Music by Yves Gourmeur
Alas, “The Hummingbird Project,” a film with so much promise in its story, characters and script, ends up failing in all major areas—production, direction, writing and editing—but the movie fails at his most obvious level with one simple filmic and storytelling negative trait—there are no likeable characters in this film. None. In fact, all of the major characters are actually awful, horrendous, sickening, even sick people—desperate, greedy, manipulative, Machiavellian, scheming, lying, distrustful, corrupt people. Watching “The Hummingbird Project” is like watching the daily actions of the Trump administration—things are out of control, hopeless, and there’s never anyone to root for or care about.
Many modern-day filmmakers—producers, directors, writers and actors—have to learn to include at least one major character who audiences can root for or care about—otherwise, audiences will lose interest in the story, the characters—and the movie—quickly, and the movie will just fall into the morass that the filmmakers have created. That’s exactly what occurs with “The Hummingbird Project.”
The scattershot, difficult-to-follow and difficult-to-care-about script follows a crazed, immature, greedy and horribly desperate shady, lying and corrupt businessman, Vincent Zaleski, who is trying to build some type of fiber optic network literally across the United States that would illegally, wrongly and corruptly intercept and transfer stock and financial information to traders split seconds before others get the information, thus giving those corrupt traders a chance to make money in an instant before others fairly get the same chance. The proposed network would transfer information in split seconds—at the rate that a hummingbird flaps its wings, hence the title of the movie. However, that’s all audiences really need to know, because that is basically most of the movie. And no one should really care that much about the shady, corrupt project or the shady, corrupt people building it because every main character in the movie is trying to manipulate, ruin, defeat, lie to, cheat and steal from nearly every other main character. Even Eisenberg’s awful, despicable Vincent lies, cheats and frighteningly manipulates his own brother, Anton Zeleski, played with such Hannibal Lecter-style psychological scariness, moodiness and violence by Alexander Skarsgard, it’s never entertaining or enjoyable watching Anton on any level. Perhaps it’s a testament to Skarsgard’s acting, yes, at times, that the character is so horrible, but the director and writers made Anton such a despicable, grimy, downer, moody, volatile and depressing person, it’s just stomach-churning and uncomfortable to watch. When Anton is finally arrested, viewers are almost relieved—even though it’s Vincent that should have been arrested, and not Anton.
As for Vincent, Jesse Eisenberg has made a successful career out of playing these annoying, irritating, twitchy, squeaky, snotty, snobby, Woody Allenesque neurotic and pathetic nebbishy nerds—and he does play these types of characters well, no doubt—but, like, say Robert DeNiro playing gangsters or Sam Jackson playing angry and annoying people, it’s getting tired. And this type of characterization is indeed very tired and tiring by Eisenberg in “Project.” Eisenberg’s character of Vincent, too, is so unnerving, irritating, annoying, corrupt, slimy and horrendous—the viewer finds themselves rooting for Vincent to fail and be locked up in jail. Where’s the fun in that? There is no fun in that. Additionally, for some reason, the writers added a subplot of Vincent suddenly being diagnosed with cancer—and Vincent does absolutely nothing—nothing—to treat his cancer. Say what? The cancer subplot makes zero sense, does not fit in with anything else in the script, brings a downer movie already several miles further down, and ends up being just plain ridiculous when Vincent does nothing to treat his cancer.
One major note on this: Jesse Eisenberg needs to get out of his comfort zone of playing these irritating, annoying type of characters. In his next role or roles, he needs to stop twitching, stop complaining, stop being irritating, and play, yes, a positive, upbeat, likeable, real human being. Every actor at his level needs to choose a variety of roles—good, bad, downer and positive and upbeat.
Thus, it spoils nothing to say that the Zaleski’s project ultimately fails, the company supporting them fails, a rival technology company and its evil leader ultimately fails—and the entire movie fails alongside the failures of the characters, their schemes, their financiers, and their companies. Salma Hayek plays the evil, corrupt, slimy and despicable leader of the rival company—and somehow, even Salma Hayek ends up being difficult to watch or care about in this movie. When you have Salma Hayek end up being difficult to watch or care about in your movie—something is horribly wrong.
And much is horribly wrong with “The Hummingbird Project,” which, like its main characters, ends up being one huge mess that, alas, viewers should not care too much about. Film fans will have much more fun watching their backyard bird feeders—and watching those whirring, flapping, real hummingbirds going about their daily business.