Bird is the Word

Plucky Penguins win your heart in Disneynature docudrama 

Disneynature "Penguins"

Penguins
Narrated by Ed Helms
Directed by Alastair Fothergill & Jeff Wilson
G

Raising a family is a full-time job; being a couple is a commitment; parenting can be a very challenging gig.

Just imagine doing it in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, surrounded by predators who want to eat you—and your kids—and having to restart the process every year.

That’s the situation for Steve, the little Adélie penguin in Disneynature’s Penguins. Adélie penguins, named for the wife of 19th century French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville, live along the coastline of Antarctica, their only natural habitat.

We meet Steve in the opening scene, waddling along over snow and ice on his annual migratory trek to his birthing grounds. We learn that this is Steve’s first solo trek, without his parents, and that he—along with millions of other male penguins—is on a single-minded mission to mate.

The guys will build nests out of rocks and pebbles, find gals and start families.

Disneynature, a documentary branch of the Disney empire, has been making theatrical nature and “wildlife” films for 10 years. Maybe you’ve seen Earth, Oceans, African Cats, Chimpanzee, Bears, Monkey Kingdom or Born in China. Both educational and inspiring, they’re the latest addition to the Oscar-winning Disney lineage of true-life animal movies, which extends back to the 1940s.

Disneynature "Penguins"

Penguins is a nature documentary, yes, but the filmmakers give it a snappy, immensely entertaining, with-it spin, from classic rock music and clever editing to the narration of Ed Helms, who also provides the voice (and thoughts) of Steve. The actor from TV’s The Office and the Hangover movies brings just the right undeterred-underdog vibe to the part, channeling the plucky, pint-size penguin’s unflagging determination and drive to succeed—and survive.

As movies go, it clocks in at a crisp 76 minutes; some other flicks would only be warming up by the time this one’s wrapping up. But it’s a poignant tale, filled with tension, comedy, fun, suspense and romance. I particularly loved the part where Steve finally finds a mate, Acdeline, and they swoon and coo together—to the fulsome swells of REO Speedwagon’s “an’t Fight This Feeling Anymore.”

There are other tunes by the Average White Band, Patti LaBelle and Whitesnake. Steve may be living on the ice-cold end of the Earth, but his playlist is blastin’ pretty hot.

Disneynature "Penguins"Soon Adeline has two eggs, then two baby chicks, and Steve is a first-time father. He’s got to be on the lookout for danger just about everywhere—from the air, where predatory birds called skuas are always on the hunt for the smallest, weakest and youngest chicks; and in the water, where leopard seals and killer whales would love to snarf up some penguin appetizers.

You learn a lot in Penguins. About how Adélie penguin “couples” can pick each other out from hundreds of thousands of other penguin pairs—even after they separate at the end of the mating season, to spend the winter swimming free in the wide, open water. How they build nests, and how pebbles and rocks are real commodities. About the hurricane-force katabatic winds that can sweep across the ice, burying the penguins in snow. About the millions of forms of life that return to the Southern Ocean when it comes alive anew every year in the summer thaw.

The photography is spectacular, and some insets during the end credits hint at the extraordinary filmmaking efforts involved—a combination of underwater, aerial and “conventional” techniques, but all done in the most inaccessible place in the world, five million square miles of ice where it’s full sunlight for six months, then full darkness, and where temperatures can drop to 122 below zero. I’d gladly watch a full movie about the making of this movie.

Disneynature "Penguins"

Penguins is timed to coincide with Earth Day, Monday, April, 22, and a portion of every ticket purchased during opening week will go toward the Wildlife Conservation Network to help protect penguins across the southern hemisphere—like Steve and Adeline.

As the movie tells us, Steve’s new role as a father is one he’s been “preparing for his entire life.” Penguins reminds us of the grand cycle of life not just for Steve, but for nature in general—the mystery of animal instincts, the majesty of their domains and their marvelous, miraculous adaptability.

And as Earth Day approaches, it reminds of the awesomeness of our precious planet, teeming with life, spinning with seasonal spawn and carrying on the constant business of renewal, reawakening and rebuilding.

“If all goes well,” Steve says, he and Adeline “will see each other again next spring.” Hey Steve, we’re all pulling for you two!

In theaters April 17, 2019

Advertisements

Growing Pains

Regina Hall, Marsai Martin get small with big message 

Film Title: Little

Issa Rae & Marsai Martin star in ‘Little.’

Little
Starring Regina Hall, Issa Rae & Marsai Martin
Directed by Tina Gordon
PG-13

Time travel, body switching, growing big, shrinking small—movies have certainly been there, done that.

Little gives an old, familiar theme a somewhat new spin in its tale of a hard-charging, bullying business executive who gets zapped back to a much younger version of herself.

Film Title: Little

Regina Hall

Regina Hall plays the grown-up Jordan Sanders, a real bitch on wheels—whether she’s peeling out in her ultra-cool BMW sports coupe, cutting line at the coffee kiosk, shoving little kids out of her way or barking at her employees at the tech company she runs. Somehow, her long-suffering assistant, April (Issa Rae), has endured the abuse for three long years.

When Jordan makes the mistake of dissing a little girl who tries to entertain her with a magic trick, she gets whammy-ed—and wakes up the next morning freaked out that she’s the 13-year-old she used to be.

At this point, Jordan is played by young Marsai Martin (she’s daughter Diane on ABC’s hit comedy Black-ish). And Little becomes a little of this, and a little of that. It’s a pleasant enough springtime diversion, with a bigger, multi-cultural message of empowerment for women of color.

You’ll probably think about Big, and maybe Freaky Friday, 17 Again and 13 Going on 30. The characters in Little do—if only to note that those movies, and those kind of things, typically happen to, well, another demographic. “You went to bed grown and woke up little,” April says, marveling at the transformation of her now-pint-size boss. “That’s for white people—black people don’t have the time.”

Little takes the time, however, to force the humor in just about every situation as April “fronts” for Jordan back at the company, “little” Jordan enrolls in middle school to avoid a social-services intervention, and various life lessons are learned all around.

We learn that Jordan had a pretty horrible experience in middle school the first time, and her second time doesn’t start off any better. But a subplot, about her bonding with a group of fellow “outcasts,” is a big buildup to a sweet, doughy nothing, like sugary cakes and other dreaded carbs that grown-up Jordan deplores.

Hall, who was acclaimed for her acting in The Hate U Give and the indie drama Support the Girls, and some raunchy laughs in Girls Trip, brings brass and sass to the adult version of Jordan. Rae, who segued from her YouTube series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, to HBO’s Insecure, rocks as April, bridging both “Jordans” with her considerable comedic gifts.

In her first major movie role, Martin looks like she’s having a ball, playing “grown-up” with a twist—she’s a real grown-up frustrated by having to return to an awkward time, in an awkward body, dealing with awkward situations.

SNL’s Mikey Day plays a spoiled-brat billionaire client of Jordan’s company. Listen closely and you might recognize the voice of Tracee Ellis Ross (also from TV’s Black-ish) coming from Jordan’s virtual assistant, HomeGirl. Tone Bell, from the CBS sitcom Fam, plays April’s coworker, Preston, who supports one of her ideas, an app that lets users “see the world through the eyes of a child.”

Film Title: Little

Justin Hartley plays Jordan’s hunky middle school teacher.

Justin Hartley, who plays Kevin Pearson on This Is Us, has a couple of scenes as little Jordan’s hunky middle school teacher. Luke James (he’s Noah Brooks on the Fox musical-drama series Star) is Jordan’s sexy suitor, Trevor, who’s plenty confused by Jordan’s middle-school masquerade. The scenes of 13-year-old Jordan with “big” men—who don’t realize she’s actually a woman in the body of a teenager—are meant to be funny, but they’re just a little creepy.

One of the writers of Little also worked on the screenplay of Girls Trip, but this movie—as befitting a storyline built around a 13-year-old—isn’t anywhere near as raunchy. It does, however, make snickering jokes about lady parts, the desirability of one particular non-black male (“the other white meat”) and how April seems to be constantly horny.

But the movie’s central idea of a headstrong, super-smart, successful black woman running her own business empire—that’s certainly a noble one. Even if she does have to learn, in a rather humbling, magical way, that “to live your best life” isn’t all about being rich, bossy, persnickety and bitchy.

The plot is paper-thin and the supporting characters are little more than cutouts in this modern-world fantasy, but one thing does ring true: The idea came from an authentic place. Little Marsai Martin herself, then only 10, pitched the concept (inspired by watching the movie Big) to a producer of Black-ish, Girls Trip and Ride Along, and she became one of Little’s executive producers.

That makes her the youngest executive producer of a major, mainstream Hollywood film ever.

Now that’s big.

In theaters Friday, April 12, 2019

Word Up

Say it loud: Shazam! is zippy teen-centric superhero saga about family

SHAZAM_MAR8_0086.dngShazam!
Starring Zachary Levi, Jack Dylan Grazer, Asher Angel & Mark Strong
Directed by David F. Sandberg
PG-13

If you were a superhero, what would you want for your superpower?

Flight? Invisibility? Super speed?

In Shazam!, Philadelphia teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel, star of the Disney Channel series Andi Mack) gets selected by an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to become a superpowered grown-up by speaking the magic word Shazam—an acronym that stands for the combined wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.

Billy gets uploaded with the ancient, legendary gifts of all six gods.

Shazam!

Every time Billy says it, lightning flies out of his fingertips, his body becomes solid as steel—and he magically, instantly zaps into the form an adult (Zachary Levi) in a colorful superhero costume. He’s got other powers, too, which he’ll soon discover.

“You’re super-stoked!” says Billy’s bud and foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). “You’re as cool as Superman, almost!”

SHAZAM!Shazam!, part of the DC Comics movie universe that also includes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Joker and Aquaman, is a dandy addition to the cinematic canon. In the modern era, superhero movies too often tend to get bogged down in too much plot, too many characters, too much depth and heaviness—both DC and its rival, Marvel, refer—after all—to their cinematic playgrounds as “universes,” places which are vast, dark, ever-expanding and full of too many stars and other heavenly bodies to even begin to try to keep count.

Thank goodness Shazam! doesn’t try to explain that it’s a property with a pedigree that goes all the way back the late 1930s. The character even rivaled Superman for comic-book popularity in the 1940s, and was even called Captain Marvel for a while—before reverting back to Shazam for a TV series in the 1970s. But all that excess baggage is in deep superhero storage somewhere.

This Shazam!, a playful, witty, clever, teen-centric jaunt, soars with a simpler story, free of the past and full of both humor and heart—plus, not surprisingly, a nasty supervillain and a horde of supernatural CGI monsters, the Seven Deadly Sins, summoned up from the underworld. (Director David F. Sandberg knows a thing or two about scares, which you’ll recall if you’ve seen his horror handiwork in Lights Out or Annabelle: Creation.)

Everything in the film is there to service the plot about Billy, who’s grown up in a succession of foster homes after being separated from his mother as a toddler at a carnival. He’s spent most of his young life running away, trying to find her—and to find a family.

SHAZAM_feb28_0153.dng

Mark Strong, left, with Jack Dylan Grazer

Family is the buzzword of Shazam! You hear it mentioned several times. Billy has some major mommy issues. The villain, Thaddeus Sivana (veteran British actor Mark Strong), grew up with seriously toxic daddy issues. We see the two separate incidents that set the very different life courses for both Billy and Thad at the beginning of the film, and they’re both equally traumatic.

Years later, Billy meets up with Freddy, a superhero nerd, at his latest foster home, which buzzes with warm ramshackle life. There’s a group of other kids (Ian Chen, Faithe Herman, Grace Fulton and Jovan Armand) who immediately welcome him. When Freddy finds out about Billy’s secret—and secret identity—he desperately wants to become his sidekick. A montage (scored to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”) of adult Billy testing out his superpowers, while Freddy shoots videos (then uploads them to the internet) will certainly make you smile.

Grown-up Billy and Freddy get even with a couple of school tormentors, visit a realtor in search of a suitable superhero “lair” and thwart a convenience store robbery. Things get “serious” soon enough, though, when real trouble comes calling.

The movie takes place in a world where superheroes like Superman and Batman are already there; they’re the stuff of newspaper headlines, eyes-to-the-skies awe and dinner-table conversations, and a smushed-up bullet that’s bounced off the Caped Crusader’s chest is a real collector’s item. So there’s the matter of what a newcomer, like superhero-Billy, will be called. Thundercrack? Mr. Philadelphia? Captain Sparkle Fingers? Sir Zaps-A-Lot? Just like he has to grow into his responsibilities and his calling, he also has to grow into the name of Shazam.

Shazam poster crop (72)Zachary Levi, 38, best known for his starring role in TV’s Chuck and for his season 2 appearances in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is perfectly cast as the big-boy superhero, a teenager in a man’s body, suddenly endowed with abilities he never dreamed about. If he makes you think of Tom Hanks in Big, the movie gives you a knowing wink-wink you’re not wrong. During a chase scene in a department store, big Billy pauses on a giant electronic keyboard and accidentally stumbles over a few discordant notes. It’s not “Chopsticks,” but it’s enough to make the connection.

Levi is perfectly paired with young Glazer (he was Eddie in It); not only do they have a great “buddy” chemistry, but their characters demonstrate the broad intergenerational bond, and the reach, of the comics and comic-book movies.

Shazam! is a movie about a superhero and how he came to be, certainly, but it’s built on a foundation of friendship and family. “I’m a Foster Mom. What’s your Superpower?” reads a bumper sticker on a vehicle at Billy and Freddy’s foster home. Family, clearly, is where you find it, and superheroes are all around us.

Early in the film, after his first “zap” into Shazam and his costume—a bright red bodysuit, a big gold belt, boots and cuffs, a curtain-like white cape and a glowing chest plate in the shape of a lightning bolt—suddenly big Billy finds himself riding in a subway car, where another passenger is giving him a candid assessment of his, ahem, unusual getup.

“It shouldn’t work,” the fellow rider says, “but damn—it does!”

Shazam! has a lot going on, and hot damn, it works, too—good guys, bad guys, fun, fights, laughs, bullies, beasts, jokes and a genuine embrace of the wonder, wow, camp, comedy and gee-whiz that grease the wheels of the best comic-book movies.

And especially at the end, it reminds us how little boys and little girls, in homes of every kind, anywhere and everywhere, can all grow up to be superheroes—or supervillains. Family matters, words matter.

Shazam!

In theaters April 5, 2019

Soar Subject

Director Tim Burton puts his curveball twist on Disney’s flying-elephant tale

Dumbo poster 2 (72)

Dumbo
Starring Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Eva Green & Michael Keaton
Directed by Tim Burton
PG

I’ve been, done, seen about everything—goes an old song—when I see an elephant fly.

That tune is from the beloved 1941 Disney classic Dumbo, about a baby circus elephant who does just that, thanks to oversized, floppy ears that become wonder wings.

Disney’s new live-action Dumbo fleshes out the animated original with colorful new characters, layers of sumptuous detail and dashing retro drama, and all the dazzle and wonder that modern CGI effects can provide—especially when it comes to making you believe you’re actually watching a precious little pachyderm soar, somehow, into the air.

null

Colin Farrell with Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins

Set around 1920, the story begins when World War I veteran Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns stateside to reunite with his children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) and saddle back up for his old job as a trick rider with the traveling Medici Brothers Circus. Wartime has been tough on Holt; he lost an arm in battle, and his wife died of influenza while he was away. And now circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) tells him he had to sell the horse that Holt used to ride.

So no more giddy-up for Holt, who is reassigned to care for the elephants, including Max’s latest investment—a large, pregnant female named Mrs. Jumbo. Max is ecstatic that the arrival of a cute little baby elephant will give his struggling circus something big to promote.

null

Danny DeVito

But when “baby Jumbo” is born, Max is bummed to discover the newborn has enormous ears, so cumbersome the poor little feller trips and stumble-bumbles over them when he walks. Circus roustabouts dub him a “monster,” and audiences members jeer at him and give baby Jumbo a cruel new nickname, Dumbo. To add to the heartache, Max sells off Dumbo’s mom after a tragic big-top incident.

But things begin looking up, so to speak, when Holt’s children discover Dumbo’s hidden talent—whenever he inhales a feather, he’s clear for take-off.

And baby, this baby soars!

null

The jeers turn to cheers, newspaper headlines blare the amazing news—and a smarmy Coney Island entertainment mogul named V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) comes calling with an offer that Max and his little traveling circus troupe can’t refuse. But is it too good to be true?

Director Tim Burton certainly understands Dumbo’s plight. The veteran filmmaker, so adept at telling eccentric tales of oddballs, outcasts and misfits in films including Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Ed Wood, Frankenweenie and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children—and even his gloomy take on Batman—syncs up with this heart-tugging fantasy about a little elephant alone and afraid, humiliated and abused, finally emerging as a humble hero.

Burton’s telltale touches are everywhere, from the swelling soundtrack provided by his longtime musical collaborator, Danny Elfman (this is their 19th movie together), to the quirky characters that make up the cast of Max’s circus—like multitasking muscle-man Rongo (played by British actor DeObia Oparei), who also provides the big top’s beat behind a slapdash drum kit, keeps tabs on the books, and handles Max’s PR.

Burton’s signature, curveball spin on Dumbo edges into some deliciously dark corners, but the movie’s big—and big-top—heart throbs with the rousing, high-spirited pulse of family, togetherness and freedom.

DUMBO

Eva Green

Casino Royale Bond girl Eva Green, who also starred in Burton’s Dark Shadows and Miss Peregrine’s Home, plays Colette, a French acrobat. Vandevere wants the aerial “Queen of Heaven” to team up with Dumbo as a high-flying duo for his curiously Disney-like amusement park, Dreamland, but she soon realizes that Dumbo’s dreams are far beyond any circus tent. Alan Arkin shows up as a fat-cat banker with dollar signs in his eyes.

Burton jams and crams a lot into this little elephant’s trunk. The original Dumbo was barely an hour long, and this one’s nearly doubles that. In addition to dozens of characters, there are undertones about animal rights, especially in the closing scenes. There’s a mischievous monkey, a group of trained mice and a “Nightmare Island” of captive, “dangerous” creatures. If you’re familiar with the original Dumbo, you’ll appreciate the reappearance of the Oscar-winning song from 1941, “Baby Mine,” and a “bubble” sequence that nods to “Pink Elephants on Parade,” another musical number in the original.

There’s also a modern girl-power subplot that certainly wasn’t there back in the less-enlightened 1940s. Holt’s daughter, Milly, is a budding scientist who doesn’t want to become a circus sideshow act. “I want to be known for my mind,” she says.

Disney movies, from Bambi onward, have frequently had a thing about children who’ve lost, or had to grow up without, a parent. But it’s hard not to think about the timely real-world connection—the wrenching scenes of separation and detainment of children apart from their mothers or fathers—when Mrs. Jumbo is loaded into a dark, dismal cart, the door slams shut and it’s driven away, and little Dumbo is left wailing, with big tears in his big eyes, as she goes.

You’ll probably have tears in your eyes, too, and more than once—but don’t worry, not all of them will be so sad.

Nobody really expected Dumbo to be a big hit, back in 1941. The animation was relatively simple, nothing groundbreaking, and done on the cheap. But the little airborne cartoon elephant won over audiences and became one of Disney’s biggest success stories of the decade. The film went on to air on TV and get theatrical re-releases later in the ’40s, in the 1950s, and in 1972 and 1976.

And even if you’ve never even seen it, you still probably know about the endearing, pint-size pachyderm who represents hopes, dreams and the impossible becoming possible, no matter how impossible it seems. He’s become part of pop culture, and it’s great to see him soaring again.

“That’s my elephant!” shouts Vandevere at one point.

But no, sir—that’s our elephant.

In theaters March 29, 2019

This is ‘Us’

Jordan Peele’s scare-tastic follow-up to ‘Get Out’ delivers a terrifying twist and feels like an instant horror classic

US imdb 2 (72)

Us
Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss & Tim Heidecker
Directed by Jordan Peele

R

A family’s beach vacation takes a terrifying twist in the new movie from writer-director Jordan Peele, who reminds us of the soul-shaking scares that can be waiting to pounce from places we’re least expecting them—or places we never want to look.

Like, when we see ourselves.

Us, Peele’s follow-up to his excellent Oscar-winning Get Out (2017), begins in the 1980s as a guileless young girl, Adelaide (Madison Curry), wanders off a boardwalk amusement park and has a traumatic experience inside a funky beachside carnival funhouse, a hall of mirrors—where she sees another little girl who looks exactly like her.

It’s unnerving and very creepy.

Now, some three decades later, Adelaide is all grown up (and played by Lupita Nyong’o), returning to the same California seaside town, Santa Cruz, for a getaway with her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke) and their kids, teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex). She’s still haunted by what happened on the beach, and so are we.

The family tries to enjoy the day with their friends (Elisabeth Moss of The Handmaid’s Tale and Tim Heidecker, and their two too-cool teenage daughters, played by twin sisters Noelle and Cali Sheldon). But a weird vibe is building, like the odd design on a Frisbee that gets tossed onto their blanket—and what’s with that eerie old guy in the filthy trench coat, who’s hanging around? Is that blood dripping off his fingertips?

And why did Jason draw a picture of him when he got home?

Film Title: UsThen things really shift into creepy overdrive that evening. “There’s a family in our driveway,” says Jason. That one line sends shivers down the spine, because the “family” outside looks exactly like the family inside. They easily break into the house. They overpower Adelaide, Gabe and the kids. Things get violent and threatening.

The outside “family” moans like animals or talks in rasps and croaks. They move or flit about in bizarre, herky-jerky motions, or like robots. And they’re carrying big, sharp scissors—for something they call “the untethering.”

Where have they come from? Who are they?

“It’s…us,” says Jason.

Us is a horror show, for sure, with boldness, bite, brilliance, blood, substance and style. In Get Out, Peele melded gotchas with scathing social commentary, and he’s working on an even broader canvas here. This is a masterful, scarifying puzzle of a film that combines terror, humor, violence, pop culture, philosophy, religion and roasting riffs on consumerism, class, yuppie excess and American comfort zones. It’s a lot to unpack, and you’ve got to stick with it.

Film Title: UsYou may want to look up the movie’s repeated references (you’ll see it visualized at least twice) to the Old Testament verse Jeremiah 11:11. (It’s heavy.) If you’re old enough to remember the 1986 charity campaign Hands Across America, well, that will come in hella-handy. Did you know that there are hundreds of miles of unused tunnels, deserted mine shafts and abandoned subway systems underneath the surface of the United States? How can bunnies be creepy and cuddly at the same time?

This is a movie you’ll probably be discussing long after you see it; it’s got plenty of things to dissect—especially about the duality of human nature, our ids and egos and just where, and how, any of us might “find ourselves” if we went into a hall of mirrors—or dug deep enough into our pasts.

Though all of the actors pull “double” duty, also playing their dark-side doppelgangers, Nyong’o is a true revelation, raging with explosive survival instincts that can turn equally monstrous in either of her characters.

Peele, who got his start in comedy with the Emmy Award-winning duo Key & Peele, has now become a modern horror maestro. He nods to Kubrick, Spielberg and De Palma, but he’s clearly got his own footing and panache. On April 1, he’ll take over the vaunted Twilight Zone franchise for its reboot on the streaming service CBS All Access. If this movie’s any indication of where he might take it, I’m all aboard.

Some scary movies just scare you. This one rattles you good. Who are we? What do we see when we look in the mirror? Are we the “us” we think we are? Do the things we do to feel good—and prosperous, and comfortable—make someone else feel miserable, poor…and very angry? Are heaven and hell two identical twins that ended up on opposites sides of the same cosmic coin?

US imdb 3 c

It’s a deep, dark dive into a movie-carnival funhouse of apocalyptic nightmares, where grim shadows lurk and dreams go to starve and fester—and an iconic, sunny summer song by the Beach Boys will forever sound more ominous because of how it’s used in one particular scene.

This is Us, a modern horror movie that has the feel of an instant classic, one that has staying power to shock and awe years or even decades from now, a horror film that suggests that the most monstrous monsters of all might be the monstrosities that are the easiest to overlook, bury or forget—until we’re confronted with them face to face. And those faces turn out to be our own.

In theaters March 22, 2019

Pulling Rank

Brie Larson Radiates Grrrrl Power in Marvel’s First Fem-Solo Superhero Saga

nullCaptain Marvel
Starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Annette Bening and Ben Mendelsohn
Directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
PG-13

Move over, Thor. Step aside, Spidey. At ease, Iron Man. There’s a new officer pulling some serious rank in the comic book corps.

But don’t call her Captain Marvel—not just yet.

In the first female-fronted superhero saga from the Marvel big-screen spandex factory, Brie Larson stars as Carol Danvers, a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot—and also a Kree space-alien soldier, known as Vers, from the distant planet Hala.

But Danvers has a hard time understanding how to reconcile these two separate—but very connected—parts of her life. Her memory’s been scrambled, in a big, primal explosion that also gave her cosmic superpowers, and she spends most of the movie trying to put the pieces together.

She doesn’t know who she really is. She doesn’t know who she really was. And she doesn’t know that her past and present will eventually merge and she’ll become the super-charged superhero known as Captain Marvel, who can zoom through the skies, glow with fire and shoot explosive photon beams from her hands.

nullAnd she certainly doesn’t know that she’ll become a pivotal figure—perhaps even a cornerstone—for the entire Marvel franchise.

Captain Marvel, the 21st Marvel movie, is mostly set in the 1990s, before the events depicted in most other flicks in the Marvel Comic Universe, which connects almost all the Marvel titles and characters. Much of the fun is seeing how it lays the groundwork for things that happened in previously released films, reintroduces familiar characters and whets the appetite for more movies to come (like Avengers: Endgame, opening April 26).

Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are mostly known for their indie films Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind and It’s Kind of a Funny Story. This is a pretty big deal, to get the keys to kingdom for a huge franchise movie—a Marvel epic with the Disney brand. And even though DC Comics beat Marvel to the punch getting Wonder Woman to the big screen (as the first female superhero movie, ever), there’s still a lot riding on Captain Marvel. Even before the movie was released, internet trolls weren’t happy about Brie Larson’s casting (since, in the comics, Captain Marvel was originally a man), or her campaign for more “inclusion” in superhero epics. (And speaking of inclusion, Boden becomes the first woman to ever direct a Marvel movie.)

null

Here come the Skrulls!

But Captain Marvel soars as an origin story with heart, cheeky humor, wit and warmth, zingy dialogue, punchy action, colorful characters and a hero—heroine—who radiates righteous grrrl power as Danvers breaks the glass ceiling on two worlds where men can’t seem to stop telling her what she can’t do, what she’s not qualified to do, what she’s not meant to do. “You do know why they call it a cockpit, don’t you?” one of her male Air Force co-pilots taunts her. “Don’t let your emotions overrule your judgement,” says Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), her Kree mentor, training her as part of his elite, SWAT-type team of Starforce warriors who fight the shape-shifting, green-skinned Skrulls, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn).

The movie pulsates with a rockin’ soundtrack of ’80s and ’90s tunes from female-fronted bands—“Only Happy When It Rains” by Garbage, Heart’s “Crazy on You,” “Celebrity Skin” by Hole, “Just a Girl” by No Doubt. When she crash-lands through the rooftop of a Blockbuster video store in 1995, Vers ponders the rows of strange artifacts, briefly picking up a VHS copy of The Right Stuff, the 1983 Oscar-winner about the Mercury astronauts and America’s space race. It’s a nod to her own test-pilot roots—and the space gauntlet she’ll soon be running herself.

And it’s full of fun ’90s pop-cultural artifacts. A Nerf Gun factors into a smashing space-alien smackdown. A Space Infinity Stone, an all-powerful Tesseract, is transported inside a Fonzie lunchbox—Heeeeey! Remember pay phones, dial-up internet, Troll dolls and settling in to watch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?

null

Samuel L. Jackson

On Earth, Vers runs into Special Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the future director of the Avengers superhero organization S.H.I.E.L.D, and his assistant, Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Both Jackson and Gregg were digitally “de-aged” to look some 25 younger, and it’s pretty amazing, especially for Jackson, who appears extensively—without Fury’s signature eyepatch, which we know will come later. Jackson, a Marvel fan favorite, is the special sauce that spices up anything he’s in, and he enlivens Captain Marvel considerably with some of the movie’s best quips and one-liners.

Gemma Chan (from Crazy Rich Asians) is a Starforce warrior. Annette Bening plays the elusive Dr. Wendy Lawson, who holds a critical key to Danvers’ fuzzy-memory back story. Lashana Lynch adds a layer of warmth as Danvers’ former Air Force bestie, Maria Rambeau, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see her precocious daughter, Monica (Akira Akbar), whom Danvers nicknames Lt. Trouble, crop up in another Marvel movie down the road. There’s a pause for a sweet posthumous cameo from the late Stan Lee.

The movie brings up issues about refugees, imperialistic domination, war and the age-old question of who, or what, you can trust. The granny on the train, who might be an evil alien in disguise? The enemy alien, who might be an ally? The memory, that might not even be real? A “Supreme Intelligence” who might not be so supreme, or so intelligent, after all?

An orange tabby cat named Goose (dig the Top Gun reference) is a fur-ball of feisty surprises, and surely earns a place in filmdom’s feline Hall of Fame.

nullBut Captain Marvel is Brie Larson’s movie, certainly—even if her character is never actually called Captain Marvel. The closest we get is “Mar-vell,” one of the earlier incarnations from the comics; you’ll have to bore down into Marvel lore to find out just how deep Captain Marvel goes, back to 1967, how the mantle of character passed over gender lines in the 1970s and finally became fully female around 2012.

“It’s two words,” she tells Fury. “Mar-Vell.”

Marvel sounds a lot better,” Fury says. “Like the Marvelettes.” He playfully sings a bit of the group’s big 1960s hit, “Please Mister Postman.”

Danvers grins, but she’s not having any of that—not yet. She’s got other music to make, another superhero song to sing, more galactic mail to deliver, other missions to fly. Captain Marvel will assuredly be back. And we’ll all get used to that name. Hang on, and stay tuned!

In Theaters March 8, 2019

Grim Fairy Tale

Pulpy little crazy-train thriller asks: Who’s afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?

GRETA
Greta
Starring Chloë Grace Moretz & Isabelle Huppert
Directed by Neil Jordan
Rated R

Folklorists tell us that fairy tales once had a practical component at a time when the world was a much darker, more dangerous place. They were cautionary yarns that carried warnings for children to steer clear of wild animals, keep out of the forest and avoid strangers—who might bamboozle them, harm them, steal them or even kill them.

The world is still a dangerous place, as we know.

In Greta, a young woman named Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) reminds us all again when she innocently returns a left-behind purse she finds on a New York City subway to its rightful owner, a lonely older widower named Greta (French actress Isabelle Huppert) who lives alone in a big, old back-alley apartment, loves classical music—and desperately wants a new friend.

How desperately?

Well, let’s just say it doesn’t take long before things start to become desperate, indeed. Frances, a recent transplant to the Big Apple, tries to be friendly at first. She visits Greta again, helps her cook, assists her in picking out a new shelter dog.  

GRETA

Maika Monroe and Chloë Grace Moretz

Frances’ spunky flatmate, Erica (Maika Monroe), can’t believe just how quickly Frances—who’s recently lost her own mother—has let herself become entangled with Greta. “You’ve like, totally adopted this woman—and you hardly know her!” Erica says. “She’s not your mother.”  

And soon enough, it becomes clear that Greta has a screw—or two—loose. She calls, she texts—and she stalks. She shows up where Frances works, at an upscale restaurant, making a scene. She sends Frances flowers, keeps popping up in the hallway of her apartment building, and follows her roommate. Cops tell Frances they can’t really do anything. “Ignore her,” one policeman tells Frances. “She’s just looking for attention.”

Of course, attention isn’t what Greta’s looking for, as we—and Frances—find out.

Greta feels, in many ways, like a modern-day fairy tale. Greta’s home—dark, forbidding, off the “beaten path” of a busy street—is like the lair at end of a windswept woodland trail. I halfway expected to see Hansel and Gretel, or the Three Little Pigs, peeping around the potted plants beside the front door.

Greta is the Big Bad Wolf, the Evil Stepmother and the Wicked Witch, all rolled into one. And when she sits at her ancient upright piano and plays Franz Liszt, or puts Chopin on the turntable, those Euro maestros sound more creepy than classical—especially when they mask the muffled thumps and thuds coming from the wall behind the piano.

And Frances is a contemporary Red Riding Hood, down to her hood-ie (although it’s gray), and her ride is a bicycle as she ventures to Greta’s house. Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Frances is, and her fear turns out to be completely justified. Greta is a monster.

Irish director Neil Jordan won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for the gender-bending The Crying Game back in 1992. Greta’s no award winner, I’m afraid, but it is a tight, pulpy, nasty little crazy-train psychological thriller that takes a sharp turn into something even nastier in the home stretch. You won’t be shocked, or really even surprised, when this fairy tale goes “grim.”

But for all its campy craft, there’s a somewhat serious thread running throughout about grief, loss and what drives people to madness. The Evil Queen who bedeviled Snow White may have had some serious psychological or environmental issues that turned her into a cold, cruel, vain, jealous sorceress with a magic mirror and a poisoned apple—but we never hear about them.

GRETAAt only 22, Moretz already has more than 60 movie and TV roles on her resume, including last year’s horror film Suspiria, the 2013 remake of Carrie and the 2016 comedy Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. Here she’s certainly believable as a smart, sensible “good girl” trying to do the right thing, who quickly gets sucked into a situation that turns icky, then ugly, then downright dangerous and dire.

Monroe, who plays Frances’ apartment mate and old college roomie, best known for the breakout 2014 horror flick It Follows, is the audience surrogate for the film—the voice of reason, question and doubt. Believe me, you’d want her as your best friend, too.

And Huppert, the international screen, TV and stage veteran who was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for Elle in 2016, camps it up as Greta, nimbly nibbling around the edges of craziness before diving in fully and chewing up the scenery. She dances, she screams, she purrs, she wipes up a puddle of blood, she pulls out a hypodermic syringe, she slams the lid—and locks the hasp—on a big, wooden, coffin-like box filled with toys, stuffed animals and…

So—who’s afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?

In theaters March 1, 2019

Dragon Tales

A heartwarming end to a high-flying, two-decade franchise

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Kristen Wiig & Jonah Hill
Directed by Dean DeBlois
PG

Ever seen a dragon fly?

They crop up all along our pop-cultural pantheon—there’s Smaug from The Lord of the Rings, Peter Paul and Mary’s “Puff, the Magic Dragon” and the magnificent airborne beasts in Game of Thrones.

And there’s Toothless, the sleek, black “Night Fury” first introduced in DreamWorks’ acclaimed, animated How to Train Your Dragon back in 2010. Now the third and final installment of Toothless’ tale comes to the screen with most of the original vocal cast again aboard, and new visual wonders to behold.

Writer and director Dean DeBlois, who also directed and wrote the first two films, returns as well, giving the movie and its characters a sense of seamless continuity, even though the “trilogy” and its timeline are spread out across nearly a decade.

The Hidden World is a warmhearted, high-spirted, coming-of-age adventure about the young Viking-heir chief Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his faithful dragon, living in the dragon utopia that Hiccup and his clan have built on the island of Berk. Vikings—as fans of the franchise know, and other viewers are quickly brought up to speed—once feared and fought dragons, but now coexist with them in peace and harmony.

Hiccup has taken on his leadership role since the death of his kindly father, Stoick (Gerard Butler, seen in flashbacks). Other characters who flock and flitter around him for support (and a steady, mead-like flow of comedy) are his mother (Cate Blanchett), the hulking blacksmith Gobbler the Belch (Craig Ferguson); his strong, confident, warrior-sidekick sweetie, Astrid (America Ferrera); and his fellow dragon-riding Viking buds Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Eret (Kit Harington) and the twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple).   

Everyone rallies when Berk comes under attack by the villainous dragon slayer Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), who sees Berk’s “toxic notion” of dragon domestication as “the undoing of civilization.” Grimmel especially wants to capture—and destroy—the Night Fury, Toothless, the last of its kind, and he “baits” him with another dragon, a female.

The pure white “Light Fury” is the exact opposite of Toothless—bright where he is dark, day where he is night, yin where he is yang. Guess what? Toothless falls in love.

Most of the story has to do with Hiccup’s decision to vacate Berk and seek a new home—the so-called “Hidden World,” the legendary origin of all dragons, as rumored to exist in ancient mariners’ myths. There they’d be safe forever from Grimmel and other dragon-haters. But there’s also an overriding, unmistakable, bittersweet theme of growing up and letting go, as both Hiccup and Toothless embrace the emotions that come with being older, wiser and ready for the next stages of their lives.

The film is awash in color, texture and eye-popping computer-generated effects, immersing viewers in an explosively imaginative world of wildly creative locations, creatures and characters. A “courtship” ritual between Toothless and the Light Fury is both humorous and heartfelt, and their romantic night flight, through the heart of a thundercloud and across the shimmering sea, hits emotional and visual high notes.

The movie—and the entire franchise—belongs to Hiccup and Toothless, but props have to be given to the bite and bile F. Murray Abraham puts into Grimmel, the maleficent dragon slayer. In a make-believe movie—and one intended, in large part, for a younger audience—he creates a character with chilling, very grownup undertones of the constant threat of hate in the real world, be ye Viking, dragon or otherwise.

And the ever-dependable Kristin Wiig gets to shine especially for few knockout moments in a spotlight scene when the constantly chattering Ruffnut is taken prisoner by Grimmel—but only temporarily. It’s a reminder about just how impressive her comedy chops are, even when it’s only her voice, coming through a character that it took an army of illustrators and visual-effects artists to bring to lanky life.    

But the thing that might impress you most about all the impressive things, in this most impressive movie, full of modern, high-tech movie magic and dynamic digital mojo, is how you might find yourself dabbing a very real tear or two away from your eyes when it’s over.

Just keep reminding yourself: It’s only—sniff—a movie about dragons, after all. And dragons aren’t real…are they?

For the final, closing, soaring chapter of this popular, successful franchise about a Viking boy and his faithful, flying dragon, the third time is definitely a charm—and a charmer.

In theaters Friday, Feb. 22, 2019

The Dead Zone

Death comes to us all—sometimes in a big, goofy baby mask and a hoodie, again and again again

Film Title: Happy Death Day 2U

Happy Death Day 2U
Starring Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard & Phi Vu
Directed by Christopher Landon
PG-13

So you think you’re stuck in a same-old, same-old kind of rut?

Consider the Sisyphean circumstances of Theresa “Tree” Gelbman, a young coed who not only can’t seem to get out of college, but who keeps dying—murdered, to be exact—on her birthday, over and over and over again.

Bum-mer.

That was the premise of Happy Death Day, a modest little horror hit in 2017. In that movie, Tree kept waking up on her birthday anew, reliving its experiences Groundhog Day-style, each day capped by another unfortunate encounter with the Grim Reaper. This was her fate, repeatedly, until she figured out who was behind her murder(s), and why, and how she could finally break the sequence.

It was a taut, wickedly engaging funhouse puzzle with a unique twist on the time-honored genre of “attractive young women in peril.”

And we know that Hollywood can’t let a good thing just slip away.

In this frightfully fun, cheekily self-aware sequel, when one of her campus mates, Ryan (Phi Vu), has a freak-out deja-vu “death” experience, Tree (Jessica Rothe, reprising her role) knows exactly what’s happening—her birthday curse has somehow returned. And it’s spread to other people now. The killer again wears the creepy, snaggle-toothed, big-baby mascot mask of their university, which makes it easy for him (or her) to hide, disguised, in plain sight.

Film Title: Happy Death Day 2U

Jessica Rothe with Israel Broussard—and a quantum time machine

Tree discovers that the cause of all the trouble is a quantum time machine, a thesis project built by Ryan and some of his fellow science-nerd students. (Ah, those meddling scientists!) The Big Bang Theory-ish doohickey is a cooling reactor that slows down time on a molecular level and allows multiple dimensions to overlap and interloop.

That “explains” why people keep getting killed over and over again—they’re stuck in a multi-dimensional loop. “Do I look like I know what a multi-dimension is?!” asks an exasperated Tree, when one of the science students attempts to enlighten her.

Eventually Tree gets stuck in the loop again, too, and has to work with Ryan to find a way to stop the killer, close the loop and end the die-wake-repeat cycle—and tie up a couple of other loose ends with her family, her boyfriend (Israel Broussard) and her sorority pal (Ruby Modine).

Director Christopher Landon, who also returns to the job, stirs a brisk streak of send-up humor, and outright comedy, into the killer mix—this isn’t a bloody slasher film, by any stretch. It’s more Scooby Doo than Scream, and it’s also got a potent undercurrent of real emotion, as Tree has to make some hard decisions and choices about her past, present and future. “Every day is a chance to be someone better,” she says.

HDD2U 4Death can be a drag, but when it’s an everyday thing, you might as well get some laughs out of it, right? In in one darkly whimsical montage sequence, Tree takes matters into her own hands, causing her own demise in several creative ways to explore various loops—seeking the “right” one to close—without having to wait to be murdered.

Look her up on IMDB and you’ll see that the actress who plays Tree was one of the roommates of Emma Stone’s character in the Oscar-sweeping La La Land. They all sang and danced together in the big go-out-on-the-town number, “Someone in the Crowd.”

That’s the way it is in Hollywood, and in life. One day you’re singing and dancing and painting the town, the next you’re gleefully diving headfirst into a wood chipper or getting chased off the top of skyscraper, plunging to the pavement below.

As Happy Death Day 2U impishly reminds us, life is rich and rewarding, but death comes to us all—and if you’re Tree Gelbman, it just keeps coming, in a big, goofy baby mask, with a big, shiny knife, again and again and again.

In theaters Friday, Feb. 15, 2019

 

Mind Games

Taraji P. Henson gets inside guys’ noggins, but there’s not much there

WHAT MEN WANT

What Men Want
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Richard Roundtree & Tracy Morgan
Directed by Adam Shankman
R

It’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world, according to James Brown’s hit single from 1967.

And that still rings all too true for Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson, the star of TV’s Empire), a go-get-’em sports agent for an elite corporation repping the upper crust of NFL, NBA and MLB superstars. But Ali’s gone about as far as she can go within the ranks of the male-dominated, bro-centric culture of her company.

She can take the off-color humor, the “locker-room talk” and the constant stream of chest-puffed, testosterone-fueled camaraderie. But when she’s passed over—again—for a promotion to full partnership, she blows a gasket.

“How am I supposed to fight a system that’s rigged against me?” she rails to her father (Richard Roundtree), a boxing coach. Roundtree knows a thing or two about fighting a rigged system. As the prototypical black detective in Shaft, back in 1971, he fought the system, the Man, the black mob and the white mob to find a crime lord’s kidnapped daughter.

But Ali finds her answer at a bachelorette party, where she drinks a fortune teller’s funky tea, then falls and bonks her head. When she wakes up, she discovers she can hear men’s thoughts. At first, it totally freaks her out. But then she realizes she can use her new “gift” to get inside guys’ noggins to get a real leg up on her competition at work—particularly to woo aboard a new young basketball hotshot (Shane Paul McGhie) and his helicopter dad (Tracy Morgan).

Director Adam Shankman, whose previous films include the musicals Hairspray and Rock of Ages, plus the comedies The Pacifier with Vin Diesel and Adam Sandler’s Bedtime Stories, pours on the yuks. But he doesn’t seem to have much of a feel about how to make this raunchy comedy about workplace inequality much more than a broad, lazy swipe at an easy, timely target.

The f-bombs fly. There are jokes about gays, Christians, farts, various styles of sex and all kinds of body parts. In a movie like this, when you hear “nuts,” you can assume it’s not a reference to Super Bowl munchies. There are inflated phalluses, phallus necklaces, a bong shaped like a phallus. We get it: Ali is “surrounded” by phalluses. When she “accidentally” calls her boss “Dick” instead of his real name, Nick, it’s supposed to be really funny.

The movie, a gender flip on the 2000 Mel Gibson comedy What Women Want, presents almost everything as a punchline. But if a human resources director could hear the “thoughts” Ali hears when she walks through a thicket of her male coworkers—well, it would probably be more “actionable” than laughable.

WHAT MEN WANT

Shaquille O’Neal

There are sports figures peppered throughout. Former Seattle Seahawks star Brian Bosworth plays Nick; there’s a high-stakes poker game with NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, former NCAA All Pro player Grant Hill, Minnesota Timberwolves player Karl-Anthony Towns and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

A subplot involves Ali’s gaggle of girlfriends (Wendi McLendon-Covey, Lisa Leslie, Phoebe Robinson, Tamala Jones) and how her ability to hear the thoughts of their husbands and boyfriends isn’t always such a good thing. A wedding scene becomes a raucous free-for-all when Ali decides she can no longer hold in the truth about the men in the wedding party.

WHAT MEN WANT

Pete Davidson

Singer Erykah Badu hams it up as the kooky shaman who cooks up the concoction that expands Ali’s mind, and you’ll see a host of other familiar faces—most notably Josh Brener from HBO’s Silicon Valley as Ali’s swishy man Friday, Brandon; Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson; Max Greenfield of New Girl; The Detour’s Jason Jones; and Kellan Lutz, best known as Emmet from the Twilight movie series, as a hunky-hot neighbor.

What do men want? “To get paid and get laid,” says Ali. Seems like she’s after the same thing, especially when she’s in the hay doing the wild thing with Will (Aldis Hodge, who starred on TV’s Leverage). But maybe she wants something more, like a serious relationship, and perhaps a family…

Ali’s widower father, we find out, wanted a son, instead of a daughter. And he named her Ali after his favorite fighter, Mohammed Ali. We see a photo of the legendary prizefighter in the very first shot of the film, behind Ali as she’s working out on a treadmill, barking orders into her cellphone, swatting down text messages, sweating up a storm.

We get it: She’s a fighter.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee—that’s what Muhammad Ali said. Too bad this featherweight movie, too focused on easy, cheap laughs, is only content to float above the serious issues, at a very serious time. It skirts toxic workplace environments, racism, sexism, and wage discrimination and bias without ever sinking a flag into a solid statement about any of them.

Muhammad Ali knew you could dance around, but you had to land the punch, especially the big one. What Men Want has no such sting.

In theaters Feb. 8, 2019