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Shazam! (2019)

It seems like the secret to the success of the DC movie universe is making fun, lower stakes adventures with the characters the public has the least knowledge about. Shazam actually begun as a “Captain Marvel,” and now comes on the heels of the MCU’s Captain Marvel. We follow Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a teenage orphan trying to find his missing mother. He stumbles into a wizard’s realm and is given a special power whereupon he turns into a square-jawed, broad-shouldered superhero (Zachary Levi) by saying “Shazam.” What follows is like a superhero version of Big and it’s goofy, charming, and reminiscent of an 80s Amblin movie, where children’s movies were allowed to be a little creepy and weird. The movie is light, cheerful, and heartfelt with its doling out of family messages to go along with the slapstick and personal growth. It’s very much envisioned from a young boy’s fantasy perspective of being a super-powered adult, where the first things to be done include buying beer, going to a “gentleman’s club,” in between testing out bullet invulnerability and flight. Levi (TV’s Chuck) is excellent at playing an adult version of a kid. I was initially dismissive of his casting but he’s perfect for this part. There’s a satisfying sense of discovery for Shazam and his excitable foster brother (Jack Dylan Grazer) that doesn’t get old. The movie is more concerned with how the superpowers are affecting Billy’s relationships and sense of self than any larger, planet-destroying danger. The film even sets up its villain (Mark Strong) by giving him a decent back-story and opening the movie to explain his crummy family. It’s not a three-dimensional villain by any means but the attention given to make him something more is appreciated. The other foster kids in Billy’s new family are more archetypes but amusing, and their involvement in the final act raises the joy level of the finale. Shazam! is a movie where people are genuinely excited to be superheroes or associated with them, and that gleeful, buoyant revelry is downright infectious.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Self/less (2015)

Selfless-posterThe most surprising thing about Self/less occurred approximately 115 minutes into the film itself, when it revealed that Tarsem Singh was the director. Tarsem is known for lavish visual cinematic canvases such as The Cell and Immortals, and to realize that this is the same man responsible for an otherwise disappointing and visually mundane sci-fi thriller, well it was a shock. Why hire a visual stylist and then restrict him to such a limited palate? Self/less is an intriguing premise (borrowed a tad from Seconds) and it keeps all the interesting ethical and psychological questions at bay to follow a generic thriller formula. There’s not one real surprise in this film; even the reveals and surprises will be easily telegraphed. Ben Kingsley plays Damian, a dying rich man who undergoes a risky experiment to live longer, having his consciousness transferred into a younger human host played by Ryan Reynolds. It’s another chance to be young, party, enjoy sexual relations with women who are more likely to go home with somebody who looks like Reynolds. There’s a catch: if he stops taking his special red pills, the host’s brain will take over control. That’s because, surprise, the bodies aren’t grown in labs but are human volunteers. Here could be some topical class exploitation and social commentary, but Self/less ignores the more intriguing direction at every point to play it safe. Damian finds his host’s family and from that point on it’s a series of chases with bad guys. One of those chases is actually fairly entertaining, utilizing a conjoined automobile in a clever and devastating way. It never feels like Reynolds and Kingsley are playing the same character. Reynolds’ charm is subsumed by this role and he feels adrift. I’ll admit that this movie is efficient and each scene pushes the story forward; it’s just the direction of that story I’d like to alter. Alas, Self/less is a competent but fairly underwhelming thriller that squanders its premise.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Change-Up (2011)

For once, I’d love somebody to construct a body-swap movie where the characters realize the tropes and clichés of the body-swap pictures, a parody of the genre. It’d be nice if the characters instantly accepted their situation and knew that they would each have to learn some form of a life-lesson before changing back, and they tried to falsely engineer these saccharine life-lessons. Then it would be fun if they rented all the body-swap movies to write down notes and pointers on how best to deal with their unusual situation. Then, and here’s the best part, both body-swap participants realize that they prefer their new situations. They reject turning back and simply enjoy the whims that come with their new existential home. They reject learning life-lessons and simply make the best of things. For a brief second, I thought The Change-Up might be that very movie but no such luck.

Dave (Jason Bateman) is a business-obsessed lawyer working his way to make partner in his firm. His wife, Jamie (Leslie Mann), and his three children, including twin babies, are neglected at home. Mitch (Ryan Reynolds) is a struggling actor/womanizer who inexplicably is best friends with Dave. After a night at a bar, the fellas relieve themselves in a public fountain. The fountain lady statue obviously has taken offense and thus curses the both of them. The next morning, each awakes to discover they are in different bodies. The business guy has to act like a jerk! The jerk has to act like a business guy! And then there’s the matter of Jamie, who Dave/Mitch has strictly forbidden Mitch/Dave from sleeping with. Complicating matters further, the fountain has been moved by the Atlanta parks department and lost in bureaucratic limbo.

I knew I was in trouble by the first minute of the grossly unfunny Change-Up. Not only do we suffer a poop joke so early, we have to witness a baby firing a stream of fecal matter into Dave’s open mouth. That’s just a taste of the unpleasantness that follows. The movie plays like an exaggerated, sophomoric cartoon written by children. It seems to exist in the same broad universe of 2009’s abominable rom/com The Ugly Truth. What I wrote for that movie could easily apply to The Change-Up: “It’s questionable whether the comedy even reaches juvenile levels. It’s tasteless and piggish, but the weird part is that it comes across as knowledgeable on the subject of sex as a ten-year-old kid who just discovered his dad’s secret stash of Playboys. It talks about the right stuff but does so in a clueless manner. It’s like an exaggerated randy cartoon that chiefly plays to a male fantasy.” I’m not opposed to raunchy sex comedies. However, I am opposed to sex comedies that can’t figure out how to be funny without relying on easy gags. There’s a difference between gross-out humor and simply being gross, though I don’t believe this film knows what that difference is. So we’re treated to an over-the-hill porn star, some anal defilement, a voraciously sexual nine-months pregnant lady, even more poop jokes, and 90 minutes of penis discussion. There’s one actually interesting section where the guys debate the moral ambiguity of body-swap sex. Is it really cheating if Dave/Mitch is in somebody else’s body? What is Mitch/Dave to do if his wife wants to have relations? Sadly, this lone moment of interest is crushed to death by more penis jokes and then forgotten. Reynolds (Green Lantern) and Bateman (Horrible Bosses) try to stay above the fray, fighting the good fight, but even they succumb to the unfunny script and disjointed direction.

After being a distasteful cartoon for so long, the film wants to be dramatic. It wants to be emotional. Tough break, Change-Up, because you cannot have it both ways. The dramatic parts ring resoundingly false, a last-ditch attempt to class up what is a deeply unclassy picture. The tonal shifts are jarring and land with crashing thuds. It’s mostly because these characters are deeply unlikely, particularly the Mitch persona. He’s not just some brash, rude individual who sidesteps social mores, no this guy is downright sociopathtic. He’s egotistical, mean-spirited, and constantly boorish to every person in Dave’s life. He’s cruel to the daughter, he tells Dave’s wife that she’s not attractive, and then there’s the babies whom he treats like a couple of rag dolls to toss around. At one point, Mitch/Dave is on the phone and the kids are left to get in trouble with the kitchen. We’re not talking about getting messy with food, we’re talking sticking their tiny hands in a spinning blender, throwing knives, and licking electrical outlets (it’s like the Roger Rabbit cartoon that opened that flick). Instead of getting off the phone immediately, he continues talking and casually tends to the troubled tots per potential disaster. He teaches Dave’s daughter “violence is always the answer.” Mitch is an unrepentant jerk, and even when Bateman plays Mitch he’s still irredeemable. Am I supposed to feel sorry for this obnoxious guy just because his dad thinks low of him? I think low of him. I detest him. Therefore, when Mitch/Dave is having his Big Emotional Catharsis, it seems facile and hollow. We can generally find a point of likeability for uncouth characters, but not Mitch. As presented, this character has no introspection and few redeeming qualities, so why do I want to spend nearly two hours with this person? You’d think Dave would be the “nice guy” alternative, but he’s smarmy and neglectful too. Besides the “family man/pussy” and “playboy/prick” designations, the characters aren’t different enough to warrant a change of scenery.

The Change-Up has the single most bizarre moment of any film this calendar year, and it has nothing to do with the metaphysical mechanics of body swapping. Wilde (Cowboys & Aliens, TRON: Legacy) at one point gets rather frisky and takes off her clothes, the last piece her brassier. Mitch’s hands cover her breasts for most of their onscreen freedom except for a handful of side angle shots where Wilde’s breasts are out and ready to greet the audience. Except those are and are not Wilde’s breasts. The in-demand actress was topless but had pasties to cover her nipples, which has always befuddled me why this is more acceptable (“I’ll let everyone see 95% of my breasts but if it comes to nipple that’s too far.”). The pasties were then digitally removed in post-production and replaced with CGI nipples. Let me repeat that for the slower amongst you – CGI nipples! It was some guy’s job to spend weeks painting nipples onto Olivia Wilde’s breasts. That’s the greatest assignment for an animator ever since a breast fondled itself in 2000’s Hollow Man. But why was any of this necessary? Wilde’s done nudity before in 2007’s Alpha Dog (go head and Google it, horndogs). Granted the actress has a much higher profile now but why must we go through this dastardly trickery? Jessica Alba started this “digital nudity” trend by in Machete, but how far does this madness go? To make matters even worse, Mann (Funny People) has hinted that her own nudity in The Change-Up was also digitally altered, giving her a larger set of breasts (where is the media’s feminist outrage when it’s needed?). My libido doesn’t know what to trust anymore. When I see nudity, can I trust that it’s real, or was it doctored by some computer technicians who are laughing at me the whole time? What is happening to this world when it makes me distrust the very sight of breasts, normally a point of internal celebration now a confusing mystery again?!

The Change-Up is a mean-spirited, objectionable, nasty, classless, clueless comedy that’s tonally all over the place. The characters are unlikable, the comic setups are cartoonishly drawn, and the dramatic shifts are flatly false. What’s even worse is that the movie just seems downright hostile toward women. Just because it has a scene where Mann gets to vent the frustrations of the put-upon wife/mom doesn’t mean women are given a fair shake. I’d be more forgiving if the vulgar comedy was ever funny. The Change-Up erroneously believes that having characters say dirty words or inappropriate remarks is the same as comedy. It can be a component of comedy but rarely does it work as a whole substitute. The jokes fall flat, the drama feels forced, and the characters range from nitwits to jerks to deviants and back to jerks once more for good measure. Why would anyone subject themselves to nearly two hours with these people? I just felt bad watching this movie. The Change-Up makes humanity look like a species that deserves an extended time-out.

Nate’s Grade: D+

17 Again (2009)

My introduction to tween sensation Zac Efron came last fall. After hearing about the dominance of the High School Musical franchise I decided to finally watch the first made-for-Disney Channel film and see why exactly tween girls were screaming themselves hoarse. And after watching the musical I felt, well, how can I put this diplomatically? It sucked. Hard. First off, the plot only covered auditioning for a musical, not the actual show. What the heck is up with that? How does a movie musical climax around callbacks? Amidst the bland vanilla pop tunes, goofy hoofing, and painfully simplistic life lessons about class-consciousness, there was the overall dreadful acting by the cast. Efron wasn’t the worst actor of the lot but he seemed to go on autopilot, beaming dreamily and leaving his mouth agape long enough to stockpile flies for a long winter. I could not understand why young girls and the media were making such a fuss over Efron. I am clearly not in Efron’s core flock of fawning fans, but after catching his fairly nimble work in 17 Again I think perhaps this guy might be able to break out from the clutches of Disney and grow into his own, unlike Miss Miley Cyrus, who I believe has an ankle bracelet that will detonate if she travels further than 100 feet from the Disney execs. They don’t want another Hilary Duff getting away and sticking a scorpion down her shorts (see: War, Inc.).

Mike O’Donnell (Matthew Perry) hates his life. He’s 37, just been passed over for a promotion at his job, is getting divorced from his wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann), and his two teenage children (Sterling Knight, Michelle Trachtenberg) think dear old dad is a doofus. Apparently, everything was better 20 years ago, in 1989 when Mike was a 17-year-old basketball phenom who had his whole life ahead of him, until he walked out on a climactic game to tend to Scarlett, who just revealed that she was pregnant. Mike wishes he had one last shot to be 17 and have his whole life ahead of him again. Thanks to a magic janitor (I believe it’s really the magic hobo from The Polar Express, except now he’s gone through a work program and become a respectable community custodian), Mike transforms into the visage of his 17-year-old self (Efron). Mike seeks help from his childhood pal Ned Gold (Thomas Lennon), who poses as Mike’s father and enrolls him in the same high school his children attend. This leads to many awkward family encounters.

The body swap genre can be counted on for some decent fish-out-of-water laughs and some earned wisdom. Usually transporting young people into older bodies allows for more comedy because it leads to more socially awkward moments and the exaggerations of trying to be old before your time. 17 Again is consistently amusing enough and I was pleased that it found fun plot developments to explore from its body swap angle. So Mike is young once more but that doesn’t stop him from having, on the surface, inappropriate feelings for Scarlett. On top of that, teen Mike must beware the romantic advances of his own teenage daughter. Yes, the movie simultaneously explores robbing-the-cradle romance while dodging incestuous pratfalls al la Back to the Future. There is uncomfortable father-daughter sexual tension without getting too perverse. These two wrinkles nicely take advantage of the older person body swap premise and add some spice to an otherwise safe and sunny movie. Besides that, if you’ve seen any body swap movie from the past (and the 1980s were littered with body swap movies) then you’ll know exactly how everything will turn out with 17 Again. The movie is mostly silly, mostly the fun kind, but it doesn’t dip into being outrightly dumb. It’s derivative but it’s not fluff. I mean the essential premise revolves around a man regretting supporting his pregnant teen girlfriend/eventual wife. You won’t find that in the Hannah Montana Movie no matter how hard you try, perverts.

17 Again isn’t great art but it works as a showcase for its appealing star, the dewy-eyed, shaggy-coifed Efron. The filmmakers clearly know their target audience because Efron is shirtless and sweaty by minute one, displaying killer abs. By minute four, he’s dancing before his big basketball game (does this kid have a clause in his contract that he must play basketball in all his movies?). 17 Again asks little of Efron and he easily delivers on that mandate with a convincing performance that easily charms. He’s also adept at comic timing, particularly when he’s sparring with Lennon. Efron has a fabulous toothy grin and he’s a good-looking pup, but the jury’s still out on whether or not this kid can go the distance. He’s improved considerably since the first High School Musical launched his mug onto thousands of household products. He probably doesn’t have an Oscar in his future but he certainly will be headlining movies for years to come. He’s more movie star than actor, but let’s not mince words, the kid is a star (fun fact: Efron’s first acting credit is for an episode of Joss Whedon’s Firefly).

The supporting cast surrounding Efron greatly add to the film’s surprise enjoyment. The subplot involving adult dweeb Ned romancing the principal (Melora Hardin) is an amusing diversion that manages to make me like all of the characters more. Lennon (Reno 911!) steals every moment he’s onscreen and develops a kooky chemistry with Hardin (TV’s The Office). The more these two actors interacted the more I wanted the movie to ditch everyone else. Mann gets the thankless job as “upset wife” but brings a spark to the character without coming across as grating. Trachtenberg (Euro Trip, TV’s Gossip Girl) is actually 23 years old but her youthful looks seem to lock her into teenage girl roles. Look out for cameos by comedians like Jim Gaffigan and Margaret Cho. Perry must have enjoyed working for about a week and cashing his check. Also, Perry looks absolutely nothing like Efron and appears to be over a foot taller than his younger, more genetically blessed doppelganger.

I feel sympathy for the editor of 17 Again, because clearly script supervisor Steve Gehrke must have been asleep for the entire film shoot. There are continuity gaps galore in this movie. Now, normally I don’t care so much about mild continuity errors in a movie because that’s just part of moviemaking. So if a character sits up in bed and the sheets are a few inches lower, or in a different ruffled state, well who cares? But when errors compile wildly and become flagrant distractions, then the movie has a problem and the script supervisor, the person in charge of catching those errors in progress, failed miserably. When teen Mike eats a hamburger in the school cafeteria it goes from being in his hands, out of his hands, having a bite out of it, and then magically reformed. Even worse is a moment when teen Mike is nursing a battle wound and his wedding ring keeps changing hands. Why would anyone even bother switching hands for a ring to begin with? That sounds like an easily avoidable hassle. To be fair, there are several factual errors that are not Gehrke’s total fault, though I’m dumfounded why no one else caught these. In 1989, the coach yells at Mike to quite dancing and refers to him as “Vanilla Ice,” but Vanilla Ice didn’t release his debut album until 1990 (apparently the coach knows his underground white hip-hop). What’s even more puzzling is that this pop culture reference is destined to sail over the heads of Efron’s target tween audience. All of this is easily verifiable. I won’t even get into Mike referring to “hippogriffs” 10 years before Harry Potter was published.

17 Again is a pleasant enough confection that is undemanding and yields some laughs and enough heart. The movie manages to be more mature than expected thanks to some kinky-for-PG-13 sexual tension and yet the movie is a harmless good time at the movies. Efron carries the movie ably but he’s got a great supporting cast to help carry the comedy load. Body swap movies are all invariably the same, and truly 17 Again must have been born with the sentence, “It’s reverse-Big.” It’s playful and light and cheery and pretty much an adept project for its star. It’s a small step in the right direction for Efron, and perhaps his fan base will start including more than squealing teenager girls primed to swoon at a moment’s notice. Swooning: it’s not just for the youngsters any more.

Nate’s Grade: B

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