Lightning Strikes for Shazam!

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A Little background

The history of Shazam as a property and as a fictional character is pretty long, muddied, and complicated. Reaching back into the days of the late 40’s and early 50’s, where in the wake of the success of Superman, comic book heroes with super powers were the rage. Fawcett Comics created a character named Captain Marvel. It was subsequently sued by National Comics (Later to change their name to DC) because it was too similar to Superman. Fawcett loses lawsuit, Fawcett stops publishing Captain Marvel in 1953.

Fast forward a couple of decades and Fawcett sells property rights to Captain Marvel in 1972. But using the name Captain Marvel on its cover would have been problematic since Marvel Comics already had a Captain Marvel comic. So they used the magic word Shazam! as the title, yet continued to call him Captain Marvel within the pages of the comic books. The public being what it is kept identifying the character as Shazam as opposed to Captain Marvel.

Since the New 52 era of DC, it was finally made official and the Captain Marvel mantle was no more and embraced the name of Shazam as not only the title of the comics but of the character as well. So from this point forward the character will be referred to as Shazam.

And let’s be honest both Shazam and Marvel’s Captain Marvel (though various versions), were not A-list super heroes and were not top seller. Both have been retconned and rebooted (Marvel believes more in soft reboots whereas DC likes huge universe spanning overhauls). And it’s only in the last few years that Marvel’s Captain Marvel title started selling well.

For a more extensive history of Shazam, Youtube channel Comic Books Explained has a great rundown of him as well as the Variant channel.

The Movie Review with Minor Spoilers

The current adaptation of the Shazam comic book does at least one certain thing in the post BvS and Justice League era of Zack Snyder, and that is fully embrace its comic book  roots and also embrace a self-awareness of itself and superheroes. It takes place in a world where the DC superheroes not only exist but they are looked up to. That in itself is a departure in tone from the world darker world Zack Snyder created. But in distancing its tone from that version of the gritty and drab version of the DC Universe, it ends up trying almost too hard in its levity, especially in the middle portion of the film. It is saved by impressive performances by the diverse cast of young actors.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a fourteen year old orphan who has been bounced around from one foster home to another for constantly running away and refusing to get along with his homes. His motivation has been over the years has been to search for his lost mother whom he was separated from at an amusement park. So he finds himself isolated from the rest of the world on purpose in hopes of finding her.

He is placed into a group home run by the Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans) Vasquez former foster children themselves and now running a big house full of other their own foster kids. His roommate is Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) a paraplegic wisecracker who happens to be a big superhero fanboy.

One day at school, Freddy is bullied by a couple of older boys who almost run him over with their truck. Billy at first tries to walk away but after one of the bullies mentions that Freddy doesn’t have a  mother, Billy steps in and hits them with Freddy’s crutch. This prompts a chase that ends up with Billy getting away in a subway train.

In a reference to his classic subway origin, Billy is magically transported to the lair of the ancient wizard Shazam, who has been waiting centuries for one who is pure of heart and worthy of being a champion.

Unfortunately, we already know that Billy is not pure of heart. He is selfish and has issues with empathy. He even informs him that such a person does not exist. Yet the old wizard is fading and a great evil in the form of Dr. Silvana (Mark Strong) is loose and possessed by the Seven Deadly Sins. Seeing that Billy may not be pure of heart but he has embers of good in him, he passes on the powers of Champion to Billy. By holding the wizard’s staff (yes, they did crack a joke about that) and saying the name of the wizard, Billy is transformed into Shazam (Zachary Levy). Unfortunately for him, the wizard dies and crumbles to dust.

Billy, in the guise of Shazam, seeks out the help of Freddy. He has no understanding of what his powers are or what he is, so his best bet for advice is the superhero fanboy. For a good portion of the film, perhaps too much, Billy tries to learn about his powers. All the while, Freddy is chronicling everything and uploading his super-powered exploits on YouTube.

As fun as this film is overall, the learning powers scenes do become repetitive. Even though Billy has great powers and has become a local celebrity, he skips school and basically panhandles like a street performer, posing for selfies and firing off lightning bolts in the air for tips. These scenes do end up dragging the pace down and the comedy feels too forced. The running joke of making up a superhero name is funny the first time, but not the fourth or fifth time. Ultimately, by the end of the film, he still has not adopted a mantle. My favorite comedic moment is the obligatory bad guy speech delivered so well by Mark Strong, except Shazam is floating half a mile away and can’t hear him.

Zachary Levi jumps into the roll of a young man in the body of a superhero as if he were born for this roll. Unfortunately his performance comes across as actually less mature than his Billy Batson counterpart which is played a little more subdued. Perhaps that is on purpose to let the Shazam persona show the more gleeful side of Billy but I am not sold.

It’s no secret that a central theme to this movie is the bonds of family, whether they are by blood or not. And without giving too much away, I must praise the family interaction of the rest of the foster children in the Vasquez household. Faithe Herman especially stands out as Darla, the youngest in the household. Her character has the most charm among the kids and her character is the one that Billy connects with most besides Freddy.

Shazam! is full of charm, full of heart, wish-fulfillment, maybe a little too much humor, good action sequences and is just plain fun. Warner Brothers, and DC comics  may have figured out finally with his and Aquaman, that comic book movies can be fun movies. It may not be the perfect superhero movie, but without a doubt, it is fun. This movie comes Highly Recommended.

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Review: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

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Building a believable and realized world is not an easy task. S.A. Chakraborty’s debut fantasy novel, The City of Brass, is a near perfect world-building blend of myth, history, and originality. The layers of lore, myth, and back story is so thick and rich though that there is a slight price paid in plotting and characters.

We are introduced early on to Nahri in as a young Cairo woman making her living as a con artist during the Napoleonic era occupation of Egypt. She gets by pulling little cons, mostly working marks over with fortune-telling scams and the occasional exorcism. He has magical abilities that she uses for her hustles but beyond that she really has no understanding of where they come from. She also does not understand her natural abilities to understand any language she hears. And in true mythological fashion, she is an orphan who has no idea of who her parents are or of anything else about her family.

One day while performing an exorcism of a young girl she interprets as merely mentally ill, she livens it up by incorporating a summons in a language that she thinks she only knows. Little does she know it actually summons a Daeva warrior and awakens the Ifrit Iwithin the girl. That night she is hunted by the fiery Ifrit while Dara, the Daeva rescues her. Realizing that she is at least part Daeva herself (known as a Shafit) and that the Ifrit are now hunting her, they head to Daevabad, a magical city where only Deava’s, Djinn, and Shafits may enter.

Things aren’t rosy in Daevabad, though as there is growing unrest among the Shafits against the pure blood Djinns. Meanwhile the upper-class nobles who still call themselves Daevas maintain a tribalistic disdain for the Djinn, whom they consider usurpers. The youngest prince of Daevabad, Ali, has sympathy for the Shafits who are treated as second class citizens in the enchanted city. He becomes secretly involved with the Tanzeem, thinking he is contributing to a benevolent organization but his naiveté  gets the better of him when they are not what they appear to be.

There is quite a bit of naiveté to go around it seems as Nahri herself gets caught up in the internal politics of Daevabad and its history. She is believed to be the only surviving daughter of Manizeh, a legendary healer who died twenty years ago. She was the last of her kind and it was believed that she had no children. She is named Banu Nahidu, the great healer of the city. Yet she shows herself inept at healing creatures straight out of fairy tales.

Dara, it turns out, is the ancient protector of her family, but with a tainted and bloody past that inspires fear, hatred, and even awe.  He is not only secretive of his bloody past, but his memories are foggy as well.

Though the novel is lean on plot development and is a bit of a slow burn as far as narrative action is concerned, the author makes up for it by incorporating middle-eastern myths and modern world building techniques to bring to life an amazing world in her debut novel which is the first in a planned trilogy. There are layers upon layers of internal lore, mixing known myths about Djinns and Ifrits  along with the author’s own creation. She also mixes in subtle Islamic myths about the prophet Suleiman (Solomon).

Underlying the heavy lore of The City of Brass is subtle and subversive messages of racism, and especially tribalism. The difference between Djinn and Deavas are really in a name. And yet when Narhi calls Dara a Djinn, he is deeply offended by it. He also shows an illogical hatred for those that call themselves Djinn. And then there are the Shafits who are of blood mixed with humans who are treated poorly

This beautiful novel is not without blemishes, however. Some of those are with the way the characters act or react to things, especially that of Nahri. As streetwise as she comes across in the beginning of the book, somewhere in the middle of the book, she seems to become less street smart and spends time having her heart flutter when in the presence of Dara to being extremely naive about the what it will take to survive in her adopted city. She shows little interest in learning about her family history, the history of the Deavas or of her supposed mother and family. This is a little frustrating since a good con artist would learn a few things about their surroundings just by instinct.

Dara, himself does not come across as a very sympathetic character. He is quite short-tempered and bears a centuries old grudge against the al Qahtani, the ruling family of Daevabad. He is also elitist and rather prejudiced against those who have adopted to calling themselves Djinn as opposed to Daevas. And he is especially disdainful of Shafits.

Ali’s role comes across later as the good guy, in contrast to Dara’s bad boy image. Though he is a competent warrior and member of the city’s elite guards, he is also bookish and empathetic to the sufferings about him of the Shafits. He may have the bigger character arc as he will have to deal with his empathy for the suffering against his love and loyalty to his father.

King Ghassan al Qahtani is a surprisingly nuanced character. Not evil, but pragmatic in his rule of Daevabad. He also loves his children dearly, yet will cut will not hesitate to cut ties with them if it became necessary.

This is a very rich and lush book of will engulf you into a world full of Djinn, Ifrits, and many other magical creatures. And yes, there is even a flying carpet. S.A. Chakraborty’s website has a helpful guide to the world of the Daevabad Trilogy. The book also has a glossary in the back. It can come in handy because there is a lot to digest in this world.

The novel closes at a cliffhanger and I have the follow-up book The Kingdom of Copper on my too read pile already. This book is Highly Recommended.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal is the Right Stuff for Alternate History Fans

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It seems a lot of alternate history science fiction novels revolve around a major turning point in history. The most popular one is of Germany winning World War II as in Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle and SS-GB. Harry Turtledove has an entire series based on the South winning the Civil War unofficially called The Southern Victory Series. Mary Robinette Kowal’s alternate history in The Calculating Stars is not just one turning point, but several. The first is that Dewey would defeat Truman and become President of the United States, second that the US would be ahead of the Soviet Union in the space race.

Emma York is a former WASP, who flew with many perilous missions in WWII, and brilliant mathematician. She and her husband, Nathaniel, witness the meteorite impact and survive the subsequent shock wave. Since Nathaniel is literally a rocket scientist he is semi drafted into services to help at the local Air Force base.

This sets the timeline for the most drastic change in history. In 1952, a meteorite crashes into the Eastern coast of the United states and destroys much of the east coast, including Washington D.C. It sets up an environmental change that will eventually render the earth nearly uninhabitable. It is decided that the current space program be accelerated to colonize space, first the moon and eventually Mars.

In the hands of other writers, it may be natural to come up with grand ideas and scope of chronicling the race to space and tell a heroic struggle to not only survive the changing climate but to also do the impossible things such as reaching the moon. Mary Robinette Kowal chooses to make this a much more personal story. It is what makes this novel so unique and relatable.

This is all told through the point of view of Emma as she navigates through this invigorated space program and the issues of the era, mainly the sexism that stands in the way of not only her, but others women in participating in the space program beyond being number crunching computers.

After what was meant to be a PR appearance on the 50’s era show, Mister Wizard, Emma gets dubbed with the nickname of The Lady Astronaut. Thus would begin an unwanted focus on Emma and the role women will have in the fledgling space program. You would think it’s a no-brainer as do the women in the book. To colonize space, you are going to need women. But it is is still the mid-50s and not only is the idea of women’s lib not existent, but it is even predating the major civil rights movement. And Emma not only suffers from the upbringing of the time with the haunting refrain of  her mother’s “What will people think?” to her own issues of anxiety.

Emma feels she and many other friends, most of whom are former WASP themselves are fully qualified. It of course should come as no surprise that women will eventually get the chance to join the program. In fact there are few real surprises in the book, but the joy is the road trip to the final destination.

The characters come across as genuine and, yes, at times you may feel frustrated on behalf of Emma and a reluctance to assert herself as you know she can. But then you realize we are reflecting back on an long ago era of thought. And also that she definitely has anxiety problems.

Yet as an exercise in alternate history it also is an exercise in real history, of the WASPs that flew with honor and in sometimes dangerous conditions during World War II and the almost greenlit real female astronaut program of the era.

Unfortunately the end of the book, though not really ending in a cliffhanger left me wanting more. Fortunately there is a second half of the story called The Fated Sky, additionally there are several short stories and novellas that tie into the story of the Lady Astronaut series. The Lady Astronaut of Mars, though it was published first, is a Emma’s reflection on her past as an 80 year old who helped colonize Mars.

Not only is the book an excellent read, but it’s an excellent listen. The author also serves the narrator for the Audible.com exclusive production. It is not often that an author can pull off such an excellent job of voice performance (only Neil Gaiman seems to come to mind at the moment), but Mary Robinette Kowal is used to performing. She happens to also be a puppeteer.

I highly recommend The Calculating Stars.

Captain Marvel Flies High

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The whole history of Captain Marvel is an interesting one not just in the comics but in real life. Lawsuits were involved, settlements happened. We’re not gonna talk about that stuff today. Maybe another time.

If you have been following social media too much and broke the cardinal rule of not reading the comments, then there has never been a Marvel Studios movie that had the deck stacked against it than Captain Marvel. We’re not covering that stuff today.  Maybe another time.

Captain Marvel is Marvel Studios’ latest entry into their MCU vault of superhero characters that they have rolled out over the last ten years and over twenty movies. It is not only the first Marvel Studios movie to feature a female lead, but also features what may possibly be the most powerful character in the Marvel comics universe.

It is a not really possible to do a fill review of Captain Marvel without a few spoilers but I will try my best to keep them at a minimum.

Brie Larson plays a Kree soldier serving the Kree Starforce named Vers.  Yes, silly name, especially in light of a proposed real life Space Force. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  Unlike other Marvel origin stories, she is already trained and formidable. But there is something off about her. She has no memory past the last six years of her life as a soldier. She has occasional flashes of her past but they have little meaning and make even less sense to her. Her commander and mentor,Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) says that she is too emotional and must keep her powers, namely the ability to fire photons blasts from her hands, in check.

During a mission against enemy Skrulls who are also shapeshifters, Vers is separated from her squad and captured by  the Skrulls. She is brought aboard a ship and using a form of mind probe, it is determined that she holds the key to a secret power on a planet known as C-53, which is of course, Earth. She escapes them while in Earth orbit, destroying the ship in the process, in a damaged pod that promptly disintegrates on entry. This is where we see her in the trailer crashing into a 1995 era Blockbuster.

It is not long before Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson digitally de-aged) shows up to investigate. Being a veteran SHIELD agent, he is also skeptical about her being some noble warrior from another planet hunting shapshifting aliens. This would be Fury’s first encounter with a super-powered being.

The film becomes a road trip buddy cop movie from there with some nice banter between Fury and and Vers. They find themselves at a secret military base for experimental aircraft. She believes that the Skrulls are after the secret to a Lightspeed Engine and that it is also connected to her memories. While there, they encounter a very special ginger cat named Goose that steals every scene (I’m a sucker for gingers). They also discover, while going through records that Vers was once a test pilot, and she is connected to what the Skrullls are looking for.

They follow a lead to the last person to see her alive, fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). Maria and her daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) not only move the plot significantly forward but also provide the emotional connections she needed to unlock her memories as former test pilot Carol Danvers.

This is unique among Marvel films as it does not tell a linear origin story. And marvel, I think, does best when they don’t make a straight up comic book superhero origin story. Characters like Iron Man, Dr. Strange began their films flawed, who have to undergo a change both physically and spiritually. Captain America has a long intro of a scrawny Steve Rogers who transforms into Captain America. Thor has to undergo transformation to be worthy of Mjornir, etc. In the case of Carol Danvers, she is a character who must rediscover herself. And since much of the story is told in flashback it unravels throughout the whole movie. As she learns more about herself, her character changes.

Captain Marvel has the double-duty of being a bridge between Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame but also an introduction to a character that is not really well known outside comic shops. For doing all that, it runs relatively short for a comic-book movie, clocking in at two hours and eight minutes with credits and end credit scenes. With that running time there is much groundwork laid out not only for her story but for a sequel and digging up clues that tie into the rest of the movies.

The film is full of subtle Easter eggs and that tie into existing MCU lore and fans will be pleased that it honors the memory of Stan Lee in more than one way. There is just a slight breaking of the fourth wall, but it’s for Stan. We owe him so much.

This film works best because of the dynamics between the characters. From the chemistry between Fury and Danvers to the believably deep friendship between Maria Rambeau and Carol. Akira Akbar is especially charming as Monica Rambeau, which is a character that has had major roles in the Marvel comics, so it is possible we will see her in a grown up iteration in present-day stories.

Ben Mendlesohn, who is not featured much in the trailers, turns in an exceptional performance as the lead Skrull. It is multi-dimensional and even humorous.

And we of course have Goose the cat. In the comics, the cat is named Chewie and has been Carol’s pet for years. For whatever reason, the name has been changed. Nevertheless, Goose steals every scene he is in. And without giving up spoilers, Goose’s story is pretty much unchanged from the comics.

There are quite a few twists and deviations from the source material and that subversiveness upends expectations, and in my opinion for the better. For the most part it does a very good job of that. There is so much going on that it may require a couple of viewing to let it all sink in. I saw it twice and actually enjoyed it more the second time around.

The movie does several things very well, and much of that is stuff you may not notice. Carol Danvers is not hampered by any romance angle and instead focuses on her friendship between Nick Fury and Maria Rambaeu. It’s a believable connection and contains a lot of heart that really adds to Carol’s source of strength to overcome her own inner weaknesses.

Brie Larson offers a very nuanced character here. As she learns more about herself and her life as a human, she also opens up to us character-wise. So yes, she is rather bland in the beginning as a Kree, but I believe that is by choice. She is an inspiration and the flashbacks we get of her does a very good job of telling us what

Captain Marvel is a powerful character, a very strong one. Is she the most powerful character in the MCU? Possibly. But let us not forget that Thor would have killed Thanos if he had only made the choice to go for the head. She is no more powerful than Thor was in Infinity Wars with Stormbreaker. And will she be too overpowered? I doubt it. I don’t expect her to just show up and knock out Thanos.

The visual effects work well, especially the de-ageing of Samuel Jackson by several decades. Some of them are a bit dodgy such as a couple of flying sequences. Nevertheless, the actions scenes are very well done, ranging from close combat to aerial dogfights. And when Carol unlocks her potential, it is a iconic moment.

Is this the best Marvel movie ever? No, but then you are dealing with a film franchise of twenty films and counting. This ranks as an above average Marvel film. Now, I consider average Marvel films to be Thor, Ant-Man, and the Iron-Man sequels. Considering that average level Marvel movies have been good and entertaining then Captain Marvel does a a very good job of introducing us to a character that most movie goers may not be familiar with. And I am going to go out on a limb here and say that film-wise this is a better female superhero movie than DC’s Wonder Woman, for two reasons, there is no need for a love story and Wonder Woman‘s final act was ruined by an over the top CGI fight that was not only bad CGI but made no real sense.

I’ve been following her comics for quite a bit lately and really think there is much potential to be explored there and this serves as a good opening to her character. I for one can’t wait to see more of what she can do. Highly Recommended.

Alita: Battle Angel is Manga to Film Done Right

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For decades, James Cameron, who was once a wunderkid of Hollywood with successes such as Terminator 2, Aliens, and Titanic, had been sitting on the rights to a manga and anime called Battle Angel Alita. And it seemed like it would never be made. Well it has been a long road but it has finally arrived to us with Robert Rodriguez directing.

The source material is a manga series by Yukita Kishiro that began in 1990. And even though the original run called Battle Angel Alita runs 9 volumes (a manga volume will comprises of several chapters with a page count of about 200 pages per volume), the sequel series runs an additional 18 volumes (15 of which have been collected into 3 in 1 omnibuses). Mars Chronicle is a series currently running. Suffice it to say it is a long running series.

A short anime adaptation was made in 1993 which covered major events of the first 2 volumes. It was through the anime that Guillermo del Toro introduced James Cameron to a video of the anime and it prompted him to read the manga. The rest of the story is a couple of decades of development and when Avatar and development of its multiple sequels got in his way, Cameron eventually asked friend Robert Rodriguez to take over directing duties.

Now, live-action anime and manga adaptations in the west has not had a good track record. The failed Dragonball movie comes to mind and most recently the uninspired Ghost in the Shell movie barely covered production costs (whitewashing was the least of its issues). Speed Racer, though unabashedly embracing its anime roots was a box office failure. Netflix’s own adaptation of Death Note was met with critical and fan disdain.

Japan is not immune to doing bad anime adaptations. Attack on Titan and Full Metal Alchemist were both projects that failed to impress.

So after 20 years of development limbo and following in the footsteps of other US manga to live-action failures, does Alita: Battle Angel succeed?  As far as box office, time will tell as it’s nearly $175 million budget shows and marketing campaign can’t be cheap either. As a movie, though, it is a glorious and exciting film filled with action and eye-popping special effects not just in the action sequences but in the simple creation of the main character of Alita herself. Weta Digital, the company made famous by their work on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings goes above and beyond in the creation of Alita.

This would not have been possible to believe without the break-out performance by Rosa Salazar in a role that is guaranteed to make her star. Across the spectrum, she is being praised for her work, and rightly so.

As Alita: Battle Angel begins, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) is wandering through a scrapyard beneath the floating city of Zalem, combing for spare parts. There he finds a humanoid head and upper torso. Though it is a cyborg construct, he finds that the human brain is still alive. Taking it back to his clinic where he is a local doctor who helps repair many of the cybernetic prosthetics of the citizens of Iron City, he attaches her head to a cybernetic body that he intended to make for his dead daughter.

She awakes with no memory of who she is or where she came from. Dyson names her Alita after daughter. So it is obvious right away that he become her father figure. It is also one of the most drastic departures from the manga.

As far as science-fiction action movies, this movie is pretty dense on plot. And depending on other critics, either it’s too much story, or too little story. So what do we know? Along with discovering who she is and her place in the world she has awakened in, she realizes that she has an instinctual attraction to conflict and that she is trained in a deadly form of combat that has not been used in 300 years.

One night, she discovers that Dr. Ido has been spending his nights as a hunter warrior, a bounty hunter who uses the money earned to help pay the bills for his clinic. Unfortunately he gets in over his head when he is outnumbered. Fortunately Alita’s curiosity led her to follow him in that night. So instead of running like he tells her to do, she manages to take out two of the bounties and wound a third who barely gets away.

Because this seems to trigger bits of memory she wants to join the ranks of the hunter warriors too. Of course Ido is dead set against this saying how dangerous it is. Seriously, this is right after she kung fu’ed to death a couple of psychopathic cyborgs and saved Ido’s life.

There is a romance subplot, the weakest element, not because it exists, but in the way it is executed. Hugo is a young man working odd jobs for Vector (Mareshala Ali), a bit of a kingpin in Iron City. He runs the motorball arena, which is reminiscent of Rollerball but even more violent. Hugo believes that if he saves up enough money from doing work for Vector that he can earn his way to Zalem. Yeah, that’s not going to end well,  especially when Ido says if you are born on the surface you stay on the surface.

Jennifer Connelly plays Chiren, a character not based on the manga but on the anime. The script, by James Cameron and others, makes her the estranged wife of Dr. Ido as well. Her character, as well as Ido were born on Zalem but were sent down because of their daughter’s physical disabilities. Her story contrasts with Ido in that she wants to get back to the floating city and works with Vector in the hopes of someday getting back.

Throughout though is the manipulative hand of Nova, a mysterious puppet-master looking down from Zalem who recognizes that Alita is a danger to the order of things and in true villain fashion keeps sending minions after her that fail.Ultimately it is a way to go from one action scene to the next.

These action scenes are without a doubt visually exciting to watch. Weta Digital outdid themselves in the execution of not only the fighting scenes but in the Motorball sequences. In between the action is the incredibly realized Iron City that is densely populated and has a lived in and worn look of a city that is still recovering from the aftereffects of a war that occurred 300 years ago. The manga itself can get gory and I think the only reason that the film adaptation did not get an R rating is because many of the bodies being ripped or heads being decapitated are machine bodies.

Robert Rodriguez seems to juggle everything well and bring a thoroughly entertaining sci-fi action film that fires on most cylinders. Despite how crowded the story is, and  even though the movie is self-contained, there is still an opening for a sequel. The end result is a movie that literally delivers on the strong kick-ass female led movie. It is also one of the few films in recent years to really take advantage of 3D and makes me wish I had a 3D television to watch this when it gets a home release.

I must say I originally had my doubts about yet another attempt at a western adaptation of a manga or anime. But Alita: Battle Angel won me over and shows that it is possible to do it when you have filmmakers that not only have a love of the subject but respect the source material as well. Highly Recommended

The Wandering Earth is China’s First Great Science Fiction Epic

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I have watched Asian cinema all my life. And Asia, let alone China, is not at the top of my list as a source for science fiction films using hard science and incorporating state of the art special effects that would rival that of big budget Hollywood productions. As much as I love my Godzilla films, the effects have always been sub par and the science dubious at best.

The Wandering Earth is China’s big attempt at serious science fiction. That is something that not even Hollywood gets behind much as much of the science fiction we get these days fall on the more action-adventure and space opera vein. Every once in a while we may get an Arrival or The Martian, both of which were based on written works.

Cixin Liu’s novella of the same name serves as the source material for The Wandering Earth and he acts as an Executive Producer. Liu is China’s best-selling science fiction author and whose Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End) has achieved international acclaim including a Hugo award for The Three Body Problem. I find his writings to be very much like Arthur C. Clarke’s in vision and scope and it is apparent that classic Golden Age science fiction is an influence on his writing. The film, however, ends up flirting with the Roland Emmerlich territory of schmaltz and grandeur.

The film starts with title cards setting up that the sun is in its final stages of death and before dying off, will expand to engulf the inner planets. An ambitious plan is devised move the entire planet to the nearest star to survive. The journey will eventually take 2,500 years.

Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing lending star power and producer creds) is an astronaut who is about to embark on a mission in space where he will serve on space station that serves as a navigator for the earth. He promises to return to his young son Liu Qi that he will return when his time is up in 17 years. It is up to Han Zi’ang, the boy’s grandfather to raise him now.

Flash forward 17 years and we see that half the earth is peppered with 10,000 plateau sized engines with massive mountain sized ones encircling the equator. The surviving population (It’s implied that many were left on the surface and died) live underground near the engines. Liu Qi, now an adult drags his adopted sister Han Duoduo to the surface for no real discernible reason, actually. Outside of taking some kind of joyride in one of the massive ATV vehicles that services the local engine with fuel to burn, there is no reasoning for him wanting to stay up on the surface. They get busted for using his grandfather’s pass and gramps has to bail him out. In lockup next to Liu Qi is a, without explanation why, bi-racial Tim (played basically for comic relief by Chinese American Mike Sui).

As earth approaches Jupiter to take advantage of its massive gravity to help sling it out of the solar system, the effect of the gas giant’s gravity causes massive quakes across the globe shutting off many engines. It’s amidst this that our earthbound protagonists find themselves involved in a cold icy road trip to an engine in Shanghai with a maguffin to ignite it.

Meanwhile, on the navigation ship, the AI has determined that Jupiter’s gravity spike will actually pull the earth in and kill everyone so it enacts emergency protocols that require the crew to go into hibernation. True to science fiction trope and probably due to the fact that the ship’s AI, MOSS, looks quite a bit like HAL from 2001, things are not what they seem on the ship.

The movie goes from one bad situation to another until the end where true to most Chinese big budget films of late, only by cooperation, teamwork, struggle, and sacrifice can the world be saved.

Frant Gwo is not known for directing science fiction or big budget films and though he does a good job of visuals it seems as if he is padding a story that could be told a lot simpler to stretch it out to a two-hour runtime. Along the way will be clichés of the absent farther and resentment for that and a bit of Chinese nationalism. You can see influence from disaster epics from Roland Emmerlich and Michael Bay. But you can also see problem solving as in Apollo 13 or The Martian. The visual effects and set pieces are stunning and it is hard to believe that such impressive visuals were achieved on the equivalent of a $50 million budget. The image of Jupiter and its giant storm eye looming over a frozen earth is a stunning sight.

The script is a bit more convoluted than it needs to be and since it is marketed for a Chinese New Year release, of course several references to the Lunar New Year are thrown in about coming home, family, and hope for a better future. Yes it is very cheesy at times, but no more than any other epic disaster movie.

I do recommend reading the source material as it is only a scat 45 pages. The movie differs greatly from it in many aspects and basically uses the premise and some scenes as the basic core of the story.

The Wandering Earth is presented mainly in Mandarin with smatterings of other international languages like Russian, French, even Malay. The English subtitles are well done for the most part except for just a couple of syntax errors. And to reach an even wider Chinese audience, Chinese subtitles are above the English ones for non-Mandarin speakers. It is on its way to becoming either the biggest or second biggest grossing Chinese film ever.

It is not a perfect film but it is epic in scope and quite an achievement visually and its core story is quite good even if some of the dialogue can come across as corny. It is worth seeing in the theater for the visuals alone. Recommended.

 

Review: The Kid Who Would be King

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There is something about The Kid Who Would be King gets right that other King Arthur movies don’t. It embraces the ideology and mythology of King Arthur. It doesn’t try to be realistic or gritty. But instead it is a source of hope and inspiration. Some of my favorite fantasy books have been based on the Arthurian legends. Some of the screen adaptations have not faired so well, though. Sure Excalibur is a classic, but some of it is a bit silly. Merlin was a decent retelling and straight up Fantasy for the BBC.

After a brief prologue that sets the background for this particular take on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, we are introduced to Alex Elliott (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a twelve-year-old boy being raised by a single mother and attending middle school in London. He and his best friend, Bedders are both the subject of bullying by fellow classmates,  Lance and Kaye.

The world is a dark place: international strife; global conflicts; basically our real world. And anybody who is familiar with Arthurian lore knows that after his last battle, and near death, Arthur is taken away to Avalon where his wounds will be healed and in a time of our darkest need, the King will return to fight the forces of evil.

One day, while running away from them, Alex finds himself at a construction site where he encounters a sword embedded into a block of  concrete. The inevitable happens and Alex pulls the sword out. (I seriously heard Wagner’s music in my head from Excalibur as this was happening.) After taking it home and running the engraving through Google Translate — come on, it’s still a kids movie after all — they find that it says it is Excalibur the sword of King Arthur. Alex playfully knights his best mate, Bedders.

Meanwhile deep beneath the earth, Morgana, the half-sister and eternal enemy of Arthur is awakening and sends he minions after Arthur to retrieve Excalibur. At Stonehenge, Merlin, in the guise of a teenager appears to aid Arthur. He suffers from a bit of time confusion as he is not quite assimilated to the timeline yet. But he makes his way to Arthur and Bedders’ school. Using his powers, he joins the school as a transfer student. It is revealed that in four days a total lunar eclipse will occur and that is when Morgana will reappear fully on earth.

What follows is Alex eventually recruiting Lance and Kaye as knights to aid him on a quest to find his absent father, who happens to live in Titagel, legendary home of Camelot. Knighting his companions also allows them to see the dark minions that periodically attack Arthur and Bedders as when they appear, time freezes and no one else can see them.

The story focuses on the need to not only work together despite differences but to also believe that the world can be a better place. Along the way, the uneasy friendship that Lance and Kaye have with Alex and Bedders will be tested as well as Alex’s belief in himself.

As the time of the eclipse draws to a mere few hours away, Alex must convince and recruit an army to defend the world from the evil of Morgana. So what better place to recruit an army but school? In a stretch of the suspension of disbelief, even for a fantasy film, an army of middle schoolers are armed, trained, and set up a fortifications and traps to await Morgana’s army.

This movie had so many opportunities to go sideways but it has a charming cast, a competent script and deft direction. Patrick Stewart, who doesn’t seem to age unless it’s through make-up, is on hand as the older version of Merlin. He pops up every once in a while to render some sage advice. It is ironic that he was also in probably the last good King Arthur movie, Excalibur, as Uriens. Freshman actor Louis Ashbourne Serkis (son of Andy Serkis) delivers a heartfelt performance as the boy who does not want to be king eventually embraces his Once and Future King mantle. Dean Chaumoo, another new actor, provides a believable portrayal as Alex’s best mate. Rebecca Fergusen, who has been appearing quite a bit in movies such as Mission: Impossible – Fallout and The Greatest Showman makes for a very dark and threatening Morgana.

The Kid Who Would be King is definitely entertaining and if you have young ones, I think they will enjoy it. If you are young at heart, you can sit back and have a good time too.