One of the gratifying things about reviewing movies is the massive variety of styles and genres that filmmakers can explore. For example, a pair of the more noteworthy and watchable releases in April are a blithely blustery and blockbuster-y movie about an unlikely superhero; and an intimate portrait of a salt-of-the-earth middle-aged woman in crisis.
Working as a dandy stand-alone as well as adding some new characters and color to DC Comics’s multimovie attempt to compete with Marvel Comics’s cinematic superhero universe, Shazam! is a load of fun for anyone who delights in this sort of thing. Its blend of megapowered action and good-natured humor, wrapped around a sweet message about the importance and nature of family, could also appeal to newbies or those who get a kick out of fantasy wish-fulfillment tales like Big.
As it happens, Big has much in common with the World War II-era source material behind Shazam! — a long-running Fawcett Publications comic book series devoted to a wholesome, golden-hearted superhero. The premise of Shazam! the movie and those vintage comic books is big-city street urchin Billy Batson (Asher Angel) becomes a full-grown adult equivalent to Superman whenever he says the magic word “shazam” at the behest of a noble wizard (Djimon Hounsou) seeking a pure-hearted champion to battle the evils of the world. Billy is then a boy in man’s body, like the magically transformed youngster in Big. Only Billy’s new form can fly, is indestructible, is super-strong, and wears a body-hugging red suit with a white minicape. While there are updates and tweaks to the classic origin story that accommodate a modern movie, and suggest the presence of DC’s other luminaries in Billy’s world, the basics are the same.
Portrayed in adult mode by Zachary Levi, the super Billy is a lovable, self-aggrandizing, thoroughly goofy dynamo besotted by his new abilities. He must eventually learn responsibility when the villainous Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) comes on the scene. Sivana wants all of Billy’s power to rule the world, and is willing to threaten Billy’s foster family to achieve those nefarious goals. So the man-child’s frivolity is tempered by duty. Coached by his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Billy is discovering the scope of the otherworldly talents he’s been given, even as Sivana attacks. It’s colorful and silly, and despite seeming to be a kid-friendly property, it’s rated PG-13 for some blasts of shockingly intense violence and a crew of monsters that could be potentially horrifying to younger children.
Trivia Treat: Billy’s costumed alter ego was originally known in the 1940s as Captain Marvel. DC acquired the character in the 1960s and, after much legal wrangling, dubbed him Shazam, ceding the “Captain Marvel” name to Marvel — who just scored a hit with their Captain Marvel movie last month. In a sense, two Captain Marvel feature films are being released within weeks of one another. Two too much? I call that Marvelous.
Shazam! opens at Bay Area theaters on April 5.
Mary Kay Place delivers what could be a career-best performance as the title character in the lean and tragedy-tinged drama Diane. To put that statement in context, Place broke out with an Emmy Award-winning performance as Loretta Haggers on the 1976 kitchen-sink sitcom Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and went on to high-profile roles in landmark movies such as The Big Chill and Being John Malkovich. In other words, she’s a veteran actress — and no slouch. Diane offers her a chance to dig deep into the psyche of an older woman overwhelmed by challenging circumstances in Western Massachusetts.
Although she lives on her own, most of Diane’s time is devoted to helping other people. She visits a sick relative in the hospital, and she and her best friend (a wonderfully prickly Andrea Martin) serve dinners to the less fortunate at a community outreach program. And in the evenings, she attends small family gatherings and kibitzes with her aunts, uncles, and cousins. But Diane’s main focus is on her son Brian — a troubled young man wrestling with addictive behavior. Brian, portrayed in nuanced fashion by Jake Lacy, is a self-loathing time bomb who consumes much of Diane’s emotional bandwidth. All the while, something from Diane’s past plagues her, and no charitable activities or booze-drenched evenings at a local bar will wipe the memory from her mind.
Shot in cinéma vérité style by writer-director Kent Jones, Diane feels at times like a documentary, helped by an accomplished, naturalistic supporting cast that includes Estelle Parsons, Deirdre O’Connell, and Joyce Van Patten. Still, it’s ultimately all about Place, who makes Diane’s mix of caring, anxiety, regret, love, and hope realer than painfully real.
Diane opens at the Opera Plaza Cinema on April 5.
Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast, via GABnet.net, Roku, Spotify, and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster