‘Shazam!’ has comedic magic, ‘Breakthrough’ amazes

By Tom Von Malder | Jul 23, 2019
Photo by: Warner bros. Home Entertainment Zachary Levi and Jack Dylan Grazer star in "Shazam!"

Owls Head — Shazam! (DC/Warner Bros., Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 132 min.). Zachary Levi (TV’s “Chuck”) obviously had a lot of fun playing a 14-year-old in a man’s body as another DC superhero makes it to the big screen. Levi is the Shazam version of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14-year-old kid entering yet another foster home, but still searching for his birth mother, from whom he got separated at a carnival while ironically trying to retrieve the compass his mother had won for him and he just dropped.

First though, we meet young Thaddeus Sivana, who is constantly belittled by both his father (John Glover, who used to play Lionel Luthor on “Smallville”) and older brother. As the three are driving in snowy conditions, Thaddeus is whisked away to the Rock of Eternity, where the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) explains he is the last of his kind and needs find a worthy successor to take his powers and keep the Seven Deadly Sins locked up. The successor must be pure of heart, so when Thaddeus yields to the Sins’ temptations, he is deemed not worthy and sent away.

This sets up the grown-up Dr. Thaddeus Sivana to be the film’s bad guy, as he finally figures out how to get back to the Rock of Eternity and steals the eye that controls the demons. One of Dr. Sivana’s first moves with his new powers is to wreak destruction on his father, brother and their company.

We then follow some of Billy’s moves – not too legal – to find his mother. Apprehended by the police, he is given over to Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans), who run a group home with five orphans ranging from 9 years old to about to enter college. Although it is not an instant friendship, Billy bonds the most with his new roommate Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), who needs a crutch to get around. The other children are Eugene Choi (Ian Chen), Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman), Pedro Pena (Jovan Armand) and Mary Bromfield (Grace Fulton). Other than Billy, the group bonds together well as a family.

The film takes a full half-hour to get to where the Wizard takes Billy and basically makes him the successor because he has no strength left. Then comes one of the most fun segments of the film, as Billy turns to Freddy, who has a Batman artifact and therefore is presumed to know a lot about superheroes, about his new abilities. Billy sets out to test exactly what Billy’s powers are in a funny montage (one of the deleted scenes has other tests). Basically, Shazam is an acronym of Solomon (who gives wisdom), Hercules (strength), Atlas (endurance), Zeus (power), Achilles (fighting abilities) and Mercury (speed).

While filmed mostly in Toronto, the film is sent in Philadelphia and makes use of the “Rocky” staircase in a scene shot last. Billy, as Shazam, is totally enjoying his new powers and loves to show off, sometimes basking for money. He does cause a bus crash that he must handle and he constantly disappoints Freddy, who is dealing with two school bullies. The film enters more serious territory when Dr. Sivana confronts Shazam, wanting to take over all his powers, as Shazam’s magic is the only thing that can defeat him. The big showdown, fittingly, takes place at a carnival. The special effects of the often wraith-like Seven Deadly Sins is quite good. Sometimes they even turn to smoke and Shazam goes right through them.

A scene during the closing credits sets up a sequel with the same villain plus another one.

There are some 90 minutes of extras, including 16 deleted and alternative scenes (37:27, with the optional commentary by director David F. Sandberg [“Annabelle: Creation”]). Especially good is the making-of feature (27:09), which shows some previz, design of the Shazam suit, how the bus incident was accomplished, filming in a mall during regular business hours, using wires and tuning fork rigs for the flying, Sandberg’s cameo as Crocodile Man and the fact that Levi initially auditioned for the adult Freddy, but the filmmakers thought he would be perfect for Shazam due to his energy and joyfulness. There also is an exclusive motion comic, “Superhero Hooky” (4:05), that takes place after the events of the film; a look at Levi acting like a big kid between takes (3:19); a fun gag reel (3:16); a look at the child actors and their adult versions (6:06); how the closing carnival fight sequence was put together (10:23); and a historical look at Shazam (5:42), who debuted in comics in the 1940s and also had a TV series in 1974. I was vaguely aware of the TV show, but really knew nothing of the comics. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 3.25 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Breakthrough (20th Century Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 116 min.). Based on a true story, and with all the names of the principals unchanged, “Breakthrough” is an uplifting story of a real miracle, fueled by a mother’s plea to the Holy Ghost to save her son, who essentially was dead, having not breathed for an hour after falling beneath the ice in a lake.

The boy is John Smith, 14 (Marcel Ruez), who was adapted from Guatemala as an infant by Joyce (Chrissy Metz of TV’s “This Is Us”) and Brian Smith (Josh Lucas of TV’s “The Mysteries of Laura”). It is about the time of John’s birthday, a period each year he comes moody, as he wonders why his birth mother did not want him. The Smiths are a religious family, particularly Joyce, who leads her church’s women’s ministry group. Joyce, however, has taken a disliking to the style of the new pastor, Jason Noble (Topher Grace of TV’s “That ‘70s Show”). The setting is around St. Charles, Missouri.

At times, the film is plodding, but it has some powerful moments, several having to do with music. There is a rock performance of “This Is Amazing Grace” by Phil Wickham, with a rap section by Lecrae, and a very moving “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail),” sung by a vigil of townsfolk and John’s school friends outside of his hospital room. The film touches on Brian’s doubts concerning religion. There also is a subplot about the religious questioning of fireman Tommy Shine (Mike Colter), the one who found John at the bottom of the lake. In the film, Shine hears a voice that he thought was his captain’s telling him to go back, rather than give up the search, although no one else heard the voice, not even the fireman next to him.

The facts are that John was under water for about 15 minutes and then worked on during the ambulance ride and in the hospital for about 45 minutes, all with no response. When the doctors were about to call the time of death, Joyce rushed into the emergency room, prayed loudly to the Holy Spirit and John suddenly had a pulse again. Defying all odds, John survived the night and then he emerged from the hospital a little over two weeks later with no ill effects from his ordeal. His two friends who also fell into the lake were rescued within minutes.

While the story of this true miracle is amazing. The filmmakers have taken on more of a sermon approach, which makes the film a bit heavy-handed – particularly as it treats nonbelievers or those with doubt.

Extras include a solid making-of feature (25:31) with the real people interviewed; a deleted music performance by Wickham of “Carry My Soul” (3:41; with optional commentary}; the incident and recovery discussed by the real Shine, two doctors and John’s parents (6:05); audio commentary by Producer DeVon Franklin and director Roxann Dawson; and a photo gallery. Grade: film 2.75 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Transit (Germany, Music Box, NR, 101 min.). Christian Petzold takes a period piece, a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers that detailed the travails of a concentration camp escapee who is desperately trying to get out of occupied France, and sets it in modern-day Marseilles. He retains the plot details, but the updated setting makes the story more universal as it reflects the plight of refugees today, a large story both in Europe and at our southern border. Specifically, Petzold was thinking of Turkish refugees.

In the extras, Petzold says Seghers’ novel was a defining influence on his career. He calls this film, his well-regarded “Phoenix” and “Barbara” a loose trilogy, named “Love in the Time of Oppressive Systems.” Like in “Phoenix,” Petzold examines identity — mistaken, deliberately false, and the lies we tell ourselves and others to survive.

In “Transit,” the very good Franz Rogowski plays Georg, a German refugee in Paris as fascist forces are invading. He is tasked by an acquaintance to deliver two letters to a novelist, but finds the novelist has committed suicide. One letter is from the novelist’s wife (Paula Beer as Marie) seeking a reconciliation, after saying she was leaving him in a previous letter, and the other has the novelist’s visa and papers to emigrate to Mexico. When he goes to the Mexican consulate, Georg is mistaken for the novelist and he decides to maintain that falsehood so he can leave by boat in three weeks.

Georg keeps running into the same woman, who turns out to be Marie, looking for her husband. He eventually becomes entangled with her and her current boyfriend, a doctor whom he summoned to help a young boy, Driss. Driss is the son of the man Georg was traveling illegally on the train with, but the man died from an injured leg. Driss’ mother is deaf and cannot speak. In effect, Georg becomes a temporary father figure to Driss.

The film is narrated by a bartender in the restaurant/bar where Georg often eats. While what we see is happening now, the narration is as if it were in the past, and we do not see the bartender until near the film’s end. The narration is in German, as is much of the film, although some dialogue is in French.

Extras include a making-of feature (23:58); a 6-minute interview with Petzold in German; a Q&A with Petzold in English (25:56); another Petzold interview in English (41:38); an interview with Rogowski in English on the refugee as a person (9:17); and a piece in English on Rogowski at the Berlin Film Festival (3:16). Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3.25 stars

Giant Little Ones (Canada, Wolfe DVD, R, 93 min.). Directed and written by Keith Behrman (“Flower & Garnet”), the film is the story of Franky Winter (Josh Wiggins of “Max”), a good-looking teenager with a winning smile and a genial manner. He has been friends forever with Ballas Kohl (Darren Mann of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”), who also is on the swim team. We first meet Ballas as he is sneaking his girlfriend Jess out of his house via the roof. Franky also has a sort-of girlfriend in Priscilla, but he really is not into her all that much. It turns out he likes Ballas’ sister Natasha (Taylor Hickson of TV’s “Deadly Class”) better. Natasha’s reputation has been damaged when she was sexually assaulted at a party in the recent past.

Franky’s 15th birthday bash, done in montage, is pretty wild and something happens between the two boys afterwards – it is so dark, the viewer can make out nothing. Ballas apparently tells his girlfriend that Frank tried to have sex with him and soon the story is all around school, with Franky becoming the subject of slurs, social media bashing and even fists. He even quits the swim team. Ballas turns cold toward him, even though Franky knows the story Ballas told Jess is not true. Eventually, Ballas beats up Franky in a parking lot.

While Franky gets closer with Natasha, his estranged father – Franky’s choice -- tries to help him. Dad Ray Winter (Kyle MacLachlan of “Twin Peaks”) had left his wife (Maria Bello of TV’s “NCIS” as Carly) after falling in love with a man and Franky is still upset over the breakup. Late in the film, there is a wonderful scene when Franky finally visits his father’s apartment and the two finally talk, with Ray encouraging his son to pay attention to what he’s drawn to, keeping in mind that “it doesn’t matter what you call it.” Franky has another friend, Mouse (Niamh Wilson), who is proudly homosexual and, while wearing a strap-on, asks Franky to tell her how realistic it is and then starts asking Franky about his equipment. T is a funny, but affecting scene. There are no bonus features. Grade: film 3 stars

Mapplethorpe (Samuel Goldwyn DVD, NR, 102 min.). Matt Smith, formerly the Eleventh Doctor Who and royalty in “The Crown,” portrays the famous photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in this linear biography. Mapplethorpe, who began as a painter and a collagist, soon took to photography, which he initially disliked, and was famous for his use of eroticism both in pristine photos of flowers and his frank sexual imagery, including the S&M homosexual underground.

The film begins in 1969, when Mapplethorpe meets future rock star Patti Smith, who jumps next to him on a park bench asking if he will pretend to be her date so she can lose the man she just had lunch with. They are a couple for about three years, living at New York’s famed Hotel Chelsea, but she leaves when she realizes Mapplethorpe is interested in men. Given the use of a camera by a neighbor who is an artist, Mapplethorpe begins to hone his craft on other residents of the hotel, new friends who were musicians and artists, socialites and film stars.

By 1972, he is still struggling to get his work into galleries, but he meets arts curator Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey), who provides support and becomes his next long-term lover. Wagstaff manages to get him two simultaneous exhibitions – one for the “safe” photos and the other for the erotic. Mapplethorpe’s career takes off and, as it does, the viewer realizes that Mapplethorpe is not all that nice, particularly in his treatment of his younger brother Edward (Brandon Sklenar of “Vice”), who also wants to be a photographer. Apparently tiring of Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe wanders out into the street one evening, stops a b lack man named Milton Moore (McKinley Belcher III), who soon becomes his muse and new lover. (I have to admire the ease at which Mapplethorpe apparently was able to just bump into people who became long-time lovers.) Soon, though, it appears the self-indulgent Mapplethorpe is treating Milton more as an objectified fetish object than a person.

Smith, as Mapplethorpe, does some brave acting, albeit a bit too cool and detached at times, but it is the script that lets him down. Even more so is how disappointing the portrayal of Smith is. What the film, directed and co-written by Ondi Timoner (“We Live in Public”), does well is integrate Mapplethorpe’s real photographs. There also is the use of some documentary footage to help set the era and a couple scenes of Smith as Mapplethorpe filmed grainy as if it were old documentary footage. There are no extras – a gallery of Mapplethorpe’s photos would have been very welcomed. However, except for some post-film text, the whole issue of legal obscenity raised by Mapplethorpe’s work is ignored. Grade: film 2.75 stars

Doctor Who: The Animation Collection (BBC, 2 DVDs, NR, 447 min.). Speaking of Doctor Who, this set collects five adventures, some of which have had previous individual releases. Decades after a strike stopped production of “Shada” with Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, animation was used to fill in the gaps and complete the tale of the prison planet. The original soundtrack of the lost episode “The Power of the Daleks” with Second Doctor Patrick Troughton was used by animators to recreate the Doctor’s first regeneration.

Tenth Doctor David Tennant appears in “Dreamland” and “The Infinite Quest,” adventures in the American West in search of a legendary lost spaceship. Finally, there is the remastered webcast “Scream of the Shalka, with the Doctor (voiced by Richard E. Grant) saving the Earth from an alien-led ecological disaster. There are no bonus features. Grade: collection 3.5 stars

Space: 1999: The Complete Series (1975-76, Great Britain, Shout! Factory, 13 Blu=-ray discs, NR, 39.5 hours). This set brings to Blu-ray all 48 episodes of the two seasons of the show, which starred married couple Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, fresh off their success in TV’s “Mission Impossible.” In the science fiction series, mankind was using the dark side of the moon to store its nuclear waste, but a magnetic energy flare-up causes an explosion that knocks the moon out of Earth orbit and sends the moon wandering through space, with 311 humans still housed and working in Moonbase Alpha. As they wander and seek a new planet to call home, the Alphans encounter aliens, both benign and dangerous, including one played by Christopher Lee.

There is a whole disc of bonus features, four of which are new, and many vintage special features. In interviews, show creator Gerry Anderson explains how the Moonbase set had originally been built for season two of “UFO,” but when that show’s US ratings started to plummet it was cancelled. Rather than waste the money, Anderson came up with the idea for a new series that could use the existing new set, one that came to be called “Space: 1999.”

Landau played the station’s commander, John Koenig, while Bain was Dr. Helena Russell. Other regular season one cast members were Nick Tate as Capt. Alan Carter, Barry Morse (TV’s “The Fugitive”) as Prof. Victor Bergman, Prentis Hancock as Paul Morrow and Zienia Merton as Sandra Benes. Catharine Schell eventually joined as alien Maya. I always found Dr. Russell to be very cold emotionally, while Tate as Carter was a favorite of mine.

The episodes are presented in production order, which means there are seemingly occasional errors in character development. Episodes deal with the return of Dr. Russell’s supposedly dead husband, station personnel are duplicated, the first baby born on the station suddenly ages to 5, and various aliens hatch plots against the Alphans. For season two, which was only agreed to if costs were cut, the whole cast was replaced, except for Landau, Bain and, very late, Tate, who had become an audience favorite.

The set adds three new audio commentaries: by author Anthony Taylor on both “Dragon’s Domain” and “The Metamorph”; and by series expert Michael Bosco on “Ring Around the Moon.” In a previously available audio commentary for the pilot, “Breakaway,” Gerry Anderson talks about how the show came to be, the use of double-sided sets, being forced to use a US writer and director for the pilot and Anderson having to write 17 new scenes as the original pilot was 150 minutes long. Another previously available audio commentary by Anderson is for “Dragon’s Domain.”

Other new bonus features include an interview with Bain (10:36); an interview with Tate (16:44), who points out his father did voices on Anderson’s animated “Thunderbirds” series and that Landau prevented a “good-looking Italian actor” from playing the role of Carter; an interview with director Kevin Connor, who directed two episodes (9:14); and a look at author John Muir’s collection of “Space: 1999” toys, board games and models (11:16).

Previously released bonus features include an interview with co-creator Sylvia Anderson (16:54), who talks a bit about their previous series and then dishes about Landau’s on-set jealousy of other actors, thinking they would detract from a spotlight on him; “These Episodes” is 99 minutes of recollections on some of the episodes by those who made them; the script supervisor and actors recall “Memories of Space” (7:33); actress Schell recalls “Guardian of Piri” (1:41); fascinating, raw season two interviews, including one with Landau (30:25; the interviewer’s questions cannot be heard); a vintage interview with Brian Johnson on the special effects (3:21) and better, Johnson doing commentary on behind-the-scenes footage of filming a model sequence (6:49); a featurette on concept and creation (13:10) and another on special effects and design (17:34); a collection of television promos and trailers, advertisements; a 16-page episode guide booklet; and photo galleries of contact sheets, bubble gum and cigarette cards, portraits, models and their making, year two models and props, year two promos and storyboards. Grade: series 3 stars; extras 4 stars

Manifest: The Complete First Season (Warner Bros., 4 DVDs, NR, 683 min.). One of the most intriguing new series last year was “Manifest,” about a plane load of passengers, Montego Air Flight 828, lands safely after a flight with some turbulence, only to find the world has aged five years compared to their few hours. While the presumed dead survivors have been given a new chance, many of their families have moved on.

Passengers sister and brother Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh) and Ben Stone (Josh Dallas) have returned to find, respectively, her former fiancé and co-police detective married to someone else and his wife (Athena Karkanis) dating someone else (Daniel Sunjata). Ben’s son, Cal (Jack Messina), was on the plane, while his twin sister, Olive (Luna Blaise), was not.

Expanding the human drama, midway through the season there is the introduction of evil corporation, Unified Dynamic Systems, doing some experimentation on passengers, and the concept of “the callings,” voices heard by Flight 828 passengers that push them to do strange but narratively important things. Cal appears to experience the callings the most and, thus, becomes a particular target of the UDS. Then, Michaela finds a man (Matt Long as Zeke Landon) with a similar experience who had not been on the plane, but lost time in a cave.

I enjoyed the show’s premise and am glad it will be back for season two. There are no bonus features. Grade: season 3.25 stars

Criminal Minds: Season 14 (CBS/Paramount, 4 DVDs, NR, 627 min.). This season saw the show about FBI profilers air its 300th episode. The 15 episodes come with more than 50 minutes of bonus features, including deleted scenes, a gag reel, a closer look at episode 300 with cast and crew, the cast and crew discussing the season’s themes, stories and character arcs, a look at Special Agent David Rossi’s (Joe Mantegna) wedding day as he prepares to wed Krystall Richards (Gail O’Grady of “NYPD Blue”), and actors Montegna, Adam Rodriguez (Luke Alves), Aisha Tyler (Dr. Tara Lewis), A.J. Cook (Jennifer Jareau) and Matthew Gray Gubler (Dr. Spencer Reid) discuss what is like directing an episode.

Also during the season, two from the Behavioral Analysis Unit, Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) and Special Agent Dr. Reid, are taken by the Believers, a mysterious cult seeking revenge for the death of their leader a decade before.

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