Movie Review ~ Darby and the Dead

The Facts:

Synopsis: After suffering a near-death experience as a child, Darby Harper is granted the ability to see ghosts. To combat the existential boredom of high school, she runs a side business counseling local spirits in her spare time. When an unexpected occurrence happens between Darby and Capri, the most popular girl at school, Darby reluctantly agrees to help her and, in the process, learns how to fit in with the living world again.
Stars: Riele Downs, Auli’i Cravalho, Chosen Jacobs, Asher Angel, Wayne Knight, Derek Luke, Tony Danza
Director: Silas Howard
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Here’s why a movie like Darby and the Dead should have attracted more attention when it was released in early December. It was one of a select few films released aimed at the teen crowd which didn’t originate from a YA novel, comic book, or other existing IP. That may not sound like a huge event, but with the lack of new content coming out of Hollywood, finding a movie made from an original script by a major studio in 2022 was something we should have celebrated much more.

Of course, as lovely as that is to report, that’s not to say Darby and the Dead is the most original teen afterlife comedy you’ll ever see. It’s almost astonishing how it references countless other films that have come before it. Whether intentionally or subconsciously, there are bits sprinkled throughout Wenonah Wilms and Becca Greene’s script that reference supernatural comedies from Topper to Ghost to even the Reese Witherspoon comedy Just Like Heaven. It’s all in lighthearted fun, and while I fully recognize I’m not the target audience for the film (and have thus fairly reviewed it keeping that in mind), it gives me hope that screenwriters are looking to the past to spur ideas for the future.

A typical high-school set-up (mean popular girl vs. shy special girl) is turned on its head when the popular girl (Auli’i Cravalho, Ralph Breaks the Internet) dies and finds out that shy girl (Riele Downs) has a talent for talking to the dead, helping the recently deceased finalize any unfinished business. It turns out the popular girl had a birthday coming up, and throwing one last bash might be the closure she needs to walk into the light. Of course, alive or dead, it’s not as simple as that, and when the shy girl gets a taste of the cool side of the lunch table, our dead girl makes plans to reclaim her throne.

The latest addition to the slumber party fare that parents don’t have to fret over, Darby and the Dead has some flash in filmmaking (director Silas Howard helmed many terrific episodes of Dickinson on AppleTV+) and above-average performances from all. It’s bound to go in one ear and out the other for adults, but I feel that teens will latch onto a few life lessons learned here about embracing individuality and living for today. 

Movie Review ~ Shazam!

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: We all have a superhero inside us, it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In Billy Batson’s case, by shouting out one word – SHAZAM! – this streetwise 14-year-old foster kid can turn into the adult superhero Shazam.

Stars: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou

Director: David F. Sandberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Those poor souls over at Warner Brothers/DC Comics were likely looking at 2019 and feeling crestfallen at their prospects. With three highly anticipated Marvel films set for release and their Wonder Woman sequel pushed back to 2020, it must have felt like any hopes of getting another foothold in their franchise ladder weren’t going to happen. I’m not sure how much faith they had in Shazam! at the outset but they should have pumped this one up a bit more than they did. Sure, I saw the preview more times than I needed to before other films but going into the movie I wasn’t expecting anything vastly different than the soulless offerings they’ve been churning out in the past decade.

Thankfully, it seems like they may have stumbled onto something good.

Foster kid Billy Baston (Asher Angel) has found himself on the wrong side of the law for the last time when he is apprehended after obtaining information from a police database. He’d been attempting to find his mother after they were separated when he was a toddler and hasn’t given up hope that she’s out there and is looking for him as well. Taken in by another foster family that already boasts a diverse line-up of kids in similar family situations, Billy bides his time until he can run away again to continue his search.

When he’s mysteriously brought to the temple of an aging Wizard (Djimon Hounsou, Serenity) tasked with guarding the seven deadly sins, he absorbs the fading Wizard’s magic and turns into a buff superhero (Zachary Levi, Thor: The Dark World) anytime he says the Wizard’s name: Shazam. Unware of the extent of his newfound powers, Billy has the mind of a teenager in the body of a mature adult and at first doesn’t exactly use his upgrades for good. Though he runs through some trials of his abilities with his foster brother (Jack Dylan Grazer, IT), he starts to be the kind of hero that’s only looking out for himself instead of assisting others.

He’s put to the ultimate test when Sivana (Mark Strong, The Imitation Game) enters the picture. Obsessed with finding the temple of the Seven Wizards that he too visited as a young child, the grown man eventually makes his way back to the hidden dwelling and frees the sins from their prison. Now being used as their vessel for evil, Sivana sets his sights on taking the Wizard’s power from Shazam (who has become something of a local Philadelphia celebrity) and eliminating everyone he loves.

If there’s one thing that’s been sorely missing from the DC slate of superhero movies it’s a sense of humor and finally the stiff suits at the studio backed up and let wiser talents guide this process – and it’s largely successful. Though the previous credits for screenwriters Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) and Darren Lemke (Goosebumps) might not have suggested they’d be the right choices to bring Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s superhero to the big screen, Shazam! is a welcome change of pace from the darker-hued adventure films the studio has been greenlighting. Adding director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) was another inspired choice as he’s nicely able to balance the lighter/more comedic elements of the plot with the darker edges supplied by Sivana.

Sandberg has cast the film well starting with Levi as our hero that becomes more than the sum of his bulging muscles and caped suit. Seeing that he’s actually a teen given awesome powers, Levi might overplay the sarcasm and wise-cracks a bit early on but it provides him a place to jump off from as he grows into a more responsible hero and a more understanding teenager. He has a nice rapport with Grazer and his other foster siblings, adding some layers to a character that could easily have been pretty one-dimensional. The villain role doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch for Strong at this point and while he’s perfectly fine in the part it would have been nice to see it played by someone a little less expected. It’s just too easy for Strong to slide into these wicked characters by now.

While it’s a good 10-15 minutes too long, spending unearned time with Sivana and following Levi through perhaps a few too many blunders, Sandberg and the screenwriters manage to introduce a late breaking twist that I found pretty delightful and nicely inclusive. Buoyed by strong performances by the child actors (a rarity these days) and a nice dose of humor and creativity, Shazam! is a fun right turn from the careening curve DC studios couldn’t pull out of.