Fun hero movies from WWII to those of the future

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By Richard Roeper

Signal Contributing Writer

‘Shadow in the Cloud’

Vertical Entertainment and Redbox Entertainment present a film directed by Roseanne Liang. Written by Roseanne Liang and Max Landis. Rated R (for language throughout, sexual references and violence). Running time: 83 minutes. On Demand

One of the most famous episodes of “The Twilight Zone” was the 1963 classic titled “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” with a pre- “Star Trek” William Shatner playing an airline passenger returning home after a six-month stay at a sanitarium who swears he has seen a gremlin on the wing of the plane, trying to disable one of the engines. (The episode was reprised in the 1983 “Twilight Zone” movie, with John Lithgow playing the role of the agitated passenger.)

Although the entertainingly bonkers feature “Shadow in the Cloud” is an original story, it’s basically “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” in a World War II setting, with Chloe Grace Moretz playing the part of the ostensibly hysterical passenger who swears there’s a gremlin (maybe more than one) lurking in the skies, hell-bent on attacking the aircraft and killing everyone onboard. It’s the first killer B-movie of 2021.

The year is 1943, and Moretz’s Flight Officer Maude Garrett is an unwelcome guest of the all-male crew on a B-17 Flying Fortress named “The Fool’s Errand” (and oh is that name a harbinger of things to come) taking off from New Zealand. Maude has been tasked with transporting a top-secret package that must not be opened under any circumstances because it’s the MacGuffin of this movie, but there’s not enough room in the Sperry turret for both Maude and the package, so Taylor John Smith’s Quaid tells Maude he’ll safeguard the valuable cargo while she’s wedged into the tiny enclosure.

For about half the film, “Shadow in the Cloud” director Roseanne Liang keeps the camera focused solely on Maude in that cramped turret as Maude hears the boorish male crew members making lewd jokes about her (they forgot she has a headset, but it doesn’t really matter to them when they’re busted) and laughing off her reports of some mysterious creature — maybe even an actual gremlin — hovering about the plane. It’s a wondrous performance by Moretz, who establishes Maude as a resourceful badass who has endured sexism and abuse for much of her life and refuses to let her tormentors define her.

Moretz also looks every part the 1940s movie star, even as Maude springs into action a la Ripley in “Aliens” and performs increasingly implausible feats of strength and heroism, whether she’s improvising ways to stay alive, shooting down Japanese fighter planes, or doing battle with a veritable army of truly terrifying CGI creatures that resemble giant flying rabid bat-rats. At times, it’s difficult to distinguish one male flight crew member from another, as they exist only as voices on the radio for much of the film, but Nick Robinson distinguishes himself as the sexist lout Stu Beckell, who’s a million miles away from the usual modern and likable and sensitive characters Robinson has played in films such as “Love, Simon” and the recent series “A Teacher.”

The deeper “Shadow in the Cloud” dives into sci-fi fantasy territory, the more we’re asked to just go with it and enjoy the spectacularly choreographed action sequences, but thanks in large part to Moretz’s ferociously effective work, we’re all too happy to take that zany ride.

‘We Can Be Heroes

Netflix presents a film written and directed by Robert Rodriguez. Rated PG (for mild action/violence). Running time: 100 minutes. 

They can be heroes. Just for one day.

We hear certain characters singing the chorus to David Bowie’s classic art-rock masterpiece more than once, and we get the “we can be heroes” message throughout writer-director Robert Rodriguez’s breezy, candy-colored, kid-friendly and cheerfully strange “We Can Be Heroes,” a stand-alone sequel to Rodriguez’ equally loony and upbeat “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D” from 2005.

“Are you saying we could be heroes?” comes the question from one little superhero in the making. “We could be heroes, just for one day,” another mini-superhero sings in reply, and then quips, “Sorry, it was there for the taking!”

That kind of self-aware humor permeates “We Can Be Heroes,” which has the vibe of a Saturday morning live-action serial, only with better special effects. Though aimed at a young audience, this is one of those superhero adventures that will keep the adults entertained as well.

Our narrator and hero-in-the-making is one Missy Moreno (YaYa Gosselin, in a winning performance), who tells us, “At a time in the world when things were feeling less and less certain, there was one thing you could always count on: the Heroics. Our planet’s team of superheroes.” The Heroics once were led by Missy’s single father, Pedro Pascal’s Marcus Moreno, but Marcus has made a deal with Missy: He’ll continue to work from a desk job at Heroics headquarters (which resembles a downgraded version of the Avengers facility), but he’ll keep his feet firmly planted on the ground. (So, in the same week Pedro Pascal is playing the main villain in “Wonder Woman 1984,” he’s on the side of good in “We Can Be Heroes.”)

Ah, but the best-laid plans of mice and men and superheroes often go awry, and Marcus is pressed into action to join the likes of Christian Slater’s Tech-No, Boyd Holbrook’s Miracle Guy and the grown-up Sharkboy and Lavagirl, who are now married with a young daughter, to take on an armada of alien ships invading Earth’s atmosphere. (Taylor Dooley reprises her role as Lavagirl, but Taylor Lautner was reportedly unavailable to return as Sharkboy, so a masked J.J. Dashnaw takes over the role.) The Heroics are no match for this army of purple-colored flying machines with mechanical tentacles and are soon captured and held prisoner. Meanwhile, the children of the Heroics have been quarantined in an underground bunker at Heroics headquarters, the better to protect them from the aliens.

Christopher McDonald’s bumbling POTUS addresses the nation and says, “People of America. As you have witnessed, the Heroics have been captured. … It all looks rather hopeless. Bad. Hopelessly bad.”

“How did this guy ever get elected?” says one of the kids. “He can’t even put two sentences together.”

Like I said: Jokes for the kids and jokes for the grown-ups.

Missy is the only one in the kids’ group who doesn’t have demonstrable superpowers, but she’s a natural leader, and she spearheads a mission to escape from the bunker, invade the aliens’ mothership and save their parents — and the world. Her sidekicks are a diverse group who initially are at odds with one another but must learn to get along despite their differences and work together, and that’s your main message of “Heroes” right there. It’s a likable group of kids and the proceedings are livened up by Priyanka Chopra Jonas as the straight-laced Mrs. Granada, a civilian who is the director of Heroics, and the wonderful Adriana Barraza, grandmother to Missy and the founder of the Heroics. 

Copyright 2020 Chicago Sun-Times

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