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The DC Comics universe gets its best movie since Wonder Woman with Shazam!, a fun—and surprisingly dark—blast of superhero fantasy. While a little sloppy at times, the movie works thanks to its central performances and warm-hearted core.

Zachary Levi is an excellent choice to play the title character; that character is the result of a 14-year-old boy being handed super powers by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou). That boy is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a foster child in search of his real mom. When he yells “Shazam!” a lightning bolt blasts him in his melon, and he becomes the glorious, red-suited, white-caped superhero—but he still has a 14-year-old’s brain. This gives Levi the chance to do a Tom Hanks/Big sort of shtick, and he’s good at it.

Adults in a certain age group might remember the Shazam TV show from the 1970s. Batson would actually transform into Captain Marvel—not the Marvel Captain Marvel, but the DC Captain Marvel. (There’s a convoluted, legal history behind how Brie Larson eventually wound up playing a character named Captain Marvel. We won’t go into it here.) In the TV series, Billy got his powers from an animated Zeus and his family; it was a combination of live action and cartoon on Saturday mornings with your Frosted Flakes. It was actually kind of badass, but I digress.

The new Shazam (who goes by various names, including Captain Sparkle Fingers) gets coached by his superhero-obsessed sidekick and foster brother, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). Freddy winds up being one of the big reasons this movie works, despite its flaws. Grazer employs the same kind of whip-smart line delivery that made him one of the more memorable kids running away from Pennywise in It.

As for those flaws: There are abrupt tonal shifts and subpar CGI—but it’s refreshing to see DC’s take on a comedic, shiny superhero after the gloomy blunders that were Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Justice League, and the goofy bombast of Aquaman. Shazam! has some of the joy that’s missing from the latest Superman flicks.

Director David F. Sandberg is an interesting choice to helm what is essentially a family-fun blockbuster. Watch out: Sandberg directed the creepy horror films Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, and horror does creep into a couple of genuinely frightening scenes. Sivana (Mark Strong), the film’s villain, is accompanied by monster personifications of the seven deadly sins, and they tend to bite people’s heads off and throw them through windows—making parts of Shazam! nightmare fuel for young children. As an adult, I appreciated the chance to be scared (even if the scares did feel slightly out of place), but I imagine some parents might sit shocked as monsters bite heads off. The scary stuff is countered by a sweet family message involving Billy and his foster home. Faithe Herman steals scenes as Darla, Billy’s blissfully optimistic little foster sister who will make you laugh and break your heart. Still, the violence is just short of R-rated, so be careful.

Some poor screenplay choices take the action to all-too-familiar places, like a convenience-store robbery and an attack at an amusement park. (“Uh oh, someone’s still up there in the Ferris wheel!”) Sivana doesn’t impress much as a bad guy. He’s serviceable, but nothing extraordinary.

Shazam! doesn’t feel like a DC movie, nor does it feel like a Marvel movie, for that matter (although it does use a Ramones song for its credits, as did Spider-Man: Homecoming; this actually bugged me a little bit). Batman and Superman live in the same universe as Shazam, but those parts aren’t filled at the moment. (Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill are out.) The movie still finds ways to include the characters that are fun nods, and maybe DC will do some legit crossovers in the future. I’m thinking they have at least one more Shazam! in them.

Shazam! is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Annabelle, the creepy doll from The Conjuring movies, gets her second standalone film with Annabelle: Creation, a silly movie that is nevertheless enjoyable thanks to some deft direction and surprisingly competent acting.

The movie holds together thanks to solid performances from Talitha Bateman and Lulu Wilson, the latter the same child actress who turned in incredible work in the also surprisingly good Ouija: Origin of Evil. Mind you, the film is full of good performances—from the likes of Miranda Otto, Anthony LaPaglia and Stephanie Sigman—but it’s Bateman and Wilson who get most of the credit.

The film is set many years before the first Annabelle movie, with orphans Janice (Bateman) and Linda (Wilson) on their way to a new home, with other girls and a happy nun, Sister Charlotte, (Sigman) at their side. They arrive at the home of Samuel Mullins (LaPaglia) a doll maker who, we have learned in the film’s prologue, lost his daughter, Bee, in a tragic roadside accident. He’s miserable; his wife (Otto) is bedridden and ill; and he probably shouldn’t be accepting a bunch of orphans to live in his haunted house.

Yes, the house is haunted with a spirit residing in that creepy doll we’ve all come know and hate so damned much. I hate creepy dolls almost as much as I hate creepy clowns. Speaking of which, while Annabelle: Creation has some good scares, the preview scene from It that played before the flick was top-notch scary, and I can’t wait to see the whole movie. OK, I got off track a little bit.

Janice had polio, which has left her with a leg brace and a basic inability to run away from haunted, creepy, demonic dolls. One thing leads to another, and characters start getting possessed and ripped to shreds by demon forces. Damn those creepy dolls! Damn them to hell! Wilson was great in Ouija and is quite good here, but it’s Bateman who is the real scene-stealer this time out. She makes Janice genuine, and you pull for her to get out of the movie with most of herself intact.

Last year, director David F. Sandberg delivered a decent genre film with Lights Out, based on his terrifically scary short film. (Talitha’s younger brother, Gabriel Bateman, starred in that movie.) Sandberg continues to show he’s good with jolt scares; there are many moments in this movie when you are expecting one, and it still jolts you. He also makes good-looking movies; the authentic Southern Gothic look of this film lends to its credibility and keeps you in the story.

Does the film horrify or scare on the same level as Carpenter or vintage Romero? Absolutely not. Will it please those of us who like a capable horror thriller that’s low on cheesiness? Yes. It’s a decent, late-summer, let’s-not-change-the-world-of-cinema-but-deliver-something-relatively-fun kind of film. It’s forgettable, but fun while you watch it.

These Annabelle movies, and the upcoming The Nun, have sprouted from The Conjuring franchise. Give New Line Cinema some credit for doing a horror franchise right (well, mostly right), as opposed to that nonsense Universal tried to kick off earlier in the summer with The Mummy. These stories are coming together nicely, and don’t feel forced and silly like, for instance, Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe) inexplicably showing up as some sort of super monster detective. Sandberg finds satisfying ways, especially in the final scenes, to link the Conjuring universe together.

Annabelle is giving Chucky a run for his money as the best doll you shouldn’t have bought in the first place, because it intends to kill you. I’m hoping for Chucky vs. Annabelle in the future.

Annabelle: Creation is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Three years ago, director David F. Sandberg made Lights Out, a great short about a woman, home alone at night, who kept noticing a dark figure when she switched off the light. The payoff was both hilarious and scary as shit.

So, of course, producer James Wan got hold of Sandberg, and now there’s a full-length feature film based on that light-switch premise. Writer Eric Heisserer takes the idea, fleshes it out, and comes up with a pretty good story to go with Sandberg’s strong horror-directing abilities.

Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) is an angry woman with mommy and commitment issues. Her mom, Sophie (Maria Bello), recently lost her husband and has fallen into a depression; she is talking to herself. Rebecca’s younger brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), is seeing a strange dark figure when the lights go out. It all leads up to a finale during which flashlights are very valuable, and potential victims behave like idiots.

Sandberg repeats the same jolt scare over and over again, and makes it all work nicely. The film is genuinely scary in the moments when it’s trying to be scary. The background story is a little on the flaccid side, but Palmer and Bello are good in their roles, and Bateman plays a scared kid with major aplomb. It’s a serviceable horror film that will give genre fans a reasonably good time.

Lights Out is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews