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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

Hiccup (the voice of Jay Baruchel) and Toothless the lovable dragon return for another round of computer-animated magic—this time with a slightly darker tone. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a great-looking, fun movie, and after watching it at home, I regret missing it on the big screen in 3-D.

The film picks up five years after the initial film, with dragons and Vikings now living together in peace. That peace is threatened when Hiccup and Toothless stumble upon ruthless dragon-trappers who want Toothless as a prize for their villainous leader, Drago (the voice of Djimon Hounsou). Along the way, Hiccup is reunited with his long-lost mother, voiced by Cate Blanchett.

The movie has some nasty moments involving Toothless that might freak your kids out—and might freak you out. Director and co-writer Dean DeBlois was apparently going for an Empire Strikes Back vibe, and he succeeds, in that the movie exudes an impending sense of doom. Let’s just say some of your kids will learn about death while watching this one.

A third Dragon is indeed on the way, slated for release in 2017. This sequel is a better movie than the first one was, so more installments are most certainly welcome.

Special Features: This is a nicely packed Blu-ray, featuring a behind-the-scenes look (that’s nearly an hour long) to go along with plenty of deleted scenes and a director’s commentary.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Guardians of the Galaxy is a goofy, dazzling and often hilarious convergence of inspired nuttiness.

You’ll probably hear comparisons to the original Star Wars, The Fifth Element and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension; all of those comparisons are plausible. Guardians marks a blessedly new and crazy direction for the Marvel universe, and director James Gunn (Super, Slither) has taken a huge step toward the A-list.

Also taking a giant leap toward the upper echelon of Hollywood royalty is Chris Pratt, who mixes great charm, action-hero bravado and premium comic timing as Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord. After a prologue that shows the Earthly origins of his character, Pratt sets the tone for the movie during the opening credits, grooving to his cassette-playing Sony Walkman on an alien planet and using squirrelly little critters as stand-in microphones.

After unknowingly stealing a relic that could have the power to take down the entire universe, Quill finds himself in serious trouble. Events lead to his joining forces with a genetically enhanced raccoon named Rocket (the voice of Bradley Cooper), a gigantic tree-person thing named Groot (the voice of Vin Diesel), a muscle-bound angry alien named Drax (Dave Bautista) and an ass-kicking green woman named Gamora (Zoe Saldana).

Together, they become the Guardians of the Galaxy, an unlikely troupe of mischievous outcasts that plays like the Avengers met the Marx Brothers—if the Marx Brothers had a green sister. It’s a decent comparison. Quill is Groucho; Rocket is Chico; and Groot is Harpo. (He only has one line, “I am Groot!” while Harpo only had the honking horn.) I’d say Gamora is Zeppo, but that would be insulting to Gamora.

The cast, buoyed by a spirited script co-written by Gunn, keeps things zippy and always funny. Visually, the movie is a tremendous feat. If you see it in 3-D, you will be happy with the results, because every shot seems meticulously constructed to benefit the medium. As for the makeup, just as much energy has been put into the practical effects as the digital work.

Michael Rooker, playing bad-guy Yondu, looks especially cool with his blue skin and ragged yellow teeth. Josh Brolin shows up briefly as Thanos, a major villain in the Marvel universe, while John C. Reilly, Djimon Hounsou, Glenn Close and Benicio Del Toro are along for the ride.

With her presence here, and her work Star Trek and Avatar, Saldana has officially inherited the Queen of Science Fiction mantle from Sigourney Weaver (and she’s incredibly hot when she’s blue or green). Pratt establishes his leading-man status here, something that could be fully cemented with his turn in the Jurassic Park sequel next year.

While Guardians is a terrific visual spectacle, it also packs an emotional punch. Rocket delivers a speech about alienation that is far more moving than anything you’d expect to see in a movie like this, while Quill’s mommy issues fuel some surprising emotional moments. The cast does some real acting; Cooper’s feat is especially impressive, since we only hear his voice. Heck, even Vin Diesel packs a sentimental punch in the many ways he delivers his “I am Groot!” line.

The use of classic rock on the soundtrack is a brilliant touch. Quill’s old-school Walkman, still working decades after he left Earth, churns out the hits like “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Moonage Daydream” and “Cherry Bomb.” Like Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese, Gunn is quite adept at using great music in unexpected places.

Guardians of the Galaxy rivals Edge of Tomorrow and Godzilla as this summer’s best blockbusters. As for its place in the Marvel universe, I’ll put it right alongside The Avengers as the franchise’s best.

Good news:  A sequel has already been green-lit for 2017, so this blissfully bizarre story shall continue.

Guardians of the Galaxy opens Thursday night, July 31, at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews