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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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

If you thought 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service was a bit over the top—and you liked that aspect of it—you’ll be happy to know that things were just getting started with Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of the Mark Millar/Dave Gibbons graphic novel, The Secret Service.

Sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle pulls out all of the stops, goes into severe overkill mode, and then somehow holds together nicely; it delivers a fun time for those who like their movies a little nasty. It’s over-long at 141 minutes, and a pug dies—but the action snaps with expert precision, and the cast kicks ass.

That cast includes Taron Egerton as Eggsy, the young recruit of Harry Hart (Colin Firth) from the first film. The Kingsman—an underground, sharply dressed spy agency in England—remains in operation after the death of Harry, who took a bullet to the head in the first chapter. Eggsy has settled down with a royal girlfriend (Hanna Alstrom), and has segued comfortably into the life of a secret agent.

As it often goes when you are just starting to enjoy your job, things start sucking badly as missiles destroy Kingsman headquarters and strongholds, leaving behind only Eggsy and techy Merlin (Mark Strong). Eggsy and Merlin wind up in America, where they meet the Statesman—secret allies doing a similar spying service for the U.S. The task force includes Tequila (Channing Tatum), Ginger (Halle Berry) and Champ (Jeff Bridges).

The two organizations join to battle Poppy (Julianne Moore, gloriously crazy here), a rich drug dealer who can afford to build a compound that looks a lot like Disneyland’s Radiator Springs in the middle of a jungle. She’s also wields enough power to kidnap Elton John, who is a very colorful hostage in her music hall.

Poppy has hatched an evil scheme to poison all of her drugs. When she calls the president of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) and demands that he pay a price for the antidote, POTUS proves to be 10 times meaner than Poppy. (An evil, selfish, conniving president? That’s just crazy!)

Does it sound like there’s a lot going on in this movie? Well, there is, and it’s probably enough to command two films; Vaughn should’ve practiced a little more restraint. This is a good, fun movie—but it could’ve been great. It still achieves greatness in some of its sequences, including a ski-slope fight that goes to dizzying extremes; just about every fight scene in the film is a decent pulse-racer.

If you’ve seen the commercials, you know that Colin Firth returns for this movie. I won’t give away the nature of his return, but I will say it’s good to have him back. Speaking as a fan of the first movie, I can accept the ridiculous plot twist that puts Firth back in the character. He’s an important part of this franchise.

Like its predecessor, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is very violent, super-profane and steeped in dark humor. This is a movie in which men wind up in meat grinders and are cooked into hamburgers for other men to consume under duress. It takes a director with chops to pull this sort of stuff off and even make it funny. Vaughn is up to the task.

While Bridges, Tatum and Berry do fine with their smallish roles, Moore basically steals the movie by portraying one of the year’s greatest, most-memorable villains. Poppy is a sick hoot, and her penchant for cooking manburgers and terrorizing Elton John make her a unique kind of evil. Moore is no stranger to getting laughs, and she gets a lot of them in this movie.

If you liked the first movie, you will like this one just fine, so go see it for a nice blast of sick action as autumn kicks off. Also … if this movie is any indication, you should be very careful to never, ever piss off Elton John.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Kingsman: The Secret Service evaded me when it played theaters—and it’s a humdinger of a movie, that’s for sure.

In this film based on a comic-book series, Colin Firth plays Harry, a member of a secret order of agents that saves the world from all kinds of bad guys. When a fellow agent dies (the agents are named after the Knights of the Round Table), Harry recruits Lee (Jonno Davies), the young son of a former agent and friend, to be the replacement.

Unlike James Bond movies, this one isn’t afraid of bad words and gory violence. One scene in which Harry executes an entire church full of hateful rednecks (set to the tune of “Free Bird”) has more gore than three average R-rated movies combined.

Firth is great here, as are Mark Strong and Michael Caine as fellow agents. Mark Hamill shows up briefly in a pivotal role, and Samuel L. Jackson gets a meaty part as the strangest of terrorists.

The film is loaded with surprises, as well as some fine action directed by Matthew Vaughn. It’s one of the best action films of the year.

Special Features: There are numerous featurettes on the making of the movie and some photo galleries.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing