Shazam!

shazam!Director: David S. Sandberg

Screenwriters: Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke

Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou, and John Glover

A weird thing is happening with mainstream cinema right now. We are now fully saturated with superhero films. It is undeniable. Usually, when this level of inundation occurs in a pop culture medium, fatigue sets in, and another trend emerges. Oddly enough, seven superhero-related films had major releases in 2018, and at least ten more are slated to come out in the 2019 calendar year, demonstrating that fatigue is not setting in, and in fact with Avengers: Endgame predicted to break all box office records, we have not even reached the pinnacle of this superhero-film era.

Why might that be? Well, for starters, unlike many movie fads, the superhero genre has proven to be quite versatile. These films have broad reach and audience appeal from absurd to intense, to adult-themed, to even awards-caliber social commentary. But even more than that, the most successful of them have wit, charm, and charisma that carries them and allows them to massively engage in the original purpose of cinema: Escapist entertainment. Shazam!, the latest offering from the DC Extended Universe, is the latest of superhero fare and represents everything that works for the genre as well as the finest achievement so far in the DCEU.

Shazam! is like Big meets Home Alone, so allow that to sink in before you proceed. It also knows it is like Big meets Home Alone and lets you know it knows. That being said, it is not stale nor does it lean on preconception. The gist is that in an alternative dimension, a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) is tasked with restraining the seven deadly sins’ influence on Earth. With his powers growing weak, he must find a new champion who is pure of heart to replace him before his powers fade, and the sins are released from their captivity. His search spans many years, once nearly selecting a young boy named Thaddeus Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto), but finding his heart to not be worthy. This dismissal by the wizard sparks a maniacal 45-year pursuit. As an adult, Sivana (now played by Mark Strong) seeks to discover the wizard’s hidden realm and take the power for himself. The good news is that the wizard finds his new champion in a foster kid named Billy Batson (Asher Angel), charging him with the power to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) simply by calling the name Shazam and with the ultimate goal of protecting Earth from the seven sins. Unfortunately, the wizard is not able to fend off Sivana, and he is able to transform into the sins’ vessel and harness their power, which he plans to yield maliciously, of course.

Now the table is set for a battle of good and evil between Shazam! and Sivana, who wants Shazam’s power for himself. Nothing really to write home about. However, the conflict is not the magic of Shazam!. Few, if any, superhero films so far have succeeded in capturing the cultural identity that comic books represent to the generations who grew up with them. Shazam, however is an exception. The true accomplishment of Shazam is how effortlessly and flawlessly it showcases the majesty, hopefulness, and glee that this style of fantasy has on our imagination. Much of this is accomplished through the chemistry between Billy/Shazam and his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). Their scenes together make the movie, and fortunately, about 80% of the movie is focused on their exploits together, navigating the tricky world of becoming a superhero. Levi has been on my radar for years, having been a big fan of the NBC series Chuck, and even though he has been consistently working since that show went off the air, he still had not found that break-out role that showcased his talents. That is no longer the case. Zachary Levi has a tremendous amount of fun in this role, and his performance elevates the movie to being truly enjoyable whenever he’s on the screen.

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I mentioned that about 80% of the movie is focused on our heroes, but unfortunately, that means that the other 20% is focused on our villain. For some reason, the DCEU is still struggling with the whole villain thing. Mark Strong does his best with what he’s given to play Dr. Sivana. While menacing, evil and fixated on chaos, the old tropes of daddy-issues fueling an absurd quest for power for the sake of aimless revenge is tired and uninspired. Sivana sits somewhere between General Zod and Steppenwolf in the DCEU villain hierarchy.

Shazam! does manage to avoid one common pitfall of new superhero movies, and that’s delivering an origin story that is not dull, mediocre, and contrived. Writers Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke were able to access the source material in such a way that everything feels fresh about the journey to becoming Shazam. Shazam! shows us (as well as DC) that we all do in fact have a fun and inspired superhero inside of us. B+

Shazam! is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 12 minutes. There are two post-film sequences; one mid-credits, and the other post-credits. The first is plot-based, but the second is just played for laughs.

The People’s Critic’s List of the Top Ten Holiday Films

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????The holiday season is finally upon us.  With Thanksgiving in the rear-view mirror, The People’s Critic has been asked to re-post the Top 10 Holiday Film list.  Like my Top 10 Thrillers list posted in October, I made a few minor updates on the list, but I continue to stand by the rest.

At this festive time of year, people need guidance on how to make the most of the precious hours they will spend watching holiday movies.  Unlike Halloween movies, holiday movies suddenly feel weird once January rears its ugly head.  Thus, here is your guide to assure you make wise choices for your holiday entertainment.  I have pain-stakingly devised a secret list of criteria designed to assure a reliable systematic ranking.  (And yes, I am aware that I neglected to include A Christmas Story, The Polar Express, and a host of classics and musicals – if you don’t like it, make your own list.  Merry Christmas!  Where’s the Tylenol?)

Edward Scissorhands10.  Edward Scissorhands – Now hold on there!  Edward Scissorhands, a holiday film?  The film was released December 19, 1990.  It also has Christmas scenes and a beautiful “snow” motif.  But most importantly, it is a film about accepting differences – even if those differences involve robotic-like anatomy linked to scissor appendages.  Tim Burton’s masterpiece fits nicely under the holiday-guise and is a gothic allegory for society’s corruption!

 

The Ref9.  The Ref – Denis Leary strives for the main stream in director Ted Demme’s hilarious film about a cat burglar who takes the wrong couple hostage as he attempts to evade the police on Christmas Eve.  Leary finds himself the victim as his husband/wife hostages continuously drive him nuts with their bickering and fighting.  Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis are delightfully venomous as the couple and Leary is in fine form as the tortured criminal!

 

Trading Places8.  Trading Places – Based on a rather high-brow social experiment, Trading Places finds the lives of socialite Dan Aykroyd and street-bum Eddie Murphy suddenly switched as part of a wager between two rich CEOs.  The nature vs. nurture wager revolves around whether Aykroyd will resort to crime when he loses everything and whether Murphy will become a responsible executive when given opportunity.  As serious as this may sound, the movie is a triumph of the comedy legends.

 

Gremlins7.  Gremlins – “No bright light, don’t’ get him wet, and whatever you do – don’t ever feed him after midnight.”  These are the three rules that are sure to be broken when Randall Peltzer brings his son Billy home a strange new pet for Christmas!  In no time Gremlins are unleashed on Kingston Falls.  In the same vein as Edward Scissorhands, this film dances the line between horror and comedy with great results.  A classic!

 

Home Alone6.  Home Alone – We all have Macaulay Culkin’s shocked face frozen in our cerebral cortex from when he slapped on too much aftershave.  However, John Hughes’s Christmas blockbuster is both a holiday film as well as a solid entry in the Hughes tradition.  Even with an 8-year-old protagonist, Hughes doesn’t let up on the youthful angst, creating a coming of age story wrapped up with a nice bow (and a few black eyes for those wet bandits).

 

planes trains5.  Planes, Trains, and Automobiles – Ok, so we’re in the top five, so I will curb my dark sense of humor that has clearly influenced the previous five entries…at least until number 2.  It’s John Hughes again with the film that made Uncle Buck possible, which in turn made Home Alone possible.  Although I’m sure the pitch meeting went something like this: “So John Candy and Steve Martin – SOLD!” the movie gives the two comedy icons plenty of material as they must reluctantly travel together to get home for Thanksgiving.  I don’t care who you are – if you don’t tear up the first time you see the final scene, you’re not human!

 

elf4.  Elf – Perhaps the first of the modern classics, John Favreau directs Will Ferrell who plays Buddy the elf who was raised by Santa only to discover he is actually human.  Favreau brilliantly balances the tone between silly and genius creating a film that is as enjoyable for children as it is for adults.  Ferrell is joined by James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, and Bob Newhart who all contribute to this film’s success.  This film has become virtually unavoidable, but it doesn’t mean it’s not good.

 

it's a wonderful life3.  It’s a Wonderful Life – Not just a great holiday movie, but one of the best films ever made.  Frank Capra’s crowning achievement finds Jimmy Stewart playing George Bailey who just can not get out of Bedford Falls.  In a film class I took, a professor made a very compelling case for how this film fits nicely in the horror genre in a twisted, Twilight Zone kind of way.  Nonetheless, the classic story about a man being shown what the world would be like if he never existed takes Dicken’s Christmas Carol to a new more relatable place where Scrooge is replaced by a nice guy who lets life get him down.

 

scrooged2.  Scrooged – Ok back to dark comedy territory.  I was told that for my “holiday movie list” Groundhog Day was not an appropriate title as the title “holiday movies” implies films that take place during or around November/December.  I will agree to disagree, but fortunately, there’s an easy alternative – Scrooged!  Bill Murray plays Frank Cross (“a thing they nail people to”), a TV executive who has let greed get the better of him.  This film is a showcase for Murray as it would likely  be terrible without him.  However, because of him, it’s so good that it’s my #2 holiday film!  And with the recent trend of NBC airing live musicals in December (last year’s The Sound of Music and this year’s Peter Pan), I have to wonder if NBC president Jeff Zucker keeps this film’s lesson in mind!  On a side note –  if you are looking for a Christmas-y Groundhog Day, it’s been brought to my attention that ABC Family created an absurd rip off called The 12 Dates of Christmas with Amy Smart and Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar).

 

christmas vacation1.  National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – This film has it all: memorable characters, big laughs, emotional moments, and quotable lines.  Chevy Chase attempts to host a family Christmas that promises to blow up in his face, even literally!  There is no getting tired of the jewel in the Griswold franchise crown; you’ll be sure to have the “hap-hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny F@#kin’ Kaye!”

 

Honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the list: The Nightmare Before Christmas, Arthur Christmas, Love Actually, and Die Hard.

What do you think?  Did I get it right or did I miss your favorite holiday film?  Let me know!

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