Review of “Shazam!”

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a 14-year-old boy in the foster care system of Philadelphia. When he was four, he got separated from his mother at a Christmas carnival. When his mother couldn’t be found, he was put in foster care. Billy’s dream is to be reunited with his real family, not the fake family in foster homes. Billy has run away from nearly two dozen of them in the search for his mother. Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) was raised by a verbally abusive father (John Glover) and an equally vile older brother. In 1974, as a child, Sivana was magically transported by a wizard to be offered great power, but he proved to have an impure heart when he was tempted by the Seven Deadly Sins and was returned to his family. He dedicated his adult life to returning to the wizard and gaining the power of evil. When Sivana figures out how to return to the wizard, he finds him weak and unable to stop him. Sivana takes the Eye of Sin and is made enormously powerful by the Seven Deadly Sins. Billy is sent to live with a new family that has four foster children. One of them, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), walks with the aid of a cane. Freddy is being picked on and beaten up by a couple of older, bigger bullies when Billy intervenes. The bullies chase Billy, but he escapes via a subway train. On the ride, everyone in the car disappears and odd symbols appear on the electronic sign. When the train stops, Billy is greeted by the same wizard who tells Billy he must be the new champion to fight against the evil Sivana is about to unleash on the world. To gain the wizard’s power, Billy must hold his staff and say the wizard’s name: Shazam!

An early complaint about DC’s superhero films was they were too dark and depressing, along with being not very good. None of those complaints can be made against “Shazam” as director David F. Sandberg and writer Henry Gayden have produced a film that shines with humor and positivity without being saccharine and preachy. They also provide character development and growth for both the hero and the villain. As an origin story of a second-tier character, this compares favorably to Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Ant-Man.” Maybe DC has finally got their act together.

Zachary Levi is terrific as Shazam. I know his original name was Captain Marvel, but that requires a deep dive into various lawsuits and legal rulings I don’t want to get into. DC settled on naming the character Shazam during one of their recent reboots. Anyway, Levi is great. He embodies the spirit of a damaged youth suddenly given enormous power, and he behaves the way you would expect. He acts like a jerk. Using his powers to impress people and make money, Billy lives out his fantasies until he is faced with the threat posed by Dr. Sivana. He then runs away and doesn’t want to face the responsibilities of being a superhero, as you would expect an immature child to do.

Levi is a great deal of fun to watch as Shazam. He’s a playful dope and a weak-willed coward. He turns the modified Billy into an amplified version of the pre-super powered character, and he does it believably. It’s a performance that, in any other non-superhero movie, might be considered for awards season. Since he’s wearing a cape and a skin tight body suit (with fake muscles underneath and a glowing lightning bolt on his chest), Levi will have to settle for at least a couple of sequels and an appearance in a team-up movie should DC decide to try making another Justice League film.

As Billy’s new foster brother, Jack Dylan Grazer is fantastic as Freddy. The usually optimistic young man with a bum leg practically steals the movie from Angel and Levi. Grazer is a dynamo with an infectious laugh and love of life despite his problems. Freddy is Billy’s guide to the world of superheroes and he’s an enthusiastic coach and cheerleader. Grazer also is effective when the story calls on Freddy to tell Billy the truth about his obnoxious behavior while he’s also being honest about the hurt he feels regarding his lot in life. Grazer being so good in the film shouldn’t be a surprise as he was, for me, the stand-out character in 2017’s “It” as the hypochondriac Eddie. If he can avoid the pitfalls of being a talented child actor, Grazer will have a very long and productive career.

If there’s an issue with the film, it’s the hero’s learning curve for using his powers. There are abilities Shazam has he only figures out late in the movie, such as flight. That only shows up due to an attack from the villain. There are other powers he discovers early on, like shooting lightning from his fingers, that he doesn’t use when it would appear to prove useful. The inconsistencies of his using his abilities and not using them doesn’t make much sense.

That’s a minor quibble when you compare it to how good the movie is, not only from a story point of view, but also visually. The CGI used to create flight and the battles during it looks amazing. While there are shots similar to those in “Man of Steel” during the flying fights, the quality of the work in “Shazam” is vastly better. Faces look more lifelike. Movement is more natural. Considering “Man of Steel” had a budget more than double “Shazam,” it’s improved visual quality implies either major software advances or a more qualified effects team.

“Shazam” is rated PG-13 for language, intense sequences of action and suggestive material. There are several fights in the film. Some are between superpowered characters and others are just regular people. There’s only a little blood, but a character has an eye replaced by a glowing orb in a violent way. The suggestive material is a couple of visits to a “gentlemen’s club” we never see the inside of, and comments made about it. Foul language is scattered is consists mostly of variations on “s**t.”

If you want to put some thought into it, “Shazam” is a story of damaged characters and how they react to their damage. Some seek out world domination while others are looking for a family to belong to. Sex and relationship advice columnist and podcaster Dan Savage tells people they have a biological family and a logical family, and sometimes the logical one loves you more. While this movie is more about super heroics, it also says something about finding peace with your weaknesses, shortcomings and situation. We may not be able to fly and shoot lighting from our fingers, but we can find peace and help others to do the same or just not add to the pain of others. That can be heroic in a quieter way.

“Shazam” gets five stars.

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Review of “IT”

Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) is dealing with the mysterious loss of his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) with the help of his friends: Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), A.K.A. “Trash Mouth” Tozier, Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), a sickly boy that can’t go anywhere without his inhaler and Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), a germaphobe preparing for his bar mitzvah under the glaring eye of his rabbi father. Constantly under threat of a beating by a gang of bullies lead by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) that calls them the Losers Club, Bill and his buddies are just trying to navigate school and deal with the traumas going on in their lives. Soon to join their group is Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the “new kid” that has no friends but has the wrath of the bullies in common with the Losers Club. He has a crush on Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), a girl that is rumored to be the school tramp but really is living a different kind of hell with her abusive father. The most outside of the outsiders is Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), an orphan living with his grandfather and working on his sheep farm. Mike is homeschooled and is one of the few African-Americans in Derry. This draws particularly violent attention from Bowers and his bully friends. But the scariest thing in Derry is an ancient evil that lives in the sewers and comes out every 27 years to feed on the flesh and fear of children: His name is Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard). Pennywise takes on the appearance of a clown to lure children in close so he can collect them. He ripped Georgie’s arm off before dragging him down into the sewers. Now more children are going missing and no one knows what to do about it or who will be next. Investigating Georgie’s disappearance, Bill has put together that whatever is killing the kids of Derry, it travels through the sewers. He also learns he and his friends have all seen Pennywise and been threatened by him. Bill wants to find it and kill it.

Based on Steven King’s book of the same name, “IT” was brought to life in a 1990 two part TV movie starring Tim Curry as the clown. For the time, it wasn’t half bad. It had a fair number of known TV actors playing the grown-up versions of the kids in a final showdown with Pennywise. While it had limitations of special effects and a TV budget the four hour production did find an audience and a place in my memory. Now director Andy Muschietti has more money, digital effect and more time to devote to a more faithful telling of the story of a killer clown preying on the children of a small town. “IT” is a sizable improvement over its TV ancestor.

The best part of the film is probably the ensemble cast of terrific young actors making up the Losers Club. From top to bottom, the entire group is perfect. The standouts are Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier and Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie Kaspbrak. Wolfhard’s Richie is the kid that tries too hard to be the leader of the group when everyone knows he’s not it. Richie wears thick glasses and has the mouth of a horny sailor. Dropping inappropriate insults and one-liners like bad habits, Wolfhard is certainly the most entertaining member of the group.

A close second is Grazer’s Eddie. A hypochondriac with an overprotective mother, Eddie is constantly on the lookout for anything that might make him sick. The rundown of everything in the drainage tunnel that likely will give him some sort of infection is hilarious; particularly since much of the medical information he spouts is wrong. He tells a long story of how a friend of his mother’s told her about a friend of his that caught AIDS from the pole of a subway. He becomes more and more frantic as his get deeper into the story and the misinformation just keeps growing. While all the kids are great these two really stand out.

What also is impressive about the young cast is their depth of emotion in dealing not only with the threat of Pennywise but the dangers within their own families. There isn’t a missed beat or out of place reaction as we get brief looks inside the lives of almost all the kids. Most troubling of course is Beverly and her sexually abusive father. While nothing is shown on screen, it is clear there is something inappropriate about the way her father touches and talks to his young daughter. We don’t know where Beverly’s mother is or why she isn’t around but clearly there is something out of whack about this household over and above their poverty. Sophia Lillis shines in these dark scenes as she tries to sneak past her father, hoping he won’t notice she’s there. Starting the movie with long hair, Beverly cuts it short in an act of defiance and an effort to make herself look less attractive to her father. It is at once both a heartbreaking and liberating scene as she takes a pair of shears to her long auburn locks. None of the children in the story have easy or perfect lives and the cast is able to bring a surprising amount of depth and maturity to these complex roles.

Another interesting aspect of the film is how all the adults seem to be just a little off. There’s a creepy pharmacist that’s a little too greasy and blond and takes too much of an interest in Beverly. Eddie’s mom is sedentary, very overweight and requires too much attention from her own son. There’s a library worker lurking in the background behind Ben taking too much of an interest in the boy. The local cop lurks around too much and is clearly abusive to his son that happens to be the leader of the bullies. Bill’s dad is distant and doesn’t want him to continue investigating Georgie’s disappearance. None of it is over-the-top but there’s something not right about nearly every adult character we see.

Of course the most not right character of them all is Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise. Skarsgard is an energetic killer clown often dancing or hopping or twisting himself into and out of difficult shapes. His voice is screeching at times and soothing at others. When we first meet Pennywise he’s talking to Georgie from a storm drain in the street. He’s smiling and seems friendly but you notice drool dripping from his mouth and his glowing red eyes. It isn’t long before Pennywise shows his true colors, and his mouth full of jagged sharp teeth, and rips Georgie’s arm off then drags him into the sewer. Even though you know something bad is going to happen (it must since this is the first few minutes of the movie) it still comes as something of a surprise when Pennywise’ mouth opens overly large and row after row of teeth is exposed, quickly clamping down on Georgie and sealing his fate.

Director Andy Muschietti uses Pennywise sparingly but effectively. It feels like Pennywise is in every scene but he disappears for long stretches of the movie only to pop back in briefly to try and eat one of the Loser’s Club. Muschietti digitally centers the clown’s face in a couple of scenes so no matter how he moves his face is always the focal point of the image. It’s an effective technique that keeps the audience centered on that malevolent mouth and the damage it is waiting to inflict on its next victim. Pennywise manages to be both terrifying and interesting and we may get to learn more about him in the sequel.

“IT” is rated R for language, bloody images and violence/horror. We see the aforementioned biting off of Georgie’s arm. A character has a capital “H” carved in his stomach with a knife. Various people are shown in various states of decay. Several people are shown being hit by rocks. A woman from an impressionist painting comes to life and threatens one of the children. A man described as a leper is shown with oozing face sores. A person is shown getting their throat stabbed by a knife and bleeding profusely. A person is shown being smacked in the head with a toilet tank lid and bleeding a great deal. A bathroom sink begins gushing blood out of the drain. A character is shown being impaled with an iron bar a couple of times. Foul language is common throughout the film.

A second chapter is coming. The enormous opening weekend box office for “IT” means a sequel is already being worked on. This film will likely focus on the adult versions of the kids coming back to Derry to face off with Pennywise in a battle to the death and, if reports are to be believed, we’ll also learn more about the history of the clown. I hope we get a flashback as I’d like to see the kids again because they are such good actors. Everyone watching the film will likely see themselves or someone they know in the characters. While “IT” may not be the scariest movie ever released it works as a film that has memorable characters behaving in a way that is relatable and believable. It is a minor miracle that “IT” works on so many levels.

“IT” gets five stars.

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All I See is You—


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