Shazam!

This is one of those posts that I look forward to writing after seeing a movie. That usually comes because of one of two reasons, I either hated the movie and can’t wait to dump on it (see Us) or I am overjoyed and want the world to share in my enthusiasm. So take a guess what I am motivated by here, it’s OK, I’ll wait…

“Boom” you probably guessed right, I loved this film. “Shazam!” is the kind of movie going experience I crave. When I walk out of the theater, I want to tell everyone I see how much I enjoyed the film and I want them to go out and see it too. Let’s spread some happiness and put your tail in a seat for this lighthearted piece of comic book fantasy, that delivers exactly what most people who loved comics as a kid first got from them, …a rush of pleasure. “Shazam!” is not going to be a breakthrough cinematic event. The movie is not going to set up a compelling narrative that will allow us to explore characters with deep flaws and themes of human frailty. It is simply going to entertain you for a couple of hours and leave you feeling refreshed rather than exhausted.

Director David Sandberg and screenwriter Henry Gayden have managed to remove the stick that has been up the bum of the previous DC films. Our hero here is not brooding, the color palate is not dark, and the humor is not gallows. “Shazam!” instead is a conventional hero origin story, told with a sense of humor and the goal of entertaining the kid in us who loved comic books because they were fantasy adventure and colorful. It doesn’t try to re-invent the wheel, rather it puts the wheels on a straightforward and simple tale of good vs. evil, and rides it all the way to the end. You can see what is coming from a mile away, but you want care that there are no story surprises because the way you get through the story has all of the small pleasures.

Billy Batson is a teen foster child who has run away from several group home in pursuit of finding the Mother that he was separated from at a very young age.  He becomes the vessel of a wizards power, to fight against the seven deadly sins which are being harnessed by a grown man who was once offered the same opportunity but could not pass a test of worthiness. The two stories of the hero and villain are set up in the first half hour, not with a rapid fire action sequence that throws us into the middle of what we don’t understand (ala Captain Marvel) but instead with a coherent series of events that allows us to be invested in both characters. Mark Strong, who I think most movie fans will have loved from a bucketload of other films, but especially “Kick Ass” and the two Kingsman movies, plays the grown up version of Thad Sivana. Sivana is a kid who is misused by his family in ways not too dissimilar from Billy, buy he is clearly under the influence of the deadly sins. Billy, played by an appealing young actor named Asher Angel, is a ne’er do well , who has yet to figure out his real source of strength. When he becomes the superhero, Billy is played by Zachary Levi, who is just goofy enough to convince us that he is a fifteen year old occupying the body of a god-like man. The flashy costume and a struggle to come up with an appropriate moniker for the new hero are just two of the plot points that provide a plethora of humor.

Freddy Freeman is another kid in the foster home who helps Billy become the hero that we all will need. Jack Dylan Grazer, who played the asthmatic Eddie in “It”, has grown a couple of inches but can still play the youthful and hopeful type that he is cast here as. The banter between him and both versions of Billy is what drives the story and the comedy. I found something to laugh at ever couple of minutes and Grazer is one of the sources of that mirth. Levi gets to ham it up as a kid who is just not quite grown into the body he is occupying. Grazer occupies the role of side kick, mentor and brother just right. The group family has some interesting characters and fortunately they don’t go into overdrive to make jokes out of eves archetype that gets thrown in. Little sister Darla goes right up to the edge of annoying, but never crosses the line. She is also so adorable that you might be willing to forgive her if she did.

“Shazam!” is a bit of a send up of comic book movies, but it is not a deconstruction of the myths. This story just takes advantage of the youthful fascination with power and uses it to explore responsibility a little bit, but laughter a lot more. The tone is reminiscent of “Sky High”, a kids film from back in 2005. This is a playful movie that has the usual adventure action story attached to it, but it is executed with a sense of fun. DC fans will find themselves amused at some of the lightly self depreciating humor of the film. Be sure to stick around for a mid credit sequence and a final stinger. They are not as hip as the MCU films try to be, but both work for this film.

After more than a month of dreary films that don’t inspire me much as a movie goer, what a refreshing way to break the cycle and fall back in love with going to the movies. I can’t imagine anyone not being able to enjoy this. I would take this movie over almost all of the other films I’ve seen this year. Not because it is a great movie, but because it made me feel great about going to a movie.

Pet Sematary (2019)

Maybe I would have been better off skipping the early version of this film. You know, the one from 1989 that is a favorite of kids who grew up in the 80s. I’d never seen it before this year but in anticipation of the remake, I went to that well and took a draught. The film was terrible, and I will be making some comparisons in just a moment, but the premise had potential. It’s that potential that made this movie seem so promising. Unfortunately both the first film and the trailers tell you everything that is going to happen, and there is just not enough to justify this movie, even though it is a dozen times better than the original.

Let’s get a few of the comparisons out of the way. Starting with the cat, this movie is better cast. The animal that plays “Church” the first return visitor from the Pet Sematary of the title is great. He looks like a real pet at the start of the film, and the shape he is in near the end fits pretty well. I don’t think Director mary Lambert cared much about the Pet” part of the story in 1989, but the directors here, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer emphasize the cat a lot more and it adds to the creepy vibe of the film.  Also, the actors in the family are all much more invested and effective than the original cast family. The two biggest adds are Jete Laurence as the doomed daughter Ellie and Jason Clarke as the bereaved father Louis Creed. Laurence has a degree of professionalism around her that makes her more believable in the role than her predecessor. Jason Clarke is simple a much better actor than the wooden and painful to watch Dale Midkiff. As he has shown in a variety of films, even bad ones, Clarke can convey emotions and function as a human being, which he does pretty well here. The one actor from the original that was not an embarrassment was veteran Fred Gwynne as the neighbor who knows secrets, Jud. In this go round we are provided the excellent John Lithgow, who lends gravitas and some skill to the supernatural explanations.

The main problem for me continues to be the story. The willingness to ignore what they know to be a dangerous action, both for a pet and a child, defies all the emotional pressures that are built up. Rachel, the mom played by Amy Seimetz, is incredulous at the action her husband must have done to get to the twist in the story, and so am I. A man who is learned, had several warning from the afterlife and also has some negative experience to go with it, simply is blinded by inconsolable loss. I suppose it could happen but all that is required is to think past the next day and I think you would back off. Maybe the one place that the previous film was more successful was in the use of the character Victor Pascow. He was visualized more ominously in the 89 version and was better used to set up how dire things could be. That character is substantially reduced in this rendering, and that is a weakness.

Local ritual was brought up early in the film as kids bury their pets, but other than one creepy sequence with kids wearing masks as they take a dog to his final resting place, there is just nothing that comes from this. The new directors and screenwriters wisely trimmed the role of the grandparents down. We never really hear from them and the unpleasant history of Rachel and her sister is presented with just enough detail to be horrifying and relevant without stealing too much focus from the main horror.

Since I knew all of the story beats already, and the trailers, previous film (and this review unfortunately) probably telegraph them to you, there is not suspense, just dread as we await the results of Louis’ action. The final scenes with Jud are not as scary as they were in the first film, but everything at the Creed home is more frightening this time around. I was not terribly disappointed because my expectations were tempered by the earlier film and the story. Early buzz had the film becoming a major upgrade and a modern horror classic. As someone once said , almost certainly in a movie, “reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated”.  I’m sorry to paraphrase, but it seems appropriate here, “reports of this films excellence have been greatly exaggerated.” It’s mildly satisfying, but it is not the shocker it so strives to be.