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Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

22 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Hooray! Spider-Man’s back after being “snapped” from existence in “Avengers: Infinity War” and brought back to kick some spidey ass in “Avengers: Endgame!” Speaking of which, spoilers for “Avengers: Endgame!” (Not just that Spider-Man is back, obviously—that’s kind of a given.) You’ve been warned. 

Even with more Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in the works, “Avengers: Endgame” worked wonderfully as a finale for all the MCU material we’ve seen in the past eleven years. But even so, “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” which takes place after those events, works as an effective epilogue to “Endgame.” (It’s also much lighter than the heavy epic scale of “Endgame”—not that there’s anything wrong with that.) 

Directed by Jon Watts (who also directed “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) and led by Tom Holland (the best live-action Spider-Man representation), “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is more practical and refreshingly so—lighthearted with a down-to-earth, humorous touch (I mean, for a Marvel superhero movie). 

Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) and his high-school friends, including his best buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon) and potential love interest M.J. (Zendaya), are “blipped” back to existence after Thanos finger-snapped half the Earth’s population away in “Avengers: Infinity War” (and the Avengers brought them back in “Avengers: Endgame”)—how convenient; most of their old classmates have already aged five years in their absence. (There’s a funny bit when we find out Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) mentions she vanished as well before she was suddenly brought back into her old apartment, which is now rented by someone else.) 

I personally would like to see more of what that must be like for others who were “blipped” away for five years. Think about it—if you were 16 and your little brother was 13, and you were suddenly blipped while time went on for everyone else including your brother, if you came back after five years, your brother would suddenly be older than you. How would that sibling dynamic work for you nowadays? That’d be an interesting story to follow. 

But I digress.

Peter is still mourning the loss of his mentor, Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), who died in the final battle of “Endgame.” He still wants to prove himself worthy of being Iron Man’s protege—a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, if you will—but he also wants to have somewhat of a social life as a high-school kid as well. He joins his classmates on a trip to Europe, and he couldn’t be more excited, mostly because he hopes to get closer to his crush, M.J. 

But uh-oh! Something serious is happening here. Venice is being torn apart by a mysterious, huge, seemingly water-based monster, causing Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) to recruit him to save the day. They also brought in someone else to help: Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has his own supersuit as well as his own skills, resources, and charisma that match Peter’s late mentor. He even gets a hero name: Mysterio.

Is it really a spoiler to say Mysterio isn’t really on the up-and-up? 

I have a complicated relationship with the “Spider-Man” movies—whenever a good one comes out, I always tell people it’s “the best ‘Spider-Man’ movie.” Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2,” Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and especially the wonderful, animated, highly energetic “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Well, I was perfectly satisfied to say that “Spider-Man: Far From Home” was “a good Spider-Man movie.” But then…we get the mid-credits scene. Every MCU movie has something extra to keep audiences through the end credits to tease the next adventure. This particular one made me drop my jaw before I exclaimed to myself, “Holy cow, WAS that the best Spider-Man movie??” I won’t give it away here, but I will say that now I’m REALLY curious to see the next Spider-Man movie, just to see what happens!

Maybe I’m overreacting. But still, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is a solid Spider-Man flick. Tom Holland is still a highly charismatic Peter Parker and the film goes deeper into the anxieties that comes with the responsibility of being Spider-Man. Whenever the film deals with Peter trying to have a social life as himself while still doing what he can as Spider-Man, it’s great. My favorite scene is when, without giving much away, he literally ends up in a maze of illusions that present his own fears and insecurities. 

I’m not a huge fan of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio, because he’s more interesting before he reveals his true nature and then he just becomes another villain. But that’s really more of a nitpick because the reveal does lead to some cool action and also some nicely-done character moments (including my favorite scene I just mentioned). 

The overall focus of “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is still where it should be: with the burden of being Spider-Man getting heavier and heavier for this kid who’s becoming a man in the process. And I’m always going to be interested in seeing the journey progress…especially after that mid-credits scene. (Seriously, I have to know! That was a hell of a cliffhanger!) 

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019)

11 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I enjoyed “How to Train Your Dragon” more than I expected to, given its admittedly-cheesy storyline, because it showed skill and strength to make it feel fresh and new. “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” I liked even more because it added to the ideas of the original, which all great sequels do. “How to Train Your Dragon” has become DreamWorks’ most surprising franchise since “Kung Fu Panda,” and I had hopes for this third installment: “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.” Did it live up to those hopes?

Trick question. Yes, it did. As the (possibly-) final installment in this successful, fun and even heartwarming series of animated films about Vikings and dragons, it’s just as enthralling and exciting and gorgeously animated as the previous two films, but because this is our farewell to these characters (unless we’ll catch up with them nearly a decade later, a la “Toy Story 4”), it’s also very emotionally satisfying. You will believe a boy and his dragon will make you feel things.(That’s as much as I can reveal without spoiling anything, but I’ll add that the resolution is more inevitable than it is predictable.) 

Will “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” be the last we see of these characters? Maybe, maybe not. But as the concluding chapter of this particular trilogy, it’s wonderful seeing them wrap up their story as is. 

Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel, whose “honking-goose” voice is actually acknowledged at one point by a supporting player), the young protagonist of the previous movies, is now the chieftain for the Viking village of Berk, which lives in perfect harmony with dragons. He, along with his dragon Toothless and his friends (including his betrothed fiancee Astrid, voiced again by America Ferrera), leads raids to rescue captured dragons and bring them back to the village, leading to overpopulation. Seeking to fix the problem, Hiccup decides to use his late father’s notes to try and track down “the Hidden World,” where dragons live in peace. But he has to make haste with help from all villagers, as the villainous Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), who hunts and kills dragons, seeks to kill Toothless, as he is a Night Fury, the species of dragon that Grimmel wants to rid the world of. Knowing it takes a dragon to trap a dragon, he uses a female Night Fury (a light skinned one—a Light Fury) to attempt to lure Toothless into his trappings. 

Grimmel isn’t a very complex villain, but compared to the previous film’s villain (just a ruthless warlord), he at least has a slimy charisma to himself and does deliver as much comedy as threats. But the film isn’t necessarily about him or his plan—he’s merely a McGuffin (though an entertaining one). It’s more about Hiccup’s coming-of-age journey to lead people with confidence and courage while also learning how to cope with change as he’s encouraging everyone else to accept it. He has to lead the villagers to a new place to call home where they’ll be safe from Grimmel’s further advances while he also has to come to grips with the very real possibility that’s eventually going to have to let Toothless, who has fallen in love with the Light Fury, break away from his only friend. It’s an engaging personal quest to follow, and Hiccup continues to grow as a character with each passing movie. His crisis of confidence is further assisted by returning characters such as Astrid and Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) by his side. 

Oh, and there’s also Tuffnut (T.J. Miller), one of Hiccup’s comic-relief friends whose main purpose is to give Hiccup some “helpful” advice, most of which is about the concept of “marriage,” which Hiccup and Astrid are both unsure about. Tuffnut’s sister Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) had a good share of the comedy in “How to Train Your Dragon 2” (and she has one great scene in which she’s captured by the villains and then let go because she’s so damn annoying); this time, Tuffnut has that distinction. A little obnoxious, but I’d be lying if I said he didn’t get a few laughs out of me.

And speaking of laughs, there’s a great comedic moment that feels like a Chaplin/Keaton silent film…but with dragons. It’s when Toothless tries to engage in “dating” with the Light Fury and has trouble impressing her. (It also doesn’t help that he can’t fly on his own, and the Light Fury spends very little time off the ground.) Toothless is nothing short of adorable here. 

But how do the visuals hold up? I think each “How to Train Your Dragon” movie looks better and better. The flying scenes are still incredible. The animation of the characters and the world around them is always impressive. And the scenic elements are wonderful—with the excellent cinematographer Roger Deakins on hand as visual consultant, I’m not the least bit surprised how great it looks. 

If this is the last time we see Hiccup or Toothless, at least we had three terrific movies to spend time in their company. “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” is an exceptional final chapter in an effectively fun trilogy, and I’m sure I’ll revisit all three films in a row in the near future. 

The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)

25 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a sweet film—very sweet and funny and likable. Sometimes, it’s a little too sweet to the point of reaching “corny” levels. But darn it, there were too many moments during which I had a smile on my face.

“The Peanut Butter Falcon,” written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, is reminiscent of a Mark Twain story, as two misunderstood outsiders embark on a cross-country journey to find something meaningful in life (and part of that journey takes place on a raft on the open sea). In this case, we have Zak and Tyler, two strangers who join together and become close friends along the way.

Zak is a Down Syndrome patient (and is played by Zack Gottsagen, who himself has Down Syndrome). He has been abandoned by his family and left at an old folks’ home because there’s nowhere else for him to go. He’s obsessed with an old videotape which features a pro wrestler, known as the Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), and he escapes his prison to find him. He has no money, no clothes, and no master plan of his own—he simply wants to find his way down to the Saltwater Redneck’s camp where he can pursue his dream of being a pro wrestler.

Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) is a rebellious, troublemaking fisherman who signs his own death warrant when he messes with the wrong people, thus putting himself on the run. Zak stows away on his boat during the getaway, and at first, Tyler doesn’t want anything to do with him. But soon enough, his good heart shows as he just can’t leave this guy alone and promises to take him where he wants to go.

What begins as an interesting partnership turns into a sweet friendship as it becomes clear that Tyler may be the only person Zak has ever encountered who sees what Zak CAN do rather than what his disability limits him to. And as it turns out, Zak isn’t as helpless as he would appear. The scenes with these two together are wonderful—the two actors play brilliantly off each other, the escalation of the friendship feels natural, and they pretty much make the movie as special as critics have made it out to be. (I happily jump aboard that train.)

The smiles on my face didn’t even fade when Zak’s caregiver, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), inevitably finds the two and questions Zak’s safety in Tyler’s company. But even she can’t deny there’s more to Zak than meets the eye as well (particularly in a scene that got the biggest laugh in the theater in which I first saw the film), and she becomes part of this new family. For a character like this, that was a refreshing take.

I will revisit this film time and time again just to revisit the lovely chemistry between these characters.

What didn’t quite work for me was the ending. It’s a little too neat without much of a satisfying payoff, and for a film like this, you need that final moment that will make you want to immediately tell your friends to go see this movie. After seeing it the first time, I merely mustered a “yeah it was good” to my friends.

I’m still giving “The Peanut Butter Falcon” 3 1/2 stars rather than 3 because Gottsagen, LaBeouf, and Johnson make the movie work wonders.

Brittany Runs a Marathon (2019)

25 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Every actor needs that one role that’s perfect for them to display their true talents. For Jillian Bell, a comedienne best known for side roles in “22 Jump Street,” “The Night Before,” “Office Christmas Party,” and “Fist Fight,” among others, that role is taking center-stage in the comedy-drama “Brittany Runs a Marathon.” I’ll be honest—I wasn’t rushing to see this film because I’m generally not a fan of Bell’s previous works (she didn’t do a thing for me). But I’m glad I did, because now I’ve seen what she can really do when she’s in a starring role that shows exactly what an impressive actress she is.

She has her usual dry cynical wit that she’s become best known for. But unlike her previous outings in film, I don’t think she’s improvising as much as trusting the material she’s working with. And it’s a truly solid, character-driven screenplay delivered by the film’s director Paul Downs Colaizzo. (This film is also Colaizzo’s debut.) As a result, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” presents an effective coming-of-age story with an excellent performance from a more-than-capable leading lady.

If there’s something more special than a comedy that can make an audience laugh, it’s one that can make them feel. For every time I’m laughing through the film, there was also a moment with harsh truth to it that made me feel for the characters and the situations they were in.

The titular Brittany (Bell) is a mess. She’s a 28-year-old party animal. She’s often sarcastic and bitter and cruel. She’s selfish. She uses humor as a defense mechanism. (I mean, don’t we all, sometimes?) She can be cold. She needs to get her life together. What sets her on this personal journey to better herself is a trip to an inexpensive doctor who will hopefully prescribe her with Adderall. Who knew he’d be the real deal and show concerns for Brittany’s health given that she’s close to morbidly obese?

She of course laughs off the doc’s advice to lose 50 lbs. at first, but soon enough, she does take his words to heart and decides to take up running regularly. Her party-hardy social-media-obsessed roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee) doesn’t take the idea seriously, but luckily, their neighbor, Catherine aka “Money Bags Marge” (Michaela Watkins, one of today’s finest character actors), is a fitness enthusiast…thus, it’s time for Brittany to stop referring to Catherine as “Money Bags Marge” if she’s going to ask for her help.

And help Brittany, Catherine does. Brittany joins her running club, where they both meet Seth (Micah Stock), who is insecure about his being out-of-shape, since his husband is in shape and their kid has that certain children’s energy and Seth wants to get in shape before they adopt a second child. (That way, he can keep up, you see.) Brittany, Catherine, and Seth jog and work together in preparation for running in the New York City Marathon. Can Brittany lose the weight in time and change her life in the process?

Well, yeah—you can guess she does. But it’s not an easy road to walk (or run). Along the way, Brittany learns some difficult realities about herself, the people around her, and the attitudes she’s been giving towards it all. It’s compelling and works effectively. It’s also fun to see other people in her life, such as her brother-in-law Demetrius (Lil Rel Howery of “Get Out”—do I even need to say he’s hilarious in this?) and Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a purposeless millennial who also works with Brittany in the same dog-sitting job (and may also be Brittany’s potential love interest). They help Brittany open her eyes to who she is and the better person she can become, because she is the only true obstacle she has to face in order to change.

There, of course, has to be a clincher—a moment that really shows Brittany at her worst so that she can turn away from the others and truly self-reflect so that she can become a truly better person. And unfortunately, that moment, which occurs at Demetrius’ birthday party where she snaps at an overweight female guest, is my least favorite part of the movie. We’re supposed to see Brittany at the end of her rope before she bounces back and learns the error of her ways, but this scene wasn’t written as strongly as it could have been and it sort of came off as random rather than plausible.

But we still get to root for Brittany at her best after seeing her at her worst, and I’m glad to be rooting for her when (spoiler alert) she does run the marathon, as the title suggests. And much of it is not only thanks to a sharply written script but also to Jillian Bell’s sense of conviction that shows she truly has range as an actress. Brittany has so much baggage, but that doesn’t stop us from rooting for her and caring for her. “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is a pleasant surprise.

Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

22 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Two years ago, “Happy Death Day” was a pleasant surprise—a slasher film that was actually good.

OK, that statement may seem mean, but the point is I had a lot of fun with the movie. And especially for an era when our best horror films tend to stray away from slasher-killers and moves more toward ideas and imagination, it’s refreshing to see a film about a slasher-killer written with ideas and imagination.

It was a success, and so a sequel was inevitable. Would it match its predecessor in any way, shape or form?

Yes. It. Would.

Brief recap: A college sorority girl, nicknamed Tree (Jessica Rothe), experiences a time-loop that causes her to repeat her birthday over and over again…and it’s also her death-day, as each time, she’s brutally slaughtered by a masked killer. Did I mention the killer wears a creepy baby mask? Believe it or not, that’s the campus mascot. She eventually solves the mystery of who the killer is and thus, she’s finally able to live and see tomorrow. It was the story of a total bitch who became a better person under unbelievable circumstances.

“Happy Death Day 2U,” the sequel, contains more of a sci-fi edge to it (though there are still some horror aspects left over—it is a Blumhouse production after all) and kind of reminds me of the zany, goofy fun of “Back to the Future Part II.” (And yes, that title is dropped here, just as “Groundhog Day” was in the previous film.) We get an explanation for the time-loop this time, and we’re also taken into a parallel dimension and reminded of the possibilities of a multiverse.

Tree is dying again and again…again. Why? Because, this time, she’s in another universe, in which her new boyfriend Carter (Israel Broussard) is now dating the bitchy sorority queen Danielle (Rachel Matthews), who seems nicer this time around, her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), who turned out to be the killer in the previous film, is now Tree’s closest friend, and HER DEAD MOTHER IS ALIVE!!…oh, and that damned baby-masked killer is on the loose again. Poor Tree just can’t catch a break. But who is it this time?

A trio of science-student stereotypes—Ryan (Phi Vu, reprising his brief role from the original film as Carter’s roommate), Samar (Suraj Sharma), and Dre (Sarah Yarkin), thanking reminding us of “Real Genius” rather than “Revenge of the Nerds”—are responsible for the time-loop. You see, they’ve created a machine that is intended to slow time down. Instead, not only has it caused people (or maybe just Tree—I’m not really sure) to relive day after day but it also opened up a door to a parallel universe. So now, Tree, in the new world, has to convince the trio that their machine works so that they can create new algorithms in order to test the device again in order to send Tree back home, but it will take several tries, and so, Tree has to come back again with the previous equations memorized…meaning she has to die again and again (again, again) in order to convince them again in order to finally get it right.

Sounds confusing, but…OK, it is a little confusing—keep a notepad handy if you watch this one. You thought “BTTF Part II” was loaded with paradoxes? Whew!

Usually, I have a real beef against sequels that cause me to repeat the very things that characters have done in previous installments because…they are doing it…AGAIN. But thankfully, “Happy Death Day 2U” has every bit as much of a sharp script as its predecessor, with a lot of wit in a “Scream” sort of way and surprisingly, a great deal of heart.

I mean it, too. For as funny and creative and twisted as “Happy Death Day 2U” is, it can also be very heartwarming as well. As I mentioned, Tree’s mother (Missy Yager), who died in an accident on Tree’s birthday long ago in Tree’s universe, is alive in this universe. This gives Tree a hard choice to make, as she sees her as a reason not to go back. The character of Tree is able to grow some more this time around (hah! Tree? Grow? I get it.), and Jessica Rothe handles these scenes rather beautifully.

But of course, as with the first movie, her comedic moments are definitely on-point. She’s fantastic here.

Oh, right. We have the killer again. Did we really need him/her for this one? Eh, maybe not. But we expected the return.

The characters we’ve seen before are welcomed back and worth rooting for (and Carter in particular is one of the few horror-movie boyfriends I can tolerate), the mix of sci-fi, comedy, and horror is uniquely handled, and if there’s another sequel to be made with these capable hands (which also include writer/director Christopher Landon), I’ll be interested in seeing it. And I’ll surely watch “Happy Death Day 2U” as many times as I’ve watched “Happy Death Day.”

But that still doesn’t answer the question…what school has a baby for their mascot??

Fast Color (2019)

7 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a star on the rise. I just know in my heart that a Hollywood director or producer is going to discover her excellent leading performance in Julia Hart’s “Fast Color” and  hire her in a mainstream studio film, whether it be a comedy or a sci-fi epic or the next Marvel movie, that will give her more exposure. She deserves the attention, as does “Fast Color.”

In the film, Mbatha-Raw plays Ruth, a young woman on the run because she has superhuman abilities—because, where there’s someone who has superpowers, there’s always some secret government agency that wants to hunt them down, capture them, and lock them up. (If these people would watch “Stranger Things,” in which the government agents get their brains smushed by telekinesis, they’d at least consider the option of offering them positions to help make the world a better place…as long as they don’t hound them for it.) She has violent seizures that cause earthquakes, even in places where there shouldn’t be earthquakes. And she has trouble controlling them. When she was a teenager, one of her seizures nearly caused the death of a family member and she left her mother’s house and never looked back.

Years later, she travels from place to place, always on the run, in fear that she’ll hurt somebody with another seizure and that someone in power will find her and take her away. Early in the film, she finds that her fear is justified, as she gets a ride from who she thinks is a kind stranger but is really a government agent who, of course, wants to take her with him. She fights back as soon as he holds up a syringe, and she finds there’s nowhere else to go but back home.

This is also set in a dying world where it hasn’t rained in years (and water is a precious commodity)—in a refreshing change of pace, these government slimeballs aren’t seeking mutants just because they’re afraid of their powers or because they think they’re interesting; instead, it’s to see if they can use their mysterious powers to bring the world back to life. How they go about it, however, could be worked on—will these people ever learn?

Anyway, Ruth returns to her childhood home, a farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere. She’s reunited with her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint, fantastic here), who is stern and overprotective, especially of her adolescent granddaughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney). Ruth is Lila’s mother and hasn’t seen Lila since she was a baby, and now, this is an opportunity to mother, daughter, and granddaughter to connect as a family.

Oh, and Bo and Lila have their own abilities as well. It also seems Lila has mastered her abilities way better than Ruth could ever attempt, which leads to interesting conversations between the two, which leads to a few sweet dramatic moments together. We also understand Bo’s reasoning to protect Lila as she tried to protect Ruth long ago—sometimes, she even has to protect Lila from Ruth, whether Ruth intends harm or not. And Ruth learns to see the bright side in her own abilities, which she never wanted in the first place.

All three are compelling, well-defined characters that keep the film at a grounded level. And the direction from Julia Hart (whose previous film was the comedy-drama “Miss Stevens”) helps make the film more than it could have been. It feels like a superhero origin story with real people.

Where this intriguing dynamic of three different generations of supernatural abilities leads, I’ll leave for you to discover. All I can say is I thought I was going to be disappointed. Instead, I was left with much to discuss with someone else who has seen it. (And I’ll be showing this film to my fiancee Kelly, for sure. Can’t wait to discuss it with her.)

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is at the center of “Fast Color,” and her performance, which has a great blend of vulnerability, confusion, and anger, is the kind that should gain a lot of awards attention (but probably won’t, sadly). But I get the feeling something bigger is in store for her. And she deserves it. She’s great in this film, she’s been great in other films (“Beyond the Lights,” “The Cloverfield Paradox”), and she’ll be great in many others to come.

Shazam! (2019)

16 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What could happen if a 14-year-old boy was given superhuman abilities? That’s the premise that “Shazam!,” based on the DC Comics superhero, wants to play with, as our teenage main character, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), becomes a superhero after taking the power of the Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). Actually, it’s six powers: the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. Put the names of all six Greek gods together and you get the acronym “SHAZAM!” Oh, and he also transforms into the buff adult body of Zachary Levi and dons a red superhero wardrobe with a lightning symbol on the front, so therefore, we get kind of the “Superman” version of “Big.” (There’s even a reference to “Big” midway through the film—you’ll know it when you see it, if you’re a fan of “Big.”)

A little background—Billy has been searching for his mother (who lost him years ago) for the longest time and has hopped from one foster home to another because of his search which involves him getting into trouble one time too many. He’s taken in to another foster home, with a couple who seem like loving parents. But that’s not enough for Billy and neither are his foster siblings, including his roommate, the physically disabled geeky foster brother Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), and the adorable, energetic little foster sister, Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman). But he still feels the need to help them out any way he can, such as protecting Freddy from some bullies. While running from said-bullies, he happens upon the Wizard Shazam, who has searched for the right soul to hand his powers to—now that he’s dying, he has no choice but to give them to Billy.

Now in the form of Shazam, Billy lets Freddy in on the secret as they test his new abilities (and record before uploading it to YouTube to gain popularity), and of course, they have the time of their lives. (And luckily, Billy doesn’t stay in superhero form all the time—he can transform from boy to hero to boy again to hero again by simply saying the name “Shazam!”) But before long, Billy learns the obvious—with great power comes great responsibility. After rescuing passengers of a runaway city bus from certain death, Billy learns of an even bigger problem: a supervillain, spawned from Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who spent his life searching to obtain the Shazam abilities after they were denied to him as a child. (Wizard Shazam kept testing different people around the world and turned them down as soon as they proved unworthy.) Now, he’s obtained the controlling powers of the Seven Deadly Sins, who come to life and wreak havoc on humanity. Billy has to stop doing dumb teenager things with his superpowers and go up against Sivana and the demonic beings to save the day.

The villain is the weakest part of the movie for me, but at least the clever screenplay (written by Henry Gayden) has as much fun with him to make it better—for example, he has his typical villain monologue far away from where Shazam can hear it and he’s completely unaware. (I always wanted to see that in a superhero film.)

Speaking of which, what makes “Shazam!” most enjoyable is its lightheartedness and its ability to score laughs by playing with superhero-movie conventions, especially when Billy and Freddy continue to test the superpowers to see what Shazam can and can’t do. But I was surprised by a lot of the dramatic portions of the film as well. “Shazam!” can be heartfelt with emotional weight and depth, especially in the scenes in which Billy looks for his mother and bonds with is foster siblings (who are all distinct and very likable), and it doesn’t feel like it belongs in a different movie. The broad comedy and heavy drama in this superhero flick work surprisingly well together. Credit for that not only goes to the actors, who put their all into their work, but also the guidance of director David F. Sandberg (best known for horror films “Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation”).

Oh, and it can also get pretty intense, especially when it comes to the Seven Deadly Sins…they perform a massive slaughter at an office meeting before terrorizing little children! (Parents, the PG-13 rating has warned you.) Inconsistent? Perhaps. But it reminded me of an ‘80s family-adventure that didn’t care who it was made for.

Being a film set in the DC extended universe, you’d think it’d be more about setting up the next DC film, which is something many of its installments fell victim to. But all that’s cared about with “Shazam!” was telling its own story (with only a few brief mentions of Superman and Batman). With effective writing, a fun spirit to it, and a wonderful, engaging performance from Zachary Levi as well as all the young actors, “Shazam!” is an extremely fun and well-made lighthearted superhero fable.