It is again time to turn our collective gaze towards another random selection of movies and lo, pass judgement upon them. Which of Shazam!, The Catcher Was A Spy, The Kid Who Would Be King, Fighting With My Family, Triple Threat, and Vice will be worthy of your time? Join us. Find out.
So this, then, is the second Captain Marvel film in about a month. However this, despite featuring the first Captain Marvel character, is entirely distinct from the Marvel Captain Marvel that we saw last month in Captain Marvel. With me so far? This Captain Marvel, after trademark issues and a break in publication, is now known as Shazam, a particularly stupid name being as it is his magic word/catchphrase, and a (really, really awkward) acronym at that. It seems equivalent to renaming Johnny Storm to Flame On! Or Wolverine Bub. Or Snikt!
An ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou), the last of his order, is magically summoning people from all over the world to see if they are worthy of inheriting his power. One such is Thaddeus Sivana, who shows himself unable to resist the temptations of evil. Returned to Earth, the discombobulated youngster makes it his life’s goal to return to the wizard’s temple and gain power.
You’ll never guess what happens next! That’s right, he fixes the cable. Don’t be fatuous, Drew. OK, so the now grown up Sivana, played by Mark Strong, finally finds a way to return to the temple, and rather than take the wizard’s power, he takes the bad and evil power! Boo! Hiss! In doing so he releases the Seven Deadly Sins, which are not concepts but gargoyle-like demons, physical manifestations of ancient evil that, obviously, want to take over the world.
Meanwhile, young Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has run away from yet another foster home, and is given a final chance by Rosa and Victor in their diverse household. Here he meets Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a superhero nerd and lover of Batman and Superman. While trying to get used to his new home, Billy is summoned to the wizard and deemed worthy (or possibly just available, as the wizard’s time is running short) and granted magical powers, foremost of which is his ability to instantly transform into a large, muscle-bound adult man by speaking the magic word, shazam!
He will of course soon have to face the bad guy, who is directed by the Seven Deadly Sins, currently living in his eye (seems uncomfortable), to destroy this new champion before he masters his powers and re-imprisons them. But in the meantime Billy’s going to make the most of his nifty new powers by buying beer and charging people for selfies. You know, all the standard superhero stuff.
It was fair to say that I was very turned off by the trailer to this film: it looked really goofy, and my immediate thought on seeing the character, which I was previously only aware of through some DC Comics videogames, was, “how is this not just Superman with a palette swap?”
Well, the film is pretty goofy, and, in terms of abilities etc., the character is Superman with a palette swap. It turns out, though, that this isn’t a bad thing as Shazam! is rather a lot of fun. It doesn’t start out particularly promisingly, with the growling demons and Djimon Hounsou in a laughably bad fake beard and wig taking itself altogether far too seriously. I guess we’re also supposed to feel some sympathy for the young Sivana in light of his father’s behaviour towards him, but the stupid little git did actually cause a terrible car crash, so sympathy is in short supply. However once the action jumps forward to the present day and Billy gains his powers things improve immensely.
Shazam! is comfortably the lightest in tone of the films in the DC Cinematic Universe, and, while I seem to like the darker stuff far more than many, the difference is welcome and probably needed. In terms of tone and structure there are many comparisons to be drawn between this film and _Spider-Man: Homecoming and this is undoubtedly a good thing. There’s a decent helping of the whole “with great power comes great responsibility” thing, and a lot of humour to be mined from the teenage boy suddenly possessing a man’s body idea, alongside an adolescent immediately taking advantage of looking and sounding like a grown-up.
Asher Angel is a reasonably engaging screen presence as Billy, though it took me a little while to warm to him. But the real standout in this film is Zachary Levi, who does a remarkably believable job of playing a thirteen year old in an adult’s body and voice. This feels like it would be difficult to get right, and very easy to get wrong, but Levi gets it spot on and is a crucial part of the film’s success. The scenes with Levi’s Captain Sparkle Fingers and Jack Dylan Grazer’s Freddy are generally the film’s best, with the relationship feeling similar to Peter and Ned in Spider-Man.
Shazam! is its own film, though. It’s definitely the more enjoyable of the two Captain Marvel films. It even largely avoids the Superman problem of the boringly invulnerable god fella (and also avoids the “Superman is a dick” problem that has been persisted since Man of Steel). Where it falls down is the villain, who once again tends more towards the dull “take over the world” archetype, and, once again, squanders the great Mark Strong, though at least he’s better served here than his last outing as a DC villain, and he is a part of one of the film’s best gags, albeit as the straight man.
Indispensable? No. Worth seeing? Assuming you’re not burned out on comic book movies, then absolutely. And unlike Captain Marvel, no terrifying wax Clark Gregg monster.
And one last thing: I have a visceral hatred of the phrase “oh my gosh”. Just say “oh my god”. This film has monsters biting the heads off of characters, yet still elsewhere a character says, “oh my gosh” and oh my god it makes me angry. Grrrrr.
Does that really have anything to do with Shazam! in particular? No. But I never met a soap box opportunity I didn’t like.
The Catcher Was A Spy
There’s something weird about this Ben Affleck performance, I thought, quarter of an hour in to viewing The Catcher Was A Spy on the tiny screen of an interminable transatlantic flight a few weeks back. The odd thing was, it turns out, that it’s a Paul Rudd performance, so you may want to keep this level of attention of viewing in mind before placing too much stock in any of these opinions.
Anyway, we’re plunged into 40’s America, just before their entrance to World War Zwei, and introduced to Rudd’s Moe Berg, coming to the end of his days as a catcher for the Boston Red Sox. However, and at the risk of spoiling things, the bulk of this film is concerned with his wartime activities where he was a spy. Berg was a highly intelligent, highly educated man, Princeton educated, studying seven languages, and just the sort of man the CIA’s forerunner, the OIS could use.
The main throughline is regarding efforts by Jeff Daniels’ General Bill Donovan to ascertain how far along the Nazi atom bomb program is, headed up by Mark Strong’s Werner Heisenberg. To that end Berg, along with Paul Giamatti’s Samuel Goudsmit, a noted physicist, and Guy Pearce’s Robert Furman, a more military minded OSS bod, are dispatched to Europe to get a handle on things by crossing frontlines to interview Heisenberg’s colleagues, ultimately leading to an order for Berg to make a call on whether or not to assassinate Heisenberg. Now, there’s an uncertainty principle for you.
The other arm of the film is Berg’s secretive private life, in which at least as presented here he’s bisexual in a time when the both the “bi” and the “sexual” parts of that were not to be spoken of, so perhaps not knowing all that much for sure is not quite as unusual as the film presents. It does, however, present the biggest challenge for this film to overcome, in as much as it’s not like any aspect of this outside the baseball is really a matter of record. So, “based on a true story” holds about as much water as it usually does.
I enjoyed this well enough – Rudd is, as always, a likeable lead, and there’s a really great supporting cast that, well, do quite a lot with quite a little – the script is a little on the thin side. Perhaps that’s unavoidable given it’s a character study of someone very averse to being studied, so it can’t go in too heavy on specifics as they’d be invented. A conundrum, and one which the film seems content to brazen out with charm and polish.
It has both in spades, and along with it being a subject I had no prior knowledge of, it makes for a very easy watch. It’s not one that would trouble any awards, and perhaps doesn’t hold up to any intense scrutiny. That tracks well with the mediocre overall score on review aggregators, and I suppose in terms of a general recommendation I’ll agree. It’s a diverting enough couple of hours, but not worth going out of your way to see.
The Kid Who Would Be King
A modern take on a medieval novel based on a Dark Ages legend, set in contemporary London? And with – though probably coincidentally – more than a hint of post-EU Referendum political allegory? Hmmm. Sounds like a hard sell. Which indeed The Kid Who Would Be King was, failing to recoup its budget at a box office that had already seen another two medieval films, including one based on the same character, flop in the preceding two years.
A pity, since there are certainly things to like about Joe Cornish’s The Kid Who Would Be King.
We all know that strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony. You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you! Nor just because you happen to pull a bit of steel from a lump of rock. (Though either of these has the potential to produce a considerably more capable leader than those we conspicuously lack at this present time. A little cutting political commentary for you there, listeners. Also sadly true, so we can all have a wee communal cry later on).
Perhaps it’s fortunate, then, that the power bestowed upon 12 year old Alex Elliott (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) after he stumbles upon Excalibur on a demolition site while fleeing from bullies is done so more or less in secret, and doesn’t result in some horrendously bloody and definitely legally iffy coup d’état.
Shortly after finding the sword, a strange young fellow (sometimes Angus Imrie, sometimes Patrick Stewart, sometimes an owl) appears at Stonehenge, seeking the new king. He attempts to go undercover at Alex’s school to prepare him for his role, though his plans are rather upended by his miscalculation, and he now has four days, not four years, in which to help Alex save the world.
Alex isn’t buying this at first, but when he is attacked by a demon knight, one of the Mortes Milles, undead warriors who serve King Arthur’s half-sister Morgana, who wishes to take the sword and rule the world, he reconsiders his purchase.
As King Arthur turned his enemies into allies, so Alex recruits his nemeses, school bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), and they, along with Alex’s best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), set off to Tintagel island in Cornwall to find the entrance to the underworld, and also Alex’s absent father.
Cornish’s script can be a bit heavy-handed with the messaging at times, but it’s resolutely upbeat and earnest, much like its cast, and it’s difficult not to like Serkis and Chaumoo. I think Angus Imrie’s trying-very-hard-to-be-quirky performance could be a bit Marmite, but I rather liked it, save for his magical hand waving, and Patrick Stewart is, as you would expect, great. Least well-served is Rebecca Ferguson, who spends most of her time covered in twigs, though at least her dragon/harpie manifestation is a bit creepy looking, even if it perhaps has more of the videogame cutscene than the feature film about it, quality-wise.
The real problem with The Kid Who Would Be King lies in the fact that the Arthurian legend never ties in to the modern setting very well, with the film far too often falling back on Alex reading bits from a book and explaining to his colleagues what’s happening. And talking of his colleagues, Alex’s former bullies teaming up with him owes more to narrative necessity than character development. Morgana likewise suffers from missing motivation, her actions seemingly being explained by “because evil”.
The Kid Who… is very child-centric, with the adults, Sir Pat Stew aside, largely relegated to the periphery, as they ought to be, but even for children I think it’s a little low on content for a two hour film, though to be fair it doesn’t drag as much as it might.
I really struggle to categorise it as much better than “alright”, much as I may want to, however, it is a charming, cynicism-free (at least if you set aside the potential Brexit subtext) and often funny adventure yarn that many children, and some adults, will enjoy.
Fighting With My Family
The “WWE Films” credit is normally where I’d recommend turning off a film. Not the one at the end. The one at the start. It’s normally a foretelling of a dreadful low budget action film, starring a wrestler, or sometimes a dreadful low budget horror film, starring a wrestler. Not that starring a wrestler is necessarily a bad thing, but if that wrestler isn’t Dwayne Johnston, or occasionally Roddy Piper, we’re in trouble.
It is, however, not typically followed up with a Film 4 credit, so this is a little unusual. And one of the wrestlers here, it turns out, is Dwayne Johnston. So that’s good. Mostly.
Anyway, back to the start. This introduces us to the glamorous spiritual home of professional wrestling, checks notes, Norwich? and the Knight family, running a gym hall wrestling promotion and wrestling school. It’s very much a family affair, with Nick Frost’s Rick and Lena Headey as Julia semi-retired from action, with their kids Jack Lowden’s Zak and eventually Florence Pugh’s Saraya involved in the in-ring action. Both dream of making it big, and in the West at least that means heading off to the WWE, where, spoilers, Saraya does eventually end up, performing under the name Paige. Hence this film.
But that’s skipping forward a bit. The bulk of this film comes to you directly from the Ladybird big book of sporting underdog stories, with a dash of a showbiz underdog story, as befits pro wrestling, I suppose. Zak and Paige both hustle for the same job, but ultimately its Paige who impresses Vince Vaughn’s head trainer Hutch Morgan enough to earn a place in the WWE developmental program in Florida, which puts stress on their family relationships.
There’s no less stress on Paige as she struggles both to fit in to America and to keep up with the training, being on the verge of quitting before her individuality and family pull her through into making it in a way that will only be unpredictable to those who have not seen a film before.
That’s not to say that it’s automatically bad – indeed, there’s a fair amount in here that I quite like. Lanky Gervasian sidekick Steven Merchant has been brought on board to adapt and direct, and at least for the sections closer to home, dealing with the foibles of familial relationships, he’s brought a good amount of heart and humour to the piece, with really solid, likeable performances from the young leads, and also from Frost and Headey.
There’s a drag factor to the film, and it’s been applied solely by the WWE who are pitching this heavily towards them being a family friendly dream factory. This is, politely, horsedroppings, and while I’ll forgive the usual inaccuracies to make a better or more streamlined story, it’s a bit harder to overlook the airbrushing out of the head trainer at this time, Bill DeMott, who later left the company under a cloud of suspiciously lightly investigated bullying, assault and abuse allegations. Nothing like as sympathetic as Vince Vaughn’s character turns out to be, after his cut-rate drill sergeant act exhausts itself.
Indeed most of the Florida based run of the film is a bit of a drag, favouring some remedial level character development over humour, and, well, it’s clear that it’s not where Merchant’s heart is. Back in Norwich, he’s a bit more assured, with much more interesting and crucially, funny character interactions that makes the council schemes and playgrounds a lot more fun to watch than the glamorous hotels and beaches.
It also earns a great deal of respect from me by showing the effects of youth not having suitable outlet for their energies when the Norwich wrestling school briefly closes – sure, I’m supposed to worry about the kid orbiting a gang of drug pushers, but I’m much more impressed with the younger kids randomly trying to smash streetlights by gaffer-taping a hammer to a couple of broom handles. That’s the sort of ingenuity and drive we’ll need post-Brexit.
So, a bit of a surprise for me, this – my expectations were not high, and it flew past them easily. By no means earthshattering or in any way original, but warm-hearted and a lot of fun.
There’s one major theme that runs through Jesse V. Johnson’s Triple Threat. I wonder if you’ll be able to work out what it is.
Chinese businesswoman Xiao Xian (Celina Jade) has vowed to devote vast sums of her inheritance to cleaning up corruption in Indonesia, particularly in the city of Maha Jaya. This causes much consternation to those involved in organised crime, here headed by Champagne Drinking Lady, who orders a hit on Xiao Xian.
Iko Uwais’s Man lives with his wife in, for some reason, what is supposed to be an MI6 black site in Thailand. An MI6 black site where a dangerous terrorist is kept in a cage, along with women and children, for some reason. This MI6 facility is also run by an Indonesian and an Australian. Also for some reason.
A group of mercenaries led by Michael Jai White’s Devereux and employed by Champagne Drinking Lady make an attack on this camp in order to break out the terrorist, who is, for some reason, not actually a terrorist but another mercenary, without whom the other mercenaries can’t act. For some reason. Amongst this group are Tony Jaa’s Payu and Tiger Chen’s Bowlcut, who were hired for their local knowledge (unlike the rest of the planet the jungles of Thailand are not directly beneath space, so GPS doesn’t work). They are left to die in an explosion (I bet you can’t guess why), an explosion which also kills Man’s wife but fortunately leaves him merely dusty.
Man tracks down Payu and Bowlcut, and after finding out that they were also victims of the mercenary group uses them as bait to draw out Collins. For some… No, no, wait. This works, and makes sense. Yay!
Man then, for some reason, deliberately passes up his opportunity to take revenge on Collins. Not to find out who is behind this all – this just sort of happens, somehow (probably for some reason) – but because… Well, because. They can’t have a fight at the end of the movie if he has killed him halfway through, can they? That’s rather the problem with Triple Threat: it has places it needs to get to, but no satisfying way, nor, indeed, any real idea at all of how to get there. Why can’t Payu and Bowlcut stop the people in the camp dying? Well, they can’t defuse the bomb. Except that it’s not a bomb, it’s a demolition charge, but pulling the two detonators out of the C4 (sorry, composition 4, as it’s rather awkwardly called) is too difficult?
The mercenaries fire automatic weapons on a group outside of a television studio (though come over all Imperial Stormtrooper when it comes to hitting their target), launch an assault on a police station with grenade launchers, but can’t fire at a tuk-tuk directly in front of them? For some reason. Likewise, Xiao Xian decides for some reason that she, a Chinese citizen who also knows the Chinese ambassador, would be better served by not going to the embassy.
Of course outside of the plot the reason is very clear: the filmmakers need to get the characters to the final showdown, and couldn’t think of a good way to do it, so didn’t bother.
Triple Threat feels very much like it has been written with a starting point and an end point in mind, and nobody much knows or cares what goes on, plot wise, in between. There are no characters, and everybody is very angry all of the time. For some reason.
I know many people argue that genre cinema should get a pass on many of these things, but that is not a stance I have ever supported: I don’t care what the genre is, the components need to be good. What I do concede, however, is that plot, character, dialogue etc. can have lesser importance to, in this case, action. And if the action were of a high enough quality then my complaints could be set aside as relatively inconsequential or even nitpicking.
So is the action of a high enough quality? Well, there lies the rub. There are a handful of entertaining fights, a few moments of delightful goriness – like someone being burst with a grenade – and… well, not a lot else, really. That’s the problem: there are only a handful of decent action sequences with a lot of space between. Even for a 95 minute film it feels very empty.
It’s far from the worst film I’ve seen, but when you’re relying on Tony Jaa et al to act rather than kick arse then you’ve rather missed the point.
Director Adam McKay follows up The Big Short with another film attempting to mine entertainment from arguably dry subject matter, enlisting Christian Bale to again abuse his body to inhabit notoriously big Vice President Dick Cheney.
We follow him across his younger days as a college drop-out drunk, before his wife, Amy Adam’s Lynne, straightens him up enough to get him into a government internship program. There he works his way up the Nixon-era Republican party structure under then economic adviser, Donald Rumsfeld, played here by Steve Carell and a fake nose. After all that Watergate unpleasantness, Rumsfled and therefore Cheney get a bit closer to power in Ford’s administration, but after Jimmy Carter’s election he runs for the House of Representatives, a task made difficult by Cheney having the warmth and charisma of a bag of concrete.
Still, he makes it, eventually working his way up to Secretary of Defense under Bush the Elder’s Presidency. However, it’s the second act that’s the meat and potatoes of this, as he returns as Vice President under Bush the Younger’s run with a vastly expanded remit over previous VPs, and a much more expanded interpretation of the sort of power the executive branch can wield, leading in no small part to today’s anti-peachy global situation.
Along the way it will deal with, or well, mention Cheney’s health and family issues, perhaps in an attempt to show us that even history’s worst monsters pet a dog occasionally. Really it’s here that Vice falls on its face, but before getting to that, I should say that I rather enjoyed Vice – it’s centred on a very impressive Bale performance, with really great supporting turns from the likes of Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry and Eddie Marsan. It’s funny enough to maintain interest over a perhaps shade too long two hours twenty-ish runtime, and I like it well enough to recommend it to anyone with even the slightest tolerance left for politics. There seems to be altogether too much politics these day.
However, and maybe I misread this, there’s an expectation set up at the start of the film that I’d get some sort of insight into Cheney’s thought process and character. The text scrawl says something along the lines of few people knowing what he was responsible for. I took that as meaning we’d get something a bit deeper, but it turns out it was meant literally.
This film is in essence a very well produced, flashy adaptation of a Wikipedia article, and the central “no-one knows what Cheney was up to” idea is surely horsedroppings. Even with only a marginal interest in US politics, there’s nothing presented here that wasn’t very well reported at the time and analysed subsequently many times over, certainly of the most impactful, vice-presidency era. For me I supposed it provided a bit of detail of his earlier career I wasn’t aware of, but nothing that had I been interested in couldn’t be quickly gleaned from existing sources.
I think the film know it weak in that regard, hence the desperate address to camera hail mary that it ends on, but it’s too little, and too shallow, too late. There’s surely more interesting elements to mine here – for example his relationship with openly lesbian daughter, while being in a party actively opposing gay rights, and the terrible friction that causes when another daughter will run for office – shown, but quickly passed over, and not analysed in any way. I suppose it’s the same problem as The Catcher Was A Spy has – there’s not a lot of reliable information to draw from in that regard, and I’d perhaps be more annoyed if it invented it, but it does rather kneecap any meaning from the film.
Still, it’s a very entertaining film, and if you lived through this era in some form of seclusion from the world, or heaven forfend, are young enough not to have experienced it first-hand, you may get a lot more out of this. Even when presenting little new to me information, I still enjoyed it. I just wish it was a little less superficial.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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