We unleash the hounds of opinion on Captain Marvel, Free Solo, Holmes & Watson, Triple Frontier, and Shoplifters in our latest episode. Which will be savaged, and which will be enthusiastically slobbered on? You simply must tune in to find out!
My tolerance for Marvel films ebbs ever lower, so I suppose you’ll have to bear that in mind as a framing device as we delve into the twenty first of them, which by this point have all blended to a fine, interchangeable purée.
To shortcut some framing devices, this is the story of Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel nee Carol Danvers, introduced to us as an amnesiac elite soldier of some bunch of aliens, in the middle of a war with another bunch of aliens, stranded on Earth in the 1990s after a mission goes awry.
After some initial disbelief, she teams up with Sam Jackson’s young Nick Fury to fight the shape shifting Skrulls who have followed her to Earth on the trail of some light speed engine or other, and along the way they will uncover the secrets of her past, the origin of her powers, and the truth about who she’s fighting for and against.
On multiples occasion I’ve tried and failed to get more involved with running our Twitter account, and Captain Marvel is a pretty good example of why that never sticks. I have no interest whatsoever in recapping any of it, but a few things that stick in my craw need to be addressed. First, if you are enough of a baby to hate a film sight unseen based on the activism of the lead actor, you do you, but your opinion is of no interest to me. Second, if you’re loudly proclaiming your wokeness by saying any criticism of this film is rooted in misogyny, you do you, but your opinion is of no interest to me. If we can’t somehow discuss a silly comic book film without immediately polarising to the extremes, why bother discussing anything on social media?
I say this because I have criticism to share, dear listeners. Now, to be clear, Captain Marvel is not a bad film. It shares the base level of Marvel competence that their well-trod formula churns out. It passed the time, just about adequately. Unfortunately, like Black Panther, I can’t be much more positive about it than that, and I admit that will give short shrift to those who can find some degree of representation in this in a genre that’s a bit of a pale sausage fest. But Wonder Woman was actually fun, and this, well…
It’s not the best script Marvel has give us by a long chalk. Look, I don’t really care about plot holes in comic book movies, because they are comic book movies, and to a degree it’s part of the plot that there’s no clear description or limit to Cap’s powers. That doesn’t explain why in one scene she’s blasting through steel doors or spacecraft like they’re papier-mâché and in other scenes struggling to fight goons. I’d have appreciated a handwave, at least.
More critically, and apologies to those that liked her, but here Larson is to me most akin to a wet blanket, or at least an over-dampened pillow. There’s a bit of a tell not show issue here, as the film stops dead at least twice, and a little more organically a couple more times, to tell us that Danvers is smart, strong, powerful, delightful and funny, and it really ought to be more concerned with showing us why she is these things. Particularly funny, and while of course that’s very personal, I didn’t chuckle once over the course of this film. She’s doing everything else acceptably enough, though, and overall she’s fine – but given the hype train around the film, and the character, I’m not so sure fine cuts it.
Support is solid, with Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Annette Bening and Lashana Lynch all providing more flavour than the bland main course. It’s just a shame that no matter how much mystery the script tries to build around Captain Marvel, she’s not interesting enough to care about. The greater conflict between the Kree and the Skrulls is rather more engaging, but necessarily takes a back seat to the lead character – which would be fine if there was development on that axis, but the Larson that gets dropped from orbit at the start of the film is much the same as the one that’s dropped from orbit at the end of the film, and a side note, if you want us to believe there’s even a fractional risk that the Cap’n won’t fail, maybe don’t have her treat FALLING FROM ORBIT AND SMASHING TO THE GROUND as though it’s a mild inconvenience?
The rest of the film, well, as I say, has the usual Marvel competence in terms of effects work. Well, mostly. I’m not 100% sold on the de-aging effects used here, and while most of the time it’s okay enough to keep Jackson out of the uncanny valley, poor Clark Gregg looks like he was attacked with Vaseline and cling film. In common with seemingly every film these days, it’s about half an hour too long, which in general speaks to a script that could have done with a few more review cycles.
Look, it’s fine. It’s okay. It’s a standard issue Marvel film, and for Lord knows what reason the bottom does not appear to be falling out of that market any time soon. This will slot comfortably into the lower middle of that pack, which isn’t really all that distinct a peloton anyway. But when Marvel studio bods are saying Larson and Captain Marvel will be the one leading the MCU post Infinity Imbroglio? I’m not convinced, but as it happens, I also don’t care, so that works out swimmingly for me.
To put it mildly Alex Honnold is a bit of a card. Living out of his family’s van for the last decade or so he has had one mission and one mission only: to free climb (or specifically free solo) the world’s most difficult rock faces. For almost every member of the human race, bar a handful of notable exceptions, the pursuit of free climbing remains one of if not the most baffling endeavours imaginable; ascending thousands of feet of rock without the aid of any safety equipment whatsoever. It’s no surprise that the great majority of proponents of this pastime are either expired or broken beyond repair. As renowned climber and El Capitan expert Tommy Caldwell puts it, it’s like an Olympic sport where absolute perfection is required to attain the pinnacle of gold, and everything else is dead.
Alex Honnold has a reputation within the climbing community for being peerless among his generation, but even those who revere his skills the most seem concerned by his goal of the last nine years, which is to become the first person to free solo El Capitan. It is this goal, attempted in the Spring of 2017, with which Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Vasarhelyi’s documentary concerns itself. I’d somewhat prematurely formed a mental image and incredibly detailed assessment of Honnold’s personality long before watching the movie, which was a bit silly of me as Honnold confounds such judgement at just about every turn.
It should have been obvious that there would be very little typical about someone consumed by such a pursuit, and what we learn of Alex is genuinely fascinating. He is by all accounts a down to earth, forthright and above all composed young man, and what comes across primarily in terms of character is his frank assessment of just about every aspect of his life; Honnold is honest to a fault, but not in the abrasive way that rude people who self-describe as “straight shooters” own. Rather than gung-ho or flippant he comes across as someone who has genuine understanding of the risks involved, born of introspection and qualitative assessment of what is important in life from his own perspective. I was surprised at how quickly Honnold put me at ease with his choices, though that’s not to say the filmmakers don’t aim to put our faith as an audience to the test in the latter part of the movie.
The film does a great job of balancing understanding both Alex and the mountain, and somewhat atypically it doesn’t adopt the mechanism of facing them off as mis-matched adversaries. Chin and Vasarhelyi do a fantastic job of keeping the technicalities to a minimum in explaining the magnitude of what Honnold hopes to achieve, in the process attaining the documentarian’s Holy Grail of separating interest from topic. Audiences with no investment in rock climbing as a pursuit will still find the approach engaging and rewarding, hopefully coming to an understanding of Honnold and El Capitan along the way.
Which is not to say there are no mis-steps, both for the movie and for Honnold. As a narrative tactic, engaging in Alex’s love life in an attempt at drawing his emotional detachment into stark relief proves vulnerable to our opinion of his girlfriend, Sanni, and let’s just say I’m not the only one in our house to have found her an almost constant irritant. Rather than introducing drama, it really only served to subtly undermine the understanding I had forged of Honnold’s character, calling into question once more his sanity, especially when the woman in question causes him to sustain not one but two serious injuries. Still, your own mileage with Sanni may vary, and I certainly wouldn’t let it put anyone off engaging with the movie.
The main event, of course, and the very reason for the documentary’s existence, is Honnold’s eventual attempt at the climb. Despite having spent some time climbing in my late teens and early twenties I have never maintained much interest in it, and I was completely unfamiliar with Honnold’s story. As such, and having had no prior knowledge of the documentary’s existence, I was completely unaware of what the outcome of his attempt was to be. The film certainly does a very good job of highlighting the dangers at a number of key points along the route, and we see Honnold fail each of them at least once, sometimes numerously, while attached to a rope during his preparations. Chin and Vasarhelyi’s best achievement turns out to be maintaining suspense, and I don’t mind telling you that on more than one occasion throughout I felt physically sick, and that was watching on a TV; goodness knows what cinema audiences experienced. As the attempt is underway we even see members of Chin’s film crew unable to watch as they document, and while they cynical might have anticipated some cheap injection of drama, their reactions to Alex’s ascent never feel less than genuine.
I won’t spoil the outcome, but Free Solo is a fantastic piece of filmmaking that takes an audience on more of an emotional roller coaster than any number of dramas, thrillers or horrors I can mention in the last few years, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Holmes & Watson
Just a handful of episodes ago we were talking about two very notable Sherlock Holmes adaptations, so it’s a pleasing coincidence that another adaptation which, in fact, references both of those films – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows – has come along so soon afterwards. Or is it? Well, no. No it is not. There is absolutely nothing pleasing about this turd of a film whatsoever.
Writer and director Etan Cohen reunites Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers co-stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly as, curiously enough, Holmes and Watson. I’m not sure about Craig, but I know Scott certainly shares my appreciation for Talladega Nights (though Gary Cole and Karen the cougar play a large part in that), and while Step Brothers was fairly middling it did have its moments: grown men beating up snotty pre/early teen asshats is far more amusing than it ought to be. Sadly, it seems that Holmes & Watson was written both for and by those same teens, being as it is full of unsophisticated “””humour”””, lazy topical references and penis jokes.
The plot, such as it is, is that Professor Moriarty has…
Yeah, you know what? I can’t be bothered with this. Someone’s going to kill Queen Victoria (despite this seemingly being set after she died anyway, only one of many geographical and chronological errors), and Holmes and Watson must stop this. They mostly do this by failing, idiocy and luck, while parodying, poorly, Guy Ritchie’s film and making incredibly on the nose references to current news topics and pop culture, putting this squarely alongside the do-you-get-this-reference “comedy” of trash like Date Movie and ensuring a shelf life of about three and a half weeks.
It has a talented cast, all of whom are squandered, and Scottish Kelly Macdonald, from Scottish Glasgow, in Scottish Scotland, is honestly so bad in this that I doubted the veracity of her actual Scottish accent, though she, as with the rest, suffers primarily at the hands of a risible script.
While John C. Reilly’s career seems to be in rude health, it’s sad to see that the funny days of the now 51 year old Ferrell (here sporting a frankly embarrassing amount of makeup in a pathetic, and unsuccessful, attempt to fool us otherwise) are so far in the past, and I sincerely hope he can get more mileage out of his Ron Burgundy podcast than he could from this lazy, ill-conceived, poorly-executed drivel.
I’d lay into the numerous inaccuracies, but it simply doesn’t deserve it and anyway they can almost certainly be explained away by the 12 year old who ghost wrote this neither knowing nor caring. “I’ve heard of the Titanic, and that had something to do with Britain, right? That’ll do.”
Imagine my disappointment when this turned out not to be a euphemism for some sort of group sex act, but rather a sausage-fest of another kind: a Netflix-produced special forces romp starring Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund and Pedro Pascal. Those good ‘ole boys, never meanin’ no harm, are ex special forces comrades who decide that countless years of service to their country ought to have left them better placed to enjoy retirement. Affleck, the Captain, is failing miserably as a condo salesman and a father. Isaac is an advisor to Colombian special forces who laments his inability to overturn the drugs cartels that are tearing apart the country of his mother’s birth. Hunnam and Hedlund are brothers, the former giving well-worn lectures to new army recruits, the latter plying his trade in mixed martial arts tournaments. Then there is Pascal, whose ace pilot status is suspended following conviction for a minor cocaine rap.
Working with an informant in Colombia (Adria Arjona) who is an accountant for one of the cartels, Issac’s character gets wind of a $75m stash of ill-gotten cash being stored at a safe house. An agreement is made with the Colombian authorities to assault the house and split the cash, but after roping in his former colleagues on a recce of the area the decision is soon made to conduct the assault alone and keep the entire $75m, pleading ignorance to the authorities and pinning the raid on rival cartels.
WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
To call Triple Frontier uninspired would be somewhat of an understatement, which is a disappointment as it comes primarily from the pen of writer Mark Boal who gave us Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker and Detroit. Co-writing and directing is J.C. Chandor, and again you’d be forgiven for maintaining high hopes off the back of A Most Violent Year, All Is Lost and Margin Call.
Not that there’s anything inherently bad about the movie, just that it all hangs together in a resolutely workmanlike fashion and never really catches fire. While some of the tropes may be well worn there is potential here for exploration of a couple of interesting themes, but between them Chandor and Boal don’t seem all that interested in exploring much below the surface. Perhaps most disappointingly, while the characters are set up very specifically they are, for the most part, entirely interchangeable by the time the action reaches Colombia.
The least well served, considering his billing, would probably be Affleck, whose setup is entirely at odds with the expression of character we see once the mission is underway. There is a fascinating turn to be had there, but again, and perhaps bizarrely, nothing much is made of it either in the moment or within completion of that character’s arc. Isaac gets perhaps the best deal, if again paid short shrift, and both Hunnam and Hedlund are interesting enough if underdeveloped in their secondary roles.
I get most frustrated for Pedro Pascal, however. Game of Thrones’ Oberyn Martell was a solid gold, charismatic calling card, but outside of television filmmakers just don’t seem to know what to do with him. Here, again, he is given an interesting setup, but despite introducing some doubt around his abilities mid-mission he gets absolutely hee-haw of interest to do in the second half of the movie. For a heist film running to over two hours this is all pretty inexcusable. Nobody was expecting Heat 2: The Colombian Connection but come on…
Chandor does handle most of the action reasonably well, although there isn’t an awful lot of it besides a couple of limited engagements and a helicopter crash. Writer Boal has often worked with Kathryn Bigelow, who here has an exec producer credit, and tellingly I spent most of the back half of Triple Frontier wondering what she would have done with the material.
There’s nowt fundamentally broken about Triple Frontier, but also no area in which it really excels. A cursory sweep of the usual internet resources yielded no info regarding the production budget, but I’m willing to bet it was more than Annihilation’s $40m, and I know which I’ll be revisiting in future.
What makes a family? That’s the question that Hirokazu Kore-eda asks us in Shoplifters, his Palme dOr-winning drama about an unconventional family with some unconventional ways of making ends meet.
Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) and Osamu (Lily Franky) work menial jobs in a poor area of the enormous sprawl that is Tokyo, not noted for its reasonable cost of living. To supplement their meagre income they, and you’ll never see this one coming, shoplift, usually in the form of groceries like ramen noodles and shampoo, a crucial part of which is Shota (Kairi Jyo), a gifted shoplifting apprentice and the couple’s son. Well, more or less.
These three live with Grandma, Kirin Kiki’s Hatsue, and Nobuyo’s sister, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) in a cramped and messy house in an impoverished neighbourhood, and though the family is not what it at first seems, they do share a lot in common, as even Grandma is in on the shoplifting, while also having her own little side-grift going.
Returning from their endeavours one night, Shota and Osamu encounter the cold, hungry and clearly abused Juri (Miyu Sasaki) and take her home. Here, in this house of strangers, Juri encounters affection and attention she has never known in her five years. A change of clothes (shoplifted, of course), a haircut and a new name and she’s soon “adopted”. Unconventional, illegal but, crucially and certainly, an absolute net good, especially when we learn more details about Juri’s life; one masterfully simple scene in which we discover an injury shared by Nobuyo and Juri is, frankly, heartbreaking.
Juri is soon recruited into the shoplifting business, usually working as part of a tag-team with Shota, and it’s hard not to think of this as like her being recruited into Fagin’s gang, but the genuine affection with which she is treated by her new family soon puts to bed that notion.
Not everything is positive, and most certainly not everything is what it seems, though, as a death and Shota’s questioning of the ethics of their activities are the catalysts for a series of revelations and interventions.
Despite the film’s revelations, it is not difficult at all to maintain emotional investment in Osamu, Nobuyo and Hatsue: some of their actions are pretty easily forgiven, the others… not forgivable, but perhaps understandable. Their clear affection for Shota and Juri, however imperfectly executed, goes a long way to redeeming their worse crimes: if we can be expected to be emotionally invested in characters in Goodfellas or The Godfather then doing so for these flawed but ordinary people is the lowest of hurdles to clear.
Audience forgiveness comes even more freely when the central conceit of the film, “what makes a family”, is taken into account, as the traditional, biological definition is seen to be failing Juri in particular, and we see what harm can be done by doing what might be considered the “right”, and certainly the legal, thing.
Shoplifters is clearly influenced by Yasujirō Ozu, and it also made me think of the films of the Dardenne Brothers and Vittorio De Sica (all of these being VERY GOOD THINGS, lest you be in any doubt), and it’s a moving, tender, detailed and complex film, filled with subtlety and even some suspense and more than a dash of melancholy, and is really, awfa awfa gid.
A large part of this is a universally excellent cast, notably the wonderfully natural performances of the two child actors (this is their first film), as well as Ryûto Kondô´s beautiful cinematography and a camera that feels intimate but never intrusive.
It would be easy for Shoplifters to have been, if not marred, then certainly tainted by sentimentality (I’m not familiar with the director’s other work, something I intend to rectify, but it is a criticism that has apparently been directed towards him in the past), settling for the much more satisfying emotion instead.
If there’s a bum note it’s a single scene wherein Osamu steals from a parked car as young Shota’s burgeoning conscience pricks at him: while there’s some gentle humour in the rest of the film, Lily Franky’s performance here seems a little too comic, something much more fitting to, for example, one of Takeshi Kitano’s comedies. And it stands out so much as it’s the only scene like it, and it’s probably the only scene in the entire piece that I didn’t wholeheartedly love.
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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