Another month, another round-up.
Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans
After annoying the newly crowned Emperor Nero (Craig Roberts) and his over-bearing mother Agrippina (Kim Cattrall), young Atti (Sebastian Croft) is dispatched to the Roman Legions in Britain. There, with the revolt of Boudicca (Kate Nash) brewing, he has a chance encounter with local Orla (Emilia Jones), that catapults the two of them to the heart of the Roman/British conflict.
I wonder if my time checking the old Horrible Histories books out of libraries repeatedly in my childhood years classifies me as some kind of elite fan who should be looking down at all the Johnny-come-lately’s, but then again, maybe not. It’s been interesting to see what started as a childishly humoured educational look at various stages in human history turn into something resembling a media empire, now with a fully-fledged movie to add to the collection. The Horrible Histories TV show has always been good for a few laughs, but such a property stepping up to the next level is always fraught with peril.
But, thankfully, Horrible Histories manages to avoid the major pitfalls of generally trying too much and forgetting what brought you to the dance in the first place (despite the fact that none of the original “troupe”, such as Mathew Baynton, appear here). The first, and of course most important, thing is that the film is really funny, transplanting the books and TV show’s very dry, sarcastic, occasionally scatology-based brand of British humour very successfully. The opening scene has an auger predicting doom as a result of looking at some chicken entrails before hiding said entrails from the woman asking if anyone has seen her chicken: the tone is set immediately, and Horrible Histories provides much of the same in the following ninety or so minutes.
A lot of it is, of course, pitched at a very low level, most especially the musical numbers that abound (some of which, like Nero’s sung insistence that he doesn’t need his mummy, go on a bit too long) and there is only so much about horse pee substituting for age-defying gladiator sweat that you can take. But, when it is of a mind to, Horrible Histories really does bring the dark, in bits where Nero jumps the gun on celebrating his mothers demise, depicting the strategic situation of the Battle of Watling Street as a traffic jam (replete with an eye-in-the-sky reporter, up a nearby tree) or Lee Mack’s distraught homesick legionnaire, who interrupts his every line of dialogue with mournful longing for “Rome, beautiful Rome”.
I can’t speak too much for its educational properties, other than to say concerned parents needn’t be too worried about some of the more grisly aspects of the events depicted being replicated, like the traditional reason for Boudicca’s revolt, or some of the seedier traditions of Nero’s remembrance. If Rotten Romans has a flaw, it may be that it is presented too much like an extended episode of the TV show without ever fully realising that this is the nominal higher level, not to mention a slightly dodgy final message that the brutality of the Roman conquest can be forgiven or dismissed in the name of cultural meshing in the long-run. Allowing yourself to not get too caught up in such academic discussions, Horrible Histories is easily enjoyed. Recommended.
Over twenty years after being, as he see’s it, abandoned by his famous father (Samuel L. Jackson), John Shaft Jr (Jessie T. Usher) works for the FBI as an analyst. When his best friend dies in suspicious circumstances, the more easy-going Jr finds himself needing his father’s unique brand of investigatory assistance, as they delve into the heroin-racked underbelly of Harlem.
If you are anything like me, your knowledge of American culture mainstay John Shaft is probably limited to brief nuggets of information absorbed by osmosis (private detective, black, womaniser, takes names, kicks ass, etc) and that theme tune, emblazoned in my memory through Dermot Morgan’s rendition on the final episode of Father Ted. But he was so much more than that, by reputation: a veritable African-American media icon, whose distinctive jacket, theme tune and way of operating a private detective business made serious waves.
Because of that, much of Shaft, released suspiciously fast on Netflix after an all-too-brief theatrical run, doesn’t really seem like something that is made for me. I don’t want to call it an outright blaxploitation film, because it appears to bear only a superficial similarity to its 70’s origins. But it is odd, in tone and in theme, jumping between bloody shoot-outs, comedic set-pieces and family drama so fast it almost seems like a parody. Much like Marvel’s Luke Cage, the very make-up of Shaft seems to be designed for an audience that I cannot possibly identify with fully.
So, you have an elder Shaft who, with a remarkably straight face, engages in diatribes about sexually harassing women as a matter of course and how the best method to deal with criminals is to shoot them, (sometimes non-lethally, in fairness). That he is portrayed as an anti-authoritarian anti-hero is strange enough, but the through-line of the film see’s Jackson convincing his (shock/horror) millennial son to not be, to quote the film, “so much of a pussy” (the worst insult he can give is that Jr’s mother has turned him “into a white boy”). Outdated and proud, or so it seems. If you can get beyond this staggeringly anti-PC sentiment, that Shaft makes no apologies for (in one scene, a previously peaceful woman is sexually aroused by being in a gunfight), then you might find something to enjoy in Shaft.
Because the film has some limited charms, like the unflinchingly racist uncle you tolerate for a few hours every year at family get-togethers. It would be nice if it wasn’t so aggressively homophobic or willing to throw shots at PTSD sufferers. But there is some worthwhile humour to be found in Jackson dealing with Usher’s methods, and vice versa, an odd couple/buddy cop comedy mixed in with plenty of racial themes. The script is puerile bluster from start to finish (Shaft Jr’s FBI boss tells him not to “throw your balls around” early on; Shaft’s most remarkably achievement is finding a way to somehow go downhill from there) but falls neatly into a niche of “so, so bad its kind of a fascinating train-wreck”.
Perhaps that was director Tim Storey’s intention. It would certainly explain why Grandfather Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree himself, turns up for the last twenty minutes for a fan service team-up (he gets the funniest joke of the film too, in tricking a nameless goon into a knife fight, only to pull out a gun). Ultimately Shaft is a film with few pretensions that is unlikely to appeal to most, but may, to quote podcast We Hate Movies, be one of the best hangover films on Netflix. For that specific kind of mindset, it is recommended.
In 2013, the “Biogenesis scandal” broke, implicating dozens of Major League Baseball players with the use of illegal PED’s. In this documentary, director Billy Corben illustrates how it came about, primarily from the perspective of Anthony Bosch, the man supplying the drugs: it’s a madcap story, taking in fake doctors, artificial tanning addiction and some infamous figures of the Florida underworld.
This is a wild enough tale when you get down to the fine details, and Corben, best known for his 2006 expose Cocaine Cowboys and street MMA puff piece Dawg Fight, treats it as such. He has the perfect focus in Bosch, this eccentric Wolf of Wall Street type, all too happy to talk, at length, about what he got up to, the laws that he broke, and the very well known sports stars he was involved with. But Screwball goes beyond that, into a genuinely fascinating story of skullduggery, where nobody comes away looking good, whether they are small-time hoodlums or the head honchos at MLB.
Bosch, charming, intelligent, and confident in his own knowledge of what drugs to use and how to use them, sets up his business without any real care for the fact that he isn’t a real doctor (a degree from Belize doesn’t really count) and what he is doing is illegal to start with. But once the story comes to involve Porter Fischer, a tanning bed obsessive who winds up being owed money by Bosch – to the extent that Fischer’s part in proceedings winds up being nothing more complicated than a simple desire for revenge – it really takes off. It could be a Coen Brothers treatment, bearing more than a passing similarity to the likes of Fargo. Corben crafts a narrative where nobody really knows who to trust and where none of the talking heads seems particularly trustworthy: even by the end of it, the extent of involvement of Florida crime organisations and the exact amounts of money being thrown around still seem shady.
It’s impossible not to be at least somewhat interested in Bosch, who shows little remorse, is happy to outline his crimes and who, in the end, was just the most well-known of PED peddlers. Corben delights in tracing Bosch’s involvement with the likes of Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez (a now former baseball player who, being frank, is depicted as an absolute lunatic), and hinting at lager criminal conspiracies that may or may not have been concurrent to what Bosch was doing. Like so many high-profile athletes caught out using enhancements they should not be using – Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie immediately springs to mind – there is a very definite sense that too many people who should be looking out for this stuff didn’t want to look too closely, more interested in the likes of Mark McGuire and Barry Bonds putting up huge home run records, even while their use of PED’s was becoming increasingly obvious.
The tale is so ridiculous, so full of lunacy, that Corben decides to play into it, utilising child actors, some with atrocious wigs and fake facial hair, to do the required re-enactments. This adds a certain sense of whimsy to proceedings, and goes hand-in-hand with the overall theme, which is of a collection of cretins stumbling about, often ignorant of the scale of the scheme they are involved in. While perhaps twenty minutes or so too long, Corben’s documentary is well worth taking in, as a classic example of criminal hubris and institutional ignorance. Recommended.
A Fortunate Man
In 19th century Denmark, Peter Sidenius (Esben Smed) leaves his conservative rural home against the wishes of his family, to study engineering in Copenhagen. There, he plans his rise to fame and prominence, through an ambitious scheme to revolutionise Denmark’s access to electricity, and efforts to secure an advantageous marriage to Jakobe Saloman (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal), daughter of a Jewish banking family.
This is destined to be a little-known curiosity on Netflix, not just because of the language barrier, but because Bille August’s period drama is a truly hard-to-swallow two hours and fifty minutes long. Undoubtedly A Fortunate Man would be better served being presented in more digestible chunks, presumably through the medium of television: I myself had to take a piece at a time, over the course of a few days. But, despite this necessity, I actually found myself falling for the film, at least a little bit.
Yes, the story of Peter and his rise/fall through Copenhagen’s affluent society could do with a lot of pruning, but A Fortunate Man, based off the eight volume novel of the same name by Henrik Pontoppidan, does tell that story rather well. A period drama with pretensions of being a Danish Dickens tale even while its adaptation may be going for more of a Citizen Kane feel, it’s undeniably epic in its scope, something to be praised even if the target may be out of August’s reach at moments. A young man from an overly-religious family, out to prove himself in the big bad urban world, Peter becomes an interesting focus, even if it can be a trial to become truly engaged with him.
The simple fact is that he’s a self-absorbed, ego-fuelled wreck of a human being, but that does appear to be A Fortunate Man’s thesis: the examination of the idea that genius, fame and social advancement will not fill gaping emotional holes created by years of childhood unhappiness and religious repression. Smed plays Peter’s duplicitous and self-destructive nature quite well, often much better than the rather limited supporting cast. Greis-Rosenthal has a very juicy part, at least potentially, but is hamstrung by her own limitations or by the fact that the film only wants to give her her own arc far too late in proceedings.
The film looks gorgeous despite its often subdued colour palette: the stretching rural landscapes of Peter’s childhood home form a stark and appropriate contrast to the foggy, overcast world of Copenhagen, with both still able to intimate a feeling of loneliness, despair and vapid self-interest leading to a developmental dead end for the main character. It can be very hard-going at times, and not just because of the longevity, or its consequence being the feeling that you reading a novel through subtitles: A Fortunate Man is a dreary and depressing tale at its heart, with heavy themes of female social imbalance, suicidal tendencies and emotional manipulation besides its main point: even with this, and maybe because of it, it is worth taking in. Recommended.
The Little Switzerland
The nominally Spanish town of Telleria is dealing with the disappointment of another failed attempt to transfer its control to the Basque Country, when mayor’s son Gorka (Jon Plazaola) and his art historian partner Yolanda (Maggie Civantos) discover the tomb of Walter Tell, son of William, underneath the local church. Finding evidence that Telleria was founded by Tell, the town applies to become part of Switzerland, setting off a sensation of sabotage, espionage and madcap romance.
Those supporters of regionalised autonomy and independence movements look away now: Netflix’s latest Spanish language “original” is probably going to piss you off. While nominally a comedy, if you come into The Little Switzerland expecting to see some manner of satirical send-up of Spain’s issues with the Basque Country and Catalonia, well, you’ll kind of get it, but might be surprised to see it be a bare-faced “It’s all nonsense really”. This seems a strange tack to take, considering the situation depicted isn’t that far from reality.
To wit, we get the citizens of Telleria, who claim to have had a Basque culture and identity for over 700 years. The only problem is the Basque’s don’t want them, having made a nice trade deal with the Castille regional government. With that option out of the way, Telleria moves onto Switzerland (which goes so far as to actual start negotiating with the Spanish government). The reason for the change? The tax haven status, oh, and some slapstick involving the tomb of fictional character William Tell’s son. Yes, The Little Switzerland outlines the contention that the issues of regional identity in the Kingdom of Spain largely come down to people’s wallets, and nothing else. Director Kepa Sojo seemingly has little time for the would-be breakaways: graffiti spotted on the walls of Telleria says “This is not Spain”, with an accompanying answer replying “Of course it isn’t, it’s a wall”.
Your ability to look past this inherently mystifying central theme will probably determine the level of enjoyment you will get out of The Little Switzerland, which is an otherwise threadbare romantic comedy, that tries to bolster the limited possibilities of its main plot with an assortment of wacky side characters. There’s the despairing mayor jumping from bandwagon to bandwagon; his assistant who is the most enthusiastic over the financial benefits of becoming the 27th Swiss canton; the wacky priest who keeps an ETA cache of weapons in the church; the old coot who happens to be happy being Spanish and a few others who flew by, in and out of the picture too fast to make an impression. There isn’t enough actual comedy here to fill twenty minutes, and the film is an hour and a half of Spanish actors pretending to be Swiss stereotypes, lederhosen and all.
The Little Switzerland certainly isn’t going to get by on the will-they-won’t-they plot between the Gorka and Yolanda characters, which is only really enlivened when Yolanda’s boyfriend (Pepe Rapazote, once of Narcos), a Spanish intelligence operative, shows up for some Bond parody. From what could have been an interesting enough premise Sojo has come up with something distinctly underwhelming, not incisive enough to be considered intelligent on the subject matter, and not funny enough to be a worthwhile distraction. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Altitude Film Distribution, Netflix, Nordisk Film Distribution and Greenwich Entertainment).