Uncollected Thoughts: Shazam!

I still haven’t seen Aquaman, and I’m no more likely to watch the first Henry Cavill Superman film than I am to sit through a rewatch of Batman vs Superman (hey, I just realised, if I am ever captured by a supervillain who wants to torture me for the information I have, I have soooo given away what he needs to do to make me spill like a baby), but I’m confident that I have now seen the best DC movie to date.

Outside, it’s still Good Friday afternoon, and it’s sunny, but instead I chose to go indoors at The Light. I was in Screen 3, which is the nearest to the door I’ve been yet, and I was in row C, which is the nearest to the front I’ve sat yet (and which did not do much to improve this series of headaches I’ve been getting for days.

And once again the trailers were ALL superhero movies, one of them for Avengers: Endgame, which caused me to close my eyes to avoid seeing and at least blur hearing any of it.

Last time out, I went to see Captain Marvel. This time I was here for Caprain Marvel, that is, the original Big Red Cheese, the guy created at Fawcett Comics by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck, the guy that National Comics sued for ripping off Superman (he didn’t, you only have to read the comics to see that, but he did outsell Superman, so…) He’s also the guy who couldn’t appear in any comics under his name after DC picked him up because it the interim, Marvel had registered a trademark on Captain Marvel. Now, DC either can’t or won’t call him by his real name inside his comics, so now he’s Shazam (which means that he can’t call himself by his own name). It was a niggle, just a niggle, but a niggle nonetheless.

But it was really my only niggle. The movie took the Captain Marvel story, twisted it a little to branch Dr Sivana into the Shazam legend instead of him just being an evil scientist, but otherwise played that side of things straight. Since Sivana, a wonderfully composed, steel-faced performance by Mark Strong, takes the Seven Sins into him, after being passed over as a potential Captain/Shazam back in 1974, there’s some real darkness: you can just feel Zack Snyder turning up his very slow motion camera.

And that’s what makes the film work. It is serious, it is real, but it doesn’t feel like it. And I’m not talking Marvel-style banter. Sivana is 100% serious throughout. The comedy comes directly from (ah, hell) Shazam himself. Billy Batson (Asher Angel, who’s is a fourteen year old boy. True, he’s a very adult fourteen year old boy in some respects, having become separated from his mother at age 4, with her never coming looking for him, making Billy a determinedly independent kid, a serial rejecter of foster homes, a serial rejecter of any families or relationships, hellbent on finding his mother himself. But he’s a fourteen year old boy.

He gets placed with the impressively loving and concerned Victor and Rosa Vasquez and their existing group of foster kids, Darla, Eugene, Pedro and, most importantly, the crippled Freddy Freeman and the oldest of all, Mary Broomfield (Grace Fulton). This all comes directly from the rebooted Shazam Family but I am constitutionally incapable of seeing the latter two as anything by Captain Marvel Junior, and Mary Marvel, aka Billy’slong-lost twin sister.

Billy won’t get involved. Indeed, he’s running away again whenhe is zapped to the Rock of Eternity by the near-dead Wizard Shazam, and has the powerof being Captain Marvel (dammit, Shazam) vested in him.

And he turns into Zachary Levi, having a ball of fun as this big, beefy guy in a red and gold suit, but still basically beeing Billy Batson, misanthropic and self-centred fourteen year old.

Angel and Levi can’t help being funny, whichever one of them is there at the time, which is what makes this film so good. You believe every second of it as being what a fourteen year old would think and do, from good to bad, and how helpless the Shazam version is when Sivana finds him and starts beating the crap out of him. Shazam can only escape by shouting ‘Shazam’ and turning into Billy.

Who’s all set to run away again once the other kids discover his secret, like Freddy and Darla have, because Eugene’s found him his real mother, who abandoned him because she was just a young single mother and random strangers could take better care of him than she could. But that’s the catalyst for the heart-warming moment (I didn’t say the film was perfect, did I?) when Billy decides who are his real family.

This cues us up for the long, actually slightly overlong fight scene that rounds the film out, which gets particularly daffy when Shazam gets everyone to grab the Wizard’s staff (which has a very large knob on the end) and shout his name. ‘Billy!’ they all cry, naturally, but second time round they all transform into Shazams, in different coloured costumes (in a neat tip to the once and former Mary Marvel, Mary gets red alongside Billy).

And there’s not a moment of slow-motion to be seen, just good honest CGI whirling around until the day is saved.

There was the expected mid-credits scene to set up the sequel, which I’m alredy looking forward to, and that had me laughing tthe hardest at he fact they’re going to be so nuts as to use Captain Marvel’s other archenemy: no, not Black Adam, I’m not counting him, but Mr Mind. Yes, the four inch tall, taking intergalactic worm. I love that they have the nerve to pull Mr Mind off in the 2020s.

I was leaving when someone told me there was a post-credits scene, so I stayed. It was basically a diss on Aquaman and hardly essential, but it summed up the irreverence that made this film such fun to watch. A plague on your Man of Steels, a murrain on your Dawn of Justices! This is what we’ve been waiting for all along.

Film 2018: Stardust

Stardust wasn’t my first choice for this week’s film, rather a last minute replacement when I decided that bright sun on an early Sunday morning wasn’t the best conditions for my original choice.

It’s a film that comes shrouded in memories that will always affect me. When it was first released, we went to see it twice in as many weeks, we being my wife and I  in the first instance and two of her children in the second. We chose the film for one of our rare nights out: a meal in Stockport followed by a visit to the now defunct Grand Central Cinema. The meal overran and we missed the start of the film. But we both loved it, and we knew the boys would like it too so, to give them the treat, and allow ourselves to see what we’d missed, we took them next week. It turned out we’d only missed about thirty seconds, which made us both laugh but so what? It was a joy to watch again, even so soon.

Stardust is adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, originally published in four installments, illustrated beautifully by Charles Vess, by DC Comics. The film follows the substance of the story in its narrative, although Captain Shakespeare and the Lightning catching Pirates is a complete invention, but takes a completely different approach to what was intended as an adult fairy-tale. Director Matthew Vaughan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jane Goodman, turns the story – with Gaiman’s blessing – into a whimsical comedy, filling it with a modern, sceptical comedy that has one foot firmly entrenched in cynicism but which leaves the other foot free to dance. Like The Princess Bride it can successfully poke fun at the tropes of which it is made precisely because it is made by people who love and respect what they are playing off.

The story glories in its fairy-tale elements, even though it attracted a wider demographic who, instead of seeing it as fantasy, enjoyed it as a romantic adventure with magical elements. Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox, then unknown) lives in the village of Wall, so named for the Wall that separates it from the magical kingdom of Stormhold. Tristan, the product of a brief affair between his father, Dunstan, and a then-nameless slave girl in Stormhold, eighteen years before at the start of the film.

Tristran loves the beautiful but spoilt Victoria (Sienna Miller), who is more interested in the more upmarket Humphrey (Henry Cavill, though his is only a bit part). Humphrey’s going to go all the way to Ipswich for a ring for Victoria, but Tristran will go through the wall to bring back a fallen star for her, to prove his love.

The star (Claire Danes), whose name is Yvaine, has been knocked from the sky by a diamond hurled there by the dying King of Stormhold (an impressive cameo from Peter O’Toole). Whichever of his sons can find it – there were seven, but they’ve been whittled down to three: poor show, really, the Stormhold tradition is for only one surviving brother when the King dies – will be King.

Meanwhile, three incredibly aged witches are also after the star, since to cut out and eat the still-beating heart of a fallen star grants youth and near-immortality. The eldest sister, Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer, still decidedly woo hoo, once the aged make-up comes off), goes to get the heart.

So: Yvaine’s got three different forces after her, that’s if you call Tristran a force, which he isn’t to begin with but becomes, in a very likeable manner, during the course of the film.

There’s some conventional structures in there: two sources for a chase thriller, one with elements of a Quest, combined with the picaresque journey during which two initially hostile enforced companions gradually start to like and then love each other, which goes back at least as far as the Alfred Hitchcock version of The Thirty-Nine Steps. It’s highly entertaining in itself, thanks to the lightness Vaughan and Goodman bring to everything, no matter how serious it may be – one strand involves mass-fratricide and it’s even funnier than Kind Hearts and Coronets – and that’s amplified by the fantastic setting, which combines some very effective CGI with location filming in the kind of scenery that made me want to climb through the screen and go climbing mountains in the background. Much of the outdoor scenes were filmed in Scotland, with other parts in Iceland. The contrast is obvious, but not distracting.

There’s a primarily English cast: Rupert Everett, David Walliams and Julian Rhind-Tutt are among the bit parts, Melanie Hill, Joanna Scanlan and Sarah Alexander are witches, and Mark Wiliams is brilliantly loopy as a goat turned into an innkeeper. The two big American stars make the most of their parts: Pfeiffer is a major protagonist, but de Niro’s role is a primarily comic one. He’s supposed to be a rough, tough, notoriously evil pirate but he’s actually a softie who’s had to keep his father’s business going.

Captain Shakespeare is there to given Tristran and Yvaine safe haven for a time, to transform Tristran from provincial boy operating on dumb luck to sophisticated and capable man who can handle problems. It’s only a supporting role, and de Niro combines flamboyance and underplaying with the confidence of a  great actor enjoying himself. Apparently, the other possible star for the role was Jack Nicholson, who I doubt could have played this role anything like as effectively.

Ultimately, though, the film belongs to Cox and Daines. He’s innocent in the best sense throughout, an overgrown boy taking on manhood before our eyes, whilst retaining a boyish delight throughout. He has to undergo this adventure to become worthy of his role, because his mother, slave to a caravan witch, Ditchwater Sal (Hill) is really Una, daughter to the King, and after the last son, Septimus (Mark Strong) is killed by Lamia, Tristran becomes the Heir to Stormhold. But he also has to undergo this adventure to discover his real true love and to become worthy – both in person and in the heart – of the love of Yvaine the star.

And Daines is simply wonderful, not to mention unconventionally beautiful. Her face is always mobile, initially in a hunted, indeed neurotic manner, and her anxieties never wholly disappear until she saves the day by Shining, but the longer the film goes on, and the closer she comes to falling in love with Tristran, the more that mobility is just evidence of an underlying energy, the force of love unable to be contained yet unable to be expressed.

I’ve left so much out, so many little details that demonstrate the comprehensive vision that Vaughan had for this film. It’s another of those where the casting is ideal – Olivia Grant was cast in the minor role of the female version of Bernard (don’t ask) literally weeks out of Acting School and, without any lines, makes a wonderfully comic cameo – and whilst there are those who regret that the tone was not more faithful to the original story, they don’t include Gaiman, who was happier with an artistically satisfactory comedy than a serious film that would have failed: like me with so many other versions, he thinks of this as the Earth-2 Stardust.

That’s not to say the film’s perfect. It was released in 2007 and includes a minor role for Ricky Gervaise as Ferdy the Fence (behind a door marked ‘Ferdy’s Office’). It hasn’t worn well, rather like Gervaise’s star since those halcyon days. Gervaise isn’t convincing in his acting, but then he’s playing against Robert de Niro soo that’s a more than adequate excuse. It’s just that it’s David Brent, with an Andy Millman catch-phrase, out of context and in 2018 it no longer works.

But I’ve no other complaints about Stardust, not even the Take That song, ‘Rule the World’ in the credits. My wife was a major league Take That fan, but even I loved this song from the first moment I heard it, then and now.

I love Stardust. Like Gregory’s Girl, last week, it’s one of my ten favourite films, for itself and without the memories I have attached to it. Other adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s work have been far more faithful to the source than this, and I am very glad of it.