Nick Frost

Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans

29/07/19

Chosen simply by virtue of being the only film currently on release that we haven’t seen, Horrible Histories is a cinematic adaptation of one of the much-loved books by Terry Deary and the even more-loved CBBC series – hence that needlessly complicated title. Lovers of the TV shows can rest assured that this is the usual compendium of immensely likable historical humour, with regular references to poo, vomit and uncontrollable bouts of anal wind. My inner eight-year-old found plenty to snigger about, while the adult parts of me enjoyed some clever references to actual historical events.

Skinny misfit Atti (Sebastian Croft) is bored with family life in Rome and longs for some adventure. He gets it, unexpectedly, when his nefarious attempt to earn money by selling bottled ‘gladiator sweat’ earns the ire of the brattish Emperor Nero (Craig Roberts). He promptly banishes Atti to ‘that stain in the corner of the map’ better known as Britain. Now the world’s least-convincing Roman soldier, Atti’s not in Pictish territory for long before he’s kidnapped by Orla (Emilia Jones), a teenage wannabe warrior-woman, desperate to prove to her father, Arghus (Nick Frost), that she has the right to wield a sword. The two youngsters soon take a shine to each other, but – predictably – they are somewhat star-crossed. Meanwhile, Boudicca (Kate Nash) is raising a massive army in order to take on her rotten Roman overlords…

This is rollicking stuff, the jokes hitting the screen with such frequency that if you don’t like the first one, don’t worry, there’ll be another along in just a few moments. The humour largely comes from filtering historical references through a contemporary perspective – Atti’s parents threatening to limit his ‘scroll time’ being a typical example. Legions of well known actors pop up in cameo roles, with Derek Jacobi even reprising his classic performance as Claudius and Kim Catrall relishing her stint as Nero’s interfering mother, Agrippina. And of course, there are several songs, though for some of the earlier ones, the lyrics are somewhat buried behind an over-exuberant rock accompaniment – a pity, because the lyrics I do manage to hear are playfully witty.

Occasionally, the budget restraints show: the pitched battles never seem to feature quite enough extras, and there clearly wasn’t enough dosh to buy Paulinus (Rupert Graves) some decent horse riding lessons… but overall this is a fun romp that will keep all but the pickiest audience members suitably entertained. There are no kids in evidence at the showing we attend, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

There’s plenteous laughticus.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Fighting With My Family

24/02/19

I have to confess that my expectations for this are not particularly high. This may surprise you, but the world of WWE wrestling is not something that’s ever figured high on the list of things I enjoy – but a members’ screening of Fighting With My Family at The Cameo, coupled with a quiet Sunday afternoon, is enough to entice me along to give it the benefit of the doubt.

And against all the odds, I am thoroughly entertained.

Written and directed by Stephen Merchant (who seems to be making more credible inroads into the movie industry than his old compadre, Ricky Gervais), this is a ‘based on a true story’ account of the career of Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh), who, from her childhood, along with brother, Zak (Jack Lowden), is schooled in the ways of all-things-wrestling by her parents, Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Heady).  They run a small wrestling club in the exotic locale of er… Norwich, where they regularly put on small-time bouts and train the local teenagers in the ways of unarmed combat.

Saraya and Zak have always dreamed of hitting the heights of the WWE so, when they are invited to go along to a tryout in London, they are of course wildly excited. But things become more complicated when Saraya is invited to head out to Florida to see if she has what it takes to become a wrestling superstar – while Zak is given a polite ‘no thanks.’ Now he has to watch as his sister has chance of achieving everything he’s ever dreamed of, while he’s stuck in Norwich, helping to care for his partner’s new baby and training the local teenagers. Bitter? Yes, pretty much.

Merchant does a terrific job of this, managing to steer  clear of the obvious and giving us a much more nuanced story than we might have expected. Just when we think we know where this is heading, he throws in the odd surprise – like the seemingly snooty model girls training alongside Saraya, who turn out to be perfectly decent people. Pugh, in a role I’d never have anticipated after Lady Macbeth, is appealing as a square peg trying desperately to fit into a round hole, and Lowden does an excellent job of conveying Zak’s inner torment as his sister’s star continues to rise. Vince Vaughan is terrific as the hard-assed coach who pushes Saraya to the edge of endurance and there’s even a nicely judged cameo by Dwayne Johnson, where the man’s inherent likability is allowed to shine through.

Look, this is never going to be anybody’s choice for film of the year, but if you’re looking for a slice of undemanding fun, and a genuinely heartwarming conclusion, you could do a lot worse. It may not convert you into a rabid fan off WrestleMania, but you’ll have some genuine laughs, something that’s in woefully short supply these days.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Slaughterhouse Rulez

14/11/18

Comedy-horror is a notoriously tricky beast to master and few have had better results in this genre than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Both Shaun of the Dead and World’s End fall squarely into this category and even Hot Fuzz (their very best film) sports a handful of horror elements expertly woven into the action. For this first release from their production company, Stolen Picture, they content themselves with supporting roles, but their handprints are all over Slaughterhouse Rulez, even if they are missing Edgar Wright’s sure-footed directorial skills.

After the death of his father, working class lad Don Wallace (Finn Cole) is sent off by his well-meaning mum to the imposing Slaughterhouse Public School, where she hopes he will have the benefit of a superior education. Once there, he finds himself sharing a dorm room with Willoughby Blake (Asa Butterfield), a louche, moody character who seems to be housing a whole clutch of secrets.

Don’s acquisitive eye soon falls on posh girl Clemsie Lawrence (Hermione Corfield), but she seems to have eyes for somebody else – and besides, most of Don’s time is spent coping with the predations of the school bullies, chief amongst them the sadistic Clegg (Tom Rhys Harris). Meanwhile, the preening headmaster, known to the pupils only as ‘The Bat’ (Michael Sheen), has given permission for a fracking rig to operate in the forest that borders the school playing fields, a move that dismays troubled teacher, Meredith Houseman (Pegg), and which leads a band of anti-fracking protesters, led by Woody (Frost), to set up camp in the woods.

As the drill descends into the ancient stones beneath the school, it releases something darker and even more dangerous than shale gas…

The set up here is nicely handled and captures the cruel and venal world of the boarding school all too well (trust me, I speak from personal experience). The large cast of characters are well drawn and engaging and, for the most part, the punch lines land pretty much where they should. It’s only when the film moves into its final third that things start to feel a little too protracted, too teased-out by attempts to tie the plot back to earlier events in the school’s history.

A more direct approach would have paid dividends here and kept the pace from flagging, which it undoubtedly does in places; but this is nonetheless a decent entertainment with some gloriously visceral carnage that’s never allowed to be so icky that it overpowers the humour. Those hoping for a Pegg-Frost reunion will have to be content with the one brief scene they share – but, for their first offering as producers, this really isn’t a bad start.

4 stars

Philip Caveney