Ep. #75 – Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

I’m joined by my friend Matt as we roll a 20-sided die of fun talking about Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the new fantasy adventure opening in theaters this Friday. Then we branch off into the world of streaming, discussing network classics from Survivor (every season available on Paramount+) to Parks and Recreation (all 7 seasons streamable on Peacock). Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

Despite being based on a role-playing game that’s been around for almost 50 years and is more popular now than ever, Dungeons & Dragons hasn’t been especially well-served in the realm of film adaptations. Its first theatrical foray was pummeled by critics when it was released in the holiday season of 2000, with subsequent made-for-TV and direct-to-video installments making for a particularly obscure trilogy. Ripe for a reboot, the franchise finally gets an entry that should make fans proud with Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, a rollicking action comedy that cleverly integrates key tenets of the game. The film understands the power behind dynamic storytelling and often feels as if it’s creating itself in real time, honoring the spirit of the source material in addition to the myriad direct references to lore and characters.

Taking place in a fantasy world where magic intermingles with everyday life, Honor Among Thieves stars Chris Pine as Edgin, a thief serving time with barbarian Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) after they were caught during their last heist. In his absence, Edgin entrusts his daughter to Forge (Hugh Grant), a member of his crew who got away and since ascended to the status of lord of Neverwinter with the help of shadowy Red Wizard Sofina (Daisy Head). Edgin and Holga escape prison in hopes of reuniting with Edgin’s daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) but are double-crossed and nearly executed by the duplicitous Forge. Recruiting druid Doric (Sophia Lillis) and sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith), Edgin crafts a plan to get back at Forge using the unique set of skills among the newly-banded team.

At the helm of Honor Among Thieves are co-directors — Dungeon Masters, in the game’s parlance — Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, who teamed up previously for the hilarious Game Night. Just as that film integrated the mechanics of various party games into its narrative, the duo’s latest collaboration gives the audience the feeling that they’re watching a game unfold in real time. Edgin is a schemer, always coming up with plans and workarounds when obstacles present themselves, as they often do during a D&D adventure. Sometimes, the contingencies that arise highlight the comically unpredictable nature of this universe; during the film’s funniest sequence, Doric remarks “that seems arbitrary” when Simon relays the rules behind a temporary reanimation spell.

Along with co-writer Michael Gilio, Goldstein and Daley are very clever in the way that they weave in moments of humor that are germane to this world as opposed to having the characters wink at the camera. The performers don’t feel like they’re playing up the material too hard and the script doesn’t read like it’s stopping every few minutes for punch-up levity. This is a funny movie but not at the expense of the action and the stakes of the story. While the action isn’t always shot and edited with the same care that was taken with the screenplay, Rodriguez once again proves herself as a top talent for tactile fight scenes. Regé-Jean Page is also excellent as a paladin named Xenk, who gets a handful of cool combat setpieces and noble one-liners as a foil to Edgin’s scoundrel propensities. “Just because that sentence is symmetrical doesn’t make it not nonsense,” Edgin quips after one of Xenk’s nuggets of wisdom.

I should mention that I’ve never actually played Dungeons & Dragons before; I had my time with Magic: The Gathering ages ago, but that’s a story for another day. The important point is that whether you’ve played dozens of D&D campaigns or you’ve never picked up a twenty-sided die in your life, Honor Among Thieves will entertain one and the same. Like any good fantasy movie, it keeps us clued into the terminology within this world and what each of these characters brings to the table without getting bogged down in exposition. When Daley was playing Dungeons & Dragons on Freaks and Geeks around the time the first film was released, he probably didn’t think he’d one day be co-directing his own cinematic version of it. Even in the realm of the fantastical, the magic of movies is a power all its own.

Score – 4/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Streaming on Netflix is Murder Mystery 2, an action comedy starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston as a pair of full-time detectives who find themselves at the center of an international abduction plot when their friend is kidnapped at his own lavish wedding.
Premiering on Apple TV+ is Tetris, a biopic starring Taron Egerton and Toby Jones which tells the true story of the high-stakes legal battle to secure the intellectual property rights to the titular tetromino-filled video game.
Coming to Hulu is Rye Lane, a romantic dramedy starring David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah centering around a pair of young South Londoners reeling from bad break-ups who connect over the course of an eventful day and help each other deal with their nightmare exes.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Shazam! Fury Of The Gods

Let’s start with a confession: I was wrong about 2019’s Shazam! After rewatching the movie this past weekend, I stand by some of the quibbles from my original 2/5 review — the villain is dopey and it strains too hard for earnestness — but I also admit that it works more than it doesn’t. Especially in comparison to its new sequel Shazam! Fury of the Gods, the original film has loads more personality and intention than I initially recognized. Though it carries over a few elements that made its predecessor a success with critics and audiences, this new chapter is otherwise about as undercooked and generic as a superhero movie could be. Perhaps in four years time, I’ll look back and find that I’m wrong about this entry too but my confidence in my current assessment is sky high.

Shazam! Fury of the Gods begins with an all-too-familiar prologue, where a shadowy new villain pops up and causes chaos in an unsuspecting crowd. In this case, it’s Atlas daughters Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu) breaking into a Greek museum and stealing the broken magic staff discarded in the first Shazam! We’re then reintroduced to Billy Batson (Asher Angel) and the rest of his foster siblings, who all now have Shazam-like counterparts that allow them to fight crime all around their hometown of Philadelphia. When the daughters of Atlas kidnap family member Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), the rest of the “Shazamily” must rescue him and stop the daughters before their plan to terraform the Earth comes into fruition.

As you may get the sense from that description, Fury of the Gods is mostly a hodgepodge of other superhero movies; there’s some Man Of Steel, some Thor: Love and Thunder and they even lift a doctor bit from Forgetting Sarah Marshall for good measure. West Side Story breakout Rachel Zegler’s Anthea rounds out a trio of villains who are about as lifeless as Mark Strong’s Dr. Sivana was in the first Shazam! with much more scattershot accents. Mirren does her standard British, Zegler does standard American and Liu alternates between the two, sometimes within the same scene. Both the limitations of their superpowers and the details of their evil plan are vague and confusing. It seems like they should have the upper hand just about the entire time but they get hoodwinked by the Shazam crew in the most facile and unclever ways.

The driving force behind the first Shazam! was the performance of Zachary Levi as the “Shazamed” version of Billy Batson and its sequel continues to score some laughs out of the body swap premise where an adult acts like a teenager. In fact, Asher Angel isn’t in the film much at all, leaving Levi to turn his juvenile mugging and quippy line reads up to 11 throughout the entire movie. He’s doing his best but the material simply isn’t here for him this time around and the gimmick was already utilized so thoroughly in the first entry. There’s the occasional bit that lands — Mirren reciting a poorly-dictated note from the “Shazamily” got a couple chuckles from me — but it feels like Fury of the Gods makes much more time for murky mythology than it does for comedy.

Due to the constantly changing nature of the DC Extended Universe, every new entry seems to prompt the question “where do they go from here?” There are three new movies planned for release this year — The Flash is up next in June — and then the whole franchise is set to be rebooted with the James Gunn-led Superman: Legacy in 2025. It’s hard to know how the Shazam characters will factor into either of those universes and it’s possible that Fury of the Gods is the last Shazam! film that we’ll see for quite some time, if not ever. Frankly, the DCEU is a mess as it is right now and a fresh start will hopefully give this sector of comic book movies a renewed sense of entertainment and purpose. Until then, Shazam! Fury of the Gods is a placeholder that only the most ardent of superfans should indulge.

Score – 2/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is John Wick: Chapter 4, an actioner starring Keanu Reeves and the very recently departed Lance Reddick which continues the saga of the titular assassin as he faces a new enemy with powerful alliances across the globe and forces that turn old friends into foes.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Reggie, a documentary covering baseball megastar Reggie Jackson as he contemplates his legacy as one of the first iconic black athletes, a pioneer in the fight for dignity, respect, and a seat at the table.
Premiering on Netflix is Furies, a Vietnamese action prequel to 2019’s Furie starring Veronica Ngo and Dong Anh Quynh about a mysterious woman who trains a trio of girls to take revenge on a criminal gang.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Boston Strangler

1968 saw the release of The Boston Strangler, a crime film loosely based on the real-life serial killer at the center of 13 still-unresolved slayings earlier that same decade. The notion of producing a movie so close to real events that were still under investigation divided audiences and critics alike; Roger Ebert opined, “This film, which was made so well, should not have been made at all.” Decades after the events, we now have Boston Strangler, a much more level-headed procedural about the pair of intrepid reporters who initially connected the murders. But just because this is more responsible in how it depicts the case doesn’t mean it’s not engrossing on its own terms. Like Zodiac, another quietly terrifying film about an unsolved murder spree in the 1960s, this movie gets us thoroughly involved with the characters first before the mystery takes hold.

Keira Knightley stars as Loretta McLaughlin, a columnist for the Boston Record American who is limited to covering “lifestyle topics” that her snippy editor Jack MacLaine (Chris Cooper) thinks would interest bored housewives. Eager to move beyond reviewing the latest toaster from Sunbeam, she bends the ear of fellow reporter Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) to figure out how she is able to tackle more meaningful subjects. Spotting a similarity between two murders within the same month, McLaughlin senses a pattern emerging and uses her newspaper credentials to lean on the police for information. After more elderly women in the area are strangled, McLaughlin recruits Cole to develop coverage around the elusive figure they dub the “Boston Phantom”, even while doing so puts their lives at risk.

Writer/director Matt Ruskin has a few projects under his belt, most recently before this with 2017 crime drama Crown Heights, but Boston Strangler seems to be the biggest productions he’s led so far. His latest effort has the sort of formal rigor that you’d want from a film about people working hard to put an end to a killing spree. It’s handsomely shot, it’s tightly edited and it packs plenty of subtext into the serial killer tale we’ve seen quite often in the past. The sexism of the era factors heavily into how McLaughlin and Cole were able to pursue the assignment in the first place and also informs the dismissive treatment they often received from law enforcement. Last year’s She Said, which also featured two reporters investigating a major story, deals with modern-day sexual politics much more bluntly but serves as a fitting companion piece about rising above implicit and explicit gender discrimination.

Through voiceover narration, Boston Strangler wisely includes excerpts from articles that McLaughlin actually wrote to convey the progression of the breaking news. Not only was she a groundbreaking journalist but she was also a compelling storyteller, crafting prose that was true to the facts while also being effortlessly absorbing at the same time. Ruskin goes for a similar approach, responsibly relaying an impressive amount of detail around the murders while including flavor about the toll that chasing this killer had on those doing the chasing. A pair of nicely juxtaposed scenes set outside of different residences suggest that as McLaughlin gazes into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into her.

Though Knightley is a fine lead, it’s a bit curious that she goes with a more “standard” American dialect as opposed to the Boston accent that Woburn native McLaughlin likely had. While I wasn’t expecting a full-on The Departed level of “r-dropping”, other ensemble players like Alessandro Nivola and Bill Camp at least try to evoke the region’s dialect in their performances. Regardless, Ruskin gets fine work out of his cast overall and does everything he can to make this true story register with his audience. As Boston-set journalism movies go, Boston Strangler isn’t quite on the level of Spotlight but it gets much closer than you may expect from a direct-to-streaming thriller.

Score – 3.5/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Shazam! Fury of the Gods, a superhero sequel starring Zachary Levi and Helen Mirren which continues the story of a teenager and his foster siblings who must transform into their superpowered adult alter egos to fight the Daughters of Atlas.
Streaming on Netflix is The Magician’s Elephant, an animated family film starring Noah Jupe and Mandy Patinkin following a boy on the search for his long-lost sister with the help of a mysterious elephant and the magician who will conjure it.
Streaming on MGM+ is There’s Something Wrong With The Children, a horror movie starring Alisha Wainwright and Zach Gilford about a couple who takes a weekend trip with longtime friends and their two young kids, the latter of whom begin to behave strangely after disappearing into the woods overnight.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ew, David!: Videodrome

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

In the age of endless streaming services with innumerable films and series a tap away, it’s difficult to imagine a home viewing experience that was limited to TV and tape. When writer/director David Cronenberg made Videodrome 40 years ago, long before the internet and smartphones existed, he was able to extrapolate the temptations of televised images and make what is still the most prophetic and prescient movie of his career. It’s also the film that could be described as “definitive Cronenberg”, given that it incorporates so many of the themes that he has explored throughout his filmography: graphic violence and its effect on the psyche, the allure of sadomasochism and the Kafkaesque notion of flesh melding with the horrifying unknown.

Our conduit into Videodrome is Max Renn, a seedy TV producer played by James Woods in one of his very best performances. The tagline for Renn’s Canadian-based TV station CIVIC-TV is “the one you take to bed with you” and it specializes in sensationalized and sleazy programming designed to shock and titillate. Always on the lookout for something edgier, Renn’s eyes widen when CIVIC-TV’s satellite operator Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) picks up a pirate signal that depicts torture and murder. Where the average person may be repulsed by such images, Renn sees it as the next new thing in subversive content and begins broadcasting this show dubbed “Videodrome” on his network. The decision to air the feed draws him deeper into the rabbit hole and becomes an all-consuming force in Renn’s life.

His new girlfriend Nicki Brand (Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry) becomes so enamored with a taped episode of Videodrome that she travels to Pittsburgh, the origin of the broadcast’s signal, with the intent of auditioning to be on the show. In her absence, Renn seeks out media studies personality Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) to try to dig up more about who makes Videodrome and how they make its ultraviolence look so convincing. He also meets O’Blivion’s daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits), who runs a sort of halfway home called Cathode Ray Mission, where vagrants are encouraged to watch non-stop TV as a means of rehabilitation. The lines between television and reality start to blur for Renn and we’re treated to his nightmarish hallucinations in the process.

Though Videodrome was generally well-received by critics during its initial release, the paltry box office — about $2 million against a $6 million budget — was indicative of the film’s divisive reaction from audiences. Infamously, a reaction card from a test screening of the movie found one participant scrawl the word “SUCKED” in large letters under the section pertaining to what they disliked about the film. Time has certainly been much kinder to the movie and not only has it achieved a sizable cult following but also a penetrative sphere of influence as well. Recent films that interpolate body horror and technology like Titane and Annihilation owe a debt not only to Cronenberg’s work overall but specifically to his 1983 classic.

It’s downright shocking how much Cronenberg got right in Videodrome with his vision of how television could “evolve” and permeate every facet of our lives. “The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye,” Brian O’Blivion opines during a talk show appearance. “Of course O’Blivion is not the name I was born with; that’s my television name. Soon, all of us will have special names.” To reiterate the obvious, this film preceded usernames, online personas and social media but somehow, Cronenberg knew that’s where we were headed. For better or worse, he understands human nature and how quickly we would put the “vice” in “personal devices”. After all, cybersex is about as old as the internet itself and if you haven’t heard, pornography can even be accessed on one’s phone now! But you didn’t hear that from me.

The characters in Videodrome talk often about not being able to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fake on television and, eventually, in real life. Renn’s instinctual cynicism tells him that what he’s seeing on Videodrome is a production and that it couldn’t actually be just genuine beatings and killings on repeat. With years of reality television under our collective belts, we now have similar levels of distrust about what we see on our menagerie of black mirrors. With deepfake technology getting more sophisticated by the day, it won’t take long before the unreal may not be discernible from the real when it comes to the media we all consume constantly.

Aside from being forward-thinking as all get-out, Videodrome is seductive and hypnotic as its own twisted blend of dystopian science fiction and gross-out horror. The grotesque practical effects come courtesy of inaugural Best Makeup Academy Award winner Rick Baker, who helps personify the blurred line between flesh and machine in unnerving fashion. There’s a third act kill that’s not quite as brutal as the iconic “mind-blowing” scene from Scanners but it’s not too far off. To aid in the uneasy mood that envelops the film, Cronenberg consulted fellow Canadian and personal friend Howard Shore to craft a synthesizer-heavy music score that rocks the sonic landscape throughout. Within the first two sub-octave notes over the title card, we know we’re in for an otherworldly experience.

Each player in the cast lends something special to Videodrome but James Woods is perfect for this lead role as someone that the audience can simultaneously be repulsed by and be drawn in by. Skulking around the seedy streets of Toronto with a trench coat and frequently alit cigarette, he’s like a private eye seeking out softcore porn – Sam Smut, if you like – for his insatiable viewers. As he examines new footage with potential clients, he considers its merit by asking, “can we get away with it? Do we wanna get away with it?” But as we get drawn into the mystery with Renn and his sanity deteriorates, he’s our audience surrogate whether we like it or not. Woods has always had a dangerous and.unpredictable quality as an actor and Cronenberg utilizes it perfectly. As long as humans are around, there will be new screens close by and the relevancy of the messages embedded in Videodrome will remain evergreen.

Creed III

When Ryan Coogler rebooted the Rocky series in 2015 with Creed, it brought a much-needed level of excitement to the stalled franchise and introduced a formidable new pugilist protagonist to allow future films to flourish. After a serviceable sequel in 2018, Creed returns 5 years later with Creed III, a moderate step up from the second chapter that still can’t quite recapture the magic of the first movie in the trilogy. Nevertheless, this boxing series has had all sorts of highs and lows over time and these three Creed films have an admirable amount of consistency when it comes to the fundamentals of what makes these kinds of movies work. With stronger dialogue and more detailed characterization, this entry could have hit even harder than it does but as is, it’s still plenty rousing and a properly engrossing addition to the boxing genre.

Our story begins in Los Angeles 2002, where teenaged Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) works as a corner man for his amateur boxer friend Damian “Dame” Anderson (Jonathan Majors). After we see glimpses of an incident in which Donnie and Dame become entangled, we jump forward to 2020, where Creed caps off his professional boxing career at 27-1. Stepping out of the ring will give him time to focus on training the next up-and-coming brawlers in his gym and, more importantly, give him more time to spend with his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and their hearing-impaired daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). But the reemergence of Dame following an 18-year stint in prison brings back former feelings and old scores to settle that can only be remedied by an inevitable bout in the ring.

Incorporating numerous reliable tropes from the Rocky franchise, Creed III follows the formula dutifully and even lifts specific plot points from some of the 1980s films in the series. Plot contrivances are hardly anything new in these movies and the events and motivations that get Creed and Anderson to the final showdown are fittingly questionable. For the storyline to work, Creed has to spend most of it painfully naïve of both Dame’s intentions as an old friend and his abilities as a boxer. It also requires us to believe that along the way, a bonafide heavyweight like Dame would actually duke it out with a dude who looks like he’s 150 soaking wet for a shot at the title. Florian Munteanu also returns from Creed II and even though he’s only sparring with Creed this time instead of going into full-on battle once again, his hulking figure is a reminder that these movies do not care about weight classes.

Stepping into the role of director for the first time, Michael B. Jordan makes occasional missteps with overly obvious visual cues but on the whole, he adds an impressive visual flair to scenes in and out of the ring. Jordan has talked about the immense influence that anime had on his approach to telling this story and in one specific instance during the climactic feud, the inspiration is apparent and the results are jaw-dropping. Elsewhere, he finds a clever way to showcase the way that Amara deals with a bully at school with an unexpected POV perspective. A masterful shot towards the middle of the film shows Donnie and Dame parting after a pre-fight pep talk, in which a wall separates the two and finds the former shorthanded in a more confined space compared to the eminent domain of the latter.

Having been in three of these films now, Jordan knows what makes them work best and summarily plays the hits. That means we’ll get family tragedy played up with full-force pathos, supposedly shocking upsets and, of course, training montages that show off the incredible physicality of the principal performers. I’m not sure how many more Creed movies Jordan will sign on for but given how long Stallone — who, somewhat curiously, doesn’t appear in this movie — held onto his role, I have to imagine he has one or two more in him. During one of the aforementioned montages, Creed’s trainer remarks that the titular heavyweight is “old and broken”, which would count as the funniest punchline I’ve heard in a movie so far this year if it had been intended as a joke. Jordan is obviously still in phenomenal shape and if Creed III is any indication, he’ll have plenty more opportunities in front of and behind the camera for many years to come.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Scream VI, starring Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega, is a slasher sequel which finds the survivors of the latest Ghostface killings now residing in New York City but still being plagued by a series of murders from a new Ghostface killer.
65, starring Adam Driver and Ariana Greenblatt, is a sci-fi action thriller which follows an astronaut as he crash lands on Earth 65 million years in the past and has to defend himself against dangerous prehistoric creatures.
Champions, starring Woody Harrelson and Kaitlin Olson, is a sports comedy about a temperamental minor-league basketball coach who finds himself in legal trouble and, in order to satisfy a community service requirement, must coach a team of players with intellectual disabilities.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup