Monthly Archives: July 2015

V for Vendetta

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: In a fascistic, dictator-led Britain, a single-minded terrorist/freedom fighter known as ‘V’ promises to bring down the ruthless government of Chancellor Sutler on the anniversary of November 5th. A young woman called Evey becomes unwillingly entwined in the masked man’s personal quest for revenge on those who disfigured him years ago.

Great Britain in the near future is not a great place to live if you’re ‘different’: for ever since the outbreak of a virus that killed close to 100,000 people, the populace has struggled under the extreme right-wing leadership of Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt), bolstered by the propaganda machine of the British Television Network and the rabid moralising of the ‘Voice of London’, Lewis Prothero (Roger Allam). Her political parents having fallen victim to the regime, BTN employee Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) keeps her head down and tries to stay out of trouble, but an encounter with thuggish ‘fingermen‘ results in her rescue by the mysterious V (Hugo Weaving), a vigilante with a Guy Fawkes mask and a burning vengeance against those in power.

V takes Evey to his underground lair and reveals himself to be educated and cultured, but he cannot resist his desire for revenge: firstly, because the country’s leaders were personally responsible for the physical and mental scars he gained at Larkhill internment camp; and secondly, because he wants the population as a whole to rise up behind his ideas of liberty and fairness. Evey takes fright and runs to her gay friend Gordon Deitrich (Stephen Fry), but after an ill-advised broadcast his house turns out to be a poor sanctuary. Meanwhile, weary police Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea) is nominally in charge of hunting down the elusive V, but as the masked man picks off his targets and Finch delves ever deeper into history, he begins to wonder whether – come the next fireworks night – it might not be better for Britain if the new Fawkes carries out his threat.

Now then. Unlike our violent, verbose vigilante, I may not be entirely polite with what I have to say, so I’ll start with the positives of V For Vendetta. The film is written, not directed, by the Wachowskis*, but its style – if not budget – is very reminiscent of the Matrix trilogy. The few action-centric moments are executed quite well, with a form of ‘knife-time’ replacing The Matrix’s much-copied Bullet Time; and throughout there’s a half-decent idea about the power of democracy, how ideas can change the world if taken up by the populace with sufficient conviction. V’s backstory is also vaguely touching, and he does put together a neat – if unnecessarily theatrical – domino display.

Unfortunately, that’s about it for the positives. For all its highfalutin ideas, V for Vendetta constantly hamstrings itself by coming across as utterly fake or requiring great leaps of faith in the film’s logic. Let’s start with the premise that the original Fawkes was a freedom fighter who wanted November 5th to be remembered for the notion that fairness, justice and freedom are more than words – well, if you’re not British and know nothing of the events of 1605, fine, but if (like me) you are British this is just the first of a heap of distracting incongruities.

There’s the unconvincing families and pub punters reacting to the TV, or the constant peppering of ‘bollocks’ and ‘bloody’ in the frankly abysmal script which has Portman trying to make sense of ‘Are you like a crazy person?’ in one of her first lines. Elsewhere, whole scenes fail to ring remotely true – I’m thinking particularly of the witless, humourless ‘satire’ of Gordon’s Benny Hill-inflected chat show; given the totalitarianism of the government, I find it hard to credit that Gordon would ever believe that he’d get off with a slapped wrist.

Worse than the script’s words or scenes, though, is its structure, which makes the problems of Weaving being unable to emote fully through his mask (he sounds very much like Rowan Atkinson), or Portman fully through her over-pronounced vowels, seem like small fry. The plot unwinds through Finch’s investigations into V’s origins, and whether from the drab writing or Stephen Rea’s soggy performance, it all feels like a long-winded damp squib without energy or a motor, V’s dispatching of the authority figures that the Wachowskis plainly mistrust not feeling remotely as exciting as Neo’s adventures in the Matrix; or those of Leon, the shadowy assassin from Natalie Portman’s feature debut.

In the middle of V for Vendetta, Evey is taken prisoner and subjected to brutal treatment by her captors, a trial only interrupted by the soul-baring biography of her lesbian neighbour Valerie (played in flashback by Natasha Wightman). For me, the passage slows the movie down still further to little effect (other than to bolster the writers’ apparent lesbian fixation), but it’s a nice glimpse into the past.

However, the reveal of who has incarcerated Evey highlights the huge liberties the film takes with our suspension of disbelief: how on earth does V operate the prison on his own, without ever showing his face to his prisoner? Why are his hands seemingly unscarred when shaving her hair? Once you start asking these questions, it’s difficult to stop: I’d like to know how, in such an oppressive regime, V has the freedom and resources to buy, import and distribute a cool half-million masks and capes to the general public – but I’ll admit I’m looking for reasons to nitpick.

Whenever I see the title V for Vendetta, I’m tempted to think of a series of a movie series it could slot into: D for Dilemma, P for Pancetta, U for Umbrella, N for Novella. The thought comes into my head because I just can’t take the film seriously. It portrays a Britain that fails to resonate with any sort of reality (hey, I’m no friend of the Conservative Party, but even I take offence at the notion of Sutler’s fascism growing out of Toryism) and limps along under Finch’s lumbering sleuthing to a conclusion that is visually impressive but makes little sense (having achieved his destiny, there’s absolutely no need for V to blow up the Mother of Parliaments). V for Vendetta is a moderately interesting pose, but underneath the pretensions of the Wachowskis’ script it really hasn’t got a clue what it’s talking about. For an intelligent, modern take on 1984, bypass this nonsense and go straight to Terry Gilliam’s wonderfully cynical Brazil.

NOTES: Based on Alan Moore’s novel, of course, though I couldn’t tell you how closely.

The Matrix Revolutions

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: The Machines’ final assault on the Free City of Zion is underway, meaning the forces of Commander Lock and the returning crews of the Nebuchadnezzar and Logos have only twenty hours to save themselves and thousands of others. However, their would-be saviour Neo is comatose and even when he wakes up, getting back to Zion to meet the invaders is the last thing on his mind. His destiny is at a different meeting which will have its own conclusive consequences for the war – and Neo.

The hardy few who still thrilled to every nuance by the end of the frustratingly philosophical Matrix Reloaded will remember that when we left him, Neo was lying unresponsive on a bed, not far from a possible psychotic killer; though by way of compensation, he did seem to have gained a connection with the machines, enabling him to destroy them outside of the Matrix. Meanwhile, the scruffily-clothed remnants of free humanity prepared for a massive onslaught of sentinels digging their way towards Zion, Commander Lock (played with admirable gruffness by Harry Lennix) gathering his forces and pooh-poohing any notion that Neo would be their saviour.

Less hardy individuals will simply remember that The Matrix Reloaded got bogged down in an endless series of monologues delivered by anthropomorphised computer programmes, and the beginning of Revolutions does not suggest that things will be any different. For the vengeful Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), by way of his subordinate the Trainman, is holding Neo’s conscious state hostage in the Train Station, a holding area which nullifies the powers Neo (Keanu Reeves) can wield elsewhere. However, the team of Trinity, Morpheus and the Oracle’s guard Seraph (respectively Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne and Collin Chou) have their own potent brand of hostage negotiation, freeing Neo – with Trinity for company – to pursue his own destiny as instructed by the Oracle (Mary Alice, following the death of Gloria Foster), whilst the others race to join the battle to save Zion, where the humans are desperately outnumbered and all seems lost.

And what of the Matrix itself, increasingly populated by the ever more powerful Agents Smith (Hugo Weaving)? He is inextricably linked with Neo’s destiny, especially when the transfer between the ‘real’ world and the Matrix is not necessarily a one-way operation.

If Revolutions is less instantly disappointing than Reloaded, it’s probably because the first sequel to The Matrix softened us up by being so long-winded. It’s certainly a relief that the most nauseating drivel, the Merovingian banging on about cause and effect, is over and done with fairly quickly and interspersed with some entertaining gunplay, which helps to gloss over the fact that Wilson’s accent is all over the place (even though he’s French!) and Monica Bellucci might as well have sent in a cardboard cut-out for all the acting she’s asked to do as his wife. The problem is that none of the early action actually involves Neo, our hero; and the same is true of the strategising for war, which is jargon-filled and less than thrilling as a result.

It has more than a whiff of the Star Wars prequels about it, albeit Star Wars in moth-eaten knitwear. When the defence of Zion begins in earnest, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the action scenes: but there’s nothing particularly original about them either. Remember the eager kid from Reloaded? It’s no great surprise that he has a part to play in the war effort. Matrix Revolutions feels like a generic sci-fi movie with a generous budget – which is fine, except it loses the one thing that made The Matrix great: The Matrix.

I have mentioned that Keanu doesn’t join in much of the action, and it is a shame that his first battle with Agent Smith (inhabiting the body of Ian Bliss’s Bane) actually takes place on board the ship he and Trinity have taken to travel to Machine City. Violent and important though this fight is – Neo loses his sight, presumably referencing some Greek tragedy the directors have read up on – the strobe lighting cannot possibly compete with the gravity-mangling fights inside The Matrix. That said, when they do go inside for the climactic punch-up, the powers of Neo and Smith have evolved to such an extent that only huge special effects can do the battle justice; and in its constant reliance on CGI the film loses touch with anything that can properly be called ‘real’ (furthermore, the palette of near-constant blacks, greys, greens and blues becomes tiring). Thankfully, faithful old Trinity is on hand to provide quieter, more intimate moments, and Moss does well in the role, which is just as well since Morpheus is reduced to repeating the instructions of his ex, Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), and none of the characters introduced in Reloaded make themselves particularly interesting, though naturally they are all kick-ass warriors when they need to be.

To be perfectly honest, I can’t be positive that I fully understand the implications of the climax of the film, so while the ‘deal’ struck to bring balance to The Force Matrix seems a little illogical to me (what incentive is there for the remaining party to keep his/her/its side of the bargain?), and not as brilliant for the majority of the human race as it could be, I’ll be kind and chalk that up to my sleepy brain when the film ended rather than deficiencies in the story.

Matrix Revolutions moves along in brisker fashion than its predecessor and can’t be faulted for technical achievement, but for all its philosophising on the nature of choices and love its artistic merit is still questionable. Not terrible, but nothing in this Matrix movie impresses like the first. In fact, it’s the least revolutionary out of the three, and that can’t have been the Wachowskis’ intention for the grand finale of their brilliant dream.

The Matrix Reloaded

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Neo has learnt how to bend the Matrix to his will, enabling him to fly and fight off would-be enemies with ease. But his role in the bigger fight between Machines and Humans is uncertain, some factions believing in him utterly, others thinking him irrelevant. Once again, he must call on the Oracle to discover his destiny: he may be able to hasten the end of the war, but he also may not be as unique as everyone believes him to be.

A brilliant central pillar upheld The Matrix at all times: since the world we know is merely a construct, a computer programme, everything within it is mutable to those who know how to bend the rules. While the Wachowski brothers can’t exactly claim the idea as their own – Dark City has a similar theme – they do make the best use of the idea to produce a gun-toting action film like nothing that had been seen before. Sure, it had the odd lapse into Amateur Hour philosophy, but the sequel would learn lessons, forget the preachiness and just be a balls-to-the-wall blast. Right?

The film begins promptly, with no concessions to newcomers. Chosen one Neo (Keanu Reeves) suffers from visions that his beloved Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) will be killed in the midst of a gunfight, and her best efforts to reassure him fall on deaf ears. There are larger issues at play however, as the machines who control the Matrix and still subjugate most of the human population are digging towards the free city of Zion, where the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar head to recuperate. The machines must be stopped; but while Commander Lock (Harry Lennix) insists that every ship stays in Zion to repel the several hundred thousand-strong army of sentinels heading towards them, Morpheus believes Neo is still the key, and is adamant that the Oracle should be consulted as to the next step. It doesn’t help that Captain Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), Lock’s partner, is a former squeeze of Morpheus.

The humans make a show of defiance at a rave-cum-orgy, but Neo is weighed down with his visions and his Messianic burden, and goes for a walk with silver-haired Councillor Hamann (Anthony Zerbe) who dispenses wise words before Neo travels back into the Matrix. There, he quickly learns some new things: first, the Oracle (Gloria Foster) is simply a computer programme, left over from an early incarnation of the Matrix; second, he must find a programme called the Keymaker, guarded by the Merovingian, to gain access to the source of the machines’ power; and third, his nemesis Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) is now literally a free agent, not under the control of the machines but able to self-replicate at will. Neo must fight the agents, the Merovingian and his bodyguards, the Ghost Twins, and any number of Agents Smith to have a chance of reaching the Source, with Morpheus and Trinity taking control of a power station to help him: but will ‘The One’ be able to cope with the information he discovers about himself?

The same flawed logic appears to have hit the Wachowskis here as affected George Lucas when he made episodes 1 to 3 of Star Wars. Namely, having made a box office smash with mind-bending, heart-racing effects, stunts and all-out action, the directors have come to the conclusion that what really drew the numbers in was the back story; so the film spends an inordinately long time amongst the scruffy citizens of Zion, filling us in on politics and combat strategy, and introducing new characters such as the disgruntled wife of navigator Link and an annoying young disciple. These scenes make the viewer impatient for action, and it is disappointing that when Neo does return to the Matrix, several of the action scenes are truncated (a mini-fight between Neo and the Oracle’s bodyguard starts and stops for no good reason) in favour of letting the characters – first the Oracle, then the Merovingian, and finally a mysterious figure called the Architect – ramble on about ‘exiled’ computer programmes and the illusion of choice. ‘We can never see past the choices we don’t understand,’ says the Oracle. Eh?

Whilst I concede that the introduction of other computer programmes, rather than ‘conscious’ humans, is quite a clever idea, the execution of the idea isn’t particularly good, since the characters only exist to espouse windy, wordy theories. The Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), for example, is presented as a stereotypically arrogant French bon viveur, with a fluent line in cod philosophy, a wandering eye and a resentful wife named Persephone (Monica Bellucci, embarrassingly trussed up like the meat of two sausages packed into a single skin). She may be human or programme: it’s hard to know, or care.

The one big action set-piece arrives when Persephone betrays her husband for a meaningful kiss from Neo and she gives him the Keymaker, disappointingly not Rick Moranis but an elderly Japanese fellow. An extended car chase ensues with Morpheus taking the bulk of the action, fighting off the Ghost Twins and agents while Neo engages in a bout of swordplay before rushing to the rescue by ‘doing his Superman thing.’ The sequence is very good, although the Twins shouldn’t have been given any dialogue and Morpheus should have worked harder to dodge bullets than moving his shoulder in a bit.

It’s certainly more satisfying than the fights between Neo and the plethora of Agents Smith, which disprove the theory that the more assailants there are, the more exciting the battle. For one thing, these mass brawls lose the exciting precision of a good one-to-one fight, and Neo’s omnipotence removes any sense of anxiety or drama; for another, the Wachowskis inevitably turn to CGI, and though the result looks like a pretty good video game, the character models are noticeably different to their real counterparts.

It wouldn’t be quite true to say that Matrix Reloaded loses the plot entirely, because between the naff dialogue and Zion scenes there is some exciting stuff, and while no real progress is made on the battle between machines and humans (Neo finds his powers appear to work outside the Matrix, which is nice), Neo and Trinity cement their relationship and the Architect’s revelations set up an interesting puzzle about Neo’s identity: is he The One, or merely The Sixth? At this precise moment I cannot remember whether all is concluded satisfactorily in the final instalment, Matrix Revolutions; what I can say with some certainty is that Reloaded fires some of the same bullets as its predecessor, but this time misses as often as it hits.

The Matrix

WFTB Score: 17/20

The plot: Dissatisfied computer programmer and part time hacker ‘Neo’ becomes involved with a group keen to show him that there is more – much more – to life than he knows. Not only is the world around Neo not what he thinks it is, he is also potentially the key to the future freedom of the human race, if he can unlock his extraordinary abilities.

Time has been rather sniffy about The Matrix. Sure, the second part of the trilogy was pretty poor and the third not much better; sure, the directors have made some other dodgy decisions since; and sure, Keanu’s a miserable sod and Neo’s a daft name. But this film?

This film is cool. Way cool. A revelation on its release, The Matrix is a visually spellbinding movie that takes some geeky Science Fiction ideas and fashions something ultra-hip from them. At the core is the idea that humans, believing they are living in a functioning society, are in fact experiencing a computer-created dream, their bodies creating energy for machines that took over after gaining consciousness. Whilst this idea is not brand new (it has overtones of Terminator, Dark City and no doubt countless sci-fi B-movies*), it feeds off a primal paranoia that we are not in charge of our own lives. The idea is also presented with stunning conviction: when Neo (Keanu Reeves) is re-born into the ‘real’ world and given a brief history lesson by resistance leader Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the visual panache of the sequence is a stunning sci-fi moment, Fishburne’s calm narration guiding us through the spectacle.

Design throughout is excellent. From the instant we see Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) embarking on a gravity-bending chase in a glistening black outfit, we know we are in for a treat. The look of the resistance, and of the Agents assigned to destroy them, is spot-on. This is allied to the John Woo-like ballet of the stunts and gunplay and also to the famous ‘Bullet Time’ camerawork, whipping round the characters as they swerve in slow-motion. Even with the progress made in Computer Generated Imagery since the release of The Matrix, the last half hour of action, which sees Neo staging an audacious rescue of Morpheus, is still a ‘wow’ moment; as is the point when Neo realises his full potential and the world, literally, bends around him.

It’s not all about the effects, though: Reeves and Moss are apt for their roles, Fishburne is strong as Morpheus, and Joe Pantoliano makes an entertaining villain. Even more so is Hugo Weaving as vindictive computer programme Agent Smith, popping up everywhere to hunt down Neo and his friends.

If there has to be criticism, the film struggles to convey the ‘real’ world and the real enemies of the resistance – machines called ‘Squiddies’ – as effectively as it conveys the disruption of the virtual world of the Matrix. Morpheus’ hovercraft, the Nebuchadnezzar, is fine, but the Squiddies themselves appear to swim rather than fly; ironically, they always look like CGI whereas the supposedly computer-created world is always brilliantly realised.

The Matrix also suffers from occasional bouts of naff dialogue, either quasi-religious, pseudo-technical or straight out of Amateur Philosophy Hour, which make portions of the film drag a little; this of course was a major complaint about the sequels, which neglected to tell a sufficiently compelling story to steady up passages of incomprehensible waffle. But forget about those films and take this film on its own merits. The Matrix is never less than interesting, and when it is good, it is astonishingly good.

NOTES: I would have called the film Attack of the Baby-Farming Robots. Which may explain why I’m not in the movie business.

The Tuxedo

WFTB Score: 4/20

The plot: Unassuming but speedy taxi driver Jimmy Tong is given the job of chauffering around mysterious, dapper Englishman Clark Devlin. When Clark is injured by a bomb, Jimmy steps into his shoes – and his suit – and suddenly becomes a dynamic whirlwind capable of anything. Just as well, since Jimmy has to track down the bad guys who got his boss, and the partner sent to help ‘Devlin’, plucky youngster Del Blaine, thinks he’s the real deal.

Hollywood studios aren’t brought into being every day, and even if it was inconceivable that every film it produced would be a classic, the early output of Dreamworks (American Beauty, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind) promised much. But little by little, with the exception of the animation arm financed (forever!) by Shrek, that promise ebbed away, not helped by this irksome attempt to make an English-language star out of Hong Kong legend Jackie Chan and a comic leading lady out of Jennifer Love Hewitt.

The plot – such as it is – goes like this: Jimmy Tong (Chan) is a lowly cab driver, pining for the woman of his dreams but desperately tongue-tied and destined to be a loser until he’s plucked from obscurity by a government agent because of his driving skills. He’s tasked with driving suave Bond-alike Clark Devlin (Jason Isaacs) around and witnesses with admiration Devlin’s skills with the ladies and his physical prowess. When Devlin says his confidence is all about the clothes, he’s not kidding, as Jimmy finds out when his boss is targeted and ends up in hospital, telling his driver to trust no-one; Tong dons Clark’s hi-tech tux* and suddenly has the power to do anything he pleases, such as becoming a powerhouse of destruction, dancing or walking up walls.

Meanwhile, back at the government agency (the CSA, whatever that is) spunky young scientist Delilah Blaine (Love Hewitt) discovers the basis of the plan being cooked up by sinister businessman Dietrich Banning (Ritchie Coster), namely to infect the world’s water supplies with a deadly dehydrating bacteria so that everyone will have to buy his bottled water. She’s sent out into the field to accompany “Devlin”, little knowing that the revered secret agent is actually Tong, aided by the suit. Though his henchmen make discovering Banning’s secret lab a fraught and violent job for the mismatched pair of Jimmy and Del, Jimmy’s determined not to let Devlin down and keeps up the pretence for as long as he can stay alive; luckily, he’s not the only one with impressive weapons concealed in his clothing.

Ordinarily I would apologise for the blunt innuendo of that last sentence, but it’s as nothing compared to the leering focus of The Tuxedo. It’s as if the director has realised in advance (and with every justification) that the film has irresolvable issues: firstly, that his plot is a tired rip-off of a dozen Bond films (I particularly thought of Goldfinger’s gold contamination) only with wild contrivances to introduce some noisy action sequences (Del inexplicably gives Banning the Tuxedo – but wait, there’s a second one! Wonder whether that’ll end in a fight…); secondly, that most of his cast are second-rate, Coster proving to be a dreadfully cardboard English villain; thirdly, that despite his good work in Rush Hour, Chan’s best years are quite a way behind him and his struggles with the English language are bound to put off many casual viewers.

Given the inevitability that the film was a dud, Donovan has gone all out to engage pubertal boys by concentrating all his efforts on Love Hewitt’s figure; ‘nice rack’ is the phrase used as a codeword when Del and Jimmy are supposed to meet, and thereafter every scene is moulded to provide a sniggering parade of cleavage shots (yes, she uses them to gain entrance to a party) and close-ups on bottoms – presumably in the interests of equal opportunities there’s an interminable sequence of Chan waving his booty around too. I’m not suggesting that The Tuxedo is anywhere near as rank as Heartbreakers, but it has to be said that Jennifer’s default personality seems to be at the pitch of a hostile Bitch Goddess, giving her directors nothing to work with but her body (compare, if you like, the warmth of an actress like Reese Witherspoon at a similar age). Luckily, the film doesn’t try to suggest any hint of attraction between Jimmy and Delilah until right at the very end (in a messy coda), but when it does it’s not in the least bit convincing.

Even the keenest oglers are likely to become bored by The Tuxedo as it lurches from one awkward set-piece to the next. To be fair to Chan, he still puts everything he has into the fight scenes, but the director’s incompetence ensures that the good stunts he pulls off are overshadowed by obvious wirework and references to the silly gadgetry included in the magical tux. Speaking of which, the tuxedo is an inconsistent bit of equipment, thinking for itself one minute, relying on input from a watch the next, reacting with punches the first time Love Hewitt touches it yet not provoked when she taps Chan on the chest later on. It’s the same lazy use of ‘wacky’ gadgets that marred the re-make of The Stepford Wives (another movie Dreamworks didn’t live to regret), and it grates with all but the least attentive of viewers. On a slightly positive note, I did smile at James Brown’s cameo (God rest his Soul) and the line ‘The name’s Tong, James Tong’, though I have a suspicion that this line might have been the seed which begat the rest of the film – so shame on it.

The Tuxedo is a fine film for young lads new to the medium of film since it provides martial arts, comic-book/sci-fi action, spy games and some basic exploitation of the female form. Imagine the joy of discovering that just about every film in existence does one or more of these elements infinitely better! And while they get a half-speed introduction to Jackie Chan here, imagine the wonder of looking up his back catalogue, or even just finding clips on Youtube, and discovering a pioneer in his prime.

NOTES: Try saying that after a few.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian

WFTB Score: 19/20

The plot: Brian of Nazareth reaches adulthood in a Judea under Roman occupation, but his anti-Roman actions are fired not so much by the People’s Front of Judea’s political beliefs but a desire to get close to its only (properly) female member, Judith. As he attempts to prove his mettle, he inadvertently attracts the attention and devotion of a group of devoted followers who hang on his every word. They cannot save Brian, however, when the Roman Legions catch up with him.

The history of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the group behind it has filled many a large book, and in each discussion of their third feature film (after the compilation And Now for Something Completely Different and Monty Python and the Holy Grail) makes for one of the longest chapters. At the time, Life of Brian was the subject of immense controversy centred around the supposedly blasphemous nature of the film; thankfully, that has largely subsided and what remains for most is an appreciation of one of the most finely-crafted comedies of all time.

After a pre-credits sequence which sees the Three Wise Men paying misguided homage to Brian and his crackpot/pepperpot mother (not named in the film, but I believe her name’s Mandy), the film proper sees an adult Brian (Graham Chapman) living in Judea with his mum (Terry Jones), who is friendly with the occupying Romans to the extent that Brian himself is half-Roman. When Brian spots Judith (Sue Jones-Davies) in a crowd he is besotted and seeks her out among the company of the People’s Front of Judea, or PFJ, but their irascible leader Reg (John Cleese) sets conditions for Brian’s entry into the movement.

Brian completes his initiation but a bungled kidnap attempt in Pontius Pilate’s (Michael Palin) house makes him the target of Roman soldiers, and during one of his escapes Brian’s vagueness makes him fascinating to bystanders when he is forced to pose as a preacher. The bystanders quickly become a mob who pursue Brian despite his entreaties, much to the displeasure of his mother who (famously) tells them he’s definitely not a Messiah; but just when it seems Brian’s sudden popularity is finally going to galvanise the PFJ into action the Romans arrest him, and even a last-minute reprieve from crucifixion is hijacked by a cheeky fellow criminal (Eric Idle).

To deal with the controversy first: of course the visit of the Wise Men, Brian’s being taken for a Messiah and his crucifixion invite comparisons to the story of Jesus, but it would take a wilfully stupid person not to notice that JESUS IS IN THE MOVIE! (apologies for shouting, but it needs to be said). The infant Christ appears as the true target of the Magi’s worship, and immediately after the credits Brian watches the adult Jesus preaching his sermon on the mount; he is not mocked, satirised or made a figure of fun in any way whatsoever. Those determined to be offended must be insisting that:

  1. Nobody born around Christ’s time must be represented in film for fear of contamination by association,
  2. Nobody else must be taken as a Messiah in a film for the same reason (which kind of ruins it for other religions)
  3. Nobody must be crucified in a film as it makes a mockery of Christ’s endurance (shame about Spartacus, then – and the superb “I’m Brian and so’s my wife” joke here).

Christian or not, it only takes a second’s consideration to realise that these objections are ludicrous. Life of Brian doesn’t seek to say anything about Christ’s life, instead satirising the obsessive and often thoughtless nature of belief and the pointless schisms that religion often provokes (more directly, the PFJ as a commentary on the fractured nature of Middle East politics is as true now as it was in 1979).

So, back to the comedy. It may sound daft to compare a comedy film imposing modern English idioms and quirks onto two thousand-year-old history with Shakespeare, but several lines from Life of Brian have passed into popular parlance (“He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”, “One total catastrophe is just the beginning”, “Splitter!”) and will no doubt stay there for hundreds of years to come. The writing is of such quality, and such a seamless meld of the Pythons’ writing styles, that the film flows rather than feeling like a succession of sketches and still feels fresh, offering surprises even on double-digit viewings. And Life of Brian goes far beyond the simply silly or ‘Pythonesque’ (the spaceship sequence – since the effects look cheap amongst Terry Gilliam’s otherwise immaculate art direction – is possibly the only misstep in the entire film) to deliver a consistently entertaining film.

Chapman is both comic and genuinely sympathetic as the luckless Brian, whilst Palin has enormous fun as the speech-troubled Pilate and a number of smaller characters (his ex-leper is great). Essentially, though, Cleese dominates the film – in a good way. Whether he’s the lecturing priest, Reg, the aggressive centurion or Brian’s chief zealot (“I say you are, Lord, and I should know, I’ve followed a few!”), Cleese is brilliant. His half-crazed earnestness helps to counterbalance the flimsiness of some of Idle’s characters; but this is no criticism, since the choice of the lounge song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life to end the film is absolutely inspired, sending the audience out with a whistle rather than a depressing scene on their minds.

In short, if you haven’t seen Life of Brian, ignore the supposed controversy and watch it ASAP. The spaceship apart, it’s only really the fact that Brian runs away from people once or twice too often that stops this from being the perfect comedy, filled as it is with memorable characters and reams of quotable lines. Pythons’ finest hour and in all probability the high-point of British film comedy.

Entrapment

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: As the new millennium approaches, supple art insurance dealer Virginia ‘Gin’ Baker hits on not one scam but two, the first the theft of a $40 million dollar gold mask, the second the even more daring withdrawal of $8 billion from a Malaysian bank. But she simply cannot do it alone and calls on the services of veteran thief Robert ‘Mac’ MacDougal, who initially mistrusts Gin but finds himself drawn to her. Secretly, one of the pair has every reason to mistrust the other; the question is, which one?

Those with short memories or who weren’t paying attention at the time might not remember the considerable fuss caused by the ‘millennium bug,’ a potential computer error caused by the fact that – in the early years of computing at least – years had been entered by the last two digits only to save space, meaning that some systems would return to 1900 and not be able to cope with existing in a time before they were invented. Or something. As it turned out, the issue was practically a non-event, and Entrapment displays a peculiar prescience by being equally unexciting.

The set-up goes like this. Gin (Catherine Zeta Jones, born September 25th, 1969) works in art insurance and has a fascination with the work of notorious thief ‘Mac’ (Sean Connery, born August 25th, 1930), especially as the former publicly suspects the latter of stealing a Rembrandt from the 70th floor of an office block – from the outside. Sent to London by her boss Hector (Will Patton), Gin – the actual performer of the Rembrandt robbery – stalks Mac to get him involved in the theft of a precious Chinese mask being exhibited at a stately home; but Mac finds her first and though he suspects her of being a cop, he is intrigued by her plan and agrees to help her, first training her up at his Highland hideaway to get past the elaborate web of lasers guarding the mask.

This heist is just the start, however, as Gin also has a plan to steal a cool $8 billion from the International Clearance Bank in Malaysia, taking advantage of a shutdown in the bank’s computers to cope with the millennium bug (see, it is relevant!) and stealing an extra ten seconds by shaving a slice off each minute of the preceding hour. Mac has huge reservations about the plan but his hand is forced by pushy associate and gadget provider Aaron Thibadeaux (Ving Rhames); anyway, he likes the sound of the money, and increasingly he likes his partner in crime – to the detriment of his own judgement and instinct for self-preservation.

Entrapment is a film whose ideas must have looked great on paper: a former James Bond back doing action, only this time breaking the law; a lovely, lithe brunette performing slinky yoga moves to evade lasers (and red wool with bells on); and a zeitgeist-y tale packed with technological marvels, with the enormous Petronas Towers as both a backdrop and playground for stunts. Regrettably, something has gone amiss in the transition from page to screen, and most of it is to do with the relationship between Connery and Jones. It seems a strange thing to say given Jones’s choice of husband (Michael Douglas is fourteen years Connery’s junior, to be fair) but the supposed sexual tension between Mac and Gin feels incredibly icky, and neither party makes us believe that there’s any genuine attraction. Connery in particular looks every inch the septuagenarian (he’s meant to be sixty) and his longing looks at his co-star’s body lust not for her but for the memory of a long-disappeared potency.

Thankfully, scenes where the pair are physically entwined are rare, Mac using the excuse of a ‘complicated’ life to pull away; he spends a great deal more time training Gin for the mask robbery, the Scottish setting more than a little reminiscent of Highlander (I’m tempted to think they filmed at or near Connery’s house as an enticement to get him in the film). And though Gin’s contortions have a certain visual appeal, when they are repeated for real they look rather silly since the lasers are invisible (except to Mac, who’s guiding her).

Then again, there are some things that must have looked a bit ropey on paper, including a number of profoundly improbable sequences such as Connery disappearing silently from a tiny hotel room and later bugging the local telephone box (Gin has slipped out on the pretence of buying him a Christmas present – from where? And what did she get?). The most improbable event of all occurs in the silly and thoroughly unconvincing ‘twist’ ending (I won’t give it away, but the FBI turn up and go away again, defeated, after about two minutes), wherein Gin leaps between two trains travelling in opposite directions. It would have made a decent action sequence, but the incident is merely reported for our acceptance.

The action sequences that make it in are filmed well enough, with some nice aerial work dancing around New York and Kuala Lumpur, and the stars’ doubles get to exert themselves in some high-wire stunts; but the scenes are over-reliant on computers and gadgets, not reliant enough on genuine cunning and daring, and Gin and Mac are to be thankful that the security staff at the Petronas Towers (though they’re not named as such in the film) are the laziest, most complacent employees on the planet, especially when provoked by the FBI.

Much of Entrapment put me in mind of Mission: Impossible, and if Amiel had managed to bring some of De Palma’s verve to the picture, and perhaps some of the cast (Rhames is already there, of course), objections to many of the plot’s less realistic moments would have been swept away in the general adrenalin rush. As it is, we are left with a stodgy, dim-witted movie where much is creaky besides its venerable male star.