Monthly Archives: September 2015

Pearl Harbor

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Childhood best friends Rafe McCawley and Danny Walker both grow into ace pilots, but war in Europe separates them and also parts Rafe from Evelyn, the army nurse who is his sweetheart and inspiration. Rafe’s plane is lost in battle and, in comforting Evelyn, Danny finds he can’t resist her, causing the friends to fall out when Rafe miraculously reappears. But their petty squabbles must be put aside when the full extent of the Japanese military’s strategy to attack the USA reveals itself – in horrific fashion.

You can imagine Michael Bay turning this project over in his mind. “Hmm. This ain’t no made up sh*t like Armageddon, you gotta do right by the military. And I don’t know if this here love story sits right neither. Still, them old action hacks Spielberg and Cameron did the history thing okay. Cover it with flags and God and kids and slo-mo walkin’ and violins and sh*t and we’ll have ourselves a mighty purdy picture. Yee-ha!” I’m being unfair to the director (and not in any way suggesting that he actually thinks like this), but Bay’s name attached to a subject as emotive as Pearl Harbor does set a few alarm bells ringing, especially when the film starts not in the fury of battle or at the heart of the action, but with our heroes as boys in a cornfield years before the war; and then proceeds, for a good portion of the film, to treat the conflict as a sideshow (though, to be fair, WWII could accurately be described as such to the US prior to December 1942).

The first half of Pearl Harbor introduces us to the adult Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett), the former a cocksure prodigy who lives to fly, the latter a shy and retiring sort who lives in his friend’s shadow. Rafe convinces pretty nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale) to pass him fit despite signs of dyslexia, then convinces her to date him by getting her close to – though not on – the luxurious Queen Mary. The pair fall in love but Rafe’s higher duty is to the army, and he volunteers to go to England to assist the RAF in the hard-fought Battle of Britain despite it not being ‘his war.’

Rafe and Evelyn keep in touch by letter, but communication stops when Rafe’s plane is hit over the English Channel and he is presumed dead. After a respectful period to let her mourn (three months!), Danny plucks up the courage to ask Evelyn out and, after taking her up to see the beautiful aerial view of Pearl Harbor, where they are all now based, the couple make love. But their happiness is abruptly shaken by Rafe’s dramatic return.

There are numerous diversions from this story, showing the Japanese forces planning their attack by sending spies to Hawaii and ringing dentists for weather reports, or introducing minor characters such as Cuba Gooding Jr’s heroic boxer Dorie Miller, or stuttering Ewen Bremner’s pursuit of nurse Betty. Additionally, there are scenes showing the US Military ignoring the intuitive advice of decoding expert Captain Thurman (Dan Aykroyd), and Franklin D. Roosevelt (Jon Voight) fretting over America’s slowness to respond to worldwide crisis. And when McCawley gets to England, there are some excellent aerial sequences which bring dogfights over the British coast to vivid life.

But all of these asides are exactly that, asides, which merely sketch at the world outside the leads’ love triangle (for surely Danny loves Rafe every bit as much as he comes to love Evelyn). The first impressions of the film suggest a jitter-bugging, lindy-hopping romantic comedy, which is not necessarily a bad thing; but the romance is so drawn out, and the characters are so shallow, and say such clunky things under a terribly cloying musical score (‘It’s your nose that hurts.’ ‘I think it’s my heart.’), that you yearn for the war to intervene and cut through the syrup. There is none of the passion that marked Kate and Leo’s relationship in Titanic, nor is there any of the foreboding sense of doom that Cameron’s film managed – in part – to impart.

Naturally, the whole movie changes with the Japanese attack on the US Naval Fleet (“I think World War II’s just started”, Danny shouts. See?). The depiction of this attack is shown from a multitude of viewpoints and is an impressive piece of film-making, showing the Japanese launching their adapted torpedoes to sink ships in the shallow water, Dorie Miller trying to save his captain, and the staff at the previously-deserted hospital (including Evelyn) suddenly becoming overwhelmed with casualties as ship after helpless ship is downed. A small band including Danny and Rafe race to find usable planes to repel the attacks, and they score a few hits, but the carnage is as overwhelming as it is shocking.

I am going to be fair to Bay here and suggest that he wasn’t simply attracted by the idea of making lots of things explode, but by showing the scale of the attack and hundreds upon hundreds of men scrambling for their lives he wanted to move the audience and generate waves of patriotic feeling with the pilots’ fight-back, which then culminates in the daring bomber raid on Japan named Operation Doolittle after the trainer who devises it (Alec Baldwin). It is just a pity that this patriotism is laid on so thickly and so bluntly, with FDR rising out of his chair to demonstrate what can be done with willpower and Doolittle delivering heart-warming homilies to his noble fliers.

And it’s not just historically dodgy; at the climactic point, where the action story meets the love triangle head-on, the film tips over into silliness, with Evelyn, snuck into the Operation control room, reacting (Liv Tyler-style) to news she can’t hear as one of her lovers doesn’t make it back. The acting is fairly uniform (no pun intended); nobody appears out of place – Affleck is nowhere near as annoying here as in Armageddon – but nobody imbues their roles with deeper qualities than are hinted at in Randall Wallace’s pedestrian script, which early on has the young Danny actually telling Rafe “You’re my best friend” – a level of subtlety that is maintained throughout the picture.

You can argue all you like about whether Bay shows any sensitivity towards the dead of Pearl Harbor. What you can say with certainty is that Pearl Harbor the film looks great but for the most part looks at the wrong things, concentrating on a love story that takes far too long to do the incredibly predictable (including Evelyn emerging from the bathroom, looking sick. What could that mean?) to the detriment of explaining the strategy behind the attack and the swiftness of America’s response with clarity, detail and accuracy. A film that did that may not have been a blockbuster, but equally would not have met with the derision and hostility that this movie encountered from many quarters on its release.


United 93

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: On September 11, 2001 United Airlines Flight 93 eventually leaves Newark airport, bound for San Francisco; but four Al-Qaeda terrorists ensure that it will never reach its destination. As the passengers learn of events in New York, they decide that their plane will not be used in the same way, whatever the personal cost.

Four terrorists make their way to Newark airport to catch a flight to San Francisco. They mingle with passengers and board United Airlines Flight 93 on time, but heavy traffic means a half hour delay to take-off. While they wait, Air Traffic Control in Boston (and the National centre in Herndon, Virginia) become aware that American Airlines Flight 11 has potentially been hijacked, the first hijack of a passenger flight in America for about twenty years. The military, about to conduct an exercise on the East Coast, scramble jets and wait on Presidential orders regarding rules of engagement, but tragically, the magnitude of the incident is not recognised immediately and United 93 is allowed to take off.

Air Traffic Control in Boston and New York view the progress of Flight 11, and subsequently Flight 175, with increasing concern, but everyone is stunned when the planes hit the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, a third flight later striking the Pentagon. Meanwhile, on board United 93, the terrorists – despite a late attack of nerves from the pilot – put their plan into action, terrifying the passengers who nonetheless compose themselves to make heartbreaking phone calls to their loved ones. As the stewards and passengers come to the realisation that the pilots are dead, they find a man prepared to fly the plane and resolve to confront the hijackers. The terrorists, however, have nothing to lose and are determined to bring the flight down.

There can hardly be anyone with access to the internet who doesn’t remember the events of 9/11 like they were yesterday, such was the horror of the event and the sheer amount of coverage it received, both in terms of footage from the day itself and programmes devoted to the outrage in the following months and years. It’s great credit to Paul Greengrass’ skill as both writer and director that he brilliantly balances the drama of the day, giving due weight to events in New York but concentrating on different, unheralded dramas too.

The first thirty minutes are spent preparing for take off, with the first inklings from traffic control that something is wrong; the next thirty deal with the unfolding horror as the planes hit their targets in New York; the next thirty are sheer panic and confusion both on the ground and on United 93; and the last thirty are given over entirely to the passengers’ struggle to take control of the flight. It’s amazing how much drama Greengrass wrings from rooms full of people talking on phones and computer screens (the moment American Airlines Flight 11 disappears is quite spooky), and the recreation of United 93’s last flight – especially its last moments – is incredibly affecting, considering the viewer has known from the start how it ends.

If you were to come at United 93 blind, you might suppose that the terrorists are all portrayed as single-minded, towel-headed bastards and the passengers as saintly, homily-spouting patriots. But the film isn’t like that, taking an absolutely objective look at the events of the day: the terrorists’ prayers to Allah and the passengers’ recitation of the Lord’s Prayer go side by side. There are many who will be horrified by the fact that the film doesn’t overtly emphasise the horror of the terrorist atrocity and the bravery of the men who fight back; but in fact the film does make precisely these points, without ever waving them in the viewer’s face, and is all the more effective for it.

Moreover, United 93 never explicitly criticises the response to the events of the tragic morning; it merely re-enacts what happens and lets the viewer make their own conclusions about the lack of communication between civilian and military command centres, the lack of clarity about rules of engagement, the jets sent in the wrong direction by mistake (as the end captions point out, by the time fighter jets were ready, no orders were passed to pilots in case of accidental shootings). The film is dramatic and damning without ever having to resort to cheap movie tricks; that said, whilst the handheld camera is naturalistic and involving (you often feel as though you’re sat at a nearby desk, or in one of the plane’s seats), its sheer restlessness did occasionally make me feel slightly nauseous.

You’ll have noticed that I haven’t mentioned any actors’ names so far, and there are good reasons for this. Firstly, this is not an actor’s picture, and in any case it’s not as if any of the ‘stars’ are people you’ll recognise; secondly, some of the ground staff are re-enacting their own roles on the day, and it’s not really fair to set one group apart from the other. Suffice to say that everyone is defined despite the chaotic scenes; and just to name one person, Ben Sliney is convincing as himself, the National Operations Manager on his first day on the job.

Whilst United 93 is as much a re-enactment as a drama, the very fact that it refuses to overplay or distort any element of the events (compare, for example, Pearl Harbor or even Titanic) for ‘entertainment’ works in its favour. It’s paradoxical, I know, but its unobtrusive observation of events makes the film all the more emotional. It’s not always the easiest watch – sometimes because of the wilfully violent camerawork – but United 93 is as good a film about 9/11 as you could hope to see.


WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Ripples in the past make presidential candidate Senator McComb increasingly rich, and the only man with the guts to stop him is Time Enforcement Commission officer Max Walker, still reeling from the murder of his wife ten years ago in 1994. As Walker gets ever more involved in his investigation, the ruthless senator tries to ensure that Walker is thrown off the trail – if necessary, before he ever starts out.

The appearance of Confederate-stamped gold in the late 20th Century frightens the American Senate into setting up the Time Enforcement Commission to monitor time travel. On the one hand, this is good news for Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) as he gets a job with the new agency; on the other, it’s very bad news, as a couple of Kurgan-like goons stalk Max and his wife Melissa (Mia Sara) – pregnant, though Max is unaware – and torch their house in the middle of the night, killing Melissa and leaving Max for dead.

Ten years later, Max can’t forget his wife but is being kept busy at the TEC, since his partner is abusing his power by taking advantage of the Great Depression to earn millions for a mysterious backer. Walker has a hunch that the man raising the money is power-hungry Senator Aaron McComb (Ron Silver), but he has any number of fights on his hands (and feet) to prove it, with heavies and his under-pressure boss Eugene Matuzak (Bruce McGill) literally or metaphorically busting his balls, respectively.

Walker goes back to 1994 with new crime-fighting partner Sarah Fielding (Gloria Reuben) but can’t stop McComb from giving himself instructions on how to become even more insanely rich and powerful; indeed, with the ‘help’ of Fielding he barely gets back at all, and then has to beg Matuzak to send him back again to intercept the amazed Melissa and prevent her murder at (what Walker now knows to be) the hands of McComb’s punks. In doing so, he discovers Melissa’s secret and helps his former self out of a few tight scrapes too.

Clearly one thing you want from your film reviewer is consistency, and judging Timecop by the standards of better-funded Hollywood movies shows Peter Hyams’ film as lacking polish. You would, for example, prefer van Damme to have a less thick accent, for his acting chops to be more nuanced, and for his script to be wittier. Similarly, whilst Ron Silver makes for a splendidly callous B-movie villain, it would have been nice for him to have more quirks than just a violent temper (he comes across as a poor man’s Al Pacino). Although the effects are by and large pretty good, the cars are similar to the chunky Lego constructions found in Total Recall (car designers must have had a collective breakdown between 1994 and 2004) and the climactic special effect is distinctly unspecial: you’ll know the one I mean when you get to it.

All of which said, it’s pretty silly to judge films starring ‘The Muscles from Brussels’ by the same standards as mainstream films. He doesn’t quite carry off his kickboxing skills with the same charm as Jackie Chan, but his fighting is efficient and precise and guarantees a certain thrill. Timecop’s set-pieces are naturally geared around Van Damme’s strengths, leading to some entertaining one-on-one battles and impressive stunts, such as his balancing act on a kitchen work surface.

Moreover, it’s not just about the action: the story is solid (given the usual caveats about time travel, about which more in a minute) and told unfussily, the reproductions of the past (ie. The American Civil War and Wall St in 1929) are brief but perfectly decent, and although there is the requisite amount of gratuitous sex, it’s over with fairly early in the piece and is balanced by a decent performance from Sara and some believable emoting from Van Damme as he watches old tapes of his wife (whether this copies from, or was copied by, Minority Report is something I haven’t managed to work out yet).

Since the movie doesn’t dwell on them, it’s only afterwards that you consider the traditional pitfalls of time travel films, such as: if McComb’s heavies have always been in the 1994 timeline, hasn’t Max from 2004 always been there as well? Also, if Max from 2004 does change the past and stops McComb from abusing the technology, what is there for the TEC to do afterwards? And when 2004 Max gets ‘home’, what happens to the 1994 Max who has been such a good husband and father all this time? Does he just wink out of existence? Such questions accompany any film dealing with time travel, but it has to be said that films such as Twelve Monkeys (or more properly the magical La Jetée) address the conundrum with a greater measure of finesse.

Were Martians to land demanding examples of the best humanity had to offer, I personally wouldn’t offer up Timecop as the pinnacle of cinema; in a straight line of films lined up in order from execrable to superb, it probably wouldn‘t even make it as far as ‘good‘. However, if the same Martians landed demanding a laugh and a good night out, when we got back from the pub with our kebabs in what passed for our hands Timecop might well be the first film in the player. And that’s not to be condescending; Van Damme, mullet and all, does what he does with aplomb in a film with a kickin’ story to match.

Déjà Vu

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: When domestic terrorism claims the lives of hundreds of decent Americans in New Orleans, ATF investigator Doug Carlin is mortified to discover that a beautiful woman is among the dead, and confused to be told that she died before the accident. However, this is nothing compared to his confusion when FBI agent Paul Pryzwarra tells him he can look back in time to see who committed the atrocity. As he watches the past, a question arises in Doug’s mind: is he restricted to looking?

It’s an unusual Mardi Gras for Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearm and Explosives agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington). It begins with an unthinkable outrage in New Orleans when a ferry carrying both children and US Navy sailors is blown up, killing over five hundred people. In the course of his investigations, two significant things happen: firstly, Doug meets FBI agent Paul Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer), who is taking a keen interest in the crime and Doug’s impressive sleuthing capabilities; secondly, Doug is called to the post mortem of Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), a pretty woman found in the water, and is told that rather than being a victim of the explosion she was tortured and killed beforehand.

As Doug searches Claire’s house, he intriguingly finds the message ‘u can save her’ written in fridge magnets, but the relevance of this doesn’t begin to play on his mind until Pryzwarra lets him know what’s going on: with the help of a super-computer called Snow White, his team of FBI scientists, headed up by supergeek Alexander (Adam Goldberg) and intense time specialist Shanti (Erika Alexander) can see into the past. Four days and six hours into the past in fact, and anyone in New Orleans can be watched from any angle, with the system’s limited range extended by use of a mobile ‘goggle rig’. Initially, the energy-hungry computer programme is described as a strictly one-way stream of information, but as Doug’s intuitions get him closer to identifying the bomber, he starts to become fixated by the idea of rescuing Claire from her destiny – that is, being kidnapped by the shadowy terrorist and having her vehicle stolen. And although an initial experiment into sending a message to the past doesn’t quite go to plan, Doug decides to risk everything to save the girl, and maybe many innocent souls too.

The late Tony Scott was no doubt very grateful to have a stalwart actor like Denzel Washington prepared to repeatedly work with him. Washington is engaging, affable, always ready to flash a smile, but capable of shocking bursts of action or passion. That said, even at the very top of his game Denzel would have struggled to keep Déjà Vu from sinking under the weight of its utter preposterousness. For a start, the science is completely barmy and the science fiction thrown together as the rickety plot demands, with the happy accident of the ‘time window’ just happening to cover the right bits of New Orleans, and the gadgetry of the ill-named ‘goggle-rig’ just a clunky device (in all senses of the word) to liven up the film with a conceptually brave but naff-in-execution car chase, the hunter tracking a quarry from more than half a week ago.

Furthermore, whilst the writers do their level best to seal off inevitable time-travel plot holes, one insuperable (if admittedly brain-bursting) paradox remains: how can you stop something happening which has already happened, when the information you use to stop it only comes to light because the thing has happened? If you stop the thing from happening, you also stop the subsequent fact-finding, and therefore you don’t do the things to stop it, and you’re into some sort of infinite loop.

To be fair, the film wears the time travel element of its tale fairly lightly, and in some respects is to be commended for not trying to over-explain itself (Shanti draws a quick diagram of divergent realities and on everyone goes). What’s disappointing about Déjà Vu is that the ‘time window’ aspect apart, the film is thoroughly and drearily predictable. Carlin’s partner at the ATF, of whom we see little, gets it in the neck in both versions of history; there’s a lazy love interest that inevitably develops between Doug and Claire, built largely on the fact that she looks great in her smalls; Kilmer and Washington have an uneasy relationship but end up as friends, brought together by ignoring big boss Bruce Greenwood when he demands the project is shut down. Jim Caviezel’s terrorist doesn’t have anything more shocking to reveal than a grudge; and whilst there’s some tension in the reliving of the ferry leaving dock (the scene that opens the movie), the resolution is fairly run-of-the-mill.

Crucially, the writers, actors and director seem so fascinated about looking back in time that they abandon any idea of character development, so often the first casualty of action movies. Carlin is classic Washington, though you can tell that Denzel isn’t working – or being worked – very hard, as he’s moody as hell one second and all wisecracking smiles the next. Patton, as I have hinted above, is mainly tasked with stripping to her underwear, whilst the main reason for Kilmer to be in the film is to spark conversation about how chunky he looks.

As for the director, although Scott’s direction isn’t as laboriously flashy here as it is in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, that doesn’t mean there’s much to cheer about. Scott doesn’t carry off patriotic flag-waving half as effectively as Michael Bay, and despite a dedication to its citizens the film doesn’t enlighten us about New Orleans either. Okay, we’re shown the backdrop of houses devastated by Hurricane Katrina, but the movie doesn’t actually say anything about the situation so it feels slightly exploitative.

I feel wrong for saying it, but Déjà Vu is a fun film on the basis of a high ‘enjoyable tosh’ quotient and the star power of its leading man, who even in cruise control is capable of elevating a project from the straight-to-DVD bins. However, with a big-movie budget and talent that is capable of occasional greatness, it can’t be right that this movie isn’t as much fun – or as well thought out – as Jean-Claude Van Damme’s legendary Timecop.

Cruel Intentions 2: Manchester Prep

WFTB Score: 4/20

The plot: Mischievous pupil Sebastian Valmont travels to New York to live with his father and stepmother, and his new stepsister Kathryn Merteuil, the high-flying student president at Manchester prep school. Sebastian begins a tentative relationship with chaste headmaster’s daughter Danielle, while Kathryn makes it her mission to ruin the relationship in any way she can. She also finds time to make a project of deflowering silly, innocent schoolmate Cherie.

If you’ve seen the first Cruel Intentions, or have read Les Liaisons Dangereuses on which it is based, you’ll know that there’s a very good reason why there are no further adventures of Kathryn and Sebastian. In order to continue his series, writer/director Roger Kumble takes us back to a time when his characters were young and a little more callow, though no less callous.

Escaping from a dreadful reputation and his mother’s drug problems, Sebastian (a bushy-browed Robin Dunne) arrives in New York and is bowled over by the opulence of his new surroundings, funded by foxy stepmother Tiffany (Mimi Rogers). He’s astounded that his philandering father (David McIlwraith) has managed to land on his feet, and he’s belittled by his new stepsister Kathryn (Amy Adams), but intellectually he proves to be her match. They both attend Manchester Prep school, where Kathryn is student body president and also runs a secret Tribunal, which judges peers and decides who does, or doesn‘t, make the grade.

Kathryn decides to take insanely wealthy and innocently idiotic Cherie (Keri Lynn Pratt) down a peg or two by introducing her to sinful pleasures, while Sebastian romances reluctant headmaster’s daughter Danielle (Sarah Thompson). Kathryn takes against the match and puts obstacles in her brother’s way – including herself – to try to get Sebastian to show his true colours. Sebastian is determined to stay on the straight and narrow to win Danielle’s love, but is she the innocent lamb she makes out to be?

If you have seen the first Cruel Intentions, you’ll find much of Manchester Prep very familiar, from the first scene (Sebastian casually ruining someone’s life) to the quarry (for Cecile read Cherie) to the look of the piece (Danielle and Annette share the same taste in sky-blue tops). Unfortunately, not only is this rehashing deeply unoriginal, it’s also done with undercooked, if not raw, acting talent. Adams (now very bankable, of course) is more convincing acting weak and petulant than seductive or manipulative here, whilst Dunne exhibits little of Valmont’s lady-killing charm or cool (indeed, when Kathryn gratuitously throws two naked sisters in his way, he doesn’t know where to put himself). No doubt those involved would say it’s all deliberate, showing that the younger Valmont and Merteuil weren’t quite the finished article; but neither impersonation made me think the youngsters were remotely likely to turn into Ryan Philippe or Sarah Michelle Gellar.

I didn’t much enjoy the introduction of everything that was left out of the original, either. For example, there’s school life, which as you’d expect takes the film into well-worn, cliquey Heathers/Mean Girls territory; worse, by including Sebastian’s father and Kathryn’s mother, Kumble makes the enfants terribles little more than chips off the old block, which answers questions you didn’t ask and psychologically isn’t very satisfying. Indeed, the original worked precisely because the parents’ absence (and implied neglect) allowed Sebastian and Kathryn to conduct their warped relationship. The international house staff, meanwhile, act as little more than comic relief, and a bone of contention between the bickering step-siblings.

Then there’s the question of why the plot (Kathryn and Sebastian’s rivalry, and Sebastian’s wooing of Danielle) is so divorced from the subplot (Kathryn’s corruption of Cherie); it’s as if the two weren’t intended to be part of the same movie. The answer lies in the film’s genesis: Cruel Intentions was made as a TV series, but after making the pilot and another episode, Fox became squeamish and cancelled the show. The two shows were cobbled together and – with some new, naughtier footage spliced in, Snakes on a Plane-style – Cruel Intentions 2 was born. This explains many of the unresolved plot points and underused characters that crop up in the film, and also accounts for Danielle’s sudden personality change late on. It goes without saying that it also explains the otherwise nonsensical line ‘We sound like a cancelled television series.’ An explanation, however, is not the same as a valid excuse; and while you can’t blame the producers for trying to recoup some of their expenditure, the straight-to-video result is not a great work of art – or, for that matter, a particularly alluring piece of sleaze.

Very briefly towards the end of the film, Cruel Intentions 2 steams up a bit and behaves like a proper film, though it quickly goes back off the boil during a silly twist and daft denouement. If it had been designed, financed and structured as a film from the off, Manchester Prep might have stood a chance; if it had been allowed to blossom into a raunchier-than-usual teen TV show, Cruel Intentions might have made a few waves (and Dunne may well have grown into the role). As it turned out, this choppy, lacklustre prequel is destined to please pretty much no-one.

Cruel Intentions

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: Wealthy step-siblings Kathryn and Sebastian spice up their teasing relationship with a wager: if Sebastian can deflower the headmaster’s chaste daughter Annette before the new term of prep school, Kathryn will put out; if not, he loses his precious car. Meanwhile, Kathryn also wants Sebastian to sully her exes’ new girlfriend Cecile; but they’re both playing a dangerous game, and neither of them bargain for love entering the equation.

You’re young, you’re rich, you’re pretty: but school’s out, so what to do? If you’re step-brother and sister Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian (Ryan Philippe), you spend your time corrupting the innocent and tantalising each other with promises of illicit sex. When Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon) – headmaster’s daughter and avowed abstainer – comes onto the scene, handily staying at Sebastian‘s aunt‘s house, Kathryn issues Sebastian with a challenge: bed her before the start of term and he can also have his wicked way with her; otherwise, he will have to hand over his exotic Jaguar Roadster.

Kathryn has also been charged with looking after gawky Cecile (Selma Blair) and has reasons to ruin her life too, so she tasks Sebastian with leading Cecile on a journey of sexual discovery, whilst Kathryn ‘mentors’ Cecile’s music teacher and would-be paramour Ronald (Sean Patrick Thomas). Wary of Sebastian’s reputation, Annette initially resists his advances, but as the couple get to know each other, he finds his feelings helplessly shifting from the satisfaction of wielding power to the troubling sensation of genuine love. But Kathryn isn’t to be shunted aside so easily, and uses anything – and anyone – to make sure Sebastian remains her plaything.

On paper, the idea of Cruel Intentions sounds pretty awful: Hollywood ransacks another literary classic – not Shakespeare, for once, but Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses – and peoples it with spoilt kids, adding a sordid quasi-incestuous plotline for no good reason other than to up the sleaze quotient. But, miracle of miracles, it works. Firstly, because of the source material: Laclos’ original novel is full of twists and turns, full of intrigue and blackmail, and is so nasty, so ruthless in exploring the self-destructive nature of self-love and jealousy, that it would be difficult to screw it up. And this is the second reason the film works: screenwriter/director Roger Kumble keeps the story pretty much intact, with a script that doesn’t mince its words, making Kathryn on one hand a deeply disturbed sociopath, on the other a passionate proponent for equal rights: if Sebastian sleeping around only enhances his reputation, why is she a slut if she does the same? Even their icky relationship, diluted as it is by the lack of blood ties, becomes enticing, and Kathryn’s ultimate cruelty is both satisfying and devastating – and doesn’t go unpunished. Kumble even makes a decent joke to justify the amount of letter-writing (so passé!) in a movie firmly based in the internet age.

The quality of the actors is the third, and main, reason Cruel Intentions works. Even though the leads are clearly a bit old for school (thankfully, the institution itself is largely absent, so the film doesn’t feel like a High School movie), they are a cut above the cast of (for example) American Pie and handle the drama extremely well. Philippe is rather better at playing cruel and cool than sincere and dear, but he’s effectively nasty and certainly shares decent chemistry with (sadly) his future ex-wife, Reese Witherspoon; she is beautifully sweet as Annette, completely convincing as the virginal daughter struggling to contain her feelings and – in complete contrast to Kathryn – sexy without being aggressively sexual.

Sarah Michelle Gellar is suitably domineering and vampish as Kathryn, and though I’m not particularly a fan (Kristy Swanson is the one true Buffy as far as I’m concerned), hers is a sizzling performance, highlighted in her notorious kiss with Selma Blair. I’m surprised to read that some find Blair’s performance annoying; although her mannerisms are exaggerated, I found her comic expressions and pratfalls a refreshing relief from the moodiness exhibited by those around her. Her reaction to Philippe’s first kiss is brilliant, but then again it’s a hell of a first kiss.

Cruel Intentions is much more fun than you could expect a film about entitled, self-seeking youngsters to be, but it’s not an unqualified success. The second half – where Sebastian suffers his crisis of conscience and Philippe has to act ruffled – is less entertaining than the first, and as the film comes to its denouement the modern setting starts to fit less and less well. Kathryn’s comeuppance is strangely represented (silent glares and shaking heads), and the instrument of revenge – Sebastian’s journal – is a joke, a scrapbook of childish scrawls with supposedly damning words written alongside photographs (‘PROMISCUOUS!’, ‘DECEITFUL!’). It’s not just the fact that it looks like the work of a twelve-year old, it’s completely at odds with its appearance (smart leather binding) and that of its owner. Surely someone as image-conscious as Sebastian would have put together something more professional-looking, especially if he intended it to be an insurance policy? I wasn’t keen either on the pop songs chosen to emphasise the mood at various points of the film, but that was largely on the basis that they were unfamiliar.

Taking its lead from wilfully sleazy movies such as Wild Things, Cruel Intentions takes Laclos’ scandalous tale and serves it up juicily for a new generation of young filmgoers. To be honest, I’d still watch Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons, given a free hand; but at least this film concentrates on the story, rather than on the sex: like the Poison Ivy series, Cruel Intentions 2 and 3 proved to be less interested in furthering the tale than in re-telling it with lesser-known actors and cheap titillation.

Barb Wire

WFTB Score: 3/20

The plot: During the Second American Civil War, mercenary ex-soldier Barbara ‘Barb Wire’ Kopetski runs the Hammerhead bar in the sole remaining free city, Steel Harbor. She cares for no-one but herself, but when an ex-lover and his valuable new wife turn up looking for protection and a passport to Canada, she finds the lives of those she loves endangered and her loyalties tested.

If you’ve ever watched Casablanca and found yourself thinking ‘It’s okay, but if only it was set in the future; and instead of Humphrey Bogart, couldn’t our hero be a blonde woman with big breast implants? That would be so much better,’ Barb Wire may be the film for you. I’ve never heard of Dark Horse comics so am unable to tell you whether the rip-off plot comes from a comic or is new for the film, but in essence it doesn’t really matter: Barb Wire is Casablanca, but in the future. And with boobs.

So, instead of Rick’s Bar, Casablanca, in 1942 we have the neon-grungy Hammerhead, Steel Harbor, in 2017. There is a Resistance, but now feisty gun-wielding club owner Barb (Pamela Anderson [Lee]) takes no sides between them and a nasty, torturing regime called the Congressional Directorate (they’re the ones who look like Nazis). The Directorate are searching for a woman called Cora D (Victoria Rowell), whose DNA holds the antidote to a HIV-related disease called, tastelessly, Red Ribbon; in turn, Cora and her husband Alex (Temuera Morrison) are looking for a pair of contact lenses that will defeat retinal scans, thereby offering Cora safe passage to Canada – the Canadian dollar now being the only safe currency (this may be an intentional joke, and if so it is the film’s funniest by a long chalk). Watching over all with a jaundiced eye, Xander Berkeley is Willis, the equivalent of Claude Rains’ Renault, albeit a Renault taking a keen interest in Rick’s curves.

I cannot tell you whether the plot of this film, a would-be straight-to-video release given undue prominence by the presence of Anderson (at the time hot Baywatch property) makes sense to people who have never seen Casablanca. What I can tell you with relief is that this film is so bad that it deserves its fate, namely sinking without trace, and so barely registers in any discussion of Curtiz’ all-time classic. It’s not just that the Mad Max-style vision of the future is dreadfully boring and cheaply realised, or that shoehorning hokey sci-fi elements (mind-reading machines, for example) into the plot fails dismally; or that chucking in a whiny blind brother called Charlie (Jack Noseworthy) completely fails to make Barb more sympathetic. Anderson dismally fails to bring the film to life, her supposed sexiness coming over as completely plastic, and more importantly delivering every line with the quotation marks intact. Mind you, she is in good company: Temuera Morrison goes through the exaggerated fighting and gunplay competently enough, but in terms of personality he and his wife are both complete blanks. It’s just as well that the film has cheapo movie staples such as noisy violence and exploding vehicles at regular intervals to keep things moving along.

Where Barb Wire deviates from the plot of Casablanca, it quickly veers into the grotesque, most obviously in the appearance of Andre Rosey Brown as Big Fatso, an obese chicken-gorging black man transported around in a digger. I’ll draw a veil over him and draw your attention to a number of Bad Movie gems for you to spot during the film’s climax, quite apart from the maniacal Nazi Congressional Directorate baddie doing a big song-and-dance when he has the chance to kill our heroine:

  • Cars blocking the path of Barb’s big truck explode themselves out of the way before the truck hits them (another take? No fear!)
  • Pam’s stuntperson (very probably male) is at least a foot taller than the diminutive star he or she is doing stunts for
  • (and my favourite) One of the clunkiest manipulations to a killer-catchphrase you will ever witness:

Not Nazi: This is just like my favourite song: I got you babe!

Barb Wire: Don’t call me babe… (her other witty comeback, by the way, is ‘Shut up’).

For those who hold Casablanca dear, Barb Wire is tantamount to blasphemy, and it fails to update the story successfully into the action genre just as badly as it fails to make an alluring film star out of the pouty Ms Anderson (for those particularly interested in such things, most of the teenage-targeted titillation is over by the end of the opening credits). For all that, it retains a semblance of bad movie charm that saves it from being classified amongst utter piffle like Showgirls. And we’ll always have Seattle…