Monthly Archives: January 2016

Nine

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Renowned Italian director Guido Contini arrives in Rome to make a film, the only catch being that he has no idea what the film’s going to be about. He escapes from the pressure of the studio only to find his hideaway becomes equally complicated, what with his producer, crew, mistress and wife turning up more or less on top of each other.

Poor old Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis). The legendary film director is lauded everywhere he goes, but as he arrives in Rome’s Cinecittà studios in 1965, the maestro is facing a crisis; on the back of two flops, his producer Dante (Ricky Tognazzi) is pushing him to make a film called Italia, even though Guido has no script and no inspiration to come up with one.

In a panic, Guido flees the press conference and drives to the spa town of Anzio, giving strict instructions to be left alone – unless, that is, sultry mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz) happens to call. Carla comes to Anzio but Guido sticks her in a grotty pensione, while Dante and the film crew, including motherly costumier Lilli (Judi Dench), descend on the hotel. Failing to find solace in the company of a Cardinal, or in memories of either his dead mother (Sophia Loren) or his childhood experience with a prostitute named Saraghina (Stacy ‘Fergie’ Ferguson), Contini is heartened to see his neglected wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) – although the reunion is cut short by Carla’s arrival at the hotel and subsequent overdose. Returning to Rome, Guido loses his leading lady Claudia Jenssen (Nicole Kidman) as the production – and his personal life – both crumble to dust, leaving Dante to wonder if there is anything to be salvaged from the ruins.

While Rob Marshall deserves credit for helping to revitalise the musical in cinemas, you could make a good argument that filming the massively popular Chicago was like shooting fish in a barrel. Bringing a lesser-known 80s musical to the screen – as Bill Condon did with Dreamgirls – is a much harder sell, and Marshall makes heavy weather of realising Maury Yeston’s much-reshaped* Nine.

Like Chicago, the film alternates freely between real locations and elaborate staging, but this time there are numerous issues that all detract from the viewer’s enjoyment of the film. Firstly, there’s the story itself, an introspective look at the life of a philandering egotist, based on the life and works of Federico Fellini; Day-Lewis inhabits the role as usual, but he’s awfully hard to identify with – crucially, there’s no evidence (apart from everyone else’s fawning adulation) that Contini has done anything of value. And because the story is about Guido not being able to create, it becomes stilted and episodic, with each of the women in his life taking turns to have a sing.

The songs are the second problem. Nine begins, on stage, with an opening reminiscent of a seedy Miss World-type pageant, and continues in a poor vein with Guido’s first song, a shouty, unmelodic number which stuffs hundreds of words into each line. Cruz’s seductive song is memorable only for the performer’s contortions and (lack of) costume, while ‘Folies Bergères’ seems terribly pointless, however nice it is to see Judi Dench glamming up.

Things improve with Fergie’s sultry rendition of ‘Be Italian’, the choreography recalling Chicago’s ‘Cell Block Tango’, while Luisa’s ‘My Husband Makes Movies’ is extremely heartfelt. Meanwhile, an interlude with Kate Hudson’s sassy journalist Stephanie exists solely to showcase the new song ‘Cinema Italiano’, which is fun and upbeat but suffers from the same verbosity as many of the other songs. Finally, ‘Unusual Way’ is good, but totally undermined by casting Kidman as the voluptuous Claudia; however shallow this point may be, it’s surely crazy to cast the lithe Australian as an ersatz Anita Ekberg, especially in that style of dress. Even with this caveat, Marshall makes all his actresses look terrific, including both Dench and Sophia Loren (whose song to Giuseppe Spitaleri’s young Guido, ‘Guarda La Luna’ is something-and-nothing).

So, Nine is a musical about a self-pitying womaniser which lacks both drama and memorable tunes. It also fails to say much about religion, cinema or even Italy, typified by a curious compendium of Italianate accents, and botches its conclusion with a daft curtain call of actors and actresses – perhaps Marshall optimistically thought cinemagoers would be swept up enough to stand and applaud. On the other hand, I’m loathe to write the film off completely: it’s shot with a certain amount of style, the locations (especially in Rome) look gorgeous, and I definitely appreciated some of the songs more on a second hearing compared to my first encounter with the film, when in all honesty I struggled to stay awake. Also, while I continued to be bored by Contini’s selfishness, Cruz and particularly Cotillard made sympathetic figures of, respectively, Carla and Luisa. I may well watch Nine again in a few years and find it an unheralded masterpiece.

As anyone with more than a passing interest in musicals knows well, there are some terrific songs in otherwise forgettable shows, just as there are often one or two lousy songs in musicals that remain incredibly popular. A musical with a weak storyline and without a show-stopping number will never prosper, however, and this is why Nine has to be considered – at present – a failure. It would be cute to give Nine a score of nine, and it almost deserves it; but in the end that would reflect too positively on a film which has bright spots, and a simmering sensuality throughout, but overall fails to engage or satisfy on a narrative or musical level. At a push, 8 ½.

NOTES: It would go beyond my self-imposed remit – and, frankly, patience – to detail the differences between the stage musical and the film. I understand, from Wikipedia, that they are considerable, with many songs chopped and a few new ones added.

Little Children

WFTB Score: 14/20

The plot: The tranquil lives of a community are disturbed when a sex offender is released from jail to live with his mother. Though a campaign exists to warn parents, bored househusband Brad and frustrated wife and mother Sarah become less interested in looking after their respective children than in pursuing an affair with each other: a liaison that will have profound effects on all their lives.

Although it seemed quite revelatory at the time, it soon became clear that American Beauty was merely the highest profile and best-marketed film for a while to look just under the surface of American domestic bliss and find all sorts of dysfunctionality and unhappiness. With the subsequent popularity of Desperate Housewives you start to wonder whether there’s a single happy family left in the States: Little Children only furthers the case for the prosecution.

Little Children concerns itself with three interconnected stories. The central character in the ‘main’ story is Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earl Haley), a convicted sex offender (he indecently exposed himself to children and has just been released after a two-year jail term) who moves back into a family-filled suburb to live with his fragile mother (Phyllis Somerville). Although numerous restrictions have been slapped on Ronnie, this isn’t enough for the Committee for Concerned Parents, organised (and, as it turns out, solely run) by traumatised ex-cop Larry (Noah Emmerich).

Larry goes out of his way to make sure the neighbourhood are aware of Ronnie’s crimes, though his zeal goes beyond natural concern. Ronnie’s mother, meanwhile, tries to set her son on a path to conventional behaviour, though a date with Jane Adams’ vulnerable depressive doesn’t end well – for her, at least.

Then there’s Brad (Patrick Wilson), a good-looking young father dubbed the ‘Prom King’ by the drooling mothers at the playground. He is a full-time minder for his son Aaron, so the family lives on the stretched earnings of documentary film-making wife and doting mother Katherine (Jennifer Connelly). As Brad is due to sit his Bar exams for a third time, Katherine is confident that their situation will improve; but her husband is in fact skipping evening classes to watch boys skateboarding; and when Larry coerces Brad into playing quarterback for a Police football team, it’s just another welcome distraction.

Finally, Sarah (Kate Winslet), a frustrated housewife and mother to Lucy, finds that she has little in common with the mothers who are so keen on Brad: she is neither as robotically organised as them, nor as backwards when it comes to speaking to the object of their affections. An impromptu kiss scandalises the group, and while it has little bearing on Sarah’s marriage to branding consultant Richard (Gregg Edelman) – he has become obsessed with web-based porn star ‘Slutty Kay’ – Sarah’s friendship with Brad slowly grows, through regular meetings at the local open-air pool, and eventually spills over into a passionate affair.

There’s an enormous amount of quality on show in Little Children, adapted by director Todd Field and Tom Perrotta from Perrotta’s novel. The sets look credible and real – Mrs McGorvey’s house, with its clocks and ghastly child figurines, looks exactly like the sort of environment that might raise a pervert – and by opening with the explanation (via TV news) of McGorvey’s release from jail, a sense of imminent danger hangs over the entire film, heightened when Ronnie appears at the pool, causing a Jaws-like exodus out of the water.

All the performances are excellent, too. Haley cuts a sinister yet pathetic figure as the messed-up paedophile; while Connelly, pouring all her love into her son and the children she interviews in her work, only wakes up to her husband’s infidelity late on. Winslet is customarily convincing as Sarah and together with Wilson effectively raises the question of who the title refers to: as they play their naughty game, are Brad and Sarah merely avoiding the responsibilities of their adult lives? Noah Emmerich is also good as Larry, an unlikeable character but ultimately compelling as it emerges that his persecution of Ronnie is an extension of his own guilt for a past tragedy.

The praise cannot go unqualified, however. For a start, I have mixed feelings about the narration, which frequently breaks in to explain how people are feeling: whilst it fits in with the sense of the film as coming from a novel, I can’t help feeling that the same emotions could have been – indeed, were – registered equally well by the actors themselves. Perhaps Perrotta enjoys his own prose, but this device makes Little Children a peculiarly unsubtle adaptation.

Also unsubtle is the inclusion of a book club to which Sarah is invited (as a ‘little sister’) to discuss and defend the notoriously adulterous Madame Bovary. Finally, I found the denouement something of an anti-climax. That the characters – Brad particularly – made some illogical decisions was understandable, given their fickle natures; but Larry’s late conversion from nemesis to helper (finding Ronnie in a shocking condition) seemed like a contrivance, and I wanted to know what became of Brad and Sarah rather than being left to assume that they all lived unhappily ever after.

Little Children is an interesting addition to the list of domestic dramas, like American Beauty and The Ice Storm, that dissect perfect-looking relationships and find them to be far from healthy. It bravely and sensitively handles a subject that few films dare to approach (Todd Solonz’s uncomfortable-to-watch Happiness springs to mind as another example); I just wish that the long running time (over two hours) had been leavened with a little of the subtlety and humour that graced another film based on Perrotta’s work, Election.

Groundhog Day

WFTB Score: 16/20

The plot: Dismayed at spending a fourth consecutive year covering Punxsatawney’s Groundhog Day festival, grumpy weatherman Phil Connors is upset when a blizzard traps him, cameraman Larry and producer Rita in the sleepy town. He is even more upset when he wakes up to find he has to re-live the day again. And again. And again…

The premise of Harold Ramis’ incredibly successful film is so simple, it is a surprise to find that it is a wholly original idea, as far as I can tell. It is obligatory to call the film Kafkaesque, and it does recall the sometimes dark but ultimately redemptive It’s a Wonderful Life; but more than that comparison, I can compliment Groundhog Day by noting that the film’s title has passed into common parlance, an accolade rarely achieved in the arts (I can only think, in recent history, of Catch-22.)

The film’s effectiveness comes largely from its unfussy nature, as it quickly establishes the characters and their lives on and before ‘Groundhog Day’ (February 2nd), before playing out the fantastical scenario. Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a regional TV weatherman who, unlike Larry (Chris Elliott) and Rita (Andie MacDowell), his fellow travellers to Punxsutawney, is bored of the trip and its quaint, small-town ways. Phil, his eyes on national exposure, is cynical and short with his colleagues, and flirts with Rita in a jaded way; even so, Murray manages to make him a likeable character whilst he is being a jerk.

The first Groundhog Day passes by speedily and when the second comes the film – largely due to an excellent script (by Ramis and Danny Rubin) and great work by Murray – reveals Phil’s predicament with style and humour, without recourse to banal explanations. As the day unfolds time and again, the rhythm of Phil’s reactions follows a natural course: at first fearful, then looking to exploit the situation, then despairing, before finally evaluating his life and seeing what he can do for others during his day, rather than what he can get for himself.

Particularly good are the potentially morbid suicide attempts, which are not only funny but show that the film’s central idea is explored exhaustively. The way Phil’s fondness for Rita grows is also well handled; at first he has a lovely day with her but subsequently he forces the issue, getting slapped earlier and earlier in the evening.

Though the town of Punxsutawney contains a good supporting cast, all of whom Phil gets to know during his confinement in February 2nd, Groundhog Day impresses because the mechanism of the repeated day is played largely through the reactions of four characters. It is worth saying again that Murray is brilliant; Stephen Tobolowsky is an entertaining annoyance as insurance salesman and old school acquaintance Ned, and Elliott is pleasantly easy-going as Larry. Furthermore, despite harbouring a doubt that Rita is genuinely interesting enough for Phil to fall in love with, I will put aside any Four Weddings and a Funeral prejudices and admit that MacDowell is very good in this film. The script calls for her (and the others) to react slightly differently to almost-identical situations as the day is repeated, and they all do a great job.

If I were to be incredibly picky, I might argue that Phil’s good deeds and accomplishments as he learns the piano and ice-sculpting are just another way to impress the girl, but it has to be said that his unsuccessful efforts to save an old man’s life are really affecting. And Groundhog Day as a whole is an affecting film to watch; after all, you cannot really begrudge a funny and intelligent movie which says that looking out for others, and falling properly in love, are the keys to being truly happy.

The Naked Gun

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Lieutenant Frank Drebin returns to LA an unsung hero, having foiled a terrorist plan, only to find that his partner has run off and his colleague Nordberg shot to pieces in a catastrophic drugs bust. Drebin investigates the shooting and discovers links to Vincent Ludwig, a respected businessman also in charge of overseeing a visit by Queen Elizabeth II. Frank is instantly attracted to Ludwig’s assistant, Jane; but does she really like him too, or is she merely keeping tabs on him at her employer’s insistence?

After veteran actor Leslie Nielsen’s superbly deadpan performance as the doctor in Airplane!, it was clear that his talents deserved a vehicle. However, after the spoof TV series Police Squad! was cancelled after just six shows in the early 80s (on the bizarre grounds, if Wikipedia is to be believed, that it was a show you “had to watch” to appreciate!), it seemed that the bumbling yet deadly serious character of Lieutenant Frank Drebin might not be it; yet the Kentucky Fried Theater Group of David and Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams, had enough faith in both the actor and the role to give the officer a last chance for glory in The Naked Gun.

After a (very funny) pre-credits sequence in which Drebin interrupts his vacation in Beirut to single-handedly beat up America’s enemies, the hard-bitten cop returns to Los Angeles, where all is not well. Not only does Frank’s friend Ed (George Kennedy) tell him that his ladyfriend Victoria has gone off with another man, but as we have seen Officer Nordberg (O.J. Simpson) has been gunned down whilst attempting to disrupt drug trafficking on the I Luv You, a ship owned by powerful businessman Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban).

Frank’s not entirely helpful visit to Nordberg puts him on Ludwig’s trail; but the smarmy entrepreneur throws lovely Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley) in Frank’s way, and the couple quickly fall in love while Ludwig, handsomely paid by terrorist’s best friend Papshmeer, plots to have someone assassinate the British Queen (Gawd bless ‘er!) without their even knowing it, using a form of remote hypnotism. In charge of security for the Royal visit, Drebin’s Police Squad is alert to every sign of danger and Frank himself is suspicious of his new girlfriend’s boss; but as Her Majesty is due to attend a baseball game, it’s surely inconceivable that he can check that everyone is clean without infuriating Mayor Barkley (Nancy Marchand) any more than he already has.

Fans of Police Squad! will be right at home here, despite a bit of re-casting that sees Kennedy ably replacing the lovely Al North as Ed and O.J. Simpson coming in as Nordberg. Importantly, however, knowledge of the series isn’t necessary to get into the film since it closely parodies many American police dramas, though of course The Naked Gun does punctuate the serious drama – every two or three seconds – with a joke of one sort or another. It could be a pun, a sight gag, a moment of extraordinary insensitivity from Frank, a montage, a bit of rudeness or even good old-fashioned slapstick (Presley’s collision with a wall is superb), but the script assaults the viewer with a salvo of humour of such ferocity that you are grateful for the concise running time.

Naturally, some jokes will fly over some viewers’ heads because of the age and origin of the film, and others miss because they’re not that funny, but the frequency of the gags means that there is always a good laugh coming around the corner. For example, although the plethora of baseball cameos was lost on me, the glorious silliness of Frank attempting to pass himself off as an opera star, then an umpire, amongst the tirade of other little jokes (I particularly like the fake baseball bloopers) meant that I didn’t feel as though I’d missed anything; and although she is put in one compromising position, the treatment of the Queen (as portrayed by looky-likey Jeannette Charles) is fairly respectful (bearing in mind Frank’s ‘No matter how silly the idea of having a Queen might be to us…’ speech).

Performances throughout are pitch-perfect, Presley showing a talent for comedy and Montalban impressing as the scheming Ludwig (O.J., pre-‘things’, merely suffers physical mishaps, a largely non-verbal part that suits him well). Nielsen steals the show, however, as Drebin: more cynical and violent than his foreign ancestor Clouseau, Frank shoots first and doesn’t worry about asking questions later; Nielsen’s solemn delivery generates serious laughs from potentially corny lines, and though there’s a look in his eye acknowledging that his universe is a little off-kilter, he’s not a knowingly comic figure in it (I haven’t seen them, but I would guess this is where Steve Martin gets it wrong in the Pink Panther remakes).

Perhaps most importantly of all, the characters, situations and jokes in The Naked Gun all feel remarkably fresh, the film having confidence in itself and not feeling the need to fall back on the random and lazy film reconstructions which the ZAZ team, or at least parts of it, fell prey to in second sequel The Final Insult and other movies (such as when they took over, but failed to improve, the Scary Movie franchise). All in all, The Naked Gun is probably the team’s best film since Airplane! and one that they haven’t looked like bettering since. And perhaps we should be grateful that Police Squad! was cancelled, no matter how stupid the reason: the decision turned a quirky, cult show into a quirky, hit film. It’s no Casablanca, sure, but it was never meant to be. It was meant to be funny, and it is, in spades.

Smokin’ Aces

WFTB Score: 3/20

The plot: A $1 million price is put on the head, and the heart, of Las Vegas showman Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel, magician, asshole and key to bringing down the last of the great Mafia bosses. FBI agents Carruthers and Messner are assigned to protect the witness, but with an array of hitmen – and women – prepared to carry out the contract, they are heavily outnumbered.

Like Tom and Jerry, the mob and the FBI have been long-standing Hollywood staples, their never-ending battles fuelling decades of cinematic excitement. Sometimes the resulting movie is brilliant, for example The Untouchables or Donnie Brasco (I wouldn’t presume to comment on the classics of the more distant past); sometimes the result is pure dross, and it should already be pretty clear into which category Smokin’ Aces falls.

The plot of the film is simple, on the surface at least. Primo Sparazza is the last of the mafia bosses, but having taken in magician Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel (Jeremy Piven) as one of his own, he is distraught that Buddy – holed up with bodyguards, an idiotic East European assistant, and assorted escorts in a Penthouse suite of a Lake Tahoe hotel – has turned State’s Witness and is going to spill the beans to the authorities, hence the contract for a million dollars.

FBI agents Messner and Carruthers (Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta) get first wind of the planned hit, but they are only a whisker ahead of a gaggle of interested parties, including: a Latin killer with a nickname that means ‘The Plague’; a shadowy torturer with a penchant for Mission:Impossible-style face masks; a trio of homicidal, punkish thugs called the Tremors; a pair of lady assassins (Alicia Keys and Taraji Henson) who plan to use Buddy’s weakness for prostitutes as bait; and bail bondsman Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck), whose idea of sneaking into the hotel with his buddies in security gear is violently, er, ‘borrowed’ by the Tremors.

As luck would have it, all these groups arrive at or near the heavily-guarded suite at around the same time, and in the orgy of blood-letting that follows, details emerge that have Agent Messner asking questions of his boss Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia), especially about the identity of Sparazza and the murder of an Agent Heller a long time ago.

In the hands of Quentin Tarantino, Smokin’ Aces might have turned out messy and indulgent, but would no doubt have featured a number of memorable characters, a script peppered with quotable lines and a half-decent soundtrack. In the hands of John Woo, the gunplay would have been orchestrated, the film building remorselessly to a heart-pumping climax. In the hands of Joe Carnahan, we have one of the flattest, limpest flops that I have seen in a long time.

The first eighteen minutes is pure exposition, spoken either by Affleck or Garcia, showing the FBI and the assassins at work whilst their names are flashed up on the screen. Then, each in their idiosyncratic way – the Tremors yahooing, the black ladies bitchin’ ‘n’ swearin’ – the parties arrive and proceed to shoot, slash and snipe their way towards their target, while Israel, a bloated, angry loser, struts about his penthouse, throwing cards about.

The violence is competently executed, for want of a better word, but I have two problems with it: firstly, it is preposterously overblown, so two of the protagonists (one FBI, one not) can shoot each other at least a dozen times within the confines of a lift and not receive an instantly mortal wound – meanwhile, Alicia Keys’ accomplice can fire deadly .50 calibre shots from a completely different hotel.

Secondly, and much more importantly, the film forgets to make any of the characters in the least bit likeable, so all of the violence takes place in a complete vacuum, the viewer not caring in the slightest who lives or dies. We are obviously meant to root for Keys (because she’s pretty) and Reynolds (because he, er, wears white, and has a beard?), but are given no tangible reason why we should. Messner is undoubtedly the most ‘normal’ character, but the film has the cheek to sentimentalize his memories of people getting shot – sequences that the film revelled in at the time they happened – and the film can’t have it both ways. Naturally the film plays out with a shocking reveal (insultingly, like the name captions, playing back pieces of significant dialogue so the inattentive can go ‘Aah!’), but this barely makes any sense and certainly doesn’t give the film a satisfying close. At least these scenes do not feature any misguided attempts at outlandish humour, unlike the pathetic episodes where the sole survivor of Affleck’s band is confronted by an over-active, nun-chuck wielding child (watch Napoleon Dynamite much, Joe?)

I am stunned that this project was ever given the green light, and as always a bad film with a decent budget always seems far worse a waste than one which is merely bad and cheap. Smokin’ Aces throws just about everything into the bucket in an attempt to come up with a hip, slick, gangster movie; the charmless, unfunny and uninvolving film Carnahan delivers is the cinematic equivalent of a bucket of sick.

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: When New Jersey stoners Jay and Silent Bob find out that a comic book based on them is to be made into a multi-million dollar Miramax movie, they head off to Hollywood determined to put a stop to the shoot. They have, however, reckoned without the intervention of an orang-utan, a quartet of suspiciously lithe anti-vivisectionists, and a number of big Hollywood names complicating their plans.

There is much debate – in my mind, if nowhere else – about the talents of Kevin Smith. On the one hand, he created gold from a budget of almost nothing in Clerks; on the other, he revelled in the pretentious drivel of Dogma and made the cringe-worthy Jersey Girl. As Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is clearly inhabited by the population of the Clerks ‘Askewniverse’, you would hope that Smith is on safe ground; but to be completely honest, I’m not really sure what sort of film the director has ended up with, and I suspect Smith doesn’t know either.

Anyone who remembers Clerks (or more specifically, Mallrats, which I haven’t seen) will be instantly familiar with the set-up. Foul-mouthed weed dealer Jay (Jason Mewes) is still hanging around the store run by Dante and Randal (Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson) with his taciturn colleague Silent Bob (Smith), but a prank on Randal backfires and sees them banished from their pitch at the front of the store. Seeking refuge in a comic book store, Jay and Bob discover that two unscrupulous writers have turned the slackers into Bluntman and Chronic, comic heroes who, following the success of X-Men, are to be turned into a movie by Miramax.

Jay and Bob are naturally perturbed that they have been neither consulted about nor compensated for this movie, and are horrified when the comic’s co-writer shows them Internet chatter about the project slagging the characters – ie. them – off; so the pair start hitching their way to Hollywood. Their plans are disrupted when Jay becomes smitten with the beautiful Justice (Shannon Elizabeth), who is travelling with three other lovely animal liberators. Jay and Bob tag along and to prove his love for Justice (or rather, to guarantee himself sex), Jay agrees to take a monkey from a testing facility, though they in fact free an orang-utan called Suzanne. Unfortunately, the animal liberation has been a front all along, to cover up the girls’ athletic liberation of a haul of diamonds before faking their own deaths, leaving Jay to mourn and Bob to bond with Suzanne as they make their way to the Miramax film lot, with Federal Wildlife Marshall Willenholly (Will Ferrell) in hot but dim pursuit.

You can call Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back many things – scabrous, irreverential, juvenile – but its most vociferous defenders would have to concede that stylistically it’s all over the place. In part it furthers the legend of the Clerks characters, especially the utterly filthy Jay; he is given a love interest and as their world opens out, his obsession with sex, drugs, and making fun of gays infects everyone else, including cameos from Ben Affleck and Jason Lee (in two roles each), Matt Damon, Chris Rock, Jason Biggs and James Van Der Beek.

In another part, the film teeters on the edge of becoming an overly-knowing parody, what with its obvious Star Wars jokes – further cameos from Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill as the gloriously-named Cocknocker – and appearances from directors Gus Van Sant and Wes Anderson, plus take-offs of Planet of the Apes and The Fugitive. Then, with Ferrell’s usual shouty shtick as the inept law enforcer and the presence of the ape, the film sometimes has the feel of a seventies comedy, with all the sophistication (fart and ass jokes) that suggests.

None of this necessarily makes the movie bad, even though there are guilty looks to the camera each time someone mentions they might be in a bad movie; but there are at best naff and at worst nasty elements to the film that work against it. Firstly, a lot of the jokes, such as the awkward acronym for the animal liberation front Jay and Bob are supposed to represent (C.L.I.T.), are targeted at viewers like Beavis and Butthead, people who will laugh at anything after a few joints and a couple of beers; and the joyous homophobia exhibited is hardly excused by a disclaimer in the credits discouraging it in the real world (like who reads the credits?). Secondly, in Justice Elizabeth is landed one of those crummy, unbelievable roles where the heroine falls in love with a complete idiot, no matter how unpleasant or unbecoming he is to her, causing her to forsake her friends and her freedom on his behalf.

Thirdly, there are the stars of the show. As impressive as he is, in his nasty way, Jay really fits in Red Bank, New Jersey, and his interactions with people other than Silent Bob show the limits of Mewes’ talents. As for Bob, the joke wore thin some time ago and here there is no worthwhile pay-off for the silence, so why bother with him at all? Smith’s film certainly doesn’t skewer Hollywood, even though it rips on a couple of bad movies (mainly Smith’s own), and his attack on Internet sites also seems rather precious, as though Smith had been reading opinions about his own films and decided to have a go back, for all the good it would do him. Will Ferrell brings energy but not much laughter to his role, while Chris Rock merely irritates as the racist director of the Bluntman and Chronic film. Thankfully, Mark Hamill is excellent, though even here I wish Smith had resisted the urge to trumpet his arrival with clumsy and patronising captions.

I have never really understood what the deal is with the ‘Askewniverse’, and if it’s not just a grand way of Smith saying he has a bunch of recurring characters who say more vulgar things than people can normally get away with, I’d be grateful for the education. Perhaps watching Mallrats and Chasing Amy would clue me up a little; though it would take a lot to convince me that Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is anything other than the director putting his fingers up to the World Wide Web, showing off his new Hollywood connections, and getting a last bit of acting work for old friends.

Dogma

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Fallen angels Bartleby and Loki think they’ve found a route back to heaven when a maverick Catholic priest offers absolution just by walking into his New Jersey church. The downside is that if the angels can defy God, the whole of Creation cannot continue; so the voice of God gathers a motley crew to stop them: a dead, 13th apostle, two prophets – one foul-mouthed, one silent – and an unbelieving Catholic with very interesting ancestry. Their slim chances of saving God’s Universe are not helped by the fact that the Big Man (or is that Woman?) hasn’t been answering his calls recently.

According to New Jersey’s wacky Cardinal Glick (George Carlin), Catholicism ain’t what it used to be, partly at least because of those miserable, off-putting crucifixes all over the place. So not only are they to be replaced by winking ‘Buddy Christ’ statues, but the Cardinal is also re-dedicating his church and bringing people in with a plenary indulgence, a clean moral state to everyone who walks through its arches. When this news reaches Earth-bound angels Bartleby and Loki (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), the latter a semi-reformed angel of death, they see the indulgence as a loophole out of their eternal exile in Wisconsin and head off to New Jersey, though Loki has one last hit on his mind before he goes home.

All of this should mean nothing to unhappy, divorced women’s (read: abortion) clinic worker Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), since her allegiance to the Catholic church is just a show. She cannot conceive, so she cannot conceive of God either, but the Metatron, aka the Voice of God (played by Alan Rickman as Frankie Howerd) has news for her: Bethany is the Last Scion, distant relative of one Jesus Christ. The Metatron charges Bethany with the sacred task of stopping the angels from negating the whole of creation.

She’s not alone in her task, though when her ‘prophets’ turn out to be celebrated slackers Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and director Kevin Smith), she would no doubt prefer to be. The sudden descent of 13th Apostle Rufus (Chris Rock) doesn’t help much either, but as the group make their own way to New Jersey they encounter forces for both good and evil, including saucy muse Serendipity (Salma Hayek), surly demon Azrael and his pestilent posse of hockey players, and even the avenging angels they have been told to stop. They don’t, however, meet God, last seen playing skee-ball.

Sounds intriguing? Of course it does. One thing you can’t fault Dogma for is a lack of ideas, and indeed the main thrust of its argument is that positive ideas can be dangerous if they become dogmatic beliefs. But despite a feisty opening, it quickly becomes apparent that Smith’s movie is a failed experiment. I quite enjoyed the irreverent satire in Carlin’s Cardinal and the banter between Bartleby and Loki, but as soon as the story opens up fully the film begins to fall apart.

The main reason for this is that having set up a film to be one thing (that is, an intentionally comic precursor to Dan Brown’s horrendous Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons), Smith then peoples it with ill-fitting characters and situations, causing some very strange incongruities. In particular, while Jay’s sex and drugs-obsessed patter continues to be amusing, you have to wonder what he and Silent Bob are doing in this film, especially when there’s only so much eye-rolling Smith can do (his few words are hardly show-stoppers) and Mewes’ limited acting chops prevent Jay from making any connection with Bethany.

Furthermore, whilst Rufus himself is quite cool, his talk of a black Jesus is poorly chosen attention-seeking (the Son of God is hardly likely to have been Caucasian, after all); more to the point, Chris Rock is handed the unenviable task of explaining and unravelling all sorts of ideas and plot points, to the extent that dialogue entirely overwhelms the character. Unfortunately, he’s not alone and large patches of the film are slow, talky, and a lot less fun than they should be.

There are, of course, incidental pleasures to be gleaned during Dogma and it’s far from a total disaster. But the entertaining bits are too far apart and evened out by incidental annoyances: Loki’s vengeance on Mooby the Golden Calf (or the corrupt suits behind him) is mishandled, on top of being a thuddingly literal rip from the bible; the characters’ constant ragging on movies gets tiresome; the special effects are wildly variable in quality, from the decent look of the angels’ wings to the sub-Dr Who-before-it-was-good-again Golgothan poo monster (a horrible idea all round) and Azrael’s silly stick-on horns. All of that’s without Fiorentino’s unsympathetic performance and the curious choice of ‘actor’ to play The Almighty. Few of these things are major irritations, but they all make the movie that bit harder to watch.

There are many ardent fans of Smith’s work and his off-kilter world, though I venture to suggest that few are quite as fond of it as Smith himself. He would certainly have been well-advised to reign himself in a bit with Dogma, not to tone down the controversy, necessarily, but to sharpen up his focus. As it is, he falls spectacularly between two pews, and Dogma is unlikely to find much favour in Smith’s stoner fan base or from the clever-clever set he seems desperate to impress.

Indulgence is the downfall of the movie, not Glick’s plenary one but the director’s, and it stops Dogma from joining the works of those Smith so presumptuously name-checks in the credits: Thomas Aquinas, Milton, Cervantes, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, amongst many others. In fact, referring to Gaiman just brings to mind his and Terry Pratchett’s marvellous Good Omens, a book that told a similar story – only with much, much, much more style.