Monthly Archives: February 2016

Wayne’s World

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Running a larkish cable TV show from his parents’ basement, Wayne Campbell’s world is a pretty cool place, made even cooler when he starts dating pretty singer Cassandra and a sponsorship deal lets him buy his dream guitar. Wayne’s coy friend Garth thinks the deal is too good to be true, and he may have a point; for slimy executive Benjamin seems more interested in Cassandra than the success of Wayne and Garth’s little programme.

Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) is a celebrity – a minor one – in Aurora, Illinois. Together with shy sidekick Garth Algar (Dana Carvey), he presents ’Wayne’s World’, an anarchic Public Access TV programme, from the basement of his parents’ house. The friends and their crew hang out in Mikita’s Donut Shop, run by tortured patron Stan Mikita (Ed O’Neill), and rock out in heavy metal club The Gas Works. There, he sets eyes on Cassandra (Tia Carrere), kick-ass lead singer with band Crucial Taunt, and – dodging semi-psychotic ex- Stacy (Lara Flynn Boyle) – awkwardly chats her up.

Meanwhile, oily TV executive Benjamin (Rob Lowe) is alerted to Wayne’s World and sees an opportunity to use its popularity to market the video arcade* run by Noah Vanderhoff (Brian Doyle Murray). Obviously, Wayne couldn’t care less about computer games; but the lure of $5,000 is irresistible, since it allows him to buy the vintage Fender he’s coveted for years. Garth, though, is freaked out by Benjamin’s offer and – as he tells us directly – distrusts him. Benjamin not only takes control of ‘Wayne’s World’ but also vies for Cassandra’s attention, packing the boys off to an Alice Cooper concert and making his move, causing Wayne to be insanely jealous. However, since Benjamin has bought the rights to the show, how on Earth are Wayne and Garth going to put things right?

Hollywood has a decidedly patchy history of transferring TV shows to feature-length film format, which is doubly true for movies based on Saturday Night Live sketches (Coneheads?) and directed by Penelope Spheeris (she would follow Wayne’s World with The Beverly Hillbillies). And initially, you fear this film is going to flop heavily. The ‘Wayne’s World’ segments of the film aren’t very funny, which you can tell because Benjamin’s bedfellow has to insist ‘these guys are so funny’.

Luckily, however, the film soon steps out of its TV boundaries and becomes a clever deconstruction of itself, with numerous, intimate pieces to camera and a knowing sense of its own artificiality, culminating in three alternative endings. Wayne and Garth know they’re in a film, but don’t know they’re just characters, and their rapport and banter with the viewer makes us feel part of the action: just as well when the story itself is paper-thin and some of the references are now puzzling, for example the whole concept of Noah’s Arcade*, or Cassandra’s wide-eyed ‘Where’d you get the CD player?’

What’s more, the movie stacks up a number of funny and memorable moments. It always uses music well, and the Bohemian Rhapsody segment is an early highlight, establishing plot, location and the real-seeming friendships between the ‘Wayne’s World’ gang (they genuinely and frequently laugh at one another‘s jokes). It’s just one of many satisfying sequences: the product placement joke, Wayne and Cassandra’s subtitled Cantonese conversation, Garth (in fact, genuinely Carvey) on the drums, an unexpected Terminator 2 gag, Alice Cooper’s straight-faced history of Milwaukee. These are mixed up with some pleasantly surreal one liners, such as Benjamin’s précis of Noah’s best-selling game, Zantar: ‘Gelatinous cube eats village.’ Jokes like these remain interesting almost twenty years on, when the film’s surfer-dude catchphrases – ‘Excellent!’, ‘Party on!’ and the one-time ubiquitous ‘…Not!’ – now sound dated and a little (pardon the phrase) bogus.

It doesn’t do to overdo the Bill and Ted comparisons, of course, or fret about who copied who; in film terms, Excellent Adventure came first, but Myers’ had created Wayne back in 1987, so he couldn’t have copied Keanu Reeves’ Ted “Theodore” Logan if he had wanted to. The relevant question is “who carries it off better?”, and Reeves wins that battle easily. Myers was 29 when Wayne‘s World was made, and though Wayne is of indeterminate age, he does (with hindsight) look a bit silly in the role, lumbering around like a short, goofy gorilla. On the other hand, he is consistently funny, especially when he‘s not mugging to camera (it’s bizarre that he became a less sophisticated actor with every subsequent film).

The real shock is that Carvey was already past 35, yet captures Garth’s nerdy self-consciousness to a T. His reluctance to speak out, or declare his adoration for his lovely ‘dream girl’ (Donna Dixon), makes him the antithesis of Wayne, and a welcome contrast. Elsewhere, Tia Carrere is sexy, though her relentless, unmusical wailing does get a bit much after a while; and Rob Lowe puts in an unexpectedly strong performance, oozing smarm to brilliantly comic effect – no wonder he featured in the Austin Powers films once Myers had dreamt up his new creation.

It’s perhaps ironic that Wayne’s World derides the appropriation of youth culture by the mainstream for profit, whilst being something of a fake itself; but that’s probably to look at the film more closely than is needed (and, surely, was the satire behind the original SNL sketches). Wayne’s World is essentially fluff, with no plot and no agenda; the movie knows it, and celebrates it. The important thing is that Wayne and Garth are just as much in on the joke as we are, so we’re free to relax, laugh, and – oh, why not – party on.

NOTES: For younger readers: an arcade is where you used to play console games before consoles got up to speed.


The Black Dahlia

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Fellow cops and amateur boxers Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard become involved with the same woman and the same case, the grisly murder of an aspiring actress known as the ‘Black Dahlia.’ As Bucky follows leads that take him to sultry brunette socialite Madeleine Linscott, Lee’s obsession with the Dahlia case threatens to end in tragedy.

Oh deary me, no. As someone who enjoys a good bit of murk, I’m easily fascinated by tales of murky goings on in Hollywood as exemplified in Chinatown, Mulholland Drive or the superb James Ellroy adaptation L.A. Confidential. However, it’s not an easy thing to do, especially if you’re aiming to really capture the feel of the period, and here De Palma gives an object lesson in how to get it wrong.

It’s 1946 and colleagues Dwight ‘Bucky’ Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), known on the circuit as ‘Mr. Ice’, and Aaron Eckhart’s ‘Mr. Fire’, real name Lee Blanchard, agree to a boxing match to boost funds for the LAPD. Through this brutal meeting a friendship emerges and the pair become partners, not only within the Warrants Department but also out of work, with Dwight (having taken care of his befuddled German father) practically moving in with Lee and his voluptuous, flirtatious girlfriend Kay (Scarlett Johansson). The duo are assigned to bring in child murderer Junior Nash but events overtake them when they are involved in a shoot-out, which indirectly leads to their involvement with the mutilated body of a young actress named Elizabeth Short (played in flashback by Mia Kershner), known as the ‘Black Dahlia’ by the press in reference to the film The Blue Dahlia.

Dwight’s investigations lead him to lesbian hotspots and subsequently to sultry Dahlia lookalike Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) and her eccentric family, who may or may not have something to do with pornographic material featuring Elizabeth; Lee, meanwhile, becomes ever more frantic and strung out, obsessed with the Dahlia case and the imminent release from jail of Bobby DeWitt, Kay’s former pimp who brutally branded her – an obsession which will send Kay into Dwight’s already-full hands.

The gruesome murder of Elizabeth Short is a real event that scandalised Hollywood, and Ellroy’s use of this material as a basis for his trademark corruption and sleaze appears to be a perfect platform for a film, especially in the hands of a fast-moving and visceral filmmaker like De Palma. However, for all the sex, murder and money in The Black Dahlia, the plots simply don’t add up to an interesting whole: the tension between Bucky and Kay, the relationship between Bucky and Madeleine, Blanchard’s corruption, disintegration, and murder, the craziness of the Linscotts and Betty Short’s tragic career should all crackle off the screen; but they splutter, confusedly, with many of the strands ending without enlightenment or a satisfactory resolution.

Flashbacks and narration act as reminders, and you can work out what’s happening by watching key parts of the film a couple of times; but it won’t make you say ‘Oh, that’s clever,’ just ‘Oh’. Therefore the viewer loses interest and is instead distracted by the director’s tricks: the drained palette in a thousand shades of brown which occasionally copies the look of a period film noir but never the feel of one, the tiresome transitions between scenes, the incessant smoking.

If the overburdened plot half-explains why The Black Dahlia doesn’t work, the other half comes down to some questionable casting by the filmmakers. Josh Hartnett looks and acts like a 21st Century kid sent back in time to solve the crime, and Scarlett Johansson seems similarly transported – his good looks and her sexy pout cannot disguise (indeed, they emphasise) the fact that they do not know how to convey distress, repressed passion or anything like a 40s’ attitude. In comparison, Eckhart is pretty good, although he is hardly hard-boiled and his intensity merely throws the blandness of his colleagues into sharp relief.

And you have to pity Swank; she pulls off the femme fatale attitude with aplomb, but her square jaw and frame are completely out of place in the movie. Ordinarily I wouldn’t dare make an issue of an actresses’ appearance, but here Madeleine’s supposed resemblance to Elizabeth Short is a key plot point and constantly referred to, making a mockery of the casting. As for Fiona Shaw’s turn as Mrs Linscott, well, I won’t reveal too much for fear of giving the plot away; but if Johansson and Hartnett are guilty of underplaying, Shaw goes to the other extreme to the extent that you can almost see the scenery getting mashed up in her mouth.

The Black Dahlia could have been great, but its lead characters are uninvolving, its look is sterile and unconvincing, and the titular victim is not given enough screen time for the viewer to feel much investment in her, despite Kirshner’s tragic, big-eyed looks to camera. Had De Palma jettisoned some of the plotlines and given his actors more instruction, he could have had a tight and tense noir for beginners on his hands; as it is, the film is merely an unappetising fudge, in terms of both its colour and its composition.

Stuck on You

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: Conjoined Twins Walt and Bob Tenor have made an advantage of their disability, turning out burgers in double-quick time. But while this life suits Bob perfectly Walt dreams of being an actor, an unlikely ambition but one he is desperate to pursue. Bob agrees to move to Hollywood, influenced by the thought of meeting a long-distance love; the only trouble is, she doesn’t know about Walt, who miraculously is about to hit the big time.

The Farrelly brothers have never been afraid of seeing comedy where others fear to tread, making fun of stupidity (Dumb and Dumber), schizophrenia (Me, Myself & Irene) and even having a hand in the production of incest comedy (!) Say It Isn’t So. Even so, you might think that making a movie about conjoined twins deserves a certain amount of sensitivity; well, you might think that, but Bobby and Peter don’t.

The twins in question here are Walt and Bob Tenor (Greg Kinnear and Matt Damon respectively), joined at the liver, nestled in the cosy heart of Martha’s Vineyard as they serve (mostly) loyal customers in their Quikee Burger restaurant. While Bob, shy, is as happy as Larry with his lot in life, Walt has acting in his blood and starring in local theatre (which brings Bob close to a panic attack) is no longer enough to fulfil him. Walt persuades Bob to give Hollywood a try – after all, it will get him closer to May Fong (Wen Yann Shih), an internet love – but although they make friends like lovely but dim actress April (Eva Mendes) and get an agent in the shape of shifty old goat Morty O’Reilly (Seymour Cassel), work is hard to come by until a chance meeting with Cher (hopefully sending herself up as a nasty piece of work) gets Walt a part on a rubbish TV show, Honey and the Beaze, with Bob disguised by Chroma key and taken on as a writer.

Cher thinks employing the twins will get her out of her restrictive contract but to her horror, Walt is a roaring success. His new, high profile is completely at odds with Bob’s desire for a quiet life back at the Vineyard, and his love life isn’t made any easier by the fact that May, who likes Bob despite his social awkwardness, doesn’t know everything she should about him and Walt. There is a solution to the twins’ divergent destinies, but separation comes at a risk to Walt’s life, and the lesson that (to quote the song) we all need somebody to lean on.

Of course the premise of Stuck on You is crass and leaves the directors open to accusations of poking fun at a disability, but the Farrellys neatly sidestep the issue by presenting the brothers as completely at home with their condition. If they are capable of anything and don’t feel sorry for themselves, why should we feel awkward watching them? Neither Walt nor Bob are victims, and their co-dependence has given them a bond stronger than the physical one that keeps them together.

The reason this works is because Damon and Kinnear make it work, convincingly playing brothers who care for each other immensely despite their different outlooks on life (Walt looks and acts very much the older brother, although they are obviously meant to be the same age). There is some technical trickery involved, but the physical co-ordination of the actors is marvellous as they make their way through life, Walt with an assured bluffness as he cosies up with Meryl Streep, aka ‘The Streeper’, Bob with trepidation as he dates May, disguising Walt as a bear to keep their secret secret. Both Cher and Streep are funny as themselves and Cassel leads a strong line-up of broad caricatures, but it is really Greg and Matt’s show, Damon in particular showing an understated talent for comedy.

The Farrelly brothers fill Stuck on You with enough jokes and uplifting set-pieces that less successful elements are easily overlooked. For example, April and May are both rather underwritten, but Meryl Streep’s appearance in the closing musical number (did Mamma Mia’s Phyllida Lloyd watch this movie?!) more than makes up for them. Furthermore, whilst you might argue that the film suggests the brothers can only live truly full lives when separated, they are clearly happiest in close proximity; and the separation procedure does give the film its best sight gag as the brothers walk away from the hospital. And yes, footage of the Tenors as young boys and the casting of Ray “Rocket” Valliere (together with a speech flattering the production of the film during the credits) is all designed to take the edge off criticism and portray the film in a sympathetic light; but somehow it all works, and the film manages to be simultaneously naughty, funny and sweet.

Possibly too sweet for filmgoers used to the cruelty of films like Kingpin or There’s Something About Mary, but for me the Farrelly brothers have created a lovely little film, (presumably) calling upon their own experiences as brothers to give Stuck on You an attribute missing from some of their edgier and more callous work: heart.

The Incredibles

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Forced into retirement by ungrateful and litigious rescuees, Bob Parr – aka Mr Incredible – is stuck in a dead end job, hating every minute. When he is given an anonymous commission to test his mettle against powerful robots he jumps at the chance, but has to keep the mission quiet from his wife, Elastigirl, and the burgeoning talents of children Dash and Violet. What none of them know is that the man keeping Bob busy has dastardly plans that will require every last inch of all their powers.

It’s not easy being a superhero, especially if you’re one in as much demand as Mr Incredible (aka Bob Parr, voiced by Craig T. Nelson), even obliged to help people en route to his wedding to Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter). He also has to suffer the attentions of over-eager wannabe sidekick Buddy (Jason Lee), and in rejecting Buddy’s offers for help a mission gets complicated and Incredible becomes the subject of litigation by, amongst others, the disgruntled suicidal community.

The government, fed up of paying out on behalf of the superheroes, decree that their secret identities become their only identities. Fast forward fifteen years and Bob hates his job as an insurance claims handler because he’s not even allowed to do good there, though he can’t help sneaking out for a spot of heroism on the quiet with old friend Lucius/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), much to Helen’s chagrin. Home life is far from happy as teenager Violet (Sarah Vowell) is self-conscious about her disappearing and force-generating powers, whilst young Dash (Spencer Fox) is as frustrated as his Dad about not being able to use them in public – baby Jack-Jack, apparently, is quite happy being normal.

Bob is naturally delighted when alluring stranger Mirage offers him a top-secret assignment to fight robots overseas, allowing him to get back in shape with the assistance of kooky costume designer Edna Mode (voiced by director Brad Bird); but the purpose of the assignment – backed by the malicious yet oddly-familiar Syndrome – is in fact to destroy the superhero, something which Bob and Helen, believing her husband to be up to mischief, discover all too late. Luckily, the whole family have come along for the ride and what one set of super-powers can’t achieve, four just might.

After the mahoosive* success of Finding Nemo you might forgive Pixar employees for doing nothing but ordering truffle and caviar pizzas all day; yet as Nemo was still being made the studio started work on Brad Bird’s story of everyday superheroes, a brave move that took Pixar’s traditionally kiddie-friendly films in a completely different direction and one which leaves me feeling deeply conflicted. On the one hand I have to admire the impeccable way it has been made, since – as with all Pixar movies – the design and execution are of such a high standard that you forget about the computer-generated nature of what you’re watching in an instant and concentrate on the characters, given depth and substance by superb animation, exemplary voice work and a strong script.

You really feel Incredible’s frustration at being stuck in a dead-end job and the thrill he gets from flexing his muscles again, leading himself and family into peril which they escape from via a number of breathtaking action sequences, in which both adults and children discover the satisfaction to be gained from living life with a true sense of purpose. All of the characters are well-drawn, in every sense, with even side characters like Frozone and Mirage given nuances.

On the other hand, it’s that very depth of character that gives me pause for thought. Much of the film’s early stages are spent showing Bob Parr as downtrodden, miserable, dissatisfied and getting into uncomfortable domestic arguments with Helen (given that the family have been forced to move a lot, she’s naturally reluctant to do anything that might disrupt ‘normal’ family life), and to me this doesn’t sit well in a film aimed at a younger audience. Not that Pixar ever shy away from difficult subjects – take Buzz’s psychological nightmare in Toy Story or the opening of Finding Nemo – but the literal and figurative darker shading of The Incredibles makes for an initially downbeat experience (consider too the foiled suicide attempt or the genocidal implications of Syndrome’s scheme) which lacks the positive, if more simplistic, atmosphere of John Lasseter projects. What I really mean is that that jokes aren’t as good, aside from the entertaining and significant one about the perils of cape-wearing.

I’m not downplaying the artistic merit or technical achievement of Pixar’s work, I promise. The Incredibles is good, it really is: I just don’t love it. I don’t go all warm and fuzzy when I see the characters in the same way I do when Buzz, Hamm, Nemo, Dory or even Monsters Inc.’s Sulley are on-screen. And I know that this can never have been Brad Bird’s intention, given the nature of the story, but I want animation to do things that live action can’t, and with X-Men, Fantastic Four and so on proving that superhero movies can do anything, The Incredibles doesn’t warm my heart.

Mostly this is due to the story, but I’m not struck on the character designs either: Mr Incredible reminds me of Charles Napier, which isn’t a good thing, and I have no idea why Elastigirl has to have such a large backside, especially considering she can be any shape she likes. The biggest turn-off, though, is Buddy/Syndrome, who is apparently modelled on Brad Bird but to me resembled a young Ron Howard with acromegaly. Of course villains should be ugly, but there’s a slightly bitter taste in making an over-eager fanboy the bad guy. Did Brad have a bad experience at a convention, perhaps?

Giving scores is never easy and as part of my conflict I feel I should be marking The Incredibles much higher, since a lot of the work that has gone into making it is – for want of a less obvious word – incredible. But I can only ultimately go on how I feel, and I cannot get over the twin hurdles of the film depressing me for much of its first half and some (no-doubt deliberately) uncuddly character modelling. The very best films are ones that I would demand to see if I only had a limited time left to watch them, and though I admired The Incredibles it simply wouldn’t feature high up in the queue.

NOTES: 1I don’t know how far travelled this term is. It’s pronounced like ‘elusive’, with as much emphasis as possible on the ‘h’, and describes a thing that is much, much bigger than big.


WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Penniless young Eva Duarte works her way – via a series of increasingly powerful men – to Buenos Aires and a position at the side of rising army star Colonel Peron. Using her background to appeal to the masses, Eva becomes beloved by the people of Argentina – her saintly status ensured by an early death: but to one observer at least, Eva has abused the people’s trust, and money, in a riot of self-indulgence.

Although Disney kept the tradition alive in animated form, the full-blooded live-action musical was a rare beast indeed in the late 1980s and 90s (A Chorus Line, Little Shop of Horrors, err…). So a firm belief in the material or an especially brave gamble must have been behind the decision to bring Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita to the screen, even with the star presence of Madonna doing what, theoretically, she does best in the title role.

Like the theatrical production of the show, Evita begins with a film being disrupted by the announcement of Eva Peron’s death and our narrator Che (Antonio Banderas) commenting on the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Argentine populace. However, Alan Parker immediately forgets the boundaries of the stage to display how both grief and anger erupts onto the streets of Buenos Aires; and also to show us Evita’s past, right back to her time as an illegitimate child in a poor, outcast family. We catch up with Eva as a teenager, her ambition to get on in life leading her to use nightclub singer Magaldi (Jimmy Nail) as an introduction to Buenos Aires, although he returns to his wife and Eva is forced to rely on other men as she looks for work.

Her undignified position – all the men naturally get something in return – slowly improves to the point where she becomes an actress of sorts and is introduced to rising military man Colonel Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce). An affair begins, which leads to marriage after Eva successfully garners popular support for Peron’s release when he is arrested; but from the moment the Perons gain power themselves (not through entirely democratic means), their promises to rule for the poorest in Argentina are forgotten, and although Eva promotes herself as a fundraiser, her exotic lifestyle, including a ‘Rainbow Tour’ around Europe, brings disquiet from the country’s disenfranchised in addition to the rumblings of the Elite who hated her all along. The exertions of travelling and self-promotion take their toll on the young woman and suddenly we are back where we came in.

The problem with film adaptations of stage musicals has always been the same: to what extent do you try to make naturalistic something as inherently artificial as bursting into song mid-sentence? Perhaps the best compromise has come in Rob Marshall’s Chicago, but here Parker goes all out – all the way out to the country itself, in fact – to recreate the Argentina of the day. This results in a film that looks and feels both handsome and authentic, and the fact that the script is more or less sung-through helps; but since the film now contains chanting crowds, riotous mobs, tanks, trains and so on, the music has been turned up several notches to compensate.

This would be fine if the music were sympathetic to the visuals, but for the most part it’s a loud, blaring mixture of disconnected lines where a tune holds for a line or two before being overtaken by a completely different one, often in a different tempo and key. The awkward attempts at recitative are barely improved upon by many of the songs, which clumsily rattle through historical details (such as the military coup) in rock’n’roll style. Lloyd-Webber has never really known how to write for electric guitar and here the use of the instrument is ghastly, not that others fare much better (eg. the horrendous drumming in Peron’s Latest Flame, a nasty song all round).

It’s a personal opinion, naturally, but I think much of the music in Evita is confused, discordant and downright ugly, while the lyrics are a prolix, humourless tangle. It occasionally hits gold, with Oh What a Circus and Don’t Cry for me Argentina (the same melody, of course) proving particular highlights, while other decent tunes (for example, Another Suitcase Another Hall) are too obviously similar to the writers’ earlier work to enjoy fully. The new song written for the film, You Must Love me, is pretty enough, but unfortunately this time the visuals are a let-down, Madonna (who is generally good, though never lovable, and she struggles with low notes) failing to convincingly portray the First Lady’s fragility. On the subject of the cast, both Pryce (an old hand at musicals) and Banderas acquit themselves handily, Banderas showcasing a surprisingly strong voice even if some of the English vowel sounds occasionally trouble him.

The troubles with Evita stem largely from the stage show, then, and were it not for the soundtrack Parker’s film would have made a fine-looking biography of Eva Peron; but he’s not getting away scot-free, and the director shows a fondness for flashbacks which are surely redundant – it’s only a two hour film and the viewer hardly needs to be reminded of something they have just seen. Also, despite emphasising Eva’s struggle with being judged for her lower-class origins, in two hours of film he never really comes to a conclusion about what he – or Lloyd-Webber and Rice – is trying to say about his short-lived, much-loved heroine. Essentially, though, it comes down to this: although it’s perfectly possible for a musical with a poor story to get by on the strength of its songs – witness We Will Rock You or Mamma Mia! – the reverse is never true. There are decent moments in Evita but the best way to experience them is on the soundtrack album, with a keen finger on the remote control.

Best in Show

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Five dog owners and their supporters, from diverse backgrounds, travel to Philadelphia for the prestigious Mayflower dog show, each with their eyes on the main prize. But there can only be one winner, and four out of the five will leave empty-handed and very upset.

When Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy assembled their cast for Waiting for Guffman the story would have been familiar territory, as the actors must have worked in some pretty low-budget local productions in their time. For Best in Show, however, writers Guest and Levy delve into the esoteric world of pure-breed dog shows, a much tougher ask (you would think) for the performers to riff around.

We are introduced to the owners with little snippets into their private lives, followed by interviews, giving us a clear idea about who they are. Hamilton and Meg Swan (Michael Hitchcock and Parker Posey) are neurotic, competitive lawyers with matching braces, a shared interest in coffee and a depressed Weimeraner called Beatrice; Gerry Fleck (Levy) has two left feet and wife Cookie (Catherine O’Hara) an easy reputation going back a long way – they also have a cute Norwich Terrier called Winky; Harlan Pepper (Guest) is drawling bait shop worker with a Bloodhound called Hubert and a secret passion for ventriloquism; Scott and Stefan (John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean) are a gay New York couple who love to spoil each other and their Shihtzus, especially contender Agnes (though they phone home to make sure the other one’s okay); and Sherri-Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge) is the dim wife of a very old and very wealthy man, who can therefore afford to employ personal handler Christy (Jane Lynch) to look after Poodle Butch, aka Rhapsody in White, two-time (and reigning) Best in Show at the Mayflower.

While the Flecks make their way to Philly, popping in on lecherous old flame Max (Larry Miller) on the way before humiliatingly finding they can only afford a closet at the hotel, the Cabots have no such problem and throw a swanky party, confidently inviting the chief judge (Bob Balaban) along to prematurely celebrate what they assume will be another victory.

Show dogs may seem like an unlikely choice for comedy, and anyone seeking the brilliant punch-lines to jokes that This is Spinal Tap set up (alongside much more) is likely to be disappointed. Yet, in its way, Best in Show is almost the equal of Tap: firstly, it matches the choice of dogs to the characters perfectly, the relationship between animal and actors coming across as completely convincing; secondly, each of the characters is chock-full of personality, from the highly-strung Swans to the ultra-waspish Scott, from the insanely-focused Christy to the phlegmatic Harlan. The actors – even those with fleeting roles like Larry Miller’s insatiable Max – inhabit their parts to such a degree that all Guest has to do is pick the best bits, the understanding in the group so strong that the ‘bigger’ stars like O’Hara, McKean, and even Guest himself can sit back and take quieter roles whilst the likes of Lynch, Higgins and Posey storm their way through scenes.

Parker Posey is especially good in an angrier than usual role, berating Ed Begley Jr’s “stupid” hotel manager when Beatrice’s toy is lost (he informs her there’s a pet shop in the hotel. ‘What are you,’ she says. ‘A wizard?’). Having recently watched British improvisational comedy Confetti, Best in Show provides an object lesson in giving your character a full, round life to start with and letting the comedy flow from that.

Thirdly, just when you fear Best in Show will become dry, at the start of the competition proper, Fred Willard pops up as commentator Buck Laughlin alongside knowledgeable colleague Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddock). Although Buck knows nothing about dogs, he is an unstoppable dynamo of commentary, throwing in an array of redundant sports comparisons, or complete non sequiturs when nothing else comes to mind. Trevor is very much the straight man of the duo and has to come back to the dogs to name breeds and explain procedure, but the pair are very funny and make the show itself great fun (accompanying the physical comedy of Cookie injuring herself, causing her to walk in a most ungainly fashion). Importantly, though, the film never makes fun of the institution of dog shows or their owners, always showing the dogs themselves to good advantage.

One thing Guest has never quite attained is the illusion of realism that had many people believing Spinal Tap were a genuine touring band, partly due to a weakness for the absurd (heavy metal was already ridiculous, which helped); in this case, Harlan’s ventriloquism is out of place (thankfully, Guest cut a scene where Harlan displays his prized beach ball collection), and Gerry’s two left feet is about as funny a joke in execution as it is in theory – not very.

Also, Best in Show occasionally drops the pretence of being a documentary, which unsettles the viewer slightly (why would the cameras be with Scott and Stefan just before they go to bed?). Still, these over the top moments are few and far between, and – Harlan apart – the tricky ‘what happened next’ ending is pretty satisfying, the film ending where it began with Sherri-Ann ditching her husband for an alternative lifestyle and the Swans ditching miserable old Beatrice for a spunky young Bulldog named Kipper. As I have said, if you go into Best in Show expecting a riot, you will probably feel short-changed; but if you pay attention, and listen closely, there is every bit as much to enjoy here as in Guest’s other classic works.

Wild Things

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Educator of the Year Sam Lombardo has his easy-going Florida lifestyle turned upside-down by accusations of rape from pouting rich girl Kelly van Ryan and trailer-park trash Suzie. Detectives Duquette and Perez investigate and discover that all is far from what it seems.

The Florida Everglades, hot and wet, form an appropriate backdrop to this sordid tale of sex, murder and double-cross. I say double-, but the plot of John McNaughton’s sultry thriller twists and turns like an angry snake, hence the vagueness of the plot summary above. A more detailed, and utterly spoilertastic, version is as below (if you’d rather stay in the dark, skip ahead to after ‘END OF SPOILERS’):

Popular and respected guidance counsellor Sam (Matt Dillon) has his car washed by student Kelly (Denise Richards), the daughter of Blue Bay’s finest and one of Sam’s previous conquests, Sandra van Ryan (Theresa Russell in fine man-eating form). Emerging from his house with torn clothes, Kelly tells Ray Duquette and Gloria Perez (Kevin Bacon and Daphne Rubin-Vega) that she has been raped, an accusation corroborated by poor, gothy Suzie (Neve Campbell). All seems lost: but when the case gets to court, Sam’s attorney Ken Bowden (Bill Murray) winkles from Suzie the confession that (Twist!) the girls have cooked up the story due to Kelly’s infatuation with Mr Lombardo. With Sandra van Ryan forced into a settlement, Sam walks away from his school with a cool $8.5 million.

Kelly tracks Sam down to his motel room, where (Twist!) they – and Suzie – celebrate with champagne and love-making. The whole case was a set-up all along, designed to get a share of the money Kelly would otherwise have to wait to inherit! Detective Duquette, however, is sceptical and resolves to keep a close eye on the girls, trying to take advantage of their suspicions about each other to get to the bottom of the case.

Suzie is right to be suspicious, as Sam and Kelly take her to the beach, whack her with a bottle (Twist?) and throw her into the swamps. Tragically, during the course of trying to protect Kelly from being murdered by Sam, Duquette is shot at himself and is forced to kill her. The subsequent investigation absolves Ray from blame and establishes that Kelly was responsible for Suzie’s death. Sam, now scott-free, is left to live in the lap of luxury.

Only when Sam goes into his beach house, Duquette is in the shower (Twist! Oh my God!) – the pair are in cahoots, and although shooting Kelly wasn’t part of the plan, the two men are now free and rich. They sail on Sam’s luxury boat, but Sam attacks Ray, sending him overboard. He climbs back aboard, only to be confronted by Sam and (TWIIIIST!) Suzie, who is still alive and bumps Ray off. Sam and Suzie can now enjoy a drink and sail away into the distance, except (Twist! – enough now) Sam’s drink is poisoned and he dies too. As Detective Perez finds out the real truth about Suzie from her family, she is greeted by Ken Bowman and a suitcase full of lots, and lots, of money (Tw… oh, it’s finished).


By now you will, of course, have come to the conclusion that the story is ridiculous, even with the ‘how it was done’ scenes that run through the closing credits. Even if the chief protagonist does have an IQ of 200, they would need to exercise not just blackmail but a form of mind control over the other characters to act in the way they do and lead to events resolving themselves in their favour. And having seen the film once, you certainly can’t watch it again, knowing exactly how the silly story is misdirecting you at every step.

Except, that’s not quite the case. Because the film has no desire to be taken seriously, it is actually quite good fun to see the plot building from unlikely to daft, through silly, ending up with outright absurdity. And the actors play their characters (none of them particularly sympathetic) with an engaging selfishness: Dillon is terrifically sleazy, but Bacon, Richards and Campbell, together with support from Murray and Russell all play their part in making Wild Things worth repeated viewings.

Coming back to Campbell and (especially) Richards, it would be fatuous to ignore the fact that their sexiness is used throughout to keep viewers interested. Richards is rarely out of a bikini or bra, except for the memorable occasion when Dillon helps her out of her clothes during the notorious threesome sequence (we see less of Campbell, presumably for contractual reasons). Whilst the sex scene is tawdry, it fits in with the atmosphere of the film and as such could hardly be called gratuitous. My only complaint is that Matt Dillon looks like he is enjoying himself rather too much, but jealousy is never a pleasant emotion.

So, whilst Wild Things is trash through and through, it is knowing trash that revels in its rubbishness and as such is the equal of other over-ripe pulp such as The Hot Spot or Heaven’s Prisoners. John McNaughton’s film is not high art, and his characters have no morals, but Florida and its inhabitants are always good-looking. For that reason alone, it is worth twisting again.