Monthly Archives: April 2016

Notorious

WFTB Score: 17/20

The plot: When the Americans need to get inside the house of suspicious German Alex Sebastian in Brazil, they call on good-time girl Alicia Huberman to rekindle an old flame and discover what’s going on. The only trouble is, she may just have fallen in love with her contact, Agent Devlin; and even a girl with her reputation might struggle to love with two men at once.

With her father looking at the wrong end of a long prison sentence for treason, it’s little wonder that renowned loose woman Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is determined to live down to her reputation and drown her sorrows with booze and fast living. However, the American government needs Alicia to do them a favour, and sends handsome agent Devlin (Cary Grant) to ask for it. She reluctantly agrees, even withstanding the news of her father’s suicide on the way to Rio de Janeiro where she and Devlin are to find out the nature of the job.

First of all, they have time to fall madly in love, which makes Alicia’s errand a little awkward: she’s to use her wiles and acquaintance with Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) to find out what a group of Nazi sympathisers are cooking up in his big house, with its many locked doors and his highly suspicious mother (Madame Konstantin) in residence. Devlin, doubting Alicia’s supposedly reformed character, won’t stop her from going ahead with the plan, and she won’t refuse to do it without Devlin saying he loves her; so to their mutual pain Alicia becomes Sebastian’s lover and later, his wife. However, despite Devlin’s coldness he stays around to act on Alicia’s discoveries. Although Sebastian loves his wife dearly, he can’t be blinded by his passion forever, which spells danger for all concerned.

Of all the many yawning gaps in my film knowledge – hey, it’s a big subject – my ignorance in respect of Alfred Hitchcock’s prodigious output is perhaps the most unfortunate. I’m not completely clueless – I’ve seen the original Man who Knew Too Much, The Birds, Rebecca, Spellbound – but I’m clearly no expert. The point to this preamble is that Notorious is a film that so amply demonstrates Hitchcock’s genius that I’m dying to find out if everything else I’ve heard about – Rear Window, North By Northwest, Vertigo – can possibly be as good (I didn’t get on with Psycho, but I’ll try again).

But let’s get to the film itself. There are many reasons why Notorious works so well; chief amongst them is the fact that we’re never certain that events are going to pan out as we want them to. While the star power or lazily-written heroism of many so-called ‘thrillers’ essentially guarantee that it’s all going to be okay, you never get any sense of that here. Right up to the final frame, the tension builds and builds as the balance of power keeps shifting: initially, Sebastian is blinded by his desperate love for Alicia, but once her secret is out she becomes unknowingly vulnerable.

The viewer, knowing that she doesn’t know that they know that she knows what’s afoot, is constantly on edge. Even before the brilliant climax, there’s the tension of the central set-piece, Devlin’s snooping in the cellar counted down by way of diminishing champagne bottles. Throughout, too, there are all kinds of film techniques and tricks that are wonderful to find in a ‘boring old’ black and white film: close-ups, distortions, crazy angles, forced perspective.

That said, the real brilliance of Notorious lies in the convincing and incredibly nuanced relationship between Devlin and Alicia, a couple whose every glance is layered with passion and meaning. They are clearly insanely in love with each other, yet the position they find themselves in makes their romance all but impossible, concentrating the passion still further.

The counterpart of their love is a violent, spiteful hatred: Alicia hates Devlin for failing to acknowledge that he loves her, for putting her in this predicament; Devlin hates Alicia for her past, for her willingness to take the job; and neither will admit their weaknesses to anything but the camera lens. Bergman is statuesque, luminous and runs the whole gamut of emotions, while the muscular, authoritative Grant keeps his almost entirely under wraps. Together, they absolutely burn up the screen. This isn’t to diminish the supporting cast: Rains, Konstantin, and Calhern (as Prescott, the man in charge of affairs (so to speak)) all do really good things, but the impact of the film is as a two-hander, with Bergman shading the contest on points.

There are, arguably, a couple of negatives. You never really get a keen sense that the action is taking place in the heat and light of Brazil, and it can’t be down to the film’s vintage, or lack of colour, because Casablanca expertly portrayed Morocco and Paris without ever leaving L.A. Also, while Hitchcock gave us the term McGuffin (or however it’s spelt), it doesn’t mean his use of one automatically goes unchallenged. The contents of Sebastian’s wine bottles are evidently of vital importance – indeed, they’re the cause of the whole plan; that being the case, I would have liked to know a little about what becomes of them, of Sebastian, his mother and all his strange “friends”. On the other hand, it’s not as if the ending is exactly ambiguous.

There are those who will never be persuaded to watch old monochrome movies, but they should be nagged and nagged until they sit down to enjoy movies like Casablanca and this one instead of the latest noisy tat. Notorious is exciting, fresh, beautifully paced, and overflowing with passion and tension. I may or may not fall in love with Hitchcock’s work as a whole, but I’m a huge fan of Bergman – and I’ll admit to having a soft spot for Archie too.

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Carry On at your Convenience

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Industrial relations at W.C. Boggs’ toilet factory go down the pan when the bosses’ callow son Lewis rubs militant steward Vic Spanner up the wrong way, resulting in the entire workforce going out on strike. Unfinished orders could mean the end of the factory, but a multitude of distractions leave little room for a common sense resolution.

Relations between the management and the workers at W.C. Boggs appear cordial enough, but Union representative Vic Spanner (Kenneth Cope) is permanently itching for a bit of class war and the slightest thing – such as the right to have a cuppa – can get him calling the staff out, though he usually gets his dim mate Bernie (Bernard Bresslaw) to do the shouting for him.

It doesn’t help that the bosses’ son Lewis (Richard O’Callaghan) is a bit of a Jack the Lad, or that they’re both after the same girl in flighty canteen worker Myrtle (Jacki Piper). A big order for bidets forces owner William Boggs (Kenneth Williams) to confront the future and also lean on foreman (and Myrtle’s father) Sid Plummer (Sid James) for financial assistance, courtesy of his bookie-bashing budgie; but when a row breaks out over demarcation, a strike is called which looks as though it could send the factory to the wall, even though the annual works outing to Brighton offers them all a chance to get loose – in some cases, very loose indeed.

Probably the nicest thing you can say about Carry On At Your Convenience is that despite being the definitive vehicle for ‘toilet humour’, it (mostly) resists making jokes about those particular bodily functions. Which isn’t the same as saying that it stays above the belt; a high percentage of the film’s jokes are well-worn double entendres wherein any reference to ‘it’ is an excuse to pun on sex, accompanied here by the characters laughing at their own naughtiness in case you didn’t realise you were supposed to laugh too.

Unfortunately, a roomful of people cackling is not funny in and of itself, and I get the feeling, given the weakness of the script, that their faces fell as soon as the camera stopped rolling. The main difficulty is the subject matter, for two reasons: firstly, the film takes up a decidedly anti-union stance (Spanner is, to use the vernacular, a spanner: lazy, hypocritical, idiotic, delusional), alienating the working classes that formed much of the Carry Ons natural audience; secondly, the trade union stuff doesn’t actually provide enough material to fill a half-hour sitcom, so the film has to scrabble around with bits and pieces to eke out the running time.

You get plenty of Renee Houston as Vic’s aggressive mum, though she’s nice as pie to effete designer Charles Coote – Charles Hawtrey wasted in a role that asks him to do little but play strip poker. You also get Patsy Rowlands’ Miss Withering, her passion for William Boggs finally bursting its banks, and Lewis bumbling hopelessly as he tries to make an impression on young Myrtle, a paranoid Vic never far behind. While too much time is given to Sid’s miraculous budgie, these sections are lucky to feature Hattie Jacques as Sid’s wife Beattie; her wonderful reading of distinctly average lines really brightens up otherwise staid passages.

You would reasonably assume, then, that the day out in Brighton is the ultimate time-filler, an excuse to bring seaside postcard humour back to the seaside; but while it doesn’t advance the strike storyline, it does further the romantic liaisons amongst the group, namely Lewis’ attempts to convince Myrtle he’s her man (she uses that poor dupe Vic to make him jealous), Sid’s pursuit of married neighbour Chloe (Joan Sims), and their interference in Mr Boggs’ future. The outing also highlights the limitations of the younger actors; Kenneth Cope makes for an unsympathetic and unamusing lead (I’ve seen enough of the Boulting brothers’ I’m Alright Jack to recognise that Spanner is essentially a caricatured reworking of Peter Sellers’ Fred Kite), while there’s little in O’Callaghan’s limp performance to suggest why (apart from his status) Lewis would be such a good catch for Myrtle – Piper is fine, though it’s difficult to go too far wrong when you’re doing little except running around in your pants.

On the other hand, the old hands are still game enough to lift the film out of the gutter: I’ve already mentioned Hattie, and Kenneth Williams is excellent as the very proper Mr Boggs – he plays drunk brilliantly. Opposite Williams, Patsy Rowlands is also effective, though she essentially has the same role as in the previous year’s Carry on Loving (she’s not the only one). Without Babs to chase, Sid James doesn’t have to do much except puff on his pipe and laugh in his trademark style, but he’s naturally affable and there’s something almost tender about his and Chloe’s unconsummated relationship.

The Carry On films were lucky enough to have two heydays, the first coming in the black and white days of innocent authority-prodding (Sergeant, Constable, Teacher), the second arriving with their wicked genre spoofs (Cleo, Cowboy, Up the Khyber, Screaming). However, when writer Talbot Rothwell tried to reflect modern society, he usually came unstuck; and his sour politicking, as much as his laboured innuendo, make At Your Convenience something of a chore. Worth catching on a Sunday afternoon, but only for the game efforts of the series’ stalwarts.

Carry On Cabby

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Neglected by her workaholic husband Charlie, Peggy Hawkins sets up a rival cab company to teach him a lesson. With a fleet of new cars and a team of shapely female drivers, it’s hardly surprising that ‘Glamcabs’ soon takes the majority of the town’s fares; on the other hand, it doesn’t do much for the couple’s marriage.

Speedee Taxis isn’t the smoothest-running of operations, especially since owner Charlie Hawkins (Sid James) has a soft spot for ex-servicemen, even walking disasters like Terry ‘Pint Pot’ Tankard (Charles Hawtrey). Still, manager/mechanic Ted (Kenneth Connor) keeps the cabs on the road – when he’s not distracted by café girl Sally (Liz Fraser) – and Charlie works all the hours God sends; besides, they’re the only firm in town.

On the downside, Charlie’s love of his job is at odds with his love for pining wife Peggy (Hattie Jacques); and when Peg’s plans for an anniversary night out on the town are scuppered by Charlie’s inability to refuse a fare, she decides to take action. Peg secretly ploughs the couple’s savings into new premises and a fleet of shiny new cars and launches Glamcabs, which only employs lithe young lady drivers and undercuts her husband’s firm. The customers (all male, naturally) prefer Glamcabs’ service and Speedee Taxis starts to lose money hand over fist; even a concerted campaign of dirty tricks by Charlie and Ted backfires horrendously. However, Peggy’s victory seems set to be Pyrrhic when Charlie discovers the treacherous driving force behind Glamcabs, driving between them a wedge as wide as Charlie’s old, faithful cab.

Reading up on the history of Carry On Cabby, one is tempted to think the worst: adapted from a story by Morecambe and Wise writers Sid Green and Dick Mills and not originally intended to be a Carry On film, the received wisdom is that this is one of the less funny of the earlier films – after all, Kenneth Williams turned down the role of bolshie shop steward Allbright because he didn’t like the script (Norman Chappell eventually took the part, Hawtrey most of the lines).

It’s true that in terms of both knockabout slapstick and scriptwriter Talbot Rothwell’s trademark innuendo, Cabby doesn’t hit any great heights, although both are present and correct, the former represented by Hawtrey’s ultra-clumsy Pint Pot, the latter by a string of nudging car-related puns. It’s also true that the plot has dud stretches: the episode in which expectant father Jim Dale gives Charlie the run-around goes on too long, as does the ‘damsels in distress’ climax (for all its interesting car ‘stunts’), whilst the final outcome, though sweet, is as implausible as it is uninspired.

And it goes without saying that although the idea of an all-female workforce appears to chime with the changing sexual politics of the 60s, it’s essentially an excuse to wheel out some smartly dressed (and in one gratuitous changing room scene, smartly undressed) dolly birds.

On the other hand, Cabby has several things going for it, all in terms of performances: James and Hawtrey are reliably entertaining, whilst Connor is less annoying than usual and Fraser enjoys a relatively major role. Amanda Barrie is entertaining as posh, airheaded driver Anthea and Esma Cannon lends her usual dottiness as Flo, the old dear who helps Peg set up her rival firm.

More than anything, though, this is Hattie’s film: Jacques is simply wonderful as the lovelorn spouse, playing the comic aspects perfectly (with an entertaining range of comic voices) but also imbuing Peg with immense pathos, loneliness and guilt. Jacques is almost too good for the part, or to put it another way her acting here is too sincere for something as lowbrow as a Carry On: Peg’s all-too-apparent heartache doesn’t exactly make the audience fall about laughing, but I’d much rather watch Jacques playing a rounded, feeling human being rather than the tragic fatty caricature she would eventually be lumped with. Though the Carry Ons would be at their best over the next five years, the actors gradually learnt to broaden their performances to meet the tone of the writing. If only the writing had consistently met the abilities of the players: but there we are.

Ultimately, Carry on Cabby lacks colour. In a literal sense, of course, since it’s in black and white; but also missing the full palette offered by the best of the series – a touch of parody, a hint of anti-authoritarianism, the haughty sneer of Ken Williams and the naughty smile of Joan Sims. However, it’s without anything unduly blue and is the one film out of the whole lot that showcases Hattie at her best, for which we should all be thankful. Given a choice between Hattie’s acting chops and Babs Windsor’s bra-flinging antics, I’d take the former any day of the week.

The Aviator

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Howard Hughes, one of America’s wealthiest men, is also a successful film producer with a string of Hollywood starlets on his arm and a gifted aeroplane designer to boot. Hughes’ determination to succeed delivers great rewards but also a number of near-death scrapes, while his obsessive nature weighs increasingly heavily on his mental equilibrium.

The received wisdom in Hollywood is that Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is crazy. His daring WWI feature Hell’s Angels has been in production for years and it’s still nowhere near finished, since he’s trying to borrow more cameras than the two dozen he already has; and he’s wasting his inherited fortune waiting for a confused Professor Fitz (Ian Holm) to get him the clouds he needs to create the right sense of speed. Even when he has most of the picture in the can, he decides to re-shoot much of it because talkies have arrived.

Yet the movie’s a hit, and for all his socially awkwardness he can still attend the premiere with Jean Harlow on his arm, though he pursues a more substantial relationship with feisty actress Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett). In any case, movies aren’t even Hughes’ passion: he’s properly obsessed with designing fast planes – though he’ll equally find the time to design a streamlined bra for Jane Russell’s knockout appearance in The Outlaw – and while designing a plane for TWA he decides he may as well buy the airline, bringing him into opposition with Pan Am’s Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin).

Hughes also starts work on the Hercules, an enormous plane for the US Air Force which the press dub the ‘Spruce Goose’ due to its wooden construction. All this time, Hughes struggles with a compulsion to clean his hands and often gets stuck in loops of speech, a condition that escalates until he is a long-nailed, unshaven recluse. Hepburn, meanwhile, has fallen into the arms of Spencer Tracy, so it’s left to Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) to bring Howard out of the sanctuary of his screening room; and not a moment too soon, because Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) is in Trippe’s pocket, threatening to destroy TWA with a Civil Aviation Bill and, at a Congressional Hearing into war profiteering, both Hughes’ reputation and fortune.

If I told you that the paragraphs above are essentially just a speed run at explaining the plot of The Aviator, you’ll get an idea of the scale of Scorsese’s film. I’ve not even mentioned many of Hughes’ aviation exploits which are given an airing, such as flying around the world in record time or setting speed records, or suffering horrific injuries when his XF-11 plane crashed in Beverly Hills – he’s a keen golfer too. And neither have I mentioned decent actors who do well in fairly substantial roles, such as John C. Reilly as exasperated moneyman Noah Dietrich and Matt Ross as chief engineer Glenn Odekirk. Given the breadth and complexity of Hughes’ life, Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan do very well to pick a clear path through it, even if they do shift things around a little for dramatic effect.

Some of the methods used to explain what’s happening are a bit clunky – there’s plenty of suspiciously helpful newsreel commentary, and late on Trippe makes a speech which clumsily predicts the future – but as someone who knew nothing about Hughes other than what I gleaned from Rocketeer, the film does a good job of explaining what happened when. Furthermore, while DiCaprio may not closely resemble Hughes, he does a pretty good job of representing his many moods and phases of health and is very much at ease in the lead, which is just as well since he’s in nearly every scene.

Sadly, whilst its story is clear enough, and Scorsese and Logan make a reasonable guess at the childhood origins of his obsessive behaviour, The Aviator doesn’t mesh the facets of Hughes’ life – the filmmaker, the aeronautical pioneer, the businessman, the womaniser and (for want of a better word) the madman – into a dramatically coherent whole. There’s not enough of a through-line between the self-assured, all-powerful magnate and the disturbed recluse who locks himself away for months, so the film raises more questions than answers. How come a little attention from Ava is enough to put Howard’s mind back on the right track, for a few months at least? And what sets him off again? The drama falls down on other levels, too – the action of the Senate Hearing isn’t the most rousing of climaxes, and whilst the flight of the massive Hercules is an obvious metaphor for Hughes’ soaring and often folly-filled ambition, it takes big liberties with the truth.

Additionally, The Aviator’s concentration on Hughes comes at the expense of depth in other roles, with many big names given the briefest of character sketches. Jude Law has a redundant cameo as a feisty Errol Flynn, while Beckinsale delivers her lines without ever inhabiting the role of Ava Gardner (apparently Beckinsale was called in at short notice, which explains a lot). Even the ready controversy of Hughes’ association with 15-year-old actress Faith Domergue (played by Kelli Garner) is barely explored (annoyingly, her big scene features some hopeless continuity lapses, not least the spoon which recklessly dashes in and out of her ice-cream).

Happily, there’s a brilliant exception in Cate Blanchett’s impeccable portrayal of Katharine Hepburn; whenever ‘Hepburn’ is on screen, whether alone with Howard, visiting the eccentric family home or being the fabulous movie star, The Aviator crackles with quality and wit. Blanchett’s interpretation of Hepburn is fantastic, almost to the extent that you’d like to be watching her biopic instead. Still, the film has bigger fish to fry and both Baldwin and Alda do well as Trippe and Brewster, even if their machinations feel a bit like corruption by numbers.

A film as ambitious as The Aviator can provide plenty of ammunition when it doesn’t all come together, for the reasons above and a few technical ones that I haven’t yet mentioned – Scorsese is understandably more at home marshalling the movie-based action than the high-flying stuff, some of which looks distractingly artificial; and even though the film mostly looks terrific, the use of digital tricks to mimic the colour film stock of the time (eg. the turquoise golf course) isn’t entirely satisfactory, since it appears to exist for no reason other than as a cinematic in-joke. All that said, I’d much rather watch a movie that shoots for the moon and fails than one with nothing much to say, and The Aviator is an educational, fascinating movie which – for all its faults – also carries itself off with some style and at least one outstanding performance.

The Fugitive

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Sentenced to death for the murder of his wife, Dr Richard Kimble is granted one last stab at clearing his name after an incident on the way to prison gives him his liberty. While the surgeon tries to discover the identity of the real killer, Samuel Gerard of the US Marshals keeps up his dogged pursuit, convinced – most of the way – that he’s tracking down a guilty man.

Chicago surgeon Dr Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) is in deep trouble: despite his ardent claim that a one-armed man was responsible for the violent murder of his wife Helen (Sela Ward), he has been convicted and sentenced to death. On the way to prison, the disruptive actions of Kimble’s would-be jailmates cause a massive train wreck, from which Kimble flees in a panic. Most of the authorities write the prisoners off as goners, but the instincts of US Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) tell him otherwise; they’re right, and Gerard catches up with Kimble in the tunnels of a dam, where Kimble protests his innocence before making a desperate plunge for freedom.

Miraculously, Kimble survives, and he begins a search for the one-armed man by looking up records at his own hospital, trying to keep the indefatigable Gerard and his trusty sidekick Cosmo (Joe Pantoliano) one step behind as they each search for justice. However, finding the murderer may ultimately be less important than why Kimble was put in the frame in the first place.

To be honest, I’m more familiar with Les Misérables, the story that gives The Fugitive its broad outline, than the successful 60s TV show which inspired this movie (Roy Huggins, creator of the show, is executive producer here). But in truth it matters little; the important thing is that any kind of chase provides the potential for a great deal of tension and excitement, and Andrew Davis generally realises that potential in a film which starts the chase early and barely lets up from start to finish. The Fugitive’s main selling point is that it fast forwards past the investigation of and trial for Helen Kimble’s murder, the police procedural stuff taking a back seat to a simple game of cat-and-mouse, Gerard pursuing because that’s his job and he’s not paid to ask questions (hence the famous exchange in the tunnel: ‘I didn’t kill my wife’; ‘I don’t care’.)

The real skill of the film, its cast and its screenplay (by Jeb Stuart and David Twohy) is that it makes both parties likeable and reasonable. Jones’ Gerard is a no-nonsense type with a dry sense of humour, a natural lawman’s sense of intuition and an occasionally conflicting loyalty to his badge, backed up to good effect by the typically wisecracking Pantoliano; while Ford makes a Kimble a believable runaway, desperate yet resourceful, scarred by the loss of his wife but determined to prove his innocence.

Maybe Kimble is too good – flashbacks to the night of the murder leave us in no doubt of his innocence, and (being a doctor) he can’t help but save lives wherever he goes – but Ford’s natural, action-man charisma smooths over most qualms, including his improbable survival when leaping from the dam. Andreas Katsulas, Jeroen Krabbe and David Darlow all play their less likable (is that vague enough?) parts well too.

The famous dam sequence is one of the highlights of The Fugitive – the other being the authentic train crash which grants Kimble his freedom – but the action is handled efficiently throughout. The only trouble is that the story necessarily front-loads the action, and although the characters remain compelling throughout, Kimble’s search for the one-armed man becomes visually less interesting as time goes on – for example, Harrison donning a hat to slip away during a St Patrick’s Day parade.

Good actors like Julianne Moore and Jane Lynch (in an early, non-comic role) are underused, whilst the film increasingly relies on false alarms and contrivances to maintain the heart-rate: would Kimble really risk visiting a prisoner, let alone a one-armed one? Meanwhile, the reason for Helen’s murder is a disappointing bit of corporate villainy, though the lengthy climax – the Chicago Police shooting on sight – is quite exciting.

The Fugitive is an uncomplicated chase movie without a shocking twist or dazzling style to call its own, but that’s not to criticise it; the lack of fuss and the concentration on characters with a bit of – well, character – is welcome in an age where bland, muscled heroes and frenetically-edited, deafening action rule the roost. Inevitably, by condensing the action into a single film, Davis loses much of the atmosphere the television show built up over 120 episodes; but Ford and Jones are personable enough to make an immediate and positive impact. There are certainly deeper, meatier thrillers out there, but this is a superior example of the craft all the same.

Inside Man

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Dogged Detective Frazier is called to handle an armed robbery at a Manhattan bank, but as everyone inside is dressed the same, how can he tell the captors from the captives? Why is the bank’s ageing, respected owner so twitchy about one particular box in the vaults? And why do the robbers, having made all the usual demands, leave without taking any of the money?

Ah, the heist movie, how we love you. Quite why armed bank robberies should be considered movie gold is something of a mystery – though it’s probably the lure of guns and money in close proximity – but from Dog Day Afternoon to Heat, the hold-up is a Hollywood staple.

The films can be judged by the ingenuity of the robbers’ scheme, and in this respect Inside Man scores fairly highly. We begin with imprisoned gang leader Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) telling his story, at pains to point out that imprisonment can be very different from a prison cell, before the film takes us to the scene of the crime itself, where a gang of boiler-suited robbers take control of a Manhattan bank, herding the staff and customers alike into the depths of the building and making everyone wear identical clothing.

Detective Frazier (Denzel Washington, smiling and unflappable), despite the threat of a corruption charge hovering over him, is assigned to lead the negotiations, and he sets up the police response team with the assistance of Capt. Darius (Willem Dafoe); the two share a spiky relationship as the game of cat-and-mouse begins, the robbers threatening to kill hostages unless their demands are met and seemingly a step ahead of the police’s every move. As events unfold, the film takes us forward to the interviews Frazier and his assistant Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) conduct with the released captives, and it quickly becomes clear that the police do not know who is hostage and who is robber.

Alongside this crisis, the bank’s chairman Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer, regularly a villain these days) is inordinately worried that the robbers will discover the contents of safety deposit box 392, so he calls in fixer Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to try to get them back. As Miss White is a ‘magnificent c**t’ (the script’s shock-value words, not mine) with something on everyone in power, she gets to talk to Russell, but he turns out to be strangely resistant to her proposals. In the meantime, Darius, prompted into action by the apparent killing of a hostage, plans to storm the bank. Events, however, overtake him.

There is a satisfying tension to the film as to whether Russell (played with calm assurance by Owen, though his accent occasionally slips) will walk out of the bank as he promises, or whether Frazier and his men will get to the bottom of the plot and see justice done; the exchanges between the two take centre stage and are very well done. But eventually, the film treats the reveal of how Russell pulls off his scheme as a side-issue, the robbery itself paling beside Plummer’s greater crimes, and I am not sure that this plot-line entirely works: for one thing, the idea of Nazi diamonds belongs to seventies films like Marathon Man or The Boys from Brazil; for another, Foster’s character, coolly though she plays it, stretches credibility to breaking point. It is incredibly convenient that she has dirt on just about everybody in New York, enabling her to waltz through police lines to gain access to the robbers.

None of Inside Man’s characters are fully fleshed out, Russell’s motivation never explained fully and Frazier’s cool devotion to his job coming across as rather glib. There is also a significant reduction in the film’s impact once you know what’s going on, and on a second watch the film becomes pretty routine because you know what the twist will be, something you can put down to Lee’s competent but not thrilling direction.

Lee is famous for making edgy films informed by the prejudices faced by different races; that edge is present here, but pushed into the background: a Sikh bank worker is roughly treated even though he is a victim; Frazier has to deal with the loose tongue of a bigoted cop; and a boy plays an amusing parody of a computer game which glamorises black-on-black violence, satirising the attitude of rap artists. These all help to perk up the film, which is otherwise played out as a mental game of chess between cop and robber – as no actual shootout takes place, Lee spices up the movie by playing out scenarios that don’t happen, a clever move if also a transparent one.

Inside Man, then, is a mixed bag: A nice set-up and some sparky performances (I particularly like Ejiofor, and Samantha Ivers’ turn as a mouthy hostage), but equally an overwrought story and not so intriguingly made that you would want to watch it time and again. Definitely one to try before you buy*.

NOTE: This review was written in the dim and distant days when renting and/or buying DVDs was still the regular way of consuming movies.

Scary Movie 4

WFTB Score: 2/20

The plot: Newly divorced father Tom Ryan gathers his children and seeks safety from an alien invasion, whilst housesitter Cindy Campbell seeks the key to the invasion in an antiquated Village. Meanwhile, a host of other films invade this one.

I have, may God have mercy on my soul, seen all the Scary Movie films*. The original was a fun, if broad, take-off of Wes Craven’s Scream; Scary Movie 2 an unfunny spoof of the Haunted House genre; and Scary Movie 3, which saw David Zucker wrest control of the franchise, a mixed bag of mediocre movie pot-shots and so-so cameos, leaning heavily on the plots of Signs and The Ring. Could there be anything left to make fun of in this fourth outing?

The answer is an emphatic no. Even at a super-lean eighty minutes, this film outweighs its welcome by a long way, presenting as it does a tiresome and confused story filled with dire jokes. The plot, such as it is, takes the Tom Cruise character from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (in the shape of Cruise not-much-look-a-like Craig Bierko) and has him living next door to series survivor Anna Faris – still called Cindy Campbell – looking after a woman whose house is the home of a pale Japanese boy similar to the one seen in The Grudge.

As they go their separate ways to halt the alien invasion (death delivered by TriPod, geddit?), Ryan, his surly son and screaming daughter follow the plot of Spielberg’s film; Campbell, meanwhile, teams up again with Brenda Meeks (Regina Hall) and they end up in a Village all too familiar with M Night Shyamalan’s, where Carmen Electra appears as a flatulent blind girl and raises no laughs at all. Anthony Anderson and Kevin Hart appear as – actually, I have no idea who they are meant to be in relation to the plot, but they do a skit on Brokeback Mountain to fill time.

Throw in a backstory that parodies Million Dollar Baby – featuring a ghastly cameo by Mike Tyson as an ear-biting lady boxer – a confusing conclusion which improbably links the alien invasion to Saw, and the desperate introduction of (a sometime naked) Leslie Nielsen as the accident-prone President, and you have some idea of the scattershot approach of the film. There is not a single scene that shows anything like wit or invention, the film content to merely re-stage the action of the original then have a cameo turn up and/or have someone hit their head on something.

Faris is cute and clumsy but is given nothing funny to do, while Bierko shows little talent for comedy (or anything else), so it is doubly a shame that the whole film works up to an overlong spoof of Cruise’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, where the two punch each other.

Slapstick, ass jokes, people’s clothes falling off and a few famous people turning up. You wonder if the 4 of Scary Movie 4 actually relates to the age of the scriptwriters. It’s not funny, and it’s not scary, except for the terrifying thought that they might bother to make another one.

NOTE: This was true at the time of writing. It would require a state of high delirium to make me watch the (supposedly no better) fifth instalment.