Monthly Archives: July 2016

The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: The future of America’s energy policy depends entirely on the opinion of Dr Albert Meinheimer. The coal, oil and nuclear lobbies are not prepared to leave his conclusions to chance and plot to substitute the doctor with an identical fraud; but nobody, least of all evil mastermind Quentin Hapsburg, has factored the investigative genius of Lt Frank Drebin into their plans.

The Naked Gun must have been something of a suck-it-and-see exercise for the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team, having seen Leslie Nielsen’s Frank Drebin fail to ignite the small screen. Since the original went on to do great numbers, a sequel was a given: but would this turn out to be a fulfilling follow-up, à la Hot Shots! Part Deux; or would it prove a tiresome turkey like Airplane II?

Times have moved on since Drebin rescued the British Monarch and his sweetheart Jane (Priscilla Presley) at the end of The Naked Gun; for while Frank may now be invited to – and cause mayhem at – George Bush Snr’s Presidential dinners, he attends without Jane, who jilted him on their wedding day. She’s not far away, however, as she is the PR woman for Dr Meinheimer (Richard Griffiths), a trusted expert on energy matters due to give a report recommending greater use of renewable fuels to the President in a matter of days. When Meinheimer’s research facility is bombed, Drebin is called in to investigate; but he is distracted by Jane and specifically her new beau Quinten Hapsburg (Robert Goulet), a slick oil magnate also representing the interests of coal and nuclear power. As Frank and his colleagues Ed and Nordberg (George Kennedy and O.J. Simpson) get closer to the truth, and discover that Hapsburg has a double for Meinheimer who is prepared to read his own oil-friendly report, he struggles to convince Jane that his investigations into Hapsburg’s affairs are motivated by the desire to uphold the law rather than his jealousy getting the better of him.

There’s definitely a whiff of ‘something old, something new’ about The Smell of Fear. Partly that’s due to the whole plot bearing a passing resemblance to that of The Naked Gun (substituting Goulet for Montalban), and partly because some of the situations feel like variations on a theme (the opening Presidential banquet, for example, has overtones of the first film’s Royal reception – only this time Barbara Bush suffers all the indignities); some of the jokes are even recycled from Police Squad! (Little Italy, the hieroglyphic figures at the murder scene), though given the ecological drive of the film this might be forgiven.

Whilst the action is punctuated with frequent jokes, these are much more hit and miss than those in The Naked Gun, those with a political or ecological bent falling particularly flat (at this length of time); and although the core of the plot is much more solid than anything to be found in Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, the film struggles to keep up its sense of momentum after a bright start, using physical slapstick for a lot of the comedy where The Naked Gun mixed up the formula with bite and wit. There is also one piece of obvious film parody in the form of a quite lengthy take-off of Ghost. Since it’s quite good and the film was his brother Jerry’s, David Zucker can be forgiven on this occasion; but it should be noted that nearly every ‘spoof’ film since has increasingly relied on recreating scenes from other, often unrelated, movies without even thinking of adding new jokes.

While it clearly draws heavily on some of the Kentucky Fried Theater Group’s past work, The Smell of Fear is not without a few admirable novelties. The entirety of the depressing Blues bar scene is brilliant, possibly the best single sequence in the whole trilogy (you’ll never guess Jane and Frank’s favourite song), while Richard Griffiths is thoroughly entertaining as both the doctor and his drawling doppelganger – I enjoyed his part in the mariachi band particularly. Other than that it is business as usual, with Nielsen in good form, Kennedy providing good verbal support and Simpson tasked once more with being the fall guy.

The Smell of Fear initially promises to be every bit as entertaining as The Naked Gun, though by degrees the film runs out of steam and when Frank spurns the President’s offer to make him head of the Federal Bureau of Police Squad to spend more time with Jane, you figure that his tale is told with (Mrs Bush apart) nothing left dangling. Little surprise, then, that when The Final Insult came along several years later, the writers failed to provide the characters with motivation, energy, or much in the way of jokes beyond clowning and witless parody.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: With Hurricane Katrina approaching, gravely-ill former dancer Daisy has her daughter read out the diary of her friend and one-time lover Benjamin Button, born as a tiny old man and destined to live his life backwards. His eventful life and the frequent crossing of their paths sooths Daisy as her time runs out, also giving the daughter a number of surprises as she reads.

If there’s a single word that you would use to describe The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it’s ‘quality.’ There’s not a frame of the film that passes without David Fincher making sure it looks and sounds beautiful, whether it is concentrating on present-day New Orleans, the opening tale of the clock-maker who designed his clock to run backwards in memory of his war-fallen son, or the life story of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), the infant afflicted with a unique condition and abandoned to the care of old people’s home worker Queenie (Taraji P. Henson).

Queenie brings Benjamin up with love and attention, and the old boy is soon accepted at the old people’s home, making acquaintances not only of the colourful characters who pass through – most of whom eventually simply pass, of course – but also of a young relative of a resident, a lively girl called Daisy. Benjamin eventually grows up/down enough to find himself work, which leads him onto a tugboat under the sozzled stewardship of Captain Mike (Jared Harris) and from there into war, where he is based in Russia and experiences romantic love for the first time with bored diplomat’s wife Tilda Swinton.

After the war, Benjamin and Daisy – now a professional dancer – return to Louisiana but initially she is too young and impulsive for him, and a few years later when he finds her in New York, he is ready for a relationship but she is involved with another dancer. A tragic road accident in Paris, which ends her career, only brings them together briefly; but at the point in their lives where they are roughly the same age they finally become lovers and spend an idyllic period together, funded by the button industry left by Benjamin’s father who, full of regrets, made himself known before he died. Of course, the relationship cannot last, but – as Daisy’s daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) finds out to her massive surprise – there is a lasting legacy to the relationship in the form of Caroline herself.

It’s no surprise that Benjamin Button received a host of Oscar nominations, not only because of the quality alluded to, or the significant technical achievement of bringing the story to the screen (Brad Pitt always looks the right age, even though Fincher finally resorts to using child actors in Benjamin’s final years); the plot has all the ingredients likely to tempt the Academy, with a love story that traverses the decades, taking in World War II and the start of the space age with an epic feel and a lyrical flow. However, F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story has been stretched into a film with a two-and-a-half hour-plus running time, and intriguing as Benjamin’s reverse ageing may be, there is simply not enough drama to fill that amount of time. Moreover, it is unclear exactly what Benjamin’s condition adds to the story by way of allegory, or anything that lifts it from being simply a neat device.

Furthermore, although I have no problem in accepting the initial premise of the film, and wouldn’t be so petty as to ask why Benjamin isn’t immediately carried away for medical experiments, E.T.-style, I have a few issues with the film. Firstly (and this may also be a bit picky), Benjamin is born as a baby-sized old man, and also dies baby-sized, when to be consistent he should surely end his life the size of a slightly shrunken adult. Secondly, and much more importantly, there is an interesting, almost Amelie-like sequence in Paris with a series of coincidences that culminates in the catastrophic collision of Daisy and a taxi; the question is, how is Benjamin aware of the movements of the taxi driver and the people he picks up? I presume the sequence, if it appears in the book, is easily explained by an omniscient narrator, but for Benjamin to know all the details and put them in his diary is rather suspect.

Thirdly, whilst I have no problem with the framing of the film in a New Orleans hospital – though I’m not sure what the relevance of Hurricane Katrina is meant to be – the film’s big revelation of Benjamin as Caroline’s father doesn’t entirely ring true, only because Benjamin is in Daisy’s life to such an extent (Benjamin and Caroline meet, just before he and Daisy have their final fling) that it seems inconceivable that she wouldn’t be curious; after all, Daisy visits and cuddles Benjamin every day towards the end of his life: where is the daughter all this time? And finally, whilst Button’s childishly naive old man is quite entertaining (the film is quite light on humour but features a nice recurring gag about a man constantly struck by lightning), as he rolls back into his twenties and teenage years Benjamin does not act world-weary but goes off travelling, just like a normal young man might.

All in all, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is only partially successful. In terms of how it looks and how it tells its story, it is a beautiful piece of cinema; however, the story it tells is neither substantial enough nor consistent enough to be truly satisfying. And in the absence of a long-lasting message behind the story, the over-riding memory of the film for a lot of people might simply be how long it lasts.

Black Snake Moan

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Abandoned by his long-suffering wife, one-time blues guitarist Lazarus sees a chance of obtaining redemption when young Rae is dumped, bruised and battered, outside his farmstead.  Rae, however, is deeply troubled and frequently overpowered by helpless sexual urges, forcing Lazarus to seek unconventional methods to tame her.

Southern trailer trash Rae (Christina Ricci) is besotted with her Army boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake); but she has some kind of devil in her, and when Ronnie leaves for duty despite his own emotional troubles, she looks for sex and other thrills elsewhere, to the disgust of Ronnie’s friend Gill (Michael Raymond-James). Gill assaults Rae and leaves her bloodied outside the front gate of small-time farmer Lazarus (Samuel L Jackson), who has problems of his own, his wife Rose having left him for another man after nearly thirty years.

Despite being a God-fearing churchman, Lazarus just can’t forgive; but neither can he express his anger. He takes Rae in and nurses her back to health, but discovers her insatiable appetite and resolves to ‘cure her of her wickedness’, even if it means chaining her to the radiator and keeping her captive like an animal. By degrees, the pair come to understand each other, Lazarus re-finding his old love for playing blues guitar. Even the local reverend (John Cothran) helps Lazarus in his unusual mission; but it seems less likely that pharmacist Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson), looking to catch Lazarus’ eye, or a returning Ronnie will understand the strange domestic set-up.

From its premise, you fear the worst for Black Snake Moan and its stars: it sounds like it’s either going to be a pompous exploration of sensuality à la Last Tango in Paris, or a designedly cheap exploitation movie like Wild Things*, or maybe even a combination of the two – which approximates to the ghastly Boxing Helena. But Brewer’s film is none of these things. It is, instead, a story driven by the primitive, howling power of the blues; a story – or rather, two colliding stories – of lost souls finding outlets for their hurt.

Since Lazarus does chain Rae, perpetually half-naked, to a radiator, the movie could very easily come across as semi-pornographic; yet the film avoids this, largely by dint of Ricci looking cadaverous and unbecomingly wild, which helps bolster the idea that Lazarus is solely trying to exorcise her from demonic possession. Crucially, he shows no interest at all in Rae as a sexual object, bound up as he is in his own world of pain and blues. Jackson apparently plays guitar himself, though I’m not altogether sure he plays everything; whatever, it’s wonderful to see him playing close to his true age for once. He’s absolutely masterful as ‘Laz’, running the full gamut of emotions, from joy to despair, tenderness to violent outrage.

Ricci has been good and not-so-good in the past; but her bold and anguished portrayal of Rae, her lasciviousness plausibly emanating from an abusive past (leading to a confrontation with her awful mother), is convincing, riveting and (with the odd exception) focused much more on her mental distress than her physical undress. Other performances are largely effective, including young Neimus K. Williams whose Lincoln suddenly and unexpectedly comes of age; however, Justin Timberlake is clearly at the start of his acting career, since his idea of doing ‘troubled’ is to frown a lot. He would be a lot better by the time The Social Network came along.

By and large, writer/director Craig Brewer evokes the Deep South with colour and a keen sense that the searing heat demands that events unfold at a slow pace. Blues music is artfully used, not least during Lazarus’ raucous, cathartic concert, where Rae finds she can express her desires without taking them to their physical conclusion. And while the plot sets up expectations of an American Beauty-like climax, it neatly sidesteps them to deliver a surprisingly sweet and optimistic finale, with just a hint that it’s not necessarily a case of Happily Ever After.

Brewer doesn’t get everything right, however: the stormy night where Lazarus reclaims his (musical) potency is cranked up to ridiculous proportions, and all the goodwill and good acting in the world can’t hide the fact that the film is centred around some very odd, nay objectionable, sexual politics: what movie would dare – with a straight face – chain up a lust-filled man in order to ’cure’ him? However, the fact is that I believed in the characters, that Lazarus acts with good if misplaced intentions; and I honestly found his and Rae’s mutual healing quite touching.

There are some who will find the idea of a woman learning (an approximation of) love and respect through involuntary confinement completely repulsive; and were Black Snake Moan simply an excuse to look at Ricci in her skimpies (cf. Anything Else), I would be among that party. Yet Brewer seems to genuinely care for his characters, and gives Rae both a rationale for her behaviour and, more importantly, a glimpse of a better life ahead. If you’re open-minded, forget the come-on title and give it a go. If nothing else, it’s a damn sight better than Jackson’s previous snake-related movie.

NOTES: The dreadful poster would have led you directly to this conclusion. May I refer you to Bill Hicks’ advice to those in advertising or marketing.

Withnail and I

WFTB Score: 17/20

The plot: At the fag end of the ‘60s, two house-sharing, unemployed actors decide to get away from their troubles by taking a trip to the Lake District. The remote accommodation is sorted, courtesy of rich Uncle Monty; but the strings attached to the favour are too much for one of them to bear.

It’s 1969 in London’s Camden town and the outlook is not good for ‘resting’ actors Withnail (a cadaverous Richard E. Grant) and our narrator, who for argument’s sake we’ll call Marwood (Paul McGann). Sick of freezing and drinking themselves to death in their grotty digs, and wound up by the paranoia induced by Danny’s (Ralph Brown) dodgy drugs, the pair decide they need a break; but how can they get out of London whilst spending next to no money?

As luck would have it, Withnail’s rich Uncle Monty (Richard Griffith) has a tumbledown cottage in the Lake District, and Monty’s rather taken with young Marwood, which secures them the keys; however, when they arrive in Penrith, they find the experience is no less miserable than the squalor they left behind. The weather is awful, the cottage damp and cold, the locals unfriendly or downright threatening, and readily edible food hard to come by. When Monty arrives unexpectedly, he brings money, food and fine wine to the desperate actors; on the other hand, his aggressive pursuit of Marwood brings a whole new set of complications to the needy – but not that needy – young men.

Reviewing films frequently leads you from the sublime to the ridiculous, or in this case vice versa. For, having spent a dismal ninety minutes on Mr Bean’s Holiday, I watched this film immediately afterwards – and what a relief it was to be back in a land where script, character, story and themes all had a place on the screen. It’s worth commenting on each. The script has all the sharp writing of a play, peppered as it is with imaginative swearing and inspired, frayed lunacy: ‘How can we make it die?’, ‘You can’t threaten me with a dead fish’, ‘Why have you drugged their onions?’ and my all-time favourite, ‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!’ (There’s also the brilliant follow-up to Withnail’s ‘Are you the farmer?’ which I won’t repeat here for modesty’s sake). Withnail and I is easily, endlessly quotable for anyone who has found themselves way out of their comfort zone, in a spectacularly louche mood, hung over beyond tolerance or any combination of the above.

The script, helped by uniformly superb performances, creates unforgettable characters. Grant’s monstrous, selfish, cowardly yet altogether magnificent Withnail is obviously head of these, but he’s by no means alone. Griffith in particular invests Monty – aggressive bugger though he is – with a tragic, almost childish sensibility; and Danny is a wonderful creation in Brown’s hands, with his semi-comatose delivery and thousand-yard stare lending credibility to his crazy ideas. If Marwood is bland by comparison, it’s surely a deliberate and necessary move; his anxiety and relative normality is the viewer’s insight into an otherwise bizarre and alien world.

The story, coming from Robinson’s own experiences, is a unique amalgam of period piece, road trip and long day’s journey into night (in a beaten-up Jag). It’s funny, tense, tender, and occasionally creepy; ultimately, it’s the tale of friends, one of whom needs the other but, even on the borders of depravity, is too proud to admit it. When the friendship has to come to an end, it’s a tragedy that literally takes on Shakespearean dimensions.

More than that, and this is where the theme comes in, it represents the end of a decade that started with new ideas and music, and appeared to offer endless possibilities, yet finished with drug dependency, burnout and decay: “They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths” laments Danny, ruefully acknowledging that the dream is over. So when Withnail/Grant bursts into his speech from Hamlet, its connotations are both individual and universal and the scene forms an almost perfect moment of pathos.

If it were merely well played, written and so on, Withnail and I would be a really good film, but perhaps too short on content to be thought of as really great. The details bring it to greatness: the costumes and set design, which are utterly convincing – at no time do you ever believe you’re anywhere but the 60s – and make it all too easy to forget that the film was actually made in a time of Ford Sierras and compact discs. It’s topped off by its powerful, evocative soundtrack, starting with King Curtis’ wonderful live arrangement of A Whiter Shade of Pale and boosted further by Hendrix’ magical version of Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower.

There are Withnail deniers out there, and I’d readily admit that the film isn’t shot with great panache; though it has to be largely intentional, it does have that dreary, grey Handmade (pun intended) look of Britain on a particularly dull day.  To be completely honest, there are small stretches in the gloomy bed-hopping middle section that I could do without, if I were to watch the film ten times in a row; but I set that statement against the fact that I’d gladly watch most of it on a near-continuous loop. If you’ve seen Withnail and I, you’ve probably made up your mind already. If not, seek it out for, amongst other things, its wonderful use of language, some superb acting and British cinema’s defining anti-hero.

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut

WFTB Score: 14/20

The plot: A devastatingly rude film from Canadian troublemakers Terrance and Phillip warps the fragile little minds of South Park’s youth and causes moral outrage from their parents, finally leading to all-out war. Recently-deceased Kenny alerts his friends – Kyle, Stan and Cartman – that the conflict will release Satan and his new partner Saddam Hussein onto the Earth, forcing the kids to take on the might of the US army – and their mums.

There’s not an awful lot going on in the quiet town of South Park, or in the lives of its young inhabitants Kyle, Stan, Kenny and Cartman; so when the new Terrance and Phillip movie Asses of Fire hits the cinema, they’re determined to get in to watch it even though it’s R-rated. Phrases like “donkey-raping sh*t-eater” and jolly songs such as Uncle F**ker instantly take hold in the classrooms, and when the remedial action of counsellor Mr Mackey proves only a temporary fix – and Kenny is immolated whilst emulating the film – the mothers of South Park (most vehemently Kyle’s mum Sheila) blame Canada and force the US into war against their North American neighbours, complete with a showpiece execution of Terrance and Phillip.

Meanwhile, Kenny arrives in Hell and discovers that the Canadians’ impending death is the final prophecy signalling Satan’s return to Earth, this time with pushy boyfriend Saddam Hussein in tow. Kenny warns his friends, who muster a ragtag resistance with the help of – much to Stan’s disgust – Wendy’s would-be boyfriend Gregory and a hard-bitten kid known only as ‘The Mole’. But how can the kids stand a chance when, due to a microchip implanted in his head, Cartman can’t even cuss without giving himself an electric shock?

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut has many things going for it, but perhaps the greatest and certainly most immediate is its impressive and total self-confidence. After a charming opening paean to the town, recalling the opening of Beauty and the Beast, the movie gets into its sublimely sweary stride almost immediately – Terrance and Phillip are singing the altogether brilliant Uncle F**ker within six minutes. Of course, there’s nothing clever about swear words in and of themselves, and their frequency can be depressing if used simply as a shortcut to characterisation or as thoughtless punctuation; however, the breathtaking level of invention demonstrated in Matt Stone, Trey Parker and Pam Brady’s gloriously filthy script suggests that they had a whale of a time writing the film, the cutely crude animation (especially of our heroic kids) throwing the scabrous language into sharp relief.

Moreover, the film actually makes a plot point out of Cartman’s swearing, as well as making a valid and trenchant statement about the MPAA’s attitude towards swearing as contrasted with gory violence – and also the willingness of parents to blame external forces for their own deficiencies. This helps the language to feel much less gratuitous, unlike the swearing for its own sake in movies such as Superbad and Paul: and, unless your sensibilities don’t agree with such things, it’s very funny.

It’s far from all about the swearing, however. In particular, Bigger, Longer & Uncut uses its characters well; it knows that Cartman is the star and gives him plenty to do, including the wonderful (if recycled) Kyle’s Mom is a Bitch song (“I really mean it!”) and the malfunctioning V-chip which references both A Clockwork Orange and, later, Pokemon. The film uses its references intelligently, never labouring the point as it touches on sources such as The Little Mermaid and Les Misérables (and Gregory is surely a nod to Top Secret!?), also satirising the glamorisation of war and the Canada-ribbing jingoism that arises from it, together with a pointed racial joke which strongly echoes Glory: all this in less than 78 minutes (on DVD) and a plea for tolerance too. Even if you don’t feel that’s sincere, it’s obvious that the filmmakers love their creation – there’s something profoundly touching about Kenny’s final little speech. Finally, there’s an impressive (if slightly pointless) clutch of cameos from the likes of George Clooney, Eric Idle and Minnie Driver.

Negatives? There are a few. The Saddam stuff felt satisfyingly wicked at the time but feels icky in the light of history, whilst Stan’s love for Wendy and Chef’s (Isaac Hayes) advice to him about ‘finding the clitoris’ doesn’t fit with the apocalyptic theme of the movie as a whole. More importantly, there are simply too many songs. The majority of the tunes are great, but about the time the completely left-field (not to say irrelevant) What Would Brian Boitano do? kicks in you do start to suspect that some of them are merely padding out the running time to feature length: Satan gets a song, Mr Mackey gets a song, Gregory gets a song, Saddam gets a song and a dance, even the God-hating Mole gets a few lines, and Big Gay Al gets a song which adds nothing except for a bit of fan service. It’s true that roughly 80 minutes of South Park makes sense as a movie, while 60 minutes would probably have stayed on TV; on the other hand, imagine how good that show would have been.

On the whole, however, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut delivers on the promise of its title, serving up a delicious tirade of abuse without resorting to the brash, mean spirit of Team America: World Police (though the Baldwins, and devotees of Gandhi, may disagree) and capturing the spirit of the show at its freshest, unlike The Simpsons Movie. I can just about remember the ‘Spiderpig’ song and one or two other lines from that film, whereas the highlights of South Park are not only plentiful, they’re immediately and permanently memorable.

Mother Night

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: With World War II fast approaching, the American government seeks the help of Berlin-based playwright Howard W. Campbell, Jr. to sneak out messages in the form and coughs and pauses in Nazi-friendly broadcasts. When the war turns against the Germans and Campbell hears that his dear wife Helga has died, he flees; but his infamy makes him a wanted man, even when he returns to America and tries to live a peaceful life.

A jail in Haifa, Israel, 1961: playwright Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (Nick Nolte) is about to be tried for crimes committed during World War II. He’s given a typewriter with which to give his own account of events, taking him back to a 1930s Berlin where Hitler’s National Socialists are threatening the rest of Europe and – more importantly – Campbell’s intimate relationship with his wife, actress Helga (Sheryl Lee). Campbell is approached by secretive US government agent Frank Wirtanen (John Goodman) to act as a conduit for secret messages, by placing strategic coughs and gaps in outwardly pro-Nazi (and vehemently anti-Semitic) radio broadcasts; which is fine, except when the Allies start to enter Germany Howard’s “Blue Fairy Godmother” is nowhere to be found and he’s reviled as a traitor. Worse, Campbell’s told that Helga has been killed whilst visiting troops, driving the devastated writer into despair.

Campbell travels back to New York under an alias which he gradually lets slip as he rebuilds a semblance of a life, making friends with neighbour George Kraft (Alan Arkin) and also meeting less friendly neighbours in the Epsteins, survivors from Auschwitz. Howard’s past catches up with him in incredible ways when white supremacist preacher Lionel Jones (Bernard Behrens) turns up on his doorstep, armed with supporters in thrall of Campbell’s Jew-bashing rhetoric and a gift in the form of Helga, miraculously returned from the grave. But are people what they seem, and will the Blue Fairy make himself useful when things start getting weird? Well, apparently not, given that Howard’s sharing a prison with Adolf Eichmann…

There are a number of plot details above that you might want to try to forget if coming to Mother Night cold, and there will necessarily be a few more below. With that caveat, the first thing to say is that it’s a problematic movie, largely because of the potentially harmful influence of Campbell’s strongly anti-Semitic “Last Free American” patter. As Helga’s father, Chief of Berlin’s Police, says to Howard, his broadcasts furthered the Nazi cause regardless of whether or not he was acting as a spy, and there’s the danger that people could pick up on the vile sentiments without realising the satirical context of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s work.

However, that’s true of any controversial rhetoric, and both Vonnegut and Gordon are keen to undermine anyone tempted by Campbell’s words by showing the ridiculousness of people like Lionel Jones and his followers, the short-lived August Krapptauer and the frightening/crazy ‘Black Fuhrer’ (Vlasta Vrana and Frankie Faison). The film has other issues too: it’s hard to conceive how complex messages – such as, apparently, Helga’s death – could be passed on through mere coughs and pauses; and though the situation is set up nicely in a brief scene with Kirsten Dunst playing Helga’s younger sister Resi, would Howard really not notice that ‘Helga’ has changed somewhat from the woman with whom he enjoyed a ‘Nation of Two’ (“Das Reich der Zwei”)? Of course, you could argue that Howard desperately wants – or needs – to think his sweetheart is still alive, a theme director Keith Gordon would revisit in his next film, Waking the Dead. Finally, as the story progresses the tale becomes fractured, with too many fades to black and, to be frank, an overload of spies.

But if Mother Night has issues, they have to be seen in the context of a film which is bolder and more substantial than the vast majority of dim-witted comedies or brainless action films churned out by the Hollywood machine. The flashback structure is clever, adding tension to the story – who is responsible for Campbell’s incarceration in Israel? – and the fiction is rarely less than fascinating, whether it’s taking place in Berlin or New York. It helps that Nolte – an actor I’ve rarely enjoyed watching – is at his absolute best in a demanding and complex part, and he’s strongly supported by the likes of Sheryl Lee, Goodman and particularly Alan Arkin in shifting, ambiguous roles. They forcefully bring the drama to the screen whilst Gordon also finds space for Vonnegut’s sly humour, such as the 23 copies of White Christmas Campbell acquires, the allusions to “Franklin D. Rosenfeld” or the occasional chirpings of Eichmann (Henry Gibson), off-screen and high-pitched. Some will undoubtedly find the combination of quirky humour and Nazi-based drama an uncomfortable blend, but it’s entirely consistent with Vonnegut’s work (on the basis of his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, at any rate).

In my review of The Man Who Would Be King, I mentioned Wallace Stevens’ line ‘Let be be finale of seem’, and as Vonnegut himself noted Mother Night carries a similar theme: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” The thoughtfulness of this motto typifies the intelligence of the film, and while Mother Night doesn’t stand up to scrutiny if you look at the plot very closely, you could do much worse if you’re looking not for realism but a solid piece of fiction which offers a provocative alternative to mainstream fare, Nolte and others’ strong performances proving a significant and very welcome bonus.

Dark Water

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Unhappy mother Dahlia, going through a messy divorce, takes her daughter Cecilia to live in a run-down apartment block on Roosevelt Island. Although the nearby school is good, the apartment itself is a nightmare, leaking filthy water from above into the flat and causing Dahlia health problems, whilst Ceci makes friends with a girl called Natasha who nobody else thinks exists. Dahlia must fight to keep hold of her daughter against forces of all kinds who would see them separated.

As there are so many films you can watch at any given time, you have to choose carefully, weighing up the pros and cons before deciding whether to give any particular movie a go. For example, I don’t as a rule have much time for horror films, especially ones with lots of blood, guts and cruelty. On the other hand, I am more than averagely keen to watch anything with Jennifer Connelly in it, her performances usually helping to offset whatever deficiencies a film might have. In this light I decided to give Dark Water a go, and while it is completely bloodless as a horror film (it would more accurately be described as a ghost story), it is also one where Ms Connelly’s role could have been played by almost anyone, without making the film one iota better or worse.

Based on a Japanese film (and thus treading in the footsteps of The Ring, The Grudge and so on), Dark Water finds Jennifer as Dahlia Williams, on the brink of a messy divorce from her husband Dougray Scott and burdened with memories of her alcoholic mother’s disregard thirty years before. These memories make her ever fiercer in her quest to retain custody of their daughter Cecilia ( ‘Ceci’, as she’s called, played by Ariel Gale) even though financial circumstances force them to live in a shabby apartment block in Roosevelt Island, away from Manhattan. Initial impressions of the flat are less than favourable, despite the game efforts of the agent (John C. Reilly), as a big, black damp patch on the ceiling complements the dingy meagreness of the rest of the flat; but this patch is fascinating to Ceci and she persuades Mom to rent the flat.

Soon, however, strange things start happening, as the patch becomes a leak and Dahlia’s investigations into the upstairs flat cause her to become ill, suffering from migraines and remembering the past; in the meantime, Ceci’s teachers worry about her new-found habit of talking to a girl called Natasha. Of course she’s imaginary: but why was there a backpack bearing Natasha’s name on the roof? And does the supervisor Mr Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite) know more than he’s letting on? Dahlia cannot figure out what’s happening, so is grateful for the help of her lawyer, Jeff Platzer (Tim Roth); yet simply sorting out the leaky ceiling and custody matters is not enough to get the lives of both mother and daughter back on track as someone – or something – doesn’t want them to leave.

In a purely visual sense, Dark Water does a good job of creating an atmosphere, with a palette of greens, brown and blacks that almost rivals Se7en for unpleasantness. Filthy running water will never be as horrific as spurting blood, of course, but it’s quite an effective device and acts, together with the decaying flats, as an effective metaphor for the disintegration of Dahlia’s mental state. Where the film falls down is that it doesn’t build that atmosphere into something truly terrifying, choosing instead to play games, teasing the viewer about the role of Mr Veeck, about whether Dahlia is going mad or whether her husband is paying kids to mess around and send her mad: in short, whether the film is in fact concerned with natural or super-natural goings on.

That the film hedges its bets with a bit of each, chucking in the occasional horror jolt (nothing too scary) and the odd red herring along the way, is annoying, whilst the climax, apart from not being as scary as it should be, is horribly downbeat (without spoiling too much, my Western sensibilities want people to deserve their fate). No doubt it follows the Japanese original, which no doubt also had pretensions to Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now; but as an example of psychological horror made by Disney it’s not chilling, merely wet.

Presented with such a gloomy, soggy story, you can only hope that the acting will save the day; but the script is so by-the-numbers that parts could almost have been given out at random. Connelly and Ariel Gale are nice enough together, but Toni Collette, Jodie Foster, Demi Moore or a hundred others could have played her part perfectly well. Reilly’s lazy agent is passingly amusing, Postlethwaite’s randomly foreign janitor adequately suspicious, and Scott’s husband just about unpleasant enough in a tiny role; Tim Roth, though, is pretty poor as Platzer, working out of his car and pretending to have a family. If we are meant to feel any connection with him, or between him and Dahlia, he fails; but then again, he is hidden behind glasses and facial hair to the extent that not only can you not tell what he’s feeling, you can barely tell it’s Tim Roth (perhaps that was his plan).

As a ghost story that wallows in the misery of abandonment, Dark Water is okay, but given the crowded market for teen-friendly thrillers ‘okay’ really isn’t good enough. I’d love to say it had highs and lows, as then I’d be able to say it runs hot and cold, but the truth is it doesn’t. Despite the best efforts of the always-lovely and always-believable Jennifer, Dark Water is just a damp squib.