Monthly Archives: November 2016

Mamma Mia!

WFTB Score: 12/20*

The plot: Bride-to-be Sophie is desperate for her father to give her away, but her mother Donna’s diary can only narrow the field of potential Dads down to three. Sophie secretly invites the trio to stay at the family’s dilapidated Greek island hotel for the wedding, but Donna discovers them, turning her world upside-down. In the chaos that follows, will there be anyone left at the altar to say ‘I do (I do I do I do I do…)?’

Let’s be entirely honest about this: without the ABBA songs, Mamma Mia! The Movie would be an utterly rubbish film, with a plot that could barely satisfy half an hour of Coronation Street and acting that would fail to get out of paper bags, or at least drive the audience into wearing them over their heads, lifting them only to see the beautiful views of the Greek island on which the action takes place.

The fact is, of course, the ABBA songs are there, so different rules apply. Mamma Mia is the film version of the first (if I remember correctly) of a new type of musical, where the story is constructed around a catalogue of pre-existing songs rather than the other way round. Meryl Streep is Donna, the weary mother struggling to look after her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and the crumbling hotel with more outgoings than income. In preparation for Sophie’s wedding, she is joined by best friends and former fellow songbirds, man-eater Tanya (Christine Baranski) and taciturn writer Rosie (Julie Walters). On the male side, Sophie’s letters bring possible fathers Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard into company with each other. They all end up on the island, where their secrets unfold and lives are complicated over the course of the days leading up to the wedding, all to the driving beats of ABBA’s timeless pop songs.

It has to be said, the songs change everything. Even though some of the lyrics now make even less sense than ever (what has Glasgow – from Super Trouper – got to do with Donna’s life?), Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus’ tunes and arrangements lift the emotion of every scene, turning it into something magically joyous, heartbreaking, or intimate. The scene where Donna helps Sophie to prepare for the wedding might be something-and-nothing, but as they sing the relatively obscure Slipping Through my Fingers, the moment is transformed. The same is true for Streep’s rendition of The Winner Takes it All, a number that distils all her frustrations of being forgotten about whilst the men have gone on with their own lives. It may not be the best vocal in the world, but the honesty of the performance is absolutely gripping.

Different rules also apply in terms of casting, the choice essentially falling between casting star names and praying they have some sort of a voice, or choosing known singers in the hope that moviegoers will warm to them anyway. Mamma Mia takes the former route, choosing stars (to be kind to Baranski) in the six middle-aged roles and trusting to luck. In the main, they do a good job, Baranski and Streep in particular proving to have talent. The film does occasionally totter on the edge of embarrassment, listening to Brosnan proving a particularly nervy experience; and whenever the ‘oldies’ are called upon to dance, there is a slight twinge of agony as another memory of The Deerhunter or GoldenEye is dislodged from your mind. But somehow, you feel that Streep, Walters, Firth et al are knowingly larking about at the same time as their characters get on with the story, which helps with the fun of the proceedings.

As for the younger actors, Amanda Seyfried is an interesting choice as Sophie. These things are entirely subjective, of course, but to me she’s a pretty, bouncy girl with a strong but not particularly lovely voice; I think this was a conscious decision, however, as she deflects as little attention as possible away from her mother and fathers, who have the interesting tales to tell. Having, say, a Scarlett Johansson or Keira Knightley as the daughter would have skewed the film undeservedly towards the daughter; and at least Seyfried can act, which is more than you can say for the fiancé Sky (Dominic Cooper) or any of his bland, if athletic, friends. The film’s weakest moments occur when Streep and Co are not on screen, although Christine Baranski’s energetic performance just about saves a version of Does Your Mother Know?

There are other gripes to be had: I’m not sure that everything on the island needs to be so resolutely turquoise, for one thing; for another, the convenient pairing-up that takes place on the wedding day is too saccharine for my tastes. However, Phyllida Lloyd knows exactly what kind of film Mamma Mia is and what her (largely female) audience wants: she delivers on light, escapist fun, and turns out entertaining and impeccably-arranged songs to hum along to. You would have to be a complete artsy snob, or in a terribly bad frame of mind, to complain about that.

NOTES: My original score for this was 13, which now appears a smidgen high given that the film is a pure confection with flaws. However, I maintain that a film that sets out to entertain and do nothing else is just as valid, and sometimes more so, than ‘better’ films with worthy messages that get unbearably tiresome after 20 minutes.

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Black Swan

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Dedicated ballerina Nina Sayers wins the coveted role of the Swan Queen in a make-or-break production of Swan Lake. However, the dream soon becomes a nightmare as Nina is haunted by director Thomas’ highly personal demands that she find the seductive Black Swan within her. The search brings Nina to the end of her wits, which may be exactly what rival ballerina Lily wants.

It’s a red letter day for the corps of the New York ballet when director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) makes two exciting announcements: first, his plans for the new season include a stripped-down version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake; second, whether she likes it or not, prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder) is being retired, meaning there’s a vacancy for the prized role of Swan Queen. Technically, Nina (Natalie Portman) has all the attributes for the role, and has all the virtues to play the White Swan, but Thomas isn’t convinced that she can also embody the wicked Black Swan – until she violently rebuffs his attempted seduction.

Nina is given the part under strict orders that she explores her passionate, sexual side, but rehearsals are fraught with difficulties: there’s the threat posed by precocious newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis), who might be a friend, a scheming rival, or something else entirely; there’s the barriers presented by Nina’s overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer herself. More than these, there’s Nina’s own mental fragility. As opening night approaches, she succeeds in bringing out her darker, freer side, but suffers increasingly bizarre injuries and/or hallucinations, not helped when Beth is crippled after walking in front of a car. Dreaming – at the very least – of murder, can Nina keep body and mind together for curtain up?

Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) has always been an uncompromising director, and Black Swan may be his Marmitiest* film yet. The look of the film is exquisite, with ballet sequences that are both convincing and surprisingly interesting (to this layman, anyway), and which effectively bring the exclusive art form to a broad cinema audience. The film’s obsession with reflection is also very well handled, given the inherent problems of filming with mirrors.

More importantly, Portman is excellent as Nina, and regardless of how much ballet she does or doesn’t perform herself, she effortlessly dominates the film, portraying Nina at her most neurotic and her most sensuous with equal aplomb. Mila Kunis plays Lily with slutty relish, and Hershey is scarily imposing as Nina’s overbearing mother, living her life vicariously through her daughter‘s painful devotion. Unfortunately, Ryder doesn’t get enough screen time to make much of an impression; and although Cassel’s Thomas is creepy enough, it feels as though he’s been chosen for his European accent as much as anything else.

None of which answers the question of whether the film is any good. In truth, it’s a difficult question to answer, because the answer depends entirely on how much you enjoy Black Swan’s ambiguity – are we seeing the things Nina sees in her disturbed mental state? Or, since some of the bizarre things that seem to happen are clearly impossible, should we interpret it all as symbolism? Either way, it reminds me of films such as American Psycho, Fight Club and Requiem for a Dream in a fairly positive sense, with a helping of Cronenburg-esque body horror thrown in for good measure.

On the other hand, I wasn’t remotely as caught up in the story as I wanted to be. There was tremendous potential in Nina’s story, a talented dancer held in pre-pubertal limbo by her mother to the extent that she’s terrified by her own sexual potential, resulting in an inner fight for her sanity, her soul and her role; but Black Swan relentlessly reduces her struggle to a one-dimensional voyage of sexual discovery and paranoia.

I understand that this chimes in with the theme of the ballet, but it wasn’t long before I’d had quite enough of Portman pleasuring herself, or others (perhaps) doing it for her. And despite the surfeit of sexuality, the film operates in a totally loveless and humourless world, which coupled with Nina’s painfully uptight personality makes it hard for the viewer to get emotionally involved. I know there will be the same ‘you don’t get it’ arguments that I mention in my review of The Fountain, but I know exactly what the director is aiming at; Aronofsky just doesn’t make me feel it (whereas, watching Requiem for a Dream, I felt everyone’s pain much more than I wanted to). On the plus side, the story here is on far more solid ground than The Fountain; but Black Swan does share some of that film’s po-faced sobriety (The Wrestler, too, suggests the director isn’t particularly interested in the lighter side of life).

Black Swan is unquestionably a dramatic, striking film, particularly when it comes to opening night, and Portman puts in a brilliantly troubled turn throughout. Yet it’s really hard to know what to make of Nina’s quest for perfection when her sauciest efforts to find the Black Swan within her, and her most disturbing visions, still had me looking at my watch. Like ballet, the film obviously took massive dedication to make it look as good as it does. Regrettably, like ballet (and unlike Marmite, should the manufacturers want to sponsor me!), I didn’t care for it much.

NOTES (for territories without Marmite, bless you): Thanks to a bizarrely successful advertising campaign, this means you’ll either love it or hate it.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: When giant robots appear in the skies over New York, fearless reporter Polly Perkins is desperate to get the scoop, even if the crisis brings her into the cockpit of dashing pilot and old flame Joe, known and loved as ‘Sky Captain.’ Polly has been given secret information – and more – by a terrified scientist, and Joe’s genius friend Dex has the inside track on the robots; but can Joe keep the world of today safe when faced with Dex’s kidnap – and a seemingly undefeatable foe?

Ask many a director where they discovered their love of film and they will point you towards Saturday morning serials, films full of breathless action and exotic adventure shown in bite-size chunks across fifteen weeks or more. The legacy of these serials is clearly shown in fare like The Mummy and the rip-roaring Indiana Jones series, but when filmmakers have attempted a more direct tribute – Flash Gordon, for example – the results have often looked more than a little cheap.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow aims for authenticity, presenting a wildly exciting Boy’s Own tale in a style mimicking those of old Saturday morning films, but using 21st Century technology and acting talent to bring the story to vivid life. That story involves ace reporter Polly (Gwyneth Paltrow) being trusted with the secrets, including two vials of an unidentified liquid, of a scientist whose time is numbered. Polly doesn’t know what the vials are for, but one thing is certain: the murder of scientists is surely linked to the name Dr Totenkopf and the emergence of a fleet of massive robots swarming over, and through, New York City.

The authorities are helpless in the face of this menace but they know who to call on – Sky Captain (Jude Law). The heroic freelance airman, known as Joe to his friends and (we presume) ex-lovers like Polly, halts the robots with the help of his gadget-filled plane-cum-submarine and even gets one delivered to his hideaway, where Polly is lurking for a scoop. But there is little time for catching up with who cheated on who, for saying hello to young gadget/weapons expert Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), or even for touring Joe’s museum of older robots that his mercenary army, the ‘Flying Legion’, have captured: no, further waves of machines send the Captain and the insistent Polly into the air, while Dex is kidnapped even as he discovers the Himalayan source of Totenkopf’s signals to his robotic army. The pair fly to Nepal and are helped by Joe’s old friend Kaji (Omid Djalili), unlike some other shifty foreigners: but through trial and tribulation Dex must be rescued, Polly must have her story, and Totenkopf (Laurence Olivier) must be stopped from putting his evil plan into action, whatever the cost.

I’ll come back to the plot later, but Sky Captain is a film where visual style dominates over storyline. Rather than building sets, Kerry Conran has taken advantage of leaps in technology to present almost everything as a computer-generated image. Other than the actors and the things they touch, stand on or sit in, hardly anything on the screen actually exists; this allows the director to portray exactly what he likes, and he brings to the screen sepia-toned locations that ooze comic-strip style.

New York in the 1930s (or early 40s) looks like a film reel, something out of King Kong; Nepal is cold and mountainous, the hidden paradise within it sumptuous; there are dinosaur-filled jungles and underwater lairs, gigantic hangars, floating aircraft stations, rocket ships and dozens of robot legions; in short, the playground for every boyhood adventure you could ever wish for. More than that, in bringing back images of Olivier to play Totenkopf, the viewer is immersed ever more into the glory days of Hollywood. It’s a film that looks truly unique.

But not, sadly, in a particularly good way. Despite all the trickery, there is a sheen around the actors, and a certain fuzzy softness around the edges, which means you never quite believe that the actors are fully integrated with their scenery. However active and impressive the backdrops are, Paltrow, Law and Co. look as though they are standing in front of backdrops, and for some reason this huge but unsuccessful effort to convince prevents any further suspension of disbelief. In a purely commercial sense, you have to ask why the film has been made this way: fans of Saturday morning cinema are now thin on the ground and unlikely to be impressed by new-fangled technology, whilst younger viewers, unaccustomed to B-movies and the like, are likely to wonder where the colours have gone. The same goes for the strange appearance of Sir Laurence Olivier: an old audience will most probably object to the use of his face, a young one not recognise him to start with. In any event, whenever Totenkopf is called upon to speak on-screen his mouth moves below the level of the picture, making the late star’s cameo both a gimmick and something of a swizz.

Coming back to the plot, Sky Captain has bigger problems still. I’ve listed some of the locations where Joe and Polly get themselves in and out of scrapes; you will note their disparate nature, and the story is a bizarre mishmash of action and Science Fiction ideas as it flits about from place to place, the couple coming a bit closer to declaring their feelings every so often (until Polly pulls her blasted camera out again).

There are some nice ideas – I liked the plane flying over maps and the nods to The Wizard of Oz – but an awful lot of poor ones too, such as the silent assassin lady or Polly’s supposed love rival, the super-posh and bizarrely one-eyed Franky (played by Angelina Jolie with her good eye on her cheque). The film is Rocketeer one minute and Jurassic Park the next, which would be brilliant were the enterprise carried off with the gusto of the original movies or Harrison Ford’s Indy; but the script is naff, delivering gems such as ‘something bad happened here’; there’s a laboured explanation of the entire plot read from a scientist’s notebook; and both hero and heroine are desperately bland characters, not in the least livened up by Gwyn and Jude’s unmotivated acting. Jude’s lazy, uncharismatic turn is perhaps the most harmful element in the whole film, since most of a film’s faults can be overlooked if the lead takes us with him. As it is, the action sequences take place in a vacuum and are only interesting for their technical excellence. We’re not even too bothered when Joe and Polly start punching each other.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow deserves some praise for trying to achieve a look and nearly pulling it off. Unfortunately, the director has devoted all his efforts on the look of the film at the expense of spinning a simple, credible yarn; if he had left the computers at home and spent more time developing elements such as character, logic and humour, he might have come closer to the excitement that the makers of Saturday morning serials achieved effortlessly, despite – or maybe thanks to – the primitive tools at their disposal.

Love and Other Drugs

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Ace salesman Jamie Randall allows his comfy world to be turned upside-down by Parkinson’s sufferer Maggie Murdock; for whereas they’re initially content to have a relationship based on sex, they soon realise they have genuine feelings for each other. As Jamie finds out more about Maggie’s condition and comes to realise there is no cure, he has to ask difficult questions about who he is.

Cocksure Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) is irresistibly good at selling, not least himself to any woman he meets; so it’s little surprise that he’s fired from his retail job for a bit of back-room hanky-panky. Taking advice from his doctor sister, he embarks on a career with massive drugs firm Pfizer, a move which brings him into contact with some larger-than-life characters: sleazy fellow rep Bruce (Oliver Platt), who shows him the ropes; ex-marine Trey (Gabriel Macht), rep for rival firm Lily (makers of the all-conquering Prozac); influential doctor Stan Knight (Hank Azaria) and, after bribing Stan to let him meet a few patients, Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), an artist and sufferer from early-onset Parkinson’s.

Initially, Jamie just sees a pair of beautiful brown eyes and a shapely left breast, earning him a severe handbagging; but over coffee, the pair learn that they are equally up for meaningless sex. The arrangement seems ideal, especially since the arrival of Jamie’s hopeless, slobbish brother Josh (Josh Gad) seems destined to prevent the relationship becoming more serious; but Jamie can’t help himself and they fall in love, notwithstanding Maggie’s admission that she was previously with Trey.

As Jamie’s career goes into overdrive marketing a new drug called Viagra, he also tries to help Maggie find a cure. Maggie, however, knows that there is no cure and she pushes him away. Jamie’s temporarily released back into his old sex-and-drugs lifestyle, which only awakens him to what’s truly important and meaningful to him. But will Maggie have him back?

What attention has been given to Love and Other Drugs (which isn’t much) has focused on the amount of nudity in the film; and depending on your tastes there’s an entirely acceptable amount of unclothed Hathaway and/or Gyllenhaal on screen. The question that needs asking is why is the nudity there, and I’m sure Zwick’s answer would be to show that people with serious conditions are more than capable of enjoying sex, whether it’s a quickie or as part of a deeply intimate relationship.

Unfortunately, it’s pretty irrelevant whether or not Zwick’s intentions were honourable, since the bare flesh feels like nothing more than compensation for watching an otherwise drearily predictable film. It’s not just that Gyllenhaal’s Jamie is an over-familiar caricature, the career- and money-motivated ‘swinging dick’ (it’s a quote!) who gradually comes to realise what’s really important (see Schindler’s List, various incarnations of A Christmas Carol, Hathaway’s own The Devil Wears Prada and a thousand other films beside); and it’s not just that Hathaway’s Maggie is a self-obsessed artist with a nice flat and plenty of money, the sort who only exists in Hollywood films. No, the problem is that neither character is remotely likeable. As a cynical salesman in a profoundly cynical industry, Randall is pretty despicable, and Gyllenhaal fails to warm him up much once he realises how much he needs Maggie (which happens in awkward stages). ‘Tell me four good things about yourself,’ Maggie challenges – and Jamie fails to think of a single one. Yet we’re supposed to empathise with him?

As for Maggie, having a disease doesn’t automatically earn you sympathy (unless you’re under ten) and Hathaway unusually does her best to make her character unlikeable, even allowing for the fact that Maggie’s abrasiveness is obviously her defence mechanism. This would not be such an issue were Maggie’s story more affecting, but her illness doesn’t progress at all throughout the film – not to give everything away, but this ain’t no Terms of Endearment – so all we have is hints of the future: a spilt drink, the testimony of other Parkinson’s sufferers, an exhausted husband warning Randall of what may come.

Well, not quite all, and here’s where Love and Other Drugs really falls down. When it’s not being a romantic drama, it spends much of its time trying to be a satire on the pharmaceutical industry (Maggie accompanies busloads of pensioners to Canada to get affordable prescriptions), and the rest a bawdy, Viagra-powered sex comedy along the lines of Superbad or Get Him To The Greek. Chief offender in this regard is Josh, an unedifying cross between Jack Black and Jonah Hill who embarrasses himself and Jamie in all sorts of situations, including masturbating to Jamie and Maggie’s home video and scoring with an unfussy hanger-on at a hedonistic pyjama party. Quite why the writers thought this would dovetail with Maggie’s on-off acceptance of Jake’s love and assistance is anyone’s guess, but the wild humour may also be a feature of the book on which the film is based.

Love and Other Drugs was never going to be particularly original, but with the involvement of two bright young leads and a respected director, you could reasonably have hoped for a visually and emotionally intelligent film. Sadly, not only is it a movie that fails to invoke any sense of time or place (flat screen TVs in 1996?), it’s a confused and disappointing effort which, despite the shallowness of the tale, leaves two good-looking actors out of their depth and uncomfortably exposed.

The Illusionist

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Childhood sweethearts Eisenheim and Sophie are parted because the young man, a talented magician, is of humble origins whereas the girl is of noble birth. Some years later, Eisenheim returns to Vienna as a brilliant illusionist, amazing audiences including the Crown Prince and his intended bride, Duchess von Teschen. That is, Sophie von Teschen. When Sophie is apparently murdered, it falls to Police Inspector Uhl – a keen amateur magician himself – to track down the responsible party.

First of all, there are major spoilers ahead so if you’d like to see this film uninformed, avert your eyes now. All gone? Okay, on with the show! It’s the late nineteenth century in Vienna and a young boy obsessed with magic tricks attracts the eye of Sophie, a girl from a wealthy family. The two fall in love in their secret hideaway, but the boy’s skills cannot make the couple disappear and Sophie is forcefully taken away. Fifteen years later, the boy has become Eisenheim the Illusionist (Ed Norton), a brilliant magician wowing Viennese audiences, including police Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). When Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) sees the show and commands his intended bride to partake in an illusion, little does he know what he’s getting himself into; for the woman is none other than Sophie (Jessica Biel). Although Uhl and the Prince’s spies are everywhere, Sophie runs into Eisenheim’s arms and away from Leopold’s notorious cruelty.

Tragically, soon after informing Leopold of her intentions to leave him, Eisenheim finds Sophie’s body in a river, apparently slain by a sword. The magician’s show is shut down, but he soon comes back with a new spectacular where he apparently summons the spirits of the deceased into his theatre. The ‘ghosts‘ include Sophie, and although Uhl is ordered to shut Eisenheim down again, he is thwarted by the illusionist’s ardent fans, his own fascination with the tricks, and a growing belief in the Viennese public’s suspicions that the Prince was responsible for Sophie’s murder.

Like Deep Impact and Armageddon, or The Full Monty and Brassed Off, The Illusionist has an obvious twin in the shape of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, since they both trade on the curious rituals of turn of the century magic shows, a time (just before moving pictures took over) when spectacular theatre could still captivate audiences. But the comparisons hold on the surface only, because whereas The Prestige asks searching questions on the themes of ambition and sacrifice, The Illusionist is content to play on the look of the magic show and use it as the background to a disappointingly shallow and predictable love story.

For while the explanation of how the illusions are performed in The Prestige is pretty far-fetched, at least it tries. The key illusion in The Illusionist is Eisenheim’s apparent summoning of spirits, including a small boy and, crucially, Sophie. The film gestures at a possible explanation using cinema projections, and there is a trick known as ’Pepper’s Ghost’ which can produce an ethereal form. What it can’t produce is anything approaching the talking, moving colour apparitions that march through Eisenheim’s theatre. The amazing rapid growth of an orange tree is also clumsily done, using CGI when, since the trick is a genuine 19th century one, a decent replica would have been far more convincing.

Furthermore, The Illusionist is encumbered with a few regrettable facets that stopped me taking the film as seriously as director Neil Burger would have liked me to. The film is shot with a warm semi-sepia glow that makes everything look nice and rosy, but much of the film feels fake, from Vienna’s uncannily clean streets to much of the facial hair on display (I know some of it is intentionally fake). The actors’ accents, too, range from Allo Allo Teutonic to plain English, sometimes within individual performances. Norton seems to be impersonating Michael Schumacher and Giamatti, his accent wandering over most of Northern Europe, actually says ‘I am an officer of the lieu’ at one point, I can only hope in homage to Clouseau.

The acting itself is up and down: Norton – Formula 1 impression notwithstanding – makes for an effectively intense showman, Giamatti displays hangdog affability and Rufus Sewell is tremendously boo-hiss, even though there’s very little nuance to his character. Biel, whom I’ve not seen before, displays a lot of lips and teeth and not much acting talent.

And then there’s the twist. We never actually see Sophie’s murder, only the drunk Crown Prince chasing her into stables and her limp body riding away on a horse. When Sophie is dragged out of the river, Uhl is only allowed a cursory inspection of her body before it’s taken away (pedants might ask ‘wot no funeral?’, but let’s not dwell). All very tragic, but ever since The Sixth Sense we’ve been primed to question what we don’t see as much as what we do; and when an illusionist just happens to be close at hand – an illusionist with a vested interest in keeping Sophie away from danger – it’s almost instinctive to go ‘hang on a minute…’ You might well be astonished by the film’s big reveal (in Wild Things-fashion, there’s a whole ‘this is how we did it’ sequence), but if you are you might want to ask yourself why you didn’t cotton on a bit sooner.

Whether or not you guess where it’s going, you can choose to look on The Illusionist as a grand romance, a quasi-mystical tale of love and ingenuity conquering all. If you do, you’ll probably like the film and enjoy Norton, Giamatti and even panto baddie Sewell’s performances. You may even tolerate Philip Glass’ incessantly busy score. You’ll certainly be a kinder and more generous soul than me, because whilst The Illusionist is pretty, it’s fundamentally tosh. Still, pretty tosh is better than ugly tosh like Giamatti’s nadir, Lady in the Water.

Robocop

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: Plucky Detroit cop Murphy tries to fight a ruthless gang of robbers single-handed, and pays with his life. This is far from the end of his story, however, as the company in control of policing have a plan to create an automated police force, and Murphy is the prime candidate to become the first of a new kind of law enforcement officer. But can Robocop uphold the law neutrally, when there are powerful self-interests at work?

The news reports from Old Detroit make for grim viewing, even though the reporters themselves are quite cheery. The city’s police force has been privatised and is now run by a huge corporation, Omni Consumer Products, who have bigger things on their mind than the under-funded, strike-minded officers who are being targeted by renowned cop-killer Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). For OCP stand to make millions from building Delta City, a shining new Phoenix from the flames, and plan to police what’s left with automated sentries. Against this backdrop, happy husband and father Murphy (Peter Weller) is transferred into the Metro West section and partnered up with Lewis (Nancy Allen); the pair are instantly pressed into action when only they respond to a robbery carried out by Boddicker’s gang, and although Lewis escapes from their factory hideaway to see another day, Murphy is cornered and downed in a hail of bullets and mocking laughter.

Back at OCP, all is not well for Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), the man in charge of creating the law-enforcing ED-209 robots; a prototype opens fire on a young board member in spite of his innocence. This opens the door for Miguel Ferrer’s weaselly underling Rob to promote his own section’s work on creating cybernetic police officers, and since OCP technically own Murphy’s body, who better to start with than the recently deceased officer? The seemingly invulnerable ‘Robocop’ is born and immediately sets to work righting wrongs in Detroit, but as he works his way up the food chain of perps towards another encounter with Boddicker, two things become apparent: firstly, the process that made Robocop has not eradicated all traces of Murphy’s memories, despite the fact that he doesn’t appear to recognise Lewis; and secondly, there’s a pretty close link between the criminals and certain individuals at OCP. Since Murphy is also linked pretty closely to OCP, there is bound to be a conflict in his programming sooner or later.

The ancestry of Robocop is easy to guess at, taking much of its DNA from Judge Dredd comic strips and James Cameron’s Terminator, with a splash of Wall Street-style 80s greed to flesh out the cops vs robbers storyline. The impact of the film, then, lies not so much in the idea as the execution, and here the director revels in glorious excess. Verhoeven has always been shockingly direct about violence, choosing to show it in explosive, exaggerated detail: why shoot someone twice when twenty times will do? I commend the directness of the style, rather than enjoy it, but the characters – whether it be Boddicker’s hyena-like crew or the hateful, vicious suits working at OCP – have a cruel streak a mile wide that heightens the viewer’s distaste for them (and our delight at their ultimate fate).

Coupled with this is a cynical humour about the decayed state of the near future (for which read ‘the present’), with adverts for board games called ‘Nukem’, satirical news stories about out-of-control space defence systems, and shows featuring lecherous old men chasing models with his catchphrase ‘I’d buy that for a dollar!’ In fact, most of the screenplay is pleasingly vicious, with the famous ‘You have twenty seconds to comply’ scene a particularly good example, Kenny’s death treated as no more than a financial setback by the other board members of OCP.

The film also tries to show a softer side, as Murphy is plagued by dreams of his old life and breaks off from crime-fighting to find out what happened to his family. Peter Weller does a good job at playing the cyborg with just a hint of desolation, and Nancy Allen provides empathy as Lewis; but you get the impression that the gentler stuff is merely a handy pause for Verhoeven between action scenes, which are generally well done despite evidence of a limited budget: the make-up and prosthetics that turn Weller into Robocop are excellent, and the ED-209s are scary despite the sometimes less-than-smooth movement of the stop-motion animation that brings them to life. Less satisfactory is the fact that Robocop is limited to moving at no more than a brisk walk, a handicap which mars the slightly disjointed climactic battle in which Boddicker’s men are picked off one by one.

Verhoeven has shown time and again (Basic Instinct, Total Recall, Starship Troopers) that films needn’t have likeable characters, big names or immaculate production values to produce exciting, visceral cinema, and in Robocop he gives us some truly despicable villains (hissably portrayed by Smith and Cox) that we subconsciously urge our reconstituted hero to bring down as painfully as possible. I don’t know whether it deserves the reputation it has in some quarters as a classic of the sci-fi action genre, because with so much bullet-ridden action to fit in, it’s rather light on the science. For this precise reason, however, it is perhaps the perfect film for a beery, blokey night in.

Meet the Fockers

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: With their wedding a few short months away, Gaylord Focker and his fiancée Pam Byrnes set out for a weekend introducing their respective parents to each other, with Pam’s nephew Little Jack in tow. The couple’s love is strong enough to withstand the clash of cultures between the Fockers’ easy lifestyle and Pam’s Dad Jack’s incessant discipline: but is it strong enough to withstand Jack’s anger at Pam being pregnant before marriage, or the news that the child may not be Gaylord’s first?

Two questions will be sufficient to answer the question ‘Is this my kind of movie?’ Firstly, are you glad Bobby De Niro has largely forsaken serious acting to enjoy himself in comedy roles? And secondly, do you find the name Gaylord Focker laugh-out-loud funny, even after two hours of hearing it? If the answer to both of these is a hearty yes, then yes, Meet the Fockers is exactly your kind of movie.

Following on from the insanely successful Meet the Parents, nurse Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller) is now accepted, if not warmly embraced, as part of Pam Byrnes’ (Teri Polo) family. As part of the wedding preparations, The Byrnes – recently-retired CIA man Jack (De Niro) and his quietly despairing wife Dina (Blythe Danner) – are due to meet Gaylord’s parents, but instead of flying into Miami they choose to drive in a state-of-the-art motorhome, taking their grandson and Pam’s nephew Little Jack along for the ride.

As big Jack is a straight-down-the-line All-American Guy, Gaylord’s a bit worried about how he will react to his parents, and with good reason; his father Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) is a touchy-feely former househusband who celebrates his son’s mediocrity, and his wife Roz (Barbra Streisand) an even more touchy-feely geriatric sex therapist. Between their different outlooks on life, sex, self-expression and parenting, and the Byrnes’ cat and the Fockers’ over-sexed dog, the collision of worlds could hardly be more violent – and that’s before Isabel the housekeeper shows up, Gaylord’s first sexual partner and mother to a familiar-looking son who sets Jack’s investigative senses tingling. In the midst of all this, Jack is oblivious to the fact that his darling daughter is expecting her own child: and nobody wants to break the news.

The potential for humour in having heavyweights like De Niro and Hoffman play out the battle of competing ideologies is massive, so it’s a huge disappointment that the film fails to use them properly. While De Niro’s deadpan toughness from the first film is undermined with indignities such as wearing a prosthetic breast (to feed little Jack) and having Barbra Streisand on top of him attempting to pummel away his stress, Hoffman is allowed to get away with such a loose, free-wheeling performance that you expect him to wink at the camera every time he’s on screen. Worse, the culture clash is constantly broken up by crass comedy, such as the Fockers’ dog humping Dina’s foot or Little Jack’s Einstein puppet, or in a supposed highlight getting flushed down a portaloo by the cat, causing everyone to get covered in blue stuff.

Consider also the scene that ends with Stiller falling backwards off a chair, and the one featuring Hoffman falling backwards over a table, and you have some idea of how hard the writers worked to craft the jokes – and that’s not even counting the non-stop sniggering about Gaylord’s name or profession (alright, I’ll admit it, I did laugh at the ‘Wall of Gaylord’ and Pam becoming Pamela Martha Focker, but that’s it).

Even if you find old foreskins falling in the fondue or Hoffman mid-evacuation on the toilet comedy gold, you will probably find the plot over-burdened. In addition to all the culture-clash stuff we have Pam announcing she’s pregnant and the whole subplot of bosomy housekeeper Isabel and Jorge’s parentage, finally giving Jack the chance to unleash his CIA gadgets as he tries to prove Gaylord’s the father. On top of this there’s Roz’s determination to put the spark back into Jack and Dina’s moribund love-life; and on top of that is the presence of Little Jack, big Jack’s determination to bring him up in a certain way and Gaylord accidentally presenting him with his first word: ‘asshole.’

No doubt the child was put into the script with the idea of his innocent rudeness and facial reactions being adorably cute and funny, but I found him an unnecessary contrivance which added little to an already lumbering film. Meet the Fockers is far too long for a comedy and Roach would have been well-advised to lose little Jack at an early stage – though that would have cost him the De Niro breast gag. Even so, he could have easily cut quarter of an hour (most of the circle of trust stuff, the unfunny arrest/Taser sequence) and improved the pacing of the film markedly.

I haven’t mentioned Ben Stiller, and although he only gets to ‘do’ crazy when he’s slipped a dose of truth serum (or truth and crassness serum, as it seems to be), he is a solid and amiable presence. Unfortunately for Polo, the role of Pam is consistently thankless, since she’s hopelessly forgiving no matter what happens, but both she and Blythe Danner as her mother hinge the film in reality, while Barbra Streisand is surprisingly believable as Mrs Focker (though this is in the context of Hoffman’s antics). Luke Wilson also briefly reprises his role from Meet the Parents and is quite funny, though not because of anything he’s given to say.

And this is the major frustration with Meet the Fockers: it’s okay, but with the quality of actor available it’s a crime that the film lets Hollywood superstars do as they please with such cheap and uninspired jokes. Though this perhaps explains the performances of De Niro and Hoffman, the former not breaking sweat and the latter playing the fool: without them, the movie’s barely worth seeing at all.