Monthly Archives: February 2017

Cursed

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: When siblings Ellie and Jimmy encounter a werewolf in Los Angeles and come off second best, they bear their scars in different ways. While student Jimmy finds a use for his new-found strength, Ellie struggles to come to terms with uncommonly powerful urges, all the while trying to maintain normality in her job and her relationship with unreliable boyfriend Jake.

There’s a beast loose in the L.A. hills, and it causes TV producer Ellie (Christina Ricci), travelling with nerdish brother Jimmy (Jesse Eisenberg), to hit the car of unfortunate young Becky (Shannon Elizabeth). Jimmy and Ellie try to rescue Becky but the creature drags her away, wounding Ellie and Jimmy in the process. The authorities write the incident off as an attack by a mountain lion, but Jimmy’s not convinced, and his research convinces him that they’ve been attacked by a werewolf.

Further proof comes when marks appear on his hands, and he’s suddenly able to humiliate former bully Bo (Milo Ventimiglia) in wrestling, in front of Bo’s girlfriend Brooke (Kristina Anapu). Meanwhile, Ellie has issues with her boyfriend, nightclub designer and ladykiller Jake (Joshua Jackson), and work trouble with Scott Baio’s pushy PA Joanie (Judy Greer), so a sudden bloodlust – and the more usual kind of lust – is something she could well do without.

However much she tries to deny the curse, Ellie can’t escape the evidence: but what to do about it? Well, as Portia de Rossi’s solemn psychic tells her, the only cure is to kill the beast; and there seems to be no shortage of candidates as to who it might be – not Chachi, surely?!

Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson’s Scream – financially, at least – did the horror genre a huge favour. Essentially, it laid the cards on the table, said ‘look, we know we work to a formula, that we use sudden scares, loud music and fake-outs to get reactions; we acknowledge and embrace these conventions, so turn off the VHS, come back to the cinema, sit back and let us scare the living daylights out of you.’ Having come clean, horror films were free to be as generic as they liked, since in the background the filmmakers were winking at the audience to say, ‘yeah, we know.’ With Cursed, Craven and Williamson turn their attention from the slasher genre to the werewolf movie – and pretty much fall flat on their faces.

The reasons for this are numerous. Firstly, it’s an entirely predictable exercise in bringing elements of werewolf lore to Los Angeles (which apparently enjoys a perpetual full moon, though new werewolves are affected by the moon in confusingly variable ways). Even if it is filtered through a post-Scream sensibility, the plot feels lazy, combining Ellie’s confused feelings with Jimmy’s Teenwolf-like adventures as they try to track down the original beast (I won’t reveal what happens here, but a) it doesn’t matter much and b) your first guess will probably be right).

But the main problem is that Cursed simply doesn’t deliver on what it needs to. It’s obvious that the gore has been toned down – not necessarily by Craven, I understand – to cater for a younger audience, which is fine; but it mixes computer-generated monsters (including a nasty version of Jimmy’s faithful dog Zipper) with men in wolf costumes, making neither look very good. Amazingly clever though the technology is, virtual creatures never feel real enough to be scary, and the effects here are not a patch on the transformations Rick Baker produced in the vastly superior An American Werewolf in London. Not once was I remotely grossed out or shocked, and the supposedly comic moments (eg. the beast giving police the finger) also felt misjudged.

Cursed also suggests that lycanthropy has certain fringe benefits for your sex life, but the age rating means that this too is toned down, neither Elizabeth, Mya (as pretty victim #2) nor Ricci giving much in the way of sexual heat or animal passion. Ricci acts gamely but isn’t right for the role, being neither a Rose McGowan-type hussy nor a Neve Campbell-like fighter, her occasionally whiny voice not suited to anger or shouting.

Eisenberg, acting dorky, comes off much better, and it’s fun to see him using the internet in the light of his later role in The Social Network; but he’s given nothing original to do, except perhaps fight off some unwanted attentions from an unexpected party. The rest of the cast are perfectly alright, Jackson appearing suitably ambiguous – is he a concerned partner, a scumbag lothario, or worse? – and it was quite nice to see Scott Baio send himself up. But if Scott Baio’s the highlight of your movie, you know you’re in trouble. Portia de Rossi, by the way, is completely wasted in a role that does nothing but explain the plot.

Ironically, Cursed was apparently cursed with production problems, and it shows. There’s definite mileage in a film called Teenwolves in L.A., either as a full-blooded horror or a knowing comedy: Eisenberg could no doubt handle both, as could both writer and director. However, this mushy, mediocre compromise is unlikely to satisfy anyone’s tastes. Avoid and – if you’re old enough – seek out John Landis’ masterful wolf movie instead.

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: When cartoon prop-provider Marvin Acme is murdered, suspicion falls upon Roger Rabbit, clumsy Toon and jealous husband of voluptuous chanteuse Jessica. Brought in to take incriminating photos of Marvin and Jessica, private dick Eddie Valiant has personal reasons for ignoring Roger’s desperate pleas for help; however, something about the case – most importantly Acme’s missing will – lures Valiant away from the bottle and into the path of the terrifying Judge Doom.

It’s 1947, Tinseltown’s Golden Age of animation; cartoon stars like Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) work cheek by jowl with the humans and live a short ride away in nearby Toontown. Once upon a time, private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) was a reliable pal of the Toons, but since one of their number dropped a piano on his brother Teddy’s head, he’s steered clear of them to concentrate on boozing his life away, much to the dismay of sometime ladyfriend Dolores (Joanna Cassidy).

So it’s with little enthusiasm that Eddie accepts a job from studio boss R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) to tail Roger’s comely wife Jessica (Betsy Brantley’s movements, Kathleen Turner when speaking and Amy Irving when singing Why Don’t You Do Right?) to see if she’s playing around with Toontown’s owner Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye); and even though he’s knocked out by Jessica’s seductive allure, Eddie takes little pleasure in passing on photos of the pair playing pattycake.

The next day, Acme turns up dead and the finger points at Roger, making him a target for Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), an intimidating lawmaker with a gang of vicious weasels and barrels full of Toon-erasing ‘dip’ that he’s itching to use. Initially, Roger’s pleas to Eddie to help fall on deaf ears; but Roger’s such an unlikely murderer that the detective starts asking questions, especially about Jessica’s part in the crime. He needs answers fast, because by midnight Toontown will belong to the shadowy Cloverleaf Industries – unless Acme’s missing will turns up and reveals the rightful inheritors.

Let’s get the easy bits out of the way first. Firstly, whether you’re nostalgic about the cartoons or not, it’s such a joy to see so many famous characters sharing the same screen that the odd omission – no Popeye? – hardly matters. From Fleischer studios we have Betty Boop; from Tex Avery, Droopy; from Walter Lantz, Woody Woodpecker; from Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes there’s a host: Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and cameos from the likes of Tweety Pie and Yosemite Sam; and there’s naturally a generous complement of Disney’s finest, including Mickey Mouse, Dumbo, several Dwarves and most of the cast of Fantasia. Although (as I’ve said elsewhere) I have no particular affection for Mickey or his friends, it would be foolish to ignore their vital place in animation history; furthermore, the sequence between Donald and Daffy Duck is a brilliant reminder of what cartoons can do at their best.

Secondly, the film is assembled with great skill. Films combining animation and live action are far from new, of course – Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks come to mind – but Roger Rabbit takes the concept to new levels of interaction, using puppetry to move solid objects around in a pleasingly three dimensional way (though some computer wizardry is no doubt used here, another year or two and the whole thing would’ve been done with soulless CGI). There’s also a lovely contrast when Valiant visits Toontown and becomes the sole ‘real’ character in a crazy cartoon world.

Hoskins is perfectly cast as Valiant, heavyweight enough to convince as a world-weary private eye (a beautifully economical sweep of the office fills us in on his past), yet nimble enough to play the clown when necessary, while Lloyd makes for a terrifying Judge Doom and Cassidy provides a robust love interest. Mel Blanc is thankfully on hand to provide Bugs and co. with their voices, while Kathleen Turner oozes danger and passion as Jessica, not least in the immortal line “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way”. Charles Fleischer makes Roger an endearingly screwy optimist, though you might argue that he’s close to being sidelined in his own movie.

So what’s not to like? Well, there’s the tricky issue of the film’s tone. Who Framed Roger Rabbit leans heavily on corruption movies such as Gilda and Chinatown, and while this movie isn’t as brutal as the latter, it’s certainly not without violence – and I don’t just mean the cartoon violence dished out to Roger by Baby Herman. Maroon gets shot in the back – twice – while Doom’s execution of a cute cartoon shoe, leaving the Judge with a blood-red glove, is so disturbing that it’s always cut from television broadcasts.

More troubling, perhaps, is Jessica’s irrepressible sensuality; it’s natural for a cartoon to emphasise prominent features, but Jessica’s body shape and sultry manner are not exactly kiddie-friendly (Baby Herman, not a character I particularly like, also makes a tasteless sexual joke). She was certainly too hot for Disney, who shifted the film to its Touchstone division because of its risqué content.

On the whole, though, the movie gets it right: better to anticipate a discerning audience (and let TV cut bits out if they wish) than play safe and have the film turn out twee and saccharine; who says cartoons have to be for kids anyway? However, parents of younger children charmed by Roger’s inoffensiveness should be aware that the film has a few distinctly adult moments, Lloyd’s intense performance in particular containing plenty of nightmare fuel.

Much more than just a work of technical prowess, Who Framed Roger Rabbit stands as a loving tribute to Hollywood animation, with a decent film noir story and some surprisingly adult elements. Time only adds to its reputation: subsequent failures Space Jam and Looney Tunes: Back in Action have proven how tricky it can be to get live-action/animation movies right. Personally, I think it’s a shame that Robert Zemeckis has moved on to working with motion-capture; Roger Rabbit may be overly scary and overtly sexy at times, but most of Polar Express is a lot more disturbing than this funny and exciting offering.

The Shawshank Redemption

WFTB Score: 17/20

The plot: Given two life sentences for murders he insists he didn’t commit, banker Andy Dufresne looks for ways to make his existence in prison bearable. While his professional skills make him useful to the warden, they bring him no closer to freedom. Andy turns to ‘fixer’ Red to obtain some products which will make his time more productive.

Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), discovering that his wife is having an affair with a golf pro, takes matters into his own hands and kills them both. At least, that’s the verdict the jury arrive at at his trial, resulting in two life sentences to be served at Shawshank jail. To begin with, Andy’s overwhelmed, his rough treatment at the hands of “the sisters” causing him to be pitied by long-term inmate Ellis Redding (Morgan Freeman), known as Red – especially since neither brutal guard Hadley (Clancy Brown) nor warden Norton (Bob Gunton) have the slightest concern for their charges’ welfare.

Andy strikes up a friendship with Red and uses the older man’s facility for smuggling items into prison to obtain a rock hammer and, later, a poster of Rita Hayworth, while Andy’s own skills at moving money around become increasingly useful to the guards and especially to the warden, who amasses a small fortune from Andy’s efforts. Little wonder, then, that while Norton indulges Andy’s efforts to improve the prison library – named after tragic old lag Brooks (James Whitmore) – he’s reluctant to let Andy go, even when newcomer Tommy (Gil Bellows) appears to offer Andy grounds for appeal. Nonetheless, Andy maintains his hope, his dignity, and a plan in which Red becomes a key player.

If it’s a self-evident truth that a film about a man living a regular, uneventful, troubled life would offer little to audiences, it’s reasonable to believe that the opposite – a protagonist going from the degrading depths of imprisoned despair to the exhilarating joys of freedom – would offer an enormous amount; especially if the imprisonment and despair are caused by injustices, some more calculated than others.

The huge gulf between the peaks and troughs of Andy’s journey inform the viewer’s own experience of The Shawshank Redemption, guided by the terrific storytelling abilities of Stephen King and Frank Darabont. We instinctively understand the parallels between Red’s repeated parole hearings and Brooks’ short-lived freedom; we instinctively react to Andy’s care of Tommy, and the way Andy’s glimpse of freedom is dashed by vile, violent corruption. We also appreciate a number of beautiful and memorable moments, such as Andy broadcasting The Marriage of Figaro to stunned inmates or the revelation of Andy’s plan, the swells of emotion emphasised by Thomas Newman’s excellent score.

Overarching the whole film is Andy’s quiet stoicism, his insistence on retaining hope while others are prepared to throw in the towel: not only does he sustain himself, he inspires Red, Tommy and dozens of others who benefit from his efforts to make the library – and the prison – a true place of redemption. The theme ‘Get busy living, or get busy dying’ shines through; and while the super-happy ending is undeniably over-the-top, it feels right given the decades of pain Andy has suffered.

At least as important is the credible and heart-warming friendship between Andy and Red. Tim Robbins keeps Andy’s secrets well-hidden, whilst Freeman is simply magnificent as Red, his good humour and wisdom covering up his own pain at being constantly overlooked for parole – who wouldn’t want a friend as resourceful and philosophical as the old jailbird?

That said, these strong, archetypal performances also hint at why I can’t agree with the voters of IMDB who routinely put this film at the top of the Top 250. Andy always seems a little too much in control, maintaining his icy composure even as terrible things are done to him. And while it’s by no means to the detriment of this film, the laconic Morgan Freeman voiceover has now become such a cliché that it’s difficult to hear without a small roll of the eyes.

More damagingly, there’s very little shading to the villains of the piece: Norton hides his sins behind outward adherence to the Good Book, while Kurgan Hadley is a trademark thug with almost no redeeming features, apart from keeping his word in respect of the beers. Anyone who’s seen an episode of Porridge could tell you that the screws are the enemies and the lags the good guys, regardless of their crimes.

That last observation may be facetious, but it cuts to the heart of what I feel about The Shawshank Redemption. In terms of subject, theme, script, score, performance, cinematography and so on, it doesn’t put a foot wrong; and if you’re not thoroughly moved by Andy and Red’s (eventually) uplifting travails, there’s probably something wrong with you. On the other hand, it really doesn’t tell you much you haven’t seen before, and there’s just a whiff of misplaced mawkishness about its (slightly) simplistic sentimentality and the way it doles out of karmic justice at its climax. Handsome? Of course. Touching? Absolutely. Best film ever? For me, far from it.

Inglourious Basterds

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: A band of gung-ho Jewish-American soldiers take the fight to Hitler’s Nazis in the occupied France of 1944. Tales of their brutal exploits reach the ears of Hitler, who has every right to be concerned: he’s due to attend the premiere of Goebbels’ latest propaganda piece, and it’s not just the ‘Basterds’ who want to sabotage the event. Just as well that the Führer has the bloodhound-like Hans Landa – aka the ‘Jew Hunter’ – on his side.

Nazi-occupied France in 1941 is no place to be harbouring Jews, especially with the notorious ‘Jew Hunter’ Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) on the case. When Landa re-visits the farm of Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet), he senses and kills the hidden Dreyfus family, but young Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) manages to flee with her life. Three years later, Shosanna is running a Paris cinema under a pseudonym and catches the eye of Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German war hero whose exploits have been made into a film, Nation’s Pride, by Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Zoller petitions for the film to be premiered at Shosanna’s cinema and when Landa turns up to assist with the evening, she redoubles her own plans to turn the night into a Nazi bloodbath.

Meanwhile, a crack unit of Jewish Americans under the leadership of Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is terrorising rank-and-file German soldiers, their fears multiplied by legends of the ‘Bear Jew’ Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) and the ‘Inglourious Basterds’’ recruitment of homicidal Nazi-killer Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger). They become involved in Operation Kino, a plan hatched by the British Army to get Lt Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) into the premiere alongside actress/double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger); their meeting doesn’t exactly go to plan, but Raine decides that he must attend the premiere with Bridget, Donny and nervous Omar (Omar Doom). After all, Adolf Hitler is rumoured to be coming, and what better Nazi scalp could there be than der Führer?

There are very few things I can say with complete confidence about Inglourious Basterds, not being a connoisseur of War movies – specifically, not having seen The Dirty Dozen or the Italian knock-off/homage which lends this film its odd title. What I do know is that Tarantino knows his films, and I’m sure that the vast majority of Basterds’ movie references flew right over my head as I watched; but I can still give an opinion on the piece, and my immediate verdict is ‘not overly struck’.

It’s a shame, because in places there’s plenty to admire. Since it’s driven by cinema, the climax taking place in one, the plot is unsurprisingly sure-footed; the style is confident, too, the camerawork fluidly swooping over the heads of our characters, the violence explicit and visceral when it arrives. Tarantino boldly presents an alternative, movie-bound universe where Hitler can be shot to pieces in 1944 by brave Yanks and although we know that’s not what actually happened, we accept it as part of the conceit of World War II seen – and heard – as Revenge Western.

The universally-feted Waltz is terrific, but he is merely the standout in a host of strong performances: Pitt is (in)gloriously brash, while Fassbender’s Hicox is convincing (until his fatal mistake) and both female leads, Kruger and Laurent, are very strong.

So what’s my problem? Well, there are a few. Firstly, Tarantino has storytelling issues. The film essentially runs three story strands simultaneously: Raine’s Basterds, von Hammersmark’s role in Operation Kino, and Shosanna’s retribution (pitched against any or all of Landa, Hitler, and the Nazis in general). While these strands physically converge at the film’s climax, they never become contingent; would Hitler and his cronies not have perished in the fire anyway, regardless of Donny and Omar’s bullets?

Perhaps because of this, Inglourious Basterds comes over as disconnected, a self-conscious construct rather than a credible fiction, a film made by someone expert in World War II movies but ignorant of – and caring little about – the war itself. The lack of resonance with historical facts means that despite impressive set decoration, costumery and so on, the film never feels as real as Valkyrie or even Mother Night. And since I’ve mentioned some strong acting performances, I should also point out that Mike Myers’ English General is lousy, Rod Taylor is the worst screen Churchill you’ll ever see, and Martin Wuttke’s Hitler isn’t much cop either.

Secondly, it’s not as if everything about the story works. The queasy comedy of Raine, Donowitz and Omar posing as Italians at the premiere of Nation’s Pride just doesn’t work: not only is it not funny, someone would surely have had them shot, or at least got the high-ranking Nazis out of harm’s way, as soon as it was discovered that they were frauds (ie. immediately). But as we are reminded at every single moment, this is a cinematic construct, not a true history. There are also some directorial tics that I didn’t enjoy: the eclectic soundtrack, which shoehorns a Bowie track (from another film) into a WWII drama; or the silly arrows pointing out infamous Nazis in the cinema.

However – and thirdly – perhaps Inglourious Basterds’ biggest failing is Tarantino’s self-indulgence. He’s evidently testing his own mettle, and the patience of his audience, by stretching out a number of key scenes to the point where they become tiresome, deliberately daring the viewer to lose confidence in the scene before the inevitable explosion of violence arrives. If you’re absolutely caught up in the drama, this technique is potentially effective; I merely got bored.

There is, as I say, much to applaud in many of the scenes, especially the opening encounter between Landa and M. LaPadite and the tense meeting in the cellar between von Hammersmark and Hicox, which swirls intriguingly between outwardly celebratory parties of protagonists who all have their own interesting sub-plots. However, each scene could have lost at least a third of its running time without harming the film one bit.

I don’t quite know what Quentin was hoping to achieve by making so many of the scenes in Inglourious Basterds as long as they are. He may have been allowing them room to breathe, in which case the writing’s not as strong as it needs to be (it certainly lacks the snap of his earlier work); or he may have simply been showing off, in which case he’s literally wasting our time. Whatever, I got fed up with the film’s empty machismo, its absurd fantasy that the Americans would’ve shown Hitler what for if only they’d sent “the boys” over to do the job.

That said, I didn’t dislike Inglourious Basterds at all, because although it’s self-indulgent and overlong, Tarantino’s talent – with a big helping hand from Waltz – comes through. However, people with a deeper investment in the conflict may feel he’s being thoroughly disrespectful; those with a shorter attention span may just switch off instead.

Field of Dreams

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Iowan farmer Ray Kinsella does the bidding of a mysterious voice he hears in his fields and builds a baseball diamond, which is soon inhabited by ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson and other ghosts of players past. However, building the park is just the start of a voyage which introduces Ray to intriguing characters, both living and dead – to the potential detriment of his family’s financial prospects.

‘If you build it, he will come.’ So says a persistent voice in the head of Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), who is also troubled by visions of a baseball field taking the place of much of the corn on his farm. Ray’s wife Annie (Amy Madigan) and daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffmann) are surprisingly supportive when Ray tells them what he has been tasked to do, and they create the pitch, complete with bleachers* and floodlights, even though the project wipes out their savings and reduces the yield of their land.

Before long, Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) turns up, bringing along the rest of the infamous, disgraced Chicago White Sox team of 1919; yet the voice is not finished with Ray, and following an ambiguous command to ‘ease his pain’, he sets off for Boston to meet retired writer Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones), a leading light of the 60s who has become embittered and reclusive. Luckily, the pair bond over baseball and they both witness the lowly statistics for Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham flashing up at Fenway Park.

Ray meets ‘Doc’ Graham (Burt Lancaster) despite the fact that he’s been dead for some time, but fails to tempt him back to Iowa to play with legends; however, on the road Ray and Terry meet up with a young Archie (Frank Whaley) who joins the ever-growing roster of players on the farm. The only problem is, as Annie’s brother Mark (Timothy Busfield) is at pains to point out, a field full of ghosts hardly anyone can see doesn’t exactly rake in the cash.

A sentimental, fantastical tale of characters searching for redemption, filmed in the golden, glowing light of countless Iowan sunsets, was always destined to be cornier than the fields in which Ray unquestioningly builds his diamond – and that’s without the father-son issues running riot through the movie or the climactic drama which unfolds around long-haired moppet Karin. However, Field of Dreams miraculously spins its magical yarn without drowning in treacle or feeling overly glib (Tom Hanks, originally offered the part of Ray Kinsella, would surely have given the film an inappropriately comic sensibility).

Part of the reason is the film’s unfussy acceptance of the supernatural, which helps us to absorb the fantastical element of the story and understand why Ray’s wife goes along with his plans, rather than packing him straight off to the doctor – there’s a clever reference to Harvey too. Another part is the sturdy acting of all concerned: Costner is very good as the ordinary man driven to do extraordinary things by forces he doesn’t understand, while Madigan is almost his equal as Annie, her acquiescence driven by a free-spirited belief in following her instinct, rather than a simpering determination to stand by her man.

‘Okay…’, I hear you say, ‘but a two-hour movie about dead baseball players? Really?’ Were Field of Dreams adequately summarised this way, I would agree; however, Robinson’s film (really, W.P. Kinsella’s story) cannily escapes the confines of the sport during Ray’s journey to find Terrence Mann, and James Earl Jones plays the part with gravity, aggression, humour and intelligence, offsetting Costner’s earnest pursuits.

Together with the touching story of ‘Moonlight’ Graham’s frustratingly abridged career, the film builds up to an emotional climax which works well, even if you don’t buy Mann’s emotive description of baseball as a metaphor for the American nation. Field of Dreams transcends its subject and reveals itself as a moving meditation on choices, loss and regret; subjects that will inevitably have some reaching for sick bags, but for many a slice of satisfyingly tear-jerking wish-fulfilment – and that’s without the final reveal which sends the whole thing over the top.

The story, the golden light and James Horner’s pretty score are all plentiful compensation for elements that don’t hang together so well, such as the cheap presence of Busfield as Annie’s money-minded brother representing ‘The Man’, all the baby boomer stuff about the 60s, or the jarring time-travel mechanics when Ray meets Doc Graham in 1972.

I’m completely lukewarm about baseball and the American Midwest, but I really liked Field of Dreams. It is by definition unrealistic, and in the end exists only to tug at the heartstrings as hard as it can. On the other hand, there are a host of warm performances from the likes of Liotta, Lancaster, Whaley, Madigan, Hoffmann and especially Costner, before he became the all-conquering hero of Dances with Wolves and the egomaniacal spender of other people’s money on guff like Waterworld and The Postman. He’s no Jimmy Stewart, and Field of Dreams is no It’s a Wonderful Life, but as fantasies go this is one of the finest to emanate from Hollywood in many years.

NOTES: Seats, for non-American audiences. I know, I thought ‘seats’ was a perfectly good word too.

Jesus Christ Superstar

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Among the ruins, a group of actors recreate the last days of Jesus Christ, detailing his rise to glory and his betrayal to the priests by rogue disciple Judas Iscariot. From Judas’ point of view, however, the circus around Jesus is getting out of hand and needlessly messianic. And what kind of betrayal is it when the man to be betrayed appears fully aware, if not fully accepting, of his fate?

A bus pulls up at the historic city of Avdat and disgorges its passengers, a hippyish bunch of actors who proceed to get into gear and character. Roles established, Carl Anderson bursts into song as Judas, outraged that the movement set up by Ted Neeley’s Jesus has been hijacked not only by people who hail him as the New Messiah, but also by his unseemly love for Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman).

The roar of the crowd reaches the disquieted ears of priests Caiaphas and Annas (Bob Bingham and Kurt Yaghjian), and Caiaphas decides that Jesus must be eliminated; however, how to get hold of him through the surrounding disciples and crowds? Judas may provide the answer, though detention alone doesn’t get rid of Jesus; for neither Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate (Barry Dennen) nor King Herod (Joshua Mostel) want to deal with him. Meanwhile, Jesus knows what’s coming but still questions why he has been chosen to redeem mankind.

You might imagine, when filming a musical, that if you get the music to sound as good as it can, you’ve more or less won the battle; and by extension, that Jesus Christ Superstar is a much better film than Ken Russell’s Tommy. Jewison’s film does get the music right; it’s left virtually intact from the concept album, feeling surprisingly, authentically rocky for Andrew Lloyd Webber and containing powerful songs in Heaven on Their Minds, Everything’s Alright, I Don’t Know How to Love Him, Simon Zealotes and the show-stopping title number, plus Jesus’ outstanding Gethsemane.

As with Evita, the linking recitative sections are weaker, but on the whole this is Lloyd Webber writing at his best, that is to say in his own style rather than pastiching others. The singing is strong too, Anderson possessing a fine, growling voice and Neeley a great falsetto, even if his tight vibrato won’t please everyone. Elliman, the original Magdalene from the 1970 concept album, fills the role with emotion and Bingham, Dennen (another original performer) and Larry Marshall as Simon Zealotes are all very effective.

Then there’s the controversy of the plot, which (of course) predates Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code by decades. Tim Rice’s lyrics don’t focus specifically on the question of Jesus’ divinity, but they certainly raise the issue (‘No talk of God then, we called you a man’). More incendiary is the paradox of Judas’ betrayal: if Jesus had to die, then it must have been God’s will for someone to betray him – and therefore Judas was little more than a patsy (‘I’ve been used!’ he screams). Or perhaps Jesus is the one being used? For many, many reasons*, I don’t propose to have the theological debate here; what I will say is that Jesus Christ Superstar intelligently asks provocative questions in an accessible and entertaining format.

Or at least, it should. I come back to the assertion that you get the music right and the rest of the film follows – it’s simply not true. It was an interesting ploy to film Jesus Christ Superstar on rudimentary sets not far from where the biblical action took place, but on the screen it looks for the most part like a scattering of people lost in the middle of the desert in curious outfits (what are those bulb things on the priests’ heads?). It’s also fairly obvious that the actors are not over-familiar with being filmed, because the passion in the voices is not always entirely reflected in the face and body motions – Anderson in particular has a strange habit of flinging his hands behind him like a ski-jumper.

There’s a slight disconnect between the soundtrack and the visuals, the former having been created (one assumes) for the latter to follow. Worse, there are simply not enough visuals to fill the time, so Jewison (who, with Melvyn Bragg, has the gall to take a screenplay credit) is forced to rely on slo-motion and freeze-frame gimmicks while dancers fling themselves about in the hippy-dippy style of Hair or Godspell.

And while there are occasional nods to modern (local?) troubles – a few tanks, fighter planes and the selling of guns and hand grenades in the temple, the significance of these is never explained or put into context. My abiding memory is that of Our Lord pushing over two postcard racks (or possibly the same one, twice).

What counts most against Jesus Christ Superstar is that it simply doesn’t work as a piece of storytelling. Jesus is far too passive, especially during the second half where he is carted around from Caiaphas to Pilate to Herod and finally back to Pilate. He’s reduced to being a stationary figure who sings occasionally, but he’s far from the only one. Jewison’s efforts to liven things up include the ghastly mega-camp treatment of King Herod’s Song, Mostel’s mediocre singing only adding to the scene’s many woes (Jesus wisely stands at a distance, looking vaguely pained but reassured that the song’s only three minutes long). Even the ballsy title track verges on the borders of camp and kitsch, saved only by Judas’ throaty vocals.

Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar has some purpose, a record of the show as it might have looked in the 1970s. It’s not, however, a film that lives long in the memory and is unlikely to win many converts to the musical. Its lasting legacy will be its soundtrack, which brings across the passion of the piece without the dilution of the bland and often misguided visuals.

NOTES: Most of them involving the phrase ‘blind ignorance’.

Spider-Man 3

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Peter Parker, man behind the man of the moment, has everything going his way: a beautiful girlfriend and a super-hero identity which has finally earned him adulation from the people of New York. But his self-satisfaction, aided by a mysterious extra-terrestrial force, threatens to engulf him; and that’s not to mention the other villains that continue to trouble the city.

Following the massive critical and commercial success of Spider-Man 2, director and co-writer Sam Raimi could probably be forgiven for thinking that the public would go with him whatever direction he took the Spidey franchise. However, reaction to this latest effort showed that – like the web-slinging wonder himself – you only need to put one foot wrong for everyone to turn on you.

The action continues with a re-cap of the first film over the credits and events following on from the second: Peter (Tobey Maguire) is now in college and in a relationship with Mary-Jane (Kirsten Dunst), herself taking to the Broadway stage for the first time. Peter seems to have achieved a balance between his normal life and his masked one, with MJ now aware of his identity; even his enmity with former friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) is overcome after an early battle which results in Harry – a part time New Goblin – suffering from amnesia.

However, such are things in Spidey’s world, a new threat to the city emerges in the shape of a petty criminal who (entirely revising the events of Spider-Man) is transformed by a particle testing machine into the constantly-shifting Sandman (Thomas Haden Church). It’s handy that he appears, really, because otherwise the facility would merely have been blasting sand for no reason. But I digress.

Pride threatens to over-run Peter too, when he is awarded the key to the city after a dramatic rescue of police chief’s daughter Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) from a skyscraper-destroying crane accident and takes – in front of MJ, mind you – an upside-down kiss from her. Even though he has thoughts of marriage on his mind, Peter is too full of his own achievements to care about what’s going on in MJ’s life, and his attitude is intensified when a sticky black compound, fallen from a meteoroid earlier in the film, infects one of his suits and brings out a cruel, arrogant streak.

Peter uses his new meanness to embarrass rival photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), humiliate MJ by dating Gwen in front of her, and – when Harry suddenly regains his memory, and his father’s advice, after stealing a kiss from MJ herself – defeat the New Goblin, callously hurling a bomb at him which messes up his face. Spider-Man also deals with Sandman, but he is resistant to being washed away and regroups himself for a joint attack on the town in conjunction with a terrifying new villain. And – poor MJ – you just know who the lure is going to be to get Spidey to turn up.

As you will gather, this is not the simplest of plots, featuring the New Goblin, Sandman and Venom in addition to the self-conflict brought about by the black goo from beyond. It could have worked, too, but the plot is scattered all over the place and the pacing of the film is completely off. Villains appear and disappear almost at will, so you’re never quite sure how threatened Peter is supposed to be.

Although the black stuff – the major selling point of the film, remember – turns up early, it is over an hour before Peter feels the effects of it, and its main effect seems to be on his fringe; and the film’s method of disposing of it feels distinctly unsatisfactory, during a climax which has no build up at all but is suddenly thrust onto the screen.

Even the main driver of the film, Peter’s precarious relationship with Mary-Jane, swerves all over the place, Peter acting like an arrogant fool long before the black gunge has a chance to take control. I couldn’t help feeling, too, after Spider-Man 2’s love versus super-heroism tussle which inevitably brought Superman II to mind, that Spidey fighting (albeit not literally) with an ‘evil’ version of himself in the third instalment was a somewhat blatant borrow.

What irritates more than any of this, however, is the way the plot is brought to the screen. Raimi is apparently adamant that his characters should be seen to dance whenever possible, having MJ and Harry do a cosy little twist routine before their guilty kiss, and having Peter dance a sultry routine with Gwen at the jazz club where MJ is forced to work when her Broadway dream evaporates. Both routines add very little to characterisation or story, and if they are meant to be light moments they are misjudged.

The same is true of Bruce Campbell’s John Cleese-like appearance as a comic French maitre d’ when Peter plans his proposal; though the scene has its moments, the comedy is too broad for the rest of the film. Rather than the plot growing organically, Spider-Man 3 feels as though it has been written in lumps, with action bits tacked onto romantic bits and awkward linking scenes filling the gaps, meaning talented actors like Rosemary Harris (as Aunt May), James Cromwell (as the police chief/Gwen’s Dad) and Dylan Baker (Parker’s lecturer) are reduced to plot-churning bit-parts.

And quite why Lucy Gordon’s news reporter is considered necessary at all is beyond me; with the first sequel trusting the audience’s intelligence, this character insults it by stating the bleeding obvious in an out-of-place accent. Thank Heavens, then, for J. K. Simmons as brutal Daily Bugle editor JJ Jameson. His brusque humour livens up the film no end and the scene with his juddering intercom was, for me, the highlight of the film.

The unique feature of Spider-Man (in recent film form, at least) has always been the evident humanity of both our hero and his adversaries; Spider-Man 3 takes this idea to stretching point and beyond. When Harry, with his memory intact and disfigured at Peter’s hands, has more reason than ever to despise him, he suddenly decides to join forces with him; and Sandman, whose vengeance has survived the (you might expect final) dispersal of his parts into the river, suddenly finds his love for his daughter overpowering, and with a humble apology floats off with the wind, to where one knows not. Alfred Molina’s selflessness was touching, but in these characters the decisions seem illogical.

Strange though it may seem, none of the above leads me to the conclusion that this is a bad film. The lead actors are effective in their roles and the action sequences are a blast, the CGI work having improved markedly since the first film (Sandman is particularly impressive). Yes, it’s long, but it has a lot of story to tell. The real disappointment is that with all the resources available, a little more effort didn’t go into tightening up the plot and script to make the third Spider-Man instalment as consistently gripping as the second.