Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Rock

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: A renegade unit of Marines take hostages on Alcatraz with the aim of gaining justice for their fallen comrades, their demands backed up by stolen VX nerve gas pointed at San Francisco. The only way to prevent an outrage is for chemical expert Stanley Goodspeed to break into the jail, but that seems an impossible task given that no-one has ever broken out. At least, that’s the official story…

Beatle-loving FBI agent Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) has a stressful afternoon as the bureau’s foremost chemical weapons expert, and his day is made no calmer by his girlfriend Carla’s (Vanessa Marcil) news that she is pregnant, or her subsequent proposal. What could top it all off? Perhaps the news that a group of rogue Marines, led by Brigadier General Hummel (Ed Harris) and his sidekick Major Tom Baxter (David Morse), have taken up residence on Alcatraz with 81 hostages and 14 missiles carrying VX gas – capable of killing tens of thousands of innocent San Franciscans.

Hummel demands $100 million to compensate families of unrecognised colleagues killed in ‘Black Ops’ missions, a ransom FBI chief James Womack (John Spencer) can’t countenance. The only problem is, there’s no way to destroy the VX without killing the hostages, and Alcatraz itself is impregnable. Or so everyone thinks. From a dark, dank cell Womack conjures former British SAS hero John Mason (Sean Connery), a man who uniquely escaped from ‘the rock’ and who has some of America’s biggest secrets stashed away. After a haircut and a hair-raising chase down the streets of San Francisco, John is persuaded to accompany an equally reluctant Stanley on to the island; but when their military protection is ambushed, the former soldier and the green agent face overwhelming odds to disarm the rockets and defeat the General – who himself has to contend with discontent in his ranks.

There are plenty of films that demand careful consideration and close analysis to explain why they work or fail to deliver as they should. Thank heavens, then, for Michael Bay movies. For Bay, any form of complication is a barrier to enjoying the action, and although there’s a smidgen of complexity and conflict amongst the villains – Hummel is a hero who makes an extreme decision for outwardly noble reasons – it’s basically a case of good guys rushing to stop the bad guys.

The set-up allows for action scenes at regular intervals and each of them – Hummel’s appropriation of the missiles, the cable-car ruining mayhem* surrounding Mason’s escape from his hotel room to visit his daughter (Claire Forlani), the entire second half of the movie – is filmed in an exciting, hyperbolic style. It’s not realistic in the slightest, of course, but that’s hardly the point when you’re willing Goodspeed and Mason to disarm the missiles before they’re detonated.

Were The Rock simply a sequence of generic action scenes, it would become tiresome well before its time was through. Luckily, although many of the characters are stock figures, especially those around the table of the emergency committee, the film is leant a good deal of personality by the presence of Connery and Cage. Cage’s Goodspeed is half-geek, half-dude and does a good line in unconvincing assertiveness, while Connery (perhaps for the last time) really enjoys himself in a role which combines wit, suavity, a little bit of acting and even a smidgen of action.

The sly references to spying and British intelligence make Connery the perfect choice for the role – Mason is the Bond left to rot in a foreign jail that Brosnan couldn’t live up to in Die Another Day. Connery, or his stand-in, even gets to do a bit of Thunderball-style sub-aqua work. Harris also does good work, giving Hummel a dignity despite his actions, reflecting a pre-9/11 America where terrorism could be allowed to have a rationale, however misguided.

Another feature of The Rock is that it is prototypic of later Michael Bay films, for good (Armageddon) and bad (Pearl Harbor). There’s the love of flags, military hardware and Armed Forces running in slow motion; there’s the girlfriend fretting in the control room while the guys put their lives on the line. Hans Zimmer’s score is also something of a dry run for his later work on Pirates of the Caribbean.

Also typically, and more problematically, the film won’t be rushed: interesting though it is to see Hummel bidding farewell to his wife, Mason bonding with his long-lost daughter, or Goodspeed being talked (or something like that) into marriage, these sections slow the film down to little effect. We never revisit Forlani, so it seems a bit pointless to introduce her in the first place. During the gaps in the action, you have time to mull over other difficulties, such as the script’s unnecessarily foul mouth and casual attitude towards significant events (Mason stole a film revealing what “really” happened to JFK), or the amateurish design of the VX gas, which looks more like bubble bath than a lethal toxin. Additionally, there are silly contrivances such as the shaft that Connery initially negotiates to get the good guys into Alcatraz, a trial by blade and fire that either belongs in an Indiana Jones-type fantasy or computer games – but as I say, realism isn’t exactly a priority here.

The Rock is at heart a bombastic piece of gung-ho nonsense, but it’s lifted by Connery’s venerable, deadpan turn and Cage’s reluctant hero, and fortuitously comes early enough in Bay’s career for it to be brash but not overwhelmed by noise and special effects. Exciting, and not excessively excessive.

NOTES: Or Bayhem – see the Transformers review, or a million other websites.

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Rising Sun

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: The murder of a good-time girl on the boardroom table of the Nakamoto Corporation casts a shadow over their proposed takeover of American defence company Microcon. LAPD Lieutenant Webb Smith is sent in to investigate, but he’s surprised to find he’s accompanied by long-lost Captain Connor, an expert on Japanese culture and customs. As they look for a guilty party and find one all too easily, they start to wonder whether they are driving the investigation or are being driven to false conclusions.

It’s 1993: the Cold War may be over but fierce battles are still being fought, such as the struggle for control of Microcon being waged on the 46th floor of the Nakamoto Tower. Under the sage gaze of Yoshida-san (Mako), keen young negotiators Ishihara and brash yuppie Bob Richmond (Stan Egi and Kevin Anderson) press for a deal, while Microcon wait to see what Congress will do, specifically whether Senator Morton (Ray Wise) will maintain his opposition to the ‘surrender’ of American defence technology to the Japanese.

Matters become complicated when party girl Cheryl Lynn (Tatjana Patitz) is found strangled to death on the huge negotiating table, bringing LAPD Lieutenants Tom Graham (Harvey Keitel) and Webb Smith (Wesley Snipes) to investigate the grisly crime scene. Before he arrives, however, Webb is diverted to pick up a certain Captain John Connor (Sean Connery), an experienced liaison officer who spent so much time in Japan, some people assumed he had disappeared there permanently.

With Connor taking the senior role of sempai and Smith, grudgingly, his kohai, the pair quickly find a prime suspect in Cheryl’s sometime lover Eddie Sakamura (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), whose face is captured on Nakamoto’s state-of-the-art security discs. However, something about the convenience of the evidence doesn’t sit right with Connor, even when Eddie flees arrest and his sports car explodes in a fatal ball of flame; and as he and Smith continue to investigate, they come up against vested interests who are more than prepared to do a bit of muck-raking. Luckily, they have digital image expert Jingo (Tia Carrere) on their side.

Regardless of where they come from, films should always be regarded on their own merits; but on the very rare occasions that I’ve a) read the book a film is based on, and b) it has some bearing on the review, I’m duty bound to mention it. I have read Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun, and while the film essentially retains the plot of Crichton’s techno-thriller, the transfer from book to screen comes with a number of important additions. Chief amongst these is the casting, the leads Connery and Snipes adding levels of complication to the novel’s key exploration of the conflicts between American and Japanese culture and practice. Connery and Snipes are perfectly fine and quickly develop a cutely comic antagonism, but the explicit inclusion of a Scotsman and an African American only serves to distract from the film’s themes, especially since Webb is narky despite the fact that nobody displays any racism towards him. I say ‘explicit’ because Rising Sun could easily have used the same actors but eschewed the ‘Old Scotland Yard’ and ‘Massa’ references – plus the redundant, if fleetingly amusing, episode in the ‘hood – to concentrate exclusively on plot.

The distractions of Connery and Snipes would also have been readily overcome by fully rounded and coherent plot. Unfortunately, much of the novel’s action is touched on all too lightly, the bits that would have added fluency to the story having been lost during the scriptwriting process or taken out whilst editing. For example, Webb’s introduction is framed around an inquiry which is never fully explained (though, in routine cop-film fashion, it allows Smith and Connor to carry on investigating once he’s been forced to hand in his badge), and his domestic situation isn’t made clear; the shadow of corruption hanging over the police is undercooked, Steve Buscemi’s reporter Willy ‘Weasel’ Wilhelm limited to about three scenes; the political aspects are also underdone, notwithstanding Senator Morton’s rather extreme reaction to bad news. Clearly, a two-hour film can’t hope to replicate all the events of a novel, but Kaufman’s version of Rising Sun chooses to have a half-baked stab at everything rather than remove plot strands that have no mileage (such as the cursory love interest provided by Carrere’s Jingo: Carrere, by the way, is fine, though I look about as Japanese as she does).

I could carry on with the negatives: the action is spread out too thinly and is quickly curtailed when it arrives (the denouement in particular is something of an anti-climax, Snipes’ chop-socky moves cut woefully short); production values are not always the highest (while Webb seems to spend half the film driving, Snipes doesn’t look at the road much); and the radical technology now feels quaint (physical storage media is, like, so 20th Century). On the other hand, at the heart of Rising Sun there’s a strong, sexually-charged tale of mucky corporate shenanigans, a murky tale through which Connery and Snipes wade, Connor ably leading Smith through the mire even though one way or another they’re both up to their necks in it. Accompanying the tale is a fascinating (though how truthful, who knows) glimpse into a still-alien culture, the Japanese approach to personal and business relationships proving a solid backdrop to the mysteries surrounding Eddie and Cheryl Lynn, all backed by a brooding, drum-heavy soundtrack. As for some of the gratuitous nudity, well, you can take it or leave it, but it does give Keitel the opportunity to revel in some shockingly racist fulminations.

Partly because of the changes made to accommodate the talent, partly because of the time-specific story it’s telling, Rising Sun isn’t nearly as effective an adaptation as Jurassic Park or Westworld; and if you’re looking for effective star vehicles, you’ll be better served by Blade or The Rock. Nonetheless, even if the big names pull the story out of shape and cause a number of unsatisfactory loose threads, this is an eminently watchable slice of exotic, oriental spice.

Top Secret!

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Visiting East Germany for a cultural festival, hip-swivelling singer Nick Rivers becomes embroiled in the affairs of a kidnapped scientist and his attractive daughter Hillary. While Nick is free to give his love away, Hillary has a long-lost love who becomes found amid the turmoil of the fight against the Fascistic powers that be; but hey, it’s only rock’n’roll!

Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer) is a bona fide rock’n’roll sensation, singing and dancing his way into the hearts of teenage girls the world over. He’s invited with manager Martin (Billy J. Mitchell) to East Germany to take part in a festival; what he doesn’t know is that the gig is a sham, a diversion to allow General Streck’s (Jeremy Kemp) forces to ambush the whole fleet of NATO’s subs in the Mediterranean.

Nick’s freedom-lovin’, singin’-and-a-jivin’ ways rub the warmongering Germans up the wrong way and land him in prison, but his meeting with fellow prisoner Dr Paul Flammond (Michael Gough) proves useful when he runs into Hillary Flammond (Lucy Gutteridge), the Doctor’s perky-bosomed daughter who has taken on the mantle of Resistance spy since the demise of the unfortunate Cedric (Omar Sharif). Nick and Hillary find romance in each other’s arms and the Resistance in an old farmhouse, though Hillary’s in for a massive shock when she discovers that The Torch (Christopher Villiers), enigmatic leader of a ragbag group of French clichés, is someone she knows intimately from her past*.

Top Secret! provides a perfect example of why teenagers – me as a teenager, anyway – shouldn’t be allowed to review films, because a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old me would have given this movie top marks on the basis of the number of jokes alone. Speaking as a slightly (!) older and more experienced viewer, I can see that it’s not exactly the most cogent of films.

The plot is a complete mess, beginning with something about NATO subs, moving into an Elvis-does-James Bond-vs-the-Nazis spy story before pulling in The Blue Lagoon for a cheap laugh, then varying between the French Resistance (in East Germany!) and material from The Great Escape and Casablanca.

And while you’d think that plotting wouldn’t matter in a film which is all about the jokes, it does, because any sustained amount of comedy has to have a context to work in. Think about Airplane! or The Naked Gun!: both are movies which lark about endlessly, but do so against the strict structure of a straight-laced story – the ridiculousness of any gag is emphasised by the normality of what it’s playing against. The frequently-shifting scenery of Top Secret! (what decade are we in, for a start?) forces the viewer to constantly readjust, and this acts as an impediment to laughter.

Which isn’t to say that Top Secret! isn’t funny, because it very often is: the ballet scene, the Pac-man joke, the rather well-acted bovine action, the underwater fight, even the opening Skeet Surfing gag, are all memorable, as is the very clever if not particularly funny scene featuring Peter Cushing’s backwards bookseller. However, the hit rate is both slower and patchier than the ZAZ team’s best work.

On the plus side, Top Secret! is blessed with a winning central performance. Val Kilmer may not be the most natural comedian (though I really want to see Real Genius again) but here, in his film debut, he absolutely captures the attitude of the insouciant rock star; so while he doesn’t look much like Elvis, his dance moves and voice (yes, it’s Kilmer singing) are both pitch-perfect. It’s arguable that the most enjoyable parts of the movie are actually those where the action stops and Kilmer stops to belt out a tune, especially the tender and amusing Spend This Night With Me.

In other roles, Gutteridge is perfectly passable, though she’s evidently been chosen more for her fetching resemblance to Ingrid Bergman than her acting chops; and Villiers makes The Torch/Nigel a curiously kinky character. However, if the second half of the movie works at all, it’s due to the charm of the rest of the Resistance, the now-questionable jokes about Chocolate Mousse notwithstanding. It’s especially interesting to see Jim Carter as Déjà Vu, given his more recent fame on film and TV.

And that’s about the size of it. Not a film that demands extensive analysis or extreme reverence, Top Secret! is undoubtedly a minor work when compared with the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker classics I’ve already mentioned. On the other hand, it still knocks most 21st Century spoofs into a cocked hat, and if you’ve not seen it before, you should seek it out and give your inner teenager a treat.

NOTES: Can you believe that I didn’t call him an old flame? I must have been feeling very dozy or very pun-averse when I wrote this review.

Bel Ami

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Amoral, amorous and absolutely skint, soldier Georges Duroy comes to Paris and latches onto army acquaintance Charles Forestier looking to get on in the world. Although Forestier’s wife is, initially at least, immune to his charms, he’s more successful with the impressionable Clothilde. However, what Duroy – variously renamed Duroy de Cantel and ‘Bel Ami’ – really cares about is money and influence; the key to both may ultimately come from upright Mme Rousset.

Slumming it in a single, dirty room on his return from Algiers, Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson) looks upon the wealthy citizens of Paris with a jaded, jealous eye. A chance meeting with fellow soldier Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister) offers an invitation to more polite society. Charles’ politically astute wife Madeleine (Uma Thurman) helps Georges to write a column for newspaper La Vie Française, while Georges begins an affair with neglected wife Clotilde (Christina Ricci). When Charles – dubbed ‘Bel Ami’ by Clotilde’s daughter – discovers that Duroy has no talent whatsoever, the chancer is forced to turn to Virginie Rousset (Kristin Scott Thomas), who resists Duroy’s reluctant advances but gets him a job in charge of gossip.

Still full of ambition, Georges takes Forestier’s wife and job as soon as his old friend dies, though Madeleine is apparently more interested in France’s plans for Morocco and her friend the Comte de Vaudrec (Anthony Higgins) than her impetuous new husband. Jealous of his exclusion from the in crowd, Georges begins an affair with Virginie; scandal is sure to follow, though the Roussets may offer an ultimate insurance policy in the shape of their young daughter Suzanne (Holliday Grainger).

Two films immediately came to mind as I watched Bel Ami. The first, Dangerous Liaisons, had a similar setting, a similar sense of scandal beneath the surface and a similar (if younger) Uma Thurman. The second, Barry Lyndon, featured an eerily similar tale of a handsome but penniless man making his way in the world by whatever means necessary. Of course, it can’t be helped that this came out well after Kubrick and Frears’ films, and the theme of the social climber is a movie staple (Sunset Blvd, to name just one more); on the other hand, knowing what had gone before it, Bel Ami had a lot of work to do to feel different and fresh.

It doesn’t. The perfectly decent set dressing and costuming recreates late 19th Century Paris quite nicely, but the things unique to Bel Ami, its tale of murky politics and finances surrounding France’s intentions in North Africa, and the even murkier relationship between press and government, come and go without making the impact they should; Rachel Bennette’s script joins the dots between the political intrigues, but concentrates far too much on Georges and his women.

Unfortunately, you rarely get a sense of what Pattinson’s character is about, beyond his piercing, sulky glare and determination to – pardon my French – shag his way to the top. Is he driven by the shame of his impoverished background? Or the desire to control others? Is he a slave to psychopathic greed and lust? The answers are lost as the film reduces the tale, more or less, to Georges loving Clotilde but using Madeleine and Virginie to his advantage. I suspect the film suffers from the same problem as Brideshead Revisited or Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, namely that it sprints through details and incidents that need to occur at a more deliberate pace for us to feel their importance.

Given that the story itself is much less interesting than it might have been, Bel Ami could still have distinguished itself by having an edgy atmosphere, by really getting into the decay of Georges’ mind. The problem is, for a film that was billed as an erotic tale of lust and seduction, it feels far too often like a polite period drama, a feeling bolstered by the uninspired, string-heavy score.

Its occasional glimpses of nudity are just that, glimpses, something to spice up the trailer; and while a more explicit film might have been no better, it would have made Bel Ami vastly more memorable. As it is, the story plays out with the plot and film-making seldom threatening to excite or surprise – a notable exception is when Madeleine turns the tables and uses sex as a weapon against Georges.

Nor do the actors do much to make their roles feel substantial. It’s not that anyone’s bad* – indeed, the multi-national cast do well to find a common English accent to represent their Frenchness (!) – but equally nobody stands out, the always-excellent Scott Thomas excepted. Pattinson looks intense but doesn’t inhabit the part to any degree, while Thurman acquits herself rather better than Ricci, who feels studied and stilted by comparison (and certainly looks an unlikely mother). It doesn’t help, either, that Glenister and Meaney, with their facial hair, look very similar, though Glenister remedies the situation when his consumptive cough carries him off.

Bel Ami has widely been labelled a dud. It certainly has little to interest Pattinson’s Twilight fans, and those looking for Maupassant’s biting satire will be disappointed to find a grim-faced drama, for the most part indifferently performed. Still, although it’s not nearly as painterly as Barry Lyndon, or as vicious as Dangerous Liaisons, it’s a handsome and competently constructed film that’s far from terrible and suggests a novel worth seeking out. Mad as it might sound, this film would have benefitted from taking a leaf out of Kubrick’s book by pausing, though not for too long, to let events sink in.

NOTES: Actually, I wasn’t particularly convinced by James Lance’s Foreign Minister, though that’s probably because I’ve spent years thinking of him as Ben in I’m Alan Partridge.

Carry On Behind

WFTB Score: 4/20

The plot: A couple of randy husbands, a team on an archeological dig, some female friends, a married couple and their uncontrollable dog, an older couple and the mother-in-law, all go away on a caravanning holiday. Normal enough, you’d think; but this being the Carry Ons, mishaps and misunderstandings aplenty are bound to occur.

You may think you’ve seen this before, in the shape of Carry On Camping: but you’d be wrong. For this time most of the holidaymakers are towing caravans, hence (naturally) the ‘behind’ of the title. And you may not think that the description above details much of a plot: and you’d be right. For this late entry in the Carry On series is as bereft of a story as it is of decent jokes.

The film’s problems do partly stem from the fact that similar ground had already been covered (even the location is identical to Camping); partly from the fact that 70s Britain looks so cold and grey; but mostly from the fact that of the big names only Kenneth Williams and Joan Sims are present, and they look cold and grey too. Williams is Professor Crump, the archaeologist sent to investigate a series of Roman murals found on the caravan site run by crusty lecher Major Leep (Kenneth Connor), with statuesque Russian Anna Vooshka (Elke Sommer) on hand to ruin jokes that weren’t very good in the first place (watch Williams work his socks off to wring life from a gag where she pronounces ‘cramped’ a bit like ‘crumpet’); when they are thrown together in a small caravan, he has to ward off her double entendres and gets taken to hospital when he mistakes tomato sauce for blood following a gas explosion.

It’s sad that this relationship, with Sommer’s accent causing confusion of rude words for harmless ones, is pretty much the highlight of the film. Bernard Bresslaw and Patsy Rowlands make a pretty dull husband and wife, looking after an offensive mynah bird and the underused Sims, who discovers her estranged husband Peter Butterworth labouring on the campsite (but also stinking rich, in one of the film’s other bright moments). The other main plotline follows lascivious husbands Fred and Ernest, Jack Douglas and Windsor Davies taking the roles that Bresslaw and Sid James already did to death in Camping. Davies, as moustachioed, braggadocio Welshman Fred, hardly stretches himself, whilst Jack Douglas is utterly gormless as mopey angler Ernie; it is bizarre that either should be married, let alone consider themselves objects of desire to Carol Hawkins and Sherrie Hewson.

All the above-named are masters of comedy, however, when compared to the colourless additions to the cast. Ian Lavender and Adrienne Posta are terrible as the couple with the wandering Irish wolfhound, Larry Dann no better as a student, and George Layton is tiresome as a doctor. But really the fault lies at the door of scriptwriter Dave Freeman, who gives very few of the actors any decent lines, and lets the film meander through scenes in the shower block and a new Clubhouse (the paint on the chairs is still wet – everyone loses the seat of their pants!) until it finally peters out to a weak and illogical end: a load of holes appear in the ground, caravans fall into them, people get wet, and they all drive away except for Ken and Elke, who shows her knickers.

Carry On Behind is a poor film (technically, the editing is really shoddy), but thankfully the series was not far away from being put to bed, and there is little here that could be thought of as really offensive. But it’s a long way from the days where the Carry Ons could lay claim to parody, a structured, progressive plot, or crafted jokes instead of laboured innuendo and telegraphed pratfalls.

The Lion King

WFTB Score: 16/20

The plot: Protected by his doting father Mufasa, lion cub Simba looks over the Pridelands with excitement, knowing that one day he will become ruler of all he sees. However, Simba’s jealous uncle Scar callously usurps the throne, sending the rightful heir into exile full of panic and guilt. Simba makes new friends and carves out a new untroubled life, but a familiar face or two make him aware of his rights and responsibilities.

From their vantage point of Pride Rock, regal lions Mufasa and Sarabi (voiced by James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair) present their first-born son Simba to their respectful subjects – zebras, giraffes, hippos and so on. Not everyone is delighted by the new arrival, however; Mufasa’s brother Scar (Jeremy Irons) resents being pushed down the line of succession, and tricks the young, impetuous cub (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas as a child, Matthew Broderick as an adult) and his lioness friend Nala (Niketa Calame/Moira Kelly) into visiting the dangerous elephants’ graveyard, the lair of savage hyaenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed (Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin and Jim Cummings). Alerted by his fussy majordomo, hornbill Zazu (Rowan Atkinson), Mufasa rescues the youngsters, but the incident sparks an idea in Scar’s mind. He places Simba in the path of a buffalo stampede, then sets up Mufasa for a fatal fall and lays all the blame on the distraught cub.

Simba flees and grows up trying to forget about his past, aided by easy-living pals Timon and Pumbaa (Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella), a tuneful meerkat and warthog combo; but reminders are never far away, especially when Nala turns up with dreadful tales of Scar and the hyaenas’ desecration of the Pridelands, soothsaying Baboon Rafiki (Robert Guillaume) hot on her heels. Will Simba confront his own guilt – and his treacherous uncle?

Although Disney are naturally upbeat about their movies, many of which are (apparently) timeless ‘Classics’ as soon as they’re released, even the most sycophantic of supporters would concede that films such as The Black Cauldron and Oliver and Company did little to enhance their reputation in the 1980s. However, the decade ended with The Little Mermaid and the impetus provided by its success snowballed into Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. The majestic gathering of the animals with which the film starts can only have been made by people who absolutely love animation, and the rest of the film aims for equal levels of excellence.

Famously, The Lion King was the first Disney animation to feature no humans, and it’s all the better for it; the characters are beautifully animated, combining just the right amounts of cartoon cutesiness and animal grace. They are given vocal talents to match, too: the wonderful rich tones of James Earl Jones, the weary sarcasm of Irons, the buffoonish blustering of Atkinson, the arch wisecracks from Lane, the sinister menace from Goldberg.

The script is full of smart little jokes, especially for Timon and Zazu (his interrupted rendition of ‘It’s a Small World’ is a lovely little in-joke), but the overall feel is grand, epic, the tale of a great tradition. The film is sincere about the circle of life, in ecological terms (Mufasa’s speech about Antelopes eating the grass) as well as hierarchical, Mufasa and Simba being from a line of kings who rule to keep the land in balance. And on top of all that, the songs by Elton John and Tim Rice are mostly of high quality* and are backed up by Hans Zimmer and Lebo M’s evocative, African-tinged score.

If there are nits to be picked, they are largely down to matters of personal preference which others will say act in the film’s favour. The Lion King is not exactly over-burdened with plot, and what there is plays out as a junior-school reduction of Hamlet (ie. taking out the incest, contemplation of suicide, and the possibility of Nala going mad and drowning herself in the watering hole). Which is fine, but older viewers may just yearn for something a tad meatier – although the climax is brilliant and provides as much drama as you could possibly ask for.

And some may take issue with The Lion King’s philosophical stance. I wouldn’t call it fascistic by any stretch, but it is interesting to contrast The Lion King with the equally charming Babe: one says that you’re born into a role and that you’re letting yourself and others down if you deviate from it, by (for example) adopting the dropout philosophy of ‘Hakuna Matata’; the other says that your status at birth shouldn’t hold you back from changing your life as you see fit. I’m not suggesting that these competing philosophies are writ large on the screen, or that they have any bearing on the quality of either movie: but the messages are there and are worth pondering.

Anyway, if little of this seems like a review of the movie, it’s because The Lion King is simply a marvellous film with so much to recommend it that niggles over a lack of complexity or originality** only act as slightly dull spots which boost the shine of the whole. Funny, moving and beautifully brought to life, I definitely feel the love for one of Disney’s genuine classics.

NOTES: 1The ‘Special Edition’ loses a point for the reinstatement of ‘Morning Report’. It was obviously not good enough to be the first song of the film proper, so why inflict it on us now?

2The Japanese animation Jungle Emperor/Kimba the White Lion never made it over to Britain, so I couldn’t possibly make any comparisons. I have, however, seen a few Youtube clips which are, let’s say, interesting. As the teacher says, there is no new thing under the sun…

The Cable Guy

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Steven Kovacs doesn’t know what he’s letting himself in for when he tries to bribe a few extra channels from his cable guy, Chip Douglas. The arrangement somehow turns into a blossoming friendship, at least as far as Chip’s concerned; but when Chip starts turning up at all hours, delivering high-end electronics and cosying up to Steven’s girlfriend and family, Steven finds his life turning into a nightmare straight out of the Twilight Zone.

It would be fair to say that life hasn’t exactly been going to plan for Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick): he asked girlfriend Robin (Leslie Mann) to marry him, she told him to move out. As Steven settles into his new pad, his friend Rick (Jack Black) suggests that he should tip his cable guy $50 to be hooked up to extra channels for free; and even though the guy, Chip Douglas (Jim Carrey), seems a little odd, the bribe is offered and taken, the quid pro quo being that Steven hangs out with Chip as a buddy.

Initially, the friendship goes well enough, Steven offering to help Chip overcome his lisp and Chip taking Steven for a surprisingly violent night out at a medieval-themed restaurant; but as Steven tries to win Robin back while remaining in his boss’s good books, Chip begins to loom ever larger in his life. He gives Steven ridiculous gifts – a huge TV and karaoke system, a party full of guests – and involves himself intimately in Steven and Robin’s personal lives, dealing viciously with Robin’s potential date and hooking her up with cable as – so she thinks – a reconciliatory offering from Steven. Although Steven eventually plucks up the courage to tell Chip to get lost, he discovers that this particular cable guy handles rejection very, very badly.

Life invasion movies come in all flavours, from cute and cuddly (Planes, Tranes and Automobiles) to sinister and psychotic (Fatal Attraction), so in theory there’s no reason why The Cable Guy shouldn’t work. It’s obvious what Ben Stiller’s black comedy is trying to do: Chip is the product of neglect, having been brought up more by television than his mother; and his sociopathic nature reflects thousands of hours spent in front of the box, his only friend and guide.

Also, the film repeatedly cuts to the televised trial of Sam Sweet (Stiller), accused of murdering his twin brother Stan, reflecting the box’s grisly fascination with lurid murders (at the time the film was made, O.J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers) and providing a decent set-up for a satire about TV’s malign influences.

Yet in execution, it doesn’t come off at all. Why? It’s easy to blame Carrey – or say he’s miscast, at least – and it’s true that his jaw-jutting, in-your-face, lisping lunatic is memorable for all the wrong reasons. The monster that TV created, Chip Douglas is a real grotesque, and one that the viewer wants to escape from every bit as much as Steven; but he’s only part of the movie’s bigger problem, namely its confused, awkward tone. It’s too broad to be a drama, too unsettling to raise many laughs, and its satirical intent is almost completely obscured by Carrey’s outlandish performance, an unfortunate irony given the subsequent success of the much blander Truman Show.

The Cable Guy fails because of its curious tone, indifferent writing and – whether you blame the actor or not – off-putting central character. All three are brought together during the central karaoke party scene where Chip belts out Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, a performance which is neither funny nor threatening, simply bizarre. Also, while you imagine the Sam/Stan Sweet subplot is going to become relevant to the plot in some interesting way, it doesn’t, although I understand that the lack of a pay-off to that story thread is precisely its point. And while I’m complaining, there’s a terrible edit made to the British DVD which removes Carrey headbutting Broderick, a nonsensical decision in the light of the vicious and not remotely comic beating dished out to Owen Wilson in a gents’ loo (perhaps the censors thought ‘Hey, it’s Owen Wilson, he deserves it’?).

It would be wrong to label the movie a complete disaster. Broderick, as usual, is pretty good as the ordinary man to whom dreadful things happen, while the rest of the cast are fine in small roles. As far as jokes go, there are a few gems: I shudder to think that places such as Medieval Times actually exist, but the utensils/Pepsi exchange between Broderick and a beautifully bored Janeane Garofalo is a joy. Furthermore, whilst I cringed throughout the scene of Chip meeting the Kovacs family, the film ramps up its deeply disturbed/disturbing tension consistently towards its action-orientated climax. In some respects, it’s also strangely prescient about the future of the information superhighway, since you can indeed shop from home and play Mortal Kombat with friends in Vietnam, should you choose.

If you liked Carrey’s larger than life performance in The Mask, you may well enjoy his equally arresting performance here. Alternatively, you might be put off (as I was) by his character’s oddities and vicious nature; and if you didn’t like Carrey in the first place, The Cable Guy is very unlikely to bring you round. Ben Stiller’s movie is a curiosity which works as an examination of the dangers of embarking on ‘casual’ friendships, as well as an uncomfortable warning about letting the television in the corner babysit your children. Sadly, it doesn’t work half as well as a piece of entertainment.