Monthly Archives: May 2017

Spaceballs

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: Threatened with an undesirable marriage, Princess Vespa flees her home planet of Druidia only to run into Spaceballs One and Dark Helmet’s dastardly plot to kidnap her and hold her ransom, in order to steal Druidia’s fresh air supply for the planet of Spaceballs. To her aid – for the right price – comes Lone Starr and his sidekick Barf, but to defeat Helmet’s weaponry Starr will require tuition in the use of an ancient and mystical power.

Sly tributes to Star Wars are now staples of comedy shows such as The Simpsons, Family Guy and (though it hasn’t reached Britain – yet) Robot Chicken, but it took some time for the ball to get rolling; possibly because of the prohibitive costs of making half-decent science fiction, possibly because the vast majority of Star Wars devotees were still in short trousers, and possibly because the story was already silly enough for writers to find creating a sillier one difficult. Step forward, then, Mel Brooks, fearless poker of fun, and do your worst.

The planet Spaceballs has run out of air, forcing President Skroob (Brooks, as if you couldn’t guess) to send his martial forces under the less-sinister-than-he-might-be Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) and Colonel Sandurz (George Wyner) to use strong-arm tactics against Druidia, whose atmosphere is protected by an atmospheric shield. Helmet plans to kidnap Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) and torture her (by reversing her immaculate nose job) to reveal the combination of the shield, but before he can land on the planet Vespa blasts off it, jilting the soporific Prince Valium at the altar and taking faithful but snippy robot Dot Matrix (voiced by Joan Rivers) for company.

Vespa’s father asks Winnebago-driving Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) to get Vespa back, a job the space trucker and his half-human, half-dog pal Barf (John Candy) would usually run a light year from; except it comes with the handy recompense of a million Spacebucks, the exact amount Starr owes to intergalactic hoodlum Pizza the Hutt. Starr and Barf rescue the princess but get themselves stranded on a desert planet where they are rescued and introduced to the mystical Yogurt (Brooks again), a short, golden Yiddisher fellow who knows the ways of ‘The Schwartz.’

Starr finds he can use the Schwartz to move objects with his mind, a power which serves him well when Vespa is tricked into captivity; a daring rescue mission follows with our hero – drawn despite himself to the Princess – driving his camper van into Spaceballs One, the massive ship transformed into ‘Mega Maid’ to suck out Druidia’s air.

If you have seen a Mel Brooks comedy before, much of Spaceballs will be familiar, an assault on all the comedy senses featuring subtle asides one second and a massive pie – or in this case, Barf’s wagging tail – in the face the next, with plenty of Jewish jokes (Vespa is, after all, a ‘Druish princess’) and funny movie gags (guards capture the good guys’ stunt doubles). Spaceballs, though, has two other writers, presumably responsible for many of the jokes influenced by the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker troupe.

In principle this is no bad thing, and indeed some of the visual gags like the extraordinarily-protracted establishing shot of Spaceballs One or the Mr Coffee/Mr Radar machines are great – but there is a noticeable friction between this brand of wilfully dumb humour (e.g. Princess Vespa’s giant hairdryer) and some of the more knowing digs (for example, the running gag about the film’s merchandising). Meanwhile, the gags that are unmistakeably part of Brooks’ shtick vary in quality: I like most of what he does as Yogurt and dislike most of what he does as Skroob.

The presence of leggy blondes adds nothing to the movie, and whether or not you laugh at Dark Helmet and Lone Starr’s ‘Schwartz’ measuring is perhaps a matter of whether you’re under fifteen years of age; but I defy anyone not to laugh whenever Moranis is on screen, sulking under his Helmet as the diminutive Dark Lord with a Napoleon complex. Pullman and Zuniga play their square-jawed roles amiably enough, and while Candy is not given much to do as Barf, his warm and friendly screen presence remains intact under the fur and make-up.

While much of the script is telegraphed – it’ll surprise no-one that Colonel Sandurz is accused of being “chicken” – it occasionally manages to be inspired, most notably in the use of ‘Ludicrous Speed’ and the tartan trail it leaves in space, the scenario Moranis plays out with Spaceballs action figures, and best of all the characters watching a video of Spaceballs during the film to discover Vespa and Lone Starr’s whereabouts. Plus there’s the added bonus of John Hurt’s Alien spoof in the film’s coda, a laugh-out-loud highlight at a time when most comedies have given up the ghost.

Spaceballs also manages to tell a decent story, which although obviously derived from Star Wars doesn’t stick to it slavishly: it happily ditches Obi-Wan, Luke and R2-D2 as there is nothing to be gained by including them and the film is all the better for it, with Lone Starr, Barf and the Princess providing a compact and nicely-acted little group. I’ve left out Dot Matrix but I have nothing against Joan Rivers’ patter – others may be less tolerant.

For those brought up on Blazing Saddles, The Producers or Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs will probably feel like a comedown for Brooks, and it is certainly broader than those classics. However, though it’s definitely hit-and-miss the film is immediately accessible to a new generation of comedy fans and has plenty to keep audiences laughing, Moranis’s performance alone worth a dozen dud gags. And in an age where film parody has plumbed excruciating depths, finding one with this much invention – however diluted – is something to celebrate.

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Phantom of the Opera, The (2004)

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Beautiful dancer Christine Daae is promoted to lead roles at a Paris opera under the tutelage and influence of her ‘angel of music.’ But when he chooses to reveal his love to her, he also reveals himself to be the half-crazed opera ghost living within the bowels of the building, making demands of the opera’s new owners. Christine must choose between her love for childhood sweetheart Raoul and her strange fascination with the Phantom.

There is a moment at the start of Phantom of the Opera when the black-and-white framing scene (in which the opera’s effects are being auctioned off) bursts back in time, bringing the opera house back to vivid, colourful life to the accompaniment of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s famous organ chord introduction. Sadly, it is one of the rare moments of drama in a film that looks the part but fails on all other grounds. I have not seen a stage production of this musical, but this review comes the same week as watching the film version of Mamma Mia! and what that piece may lack in sophistication, it more than makes up for in getting the viewer involved.

Phantom the film suffers because Joel Schumacher fails to get a feel for the mood of the work, and this appears to affect the performance of the actors. The opening is fairly efficient at introducing the protagonists: new opera owners Andre and Firmin (Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds) accompany new patron Raoul (Patrick Wilson) to rehearsals of a noisy opera called Hannibal, in which the temperamental diva Carlotta (Minnie Driver) is the star. Mme Giry (Miranda Richardson) guides the ballet girls, including her daughter Meg (Jennifer Ellison) and Raoul’s former acquaintance Christine (Emmy Rossum); Mme Giry may know more than she lets on about the ‘Opera Ghost,’ who soon makes his demands known. When Carlotta goes off in a strop, Christine fills in and a star is born.

All well and good – except that these scenes, like the whole film, are played with such an unevenness of tone that you don’t know who or what you should care for. Callow and Hinds go for light comedy, whilst Driver pitches at full-on Italian pantomime; Richardson’s reactions are underplayed, brooding with a thick French accent, but her daughter is quite clearly a Scouser and her friend American. The accents wouldn’t matter so much if the acting was better, but Rossum and Wilson deliver such flimsy, wooden performances it’s a wonder they don’t get carried off with the rest of the scenery.

Things barely improve when the Phantom appears. Gerard Butler is the man in the mask and is a tall, imposing figure; yet – and this may not be his fault – he generates very little chemistry with Rossum, who remains lifeless throughout. What almost certainly is Butler’s fault (I can’t imagine he would have been dubbed by someone else this way) is the Phantom’s singing voice which, whenever asked to go higher than mid-tenor range, turns unpleasantly shouty.

Accordingly, moments which are meant to be musically thrilling become turn-offs. To be fair to the performers, musical highlights are fairly thinly spread – Butler shouts his way through Phantom of the Opera and Music of The Night whilst Rossum does an okay job of Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again – and a lot of parts which are presumably meant to sound operatic are a mess of people talking over each other. There are also a lot of typically unmelodic Lloyd-Webber recitatives (if that’s the word), which in other musicals would be leavened by the words of Tim Rice, but here only feature Don Black and Richard Stilgoe’s awkward punning.

To mention a few positives, I should say that the sets and costumes both look gorgeous, as do most of the cast. Also, things do heat up a bit (as they should) towards the climax with Raoul’s pursuit of the Phantom; but even here, the Don Juan opera is pretty terrible, The Point of no Return hardly a hum-a-long – and it is preposterous that removing the Phantom’s mask also removes his hair dye! Schumacher’s film contains a few highlights, but if you are looking for a dramatic and gripping version of Gaston Leroux’s tale which really gets you into the story, for all its technical limitations I would recommend Lon Chaney’s silent Phantom of 1925 over the one cooked up here.

Stepford Wives, The (2004)

WFTB Score: 5/20

The plot: When power-suited TV executive Joanna Eberhart is fired from her job and suffers a breakdown, husband Walter takes her to the eerily-perfect town of Stepford, Connecticut to recover. In Stepford the wives and partners are happy, docile and obedient to their spouses’ every whim; naturally suspicious, Joanna, with the help of new friends Bobbie and Roger, sets out to discover why.

I cannot claim to have seen it recently, but the original Stepford Wives ranks in my mind alongside other seventies sci-fi fare such as Soylent Green, Coma and the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake where everything is not as it seems, leading to a tense, paranoid atmosphere resolved by a shocking (and usually shockingly pessimistic) twist. Though the film may not be remembered as a classic, the idea of the ‘Stepford Wife’ has passed into common parlance for someone who is suspiciously faithful and obedient. Accordingly, when Dreamworks (in conjunction with Paramount) decided to have another go at Ira Levin’s story, a straight thriller was presumably out of the question since the tale of men creating robot wives was so well-known.

What we have instead is a macabre comedy in which Nicole Kidman plays Joanna, sacked after she is shot at by a contestant who was humiliated by his wife on one of Joanna’s reality TV shows. Loving husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) takes her and the children away from the rat race to the picture-postcard town of Stepford, where the houses are automated and all she has to do is relax and play the pretty wifey.

However, whereas most of the other wives (and male partners, this is the 21st Century) are perfectly happy to make love, do the shopping, or discuss inane books under the scrutiny of Glenn Close’s matriarch Claire Wellington, Joanna aligns herself with troublemakers Roger (Roger Bart) and Bobbie (Bette Midler). The three are suspicious of goings-on in Stepford, particularly in the lodge-like Men’s Association building run by Claire’s husband Mike (Christopher Walken), but when the town’s secret is revealed – the women are robots, or at least have robotic implants – only Joanna can do anything about it because Roger and Bobbie have themselves been transformed into model spouses.

On the face of it, it makes sense to come at the Stepford Wives from this angle, and the intention behind the film is clear: now that women are thought of as every bit as capable in the boardroom as men, it is fine to make fun of the chauvinistic attitudes that wanted to keep them in the role of domestic goddess, replacing the sinister tone of the original with jokes. However, Paul Rudnick’s script is a miserable failure at providing laughs – a surprise given that he wrote the excellent Addams Family Values and the respected In and Out.

The essential problem is that the women being robots doesn’t shock anyone, least of all the cast. When one of the husbands places a card into his wife’s mouth and she spews forth money as if she were an ATM, Walter accepts the situation as if it were perfectly normal; surely he should be a little freaked out by it? The attitude appears to be that as long as the CGI guys get a workout whilst bringing the gag to life, everything’s okay (the same goes for a joke where Joanna unknowingly gets hold of another wife’s controller and enlarges her breasts before making her run backwards up the stairs).

Not only do we not get the satisfaction of the secret being slowly revealed, but in Oz’s film the nature of the secret is confused. For the first half of the film the wives appear to be completely robotic (one spins out of control at a dance and sparks fly from her), yet when it’s Joanna’s turn to face the ‘Female Improvement System’, the procedure seems to involve little more than a couple of microchips inserted into the brain – there is a hollow body cast but its purpose is not properly explained. And consider the ATM joke: assuming she doesn’t produce counterfeit money, the wife would have to be filled up with notes at regular intervals! The film fails to follow any proper logic, least of all its own, so comes across as hopelessly confused. The bulk of the humour comes from Roger (little surprise from a gay writer), but even this twist on the original feels misplaced when the innate campness of the wives is underplayed. And the less said about the opening parodies on reality TV the better: let’s just say it’s pointless to make fun of something that is already beyond inane.

Nicole Kidman, as Joanna, is miscast, her breathy, intense delivery totally unsuited to making her both sympathetic and comic (although she would have been too young at the time, someone like Anne Hathaway would have been ideal); Glenn Close has the best part in the film and does well with it, whilst Bette Midler and her klutz of a husband (Jon Lovitz) are merely grateful for the paycheques. Broderick is amiable and appropriately bland: the men of Stepford are not sinister objectifiers of women, but whiny geeks who want to sit around smoking cigars, watching sports and playing Robot Wars (geddit?). If there is any satirical message behind these men who can only properly interact with women if they are part machine, it’s hidden deep behind another confused message, that these boys with toys are fundamentally insecure about the fact that their wives are more successful than they are.

There is little about The Stepford Wives that doesn’t fall flat on its face, since it misses the point of the original entirely in pursuit of gadget-inspired gags (even one of the film’s better jokes about the AOL guy making the wives slow doesn’t work these days), losing far more in suspense and intrigue than it gains in comedy, losing the chilling pessimism of the 1975 film’s conclusion for a sappy piece of comedy-drama, tying itself up in knots about exactly what the wives are meant to be, and bringing unsympathetic and unmotivated performances from most of the cast. It’s worth a watch, perhaps, for Glenn Close and the very pretty realisation of the town of Stepford, but otherwise when the title next appears in the listings magazines, keep your fingers crossed that it’s the original. I know I will be.

Stepford Wives, The (1975)

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Joanna Eberhart moves from New York to the quiet village of Stepford at the insistence of her husband Walter, and is instantly struck by its quiet nature and the docility of its female inhabitants. Jo and her new friend Bobby start delving a little deeper into why this might be and stumble upon a disturbing secret that the menfolk of Stepford have been keeping to themselves.

As I hinted at in my review for the ill-judged 2004 version of Ira Levin’s story, the phrase ‘Stepford Wife’ is now in such common usage that it’s pretty much impossible to watch either movie without already knowing where it’s headed. That said, one version of the story is a silly, inconsistent mess; the other – this one – is not without flaws but has a great deal more to offer.

The Eberhart family head to Stepford from the bustle of New York, much to the relief of lawyer Walter (Peter Masterson) but much less happily for wife Joanna (Katharine Ross), an aspiring photographer, and their two children. For Stepford is everything New York isn’t: quiet, green, and with a sense of community that borders on the archaic (useful word, that) as neighbour Carol Van Sant (Nanette Newman) instantly proves when she welcomes the Eberharts with a casserole. Jo finds the place odd, since the women of Stepford are excessively domestic and occasionally eccentric, such as when Carol suffers a car accident or drinks too much; but Walter is welcomed with open arms into the village’s secretive Men’s Association, even if his first meeting appears to trouble him.

Luckily, Jo finds a friend in non-conformist newcomer Bobby (Paula Prentiss) and another in unhappily married trophy wife Charmaine (Tina Louise); together, the trio attempt to instil a bit of feminist feeling into Stepford’s doting housewives, but Carol (who previously organised something similar herself) and the others are far too pre-occupied with their housework to join in.

As Walter increasingly buries himself in his work and the Association, under the influence of biochemist Dale Coba (Patrick O’Neal), known as ‘Diz’ because of his work with Disney animatronics, Jo and Bobby become increasingly convinced that the women of Stepford are being controlled by their men, a suspicion confirmed when Charmaine changes overnight from an unhappy but independent thinker to a compliant drone. But as the ladies are to find out, the full horror of Stepford is something that they could not possibly imagine.

More than anything, The Stepford Wives is kept afloat by the power of its theme. The idea of feminism being such a threat to the male population that they would murder their spouses and replace them with facsimiles is clearly bananas (especially thirty-plus years down the line), but as a reductio ad absurdum it makes for effective satire, and in the female leads of this film (Ross, Prentiss, Louise, Newman) there are convincing and enjoyable examples of strong women being neutralized by their inadequate husbands.

Stepford is a troubled paradise, Joanna’s misgivings bolstered by a suitably creepy electronic-flavoured score, and as the film creeps towards its climax it gains in power, with ‘replacement’ Bobby’s malfunction and the two final scenes particularly impressing: Joanna comes face to face with her own physically-enhanced robot, before the terrifyingly bland aftermath in the supermarket (note how the wives skirt around the arguing black couple, newly arrived as mentioned in passing earlier in the film). These scenes represent the best of the film and emphasise the good performances from the ladies as mentioned above.

However, although it needs space to build up atmosphere (Jo visits a psychiatrist to voice her fears), The Stepford Wives does take its time in getting anywhere and by any measure must be considered slow-moving. There’s very little in the way of action, emphasised when Jo allows Diz to disarm her of a weapon that she’s recently hit her husband with, then runs from him; this feeling is aggravated by Bryan Forbes’ pedestrian directing, which often results in a film that is flabbily paced, episodic (the scenes rarely flow from one into the other) and unattractive, not to mention poorly lit in several important places. Neither can the film be considered proper science fiction, since the genesis of the robots barely goes beyond shots of technological-sounding company buildings and a few words like ‘biochemicals’ and ‘computer junk’; though to be fair, the film concerns itself less with the mistrust of technological advancement (like Coma and Soylent Green) than with the mistrust of human nature.

Furthermore, although Jo’s chosen profession as a photographer has a certain resonance – the photos she takes capture human expressions like laughter and love – the point is never brought home; and other, lesser plot strands go nowhere at all, specifically Jo’s first love, the unhappily-named Raymond Chandler (Robert Fields), who pops up to confirm there’s nothing wrong with Stepford’s water, makes a brief play for his old flame, then disappears again.

Ira Levin created in The Stepford Wives an iconic and timely idea which has endured and which can still inform relationships between the sexes today. Bryan Forbes only partially succeeded in bringing this idea to the screen, and not with any great style, hence the score; but make no mistake, there is a provocative intelligence and a compelling paranoia to this film, two features entirely absent from the Kidman/Broderick/Midler fiasco of 2004.

Dreamgirls

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: Singing trio The Dreamettes fight their way to stardom, earning their stripes by acting as backing singers to big name James ‘Thunder’ Early. But when their manager Curtis launches the group on their own, the decision to promote beautiful new lover Deena over the more powerfully-built and voiced Effie – his former beau – has far-reaching consequences for them all.

There’s nowt so curious as film fashion. By the end of the 20th Century film musicals were seen as guaranteed box office disasters, only for Moulin Rouge!, Chicago and Mamma Mia! to bring them firmly back into the limelight. Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls is based on a 1980s stage musical, little-known in Britain; but the story should ring many bells with those familiar with the stars of Motown.

The Dreamettes are: belting lead singer Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), shy beauty Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) and excitable young Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose); and while they wow the crowd at a Detroit talent show, car dealer and self-anointed Dreamettes manager Curtis Taylor Jr (Jamie Foxx) makes it his business to ensure they’re not quite good enough to win.

He then engineers a position for the Dreamettes behind R&B star James Early (Eddie Murphy), a rough and ready soul singer coming off the peak of his fame; Effie needs to be talked round as she finds merely ‘ooo’ing behind Early demeaning, but Lorrell has no such qualms and begins a relationship with the star even though he’s married. Whilst on tour, Curtis usurps the position of James’ manager Marty (Danny Glover) but his attempts to sell Early to a white audience in Miami prove disastrous; so, despite carrying on a relationship with the smitten Effie, Curtis sends the girls – now known simply as ‘The Dreams’ – out on their own with Deena as the lead singer.

Unsurprisingly, Effie is put out by this and not even the concerted efforts of her songwriting brother C.C. (Keith Washington) can keep her in the group; this suits Curtis fine, since he has a replacement standing by and a plan to propel Deena to superstardom, but unbeknownst to him there will always be a reminder of Curtis in Effie’s life as she struggles to forge her own career.

A musical drawing on the incredible catalogue of Motown songs sounds almost too good to be true, and in this case, at least, it is. For whilst Dreamgirls nicely captures the look of 60s Detroit and America’s difficult march towards racial equality during the period, the songs (written by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen) are a sometimes uneasy blend of Motown hooks and 80s musical styling, with the arrangements in particular more modern-sounding than you might expect. Many of the lyrics are hopelessly naïve, too (“We are a family/Like a giant tree”).

What’s more, there are simply far too many songs, many of which are completely unmemorable and poorly used to boot. The film starts off well, with the characters’ staged songs reflecting their actions and emotional states and spoken dialogue advancing the plot; but it later degenerates into a free-for-all with people singing or speaking in semi-random fashion: the quasi-recitative ‘It’s All Over’ is particularly lumpy, but luckily the excellent (if clumsily-titled) ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’ follows immediately afterwards.

The biggest problem with Dreamgirls, however, is that it badly lacks the soul you think the almost entirely African-American cast would bring to the party in coachloads. It’s true that Jennifer Hudson brings attitude and feeling to the role of Effie, and Eddie Murphy fitfully lights up the screen as he channels James Brown (the obvious inspiration, along with Marvin Gaye, for Early) in his increasingly erratic performances; but elsewhere the film is painfully bland, the characters’ stories little more than soap opera fodder, with totally predictable ups and downs and an ending that offers no surprises.

Knowles proves once again (after Goldmember) that she is a much better singer than she is an actress, and although Foxx is simultaneously suave and reprehensible there’s no real edge to his record mogul. Dreamgirls has obviously been shaped to receive a particular age rating and therefore cuts away from anything too graphic or difficult in respect of sex or drugs; by contrast, although the domestic violence of the Tina Turner film What’s Love Got to do With it? was uncomfortable, it rang much truer than the clean, relatively unmessy relationships portrayed here.

There are plenty of lesser issues – chiefly the cringe-making take-off of the Jacksons, but also John Lithgow’s extraordinary appearance as a weirdly-coiffed director – but I don’t want to give the impression that Dreamgirls is a bad film. As I say, Hudson and Murphy are both very good, and there’s a simple and direct pleasure to be had from two hours of song and dance: the climactic ‘One Night Only’ is a particular highlight. But Condon had the chance to make something raw, edgy and truly different by taking on this project, and it’s a real shame that instead of hunting out the soul of the story he played safe and filtered it for teenaged fans of Chicago the film, rather than the more adult sensibilities of fans of Chicago the musical.

Shadowlands

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: The cosy life of academic and children’s author C.S. Lewis is turned upside-down by the arrival of fan Douglas Gresham and his divorcee mother Joy. Braving the scandal the relationship causes at Oxford, the couple marry for convenience but find that true love blossoms. Neither love nor faith, however, can intervene when Joy is struck down with cancer.

Oxford, 1952: Among the dreaming spires, C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins), known to his friends as ‘Jack’, enjoys the academic banter and stuffy formality of college life. Although Jack’s life seems rather limited – he lives as a bachelor with his brother Warnie (Edward Hardwicke) – he enjoys the cut-and-thrust of teaching, lecturing and arguing with fellow dons about the magic of his Narnia books for children. He’s used to praise and adulation from polite Christian groups, but when he arranges to meet an American fan, Mrs Joy Gresham (Debra Winger), Jack is surprised and delighted to find her combative, intelligent and creative (she writes poems), even though her forward personality is at odds with English and Oxonian reserve.

Fascinated with her, Jack invites Joy and her son Douglas (Joseph Mazzello) to stay at his and Warnie’s house, the Kilns, scandalising the great and good of the university who wonder what Mr Gresham has to say about the arrangement; but as he is an alcoholic looking for a divorce, the answer is not a lot. Douglas, meanwhile, finds the legendary wardrobe in the attic but discovers that it is only a wardrobe after all.

Joy and Douglas go back to America, leaving Jack forlorn, but she turns up at a lecture in London, newly divorced and with an odd proposal for the author: to marry her so that she can stay in England. Jack agrees and to Joy’s increasing frustration the pair continue their separate lives in Oxford and London. It takes a crisis – Joy’s leg snapping due to the effects of cancer – to make Jack realise how much she means to him, and the pair marry ‘before God’ to prove their love for each other. In remission, Jack and Joy spend a blissful honeymoon period, a time of unparalleled happiness for Lewis in particular; however, the honeymoon is only temporary and Jack and Douglas must face up to new and painful realities.

Director Richard Attenborough insists at the start of Shadowlands that his story is true, and indeed the general plot is factual, even though there’s a son missing and the real Lewis was a more garrulous and complex character than portrayed here. Such inaccuracies (there are numerous others) are notable but forgivable since this is not a biopic in the traditional sense; William Nicholson’s screenplay goes for higher themes and highlights the transformative effect of love, emphasising that it can happen at any stage in life and to the unlikeliest of people.

In this light, no matter how unlike Lewis Hopkins is, his performance is still superb, drawing out a character from the narrow range of experience offered by the university to the full gamut of love and loss in his life with Joy and Douglas. That the transformation makes Jack so vulnerable is touching, and after Joy dies the scene between Hopkins and Mazzello in the attic is profoundly affecting. The film may well be engineered to be a tear-jerker, but there is no doubting the intensity or sincerity of the emotions on display. Mazzello (for a child actor, especially) does well throughout the film, as does Winger in a role that could easily have come across as brash or self-pitying; Joy is proud but vulnerable and a perfect match for Jack’s wits. Hardwicke also puts in a good performance as the author’s observant but supportive brother.

However, whilst I have no particular problem with the licence taken with history to tell a clearer story and make a particular point, in Shadowlands the simplification is taken to extremes, with academic sniffiness about Jack’s romancing embodied in the single (if effective) attitude of John Wood’s Christopher Riley, and ecclesiastical condescension in Michael Denison’s chaplain Harry Harrington. Much the same can be said of the treatment of Oxford, whose mist-covered spires, choirs and punting japes form an idealised backdrop to the film’s events; or Lewis’ thieving student Whistler (James Frain) who is initially a mild irritation to Jack but later becomes more sympathetic as the teacher’s perspective evolves. Whistler’s father’s motto ‘we read to know we are not alone’ is taken up and adapted by Lewis at the film’s end (with ‘read’ replaced by ‘love’), and whilst the first quote is accurate (Lewis’s own, I believe), the adaptation is symptomatic of the sentimentality present in Shadowlands from the beginning. And although the script touches on atheism, Joy’s Jewish background and Communist politics, these are all smoothed over far too readily in the nostalgic glow of an old-fashioned, steam-driven Britain.

Shadowlands is a well-acted, beautifully-filmed and very moving meditation on happiness and how pain is its vital and inevitable counterpart. It’s in all respects a ‘nice’ film that you can safely watch with both your nephew and your granny at the same time, without fear of loud noises or offensive language shocking either. A good thing, on the whole, and all too rare in this day and age; but in cooking up such a lovely, warm story, you feel an awful lot has been left out, and these ingredients might have added a good deal more flavour still.

Devil’s Advocate, The

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: Infallible Floridian lawyer Kevin Lomax is tempted to the Big Apple by the prospect of a big money job with a highly impressive, though morally dubious, law firm whose chief is charming rogue John Milton. As Milton takes Lomax under his wing, Kevin’s wife Mary Ann becomes convinced that something isn’t quite right about him or the situation they find themselves in. The discovery of what that something is will send each of them to the brink of what they can endure.

The theme of ‘The Devil Walks among us’ is such a staple of horror films that it almost constitutes a sub-genre (and don’t complain about that being a spoiler – just look at the title); from the clammy tension of The Exorcist and The Omen to more recent fare like The Seventh Sign, the Prince of Darkness has been wheeled out to be the cause of horror, misery and devastation to many an actor and actresses’ life. Taylor Hackford, adapting a novel by Andrew Neiderman, takes a smart approach to the work, presenting what could be a fable about 80s greed and showing that deadly sins – especially vanity – are the province of all levels of society, at all times.

Keanu Reeves is Kevin Lomax, a lawyer who has never lost a case, including, quite miraculously, the one at the film’s beginning where he successfully defends a disgusting male teacher from an allegation of sexual assault. His subsequent celebrations with sexy, round-faced wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) are interrupted by a job offer from New York. Although Lomax initially dismisses the offer, and Kevin’s Bible-reciting mother (Judith Ivey) warns him about the city’s godlessness, the couple head off and soon find themselves housed in an impossibly plush apartment where all the big names in the firm Milton, Chadwick and Waters live, including boss man John Milton (Al Pacino).

Milton, highly charismatic and highly unsettling, takes a shine to Kevin and puts him onto high-profile cases such as a triple-murder, much to the annoyance of associates like Eddie Barzoon (Jeffrey Jones); but as Kevin is drawn ever closer to Milton’s way of thinking, and to intriguingly teasing lawyer Christabella (Connie Nielsen), Mary Ann is neglected. She convinces herself that unnatural forces (personified in the wives of the partners who befriend her) are conspiring to make her infertile, with ultimately tragic consequences.

Thanks largely to the magnetism of Pacino’s performance (he is riveting even when hamming it up, as he constantly does here), The Devil’s Advocate is consistently enjoyable, taking the phrase ‘the Devil’s in the detail’ and applying it to the unscrupulous world of lawyers to attack greed, vanity and vaulting ambition. As a courtroom drama with a twist it works quite nicely – if Keanu never loses a case, somebody must be pulling the strings – but around the hour mark, when the element of horror kicks in, the film begins to feel rather half-baked.

Apart from Barzoon’s not particularly grisly demise, most of the terror is concentrated in Mary Ann; and whilst Theron’s not bad at conveying her descent into fear and madness, the point is made with a change of hairstyle and some horror tricks which recall The Shining and From Dusk Til Dawn, not to this film’s advantage. Reeves, meanwhile, is a good choice as the empty vessel that Milton wants to fill with sin and corruption, and his one-dimensional character is suited to the unthinking pursuit of advancement at all costs; but as usual he fails to completely inhabit the role, his lightweight emoting failing to convince that he loves his wife, lusts after his colleague, or understands the full horror of Pacino’s revelations. Every time Pacino gives a wide-eyed stare, flicks his tongue or cackles like a particularly evil Sid James, Keanu’s blandness sticks out a mile.

The climax comes across as bland, too. The other big revelation – that Kevin is in fact the son of the Devil (posing as a waiter!) – should be a defining, shocking moment, yet within the plot of the film it seems to make very little difference, even during the finale. As someone who frequently complains about stock situations in films it seems churlish to bemoan the lack of a chase, or fight, or big-budget showdown in this one, but the fact is that most of the climax consists of a rather static monologue by Milton in his big room as Nielsen undresses and Dracula-like figures writhe in the background. Though it’s noisy, it’s not particularly exciting – and not to give the whole game away, it’s difficult to entirely forgive the ‘start all over again’ conclusion (having slated it so much in Boxing Helena).

If all this sounds very critical, it’s done with a certain amount of affection. For whilst The Devil’s Advocate fails to generate the uneasy atmosphere of the 1970s films mentioned above, it does combine its chills with a number of satisfyingly titillating and comic touches (eg. the cameos by Don King and others, the man walking behind Milton with ‘Halo Lighting’) which speed things along; and it has at its heart a dominant performance from Pacino, who can do terrifying intensity in his sleep. This may be horror-Lite, but occasionally horror-Lite is exactly what’s required.