Monthly Archives: August 2017


WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Not satiated by her square pilot husband Tom, buxom young wife Vixen fills her days in British Columbia by taking pleasure with anyone she can grab hold of, excepting her brother’s black friend Niles whom she mercilessly insults instead. However, Vixen’s teasing threatens to backfire and when a lucrative charter goes awry for Tom, she’s not the only one in danger.

Looking for an adventure holiday with a difference this year? Why not come to the British Columbia guest house run by Tom and Vixen Palmer (Garth Pillsbury and Erica Gavin)? Amiable host Tom will fly you there and will be happy to take you fishing, while big-hearted Vixen will accommodate you any way she can.

But don’t take our word for it, just ask happy couple Dave and Janet King (Robert Aiken and Vincene Wallace), who’ll both vouch for Vixen’s attentive nature: she aims to please – and be pleased – any time of the day or night. Just a word of warning: stay clear of Vixen’s biker brother Judd (Jon Evans), a troublemaker who loves stirring things up between Vixen and his draft-dodging friend Niles (Harrison Page); Niles has to suffer Vixen’s sharp tongue and there’s only so much abuse he can take. You might also want to avoid political conversation with visitors such as outwardly genial Irishman O’Bannion (Michael Donovan O’Donnell), who charters Tom’s plane but isn’t really bound for San Francisco.

In a sense, it feels pointless to even attempt a review of Vixen. Viewed at the most basic level, Meyer’s film is exploitation personified, a skin flick which jams as much naked flesh and as many couplings as it can into 70 energetic, frantic minutes. Erica Gavin fits the director’s bill for aggressively-natured, large-breasted women and Meyer films her with fervid enthusiasm, particularly Vixen’s powerfully erotic seduction of the sozzled Janet. If that’s what you’re after, the incendiary elements specifically designed to cause outrage – incest, racism, Communism and at least attempted rape – are no more than window dressing.

If, however, you want to look at Vixen in the same way as any other film, some of that window dressing is highly problematic. Vixen getting it on with her brother is incredibly icky, while her vile name-calling of Niles is shocking, not to say unacceptable, to a modern ear. More than these, however, the rape scene is troubling not only due to what it is, but because the film suggests that Niles is somehow absolved of blame because he’s provoked by both his victim and the thoroughly despicable Judd.

Also, although they’re a cut above the mere nods to characterisation that pornographic films offer (so I understand), Vixen’s characters don’t quite work as real people, and the fact that the acting is either highly stylised or terrible, depending on how kind you’re feeling, doesn’t help. In fact, Harrison Page actually does a decent job as Niles, but he can’t fully convey the numerous conflicts that Meyer piles on his shoulders. The incredibly unsubtle music quickly becomes repetitive and grating too.

Whatever you make of its contents, Vixen is undeniably filmed with style. Meyer shoots and edits in a tight, exciting fashion and refreshingly refuses to pad out the running time for its own sake. There’s also something about the brash, confident tone of the movie which gives it greater substance than the vast majority of softcore outings.

Perhaps it’s the setting in the great outdoors, or the fact that Vixen (like most of Meyer’s women) is such a strong character, or the way that the director makes Gavin (and Wallace, for that matter) look so good; but while Vixen is at heart a titty film, it honestly doesn’t feel sleazy. The sexual content is mixed with a knowing sense of humour throughout, from the solemn travelogue opening to the utterly ridiculous sincerity of O’Bannion’s quest to find his own pot of gold in Cuba. And if the mixture of drama and politics that forms the film’s climax doesn’t have the ring of true drama, at least Russ has a stab at it – and he even puts in a cameo appearance in the movie’s pay-off.

So, Vixen is a sex film with bad acting, ridiculously outré plotting, poor taste and racist language which – even when condemning the speaker – sounds inappropriate and awfully dated at this length of time. However, Meyer is absolutely in control of events and shows that he’s a master of his craft. Whether or not you see any merit in that craft has to be a matter for you.


Lost Highway

WFTB Score: 14/20

The plot: Jealous saxophone player Fred Madison discovers that he may have butchered his wife Renee, who he suspected of being unfaithful. Convicted and condemned, Fred undergoes a fantastical transformation and emerges as a younger man with a great deal of sexual potency. He is, however, still deeply troubled.

Discussing David Lynch films is tricky. Really tricky. You could do it like this: Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is warned that Dick Laurent is dead. He and Renee (Patricia Arquette, brunette) have a series of videotapes delivered to their door, showing somebody videoing their house, outside then inside, and finally showing Fred having hacked Renee to pieces. Just before the delivery of the last tape, they go to a party where Renee is overfriendly with the host Andy (Michael Massee) and Fred meets a mysterious man (Robert Blake) who reveals that he can be in two places at once.

Condemned to death by electric chair, lightning surrounds Fred’s prison cell and the man in the cell transforms from Fred into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a young small-time crook and gifted mechanic who services the car of tough guy Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia), known to the police as Dick Laurent, and also services his companion Alice (Arquette again, blonde) in addition to his girlfriend Sheila (Natasha Gregson Wagner, bearing similarities to Arquette as a brunette). Eddy finding out about the liaison, Alice devises a getaway plan and convinces Pete to rob her associate Andy (Massee again); during the robbery, Andy dies violently and the pair drive off to the desert, making love whilst waiting for her fence to arrive to get cash for Andy’s stolen effects.

During the love-making Alice tells Pete he will never have her and walks off. Fred, not Pete, gets up, alone in the desert. He discovers that the fence’s hut is in reality the home of the Mystery Man (still Blake). They find Eddy/Laurent in the Lost Highway Hotel; Fred kills him and just has time to tell himself that Dick Laurent is dead before speeding down the highway in a car chase that sees him surrounding by electrifying lights…

You could do it like that, but that doesn’t help to tell you what the film is actually like. Like Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway presents two stories which may in fact be one, told in a deliberately unsettling style completely at odds with mainstream Hollywood. There are uncomfortable silences, oppressive background hums and violent, shouty songs; there’s unsettling sound editing; there’s not much action, but a lot of snippets and mysterious coincidences. And the first sex scene between Fred and Renee, whilst simply being the two of them in bed, is a terrifyingly unhappy business. More than anything, Lost Highway feels like a twisted ghost story.

It’s quite easy to piece together an explanation of the film which makes sense, and it is important that the viewer can do this for the film not to feel like a series of random events. The most plausible explanation would suggest that once condemned to death (though possibly much earlier), the film portrays the hallucinations of a dying or drugged man, echoes of his real life occasionally seeping through – the music, the face of his wife – interspersed with fantasies of sexual prowess; but even these are tinged with the obsession and jealousy that destroyed his marriage. This may be way off the mark, but solving the puzzle really isn’t the point of Lynch’s films: it is the intriguing journey that matters, and the journey convincingly takes you into the neurosis/es of the central character(s).

Pullman is very good in the lead role, with Arquette, Getty, Loggia and Blake all adding to the atmosphere with strong, aggressive performances. Arquette in particular is asked to do a lot of sex-related work and whilst this occasionally gratuitous, it never feels inappropriate and is not done for titillation. She is an object of desire and obsession and an adult film approaches this in an adult way.

Undoubtedly, Lost Highway will not be to everybody’s tastes and those determined not to like it will find plenty to complain about: it never really gathers pace, the film looks sparse and low-budget, a lot of the acting is pretty static and there is an overwhelming feeling of artsiness about it. I don’t go along with the line that if you don’t like a complicated film it must be because you don’t understand it, but even if you were not struck by Lost Highway the first time round, give Lynch’s jigsaw puzzle another go. Just bear in mind that there may be a few pieces missing.

Carry On Again Doctor

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Dr Nookey, having made a nuisance of himself in pursuit of glamorous patient Goldie Locks, is exiled to the poorly-named Beatific Islands to man a privately-funded hospital. He doesn’t find many patients and loses himself in drink and misery until his companion, Dr Gladstone Screwer, alerts him to a miracle weight-loss serum. Hot-footing it back to England, Dr Nookey opens his own incredibly successful clinic, much to the chagrin of former boss Mr Carver, who will use any means at his disposal to discover Nookey’s secret.

Though in no sense a formal sequel to any of the other medical Carry Ons, there is nonetheless an inevitable sense of familiarity about goings-on in Carry On Again Doctor. Kenneth Williams is once more the snooty superior, this time Frederick Carver, a surgeon desperate to get his healing hands on the bulging purse of widowed private patient Ellen Moore (Joan Sims). Jim Dale is another clumsy doctor – Dr Nookey, causing mayhem with Longhampton Hospital’s electricity supply as he tries to impress model Goldie Locks (Barbara Windsor). And Hattie Jacques is again tasked – not for the last time – with wearing a look of semi-permanent outrage as she fills her matron’s uniform.

When Nookey, inebriated by the naughty tricks of Dr Stoppidge (Charles Hawtrey), terrifies an already nervous patient and goes on the rampage in the hospital, Carver takes his chance to get rid of him and ingratiate himself with the wealthy widow at the same time; Nookey is exiled to the rain-and-windswept Beatific Islands where he encounters Sid James’s Dr Gladstone Screwer, head of Mrs Moore’s charitable mission. Gladstone has little to do but live up to his surname with wives Monday to Friday, but although the offer of a wife doesn’t cheer Nookey up much, the transformation of the proposed bride from an overweight heifer to a trim tease in a week immediately sets pound signs flashing in his eyes.

Nookey returns to set up a lucrative clinic in England with the assistance of Mrs Moore, who, along with Goldie, is booked in for treatment; Carver, returning from his own hellish trip to the Beatific Islands, learns of the arrangement with horror and sends Stoppidge out in drag to find out the serum’s secret; that secret, and the cash it attracts, also brings Gladstone to England.

Featuring the full complement of knowing nudge-winkery and bright performances from most of the series regulars, Carry On Again Doctor is an enjoyable addition to the series, if not one from the top drawer. Jim Dale’s Nookey is the main focus of the plot and whilst he is perfectly amiable, Dale is not quite up to the mark; to be fair to him the character is hopelessly overloaded, required to be simultaneously clever, clumsy, randy, devious, cheeky and handsome; but the performance reflects this, borrowing Norman Wisdom’s mannerisms one minute, copying Sid’s laugh the next, and having him aggressively pursue Goldie just after he has shied away from the prominent sexuality of Valerie Leon’s secretary.

As if in sympathy, the plot is more than usually shambolic, and whilst the jokes still come thick and fast, with a number of gems (such as Gladstone getting the football scores via jungle drums) buried amongst the usual ‘having it’/’fancy a bit’ innuendo, there is something amiss in the characters’ interactions. Ellen Moore’s interest in Dr Nookey is underplayed and crucially Goldie seems to dislike him throughout, making the sudden ending (one of the series’ weakest) all the harder to take.

The fact that Sid only turns up amongst the rest of the cast late on deprives the film of much of the Carry Ons trademark lechery, which I am increasingly coming to realise trades on the chemistry – however uncomfortable it may be to watch – that exists between Sid and Barbara. It should also be said that whilst Williams is superbly imperious (and spared the indignities of some of the later efforts), Sims and Hawtrey do occasionally seem a little unfocused. At least Peter Butterworth is limited to a (very funny) walk-on, and Jack Douglas is missing entirely.

Carry On Again Doctor, despite its title, manages to mix up its unthinkingly sexist formula with some good new gags, even if some of the characterisations are as unbalanced as the storyline. Wisely expanding the doctors’ horizons far outside of the wards, this is far from Talbot Rothwell’s worst script and the leading lights of the series do it justice, with production values to match (the X-ray effect is particularly well done). Cheerful, and not too cheap.


WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Determined not to let her stepson Prince Edward marry and deprive her of her throne, Queen Narissa pushes the lovely Giselle into the real world on her wedding day. Once over the shock caused by modern day New York, Giselle discovers that there is more than one Prince Charming prepared to bestow true love’s first kiss.

Disney once ruled the roost in the world of family films, but it’s a world that has recently become a very crowded place, whether you’re talking about animated features or otherwise. Hemmed in by a horde of revisionist fairytales (the Shrek Trilogy and Hoodwink’d to name but two), Disney have decided with Enchanted to make fun of themselves, although as might be expected the ribbing is very gentle.

The beginning of Giselle’s fairytale story is very familiar, with its pop-up storybook and old-fashioned swelling choir leading us into an animal-filled dwelling, clearly inviting us to recall classics such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Giselle is looking for her first experience of true love, seemingly to be provided by the square-jawed Prince Edward. Saving Giselle as she falls from a tree, the pair are to be married; but the jealous Queen Narissa, in the form of an old crone, puts paid to the union by pushing the bride into a mysterious waterfall, causing her to land up in a live-action Times Square.

As the animated section lasts little longer than ten minutes, it would be wrong to dwell on it too much. However, the characters are clearly drawn with the live actors in mind and this makes them look odd, and Amy Adams’ voice is not particularly suited for a cartoon heroine; also, the wise-cracking chipmunk Pip comes across like an annoying PA, so it’s a huge relief that he loses his voice in the Big Apple.

Anyway, Giselle (now entirely represented by Adams) is rescued from her Big City trauma by pragmatic divorce lawyer Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey) and his daughter Morgan, who is not allowed the fantasy of fairytale books even though she’s only six. Robert is due to marry fashion designer Nancy (Idina Menzel), though as he gets to know Giselle better his feelings about her and romance as a whole evolve. In the meantime, Edward (James Marsden) also arrives in New York to rescue Giselle, hampered by Narissa’s devious lackey Nathaniel (Timothy Spall) who pops up and tries to trick Giselle into eating poisoned apples.

You can guess the fun and misunderstandings that are to be wrought from naïve cartoon characters appearing in businesslike New York, and Enchanted does a pretty good job of presenting them: an impromptu musical interlude in Central Park is a particular highlight, the cast singing That’s How You Know with energy and colour; the vermin cleaning Robert’s flat are also funny and immaculately brought to life. As far as the story goes, however, there are a few problems.

Firstly, the basic idea of Enchanted is essentially a copy of Elf, and Will Ferrell does the larger-than-life fish-out-of-water rather better than Amy Adams, who is all wide-eyed surprise and hand waving. Secondly, Adams and the rest of the cast are not well served by a mediocre script, which takes a lot of time establishing that Robert doesn’t believe in romance when it should be having fun.

James Marsden is entertaining as Prince Edward, but he is often overshadowed by Spall or the Computer-generated Pip (who we see too much), and Edward inevitably recalls Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride, a much sparkier and wittier movie. The script also has shopping as the most magical thing that can happen in the real world (“much better than a fairy godmother,” says Morgan, waving a gold credit card); this is great news for all the Manhattan boutiques that get a bit of screen-time, but is surely a horrible message to give to children, however subliminally.

I have other minor gripes too. Not that she has to be, but Rachel Covey as Morgan is not a particularly cherubic child; she’s no brat, which is good, but compared to (say) Mara Wilson at a comparable age she doesn’t bring much to the picture. Menzel is badly done by as Robert’s less charming option (scenes giving her a more rounded character were cut for ‘pacing’), and palming Nancy off with Edward seems small recompense. Whilst Susan Sarandon is perfectly good as Narissa, getting to act her head off in the scary finale, and Giselle rescuing Patrick a refreshing reversal from the norm, the end of the film is not particularly original – and it’s a long time coming. And don’t get me started on why the song chosen for the Waltz is all wrong!

Enchanted is not a bad film in the slightest, and viewers of a certain age will no doubt find the adventures of the sweet Giselle completely captivating. For me, however, it doesn’t shake up memories of classic film fairytales so much as make me wish I was watching one of the classics instead. For while this has its moments, it’s not particularly magical, and I can’t see it being regarded as a classic in the years to come.


WFTB Score: 16/20

The plot: Princess Elizabeth of England needs courage and good fortune to survive the bloody reign of her Catholic half-sister Mary. However, Mary’s death only slightly improves Elizabeth’s prospects, as her kingdom is impoverished and threatened from all sides. The Queen’s advisors all believe she needs to make a politic marriage; but if she is to give her heart to any man, it will be to her long-term lover Lord Robert Dudley.

England in 1554 is no place to be if you’re a Protestant, since ’Bloody’ Queen Mary (Kathy Burke) is all for burning heretics. The threat goes double for Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett), whom the childless Queen considers a rival to the throne. Mary tasks the ambitious Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) to find treachery in Elizabeth, and she is indeed arrested and sent to the tower; but she is allowed to leave and resume her passionate love affair with Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), only to return to the court as Queen when Mary dies.

In the eyes of the Court, especially Council advisor Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough), Elizabeth’s reign is in constant peril whilst she remains unmarried, and since the French are camped in Scotland, the Court seem to have a point. Ambassadors to the Courts of both Spain and France (James Frain and Eric Cantona) push the claims of (respectively) King Phillip and the Duc D’Anjou (Vincent Cassel), but a visit by the Duc proves disastrous.

With Dudley also proving an ineligible suitor, Elizabeth turns her attention to parlous matters of state and the threat of assassination emanating from – among other places – Rome; to do this and still appear whiter than white, she relies on the quiet but ruthless machinations of her trusted eminence grise, Francis Walshingham (Geoffrey Rush).

The difficulty faced by any film based on historical events is that it has to balance the demands of telling its story dramatically, and in a narratively interesting framework, against the need to retain some historical accuracy – your audience will scoff if you’ve gone against the facts and invented too much of the story. And there are many who do scoff at the inaccuracies in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, getting their knickers in an enormous twist in the process (if you want examples, Sir William was a much younger man than portrayed here, and Elizabeth was well aware of Dudley’s ‘secret’).

My feeling is that nobody complains about the dramatic licence Shakespeare takes with his histories, and why should they here, since the result is still an excellent film. Whatever the deviations from history, the events of Elizabeth feel as though they could have happened that way; nobody changes motivation unexpectedly, or acts without good reason, meaning that the story makes sense to itself. And Kapur unfolds the constantly shifting intrigues with great skill, creating an atmosphere of peril around Elizabeth that she confronts through sacrifice and courage – as she says herself, she becomes her father’s daughter. Interestingly, there’s a Thatcherite quality about her dealings with those around her which makes us consider her role as a woman in power.

Elizabeth explores the Queen’s dilemmas in love and in ruling the country, complicated by the link between the two; and while it debunks the concept of the Virgin Queen as so much propaganda, we see her choosing an unexpected path as she weds herself to her country. The viewer is invited into the heart of Elizabeth’s and England’s turmoil (for example, the grisly battle scene in Scotland), and from start to finish the film is violent and sexy, political and lyrical: in other words, everything The Other Boleyn Girl isn’t.

Elizabeth also benefits from some wonderful acting, chiefly an honest, raw performance from Cate Blanchett. Blanchett’s monarch is at times immensely unsure of herself, and some commentators have decried the notion that Elizabeth would exhibit such weakness. However, the idea that she had to overcome private anxieties, set aside her true emotions, is appealing on a human level and Blanchett works wonders to convey her emotions in gestures both small and grand. Her final transformation into the sexless, marble-like Virgin Queen is extraordinary, though musical pedants may consider Elgar and Mozart an anachronistic touch every bit as vulgar as the pop inserted into Marie Antoinette.

Blanchett’s multi-faceted performance is admirably supported by Fiennes (handsome but fundamentally weak), Rush (terrifically devious), Eccleston (solid and true to himself) and Attenborough (venerable), as well as Emily Mortimer as her chief Lady-in-Waiting, Kat Ashley (Kelly Macdonald also pops up and meets a tragic end). Star names also feature in minor roles, not least John Gielgud in a fleeting cameo as the Pope, his last role in a feature film, and Daniel Craig as the Vatican’s would-be assassin (not for the last time, getting tortured for his troubles).

There are also a few curious casting decisions, such as Wayne Sleep, Lily Allen (then unknown, of course), and Angus Deayton; but it‘s Eric Cantona who sticks out, even now his footballing days are long gone. The fact that Cantona largely speaks in a foreign tongue does help a bit, but compared with the French actors on show (Fanny Ardant, Vincent Cassel) it’s obvious that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. However, while he’s not very good, he’s not ruinously bad and is no more than a minor distraction.

In other facets, Elizabeth shows itself to have majestic production values. The locations and sets are fabulously sumptuous yet authentic in feel, as are the dresses and other costumes. The camerawork is fluid, and Michael Hirst (who went on to pen the sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age and The Tudors) provides an intelligent script which feels neither jarringly modern nor stiflingly Elizabethan. The only false notes are struck by Cassel’s zany, cross-dressing Duc D’Anjou: he adds humour to the film (Elizabeth certainly has a laugh about him), but his scenes appear out of place when there are life and death decisions being made elsewhere.

It may well re-arrange events and embroider characters for dramatic gain, but Elizabeth – like The King’s Speech more recently* – does an impressive job of bringing across both the events and the people who shaped them without feeling sensationalist or artificial. Frequently dark in tone and colour, it’s a heavy-going film and not one you’d want to watch twice in quick succession: but in contrast to the fluff that has passed for historical drama in more recent times, it’s a minor masterpiece. Good Queen Bess!

NOTES: The moral? If you’re a British Monarch in need, call Geoffrey Rush.

High Fidelity

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Record store owner Rob Gordon is distraught and angry when lawyer girlfriend Laura walks out on him for an older man. Re-visiting old relationships to try to make some sense of his life, he only discovers how much he misses Laura. Will love tear them apart? Or will love build a bridge between his heart and hers?

Based on Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel of the same name, High Fidelity transfers the action from London to Chicago whilst remaining the core of the story: obsessed by his break-up with Laura (Iben Hjejle) but pretending not to be, Rob (John Cusack) re-traces his old girlfriends to see if there is any pattern to his getting dumped, picking up one or two new partners on the way. This sounds like the basis for a good romantic comedy, but Cusack (as actor, executive producer and one of four screenwriters) opts to take the serious route, making for an odd viewing experience.

Whilst Cusack’s Rob is no doubt faithful to the book (I have read it, but some time ago), his miserable, surly nature throughout the film makes him a difficult character to sympathise with, despite the fact that he is an engaging presence during frequent breaks from action to speak to camera. Also, what he discloses about himself stops him from being seen as a lovable loser, specifically the affair he had which led to Laura terminating a pregnancy, or indeed the affair he nearly has when he and Laura are reconciled. Elsewhere his obsession sees him haranguing people outside their windows, usually sodden with rain, either in his pursuit of Laura or in flashbacks when he recalls his old relationships. Sometimes he is not at fault, sometimes he is misunderstood: but mostly he is, as he admits himself, an asshole.

In presenting a main character with so many flaws, the film is almost too faithful to the book for its own good, and this goes for other elements too; Laura going back to Rob after leaving him for their creepy neighbour Ian (an entertaining cameo from Tim Robbins) because she is ‘too tired’ not to, or having sex instead of going back to her father’s funeral reception – these are bold actions and have a realistic ring to them, but do little to lift the mood in a film with few uplifting moments. Whilst the famous ‘Top five’ lists are included and form a vital part of the film’s structure, the number of them is curtailed and they do not work so well on film. Reading the novel, you can stop to argue with the lists and make up your own. The film carries on regardless, and Rob and his employees Dick and Barry (Todd Louiso and Jack Black respectively) mumble through the lists so quickly, it’s easy to miss half the songs they’re talking about.

Dick and Barry provide most of the film’s light relief: mild-mannered Dick begins a gentle relationship with a customer, whilst Barry is an energized ball of aggression and livens the film up no end whenever he appears, not least when he finally gets to sing in a band. Danish actress Iben Hjejle is fine as Laura and it would be wrong to criticise her for not being familiar to an English-speaking audience. Like Cusack, however, she struggles to make us feel for her, even as she grieves for her father, and the occasional Scandinavian inflection does distract from her performance. Elsewhere, Joan Cusack is solid as ever as a friend to both Rob and Laura, and Catherine Zeta Jones and Lisa Bonet are pleasant enough as break-up no. 4 Charlie and casual partner Marie de Salle.

I have a few other issues with the film, although the relocation of the scenario to America is not one of them (at least the subject of the novel wasn’t completely changed, unlike the Hollywood version of Fever Pitch). Firstly, I regretted the absence of the book’s Elvis Costello discussions, which is just a personal thing. Secondly, the film omits (although it can be found among the deleted scenes) a funny scene where a bitter ex-wife offers Rob her husband’s priceless record collection for peanuts. And this leads on to the third thing: When the book was released in 1995, vinyl records were becoming an endangered species and home recording onto CD becoming affordable, so by 2000 the idea of a store full of LPs and making mix-tapes on cassette must already have seemed old-fashioned* – now, of course, you could fit Rob’s entire collection onto a decent-sized iPod*.

High Fidelity is not without its high points. There are some funny moments – particularly the varied reactions of the record store staff to Ian’s appearance in the store – and the film should be applauded for presenting in an honest fashion the different ways that men and women use sex and relationships, rather than falling into the Hugh Grant/Richard Curtis pattern of romantic comedy. The music that gives expression to the characters’ feelings is of vital importance, and in this respect the soundtrack is both teed up and executed very nicely. All in all, however, Frears’ film feels less than the sum of its parts, and is saved from its pessimism only by the strength of Jack Black’s feel-good performance.

NOTE: Bizarrely, fashion being what it is, LPs and mixtapes are currently all the rage again and iPods aren’t being made any more. But you get the point, hopefully.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Compromised subway dispatcher Walter Garber’s lousy day gets much worse when a train is hijacked by a ruthless robber calling himself Ryder and demanding $10 million in the space of an hour, or his hostages will start to die. With the assistance of negotiators and New York’s Mayor, Walter manages to get Ryder what he needs with the minimum of bloodshed; but when Walter is told to deliver the cash himself, the Average Joe needs to display extraordinary courage.

The phrase ‘you know you’re getting old when…’ can be completed in countless different ways, not least ‘you know you’re getting old when you start beginning sentences with “you know you’re getting old”.’ You certainly know you’re getting on a bit when some films start to look as though you’ve seen them before, just in a slightly different order; which is true of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, notwithstanding the fact that I completed this review before seeing the 1974 original.

Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is a dispatcher for the New York subway system, disturbed that train 123 has stopped where it should not have stopped and extremely disturbed when he discovers why: the train has been taken over by a violent, sweary and unpredictable hijacker called ‘Ryder’ (John Travolta) and his gang of hijackers for hire. Ryder demands $10 million be delivered to him within the hour, and a hostage – the carriage contains, amongst others, a mother and child, a former paratrooper and a young kid called George (Alex Kaluzhsky) whose interrupted webcam session with the girlfriend offers live pictures to TV news – will be shot for every minute the authorities are late.

Naturally, Garber gets the experts in, including hostage negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro) and the about-to-retire Mayor (James Gandolfini); but Ryder warms to Garber and insists on only dealing with him. As the pair get to know each other, the reason for Garber’s relatively low-status job emerges (he took a bung to recommend new Japanese trains) and the police learn enough about Ryder to put a real name to his face, that of an investment banker recently out of jail with more than the ransom money on his mind. But the clock is ticking, and when a crash delays the arrival of the cash Ryder reveals just how ruthless he is; suddenly Garber is thrust into a situation where he has to hand over the money personally, and a breathless climax sees him chasing the robbers through long-disused parts of the subway whilst the train speeds inexorably towards a terrible crash in Coney Island.

I’m not dissatisfied with Pelham 1 2 3 because it’s a heist movie, you understand: heist movies offering something new still crop up from time to time, such as Heat, Inside Man or the flawed but feisty Swordfish. The problem with this specific heist movie is that it is so thoroughly reminiscent of those films you’re tempted to think it has been pasted together from outtakes. Washington’s Garber – the essentially decent man with a blot on his reputation – is no different to his characters in either Inside Man or Out of Time: and because of this you never really believe Denzel is the ordinary guy caught up by events, despite the domestic niceties with the wife (they’ll never use a whole gallon of milk, even a US one!).

Ryder, meanwhile, sees Travolta reprising Gabriel from Swordfish but with a raised voice and a different haircut and beard: are we meant to think of him as less of a bad guy just because he was in Grease once? Given that Turturro and Gandolfini are merely good actors lending weight to cookie-cutter parts and neither Garber’s wife nor Ryder’s accomplices are given any sort of character or plot interest, it’s little wonder that my eyelids started to droop during both attempts to watch the film. Even the hostages – the usual assortment of ages, races, sexes etc. – are bland, with the unnamed child used as the obvious point of tension (nobody in their right mind should give a stuff about George and his sordid little webcam romance).

Tony Scott’s ploy to prevent the viewer from nodding off is to introduce action at every available opportunity, not only via Ryder’s arbitrary countdowns which trigger bouts of well-staged but often completely gratuitous stunt work, but by slowing down or speeding up the film to jolt us out of our comfort zones. Look, it’s not merely a subway train, it’s the subway train OF DOOM! That’s no ordinary police helicopter, it’s the helicopter OF HOPE! And people don’t merely get shot: they get very, very shot. Scott’s kinetic style doesn’t make the film difficult to watch, but the approach already seems dated and it adds little to the atmosphere. Neither does the all-pervasive use of explicit language, which quickly gets boring since it’s inserted into the script for use by all characters equally and therefore serves no purpose other than to make younger viewers giggle.

On top of all that, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 tries to take advantage of the vaguely zeitgeisty notion of Ryder being a Wall St trader gone bad, or since he was already bad, superbad. However, this is patently daft. Even if you swallow the proposal that a share of $10 million might not last you the rest of your life, the 9/11-referring conceit that a hijacked train which doesn’t even stop the rest of the subway trains in New York could nonetheless send Wall Street down ten percent and gold shares* up several thousand percent is clearly idiotic.

I can only assume that the identikit feel of Pelham 1 2 3 is a roundabout tribute to the excellence and influence of the original; which only makes the question of why this re-make was considered a good idea all the more pertinent. Tony Scott did some good work – amongst the dross – but this film really makes me wish he’d stuck to pulp movies like True Romance where he put his talents to use on much fresher material. This isn’t awful, but the whole Denzel vs Travolta thing is just…getting old.

NOTES: For the majority of the film Ryder tracks ‘Gold’ prices whereas the computer he checks at the end refers to ‘Gold Shares Activity.’ If he had been lucky enough to buy very, very cheap shares in a gold mining company before he went to jail, the figures might – just – come near to stacking up. But the film can’t be bothered to explain itself, since it’s too busy crashing vehicles into each other.