Monthly Archives: August 2017

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.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: A subway train is seized by four armed robbers who take eighteen passengers hostage and cause New York Transit Authority police officer Zachary Garber a massive headache. As the callous leader of the gang demands $1 million and threatens to kill a hostage for every minute the money is late, the authorities race to get them the cash without loss of life. However, the gang of four are unpredictable, fractious and as dangerous to each other as to the passengers.

Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walther Matthau) of the New York Transit Authority Police has a pressing excuse to cut short a tour he’s giving to Japanese visitors when the subway train designated Pelham One Two Three makes an unscheduled stop between stations. As Garber quickly discovers, a group of robbers have taken the train, or at least part of it, hostage.

Though they are dressed identically, the colour-coded robbers are a disparate group: clear-thinking, ruthless leader Mr Blue (Robert Shaw); taciturn Mr Brown (Earl Hindman); edgy ex-mafia man Mr Grey (Hector Elizondo), who shows an unsettling relish in his work; and sniffly Mr Green (Martin Balsam), who doesn’t want anyone to get hurt and worries that he’s not going to see out the day.

When Garber calls to find out what’s going on, Blue explains their demands: they want $1 million from the city, and to make sure they get it, they will kill a hostage for every minute the money is delayed. Garber tries to reason with Blue and keep his mixed bag of hostages alive, but it’s not as if those around him have a single objective either: Coordinator Frank Correll (Dick O‘Neill) just wants to keep the train network running; Garber’s boss Rico (Jerry Stiller) just wants to read his paper; and the beleaguered, bed-ridden mayor doesn’t care what happens as long as it improves his poll ratings. With the clock ticking, Garber has to keep Blue in the dark about the slow progress of the money, all the while hoping that a plain-clothes officer on the train will spring into action. In any event, he doesn’t see how the robbers can possibly get out of the subway system alive: for some of them, he’s absolutely right.

The thing that instantly hits you about James Sargeant’s adaptation of John Godey’s novel is how completely unfussy and unshowy it is. The ‘taking’ of the train happens early on and the drama unfolds in an uncomplicated but effective manner, the action presented in a fluid, matter-of-fact fashion and delivered with a sly sense of humour: ‘What do they expect for their lousy 35 cents,’ Correll says as the drama escalates, ’to live forever?’

As it rolls along, the film introduces a host of colourful characters, from the woman in the control room whose sanitary needs have caused no end of trouble, to the mayor’s pushy deputy, Warren (Tony Roberts). Nobody stops to explain themselves or the situation, they just get on with the job (I wish I could say the same about many of today‘s bloated blockbusters). Matthau (grumpy) and Shaw (chilling) are excellent, and they are amply supported by their colleagues and cohorts. Not all of the extended cast are equally effective – the mayor in particular is treated as a figure of fun and quickly forgotten about – but in general there’s an organic and natural feel to the story, with a wonderfully brash and authentic New York quality to the performances (including those of the hostages, none of whom are particularly developed but who represent the diversity of New York’s population).

Because it’s presented so briskly, it’s that much easier to get swept along with the story as the minutes tick down and the money is counted, then driven at high speed through Manhattan. In truth, the climax is not as effective as it might be, as Garber joins Inspector Daniels (Julius Harris) to chase the robbers overground whilst they squabble amongst themselves (and the train speeds along with the help of obviously sped-up film). Also, the ‘what happened to Green’ coda makes for a strangely low-key ending, although the very satisfying pay-off sends you away with a smile.

I’ve tried not to mention Tony Scott’s stony-faced remake as it quite obviously has nothing to do with the making of this film. It may well be the case that I need to revisit my review of that film and put all this there, but the points of difference are obvious and nearly all of them are in the original’s favour. Scott (or scriptwriter Brian Helgeland) reworks the story to suit the casting of two major stars, combining Correll and Garber into a single personality and loading him with a redundant corruption backstory, whilst Travolta is the whole gang of bad guys rolled into one sweary madman. Denzel Washington’s Garber gets himself into the action in a much more direct way, which works according to the demands of the modern action film, but it comes at the cost of personality, atmosphere and audience involvement. In this film, you have a real sense of the city and feel for the hostages, for Garber, even a little for Green: in the remake, there’s only room for the egos of the two stars – and you don’t really care much for either of them.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three contains pretty much everything you could ask of a heist movie, which explains why so many films (not least Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs) have copied it, though rarely with the same success as the original. It’s not perfect, with a slightly uneven tone and elements that date it – even allowing for its underground location, the film looks murky, and it’s really not nice to call people ‘monkeys’ – but it’s skillfully written, acted and put together, without a single editing trick in sight. I’d take this Pelham over Scott’s version any day.

Sliding Doors

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Sacked PR executive Helen’s day to forget takes a bizarre turn when she both catches and misses her tube train home. In one reality she catches her boyfriend Gerry cheating with an ex and makes drastic changes to her life, meeting the charming but not entirely honest James; in the other, Gerry gets away with it, leaving Helen in the dark.

The term ‘high concept’ is often used in a derogatory sense, applied to films with bizarre premises like Twins or Snakes on a Plane where the title says it all. However, the term can also used with reference to more highbrow films such as Groundhog Day, where the overarching idea is not only more measured but also capable of producing an intelligent script and provoking philosophical debate. In theory, Sliding Doors, a film about a single and seemingly inconsequential moment causing a life to head in two contrasting directions, should fall squarely into the latter category: then again, in theory, Schrodinger’s cat is both dead and alive at the same time.

Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the London-based ex-PR person in question, conveniently sacked for ‘borrowing’ vodka from work for a party whilst her stay-at-home boyfriend, supposed novelist Gerry (John Lynch), is conducting an affair with his American ex Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Dejectedly heading for the tube station, we see Helen going down the stairs twice: in the first reality, she catches the train, reluctantly talks to smart-aleck Scot James (John Hannah), and walks in on Gerry and Lydia, later seeking comfort in drink and her friend Anna (Zara Turner). In the second, Helen is involved in an attempted mugging (so gains a distinguishing plaster on her head) and by the time she has got home Lydia has left, allowing Gerry to cover his tracks.

‘First’ Helen (the one without the plaster) decides, with James’s assistance, to get her life in order and helpfully equips herself with a short, blonde haircut to face the world with. She starts her own PR company and hits it off with James, who unfortunately has his own complications with a sick mother and a secret wife, whilst Gerry misses her dreadfully and tries to win her back. Meanwhile, ‘Second’, dowdy Helen has to be content with low-paid sandwich delivery and waitressing jobs while Gerry carries on his affair with a dirty weekend in Dorset, not even listening when Helen tries to tell him she’s pregnant. While ‘Unlucky’ Helen eventually discovers Gerry’s secret, ‘Lucky’ Helen – pregnant with James’s child – discovers the existence of Claudia. Whichever reality she’s in, there is no way of escaping tragedy, but fate has a strange way of working itself out.

If this makes Sliding Doors sound complicated, fret not: for writer and director Peter Howitt arranges his scenes with enough skill and differentiation that it is always clear which version of Helen we are watching (follow the hair, essentially). What’s less clear is why the dual story idea exists; I don’t mean how it comes about – it’s a film, I can deal with fantasy – but what purpose it’s meant to achieve, given that a) the event that determines Helen’s future is so arbitrary, b) not to give the game away, but both versions end up in similar predicaments, and c) the final scene with its ‘spooky’ dialogue adds nothing to our understanding of the film. You certainly don’t feel that anyone has learnt anything, the whole point of Groundhog Day. If the two parallel timelines had repercussions on each other throughout the film, Sliding Doors could have been fascinating and complex in the manner of a romantic Final Destination: but they don’t, so it’s not.

What remains are two stories, each involving the same characters, that play out as more or less standard, or rather sub-standard, romantic comedy dramas. In one, Gerry is tortured by the affair he’s carrying out and wants to get rid of Lydia, though his weak will (and Lydia’s strong will) force him into ever more farcical positions. In the other, Gerry is tortured by the break-up and also loses Lydia, whilst Helen and James fall in love, the waters muddied by Claudia, the secret wife. Neither story is really strong enough to stand on its own and the pair only just about work in parallel.

Unfortunately, Howitt’s script is light on jokes, with swearing taking their place on most occasions, and his sitcom-strength lines are delivered weakly by a generally unimpressive cast. Paltrow and her accent are both okay, though never really sympathetic, but Tripplehorn is just mean and it’s totally inconceivable that either of them would find anything charming about Lynch’s lazy and idiotic Gerry, who isn’t helped by mocking friend and unpleasant cipher Russell (Douglas McFerran).

Also, although John Hannah is a good actor and strong screen presence, he is by no means a romantic lead; therefore, the film basically boils down to a host of unconvincing relationships not leavened by much in the way of frivolity (whoever wrote the tagline ‘Romance was never this fun’ must have been in some pretty lousy relationships).

Discovering the flaws in Sliding Doors is a pity as the first time I watched it, the illusion that the film’s structure was brilliant, innovative and meaningful carried me through the entire story. In truth, it’s not remotely on a par with the best of high concept films – silly or otherwise – and isn’t even the equal of the Britcom (excuse the phrase) favourites such as Four Weddings and a Funeral that it so badly wants to be compared with. Still, if you are coming to it for the first time, there’s just about enough going on to pass 99 minutes without getting bored, mostly because you’re waiting for the point to arrive. Sadly, it never does.

Boxing Helena

WFTB Score: 1/20

The plot: Brilliant surgeon Nick Cavanaugh has it all: he is wealthy, has a loving girlfriend and inherits his mother’s spacious house when she dies. But he is haunted by memories of maternal abuse, and by Helena, a one-time lover over whom he obsesses constantly. When Helena suffers a car accident outside his house, only Nick has the skills to save her.

As Boxing Helena doesn’t get much of a run out (on British TV, anyway), the film may be best known as the one that Kim Basinger famously pulled out of, at the cost of a lawsuit and several million dollars. Well, believe me, Kim; it was worth every cent, because this story of obsession and enslavement is well worth escaping, at any price.

Julian Sands is Dr Nick Cavanuagh, the surgeon whose private life is not nearly as successful as his work one. Scarred by memories of a neglectful, abusive, adulterous mother, Nick neglects his own prissy girlfriend to watch the window of the sultry Helena (Sherilyn Fenn), a one-night stand he can’t get out of his head. Tormented by visions of her sexuality, he resolves to throw a party and win her over. Much to his displeasure, she leaves with another man, and when he lures her back to his house a dreadful car accident ensues which deprives her of her lower limbs. But Nick has not taken her to the hospital; no, he carries out the procedure at home, considering he is the only person who can properly take care of her.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Sensationalist and distasteful though the plot may be, by the time any dismemberment happens you are no longer likely to be paying any attention. You are more likely to be wincing at the shockingly bad dialogue, delivered by dreadful characters, portrayed by charmless actors. Sands is the chief culprit, his supposedly brilliant doctor a lank-haired, whiny wet blanket, an emotionally underdeveloped child in a man’s body – I cannot think of a less engaging lead role in a film.

Fenn’s Helena is no better, a stereotypical bitch-queen who bores of lovers because the phone rings, causing current squeeze Ray (Bill Paxton) to deliver zingers such as “this scene’s getting old.” At least Ray has plenty of hair, which is more than you can say for Nick’s friend Lawrence (Art Garfunkel). Garfunkel’s tonsure is a thing of wonder, which distracts wonderfully from the fact that he isn’t much of an actor, not that his character has much to say in any event.

The more controversial part of the plot follows, wherein Helena tries to throttle Nick for the abuse of his power, an act which costs her her arms. Confined to a cabinet (the effect is a cheap magician’s trick), Helena continues to taunt Nick about his lack of sexual prowess, and he continues to say that she’s being beastly to him (or words to that effect); however, she ultimately softens and, in a fantasy sequence where Helena regains her limbs, reveals to Nick the secrets of satisfying a woman. He uses these to the full on an escort, much to the admiration and excitement of the watching Helena, who is shocked into silence by the performance.

Less generous souls might complain that the scene is entirely gratuitous and not a little offensive, as this act seals a bond between Helena and Nick; fear not, though, for Nick’s acts do not go unpunished when Ray at last tracks the couple down and discovers the full horror of what Nick has done. He takes his vengeance on the hapless doctor. Or does he?

In the hands of a more imaginative director – let’s say, completely at random, David Lynch – Boxing Helena could have been a truly disturbing film, reaching into the dark mind of the doctor, showing with brutal honesty the bloody violence of removing Helena’s limbs. But David’s daughter Jennifer has fashioned a terribly dull film, with flat, bland characterisations, no pace or tension and some silly imagery about caged birds and incomplete statues. And no blood whatsoever. I wouldn’t expect the film to suddenly turn into a horror flick, and perhaps there were budget issues, but the removal of Helena’s arms and legs is so ridiculously neat that it’s just one more thing you can’t take seriously.

Boxing Helena may say something about the relationship between mothers and sons. It may say something about the objectification of women and their ownership by men. But if it does, it doesn’t say anything interesting. No points here for acting, script, characterisation, direction, intention or execution; minus one for the stupid ‘Bobby Ewing’ ending; one point for the half-decent soundtrack; and one for all the hair. You may object to the tastelessness of this film, its themes of captivity and implied anaesthetised torture. The real torture is the viewer’s, if they choose to sit through the whole of Boxing Helena in its dreadful, boring, entirety.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: A haughty prince, cursed with a beastly form and his servants transformed into household objects, gets one last chance at salvation when headstrong beauty Belle sacrifices her freedom to free her father Maurice. The Beast must earn Belle’s love to be released from the curse, but he’s a quick-tempered creature and the path to true love is very far from smooth.

Okay. I’ve got a lot to say, and you know what happens, so let’s dispense with the preamble and get stuck in, shall we?

Alright, quick recap: The beast is cursed because he can’t see beyond outward beauty, the enchantress gives him a symbolic rose, when the last petal falls he’s doomed to his beastly appearance (and his servants will be things) forever, if he can earn the love of another the curse will be broken, Maurice stumbles into the castle, Belle comes to find him and takes her father’s place, she gets to know the castle’s odd occupants but wants nothing to do with the Beast, and in the background the amorous Gaston is plotting to make Belle his wife by any means necessary.

You’ll gather from this that Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is telling pretty much the same tale as Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale’s animated version from 1991; and indeed, most of the story beats in both films are identical: Belle’s entrance, Gaston’s lodge, the encounter with the wolves, the warming of the relationship, the beautiful ballroom dance, and so on.

These moments are brought to the screen with spectacle and lavish detail; but how, the filmmakers must have thought, can we avoid remaking the impeccable original scene-for-scene? Their answer is to flesh out the backstory, swinging the tone firmly towards seriousness and melancholy, which to my mind is a fundamental miscalculation. Yes, events are portrayed with realism, but it’s at the expense of muting the comedy, drama and passions that were all abundant in the original.

The screenwriters and their 21st century sensibilities clearly felt icky about Belle – a strong, independent young woman (here more mistrusted proto-feminist than happy but yearning) – falling in love with her physically domineering and bad-tempered male captor. She can’t be happy with the Beast while she’s not free, a fairly direct reference to the idea that cartoon Belle was a victim of Stockholm Syndrome*.

And, of course, there have to be reasons for Belle and the Beast to come together. He’s well-read – she loves to read too! His mother died when he was a child – Belle’s mother died when she was even younger. These fully-detailed connections expand the movie’s running time to over two hours, a whopping 50% more than the animation, and to little benefit as far as I can see.

Trying to reason or justify why anyone falls in love is an immensely tricky business, yet I had no problem at all with the development of Belle and the Beast’s relationship in the 1991 film and didn’t require them to share common experiences to validate their emotions. Cartoon Belle was no less complete for failing to proactively kick against the pricks; cartoon Beast was no less pitiable – and was actually a whole lot scarier – without a sick mother and horrid father to explain him.

Anyway. The pitch ‘Beauty and The Beast – now with added plague!’ isn’t very appealing but sums up the tenor of the film perfectly. It looks gorgeous and feels incredibly worthy, but it’s not very much fun. Look at the first five minutes of the cartoon (after the wonderfully efficient prologue, that is): there are more jokes and laughs in the Belle sequence than in the whole of the live-action movie, and no amount of arch quipping from Lefou can compensate for the missing amusement of his cartoon counterpart. Maurice’s charming eccentricity is transmuted to a doleful, boring sadness, and ‘real’ Philippe gets no laughs at all.

There’s a greater crime too. The original film contained one of the great cinematic double acts in Cogsworth and Lumiere, the former’s stuffiness contrasting with the latter’s gung-ho attitude. They were lively, spirited, cute. For the update, Cogsworth is lumbering, immobile and virtually expressionless, and accordingly has much less of a role to play – Ian McKellen is just not right for the part and I dislike the impractical character model.

While Lumiere is better served – he can at least dance about, and Ewan McGregor sings Be Our Guest very nicely – it’s often difficult to see his face, and his accent is all over the place. In terms of the enchanted objects, it’s safe to say that I was not enchanted with them: despite the amazing effects work I missed having proper faces to look at, Chip being particularly unprepossessing.

And the humans/cursed ex-humans? Hmm. Emma Watson does a fair job playing Belle as a modern heroine, even if she rather underplays the role. The bad news is that her singing voice obviously had issues that required electronic tweaking, and those tweaks sound very odd, especially compared with her untreated co-stars. It’s unfortunate and distracting – where’s Marni Nixon when you need her? Dan Stevens is a cultured rather than angry Beast but not at all bad, Luke Evans is a tuneful if fairly unimposing Gaston, while Josh Gad is good fun, once you get used to the fact that his Lefou is no longer an unthinkingly loyal twerp but hopelessly in love (the ‘exclusively gay’ moment? Barely worth mentioning).

Staying with the positives, aside from the noteworthy performances and extraordinary visuals, the new songs are entirely passable; and in one specific instance the film’s melancholic bent works really well. When the servants succumb to their curse and their humanity (briefly) fades away, it’s a crushingly poignant moment. Regrettably, their transformations back to human form are not so well handled, a whirling camera fudging the process.

Overall, the best bits of this Beauty and The Beast are those that come directly from Linda Woolverton’s story and Menken and Ashman’s glorious original songs. I’ve already mentioned Be Our Guest, and both this and the title track are brought to the screen in great style. Yet – yet – I don’t know why anyone would swap the lovely animation of the ballroom scene for all the opulence here, or Angela Lansbury’s warm vocals for Emma Thompson’s. Similarly, I don’t know why you would choose to hear Watson singing instead of Paige O’Hara, Evans over Richard White or Stevens over Robbie Benson.

Ultimately, can this Beauty and the Beast be thought of as any kind of success**? I’m not sure, given that almost everything that’s good about it was already great in its predecessor, and all the advances are to do with technology rather than storytelling. It’s certainly worth a watch: it’s a work of high quality in many respects and may in time become a regular alternative to watching the 1991 version. But I doubt it, unless I feel (or want to feel) considerably more glum than usual. A decent film on its own merits, but why watch this when a wonderfully rendered, beautifully performed, much shorter and much, much, much more fun alternative is already out there?

*NOTE: I’ve never been troubled by the (admittedly pertinent) Stockholm Syndrome argument. My interpretation has always been that the Beast is emotionally done for as soon as Belle selflessly takes Maurice’s place in the jail (‘You would do that for him?’), so he’s hardly her captor at all; she has virtual liberty to wander around her prison and is demonstrably able to leave if she wants, though it’s intriguing to speculate how events might have unfolded during her escape had the wolves not turned up. But let’s not go on endlessly – the irony of an overlong review for this movie isn’t lost on me.

**Ask Disney’s financial department this question and they’ll blow smoke in your face from a huge cigar lit from flaming $100 bills, laughing all the while. Probably.

Men in Black II

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: A vicious alien, searching for the precious Light of Zartha, takes the form of a model and begins to lay waste to New York’s extra-terrestrial community. It’s down to the Men In Black to stop her, but Agent ‘J’ isn’t equipped to take on the task alone. Unfortunately for J, his legendary ex-colleague ‘K’ isn’t equipped either, since as far as he’s concerned he’s just a scarily efficient postal worker.

The Earth’s in peril again, this time from an alien called Serleena whose glamorous shell (Lara Flynn Boyle, wearing little more than a bra and pants) hides her true snake-like form and ruthless nature. She hooks up with her moronic two-headed cohort Scrad (Johnny Knoxville) and goes in search of the Light of Zartha, a precious entity that may or may not have left the planet twenty-five years previously.

Meanwhile, James Edwards (Will Smith), or simply ‘J’, already has his hands full keeping control of New York’s alien population, and his feelings of loneliness are not helped much by his low-watt partner T, who becomes the latest in a long line of ‘neuralyzed’ rejects. While Frank the talking pug isn’t much of an improvement, he does assist in the investigation of a mysterious killing in a pizza parlour witnessed by pretty waitress Laura (Rosario Dawson).

What J really needs is old friend and partner K (Tommy Lee Jones), since he’s the only man who knows what happened to the Light of Zartha; but he was neuralyzed some time ago and is now living a peaceful existence in the back of beyond as plain old Kevin Brown. J tries to revive K’s memories by showing him the alien life all around him, but before they can use Men In Black’s deneuralyzer to do the job properly, Serleena attacks the building, forcing them to seek help from old friends such as Tony Shalhoub’s Jeebs, the pawn shop owner constantly prone to (literally) losing his head.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that sequels, even really good ones such as Toy Story 2, are prone to repeating the plots of their originals. While there are elements of this in Men In Black II – J re-introducing K to the agency is a mirror image of the first film – it doesn’t feel like a re-run so much as a film consciously constructed around what audiences liked from Men In Black: Jeebs, Frank, the chopsy worms with whom Laura stays, the comically-sized weaponry, Rip Torn’s Z, but not Linda Fiorentino’s L whose absence is explained in a single sentence.

And thankfully, the sequel makes good use of Smith and Jones, even if their roles are reversed: J now the hard-ass expert, still wise-cracking, and K the initiate, still deadpanning magnificently no matter what’s thrown at him. Their chemistry helps us overlook the fact that the ‘Light of Zartha’ is a complete MacGuffin which sends us all around the houses when – if K knows as much as he seems to – most of the action sequences don’t need to happen at all (but where’s the fun in that?).

In this instance, then, familiarity doesn’t breed too much contempt; it’s rather nice to see the characters, creatures and cool gadgets again. However, Men In Black II has a more immediate problem in that its two story strands don’t marry up very well. Because Jones is such good, grumpy fun, the film instinctively wants to concentrate on K and the loss and subsequent retrieval of his memory. Fair enough, but the film only runs at 88 minutes, meaning that Serleena’s invasion, good though Boyle is, is a little overlooked; and J’s love interest, for the second film running, is undercooked. As a result, when the climax comes, it’s really nothing to get very excited about.

Moreover, the film’s individual components are often more miss than hit. For example, some of the CGI (while great for the time, no doubt) now looks fake, over-complicated for its own sake, and poorly integrated with what’s real. Scrad and his ancillary second head are both equally annoying, while I was also non-plussed by Serleena’s other crony, John Alexander’s strange, modular Jarra. And while there are some nice jokes, including a bit of sharp race-related riffing, there are at least as many that don’t hit the mark: Michael Jackson’s naff cameo, the ‘ballchinians’, the Playstation controller that steers the flying vehicle, which not only recycles the first film’s ‘falling about in the car’ gag but also borrows another one from Airplane!. That said, a couple of the novelties did work well: I liked Peter Graves’ introductory (and very cheap) re-enactment of the Zarthons visit to Earth, and the creatures who inhabit a Grand Central Terminal locker and worship K are awfully cute.

Men in Black II is by no means a horrendous failure, but neither is it as much fun as the original Men In Black, and watching it gives me even less hope that the (as yet unseen) third instalment will contain a load of fresh ideas. It’s entirely passable – and if that sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, good, because that’s exactly what I meant to do.

Men who Stare at Goats, The

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Throwing himself into the Iraq War to escape his failed marriage, reporter Bob Wilton encounters ex-Army man Lyn Cassady, a self-styled super-soldier possibly equipped with psychic powers. As Bob learns of the origins of Lyn’s powers and the New Earth Army, he alternates between scepticism, wonder, and trying to avoid being kidnapped or shot.

Journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) works for a small-town Michigan paper; but while writing disbelieving pieces about local crazies such as Army veteran Gus Lacey (Stephen Root), who babbles on about psychic super-soldiers and claims to have (almost) stared his pet hamster to death, he fails to notice that his wife has fallen in love with his editor.

In a funk, Bob ‘goes to war’ but struggles to get into American-occupied Iraq, until he meets up with Gus’s former colleague Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) in Kuwait. As the pair travel into Iraq, Lyn tells Bob about the US Army’s Project Jedi, initiated by his mentor Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) who saw a vision after being shot in Vietnam. With the enthusiastic support of Brigadier General Hopgood (Stephen Lang) – and after many New Age travels – Bill created the New Earth Army, a unit dedicated to non-lethal combat and using psychic powers such as cloudbursting, invisibility and mind control to achieve their aims.

Lyn’s impressive Jedi powers made him the Unit’s star pupil, but he increasingly became wary of the uses to which his skills were being put, especially when he literally stared at a goat until its heart stopped. Jealous colleague Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), meanwhile, had no qualms about the ‘dark side’, whether it was using LSD on a soldier with tragic consequences, or cursing Lyn with the ‘Death Palm’. The truth about Lyn’s destiny may be less mystical, but it’s equally devastating and features an unexpected meeting with old acquaintances – that is, if he doesn’t get himself and Bob killed in Iraq en route.

The Men Who Stare at Goats offers up plenty of ammunition to its detractors. Perhaps because of the quirky subject matter, perhaps because of the involvement of Bridges (The Big Lebowski) and Clooney (O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Burn After Reading) – or a combination of both – the film has the distinct feel of a Coen Brothers project. Not that this is a bad thing in and of itself, of course, but Goats does that Coenesque thing of mixing dark themes with details and dialogue that border on the whimsical, such as the explanation of the ‘Predator’ weapon and pretty much all of Bob’s marital strife – why does his wife’s lover have a prosthetic arm?

The set-up to the main action feels contrived, the coincidences of Bob meeting up with Lyn whilst doodling the All Seeing Eye stretching credibility, even if this sort of mystical destiny is the point of the film. Unfortunately, the movie never really knows itself whether Bill’s teachings have real foundation or are essentially hogwash; the chaotic climax (or ‘Bill’s revenge’, as it might be called) is juvenile, and the final images are a clumsy attempt to express symbolically a hippy-tinged blandishment – hey man, if you open your mind, it doesn’t matter if you can’t really walk through walls, ‘cos, hey, you’re kind of doing it anyway.

On the other hand, much about Goats is utterly absorbing. The film opens with a credit that claims ‘more of this is true than you would believe’, and as it skilfully shows the foundation and operation of the New Earth Army you find yourself wanting to believe in Project Jedi – given what we know about Cold War paranoia, it’s very easy to believe that such a Project was set up in response to a Russian response to a complete hoax. Goats also intelligently contrasts the innocent, pacifist aims of the New Earth Army with the cynicism of modern, corporation-led modern warfare: the gunfight between rival private security firms is utterly believable, and the Guantanamo-style horror of Hooper’s compound shows that Bill’s New-age idealism has become subverted, perverted, monetised, weaponised. Furthermore, even if Bill and Lyn’s story doesn’t conclude in particularly satisfactory fashion, Bridges and Clooney are charismatic enough to ensure that our journey with them is both amusing and affecting during the spritely 94-minute running time. Their pathos and belief in their gifts – despite occasional contradictory evidence – is funny, touching, and in complete contrast to the grim humourlessness of Green Zone. Kevin Spacey is brilliantly unpleasant, while Lang’s bug-eyed Hopgood is great fun; even McGregor, who has a tough time staking his place as the uninitiated observer, warms into the part, though a significant amount of his charm undoubtedly comes from a recognition of clever casting – who better to talk about Jedi nonsense than the young Obi-Wan?

So, The Men Who Stare at Goats will absolutely not be to everyone’s tastes. If you like your War Films loud, intense and patriotic, you’ll find this far too liberal and sneering; however, if you’re willing to embrace the unconventional and have a keen sense of the satirical – and appreciate acting so good it looks effortless – this movie offers a great deal of fun, no little emotion, and a fascinating, sly insight into the extreme edges of modern warfare. And don’t let the jokey title put you off: this movie actually has something to say on top of its attention-grabbing eccentricity.